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Things were going well.  The gang had avoided scrutiny from the law as well as the rival local gangs.  Everyone was keeping busy, ‘making hay while the sun shined’, as Dutch said. So it was, when Miss Schofield went into town with Hosea and John to get up to their usual gambits, nobody was terribly worried about the affair until they did not return when expected.  Concerned, but also mindful of the carefully crafted narrative he’d made of himself and his perceived activities around that town, Dutch sent Charles and Arthur to find them and make sure nothing had befallen them. Arthur didn’t like how empty doing so would leave the camp-- the only ones left were Dutch, Susan, Bill, Strauss and Reverend Swanson.  Everyone else was either in town or elsewhere running down leads. Arthur determined he’d find the three and return with them straight away.

Upon arriving, it was made immediately clear that this task was going to be more difficult than at first assumed.  Despite the late hour, the entire town was alive with music and light, and people milled in the streets and on their porches, dancing, conversing, drinking, and laughing.

“What the hell is goin’ on here?” The big outlaw demanded, surprised.

Charles’s brow furrowed, “Looks like some kind of party.”

“But the whole town ?  Did we miss some kind of holiday ?”

“Dunno.  Let’s go see.”

Dismounting, Arthur made a gesture toward the crowds, “We need to find where Catherine an’ Hosea went.  You wanna split up?”

“Not really…” Charles gave him a look.

“... Well okay…” Arthur frowned back, not understanding.  Charles didn’t bother to give an explanation. Instead, he dismounted Tiama and fell into step with Arthur, making their way into the festivities in the town.  The main street was bustling, and even with their intimidating statures, it was slow going in the press of bodies and rampant foot-traffic.

They’d hardly gone ten steps before drinks were shoved into their hands by someone they barely got a glimpse of.  As soon as the drinks were in their hands, the crowd appeared to decide they were one of them-- that they belonged -- and they received greetings and exuberant pats on the back, and some even attempted handshakes.

Neither of the outlaws were used to or comfortable with this much general casual friendliness.  Catching Charles’s desperate look, Arthur repeated his question, “What the hell is goin’ on here?!”

Just then, a man in a stained green shirt bumped into Charles trying to get by, hard enough to knock his untouched drink out of his hand and onto the green shirt’s dirty pants.

“What the hell is wrong with you, damn drunkard redskin?!” The man suddenly exploded in a rage.  Wordlessly, Charles gave Arthur the same look from before they entered the crowd, and Arthur sighed and nodded in an almost apologetic fashion, balling one of his fists.  Foolish of him to forget that ignorant assholes weren’t any less ignorant or assholes just because a party was going on. In fact, they were usually worse .  He was prepared to step in to his friend’s defense-- though honestly, he knew Charles didn’t need his help, but there was the principle of the thing to consider-- when both of his hands were grabbed, almost causing him to spill his drink.  Meanwhile, Mac had shoved the green shirt man back into the crowd, and was ushering Charles out of the crowd, toward the raucous crack of laughter that could only belong to Hosea Matthews.

“Come on,” Mary-Beth was saying urgently, pulling at his wrists, “don’t make a big scene!”

“A scene?  In this ?” But he went with her toward the balcony of the saloon, overlooking the street, where Hosea, Abigail, and three other women who were likely prostitutes working a shift were waving at him, laughing and drinking.  There was a bit more breathing room toward the entrance of the saloon between groups of folks going in and coming out-- inside the common room was just as boisterous as the street, though the drinks were probably not free in there.  In the lull, Arthur was about to ask Mary-Beth was all of this was about when behind them, he heard a very angry, “Hey!”

“Oh no…!” Mary-Beth’s face blanched and she released Arthur’s wrists and stepped back for the saloon doors.

“You little thief!”

Turning, Arthur squared up with the owner of the voice, a tall fellow in a nice brocade waistcoat and a bowler hat, “Hey, friend, calm down…”

“That little bitch--”

Before he could say anything further, Davey was on Arthur’s right, holding a bottle he’d clearly gotten from the bar, “Who’re ye callin’ a ‘little bitch’ now, boyo?”

“Prob’ly ya’self,” Mac answered, slurring thickly, shoving himself into Arthur’s left shoulder, “either ‘at, or ‘is sour arse.”

