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The Diamond Days Are Gone

Chapter Text

One misstep.

The tiniest error would unravel her plans, forever sealing her fate once the train reached Utica. She couldn’t waste another moment, pondering the ramifications of her decision.
She needed to leave. Now.

Scrunching the worn leather of her satchel strap into a tense ball, she proceeds down the few metal steps, carefully placing her feet onto the cemented floor of the station. Exhaling a ragged breath, she took in the sight of the Creedstad Station. The railroad junction was bustling; travelers swarming the outdoor platforms, climbing in and out of the plethora of stilled locomotives. Some teary-eyed while embracing relatives, some carrying heavy luggage as they boarded their designated car, while others sat patiently on the shaded wooden benches, glancing often up at the station’s huge clock to judge the arrival of their own train.
Usually, this liveliness of a train station is seen in a big city, not a rural town, but Creedstad was the expectation. The railroad is connected to two cities, depending on direction, with Shawnee to the North and Wichita to the South. Many traveling folks used the quiet lakeside community as a rest stop before taking the long journey to one of the forming metropolitans.
“Move it, kid!” She let out a surprised yelp as a hand shoved her in the center of the back, causing her to stumble forwards. Grasping on the rail of a nearby bench to prevent her from falling face-first into the pavement, she swiftly whipped her head around, fury practically dripping from the tip of her tongue.
But she paused.
She was nobody now. When stepping off that wrecked train, she forfeited her status.
She was no one. Her name, which weighed as much as gold, is still on the train.

For once in her life, she was voiceless.

She never contended to the scowling crewmen who shoved her aside to make a straight path for a well-dressed couple and their entourage of children and servants, exiting the same train.

She just glared at the backs of the well-to-do family and the crewmen, mentally spitting out insults like an enraged rattler. Grabbing the rim of her ill-fitting derby, she stood properly on her feet and brushed off invisible dust particles from her too-loose pants, the waistband slipping lower and lower with every swipe of her hand. I need to find a tailor. She thought with a grimace, tugging the lax fabric over her hips as she watched the wretched train shriek its disembark.
When the train vanished beyond the horizontal line when the emotions truly strike her. She maintained to steady herself, once again, white-knuckling the back of an empty bench. A woman reading on the opposite bench glanced up from her book and spare a curious frown at the lithe child in the billowing shirt and baggy trousers, before quickly returning to the novel in her lap. Normally, she would be utterly horrified by her behavior, nearly crumpled to the polished floor like a ragdoll.
But she couldn’t fret on frivolous things. She needed to leave Creedstad immediately.
Although no one knows that she was gone, especially her “guide”, an acquaintance of Odette, who never paid any interest in her, only the endless supply of gin stored in his carry-on. He would remain drunk and snoring until the train arrives at Shawnee.
And by the time, her disappearance is reported to the Sheriff, Odette, and her family. She would be long gone.

She smiled, it’s been a long time since such a pleasant expression sat upon her face.

~~~~

Nighttime approached when she finally put the second element of her plan in motion. Standing in a darkened alleyway, she silently studied the saloon across the way. The saloon pulsed with life, music and loud laughter streaming out the dimly lit windows, filling the otherwise tranquil night with sound. She glanced both ways down the long dirt-paved road, Creedstad called ‘Main Street’; no sight of a strolling townsperson or a patrolman.
Perfect.
She crept forward towards her mark; Her target, being the saloon’s hitching post.
Carefully slinked towards the line of horses, tied and patiently waiting for their rider’s return, she continued down the line of beasts, towards the horse that piqued her interest, a dark brown Turkoman.

She first noticed the Bronco while scoping the establishment and overheard a loud laugh when the Turkoman’s rider, a weathered-looking man with slightly dirty clothes, jumped off the saddle alongside his friend who was equally as unkempt. By the way, the two men stumble up the few steps of the saloon, they were already lush. Probably got throw out of the other saloon that sat on the outskirts of Creedstad and came to continue whatever excitement they experienced at the other bar.

Walking up to the hitching post, she grabbed ahold of the Turkoman’s reins and began loosing the knot tethering the battered leather to the wooden post. She let out wordlessly cheer when the knot came undone but immediately tensed up as the Turkoman let out a whinny, loud enough to echo down the deserted road. Thankfully, the rowdy noise of the saloon deafened any chance of a patron hearing and investigating the random outburst of the mare.

The tension drained slowly from her body when realizing that no one noticed the loudness of the mare, protesting against being stolen. She turned around, shushing the vigilant mare with a “Quiet, girl,” as she reached into her satchel, presenting a sugar cube to the Turkoman.
The pretty mare seemingly studied the gift in the young girl’s hand, then leaned forward and accepted it with some hesitation. She smiled gleefully, her Granddaddy would always quietly remarks how easily horses trusted her when she would sneak off to the stables when he silently saunters in, while she would brush her Father’s gifted stallions.
“Ya got one of the greatest gifts of the West” Her Granddaddy would murmur, rarely speaking louder than a whisper, which often forces folks to use their fullest audible ability to hear the elder man ’s mutterings. Knowing that her time in Creedstad just about up, she led the equine away from the saloon and promptly out of town, the two didn’t stop until Creedstad’s lights were a bright blur in the distance and the dirt road became a narrow pathway through the tall grass.

“I did it,” She whispered into the summer night, watching the outline of the sleeping town, she heard a soft huff behind her. Letting out a soft laugh, she reached out to pet the snort of the mare “We did it, I guess.” Then the realization hit her “I didn’t give you a name, pretty lady! How rude of me.” She only ponders for a moment before a wide grin appeared upon her face “I’ll call you Jolie! It means “pretty” in French, do you like it?” The filly neigh in approval.

“Well, then it’s settled! Jolie and…” Her voice drifted off into the summer night breeze, what should she call herself?

“Jolie and...Dell,” She mouthed the name over her tongue a few times like tasting a new kind of candy, “That’s right, my name is Dell.”

That night on the outskirts of Creedstad marked the birth of Dell Jennings.

Chapter Text

Horse thievery became Dell’s main staple. She had a natural talent for horses, the Broncos were calmer and trusting in the presence of the young girl. Because of this ability, Dell becomes an expert in luring even the most headstrong horses from the hitching posts of local saloons without alerting the riders or patrons of the crime. Then afterward she sold the fillies to Mr. Larson, the dubious owner of the neighboring town’s stables, who never batted an eye when Dell always rode in on the horse she planned to sell him.

She knew stealing horses was the equivalent to murder, especially out in the West, where equines was a person’s livelihood. Guilt would probably eat at her if her intended targets weren’t well-to-do businessmen whose pockets could afford another pony.

