It takes five days for him to get restless.
They’d robbed a general store a few towns over, him and Dutch. It didn’t go so well. The store owner had reached under the table, and Arthur shot him on impulse. He’d only been reaching for the cash drawer. He’d killed another two lawmen on the way out. It was a real mess, and unfortunately, all his fault.
They’d split up, for now. Dutch had promised to meet him in Monument, a border town in the county of Pimeria, as soon as the heat had died down.
That’s the problem with Monument, though. The heat never dies down. Even though the desert cools at night, the moment the sun rises over the horizon in the morning, it boils him in the sand. The skin on his cheeks cracks and peels within the first day, and it doesn’t matter how much he drinks, he always feels thirsty.
It’s a hell of a town. Some prospector had found silver about two or three years back and people looking to make it rich had flocked from all over the country. A lot of wallets ripe for the picking. He’s kept his nose clean for now. He’s waiting. Listening.
He isn’t used to this anymore. Ever since Dutch and Hosea robbed him of his old life, he’s found it difficult sleep through the night without one of those two watching his back. Alone, he smokes cigarettes as he loiters outside the Silver Eagle Saloon, and he watches other people under the brim of his hat. He keeps looking over his shoulder but there’s nobody there.
There’s one wide street with all the comforts of civilized living, shacks and tents spiraling further out into the desert. It’s halfway into the next era, already, but just the right amount of lawlessness, of anonymity. The sheriff and his deputies own the saloons, the gambling houses, seem to have their own definition of the law. There are O’Driscolls and bandidos on the outskirts, and he overhears talk of coach robberies and rustling. He hears a lot of things.
Miners and men caked in dirt wander in and out of the saloon doors, and there are plenty of working girls and wives to look at as it draws into the late afternoon. He burns through a pack of smokes and there’s still no sign, nary a whisper of Dutch van der Linde. No wanted posters, either, luckily.
He lights another cigarette and squints across the street. Clattering noises from wagons and horses, the sounds of people milling about have started to die down as reasonable folk head home for supper. The unreasonables start to come out of the saloon, stinking of alcohol already. Mostly the single men and the other shady folk like him.
Two older fellers set up beside him. Arthur smokes his cigarette. They make conversation and he listens, looks across the street to where a beautiful woman in a fancy dress is coming out of the tailor’s, her servant girl behind her with her arms stacked with boxes. The woman stands out in a wash of blue and gold against the backdrop of a dusty red town, and her emergence attracts the attention of the men haunting the wooden railing with him.
“Would you look at that,” the man whistles, his mouth camouflaged beneath an overgrown moustache, “Barton’s wife out and about.”
“No guards or nothin’,” remarks the other, with a low whistle. He leans forward for a closer look, ogling under the brim of his soft cap. “She stupid or something? Or her husband is. Richest feller in town letting his woman out unaccompanied with all these roughnecks hanging around.”
Arthur watches her tiptoe down into the dirt, using her servant girl’s shoulder for leverage. The girl’s face tightens, but she allows it, but stumbles. There’s a carriage waiting for them with a mouse of a driver at the end of the street, oblivious to the folk watching snakelike on the sidelines.
Moustache clicks his tongue. “Maybe he don’t know she’s out spending his money.”
“Maybe she wants him to know,” Soft Cap answers. “Wouldn’t want to be there when he gets the bill, that’s for certain.”
The Barton woman turns her head, and Arthur sees the hint of a healing bruise along her cheekbone. She gives her servant a look as she lifts her skirts. She says something he can’t hear, and starts walking. The servant girl follows, peering over the mountain of boxes at the rough road ahead.
The servant’s foot catches, and she sails forward onto the ground, her boxes and packages hitting the dirt. The Barton woman gasps, and Arthur’s already putting out his cigarette and moving towards them. No one else comes to their aid, but he’s not necessarily helping out of the goodness of his heart, either.
“Evelyn, what is wrong with you?” says the Barton girl. Her hand clench at her sides. “Get up!” She’s starting on her servant, Evelyn, when Arthur intercepts.
He kneels down and reaches for the parcels, gathering them into his arms. He goes to help the servant girl, but she rapidly shakes her head and pulls herself up to her hands and knees on her own. Her eyes are watering, and her palms are bloody.
“Oh, sir, you don’t need to do that, you’re too kind,” says the Barton woman. He looks up at her, and her whole look shifts. Moreso, when he smiles. “It’s just my servant, she’s a ruin.”
“‘Course not, Miss, it’s no trouble.”
“Well, then, you might be the only gentleman in this godforsaken town,” she says. She looks around, where the handful of folk left in the street are pretending to mind their own business. Her gaze wanders back down to his, and she smiles, too. “Mr.…?”
“Arthur,” he supplies, “Arthur Callahan.”
She’s pretty. Beautiful, really. Blond hair, green eyes. The bruise is yellow. He stares at it until it consumes the other features on her face.
He stands, the parcels and packages in his hand. Evelyn wipes her palms on her dress, red smears on the dirt brown, unremarkable fabric. She steps back, eyes downcast.
“Mrs. Thomas Barton,” she says. She nods her head demurely. “You have my utmost gratitude for your assistance, Mr. Callahan.”
At the commotion, the carriage driver has descended from his perch to assist, uttering apologies. He attempts to relieve Arthur of the packages, but he’s shorter than either of the women, frailer too. Arthur hangs on, and nods his head towards the carriage. “Go ‘head. I’ll follow.”
The driver skitters forward. Mrs. Barton sets a gentle pace for Arthur to walk beside her. Evelyn trails a foot behind, silent.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you around before, and I would recognize a handsome young face like that,” she says, her eyes twinkling and playful. “Are you new in town?”
“Thereabouts,” Arthur mumbles. He adjusts the boxes in his arms, wrapped in pristine paper. Dirt on ‘em, though.
“Not a man of many words, are you?”
“Afraid they aren’t my strong suit, Miss.”
Hosea and Dutch usually do the talking, the grifting. He’s there to shut up and listen. He’s good at it. Good enough to spot an opportunity for a hustle, anyway, and playing nice with a rich woman with a husband who beats her and leaves her alone all the time isn’t the worst he could do. She’s not so hard on the eyes. Older than him, maybe late twenties. Tastefully rouged cheeks. Fancy dress that’s hiding a slim body under it.
They come up on the carriage slowly. Mrs. Barton motions her servant girl to move. “Go ahead, inside,” she spits. Evelyn hustles ahead, her head down. Arthur opens the trunk on the back of the carriage and begins putting her belongings within.
Closing the latch, he turns to her. He can play the part of the strong, silent type, no problem. He can be helpful if it might lead to money down the line.
“You’re all set, Miss,” he says. He smiles again even if it doesn’t settle quite right on his face. She’s still looking at him like he’s some kind of saviour, anyway. “Shouldn’t have no trouble getting home.”
“It’s hard to say around these parts. You’re about the first decent man I’ve met in ages.” She cocks her head. “Though I suppose you haven’t grown out of it yet. That pretty face of yours, you can’t be a day over twenty one.”
He tips his chin low, and his hat hides his eyes. “Like I said, Miss, it’s no trouble.”
“What are you doing in a place like this, anyhow?”
“What is anyone else doing here?”
She leans in towards him, touches his shoulder. Married woman with a mean husband. He won't treat her like just any girl off the streets, and she seems pleased when he doesn't react untoward.
“Well, I'm glad for it. Monument could use more men like you, Mr. Callahan,” she says. “But I’m afraid I mustn’t linger if I’m to beat my husband.”
He raises a hand for her, and she accepts it, letting him lead her to the carriage door. The servant girl takes her other hand, and she wrenches hard enough that the girl grunts as her mistress ascends the short step. Arthur shuts door, and latches it for her.
The carriage driver looks back, his shoulders pulled up around his ears in mortification. “Are you all ready, Mrs. Barton? It’s getting to be late.”
Arthur looks at her through the window. “Your driver… he carry a gun? Lots of outlaws around these parts.”
“He does, though I’m not certain he knows how to use it,” Mrs. Barton says.
“Why don’t I escort you ladies home,” Arthur says. “Make sure you get there safe.”
Evelyn looks nervously at her mistress across the seat, but Mrs. Barton smiles, and nods. “That would be most kind.” She lowers her gaze. “Kindness is in rare supply these days.”
Arthur steps back and whistles for his horse, Persephone, an Appaloosa Hosea had won in a card game and gifted to him. Dutch had named her, probably as a joke, forcing him to write it out until he’d memorized it. He takes good care of her, like she’s an extension of them.
“Make sure you stop before the gate,” Mrs. Barton calls. “My husband doesn’t like strange men on the property, I’m sure you know.”
He tips his hat. “Of course, Miss.”
He rides alongside the carriage to its destination. There’s nothing but arid desert along the dirt road, spidery greenery straining to grow in patches. Rolling hills stretch far beyond, to where the burnt orange inferno of the sunset descends beneath the horizon. Persephone huffs as he drives her forward, keeping his distance, keeping his eyes open.
They ride past men that would likely find the carriage a prime target were it not for him. He’s got a shotgun on his back and a look about him. They leave the carriage alone, and meet his eyes as they pass.
The Barton Estate is a large crop of land a fair distance from Monument. It’s greener than anything in a twenty mile radius, a large arid garden, a beautiful estate home standing at the center. There are men working outside, armed guards-- it’s no secret who’s made their money’s worth.
The carriage slows a fair distance from the estate. Mrs. Barton leans out the window, waving him over, Persephone slowing under his reigns as he steers her towards the door.
“I must thank you again, Mr. Callahan,” Mrs. Barton says. She hands him a ten dollar bill. “For your assistance.”
“It’s no trouble,” he says. He goes to take the money, but she hangs on. Their eyes meet and there’s purpose there for a moment, before she lets go.
He puts the bill in his pocket. Persephone shifts underneath him, and he calms her with a pat.
“I hope to see you again sometime,” Mrs. Barton says. “You’re easy on the eyes.”
She waves, and he watches the carriage continue down the dirt road before turning onto the estate. He gives the land a once-over, before turning his horse, and heading back the way he came.
It’s nighttime when he sets up camp on the outskirts of town. There’s a bit of cover under a lonely tree, an anemic stream nearby, and he’s far enough from the main roads that he won’t be bothered. Close enough that some other roving gang won’t find him too easy a target.
He’d hung around the saloon until long dark. No Dutch. No Hosea. Just him and some drunks tripping over themselves, a working girl crying in the night.
He’s alone out here in the wasteland. Laying out in his bedroll, the moon watches down on him, and the warmth of the fire keeps him company. He’s got his gun in his hand. Knife in the dirt. Persephone’s grazing not far away, her snuffling breathing audible in the silence of the desert at night.
He could sleep in town, get a room. He’s got ten bucks now. He could afford to spend his newfound riches, but really, he feels safer out in the wilderness.
He journals for awhile. He gets stuck on some words that he would know how to spell if Dutch or Hosea were there. He drinks a little, until it’s easier to ignore the creeping feeling that he’s been left behind, or maybe it just sets in deeper until all he can do is lay down. He’s got his gun in his hand against his leg and maybe that’s all he needs. Him and his finger on the trigger against the rest of the whole world.
Arthur closes his eyes. He just has to wait. Tomorrow he’ll wait some more.
It’s quiet. He starts to relax, and sleep begins to take him. Then, Persephone whinnies. The sound of hooves, then boots on dirt.
He waits. He waits some more, for the footsteps to get closer. Then, he bolts upright, pistol drawn, and there, in the cover of darkness, Dutch grins at the business end of the gun. He raises his hands in surrender.
“Jesus, are you trying to get shot?” Arthur exclaims.
He lowers his gun to the ground, heart racing. He’s smiling, a good and honest smile, this time. He’s happy to see him.
“Hell of a welcome, son,” Dutch says. He lowers his hands, and Arthur stands to meet him. “I’m right pleased to see you, too.”
He’d finally grown taller than Dutch over the summer. Dutch takes his hat off, and he’s looking at the top of his head, where his widow’s peak crawls back. There’s sweat on his brow from a hard ride, and he’s unusually unkempt from days of evading the law. His clothes are dirty, and there’s blood on his lapel. Arthur is taken with the sudden urge to hold him.
It’s Dutch who moves first, reaching for his shoulder and drawing Arthur into a rough embrace. Arthur goes with it. He smells like cologne, smoke and sweat. Smells like home.
Dutch lets him go with a thunderous pat to the back, and then unceremoniously sits down on his bedroll beside him. Arthur reaches into his bag for a bottle, and Dutch already has a pack of smokes in hand. His mount, milk white and gleaming under the stars, nuzzles at Persephone nearby.
“You,” Dutch starts, shaking out a match, “are not an easy man to find, Mr. Morgan.”
“‘Course not.” He unscrews the cap, and looks over at Dutch. “Learned from the best.”
Dutch lights a cigarette, and just looks at him for awhile, smiling. Arthur clears his throat.
“I really missed you, Arthur,” Dutch says.
“You-- uh-- y’get on all right?” Arthur chases the question with a mouthful of whiskey. He doesn’t know how to act when Dutch talks to him like that.
“I always do.” He takes a drag of the cigarette, then passes it to Arthur, who accepts with a low word of thanks. “I took my time to ensure the law wouldn’t catch my scent. Thought it wouldn’t be wise to draw a path straight back to us. Monument is a brand new town with a world of opportunities.”
“Lot of money here,” Arthur says. He puts the cigarette into his mouth, the paper wet from Dutch’s lips.
“And plenty of fine folk dying for the chance to give it to us.” Dutch grins. He reaches for the bottle in Arthur’s hand. “Even if they don’t know it yet.”
They pass the whiskey bottle back and forth a few times. He feels the alcohol warm him as the night goes on, the sky painted over with stars. The fire starts to die, and he reaches forward to stoke it.
“I might have something,” Arthur mumbles. “A job, I mean.”
“You might?” Dutch leans in closer. The intensity of his attention never ceases to paralyze Arthur. “Well, then, speak up. Go ahead, son.”
“Helped a woman earlier today. Mrs. Barton-- folk say her husband’s the richest feller in town. Married into her daddy’s money, he did. I saw the estate earlier today, helping her get home.”
“And? Did you see a way in?”
“I don’t know. There was plenty of men protecting the place. Maybe too many for the two of us. It was a dumb idea.”
Hosea was usually averse to letting him in on the bigger scores. For some reason. He wasn’t a boy anymore, could do more than just take care of the horses and clean guns, for heaven’s sake. It wasn’t like he hadn’t killed anyone before. Mostly Hosea just let him stand around and look imposing when they did small jobs, but wouldn’t let him in on the bigger heists. Not yet, at least.
“Now, now, son-- don’t be so doubtful. There’s always a way.”
He lowers his voice. “If Hosea was here, we could--”
“But he isn’t here is he?” Dutch spits. Arthur shuts his mouth in the face of Dutch’s sudden vitriol. “Off with that woman of his, again.”
Arthur digs his heels into the sand. He thumbs his lip, and coughs.
“I like Miss Bessie,” he says, under his breath.
“I know,” Dutch sighs. “I like her, too, Arthur. She’s a fine woman. Too fine.”
He doesn’t know what to say. He’s not so good with words. He blows out smoke. The malice on Dutch’s face seems to shift into something more melancholy, then disappear entirely. He takes another pull on the whiskey.
“I must confess, I’ve heard of your Mr. Barton and his dutiful, loving wife. I did a little reconnaissance prior to finding you,” Dutch continues. “He’s an investor, the proud owner of the Monument Mining and Milling Company. Bought it out from the original prospectors what found it with his wife’s inheritance, and he moved here last year with the missus in tow from New York.”
“She ain’t so dutiful. Or loving. Certainly don’t seem too thrilled with country life or her husband, neither, let me tell you,” Arthur says.
“She’s been acting out.” Arthur grinds out his cigarette into the sand. “She’s got bruises all over her face her husband gave her, and I don’t think it’s an uncommon occurrence the way fellers was talking.”
“Her husband,” Dutch says, with distaste. “I know men like him too well. He thinks he can do what he pleases with everyone else just because he’s got the money and connections to buy his way out of the consequences.”
Arthur scowls, staring into the fire. He cocks his head. “Mrs. Barton seemed… I don’t know.”
“She seems to have made quite the impression on you, Arthur.”
He shrugs. “She had sad eyes. Said she’d never had someone be so kind, just ‘cause I offered to get her home safe. Almost seemed sweet on me or somethin’.”
“That so?” Dutch smokes his cigarette.
“Yeah. And she called me pretty.” He chuckles. “Can you imagine?”
Dutch looks at him sidelong. “What’s to imagine?”
His face flushes, and he feels that hot flush of rage that’s often difficult to control. He curls his hand in his pant leg to keep them from forming into fists.
“Don’t take it that way, Arthur.”
“M’not,” he says, even if he definitely is taking it that way.
“But that’s it,” Dutch says. He stands to his feet, the whiskey in his hands. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
Planting his feet, Arthur looks up at him. “What’s it?”
“That’s our angle.”
“What, the woman?”
“Yes, the woman.” He spreads his palm, painting a visual canvas with a sweep of his hand. “Mrs. Barton, the lonely wife of a horrible husband, longing for a devilishly handsome young man to whisk her away from her life of dull captivity into the romance of this wild world.”
“Romance?” The word out of his mouth almost feels comical. He scratches his cheek in disbelief. “I don’t know, Dutch.”
“Why, what’s the problem?”
“Spinning a yarn, that’s your thing. Me, I’m more for punching. I ain’t so smart.”
Dutch’s face falls. He lowers the bottle to his side, stands with his feet spread in front of Arthur. “So, what?” He lowers to a crouch, in front of Arthur. “You’re going to turn away from this golden opportunity?”
He’s quiet. Shy, he looks up at Dutch, his mouth twisted into a grimace. He isn’t as smart as Dutch. He still doesn’t know why Dutch took him in, most days, really.
“Arthur Morgan,” Dutch says, slowly. “If you don’t have it within in yourself, lean on me. Allow me to be the one to provide you the faith you need.”
He reaches forward, his hand on Arthur’s cheek. He turns his head up to force Arthur to look at him.
“I believe in you, son. More than anyone.”
He holds his gaze. Feels the warmth of his palm against his face. After a moment, Arthur nods. “You’re right, sir. I’m-- I’m talkin’ nonsense.”
Dutch laughs, pats him hard on the shoulder. He passes Arthur the bottle. “How many years is it gonna take to train that out of you? Don’t be callin’ me sir. We’re family, Arthur, you should know that by now.”
Arthur drinks. “So what’s the plan, then, Dutch?”
Dutch stands again. Starts to pace by the fireside. Arthur watches him ponder, Dutch scratching at the stubble that’s started to form on his chin and cheeks. He stares at the ground. He paces some more.
He stops, finally. He points a finger, shaking it. “I’ve got it.” He turns back to Arthur. “We’re surveyors. We’ve found a new silver vein in the Cuchillo County, and we’re trying to get an investor to purchase the land so we can go back to prospecting.”
“Okay. That sounds well enough.”
“I’ll talk up Mr. Barton, distract him so that you can get in close with his woman and convince her to run away. With as much of the money as she can carry, of course. It’s rightfully owed to her, anyway.”
“See, we’re practically doing her a service. We’re rescuing her, Arthur. Men like her husband, Arthur, thinking they can control other people. Thinking they can control nature. What greed does to men, it’s shameful.”
“So how we gonna go about it, then?”
Dutch stills. He sits down on the bedroll once more, and reaches for the whiskey.
“I have an idea, Arthur. It will take some preparation, but it will have to wait ‘til morning.” He takes a drink, and wipes his lower lip with the back of his hand. “For now, we rest. Enjoy one another’s company.” He finishes this statement by reaching to pat Arthur on the thigh.
Arthur clears his throat. “You hungry?”
Their supper is stale bread, a can of beans heated over the dying fire and the remnants of some kind of salted meat. Arthur lets Dutch have most of it, which is probably why he’s feeling the whiskey more than he otherwise would.
“How in the hell am I supposed to-- to seduce some rich lady anyway?” Arthur asks. “Make her leave a life like that where she’s got everything she could ever dream of?”
“Not everything,” Dutch says, over a mouthful of bread. He chews and swallows, but he’s still got crumbs in the corners of his lips. “Love, Arthur.”
“Love,” he repeats.
“No matter their station in life, deep down, it’s what every human craves.”
“Well, you got more experience with love than I do, Dutch,” Arthur says.
Dutch wipes his mouth. “That’s why it’ll work. You’re the right man for this job. Your inexperience will only be interpreted as sincerity.”
“Sure, if I don’t open my mouth wide enough for her to see how completely full of shit I am.”
“Not completely. We’re helping her, Arthur, and others. This isn’t just for our benefit.”
Arthur hums. Dutch has his eyes on the bigger picture, as usual.
Standing, Dutch wipes his hands off on his pant leg. He goes to his horse to retrieve his bedroll, stumbling a bit, then returns. “I need to rest. Tomorrow will be a long day.”
Dutch lays down under the stars. His head faces Arthur, and he can see down the bridge of his nose, the hollows under his eyes. Arthur stays upright, pulls out his journal. He starts drawing, and it comes easy to him, with his inspiration at arm’s reach. The sound of a train whistle echoes somewhere past the hilltops, over the endless flats of red dirt and shining sand.
“It’s stupid,” Arthur murmurs. He bounces his pencil in his hand. “For awhile there, I almost thought you wasn’t gonna come looking for me.”
Dutch hums. “Why, Arthur, would you ever think a thing like that?”
He grips the pencil so hard it might break. “Well, I was the one what put the law on us. If I hadn’t’a pulled the trigger, then--”
“Enough of that. I make mistakes every day, son. These things… they just happen sometimes.”
He swallows. His throat feels tight.
“Thank you, Dutch.”
“Don’t thank me. We’re family, Arthur. I need you as much as you need me.”
Dutch reaches over his head for him, and touches his arm. Arthur wraps his hand around Dutch’s wrist. They hang onto one another for a moment, before Dutch slips out of his grasp.
“Keep your eyes forward, son.”
He looks out at the desert in the night time. He’ll watch over Dutch until morning, and even after that. As long as he can. He looks down at his mentor, then, sketches the lines of his face by firelight. He thinks then-- maybe-- that he’s not as inexperienced as he thought.
They’re mounted high on a plateau overlooking over the main road heading into Monument. The moon is hung low in the sky at night, washing over the dusty plains. Arthur squints under his hat as he looks outward. They’ve been waiting a good hour already.
“You sure about this, Dutch?” he asks.
Persephone chuffs beneath him, and he gives her a good pat as Dutch looks out towards the road through his binoculars. He lowers them, and checks his pocket watch, then looks back to Arthur.
“I have no doubts whatsoever.” He points down towards the road. “The Monument Mining and Milling Company stagecoach will be traveling through that pass shortly with Mr. and Mrs. Barton returning home from an outing in town, only to be ‘robbed’ by the two upstanding gentleman I hired for the job.”
“O’Driscolls, right? But I thought you and Colm was cooled on each other?”
Dutch frowns. “He and I have had our… differences, yes, but his men can be useful. I don’t want more fuss, so make sure you don’t kill them.”
“So then we just give ‘em whatever’s on the coach as payment and then--”
“--you and I will come to the rescue of your fair maiden and her brute of a husband, beginning a most fortuitous friendship, yes.”
Arthur chews his lip. He doesn’t want to fail, not in front of Dutch. He wishes Hosea were there to give him a little more reassurance.
“And you sure I’m ready for this?”
Dutch raises the binoculars once more. “You’re ready whenever I say you’re ready, son.”
“Whatever you say,” Arthur mumbles.
They wait. A lonely rider passes on the dirt road. The colour of the sky deepens into darkness above. Insects fill the air with noise, and somewhere far away, a coyote cries against the night sky. Arthur’s fingers itch for a cigarette.
“There it is,” Dutch says, raising his binoculars. “Right on schedule.”
The stagecoach, a magnificent thing with silver trim and four horses pulling it steadily along, glides along the dirt road. Dutch watches it wordlessly as it crosses over the wide plane down below. Arthur grips the reigns, waiting for the word.
Two men on horses appear out of the cover of darkness, and gain on them quickly. Arthur glances at Dutch, who motions a hand.
“Easy,” he says, “Let them stop the coach.”
The men on horseback reach either side of the coach. After a moment, the coach slows to a stop. One of the men dismounts, weapon drawn, going to the stagecoach doors.
“That’ll be our Mr. Barton on the ground, there. Take a look.”
Dutch passes him the binoculars. Bringing them to his eyes, he takes in the tableau before him. Mr. Barton, a tall and handsome young man in a once-pristine suit and hat, now on his knees in the dirt. He can see Mrs. Barton screaming inside the stagecoach, the driver being dragged off the seat by one of the men. He too hits the dirt, but reaches under for his holster. The other O’Driscoll boy pulls a gun, and the shot that follows rings out in the valley loud and clear. Birds take flight in the distance.
Arthur lowers the binoculars, and passes them back to Dutch. “You tell ‘em to shoot the driver?”
Dutch sighs. “No, I did not.”
“Well.” He chuckles. “Looks like a real robbery, anyway.”
“It certainly does,” Dutch mutters. He spurs his horse. “Let’s go.”
They ride hard down the slope of the plateau, circling back down the road to seem as though they were simply passing through. Just two good samaritans assisting their fellow man. Persephone snorts under him as he pushes her forward, tossing her head as they get closer to the O’Driscoll boys.
Mr. Barton is yelling on the ground beside the coach as they ride closer, hands tied behind his back. He’s staring straight at his bleeding driver in horror, and his wife can be heard screaming from inside the coach.
The O’Driscolls have their faces covered, issue commands and insults in equal parts. The older one’s boarded the coach, reaching for the reigns. The other’s on the ground, controlling the violence. Barely.
Arthur has his gun in hand as they approach. Dutch is unarmed.
“Now what exactly is going on here, gentlemen?” Dutch asks.
“You stay the hell away if you know what’s good for ya!” says one of the men, a lanky boy with a scraggly beard. He’s barely older than Arthur, standing in front of Mr. Barton with his gun pointed straight at Dutch. “Don’t come any closer!”
“Help! Help me!” Mr. Barton yells.
He gets a kick to the gut for his efforts, groaning into the dirt.
“More than trying, it would seem,” Dutch says. He dismounts his horse, raising his hands as he approaches. “Look, boys, nobody has to die here. Just take what you’re after and be on your way.”
“Why don’t I just shoot you instead, huh? All of you? Clean your pockets out, too.”
“Law’s already on the way,” Dutch lies. “You can just leave. None of us will say anything about what happened here. You will have your money and your freedom. Isn’t that right, sir?” He looks down to Mr. Barton, awaiting an answer.
“The law will get you!” Mr. Barton cries.
Dutch gets a glint in his eye. He reaches for his gun, and then things move very quickly. The younger O’Driscoll mounts his horse as the older one drives the stagecoach forward. The horses start off in a thunder of hooves, and the younger O’Driscoll fires his gun a bit, making a show of it.
Mr. Barton pulls himself onto his hands and knees. “The stagecoach! They’ve got my--”
“Arthur, go,” Dutch says. He starts towards Mr. Barton and the driver.
Obeying, Arthur spurs his horse, driving her to a gallop after the runaway coach. He chases without trying to catch up, hooves beating down into the dirt as they continue off the path. He can hear the Barton woman screaming in terror, and the O’Driscoll boys laughing as they carry her further into the desert.
He follows the bobbing light of the lantern on the back of the coach until it slows to a stop behind the swell of a dune. He, too, stops and watches as the O’Driscolls pull the hysterical woman from the coach. They throw her down into the sand, her skirts billowed out around her as she kicks, and begin to tie her hands. They blindfold her too, and her screaming lowers into whimpers.
Arthur watches this from a safe distance. He dismounts his horse as one of the O’Driscoll boys approaches him, the other occupied with the woman.
“Reckon she’s good and scared, just like your boss asked for,” the kid says.
“You sure?” Arthur scoffs. “Don’t think she’s quite fear pissed herself yet, maybe go and threaten her a little more.”
The O’Driscoll glances back. “Well, we’s could always have a little more fun with her if that’s what you’re--”
“I really wasn’t.”
The O’Driscoll frowns. “So how you wanna do this?”
“Fire off a few wide shots, make it sound like I scared you boys off. You two get the coach, I get the girl.”
“Sure, sure,” says the O’Driscoll. He turns away, then snaps back and punches Arthur hard in the mouth.
He grunts, already reaching for his gun. “What the hell--”
“Your boss said to make it realistic!” The O’Driscoll starts to turn tail.
“Yeah, well, those wide shots are ‘bout to get a whole lot tighter!” Arthur spits.
The O’Driscoll laughs and takes off back towards his compatriot and the wagon. He and Arthur exchange shots aimed skyward, and he waits a moment as the wagon disappears off into the distance. Then, he starts his approach towards the woman, whimpering facedown in the sand.
“Please don’t hurt me!” she cries, as he crouches down beside her. He pulls his knife from the holster, and she screams. “Please, the money’s in the--”
“It’s okay, Miss,” he says, in the kindest voice he can muster. “You’re safe now. I got you.”
He cuts the rope, and she starts to push herself up. He aids her to sit upright, then helps her shaking hands draw the blindfold down and off. Mrs. Barton looks up at him with those blue eyes, and he’s startled by the fear there. She hadn’t been in any real danger, no, but he’s certain it had sure as hell felt real for her.
“It’s you,” she murmurs. She sniffs away tears. “I-- I remember you.”
“Are you okay? They didn’t hurt you none, did they?”
“N-no, I-- what are you doing here?”
“Was passing by and saw your stagecoach gettin’ robbed. I didn’t know you was in it, but I wasn’t gonna let those outlaws ride off with a lady without a fight.”
“Your lip is bleeding,” she says. She keeps staring at his mouth, like somehow the red of his blood could block out everything else that had happened to her.
“I got lucky. Those animals shot your driver. My partner stayed back to see to him, and your husband.”
She stays tight lipped as he helps her to her feet. She’s shaking like a leaf as he puts his hands on her shoulders. “You’ll be okay. You’re safe now.”
“They took the coach,” she says. “Oh no…”
“Now don’t you worry about that. What matters is you’re alive.”
He walks her over towards Persephone, though every step seems to be a battle for her. Lifting her onto the horse, her skirts billow out as she sits side-saddle. He climbs up after her, and she wraps her arms around his waist after a moment. He grabs her hands, pulling them more firmly around him.
“Hang on tight, Miss.”
Her body is warm, he’s aware of the press of her breast against him, where she’s holding him so tightly they could almost be one person rather than two separate bodies. He can feel her shudders, and he squeezes her hand in an attempt to be reassuring. He understands the fear, but tires of it quickly. Nothing bad happened to her, really.
Arthur spurs his horse. They start back towards where they came, keeping a slow pace.
“Thank you,” she murmurs against him. “Mr. Callahan, was it?”
“Aw, just Arthur is fine.”
“Arthur… I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t come to my rescue.”
“It’s no trouble, Mrs. Barton.”
“My name is Genevieve.”
She goes quiet. He can hear her sniffling quietly to herself, and he pats her hand. “Now, now, there’s no need for tears. I wasn’t gonna let anything happen to you.”
“You risked your life coming after those outlaws… for me,” Genevieve says. Her voice is thick, rife with emotion. “You don’t even know me.”
