“I’m trying to decide which of you is the bigger fool…”
It was early morning, just before sunrise, but Catherine was not taking her usual early respite. Instead she was saddling Woden and packing her saddlebags. Hosea was leaned against the nearby wagon, arms folded.
“Let me ease your mind, Mister Matthews: it’s most assuredly me.” She answered offhandedly, voice soft. She wanted to be on her way without much fuss.
“That might be true,” The old conman agreed, “considering you’re trying to ride out on your own without even a gun. You don’t have a tent or a bedroll… did you pack a blanket? A coat? What about a lantern?”
“I’m going into town, not the wilderness.” She put a lot of effort into keeping her voice neutral and toneless.
Hosea shook his head, “Things happen on the road all the time, Catherine. You should know better than to be unprepared— especially since you clearly intend to leave before anybody can insist you don’t go alone. Which, by the way, is also pretty foolish.”
The lady didn’t respond, instead she started to switch out the simple rope halter for Woden’s bit and bridle.
“… I don’t suppose you even packed any money?” Hosea pressed.
Laughing, Catherine’s fingers fumbled with the leather that had somehow become twisted while it had been hanging up since the last time she’d ridden, “Mister Matthews, don’t be silly. You know I don’t have any money. Any money that has ever benefited me belongs to my father. Or, more recently, Mister van der Linde. Any money I’d pack would have to be stolen from the camp, which I imagine, would be incredibly inadvisable.”
“So you’re going to town with no money, no coat, no gun… no protection at all?” Now the old man’s voice was more than teasing— it was disapproving. Perhaps even disappointed at the extent of her recklessness.
For his chiding, Catherine gave him a look, eyebrows cocked and lips pursed, clearly displeased, “Yes, Mister Matthews. As we’ve already discussed: I’m the bigger fool than whomever you were comparing me. I suppose you will be wanting to report to Dutch about my departure and ill-preparedness…?”
A disarmed, quizzical expression appeared on the usually composed features of Hosea’s face, and though he opened his mouth to say something, he couldn’t seem to find his words.
Softening her tone, Catherine turned back toward the twisted bridle, “… I know you told Dutch about our earlier conversation concerning Mister Morgan. He taunted and threatened me afterwords. I was very foolish to think I could trust you, Hosea.”
The silver-haired man let out a heavy breath and stepped forward to take the bridle from her where she struggled with it. His practiced fingers worked quickly, “It has nothing to do with trusting me— which, as anybody might tell you, is probably better avoided. Whether you like it or not, my dear, Dutch van der Linde is the leader of our community. Any behaviors that might pose a threat to the safety of the gang are his business. Including your trying to manipulate Arthur for your own ends— no matter how necessary you may think they are.”
Frustrated with her own failures to sort out the tack herself, and further irritated that he could do so easily even while scolding her— no matter the kindness in his tone!— Catherine dropped her hands to clench her fists at her side, feeling tension in her jaw, “So is that what I am, now? A threat to the gang?—”
“— I dare to contradict Mister van der Linde, I have the audacity to disagree with him, I refuse to throw myself at his feet and beg his forgiveness for my ‘transgressions’, and I attempt to protect myself from his increasing aggressions against me in the only way I know how, and thus have become a threat?”
“…I didn’t intend it as an accusation,” Hosea replied calmly, “I only wanted Dutch to be aware that his relationship with you was causing tensions that could result in troubles. This gang means a lot to both of us. We’ve been friends for over twenty years. You told me what you suspect, but I don’t at all believe your fears will come to fruition.”
Catherine was not appeased, “So you know him very well, then? And the company here, also? Could you explain something I find peculiar, then?”
“I can try…” Hosea shrugged, uneasy with the anger in her usually controlled voice.
“How is it that we claim to be fighting the rule of society over us while at the same time accepting willingly the tyranny of one man who cannot tolerate being questioned?”
“Is that the way you see it? See us?” The conman handed her back the now-straightened bridle. She took it from him silently and carefully put it on her horse.
“… Is that what this is about— what you’re so eager to run away from so early this morning, Catherine?”
Pulling the reins over the stallion’s ears and behind his neck, the pale-eyed lady didn’t face Hosea when she answered, “… I’m not running away from the gang. I was told by our peerless leader to get us some money, so that’s what I’m doing.”
“… It’s foolish to go alone.”
“I wouldn’t want to put anybody else at risk with my ‘threatening behaviors’...”
“Now you’re just being silly…” Shaking his head reproachfully, Hosea looked back toward the camp to see if anyone capable was around. Catherine mounted up and put her heels lightly to Woden’s sides.