The money Dell stole from her “guide” was dwindling fast, she spent a large amount when visiting the Creedstad general store, prior to the theft of Jolie, for supplies after an appointment with the sneering tailor to fit the clothes stolen from the unguarded suitcase of a male train passenger. She was in dire need for a big score and soon, her tinned ration supply receding at an alerting rate.

“Ya wanna make serious bank?” Mr. Larson asks one foggy morning, leaning against the wooden gate of the stall as Dell brushed the slightly tangled mane of a Dutch Warmblood. Sometimes Dell worked at the stables when she needed to lay low until the law of a neighboring town stop sniffing around for a horse thief to string up.
“What do you mean, sir?” She knew to be wary about any job suggestion the stable owner gave her. Mr. Larson, a hefty Midwestern man with a thinning scalp of caramel hair, steely-eyed, with a bear-like rumble of a voice, is a notorious swindler who uses down-on-their-luck schmucks to do his dirty work and then, is not afraid to finger them for the blame.
“Ya know, a gig, one that could fill up ya pockets handsomely,” Though facing away from the man, she could tell the stable owner was becoming slightly annoyed by Dell’s oblivious attitude, the man had a rigid no-bullshit policy.
“Oh! What is it then?” Dell always enjoys playing the role of a fool, everyone underestimates her cleverness because of her age and impoverished appearance. And never fail to be flabbergasted when realizing they have been hoodwinked, cursing the young thief’s name in the wind as she rides into the next town with a heavier satchel and a sly grin plastered on her face.
“I’m glad you asked, Mr. Jennings,” Mr. Larson said in a sing-song voice that made Dell suppress a cringe at the Mr. It became apparent early for Dell, many people believed she was a boy. A belief only made truer by her lanky shapeless figure that swam in dark billowing shirts, often hung off her narrow shoulders, despite it buttoned up to her sternum. The cuffs of her oil-ruined pants rested high above her ankle, the ill-fit hem was cinched tightly to her amorphous hips by a well-worn belt. And her hair, pixie-cut mop of auburn locks, often hidden underneath a tan Stetson hat, Dell stole from a drunken man asleep at the bar of the saloon she was scoping out. To everyone else, Dell looked to be a young orphaned boy, too tall and lithe for his clothes and filthy from the backroads the forgotten must survive on. A few months earlier, she definitely had been offended by Mr. Larson’s assumption of gender, but now Dell knew it was a blessing, the young thief learn quickly it was better to be a wayward boy in the West, then a wayward girl.
“Ever heard a Hoagy Macintosh?”
Snapped out of her thoughts, Dell shook her head “No. Who’s that?”
Mr. Larson let out a heavy sigh behind her, grumbling underneath his smoky breath about clueless brats. Ignoring the miffed owner, Dell finished brushing the horse’s mare, she admires dark silky hair as the strands seemed to glow in the dim lighting of the stable. The glow of the horse’s mane reminded her of a simpler time in her past, she often forced herself to not think upon it, for it was just too painful to recall. As she returns once again to the present, Dell noticed Mr. Larson began explains further “Hoagy Macintosh is a wealthy doctor from New England, comes a long line of well-respected physicians-”
“What does this have to do with the job?” She turned to the man, irritated. He was beating around the bush, she could tell. Usually, Mr. Larson was very straightforward with his demands and bargaining, so this was unknown for Dell, it terrified her.
“If ya didn’t interrupt, brat, I would have gotten to the goddam’ point!” Mr. Larson growled, annoyance flashing on his aged face before returning to the man’s regular scowl “Long story short, he’s in town and owns me some money from a poker game a few years back.”
Now, was that so hard to say? “Okay. How does this involve me?” Dell responds, watching as another stablehand, whose name Dell could never place, slip past her to grab the reigns of Dutch Warmblood. The stable hand guided the snorting bronco around the two and outside to the fenced-in field for grazing.
When Dell glanced back at Mr. Larson, a sense of dread filled her belly as the stable owner grinned wolfly at her, showing off his missing front tooth “I want ya to steal the bastard’s horse.”

 

* * *

 

The sense of dread never left her.

Not even after she delivered the silver Turkoman to the grasp of Mr. Larson, grinning crazily like a man who lost his mind. “Thank ya for ya service, Mr. Jennings!” The man celebrated, clapping Dell in the back with a level of force that would send an unbalanced person to the ground. “...All in a day’s work, Mr. Larson” She wheezed out, her lungs heaved from nearly having the air knocked out “So where’s my payment?”.
Mr. Larson simply waved her over, telling the young thief to come back in a week and a half, claiming that once the horse is sold, she will be paid.
Irate, Dell stormed out of the stables. She wasn’t too pleased about waiting for the couple of weeks to get paid, people typically pay her once the horse is in their possession. Money was already tight of her, food was scarce back at her campsite, there was only a three-days worth of canned goods which mean she is going to go hungry before getting paid by Mr. Larson. She groaned aloud, rubbing a hand across her face, disgusted at the filth that appeared on her glove. Wishing deeply that she had the money to take a nice soak at the town’s hotel, guess she could wash up in the river, even though it was running with the melted snow from winter as the season of spring quickly approached. She grimaced at the thought of the frigid water kissing her bare skin, deciding that it was better to wait the week and a half than take her chances with hypothermia.
Dell strolled down the dirt road towards the town of Underwell, a tiny mining town known for its abundance of coal in the surrounding mountainside and its vast criminal underground. Though the town does not seem like a community of thieves, liars, and gunslingers with the freshly-painted houses, clean roads, quiet shops, and kind-looking people. But once the sun slips past the mountains, that when the low-lifes come out.

The sun hangs high in the clear blue sky, signaling noontime. Dell made her way towards the saloon, she has visited the bar to drink after the death of Jolie but got refused by an older barmaid, scolding the youth “Come back when there’s sum hair on ya chest”. Jolie, her late mare got bit by a rattlesnake while the two stroll through some tall grass, Dell tried to get the bronco to Mr. Larson get aid. The Midwestern man directed the distraught thief up to his office, distracting the youth with details of his new gramophone as a nameless stable-hand led the stumbling Turkoman behind the stable. Dell appreciates Mr. Larson turning up the gramophone in his office, muting the gunshot underneath the second-floor window.

Dell snapped out of her thoughts when she noticed a flash of white in the corner of her eye, she grinned as she caught sight of her prize from the theft. At the hitching post stood the white Arabian owned by one Hoagy Macintosh. When she went to steal the horse, she became intrigued by the powerful grace of the snow-colored stallion, deciding at the moment to steal the horse for her personal use. To swindle Mr. Larson, she decided to grab the horse next to the stallion, the silver Turkoman that is residing in his stable.