“Well, I’d like to.” He looks over his shoulder, back towards her. He thinks about what Dutch or Hosea would say to reel her in. “Just… somethin’ in your eyes. I know it’s wrong of me to say, but I been thinking about you since that day in town, Miss.”
It’s not entirely a lie. He’s had his mind on her money since the moment they met. Maybe he’s not so bad at this, after all.
“I’m-- I’m married.”
“Yeah, I know. But it ain’t your husband what rushed to your rescue.”
He slows Persephone beneath him. They’re not far away, now, but he wants to draw this conversation out as long as he can.
“I think you’re much too young to know what you’re talking about.”
“I ain’t so young not to know my feelings,” he murmurs.
“You don’t even know me,” she repeats.
“I know I can see those bruises on your face, plain as day. Old ones. They weren’t from no outlaws.”
Her arms tighten around him. "They're nothing."
"That's what my mama said, too, before my daddy put her through a wall. I had to bury her myself."
It's not entirely a lie, either. He grips the reigns tighter, and Persephone snorts and pulls ahead.
"Oh... I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," Arthur says. "I'm just telling you what I saw."
"And what do you think you saw?"
"A beautiful woman whose husband beats her."
“Be careful how you speak, Mr. Callahan. My husband is a powerful man.”
“Power and strength ain’t the same thing. I ain't scared of him.”
“He loves me,” she insists. “In his own way.”
“I mean no offence, Miss-- but if you feel that way, maybe you don’t know what love is.”
“And you do?” she returns.
Arthur chuckles. “I know it ain’t that.”
“Maybe,” she murmurs. She doesn’t speak much more after that.
It isn’t long until Dutch is in view. Mr. Barton stands next to him, and waves them over. Arthur slows Persephone to a stop before them, and swings his leg over as he drops to the ground. He reaches for Genevieve and helps her down off his mount.
“What was I just telling you?” Dutch says. There’s blood all over his hands, dirt on his knees. “My man has returned with your beautiful bride, untainted.”
“Genevieve. My sweet Genny,” Mr. Barton says. He reaches for her face, and she shies away. “They didn’t hurt you or… defile you in some way?”
“No, I’m quite alright. Mr. Callahan was able to come to my aid posthaste.” Genevieve looks up at him through her lashes, then draws her gaze away demurely.
“Your driver was not quite so lucky,” Dutch continues. “I wasn’t able to save him.”
“You did the best you could, Mr. Montrose,” Mr. Barton says.
Dutch nods, gravely. His display of sadness seems quite forthright, to those who wouldn’t know him. Arthur’s gotten good at telling, though.
“I told you we should’ve ridden with a shotgun messenger,” Genevieve says to her husband. “I know it was only a short trip, but--”
“Hush now,” Mr. Barton says. He grips her wrist as he turns back towards Arthur. “Did those criminals abscond with my coach, as well?”
“Unfortunately, they did,” Arthur says. “It was either your wife or the coach. I picked her.”
“Ah." Mr. Barton seems disappointed for a moment, but he recollects himself. "I don’t know how I could possibly repay you two. You saved me, and my wife.”
“We expect nothing in return,” Dutch says. Arthur almost pulls a face, at that, but manages to cover it by scratching at his chin. “It was the very least we could do.”
“Nonsense,” says Mr. Barton. “I insist.”
“It’s not safe out here. Let us take you to your estate on horseback, and then Arthur and I will go into town and alert the law to the theft of your stagecoach,” Dutch says. “We’ll have time to discuss on the way.”
“We’ll have to leave the driver,” Arthur says. “You can have your men come back for him, later, and make sure he gets a proper burial.”
“Of course,” Mr. Barton says.
“Mr. Barton,” Dutch says, “If you please, ride with me?”
“I can take you, Mrs. Barton,” Arthur says. He extends his hand to her.
She glances up at her husband for permission. Mr. Barton lets her go, then.
She reaches for Arthur’s hand, her thin, smooth palm sliding into his. Their eyes meet for a moment, and she offers him a tentative smile. He helps her back onto his horse, and follows her up.
On the ride to the estate, he hangs back enough to let Dutch do his magic. He can see the two of them talking. Laughing, even. Behind him, Genevieve Barton is silent. She holds on tight.
The road back to the estate is long and dark. No one troubles them along the way.
“What did I tell you, Arthur? Didn’t I say that we’d be in the good graces of the richest man in town before the week was out?”
“You did tell me.”
They knock their glasses together, and toss them back in unison. The whiskey burns on the way down. Arthur bares his teeth, grimacing. Dutch slaps him on the back with a laugh.
The Silver Eagle saloon is full of life at night. Hanging light fixtures rattle from the ruckus on the second floor, casting the bar in a quivering yellow glow. The bartop is lacquered teak, with great sloping embellishments and bottles from wall to wall. Boys from the mines drink and discuss local happenings, women lead slobbering men up into upstairs rooms, and a musician plays a lively tune on a well-loved piano. There’s a rowdy poker game going on behind where they stand at the bar, forcing them to raise their voices over the din.
“Wasn’t even that hard, now was it?” Dutch continues. “Mr. Barton kindly invited us to his estate tomorrow night for a business dinner after I told him about the recent prospecting of Mr. Bryce Montrose and his partner one Mr. Arthur Callahan. I could see he was quite looking forward to it.”
“I’m sure,” Arthur says. He flags down the bartender for another round.
“And tell me, how was your conversation with Mrs. Barton?”
“Fine enough, I reckon. She was pretty shaken up.”
The bartender comes by with the bottle and tops up their drinks. Arthur fidgets with the glass in his hand.
“Now, what exactly did you say to her?” Dutch asks. “Did you… comfort her?”
He grimaces. “I suppose you could call it that. She didn’t seem too comforted.”
Dutch laughs. “What am I going to do with you, Arthur?”
“I told you I weren’t no good at this.” He runs a hand through his hair, slouching over the bar.
Dutch pats him on the shoulder once more. “Don’t be discouraged, son. I saw how she was looking at you.”
She wasn’t really looking at him though. Some version of him, some young upstanding man, honest and pure of heart-- the man that doesn't exist. He has no qualms with lying, with scamming. He just doesn’t want to mess this up for Dutch.
“You did well back there,” Dutch continues. He throws back his own drink. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
“I guess I just don’t know what our endgame is. We get her to run off with the money, rob her and… then, what? Leave her destitute? Surely she won’t survive out here.”
“Well, we don’t take everything, Arthur. I’m surely not going to leave that young woman at the mercy of the world alone.” Dutch muses for a moment. He slams his fist on the bartop, and turns to face Arthur. “She could come with us.”
Arthur snorts. Dutch raises his eyebrows.
“What, you’re serious?”
“There’d be a lot of benefit to having a woman of that calibre riding with us.”
“Yeah, I’m sure a lady like that would love sleeping rough with a couple of lowlifes.”
Dutch leans in closer, lowering his voice. Arthur mirrors him and listens in.
“Think about it, Arthur. If she was with us, we would no longer be just a couple of lowlifes.”
“And she’s just some other mouth to feed. I don’t exactly see her robbing or killing folk.”
“There is more to life than scraping by to survive, Arthur! What of living, truly living?” He grabs Arthur’s scarf, pulling him in so close he can feel smell the whiskey on Dutch’s breath. “Our world has a place for her, Arthur. She could join us outside of civilization, freed from the shackles of her upbringing just as you were, and flourish into the kind of woman intended to inherit this savage earth. You’ll see.”
“Are you sure you weren’t the right one to go after her, flirting and such?” Arthur says. There’s an edge to his words he didn’t anticipate, but it comes out anyway. “You seem real taken with her.”
Dutch scowls and pushes him back. “What’s gotten into your head, huh?”
The way he says it, that tone of voice, it makes Arthur’s throat tighten. He hadn’t meant for it to come out that way. He doesn’t know what he meant.
“Think I’m just too stupid to see your reasoning.”
“Well, what I see is a woman what needs saving from her circumstances. Her husband treats her terribly. Cared more about that stage of his than his woman.”
“And you really think she’ll be any more fond of us when she finds out we’re lying to her? What if she gets the law on us?”
“Let’s just focus on the here and now, Arthur.” He finishes his drink. “I know your cynicism is too often a crutch, but try to trust me, would you?”
He lowers his gaze, shifting from foot to foot. “Sorry, Dutch. I trust you, I swear.”
Dutch sighs. “I know you do, son. I know you are only being cautious, and I appreciate it, I do.”
“Just ain’t feeling so sure of myself, is all. You’re right.”
“Perhaps you could use a little confidence boost,” Dutch says. He stands back, surveying the crowd of the saloon. “See someone you like?”
Arthur follows his line of sight. There are plenty of drunk morons in the saloon at this time of night, but he wants the biggest, dumbest one.
“Goddamnit!” comes a cry from the poker table. A man slams his fist on the table, sending the chips clattering.
“Come on, Mr. Flint, please don’t get upset,” the winner pleads. “You lost fair and square.”
“That’s horseshit!” Spittle flies out from his mouth across the table, landing in a wet gob in the center.
The other men at the table seem to look on nervously, as the dealer shuffles the cards for the next round. The bartender watches with a close eye, cleaning a glass with a rag between customers.
“You’re busted out, feller,” says the dealer. “I’m sorry.”
Mr. Flint grunts, and kicks his chair back as he stands. It falls to the floor with a clatter of wood on wood, the crowd quieting somewhat to look at him. He doesn’t appear to notice as he turns and stumbles towards the bar. He’s got hands the size of dinner plates, shoulders wide enough to easily fill the doorway. He’s big and dumb. He’s got all the makings of a perfect mark.
Dutch’s eyes light up. He orders another whiskey in quick succession, slipping a vial out of his sleeve to top it up.
Arthur frowns. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Now, Arthur. I know you have grown, and it’s not that I don’t have faith in you.” Dutch flicks his eyes to the bartender, busy elsewhere, and pours. “I’m merely guaranteeing your success.”
When he was younger he needed it, sure. But he’s old enough now. Bigger, taller. He’s annoyed, but he has to trust Dutch. He bottles in the argument, holds onto that anger for something else.
Mr. Flint comes to the bar at Arthur’s right side, slouching over the bartop. “Gimme a whiskey,” Mr. Flint says to the bartender. “Now.”
“Sounds like a bit of bad luck you’re having there, feller,” Dutch says, where he stands on Arthur’s left. He pushes the whiskey shot towards Mr. Flint.
“Fuck off, will ya,” Mr. Flint replies. He takes the drink regardless, throwing it back.
“And here I was about to offer to buy you a few more rounds, given you’ve gone and lost most if not all of your money at the table.” Dutch tips his head. “I suppose not.”
“Why don’t you just mind your own damn business?”
“Well, I was doing just that until you caused all that commotion, but sure, friend.”
“Who the hell do you think you’re talkin’ to?” says Mr. Flint. “I ain’t your goddamn friend.”
He lurches forward, and Arthur makes a point to plant himself between the man and Dutch. Mr. Flint chuckles, shoving him in the chest.
“Look here, you’ve got a guard dog. Is this kid even old enough to be in here?”
“Well, I reckon I’m almost nineteen, sir. Can you count that high?” Arthur asks. “Or you need to take your shoes off first?”
Mr. Flint starts forward, and Dutch grabs for Arthur’s shoulder.
“Come on, son, he’s not worth it,” Dutch says. “Quite literally, I’m afraid. He already lost all of his money.”
Arthur keeps his expression as neutral as possible, maintaining a steady wall between Dutch and the increasingly murderous looking man in front of him. He’s taller than Mr. Flint, but younger. Bright eyed. Just some kid popping off the mouth, not a real threat.
Mr. Flint laughs. He looks at the bartender, who passes him his whiskey with an uneasy glance. “Can you believe this?”
“Now, Jacob, we don’t want any more fights in this establishment,” the bartender says to Mr. Flint. “Please, just-- just relax, now. Have your drink.”
“Best listen to the man, mister,” Arthur says. “Wouldn’t want to lose what little remains of your dignity. ‘Bout all you got left.”
“You got some lip on you, boy. You better back off before I put you and your friend in the ground,” Mr. Flint says.
“Would you like to put money on that?” Dutch asks.
Mr. Flint snorts. “Me fight the kid? You’re crazy.”
“As crazy as I am serious, my good sir.”
The dealer from the poker game stands, coming to intercept. “Come on, fellers, just let him alone. It ain’t worth it.” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “He done killed someone last time.”
Dutch looks over at the poker table, where the rest of the players have been pretending not to listen in on the conversation at the bar.
“Gentlemen,” he starts. He looks to the dealer. “How would you all like to make a little wager?”
They’re quiet for a moment, before the winning player says, “Those are pretty stacked odds, Mister.”
The dealer looks at Arthur, frowning under his bushy eyebrows. “You got some kind of deathwish, kid? That’s suicide.”
Mr. Flint throws back his whiskey. He steps forward, into Arthur’s space, staring straight at Dutch. “You’re on.”
“Just take it outside, please,” the bartender begs. He lowers his voice, offering a few bills to Dutch over the bartop. “And I put ten, on Mr. Flint.” His eyes flicker to Arthur. “No offence.”
They spill out onto the dusty lot behind the saloon, most of the building emptying out to enjoy the show. More people buy in, and sure enough there’s a crowd standing in a circle around Arthur and Mr. Flint. Dutch collects the bets from eager participants, licking his fingers to count off bills, his teeth showing as he grins. His pockets jingle with change as he takes the rest of it off the eager hands of the audience.
“All right,” Dutch starts. He stands in the dusty center of the circle of bodies like it’s his own personal stage. His voice cracks as he raises it, “No knives, no guns, just a good clean fight. First one to drop or die is the loser.”
Dutch goes to Mr. Flint to collect his gun belt, and then to Arthur to do the same. Arthur hands it over, and they’re both laid to the side on a couple of crates where the working girls from the saloon have come out to light cigarettes and enjoy the night’s entertainment that isn’t themselves.
Arthur rolls his shoulder, cracks his neck. Dutch comes to him, slapping him on the back. “You’ve got this, Arthur,” he says.
“I know,” Arthur replies.
He isn’t scared to fight. He isn’t even scared to die. Especially not because he knows that it’s only a matter of minutes before the laudanum Dutch slipped Mr. Flint fully takes hold.
Dutch grips the back of his neck, his thumb pressing against the space under his ear. He leans in until Arthur can feel his breath against his neck. “Make me proud, son.” Then, he pushes Arthur forward, into the ring.
Before Dutch saved him, he used to like this. Violence. He liked hurting people, took some kind of twisted joy out of losing control. Dutch taught him how wrong he was, taught him to use that part of himself only when necessary. He only has control over it because Dutch taught him how, and he only lets it out because Dutch needs him to.
Staring down at Mr. Flint across from him, that twisted mirror of himself, it makes him realize how fortunate he is to have a man like Dutch looking out for him. He could be that. He could be so much worse than he is.
So when Mr. Flint launches at him, Arthur holds his ground. He knows how to tame it. He isn’t smart, no, but he’s quick on his feet. Quick enough that he dodges hard to the left when Mr. Flint swings his massive fist down. Mr. Flint topples forward, weighed down by age, alcohol and opium. Arthur flies at him.
The crowd hoots and roars as he gets his arm around Mr. Flint’s burly neck, and Arthur wrenches hard and digs his heels in. He slams his fist into the soft part of Mr. Flint’s brow, his elbow locked in place around his neck.
An elbow jabs into his gut, and he’s forced to let go, but Mr. Flint’s face is bruised and bloody. His face is starting to slacken with the drug seeping into his veins. Arthur can hear people yelling at him, jeering and screaming, can hear Dutch laughing over the din of it all but his whole focus narrows to survival. He has to win.
He waits for Mr. Flint to move again, keeps slipping out of grasp. He takes pot-shots, he kicks up dust, he plays to his advantage. He takes a punch to the side that winds him, but he recovers quickly, putting space between them. Mr. Flint is losing steam, his breaths coming in great gulps. The air around him is a miasma of whiskey and stinking sweat, and the crowd is getting bloodthirsty. They want a man on the ground, and they want their money.
Arthur’s starting to pant. Mr. Flint lets out a yell, his fists clenched at his sides.
“Come on, you little shit! Hit me! Fight like a man!” He cocks his head, spits out a mouthful of blood. His eyes are dosed with sleep, his mouth slack. “What’s wrong? You afraid of messin’ up that pretty face of yours?”
It’s like dynamite in his blood, and Arthur shoots forward throwing himself on top of Mr. Flint, sending both of them careening into the dirt. He’s hitting without even thinking, his fists hitting bone, hitting cartilage, the wet sound of flesh on flesh filling the white noise of his ears. He feels a hand around his throat and suddenly his breath is cut off, and he’s being twisted onto his back.
Mr. Flint is heavy, huge, bigger than him. He kicks and fights and there’s blood dripping into his eyes and Arthur chokes. His eyes start to roll back into his head as he struggles for air, but he frees his hand and nails Mr. Flint in the jaw, once, twice, down.
He collapses. After a breath, Arthur slides out from beneath his unconscious body, and gets to his feet.
“That’s bullshit!” says one of the lookers-on, a man from the poker game. There’s more yelling and jeering.
“Now, now,” says Dutch, “That there’s a knockout-- he won fair and square, and it is time to settle up, gentlemen.”
There’s a bit of grumbling as the crowd disperses. Money exchanges hands. Arthur rubs at his knuckles, a little bloody. His throat feels tight. He coughs.
Dutch approaches him, his smile catching. He laughs, waving a stack of bills.
“My dear boy, we are eating well tonight!” He pats Arthur on the back. “Good work, Arthur.”
“Should’ve killed that fool,” he mutters. He clears his throat a few times, experimentally.
A few of the poker players are busy picking Mr. Flint up off the ground. Dutch clicks his teeth. He grips Arthur by the shoulder, turns him and begins to walk.
“Well, we’re here a few more days, yet,” Dutch says. “There’s always tomorrow.”
Arthur laughs, and Dutch leads him forward.
He’s drunk. Beyond drunk, well into stumbling around and barely capable of forming words. Not that he’s usually very good at it. Dutch has him propped up as they walk up a set of wooden stairs. He doesn’t know where they’re going. His head his spinning. How much whiskey did he drink anyway? Dutch kept filling his glass, he doesn’t know.
“Easy, big boy,” Dutch says, heaving him up to the top step. “Room ain’t far.”
“Room?” Arthur slurs.
“You think you’re in any state to ride a horse out into the desert?”
He slumps over a banister at the top of the landing, and Dutch sighs. It’s like his legs have stopped working. He isn’t sure if he’s been this drunk before. Maybe when he was a kid, before he met Dutch and Hosea, and he stole it off someone. Before he had anyone looking out for him. Hosea doesn’t let him drink like this, anyway.
Dutch grabs his arm, slings it over his shoulders. He pulls him upright, and heaves him down the hall. “Jesus, it’s like you turn around and grow another foot when I’m not looking. You get too much bigger and I’d have to leave you on the ground.”
“Big enough to win that fight without 'help',” he mumbles.
“I see that now, how wrong I was! I should listen to you next time, for you surely wiped the floor with him.”
Arthur raises his arms in victory, Dutch tripping with the movement. “The winner!” he bellows.
Dutch slaps a hand over his mouth. His palm is warm and rough. Arthur breathes heavy through his nose, gripping Dutch’s wrist to drag it away.
“All right, don’t let it get to your head, now, son.” He sounds annoyed, maybe, but also a little fond. He reaches past Arthur to open a door, and shoves him inside. “Come on.”
There’s a fire going inside the room, and it’s warm and inviting. In the corner sits a big bed with actual pillows and a thick blanket, and there’s a dresser with a wash basin, drawers to put things. All the comforts of a home away from home. There are pictures hung on the walls, and windows facing out towards the street. He can see outside, but it’s not the same as looking up at the stars at night.
Dutch closes the door, then moves in past him. He starts taking off his boots. Arthur sinks to the ground, his back against the wall. Better than sleeping in the dirt, technically, although he doesn’t mind it that much. He prefers being out in the wilderness. Sometimes he feels like a wild animal what’s been dragged into town against its will. He doesn’t fit in here.
“What are you doing?” Dutch says.
“Sleepin’,” Arthur says. His chin starts to nod to his chest. “Night.”
“Arthur, get up.”
The ground shifts beneath him again as Dutch drags him to his feet. He’s pushed onto the bed face down, before rolling over onto his back, laughing. “What the hell, Dutch?”
“There is a perfectly good bed that is large enough for the both of us, son,” Dutch explains. He starts taking off Arthur’s boots for him. “You’re not my dog, and thus you do not sleep on the floor.”
“I don’t have no problem sleepin’ on the floor.”
“Well, I do."
He neatly places Arthur’s boots on the floor, then rounds to the other side of the bed. Arthur squirms up to the pillows, and Dutch is right. It’s better than the floor.
“Thanks for takin’ care of me,” Arthur mumbles. His eyes feel so heavy. “I love you, Dutch. I dunno how I’d-- what I’d do without you. You changed my life.”
Dutch lays down next to him. He feels the bed shift with the weight of him, a hand on his shoulder.
“As you’ve changed mine," Dutch says, his voice low and warm. He gives Arthur's shoulder one final squeeze, and lets go. "Now, get some sleep, son.”
Arthur closes his eyes. He’ll do whatever Dutch wants him to, until the day he dies.
Arthur shifts. He adjusts his cuffs. His jacket. He runs a hand through his hair. He clears his throat.
Dutch kicks him in the leg. “Enough, Arthur,” he murmurs.
“This don’t feel right.”
“Well it looks right,” Dutch says.
They’d spent most of the afternoon and the rest of the fight money dressing the part for their evening at the estate. Though they now had nothing left in their pockets, they now looked the part of two surveyors courting a potential investor. They’d bathed, Dutch had forced him to slick his hair back with some kind of pomade after Arthur had finished puking his guts out from the booze. He’s still a little woozy, but there’s some colour back in his face, finally.
Dutch looks natural in his vest, his collar buttoned up to the top. No blood on his sleeves. Arthur feels suffocated, although the clothing fits. It feels like there’s another personality sewn inside his clothes with him.
They’re standing in the foyer at the Barton estate. It’s bigger than any place Arthur’s been inside before. The ceilings have to be ten feet, painted whiter than white. The room is wrapped in seafoam green wallpaper. Paintings of people and places that don’t belong out here in the desert hang on the walls, seemingly shipwrecked on this lonely patch of landlocked dust. The whole room is wrapped in a shawl of sadness, softer than anything Arthur’s ever laid his hands on before. He almost doesn’t want to touch anything.
Dutch is sitting in a gilded chair, next to a table where they’ve been served coffee by a maid. A maid! Unfathomable, being served coffee by someone with no other job than waiting hand and foot. He can’t imagine the taste without tin and mouthfuls of grounds, so he had politely declined. Dutch seems at home, but he was always a fine actor.
The double doors leading further into the home open. A young servant girl steps through, and Arthur recognizes her. Evelyn, the girl from the carriage. She averts her eyes as he looks at her. Dutch rises next to him, smoothing down his vest.
“Mr. and Mrs. Barton cordially invite you to join them in the parlour,” Evelyn says, motioning for them. “Welcome.”
She leads them through the corridor, with those same high, white ceilings. It opens further into a wide space with wooden floors and a spiraling staircase leading to the second floor. He wonders if houses in the cities are like this. If Mr. Barton went and brought the whole house over with his new life out in the west.
“Feel like I’m ‘bout to meet the Queen of England,” Arthur mutters to Dutch.
Dutch smiles, tight-lipped. “Then I expect you’ll have the manners to suit.”
Evelyn opens another ornate door, and steps back, bowing her head. Dutch enters first, and Arthur follows him into the parlour room. Adorned in velvet and sateen, the room is cool blue, with great hanging curtains and plush furniture. A well-stocked bar sits on one end of the room, and a piano looms in the other. There is a circle of chairs in the center.
In the circle sits Genevieve, smoking a cigarette. She wears a light blue dress, expensive, the fabric so delicate it seems to be in competition with the severe expression she is giving her husband in the chair beside her. There’s a sparkling necklace at the base of her throat, obscuring hand shaped bruises along her delicate collar.
Mr. Barton stands to greet them. “Welcome!” he exclaims, stepping around the furniture. He stumbles somewhat, and as he goes to shake their hands, it becomes clear that he has been drinking. “Mr. Montrose, Mr. Callahan-- I have been greatly looking forward to this meeting, I assure you. Come in, come in!”
“And I as well, Mr. Barton,” Dutch says. “I can’t tell you how much Arthur and I appreciate this invitation to your most exquisite home.”
“Just Thomas is fine, of course!” He looks to his wife, where she continues to smoke silently on the settee. “Genny, my pet, would you prepare these gentlemen a drink. You look like a man who knows his brandy, Mr. Montrose, I must say.”
Dutch throws his hands up in surrender. “You see right through me.”
Genevieve ashes her cigarette, then starts on her way to the bar. The decanter is crystal, and looks heavy in her hands. Arthur stands, unsure if he should sit down. Dutch nudges him forward, and they take their respective places in the chairs opposite the Bartons.
Thomas passes them cigars, and strikes a match to light them. Arthur goes along with it, but Dutch looks pleased. Genevieve returns with two brandy glasses, depositing one in front of Dutch with little care. She passes Arthur his, and their eyes meet as he thanks her under his breath.
Genevieve gingerly takes her seat next to him. Thomas sits back, placing his ankle on his knee. He's dressed in all his finery, a well-fitted suit in a rich royal blue, and his fingers are adorned in garish rings that seem to catch Dutch's eye.
“I must say,” Thomas starts. “How fortunate and timely our meeting. You boys, looking for investors, and myself, in need of aid. Quite the intervention of fate.”
“If only we had gotten there quicker, perhaps we would’ve been able to save your driver,” Dutch says. He performs remorse quite exquisitely, bowing his head. “God rest his soul.”
“Yes, the late Mr. Collins will be missed. Though, he had no family to leave behind, a small miracle. You did the best you could.”
Arthur takes a drink of the brandy, hiding his face behind his hand. They were the whole reason the man died, after all. Poor bastard. Genevieve lights another cigarette, and her eyes find his across the table. They both seem to busy their mouths to avoid speaking.
“You have a fine home, Thomas,” Dutch says, conversationally. “It’s nice to see some of that city sophistication out here in the sticks.”
“It’s marvelous to see how far this little camp town has come in such a short time. To think that there was nothing but tents and tumbleweeds out here only a short time ago.” Pensieve, Thomas smokes his cigar. “Although my wife would call me quite tasteless, I’m sure. The decor is largely thanks to her.”
He reaches for her, then, taking her hand. Then and only then, she eagerly gives it. Arthur watches the exchange with a detached fascination. Thomas squeezes once, then goes back for his drink. Her hand retracts as if touching something unsavoury, before she turns her attention on Arthur. Her gaze becomes accusatory.
“You’re very quiet Mr. Callahan,” Genevieve says.
“I reckon I don’t have much to say,” Arthur says, with a well-intentioned smile.
Dutch reaches to pat Arthur on the shoulder. “Our Arthur is a man of few words, I’m afraid.”
“And so young as well! I must say, it’s refreshing for a boy to come into the new world to make something of himself.” Thomas tips his head towards Arthur. “Your partner informed me of much of your recent prospecting. I must say I am quite interested.”
Genevieve ashes her cigarette, reaching for her drink. “Come now, Thomas. Let’s not discuss business before dinner.”
“Of course, darling,” Thomas says. He raises his glass. “Let us cheers to a new and hopefully illustrious friendship.”
They clink their glasses, and drink. Though the alcohol he’s sure is expensive, it still burns the same going down.
Dinner is an unfamiliar affair. There are more utensils than Arthur knows what to do with. Dutch kicks him under the table in lieu of instruction. The china is bone white and fine enough that he feels it will break under his monstrous hands. The dining room is lit yellow by candlelight, orange by the sunset through gaussian curtains. Twilight emerges as he fumbles his way through formal niceties.
Dutch and Thomas share stories and converse like old friends, while the other two diners act as a captive audience. The servants are merely set dressing. Over the first course of watery soup and thick slices of bread, still warm from the oven and admittedly quite delicious, their voices steadily rise in volume. The entree is roast with potatoes, accompanied by tales that become more and more embellished. Arthur tries not to eat too fast, tries to listen, but he's never had a meal like this in his life.
Dutch keeps their glasses full, although not consuming nearly as much as Mr. Barton. By the time they make it to dessert, a lemon cake served with coffee, Thomas Barton is surely drunk.
Coffee cups rattle as Thomas slams his hand down on the table. Genevieve gingerly lifts her saucer off as Thomas leans forward. “A mountain lion! I believe you are being untruthful, good sir, to tell me that you were ambushed by a mountain lion and lived to tell the tale! Tell me, how did you escape?”
This is one of Dutch’s stories that is unfortunately true. Mostly true. He hadn’t been able to sleep for a fortnight, after. He would lay there wide awake looking for the telltale glow of eyes tracking them in the darkness. He had visions of Dutch gored and bleeding on the insides of his eyelids whenever he dared to close them.
“Arthur here’s a crack shot,” Dutch says. “He put a bullet in the beast’s head and saved my life in the process.”
“A guardian angel,” Genevieve murmurs.
“It wasn’t nothing,” Arthur says. “I owe him a hundred lifetimes.”
He can feel it like the sun on his face. Dutch looking at him, his expression filled with pride. Arthur sits up straighter in his chair, becomes a presence in the room where he’s practically camouflaged himself all evening.
“How did the two of you come to work together, anyhow? Quite the dynamic pairing-- one strong and silent and the other, a distinguished gentleman and quite the conversationalist, I must say.” Thomas asks. “Given all your other grandiose tales of the evening, I gather I won’t be disappointed.”
He motions for Evelyn to refill his glass and Dutch’s, as she moves around them practically unseen, removing plates and utensils.
“That particular story is not nearly as compelling, I’m afraid,” says Dutch, taking his glass. “I was headed out west in search of adventure and great fortune, and Arthur here had lost his mother in an accident, and his father to the drink. I decided to take a chance on him and bring him on my journey, and here we are today.”
“Ah, an orphan. How unfortunate,” Thomas says. “You and Genny have that in common.”
Genevieve slides a cigarette between her painted lips. Her husband does not offer to light it for her. Arthur strikes a match and cups the flame in his hand, extending it over the table towards her. She murmurs thanks, lighting her cigarette.
“My mother died in childbirth,” Genevieve says. Her tone is short and to the point. “My father passed shortly after we were wed.”
“My condolences,” Dutch says.
“These things happen in life,” Thomas says, for her. “Besides, she has many other happinesses to fill her days.”
“Well, I do miss the city.”
Genevieve exhales smoke. It hangs around her head like the ghost of a halo. Arthur’s fingers itch, suddenly, to sketch the shape of her.
“Now, Genny, you know I’ve gone to the ends of the earth to make this house feel like a home to you. I even went to the trouble of having your piano brought out here, you know.”
“And I love it, I do.” She takes another drag. “But it’s hardly New York.”
Outside, the sun descends below the horizon. The warmth is bled from the room. Evelyn pours Thomas another glass to fill the sudden silence, and he reaches for the glass before she finishes. Brandy sloshes onto the tablecloth. Thomas stares down the length of his nose at his wife, and she does not retract. The purple hues under her eyes deepen in the candlelight.