“Goodbye, Mister Matthews,” She said quietly, “I’ll be awhile, I think.”
They loped away without waiting for his response.
Arthur counted horses again before realizing who it was that was missing. Cursing under his breath as he dropped the afternoon hay bale, he whistled for the silver buckskin as he bent to cut the twine so he could kick the leaves apart for the horses. But Woden didn’t answer his call, which was unfortunately not surprising.
“Where th’hell did that damn horse go now…?” It wasn’t uncommon for the stallion to untie himself and trot off to find something to get into.
He was about as much trouble as his rider.
It was at that moment he noticed that Miss Schofield’s saddle and tack were missing as well.
Icy dread clutched at his guts, clawing slowly up his throat. Surely she hadn’t run off on her own. Maybe she was just out for a ride? He still didn’t like that she’d gone alone— after all she was still a novice rider, and though Woden treated her particularly well, he was still a somewhat unpredictable, testy mount. If something were to go wrong…
Maybe she was just cleaning her tack?
A brief investigation of the camp and immediate area uncovered that she was not under the women’s canvas— which he didn’t expect anyway— nor anywhere else. How long had she been absent? He hadn’t looked for her this morning, before leaving with the old conman tracking leads. Meanwhile, there was Hosea, looking troubled watching him skim the camp. The old man’s eyes must have read the concern on Arthur’s face as easily as Arthur’s eyes read it on his.
“She’s not here,” Hosea told him. “She said she was going to town to get some money like Dutch told her. This morning. A little before we left.”
“Well, who went with her?” Arthur asked, wondering if he’d miscounted horses even still.
Frowning deeper into his coffee, Hosea answered, “Nobody did. She went alone.”
“— I told her it was foolish. She wasn’t about to listen to me, though. Said she can’t trust me anymore.”
Hosea was trying to sound reasonable and matter-of-fact, but it was clear that he was deeply troubled about it— by Catherine’s distrust of him. Arthur knew he was fond of her— that they shared a great many skills and interests, as well as a very similar approach to problem-solving. It explained his somewhat distracted behavior during the day as they investigated the grifter troubles they were planning to take advantage of. Likewise, he’d been certain that Catherine at the very least deeply respected, if not truly admired, Mister Hosea Matthews. He would have wondered what in the world had happened to divide them this way so suddenly, but Arthur was too immediately concerned with her departure.
Men had been offered large sums to hunt her down. She knew this. What was she trying to do?
Was she running? He’d heard the whispers too— people in camp wanted to know her motives and the extent of her loyalty. This was a fair enough question— after all, they had all more or less been driven to the outlaw life because there were no other viable options, but she certainly had another life waiting for her. Folks wondered around the campfire when she might decide she’d had enough of rough living on the wrong side of society.
Things were tense in camp, too. Those who’d been friendly toward her— including himself— were now cold or even antagonistic to her. Whether deserved or not— and Arthur didn’t think he was in the best position to pass judgment— things were certainly harder for Miss Schofield now.
Was she running?
Even despite his more personal feelings about that possibility, there was the threat to the gang to consider. She knew where camp was. She knew their plans. She knew the personal business of various members. She knew far too much to just be let go. Not when her loyalty to Dutch was questionable at best, and her loyalty to the rest of them had been so abruptly disincentivized.
And that was before anybody started trying to work her over concerning how own involvement with them and their activities.
Seeing the big outlaw’s expression, Hosea quickly spoke up, “Calm down, Arthur. No good will come of you getting all worked up. I’m sure she’s fine…”
“I’m going to get her,” He announced, turning to march back to the horses.
It was Jenny, however, not Hosea, who stopped Arthur, hands on her hips, leveling him with her dark eyes, “… Goin’ to get who?”
“He wants to go bring Miss Schofield back. She’s gone on her own to town and hasn’t come back yet.” Hosea supplied while Arthur furrowed his brow and gauged his odds at success with tangling with the woman. She was one of few people who could holler him down and refused to be hollered down in return, and she looked primed for an argument.
That sharp look under raised eyebrows only intensified, “Oh, is that a fact, Morgan?”
“—After all your nonsense, and all this foolishness after whatever happened in Tumbleweed? Can’t even look her in the eye, but now you want to go chargin’ off after her?! Why, ain’t you just the most decent man, worrying about poor Miss Schofield?”