The young Arabian noticed the young thief’s arrival and announced his annoyance, stomping an impatient hoof upon the ground, stirring up puffs of dust. Dell rolled her eyes at the act, the stallion was barely out of his time of being a foal, so she knew the horse was yet to be trained.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. You hate waiting, boy,” Reaching out to stroke the abrasive equine’s colorless mane, the stallion relaxed underneath the girl’s hand, leaning closer into her palm. Dell smiled softly, untangling her hand from the horse’s silky hair, she proceeded to climb onto the stallion, with much difficulty. The equine was unusually tall for an Arabian horse, at least a good hand or two taller than average. And Dell’s atypical height didn’t help her struggle with climbing on top of the horse, luckily the Arabian stay still as the girl managed to swing her leg over the stallion’s wide back, securing her boot in the other stir-up.
“Come on, boy, let’s go,” She said, pulling the stallion into a trot down the main road as they entered the outskirts of Underwell.

 

* * *

 

“Fucking asshole!” Dell cried out.
Early in the day, she returned to the Underwell stables a week-and-a-half later, to collect her payment. “I haven’t sold the horse yet,” Mr. Larson called out from his second-floor office as the young thief entered the stable. Dell blinked for a moment, then her confusion morph to anger “What? You told me that I would be paid in a week and a half. It’s been a week and a half! Where’s my money?” Her voice bounced off the wood walls of the stable, startling a few of the horses in nearby stalls. Dell knew better than to cause a public scene, but she was too livid by Mr. Larson’s deception to care.

Mr. Larson, unfazed by the youth’s outburst, clambered down the wood stairs that groaned underneath the weight of the burly man “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Jennings,” The man said, tilting his balding head down in mocking guilt, Dell fought the urge to knock out his remaining front tooth as the stable owner approached her. “Ya see, the fella I was intending to sell the Turkoman to, never showed. So I have been scrambling to find a new buyer, unfortunately, I hadn’t got much luck” Dell huffed, scrubbing her face with her hand. She was nearly out of money, despite taking on a couple of horse stealing jobs, to provide some food for herself and her new horse. But it still wasn’t enough, and now the law slowly closing in on her after a botched theft in a few towns over, she needed to leave town soon with cash in her pockets.
“How long you do need?”
“Another week.” Mr. Larson quickly added when Dell shot the owner a dumbfounded expression “An old buddy of mine coming to town, he owns land in Michigan, he’ll take the horse off my hands for the same price I gave the other fella.” Mr. Larson then stuck out a paw-like hand in front of the conflicted horse thief “Do we have a deal, Mr. Jennings?” Dell stared down at the hand as if she had never seen one before. Knowing this was probably of Mr. Larson’s scams to sell her out to the law, in order to keep the cash, and by shaking the man’s hand, she might as well sign her death certificate too. But money was scarce, she desperately needs the profits from the Turkoman sale to keep her afloat, at least until she reaches the next county.
Throwing all caution to the wind, Dell reached out and shook the meaty palm.
“You have a deal, Mr. Larson.”

Chapter Text

“Answer me this.”

“How do you know Ernest Larson?”

“I occasionally work at his stables when money is tight.”

“So besides, working as a stable hand, you also steal horses for him, right?”

Dell eyed the revolver on the table, the polished silver glimmered in the afternoon sun, “Yes sir.” She answered glancing up at the manicured man across the table, “It paid well enough to keep food in my belly and my horse healthy.”

Realizing her error, she closed her eyes, wishing for time to rewind a couple of moments, unable to believe she called the albino Arabian her own. There was a shift of fabric behind her back the stretch of whiskey grew more potent as a hot breath fanned across her bare neck, she suppresses a flinch.

Her heart pounded her ribcage as another voice chimed in “Your horse? Did you hear that, Dutch? The boy thinks the horse is his.”

& & &

 

Her Granddaddy once told her a woman cheated is as dangerous as a rattlesnake lying in wait, concealed by the tall grass. Eerily patient for its victim to unknowingly fall into the readied trap, striking with fangs drooling poison as the dagger-like teeth pierce the skin and sink into soft flesh underneath.
Dell felt like that rattler, storming away from the stables after her conversation with Mr. Larson. Her rage burned like acid in her veins, ready to consume her entire body if she, for a second, lost an ounce of self-control. She felt eyes staring at her as she stomped towards the saloon, the townsfolk of Underwell probably hear her outburst at the stables and began gossiping about the dirty, wayward boy walking into the town like an irate tiger.

Dell wanted to curse every last one of them to Hell.
The saloon, the only one in Underwell, appeared into view as the young thief approached. The white Arabian, Dell stole a week-and-a-half prior from a Hoagy Macintosh, stood patiently at the hitching post, awaiting her arrival.

Feeling some of the anger vanish from her bones as she flashed the stallion a tired smile “Hey there, Count” The stallion, Dell recently named The Count for his elegant appearance and his bratty stubbornness, reminding the young girl of a snobby nobleman, let out an annoyed huff as the young girl sluggishly approached. Finally deflated, she wrapped her thin arms around the thick neck of the horse, seeking out some comfort from the equine after her shitty morning with Mr. Larson. Dell buried her face into the snowy mane of the stallion, feeling The Count’s trapezius move underneath her embrace as the silky hairs of the mane gently tickled her face, she felt a large cold nose press against her ear, puffing warm air into its canal.

The young thief smiled at the Arabian’s display of affection, despite the horse’s unshakable mentality regarding Dell’s obedience training, she truly adores The Count.
“Hey Boy! Are ya gonna cuddle ya damn horse all day? If so, move it! I hav’ a business t’ run,” The Saloon owner barked from the door, scowling. The elderly man watched an embarrassed Dell jumped back, her face warmed as she muttered a quick apology, the owner just crossed his arms, scoffed at the young thief's disheveled appearance, before disappearing into the saloon.

Dell glared at the back of the elderly man, wishing that all his whiskey tastes like shit before turning the matter at hand. She decided that it would be best to leave the county for a little while, she heard through the grapevine, some sheriff in a neighboring town was hot on her trail. Although moving on to another county was already in her plan, she actually pinpointed a bustling town North of Underwell, known to be a vacation hotspot for wealthy city-dwellers escaping the chaos of a metropolis for a few weeks. But that bastard, Mr. Larson put a hindrance onto her plan, that money from the Macintosh theft would provide funds for room and board, and a spot for The Count in the northern town’s stables.

Damn it all.

Dell sighed heavily, untying Count from the saloon’s hitching post and climbed the stallion with practiced ease. Before leaving to pack her camp area outside of town, Dell realized she had forgotten to give Count a sugar cube, praise for the stallion’s practicing patience. She began digging around in her satchel for the treat. While searching, Dell saw movement in the corner of her eye, undefined figures rapidly approaching her.

“HEY!”

A raspy voice boomed from somewhere behind her and Count, surprising Dell and startling the stallion. The Count let out a frightening roar, suddenly rearing onto his hind legs, causing panic to spread to the other horses at the hitching post, they vocalize their own fear.