“I never been to New York,” Arthur starts. The attention shifts to him. “What’s it like?”
“Civilized,” Genevieve says, ashing her cigarette pointedly in the glass tray. She leaves its stubbed out corpse smoking at the bottom, a ring of lipstick around the paper. “You could go out into the streets and not worry that someone was about to rob you at gunpoint. There were more than just saloons and brothels on every corner. There were libraries and schools. Places of learning.”
“We got a different type of education out here, I suppose,” Arthur says.
Dutch had taught him to read and write. Still teaching him, every day. He can’t picture sitting in a classroom with some tight knit school teacher slapping him on the hands with a ruler due to his profound idiocy. He much preferred Dutch’s method of having him spell out dirty words to learn his letters.
“She’s still learning how to appreciate nature,” Thomas says.
“How I’d love to see the magnificent libraries you speak of, one day,” Dutch says. He appears to have not heard Thomas’ statement, or knowing Dutch, decided not to. “I noticed that about you-- the way you speak, you must be very well-read.”
Her lips purse, hiding a smile. “I don’t know if I would say that, Mr. Montrose, but yes, I rather love to read. As of recent, I have been voraciously consuming Giesbrecht’s ‘Discourses on the Shared Subconscious,’ and truly it is--”
“Giesbrecht! Mrs. Barton, you’re a woman after my own heart.” Dutch leans closer towards her across the table. His genuine interest is palpable, this is not part of the act. “I found his research on the collective nature of the mind to be quite illuminating.”
“Yes! I was fascinated with his musings on human empathy, and how through history it has been used as a tool to either help or harm.”
Dutch’s brow wrinkles with interest. “Interesting. My interpretation was that help and harm can often be one in the same, don’t you think?”
“Well, I believe--”
“Now dearest, I believe that’s enough,” Thomas says. He reaches for his wife, and the grip he holds on her wrist indicates he is not asking her.
“But Mr. Montrose--”
“--was merely being polite. No man is truly interested in the pretty little ideas of women. He might as well go ask a donkey its opinion for all the insight he’d get from you.”
Thomas guffaws at his own joke. Dutch’s smile shapeshifts once more, and he chuckles, but Arthur can tell he doesn’t think it’s particularly funny. Genevieve’s face flushes scarlet.
“I apologize, gentlemen,” she says. “I am... afraid I got a bit carried away.”
“It’s no bother,” Dutch says. “I appreciate a woman of a strong mind.”
Genevieve goes taut, like a bowstring. “You needn’t patronize me, Mr. Montrose.”
“I can assure you, ma’am, that was not my intention.”
“Genny, darling,” Thomas warns. He’s steadily going redder in the face, as if steam were about to rise off him. “Remember your manners.”
She pulls her hand free from his grip, and reaches for her carton of cigarettes on the table. Thomas takes them away from her. Genevieve crosses her arms, as if the action is the only thing holding in the words she so obviously wants to say, but won’t in polite company.
“I didn’t understand a damn word of what either of you were talking about, to be honest,” Arthur mumbles.
The vocalization of his incompetence cuts through the tension like a sledgehammer. Thomas throws back his head and laughs, and Dutch joins him. He reaches for the brandy and refills Thomas’ glass to the near top.
“Of course, my boy,” Thomas says. “Books certainly won’t fend off any mountain lions, nor stagecoach robbers.”
“May I please be excused?” Genevieve interjects.
Thomas’ laughter decays in his chest, dying off with a wheeze of disbelief. “Excused? I had thought you would provide some entertainment prior to retiring for the evening.”
“I thought you were to discuss business with the men after our meal.”
“Well, yes, but we are hosts. We are obliged to entertain, are we not? And you play so sweetly, my darling.”
She turns away from him, her eyes downcast. “I don’t feel like playing.”
“Surely your hands don’t care how you feel. They will play the notes, will they not?”
“I don’t want to.”
The absence of expression on Thomas’ face is unnerving. On joints lubricated with alcohol he stands, reaching for his wife’s elbow to draw her to her feet aside him. “One moment.”
He pulls her out of the room. Evelyn closes the wooden double doors behind them, then clasps her hands and resumes her post. Dutch glances over his shoulder, and shakes his head.
There’s muffled arguing barely audible through the walls. The abrupt crack of a slap startles Arthur bolt-upright in his seat. Dutch grabs for his shoulder, holding him down.
“Jesus Christ,” Arthur mutters under his breath.
“Easy,” Dutch answers. The disgust there, his true feelings, are visible only to Arthur.
A moment passes. Evelyn sidesteps the door as it swings open, and the Bartons return to the room. Genevieve looks towards her husband, almost seeking approval to speak. Her eyes appear to bulge over the edges of their sockets, watery discharge escaping over the threshold of her lashes. Arthur imagines if he set his palm to the side of her face, he could fit his fingers over the exact imprint of the hand-shaped impression her loving husband has left.
“Go ahead, my dear,” Thomas says.
“Mr. Callahan, Mr. Montrose,” Genevieve says. There are fresh red marks around her throat. Her voice is strained and scratchy. “I would be delighted to play for you.”
They reconvene in the parlour. Genevieve takes her place at the bench, and Thomas stands alongside the piano as if supervising her. He drinks from a fresh glass as she thumbs out sheet music. The sharp sound of paper shifting is the only thing audible in the parlour.
She bows her head as she sets her shaking fingers on the keys. The pale nape of her neck lays bare, so narrow and delicate. So easily broken. She won’t survive out there. Not the way they do, all that blood on their hands.
“The piece I will be playing for you this evening is titled Prelude No. 4 in E-minor by Frédéric Chopin,” Genevieve says. She draws in a deep breath, and begins.
The only piano playing Arthur’s ever heard has been in saloons, lively music meant to entertain, provide background noise for the kind of talking that only comes from drinking late into the night. Nothing like this. The room fills with the haunting chords brought forth from Genevieve’s fingertips. It’s like the colour of her dress melts off of her, and saturates the room with her melancholy. It practically drowns him, standing there, trying to listen to her raw outpouring of feeling as he’s pretending to be someone he isn’t.
Arthur stares at the ground. He tries to think of anything to distract himself, but he can’t. It eats away at him. He doesn’t want to listen.
Neither Dutch nor Thomas look at him. They’re entirely consumed. Dutch wears an almost pained expression, his eyes closed as he listens. Thomas grips his glass as if it’s the only thing stopping him from reaching out to keep her hands from moving, latent fury visible on his face. Arthur wonders if the song choice is her own little act of rebellion.
It’s harder to resist the pull as she continues. He feels himself being dragged downward as the notes continue. Arthur’s brows knit, and he listens. You don’t even know me, she’d said to him. He doesn’t know her, no, but he wonders then if anyone in this room really does. He gets the feeling like this is the part of her that her husband would rather not be shown.
The song dies off rather than finishes. Genevieve draws her hands into her lap, her eyes downcast.
Dutch applauds. “Bravo! You play as if an angel, Mrs. Barton. Brought me to near tears, you did.”
“That was beautiful, Genny,” Thomas says, tightly.
He reaches for Genevieve just as she stands. She bows her head, then flees the room without speaking. The mood doesn’t leave with her. Her sadness permeates through the walls.
Thomas leads them back towards the seating area. He collapses into the chair, appearing very exhausted over the laborious task of embarrassing his wife.
“I must apologize for her behaviour. I’m afraid she’s having difficulty adjusting to life out here.”
“It’s no matter, Thomas. I’m familiar with the delicate countenance of women, I assure you,” Dutch says, reaching for the brandy.
“Indeed, I’m certain you are,” Thomas chuckles.
“Besides, I think it’s high time we get down to business and discuss some terms?”
He pours Thomas another drink, one eagerly taken. Dutch glances to the door, then Arthur. His instructions are clear.
“Certainly, Mr. Montrose,” Thomas says. “I was concerned with--”
“Excuse me,” Arthur says.
He takes his leave almost unnoticed, Thomas continuing to speak like he hadn’t heard Arthur at all, Dutch pretending to be engrossed in the drunken conversation.
Evelyn follows him through the doors as he exits. He clears his throat. “Where, uh…”
“The necessary is out through that door, sir,” she explains.
“Your mistress. She took off real fast-- she okay?”
“I am not at liberty to speak for her.”
“First time I’ve heard you speak at all, actually. Where’d she go?”
“I’m not paid to talk,” Evelyn says.
“They pay you much?”
He reaches into his pocket and fishes out a dollar bill. He offers it to her.
Evelyn’s eyes dart to the side. She takes the money, then lowers her voice. “Mrs. Barton went out to the garden. That way.”
“Thank you kindly.”
Evelyn doesn’t look altogether thrilled to have told him. She keeps her head down and her attention averted like she’s supposed to.
Arthur walks the short length of the hall to the back door. He cracks it open, peering outside into the garden. It’s breathtaking. Desert flowers and cacti encase a small covered gazebo, a rock path drawing him outward. The aloe plants and blue stick succulents spreading outward seem lush and inviting.
Under the starlight, Genevieve stands. She looks out over the railing, past the picket fence surrounding the property to the desert. Arthur only watches her for a moment. Then, he approaches.
Pulling out a pack of cigarettes, he stands by her side. She doesn’t even acknowledge his presence. He offers her a cigarette, and finally she reacts and takes one from the pack. He strikes a match, lighting hers first, then his own.
“You okay?” Arthur starts.
“What a peculiar question.” The cigarette trembles in her hands. “Yesterday I watched a man get shot to death, and was dragged out into the desert thinking I would see a similar fate, or worse. Today everyone is acting as if nothing happened, and yet whenever I close my eyes I feel as though I am still on the ground with a gun to my head.”
“Well, you’re safe now.”
“Am I?” She looks to him, suspicious. “What are you doing out here?”
“I ain’t so much for business talk. That’s more my partner’s area.”
She scoffs. “You don’t need to butter me up, Mr. Callahan. I know you heard what happened back there.”
“And seen the bruises, yeah.”
Arthur looks at her sidelong. Her eyes are downcast, and she’s scratching at some unseen itch on the back of her hand, the cigarette balanced between her narrow fingers.
“I embarrassed him,” she murmurs. “I forgot my place.”
“If he wanted a woman with only half a brain he shoulda married one.” Arthur shrugs, taking another drag. “Not your fault he ain’t realized that.”
“He’s done so much for me. I shouldn’t undermine him.”
“What’s he done that’s so amazing, then?”
“You’re young, Arthur. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Why don’t you try me?”
He can see the frustration on her face. He wonders if she feels as trapped as he does, sometimes. The circumstances of one’s life are so arbitrary-- whether it’s God or some greater power or nothing in particular what makes people as miserable as they are, he doesn’t know. She’s got all the money and all the creature comforts she could ever want, and she’s still unhappy. She still fights it, the same way he fights his own circumstances.
“He… well, he wasn’t always like this.” Genevieve puts her lips around her cigarette, like the smoke will fill her with some great insight. “We first met because of a shared love of music. He came to see a concerto I played in finishing school. I remember seeing tears in his eyes when he came to meet me later. He asked me to play just for him. I did, all the time. It was like he saw who I was when I played.”
“I can’t picture that, for some reason.”
“He was different, before. Handsome, kind, and he listened to me,” she says. She seems to see some ghost of him in her mind, silent for a moment. Remembering herself, she continues, “Anyway, his father was friendly with my father, they believed it a good match.”
“So what changed, you think?” Arthur asks.
“The terms of my inheritance were that I had to be married to receive the full sum. With no son of his own, my father wanted to see his lineage secured prior to his passing. So we wed posthaste, when my father was quite ill.”
“That’s some great sacrifice he did you. Marryin’ into all your money, beatin’ you black and blue, making you perform for him like some trained monkey.”
“Well we’ve been married six years now and I’ve yet to provide a child, Mr. Callahan. Tell me, what exactly is it that I have to offer?”
Her voice is so quiet, so delicate, but the intensity of it stuns Arthur into silence. He can’t even smoke his cigarette, just holding it there dangling between his finger and thumb until it burns him. He flicks it away, watching the red light dwindle into nothing.
“I’ve thought of leaving,” she admits. “But… if I left, what would he do? He's not a bad man. He loves me, he's just under a lot of pressure."
"That ain't an excuse."
"Besides, if I left," she babbles, almost like she didn't hear him at all. "I would be alone. Barren, old and worthless. What would I do? Surely I am not fit for a brothel, nor do I know how to sew, or do anything of use."
"Who would love me? Why, what decent man would have me?”
“I would,” Arthur says.
Genevieve looks up at him. The moonlight catches the high of her cheekbone, smoothing out the lines of distrust. For the first time he wishes he was being honest. She doesn’t deserve this, what her husband is doing to her. What he’s doing to her. He doesn’t know where the lie ends and the truth of his feelings begins anymore. The guilt is starting to feel real.
“Miss, there’s more out there for you. Something better than going on like this, at least.”
“It’s so easy for you to say that. You have a choice.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he admits. “But I never knew I did, until someone else showed me.”
Genevieve shakes her head. “You just don’t understand.”
“Help me to understand, then.”
“How could you?” She grips the railing, like it’s the only thing holding her upright. “I’m a woman. Under his thumb is my natural place in the world. I’m surrounded by guards constantly, so I can’t even be alone. If I dare go anywhere, I’m terrified someone will try to rob or kill me. My own servants don’t respect me. I have nobody to talk to. I can’t leave. I have nowhere to go.”
Arthur slides his hand over hers, enveloping it. She doesn’t pull away.
“Run away with me, Genevieve,” he says.
Genevieve pulls her hand away. She steps back, looking up at him, shocked.
“You could leave with us. You don’t have to go on like this.”
“I don't--” Her eyes are wide with disbelief, but she looks as though she doesn’t believe the words coming from her own mouth. “I didn't mean any of that. It was nonsense, I don't even know what I was thinking. I don't-- I don't know.”
“I know you’re afraid your husband might kill you.”
Arthur watches the shift of emotions over her face. Recognition, horror. Denial. He almost expects it when she pulls her arm back to strike him. He catches her wrist in his grip, seizing her waist with his other hand, drawing her to him. She draws in a breath as he holds her like that, the loneliness of the world around them temporarily frozen. It's timeless for the two of them.
“Just,” he murmurs, and he can see her eyes tracking the words from his mouth, “Think about it. Please.”
He draws her closer, until they're sharing the same air. He thinks he could kiss her, but it feels wrong, somehow. He just holds her like that, in his arms. She presses a hand against his chest, spreading her fingers over his breastbone. He's sure she can feel his heart pounding beneath.
Genevieve's eyelashes flutter, and she breathes tightly through her nose. “Let go of me.”
Arthur releases her. There’s a high flush to her cheeks, and she won’t look him in the eyes.
“Good night, Mr. Callahan.”
He watches her walk back towards the house, and then follows not long after.
They’re sleeping rough again. No money. Just the two of them, the horses and the narrow river threading through the valley. Arthur’s brushing out the horses, while Dutch tends a fire closeby.
The rest of the evening at the Barton’s estate had been uneventful. By the time Arthur had returned, Dutch had talked his way into another meeting the following afternoon, while Thomas had drunken himself into a near stupor and was unlikely to remember the latter half of the evening. After a slurred adieu and some ushering by the servants, they’d ridden out into the desert to make camp for the night.
He knows Dutch is thinking, he can see it behind his eyes. Arthur had relayed the conversation with Mrs. Barton on the ride back, and he can’t pick up whether or not Dutch thinks he did well. He had thanked Arthur, but he knows with Dutch there’s always more to it.
“Say, Dutch,” Arthur starts.
“What’s prelude mean?”
“That sad song the lady played. That’s what she called it.”
“Ah,” Dutch says. He’s underlit by the beginnings of firelight, creating dark shadows under his eyes. “It means a type of introduction, and not just in the context of of music. A prelude to a battle, a prelude to murder, a prelude to another piece of music.”
“Okay, I gotcha. Prelude.” He pauses. “How you spell it?”
“P-r-e… hm. Okay.”
He can feel Dutch’s eyes on him. Arthur glances over, only for a moment. Persephone snorts, nosing at him to get him to continue.
“Is there something you’d like to say, son? I sense there’s something on your mind.”
He rubs Persephone’s muzzle, and she lips at the knuckles of his other hand. Arthur tilts his head, and he isn’t so sure how to phrase it. The last thing he wants is for Dutch to think he’s gone yellow or something.
“Come on, Arthur. You know you can always be forthright with me.”
He turns and looks down at where Dutch is peering back up at him where he’s crouched on the ground, elbows on his knees.
“I don’t know if this is gonna work, Dutch,” he says.
“Convincing that woman to leave her husband with her money… I don’t know if she’ll bite. We could’ve just robbed their stagecoach to begin with. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as much, but--"
"And leave that poor woman with that monstrous man? You heard what happened tonight. The bastard beat her with us right there, Arthur. Imagine what he does when it's just the two of them."
"Still... I don’t know if I can make her want to come with us.”
“These things take time, Arthur. I saw how she looked at you.”
Arthur snorts. “That’s bullshit. She was dying to talk to you ‘bout that book. I said you was the right choice to go after her, didn’t I?”
“That is not up to you, Arthur.”
Dutch is right. He’s the boss. Arthur does what he says without questioning. Or he should, but he just can’t help himself.
“Besides,” Dutch continues. “Should Hosea continue to walk the path he’s on, I’ll need you learn this.”
“What you mean about Hosea?”
There’s a pause. Then, Dutch shakes his head.
“Nevermind that. I shouldn’t be entertaining the thought. Hosea will return to his rightful home when he is ready, and he will surely be impressed with your work.”
“I hope so.”
Arthur finishes with Persephone, giving her a few sugar cubes. He gives her one last pat before returning to the fireside, next to Dutch.
“You always get women,” he starts, as he sits down. “How would you do it? Convince her, I mean. I ain’t sure.”
“Why, I would grab hold of her and kiss her.”
“I think she'd hit me proper if I tried.”
Dutch hums. “Some women do like to fight it for show.”
“I don’t think it'd be for show, Dutch.”
“Then why not-- write her a letter? Something she’ll feel is from the heart.”
“I ain’t so good with words, you know that.”
“Then what are you good with, Arthur?”
“Well... I can’t rightly threaten to shoot her or nothin’.”
Pressing his fingers at the bridge of his nose, Dutch gives a laugh of disbelief. “Perhaps not.”
Still, he reaches for his journal. A letter isn’t so bad an idea. At the very least he picks up his pencil, and muses over it. When he puts the tip to the page, he starts drawing, instead. There’s enough light from the fire, the lanterns and the stars above that he can make out the lines on the paper.
Dutch lights a cigarette. The scent of smoke crowds his mind with a memory, an image imprinted in his mind. He can see her encased in that crown of grey, and he starts sketching out Genevieve’s likeness.
The movement of his hand or the sound of graphite on paper draws Dutch’s attention. He leans over, peering down over the journal. Arthur tries to turn it away, but Dutch grabs for the corner, holding the book open.
“Why, look at that,” Dutch remarks. “I really wish you wouldn’t always play the fool, Arthur. You’re not nearly so uncultured, though you may attempt to convince yourself.”
“It really ain’t nothin’ special.”
Dutch tugs the journal out of his hands. Arthur grabs for it, but Dutch holds it away.
“Hey, now! Dutch!”
“Arthur, would you calm down?”
Dutch has never asked to see his journal before, and certainly never just taken it from him like this. He feels his face go hot, and he just wants to rip it out of Dutch’s hands. He would never be violent like that to him though. Never to Dutch. So he sits there, restless, as Dutch flips through pages, his face unreadable.
“Your penmanship has improved, son,” Dutch says, idly. “Some of this is nearly legible.”
Dutch looks to him, grinning, cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. There’s pride, there. Some of the anger abates, because Dutch has taught him almost everything he knows. He can’t be angry at Dutch.
“I’m only joking. It’s very good. Your drawings are even better.” Dutch licks his finger, and flips another page. His brows crease as he takes in another two page drawing, of a church Arthur had done some weeks back. “You have a hell of an eye for beauty, Arthur.”
He doesn’t know what to say to that. His fingers itch to take the journal back. Dutch knows him better than anyone, though, he doesn’t even know what he wants to hide from. When Dutch flips to the most recent page, his heart does a dip.
The smile falls off of Dutch’s face. It’s the drawing Arthur had done of him the previous night. It’s smudged from the sides of his hand, more done from memory than looking at him directly. Not his best, but not his worst either. He’d spent the most time getting Dutch’s eyes right.
Taking the cigarette out of his mouth, Dutch passes it to Arthur. He takes a drag, tastes the smoke against his tongue.
“They should hire you to do my wanted posters,” Dutch says. He runs his thumb over the drawing, never taking his eyes from it. “Although I’m not sure it’d have the intended effect. The way you draw me, I look like I could almost pass for a good man.”
“You are a good man, Dutch.”
“Most don’t see it that way, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, well, they don’t know you like I do.”
Arthur passes the cigarette back, and then Dutch looks at him, his eyes hawklike. Arthur holds his gaze, unnatural for him. He doesn’t like meeting anyone’s eyes. Makes him uncomfortable, most of the time. Hosea was trying to train it out of him, before, and he falls back into bad habits without him around.
“You can have it if you want,” Arthur says. “The drawing, I mean.”
“I do want it.” Dutch places the cigarette between his lips. The cherry is a bright starburst in the darkness of his expression. “Thank you, son.”
Taking the journal back, Arthur tears out the page with precision. When he gives the drawing to Dutch, their fingers graze. There’s an imperfection in the journal now, a place where something is missing, but the knowledge of who has the absent piece fills Arthur with some kind of pride. Something more than he gets from making money through unscrupulous means, anyway.
They settle into silence. Dutch reaches for the book he’s been reading. He slides the drawing in with finesse, where the page is dogeared to mark his spot. Every time he opens it to read, he’ll be seeing it.
Arthur puts the pencil to paper again. Genevieve, in that cloud of grey, that sea of blue. Maybe he’s got more to offer than violence. Maybe he can create something worthwhile. He will help Dutch shape his vision of a better tomorrow, if it means he can be a part of it. Through any means necessary.
The sun beats down where it looms high in the sky, and Arthur’s sweating under his hat already, the ends of his hair curling out. They’re waiting in town for the Bartons to arrive, while people mill about in the late afternoon heat. Standing outside the hotel they’re trying to pretend they stayed at, they look like regular, upstanding people. They’re not dressed like cowboys, they don’t blend in with the other outlaws and bandits who roam through town.
Dutch checks his pocket watch. He shifts from foot to foot, and he’s got that look on his face like he’s working something out. Arthur wants to know what it is, but Dutch hadn’t told him anything about what he had planned today. Wait and see, he’d told him.
A stagecoach comes down the main road towards them, the insignia clear on the side. There’s a new driver holding the reins, and a shotgun messenger this time, as well.
“That’ll be them, now,” Dutch says.
Dutch has a trickle of sweat running down the side of his neck, that disappears below his collar. Arthur watches its journey, before Dutch starts forward and he’s spurred to action.
“Mr. Barton!” Dutch says. He throws his hands out in a grand gesture as the aforementioned man descends the stagecoach steps. “And the lovely missus, so good to see you.”
Arthur extends a hand to help Genevieve down, and she gingerly takes it as her husband abandons her for Dutch.
“Hello, Miss,” Arthur says.
She nods her head gently. She’s wearing an ornate hat with great swooping feathers, earrings that catch the light. The neckline of her dress is low, the tops of her breasts spilling out from the bustier. He isn’t sure which is more garish-- the hand marks adorning her collar, or her completely immodest dress. Her cornflower yellow hair is pinned at the nape of her neck with curling ringlets framing her delicate face, drawing the eyes away from her imperfections. She’s as sweet as an unripe peach, bruised like one plucked from bottom of the basket.
“Mr. Montrose!” Thomas booms, reaching to shake Dutch’s hand. “Lovely to see you again.”
Genevieve circles to stand at her husband’s side, almost unnoticed. She seems withdrawn, almost like she doesn’t want to look Arthur’s way. He takes his spot at Dutch’s right hand side.
“Are you quite ready for our excursion?” Dutch asks. “I’m afraid it’s a fair ride out into the desert.”
“The vein is up into the canyons,” Dutch says. “We’ll have to take go by horseback. A coach won’t make the sharp turns, I regret to say.”
Thomas’s brow wrinkles with confusion. “I’m uncertain, Mr. Montrose, why you instructed me to bring my wife if the coach could not take us.”
Dutch starts forward, putting a hand on Thomas’ shoulder to steer him in the direction of the horses. He leans in, conspiratorial, while Genevieve and Arthur trail behind as if loyal disciples to his cause.
“If you recall, Mr. Barton. I said it would be a splendid idea for your missus to see what you did all day, working hard to provide food for your family.”
“Well, yes. It’s why I brought her in the first place.”
“And do you think she realizes just how taxing entertaining potential partners and clients is?”
He chuckles. “She calls it ‘having drinks with the boys’ if I recall. I don’t think she quite understands the subtleties of how men do business.”
“And you surely couldn’t expect her to, what with her fragile countenance,” Dutch exclaims. “I was thinking she could have a taste of the hardship you go through, day in and day out, spending some time showing dear Arthur here around town. Perhaps she will be more appreciative.”
“She could stand to see how comfortable her life is, it’s quite true. Although I’m not certain she is an adequate conversational partner in matters of business.”
“Well, neither is Mr. Callahan, so they are quite evenly matched!”
The two of them laugh raucously as they come up alongside the horses. Dutch takes the reins of his stallion, and motions to Persephone who seems impatient where she’s tethered.
“You can take Arthur’s horse. We’ll meet back here before suppertime, I swear it.”
His fingers twitch at the suggestion of a man like Thomas Barton riding his mare, but Arthur doesn’t let it show on his face. Genevieve’s fists are clenched in tight little balls, creasing her dress. Her eyes flit back and forth from her husband to him.
“Thomas,” she says, through clenched teeth. There’s a muscle pulsing in her jaw.
Thomas comes to her, taking her hands within his own. “I shan’t be long, Genny.”
He takes her narrow wrists in his hands, and Genevieve’s voice leaves her in a sharp exhale.
“You wished to converse like one of the men last night. Surely this is no trouble for you.”
A strained smile manifests on her face. She dips her chin in a perfectly polite nod. “Of course, darling.”
Arthur stays back, his hands at his belt so he doesn’t start swinging fists. He can barely stand to look at this man. He feels no guilt about swindling all of his money away, would shoot him in the head if Dutch gave him the word.
“Splendid!” says Dutch, stepping between them. He takes Thomas by the shoulder, giving him a good shake. “We shouldn’t waste any more daytime. I want to make sure you see all that silver shine when the sun hits it just so!”
“Of course.” Thomas looks to Arthur. “I trust you to take good care of my Genny, Mr. Callahan.”
“You have my word, sir.” He contains his disgust as much as he is able.
Thomas starts off towards Persephone, who seems reluctant to let him mount her. His horse always had a good read on folks. Arthur motions a hand in attempt to calm her, and Thomas climbs on. He’s unsteady, seems to be rather inexperienced as a rider, but Persephone is a good horse. She’ll overcompensate for the idiot atop her, even if he doesn’t deserve to be there.
He feels Dutch’s hand on his shoulder and he turns. Dutch gives him a look like a cat who got the cream.
“Good luck, son,” he says.
He extends a hand for Arthur, and he takes it, squeezing his palm.
“Careful out there.”
He doesn’t trust Thomas Barton to watch Dutch’s back. Not the way he does. He doesn’t know the specifics of what Dutch has planned with him, this fake silver vein that they’ve ‘surveyed.’ He knows Dutch has a plan, has it under control.
The two men depart off into the desert. Genevieve and Arthur watch from the roadside, and Arthur is certain they feel equally lost in the dusty sea of the bustling street. They’re strangers, and once again, Arthur feels wildly out of his element.
He tries to think of what Dutch would say, but he would already have about ten sentences on the tip of his tongue. Arthur can barely open his mouth without mumbling. He’s better with his body than his brain, most days.
He offers his arm. “My lady.”
He knows he can’t erase their strained conversation from the previous night, but he hopes that being in public, in this strange new world together will shape her into something civil. True to her upbringing, Genevieve smiles with strained politeness, and slips her white gloved hand into his inner elbow.
“There’s a cafe nearby that isn’t entirely horrible,” Genevieve says. “If you would find that agreeable, Mr. Callahan.”
“Well, sure. I ain’t so picky.”
It’s a little place on the end of the street called the Bluebird Cafe. The building is brand new, likely built in the last year or so, with the upswing in the town’s population. The interior is adorned with a light periwinkle wallpaper, and there are landscapes hung on the walls. The tables are tastefully covered with white cloth, little flowers in vases atop each one.
Most of the folk frequenting the cafe are well-dressed. It is clear that this is far more upscale than his usual fare, and frequented by the successful rather than the hungry and desperate Arthur would usually associate with.
He feels far too large, hunched over in the wooden chair at the small table where they’re seated. The china teacup he’s given is almost comically small for his hands, and he has no choice but to pinch the slim handle, the way he would when pulling a particularly nasty tick out of Persephone’s hide.
Genevieve seems adamant not to speak to him. She orders off the menu using words Arthur didn’t rightly know existed, without even asking what he wants. A waiter materializes with a tower of scones and biscuits, placing it before them. Arthur looks, but he doesn’t touch.
She stirs nothing into her tea while she hems and haws, looking anywhere but him; over at the women with their husbands, and the girls out in town with more money than sense. Her gaze lingers on a mother with a child in her arms, but her attention eventually wanders back at the sound of Arthur taking a rather loud slurp of tea out of his tiny cup.
The look of utter revulsion she gives him makes him choke. He puts his teacup back into the saucer with a clatter loud enough to alert the bespectacled elderly woman at the table beside them. A few others look as he coughs, pressing his fist against his chest.
“Are you alright?”
“Just not so refined as you are, Miss,” he manages, wincing.
“Drinking out of a cup is an advanced skill, this is quite true.”
Arthur licks his lips. “Not advanced if you’re not an idiot, but apparently I got that particular affliction.”
He can see her start to soften before him. Genevieve holds her teacup in two slim hands, and glances down at the table. She still seems uncomfortable with him.
What would Dutch do? He tries to picture it. Dutch wouldn’t be in this position, no, Dutch would already be between her legs. The image hits him as hard and fast as a bullet, and the tips of his ears feel hot.
He doesn’t know where that came from, but he forces it down to focus on the task at hand. Genevieve. He has to win her over. He swallows, searches for words. Dutch is good with women, hell, good with people in general. Think, he tells himself, Come on you idiot, think.
“I’m afraid I’m a piss poor choice of guest for afternoon tea,” Arthur says.
“My husband doesn’t much care for frivolity either,” she begins. “Mostly I go here with my servant, who has no choice but to accompany me.”
“I don’t mind,” Arthur says. “If you like it, I like it.”
She plays with a curled tendril of hair near her face. “Well, if you say so, Mr. Callahan.”
“I said you could call me Arthur.”
“I wouldn’t want to be overfamiliar.”
“Well, I want you to be,” he says.
Genevieve’s cheeks pinken, and she takes another sip of her tea. Arthur leans in closer, and suddenly things seem more intimate. It’s like he’s pushed past that wall of defense once more.
