Chapter 1: 'Wild Roses'
“Oh damn,” Miss Catherine swore after opening her parcel. The brown paper contained what looked to Arthur to be two pieces of wood strapped together with leather. It was after releasing the leather straps and pulling apart the wood pieces that she’d uttered the epithet, “Ruined.”
Ignoring the looks her outburst received—as they were still standing in the station, not far from the post office window—the young woman sighed, “Now what am I going to do…?”
Arthur stepped near to investigate and discovered the rotted remains of… some kind of plant. A flower, maybe, with dozens and dozens of limp, brown and blackened petals folded in on each other. He tried to imagine what it looked like healthy and couldn’t quite figure it. “… What is it?”
“A rose. Well it’s supposed to be a pressed rose, but it got wet and rotted…”
“… That’s not a rose.” Arthur told her, watching her expression. He didn’t dispute she was far cleverer and more proper educated than he was, and though she often teased him good-naturedly, she never tried to trick or mislead him. He wondered if she somehow… didn’t know what a rose was.
“Well, it doesn’t look like much, now, but it was before it rotted.”
“Excuse me, but I don’ think it was much of a rose even before the rot took it, Miss Schofield…”
“Well!” She huffed, somewhere between honest exasperation and the pantomime of it for effect and amusement, “I didn’t realize you were a connoisseur of decorative horticulture, Mister Morgan! Color me surprised!”
“A connoisseur. An expert with strict ideas.”
“Nah,” He indicated with one hand she exit the station with him, and used the other to lightly touch her shoulder when she did so, making clear to those giving her long, interested looks that she was in his company and under his protection, “I’m no expert, but I do know a thing or two about wildflowers…”
“Wildflowers…” She echoed, confused, “… Are you making fun of me?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Miss Schofield.”
“You are making fun of me!” Was her accusation out in the afternoon sun, “Roses aren’t wildflowers!”
Furrowing his brow, he faced her. From her expression, he could see she was somewhat truly upset about the situation—more likely the ruined product still in her hands than anything he’d said—and surprised that he would take advantage of her disappointment this way.
“I’m getting’ the notion we’re talkin’ about different things…” He said carefully.
She furrowed her fine brows right back at him, “I’m talking about roses. Flowers. We imported them from Europe and grow them in the garden back in the city…”
He nodded, “That explains it… Come on.”
He led the way back to where Slim was hitched, and she followed, pale eyes still full of questions, “… Where are we going?”
She allowed him to help her mount forward in the saddle, a feat made possible only by the specific combination of his hornless trail saddle and her riding skirts. She claimed to prefer riding forward as opposed to behind, and Arthur hadn’t anticipated trouble on the roads enough to warrant needing her behind him. Climbing up behind her, there were only minimal adjustments needed before they were arranged, his arm secured around her middle and her tucked back against his chest, her backside firmly against the front of his hips, and the smell of wildflowers threatening to drown him in waves from her dark hair while the top of her head brushed against his jawline.
It was not the most comfortable way to ride, but no one would ever hear him complain.
“We’re goin, Miss Schofield, to find you some wild roses.” He murmured into her scalp.
Fortunately, he knew of a place not too far out of town. Long rides seated like this often left him with half-numb legs and an aching-hard erection in his pants, and her sore from the pressure of the pommel digging into the front of her thighs.
It was a fine day for riding, too. The summer heat was always brutal in the high desert, but there was a nice breeze coming off the mountain that brought them some relief. The sky was a cloudless, cornflower blue, and few other riders were out, as it was entering the afternoon hours when folks avoided work—‘siesta’ both Javier and Catherine called it. Slim kept his trot long and easy, sparing his riders the punishment of a jarring ride up into the foothills.
The mostly uphill trip offered lovely vistas as they climbed, but also demanded some coaching on Arthur’s part, as the young lady was still very much a novice rider.
“Gonna hafta lean forward,” Were his words in her ear, “so’s help Slim stay center on the up.”
“Yes, but… I can’t really move further forward… unless you want me to bend?”
“Nah, don’ bend, shift your hips.”
“How? I… I’m a bit pinned here, Arthur…” She laughed lightly, a little self-conscious at her ignorance. He knew she never liked the idea of hurting or even overburdening a horse due to her lack of skill.
Dropping the reins for the quick moment—Arthur trusted the war horse to not spook or misstep in the few seconds he needed both hands—he gripped her hips on either side and rotated her pelvis forward.
It was a mistake.
It was a mistake on three fronts: Firstly, it caused a new, very intense friction between her backside and the front of his trousers, illiciting an immediate response. Secondly, it caused a similar, very intense friction between the front of the saddle where it met the pommel, and her crotch, which also illicited a response in the form of a shudder. Finally, all of these accidental consequences, and the very intentional movement of his hands, and even the intention of manipulating her body to suit his purposes better in the first place were all so much better suited to intimate activities that he could not help but reflect on them.
“Oh…” Catherine said softly while he repositioned his hands, holding the reins secure in one hand and tucking her into his elbow with the other arm. She shivered again when she felt his weight shift against as he also leaned forward for the uphill ride. Likely she could not ignore the way parts of him were pressing insistently into her.
“… Sorry, ‘scuse me.”
She laughed, “… I’d be more offended if it didn’t happen, I think… Seems to be the usual when we ride together like this.”
“… Do we have much further?” Was her uneasy prompting.
“A bit…” He admitted, “You alright?”
“… I’m fine, but if it’s all… uphill like this… I might need to stop…”
That was a concern, “… Somethin’ wrong?”
“No, Arthur,” she sighed, “just my lady bits rubbing against the saddle leather and you iron-hard in my rump and murmuring all low in my ear while taking me out of town to try and show me wild roses that don’t exist…”
Chuckling, he said, “Oh, if that’s all… it’s just a bit further…”
She found some relief as the incline smoothed and she was able to shift her hips back again to sit more naturally. Arthur found no such respite, but when she settled more relaxed against him again and brought up a hand to trace the back of his roughened knuckles with her fingertips, he could find no reason to complain.
“So what are you gettin’ roses in the mail for anyway?” He wanted to know.
“More the press than the rose.” She told him, “Mary-Beth’s book was talking about a hoity-toity miss who pressed flowers with a field press, and she didn’t know what that was. I told her I had one… being a hoity-toity Victorian miss and all. I said I would send for it. I think she’d like pressing flowers, and I understand why she doesn’t want to use her books.”
“So someone put that rotted flower in by mistake?”
“Or forgot it was in there before sending it, or wanted to send me something that reminded me of home in the hopes I’d miss my fancy gilded cage.”
“… Gotta say, that’s quite the reminder…” He mused.
“Yes,” He could hear the smile in her voice, “quite fitting.”
He heard what she didn’t say, and it made his heart race to know she wasn’t tempted to leave any time soon.
“Here.” Was his announcement, nudging the horse off the narrow trail. “Found this place huntin’ awhile ago.”
He helped her down before dismounting behind her, moving slow to adjust and favor his… predicament.
“… I don’t see any roses.” Was her dubious observation after a few long looks over the patches of prairie grasses.
Wordlessly he took her hand and drew her further from the trail and then crouched down, tugging her after him. With a finger, he indicated the scatterings of coin-sized white and pink blooms. “There’s yer wild roses, Miss Catherine.”
“Those are wild roses?” She asked.
“Yes’m. Prairie roses.”
Turning from the blooms, she looked him in the face, clearly searching for some indication of further jest at her expense. When she found none, doubt slipped away from her beautiful face and was replaced by wonder, “You really brought me out here for wild roses!”
“’Course I did, what else would I be—”
She cut him off by dropping her hand to his thigh, as if to balance herself while she leaned forward to more closely inspect the blooms he’d pointed out. The casual touch caused the muscles in his leg to jump and he stiffened while his pants became even less forgiving. She was also giving him an eyeful of her elegantly curving spine and the round of her backside as she bent.
“Oh.” He finished, unsure whether he was offended she suspected him of bringing her out here for such a thing, or embarrassed that she might be encouraging such an act.
Chapter 2: "Rain"
Catherine listened to the rain. She’d made no pretense of falling asleep, not that Dutch had seemed to notice or care. Once he was finished with her, he was finished for the night, and made himself comfortable for what he certainly considered a well-earned slumber. Tonight, as in recent nights, he’d taken longer to finish with her, and held her close as he nestled down to sleep.
She reasoned he thought himself magnanimously thoughtful in doing so. In truth, she wished he’d go back to his less thorough, more thoughtless treatment. It took far less of her time and energy to endure.
She did not deceive herself that he might treat her as he had in the very beginning, as if every part of her were a new, untouched paradise to discover and delight in—body and mind.
Perhaps he thought himself already master of her flesh, every part of her already carefully mapped out and known to him, and therefore no longer remarkable, and empty of wonder.
Which was a ludicrous notion, as he’d never even taken the time to fully undress her to make use of her body. He certainly did not afford her the opportunity to undress him. She very much suspected he refused on principle in order to safeguard against any chance of vulnerability.
Catherine told herself she no longer really minded these things, though. Dutch van der Linde’s mystique had worn off and she knew him for what he was, now.
He was an obstacle to be endured until he could be overcome.
The sound of the rain had always been soothing to her. She imagined this was true of many people. Other than the sound, though, she’d not often found rain to be pleasant. In the city, the rain smudged the sky into a gray stain and fell in greasy sheets, hissing against the cobbled streets and smearing across glass and brick. It left an oily smell in the air and on skin and clothes.
The rain in Boston gave the corruption and ugliness form and weight. It made her feel unclean. Soiled.
Like her body when Mister van der Linde and the men before him were finished with it. Like now, in this hotel bed under his arm.
“…What?” He said quietly when she moved to get up.
“Nothing,” Was her soothing reply, “I need the necessary. Go back to sleep.”
She passed fingers carefully through the hair at his temple, and he turned away from her, rolling over and falling back asleep.
Not bothering with her stockings or boots, she crossed the wooden floor on bare feet in her fine silk combinations and corset. The hall beyond the door was empty, and they had the privilege of the room to the far back of the building with immediate access to the rear balcony.
Without hesitation, she stepped out into the dark and the rain. Immediately she was drenched, long hair and expensive silk clinging to her body.
Arthur needed to piss.
It happened fairly often when he was drinking, and he’d definitely been doing a lot of that this evening. He’d started well before Dutch had come in for dinner with his young lady after their afternoon at the livery, and had lasted until now, a good while after they had left again for their room. He planned on it lasting a while longer yet, so that he would be good and deaf when he finally went to bed, and wouldn’t have to listen to his mentor plow the girl into the mattress next door.
Or maybe he’d just black out somewhere. That would be okay too.
Mumbling his intention to return to the barkeep who kept giving him concerned looks, Arthur stumbled his way for the saloon doors and it was out under the porch that he realized it was pouring rain. Staring blearily out into the dark wet, he weighed his options: step around into the alley like he’d initially planned and get soaked trying to piss in some semblance of decency, or risk public outrage by pissing from the end of the porch with the benefit of staying dry?
Dutch didn’t want any trouble. Not now while he was here trying to buy a suitable mount for his darling. Arthur knew he was trying to make up with her, and knew also that Miss Catherine wasn’t making it easy on him.
He just wasn’t sure how he felt about it. Or why he should feel anything about it at all.
It wasn’t really his business. Dutch and his ladies never was.
… Or so it was supposed to be… but everything had become so tangled up and turned around ever since Dutch had brought her to camp…
Grumbling bitterly to himself, he stomped down the stairs and into the alley, scowling and cursing at the sound of mud and worse squelching under his boots while rain pattered loudly across the brim of his hat and soaked through his vest and shirt.
It wasn’t right for it to rain hard like this in this region. Even the weather was turned all upside down lately!
His uncoordinated fingers fumbled with the familiar buttons in the dark, and there was a moment or so of half-hearted concern that he might not get them open in time to keep from making a fool of himself as Uncle did so routinely, but soon he shook himself free to go about his business.
Alleys made the necessary more decent for the general populace, but they were also good places for a mugging, so Arthur kept watch on both sides of himself. That was how he noticed the two drunkards in the middle of the street holding onto each other to stay upright and shouting at something beyond the hotel across the way. Most of it was unintelligible—either they were too drunk or he was… or likely they all were—but there was something about a ghost, a witch, and a whore.
The rain was cold and he was finished making water and eager to go back to the bar, so he tucked himself back into place and climbed back unsteadily onto the porch. The drunks in the street were still carrying on in loud voices, drawing complaints from more sober folks taking shelter from the rain under porches and overhangs. Arthur gave the hotel a cursory glance. It was a standalone building, backed against the road beyond which stretched the brushland of the steppes.
Out there in the open dark was a slender white figure, barely visible and quickly fading from view.
The rain was shocking cold, and she’d bitten her lip to keep from yelping. Instead, Catherine carefully padded down the wooden stairs to the sodden ground, feeling the mud and half-drowned patches of rough grass envelope her toes as if she might put down roots through them. Indeed she stood there for many heaving breaths as the chill and the dark gripped at her.
She was out here in her underwear. The fine silk and lace clung tightly to her, and she could not be sure her unmentionables were still hidden. What was she doing? At any moment someone might see her. Her, Miss Schofield, standing out here wearing less than even a common prostitute.
But out here, under the uncommon desert rain, she felt clean.
Clean and free, like a wild thing unchained.
Laughter bubbled up from her chest, bursting from her lips. Somewhere behind her, men started shouting. Lifting her feet from the mud, she hurried forward and across the street. Out in the beckoning night, the ground grew harsher for her feet—prickles and sharp stones and unyielding grasses, but the rain washed her feet each time she lifted them, so she went on, but with more care.
She was not afraid. She was leaving that which hurt her behind as she went forward. How could she ever blame the rain for so long? It was the city that soiled, the omnipresence of man and the rule and prominence of man which corrupted all he touched.
The rain only sought to wash and nourish.
She wanted to shout and dance. All but forgotten were the bruises on her skin, the swollen ache of her delicate parts well-used, and stain of him in her.
He couldn’t say what had possessed him to cross the street instead of returning to the light and relative warmth of the saloon. Now soaked completely through, a sour mood clambered through Arthur’s bones as he trudged around the hotel and to the edge of the street, peering out from the messy little den of civilization and into the night. There was little light, and it was difficult to see much of anything, especially in his state, but there was a hint of movement out there: a pale shadow surrounded by deeper darkness and sheets of falling water.
Wiser parts of his brain whispered it was foolish to wander out into the desert drunk, and especially so when it was raining. Rain meant flood and mudslides.
He should go back to the bar, or wiser yet, just go up the stairs just behind him and go to the bed he’d paid for.
“Heeeeey! Who’s out ‘ere?!”
The loud, angry male voice was like the sting of a whip. Instantly every part of her was alive with the urge to run, and so she was before she could even think of how foolish a reaction it was. Or how dangerous.
A loose, slick stone rejected her foot, and with a short cry she was sent sprawling inelegantly to her hands and knees.
Something bolted in the dark, and Arthur thought maybe it’d been an animal after all until he heard a woman cry out.
The drunks had been going on about a prostitute, but why would she be out here when her means and safety were all back in town?
… Well, the drunks had also been going on about a witch…
Arthur took several minutes to wonder if he believed in witches or not.
The question didn’t get answered, in the end. Instead, he found himself remembering he kept a lantern in his satchel, and if he could fumble it out and get it lit in this awful rain, he could see a goddamn thing…
A woman was out there, and either she was in trouble, or she was making trouble, and he was determined to find out which since he’d already gone and gotten soaking wet.
Maybe he could get some money off of her to pay for his time. Nothing wrong with more drinking money…
On her hands and knees, Catherine took a few breaths to gather her wits, despite the pain of sharp stones digging into her skin. It was hard to hear anything in this downpour, but if she looked back, maybe should could see if she was being followed?
Looking back over her shoulder, she could see the silhouette of a big man there, who seemed to be rummaging around his belt for something. Watching while climbing to her feet, she saw him withdraw a bell-shaped object, and then the flicker of a match.
He would be able to see her once he got that light going. It occurred to her that it was not to her advantage to be seen by strange men in her current state of undress out in the wilderness. Shoving herself upright, she hurried forward, trying to feel along with her feet so as to not trip again. Her hands and knees stung hot, but she ignored them for the moment. Time enough to address minor hurts after she got away.
It took him longer than he liked and was accustomed, to light the lantern, even in the rain, and the curses ran steadily off his tongue like water from the brim of his hat. He was a damn fool and should have minded his own business and stayed in the saloon, not wandered out here to fumble with the damn lantern to look for some damn fool prostitute or witch or runaway or sob-story beaten wife or other drunk! Worse yet was the thought that it wasn’t a woman of any kind at all, just an animal or a trick of his stupid drunk mind in this damn rain!
But he kept fumbling with the matches to keep them dry and light the wick of his lantern.
Finally the wick caught and the globe threw light out into the night, dazzling against the silver sheets of rain. A humanoid figure moved just on the edge of the light and out of it.
Arthur had spent too many years in this country, in this life, to consider strange apparitions in the dark as anything other than a threat. He’d drawn his revolver before deciding he should do so, muscle-memory taking over and leveling the weapon around the average height of a man’s chest, cocking the hammer back with his thumb.
“... Who’s out there?” He asked again, voice deepening, rumbling from his chest, “Come out!... You ain’t wantin’ t’play games wit’ me.”