Desperately trying to grab the stallion’s reins and failing, Dell swore aloud as she tumbled downwards off of the saddle. She lands on the dirt road with a deafening thump, pain shoot through her skull, trickling down her body as the air punched out of her lungs. Wheezing, Dell curled onto her side, mud soaking through her shirt and pants, her hat flew off during the buck. Dell didn’t care, her body vibrated with pain, her head throbbed, her vision blurred from the impact as her lungs burned from lack of oxygen. Dell wasn’t unaware The Count, still panicking, bolted down the street, shouts ringing out as townfolks dodged out of the path of the frightened horse. Her whole world swam with cloudy colorful shapes and distorted voices, like her head, was under water.

She felt weightless. Dell wondered if birds feel a similar sensation when soaring through the endless blues of the Heavens. Suddenly, she wished to be a bird, free to take flight whenever they desire to. To travel worry-free to faraway lands Dell only learned about from her father’s books and the occasional fable of a sloshed man at a saloon. The overwhelming urge to close her eyes and rest became unbearable to resist further, Dell gently shut her eyes, ignoring the hand attempting to jostle her awake.

& & &

 

“Bill! Stop that, you fool. You’re scaring the poor boy.”

The stinging odor of whiskey vanished, immediately replaced by a hand rested gently on her shoulder, Dell willed herself not to tense at the contact.

“It’s alright,” Dell opened her eyes at the genial voice, she glanced over at the elder man. He was a tall and slender man with a wise and friendly gleam in his brown eyes, despite the wrinkles and gray hairs, Dell could tell the man was a looker in his youth. Noticing her stare, the man smiled, the wrinkles around his mouth were more profound as he placidly squeezed her shoulder “Don’t let Bill scare ya too much, he’s just curious about your connection with Mr. Larson and the horse,” Dell nodded along. He had a silver tongue, her father had one. That was one of the things that attracted her mother was “His way with words”, a gift that had aided him in his life.

“I hope one day you will speak as beautifully as you will become.” Her mother once said offhandedly as she brushed her daughter’s hair, watching through the second-floor window of the nursery as her husband mingled around the horse pastures with a few sweaty ranch-hands in tote. “I never learn to talk as pretty as your father. My mama barely spoke English and it’s not like your granddaddy was the life of the party,” Dell remember her breathy laugh, soft and sweet like a freshly-baked pastry “So I had learned by befriending the other children in the valley whose parents could afford them to learn how to talk pretty.” To this day, Dell recalled how her mother swiveled her around in her stool to stare her straight in the eye, her pretty azure eyes hooking the attention of her child as her usual sotto voce voice screamed with determination “You will learn how to speak so beautifully, Aphrodite herself will be envious.”

“Enough of this bullshit!” Dell returned to the present, aware of her situation and the strange men cornering her “I agree with Bill. The boy’s a thief, he stole Arthur’s and Dutch’s horses! We caught him red-handed this mornin’,” The voice was raspy like the man gargled with rocks instead of water. “I don’ see why we ain’t handing him back to Mr. Larson. He’s just gonna strin’ up anyways.” Dell visually tensed while Bill made a noise of agreement, panic flooded her body. They were gonna hang her, once she stops talking, the noose will seize her throat and wrangled what air she had in her lungs as she swings like a crude ornament on a thick branch on a tree. Or worse, give her back to Mr. Larson to receive her punishment. The elder man squeezing her shoulder, he must felt her inner turmoil and made a shocked noise.
“John! Have you lost yer goddamn wit? He’s just a boy. He ain’t talking because he’s been knocked off a horse, no thanks to you, learning the law is looking for him, and everyone is talkin’ about stringin’ him up before he explains him!.”

Dell did appreciate the older man for speaking up in her behalf, but now she blocked out the debate behind her between Bill and John and the elderly man named Hosea, she focused on the leader before her, smoking a cigar. With a perfect poker face, he watched the bickering between the members of his gang through short puffs of cigar smoke, the rings on his fingers caught the light, glimmering like the revolver, revealing the danger of Dutch Van der Linde.

& & &

 

When Dell awoke, she was met with a violent stab of pain emitting from the back of her skull, the intensity sent the young thief bolting upright in the pitch darkness and hunch over the side of the cot to empty out what little she had in her stomach. The rushing sensation of vomiting caused her to dry heave as she managed to stay in a crunched sitting position, a trembling forearm supported her weight upon a nearby crate. Dell carefully leans over again, spitting out the acidic taste from her mouth, managing to not tumble into her own puke.

She stayed into the same rigid position until the pain in her head mellowed to a slight throb. As her mind cleared, Dell noticed the dimness and oddity of her surroundings. She glanced at the dark green walls and poked it to reveal the fabric malleability of the room. Dell summarized she was in a tent, sparsely decorated with a single wooden crate repurposed as an end table and the bare cot she currently laid on, covered with a thin blanket.

Where am I?

Dell pondered the terrifying thought, pressing a warm hand to her forehead. She recalled a man shouting, and being bucked off of a startled Count outside of the saloon but after that, her memory was blank.

Suddenly, a soft hum filled the silent air of the tent, Dell tensed up at the sound. It came outside of the tent, Dell could tell it was a woman humming by the high-pitched purr.

“...H-Hello?”

Dell managed to croak out, her voice was raspy from the lack of water. The humming immediately ceased, the humming was quickly replaced by the happy chirps of birds outside and the thumping of her heart against her sternum. Thinking that the woman didn’t properly hear her, Dell willed her mouth open to call out again, when one of the canvas walls opened up, letting in bright light that instantly blinded the young thief.
“Shit!” The girl swore in French, collapsing onto the cot, the blazing sunlight rejuvenated the rapid drumming of her brain against her skull.

A woman’s shrill voice came from the brazen light, “Jesus Christ. Tilly! Get Jenny over here, the boy’s awake. I’ll tell Dutch,” The woman didn’t sound too concerned by the young girl, lying in the blackout tent, groaning out in agony “Also get a bucket of water and a rag.” With a whoosh of the canvas, Dell was once again engulfed in darkness. If her mind didn’t feel like a thousand soldiers were marching across it, she would have definitely questioned the bizarre scene with the unknown woman, at least ask where she is.

She didn’t have how long time has passed before the silence was erupted by the familiar rustling of the canvas, Dell lowered her elbow from her eyes. A figure stood by the entrance of the canvas, although the tent’s visibility was poor, Dell could tell it was a woman by the lavender dress that appeared bright in the low lighting.
“You’re Jenny, I assume?” Attempting to smirk which quickly morphed into a grimace “Or maybe you’re Dutch. If so, I love the frock, very European” Dell immediately regretted her words.