Arthur tried again, “That ain’t—”
“— I’ve got a better idea: how about you leave her alone like you’ve been doin’? I’ll go into town and make sure she’s alright. Don’t you get yourself in a fuss…”
“You ain’t goin’ alone,” Arthur retorted, “There’s men hired to hunt her down—”
“—You think I’m afraid of some bounty hunters?!” Miss Kirk’s tone pitched toward personal affront and Hosea spoke up quickly.
“You should probably go together, anyway. Though, I’m sure Lenny—”
“—I’m goin’. Stop arguin’ with me about it…” The big outlaw huffed.
They eyed each other up over the matter. Every inch of Arthur seemed to vibrate with urgency and irritation. He really didn’t want to fight further with Miss Kirk, but neither was he alright with backing down from her this time. Neither she nor Catherine had witnessed the sort and caliber of men Mr. Schofield’s obscene wealth had procured…
Scoffing, Jenny dropped her arms and turned for where the horses were hitched up. Saddling and mounting quickly, they were soon on their way.
“… She talk t’you before she went?” Arthur asked abruptly, “Say anything about what she was plannin’?”
Grimacing, Arthur said, “… You think she’s runnin’?”
Scoffing again, louder this time, Jenny drew back on the reins of her bay mare, so that she sidled up beside Slim who dwarfed her considerably, “Oh, I see… Tell me, Morgan, what are you more in a twist about? That she’s off on her own, maybe in danger… or that she might be fed up with your and Dutch’s shite and made tracks?”
“Either one. Both.” He grumbled.
“You damn fool…”
“If you had any sense at all, you’d know she ain’t runnin’ off, even if you an’ them others are treatin’ her like a scorpion in yer boots. She ain’t about to let you have the satisfaction. I hope you know she’s gonna give you an earful— either in laughter or somewhat else. Not sure which, but I hope you’ve a good appetite for it. You fool.”
It had been an interesting, but productive day. Instructive. Catherine had learned a great deal about her limitations, but fortunately none of those lessons had been terribly harsh. She’d only lost her seat once, when Woden plunged after a snake she never saw, and had spent the better part of half an hour chasing and calling him on foot through the scrub. After arriving in town, one of the working girls informed her that her riding skirt was torn, but not so badly that the garment no longer preserved her modesty. Still, it was very visible damage and would be incredibly humiliating to a more fastidious woman of her status. Deciding to use the situation to her best advantage, the pale-eyed lady availed herself to the wide-eyed sympathy of a few wealthy European gentlemen finishing up their holiday in the ‘frontier’. It was much easier, of course, to do unaccompanied. A woman alone was no threat to anybody.
The gentlemen had taken a good bit of her time, but in fairness, they’d paid her handsomely for it— though of course, in their good opinions, they were assisting a woman in need. Therefore, it was late afternoon by the time she left the general goods store, with the young man hired on there for heavy lifting trailing behind her, her roll of canvas over his shoulder. Together, they loaded it comfortably on the mildly perturbed silver buckskin, and he showed her the best way to tie it secure. She thanked him, tipped him, and was turning to unhitch Woden and be on her way when she saw a familiar face on the other side of the horse’s back.
“Been busy I see,” The other woman smiled, “Though I’d’ve thought your usual sort of business wouldn’t leave your clothes so dirty…”
“Admittedly, my usual sort of business doesn’t unseat me in the desert…”
Jenny laughed and quickly tried to stop herself, “Why, you aren’t hurt are you?”
“No. I’m alright. The clothes took the worst of it, though my pride in my horsesmanship is quite bruised. What brings you to town?”
Jenny’s grin was clever, “Oh, they’re all upset, you know. Hosea and Arthur, I mean.”
Giving a delicate snort, Catherine unhitched her horse and maneuvered around the front of him so she could stand beside Jenny to talk with her. “They’ve no reason to be. I’m perfectly capable of handling my own affairs.”
“In fairness, they ain’t so pleased for any of us ladies to go out alone. Even me. And I know how to defend myself proper.”
“Such gentlemen we keep company with!”
“Ain’t they, though?” Jenny laughed, “You’d hardly think it with all the cussing and drinking and belchin’ an’ fartin’ an’ fightin’…”
“I must make a better effort to remember their graciousness…” Catherine rolled her eyes, then said, “You didn’t really come all this way just to fetch me, did you?”
“I’ve no business this way… Well, in truth, I wouldn’t mind a drink at all, but I doubt Morgan’s in the mood for such…”
“… Mister Morgan is here?”