“I like this place,” Genevieve starts, once more. “It reminds me of being in the city. More than anywhere else out here.”
“Would you go back there if you could?”
“It isn’t my decision.”
“But if it was.”
“I’m not sure,” she says. “There isn’t anything left for me there.”
“So what else would you wanna do?”
“See the rest of this country, perhaps. Do you travel?”
“More often than not. Usually on the road, in fact.”
“That sounds lonely,” she says.
“It ain’t so bad.”
“I think I’d like to see California,” Genevieve says, dreamlike. Her eyes take on this starry quality, like she’s seeing it in her mind’s eye. “See the ocean again. I wonder if the water’s different.”
“Well, you could, you know.”
Her demeanour changes when he puts that back out there. This nebulous promise that had her react so strongly before. He can feel her shut off, the veneer of polite society switching on, as her mouth takes the tight line it had possessed once before.
“Let’s not spoil the afternoon, Arthur,” she says. She uses his name. She likely didn’t even realize it, as she goes to sip her tea.
“I wouldn’t dare, Miss.”
“I should hope so. You should try the scones.” She glides to the next topic of conversation in the same graceful manner she pulls her silver cigarette case from her handbag. “They’re quite delicious.”
With her permission, he reaches forward. The scone is flaky in his hand, soft in the middle as he tears it apart. His mouth waters. He’s used to food cooked to shit over campfires, cold canned beans if particularly desperate. He shoves one half in his mouth, and the other in quick succession. He reaches across the table and takes another two.
Genevieve bursts out in a good, honest, embarrassing laugh. She full out snorts at him, and the elderly woman gives the pair of them another glower.
Arthur stares her down. “You got a problem?”
She sharply averts her eyes. Genevieve covers her mouth, cigarette between her fingers, and continues laughing.
“I take it you like them?”
He chews and swallows, then wipes his lower lip with his thumb. “Afraid my manners ain’t quite up to snuff.”
“Perhaps we should find somewhere less well-mannered, then.”
“What you got in mind?” he asks.
She slides her cigarette between her lips, her eyes alight with mischief.
“Would you like to do something fun?”
She takes him to the aptly titled Bohemian Theatre. It’s a wide open space filled to the brim in as the day descends into evening. The wooden building is ripe with the scent of sweat, alcohol and smoke. There are busy poker tables, and a man playing piano on-stage going mostly ignored by the patrons.
“I’ve always wanted to go here, but Thomas never wants to take me,” Genevieve says as they arrive. “He says it’s no place for a lady.”
There are women there, sure, but certainly not ones of Genevieve’s calibre. The working girls give her looks as she passes, almost oblivious, taken in by the rugged grandiosity of the interior. The ceilings are high with raw wood and the fixtures all bare, with stairs leading to box seats on the second floor. Murals and paintings of the various acts are hung over the crowd, and the entire affair is dark and smoky enough that Arthur can barely see a foot ahead of him as Genevieve floats forward.
She removes her hat and he follows the golden cascade of hair trickling down her neck. She’s like a bright star among the night. She doesn’t fit into this world, nor seems to see the danger encasing her. All types of men are giving her lascivious onceovers. He’d promised to take good care of her.
Arthur slides up beside her, taking her by the waist. Genevieve frowns at him, and attempts to push him away. He doesn’t budge.
“I’m sorry, miss, but you stick out like a sore thumb here. Wouldn’t want anyone to be untoward.”
“The only one I’m worried about being untoward is you.”
She pushes him harder this time, and he lets go. He tries not to get frustrated. Not to get angry. It’s not like he can just punch the problem, this time. He’s supposed to be making her like him. He doesn’t want to disappoint Dutch, but he can’t just sit back and take it.
“If you want to fend for yourself, you’re welcome to do so. I can leave you be.”
“You can get me a drink, is what you can do,” she says.
He gets the feeling he’s being toyed with. He stands there curling his hands into fists while she flits off towards one of the poker tables. Arthur goes to the bar. If she wants a drink so bad he’ll get her the worst rotgut he can find.
Still, he doesn’t want to mess this up. He casts her another glance, where she’s standing among a small crowd watching a handful of men play cards, then orders drinks for the both of them. By the time he returns to her side, she seems thoroughly invested in watching the hands move.
Arthur passes her the drink. She takes a sip without looking, and immediately pulls a face.
“What is this?”
“You asked for a drink.”
Genevieve sips at it, reluctantly. Arthur rolls his eyes, and passes her his beer, taking the glass for himself. She seems only slightly less disgusted by it, but he doubts her husband will be pleased if he hands him back his wife, drunk and debauched.
“I think I like it here,” Genevieve says. “It’s exciting.”
“It’s something, all right,” Arthur chuckles.
“Sometimes I wonder what it would be like, to have this all the time. Freedom.” She pauses, seems to realize what she’s said, and who she’s said it to. “Of course that’s a girl’s selfish little fantasy. I have responsibilities, promises I’ve made.”
“Well, what’s stopping you?”
“I couldn’t possibly.”
“Why not?” Arthur asks. “You could take as much money as you could carry and disappear.”
“And go where? With you?”
Arthur reaches for her, touching her arm. She draws away, putting her glass to her lips in a hurry. The moment dies as quickly as it began.
They watch the card game, for awhile. Some men lose more money than they make, some crow with excitement as they scrape the chips their way. Genevieve smokes three cigarettes and downs two drinks in the time Arthur finishes one.
One of the men at the poker table busts out, his swearing and upset quite audible to the handful of people watching the game. Genevieve swoops forward, taking his seat among the five others. The working girls whisper to themselves but dare not join the table.
“Hello, gentlemen,” she says. “How much to buy in?”
An older gentleman named Mr. Batten, hands roughened by the mines, laughs. “Now ain’t that cute, the little lady wants to play cards.”
The rest of the men chuckle to themselves like it’s some great joke. They all clearly know who she is, whispering to one another. Genevieve keeps a pleasant smile smoothed over her face. She is well-practiced at her husband’s hand.
“Go home, girlie,” says Mr. Johnston, a young man with bushy sideburns. “Your husband know you’re out here gallivanting?”
Arthur crosses his arms, drink in hand. “That’s right, her husband, the man what employs you in the mines,” he says. “You better let the lady do as she pleases.”
“Guess it ain’t enough just to spend his money outright, huh, now you gotta go betting it, too?” says Mr. Batten.
“I suppose I had better win, then,” Genevieve says.
And win she does. The men seem distracted by her presence at the table, their bluffs easily called. Genevieve rakes in the chips. It’s astonishing, really. Arthur can barely play cards, Dutch never lets him and Hosea is far better than both of them, so he mostly stands and watches in awe. For all her upperclass ways, maybe she wouldn’t do bad on the road. She can certainly hold her own when it comes to gambling, anyhow. He’d love to see how she’d do with Hosea, should he ever come back.
She makes back double the buy in. A few men bust out and leave, and no one takes their place. Nobody wants to lose to a woman. Arthur lights her another cigarette and smokes his own, drinks another terrible whiskey that makes him suck his teeth as it burns down his throat. He could get used to this, he thinks. Dutch’ll be happy with him, at least.
He stands back, and he watches. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a man approaching the table, with a busted nose and a bruise on his face he put there. Mr. Flint, mean and drunk as ever, looking for blood.
Arthur leans down, putting his hand on Genevieve’s shoulder.
“Miss, I think we should getting on now,” he says.
“Oh relax, would you, Arthur,” Genevieve says. She has a decent enough hand, pocket tens, and she’s drunk enough that there’s a flush to her cheeks.
Mr. Flint begins to walk towards the poker table. Arthur almost reaches for his gun. He knows he should just keep calm. Being seen there doesn’t mean Flint will do anything. Maybe he’ll just walk past, and leave them alone.
But this is Monument. Everyone’s hungry, except the woman playing her hand at the table. Genevieve rakes in the chips, her laughter high in her throat. She is entirely charmed by the game at hand, with no awareness to the shift in the air as Mr. Flint arrives at the table.
“How much is the buy in?” he starts.
Mr. Batten swallows. “Now, Mr. Flint, if you join the table we can’t be having a repeat of last time.”
“Shut up, will ya,” Mr. Flint says. He pulls out a chair at the table, and looks up, his eyes landing squarely on Arthur’s face. “Who the hell do you think you are, showing your face around here?”
Genevieve frowns, looking up to Arthur. “Do you know this man?”
“I should say the same to you,” Arthur says, ignoring Genevieve’s question entirely. “You lost the fight, friend, fair and square.”
“Fight?” Genevieve asks.
“I think you and your greasy little friend fixed that fight,” Mr. Flint says. “I ain’t figured out how you did it, but that wasn’t nothin’ fair or square about it.”
“You lost. Now, maybe you should go lick your wounds in peace elsewhere, lest you see the business side of my fist again. There’s a lady present.”
“I don’t rightly give a shit. You owe me.”
“Now, Mr. Flint,” Mr. Batten tries. He raises a hand in attempts to calm him, but Mr. Flint slams his hand down on the poker table.
“This man’s a goddamn liar! And a cheat!”
“On what grounds do you disparage my dear friend Mr. Callahan?” Genevieve asks.
“Quiet, woman,” Mr. Flint spits. He gives her a once over, and his eyes go dark. “Or I’ll make sure the only sound outta your mouth is you begging me to stop.”
Arthur bristles. This is about to go bad, fast. He can see Genevieve’s hackles rise, as she stands at the table, facing Mr. Flint.
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that.”
“You don’t want to be talked to like a whore, you shouldn’t dress like one.”
“Hey!” Arthur snaps. He steps in between them. “You watch your damn mouth!”
Mr. Batten and Mr. Johnston exchange nervous looks. They recoup their meagre poker earnings and clear off.
“You and me.” Mr. Flint points his fat finger at Arthur’s chest. “Outside. Right now.”
Genevieve looks at him, worried. “Arthur?”
He holds onto the anger, barely brimming beneath the surface.
“You’re on,” Arthur says.
They reconvene behind the theatre, nothing but dust and desert to watch over them. The sounds of people are audible from the street, but they seem far away. There is no audience this time. Just Mr. Flint with a mean look on his face, Genevieve wringing her hands as she stands away, and the moon rising in the sky.
She takes their gun belts and places them on a barrel. Before Arthur even has a moment to brace himself Mr. Flint is charging him. Arthur raises his hands to block, but Mr. Flint is faster this time. He comes on as fast and hard as a steam train, throwing Arthur onto the ground on his back.
They tussle, rolling around in the dirt. It's a dirty, horrible fight, nothing fair about it. He jabs Mr. Flint hard in the ribs, a mouthful of spit hitting him on the cheek. Raw fury burns up through his gut, and he wraps a hand around Mr. Flint's throat. A hand wraps tightly around his wrist, twisting, and Arthur cries out just as Mr. Flint punches him hard in the gut.
The air rushes out of him, and he takes a fist to the mouth. He tastes blood, and he starts squirming as Mr. Flint presses down hard on his head, forcing him onto his side. There’s an arm like an iron bar at his neck, and Arthur struggles wildly to gain some ground.
“Not so strong without your master, are you, pretty boy?” Mr. Flint says, breath hot against his ear. “I bet the woman would fight harder than you.”
“I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch,” Arthur chokes out.
“See if you can get up first.”
He hooks his leg around the back of Mr. Flint’s knee, tries to push himself up. He’s stronger this time, horribly sober, it’s no use. He wonders if he’s going to die this way. The one time Dutch wasn’t there to guide him. His vision starts to fade.
Then Mr. Flint grunts, rolling off of him, clutching his head. Genevieve stands with a heavy rock in her hands, stepping away as Arthur climbs on top of Mr. Flint. He rains down a flurry of punches on him, until there’s more blood than face left.
He sits back, his knuckles swollen and bloody. Mr. Flint splutters beneath him, but doesn’t move.
There’s yelling and calling from the alleyway. Lawmen. Someone must’ve alerted them. Arthur stands up, going to Genevieve’s side where she stands wild-eyed and breathless.
“We gotta get outta here,” he says. He takes his guns from her, doing up his belt as he takes a glance towards the alleway. They’re not far off, they have to go. Fast.
If the law starts sniffing around, they’re bound to find out who he really is. Who he has connections to. He’ll have his neck in a rope in a matter of days.
“Surely the lawmen will side with us, that man was--”
He grabs her by the wrist and takes off running. She shrieks, her feet moving fast beneath her skirts. He takes her down the next street, twisting between people and horses as they cross under the lamplight.
They come to the edge of town, under a general store that’s closed up shop for the evening. Arthur pulls her around the corner, flattening her back against the wall as he hides her under his arm.
“What’s wrong with you!” she says. Her eyes are vibrant, sky blue with the yellow light from the lamps lit overhead. “We did nothing wrong-- why, we were only defending ourselves!”
He can’t tell her why. He can’t make excuses. He tries to think of what Dutch would say to distract her, but he’s not Dutch. He never knows what to say.
He puts his hand on her hip, and leans in to breathe the same air she does. His mouth is bloody and with him this close, she looks up at him.
“You saved my life,” Arthur says.
He can feel her heartbeat, quick as a bird’s this close to her. He cups the side of her neck, and Genevieve draws in a sharp inhale as he moves in closer.
Genevieve’s eyelashes flutter, and her lips part and she reaches for the collar of his shirt. He can’t tell if she’s pushing him away or pulling him closer, but she hangs on.
“Mr. Callahan, I was only--”
“Arthur,” he murmurs.
“Arthur,” she says. She gazes at him, her irises blown, flickering between his eyes and his lips. “Oh, what’s come over me! What have you done to me?”
He looks at her and he thinks, Exactly what I was told to do. She’s shaking in his arms like she wants something from him that she’s too afraid to name. He’s got her exactly where he wants her, and he gets this cold feeling in his blood that he’s doing the exact thing her husband does to her. Forcing her to be someone she’s not, the version that he wants her to be, that Dutch told him to make her into.
“Oh, Arthur,” Genevieve says. Her words are thick, drunk on emotion. “You’re much too young to understand.”
“I’m not that young.”
She draws him closer. He can see the starburst patterns of bruises at the edge of her eyes. He closes the gap between their mouths and kisses her.
He doesn’t know if it’s the rush of violence or the feeling of her body against his, but Arthur grows excited so quickly it consumes him. He presses her up against the wall, lifting her off her feet. He hikes her skirts up as she curls her leg around him. He kisses her like a man possessed.
“I shouldn’t want this,” she says, breathlessly, his mouth tearing away from hers to kiss the bruises her husband put there. “Arthur, you’ve made me feel things I thought were long dead.”
“Then run away with me.”
She slaps him so hard and so fast his ears ring. He pulls the back of her hair, drawing her head back, and for a moment they just pant and look at each other. He’s hard in his pants, and he’s sure she can feel it between where their bodies are pressed together. Genevieve clutches his chest, and the fight in her mind can be felt in the strength of her fist.
“I can’t,” she admits. The muscles in her throat contract, her hair tumbling downward over his fingers. “I can’t go with you.”
“I love you.”
“You don’t love me.”
“But I want to,” he lies.
Genevieve’s eyebrows draw together. Her expression tightens, and he sees the depths of her misery, seeping down and down into the lowest parts of her soul. Her misery overtakes him, he’s always been weak to it, he knows.
Arthur lets her go. He tries to, but she pulls him back, holding his jaw in her satin grip. She practically gnashes at him and it’s not a good kiss, there’s nothing good or holy about it, about any of it. All he can do is lie to her, and all she can do is steal kisses and pray her husband never finds out.
His palm slips down the side of her neck, his thumb grazing her collar. His mouth follows. His hands are bigger than her husband’s. He places one over the mark, can see the scars on the back of his knuckles, where his fingers are blackened from powder burn. Arthur kisses the top of her breast, and presses his thumb into the bruise.
She snaps to her senses, then, and shoves him back. She’s panting, her hair loose and wild down her back.
“We must stop,” she says, as if to herself. “This is madness.”
His hands ball into fists, and the anger threatens to overtake him. He’s got one last chance. One more trick Dutch tucked up his sleeve for him to play.
He reaches for his satchel, pulling his journal out from within. Genevieve watches as he flips it open, to the page where he’d so painstakingly drawn her likeness. He carefully tears it out.
“Then here,” he says. He offers the drawing. “Something to remember me by.”
After a moment, her white gloved hand reaches for it. She takes the paper in her hands, looking at it under the dim yellow of the streetlight. Her face shifts a hundred times, a thousand times, in the span of only a second. She looks back up at him, her eyes shining.
“You drew this?”
“I couldn’t get your face out of my head.”
He watches her process the information, then turn back down to the picture of her. Her fingers stroke the shape of her jaw, the halo of smoke.
The silence lingers. They don’t have much time left.
“I best be taking you back, now,” Arthur says. He offers his arm.
Genevieve doesn’t budge. She’s still staring at the drawing.
“Arthur,” she murmurs.
“It’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“I don’t--” Her voice goes high and strained. “I don’t know.”
He draws in a deep breath.
“If you change your mind,” Arthur starts, “I’ll wait for you outside the Bluebird every evening at sunset. For three days, I’ll do this. And then you never have to see me again.”
“Sunset,” she murmurs. She takes one last glance at the drawing of herself, before slipping it into her handbag. She takes his arm.
The two of them walk the short distance back to the hotel. The atmosphere is tense, and Genevieve is clearly lost in thought. When they arrive, the stagecoach is already loaded up with Mr. Barton, and Dutch is standing next to the horses checking his pocket watch.
He snaps it shut as Arthur approaches. Genevieve lets go of Arthur’s arm with haste, and boards the stagecoach without any assistance from her driver.
“I’m afraid your husband had a fair bit to drink while we waited for your return,” Dutch says. He shuts the coach door behind her. “He’ll need to sleep it off.”
She looks at her husband uneasily, then to Arthur. Her gaze doesn’t leave him.
“Good night, Mrs. Barton,” Dutch says. “Safe travels.”
Arthur stands back as the driver whips the reins. The coach starts off into the night. He can see Genevieve looking out the rearview window to him.
Next to him, Dutch clicks his tongue. “What the hell happened, Arthur?”
He looks off at the coach disappearing down the road. The sky is deep and purple and the sun so far away.
“Arthur?” Dutch demands.
“I don’t know,” Arthur says. “I just don’t know.”
They make camp out by the river, among a small clutch of Joshua trees. Dutch doesn’t say much. Arthur doesn’t, either. There’s wind tonight, so they put up the tents. The canvas wrestles with the wind and clouds block out the moon, casting the desert into darkness.
Dutch sits by the fire smoking, mostly pretending to read. Arthur feeds and brushes the horses. He cleans his and Dutch’s guns. He gathers wood for the fire. He busies his hands as much as he can, and when he has nothing else to busy them with, he busies them with a bottle. Drinks more than he should. Dutch doesn’t say much about that, neither.
“You’re mighty quiet tonight, Arthur,” Dutch says. He flips a page, glancing to where Arthur sits next to him by the fire.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Then perhaps you’d think to inquire as to how my day went?”
“You’re right. M’sorry,” Arthur says. “How’d it go with Mr. Barton?”
“How’d it go? Well, I plied that eager fool with liquor and laudanum and dragged him up a mountain to show him some very pretty but very worthless rocks. He offered a large sum of money to buy them from me, pending a further inspection of the site that will happen after we are long gone. He’ll have other problems to manage, then, I would imagine.”
“What you mean?”
“His wife will have left him, of course. Taken his money. Unless your silence indicates otherwise, Arthur?”
He goes quiet. Arthur takes a pull off the bottle. “I ain’t sure yet.”
“Then tell me what happened.”
“Well,” Arthur starts. He swallows. His words feel thicker than usual, heavy on his tongue. Probably just the booze. “Miss Genevieve took me to this cafe first. Kinda fancy place. I looked a real yokel, I’m sure, but I think she found it charming. She warmed up to me again.”
“We went to a gambling house. Her idea, not mine. She played some poker-- actually came out pretty good. Had some drinks. Then we ran into that feller, Mr. Flint, and he recognized me. We ended up fightin’.”
Dutch chuckles, leaning back on his hand. “And I’m sure you had no trouble with the likes of him.”
Arthur looks away. Admitting he’d lost a fight, worse, had to be rescued by some white gloved woman. He takes another drink to try to soften the blow.
“He got me pinned. I was worried I was gonna die for a minute there, until Miss Genevieve bludgeoned him with a rock.”
“Oh?” Dutch shakes his head, putting his cigarette between his lips. “Perhaps I’ll put my money on her next time instead of you.”
He grips the bottle so tightly it might break in his fist. He’s mostly angry at himself. Not good for spinning a yarn, not good for punching. Mr. Flint may as well have killed him for all the use he has.
“Anyway, law came, and we took off runnin’,” Arthur mumbles. “We got to hiding, and she was just about hysterical. I tried to calm her down, and so we kissed some.”
When Dutch doesn’t immediately answer, Arthur hazards a look. He can’t read Dutch’s expression, really, but his eyes have this glint to them that makes him start to sweat.
“You ‘kissed, some?’” He laughs, and slaps Arthur hard on the thigh. “Surely you won’t spare me the sordid details, son!”
Arthur scratches his cheek, self-conscious. He takes a drink, mumbling into the mouth of the bottle, “Well, I didn’t get that far. It was just kissin’.”
“And here I was thinking we’d lost our chance entirely.” Dutch laughs, the sound hearty and rich. “Arthur, you always manage to surprise me, playing so coy.”
Dutch pats his thigh once more, but his hand doesn’t retract this time. It stays there, Dutch massaging the muscle in a way that actually feels good. He’s been running hard, saddle sore, sleeping on the ground too much.
He keeps the bottle in his mouth, worrying the rim with his teeth. He can feel Dutch looking at the side of his face so intently he might as well have carved out a scar from the sharpness of his eyes.
“So,” Dutch asks, lower this time. His voice goes rough. He sounds closer. “Just kissing. Why not more, son?”
Arthur puts the bottle down into the sand on his other side. He’s surely drunk now. Maybe he’s imagining how Dutch seems to be petting his leg.
“Well, she smacked me after. Said she couldn’t come with us, but-- I think, really, she was confused. Didn’t rightly know what she wanted.”
“Most don’t, I regret to say,” Dutch says. He flicks his cigarette into the sand. “Often folk require a little guidance.”
His hand slips slightly higher, presses down to use him as leverage as Dutch leans over him to reach for the whiskey. He’s close enough to smell the pomade in his hair, cigarette smoke, day-old cologne buried under stale sweat. Arthur leans back, lets his watery eyes wander down where Dutch’s shirt’s gaped open. He’s left the buttons open. His chest is thick with dark hair, just like the backs of his hands, his arms. Everywhere else.
Dutch sits back, the bottle in his left hand. His right remains on Arthur’s leg, in the maddening place where it’s too close and not close enough. His night has been frustrating in a multitude of ways, and he’s somewhat afraid of his body’s reaction betraying too much of himself.
Arthur stands up. He clears his throat. “Gotta piss.”
Dutch has a look that makes Arthur furious but also adds to his current predicament, for some reason. He shifts awkwardly to obscure his lower body, desperately needing a few moments to gather himself. He starts to walk away.
He stops, looking back. Dutch has his book in hand, and his mouth forms a perfectly unreadable smile.
“That drawing-- you gave it to her?”
“Yeah. I don’t quite know what she felt about it.”
“If you think she felt anything less than heartsick, then I’m not certain which of you is the bigger fool.”
Dutch turns away. For a moment, Arthur stares into the inky blackness of the back of his head, hears the scrape of a page being turned. Then, he walks off into the desert.
He takes off his hat, running a hand through his hair. His nostrils flare as he exhales long and low, and the poison within him comes in a wave. He doesn’t know if Dutch is just messing with him. Saying those nice things about him. Touching him like that. Heartsick.
Oh, but he’s sick alright. Dutch has him thinking in ways he never thought before. Arthur spits into the dirt, cursing himself as he rounds a Joshua tree. He hides his body behind it, pressing a palm into his eyes.
He breathes. Or tries to. His heart feels like a horse galloping in his chest, he can feel it reverberate through his ribs. He’s always admired Dutch. Looked to him for guidance. This, though. This is something else.
In that moment, he desperately misses Hosea. Hosea would instantly know something was wrong, would tell him that things were going to work out one way or another. He wouldn’t expect Arthur to talk about it. He can almost hear his voice, Yeah, Arthur, things’ll be okay. Don't look so sad. Tomorrow's another day.
Arthur punches the tree. It hurts him more than the tree, his knuckles red and sore from the roughness of the bark, but the leaves still rustle. Arthur runs a hand through his hair, and tries to pull himself together. He just needs a minute.
He takes a piss because he’s out there anyway. At least he wasn’t lying, he really did drink too much whiskey. He imagines Dutch will be annoyed with him for taking so long, so he finishes quickly and starts the short walk back to their camp.
In the darkness he can make out the firelight, the tents. The horses beyond that. Arthur squints. Something’s off. There are three bodies at camp, where there should only be one.
He drops to a crouch as he slips closer. He’s got his gun, but he has to be careful how he goes about this. Too much noise means more trouble.
“Now, gentlemen. Surely there’s no reason to wave that gun in my face.”
“Dutch van der Linde,” says one of the men. He’s blonde, young, wearing a white hat. “You’re wanted for larceny and murder. You got a bounty on your head, and we’ve come to collect.”
The other man, with darker skin in an olive jacket, looks at his partner. He shifts from foot to foot, like he’s about to turn tail. There’s an air about him, a lack of control on his faculties, that breeds tension.
Arthur obscures himself behind the tents. He peers his head out, holding his breath. There’s two men with their backs facing him, revolvers in hand and aimed squarely at Dutch. Dutch has his hands up, and a perfectly pleasant look on his face. He doesn’t seem particularly threatened, though his lip is bleeding from a nasty hit.
His blood boils. He needs to wait.
Dutch takes a careful step forward towards the man in the olive jacket. He holds his ground, but only barely, as the tip of his gun meets Dutch’s breastbone.
“I reckon they want me alive.” Dutch asks. “It would be in your best interests to put that gun away, my friend. I’m not worth nearly as much money if I ain’t breathing.”
Arthur lowers behind the tent, pulling his knife out from its holster. It’s heavy in his palm, the blade as long as his forearm. He watches as Olive Jacket takes Dutch’s guns with a shaking hand, passing them off to the man in the white hat.
“There’s two tents. You reckon he’s got more fellers hiding out somewhere?” says Olive Jacket. His voice wavers, his gun unsteady. He sounds young. Inexperienced.
“It’s likely,” says White Hat. “Keep your gun right where it is for now, til we can get him away from camp and tie him up.”
“Well then, gentlemen,” Dutch says. He nods towards the horses. “Shall we?”
They move aside, to let Dutch pass through. He keeps his arms raised as they start off towards the horses. With White Hat taking up the rear, and Olive Jacket at Dutch’s back, Arthur starts forward with his knife in hand.
He quiets his breathing as he slinks forward, the sand softening his steps. He stays behind, waiting for the right opportunity as he creeps closer to White Hat.
“I do have to say, boys, it might be in your favour just to let me go. I dare say I have more to offer you than, what, a fifty dollar bounty?” Dutch says, up ahead. Telling stories, as always, it keeps the focus on him so Arthur can do the dirty work.
“Twenty five,” says Olive Jacket.
Arthur moves closer, until he is only a foot behind. He prays the wind is loud enough to cover the sounds of his movement.
“Only twenty five? My good men, tell me, what’s twenty five measly dollars to a virgin vein of silver that only I know the location of?”
“You’re lying,” says White Hat. He nudges Dutch in the back with his gun. “Shut your mouth.”
“Where is it?” Olive Jacket asks.
“A fair distance into the canyons. I’m the only one that knows the location.”
“You’re also the one with the gun in your back, Mr. Van der Linde,” says White Hat. “You’re sure to see the rope, you’ll say anything. We have no reason to believe you.”
“Well, I think you two gentlemen are clearly quick enough to catch a notorious outlaw like me off guard. Surely you’re also the type to hear an opportunity from a man with nothing left to lose.”
White Hat nudges again. “Shut yer yap and keep walking.”
“C’mon, wait, I wanna hear!” says Olive Jacket.
“Well,” Dutch starts. His voice is pitched in that tone he gets, the one where he’s about to launch into a grandiose speech. It’s a distraction if he’s ever heard one.
Arthur darts forward, clamps a hand around Olive Jacket’s mouth, locking a foot around his ankle to take him down to the ground.
“As I was passing through the desert,” Dutch says, “the sun beating down on my brow, I spotted a the dry bed of a narrow river snaking through the valley of the canyons. I followed it into the gorge, until the wellspring grew.”
Arthur grips hard around Olive Jacket’s gnashing mouth pulling his head back, exposing the throb of his jugular, legs kicking beneath.
“Dying of thirst, with my horse beginning to tire beneath me, I followed this beautiful winding trickle of blue until I came upon a pool deep enough to drink.”
Arthur digs the blade into flesh and pulls the serrated edge quick through the tendons, the arteries, the veins. Olive Jacket sputters into his palm, as the blood surges out over his fingers. He pulls back, but the arterial spray hits Arthur’s face, runs down his neck to his collar, and he holds the dying man in his arms until the gasping has stopped and everything else along with it.
“I slid my hands beneath the water,” Dutch continues. He takes footsteps evenly ahead, as Arthur lets the body down to the sand quietly. “And I brought it to my mouth with a quickness, tilling up silt and sand from the bottom in my haste. As I brought that beautiful shimmering water to my lips, I noticed a tiny glimmer resting between my fingers.”
White Coat, despite his words, seems completely enraptured by Dutch’s words. He’s still got the gun pressed along the low part of Dutch’s back, though his grip seems less and less surer. They’ve almost completely stopped walking. Arthur wipes the blood from his knife off his pant leg, steeling his nerve.
“At first I thought myself delirious, but I plucked it from my palm and I saw the Lord had smiled upon me! I saw my life of lawlessness pass before my eyes, and mister, I realized: The time has come for this outlaw to turn away from the shadows and step forward into the light.”
Then, and only then, does Dutch turn around, arms still raised in surrender. White Hat grips his gun, his stance square but unsteady. Dutch meets Arthur’s eye over the peak of his shoulder, but doesn’t let it show on his face.
“I saw the truth. I saw the error of my ways. There’s no more need for violence, friend,” Dutch says. “No need for any senseless loss of life.”
Arthur slips forward then, grabbing for White Hat’s arm to pin it, and pulling the knife over his throat.
“Especially not your own,” Dutch finishes.
“Jesus Christ!” White Hat says. He starts to fight it but Arthur digs the blade in, enough to draw fresh blood.
Arthur disarms him easily, clears out his pockets. He steps back to turn the gun on him as he joins Dutch at his side, waiting for orders.
White Hat’s gaze travels to the side, where his friend is bleeding out into the sand. The shaking starts in his boots, traveling up his body until his hands seem to vibrate up above his head.
“D-don’t shoot!” He looks again at his friend. “Jesus, no-- Danny! You killed him!”
“Oh, don’t worry ‘bout him none,” says Arthur. “You should worry about yourself.”
"What's your name?" Dutch asks.
"S-Samuel Dawson, sir."
"Now, Samuel, why should we let you live?"
“I won’t tell anyone you're here! I’ll let you alone, I swear!”