Catherine had stumbled into a kind of structure when the lantern cast its light out. It was some kind of ruin, mostly wood, and fairly small. She’d found one of the corner posts, as most of the four walls were gone, but half of a roof remained. She didn’t go inside, though. Not for fear of finding nails or worse to step in, but because she thought she recognized that voice growling at her from the light source. She glanced back again. The backlight of town and the glare of the lantern obscured his face, but she could see from his belt to his boots, and that was enough to confirm her suspicions.
It was Arthur. Which spelled out two things very clearly: she was in no danger of harm, and more importantly, he was going to take her back to town.
Back to Dutch.
Something primal inside revolted at the idea, and she moved around the ruined post to continue on. He couldn’t take her back if he couldn’t find her, and he hadn’t found her yet…
Wood creaked and snapped nearby, just beyond the halo of light. He was focused now, despite his advanced inebriation, and turned both lantern and revolver that way, stepping slowly off the road and into the scattered brush.
“I can hear you. Ain’t so sneaky now… Come out, now! Don’ make me say it again!”
The lamplight spilled over and into a ruined wooden structure-- some kind of shed or maybe even coop or stall-- still fortunate to have at least part of a roof. The hint of a pale figure could be seen behind one of the posts.
“Aha! Hold it right there.”
The light seemed to drain away the feverish exhilaration she’d experienced earlier, and with it went the mad desire to flee from him.
Where would she go? Out in the wilds where she’d die for sure? Had she really thought, for even a moment, that she could just slip away and never be discovered?
That Dutch would just let her go?
Maybe when he was finished with her, but he wasn’t. Not yet. There was more to endure.
For a breathless moment, she wondered if maybe she could say something to Mister Morgan… find some way to convince him…
No. That was foolish. Regardless of his quiet, kind words, regardless of any heat in his long, soulful looks, Arthur Morgan was still Dutch’s man, through and through. That he wanted her-- and she was sure he did want her-- didn’t matter, because she was Dutch van der Linde’s and so was he. He wouldn’t defy him for her.
“... Or you’ll shoot me?” She called over her shoulder.
He thought he knew that voice, but it was hard to hear with the rain drumming against his hat and hissing along every surface. He advanced cautiously, choosing an angle where he might be able to see more clearly…
“... What if I ask nicely?” She asked cheerfully.
“... Miss Catherine?! What the hell are you doing out-- are you naked?! ”
As if noticing for herself, she shrunk out of the light and slipped beyond the building.
Panic, concern, confusion. “W-wait, Miss Catherine… what’re you… what’s… Come back!”
Suddenly he wished he hadn’t had so much to drink...
He sounded very drunk. She felt a little sorry for him.
The rain no longer felt cleansing, only cold, and she shivered under the curtains that continued to fall. The light fell over her again, and as her shadow stretched long across the muddy ground, scattered with rocks and scratchy grasses, she had the mind to be embarrassed at the way she was presented. She was probably quite the sight…
“Christ!” He swore behind her, “What happened t’you?!”
She didn’t know where to begin. What could she say? Did it matter? He was drunk. If she were lucky, he wouldn’t remember any of this, anyway…
“... Come… come on over here, miss. It’s… it’s at least dry in here, c’mon.” He sounded flustered and worried, “Yer gonna shake yerself t’death. C’mon over here…”
Catherine wanted to tell him she was fine. She wanted to tell him to go away and leave her alone. She’d been doing just fine before he’d come with Dutch’s rope to tie about her throat again.
She stood out in the rain and didn’t reply or move except to continue shivering. He’d holstered the revolver as soon as he’d recognized her, and now that he didn’t have to worry about chasing her-- he hoped!-- he set the lantern down on the ground to free up his hands. At this closer vantage, he could see that she was not actually naked. Instead, she was wearing some kind of short smock made of thin silk and lace under her corset. The material clung to her body and was rendered nearly translucent in the wet. Likewise, her dark hair was loose and long down her back and arms, leaving her rather bedraggled.
She was probably embarrassed. He wondered what had happened to her that she’d be all the way out here so underdressed. Hadn’t she been at the hotel with Dutch? Did she leave?
Did something happen again? His blood started throbbing hot at the idea.
“... Say somethin’, honey… please...”
She was fairly certain he hadn’t meant to say it, and wouldn’t have if he were sober. Certainly he hadn’t intended to say it with that much naked emotion. But the momentary vulnerability was… refreshing.
“... I’m fine, Mister Morgan. I… came out here on my own.”
“What the hell for?!” He spluttered, gobsmacked.
“... I don’t think I want to tell you if you’re going to take such a tone. Nevermind…”
She heard him shifting around back there, then he cleared his throat awkwardly, “... Well… that’s your call, but… I mean what am I s’pposed t’think wit’ you out here like a half-drowned cat!”
Rolling her eyes, she remarked, “Charming.”
“Sure. Will you please come under here…? Don’ make me come get you, okay? Be reasonable…”
He was surprised by how swiftly she moved. Suddenly, she was there, just in front of him, under the half-rotted roof. There, mere inches from his own self, looking up under the brim of his hat at him. Automatically his hands came up to grip her arms, but whether that was to establish some kind of more appropriate vicinity or simply to keep himself steady on his feet at the jarring shift in his spatial awareness, he couldn’t say.
“Yer freezin’...” He told her, “Gonna catch our deaths out here in this damn wet…”
“... I like the rain.” Was her quiet reply, little more than a whisper, drawing his gaze. Shit. She had to be so goddamn beautiful. Here in the golden lamplight, bedraggled and half naked as she was, and all he wanted was to cup her face in one of his calloused hands and trace her trembling lips with a thumb…
He wanted a great deal more than that. What he wanted opened in front of him like a great sea.
The lantern light cut his face with harsh shadows. Catherine could understand how this man could command such fear in others when it was his wont. But the light did pleasing things to his eyes, leaving no room for her to misunderstand the intensity of his look, or why his gaze lingered so long on her mouth. His hands were warm and rubbed up and down her arms, shoulder to elbow and back again, and she wondered if the gesture was just a distraction to keep from pulling her into his chest and holding her close.
She wondered if that was disappointment she felt.
Chapter 3: 'Sandstorm'
“Calm down,” Arthur replied dismissively, “them Callander boys were drunk…”
Lenny’s tone only turned more bitter, “Yeah? I ain’t seen them threatening to kill you in the middle of the night…”
“That’s because Morgan put the fear of the devil in them months ago,” Jenny laughed, patting Lenny’s arm in a consoling manner, “That’s all you have to do, sugar, is prove to them you ain’t gonna be bullied.”
Arthur was considering a well-thought out response, cautioning the youngest, newest recruit in any plans to ‘prove’ anything to Davey and Mac Callander when Miss Catherine beside him on the seat, turned to address the two in the back of the wagon.
“Or embarrass them. They need a bit more humility, those degenerates.”
“I think you’re the only in this wagon besides me who dislikes them, Miss Schofield,” Lenny told her.
“Oh, I don’t dislike them at all, I just don’t have much patience for them. They’ve got maybe half a brain between the pair, and two too many mouths, if you ask me,” She smiled at him, “But they’re fiercely protective of us, and if it is any consolation, Mister Summers, they might threaten you themselves, but they’d burn down half the state to keep someone else from killing you. There’s something to admire in that, at least.”
The young man frowned, “That just makes them crazy…”
Jenny was still laughing, and her voice turned sing-songy as she fluttered her eyelashes at the woman on the wagon seat, “Oh, don’t be letting Mac hear you find him admirable, Miss Catherine. It’s no secret the way he fancies you…”
“Mac Callander fancies anything in a skirt that will spare him two words, including ‘good mornin’’, Miss Kirk,” Was Arthur’s observation, keeping his eyes on the road ahead as they drew closer to town, “Besides, it’s Davey who keeps starin’ at her like she’s the last bottle of whiskey on the shelf.”
“Don’t mistake hate for love, Arthur.” Jenny scolded. “You haven’t heard what he says, but I have…”
Catherine scoffed and faced front again, adjusting her skirts, “He’s just angry because I beat him at cards again.”
“He keeps saying you must have cheated!’
“Sure. I cheated better than him.”
Jenny squealed, in delight and shock both, “You both cheated!?”
Lenny grumbled about why anybody bothered to play if nobody would abide the rules, and Arthur considered bringing up how he’d lost four dollars that game and might be sore about learning he’d lost it unfairly, but instead he said, “… Don’t forget love and hate are close cousins, Miss Kirk, and I don’t know nothin’ those Callander boys didn’t fight over.”
“That’s true…” Jenny sighed. They’d seen the two Scotsmen fight over booze, a take on a job, a horse, a new rifle, and a left boot. There was no reason to assume they wouldn’t fight over a woman neither of them had any claim to.
“You’re snapping the lines at them an awful lot…” Miss Catherine said quietly to Arthur. They were moving at a good trot along the road, heading into town for groceries, ammunition, and to pick up Karen, Tilly, Mary-Beth, Javier and Bill who’d been looking for leads. Dutch had been reluctant to let his paramour leave camp, but Hosea insisted her going would be good for everyone.
“That girl needs mental stimulation, Dutch,” he’d said, “and if you don’t let her look for it out there, she’ll drive us all crazy– you especially– looking for it around here.”
Arthur was under strict order to keep her safe. Dutch’s possessive streak was rearing its head again.
“Yeah,” The big outlaw told the young lady, brow furrowing, watching the horses, “they ain’t payin’ attention. Gettin’ spooky at somethin’.”
“Maybe snakes’re out?” Lenny offered, “Sure hot enough for’m to lie in the road…”
Jenny pointed to something toward the horizon off toward the east, “Maybe it’s that…”
They all turned their heads. A curtain of dark storm clouds was advancing steadily, bringing a wall of dust and sand in its wake that swallowed up everything.
“… Well, that’d do it…” Arthur sighed, “Shit.”
“Should we turn around?” Jenny asked.
“What for?” Miss Catherine shook her head, “It’ll take longer to head back than to get into town, and it’ll be easier to take shelter there, too. Unless our friends have caused trouble–”
“–always a possibility with Bill and Karen…” Was the other young woman’s laughing retort.
“–True. But supposing they haven’t, we should be able to conduct our business and wait out the storm. If they have, we’re going to have problems with our business storm or no storm.”
Nodding, Arthur clicked his tongue loudly against his teeth, urging the horses under harness into a brisker trot, “Yep, alright.” Then he indicated the back of the wagon with a jerk of his head, “Lenny, there any blankets or empty sacks back there with y’all?”
“Sure, two blankets right here.”
“Ok. Miss Schofield, how you wanna go about this?”
“You’re asking me? I thought you were in charge, Mister Morgan.”
Arthur snorted and spit off to the side of the road, “Miss, you been with us long enough to know two things perfectly well: I ain’t relied upon around here for my thinkin’, an’ me being ‘in charge’ only means Dutch knows who to blame if things go bad.”
“Poor thing,” She cooed with a clever smile, “it’s always hard being the responsible eldest sibling…”
Jenny cackled and Lenny grinned. Arthur shrugged his shoulders, “So it seems. Yer plan?”
“I suppose we should split up. Two of us for the general store, the two others round up our folks and head to the gunsmith. If the storm holds off, we can meet up in the saloon. If it doesn’t, we keep where we are until it passes and meet at the wagon.”
“Alright, which you want?” He figured it went without saying that he’d be going with her– she’d been there when Dutch made clear under no uncertain terms was her safety to be compromised.
Smiling over the back of the seat again, Catherine said, “Jenny?”
“Don’t make me manage groceries, Miss Catherine, you know I hate it so…” Was the mock-desperate plea, “Miss Grimshaw ain’t never forgiven me the time I bought flour instead of salt.”
“… Not to impugn you, my friend,” Catherine laughed, “but I suspect you might have done that on purpose, and Susan knows it.”
Jenny grinned back, “… I do so hate buying groceries…”
“Alright, I’ll buy groceries then.”
“I’m thinkin’, Miss Catherine,” Arthur said as they entered the general store, the door banging on its wooden frame in the wind behind them, “that you owe me four dollars…”
Smiling sweetly at him as he stepped for the counter she replied, “… Weren’t you just telling me your thinking can’t be relied on?”
“Oh, but I’ve a good head for debts, as most anybody will tell you…” He returned with a sardonic twist of his lips.
“I’ve heard you can be quite ruthless in your collections…” She acknowledged, “… And four dollars is a cheap enough price for silencing Davey’s bluster…”
“In the future, you’d be wise to remember plenty would see it done for free,” He advised.
“You mean with a fist to the face?”
He flashed her a smile before facing the man behind the counter, “Hey there, we’ve got a standin’ order under the name Beggman?”
Taking a moment to look Arthur over before giving Miss Catherine another look over, the store owner frowned as if wondering what kind of joke this was, the two of them coming in together. “‘Beggman’? You’re not Beggman…”
Arthur returned the frown, feeling his shoulders and fists tighten, “… You tryin’ t’make a problem–”
“–What he means to say,” The lady cut in from across the store, hearing the threat in his voice and not bothering to turn from where she was investigating bottled tonics, “is that we’re part of Austin Beggman’s company and are here to pick up his standing order, mister. That’s not a problem, is it?”
Clucking his tongue against his teeth loudly, the man shrugged his shoulders, eyes still on Arthur, and said, “… Not a problem if you got the cash.”
While Catherine browsed the shelves, Arthur sorted out the bill and counted the bags of rice, corn, and salt the store owner pulled out from the little room behind the counter. The front door suddenly banged open, almost cracking the glass panes and getting the attention of all three occupants as two men walked in, struggling with the door and looking almost sheepish about the disturbance.
“God damn that wind! That dust squall is almost on top of us!” Said the first one with scraggly blond hair and a flat cap. The taller fellow behind him wore a broad brim hat not too different from Arthur’s own, and his face bore bruises from a recent fight.
The light coming in the windows from outdoors was fading fast as a sickly brown pall fell over the sky. Remembering the horses on harness, Arthur stepped for the back door– as he’d parked the wagon behind the general store and out of the street– telling the man behind the counter he’d be right back. Hurried steps behind him informed that Miss Catherine was following him.
“Mind yerself in this wind.” He warned after securing the door shut behind her.
Her eyes were alight with excitement as she looked around at the blowing debris and the encroaching wall of sand and dust, “… I’ve never witnessed something like this!” she told him, “… What are we doing?”
“C’mon.” Leading her back to the wagon, he pulled out one of the blankets, and with her assistance, wrapped it loose around one of the horse’s heads and tucked it into bridle. They did the same with the second horse and blanket. Neither animal took well to them, especially in the wind, but Arthur was able to settle them enough he felt confident to leave them again like that. There wasn’t any way they’d be completely calm when the storm fell on them in any case, but at least their eyes, ears, and breathing were safe from the blowing sand.
“Are they going to be alright?” Catherine shouted over the wind, clearly concerned.
“”They’ll be fine. Ain’t their first sandstorm, and they keep their heads alright under harness,” He said loudly, pulling her after him as he headed for the door. It was getting even darker and already some of the initial clouds of dust were settling over them, “Trust me, it’s worse back at camp.”
There, the horses were often hitched very loosely, or even left untied altogether.. Chances were good that if the worst had passed them over by now, they were chasing down runaway mounts.
Swinging the door open, and holding it firm against banging open again, Arthur pushed Miss Catherine into the store in front of him. The flat-capped blonde was there and directed her past him with a brief touch to the shoulder, a smile on his face. When the big outlaw stepped after her, turning to pull the door firmly shut against the wind and blowing sand, he turned back to find a revolver leveled at his chest.
Sighing inwardly, he let his gaze stray from the revolver to Miss Catherine, on the other side of the blond man, and then the store owner, who was being faced with another revolver by the bigger, scarred man.
“Th’hell you doin?! I told you to watch the door, not let people in!” The taller one said.
“Shut up. We knew they was comin’ back, an’ besides, I wanted t’spend some time in the company of such a beauty.”
“Lookit that, Miss Catherine,” Arthur drawled, “men holdin’ up a robbery jus’ for you.”
“I really don’t know what to say!” She replied, feigning delight, “I’m flattered, gentlemen!”
“Shut up.” The taller man growled, growing increasingly agitated. His next words were for the shop-keep, who never lost the focus of his attention, “Open the register!”
Then as the store owner began stuttering for him to ‘take it easy’ and trembled his way over to the register, the thief said to his partner, “Get rid of them right now!”
“…How d’ye mean?” The blond man replied uncertainly, frowning at Arthur on the business end of his revolver.
“What do you mean– shoot them!”
“W– boy if you don’t shoot them, I’m gonna shoot you!”
“I’m about t’shoot my own damn self…” Arthur complained, embarrassed to be in this predicament at the hands of these morons.
“There’s no reason to shoot anybody!” Catherine said, “We’re all trapped in here for the duration of the storm anyway.”
“I ain’t got no problems bein’ in here with corpses, miss– open the goddamn register now!”
“Aw c’mon, no need to waste a pretty lady… Could always kill ‘er after…”
Somehow, the idea of failing to prevent such a thing was more galling than failing to prevent getting shot and killed by maybe the worst robbers Arthur had ever seen. Who picked a sandstorm of all times for a robbery?
The shop-keep had rung open the register and was backing away from it, pleading for his life. Catherine was also moving. Slowly, she slid the flat of her hand along the blond man’s shoulder.
“Why kill me instead of asking nicely?” She purred, all smoke and velvet and promise, drawing his attention to start to turn his head over his shoulder to look at her.