“You have a piston for a mouth.” Wenqian’s chastising voice rang through Dell’s memories, her accent thickening in irritation whenever the young girl would counter a response. Her twin, Jingfei, was amused at Dell’s quick tongue, praising “She’s like a falcon, beautiful yet lethal in her strike when provoked.” Her laughter always reminded Dell of church bells “Once she grows into her mother’s face, she’ll give any man a run for his money, for sure.”

Dell always knows that Wenqian was somewhat right about act out in caution, though she didn’t admit the stoic woman’s accurate read, especially not her face. From the birth of her horse thief career, she knew better than to let her cockiness loosen her tongue because that is how a person loses a tongue. Yet, there were still moments where her mouth becomes that pistol Wenqian warned her about, quick, unhesitating, and often cut into bone.

The woman barked out a laugh at the jeer as if Dell told her the funniest joke in the world instead of openly insulting her and this Dutch fellow. The explosive laugh shook the tent, possibly scaring birds out of the trees, Dell found it oddly comforting in the current circumstances.
“Jesus! You haven’t awake a day and already stirring up shit!” The woman swore, walking over to the cot, setting down a weathered carpet bag on top of the crate, digging through the bag’s mysterious contains.

As the woman sifted through her bag, Dell took a closer look. The woman was actually a girl, at least eighteen and blooming into adulthood. She was pretty with a symmetric face, thin rosy lips, button nose, and big brown doe-like eyes had a kind-hearted determination to them. The maturing woman had her hair down, Dell was at awe by the ebony hair laying perfectly flat between her shoulder blades, Dell knew that some women wore their hair down in public, but it was a rare occurrence. Despite being born and raised in the more western region of the States, almost every woman Dell could think back on wore their hair up and off their necks because of the modesty codes that traveled from one coast to another. The only woman known to wear her hair down, besides this woman in front of her, was Dell’s mother.
“To answer your question, yea, I’m Jenny.” Jenny clicked her tongue at something in the bag, then briefly glanced over to Dell, her dark eyes quietly scanned the other young girl, lying haphazardly on the cot with clothes stained in dried dirt on one side.
“What’s ya name, kid?” The young girl flushed underneath the stare, fully aware of her filthy appearance and the smell of her discharge on the dirt floor, not even acknowledging how Jenny spoke to her as if there was a ten-year gap between the two. Embarrassed, she croaked out against her dry throat

“Dell.”

She cringed at the harshness of her voice, Jenny didn’t seem to care. She just smiled softly, kneeling by the side of the cot with a thick roll of gauze in her hand, ignoring the puke matting the dirt next to her “Nice to meet ya, Dell. Know you’re in pain but I gonna have to sit ya up. Need to see how’s ya head’s doin’ and change the bandages.”

Bandages?

Frowning, the young girl reached up to touch her head. Instead of the slickness of her dirty hair, her fingers brushed against the coarseness of gauze, “You’re lucky that ya just got a few shallow cuts when Dutch’s horse threw you to the ground,” Jenny helped Dell into an upright position, explaining the situation when she noticed the confusion and panic on the younger girl’s face “It coulda been worse, hell, you coulda died. But ya didn’t, so don’t let a few small scraps upset ya.”

Dell nodded absentmindedly, dropping her hand into her lap. Jenny looked at the young thief for a moment, her expression unrecognizable to Dell as she reached up to unravel the dressing, letting the soiled gauze to fall into the young girl’s lap. The silence between the two was awkward, Dell knew that Jenny is waiting for this “Dutch” to arrive from the way she attempted to sneak glances at the tent’s entry. She couldn’t blame her, Dell was nervous as well. Today turned out to be one shitshow after another, from Mr. Larson screwing her over with a delay in the Macintosh’s deal to The Count knocking her to the muddy ground after some idiot spooked him. Oh, she could imagine the Moirae with their ugly haggard faces crackling among themselves, unraveling her thread through their fated spindle. She wondered when those three old hags will cut her thread.

 

“Where are you from?” She was surprised by the question fell from her lips, the quiet question sounded like a yell in the dead silence of the tent, she felt Jenny’s hands pause for a moment

“Boston, born and raised. How about ya?”

“California.”

“California?!” Jenny gasped as if Dell just told her mother died “What the hell doing in bum-fuck nowhere?” Dell blinked at the dumbfounded look on the woman’s face, she began to roar with laughter, startling Jenny who blinked at her owlishly before joining the young girl in her contagious mirth.

“Miss Kirk! Exactly what are you doing?” The two froze, snapping their attention to the opened entry. An older woman stood there, her body outlined by the outside light, providing a deific authority to her. Dell recognized the shrill voice, it belonged to the stern woman with her hands on her hips as she angrily looked into the tent.
Jenny immediately shot up from her kneel “M-Miss Grimshaw! I was just redressing the boy’s injury,” The young woman gestured over to Dell, who flinched underneath the heated glare of Miss Grimshaw.

Realizing she needed to defuse the tension, Dell put on her most charming smile, more of a grin that oozed practiced boyish flattery “Howdy Ma’am.” She drawled, smoothing her tongue over every syllable as her voice was low for a girl her age yet sometimes croaky, which make her sound like a pubescent boy. To solidify her charm, Dell reached up to tilt her hat down, just like her father uses to do when addressing a lady, only to grasp at empty air. Suddenly noticing the disappearance of her hat, her cheeks warmed as Jenny scrunched up her face, attempting to suppress vociferous laugher in her throat.

Miss Grimshaw sighed deeply, pressing two fingers to the bridge of her thin nose “It’s no time for horseplayin’ Miss Kirk! Dutch asked me to bring the boy to his tent after changing his bandage.” The older woman waved an angry hand at the dressing on Dell’s head, dangerously close to unwrapping itself with the slight head tilt. “But since you decided to socialize with the boy instead of making sure he doesn’t have an infection, you can go talk to Karen while both of ya laundry shirts.”

Ashamed, Jenny left without a word or mere glance, carrying the wore carpet bag tightly in her hand. Dell wanted to do something, she wanted to call out to Jenny or defend the woman’s skill against Miss Grimshaw, but she knew it wasn’t her place to speak.
“Who’s Dutch? Where am I?” Dell asked as Miss Grimshaw quickly investigating her head before quickly wrapping the gauze, the polar opposite of Jenny’s gentleness as the young girl winced at the final tug of her dressing “I can’t tell that. Dutch, he’ll tell you. He’s in charge of our group, what he says is the law around here.”

Don’t piss him off.

That was the underlying message.

 

& & &

 

“Mr. Van der Linde,” Her voice creased all noises in the tent, Dutch’s eyes became trained on her, still wearing his poker face as he studied Dell “What is it, my boy?”