He pulls the hammer back, aiming the gun at Mr. Dawson’s head. He waits for Dutch’s order. Surely Dutch won’t let this one live.
“You swear it?” Dutch asks.
“Please don’t kill me, I got a family,” he pleads. “I got a wife and two babies at home, don’t kill me, Mister. I-I-I just needed the money. I’m sorry.”
Dutch looks at him for a long moment. Then, he sighs.
“Why don’t you clear on outta here,” Dutch says. He jerks his head. “Off you go.”
Mr. Dawson takes a second glance at his downed associate, and then turns tail, running off into the desert. Arthur keeps the gun aimed squarely at his back. His finger covers the trigger. He’s got blood all over his hands.
“Easy,” Dutch warns.
Arthur looks down the sights. “He’ll bring law on us.”
“The bounty’s for me, not you, son.”
Dutch tongues the blood on his lip. They watch him run. He’s getting far enough away to be hard to hit.
“It’s your call, Arthur.”
Arthur pulls the trigger without hesitating, the gunshot sounding out wide through the depth of the desert. Mr. Dawson falls, his white hat falling to the ground ahead of him, blood blossoming between his shoulder blades.
He starts to crawl. Arthur holsters his gun and walks out to greet him.
Mr. Dawson hears him approach, starts to crawl faster, choking up blood. “No! No, please!” he begs as Arthur pulls him up by his hair.
His voice has a wheeze to it that suggests he’s lungshot. He’s already dead. Arthur flips him onto his back, and their eyes meet. He won’t say he likes this part, but he doesn’t know any other way to describe it. Watching the light go out. Arthur looks at him, makes sure he can see his eyes when he wraps his hands around his throat. He squeezes hard and he puts his weight into it, watching his face go a sickly shade of purple. He feels the crunch of cartilage under his grip.
Mr. Dawson gurgles as he dies. His eyes stay wide in horror, even in death. Arthur watches his last breath leave him. When he finally goes quiet, Arthur stands and grabs him by the arm, dragging him back the way he came. He drops the body before Dutch like an offering.
Dutch has a queer look about him, like he’s deep in thought. Troubled. Arthur suddenly isn’t sure. Maybe he’d made the wrong choice.
“Didn’t want to waste another bullet,” he mumbles, in way of excuse.
There’s a silence, then. It stretches long across the sand, burrows deep beneath the pools of blood Arthur left all over the ground.
“We oughtn’t stay here,” Dutch murmurs, finally. “Go get rid of the bodies and clean yourself up.”
He turns back towards camp, leaving Arthur there with the corpses.
Arthur grabs the other stranger by the arm, and begins the long drag out into the desert.
The bodies disappear into unmarked, shallow graves. Coated in sweat from digging, blood drying on his face, Arthur goes to the river a short distance from camp. He unties his bandanna, unbuttons his vest, and strips out of his shirt, depositing them into a small pile. He crouches to wash them in the stream.
The river runs red. He watches the white of his shirt go transparent in the water, sees the shape of his hand through the fabric. It’s hard to get the blood out.
Why hadn’t he just shot that man? Or just left him. He was sure to die, albeit slowly. The answer is plain enough, though it takes him somewhere dark inside. He’d wanted to do it with his hands. He’d wanted to see his eyes.
He finishes with his clothing, leaving it on a rock in attempt to dry out. Cupping his hands, he dips them into the river, and begins to clean the blood from his face. He wonders what he must’ve looked like to Dutch in that moment.
That man had been running. Dutch had said it was his choice, when Dutch had been the one to set him loose.
He runs his hands over his hair, droplets of water running down the sides of his face, down his neck. Arthur lets his head hang as he rests his elbows on his knees. He doesn’t know what to think anymore.
Standing, he turns to face Dutch, who’s waiting for him with both of the horses packed, their leads in his hand. Arthur watches as Dutch lets go, giving Persephone a pat on the muzzle, then walks down to the river to join him.
Arthur is shirtless, water dripping down his throat as he looks at Dutch. As Dutch draws closer, he can see the cut on his lip, and he stares at it until his vision blurs and it consumes the rest of his face.
“Why, what’s wrong, son?” Dutch murmurs.
That seems to snap him out of his trance, and he catches Dutch’s eyes. Sometimes in the right light, they look deep brown, almost black, but this close he can see the green and gold close around the iris. His mouth struggles to form the words.
“You wanted me to let that feller go, didn’t you?”
Dutch’s eyebrows knit together, and he reaches for Arthur, his hand settling on the space between shoulder and neck. “Why does it matter what I want? What did you want?”
“To kill him.”
“Because he was a threat.”
“Well, there you go. You had your reasons.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me to do it then?”
“Oh, Arthur.” Dutch says it with familiar fondness, like he’s caught Arthur stealing sweets from a dish rather than murdering a man in cold blood. “How I wish you wouldn’t play the fool. Why do you think I taught you all I have over these last few years?”
He feels his skin warm at his chest, all the way up to his ears, his face, possibly to the top of his scalp. He knows Dutch can feel it where his thumb is rubbing firm circle’s along the base of Arthur’s throat. He stares at Dutch’s face, where his mouth shifts into an easy smile. It should be reassuring, but the unease grows within Arthur until he feels it pulling at him, urging him to do the unthinkable.
“I trust you, Arthur,” Dutch says.
He needs Dutch to stop touching him. He’s viscerally aware of his bare skin, the way his nipples pebble as the water cools and dries on his skin. He can feel himself reacting, the way he had earlier when Dutch touched his leg, or when he’d watched that man die.
“Why?” he mumbles. He doesn’t trust himself, let alone expect Dutch to.
Dutch moves in closer. His other hand comes to hold his face, holding Arthur steady so that he can’t look away.
“You’re here with me, aren’t you son?” Dutch murmurs. “Come hell or high water, you’ll stay with me, won’t you?”
He holds Dutch’s gaze. It’s full of hope. Arthur had no idea what hope even meant until he met Dutch van der Linde.
Arthur moves forward, and kisses Dutch. It’s nothing more than a press of tight lips. He clenches his eyes shut and breathes hard through his nose, shaking with the intensity of it.
Dutch doesn’t react. Arthur jerks away, letting Dutch’s hands drop.
He takes a step back, wiping a hand over his mouth. Dutch doesn’t say anything. It’s like he’s waiting for an explanation that Arthur can’t give. Arthur can’t meet his eyes, so he stares at his mouth, where there’s the shine of his own saliva beside the cut.
“I think I-- uh,” Arthur says. His voice is ragged even to his own ears. “I think I saw another place for a camp downriver.”
Dutch waits a moment longer, as if almost expecting Arthur to do something. Arthur doesn’t. He can scarcely breathe, fearing somehow he’s screwed everything up. That he’d read the moment all wrong.
He feels a pat on the shoulder, looking up to find Dutch giving him a reassuring look. “Well? Lead the way.”
Arthur draws in a deep breath. Gathering his damp clothing, he slips back into it. He follows Dutch back to the horses, climbing atop Persephone.
They ride out once more into the darkness. The valley grows deeper, the night stretching far and vast before them.
He’s faking sleep when they start talking about him.
The man who Mr. Van der Linde had introduced as Hosea Matthews had kept his mouth shut when he’d showed up an unwelcome guest. He’d been quiet as Arthur had scarfed down dinner, huddled over it like it was about to be taken away from him, and he’d been quiet when Mr. Van der Linde had offered him a musty bedroll to sleep in. His silence had seemingly come to its end. Arthur stays impossibly still, listening.
“Come now, Hosea. He’s only--”
“A boy! Why, he can’t be older than fourteen, fifteen at most and that is precisely why this cannot happen! A boy that age has no business coming with us.”
“I didn’t take you for such a sensitive soul, Hosea.”
“It ain’t that and you know it. What are we going to do with him? He is purely another mouth to feed.”
He peeks an eye open, but keeps his back turned to where they sit around the fire. He doesn’t know these men.
“The boy has promise, Hosea. I see something in him that you surely will in time! He doesn’t belong on the streets, that’s for damn certain.”
“Well he doesn’t belong with us, either. He can stay here tonight but he’ll have to clear out by morning.”
He doesn’t know why he’s here. He doesn’t know why he’d taken a chance on the kind words Mr. Van der Linde said of him, nor does he know why the man is defending him now.
Mr. Van der Linde’s voice softens. “He tried to rob me for a pair of boots, Hosea. Boots. The boy was filthy, thin as a rail, walking around barefoot. All that, and he almost managed to play me for a fool simply because I didn’t take him for a threat.”
“And you still are a fool! How certain are you that he won’t put a knife in your back?”
“Trust me, Hosea.”
“I do, Dutch. I just don’t see what you see, I suppose.”
“What I saw is a boy who didn’t flinch when I put a gun to his head. Didn’t beg, didn’t cry. Nothing. Nary a twitch of his eye.”
Mr. Matthews doesn’t answer him.
”All I’m sayin’, Hosea, is that surely I can teach him a thing or two before we send him on his way,” Mr. Van der Linde says. “Perhaps put him to work.”
The fire crackles. He hears Mr. Matthews sigh, and the trees shift in the darkness like the strength of his breath has made them move.
“Fine,” Mr. Matthews says. “But he’s your problem, not mine.”
Days turn into weeks. He hangs around their camp like a stray dog. Mr. Matthews doesn’t acknowledge him, but doesn’t make him leave, either. Arthur keeps to himself. A few times he almost runs off, but he doesn’t get too far. He has nowhere else to go.
Mr. Van der Linde gives him chores. Brushing horses, cleaning guns, preparing food. He hates it. He thought running with outlaws meant he’d actually get to kill some people, rob somebody. He grows frustrated and restless.
It comes to a head when Mr. Van der Linde catches him stealing money in plain sight. He gives him a disappointed look.
“Oh, Arthur. Now, I know you’re a better thief than this.”
Dutch doesn’t hit him, and somehow that makes it worse. So Arthur punches him in the mouth.
Only then does Mr. Matthews acknowledge him, and it’s to drag him out into the forest and whip him black and blue. It’s not as bad as the beatings his father used to give him, but it still hurts like hell.
He’s laying face down on the ground, nose and mouth bloody when Mr. Matthews crouches next to him. He gets up to his elbows and coughs up dirt.
“Now, boy,” Mr. Matthews says. His voice is softer than his fists had been. “I’ve entertained Dutch’s silly notions of you becoming some kind of protege for him, and I’ve watched you piss all over that generous nature of his for a fortnight now. I’ve grown tired of it.”
Arthur spits. He glares down at the bloody gob of mucus that came from his mouth.
“Look at me when I speak.”
He doesn’t. Mr. Matthews grabs him by the hair and forces him to look at his face. His eyes are stern, rather than outright cruel.
Arthur’s gaze drops. He can’t look.
“You ever do a stupid thing like that again and I’ll do a whole lot worse than the whippin’ I just gave you.”
It takes a moment. Arthur swallows blood.
“You’re…” He squints, trying to make sure he heard it right. “You’re not gonna make me leave?”
“No,” Mr. Matthews says. “Because I think that’s what you want, and hell if I’m going to give you the satisfaction.”
Mr. Matthews lets go of his hair, then. Arthur gets to his knees. He doesn’t realize he’s shaking until Mr. Matthews puts a hand on his shoulder.
“You apologize to Dutch, now. I don’t want to have to have to tell you this again.”
Mr. Matthews stands up. He helps Arthur to his feet, giving him a pat on the shoulder. Arthur swallows, staring at the ground.
“There you go.” Mr. Matthews steps back to get a look at him. He hums with something resembling approval, fixing the collar of his shirt. “Good as new.”
Arthur hides his face in his hand. He doesn’t want Mr. Matthews to see his face. He doesn’t know why, he never gets upset like this, but for some reason Hosea touching him in kindness makes it so much worse.
He hears Mr. Matthews sigh. A hand on his back makes Arthur tense, but he just pats him like a startled horse.
“There, there, you’re all right. You learned your lesson.”
His own father didn’t ever touch him like this. He stifles a sob between his fingers and tries to control himself.
Mr. Matthews clears his throat, and gives one final pat. “Stop it, Arthur. Don’t be so dramatic.” He starts steering Arthur back to camp, and for once, Arthur just lets himself be led.
Arthur mumbles out an apology as he was told to. When Mr. Van der Linde smiles there’s still blood in his teeth.
Weeks into months. Mr. Matthews becomes Hosea and Mr. Van der Linde becomes Dutch to him. He calls both of them sir, the way he did his father.
Sometimes Dutch calls him son. Sometimes.
They ride into town one day, passing through, Arthur on the back of Hosea’s horse. He looks at signs as they pass, but they don’t make any sense to him. When they dismount, Dutch goes on ahead while Arthur secures the horses.
“Arthur, you see where’s the general store?” Hosea asks. He’s got a cigarette in his mouth and he’s checking his gun. “Read this off to me.”
He reaches into his satchel and passes the note to Arthur. Arthur stares at it, silent.
“Well,” Hosea says. “What are you waiting for?”
Arthur shakes his head. “I can’t.”
Hosea stares at him. After a moment, he chuckles. “You had me for a second there, you did.” He waves a hand. “Go ‘head.”
“I ain’t joking, sir.”
“You never said you couldn’t read.”
“You never asked.”
He finds the list snatched out of his hands. Hosea gives him a withering look, holstering the gun.
“Stay with the horses a minute.”
He thinks he’s going to get in trouble when Hosea gets back.
Instead, he gets a handful of books. He stares at them, dumbfounded, by the campfire later that evening. Hosea smokes cigarettes and keeps watch, while Dutch sits next to him and opens the first page.
“How the hell you managed to keep this from us, Arthur, I don’t know,” Dutch says, with a hearty laugh.
“You was always borrowing Dutch’s books,” Hosea comments from afar.
“I would just stare at the page,” he admits, sheepishly. “I didn’t understand shit all.”
“And here I assumed I had sparked a keen interest in philosophy within you, and really, you were just trying to get out of working?” Dutch asks.
“Well, it usually worked.”
He can feel Hosea looking at him in silent contemplation. He isn’t sure what to make out of it. He’s never going to be able to slack off again, though.
“I underestimated you, son,” Dutch says. He reaches to give Arthur a good squeeze on the shoulder.
There’s a warm feeling in his chest. Arthur bites the inside of his cheek, looks down at the ground.
Dutch nudges him, gently. “Why didn’t you just ask me to teach you, Arthur?”
“‘Cause I’m too stupid to learn.”
“Surely not so stupid as to make fools out of the both of us,” Hosea says.
“We’ll make a conman of him yet,” Dutch laughs.
Dutch draws his attention in, pushes the book into his hands. He can feel Hosea looking at him across the fire. He glances up and meets his gaze, and Hosea smiles, then looks away.
Dutch teaches him to shoot when he turns sixteen. ‘Course, he’s shot guns before, but Dutch laughs at him and says that it doesn’t rightly count.
“Just pulling the trigger ain’t shooting, Arthur,” Dutch says. “There’s an art to it.”
When Dutch does it, sure. Anything he does looks like a work of art. He gets this focused look when he’s firing a gun, and he’s a hell of a shot. Arthur watches in awe while he demonstrates, and tries not to let it show how much it affects him when Dutch adjusts his stance, his hands warm through Arthur’s shirt.
He learns faster at shooting than reading. He starts asking more and more about helping with heists, with robberies. With killing. This seems to upset the balance between Hosea and Dutch, for some reason. They bicker about him when they think he’s asleep, and it brings him comfort.
He’s sitting on a stump cleaning the saddles in the morning when Hosea approaches him. He looks up, and finds Hosea holding a package wrapped with brown paper in front of his nose.
“What is it?”
“It was your birthday, wasn’t it?”
Arthur stares at it, until Hosea wiggles the package before his nose. He moves the saddle off his lap, then makes a cautious move for the gift.
“Go ahead, open it,” Hosea says. He lights a cigarette, watching as Arthur tears into the paper.
“It’s a book.” He opens it, but it’s just blank inside. “A book with... no words.”
“Don’t sound so thrilled about it.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Dutch teaching you reading is all well and good, but you should be writing, too. Learning comes with doing, not just thinkin’ about it.”
He grips the book in his hands and breathes hard through his nose. He blinks hard up at Hosea.
Hosea’s eyes go all soft for a moment, but he takes another drag on his cigarette, clears his throat. “The life we’re leading, people are gonna say what they want about you when you’re gone. I figure you’re the only one what can tell your own story, hence--” He waves a hand at the book, noncommittal.
“Thank you, sir,” Arthur says. He clutches the book so hard his fingers hurt.
Their eyes meet for a moment and Hosea almost winces.
“Oh, don’t, Arthur. Just get to work.”
He tucks the book into his satchel, and picks up the saddle. “Right, sir. Yes, sir.”
A week later Dutch turns up with a shiny new revolver for Arthur.
They argue about him during the night when they think Arthur can’t hear it. They keep arguing, until Arthur shoots a gunman at two hundred yards in the dead of night off the back of Hosea’s horse, saving his life in the process.
They don’t argue so much after that.
They lay low for a few weeks. Plenty of nooks and crannies in the woodlands to bury themselves deep inside. Dutch seems to hate it, but Hosea comes alive in the quiet of nighttime. He drinks by the firelight, tells stories with shadows under his eyes while Arthur sits enraptured.
“But didn’t they suspect something?” Arthur asks, his hands hanging between his knees where he sits in the dirt.
“Oh, I’m sure some did, eventually. Hotel adjudicator! Can you even imagine such a ridiculous thing? They were so worked up about beating the rival hotel across the street that I had a free room in that fancy place for three days before anyone even took a second guess that I wasn’t meant to be there. Cleared out the brass candelabras in damn near every room and was gone before they realized I’d disappeared. Had heavy saddlebags for days!”
“How’d you trick ‘em so good?”
“Ain’t no one like Hosea when it comes to spinnin’ a yarn,” Dutch says, where he stands at the edge of camp smoking. He seems restless. “The man’s a master.”
“Buy into your own lie! That’s the trick of it. You haven’t a chance in hell of foolin’ no one if you don’t believe in what you’re selling yourself.”
“It’s capitalism, Arthur,” Dutch says.
“It’s the difference between a con artist and a common liar. No ‘ism’ about it.”
“I thought you didn’t like--uh-- capitalism, Mr. Dutch, sir. Government, civilization, and all that.”
“Just because I don’t like the application of something, son, doesn’t mean I can’t find use in the concept.”
Arthur looks to Hosea. He has so many ideas in his mind he can’t set them straight. He’s never been very smart.
“So then… what do you really believe in, sir?”
He’s quiet for a moment. Hosea lights a cigarette, contemplative.
“Quite the question.”
“You don’t have to answer it, sir, I didn’t--”
“No, no, it’s all right.”
He waits patiently for Hosea to find the words, looking up at him in wonder. Hosea smokes, he scratches his chin.
“Used to be God. Oh, how I believed in God, and that He had some kind of plan for the universe and for me within it. The older I grew, the more I saw that religion is perhaps the greatest con of all. Doesn’t matter how hard you pray, how good you are, the world is still a cruel, ugly place. I spent a long time hating the world and everyone in it.”
He pauses, then leans closer to grasp Arthur’s shoulder, looking at him very seriously.
”And now? What I believe is… I don’t know. I believe in people, Arthur.”
“I thought you hated most folk.”
“I do, son, I do. But I hate ‘em because-- because I expect more from ‘em, I guess. That’s what led me to Dutch here, I think. Surely the greatest man I know. Before him, I had never met a flesh and blood man who believed so assuredly in the promise of something greater than himself. That life could be more than merely surviving.”
“Oh, Hosea, enough,” Dutch says. He turns to look out into the trees, leaving Hosea and Arthur to their own devices, but close enough to listen in.
“But it’s true. It was only after I met Dutch that I was finally able to believe in something,” Hosea continues, “For the first time, I wanted to believe in the supposed freedom of America. In the opportunity to be the man you want to be, should you want to take it.”
Arthur glances at Dutch, the shape of his shoulders in the night time. Hosea’s looking too, bu this gaze has gone soft.
“I believe in all that too,” Arthur says.
“You do, do you? Why’s that?”
“Well… because you do. Because Dutch does.”
“Those aren’t good enough reasons. You can’t just follow along, Arthur, it’s something that’s inside you. You have to figure that out for yourself.”
“How am I rightly supposed to do that?”
“Well, I can’t give you all the answers to life, Arthur. That’d be cheating.”
“And you are a cheat,” Dutch comments from afar, under his breath.
“Of course a stupid man would call it cheating, and a wiser man, a richer man would call it taking advantage of opportunity.”
“I wanna be wiser. And richer,” Arthur says.
“Oh, Arthur.” Hosea smiles, the crow’s feet around his eyes deepening in the fire light. “We’ll see what we can do about that.”
In the fall, Dutch and Hosea take him out robbing for the first time. Dutch heard talk of a little bandit camp outside of a farm town, where a handful of men have been terrorizing the local townsfolk. They creep up in the night when it’s quiet, and attack under the cover of darkness.
He's excited when Dutch sends him in first. He fires at the man closest to him, the bullet going clear through the back of his head and Hosea yells his name and shoots a man next to him before he has time to react. Blood roaring, he watches a few of the men tear off into the night. His mind turns to white noise, gunshots and yelling and it isn’t until they get the leader on his knees, surrounded by the bodies of his men and begging for his life, that Arthur's heartbeat starts to slow.
Dutch puts a bullet in the man’s forehead. Arthur watches him hit the ground, his blood darkening the dirt. Hosea shakes his head and turns away, but Arthur stands there and stares until Dutch calls his name.
They take everything in the camp, but there isn’t much. There’s never much.
A few weeks later, they’re passing through another town. They stop at the local saloon to rest. There’s a traveler at the bar in nice clothing. A little too drunk. He watches until eventually, he goes out the side door to relieve himself. Unnoticed, Arthur follows him of the saloon.
He draws his gun, and steers the man into a dark corner. Arthur cleans out his pockets. He doesn’t have a gun. He’s defenseless.
Arthur pins him before he has time to react, and wraps his hands around his throat. He chokes him to death just to see if he can. He’s a traveler. No one knows him. It’s harder than he thought it would be, takes longer, and the man dies slow and horrible.
He’s straddling the body, panting, as he sits back. There’s a noise, and he turns his head up to look where Hosea has followed him out. The look in his eyes is alarming, and makes Arthur hesitate to speak. Still, he reaches for Arthur’s hand, pulls him up to his feet, and they clear out before anyone sees them.
When they make camp, he can feel the cold fury rolling off of Hosea. He makes himself scarce while Dutch tries to talk to him, and much later, Hosea comes to him alone.
He’s backhanded so hard that he falls down into the dirt. He comes up onto his hands fast, ready to fight, but holds himself back at Hosea’s white hot expression.
“You think you can go around, just killing because it feels good? Because you want to?” Hosea shouts. Spittle flies from his mouth, he’s so angry, and Arthur lowers himself to the earth. ”I’ll be damned if I let you do that, Arthur Morgan, so help me God. I expect better of you.”
Arthur lays there in the dirt, and watches Hosea walk away.
It’s in springtime when Hosea falls in love.
Or at least, Arthur thinks it’s love. He watches as Hosea dotes on Miss Bessie, giving her his arm to lead her through the streets of the quaint town where she lives. It’s a sleepy little village named Cherry Grove, fitting for a woman as sweet as she. They’d come to rob and Hosea had something of his own stolen in the process. As they walk together, Arthur almost feels like an ordinary son leading an ordinary life.
Arthur follows them through the streets as Miss Bessie points out friends and neighbours. She’s a widow, a little plain but pretty enough. Well-regarded, as folk seem to wave to her as they pass. Hosea seems a different man entirely here, stepped fully into the role of the gentleman at her side.
Dutch hangs back like a shadow. Arthur notices, and slows his steps so that he won’t walk alone.
Within days, Dutch wants to move on. Hosea stays behind. There’s an emptiness without him there that Dutch seems keen on ignoring. With coal in the region, they end up in a parlour house at a nearby minetown, a horrible place called Rakeburn.
There’s a dancehall girl in Dutch’s lap where he sits in a loveseat, one he didn’t pay for. Arthur sticks to the walls and watches her light his cigarette. She’s beautiful, but she barely holds Dutch’s attention.
Dutch is in a sour mood, he can tell. It’s not unexpected when he gestures for Arthur to come closer.
“See one you like, son?”
He hasn’t been looking at the girls. Arthur flushes, as Dutch flashes a few bills.
“You’re old enough now.” He waves the madame over.
Dutch picks a lady of the line for him. She’s his age, a redhead, her cheeks pinkened with rouge. Her hand is soft as lambskin in his own as she takes him to a room upstairs.
She services him. It’s a bit uncomfortable and not exactly what he expected and over quickly. They talk a bit after. She’s easy to talk to. He somehow gets to mumbling about what he used to do for a few measly dollars or a scrap of food before he met Dutch and Hosea in an attempt to relate to her. She seems to like him, or takes pity on him, enough to give him another go. It’s better, this time. He even gets her to laugh a bit.
When he comes back downstairs he’s got a dopey smile on his face, he’s sure. It slips off and away when he spots Dutch kissing that woman. He hasn’t seen Dutch with a woman before, though he’s sure it’s happened since he came along. Besides, it’s not like he weren’t just with one himself.
He watches Dutch’s fingers creep up her dress. He leaves the parlour house, and spends the night sleeping on the porch outside like he did a lifetime ago. Dutch doesn’t comment on it when he rouses him in the morning, but his spirit seems lifted, and it’s worth the aches and pains from sleeping out in the cold.
Hosea turns up again, the next town over. He’s got an itch for mischief and a glint in his eye. Dutch welcomes him back like a long lost brother. He has a plan in motion in a matter of hours, and Arthur-- well, he has something to prove now.
The three of them take a stagecoach on a long stretch of empty road. No bodycount, no law on their tail, and a nice payday at the end of it.
It calls for celebration. A bottle of whiskey and cigars, a blazing campfire and song. Dutch gets drunk enough to attempt to teach Arthur how to two-step to no music, but Hosea claps his hands in some kind of rhythm. They stumble all over one another, Arthur’s feet grown too big over the summer, clumsy with his size, and Hosea crows in laughter when they inevitably fall down into the dirt.
The three of them, they lay under the open sky. Hosea points out constellations, and Dutch talks of hope and dreams and beautiful things. Arthur listens. The stars start to blur out and he sniffs to himself, lacing his hands together on his chest.
Hosea notices. He reaches over to swat Arthur on the arm. “What’s the matter?”
He clears his throat. “S’nothin’.”
“Surely it isn’t nothing, son, if it’s got you this choked up,” Dutch says.
Arthur rubs his mouth with his hand. He keeps staring at the sky so he doesn’t have to look at anyone, as he starts to speak.
“I’d’ve been long dead already, if it weren’t for the both of you.” He swallows, like he can somehow take back the words. “I didn’t have nobody watchin’ over me.”
“And surely in time you will watch over us as we have you, Arthur,” Dutch says.
Hosea pats him on the shoulder. “Nothing worth getting so worked up over.”
“Still,” Arthur says. “Thank you… both of you.”
“Nonsense, Arthur,” Hosea says. “It’s what family does.”
Family. The word resonates in him. He swallows and tries not to let it spill over.
Dutch chuckles to himself. “Look at that, Hosea, we did manage to teach him some manners after all.”
“Oh, don’t sound so smug about it. We’re out here sleeping in our own filth on the ground, you wouldn’t know what manners were if they shot you in the face.”
“And what a fitting end that would be,” Dutch says.
In the morning, in that space between wake and sleeping, he hears them talk over coffee. He keeps his eyes narrowed to slits and watches them sip coffee and smoke as the sun bathes the woods in buttery yellow tones.
“You were right,” Hosea says.
“My dear friend, surely hell has frozen over if you are admitting I am right about anything without a fight.”
“I’m serious, Dutch. I was wrong about him-- about the boy.”
He can see the smile start to slip from Dutch’s face. Arthur peeks his eye a little more open, ever so slightly. It’s rare to see Dutch like this. He only gets like this, really, with Hosea.
“Now you tell me.”
“You know when I first heard your grandiose dreams I thought you a lunatic, I did. Told you as much I’m certain. You were entertaining enough I followed you just to see what tomfoolery you committed next. Sooner or later I was afflicted with a similar insanity, and I began thinking you might actually have a point.”
“There it is.”
“I will admit, I underestimated him.”
“You surely did.”
“And I underestimated how goddamn superior you’d be when I finally admitted it.”
He chuckles. “You are too kind, Hosea.”
Dutch extends his tin cup to Hosea. Hosea smiles, knocking the rim with a metallic tink. Together, they turn out towards the golden sky.
“This is the start of something beautiful, Hosea, I swear it.”
“It’s the start of something, all right.”
He sees Dutch reach to put his hand on Hosea’s leg. Hosea covers his hand, squeezing only for a moment, before gently moving Dutch’s hand away.
Arthur stands out in front of the Bluebird Cafe smoking the last cigarette out of the pack. He checks his pocket watch, glancing down the street. The second night and no sign of her. He sighs, starting the slow walk back towards his horse.
He slouches in the saddle as he rides back towards camp. Dutch hasn’t been acting any differently since the other night. That kiss. He’d almost wondered if he’d dreamed it, but he’s got the money he took off the bounty hunters burning a hole in his pocket and the bloodstains on his collar to prove it.
They’ve made camp in a neat little swath of trees, under the craggy rock of a cliffside. It’s remote, with their backs to something. Less likely to be seen out here.
Dutch is sitting at the fire when he rolls in. He’s got a pencil in a book, his wrist moving in little jerks and scratches by the light of a lantern and he barely looks up as Arthur dismounts. He hitches Persephone, removes her saddle, and gives her an affectionate pat as he goes to Dutch’s side.
“No sign of her,” Arthur says. He joins Dutch on the ground, close enough that he can try to get a look at what he’s working on.
“Still one day left. Have some patience, son.”
Arthur scratches his cheek. “Well, what if she doesn’t show?”
“Is the pessimism really necessary?”
He lights a cigarette. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right, son. I know you worry because you care.”
Dutch finishes the stroke of his pencil with a flourish, then finally looks up at Arthur. He frowns.
“Hm. I don’t know quite how you do it.”
He turns the book out to face Arthur. It’s a sketch of the skyline, not a particularly good one. Not bad, either. Dutch chuckles, turning the book back to himself.
“I’m afraid I don’t have the gift you do when it comes to draftsmanship.”
“It ain’t so terrible,” says Arthur. He moves closer, until their legs are touching. He leans over Dutch’s shoulder to get a better look.
“Oh, Arthur, you needn’t patronize me. I am quite aware that it’s shit.”
“Okay, okay,” Arthur says. He laughs behind his hand as he pulls the cigarette from his mouth. He gestures for the book. “Can I...?”
Dutch passes him the book, and takes the cigarette from him. Arthur reaches for his own pencil, and gets to work on the piece.
“Your-- uh-- your strokes are short. Looks like you draw from the wrist, but if you go from the shoulder-- bigger arcs, hold your pencil a little looser so you ain’t pressing so hard. Gives you a little more leeway, like this.”
He fixes one of the trees that Dutch had scrawled out. Dutch watches him work in fascination.
“What made you so interested in all this, anyway?” Arthur asks.
“The picture you gifted me, it sent me into a fit of inspiration I could not ignore. Made me curious if I was capable of even a fraction of the God-given talent you have, though now I am even more assured the devil has cursed these hands of mine.”