She and Arthur moved at the same time. With her other hand she smashed a glass jar of some kind of powder off the shelf over the back of his head with a loud crack and crash and spray of blood and glass. He grabbed the blond’s wrist with the revolver in it and slammed it against the shelf hard enough to hear bones crunch, forcing him to drop the gun while at the same time drew his own and leveled with the dark-haired robber who was turning to see what was going on. The shop-keep threw himself to the floor as Arthur emptied the taller thief’s head all over his counter and back wall with the blast of gunsmoke while Miss Catherine jammed the broken bottom of the jar into the blond’s face and eyes as he finished turning toward her.
Neither thief screamed. The shop-keep was cussing loudly in a high voice on the floor behind his counter.
“… Knew I could count on yer quick thinkin’, Miss Catherine,” Arthur acknowledged wryly, holstering his gun, “but wasn’t expectin’ yer savagery… Miss Catherine?”
Both thief and remains of the jar had fallen to the floor, and the young lady was giving the mangled face and spreading pool of blood a strange look.
“… I’m fine.” Was her wooden reply, face and eyes still fixated downward.
“Sure… You want a sit down? Hey, mister you got a chair for the lady?”
Muttering something about a bottle of whiskey, the shop-keep climbed unsteadily to his feet. As if his voice or Arthur’s words had broken some kind of spell, the pale eyes blinked and Catherine turned away, a thread of anger and steel in her tone, “I don’t need a damn chair. Let’s get our business settled and pay the man for our goods. And that jar…” She stepped over the blond thief’s still form and noticed her hand soaked in blood which gave her only a momentary hesitation before she grabbed a folded kerchief from the pile on the crate, “… and this.”
“All right…” Arthur chuckled, attempting to hide his concern for her and followed her to the counter, digging in his satchel again for his cash, “You want that whiskey too?”
“We can get whiskey in the saloon with the others.” She replied, eyes fixed on the register instead of the corpse on the floor beside her or the bits of brain and skull showered over the counter, wall, and signage behind it. “I’ll even treat you all.”
The owner closed the register again, “… So the list is a bit messy but I think I have a total here. I’ll gladly give you a generous discount for saving my store and my life.”
Catherine smiled and absently wiped the blood from her hands with the kerchief. The outlaw still didn’t like the pallor of her face, but the lift of her chin informed him that any further outward concern would only be met with frustration. The lady had her pride, after all.
The store darkened further as the sandstorm blocked out more daylight. They gathered their goods near the back door and watched out the front windows for the sky to lighten again.
The store owner dragged the corpses to the front door and attempted to start cleaning up the mess.
They weren’t able to have their whiskey at the saloon, as Bill had started a fist-fight during the bleakest minutes of the storm, so once folks were able to leave, they were required to. Catherine, Tilly, and Jenny talked the sheriff down from jail time, and Catherine paid a small fine in exchange for them leaving town immediately. Arthur gave Bill the beginnings of an earful on the ride back, with the promise that Hosea would hear of this and give him the rest of one.
Otherwise, it turned out to have been a very productive trip. The horses hadn’t hurt themselves or damaged any of the lines or the cart spooking at the storm. They’d found them perturbed by the blankets, stamping impatiently, and filthy, but otherwise well enough off. Javier, Bill, and Karen all had good leads despite their inebriation and fighting, Tilly had discovered some kind of secret operation back behind the churchyard in what looked like a storm cellar, Lenny and Jenny had gotten a great deal on ammunition due to some smooth talking and intelligent haggling, and Arthur and Catherine had gotten a discount on their groceries.
As well as not getting killed during that mess of a robbery. Catherine had requested he not say anything on account of Dutch perhaps not letting her out of camp again, and Arthur easily agreed on account of not being the target of Dutch’s ire for the foreseeable future.
They were enjoying drinks around the fire, swapping stories about the sandstorm– things back at camp had fared just as Arthur thought they might.
Catherine smiled quietly. Every so often, Arthur would see her wiping her hand on her skirt, her pale eyes distant.
Maybe fifteen seconds after seeing Miss Catherine leave the saloon for ‘the necessary’-- Arthur didn’t ask if she went to the outhouse or just found a quiet, dark corner to do her business-- he saw the man in the dirty red jacket, who’d been loitering by the piano steadily nursing a bottle, leave and turn the corner the same way she had. Arthur didn’t think much about it, until another full minute passed and neither of them came back. Shooting Hosea a quick glance across the room, he saw the wizened eyes meet his and the silver-haired head gave the barest tip toward the door before he laughed with the group of men at his table at the joke being told to him by the man on his left. Standing and stretching languidly, hearing every joint from the ankles up crack, the big outlaw headed out the door and went looking.
He hated to admit it, but Arthur enjoyed accompanying the two of them on their devious little theatrical outings. They played well off each other, both of them so quick and observant, able to switch the script as necessary to play an individual or even an entire room into their hands. It was impressive to watch. More than that, it was a genuine pleasure to see the two of them enjoying themselves so readily. Few things anymore put the blood in Hosea’s cheeks like these little cons with Miss Schofield, and he hadn’t heard him laugh in years like he did on the way back to camp, recounting what they’d managed to weasel out. Working with the young woman seemed to infuse some youth and vigor back into the old man, himself.
As for Miss Catherine, it was often difficult to tell if she was truly enjoying herself, or if it was just another of her facades, but Arthur couldn’t deny the appealing, animated gleam to her pale eyes as she worked, and the beauty and apparent sincerity to her smiles in response to his and Hosea’s praises afterward.
He found himself seeking out ways to tease that smile to her face often , these days. Maybe that was because Dutch seemed incapable of summoning the energy required to do anything more than what earned him a thin, though still lovely, shadow of the same smile. He seemed content with those, even though surely he could see the difference in them.
Or maybe Arthur was just tangling further and further into a deep, deep dangerous bramble, falling in love with those more genuine smiles.
They weren’t so hard to earn, in his opinion. Lenny, too, was skilled in teasing one to her face. All that was necessary was to remember she thrived on what Hosea had called ‘mental stimulation’. To Arthur, that was just a fancy way to say ‘learn something new or teach something to somebody willing to learn’. Lenny was smart, so damn smart, and so eager to learn all the things Miss Catherine knew that he didn’t, and so all he had to do, most times, was ask a question. The question itself-- whether meant to get information out of her, or tempt curiosity about what he knew that she might not-- was often enough to get her started smiling.
Arthur wasn’t as smart as Lenny, he could readily admit it, but he didn’t have to be. He was resourceful, and he could listen and remember. He’d bring her things. Books and pamphlets about scientific advancements and philosophical concepts. Newspaper articles related to things she mentioned from time to time, or mysterious occurrences. She delighted over desert glass and petrified wood. He brought her a fragment of a shooting star once, and she’d fawned over it for hours before pressing it back into his hand and whispering that she couldn’t accept the gift the heavens had meant for him. The way her eyes had sparkled and the earnesty in her expression left no room for protest, as if they had finally found the true boundary between the earthly and the sacred.
The smile would flicker and gleam when listening to some of the stories they told around the fire. Her own stories were usually very dry-- all bald facts and little entertainment, and her smile was wan when she told them, as if she knew already how poor a diversion they were. For the same reasons, she very rarely corrected any impossibilities in the stories of others.
“I teach,” She’d explained to Tilly, who’d asked her why she hadn’t told Uncle how full of it his drunken story had been, “I don’t… entertain. I’ve never been good at saying amusing things. Uncle can entertain. Nobody wants a school lesson around the fire after a long day.”
He’d wanted to tell her she said plenty of amusing things-- her sharp, witty retorts often had him and half the camp grinning. Instead he did his best to be a more attentive, engaged student.
“... You got any other things I should learn t’say, Miss Catherine?”
“... In German?”
“Sure, unless yer thinkin’ I need to learn French or Spanish?”
She’d smiled, and his heart had skipped a beat or two, “Not for our little acts in town, no…”
“So German then-- why’d you learn all ‘ese languages anyhow?”
“They weren’t my choice. German and French are ideal for assisting with business and trade. Spanish was considered due to… cheaper labor and imports. My entire education was only provided to make me appear more useful to a future husband, Mister Morgan, the same way a well-trained horse attracts more and wealthier buyers than a green-broke one. I use what I know to my advantage because now I can learn in four languages instead of just one.”
“But you like ‘em?”
“I like learning things, so yes, I appreciate having skills that help me learn more.”
“So… not like Mary-Beth, who likes French because it sounds romantic …?”
Batting her eyelashes, she’d replied, “ Tu trouves ça romantique?”
Naturally, he had no idea what she’d said, and instead could only stare at her lips before shaking his head with a wry chuckle.
There was another expression she sometimes wore that he found himself liking even more than those bright, genuine-like smiles, the more often he saw it. It’d never been directed his way, but he saw it when she tended to the horses and chickens, or spoke with Jack, or worked with him with his reading with Hosea. It was something very soft and warm, and utterly beautiful. She’d given such a look to Javier once, while he’d talked to her in Spanish, deep into the night. A time or two he’d seen such an expression when the girls were gathered together, talking about the past, and wondering about the future. Once, John had had too much to drink, and had started to make a pass at her, and though she’d laughed him off, she’d surprised them all by still walking out alone with him. But instead of finding them compromised, they were seen sitting close together, John talking quietly, and that soft, warm expression on her face. John had avoided her for days after that. Abigail had asked them both fiercely what had gone on. John had rebuffed her, of course, and Catherine had pulled her aside to have a private talk. Arthur found them later in exactly the same place and position as they’d found John and Catherine: Abigail talking quietly, Catherine listening with that warm, quiet expression on her face.
Arthur didn’t know what he’d do if she ever directed such a look his way. He couldn’t be sure his heart wouldn’t burst right out of his chest and leave him a dead man. He’d tried to draw it half a dozen times in his journal and could never get it quite right.
It was probably for the best, though. His journal was too full of her as it was, in any case. So was his head-- waking and dreaming. His eyes were too aware of her, hungry to capture every little gesture and expression. She’d turned him into even more of a fool than he already was before her meddling. It was only a matter of time before he was caught out…
And then what?
… No use worrying about it now.
Circling around the corner of the saloon into the long shadows of the alleyway, Arthur didn’t see Miss Catherine, or hear her voice. Out on the back side of the building, he could see that the outhouse was occupied, so he loitered a moment. The sun was just lingering over the western horizon, not quite ready to set itself and end the day, throwing pale yellow and orange light across the desert. Folks were heading to their homes or to the saloon for their evenings, giving their farewells on the street. A man’s voice droned in a low rumble from the narrow alley between the general store and the sheriff's office in a way that sounded like trouble to Arthur. He didn’t pay it much mind, though, until he heard a startled cry and the sound of a brief struggle.
“Don’t do this.” Miss Catherine’s voice came firm and un-panicked. There was further struggle while Arthur hurried for the narrow space in time to hear the ripping of fabric.
Two figures stood in the dim facing in each other, one pressed firmly against the wall of the sheriff's office by the other. The figure in the middle of the alley appeared to be a man, and though colors were difficult to distinguish in the poor light, Arthur thought he saw a red jacket. The figure backed against the wall appeared to be in a dress-- or the remains of one. It seemed the skirt had been torn, revealing the white petticoat underneath, which the man was struggling to pull up one-handed, while also apparently working the front of his pants open. The big outlaw could only surmise that the reason the woman wasn’t struggling or screaming was because the hand holding her against the wall had a weapon of some kind in it.
He needed to stop this, and a bullet would do it well, but they were right next to the sheriff’s office, and the sheriff was already looking for excuses to lead him to the gallows after an earlier episode. It was too dark and they were too close together for a thrown knife. If he just went in there after them, would the man stop and run, or would he hurt her? He couldn’t trust himself to be able to sneak in there quietly either, the ground was littered with broken bottles and discarded cans.
His blood ran hot and fast, fingers twitching for his revolver. He had to stop this. Let the damn sheriff come. If he wasn’t gonna stop an assault on a lady’s honor in his town, then to Hell with him. Arthur had a bullet to send him there, too.
But the man moved, his head lunging forward toward the woman’s neck, and Arthur saw that she turned her face away. And looked at him. Their eyes met, and he no longer had any doubts as to whether this was Miss Catherine-Louise Schofield or some other unfortunate.
Leaving the gun where it was at his hip, Arthur charged down the alley while the man’s face was still at her neck-- he wouldn’t dare pull the trigger or cut her throat now and get a face full of blood for his trouble-- and didn’t slow down when he reached them, giving the man in the red jacket no chance to react. Grabbing his left wrist-- which held a big ranch knife pointed above Miss Catherine’s collarbone-- and twisting it back away from her, he used his free hand to grab him by the opposite shoulder. Momentum allowed him to lift the other off his feet as he pivoted on his hip to swing him around to connect face-first with the general store wall behind them. The man's shout was muffled as he choked on half his teeth, and Arthur silenced him more permanently by grabbing hold of the back of his head to bash against the unforgiving wall until he felt him go dead-weight.
Then he turned to Miss Catherine, dander still up, “... You okay, Miss?” His eyes searched her over, but the light was bad as sunset deepened.
“Good.” At that moment, the lingering violence in his blood made his voice and question sharp. “... What the Hell were you doin’?! Didn’t shout for help or nothin’-- Who knows what might’ve happened if I hadn’t come?”
He knew it was the exact wrong thing to say when he said it, and was already wondering how exactly to apologize, but she just huffed a ghost of a laugh. They both heard a door nearby bang open.
“You’re adorable.” Miss Catherine told him, amusement thick in her voice. Before he could even consider what in the world she meant by that, much less demand she explain herself, the sheriff started growling loudly about a racket and the young woman grabbed him with both hands, one fisted in the collar of his button-down and vest, the other hooking with her elbow around his neck, and she hauled him bodily into herself. Automatically, he brought one hand up to thud flat against the wall above them, but all the strength in him bled dry when she leaned up and pressed her lips to his. The brim of his hat pushed against the wall, threatening to topple it off his head, and it was only some distant muscle-memory that brought his other hand up to hold it secure. He could spare no thought for it.
He had no thoughts at all.
He could only marvel at the perfect shape of her lips and their incredible softness.
The gentle rush of her breathing.
The terribly encouraging thing she was doing with the edge of her teeth, inviting him to deepen this rather unchaste kiss into an even more wicked one.
The way her fingers wove into the hair at the nape of his neck.
How time seemed to stop and the world fled, abandoning them here in this dark alley.
The sheriff was grumbling something at them from his end of the alley-- probably something about how they ought to get a room before he fined them for public indecency or disturbing the peace-- and turned to leave again.
Arthur felt in the tension in the lady’s body that she was going to pull away from him, and it was then that his first thought trickled through: It was a kiss worth getting shot for.
Which was good… because he would probably get shot for it if anybody back at camp heard about this…
Miss Catherine tipped her face away from his to check down the alley, still holding him in place in front of her, but then she looked him in the eye again, and Arthur didn’t know whether he was hoping or worried that she’d kiss him again…
“...We should get back to Hosea…” She murmured quietly, her lips still too dangerously close to his own.
“... Yeah…” Was the fool answer from his traitorous, thieving mouth.
Releasing her hold of him, she took a moment to smooth his shirt and vest before leaning down to fuss with her torn skirt.
It was then that Arthur realized that without his body in the way and hands clearly in view, from the mouth of the alley, the sheriff would have found much the same scene he himself had…
“Arthur! Arthur I’m glad you’re here,” Dutch called loudly, either not noticing or ignoring how Arthur had been very intentionally trying to stay out of sight, “Come over here a minute…”
He didn’t want to. Whatever this was, he had a good idea what it was about, and he didn’t want to be in the middle.
But Dutch was looking right at him with that expectant expression on his face-- the one he’d been reared to fall in line to-- and Hosea was right there with him. The silver-haired conman’s lips were twisted shut like he was trying to hold in his laughter. Arthur’s intentions had not escaped him. Likely his reasons hadn’t either.
Arthur went, stopping just outside the entrance of his leader’s tent. Before he could even open his mouth to ask, Dutch patted his shoulder and then pulled him in, speaking with a tone that was meant to keep from traveling across the camp while still relaying his seriousness.
“... You’ve always had a good eye for horseflesh, Arthur--”
“--Not this again, Dutch.” Was his automatic protest.
“Now, listen!” Dutch’s fingers squeezed his shoulder, “I’ve been to every stable from here to the Mexican border! You know this. I still ain’t been able to find--”
“--Maybe Miss Catherine just don’t want a horse?” Arthur couldn’t keep the exasperation out of his tone, then shook his head and amended, “ Another horse, I mean.”
“That nag was hardly a proper horse, Arthur, and you know it.”
“Sure,” Was the easy agreement, “But it was to her.”
It was three weeks ago when Hosea, Charles, and Miss Catherine had returned from town early with the dark bay shire. She’d paid ten dollars for it, and even by Arthur’s most generous assessment, ten dollars was ten too many. The poor creature was more than half starved and skittish and wild-eyed from abuse. Hosea explained that they’d never made it to the saloon. They’d found a farmer beating this pitiful creature with a stick on the side of the road where it was hitched to a wagon with a freshly broken wheel. Without a word, Miss Catherine had slid off Silver Dollar from behind Hosea and marched right over and bought the thing for ten dollars. It was swiftly determined that the big shire was a gelding, maybe about seven years old, and hadn’t been saddle broke. Though it had good conformation, it was somewhat lame due to some shoddy farrier work and shoeing. In short, it was a project horse , and not at all suitable for a novice horsewoman like Miss Schofield.
She had been determined, of course, and so for three days she fed it, groomed it, led it around the camp on halter, speaking gently to it, and shushing the comments from the more experienced equestrians. Everybody agreed its chances of making a decent mount were terribly slim. By the afternoon of the third day, the shire’s dark eyes had softened at the sound of her voice. That night, after a few tense hours of distress due to a hard bout of colic, the men convinced her the most humane thing to do would be to put it down. To her credit, Miss Schofield shot it herself.