“I know that I’m just a horse thief in your eyes and the eyes of your company,” She gestured to the men circled around her side of the table, then she continued “But if you would allow me, sir, I would like to tell my side of the story.” Dutch leaned forward onto the table, the movement jostling the revolver slightly, she continued to focus on his movements as he took a deep inhale of his cigar.

“Okay.” Bill spurted behind her as Dell blinked at the man, surprised Dutch agreed so quickly.

“Dutch! The boy’s a thief, we already have yer horse. Why are we still talkin’, let’s hang the brat!” Dell bit her tongue, suppressing the urge to tell Bill to shut up, she knew her and Bill will not be friends anytime soon.
“Mr. Jennings,” Her attention snapped to Dutch, her eyes widened at the man using her name though it was her surname. Dutch noticed her befuddled look and chuckled, gesturing with a slow sway of a ringed hand at the table “The floor is yours.”

 

& & &

Dread.

The same dread she felt about stealing that Turkoman for Mr. Larson as she sat in the lavish tent of the enigmatic leader, straining to hear the conversation outside. After redressing her wound, Miss Grimshaw slipped out for the tent, talking to a person called Tilly, then returned with a bucket of clean water, a rag, a cup of tea, and a change of clothes as she ordered Dell to strip.

Prompting Dell to protest, Miss Grimshaw shot her a mean look “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let a dirty boy run around my camp!” Suddenly the woman softened slightly when Dell flinched away “If you want privacy, then I’ll give ya that. I have to check some of the other members if you ain’t sparkling clean and changed when I get back. I will whip you something fierce,” Before Dell could voice her question about these “other members”, the woman disappeared through the slit, leaving Dell alone in the dim tent.

Seeing that her choices were limited coupled with her bubbling fear of Miss Grimshaw, Dell managed to strip out of her muddy clothes, her nose wrinkled at the sight of them. Her pants had many tears, her shirt was missing a few buttons at the bottom when she usually just tuck it into her trousers, and her leather belt was fringed with many handmade holes from how skinny she had become due to the lack of abundance of food.

Since she couldn’t recall her last bath, it becomes crucial that Dell washed the most important and fetid body parts with great vigor. Though she fully doubts the fragrance of horse would ever leave her skin, the feeling of the cool water wiping away the grime from her struggling career of horse thievery rejuvenated her in a way sleep and hot food couldn’t. Deciding that she met Miss Grimshaw’s sparkling clean standard, Dell dressed in the spare change of clothes, as she predicted when eyeing them in the matured woman’s hands, they were too big for her.

She immediately could tell had once belonged to one of the male members, the pale blue shirt held a faint scent of hair pomade and cigarette smoke, it reminded her of her father’s favorite tan coat. He always wore it when working out in the ranch, chatting with Mr. Ceilo, a short round Italian man with a kind face and her father’s personal veterinarian, smoking fancy cigarettes underneath the cool shade of one of the vast oak trees that scattered the endless property, watching the colorful sea of horses mingling about.

The urge to scream tugged at her throat, clawing for escape. She wanted to wail for her dear father, once so happy and radiant with ambition, now laying six feet in California soil, dying like that of a tragic figure in ancient Greek plays.
“Mr. Pearson! I need to discuss something with ya, regarding last night’s stew…” The orotund voice of Miss Grimshaw snapped Dell out of her wallowing, quickly finished putting on the oversized clothes and downing the cold tea in large gulps.

She was tugging on her mud-caked boots when Miss Grimshaw returned, the older woman hummed in approval of Dell’s improved appearance and gestured her to follow outside.

 

& & &

Silence filled the tent as Dell finished her story, she told the men about agreeing Mr. Larson’s offer despite knowing his history of deception, her dire need for money, Hoagy Macintosh, stealing both the Turkoman and the Arabian, and his excuse to delay Dell’s payment.

Hosea was the first to break the silence with muttering “Bastard” underneath him. At least she had Hosea on her side, but she needed Dutch to see Mr. Larson’s deception and her innocence as the truth. Dutch looked at her intensely, she felt a twist of self-consciousness as the man scanned her face and her build despite it was hidden underneath the oversized shirt.

“How old are you?” She raised an eyebrow, not expecting a question of that type to leave his mouth after listening to her testimony.

“Twelve.” Bill and John looked dumbfounded, while Hosea and Dutch exchanged a private conversation through looks at one another. “You’re mighty tall for your age, son.” Dutch chuckled, smoothing his mustache down with a hand, “And too young for a thief.” Hosea added, crossing his thin arms across his chest, his face contorted into a frown.

“I’m too young to be a murderer or sinner sir,” Glancing over to the elderly man, letting a sad thin line of a smile appear on her face, revealing her exhaustion over this entire situation “But I’m old enough to be a thief.”

& & &

 

The warmth of the afternoon sun felt good on Dell’s cool skin, almost made up for the brightness that blinded her as she left the darkness of the tent. Chorus of the joyful birds sang together in the thick shade of the oak trees, almost humming their tune, Dell trailed behind Miss Grimshaw.

Dell recognizes the thick wilderness surrounding, she rode Jolie to the next county to scope the quality of the horses in the nearby town. Since she could afford a room at the local inn on rare occasions, the young girl slept on the outskirts of the town with a few supplies to craft a smaller campsite than her lonesome one in the mountains near Underwell. There were many tents pitched up, scattered about a large opening in the dense sea of brush and pines, she watched the unfamiliar people walking about the campsite, seemingly doing chores as a few of them chat among themselves. Dell noticed a flash of pale purple in the corner of her eye, Jenny sat across the field, hunched over on an overturned bucket, scrubbing a shirt in a washtub, talking to a curvaceous woman with curly blond hair. Jenny’s head tossed back as the two exploded into loud laughter, dipped the soaked shirts back into the soapy water.

Suddenly aware of her solitude and desperate urge to join those unknown faces bubbled deep inside of her, the need to learn their names and stories overwhelmed her. Forced to learn how to cope with complete isolation, saved for Mr. Larson and the rare folks, so desperate for human interaction that they would settle for a filthy orphan to chat with. Dell fantasized laughing among them as they shared their best tales by a roaring fire, weeping among them when hard time fall upon them, but they would pull through in Dell’s head. They always do.

Midst her laughter, Jenny briefly glances over in Dell’s direction for a moment, before realizing what she had seen, and quickly snapped her attention back to the young girl with bewilderment. The blond woman saw her friend abrupt end in laughter and looked in the same direction, noticing the stranger in the camp, she scooted closer to her friend to whisper something even more incoherent into Jenny’s ear. Her mocha eyes glued on Dell’s moving body, Jenny nodded at whatever the other woman said, the blonde bolted up and swiftly walk over. The curvy woman’s her hazel-green eyes trained on Dell as she made her way to a bulbous man with a dark horseshoe mustache, also paused in the middle of carrying a basket of carrots to observe Dell’s exit from the dimmed tent.