Arthur’s hand pauses. He clears his throat, and resumes. He’s never taught Dutch anything before. It’s always been the other way around.
“S’just practice,” Arthur says.
“When did you even start drawing like that? You kept that secret for so long.”
“Weren’t a secret. Just, Hosea gave me a book a few years back for spelling. When I didn’t know the words, I’d draw instead, and I got to liking it some… just did it when I had a moment. Nothing special. Drawing folk we’d meet, maps, places we’d see.”
Dutch is quiet for a moment. He smokes the cigarette Arthur lit, and he chuckles.
“I must confess, Arthur, that you are often somewhat of a mystery to me.”
“There ain’t no mystery. Just not much to me, I’m afraid.”
“You keep saying that, son, but I don’t believe it’s true.”
His hand stops moving in the drawing. The pencil quivers in his fingers, so he puts it down so his nervousness isn’t evident. He can see the cigarette hanging out of the corner of Dutch’s mouth on the edge of his vision. He’s got that look in his eyes like he’s laying on the charm, the way Arthur’s seen him do it with women. It’s a little bit flattering.
“There,” he says. “Might be more what you’re looking for, I reckon.”
He offers the book back to Dutch, almost uneasy. Dutch looks at it for a moment, his eyes narrowed. “Now you’re just showing off.” He clicks his tongue, leaning back on his hands as he puts the book down in the sand.
“I wasn’t tryin’ to.”
“Well, you should, sometimes.”
The mood seems to shift. He isn’t sure what happened all of a sudden, but he feels Dutch looking at him, like he expects some kind of explanation. Dutch just pulls the cigarette from his mouth, flicking it into the sand.
“If this is about… the other night,” Arthur mumbles. “I don’t rightly know what came over me.”
“I think I do. That woman got you worked up.”
“No, it-- it weren’t her.”
“You mean you haven’t thought about running off with her? Just the two of you?”
“No. Never.” He frowns. “Why would I want that?”
“Why wouldn’t you?” Dutch asks. “She’s beautiful. She’s got money.”
“Yeah, I suppose. But she’s not…”
Arthur rubs at his neck. He doesn’t like this feeling. Being seen. He can feel Dutch’s eyes boring into him, and it scares him.
“Oh, son. I know what it’s like to want something so seemingly unattainable,” Dutch murmurs.
He can feel it on the tip of his tongue, the naked honesty, that he holds a kind of devotion for the man before him like no other.
“Well, I don’t think there’s anything that you couldn’t go out and get if you really wanted, Dutch.”
He feels Dutch shift closer. His hand skims up Arthur’s arm, coming to cup the muscle of his shoulder. He goes still as a frightened rabbit, his breath catching in his throat.
“Some things aren’t meant to be chased. You have to let them come to you.”
There’s a pause, where he almost isn’t sure he heard it. It’s as open as an invitation as he’ll ever get. His eyes dip down to Dutch’s mouth, where the healing cut on his mouth is starting to fade.
“Why didn’t you kiss me back?” Arthur asks.
“You hardly gave me the opportunity,” Dutch says.
Dutch leans closer to him. Meets him halfway.
“Besides, I wanted you to be certain.”
Arthur moves in closer, until he can feel the heat of Dutch’s breath against his lips. Mercifully, Dutch closes the distance between them this time.
It’s different from the first kiss. That had barely been more than a tight press of lips, panicked on his part. This time he opens his mouth as Dutch presses forward, slipping his tongue inside. He tries to match the easy way that Dutch kisses him, how it seems so practiced and natural for him.
Dutch holds his shoulder, starts to move his hand up towards his neck. He cups the side of Arthur’s throat, his thumb running along his jawline. He feels hot all over. He’s thought about this for so long that he can’t help but go forward, wanting to push Dutch down into the dirt and crawl on top of him.
Arthur reaches his hand to cover Dutch’s thigh. He starts moving it inward, when Dutch pulls away. He stops, worrying he’s done something wrong.
“What?” he mumbles.
“Perhaps we take this somewhere a little bit more private.”
“There’s nobody out here.”
“And rut out in the open like a goddamn monkey?” Dutch says, with a laugh. “Get up.”
He stands up, and almost gets headrush from it. Dutch keeps a hand at his lower back as he guides him towards his tent. He lets Dutch go in first, then crawls inside after him. They keep the guns nearby, boots off, and Dutch lights the lantern so the inside of the tent is cast in a warm glow.
Dutch sits back on his bedroll. Arthur stays on his knees, a bit awkward and unsure where Dutch wants him. Dutch grabs him by the scarf and pulls him closer, until he’s straddling Dutch’s lap.
“I would much prefer to have you in a bed.”
“I don’t care,” Arthur says.
He kisses Dutch again, pushing him down onto the bedroll. Dutch laughs as his back hits the ground, and for a moment he’s uncertain, until Dutch’s hands come to frame his hips.
“You laughin’ at me?” he asks, leaning down over him. He plants his hand on one side of Dutch’s hand, the other hovering over the buttons of his vest.
“No, no, son, not at you. You’re a force of nature when you set your mind to something, I’m not sure why I expected any differently from you here.”
He starts undoing buttons. Dutch pulls him down for another kiss and he thinks it might be a distraction. He feels Dutch’s hands starting on his vest, and he undoes the buttons himself, removes his shirt along with it. It’s been so hot in the desert he hasn’t bothered with an undershirt, so he’s bare chested quickly enough.
Dutch’s hands skim up over his waist, covering his chest to grip his head. Arthur loses himself in it, for a moment, though he’s quickly losing control of his body. He wants more than this. He wants Dutch to touch him, wants to feel his body against his own.
He reaches again for Dutch’s vest, but Dutch grabs his hand.
“Slow down, won’t you?”
“This is not some frantic fumble, some stolen moment behind a barn, son,” Dutch says. “I want to take my time with you.”
Damn if that doesn’t make him feel at least a little special. And frustrated, on top of it. He feels like he’s being toyed with, but his head is practically spinning with how badly he wants. He looks down at Dutch, at the way his hair is messed out of its usually immaculate state, at the way his pupils are blown wide. His mouth swollen from kissing. He can feel him hard against his body, where he’s straddling him, and he can’t help but rock down against it.
There’s a shift in Dutch’s expression, his lids lowering. Arthur comes down to his elbows on either side of Dutch’s head, and starts kissing him again, shifting so his legs are between Dutch’s instead. He keeps moving against him, more insistent pressure, though the layers of fabric between them is maddening.
Dutch’s leg curls up over his hip and he can’t help himself. He pulls at the buttons of Dutch’s vest, opening it, then his shirt beneath. His fingers slip over Dutch’s chest, through his chest hair and he moans into Dutch’s mouth. He’s thought about it for so long, just touching him like this.
He feels fingers pulling at his hair, dragging his head back. He bares his neck, and Dutch’s mouth moves down the arc of his throat.
“Eager thing, aren’t you?”
“Don’t toy with me,” he mutters.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Dutch’s other hand slides down his lower back, grabbing his ass. Arthur rolls his hips, moving against him. It’s not enough, but it’s too much. He can feel Dutch’s mouth at his neck and collar, and he realizes why women like him so much. He does feel special. Like there’s something as addictive about him as there is about the man beneath him.
He feels a hand slip between them, and his belly pulls inward as it moves further south. He’s hard and leaking in his pants, straining for it when Dutch’s fingers dip just low enough that he’s panting for it.
“Dutch,” he moans. “Come on, just-- please.”
“I don’t know, Arthur. I think I like you begging me for it.”
Despite his words, Dutch takes mercy on him. His hand moves lower, wrapping around the head of his cock. Arthur’s hips jerk forward, and he finds Dutch’s mouth with his own again. He kisses Dutch more insistently as his hand moves. He’s so affected that it’s almost too much, just from Dutch’s hand on him.
He keeps rocking his hips into Dutch’s hands, even as he feels the hand on his ass creep under his trousers. Dutch grabs a handful of his ass, before his fingers graze the slope of his tailbone, testing the waters lower. A surge of arousal goes through him, and his hips buck.
“Easy,” Dutch murmurs, sounding more amused than Arthur would like.
Arthur pulls back, starts to take off the remainder of his clothes. Dutch helps him. Soon enough, he’s naked, while Dutch finally discards his shirt and vest, and Arthur starts working at the fasteners of his pants. Dutch doesn’t stop him this time, but doesn’t let him remove them fully either. Just enough to get his cock out, and Arthur stares down at it as he starts to move his hand.
They lay side by side, legs tangled, just touching one another. Dutch keeps kissing him and it’s maddening. The women probably like this, but Arthur’s so keyed up already, he just wants to come.
“My, how you’ve grown. Everywhere, it would seem.”
Arthur looks down to where his cock is in Dutch’s hand. He thinks he’s bigger now than Dutch is, although not by much. The tip of his cockhead is so red with arousal, and he’s sure his face is when Dutch laughs at him for looking so intently.
“You’re killin’ me here,” Arthur says.
Dutch pushes him onto his back, laying halfway over him, his knee pressing up under Arthur’s balls. The fabric of his trousers is rough, but the pressure is good, and Dutch jacks him off firmer, like he’s actually trying to get him off. He keeps trying to move his hand on Dutch’s cock, but he’s starting to lose his composure, and he wants to keep watching but it’s hard not to shut his eyes.
“You’ve thought about this for a long time, haven’t you, son?”
“Yes,” he groans. He chases Dutch’s mouth for another kiss, but Dutch grips his hair, holds his head back.
“You’re mine, Arthur.”
"Say it, son. I want to hear you say it."
“I’m yours,” he pleads.
“That's it. Come for me.”
It’s enough to bring him over the edge. He comes hard and fast, spilling into Dutch’s hand and all over himself. He opens his eyes, panting, to find Dutch staring down at him with a fascinated kind of look. When he finally pulls his hand away, Dutch sucks the ejaculate off of his fingers, which gives Arthur’s softening cock another twitch of interest.
Dutch kisses him again, and he can taste himself. He reaches for Dutch’s head, tangling his fingers in his hair to pull him closer. His other hand stays on Dutch’s cock, jacking him off, looking for his completion, now.
Laying half on top of him, Dutch rocks his hips against Arthur’s hand, seeking friction there. They keep kissing, to the point where Arthur’s mouth almost aches with it, but it doesn’t take much longer before Dutch bites his lip and groans as his orgasm hits.
It’s intoxicating, watching him come. Arthur keeps his hand moving, and the strained noises Dutch makes are so intimate that he feels special to even have heard them. Dutch’s body is a warm weight against him, still moving as the last of his orgasm works through him. He can feel the slick sensation of their shared release between the press of their bodies, tangible proof that this actually happened and wasn’t merely another wet dream.
Dutch raises his head after a moment. He smiles down at him, then presses a kiss to Arthur’s forehead. Arthur closes his eyes in near reverence. Dutch rolls off of him, tossing him a gun rag to clean off, while he does the same. He gets his pants back on, because being fully naked leaves him feeling a bit too exposed.
He isn’t quite sure what to do with himself, because while Dutch is a romantic when it comes to his women, it’s different between men. He’s somewhat surprised when Dutch reaches for him, drawing him to rest against his shoulder, an arm wrapped around him.
Dutch lights a cigarette. They lay there in the tent passing it back and forth.
“You needn’t worry, son,” Dutch says, eventually.
“‘Bout what?” he asks. He’s starting to drift, a bit. Dutch is warm against him, and he likes being held like this.
“About the woman-- our dear Genevieve. Whatever happens, you and I will be alright.” He exhales cigarette smoke, then looks at Arthur’s face. He slips the cigarette between Arthur’s parted, bruised lips. “I won’t be disappointed in you if she makes the incorrect decision. I want you to know that.”
“She’ll be there tomorrow,” Arthur says around the cigarette. “Just like you said.”
“This is all it takes for a little optimism? My, Arthur.”
He laughs. He passes the cigarette back to Dutch. “It ain’t that. Just-- you’re right.”
He starts to get up, get his things together. He can feel Dutch watching him, his fingers wandering along his lower back, his leg. He buttons his vest, gets his boots back on, then reaches for his gun.
“Long day tomorrow,” Arthur says. He glances back at Dutch, still reclined and smoking, shirtless and carefree. “I’ll-- uh. I’ll take first watch.”
“Don’t go too far away from me, son.”
Arthur smiles. He slips out of the tent, into the darkness.
The following day, Arthur resumes his post at the Bluebird as the sky starts to darken.
The sun slips below the horizon, the sky cast into hues of purple and blue. He finishes his last cigarette, throwing it into the dirt with a sigh. He starts to turn, walking back to Persephone.
He makes it about five steps before Mrs. Genevieve Barton appears before him. She’s got two black eyes and she’s wearing servant’s clothing. He stands there, shocked, and before he can even open his mouth to speak she takes him by the hand. She throws herself at him and kisses his bruised, guilty mouth.
“Take me with you,” she begs.
And so he does.
They ride back towards camp as night settles in. Genevieve is silent, though she clings to Arthur’s back like he’s the only thing holding her on this earth. He very well might be.
It’s not until the lights from Monument are far in the distance that he begins to feel the shudders against his shoulders. He glances back, but Genevieve is hiding her face.
He pats her hand where it lays on his waist. “It’ll be okay, Miss. No need for tears.”
“I never thought I would get away from him. I always dreamed-- but I never thought I could do this, oh… what am I doing?”
He slows Persephone to a trot, giving Genevieve a bit of space to breathe. The road ahead is empty, only the stars lighting their way. It’s quiet in that eerie way the world gets without any other humans around. Arthur likes it, but he doesn’t much like the way Genevieve has started to shake behind him, her breath coming in tight bursts like she’s drowning.
“What am I doing?” she whispers, quieter. She grips him so tightly around the waist that he almost grunts.
He wracks his brain for something to say. Dutch would know. Hell, Hosea would know, but he’s starting to doubt that Hosea would let himself be put in this position. He had underestimated her grit. He’d honestly stopped expecting her to show up. Maybe even hoped for it.
“You left a no good man, Miss Genevieve,” he says. “You took a risk on having a different life. I know you’re frightened.”
“But surely you’re quite brave. You don’t know how brave you are until you act on the thing you want.”
“I don’t feel very brave. I feel as though I’m running away from my life.”
“What about a new one? What’s so wrong about starting over?”
“You are a fool to believe that he won’t come looking for me. If he finds me, he’ll kill me.”
“It’s a big country, Miss.”
She sits back, loosening her grip somewhat.
“At least I have you. Nobody’s ever looked out for me before.”
“Well you don’t have to be so lonely anymore. We’ll take care of you. We just gotta ride out and meet Du--” He cuts himself off abruptly. “Go meet Mr. Montrose.”
She sniffs. If she heard his little slip-up, she doesn’t mention it.
“We shouldn’t linger,” he says.
He spurs Persephone, starts her into a canter. The road ahead is long and lonely, and the further they go, the deeper the sense of dread grows within him.
When he gets to camp, Dutch has already packed everything up. He’s smoking, waiting with his horse. When he sees Genevieve on the back of Arthur’s mount, his face splits into a grin.
“Miss Genevieve!” Dutch calls. “What a pleasant surprise.”
“Surely there is nothing pleasant about this evening, Mr. Montrose,” she says.
Dutch mounts his horse, steers him over alongside Arthur. “There’s another town a half-night’s ride to the north-- Arabella. We should head in that direction.”
“But what of the silver?” Genevieve asks. “My husband knows the location of your claim. We mustn’t abandon it.”
Arthur glances at Dutch. He hadn’t even thought of that.
“Don’t worry about that, now, Miss. It’s all taken care of, I assure you,” Dutch says. “For now, we shouldn’t linger. We don’t know who saw you leave.”
Dutch steers his mount back towards the dirt road, and Arthur follows. They ride out into the night, and he can feel Genevieve turning back to look as they go.
Arabella is the poorest excuse for a town he’s ever laid eyes on. There’s barely a street, and it’s completely dark, save for the one street light hanging bare on the dirt road. A handful of buildings, some tents and a caravan make up the remainder of the residents.
They get a room in the lone hotel in town. It’s a tiny closet of a room, spartan, with only one bed in a rickety frame, and a wooden chair. Dutch steps inside and takes off his hat, letting it hang in his hands as he sits down in the chair with a pleased sigh.
Genevieve seems to hesitate as Arthur guides her by the arm into the room. She looks around, as if anticipating something different. As soon as her gaze falls on the lone bed in the room, she says, “One bed?”
“It is only for the night, Miss, I assure you. I’ll need to come up with a plan before we make our next move,” Dutch says.
“What is our next move?” she asks.
“My, an inquisitive one, aren’t we? These questions will be answered in due time. Don’t worry yourself, Miss. You need to rest.”
Genevieve removes her shoddy servant’s coat, hanging it on the hook near the door. She toes off her boots delicately, and without the heel she seems to shrink to be even smaller. She takes the bed, sitting down as the mattress groans on the frame beneath her. She lights a cigarette, while Arthur leans on the wall next to the door, as if a prison guard keeping her inside.
Her hand starts to shake as she smokes. She stares straight past the both of them, at the raw wood of the walls. Her eyes go wet and red, and she sniffs, hiding her face into her hand. She muffles most of her sobs, but Arthur stands paralyzed.
Dutch motions at him with a frown, and Arthur goes to her. He sits next to her on the bed, and gathers her into his arms, holding her as she sobs quietly into his jacket. The cigarette hangs limply between her fingers, until it inevitably falls onto the ground, forgotten. Arthur snubs it out with the tip of his boot, leaving a grey smudge on the floor.
“There, there,” he murmurs. “S’alright. You’re safe now.”
“Oh, Arthur. Though surely I have left my old life behind, I’m so afraid!”
“It’s natural, Miss,” Arthur says. “It’s all right.”
It takes every ounce of strength in him not to tell her to quit crying about it. Though he could entertain her moaning before, after a whole night’s ride, he tires of it. Still, Arthur pats her back and makes small noises of reassurance as she continues on about her folly.
“I left behind everything I know. I have nothing,” she moans, in finality.
“Surely not nothing,” Dutch says.
“You have your fortune, as rightfully owed to you.”
She sniffs. “What fortune?”
“The inheritance money.”
Genevieve pulls her head back and stares at him, tears running down her face. “My husband invested most of it in the mining company, and the vein has almost run dry. It was why he was so eager to purchase yours. We were merely keeping up appearances.” She glances up at Arthur. “All I managed to take with me was my father’s pocket watch, and my wedding ring. I haven’t anything else, Mr. Montrose.”
Arthur’s hand stops cold, where he’s been comforting her. It takes every bit of strength not to shove her onto the floor. He looks over to Dutch, where his face is unusually calm.
Dutch doesn’t say anything. He can feel Genevieve start to tense, so Arthur pulls her in tight to his chest. She tucks her head in against his neck, curling up against him.
“It’ll all work out,” Arthur says. “Don’t you worry now.”
He’s looking straight at Dutch, who seems to come back to life as if possessed by some kind of ominous spirit.
“I think you could use some rest, Miss,” Dutch says, very slowly. “It’s been a long night.”
“Yes,” she mumbles. “Yes, of course.”
Arthur helps her to lay down on the bed, pulling the blanket over her. He brushes her hair back from her face, where the bruising around her temples has blended from blue, to green, to yellow against her golden hair, as if meant to be there.
He goes to move, but she grabs his hand. “Stay with me,” she murmurs. “Please.”
“I’ll be back soon. Promise.”
Genevieve looks up at him through her blond lashes. She smiles, only slightly. Arthur pulls his hand away.
Her eyes fall shut almost immediately. It’s clear the stress has caught up with her. As soon as he’s certain she’s settled, Arthur turns to Dutch, who turns out into the hall.
They head out the backdoor of the hotel, to the back step. It’s quiet out in the late of night, only the sounds of insects. It’s dry and warm, but might as well be frozen for the look on Dutch’s face.
“She didn’t say anything ‘bout the money,” Arthur says. “I swear, she didn’t--”
He shuts his mouth. Then, he moves forward, standing next to Dutch. He rubs a hand over his mouth, shaking his head.
“What the hell we do now?”
“Nothing has changed, Arthur.”
“We have rescued the woman from her husband. It’s what we set out to do, is it not?”
“Yeah, but there was supposed to be money involved! So-- should we, what, ransom her?”
“For what? You heard what she said. The man has no money.”
“Cut out while she’s sleeping?”
Dutch shakes his head. “That woman won’t make it out here on her own.”
Arthur crosses his arms. He leans closer, lowering his voice.
“Should we... get rid of her then?”
Dutch turns a look on him. “Christ, Arthur, of course not.”
“Well we can’t keep this up forever,” Arthur mumbles. “Sooner or later she’s gonna figure out that we’re lying to her. She ain’t gonna like that.”
“I am aware of that, son. Believe you me, I am aware.” He presses at his temple, and sighs. “Just trust me, Arthur. Nothing has changed.”
“Whatever you say, Dutch.”
“For now, return to her side. That woman will need comfort which you can readily provide. She’s just left everything she’s ever known. A little compassion will go a long way.”
Arthur turns back towards the door. He pauses as he reaches for the handle, looking back over his shoulder.
“I’ll be in shortly, son,” Dutch assures him. “Just need to think a bit.”
He returns to the room. As he shuts the door behind himself, Genevieve rouses somewhat.
“Go back to sleep, Miss, it’s all right.”
He goes to the chair, but she sits up. He can barely see her shadow through the moonlight peering in through the curtains.
“Would you hold me?” she asks.
Arthur hesitates for a moment. Then, he slips in bed beside her, over the covers. She doesn’t comment, simply crawls into his arms. She feels so small against him. He keeps her close, keeps his eyes open as he watches the window outside until long into the night.
When he wakes up, Dutch is sitting in the chair. He’s leaned back with his hands laced together against his sternum, his ankle on his knee. He looks like he hasn’t slept all night, and he probably hasn’t. Arthur knows how he gets when the gears are turning.
“Good morning, son,” he says, cheerfully.
Arthur sits up, wiping the sleep from his eyes. Next to him, Genevieve is already awake, on what he assumes is her second or third cigarette of the morning judging by the way the room is heavy with it. She’s huddled up against the wall, staring listlessly as she smokes.
“Morning,” Arthur mumbles. “You been awake long?” He gets off the bed, straightens his clothing, and puts on his boots. He imagines they won’t be staying very long.
“I have been considering our next move, Arthur.” He gestures to Genevieve, who glances his way. “And comforting this dear woman, of course.”
Genevieve smiles, although faintly. She ashes her cigarette, then laces her fingers together on her lap. “You have been very kind.”
“Please, Miss, you’re giving me far too much credit. Besides, true kindness requires honesty-- and I have not been an honest man, I’ll admit.”
She frowns. “I am not certain of what you mean, Mr. Montrose.”
“Mr. Van der Linde,” Dutch says.
Arthur goes tense. This is not what he expected when Dutch said he had a plan. Still, he doesn’t let it show.
“Excuse me?” Genevieve says. She blinks rapidly, as though it will somehow help her to hear his words. “I am not certain I heard you correctly.”
Dutch stands, then, his height considerable and imposing where Genevieve sits on the bed. “Allow me to introduce myself.” He presses a hand to his chest emphatically, then bows his head. “My name is Dutch van der Linde. This here is Arthur Morgan. We are pleased to make your acquaintance, properly this time.”
She opens her mouth. Arthur lurches forward, ready to move in case she starts screaming.
“Now, now, Miss, you needn’t fear. We aren’t going to hurt you. Just allow me to explain.”
Dutch approaches the bed, taking a seat beside her. She pulls away, but he reaches for her hand, taking it into both of his own. She doesn’t look at him, though, her eyes wildly darting around the room as if looking for her best escape.
Arthur moves to stand at the door, blocking her only means of exit.
“It was never our intention to mislead you. I assure you of that,” Dutch begins. “Arthur saw you that day in the town and was entranced by your beauty. Moreover, he was concerned for you. He came to me insisting we relieve you from that man who treated you so badly.
“Of course I knew that we would be unlikely to get close to you without a believable reason. I must strongly reiterate that it was not our intention to violate your trust, but we saw no other way.”
Her eyebrows furrow. “Then… who are you really?”
“Dreamers,” says Dutch. “Just a couple of young idealists out searching for a better world. Though we concealed our true identities, there is goodness in our hearts.”
“Then you aren’t surveyors?” Genevieve asks.
“Unfortunately no, Miss,” Dutch says.
“Then… is there any silver at all?”
“What we lack in material wealth we more than make up for in the strength of our character.”
Genevieve jerks her hand out of his hold. She presses them tightly into her lap, looking between him and Dutch.
“You lied to me,” she says.
“We didn’t have no choice, Miss Genevieve,” Arthur says.
“Now, of course I told Arthur the potential consequences of our obfuscation of the truth, but he was insistent. He was quite concerned for you.”
“If you were so concerned you would have been forthright from the start,” Genevieve says.
“We needed the opportunity to get closer to you.”
“The opportunity...” she murmurs. She draws in a sharp breath. “Did you know those men who robbed the stagecoach? Were you working with them?”
“If that was the case, and we were petty thieves only after your money, wouldn’t we have just killed you then?” Dutch says.
Genevieve goes quiet. Arthur watches her twist her fingers, as she absorbs the words.
“How am I to trust a word out of your mouth? How am I to believe you?”
“All I am asking for is a little faith, Miss,” Dutch says.
“Faith? You want me to have faith? I left my entire life behind on a lie!”
“I understand you are shocked, Miss, but regardless of the circumstances it was your decision to leave,” Dutch says. “Neither one of us held a gun to your head.”
“Under false pretenses.” She looks up at Arthur. “You said you would take care of me.”
“And that still holds,” Arthur says.
“We’ll take care of you, Miss,” Dutch says. “We’ll expect you to do your part, of course, but you won’t go hungry with us, nor will you have any violence inflicted upon you. You have a wealth of opportunity before you. We don’t ascribe to ideas of the government or society-- you are truly equal among us.”
“And what will you expect me to do in exchange? I won’t be your whore, or anyone else’s.”
Dutch barks out a laugh. “Oh, Miss, surely not.”
“Though, if times get tough,” Arthur mumbles.
“Don’t listen to him. He is a pessimist!”
“So what exactly is it you do? What do you want from me?”
“Well, we have been known to relieve undeserving folk of their money and redistribute it to those who need it more. We were thinking you would fit our little motley crew, what with your ideas above your station, your considerable beauty and your desire for knowledge.”
“So you are petty thieves,” Genevieve says.
“Surely you of all people would understand that livelihoods aren’t build on dreams alone. We need money to live.”
“As do I, which is why this is no place for me. I am no criminal.”
Dutch clicks his tongue. “So consumed by greed. A pity what this foul society does to the minds of its people, isn’t it, Arthur?”
“Sure,” says Arthur, blandly.
“You live on the edge of society,” Genevieve says. “You speak of things you know nothing of.”
“Have you been listening to a word I’ve been saying, woman?”
“Yes, I’ve heard every word about how you are a criminal who kidnapped me under false pretences.”
Dutch loses all humor in his expression. “Kidnapped? You came of your own will. Besides, Miss, if you want to leave, we won’t stop you.”
“Where am I supposed to go?”
“There’s a big, lonely world out there. Wherever you like.”
She starts to get up. Dutch motions, and Arthur moves ahead of her. She starts to shake, great wracking things moving through her, her breath coming in small bursts. She’s panicking.
“You said you’d let me leave.”
“The watch and the ring,” Arthur says. He extends his open palm to her. “You can go, but I’m afraid you won’t be leaving with ‘em.”
Genevieve stares at the hand, holding herself tightly against his advance. She glances up at his face, and then starts to laugh. It’s nervous, high pitched, but there’s something mirthful there, too.
“You went through all this just for a watch and a ring? What-- what kind of outlaws are you?”
“Trust me, you don’t wanna find out,” Arthur says.
He watches her stew for a moment, before she pulls the watch from the bosom of her dress. She practically throws it at Arthur, then starts to pull the wedding ring off her finger. She drops it in his palm, snatching her hand back as quickly as she can so as not to touch him, like his evil might rub off on her.
“I hope you feel magnanimous, robbing a poor woman and leaving me with nothing to help myself. What am I to do? I have no money for a coach back to my home. Even then, my husband will surely kill me for leaving.”
“I’m afraid I no longer see how that is our problem,” Dutch says. He seems particularly ambivalent.
It starts a fire in her. Arthur watches as the fear in her spikes to rage, as she points a finger at Dutch, getting into his face.
“Oh, it will be your problem. I’m going straight to the law, you’ll be wanted in the entire state in a matter of days. Your face will be on every poster from here to El Paso.”
“Now, Miss, why would you say a foolish thing like that?” Dutch says.
Taking a step forward, Arthur looms over her. Genevieve stumbles back until she hits the wall, putting her hand out before her. She’s shaking again, and Arthur looks at her face, at the wild look in her eyes and thinks her husband has seen her like this so many times before.
“Don’t you touch me! I’ll scream!”
Where he sits on the bed, Dutch just smiles. He looks as calm and relaxed as he would sitting at camp, smoking a cigarette, reading a book. Though this is likely one of the most terrifying moments of Genevieve Barton’s life, this is just another day for them.
Arthur steps closer until her back is against the wall. She’s so small, cowering there, with that defiant look in her eye. It would be so easy to kill her, and keep her quiet, forever.
She opens her mouth, and he presses his hand over her mouth. He can feel the heat of her breath, hear her whimpering beneath his palm. He leans close to her ear. She turns her head away.
“You tell anyone about this,” he murmurs, “You go to any lawman here or halfway across the country… When we find you-- and we will find you-- you will long for death and it surely will not come.”
“If you scream I’ll kill you here and now. You understand?”
She nods. He gently pulls his hand away.
“You’re a horrible man,” Genevieve whispers.
“Oh, you’re goddamn right I am.”
Dutch stands, then, starts gathering his things. Arthur holds in place, until he’s certain Dutch is ready for them to make a move. He awaits instructions, until Dutch walks up behind him, and puts a hand on his shoulder to lean closer to Genevieve.
“A shame, really. You could’ve had a real future with us, Miss. I thought you a brighter woman than this. I’m sure you’ll learn to regret this.” He shakes his head. “Arthur, tie her up and gag her. Make sure she’s comfortable until someone finds her. I’ll ready the horses.”
He goes to move, but doubles back, looking squarely at Genevieve. “Oh, and Miss-- you should know, I paid for the room for three nights and made sure to let the attendant know we didn’t want to be disturbed. You will have plenty of time to think about the choice you’ve made.”
Dutch pats him on the shoulder, and takes his leave. As soon as the door is shut behind him, Arthur throws Genevieve onto the bed.
“You so much as make a peep and I’ll make good on what I said earlier,” he says. He starts ripping up the bedsheet, the sound of fabric tearing making her twitch, where she lays curled in a tight ball on the mattress.
He grabs her wrists and starts tying them, good and tight. He brings them up, threading them into the headboard so she won’t be able to leave the room.
“Why are you doing this?” she moans.
Arthur chuckles. “Doin’ what? This ain’t nothing.”
“You said you loved me.”
“I said plenty of things, Miss. It ain’t nothing personal.”
He ties her feet good and tight. Her ankles feel so small in his hands, her feet still bare.