Then she’d asked for the camp shovel. All that night, and into the morning, she tried to dig a grave through the unforgiving desert and clay. Nobody could talk her out of it. Arthur had eventually given in and tried to help, but had only succeeded in breaking the shovel on the hardpack-- in his defense, the tool hadn’t been designed for this sort of work anyway.
Charles then suggested they burn the poor thing’s corpse. The two of them spent the rest of the morning on the pyre, and the shire burned for the rest of the day.
Things were different between Charles and Catherine after that. At times, they could be seen talking quietly, when before the aloof hunter seemed particularly adverse to her presence.
Miss Catherine had never seemed to be the sentimental type, nor a woman much prone to pity, so nobody could really understand just what had drawn her. Dutch offered up every shire he could buy or steal, but Catherine only answered with a ‘no, thank you.’
“The woman needs a horse of her own,” Hosea said firmly. He and Arthur agreed on this point-- Miss Schofield’s sense of fierce independence would only be gratified by having her own mount. It was a very intelligent and thoughtful gift on Dutch’s part. But either out of spite or something else, his lady would have nothing to do with it.
Dutch nodded, dark eyes fixed on Arthur’s face, “I’m just asking you to look.”
With a frustrated sigh, Arthur gestured, pulling out of the other man’s grasp, “Look for what? Do we even know what she wants? Or are you telling me to take her around to every stable from here to both coasts, Dutch?”
“No, of course not!”
“We know she likes shires,” Hosea placated.
“She liked that shire.” Arthur corrected, “None of us have seen her so much as look twice at any other.”
“So look for a shire like that one.” Was Dutch’s impatient reply, “Just take a few days. I’ve heard there are good horses up in The Heartlands. If you find anything promising, I’ll take her up there.”
“I’m leavin’ the state on this errand? Come on , Dutch. Just leave it alone!”
“I’m just asking you to look .”
“Fine… But I’m tellin’ you now, it’s a waste of time…”
Leaving them, Arthur realized that Hosea was following him back to his tent to collect his things for several days of solo travel.
“He’s pushing this too hard.” He grumbled.
Hosea shrugged, “She’s not making it easy on him. I don’t know what happened, but she’s not making any attempts at reconciliation… and you know Dutch can’t stand to let things stay uncertain with his women. He seems to think this is his one chance at a decent olive branch.”
Looking up from his trunk at him, Arthur asked, “... You don’t really think this is gonna work, do you?”
“... I don’t know what happened… But I have a feeling Miss Schofield has already made up her mind. I hope not. I’d hate to see what that might do to Dutch…” He didn’t say it, but Arthur understood that part of that fear was of what Dutch might do to her in his heartbreak. They’d both seen him heartbroken only once before, and it had been a bad time.
“Arthur…” Hosea added, “... I don’t know if it’ll do any good. But you might as well ask her what she’d like.”
Looking at him, Arthur could only sigh. Part of him was glad that the old man was so fond of the woman, but he should know better than anybody how difficult it was to get a straight answer out of her most times.
Miss Catherine approached him as he was packing Slim’s saddlebags. “You’re leaving?”
“Yep. Dutch seems t’think I’ll have better luck finding you a horse.”
She didn’t answer right away, waiting until he was finished and looked at her. “... You’re serious.”
“‘Fraid so, miss.”
Scoffing angrily, she shook her head, “... He’s so--! Fine. Are we going now?”
“‘We’? Nah, I’m goin’ now…”
She suddenly turned away from him, and Arthur suspected it was so he couldn’t easily see the frustration on her face as she clenched her hands together in front of her mouth in a double-fist. Then she heaved a breath, gathering her composure, and turned back toward him, brushing the hair from her face. She smiled, “... Don’t trouble yourself overmuch on my account, Mister Morgan. I trust your judgement. Whatever you find that you think would be suitable, I will accept.”
“... You sure? Just like that…?”
“... I’m tired of fighting about this. He refuses to understand, and I won’t tolerate him inconveniencing everybody about it. Yes. I’m sure. Anything you think is suitable. Even if it’s a twenty year old pony or a tailless mule. Anything.”
Well that made things easier, he supposed. Mounting up, he took the reins in hand before looking down at her again. Her expression was closed, her brow cinched, her eyes distant. He’d only seen this look a few times before… The time most prominent in his memory was that one night when he’d seen the way Dutch handled her without any thought to her desires…
Clearing his throat uncomfortably, he said as gently as he could manage, “... Well… I would prefer t’find you somethin’ you might like , Miss Catherine… Any clues you could give me would be much appreciated. Any preferences at all? You like shire horses…?”
Blinking, the young woman reached for Slim’s bridle, and stroked his neck, “Well… I do like tall horses, I suppose…”
“I’ll keep that in mind, then…”
“... Thank you. I’m… sorry about this.”
“Don’t worry yerself. I’ll be back in awhile.”
It was, perhaps, the most irritatingly stressful job Dutch had every put him on, and it was all his own fault. Dutch had just asked him to look for something sound she might like, and Miss Catherine had said she preferred tall horses. It was Arthur who was making this difficult. She’d said to pick whatever he thought was suitable for her. Dutch said he was a good judge of horseflesh. And he was right . He was a good judge of horses, and also of riders.
So it was Arthur’s own critical eye that was causing him this headache. He wanted something tall and as dead broke as possible, so Miss Catherine’s lack of experience would be less likely to get her killed. But also something for her to grow with instead of grow bored of when she inevitably became a better equestrian. Admittedly, and to his own damnation, he was also looking for something that looked nice for her.
It was an almost unreasonably high bar, especially considering the market of horses he had access to. So it was that after a full week of searching, nobody was more surprised than Arthur Morgan himself with what he brought back to camp.
“What the hell is that ?” Dutch’s loud exclamation woke him out of a sound sleep better than a fist to the jaw.
“Th’hell is what , Dutch? Shit...” Arthur was tired, bone tired , and sore all over, so all he wanted was to get a few hours of shut eye before anything else.
“You brought a wild stallion , Arthur? Have you completely lost your sense, boy? That thing is barely halter broke !”
“It’s not wild , it’s just… feral. It’s got a brand. It’s halter broke fine .”
“What were you thinking? She can’t--”
“-- And it’s green broke. I’ll find out in the mornin’ whether it’s saddle broke, a’right?”
Hosea leaned on the wagon behind Dutch, “It’s dangerous, Arthur…”
“C’mon Hosea, riding horses is always dangerous. Look,” rubbing his face with a hand, Arthur gestured with the other, “It ain’t gun shy. It ain’t scared of nothin’ . I’m pretty sure it damn near ate a raccoon that came into my camp one night. It’s a bit hand shy, sure, but nothin’ I can’t work out. An’ Hosea, he’s got the purdiest trot. Like floatin’ over the ground.”
“... How many times did he throw you?” Dutch demanded with a frown.
“Just the once , damn. He’ll be fine , Dutch. Hosea. Trust me-- Ain’t that why you sent me?”
“You was supposed to look .”
“I did look! An’ I brought back what I found that was worth a damn!”
“You better be sure , Arthur…” And Dutch went back into his tent.
“Should’ve done it his damn self…” Arthur muttered, rubbing his face again.
Hosea was still leaning against the wagon, “... He’s beautiful, that’s for sure.”
“I thought so.”
“Glows in the moonlight.”
“Glows like moonlight,” Arthur corrected. “... When he’s cleaned up, anyway.”
“Hopefully she likes that.” The old man chuckled and waved, heading for his tent.
The big outlaw didn’t know if she did. All he really knew was that when he saw the ghost of him gliding through the dark, he was reminded of her. When he saw the shine of his coat under the afternoon sun, he was reminded of the reflection of the moon on a still, dark lake.
The same color as her eyes...
“... Need some goddamn sleep, y’fool…” He grumbled to himself and laid back down.
Dawn came too early, but the coffee was hot, fresh, and unburnt, so Arthur took his cup and headed for the hitching posts. Miss Catherine was already there, looking over the new addition to the herd. Before addressing them , however, Arthur stepped over to say good morning to his partner, and check the big Ardennes’s legs for swelling. It’d been rough on him trying to run down the stallion-- a blooded, probably papered (somewhere, anyway) Thoroughbred.
“Yer a good boy…” He assured him, patting him on the shoulder and chuckling at the nose shoving against his chest in response. Slim seemed to think he’d earned a peppermint this morning and lipped along his belt, looking for one. “Alright, alright I’ll see if Pearson’s got any before the mornin’s out…”
The young woman and the stallion seemed to be eyeing each other up, and it forced him to hide his laugh in his coffee to observe how they held their chins in much the same manner as they did so.
“G’mornin’ Miss Schofield.”
“Welcome back, Arthur.”
Nodding toward the stallion, who blew out loudly at his approach-- they could hardly be called friends at this juncture, considering the previous week, but at least a measure of respect had been earned-- Arthur prompted, “Whatchu think ‘bout him?”
“... He doesn’t like me.”
“He don’ like nobody much right now, but some breakfast might change his mind. C’mon.”
She accompanied him back toward Pearson’s wagon, and when she spoke, her voice was quiet and thoughtful, “... You didn’t really break a wild horse for me, did you?”
“Nah, I was pretty sure you wouldn’t like that at all.” He confessed, finishing the last of his coffee and dumping out the grainy dregs, “Didn’t think about takin’ him until I saw the brand. He was bred by somebody, on a ranch or a farm. Probably some place out East with money and fancy bloodlines…”
“... But he was living wild?”
“Well sure, but he weren’t part of any herd. Couldn’t’ve been on his own long.” He looked at her, “... Horses don’ last long alone in the wild, miss.”
She shrugged and nodded, lowering her eyes, expression reserved. Arthur knew she was thinking about the philosophy she was trying to ascribe her life to, with its tenets of freedom-- not too unlike Dutch’s-- after all, they read the same confusing books.
“... I understand, I just… am not sure it is up to us to decide that,” She said after awhile.
Tucking a few peppermint candies in his hip pocket and passing her an apple, Arthur prompted, “Decide what?”
“That he’s better off with us.”
“‘Course he is,” He assured her, hefting up a bale of hay with both hands and a grunt, “It’s what he was born for.”
“... That’s dangerous logic, Arthur,” She said softly, “Many would argue the same about Tilly’s place in the world. And Lenny’s. And Javier’s. And mine. Maybe even yours .”
He scoffed, “Well many would be fools then, Miss Schofield, because horses ain’t people, now is they?”
“Mind yourself. Not too long ago, and still in many places in this country, neither are those same folks I mentioned.”
He looked at her, “... You make a fair point, but Catherine… if yer tryin’ to tell me horses are people now… I’m sorry, but I may just go back to bed…”
She laughed a little, “No. I’m not trying to say horses are people… but they are intelligent creatures, aren’t they? They think for themselves?”
“Do you suppose they understand their… situations? That maybe that new stallion understands he isn’t free anymore?”
It took him a moment to realize she was actually asking instead of asking rhetorically. It was wild roses all over again, and she was trying to understand the world she didn’t know outside of the city.
“... I don’t know.” He admitted, dropping the bale of hay and cutting the twine to kick apart the leafs.
“... I must sound heinously ungrateful… I’m sorry, it isn’t like that. I just…”
“I understand.” He replied quietly, “You got all them books in your head in four languages. Must be proof of genius you know up from down with all that…”
She laughed, “Proof of something , anyway…”
“... I dunno if horses think about freedom, but here’s what I think about horses,” He said, “They don’t need us. They’re stronger’n us, they forage well enough for themselves, the herd protects itself from predators, and they don’ need our companionship. Not like dogs. So’s up to us to help them choose us. So that makes us partners. Not a pet, not a tool, not a beast of burden. Partners . Slim an’ I, we each got a job to do when we go out. I trust him t’do his job, he trusts me t’do mine. The moment we don’ trust each other or treat each other fair? We got a problem, and more often I got a problem, because Slim is two-an’-a-half tons of muscle who won’ put up with my shit. The horse is always gonna be more honest than th’man. He’s always gonna do the job he best knows how, or tell you he don’ want to, and if yer listenin’, he might even tell you why . A horse is always gonna be honest wit’ you. A dog may always love you, but a horse is always gonna tell you the truth.”
She was watching him, and it was strange to have someone’s full attention when he was speaking, and uncomfortable to be speaking at length…
“Anyway,” He rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly having to swallow down his self-consciousness, “I brought him back here because I thought he’d be a good partner for you. Seein’ the way you two were lookin’ at each other… I’m more convinced than before. A good horse will teach you all about yerself, Miss Catherine, even if you think you already know all there is to know.”
Her smile temporarily chased the breath from his lungs, “... Did you read that somewhere or are those all your own words?”
Coughing his laugh he replied, “That depends, Miss Schofield, if you thought they was any good or not.”
“I liked them,” Was her assurance, “It’s a sound philosophy-- a bit romantic, but… that doesn’t really surprise me.”
“Well we both know I dunno nothin’ ‘bout philosophy. Or romance.”
Meeting his eyes, she cocked an eyebrow and said, “I wouldn’t say that at all. In fact, I’ve a bit of evidence to the contrary...”
Suddenly he had to clear his throat and busy himself, kicking more of the hay leafs apart, trying to get the sudden heat in his face under control.
“... I have a question, though…”
He wasn’t surprised but didn’t say so.
“... By definition, a ‘partner’ has equal share in profit, or at least gets something of equal trade value… What do horses get out of working with people?”
“Hands.” Was his immediate answer, “Speakin’ of which, that fella don’t quite realize yet that hands are good for him. So we gotta teach him.”
Stooping, he picked up a leaf of hay and passed it to her, “ You gotta teach him.”
He watched her tuck the apple into her skirt and then she took the leaf from his hands. He indicated she step forward toward the stallion who was watching them warily, ears pricked toward the hay. He was tall, about 17 hands, he had to guess, taller than even Slim’s commanding height. His weight was a concern, and the pale flanks looked a bit sunken in, but the thoroughbred had plenty of lean muscle under his pale coat. He was a silver buckskin with a long ungroomed mane and a tail that seemed the unfortunate victim of either chewing or fences. His feet, too, could use some work, but at least hadn’t been damaged by poor shoeing.
The stallion’s height, nor his pinned ears or lifting head did not intimidate the lady, and she walked right up to his shoulder, stepping with him as he turned. Her nearness forced the creature to lower his head and turn toward her to reach for the hay, which he eventually did, rudely ripping a good third of the leaf out of her grasp.
“Such manners ,” She chided in a soft voice, “Best you hope I don’t fetch Miss Grimshaw for this churlishness…”
Chuckling, Arthur observed their body language from where he was, “Don’ let him bully you.”
“Please. You’re well aware my abilities to manage large, unruly males…”
“That’s usually true…”
“Good morning, fine people!” Dutch announced with a flourish of both hands, and it was then that Arthur noticed that half the camp was gathering around the hitching posts. Hands all around were clutching mugs of coffee and bowls of yesterday’s stew still warm. Faces were tired, but also keenly expectant. John, Sean, and the Callendar boys looked particularly eager, as if waiting for the punchline of a very good joke.
“What’s all this?” He asked.
“Oh nothing,” Dutch said, “nothing at all. Just here for the rodeo.”
Catherine glanced over her shoulder curiously, “What rodeo?”
“Arthur here seems to think he can get this horse broke for you today. Figured we might as well lend him some… moral support.”
“Son of a bitch…” Arthur muttered.
It was going to be a long, long day.
It was a blazing hot day, so everyone kept to the shade as much as possible and moved as little as could be excused. Even the horses were drained of energy. Miss Grimshaw, however, wisely pointed out that the usual women's work around camp could still be accomplished in the shade. Feeling some sympathy, Catherine made a point to join them for the day.
Evening brought some relief as the winds shifted and the sun sank, bringing cooler air and a lively wind off the mountains. The ground was still baked, however, and radiating heat. Man and beast alike stirred more readily as sunset approached.
Conversations had been short and stilted under the women's canvas, and the cooler temperatures brought them more to life as well. Catherine’s attention piqued toward Jenny, who remained uncharacteristically quiet-- almost brooding -- even as Karen and Mary-Beth started chattering excitedly about their plans in town, which they were due a trip in a day or so. She was about to ask, but then a shadow fell over them.
“A’roight, confess now, will ye, ladies?” Sean grinned, leaning against the tent pole.
“What are we guilty of this time?” Mary-Beth asked.
Karen scoffed, refusing to even look at him, “Don’t bother, Mary-Beth… He doesn’t even know what he’s talking about.”
“Oh, but I do!” Was the Irishman’s laughing insistence, “Ye’ve been here all day havin’ yer secret conversations--”
“--You’re a loudmouth idiot, you know that?” Groused the blonde.
“Ain’t nobody been in a mood for gossip in this heat, Sean.” Tilly assured him.
“I’m not talkin’ about gossip, Miss Jackson. I’m talkin’ about heartfelt confessions between girls--”
Karen scoffed and climbed to her feet, “--Why would we tell you about any ‘heartfelt confessions’?!”
Watching them, and the grin steadily broadening on Sean’s face, it became obvious what his real intentions here were, and that even negative attention was attention that he wanted. Catherine interrupted in an off-handed manner, “Well, if you really want to know…”
Turning suddenly away from Karen, the young redhead eagerly pressed, “Yes! Go on an’ tell yer good lad, Miss Catherine.”