“Ah, Christ,” Sean laughed, slinging his arm companionably around the waistcoat wearing stranger’s shoulders, taking a long pull from another bottle and yammering fast and lilted, “whole bloody town’s in a roll, an’ ‘e Scotsmen still wanna feckin’ foight .  Oi, English, moi fren’ ‘ere innae callin’ ye a ‘lil bitch’ now, ey?”

Whether it was the intimidating presence of the three men in front of him, or the combination of drunken Scottish and drunker Irish brogues mangling the English language beyond what he could recognize, the man in the waistcoat and bowler hat decided wisdom was the better part of valor, and ducked out from under Sean’s arm.  Mac shouted some slurred threat after him, and the three redheads burst into laughter.

“Didye see ‘is fockin’ face?!” Davey wheezed, trying desperately to control his laughter long enough to take another drink.

Sean cackled, “Shat ‘imself ‘e did…”

“Fock off, leprechaun,” Mac grumbled, snatching for the smaller man’s bottle.  Sean jerked it out of reach, and fully intended to step forward and answer the insult, but Arthur pushed them away from each other.

“Knock it off--”

“--Hey, you boys behave down there!” Hosea hollered, still laughing, “Some of us are trying to enjoy a party!  Don’t make me get the sheriff!”

“The sheriff’s drunker than they are!” Abigail announced.

“--Will somebody explain what’s goin’ on?!” Arthur demanded.  Sean slipped out of his grip and vanished into the crowd, laughing, and Davey pushed his brother into the saloon before patting Arthur on the shoulder.

Mary-Beth had vanished from behind him, but he could hear her voice talking to Mac when he entered the common room.  Charles held up the wall between the door and the window, happy to be out of the activities.

Arthur shot a look up at the balcony, “Old man, what’re you doin’ here?  You was supposed to be back hours ago--”

“--The nerve of some fools!  Trying to scold me?  Don’t you forget who works for who, here!”  The silver-haired conman was deep in his cups and even deeper in his con, and the big outlaw sighed longsuffering.

“Abigail, where’s your boy?”

“He went after his father.”

Frowning, Arthur pressed, “An’ where’s that idiot?”

“Arthur!  Hey Arthur!  Davey!”

Turning, they saw a flash of yellow in the street before a dark, slender arm raised up over the foot traffic, waving frantically.  The two men waded through the crowd toward it, finding Tilly there, holding fast to Jack’s hand. The young lady was well-liquored but holding her own.  The little boy looked exhausted , and seemed relieved when Arthur offered to pick him up.

“It’s so crowded and noisy ,” Was the complaint, “People keep pushing!”

As if to illustrate, Davey shoved back through the crowd to make a path for Tilly, and Arthur followed in his wake, the little boy on his shoulders, muttering ‘excuse me’ to the confused victims.

“Mama!” Jack yelled up at her when he saw her, “Can we go home?”

“I suppose it’s best we do…” Sighed the woman, patting Hosea’s shoulder, “Come on, you too… Jack, where’d your father get to, son?”

“He told me to wait, but then some people kept bothering me so I ran away…”

“He left-- ” Arthur began in outrage, but was interrupted.

“--Jack!  Jack where did you run off to?  I told you…” John was was wild-eyed with panic, and that panic only increased when he saw the looks both Abigail and Arthur were giving him, “-- I told him I’d be right back.  I wasn’t but a minute!”

Abigail’s tone pitched high and angry, “I cannot believe you!”

“Shut-up woman, you sent him after me without so much as a ‘if you please’ because yer drunk!  It’s a miracle he caught up to me in this crowd at all!  I’m here workin’ !  Tell her Hosea!”

Hosea just shrugged and said, “If you’re workin’, boy, where’s my daughter?”

The look on Arthur’s face was enough to make John step back, but only half-way.  Then the iron hardened in his eyes and he gestured further down the street, “She’s fine!  Dancin’ an’ carryin’ on like the belle of the ball. I’d be with her but I had to come--”

Arthur had had enough, “Get outta here, you fool.  You, that old fool, your wife, your son-- Charles, will you take all these drunk idiots back home?  I’ll go find the other fools. This is crazy… Jack, go with your mama and Charles, an’ don’ run off after anybody else.”