“Surely there is some goodness in you, Arthur. Why are you obeying the commands of that-- that charlatan?”
“Oh you best be glad I am. If it were my choice, I’d’ve bashed your brains out in the desert a long time ago.”
He ties the last tie around her mouth. Her eyes are watery as she looks at him in fear. He doesn’t feel bad about it. He doesn’t feel anything for her, other than some disappointment in himself for failing Dutch.
It’d be so easy to kill her like this. Choke the life out of her. Nobody knew them in this town. He could just get rid of her and Dutch would never know.
But he’d know. And Dutch had said not to do it. So, he leans in close, whispering into her ear.
“Now,” Arthur says. “You best remember what I said. Keep all of this to yourself. You don’t want to see me again, I promise.”
Arthur steps back, giving her one last look before he goes. Genevieve’s eyes are full of despair. Hopeless. It makes him hesitate, if only for a moment. Dutch is waiting for him.
He looks away, and goes out the door.
Out front of the hotel, Dutch has the horses ready. Arthur takes the lead rope for Persephone when Dutch offers it to him.
“So what’s the plan now?”
Dutch’s lip curls. “We put a bit of distance between us and this horrible place.”
They mount their horses, and start off towards the rising sun. They leave Arabella, and the memory of Genevieve Barton far in the distance.
Arthur realizes they’re heading in the direction of Cherry Grove about a day and a half into the journey. He doesn’t even know if Dutch is aware of the direction they’re heading. They just go, seemingly aimless.
Dutch speaks to him, though not of anything important, and certainly doesn’t invite him into his tent again. Dutch doesn’t seem upset with him, doesn’t treat him any different than normal. When he doesn’t realize Arthur is looking, he seems to be deep in thought.
“Everything alright?” Arthur asks, when they break for camp at night. “You’re awful quiet. Ain’t like you.”
Dutch smokes. He doesn’t speak, and Arthur wonders if he’s overstepped some hidden boundary. He isn’t really sure where it is anymore. Things had seemed so cut and dried before Monument. He doesn’t regret what happened, but he isn’t sure where he stands, either.
“I’m sorry that the-- uh-- situation with Mrs. Barton didn’t work out,” Arthur murmurs.
“It isn’t that, son. I won’t hardly spare a thought for that poor, misguided woman again. If she doesn’t want to shake the chains of her birthright, that is her own mistake, not mine.” His face goes distant. Thoughtful. “She’s not like you or I, Arthur. She doesn’t see what the world could be beyond the illusion of civilization.”
He pauses, for a moment.
“Sometimes, Arthur, sometimes I think this dream of mine is too much for this world. Like every man, I have a profound longing to be free. But so many others out there, they don’t see that freedom isn’t something that is given. You must pry it from the hands of those who wish to take it from you. They don’t see it, son. They don’t see, and so they suffer.”
“I see it,” Arthur murmurs.
Arthur reaches for him, then. His hand grazes Dutch’s arm, then slides up to his shoulder. Dutch doesn’t react, not at first. He looks out at the night and the nature before him, and then turns to Arthur, looks him dead in the eye.
“I miss Hosea,” Dutch admits. “Terribly.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says. He draws his hand back, wipes his mouth to cover the gesture. “Yeah, I do too.”
Dutch sighs so heavily it’s like his spirit has left him. He seems oddly defeated. It’s unnerving.
“We could go see him,” Arthur suggests. "I want to."
"Who am I to deny you, son?"
He feels it in his bones when Dutch squeezes his shoulder, then. He made the right choice.
With the decision made, Dutch turns on like a light. They ride hard through the night without stopping. Dutch takes watch when the moon’s out, and doesn’t sleep much. He seems so focused. Arthur keeps his mouth shut and does what he’s told.
In the days, they stop in nearby towns. Dutch spends their money at saloons, getting information, listening hard. He doesn’t make Arthur fight, but he won’t let him drink their money either.
It takes them the better part of a week until they arrive in the sleepy village of Cherry Grove. They’ve already sold off the watch, the ring. Dutch had paid for a bath and a trim of his hair with their last few dollars. Arthur’s stomach pangs as they slow to a trot on the road up to Bessie’s home, nightfall settling in.
The weather is cooler here than in the desert. They’re only a little further north, but Arthur had almost missed the cover of trees, foliage, the sound of the grass moving in the wind. The closer they get to Bessie’s house the darker Dutch’s expression grows.
Bessie lives in a quaint little cottage in a wooded area a short ride from town. It reminds Arthur of the fairytales that Hosea used to make him read, riding through and listening to the crows caw in the nighttime. There’s light on her front porch, the lanterns lit, almost as if they were expected. Inside, it’s warm and bright. Inviting.
They dismount the horses, and Arthur tethers them while Dutch approaches the cottage. The door opens just as he does, and Hosea opens the front door with a shotgun.
Dutch raises his hands. He smiles. “Hello old friend.”
Hosea lowers the gun, a grin crossing his face. “Dutch! You bastard, I could’ve shot you! I should’ve!”
They approach each other with a haste borne of familiarity, crushing one another in a hug. It lingers, and Arthur stands back as he watches Dutch’s face curl into Hosea’s neck. It feels like a moment he isn’t supposed to see, so he hesitates to go forward.
Hosea pulls back from the hold first, and notices him in the shadows. He gives Dutch an almost awkward pat on the back, before stepping back and waving him over. “Arthur, son! Get over here, let me have a look at you.”
The gun is still hanging from his other hand as Hosea embraces him. It’s rough, paternal, the way Hosea’s hugs always are. Arthur can’t help but smile, as Hosea stands back to squint at him.
“My, you’ve grown a few more inches. Soon enough that lunkhead of yours will scrape ceilings, that’s the real reason you belong outdoors.”
“I’m hungry,” Arthur blurts.
“Your manners haven’t improved since I saw you last, I see.” Hosea chuckles, swinging his arm around Arthur’s shoulder. “Come on in. We’ll see if we can get some food in you.”
The inside of Bessie’s cabin smells like fresh bread and a crackling wood fire. It’s warm, and inviting, and Hosea puts the shotgun down near the door as they go inside. Not much has changed since the last time they rolled through. It’s still quaint and woodsy inside, and Arthur can see why Hosea likes spending so much time here.
They take off their hats and jackets. Arthur’s aware that he smells like horse, like sweat. He tires to press his hair down, runs a finger over his teeth, and Dutch chuckles at him for it, pats him on the shoulder as he follows Hosea further inside.
“Bessie, darling,” Hosea calls. “A few rapscallions turned up but I’ve dealt with them.”
“I didn’t hear any gunshots,” comes Bessie’s melodious voice from the kitchen. She peers her head around the corner, and her kind face breaks out in a smile. “Oh, now, look what the cat dragged in. Welcome, boys, good to see you both in one piece.”
“Miss Bessie,” says Dutch, who goes mostly ignored, as Bessie beelines towards Arthur instead.
Bessie gives the best hugs. It’s not anything close to the memories of what it was like hugging his mother, all skin and bones and bruises even at the best of times. Bessie smells like flowers, and her skin is milky white and soft like rising dough. She pulls back and holds onto look at him.
“My, you’ve gotten tall. And thin as a rail, Arthur! Go wash up at the basin, and I’ll fix you something to eat.” She ushers him into the kitchen and he goes without question.
Hosea’s eyes crinkle with humor as he takes a seat at the table. “You boys been eating well?”
Dutch joins him, wiping his hands on his trousers, and they’re seated side by side. “Oh, we’ve been barely surviving without you, my friend.”
Hands dripping, Arthur joins the two of them at the table. Bessie sets down plates of salted meat, cheese, fruit from the garden she has out back. Arthur doesn’t waste time digging in, even as Bessie sits down next to Hosea with the whiskey and a few glasses.
“A toast to our good health,” Bessie says. She raises her glass, and they all clink with merriment.
They drink. One turns to a few, and soon enough Bessie is ruddy in the cheeks and Hosea’s laughs grow louder and more raucous. Dutch’s spirits seem to lift. He’s different around Hosea. He laughs more, talks less, seems to relax around him. Arthur mostly keeps quiet and eats until he’s full to bursting, and nobody tries to stop him from drinking, for once.
“So? Tell me of your adventures on the road,” Hosea says, finally.
Arthur’s eyes wander to Bessie at the mention. She scoffs.
“Oh, heavens, don’t give me that look,” she says. “I’m under no illusions of what he gets up to out there. I’d be a fool to be involved with him if I were.”
Hosea reaches for her hand across the table, covering it with his own. She smiles cheerily, taking his palm into her own.
“Regardless, I’m afraid there isn’t much to tell,” Dutch says. “Things have been tough. Weren’t the same without you, friend.”
“Our Arthur here seems like he’s more than up to the task of being your unwitting accomplice.”
“I’m afraid he lacks some of the distinguishing charm a man of your far advanced age possesses, Hosea.”
Hosea laughs. “I’m choosing to ignore that thinly veiled insult.”
“Arthur did more than fine,” Dutch says. He smiles at him across the table. “Quite a change in our boy from the shaking wretch we plucked off the streets.”
“He’s a better sight than the both of you,” Bessie chimes in. “The only one of you not dripping with snake oil.”
The men laugh. She reaches across the table for the near empty whiskey bottle, going to top each of them up. Dutch’s eyes drop to her hands. His smile fades at the sight of gold along her finger.
“Ah,” he says, mildly. “Are congratulations in order?”
The whole room seems to come to a halt. Everyone save for Bessie, who continues pouring whiskey. She’s not oblivious to the tension, it would seem, but presses through it.
“Weren’t nothing official yet,” Hosea says. “But it seems that I have managed to dupe this poor woman into agreeing to marry me.”
The corners of his eyes crinkle. Arthur can’t tell if he’s smiling or wincing. Dutch’s face has gone soft, but pensieve.
Bessie nudges the whiskey glass back to Dutch almost as if a peace offering. He accepts it, though the tips of his fingers go white as he grips the sides.
“You’re a true con artist, Hosea.”
“Not true enough,” Hosea replies.
Dutch raises his glass. “To the happy couple.” His voice is filled with pride, his eyes shining.
Arthur finishes his whiskey off, and the whole world feels a bit blurry. He isn’t sure if it’s the alcohol, or if everyone else is a little off. He puts the glass down a little too hard and Bessie tuts him, standing to pick him up under the armpit.
“Come on, dear. You need a wash.”
“Now?” Arthur asks.
He’s spent so much time missing Hosea, he doesn’t want to be apart from him. Beyond that, he wants to be there for Dutch.
“You smell like a horse blanket. Up with you.”
Dutch chuckles. “Better do what the woman says, son.”
Hosea looks up at them as Arthur stumbles to his feet. He lets out an audible sigh as they disappear around the corner. Arthur spares a glance back, but Bessie seems to be on some kind of mission, pushing him along.
He lets himself be pushed and shoved down the hall, in the direction of the bathroom. She puts on a pot to boil, and clucks her tongue at Arthur to get him to help, sending him out back with a bucket to the well. He does with no backtalk. Still, he wishes he could be part of whatever Hosea and Dutch are talking about. He feels like a kid again, straining to listen to conversations he’s not supposed to hear.
Bessie splashes the last of the kettle into the bath. With the tin tub filled with lukewarm water, she shoves a flannel into Arthur’s waiting arms, along with a slightly moth-eaten union suit that must be one of Hosea’s hand-me-downs.
“I’ll set you boys up in the spare bedroom,” she says. “Make sure you scrub good, Arthur, don’t know what kind of parasites you brought in with you. Beyond the obvious.”
There’s a twinkle in her eye as she says it, but the alcohol makes his mouth loose.
“You don’t care for Dutch too much, do you, Miss Bessie?”
She chuckles, turning towards the door. “Why, what makes you say that?”
“Hosea loves him,” Bessie says. “That makes him family.”
“Are you worried that we’re gonna take him away from you?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. Nobody could take that man anywhere.”
“What you mean?”
“I would be an idiot to think I could change his nature, Arthur. If he wants to go, that’s his choice. I won’t stop him, and I know he always finds his way back to me.” She pats him on the cheek, fondly. “You’ll understand when you’re older. Now, leave your dirty clothes on the basin and I’ll wash them in the morn.”
“Yes, Miss Bessie.”
She slips out of the bathroom, closing the door gently behind. Arthur stands there for a moment, before starting to take off his clothing. He does smell pretty bad.
The wash basin isn’t deep enough to fully submerge, but it’s enough to clean proper. He’s suddenly aware of how strange it is, being in a room by himself. He doesn’t know how Hosea can stand it for so long. He starts to breathe harder, the walls closing in on him. He suddenly wishes he was out, sleeping under the stars. He washes quickly, wanting to be back with everyone again.
Arthur dresses in the union suit, and it’s nearly too small for him. The buttons strain slightly against his chest, and it’s not quite long enough in the arms and legs. He catches himself in the mirror against the wall, and looks for the first time in awhile. His face looks harder, lost most of the boyish softness. He touches his chin, feels some of the grit there. He really is starting to look like a man.
When he returns back into the house, the gas lanterns are dimmed, and the house seems to have entered a state of slumber. He pads into the kitchen, where Hosea and Dutch are sitting closer before, speaking in low tones. They’re lit soft by candle light, cigarette smoke hazing the air.
They don’t seem to notice him, wrapped up in their own world. Arthur just watches for a moment. He stays quiet.
Bessie steps to stand beside him, puts a hand on his shoulder. “The bedroom is this way, dear. You and Dutch will have to share,” she says, like he doesn’t already know that. It’s like she’s trying to get him out of the room as quickly as possible, like he’s going to see something he isn’t supposed to.
Hosea and Dutch finally look their way, broken from their collective trance. Hosea smiles at him, and Dutch leans back in his chair, all the exhaustion showing in his face when Hosea isn’t looking.
“Goodnight, son,” Hosea says. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Night,” Arthur mumbles.
Hosea looks away, his face going serious as he finds Dutch’s eyes again.
Arthur spares them one last glance and desperately wants to be included. Still, they seem caught up in one another. He turns, following after Bessie.
“Why the hell you putting me to bed like I’m some kid,” he mutters.
“For the same reason you decided it’s a good idea to argue with me about it.”
She glances back at him and smiles, and Arthur can’t help but do the same. He likes Miss Bessie.
The spare bedroom is a tiny room that seemed more fit for a child, but the bed is big enough to fit two grown men. Bessie lights the candle on the end table, then reaches over to turn down the covers for him.
“Now, since you’re here, I’ll wake you for chores in the morning. You’ll get a good breakfast out of it, of course.”
He tries not to look too annoyed at the concept. The whole reason he’s stuck to being an outlaw is to avoid those types of things.
Bessie frowns. “Oh, enough, Arthur. Don’t give me that look. Now, get some rest.”
She reaches up to pat his cheek. Then, she leaves the room, closing the door behind her. The room goes dark and balmy, the candle barely light enough to see the ceiling. The only moonlight he gets is through the sheer curtain from the window. Hell of a lot different from sleeping under the stars, or even in a tent.
There’s a bedroll on the narrow space of floor. He takes a look at the bed, then decides on the floor.
Arthur lays out flat on his back. He presses the heel of his hands against his eyes until he sees shapes under his eyelids. His fingers itch to draw, to write, to do something with the energy pent up inside of him. His things are right there, even, and he could. But he just lays there instead.
He stares at the ceiling for what feels like hours and is achingly sober before the door finally opens again. Dutch steps inside, shutting the door behind him. His hand remains on the handle like he’s trying to keep something out, before he lets go.
Laying still, Arthur doesn’t know if he should say something. He doesn’t know if Dutch realizes he’s awake. He listens to Dutch take off his boots, and the sound of the bed creaking as Dutch sits down. Arthur tries to even out his breathing, but his heart hammers in his chest.
Dutch leans forward, elbows on his knees. He runs a hand through his hair, then presses his palm to his mouth. He sits there, like that, for a long moment.
“I know you’re awake,” Dutch says, his voice muffled into his hand.
Arthur presses himself up onto his elbow. “You okay?”
“Arthur, why are you on the floor?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know, I just thought--”
He starts to stand, but Dutch leans back on his hand, and points to the space between his legs instead. A bolt of arousal goes through him as he takes in Dutch’s spread thighs, the strange energy in the air between them since Dutch entered the room.
“On your knees, son.”
Arthur half-crawls, half-slides to where Dutch wants him. He’s confused, a little demeaned at the process of kneeling at Dutch’s feet as if some kind of disciple. He looks up, where Dutch is studying him as if he’s a painting rather than a real person before him.
The door is right there. Bessie and Hosea aren’t all that far away. It feels like some sort of betrayal, doing this with them so close by. Different than it had been, just the two of them out in the desert. It’s hard for him to think about it as his eyes track up Dutch’s body, his palms itching with the urge to touch.
He isn’t sure if touching is okay, but his hands move without his mind’s input. He places a hand on Dutch’s knee, then the other. Both slide steadily up his thighs, the fabric catching on the calluses on his hands.
Dutch sighs, and places a hand on the top of Arthur’s head. It slides down to frame his cheek, his thumb running along the bone.
His eyes are so intense. Arthur has a million questions on his mind. If Dutch wants him, or just wants someone. If it’s easier because he’s a man and he isn’t about to get complicated by feelings. If this is only happening because Dutch is afraid of being alone.
Arthur doesn’t ask. He doesn’t say anything as Dutch’s thumb presses against his lower lip. His mouth parts, almost on reflex, and Dutch presses inside. The pad of his thumb is textured against his tongue, his knuckles bumping against his teeth. He seals his mouth around the digit, and revels in the sound of Dutch sharply inhaling.
It feels wrong, knowing that they’re in Bessie’s house, with her and Hosea laying only just down the hall. He can’t seem to stop himself.
He closes his eyes and sucks. Concentrates on it. Dutch’s fingers press against the line of his jaw, and he starts to rock his thumb gently in and out.
“I’ve been good to you, haven’t I?” Dutch asks. “You would do just about anything I asked.”
The thumb pulls out of his mouth with a wet, obscene sound, his lower lip drawn downward before the hand moves away entirely. Arthur opens his eyes and looks up at his mentor.
“Yes, Dutch,” he says, in a low voice.
Dutch smiles at him. He slides a hand into Arthur’s hair, teases the strands there.
“I’ll admit… there are times I tire of it, Arthur.” He pauses, looking down at Arthur with dark eyes. “There are times where I would like my needs to be anticipated.”
“Yes, Dutch,” Arthur mumbles.
He watches Dutch’s hand move to the fastener on his trousers. Arthur swallows, his mouth starting to water as Dutch undoes buttons. He reaches forward to help, and Dutch lets him take over, leaning back on his hands as Arthur undoes the rest of the fasteners.
Reaching inside, he wraps his hand around Dutch’s cock, taking him out. He glances up, but Dutch is just looking down at him in rapt fascination. The attention is addictive, as he starts to move his hand, feeling Dutch harden against his palm. He works his trousers down enough to get his balls out, the pubic hair wiry against the back of his hand as he moves.
Dutch places a hand on his head, not pulling his hair. Just touching. Arthur braces himself with one hand on Dutch’s thigh, the other still moving around his cock. He’s not unfamiliar with this. He bites his lip, as Dutch brushes the hair back off his face.
“You have a beautiful mouth, son.”
Arthur breathes out a laugh. His face goes hot all the way to his ears. He lets his gaze work its way down from Dutch’s face to where his hand is. This isn’t something decent folk do. It’s something most working girls won’t do, either, unless they’re desperate.
He moves his hand on Dutch’s cock, pulling the foreskin back until the red, wet head is exposed. He leans closer, moving further forward on his knees, his fingers tensing on Dutch’s thigh.
“Good,” Dutch sighs.
Arthur closes his mouth around the head. The taste is strong, masculine, but not off putting. It’s Dutch, so it wouldn’t even matter if it was. He takes more of it into his mouth, using his hand for the length he can’t cover, and starts to move.
Dutch’s hand stays on his head, his legs spreading further to give him more room to work. “That’s good, Arthur,” he murmurs.
He keeps his mouth and hand moving, and finds that it isn’t that bad. It makes him feel powerful, almost, having Dutch at his mercy like this. He keeps saying words of encouragement, his voice quiet enough that it’s barely audible. He likely doesn’t want to be heard. What would Hosea say, were he to find them like this?
It makes him feel awful, thinking of Hosea, so he focuses on the feeling of Dutch inside his mouth. He’s so hard, and his jaw is almost getting sore. His own cock is hard in his union suit, so he reaches down to relieve some of the ache. He wants more than this.
Arthur pulls back, reaching for the waistband of Dutch’s trousers. He starts pulling them down, and this time, Dutch doesn’t stop him. He pulls them down and off, leaving them in a crumpled heap on the floor.
He hooks his arms under Dutch’s hairy thighs, pressing his face into the coiled hair at the base of his cock. He feels like a man possessed, his mind moving so quickly he isn’t sure what he wants to do next. He looks up, to where Dutch’s mouth is pulled into something of a smirk, before he reaches for the buttons of his shirt.
“Can you take this off?” he asks.
To his surprise, Dutch starts undoing buttons. He shoulders the shirt off, then lets it fall to the floor as well. Arthur bites his lip and just looks for a moment. It’s strange, seeing Dutch completely naked before him. He almost seems vulnerable. Arthur gets this feeling, like he’s got to protect him, but from what, he doesn’t know. Dutch is a powerful man, stronger than anyone he’s ever met, but even he can’t be strong all the time.
He puts his hand in the center of Dutch’s chest. It’s warm there, and he can feel his heart beating slow and steady beneath his palm. He presses, and Dutch lets himself be moved down onto his back. He plants a hand beside Dutch’s head, and leans down. Dutch covers his mouth with his palm.
“What?” Arthur mumbles, against his hand.
The fingers slide back, then press against his mouth. He lets Dutch press them inside, curling up against his soft palate, then deeper until he almost gags. Dutch gives him a wicked look.
“Oh, Arthur,” he says, with a chuckle. “You don’t think I’d make it that easy for you, do you?”
It makes him frustrated. He wants to press Dutch down into the mattress and take what he wants, but that would be going too far. Dutch draws his fingers out, then lets his hand fall away.
“I didn’t tell you to stop,” Dutch says.
Arthur reaches for his legs, pressing them up until Dutch’s feet rest on the edge of the bed, the undersides of his thighs exposed. He skims his hands along his inner legs, feels his skin shiver from the touch.
Dutch reclines, relaxed, sliding his arm beneath his head with the other still hanging onto Arthur. It’s not quite a push to get him to head down between his legs again, but it’s a suggestion nevertheless. Arthur puts his mouth to work once more, his lips dragging up the base of his cock to take the head into his mouth. His other hand palms his balls, rolling and massaging the same way he likes on himself.
“Use your fingers.”
He isn’t sure what that means. He keeps using his mouth, switches his hand back to grip the base of Dutch’s cock. This receives a frustrated grunt, before Dutch is reaching for his wrist, pulling it lower until his knuckles graze the stretch of skin just beneath his balls. Oh.
Arthur has to reach down and grab himself, almost coming at the idea that Dutch will let him do this. He’s done this with working girls trying to avoid ‘mistakes’, but this is Dutch.
He groans, Dutch’s cock slipping out of his mouth and buries his face against his inner thigh. It’s too much. He knows he’s got a job to do, that he needs to get ahold of himself. He gives himself one last squeeze, then brings his hand back to press Dutch’s thigh further back.
He glances up, and he wants to ask if Dutch is sure if this is what he wants. The thought disappears almost immediately at the darkness of Dutch’s eyes, his blown pupils. He wants so badly, in that moment, to crawl on top of him and kiss him senseless. Still, he’d been given instruction, so he forces himself to focus.
Using the thumb of his left hand, he spreads Dutch wide. Like the rest of him, Dutch is dark with hair here, and the sight of seeing the most intimate parts of him like this sends another rock of arousal through him. He goes to press his fingers against his hole, feeling the muscle clench at the touch. Dutch laughs at him.
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m not a woman, son. Get them wet first.”
“Right,” he mumbles.
Opening his mouth, Arthur slides his first two fingers inside, gets them good and wet. They’re dripping with saliva as he presses the pad of his index finger against the tight circle of Dutch’s hole. He hears Dutch inhale above him, and glances up, where Dutch has propped himself up on an elbow to watch. He spreads his thighs wider, and stifles a noise as Arthur presses his finger inside.
It’s hot and tight inside of him. His cock throbs as he presses further inward, his eyes stuck on the spot where his finger disappears. Dutch makes this low noise, and he curls his finger like he’s done on a girl before. Dutch cranes his head back, the long line of his throat visible, and Arthur realizes quickly what kind of gift he’s been given.
He leans down to drag his mouth up the inside of Dutch’s leg, breathing hot over his cock where it lays flat on his lower belly. He runs his nose up his belly, chest hair tickling along his upper lip as he moves further. He presses a kiss to his pulse point, and feels Dutch swallow beneath his mouth. The mattress creaks on the bed frame as he plants his hand next to Dutch’s head, grazing his teeth against Dutch’s jaw as he moves in for his mouth.
He wants to kiss. He wants to experience something resembling closeness with this man who saved him.
Arthur goes to kiss him. Dutch stops him at the last minute, pushing him back. Arthur tries not to feel too rejected, looking down at him. His fingers are still inside, but he stops moving them.
“Oh, Arthur. I’ve seen how you get when I’m kissing you,” Dutch says. “I’d prefer this to not be over so quickly.”
He’s a little embarrassed, but Dutch isn’t wrong either. He breathes out a laugh, bowing his head as he keeps his fingers inside of Dutch. Dutch’s hand slides down his belly to take his own cock in hand, jacking himself slowly as Arthur continues to move. He presses his mouth against Dutch’s shoulder, his own cock hanging heavy between his legs. He’s still got his union suit on, still mostly clothed, a direct mirror to their previous encounter. Perhaps it’s better this way.
Still, he feels Dutch’s fingers pull at the buttons. He starts to help him get them off, pulling his fingers out of Dutch’s body to get the rest of it off. He’s naked before long, and the air is cold around them, but it’s enough that he can lay his body down over Dutch’s. They’re chest to chest, their cocks pressing together. It’s the first bit of real friction he’s had, and he groans, rocking his hips down. He reaches between Dutch’s legs to tease his fingers lower. He wants to put his cock there. He’s getting desperate now.
“You have the oil for your guns in your bag, son?” Dutch asks. His voice is low and breathy next to Arthur’s ear. He wonders if Dutch is loud or quiet when fucking. If he’ll get to hear him.
“Yeah,” Arthur says, his mouth pressed against Dutch’s neck. His eyes fly open, and he starts to pull back. “Just a second.”
He backs off, goes to find the oil with only a bit of fumbling. The floorboard creaks under his foot as he works his way over to the bed, finding Dutch laying back, lazily touching his cock. He starts to kneel on the bed, but Dutch raises a hand and he stops on reflex.
“Just stand there a moment, Arthur. I like to look at you.”
Arthur stands in place. He feels uncomfortable, the gun oil in his hand, his fingers still slick with saliva and whatever else from where they were inside Dutch. He’s achingly hard between his legs, and horribly aware of how he must look. He feels stupid, but Dutch is just looking at him.
He starts to take a step forward. Dutch motions again, and he stops.
He face reddens. He clears his throat. He stands there for an uncomfortably long moment, looking at the growing smile on Dutch’s face. He’s trying to push him, like this is just some kind of game to him.
“Dutch,” Arthur says, his voice low.
“You listen now, son. You listen to me and you stay right there.”
Dutch draws his hand back and forth over his cock. His other goes to touch his chest, his fingers grazing his nipples. It’s a show just for Arthur. He can’t tear his gaze away.
Arthur lasts only a moment longer.
He starts forward, and Dutch raises his hand, but Arthur grabs it, pressing it to the bed. He tosses the oil to the side, then grabs both of his arms, pinning them down as he covers him fully. Dutch tries to push him off, but his cock is achingly red, drooling precum. He likes this. He wants this.
“I think you’re just messing with me, trying to rile me up,” Arthur says.
“What would lead you to think that?”
“You won’t let me kiss you.”
Dutch chuckles. “Son, forgive me, but you haven’t tried hard enough.”
He surges forward at that, holding Dutch’s wrists to the bed in a bruising grip, so that he can take his mouth. Dutch fights it, but it makes it hotter, that he’s just as strong now. That maybe Dutch molded him into this person, someone who could get what he wanted. He’s going to get it now.
Their teeth knock, and it’s almost vicious, the kiss. Dutch frees his wrist and reaches for Arthur’s neck, pulling him closer and turning the kiss into something more sensual. Arthur moans into it, had been craving this from the start.
“Shh,” Dutch murmurs against his mouth. “You wouldn’t want Hosea to hear you.”
His words send a shock of awareness through him. He’d been so wrapped up in this that he’d almost entirely forgotten where they were. He backs off, lets his hand wander across Dutch’s chest and back lower, gripping their cocks together.
It feels good, and Dutch’s eyelids lower at the sensation. Arthur watches carefully as he moves his hand, takes in the expression on his face. He leans down to kiss him again, but Dutch knocks him back. A bolt of annoyance, of lust goes through him, and he presses Dutch down into the mattress with his weight, forces another kiss on him.
Dutch laughs at him, low and warm, but it just makes him want to go further. He sits back to his knees, then reaches across the bed for the oil. Wetting his fingers, he smears it and then grabs for Dutch’s leg, pulling it back to give himself access.
He presses the first finger inside, glancing up to watch Dutch’s face as he does it. Dutch exhales quietly, licking his lips as he reaches down to cup his cock and balls, pulling them away so that Arthur can get his fingers deeper. He slips a second one inside, and starts rocking his hand in and out. It’s still tight, but he could get his cock in there.
He continues, until Dutch is making low, breathy noises. He feels powerful like this, being able to see Dutch in this manner. Arthur continues, leaning down to kiss him. Dutch doesn’t push him back this time, instead wrapping his arms around Arthur’s back to cage him in place.
Finally, he withdraws his fingers. He can’t wait anymore, his cock hard and dripping pre-cum against Dutch’s lower belly. He reaches down for himself, slicking his cock with the excess oil. He wants to ask if Dutch is ready, but Dutch is just looking at him with swollen lips, his eyes blown black with arousal.
He presses his cock against Dutch’s ass, feeling the slide of the oil, the heat from him. He’s careful, he’s had girls get upset when he went too fast before. He presses the head inside, sharply inhaling as he does, looking down between Dutch’s legs where he’s entering him.
Dutch releases a low moan. Hearing him like that, God, it’s worth every bloodstain on his hands. Knowing he can make Dutch feel the way he feels is like nothing else. He stops moving, feeling Dutch adjusting around him, but his entire body wants him to move.
“Keep going,” Dutch says, tightly.
He presses in deeper, breathing hard through his nose as he fights to control himself. When he gets his cock most of the way in, he has to fight the urge to come. He’s wanted this for so long. Arthur closes his eyes, and focuses on the feeling of Dutch’s fingers, where they dig into his shoulders.
Dutch’s hand slides up his throat, cupping the side of his jaw. He opens his eyes, and looks down at Dutch and just stares at him. Takes it all in, the flush on his face, the opening of his mouth as he’s penetrated. Dutch smiles, almost smug, and he wants to kiss that look away.
“Oh, Arthur,” Dutch murmurs. “The way you look right now, son. You’re something special.”