Aware that this, too, was an obvious and childish maneuver to elicit a reaction out of Miss Jones, Catherine demured, “...Not here. In front of everyone. It wouldn’t be appropriate. Will you meet me at the opposite end of camp, by the chicken coop in fifteen minutes?”
“What are you up to, Miss Schofield?” Tilly accused, hiding her smirk.
“Mister MacGuire, don’t be cruel,” Was Catherine’s wounded response, “Won’t you give a lady a few minutes to prepare her heart before she bares it to you?”
“Oh!” Suddenly all laughter was gone from his voice and countenance, “Oh certainly, if she’s t’be barin’ herself, I can wait some-- not too long, moinde ye.”
“Fifteen minutes.” She turned her eyes back to her mending, “At the coop.”
He left, and shortly after he did so, Catherine finished the pants she’d been stitching and tossed them over into the ‘finished’ basket with the others. “Well. I better go make ready.” She smiled.
“What are you up to?” Tilly repeated her demand, no longer able to hide her amusement.
“Are you really going to confess?” Mary-Beth asked, “What are you going to say?”
Karen sat down in a huff, “You’re wasting your time with him.”
“We’ll see.” Catherine stood and bent, kissing her lightly on the cheek, “Be sweet to Miss Grimshaw while I’m gone.”
“Not a chance.” But Karen smiled.
“I’m gonna find out!” Was Tilly’s laughing threat as the dark haired lady left the tent, “Don’t think I won’t!”
“I’m counting on it!”
It took her nearly fifteen minutes entirely to prepare, but fortunately timeliness was not one of Sean MacGuire’s strengths, and so she was still at the coop before him. The birds trusted her, and several pressed close around her ankles, searching her boots for the stray seed, beetle, or fleck of dried mud that interested them.
“Don’t worry, ladies.” She told them fondly, “I haven’t forgotten to find you a lizard or a rat.”
The young Irishman strode lively toward her from the direction of Pearson’s tent, grinning broadly, “Are ye talkin’ t’the birds?”
“They’re good listeners.” Was her reply.
“If ye say so. Speakin’ of sayin’ so… are ye sure yer wantin’ t’be barin’ yerself here for all an’ God t’see?”
So much for good listening, she mused and passed him the folded pages of paper from where she’d tucked them into the front of her corset.
“What’s this?” He took the papers, giving them and her a confused look.
“What!” Unfolding the papers, he saw the neat lines of script which he regarded first with shock, then with something like disgust as he thrust them back toward her. “What am I supposed t’do with this?!”
“...You don’t want my confession?”
“Yer toyin’ wit’ me!”
The hurt and affront colored her face and she lowered her eyes, “... I see this was a misunderstanding… Nevermind, Mister MacGuire, I won’t bother you any more…” She reached for the pages, but he was moving his arms, gesturing.
“I thought y’were goin’ t’ tell me at th’very least!”
“Tell you?” She flushed, “Out loud ? Oh, Sean, you don’t… you really don’t know anything about wooing a lady do you?”
“What! Now you listen, miss fancy, maybe I ain’t ever wooed a fancy highborn lass, but it’s not from lack of ability ! You highborn misses are too much trouble fer yer own good!”
“Well. Then you do not want the affections in my letter? I’ll take it back…” She reached for it again. He snatched it back, out of her reach.
“Wait… ‘Affections’ you say?”
“What else do you think I would write when you asked?”
“... Did you write me a love letter , Miss Catherine?!” Sean was grinning boyishly again. He did not notice the big man come up behind him to snatch the pages from his grip.
“No, she did not.” Arthur said rolling his eyes, “Stop bothering her, boy. What you want with these papers when you can’t even read them?”
“Give that back, she gave it to me!” The shorter man struggled to reach them, but Arthur pushed him back with his free hand and held them out for Catherine. She blinked at him before making a show of lowering her eyes to the greeting on the first page.
Arthur did the same.
“... ‘Dear Sean’...” He murmured under his breath.
“Y’see! Give it back, y’damn bastard!”
Hiding her rising amusement, Catherine watched Arthur’s eyes scan the first several lines swiftly, his face growing slack as his jaw unclenched in shock and the blood rushed up from his neck, coloring his countenance. He stepped away from Sean’s reach again, and blocked him with his body when trying to pass the letter to her once more.
“You can’t give this to him, miss…” Was his almost desperate warning.
“But I already did.” She shrugged helplessly.
“It’s mine!” Bold and angry, on the verge of recklessness, Sean bodily tackled Arthur, trying and failing to wrestle him to the ground. After much swearing and an attempted bite to the hand, Arthur finally surrendered the papers and the redhead congratulated himself his victory and hurried off, hollering for Lenny.
“Lenny! Oy, Lenny! I need ye!”
Looking over his hand, Arthur told her, “You’re gonna regret this.”
She smiled, “No I’m not.”
The Irishman’s voice rang out “What d’ye mean ye’ll no--”
“Maybe if you learn to read, like I’ve been sayin’ , you can read it yourself!” Lenny told him with finality.
“W… b… Help a brother out!”
“I am going to help you. So let’s get to reading.”
“W… Oh alright! ”
Turning his face to regard her with new respect, the big outlaw said, “... I always thought you were clever, but this is frightful wicked, Miss Catherine. I do believe you could trick the devil himself into forgetting to steal your soul.”
“Here’s hoping,” Was her reply, shrugging a shoulder, “It’s probably the only way I’ll stay out of Hell at this rate.”
Catherine was in a temper. She knew it, and knew how unbecoming it was-- particularly in how she was not very successful in hiding it at the moment-- and yet she could not bring herself to mind overmuch. She was too busy minding the blatant disrespect for individual responsibility she’d been witnessing these last several days.
She minded it so much, she found herself keeping a mental list of names and times. Minutes or hours spent, and how. The more she tallied, the angrier she got.
“What’d that pot of stew do to you, Miss, to make you glare at it like that?” Micah sniggered.
“I have no quarrel with the pot, Mister Bell. It’s done its job today and the day before that. Which is more than I can say about others .” She replaced the ladle on the hook with an angry click of metal and turned on her heel, ignoring the sharp demand in his tone.
“What are you trying to say?”
He knew very well what she was saying, and very soon she’d have the numbers and figures to say it in a way he couldn’t ignore and wouldn’t much like, but she’d ensure he choked it down…
She intercepted Arthur on his way out of the camp to the tiny stream with a bucket, “Oh, excuse me--”
“--No, excuse me .” She took hold of the handle of the bucket and pushed the bowl into his chest, forcing him to take it with his free hand, “I’ll take that. You take this.”
“You do not want to argue with me today, Mister Morgan.” She told him fiercely, tugging the bucket out of his grasp.
“O-okay…” He laughed a mixture of confusion and amusement, “You sure you got that? It’s gonna be heavy when it’s full.”
“I can manage. It will just take me longer than it takes you. You need to eat.” She turned and did not tell him that she knew he hadn’t yet today, even though evening was rapidly approaching.
It did take her a long time to return with the full bucket, and Lenny who was on guard duty teased her good-naturedly about it until he realized she wasn’t smiling back. Then he said something in an embarrassed tone about how she could set it down and he’d tell somebody to get it-- he’d do it himself but he was on post and Hosea was taking guard duty extra seriously after finding Sean napping on the job. She thanked the young man and continued with the bucket. At the washing barrel, she lacked the strength to lift it up without wearing half of it, and Javier saw her plight and helped her.
“Did you tear up your hands again?” He nodded at the limbs in question before leaning down to tuck the bucket back under the wagon.
“No, they’re fine. Getting some proper calluses on them.”
“Good for you.” He smiled at her and plucked out a bottle of beer from the box, “You know it won’t make Dutch happy, though. He prefers his ladies soft handed .”
He grinned and offered her the bottle. It was a joke she’d heard circulating the camp, that the reason Dutch kept picking up these wealthy ‘proper ladies’ was because he liked their ‘soft hands’.
She shook her head, turning down the drink, “If Dutch likes soft hands so much, he can have them himself. I’ve got better things to do.”
“Sure.” He laughed, then tilted his head at her, “You okay?”
“I’m a bit perturbed at the distribution of labor around here. But I’m fine.”
Slowly, not sure exactly what was going on, Javier started to put the bottle back even though his hands had just been moving to open it. He spoke in Spanish, “Something you need done, miss?”
“No, no. Thank you.” She replied in kind.
“You know you just have to ask...”
“I know. Thank you. Enjoy your drink. You earned it.”
Javier had been gone almost all day running jobs. She was flattered to know he wouldn’t drop everything for just anybody in the camp.
Catherine was carrying a couple pieces of split wood to the main campfire, which gave her an excuse to circle the most of the camp and keep an eye out. Most folk were eating supper. Arthur was seated at the main fire with several others, working his bowl with the urgency of a man who knew his time idle was very short, as well as a man who’d worked himself an appetite. Nevertheless, Miss Grimshaw was there as well, and when she caught sight of Catherine with the wood, without a second thought, her hand snatched out with practiced ease and she smacked the big outlaw in the chest with the back of her hand, “Mister Morgan! What are you doing loafing here while that poor woman--”
“--This woman isn’t so poor she can’t carry some wood, Miss Grimshaw. Let the man eat! If I needed help, I know how to ask!”
Arthur was looking conflicted (though Charles was also seated there and he gave her an approving glance before re-focusing on his own bowl) and he started to say something, but then Sean and Uncle came up, half-cocked already, blabbering about a stagecoach they were supposed to track down and steal to turnover for the fence. The two of them got louder and louder until finally Arthur climbed to his feet, telling them to shut up, and left his bowl on his seat to mount up and see what this was all about. Sean left with him. Uncle watched them go, scratched his backside, then turned and took up his own spot by the fire.
Catherine shoved one piece of wood into the fire. The other she ‘accidentally’ dropped in the old man’s lap, apologized sweetly, and turned to leave again.
The next two hours were spent at the ledger and money box with a scrap envelope to track her figures. That was where Hosea found her, scowling at her maths by lamplight as daylight fled swiftly.
“... Did I tell you about the time I dislocated my shoulder about ten years ago?” He began casually.
“Mhm…” She murmured, distracted, “The stair banister broke and you fell onto the bar. Back east.”
“That’s right. It aches now and then. I can always feel when a storm is coming.”
“Hm.” She scribbled down another figure and another name.
“Catherine… how come my shoulder aches watching you do that?” He reached over and touched her wrist lightly.
Looking up into his face, she wondered how much he’d watched her today. She wondered how much he knew. How much was he complicit in? He was in a better position than most to stop it...
“... Because I will bring the storm, Mister Matthews, if I have to.”
“But why? What are you so dissatisfied about?”
“Indolence is always unsightly.”
He laughed a little, “I can only holler at those boys so much--”
Sighing heavily, she closed the box and the ledger, “... Tell me you see what I’m seeing. Tell me you know what’s on this paper…”
He shrugged and then gestured for her to hand it over, “I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to compare numbers.”
“It’s not entirely fair that--” She bit off her angry words and rubbed her forehead, “... I’m sorry. It’s juvenile to discuss ‘fairness’. We both know the world isn’t fair, and justice as an absolute is in the hands of God alone. I accept that there will be some… disparities in the numbers, based on capability, opportunity, and well… luck. But even accounting for those…”
“Everyone does what they can.”
“Some are asked for more than they rightfully should be, Hosea.”
He blinked at her, frowning, “... Who? By whom?”
The names were there, just about to roll of her tongue, but looking the canny old man in the eye, she suddenly realized that she only had most of the argument.
She’d forgotten to consider the willingness of the martyr.
Anger suffused her, threatening to overwhelm her with an undignified display of shouting, so instead she turned and walked away wordlessly, leaving her materials there.
“Can I help you, Miss Catherine?” His words were slurred in his exhaustion, which also strained his voice.
“Just here for your laundry, Arthur.” She said with a shrug, standing up from the chair at the edge of his tent when he passed her to step into it from the dark. “I gave a cursory look, but I didn’t want to rummage through your things without permission.”
“...You been waitin’ here all this time jus’ for my dirty clothes?”
She didn’t answer, and made a point of not meeting his look. Either he did not actually want an answer, or simply knew one wouldn’t be coming, because he did not press for one as he removed his hat and set it aside, “Well, if you gimme a minute, I’ll give you ‘em… but I need t’take ‘em off first.”
“Of course. Don’t mind me.” Turning her back, she took a step into the dark, listening to the snores of the others. Sean was already passed out by the main fire. Arthur had unsaddled Ennis for him after unsaddling Slim.
“You alright today?” She heard Arthur ask behind her over the sound of rustling cloth.
“Don’t worry about me. You ought to make more consideration for yourself. You hardly ate anything today.”
“... Is that right? I suppose that explains it…”
She heard him rummaging through the chest at the foot of his cot and then the rustling of more cloth, the low groan that heralded the protest of exhausted muscles. Her ire boiled.
“... You ain’t really standin’ there jus’ waitin’ fer my dirty clothes, is you, Catherine..?”
It was only a lifetime of practice hiding her feelings that allowed her to reply in a playful tone, “Mister Morgan, it almost sounds like you’re hoping for something! Why else would I be here, alone at your tent, late at night?”
He guffawed, “... The only thing ’m hoping for is a good night’s rest. Y’can turn ‘roun’...”
She turned and found him dressed, settling on the cot, gesturing with one hand at the clothes piled on the foot of it.
“... Ye di’n’t have t’fuss ‘bout ‘em. Would’ve brought ‘em in the mornin’...”
Scoffing lightly, she collected the clothes and sat in the chair again, looking over the bloodstained shirt, “We’re washing them in the morning, but they need mending before that.”
“You gonna mend ‘em now ? When d’ya plan on sleeping?”
“When do you ?”
He met her stern look, then ducked his face away and made a show of lying down on the cot, “Right now if y’don’ mind at all.”
“I don’t. Do you want me to turn out the light?”
“It don’ bother me none.”
She didn’t answer and continued checking for torn seams, of which she’d found two already.
Minutes later, after hearing Arthur’s breathing settle into a deep, steady rhythm, she blinked away the strain of trying to search out more places to stitch and considered taking herself to bed-- there with Tilly and Mary-Beth, not with Dutch. She had no patience for his inquiries or unspoken demands on her attention. He’d at least seemed to sense her mood and kept his distance, a paltry mercy.
Staggering footsteps drew her attention, and she saw Bill in the dark, making his way over. The bottle in his hand and the half-leer on his face informed her that he was up to no good.
Catherine stood, “Mister Williamson, lower your voice. There’s no reason to bother anyone at this hour.” She kept her own volume low but her tone hard.
The big man was used to being opposed-- likely had been looking for this sort of reaction in the first place-- but not from her or any other lady. He swayed backward a step before drawing up to his full height.
“Jus’ who do--”
“--Mister Williamson, if you wake him, I will be very displeased.”
He drew a breath, likely to shout her down, but she stepped into the tent and drew the sawed-off shotgun from where it rested on the table and leveled it at his chest, choking his voice in his throat.
“-- If you wake him. I will kill you.” She said softly.
He looked at her, at the gun, then grinned at her, calling her bluff.
“The first thing he will see when he wakes is me killing you.” She assured him, voice and face as cold as ice.
She convinced herself she absolutely would do it perhaps a breath before the drunk outlaw was convinced.
“Yer crazy …” He hissed at her, “Crazy-assed bitch…”
But he turned and staggered away.
Exhaling shakily, Catherine put the gun back where she’d found it and wondered at how easily her mind had turned to immediate and unjustified violence. Her heartbeat throbbed in her ears, and her breathing sounded too loud. She should calm down before she woke Arthur herself-- wouldn’t that be just the thing? Distantly, she thought she heard the drone of male voices nearby, but she was focusing on controlling her breathing and slipping back out of the tent that didn’t belong to her to collect the mending she should just put in the pile for washing when the sun came up...
“ ARTHUR! ” Dutch’s voice bellowed suddenly, all but scaring the wits out of her. Instantly, the big man was upright, swinging his legs over the edge of the cot climbing to his feet to hurry past her and over to Dutch’s tent, right hand already at his revolver grip.
It was at this moment that Catherine knew it was a battle she could not win. She could distract, interject, and threaten all of them except the one who was most guilty of all. She couldn’t do anything about Dutch. After all, as far as both he and Arthur figured, Arthur Morgan was his to spend .
Stomach turning over at the bitterness of this revelation, she went and put Arthur’s dirty clothes with the rest of the laundry to be washed. Arthur had said something, it seemed, and Dutch was giving him an acerbic reply when she made her way back toward his tent, “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the safety of this gang was such an inconvenience-- Come on , Arthur! What’s the matter with you?! I know what time it is, I’m tired too! Now get your head straight and get going.”
From her somewhat concealed position with the back of Hosea’s tent between her and the front of Dutch’s tent, she could clearly hear and see the men gathered there. Both Callander brothers were there, as were Charles and John-- rubbing sleep from their eyes-- and Bill stumbling over, but being ignored as it was obvious he would be of no use in his condition. Arthur’s jaw set, though Catherine couldn’t tell from this angle and distance whether it was shame or anger that silenced him, and he gave and sharp nod of his head.
She wished he would speak. She willed him to contradict his mentor-- Dutch hadn’t only three hours of sleep in as many days. Surely Dutch would see reason if he knew! The man could be infuriating, but he was not blind to consequence!
But he didn’t. He turned with the others and stepped for the hitching posts.
Well. Then perhaps she --
-- Would what? Would tell Dutch that Arthur hadn’t been able to sleep or eat in three days? He would ask how she knew, and she would be forced to admit to him that she’d been watching carefully.