Like a row of dominos, others switched their attention to Dell, gawking or glaring as if she was a newly discovered animal species. She felt like puking.

“All ya waiting for the grass to grow between yer toes? Get back to work!” The booming order of Miss Grimshaw seemed to unpause time as the others in the campsite hastily returned to their task, including Jenny and the blonde who returned to the wash tub. The sensation of vomiting dwindled away, thanks to the tyrannical intimidation of Miss Grimshaw. “Honestly,” Miss Grimshaw huffed, walking between tents towards a large cream-covered tent sitting in the middle of the other tents “Ain’t like they never seen a thief before.”

Dell paused for a moment, shocked at the nonchalant tone of the older woman, she unconsciously denied the truthful claim “I’m not a thief, Ma’am.” Although she was a thief, a horse thief, in particular, many people didn’t take kindly to criminals. Lying is her own ticket from avoiding the law, and maybe her charm will make them think otherwise of her, or maybe she was tired of having one-sided conversations with a stubborn ass of a horse like The Count and her desire for human interaction is overruling her practical senses. She didn’t prefer the latter in this situation.

Miss Grimshaw scoffed at the lie but never disputed her which Dell was thankfully for. Her foot hit a rock, she caught herself from falling to the grassy earth but stumbling like a newly-born fawn as Miss Grimshaw swiveled around. The mature woman raised an eyebrow at the clumsy display, shouting into the partially opened flap of the large tent “The boy’s here, Dutch,” Dell quickly composed herself, fixing and dusting off her borrowed clothes, combing her fingers through her cropped hair as a deep voice came from inside of the tent “Bring him in.”

Miss Grimshaw nodded at the voice, her dark watchful eyes switched to Dell, studying the young thief before saying as she left “He’s waiting.” Her tone sent a shiver down Dell’s spine, she couldn’t let her nerves destroy her resolve to get her questions answered. Sucking in a deep breath and straightening her back, Dell slipped through the opening.

The tent was spacey with a soft-looking cot in the corner with fine furs folded at its foot, a makeshift desk with a stack of paper and books neatly placed on top of its wooden surface sat next to it, a bass phonograph sat on a chest near the entrance of the tent. Dell nervously avoided the other people in the room until one of them chuckled deeply at her anxious action, looking up she was met by four men of various sizes, ages, and visible meanness.

“Will you please take a seat, son?” Her attention switched to the wood table set up in the off-center of the tent and the manicured man sitting one of two chairs. He was well-dressed with a tailored black suit with a peek of color in the red of his vest and various gold chains within his vest, his black hair slicked back with pomade, and sported an impressive mustache and soul patch. She noted as she sat down in the empty chair, how much the tailored man reminded her of her father’s former business associates.

“First, I would like to apologize for my boy, John’s actions earlier today,” The man gestured behind Dell, she turned her head. Over her left shoulder, a lanky man stood in the corner, his clothes were plain compared to the seated man’s lavish style, the man’s dark eyes made contact with hers. His eyes immediately narrowed with mistrust and suspicion. Either, not seeing the glare because he decided to light a cigar or chose to ignore it, he elaborated “He was the one who startled your horse which unfortunately caused you to be buck off and get a nasty bump on your head.”

Horses? The Count!

“Is he alright?” Dell asked, returning properly back into her seat.

“Who?”

“The Count. He’s the horse that bucked me off, is he alright?”

Dutch nodded, wearing an unreadable expression on his face. It felt a weight was lifted from her shoulder, she let out a long breath, relieved The Count was fine.

“How’s your head, boy? I’m glad to see that Miss Grimshaw has tended to your injury and cleaned you up,” The man asked, Dell found the man somewhat pleasant, but she hesitated to relax, especially with the two of the other men sinking daggers into the back of her skull with their eyes. Dell slipped on a polite smile “I’m fine. I’m very thankful for your hospitality, sir. Oh, and the clothes too!” Awkwardly tugging the shoulder of the billowing shirt up to her lean frame, the man frowned and shook his head “Sorry for the ill-fitting clothes, son, they belonged to one of the male members of our family. He grew out of them years ago, I guess he was big for his age.” He chuckled affectionately, the act made Dell’s heartache.

“Dutch, can we cut the crap? We ain’t here to reminisce about Arthur, we need to collect that bounty!” The man was just as burly as Mr. Larson, his thin clothes stretched across fat and muscle, and with the same thinning patch of hair onto his head. Dell snapped her attention between the two men “Bounty?” Her heart raced as the familiar dread creeping into her throat, forming a coal-sized lump there “What bounty?”

The seated man, Dutch, sighed, annoyed at his companion’s outburst “Excuse Mr. Williamson, he can get excited easily,” Shooting a pointed look at Mr. Williamson who muttered underneath his breath, before his attention shifted to a very confused Dell “But you see, he is right. We’re not here to reminisce the past, we’re here to ask that white Arabian outside, you know, The Count.”

“What about him?”

“Before that, I need you to know that a week ago my company and I had two horses stolen from us. It happened in the middle of the night, outside of Freddie’s, the saloon down in Underwell. You know, the one where The Count bucked you off at?”

The lump was the size of an apple now, she nodded stiffly “Yes, I remember.”

Dutch grinned, it was one of those crocodile smiles her Granddaddy warned her about, she needs to puke again. “So you see, my boy, we lost two horses that night, a fawn-colored Turkoman and albino Arabian” The room started to spin, her eyes could hardly focus, she shut them to stop the world from spinning so damn fast. She barely heard Dutch further explaining how he had met up with an associate of his in the horse stealing business, named Ernest Larson, and how he went to the stables where he was met with Mr. Larson reporting to a sheriff from a neighboring town about a young boy trying to sell him a stolen horse. And how Mr. Larson, so eagerly, told Dutch in private how that same boy stole him a Turkoman earlier in the week and the boy’s “plans” to sell him a beautiful white stallion.

“Dell Jennings.” The moment she snapped her eyes opened, the world was still. Dutch sat back in the creaky chair, a king in his throne.

“Answer me this.”

& & &

 

“Did you join this gang?”

“Yes.”

She had no choice.

Chapter Text

Claiming the steamboat robbery in Blackwater a fiasco would define it poorly.

It was a catastrophe.

Everything was according to plan until a lone gunshot pierced the air, shattering their camouflage, and all hell broke loose. Lawmen and Pinkertons swarmed the boat and port, bullets and the pained cries of men and horses filled the usual tranquil air as everyone dive for cover during the shootout.