His hand works through Arthur’s hair, then pulls. Arthur bares his teeth, and he doesn’t hold back anymore. He grabs for Dutch’s wrists, pinning them down above his head, then starts to rock his hips. He wants to wipe that smirk away, wants to show Dutch exactly what kind of man he is.
He goes to kiss him, but Dutch cranes his head away. It’s like he’s holding him at a distance, dangling that affection in front of him. Arthur grunts, and grabs for Dutch’s chin, kissing him forcefully. It’s messy and rough, but Dutch moans into it, seems to like it the more violent he is.
He wants to mark Dutch up. Leave proof of this, somehow, that Dutch had let him into the most intimate parts of himself. Since they’d met, he’d always felt like Dutch owned him in some way. He wants the same, to prove to himself that they belong to each other in this horrible world. That Dutch will never be alone.
Arthur rips his mouth away, starts kissing a path down Dutch’s neck. He digs his teeth into his shoulder and thrusts harder. Dutch grabs onto him hard enough to bruise. “Harder,” he urges.
He’s sweating with the effort, his muscles shaking and one hard thrust sends the bed hitting the wall. The sound is loud, audible, and he freezes. There’s noise from elsewhere in the house.
Dutch moves under him, reaching for his own cock to keep touching himself, and Arthur struggles not to keep moving.
“Careful, son,” Dutch murmurs. “Quiet.”
His free hand skates across Arthur’s chest, like he’s daring him to keep still. Arthur swallows, feels like a wild animal with a piece of meat being dangled in front of him. It’s worse when Dutch starts arcing his hips beneath him, moving back and forth on his cock. He clenches his eyes shut and tries to hold on.
“Shit,” he mumbles. He presses his face into the curve of Dutch’s neck, and tries not to make too much noise. He’s starting to get close, pressure building at the base of his spine. The closer Dutch holds him, the harder it is to hold onto his composure.
The noise quiets in the other room. Arthur draws in a shaky breath.
He drags Dutch further down the narrow bed, keeps them close enough that their chests are pressed together. He holds him in place, fucking him deep and slow. Arthur pulls back to watch his face, and Dutch isn’t looking at him. His eyes are closed tight, his lip bitten swollen. It makes his cock surge, looking at Dutch in such obvious pleasure, knowing he’s the one to give it to him.
“Dutch,” he moans, “I’m gonna--”
Dutch covers his mouth, silencing his words. The edge of his hand presses against his nose, and it’s almost hard to breath, but for some reason it sets him off. He comes hard, his grunt stifled by Dutch’s hand and he grabs hard at his arms, surely putting hand-shaped bruises there.
He starts to slouch over as the last of it rolls through him, but Dutch takes his hand, moving it towards his cock. Arthur wraps his hand around him, and starts jacking him off, staying inside of him.
Dutch covers his face as he comes. Arthur pulls his hand away and kisses his mouth, but Dutch turns his head away. Arthur kisses his neck, pressing kisses against his rapidly beating pulse and listening to his stifled moans.
They lay there, for a moment, like that. Arthur breathes hard, until Dutch pushes at him. He pulls his cock out, and lays off to his side. He wants a cigarette. He lets his hand rest on Dutch’s chest, expecting maybe some pillow talk, like the last time. But Dutch gets up almost immediately, and goes digging through Arthur’s satchel for a rag.
He watches Dutch clean himself off, catching the rag when it’s thrown at him and doing the same. He wants to ask if he was good, if this has somehow changed things for them. What Dutch is thinking about. He can never seem to figure it out.
Arthur leans over to reach for the union suit on the floor, and stands to begin dressing. He suddenly feels too exposed, and the room is somewhat cold. In the center of the narrow room, Dutch is just standing there, naked with his arms crossed.
“Was that... okay?” Arthur asks.
“Hm?” He glances to Arthur’s face, and smiles. “Of course, Arthur. You were perfect.”
Arthur smiles a little at this. Dutch reaches to touch his shoulder, giving him a squeeze. He wants more, but he can tell Dutch is somewhere else, mentally. He’s planning something.
“I just think I need to get some rest, son. I’m weary from the night’s ride.”
Dutch sits down on the bed. Arthur moves forward, but Dutch looks at him. His eyes are dark and shadowed. Guarded. Arthur hesitates.
“I’ll take the floor,” Arthur murmurs. “There ain’t much room in the bed.”
“That’s kind, son,” Dutch says. He smiles. “Real kind of you.”
“‘Course. It’s no problem.”
He lays down in the bedroll. Dutch blows out the candle, and the room is cast in the darkness.
Arthur lays there, on the ground. He listens to the sound of Dutch breathing for awhile, and then he closes his eyes.
When he wakes in the morning, Dutch is nowhere to be found.
Arthur doesn’t want to dwell on it. He simply dresses, puts his hat on, and goes out to find Bessie in the kitchen. She seems tired, her face a bit pale, but she puts him to work. He doesn’t entirely want to do it, but it keeps him from thinking too hard about last night, at least.
He feeds the chickens, collects eggs, hauls water, cuts wood. He feeds the horses, cleans out their pen. Hosea and Dutch’s mounts are missing. Dutch didn’t even wake him, didn’t ask him to come. He was deliberately left behind. He shovels shit with more force than necessary, keeps his head down through the mind-numbing work, and the sun is up by the time he finishes.
The kitchen smells like fresh baked bread when he comes back inside. His stomach growls, but Bessie waves him away to wash up, taking the egg basket out of his hands as he goes to the basin.
He takes his hat off as he sits at the kitchen table. Bessie gives him a cup of coffee, and he watches her bustle around. He takes the first sip and it’s strong and dark, makes him feel a bit more alive.
“You know where Hosea and Dutch went off to?” he asks.
“I haven’t the slightest, dear. I’m sure they’ll be back before too much longer.”
He thinks he can see the tension on the edge of her eyes, and he’s sure she can sense his anger. There’s nothing to say about it so neither of them do.
Bessie mercifully makes him breakfast. Fresh bread with fruit preserves, boiled eggs from the hens, fried potatoes. He makes a mess of himself and she chides and throws a dish towel at him in a huff. He helps her clean up afterwards, and joins her on the front porch. He draws, she does some mending. It’s quiet enough that he starts to go crazy.
The sound of horses approaching makes him start, and Arthur goes for the gun that isn’t at his hip. Then, Hosea’s laughter from behind the trees is audible and he puts his hand back to his book. He grips his pencil so hard it might snap.
Dutch and Hosea ride up to the house, talking, excited. They dismount, and Dutch throws an arm around Hosea’s shoulders as they walk closer, conspiring together.
Arthur glances at Bessie. She puts her mending aside, wringing her hands as she rises. A warm smile crosses her face, but she holds herself the way a wooden shack holds against an oncoming storm.
Hosea breaks away, practically leaping up the front step to go to Bessie. “Bessie, dearest,” he says, his eyes light. “Might we go inside a moment?”
Bessie nods, and lets herself be led. The door closes quietly behind them.
In the space she left, Dutch joins him, a smirk pulling at the corner of his lips. He puts a cigarette between his teeth, and strikes a match on the underside of his boot. Arthur watches him puff away for a moment, grey smoke leaking out between his lips, before Dutch passes the cigarette to him as if an afterthought.
“It would appear,” Dutch murmurs. “Our Hosea has decided to join us on the road once more.”
Arthur slides the cigarette between his lips. He takes a drag and then coughs so hard his eyes water.
They prepare to leave in the late afternoon. Bessie packs their saddlebags full of canned goods and salted meat, carrots and apples from her garden for the horses. Persephone lips one out of Arthur’s open palm as Hosea says his last goodbyes.
“Shouldn’t be more than a few weeks or so,” Hosea says, patting her hand. “I’ll write you.”
She turns to Dutch. “You take care of him out there. If something happens to him, I’ll hunt you down.”
“Truly, the thing I fear most, Miss,” Dutch says, with a laugh.
They mount up. Bessie looks up at them from where she stands on the porch, arms crossed, and it’s hardly the tearful goodbye Arthur would’ve expected. He’s never met a woman quite like Miss Bessie.
“Goodbye, boys,” she says, solemnly. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Dutch starts laughing, and Hosea joins in, and it feels like there’s some joke Arthur missed out on as he falls into line behind them. They ride out into the afternoon, and he takes up the rear as he was meant to.
It’s beautiful, open country. It’s different now than it had been at night. The skyline is orange and purple, the sky overhead free of clouds. The stars are almost visible, the moon even as the sun wanes. Deer graze in the grass far away, and it’s peaceful. Quiet.
Hosea whistles to himself. He seems carefree, like some load is off him now that they’re out in the open. Arthur watches him when he’s not looking, his fingers itching to draw him. He likes Miss Bessie, of course he does, but Hosea seems much more at home out in the wild.
“Look at this,” says Dutch, a smile pulling at the corner of his lips. “The three of us, together again.”
“Up to no good,” Hosea adds.
“Good? What is ‘goodness,’ Hosea, but a set of morals outlined by what definition-- society? God?”
“I’m sure robbing and killing don’t fall under any definition.”
“Not if you’re good at it.”
“So where we going, anyway?” Arthur asks.
“Does it matter where we’re going, son? We will ride forth unto this virgin land and seek opportunity and good fortune--”
“--and at least a few suckers,” Hosea adds.
“And we will carve out our future into the surface of this great rock, together.”
“The hell does that mean?” Arthur mumbles.
“It means,” Dutch continues, “That with both of you by my side, anything is possible.”
Dutch smiles at him then, like the life has come back into him. Arthur straightens up in his saddle, and returns it.
They ride. Light turns to dark. With the path ahead growing narrow in the trees, Arthur drops back, until he’s side by side with Hosea. Dutch rides a little further up ahead, navigating.
It seems quieter without him right there. Arthur’s mind hums. It’s the first time he’s been alone with Hosea in he doesn’t know how long. Suddenly he’s self-conscious, like Hosea can somehow see the things he’s done all over him. Like it’s been written into his skin for everyone else to look upon.
“So, uh,” Arthur says. “You glad to be back?”
“Of course, son. Although it feels as though I missed so much being gone a few months,” Hosea murmurs, “The boy I left behind has up and disappeared and been replaced entirely with a man I hardly recognize.”
He can see Hosea looking at him and he wants, for a moment, to tell him about everything that happened. It sits there on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he looks sidelong at Hosea, riding along steadily beside him.
“I missed you too, Hosea.”
“Oh, enough. I weren’t gone so long. You’re both acting like I was dead.”
Though it was only a few months, it felt like a lifetime. Hosea’s got a look on him, so Arthur shuts his mouth and just enjoys the quiet.
They catch up with Dutch eventually, who’s waiting at the lone signpost at the end of the fork in the path. Moonlight dusts his shoulders, his eyes dark under the brim of his hat.
Hosea falls in at Dutch’s side. Arthur follows, the way he always does.
It’s a few nights of riding north and sleeping in the dirt when they end up in Kissimee, a grimy minetown of ill-repute. It’s crowded, ripe with coal reserves, and the stinking scent of unwashed men mostly camped out in tents and caravans.
It’s nightfall when they end up in the lone saloon, as big as a shoebox and crowded with almost entirely good old boys and working girls on the second floor. There’s liquor flowing, and they’ve got a rickety table in the corner to talk and scheme.
Arthur’s decently drunk by the second hour. He could be more, but when he reaches for the bottle but Hosea draws it away.
“Easy there, Arthur,” Hosea says, smiling at him. “No sense in pickling yourself this early on in the evening.”
Dutch chuckles, taking the bottle to pour for Hosea and himself.
“What if I ain’t got no sense to start?” Arthur asks.
He watches the liquid fill the glasses, the way Dutch hands it back to Hosea first.
“We already know that much, Arthur. You don’t need the liquor to prove it to us.”
They both laugh heartily at his expense. Dutch slaps him on the shoulder, and gives him a good shake. It feels good. Like old times, but like something else, too.
Throwing back his glass, Dutch rises out of his seat using Arthur as leverage. “Speaking of morons, I think it’s about time I befriended some of the locals. You two stay here.”
He heads off to the bar. Arthur watches him go, before turning back to Hosea, who’s giving him a look.
“So…” Hosea starts, in that tone like he’s digging for information. “Dutch tells me you boys ran a little con of your own in my absence.”
“It wasn’t nothin’,” Arthur replies, evasive. “Didn’t even pan out.”
“A real shame about the Barton woman. Poor soul.” He glances to the bar, where Dutch has seemingly disappeared. “Though to be blunt, the husband was the better choice for a mark. Egotistical bastards, the ones who think they know better, are always easier to trick.”
“I don’t know what Dutch was thinking, to believe there was a shot in hell of that woman coming with the two of you.” He shakes his head, then finishes off the last of his drink.
“No matter what kind of a picture Dutch can paint, rich folk ain’t for this life. Security and familiarity is more comfortable than fear of the unknown, even if it might be better in the long run. What would she be without her big house and her scary husband? Certainly not one of us. Foolish to even suggest.”
He lowers his voice. “I wanted to rob the stagecoach.”
“And between you and me, that would’ve been the surer bet. But you know Dutch. He’s got ideas bigger than the both of us could ever figure.”
“Yeah,” Arthur mumbles.
“Besides, even if it didn’t work out all the way, you still tried, Arthur. Better to do something than nothin’ at all.” Hosea smiles at him. “And it gave me an idea for a wonderful little scheme involving mining claims and land of dubious monetary value.”
Arthur grins. He likes it when Hosea gets that boyish look on his face. Hosea elbows him playfully, and he returns it with fervor.
“You and Dutch got some plan cooked up? That why we're here?”
“Why else would we be? Keep your head about, Arthur. It’s a miracle the two of you got anything done without me here.”
Arthur chuckles to himself. A miracle is right. As the laughter dies down, he picks at a hangnail, leaning back in his chair. He asks a question that’s been weighing heavy on his mind.
“The Barton woman-- you think she’s gonna get the law on us?”
“It’s hard to say. Depends on how badly you wounded her pride, I would imagine.”
“You think I should’ve just--” He gestures, dragging his thumb over his throat.
Hosea’s expression darkens. There’s a horrible pause where he thinks he’s said the wrong thing. Hosea’s eyes narrow, and his mouth opens. He draws in a steady breath before he speaks.
“You know the rules, Arthur.”
“Yeah, I know,” he mumbles. “Was just asking.”
“Well don’t. Besides, Arthur. Ain’t like we haven’t run from the law before. And as long as there’s money to be made, we’ll keep running.”
“But I thought you was thinkin’ of-- well, y’know.”
“No, I don’t know, Arthur. What do you mean?”
“You getting out?”
“Y’know, settling down. With Miss Bessie. You gave her a ring.”
Hosea gets a look about him that makes Arthur instantly feel sorry for asking. He wonders, then, exactly what kind of conversation him and Dutch had.
“I am not going anywhere, Arthur. Just because I got other responsibilities doesn’t mean I’m leaving you behind.” He pauses. “Besides, that house Bessie got, she still owes money. Dutch is often full of shit but he is right about one thing-- money don’t come outta nowhere.”
Hosea reaches for the drink Dutch poured for him, puts it to his lips while speaking. “You have to take care of the people you love, Arthur, the people who need you most.”
“Right,” Arthur says.
Hosea finishes off his drink, setting it down on the table. There’s a moment where he seems to be thinking, before he looks over his shoulder. There’s still no sight of Dutch at the bar, nor by the tables throughout the saloon.
“Where the hell did he get off to anyhow?” Hosea murmurs.
As if summoned, there’s a ruckus where Dutch emerges from behind one of the doors upstairs. He’s got a look on his face, and a woman on his arm, his coat draped around her shoulders and clutched tight to her chest. He pulls her towards the stairs, nearly toppling her over in the process. He’s in a hurry.
Hosea starts to stand, and Arthur does the same as Dutch comes down the stairs with the woman. She has a wild look under the thick layer of her fringe, her hand shaking where she clutches Dutch’s coat around her. She’s pretty enough, a little rough in the way most working women are. Her upper lip curls like she’s smelled something foul.
“What’s the rush?” Hosea asks, with faux joviality. “So eager to leave already? We’ve only just got here!”
“I believe we have worn out our welcome, Hosea.”
Dutch steers her past the table. Hosea follows.
Arthur falls into line behind them. He stares at the back of the woman’s head, where she keeps throwing frantic back towards the top of the stairs, from the room where she emerged. There are men gathering there, talking fast, moving.
“And who might you be, Miss?” Hosea asks. He’s got one hand hovering over his gun, and people are starting to look at them as they weave through the men standing, the tables, pushing through towards the door.
The woman doesn’t answer. Her upper lip starts shaking as more people start to look at them as they pass.
Arthur looks to the top of the stairs, where a few of the men are coming down in a hurry.
“Hey, stop her!” one yells.
Dutch doesn’t look back. He keeps moving, until they’re at the door. Two men move in front of the door to block their exit, and it’s then that Hosea pulls his gun out. Arthur does the same, his heart starting to fire in his chest.
“Hello, gentlemen,” Dutch says, baring his teeth in a smile. “I believe it’s in your best interests to let us pass.”
He, too, unholsters the gun from his offhand holster, holding it down at his side. He keeps the woman’s wrist in his other hand, though she seems to wind up like a scruffed cat as soon as she realizes what’s happening.
“We ain’t letting you run off with one of our women,” says the man at the door.
“This is a free country, friend. A land of equal opportunity,” Dutch says. “She can do as she pleases.”
They raise their guns. Dutch does the same, pointing it squarely at the man closest to him. Arthur does the same. Hosea’s looking up at the stairs behind him, can see he’s assessing an exit.
“Now, now. There’s no reason this needs to end in bloodshed,” Dutch continues. “We’ll take the woman where she pleases and you’ll never hear from any of us again.”
“You ain’t leaving with her, and you keep pointin’ that gun in my face you won’t be leaving with your life, neither!”
Dutch doesn’t put his gun away. Neither do the men at the door. People start to move around them, restless, itching for a fight.
“She killed a feller!” calls one of the men from the top of the stairs. He has his gun drawn. “Don’t let her leave!”
She starts before anyone else, jerking out of Dutch’s grasp to make a wild grab for his gun. He resists, but the gun goes off, blowing a hole in the man at the door’s head. There’s instant chaos, cacophony as people start to fight and flee in equal parts.
Hosea arcs downward to upright a table, pulling it up on its side to shield them as bullets rain down from the stairway. Dutch kicks the doors down and hauls the woman outside, while Arthur and Hosea return fire from cover quickly shot through with bullet holes. Wood chips and dust fly as they exchange fire, and he feels a tug at his shoulder as Hosea grabs for him and starts tugging him back out through the doors.
“This way!” Dutch calls, ahead of them.
“The horses!” Hosea yells.
There’s law coming down the street, people peering their heads out doors and windows at the commotion. They barrel down the steps, down into the dirt towards the horses as a handful of gunmen pour out the front door. Arthur flings himself behind a crate as Hosea returns fire, while Dutch gets the woman on the back of his mount.
“Hosea!” Dutch calls.
Hosea backs up, firing at the men as his horse whinnies behind him where it’s tethered. He climbs onto his horse, and Dutch starts to ride off, shooting behind him.
“Arthur, come on!”
He wants to keep fighting. He wants to stay in the middle of it, the blood racing in his veins as he fires off another shot that hits a man square in the chest. He sees the world move in slow motion as he watches him fall to the ground, then he ducks and turns back to where Hosea’s mount is rearing up. The lawmen are starting to close in on them, bullets ricochet dangerously close to his ear.
People yell and scream in the streets, running to clear out of the hail of gunfire. There’s a bell ringing somewhere in the distance, but Arthur tunes it out, stays focused. They need to clear out.
Firing off a few rounds, Hosea covers for him as he bolts for Persephone, agitated by the gunfire. A bullet whips past his head, and he jerks, practically throwing himself at the saddle as Hosea spurs his horse.
“Yah!” Arthur yells, kicking Persephone to a start.
Dutch is already half disappeared, the woman only barely visible in the darkness where they ride ahead. They drive the horses hard and fast to catch up, desperate to lose the law on their tale.
“This way!” Dutch calls ahead of them.
He turns into a wooded area, taking them off the main path. It’s near treacherous, steep as they head down the embankment. Persephone resists hard beneath him, tossing her head as he follows Dutch down into the darkness. He can hear gunfire behind them, turns to fire a few shots back as Hosea gallops ahead of him on his mount.
They push onward, into the trees where the brush is so thick it’s easy to get lost. In the darkness of the foliage he can barely make out the narrow path ahead of them, and Persephone nickers in agitation as they nearly head into a tree. He can still make out Dutch’s horse ahead of him, so he follows it blindly, follows him wherever he goes.
It's a thunder of hooves, the sound of heavy breathing. Branches snapping as they bolt through, firelight from up above and over the ridge.
Finally, the gunshots and and the yelling behind them is out of earshot. They don’t stop riding until there’s no sound at all, and the forest gives way to a clearing. They ride for what feels like hours before finally, the silence looms overhead and the stars are the only light left behind. The moon crawls out from beneath the trees as they slow to a stop.
Hosea’s the first off his horse, and he’s practically boiling as he walks over to Dutch’s side. “You gonna explain to me exactly what the hell that was, Dutch? You trying to get us all killed?”
Swinging his leg off his mount, Dutch drops to his feet. He extends a hand to the woman to help her off, but she clambers off without his assistance.
“What exactly did you expect me to do, Hosea? I wasn’t going to let this poor woman hang.”
“Well, what did she do?”
Arthur’s feet hit the ground, and he approaches. He’s got his gun in his hand just in case.
“Why don’t you ask me what I done?” the woman says. “Since you’re so damn curious?”
“I’m sure you don’t expect me to believe a word out of your mouth. I don’t know what the hell you did or didn’t do, I’ve no idea who you even are!”
“Hosea, I will explain. I was on the second floor of that fine establishment, listening, and I heard a struggle,” Dutch explains. “And I went into the room to see if there was some man being indecent, of course. I caught her putting a knife in the man on top of her. She asked me-- begged me-- for help.”
“Well you didn’t have to do it! What about us, Dutch? Our faces are going to be plastered on every wall in the country!”
Dutch reaches for Hosea, trying to calm him. “Now, Hosea, just listen to me.”
Slapping the hand away, Hosea takes a step back. “I’m not sure what devil possessed you to think that starting a gunfight in the middle of a saloon for a woman you don’t even know was a good idea!”
Dutch’s temper flares, his face going red as he steps towards Hosea. “Well, I didn’t start it but I was damn well going to finish it!”
Hosea shuts his mouth. It’s visible in his eyes that this conversation isn’t over, but he doesn’t respond.
Arthur glances at the woman, where she’s drawing Dutch’s jacket off her shoulders. The front of her dress is torn and coated in blood, up to the base of her throat. She looks at him, then, holds his gaze with a ferocity that almost makes him take a step back.
“I weren’t in distress,” she says.
Hosea and Dutch turn to face her. She pushes her hair behind her ears, then looks down at her dress. She’s dressed like any other working girl, the neckline low and immodest. Arthur stares as she runs her hand over her chest, leaving finger shaped smudges through the red. He’s not sure if it’s the blood or her breasts that make him stare as long as he does.
“Jesus, all this blood.” She pulls her skirt up and starts to wipe it away. It doesn’t work well, and she tuts as if it’s merely spilled milk.
Arthur passes her a gun rag. “Here, miss,” he mumbles.
“Thank you, dear,” she says. The smile she gives him is unexpectedly coquettish, and he backs off almost too abruptly.
“If you weren’t in distress,” Hosea starts, his tone even, “Explain why’d you kill that feller then?”
She looks up at him, then spits on the ground. “He needed killing.”
“You didn’t go to the law?” Arthur asks.
“He was law. They weren’t about to do in with one of their own, no matter the evil he’d inflicted upon me or my kin.”
Dutch’s face takes on a gleeful look. “My,” he says. “A woman who takes matters into her own hands.”
“Who else would? Wasn’t nobody else gonna do it for me.”
Hosea sighs. “Well, there you have it. A lady killer.”
“Now, it’s like she said-- some folk need killing, Hosea,” Dutch says. “You agree with me. I know you do.”
The woman finishes cleaning the blood as best she can. She sniffs, then, her hands hanging at her sides. A moment passes, and she covers her face, her shoulders hitching.
Surprisingly, it’s Hosea that steps forward. He puts a hand on her shoulder, leaning down a little to wipe her eyes. “Now, now, it’s all right. You’re all right.”
She knocks his hand away. “Of course it isn't all right. I am well aware of the terrible situation I have gotten myself into.”
“And quite the situation it is, Miss. Though certainly not impossible to manage,” Dutch says. “It may be bold of myself to say, but we could use a woman like you. Riding with us.”
Dutch steps toward her, and she holds her ground. She stands tall, her chin up as Dutch looks down at her. He slips a hand beneath her chin, and this one, she doesn’t slap away.
“You killed that man without fear of consequence, because you felt it was the right thing to do. That’s a woman with a strong moral code. Bravery. You fired off that gun without fear. I’m afraid this world doesn’t understand a woman such as you, Miss,” Dutch murmurs, “And though I am only a simple man, I am one in search of a different world. A better one.”
Her eyes narrow underneath her fringe, her lips part.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
Dutch takes a step back then. He makes a grand gesture of a bow, tips his hat.
“I am Dutch van der Linde. Some may call me an outlaw, a robber, a killer, but I think of myself as something of a dreamer, if you will.” He gestures to his side. “Hosea Matthews, my partner, endlessly more grounded than I. Gifted with a silver tongue and a quick draw.”
Hosea lights a cigarette, waving his hand. “I’d say I’m pleased to meet you, but given the circumstances.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” she says.
“And Arthur Morgan,” Dutch says, clapping a hand on his shoulder, “A stray we picked up a few years back. He has grown into a loyal companion under my tutelage.”
She looks at him up and down. “Why, you’re barely more than a boy.”
“His age may be deceiving, but allow him the opportunity to surprise you,” Dutch says.
Dutch takes her by the hand, and draws her closer. Arthur watches the shift in her, the way her eyes lose their edge the nearer Dutch gets to her.
“I imagine that you’re frightened, Miss. Have you anywhere to go? Family, perhaps?”
“None to speak of. Not anymore.”
“You’re more than welcome to come with us,” Dutch says.
Hosea starts, at that. “She killed a lawman, Dutch. They’ll be looking for her.”
“And we have killed many a lawman, Hosea. Don’t be ridiculous.” He pauses, turning back to her. “It’s not safe for a woman to be out here on her own.”
“I owe you my life, Mr. Van der Linde,” she murmurs. "Without you, I would've--"
"Speak nothing of it, Miss. It was my honour.
“I won’t be a burden, I swear it. I can fire a gun and I ain’t afraid of a little blood on my hands.”
“That much I can tell," Hosea says. He takes a long drag off his cigarette then starts towards the horses. “At any rate, we shouldn’t linger.”
Dutch smiles. “That’s about as close to a yes as that man will get. Come along, Miss.”
“I need a moment to collect myself, Mr. Van der Linde,” she says.
With another tip of his hat, Dutch follows Hosea back to the horses. Arthur stays behind, frozen, not sure if he was meant to go, as well. He feels the need to watch her, for some reason. Suddenly, he’s responsible for her, too.
She sniffs again, bringing him out of his reverie. He lifts a hand to touch her, but he isn’t sure it’ll be appreciated. He’s never met a woman what killed on purpose before.
“What are you waiting for?” she murmurs. She wipes her nose delicately with the back of her hand.
“You, I suppose.”
“You’re sweet, ain’t you?”
"Nah." Arthur smiles, a little crooked. “Though… I was curious as to what to call you? What’s your name, Miss?”
She offers him the rag back. He takes it, the bloodstains wet beneath his fingers.
“It’s Susan,” she says. “Susan Grimshaw.”
Her eyes catch starlight, brilliant beneath the dark fan of her eyelashes. Arthur looks at her, then, and feels that nothing will ever be the same again.
He hasn’t been here in years. Monument, in the county of Pimeria. He rides in on the main road, past the ruins of the Barton estate, and the memories seep into his mind like poison.
He slows as he comes into town. Persephone’s old now, can’t take the pace she used to. He walks her through the near empty streets, humming under his breath as he wanders. With most of the buildings boarded up, there isn’t much left. The Bluebird Cafe long closed up shop. The only mainstays with any life in them seem to be a saloon, a brothel. Arthur’s got more woman problems than he can about handle, so he goes for a drink instead at the Silver Eagle.
He remembers this place being a lot more lively. The bartender says the mine’s dried up, he’s thinking about leaving, himself. It’s near a ghost town, nothing like the busy mecca he recalls. He’s the only one in the dusty bar, the sun washing white over the walls, dust particles visible in the light.
“What brings you here, sir?” the bartender says.
He’s an older man, skinny, his hair stark white, but he has a youth to his eyes that makes Arthur unusually talkative.
“I was here a few years back during the silver rush. Now, just passin’ through.”
“Most are these days.”
“Where you headed?”
He shrugs. “Family waitin’ for me out west.”
“Ah. Didn’t take you for the family sort, to be honest.”
“And I don’t seem to remember askin’ for your take.”
“Don't get all rustled up, feller. Just an observation.”
He watches the bartender clean glasses that look clean already. It’s quiet.
“Say, Mister,” Arthur murmurs, turning the glass of whiskey in his fingers, “You ever hear of a man named Barton? And his woman, a pretty blonde gal from the city named Genevieve?”
“Of course. Barton Milling and Mining Company-- everyone here has. Everyone left, o’course.”
“Whatever happened to ‘em? Saw the estate all run down. They leave?”
“Leave? Then you didn’t hear.” The bartender shakes his head. “Mrs. Barton went and got herself killed. They found her body in a ditch all beat up, marks 'round her neck. She ran off with some man or another and he musta killed her. Serves her right, you know, shaming her husband like that.”
Arthur stares at the wood paneling behind the bartender for a moment. He takes a drink. “Real shame.”
“After that tragic loss, Mr. Barton moved back to the city, I think. Took a new wife, I heard. Don’t know what became of him after that.”
The bartender clicks his tongue. “Places like these, mister, they don’t have many happy endings. A lot of folk left here broke, but at least they left at all.”
Arthur nods, his gut churning not just from the alcohol. He stands, placing his coins on the counter.
“Thanks for the drink, partner.”
The bartender smiles, bearing blackened teeth. "Happy trails, feller."
He leaves the bar, and walks down the empty street. He feels older than he should, as if somehow the sand has carved a few layers off of him.
It’s been years since that strange summer. Years, now. He tries to forget it, most days.
Persephone is waiting for him, the way she always does. He pets her flank, looks her in the eyes where she’s showing her age. She’s got one last long ride in her, he thinks. Her nostrils flare and he presses his forehead against her muzzle, drawing in a deep breath of dry air. One last long ride.
He rides out as the sun descends over the arid land, the sun over the canyons blood red and blinding. Arthur’s eyes narrow as he faces it, his mind a wash of blue.
Arthur thinks of the late Genevieve Barton, her marked neck, her wounded eyes. He thinks of her and all he did and all he didn’t do. He grips the reins. He spurs Persephone harder, he drives her faster.
He rides. He rides and he rides and he rides far away from the dying, dried out town of Monument, until there’s no trace of him left but hoof prints and dust in the desert.