Foolish. Dangerous. Dutch would draw the usual conclusions, and his pride would assume an injury. Even if she further explained that this was just what her mind did when she grew bored-- that cataloguing the activities around camp in detail was just what she did to occupy herself while others turned to gossip or games or drinks-- he would respond with his usual disgust at what he called her ‘presumption of superiority’.
‘Presumption of superiority’ ... Such a hypocritical evaluation from the crowned prince of hypocrites!
It would almost be better to let him assume she was paying such attention to Arthur Morgan’s daily activities because she fancied him than to suffer more diatribe about her supposed self-satisfied conceit…
Best to just not say anything about it to Dutch at all. She could solve this herself.
She just had to choose another avenue of attack…
Dressed in her riding skirt and the blouse she reserved for travel days and a small bundle of essentials in her arms, she met the men riding back in after dawn, each of them grumbling about a long night and eager for their beds. Arthur was in the rear, and upon seeing her, halted Slim’s approach to the hitching post.
She smiled brightly, “Don’t bother dismounting, we’re to away at once.”
“What? Away…? Where? What for?” He turned his head as she started to open up Slim’s saddlebag to pack her things. “Hey!”
“You and I are going to the other side of Tall Trees, to a place called Hestor’s Rest to visit a friend of my father’s. I’m just packing a few things in your saddlebags…”
Arthur wiped his hand over his face, “No. Get outta there. Y’can pack yer own saddlebags…”
“...I thought it might be easier and more expedient if I rode with you…?” She blinked up at him, confused, trying to read his expression.
“No.” Was his firm answer, and he waved her back so he could dismount. Before she could protest, he picked up the bundle of blanket and saddle and leather straps that belonged to her from its place and approached her silver buckskin. Confused but unwilling to be a greater burden to him, Catherine hurried to collect her saddlebags and pack them, tossing them over her shoulder to help him finish cinching her saddle.
“I’m sorry, I really thought it would be easier the other way…”
“Easier, maybe. Not safe.” He grunted, beckoning over the tall stallion’s back for her saddlebags, which she gave him in favor of fetching her bridle and reins and coaxing the horse to take the bit.
“... Gettin’ better.” Was Arthur’s compliment, seeing how little struggle was involved, before circling around to help her mount up. It always surprised her, his combination of strength and care when he handled her. She was always aware of how easily he could hurt her-- how his entire life seemed to have groomed him and his large hands for the express purpose of hurting other human beings-- and he seemed to share this awareness, because there was a very deliberate intentionality to the way he placed his hands when he touched her.
He remained there at her and the horse’s side, as he usually did, while she adjusted her skirts to lay appropriately and gathered the reins the way he taught her. She did not say anything about the large hand lingering on her thigh, driving heat through the heavy linen. His blue-green eyes were on her hands and the way she held the reins with only lightly closed fingers.
“Good.” He mumbled, and then he patted her leg, as if it were the stallion’s neck. Immediately realizing his mistake, he withdrew his hand as if she were a hot iron and turned, hurrying to mount up. Catherine heard him cursing himself under his breath.
He’d just settled, foot uncharacteristically fumbling for the stirrup once astride, when Pearson called out, hurrying over, “Hey, Arthur--”
Already turning the tall thoroughbred’s nose away from camp, Catherine thumped both heels into his sides. With a rough snort, the stallion exploded forward into an immediate lope out of the camp that tore the breath from her. Honestly, it was likely for the best, otherwise the camp would hear her wild, unladylike squeal and laughter.
Mister Morgan had no choice but to spur the big Ardennes after her, leaving Pearson and the rest of the camp in the dust.
They’d learned a few things about her mount over the past weeks-- that he was sensitive to pressure, that he responded badly to harshness on the bit, that he enjoyed being spoken to in a low tone, that he was better mannered when she was in the saddle than when a more experienced rider was (as if he were aware that it was in his best interest to look after her, because she didn’t know as well to look after herself on his back), and that if he sensed another rider was chasing him , he wanted to race . He was very competitive about racing, as well. When they rode in a group, he never liked to be behind, and it was all Catherine could do to keep him from charging up to the front of everyone.
Wise to this, Arthur kept a good distance back, and called up, “You a’right? Got him in hand?”
“We’re fine!” She called back, the energy and power of the stallion racing electric through her body, “Just letting him loose a bit!”
“Nah, gather ‘im up! Hey! Catherine!”
“Oh alright,” She sighed to herself, “He worries so, you know that?” Was her observation to the horse in a soft, low tone. One of the pale ears swiveled back, listening to her, and he settled into his long, floaty trot before she even tightened her grip on the reins or shifted back in her seat. Arthur had told her one of the reasons he’d definitely picked out this horse for her was because of this gait, and he was absolutely right. It was like gliding through a dream, barely any jolt to the two-beat rhythm at all. A dead man could sit this trot with a cup of tea in his hand and hardly spill a drop.
Soon enough, Slim paced beside them, snorting heartily with each exhale as he was forced to trot at nearly twice the speed. Arthur spared her a disapproving look, “You know… he’s gonna toss you off one of these times if you keep diggin’ him to a run without warnin’...”
“Then I’ll have learned my lesson.”
“If y’don’ break yer neck.” He frowned. She ignored his silent scolding and looked toward the road.
“We are going the right way for Tall Trees, aren’t we?”
“Th’right up here.”
Making the turn, the thoroughbred settled into a slower, no less graceful trot, and the two riders slipped into a companionable silence. The morning was turning hot already, leading Catherine to suspect there’d be rain in the evening or the following morning. Regardless, she was glad to be out of the camp. Even though it had taken some exhausting convincing of Mister van der Linde to approve this venture, she assured herself it would be worth it. She’d make sure of it.
It did not take long to prove Arthur correct in his concerns for safety. He was barely conscious in the saddle, and more than once she caught him start awake when his weight shifted too far in one direction or another.
“Do you want to stop?” She offered.
“What? No…” He shook himself and scrubbed his face with a hand and lit a cigarette, as if he hoped the buzz of nicotine would focus him.
It was cooler in the foothills, winding beneath the towering trees. Snow gleamed in the mountains and the wildlife stirred, not terribly disturbed by their quiet passage. Arthur checked the rifle in Slim’s shoulder holster and mumbled something about a bear, jerking his chin furthur uphill with a cloud of smoke from his nostrils.
“... I thought you said we was goin’ through Tall Trees?” Was his question at the next road fork when she turned toward the south instead of north, and up the mountains.
“Yes, but we’re not dressed for mountain snow and wind and I don’t have a change of clothes at all. We’ll circle Aurora Basin to the south. It might take us a little longer, but at least it’ll be an easier ride.”
“Dutch know we’re takin’ all this time?”
She shrugged, “Dutch knows you’re on a job with me , and that it will take as long as it takes. Don’t you worry, he knows exactly who is at fault.”
“That weren’t what I…”
“Come along.” She smiled.
Half an hour later, she pulled to a halt, and Slim’s obedient halt beside her startled Arthur from his half-asleep stupor, “‘S’wrong?”
Instead of answering, she arranged her skirts and swung her leg in front of her, kicking free of her stirrups and sliding down the tall stallion’s side. The small clearing was scattered with broken rock, and only the hardiest shrubbery.
“Let’s take a rest.” Pulling the reins over the thoroughbred’s head to lead him, she walked further into the clearing, looking for an ideal spot. Behind her, she could hear the big outlaw dismount and cluck his tongue at the Ardennes to follow him.
“What you after?”
“A good spot for a camp...”
She gave him a patient look with pursed lips, “Yes. And neither of us have eaten yet. So I’d like a fire. Furthermore, from the looks of these clouds, it may rain soon, so we might as well set up the tent…”
Arthur looked at the sky, frowned, and looked at her, “... The tent. ”
He just continued to frown.
Shrugging she said, “Very well, you deal with the fire, then, I’ll set up the tent…”
“Why’re we settin’ up a tent in midday even for a bit of rain!?” There was a note of irritation in his voice, a tone he usually only took with some of the men.
Laughing lightly, Catherine replied, “Because I don’t have a change of clothes, Mister Morgan, and if you make me ride wet , you will rue your remaining days.”
The sound that came out of this mouth suggested he might already be rueing them, but nonetheless he waved her off with one hand and moved to pull his camping gear out of Slim’s saddlebags. She set about to make a small fire and to cook the fish she’d brought to go with the bread and small piece of cheese she’d cajoled out of Pearson (she almost felt a little guilty about running off on him, but really, somebody else could do some hunting while they were out…). Arthur joined her, setting down a can of peaches and taking the bread roll and cheese she offered him.
“Anythin’ on that fish?”
“No. I’m saving the spices for any birds you happen to get us.”
“Mm. Get those peaches warm?”
She blinked at him, “You want me to cook them?”
“Nah, jus’ tuck ‘em nearer the fire. Tastes nicer that way.”
Moving the can closer to the flames, she smiled at him, “...A bit more like peach cobbler?”
“Nevermind. You probably haven’t had it either.”
He ate his bread and cheese and poked the fish on the fire with his knife, peeling back the flaking skin. Fetching it off the flames, he started to split it unevenly, to give her the bigger portion, but she took the smaller piece, claiming adamantly that she liked the way it fit on the bread better, and ate them together. He ate the other piece without complaint and cut the can of peaches in half, offering her one half and taking the other. They were sweet and warm, and for just a moment, Catherine dared to remember fondly the decadence of vanilla ice cream.
Then she climbed to her feet and returned to her saddlebags, pulling out a book. Heading back to the tent, she beckoned to Arthur, who was giving her a curious look, exhaustion making his features almost haggard.
“Come sit with me,” She instructed, stepping and ducking into the shelter.
He grumbled and moved slowly to comply, “Awful bossy t’day…”
“Direct instructions are easier for you in your condition...”
“You haven’t slept in days. You’ve barely eaten. Get in here.” She scoot to one side and unrolled his still packed up bedroll and gestured to it.
Hesitating, he hooked a thumb in his gunbelt, “... ‘M fine.”
“Of course you are. I wouldn’t dare accuse you of anything less. Please come sit down with me.” She smiled sweetly.
Mumbling something she didn’t catch, he ducked into the tent and sat with a heavy sigh and no grace at all, just surrendering the weight of his body to the ground. Less than five minutes later, he slumped over onto his side, snoring softly.
“I’ll tell Charles the valerian root works like a charm…” Catherine said softly, turning the page in her book.
She read a chapter, then slid her ribbon to mark her place and got up to check the horses, removing their saddles, bags, and bridles, leaving them with simple rope halters stamped into the rocky ground. Arthur’s gear was heavy, full of supplies and weapons, and she was glad he was asleep and unable to see her struggling with it. Fortunately, Slim was used to her fumblings and had the patience of a saint. Each of the horses got half an apple for their good manners. Once the gear was stowed near the tent, she checked the fire to ensure it would remain low and controlled. Then she returned to the tent and prodded and rolled the big outlaw to lie fully on his bedroll instead of the ground, and set his hat safely to the side, but within his easy reach.
He slumbered on, undisturbed, for several hours while she finished her book. Supper was a few small pieces of venison, salted and dried into almost a jerky state before she got up to put the kettle on the coals for coffee in the morning and take a final poke around the area before night fell. She’d gathered hazelnuts and huckleberries and was returning to the tent when she saw Arthur struggling to climb out of it and to his feet.
“What’s wrong?” She asked, taking his arm, “Go back to sleep…”
“Piss.” He mumbled, eyes still more closed than open, reaching up to grab her other shoulder with his other hand, “Gotta piss…”
Letting him use her as a ballast to drag himself to his feet, she walked him to the edge of their camp and leaned him against a tree, encouraging him to see to his pants fly while turning her back. She tried not to listen to the sound of his stream pattering against the ground, and instead concentrated on the creaking of the branches far above, and watched the interweaving patterns of shadow and light in the canopy. Until he stumbled back into her, and she braced herself for the full of his weight if he didn’t manage to keep his feet.
“You put yourself in order?”
“Then let’s get you back to your bedroll.”
“Mmyesss.” There was something terribly child-like and endearing about him in this vulnerable state, if Catherine had to be honest. She walked him back and helped him lie down, and then settled in for a long night of light dozing interrupted by periods of startled watchfulness.
It’d been a long time since she last slept peacefully. Her mind would not settle enough in the presence of another human being. Certainly not a man.
Probably never with a man.
She’d learned to overcome this restriction, however, with patience and intention . She could lie still and breathe steady for hours so as to not disturb whoever shared her space. She could inch like a worm in muscle-screaming, mind-bending slowness out of grasp so as to not wake them.
At the time, she would have rather died than wake them…
The hand around her forearm was almost cool and clammy, and the hairy, half-clothed body against her back too warm. The sweat from his skin seemed to grease along her shoulder blades as he puffed ragged breaths against the side of her neck. She prayed he’d fall asleep soon so she could slip away, ignoring with all her will the play of his fingers under her chemise along her belly…
… Over the tiny swell of her fledgling breasts to tweak at a nipple…
Biting her lip, she told herself he would fall asleep soon and she could go to her own room…
Pale eyes opened to the dark of the tent, firelight flickering low outside. Breathing deep, slow, she heard the groan of the trees overhead and the shuffling of the horses. Arthur snoring softly near enough to feel the heat of his body at her lower legs extended toward him.
She didn’t need to be afraid. That had been a long time ago…
Not that things had gotten too much better as she’d grown older, but she learned to master her own mind, since then. Fear was the enemy. Fear made one a prisoner.
She would never be a prisoner again.
After feeding more wood into the fire for more light, Catherine returned to the edge of the tent to keep watch. She did not suspect anything dangerous would come upon them, it was simply something to do instead of dozing off into unpleasantness again.
The minutes crept by. She could sit still and patient.
The night air grew almost uncomfortably cool, and she was about to get up and move closer to the fire and considered covering the outlaw with a saddle blanket when he suddenly sat upright with a choking gasp. His abrupt, unanticipated movement startled her so that she froze to the spot and simply stared.
His mouth opened and closed, as if he were trying to say something, and after several attempts, he managed a few unintelligible syllables, “W...n...m…d…”
Catherine’s gaze was focused on his hands, though, and how they trembled as if from palsy.
Something was wrong .
He was trying to get up, but his limbs wouldn’t cooperate. Reaching out her hands, she took hold of his shoulder with one, and the side of his face with the other, to turn him toward her.
“Arthur? Arthur look at me…”
“Gotta…” He protested, pulling strong against her grasp, brushing her hand from his shoulder. His touch was like ice . Undeterred, she cupped the other side of his face as well, and turned his head her way. “Look at me.”
His eyes were wild and bloodshot, pupils dilated, jaw clenched, grinding his molars. He looked everywhere but at her face, but he stopped struggling, tension digging deep through his body instead, so that she thought she could hear his bones creak under the pressure.
She recognized this.
She knew this.
He was bracing himself for pain. Maybe physical. Maybe psychological. He was waiting for her to hurt him.
She wondered who it was that hurt him. She wondered if she already knew.
“Arthur,” She said softly, as soothingly as she could. Her hands gentled at his face, smoothing her fingers against his scruff, “everything is alright.”
“No…” He insisted in a whisper, “I gotta… th’camp…”
The camp . Catherine bristled inwardly, realizing that the needs of the others was more than an obligation. It’d been made a wound in him, frequently scratched open to bleed anew until he satisfied the demands of it. She rose to her knees and shuffled closer, stroking the side of his face, noting how he leaned into her touch.
“Listen,” His eyes lowered, and he exhaled shakily, “They’re fine. They’re safe. Nobody is going to go hungry. You need to rest.”
“Rest…” His low voice echoed the word thoughtlessly, and she wondered what exactly he was thinking. What had he dreamt to make him wake and react like this?
Was this what twenty years under Dutch’s tutelage did to a man at his weakest and most vulnerable?
Or was this simply an adverse side-effect of the valerian root dose she’d tainted his bread roll with?
Regardless, his distress upset her-- She wondered at that, in a distant corner of her mind, that this man’s feelings might affect her so acutely-- and she had the uncanny, genuine desire to comfort him.
She’d comforted many men in her life. It’d been one of her earliest lessons in womanhood: how to service the wounded ego and pride of a man, and how to remain warm and gentle in the storms of their emotional outbursts. To say the right things, and soothe with gentle touches…
It was a thing she knew how to do, and did without thought so often, but it was seldom a thing she really wanted to do.
But she wanted to comfort Arthur in this moment of weakness she may have unintentionally authored…
“Yes. You need to rest,” She told him, “Are you cold? Come here.”
He kept leaning into her touch, so she simply drew her hands slowly back toward herself, drawing him close as he sought her.
“Come here,” She murmured, encouraging, sliding her fingertips along his jawline and up toward his temples, back into his sandy hair, “Come. Lie down and rest.”
Like a child, or an affectionate animal, he pressed his face roughly against her chest, high, toward her collarbone, and sighed wearily as the weight of his body sagged against her.
“It’s alright,” Was her assurance as she settled onto her backside, folding her legs in front of her, ladylike, laying out her skirt with one hand, the other stroking through his hair while his arms circled her waist, “You can rest for awhile. You’ve done enough.”
Once she was seated as comfortably as she was going to manage with the big man’s weight against her, she guided him down, cradling his head in her lap.
“You can rest.” He was warm, and his arms wrapped around her felt secure instead of restrictive, like when she rode afore him in the saddle. Running her fingers through his hair, she soon felt his body unclench and his breathing even out. She smoothed the worried creases from his brow and admired his handsome features in repose.