Dell jolted at the first gunshot, the sound rippling through the quiet air of the riverbank she was stationed at, fumbling to hold the binoculars steady in her trembling hands as the roars of gunfire began on the dock. Panic pierced her stomach at the popping, the law had to find out their plan to rob the incoming steamboat, from the rapid popping echoing, there was a lot of them. Meaning the men on the boat and dock- Dutch, John, Davey, and a couple of men from the camp were surrounded, possibly receiving gunfire from every side.

Scrambling to her feet, nearly tumbling over as her boot slid on the gravelly dirt of the riverbank, she nabbed her binoculars. Throwing them into her satchel, a hand-me-down from Arthur, Dell sprinted down the embankment, pebbles crunched underneath the fast pounding of her boots. The air was loud with the explosion of bullets and shouts of angry wounded men in the near distance, her heart pumped with fear, motivating her body to push beyond its physical limit. She couldn’t stop, not now. As badly as her muscles begged for rest, or how her mind wonders back to the men within that shootout, eagerly to ponder whether they are living or not. She couldn’t.

She needed to find Mac.

Alongside her, Mac was assigned by Dutch to be the look-out, on the grounds that the elder Callander brother’s tall hulking body, not to mention his notorious nasty temper, which had a habit of flaming up at unpredictable times, made him “a sore thumb” Dutch claimed.
Mac was watching the mouth of the river, where it diverges into three separate rivers, coursing through deep-seated valleys like veins, and he would signal the others at the dock when the boat entered the Blackwater river. Her job was to make sure that the boat docked into Blackwater, which she confirmed to Dutch and the others with a blinding reflection of light of a mirror shard from her bag.

She prays silently, Mac was running her direction, once he heard the beginning shots to collect her. Not that, he had abandoned his post to impulsively ran towards the gunshots like a moth drawn to fire, fulfilling this innate need to feel the adrenaline flooding the body as bullets kiss the skin. An undesirable trait shared between him and his younger brother Davey, although Mac was somewhat fond of her, partially because of Davey, so he would have the right enough mind to know he would be in deep shit the moment he returns to camp without her, if not killed, beaten by one of the gang members, then his brother would do the job.

Ignoring the intense burning of her lungs, Dell sharply veered left as she slammed through the thick brush of the woods, paving a shortcut between her and Mac’s post. Branches and bushes pricked and jabbed at her hidden flesh, fabric nearly ripping as her clothes snag nature’s more bladed plants as she darted through the backwoods.

The gunshots and angry shouts grew fainter as she dashed, leaping over fallen logs and zig-zapping a pathway of destroyed underbrush. At one point, she had nearly face planted into a muddy creek as her boot snagged on an exposed tree root, she caught herself by her hands just in time and proceeded on her way.

The woods grew more familiar to her, Mac’s hiding spot was just beyond the small hill, she began to call out.

“Mac! Are you there?” Her voice boomed among the silent trees, Mac didn’t answer. “Mac, come on! It’s Dell, answer me!” Please answer.

Suddenly the thick forest broke into a clear land next to the cliffside, overlooking the bustling town of Blackwater, where Van der linde gang resides in its outskirts. The wind picked up, unsettling the river and abusing the trees with hard gusts, she shivered as cold air sneaked into her thin cotton shirt and light pants, indicating the fast-approaching ending of Autumn with the incoming birth of Winter.

“Mac?” She walked up to the large family of browning bushes where she had left the older Callander with his prized sniper rifle, to journey to her post down the river. Hesitating, she brushes aside the leaves and froze immediately.

Mac was gone, so was his rifle. What remained was an imprint in the dry grass where he had laid down, observing the mouth of a river through his sniper scope, but the sight disturbed the young thief. In the middle of the outline, a dried pool of blood stained the flattened yellowish grass, and it wasn’t there when she and Mac had first arrived.

A lump appeared in her throat, Mac vanished. She was alone.

 

* * * *

 

“Luck is a sly whore, one day she will tell ya ‘she loves ya’, next day she’s twisting a knife in yer back.”

Her Granddaddy once had muttered it to her, leaving a poker game after a few continuous games with a losing hand, she wasn't supposed to be in a saloon, especially not at the age of seven.

She still remembers the dim-lit tavern with a weathered piano playing softly in the background and the disgusting scent of cigarettes and gin radiating off the other men at the poker table. A heavily-perfumed woman dolled in excessive make-up and scantily clad cooed at her from the lap of another poker player, remarking sweetly to her Granddaddy about the “darling child” sitting politely in his lap, enchanted by the graceful movement of red-checkered cards between the rough marred hands of the men.

She recalled, sometime during poker, her Granddaddy had handed her off to the woman, without taking his eyes off his cards. The woman gleefully sweeps her little body into her fragrant arms and away to a corner booth of the saloon where she and other women, equally underdressed and dolled, fawning over her, as if she was a rare jewel, not a timid little girl whose guardian abandoned her for a card game, until her Granddaddy finally retrieved his granddaughter, plucking from her adoring crowd of prostitutes, pouting at her departure.

Many years later, her Granddaddy has long been buried, blue wildflowers beside his grave back in California, recalled from the last time Dell had visited his resting spot. Now in a world away, living a new life under a familiar name, yet distant from her last, Dell can draw the parallels between her late Granddaddy and certain men in the gang; Hosea is reminiscing of his wisdom, the little nuggets of advice that her Granddaddy had murmured in his soft voice that she often strained to hear him. Arthur, despite much younger than her Granddaddy, had a soft soul underneath the muscles, scars, and acts of cruelty, especially for her. He protects her, with the same ferocity.

Dutch was something entirely different in her reminders of her Granddaddy. He reminded her of that night in the saloon with her Granddaddy and the poker game, despite losing that night, he had returned the following night, without her because her mother had interrogated him the next morning at breakfast, questioning “Pa, why does my daughter smell like a cheap whore?”.

He came back that night with all the money he had to lose the previous night, winning poker game after poker game. Like Joanes Jennings, Dutch seemed to always bounce back when a job goes awry and the lawmen are breathing down their necks, she admired how the man just brushing himself off, immediately formulating another plan that succeeds. Dutch’s perseverance, the gang stayed strong through most severe hardships because if Dutch can succeed, we can too. It is the gang’s unofficial motto.

But after the Blackwater mess, doubt plagues her mind, conjuring a thought that terrifies Dell into her core. Shame washing over her, cursing herself for even thinking that could be a possibility, but with the floating gossip of the bloody massacre on the dock from the shoot-out, circulating within the town, spreading through the country like wildfire as Dell overheard two men from different county traveling home, whispering about the hated Dutch’s boys. She couldn’t help to ponder the damning question, repeating in her mind, threatening to alter her idol view of Dutch, she has built over the years she has been running with him and his band of misfits.

Are we able to bounce back from this? Or has lady luck forsaken us?