“Oh, yes.” Jenny grinned, “He couldn’t be convinced to stay behind since you were involved…”
“Don’t be silly. He cares little—”
“—He’s a fool for you.” Jenny told her bluntly, “A crazed fool. And you’re a fool if you think otherwise.”
Catherine didn’t know what to say. She worried the reins in her hand idly, searching Jenny’s face for a hint of condemnation.
“…But he’s an alright sort. Better than most, at heart, I suppose,” The other went on, “So don’t be cruel to him.”
The pale-eyed lady was about to ask if Jenny thought she was being cruel to Arthur, but she cut her off with a wave of her hand, “Don’t give me that look. Unless you are a fool, or think me a fool, we both know what you’re about. It’s one thing to play with a man’s fickle desires an’ affections. Quite another to play with his heart when he’s lost his fool head over you.”
“You think he loves me?”
“I dunno ‘bout that.” Jenny shrugged, “Morgan might pour out his heart to them other girls, at times, but he an’ I… He knows me better than that. If he told me he loved you, he knows I’d laugh him out of camp.”
“Partly because I’ve no patience for his moody sentiments. There ain’t drink enough for that. Partly because he knows as well as I do that he ain’t good enough for you.” Jenny shrugged.
Laughing lightly, Catherine said, “But you don’t think any man is good at all— with the exception of Mister Summers, of course.”
“Oh, that’s not what I meant— though it’s true, you know— Don’t be a fool. You know the sort of man he is, and the company he keeps, and the business he is about. You’re a fine lady, Catherine, with fine tastes and high ideas. He can’t do nothin’ for you but give you troubles. He knows that.”
“I’ve never known a man to give me anything else,” Catherine sighed, “Fine manners and tastes or otherwise...”
“Sure. That’s men, though.”
Nodding, Catherine gestured to the street, “Where’s your filly?”
“On the corner.” Jenny pointed.
Indeed, the little bay mare was hitched up over a water trough down the street next to a large iron grey warhorse Catherine recognized immediately. Nearby, Arthur Morgan leaned back against the hitching post, smoking, radiating anger that she could see from where she was standing. Others, too, could sense his black mood, and the danger it might bring, and gave him a wide berth.
Sighing again, Catherine gestured, “Well, my business is finished. Unless you want to step into the saloon, I suppose we should go.”
“As much fun as he is to fight with, it ain’t wise to get in a shoutin’ match in the middle of town.”
Together, they walked the length of the street to meet him. He pushed away from where he leaned at their arrival, and dropped his cigarette into the dust of the road, stomping it out. His eyes were sharp as they swept over Catherine and her mount, taking in the condition of her clothes and the bundle strapped to the back of her saddle. If he noted the unrepentant look she gave him in return, it didn’t change anything in his own expression.
“Here she is, you sour-faced mule. I tol’ you she’d be fine.” Jenny announced as she mounted up.
“I am fine, thank you for your concern—”
He interrupted her, voice growling low from his broad chest, “—You know you ain’t—”
“—You know,” Catherine cut him off with a finger pointed directly at his face, “that I won’t suffer to be lectured in the street like a child. Accost me with your scathing looks all you like, sir, but you will hold your tongue until we’re in camp!”
Then she turned and mounted with only a touch of struggle and smiled down at him where he stood staring at her, half in outrage, half in bafflement.
“I had a good day, today, off my leash and out of my pen. Even our esteemable leader will be pleased with the purse I bring back. Therefore, you’ll oblige me to not ruin it until after you pen me in once more.”
Arthur said nothing, instead unhitching and mounting up himself, gesturing for them to go on ahead of him.
It was perhaps to his credit that Mister Morgan neglected to upbraid her— both on the road, and when they arrived back at camp. Instead, he hitched up his mount, unsaddled him, and proceeded to wipe him down with a soft cloth. Catherine unsaddled her own horse, shouldering her saddlebags on one side, and struggling with her canvas roll on the other.
Jenny left her mare in Arthur’s care— as was her usual— and went to get herself a drink.
The lady knew Arthur was witness to her struggle, but he made no offer or move to assist her. She wasn’t sure whether she was gratified by it or not, as she couldn’t be sure of his intention. Perhaps he was spiting her, or perhaps he was trying to respect her independence and desire for self-sufficiency.
She didn’t care much, either way. She was too busy bubbling with excitement over her accomplishments and the acquisition of her prize.
A tent. Her own tent.
She just needed to put it together…!
But first… first she needed to put the camp’s share of her earnings in the box. She made sure Mister van der Linde saw her do it, meeting his dark eyes with a sweet smile.