It was something of a tragedy that the man thought himself unattractive to the point of ugliness. The sum of his opinions of himself altogether were a collection of small tragedies, piled up and cluttering his head. She’d known bad men, and ugly men, and stupid men, and incompetent men, and heartless men… He was not among their number. He was handsome, and intelligent, competent, hard working, good-hearted, and thoughtful.
He was exactly the sort of man a mother would warn about women like her. It was an amusing thought, picturing the lady in the photo in his tent, Mrs Beatrice Morgan, sitting a small Arthur on her knee and telling him to beware women like her. An unruly teenage Arthur making faces at a young and beautiful Miss Susan Grimshaw, trying to warn him about what a woman like her could do to him if given half a chance…
It was amusing enough image to keep a small smile on her face as she ran her fingers through his hair while he snored softly into her thigh.
His low groan stirred her out of her light doze, and she stretched her fingers, still lingering against his scalp. Her legs had lost circulation, aching in pins and needles under the big outlaw’s weight. The gray daylight beyond the tent made telling the hour difficult, but Catherine thought it might be properly morning, at least. Wind rushing in the treetops threatened rain in earnest this time.
Groaning again, he started to move his arms, and she wondered if he’d lost circulation in them with the way he slowly flexed wrists and hands. “...Where’re we…?”
“Good morning.” She answered, smiling, “Tall Trees.”
“What happened…?” One eye was open, and he squinted out into the camp and tried again to get his hands under his shoulders like he wanted to get himself upright. With a short grunt, he left his arms to relax on either side of her hips, “... Shit, I feel like I was trampled by a herd of cows..!”
Biting her lip to keep from laughing, she ran her fingers through his hair again, “You don’t remember?”
Furrowing his brow, he turned his face a little further and rolled his eye to try and look up at her, “... No.”
“I brought you out here to help me with a job at Hestor’s Rest to meet a friend of my father’s.”
He was quiet a few breaths, then, “... Why am I in your lap?”
She could not hold back the light laughter this time, “You woke up upset some hours ago. It was the only way I could convince you not to storm out into the dark.”
“... Did I? I don’ remember at all…”
“I don’t imagine you would. You weren’t yourself and still half asleep.”
“... I dunno what t’say, Miss… I’m sor--”
“--Think nothing of it. You might as well relax a little while longer. It’s going to rain and I’d rather not arrive soaked through.”
“Ought to at least get out of yer lap…” He muttered, and tried again to gather his arms and also his legs under him, wincing at the discomfort it caused him, “... Damn…”
“It’s no surprise your body won’t cooperate with you, Mister Morgan, the way you’ve abused and neglected it these last several days. Hardly eating, barely any sleep at all… You’re quite fortunate you didn’t cause yourself an injury or illness.”
“Always somethin’ t’do, miss…” He muttered.
“And others who can do whatever is needful. It’s one thing to pick up the slack, Arthur. Quite another to neglect basic necessities. I expect to not have to remind you again in the future…”
He laughed ruefully and finally got his hands under him to bear his weight enough to get his knees under him, “... A lecture before breakfast at my age… Sinkin’ pretty low…”
Cupping the side of his face with a hand, causing him to look at her in surprise, she leaned forward and said quietly with a serious tone, meeting his eyes, “If you won’t take care of yourself, Mister Morgan, I am not afraid to intervene and do it for you.”
Chapter 8: 'Girl Talk'
This one-shot was inspired by this quote!
(That being the case, this story chronologically occurs right after[and because of] 'Cons and Facades')
“You need to stop,” John interjected, voice rough and impatient, “It’s embarassin’. Do you even hear yourself? Goin’ on about that woman…”
He was right, Arthur knew, and yet he couldn’t stop. He hadn’t been able to stop since the alley between the saloon and the general store where she’d burned the feel of her lips against his. He never did it intentionally, of course, her name just leapt from his mouth whether he wanted it to or not. He’d repeat something she’d said, or ask questions, or muse over what she might think or say. He’d comment on what they’d last seen her doing, or wearing.
The worst part was that half of the time, he hardly noticed he was doing it until somebody pointed it out to him. Tilly had been the first, and he’d been so humiliated and frustrated he spent the entire night filling page after page of his journal with everything burning through his mind about her in the hopes that no more of it would come spilling out of his fool, traitor mouth.
Clearly his efforts, hours, and paper were spent in vain. He didn’t have a proper reply for John, so he just clenched his teeth. He didn’t much like it when the ‘golden boy’ was right and he wasn’t.
Sure, the old rivalry was getting a bit worn and long in the tooth, but John’s year long disappearance and then sudden reappearance still rubbed Arthur raw. Like how he treated Abigail and Jack. Like how Dutch and Hosea and everyone seemed to just excuse his absence. Chewing the inside of his cheek, a hook of anger twisting in his belly, a corner of Arthur’s mind naggingly wondered what Miss Catherine thought about it…
“...That’s real rich, comin’ from you , boy,” Arthur growled back, not caring that the moment had passed and his poor timing made his retort all the more petulant, “Seein’ as you were the one offerin’ her a ride in the middle of camp, for everyone t’hear--including your wife .”
John scoffed and shook his head, “I was drunk, an’ I apologized t’her about it already. The only one still goin’ on about it is you , you dumbass. Like some jealous dumb bastard. Goin’ around, moonin’ after her like some sad mutt beggin’ fer a pat on the head. Y’know, when Dutch catches you, he’s gonna whip you like a damn dog, too!”
Something familiar flinched inside, “Shut your damn mouth, Marston!”
Abigail’s expression was pinched, and it was clear she had something she wanted to say, but wasn’t sure the right way to say it. Especially in front of the other ladies.
Despite them all being outlaws here together, Abigail still seemed stuck on the fact that she was an orphan who’d made a living as a prostitute, selling herself to survive, and Miss Schofield was born a rich heiress and brought up as a the fancy lady Abigail never would be. It was a mixture of resent and awe, and Catherine hated both. One day, she’d have the nerve to tell her what it was she spent her energy envying, and maybe she wouldn’t anymore. Maybe then they could talk plainly to each other…
“Yes, Abigail? Oh, that color looks fine on you!” She beamed up from her book, noting the rose colored blouse she’d recently bought in town.
“I told you it was lovely,” Mary-Beth said with a smile.
“Oh… well thank you… But…” Realizing that Tilly and Karen were also listening in, and that more ears would only pique the longer she drew the moment out, Abigail shifted uneasily before dropping down beside Catherine and taking hold of her wrist when she emptied her hands of her book, “... I wanted to say that you should be careful.”
“Careful?” Mrs Marston was smart-- she’d survived by her wits, something Miss Schofield could easily respect-- and so if she had noticed something, Catherine knew it was wise to heed her warnings.
“... Getting involved with these outlaw men… It ain’t somethin’ you should do… without thinkin’. So be careful.”
The lady couldn’t help her confused laugh, “... Isn’t it a bit late for that?” she asked, indicating herself and the whole of the camp, particularly Dutch’s tent, “I am very much entrenched here, my dear…”
“That’s not what I… You know what I mean. He’s a good friend, so you be careful with him, alright?” Abigail’s grip tightened on her arm but then she climbed to her feet at the sound of her son’s voice announcing that he was hungry and wanted another bowl of stew.
The pale-eyed lady could only stare at the retreating mother’s back, at a total loss.
“... She’s talkin’ about Arthur.” Tilly said after a moment.
“Arthur?” Catherine echoed, commanding her expression and tone just so to reveal only deeper bafflement.
Karen rolled her eyes with a sly grin, “He’s only been talking about you every time he opens his mouth for the last couple days…”
“He’s been watching you like a hawk for weeks, now, too…” Added Mary-Beth with an equally sly grin only barely hidden by her book.
“I think you’re exaggerating.” Catherine blinked and reached for the basket of mending, knowing full well that if they were, they weren’t exaggerating much .
“Say what you want,” Mary-Beth laughed, “but I think he’s falling for you.”
“Which would be an’ improvement…” Tilly announced dryly, taking a pair of stockings from the basket with a four inch tear up the length, “Better you than that ‘Mary’ girl he used to go on about from time to time...”
“He likes those fine ladies , doesn’t he?” Karen giggled, “Like his mentor…”
Catherine sighed and picked up a shirt from the basket, “I have no idea what you’re talking about…”
“I think they were talking about marriage some time ago… but then she got cold feet, I guess…” was Mary-Beth’s elaboration.
Admittedly, it was more Hosea’s voice cracking harsh that stopped him than Charles’s big hand on his chest and sizeable frame in his path. Arthur was seeing red, and there were very few men who could physically stand up to him like this.
Little Mouthy Marston was not one of them.
He didn’t know about Charles. He was still new and kept to himself. Didn’t make trouble.
Didn’t shoot his mouth off.
“That’s enough! What is this, a pair of men or squabbling, rabid children?!”
“He swung at me first!” John spat.
“I told you to shut your goddamn mouth! ” Arthur snarled back.
“Both of you boys shut up! Arthur, go walk it off-- Go! John-- I don’t want to hear it, John, shut up-- Charles, will you go with him and make sure he doesn’t get himself in trouble? If he swings at anybody else, I fully expect you to knock him flat on his dumb ass.”
Arthur stormed off, heading down the hill and away from the train station, ignoring Hosea and John’s fading voices and the faint sound of Charles’s tread pacing after him. His blood pounded hot and fast, even though he knew it was the wrong thing-- twenty years under Dutch and Hosea hammering into him again and again that a man wasn’t ruled by his temper. His apparent failure to overcome it was a point of shame, easily redirecting his energy inward.
Worse yet, John, and probably Charles and Hosea too, thought he’d lost his head over a woman-- Dutch’s Miss Schofield, no less!
At the foot of the hill, kicking loose rocks absentmindedly into the rough desert brush, the big outlaw assured himself vehemently that he absolutely had not lost his head (much less his heart ) over her.
Even if his mind played again and again the moment in the dim where she’d pulled him close and touched her lips to his…
Goddammit ! He wasn’t an idiot! It’d been a trick. An illusion for the sheriff to prevent a misunderstanding and keep them out of trouble!
...And yet as clever as Miss Schofield was, surely there were a thousand other things she could have done instead…
But did that mean she’d kissed him because…?
Scoffing angrilly, Arthur took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. He wasn’t fool enough to kid himself into thinking she’d kissed him because it meant something to her. She was Dutch van der Linde’s woman.
Well… she was her own woman, of course, but she was Dutch’s lover…
… Then again, there hadn’t been much love or lovin’ between them lately, either… She’d turned cold to Dutch ever since the argument Arthur had walked in on… Every now and again he’d catch the sound of the bed creaking, but not nearly as often as before. Dutch’s attempts to recapture her affections were hard to ignore, too. It was a careful and interesting balance of maintaining his pride and never being able to do things subtly.
“... Damn !” Arthur cursed low, but fierce, then let out his breath slow, and just as slowly turned to face Charles, who was watching him silently. “... You must think I’m the world’s biggest moron, Charles…”
“No.” The other man said quietly.
“Go on, I ain’t gonna blame you…”
With the hint of a laugh, Charles reached over and patted him on the shoulder, once, “... I don’t give you that much credit, Arthur. ‘World’s biggest’? Be serious. You’re just a man. With eyes.”
Arthur nodded, shrugging his shoulders, shedding the anger.
“Sometimes even a brain.”
That one managed to get him to laugh.
“Well if we’re going to gossip about the poor man, you might as well tell me the good bits instead of the sad bits .” Catherine sighed, half-hoping that would end the discussion.
It even almost worked as the three women looked at each other. Finally Karen said, “... Ain’t none of us can tell you anything scandalous, Catherine.”
“Pillow secrets, hm?”
“No,” Tilly scoffed with a laugh, “Ain’t none of us lain with him.”
Blinking, the lady looked at her, then the other two, “None of you? He hasn’t slept with any of you?”
Mary-Beth was blushing, and Catherine strongly suspected it was not out of lack of willingness from that one .
Karen gestured toward the center of camp, “Abigail did, awhile ago. Before Jack. But good luck asking her. She’s gone all proper and motherly and don’t tell good stories anymore.”
“I think we’re a bit like his little sisters,” Tilly explained.
Catherine smiled, “... I don’t know whether that makes him endearing or just foolish…”
“That’s Arthur for you.”
“What’re we talkin’ ‘bout ladies?” Uncle asked, plopping down in the shade nearby without invitation. Karen scoffed and turned her back, unwilling to suffer his ‘advice’ this time around.
“Ain’t nobody invited you, you old nosey goat.”
“You sure?” Uncle gave them all a knowing smile, “Because I thought yous was wonderin’ about ol’ Arthur Morgan…?”
“I don’t think you’ve got the answers to our questions, Uncle…” Tilly laughed quietly.
The old man kept trying to catch Catherine’s eye, but she resolved to appear as if this had nothing to do with her, and focused on her stitching with a will.
“Well you never know unless you ask, now do you?”
Mary-Beth giggled and tilted her head coyly, “You’re trying to start trouble, Uncle.”
Just then, Miss Grimshaw rounded the carriage they were taking shelter beside, “I’m hearing an awful lot of chit-chat over here. You’d best hope an equal amount of work is done!”
“It’s my fault, again, Miss Grimshaw,” Catherine sighed and gave her a helpless smile, “Don’t be too harsh with them, they’re just trying to humor me…”
Tilly gave the pale-eyed lady a secret smile, thankful and admiring once again her uncanny ability to switch Susan Grimshaw’s mood with a few words. For whatever reason-- admiration for her lofty origins of wealth and status, appreciation for her willingness to roll up her lace-trimmed sleeves and help, or her engaging and respectful attitude toward the ‘lower ranked’ women-- Susan Grimshaw had a very high opinion of Catherine, and so long as some work was getting done, would excuse any foolishness she claimed to have a hand in. After learning this, the other young women were swift to include the lady in all of their foolishness.
“Oh… well… Do at least make sure these girls stay on task, Miss Schofield-- that means you too, Miss Gaskill, and you Miss Jones!”
Mary-Beth hurriedly tucked her book further behind her and held up the woolen blanket she was trying to mend, “Of course, Miss.”
“You know,” Karen turned back around, “I just realized… you could probably answer our questions, Miss Grimshaw…”
“Oh, no, Karen…” Tilly warned.
Susan’s eyebrows crashed together and she pressed her lips together, “What questions would those be?”
“About Arthur.” The blonde smiled, unrepentant and unafraid.
Mary-Beth flushed bright red, Tilly only narrowly avoided burying her face in the torn stockings, Uncle grinned widely, but Catherine did not flinch. Looking around at their reactions before leveling her hard look back at Karen, the camp boss replied, “... What do you fool girls want to know about Mister Morgan that you can’t ask him yourselves?”
“Well it’s just that you know everything that goes on around here, right?” Was Karen’s taunting prompting.
“So when was the last time Arthur had a woman?”
Uncle exploded with snorting, then gasping laughter, falling over on his side. Miss Grimshaw’s face turned red with anger.
“What is wrong with you girls-- Stop laughing, Uncle, this isn’t funny! As far as I see it, it ain’t none of your business!”
Catherine looked up from her mending, brow furrowed, “... But you do know…”
“I…” Susan’s hands came together, momentarily wringing, “I don’t see how it’s any business of yours, Miss. After all you have--”
“--Miss Grimshaw, you know I ask odd questions about everything! Never mind, I won’t let Miss Karen embarrass you further. I’ll just ask him myself like you suggested. It’s always best to go to the source, I suppose.”
The older woman blanched, “Now, Miss Catherine, I did not suggest anything of the sort! Don’t you be saying to anybody that I did! Don’t tease that poor man-- he’s the only one who can be relied upon to do any work around here!”
Blinking innocently, Catherine asked, “... Do you think I’m teasing him, Miss Grimshaw?”
“Well… It’s very obvious he’s quite taken with you--”
“--You see!” Tilly exclaimed.
“Oh anybody could have told you that!” Uncle chortled, breathless.
“What in the world is going on over here?” Dutch exclaimed, crossing from around the corner of Pearson’s tent, likely from his own.
Everyone at once fell silent, which stunned Catherine more than the man’s sudden arrival. Uncle eventually hurried to fill the silence, “Oh, Dutch, you know what they say: 'happy women, happy village'!”
“That’s very true, old friend,” Dutch smiled broadly, “And I’m quite glad to house some lovely, happy women. I could use a bit of diversion myself! What’s all the excitement-- if you don’t mind my asking?”
He searched all of their faces, and Catherine watched each of them attempt a sort of retreat, as if they could shrink down into an unnoticeable ant and scurry away. Knowing this hesitance would only make him more tenacious in search of an answer, she opened her mouth to give one.
All eyes fell on her, most of them making silent communications to be wise and discrete. They, none of them, not even Miss Grimshaw whose loyalty was maybe rivaled only by Arthur Morgan’s, did not want Dutch to know what they had been talking about.
It told her a great deal about their relationship with their leader, and confirmed what she already suspected, based on what she already knew of him.
“Oh, Mister van der Linde,” She sighed, and offered her hand so he could gallantly help her to her feet, “don’t be absurd. It was only a bit of girl talk . Nothing that would interest you.”
“But it interested you ?” Was his sly question, meeting her eyes.
“A great many things interest me, you know that.”
“I do know that.” He agreed, neglecting to release her hand, “Won’t you enlighten me, my dear?”
“Shame on you, Dutch,” She scolded with a faux pout, withdrawing her hand, “Trying to extract the secrets shared between sisters from me by playing on my affections for you? I didn’t realize you would be so keen on our gossip. Shall I remember this next time I hear some of your more animated discussions with Mister Matthews, Mister Morgan, Mister Bell, and Mister Marston? Are we to make such an arrangement?”