With that he set the boy down, who obediently ran over to Charles, calling for his mother to come down, and turned to push his way further down the street.

 

Following the music, Arthur found where they had turned the street corner into an impromptu dancing floor.  He found Sean and Javier first, as they were reliably tucked to the side, under a lamp, bottles in hand, trying to talk up three young ladies from the town.  All five of them were quite drunk, and Javier looked somewhat out of breath.

“Arthur!  I heard you were here to ruin the party, amigo!  Where’s your drink?  Here…” The revolutionary passed over his bottle, which was surprisingly still more than half full.

“What happened to you?”

“Your miss did.” Javier grinned and winked.  Arthur resisted every urge to punch him then and there.  One of the young ladies laughed and said in too loud a voice.

“Your friend Javier is quite the dancer!”

“Would you like to dance?”

“Oh… well… sure--”

“-- Where is she now?” Arthur demanded, tired of being brushed aside in all this noise.  He grabbed Javier’s shoulder. Sean was already heading off with one of the other young ladies with a mocking laugh at the older men.  The revolutionary gestured toward the somewhat large and noisy group of men on the other side of the dance floor.

“Where do you think, brother?”  He pulled out of his grip then, and left him with the bottle to go dance with his new conquest.

 

Arthur made his way for the group of men trying to talk over each other, steadily taking pulls of whiskey as he went.  The crowd broke, men complaining and voicing their disappointment, and Arthur saw the lady emerge with a tall, weedy fellow in tow.  They began a fast galop to the lively music, and the outlaw’s eyes could not have been more fixed if they’d been welded or stitched to the woman.  Enchanting as ever and entirely in her element, she moved with tireless grace, far out-stepping her gangly, uncoordinated partner.  And yet every man would’ve given anything to be him and look such a fool there beside her.  Arthur found himself wishing he were a much better dancer.  Or maybe just a braver man. Or drunker one.  He polished off the whiskey before he could convince himself what a terrible idea it was to also lose his mind to the drink like everyone else had seemed to.  The empty bottle slipped from his fingers carelessly.

 

The dance ended, and the weedy fellow tried to hold onto her hand, but the group of young men separated them quickly, vying loudly to be the next to have the privilege.  Remembering his task, Arthur roughly shoved his way through the circle of them. There in the center, Miss Schofield was making much of the choices in front of her. Then she saw Arthur, and he could not deny how effectively her sudden beaming grin spurred his heart to start racing and the back of his neck to heat.

“Arthur!” She rushed to him on uncharacteristically unsteady feet-- as if walking were more foreign than dancing, face flushed and syllables running together in a slur.

Nobody in the gang had ever seen Miss Catherine drunk.  The general assumption was that she was as opposed to drunkenness as Dutch was.  This assumption was reinforced by the fact that she drank infrequently in the camp-- if at all-- and very slowly at the saloons.  Hosea and the other men who accompanied her were of the opinion that she disliked whiskey and beer, having been raised on wine. Miss Grimshaw reminded them all that having grown up a proper lady , a taste for any sort of alcohol was unseemly, and for all her egalitarian treatment of the outlaws she surrounded herself with, and their abhorrent lack of any and all manners, Miss Catherine-Louise Schofield was still a proper lady.  Yet here she was, good and properly drunk if Arthur could be any judge.

Here she was, his arms full of her as she leaned bodily against him, the front of her body pressed firmly and unabashedly against his, her hands gripping his forearms, grinning up into his face as if she’d been waiting to see him all night…

No.  No that was foolish.

Yet feeling her heart hammering through her ribs and against his, seeing her breathless and flushed with exertion in his arms… he could not deny--regardless of how foolish it was-- how much he wanted to pull her out of the crowd and find somewhere secluded and quiet…

She tugged at him, pulling him toward the open space behind her, “Dance with me!”

Right then, in the midst of the complaining circle of men all likely younger and far drunker than he, Arthur was split in two: the man who absolutely refused the limelight and crushing social demand of attempting to do her beauty and grace justice in front of all these people, as if he were some gentleman dandy and not a hardened killer living on the outskirts of civilization very much by design; and the man who absolutely, under no circumstances, wanted to let her go, especially not to anyone else.

Particularly because something felt very wrong about the entire situation-- a whole town throwing a big drinking and dancing party out of the blue…

“I… well… nah, no… Miss…” He pulled her back toward him again, retreating toward the crowd.  Arthur could feel the young men pressing closer, shouting and hurriedly trying to separate them as the music began for the next dance.  Thankfully, they were mindful to not touch her , it was him their hands gripped and shoved.

“What are you doing?!”

“Let go of her!”

“The next dance is starting, miss!”

“Leave that feller, miss, I’ll dance with you!”

“No, I will!  I’ve been waiting, miss, please!”

“I’m a better dancer!  You’ll see!”

Arthur had just about decided impatiently that someone was going to get an elbow to the nose when Catherine withdrew her hands from him and gestured imperiously with a shooing motion to both sides, all but silencing the men vying for her attention, “Of course, how silly of me!  Why, you haven’t had any introductions, have you? Come,” she placed one hand against his broad chest, the casual intimacy causing his heart to pound fiercely and forcing him to swallow a suddenly dry throat, “we must remedy this immediately! Gentlemen, as I’ve been saying, you are too kind, but there are plenty of beautiful young women here who need dancing partners…”

Her hand dropped into Arthur’s, and she pulled him through the crowd without another word.  He stumbled after her, and when she stopped suddenly, it was all he could do to keep from running into her.  She was already speaking in an animated manner, words slurring, as she gestured to an older man in dusty clothing and a tattered red scarf, “As you might have heard, Mister Gunther finally found some good bits of gold while panning yesterday, and today he received word that there was enough to pay off his house, and he was going to buy everyone a round of drinks in the saloon!”  The man, Gunther, grinned a broad, half-toothless grin and patted the woman’s face in a fatherly way and passed her a bottle-- which Arthur promptly took from her, as she hardly needed any more liquor.  Unfazed, Catherine pulled him along through the crowd to the Sheriff, who was holding onto the waist of a plump, pretty lady in a blue dress trimmed with white lace, “But then ,” she said, “Sheriff St James finally proposed to the lucky Miss Lily Tinkerlyn, and she said yes, of course!  So they decided to throw a party!  We’re so happy for you, Sheriff, and you too, Miss Tinkerlyn-- Aren’t we, Arthur?”

Arthur had just finished the bottle and had no time to say a single word before a glass of something was shoved in his hand by the Sheriff with a broad smile as he raised another glass in a toast.  Arthur mimicked the gestured without thinking, and they both shot back the liquor while Catherine hugged the newly-engaged woman like they were good friends. Grabbing his hand once more, Miss Schofield dragged him on, helped by those shoving Arthur aside so they could talk to the Sheriff themselves.

“But that’s not all!” She was saying excitedly, “You remember me telling you how Mrs. Dotter’s barn caught fire after the lightning strike?  Well they were clearing away the damage when they found a trap door down into a small cellar that was filled with aged whiskey, old books, and some of her great-grandmother’s jewelry from Europe!  She was so pleased she decided to donate half the whiskey to the town for a big party!”

Mrs. Dotter was a portly, pleasant woman with kind eyes and ginger hair streaked with iron gray.  She laughed and babbled happily, passing Arthur a glass with pale amber contents poured from a dusty bottle.  Whatever it was, it scalded the throat and made the top of his head feel like it was floating away from the rest of him.  If Catherine noticed, she never said anything or hesitated. She dragged him through the crowd again and again, gleefully introducing him to this person or that one, who had all received some incredible good fortune in the last forty-eight hours.

A wealthy rancher with a house full of daughters finally had a son.

A poor widower had received a letter from his estranged daughter’s husband inviting him to their home in Saint Denis.

A small-time farmer had sold his preserves at a state fair and had returned with many orders for more.

A shepherd had been attacked by a mountain cat, but had survived and made it home to his family, along with all of their sheep.

Their names and faces quickly all blurred together, as each of them offered him a drink and a toast to his good health.  All the while, the troubled notion plagued the outlaw that something wasn’t right about the situation. To make matters worse, the crowd continued to press in, and he was starting to feel caged and irritable.  Therefore, the moment he saw an opening to escape, he took it, hauling the laughing Miss Schofield stumbling after him.

“H-hold on!” She gasped just before he felt her hand tear from his as she tripped.  Unsure exactly how he managed it, as drunk as he quickly was becoming, Arthur turned and caught her at both shoulders while she grabbed the front of his shirt with one hand and his bicep with the other.  Immediately, Arthur realized that once again they were isolated in a dark alley and too close together. Her pale eyes were locked on his face, lips parted and chest heaving, all laughter gone from her.

This wasn’t the first time he’d been drunk and everything he suddenly realized he wanted stretched out before him, just within reach…

Grinding his teeth together, he pushed her gently but firmly away from himself, righting her on her own feet and looking aside.  She was still looking at him, though, and she giggled behind her hand.

“My goodness, Abigail was absolutely right…”

“What?”

“She was entirely right…”

“Abigail-- What’s she right about?”

“You!”

“W...w-what about me?  H-hey!” Heat suffused his neck and ears and he stepped to follow her as she turned away, still giggling girlishly.

“I really shouldn’t say… She meant to speak to me in confidence… I should never have said anything about it…”

“Well now you have!  What’re you doin’ talkin’ about me anyway?”

She turned and laughed outright, unable to smother it behind her hand properly, “Oh, Arthur, you must know how the entire camp delights in teasing me about you?  It’s all they ever seem to talk to me about as of late…”

Stopping stock still, rooted to the ground in place, Arthur stared at her, shocked and threatening humiliation.  Was she telling the truth? The camp was talking to her about him? Had he been so obvious? Were they saying things they shouldn’t?

Part of him was angry, angry enough to want to fight all of them for their betrayal and mishandling of his private business, but the majority of him wanted to find a lake or cave or cliff to dispose of himself in for the rest of his days.

“... It ain’t… like that.” He said quietly, taking the coward’s way out.

She just smiled soft and unreadable.

“... They’re just… teasin’ you.  Makin’ trouble… They do that.”

“Of course.”

“‘Course.  I don’t… It ain’t… like that.”

“Certainly not.”

He shook his head, “No.  I mean… yer… yer…” he gestured at her one-handed and turned aside.

“... Of course,” She said softly, folding her hands primly in front of her and looking to the side, back toward the dancing, “It’s very foolish of them to try and deceive me that you might have any interest.”

“... That’s not… I didn’t mean it like that , miss… Jus’... I mean…”

She laughed quietly and made a placating but dismissive hand-gesture, “Nevermind, Mister Morgan, I already know you can have your choice of woman.  There’s no reason you’d settle for--”

“‘Settle’?!” Arthur guffawed, “‘Choice’?!  Woman, I dunno where you get these ideas…!”

“Well I mean--”

“--Yer beautiful!  Every man with eyes knows that!  And so damn clever!  An’ brave, an’ elegant, an’ you work real good for a ‘proper lady’ even if you’re real rough around the edges in gettin’ anything right… Every man from here to New York likely would sell their own momma for a chance wit’ you, and you rightly know it !  Don’ hassle me about ‘settlin’ an’ ‘choice’, miss!”

It occurred to Arthur that he had probably said too much.  The idea dropped into the pit of his stomach like a heavy stone, and it was too much a disturbance, as his guts clenched and he had only enough time to turn and step back into the alley before he violently choked the contents of his belly out onto the ground...

He was handed a handkerchief to wipe his mouth on, and the next moment he was saying he needed to sit down a minute...

Settling on his backside in the grass, propped back against a fence post, the outlaw took a moment to wonder exactly where he was now, and how he’d gotten there from the alley…

 

“Get up, Morgan.” Someone kicked his boot, and as his eyes started to crack open, sunrise sliced through his brain like a sharpened axe, and he groaned into the wild-flower scented silk of…

Of Catherine’s hair.  She was half in his lap where he sat, snuggled up against his chest, just now rousing herself.

“... Christ, just kill me…” Arthur bemoaned the hammering pain from the top of his skull all the way to the pit of his guts, “Kill me before Dutch finds me…”

“Oh my,” Catherine laughed softly before climbing to her feet with Lenny’s assistance, “it sounds as if the alcohol is favoring you poorly?”

“... What even happened ?”

“Nothing important,” She assured him while Lenny and Jenny both moved to drag him to his feet, “Just the usual drunken foolishness…”