“An arrangement!” He grinned, “That sounds like blackmail and robbery!”
She tilted up her chin with a sly smile back, “Oh, well, I do number amongst the greatest of outlaws, now don’t I? It can’t be helped that I would learn a thing or two.”
Chapter 9: 'Sisterhood'
(This was inspired by that little reveal that Micah and Jenny apparently had sex. I'm not saying Micah can't seduce somebody properly... but I am saying that: a) it's a dubious claim for various reasons, especially considering the rest of the conversation and b) we've seen him try to seduce women in the camp. It's not pretty.)
tw: prior sexual assault; attempted sexual assault
After weeks of wondering and questioning, Catherine finally discovered the reason why Miss Jenny Kirk had been behaving so strangely. Reticent. Brooding, perhaps. It had been clear to her and the other young women that something was wrong , but Jenny herself would just tell them she would take care of her own business, and to leave her alone about it. Abigail suspected that someone had said something.
What Catherine discovered was much worse.
It was a bright afternoon, and most folks were in town or out on jobs. Uncle and the ladies had gone into town with Mac, Pearson, Javier, and Dutch. The only folk staying back in camp were those who’d come back early in the morning from their respective gambits: Micah, Jenny, Bill, and Davey who’d taken some stage coaches, Hosea, who had spent a long night winning at one of the riskier blackjack tables in the area, Charles who had done some necessary hunting, Sean who was being punished for bad behavior, and Catherine who begged off accompanying Dutch in town, claiming a malady of the stomach.
She’d ignored the jabs and teasing about ‘morning sickness’.
Hosea was reading the paper, Davey and Bill were by the main fire, both of them sleeping off their earlier drinking. Charles was addressing the most necessary of chores-- chopping firewood and feeding the horses-- and then intended to head out again. Catherine shared some cold ginger tea with Hosea, then got up to feed the chickens. She’d been searching around Pearson’s wagon for the bucket of feed when she saw the shadows of two people’s legs under Strauss’s wagon, as they were presumably standing close together on the other side. Curious, she went to take a look, circling the outside of the camp as Sean, on guard duty again, called a greeting to someone arriving on horseback.
Micah and Jenny were there behind Strauss’s wagon, talking quietly, and this wouldn’t have concerned her at all except that Jenny’s face was tilted down and her expression seemed deeply vexed. Micah’s back was to Catherine, but she thought something was strange in the way his clothes hung on his frame. Noticing her, Jenny started to turn and step away, but Micah caught her arm and cornered her back against the wagon, where he put his hands on both her shoulders, as if he intended to push her down…
“Jenny?” Catherine called loudly, not allowing the horrible realization to color her voice. She hoped the interruption would be enough…
It wasn’t. Micah didn’t move or release the young woman.
“Mister Bell!” The lady’s voice tilted toward shock as she strode toward them with purpose, lifting the hem of her skirt so it would not hinder her. When he remained deaf to her, her voice sharpened to warning, “Mister Bell!”
Someone had heard her. She heard footsteps drawing near. Good.
Micah apparently did not hear the footsteps, for when she reached him and reached for his arm to attempt to separate him and Jenny, he moved as if to shove her back, smacking her solidly in the center of the chest with his hand, startling her. Jenny protested a worried ‘don’t!’ as Micah’s eyes sharpened, recognizing how his error might cost him. Instead of backpedaling, however, he double-downed and snatched for Catherine’s neck with that same hand, so he could draw her near and physically control her.
The maneuver was not foreign to the lady, so instead of retreating, she stepped close, inside his reach and slapped him soundly across the face. She lacked strength, however, and the outlaw grinned, and simply backhanded her in return with a much stronger blow. While Catherine stumbled, he reached with his other hand to push her back against the wagon. A gruff voice snapped ‘Hey!’ but nobody paid it any mind.
Before Micah could put another hand on the dark-haired lady, Jenny, apparently regaining her wits from whatever had affected her, hauled off and slugged him full in the face. Her hands were rough and her arms strong, for she had spent many years defending herself with them. Recovering her own bearing, Catherine moved as well, and what she lacked in strength, she made up for in swiftness. With one hand she unlatched the outlaw’s gun belt and tossed it away, out of his reach, with the other, she reached for the open fly of his pants and grabbed hold of his erect member and exposed testicles.
She did not need much strength from there .
He’d seen her circling the outside of the camp and thought it strange. Then he heard her call for Jenny, and almost decided to let her be. But then he heard her call Micah in a tone bordering on alarm, and Arthur picked up his pace instead.
He didn’t like the man, and didn’t trust him nearly as far as he could throw him, and when he saw the strangely predatory way he was looming over Miss Kirk, Arthur wondered that the feisty young lady would tolerate such posturing.
But then Arthur saw the bastard put hands on Miss Catherine, and he’d almost drawn iron and blown his head clean off.
He was too slow, though, because now it was Micah backed against the wagon, his loaded gun belt not three paces from Arthur’s feet, begging to be released.
“If ah evah see ya put a hand on her again , ah sware t’God above ah’ll cave yer fat head in, ye stupid bastid!” Jenny’s accent came thick in her fury, her bared teeth and flushed face close enough to Micah Arthur thought for a moment she was going to bite his bleeding nose off.
“Likewise,” Catherine said softly, silk-covered steel in her voice, “if you so much as look at any of the women in this camp with anything less than gentlemanly respect, Mister Bell, I will tell Dutch what happened here today, and these two will corroborate my claim. I promise you, after that, you will never again have a place to lay your head in peace this side of Hell.”
“Alright, alright!” He groaned, “Just let me go!”
“Let you go? But I thought you were so desperate for the touch of a woman?” The lady asked innocently, “So desperate you were going to take it even though I very clearly saw her tell you to leave her alone!”
Arthur did not see, but the shrill noise coming out of Micah’s mouth and the way his face drained color and eyes bulged did not need much interpretation.
“Go on and rip ‘em right off, Miss,” Jenny hissed savagely.
“No! No! You’ve made your point! I- I’m sorry!”
It seemed Catherine did let him go, because he fell in a heap at their feet. The lady took Jenny’s arm in hers and led her away. They caught Arthur’s eye, but said nothing to him, and he gave them a brief nod. Turning the corner, he heard Jenny say softly to Catherine, “Don’t tell the girls… or Lenny…”
“I won’t tell anyone except what I said I’d do.”
Micah was slowly climbing to his feet, hands working quickly at the crotch of his pants. It was then he saw Arthur.
“... I expect I don’ have to say anythin’ after all that.” Arthur said with a wry smirk, guts churning with rage.
“... I can explain--”
“--Oh no. You really can’t. ‘Cause I ain’t hearin’ it.”
“... You gonna say anything to Dutch?”
“Nah,” Arthur turned as if to follow the women, “If I’m telling Dutch anythin’ , it’s that you got yourself killed bein’ a disgusting, yellow, sunovabitch…” He stopped, and looked at the blond outlaw from under the brim of his hat, “... Do I need t’tell him that?”
“It’s a misunderstanding!”
“Only misunderstandin’ I see is the one in your rotted brain.”
He walked away before his temper got the better of him.
“I dunno what happened…” Jenny said, tilting her head back while Catherine ran the brush through her hair again, “It just… felt like I couldn’t do anything… I don’t understand it.”
“I do.” Catherine said softly, gathering sections of hair to begin plaiting.
“ You do?’
“Please, Jenny, you think only outlaws and poor men prey on women? Wealthy men are born and raised believing they’ve a right to everything.”
“Christ, I hate them.” The young woman raged, “I hate men!”
Just then, they saw Arthur turn the corner, hesitate, and hang back.
“You heard me, Morgan!”
“I sure did, Miss Kirk.” He held up both hands placatingly, “Jus’ wanted to make sure neither of you was hurt, that’s all.”
“Don’t need your help!”
He nodded, chuckling low, “I saw for myself the truth of that.”
Smoothing a hand against Jenny’s head, back through her hair, and shushing her fondly, Catherine said, “All the same, I was glad for your support, Mister Morgan.”
“Sure. You know if you ever need anything… you jus’ let me know.”
“I do know. Thank you.”
They watched him cross the camp to meet up with Hosea.
“Some men are all right.” Catherine said quietly, resuming her braiding.
Jenny snorted, “Oh, Arthur’s a good boy all right, so eager --”
“--I was talking about Lenny.”
The flush in the young woman’s cheeks and that she didn’t respond told Catherine all she needed to know. “... I think you should give him a chance.”
“He likes you .”
“Sure, he likes me. He likes my mind. My education. My willingness to share what I know. But that’s all. He fancies you, Miss Kirk, and if you give him half a chance, I think he’d try to move Heaven and Earth to make sure you never doubt you’re the one he wants most.”
Jenny scoffed, flexing her hand and watching the blood well in the scrapes on her knuckles, “For now .”
“Now is all we have. Or are you trying to plan a happily ever after, already?”
“I’ll leave the romantic stuff to Mary-Beth.”
Laughing, Catherine pinned the end of the plait, tucking it out of the way and kissed the young woman’s cheek, “Maybe leave it to Mister Summers some time.”
“Maybe…” Then Jenny took hold of her arm, “... What about you?”
“... You and Dutch.”
Shaking her head, Catherine shrugged and smiled.
Waiting until she caught her eye again, Jenny said, “... Or should I ask about you and Arthur?”
“That depends on what you want to hear,” Catherine laughed, “There’s nothing very interesting to tell. I waste a lot of his time being a very bad equestrian.”
“Maybe, but the way I see it, maybe he’s hoping you’re interested in another sort of ride?”
“... Even if I were, we both know I shouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be good for anybody.”
Jenny shrugged, “... I like you, Catherine. But I wish you hadn’t ever got mixed up with us. With Dutch.”
She didn’t know what to say in reply.
“... Does he hit you?”
“Would you tell me if he did?”
“... What good would that do, Jenny?”
“Christ,” The young woman swore, “I hate men.”
“Ride out with me,” Dutch had that way about him, even now with everything she knew and all that she suspected, he could still say things that were clearly orders and make them sound like enticing invitations.
“Where are we going?”
“I want to show you something-- don’t ask me what. It’s a surprise. You’ll have to be patient, my dear Miss Schofield.”
“Should I change my skirt?”
He smiled, “Of course. No reason not to take your great big brute out. I hear you’re becoming quite the horsewoman.”
She beamed, but said demurely, “So Mister Morgan is telling stories again, I see…”
He chuckled his dark, throaty chuckle that always reminded her of smoking rooms decked with leather bound books and decanters of sherry, and she ducked into the tent to change into her riding skirt.
She joined him at the hitching posts minutes later, noticing that he was already mounted up, and Lenny was cinching up Woden’s saddle-- he was one of few in camp the thoroughbred would tolerate. After the young outlaw cupped his hands to assist her in mounting the tall stallion, Catherine thanked him and watched in dismay as he gave a wave, a smile, and headed into camp. Catherine gave Dutch a confused look.
“Are we going alone?”
“Of course! We don’t need an entourage and forward guard do we?” Was his teasing, “I’m sure we’re perfectly capable of handling this ourselves.”
Smiling, the lady chose not to argue, and instead nudged Woden to follow The Count. The sky was clear and bright blue, a welcome change from the days of seasonal storms. Right away, she suspected that Dutch planned on showing her something out in the desert, because of what he had said-- if he’d wanted to take her into town for something, he would have said ‘Let’s ride into town’. But what out there would interest him enough to think it might interest her ?
Was this something for her, or something for him ?
In the beginning, there hadn’t really been a difference. Dutch loved the idea of the West, of the desert, as the last frontier-- the last uncivilized land-- where man tested himself against the pure savagery of the wild and knew himself to be the master of his own destiny in a harsh, unflinching world. For awhile, the same had been true of Catherine, and while the beautiful vistas and clear skies had been a revelation all on their own, the philosophy was a more attractive bone for her restless mind to chew on.
But that was before Arthur Morgan started pointing out the details she kept missing in her broad-stroke view. He started bringing her odds and ends--pieces of the mysteries the desert and the West could offer her if she just paid them a little more attention!
The philosophy alone no longer satisfied-- indeed, the philosophy was empty without the mysteries of the tangible. Less a construct of the human mind, the ‘West’, especially the desert, was a living, breathing entity with drive and intention and secrets to be explored. Catherine was at once awed by the majesty and embarrassed at her previous, narrow views.
The two riders followed the road only a short ways before Dutch turned them off toward the south. Catherine let Woden find his own footing to avoid bristling cacti, scratchy brush, and large stones, trusting his judgement better than her own in that respect, so long as he didn’t stray too far from The Count. A rattlesnake had the misfortune of resting, coiled, in their path, and while the white stallion snorted, gave the tiniest of balks, the smallest of hops to the side, and carried on, the silver buckskin pinned his ears, gathered his haunches in a small rear, and struck at the snake with both front hooves. The snake abandoned it’s napping spot and Catherine checked the stallion to not go after it.
“... That one’s got a mind of his own…” Dutch shook his head with a wry smile.
Catherine grinned back, “It’s his best quality.”
“I disagree,” The outlaw replied, “his best quality is his affection for you. I’ve seen how he takes care of you in the saddle. He’s a devil and a half under anybody else, but gentle as a lamb under you. I admire that loyalty.”
Catherine suspected he assumed it was the same sort of bond he and The Count shared-- she’d heard over and over again, from Arthur and others, how the white stallion would accept no other rider, “He just recognizes his best interest is to keep me in the saddle.” Mostly because she weighed and demanded the least of the other riders in camp.
“That’s very good, because it would definitely go badly for him if he hurt you…”
The way he said it made it clear it was meant to be comforting and protective-- that Dutch ‘valued her safety above all else’-- but Catherine could not help but hear it as a threat . Did that mean if she ever were forcibly dismounted due to her own error that Dutch would… do something … to her horse?
No. Surely Arthur and Lenny wouldn’t allow that. Charles and Hosea neither. She certainly wouldn’t!
They went a bit further before he started to talk about the book he was reading, the one by Evelyn Miller, and how pleased he was with it. Having also read the book-- they consumed books in a starkly different manner: she swallowed them whole, reading them cover to cover in a matter of hours while he savored them over a week or longer-- she engaged in the conversation, admitting her admiration for Miller’s passion, but countering that his views were largely impractical-- as his old favorite (and her enduring one) J Peterson had discussed across many volumes.
But it seemed Mister van der Linde was not of a mind to debate or engage in a friendly tête-à-tête , because his tone and words grew sharp, “My dear, you only think so because you have not taken the time to read through the book and really understand what is being said. Haven’t I told you before? Such philosophy is to be experienced over time…”
Sensing the trap, Catherine did not take the bait. She’d told him before-- three times in total now-- that she read through the books swiftly because her mind held the pages in her memory perfectly, and she did not have to consult them again. This freed the actual book for the leisurely consumption of others . This singular talent had been developed and fostered in her father’s house, where what she was permitted to read had been closely monitored, and any illicit materials that might shape her mind into anything other than what Mister Schofield intended would be taken away. The skill had served her countless times in her life, and the gang now as well, but Dutch only responded with scoffing cynicism and mild rebuke of what he considered her conceit.
It galled him deeply to think she could somehow be his intellectual superior .
So she gracefully dropped her end of the conversation and permitted him to monologue at her, requiring only minimal prompts from her. He wanted her affirmation, not her engagement. She was willing to humor him if only because it would make this little journey they were on more bearable if he were not irritated with her.
She found herself wishing she were on this ride with anybody else in the camp...
Since Dutch only had half of her attention, and Woden was well-behaved enough at their slow pace to only require a quarter of it, Catherine was easily able to notice the dense vegetation rising to meet the shadowed base of the cliff.
“What is that?” She interrupted the outlaw leader to ask. When he didn’t answer, she turned her face to see the very-pleased-with-himself expression on his. Driven by curiosity, she bumped her heels against the stallion’s sides, and hurried over in a swift lope. Dutch chuckled and spurred The Count after her.
It was the rich green color that had drawn her eye first, new growth as well as tall Joshua trees that would have to be decades old. Bursts of crimson and gold flowers stretched for the sunlight, and a pair of coyotes growled and cackled, before running, startled by the horses’ quick approach. The shade of the cliff sheltered a deep crevice-like cavern at its foot from which water steadily belched forth into a shallow saucer-like basin formed by the roots of the woodier growth.
“An oasis!” Catherine gasped, delighted laughter spilling from her lips, “A real oasis!”
“Our own little Garden of Eden.” Dutch intoned warmly as she hurried to dismount.
So it’s true that the Devil brought the serpent to the Garden… Catherine mused, but instead said, smiling over her shoulder, “I’m no Eve, Mister van der Linde…”
He shrugged, “You don’t know that for sure. Use a little imagination…”
“Hmm… Are we staying awhile?”
“Long as you like, my dear.”
At this news, the lady uncinched the latigo and removed saddle and bridle, setting them in the shade but safe from the water. Woden nosed around the vegetation before he began pawing at the few inches of water nearby.
Dutch did not dismount. He seemed content to watch them play, “... Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“I’m thinking this is wonderful.”
“Tell me what you’re really thinking…” He smirked.
Managing to tear her eyes from the oasis and her horse at liberty, Catherine turned and watched Dutch from under her dark eyelashes, “... Do you really want to hear?”
“I asked, didn’t I?”
“... I’m thinking there must be a spring under the cliff, and that the water doesn’t usually spill out this far, but because of all the rain, it’s overfilled, as evidenced by the way the water gushes out from the crevice instead of standing, or running steady. This is an unusual state for this place, and all this new growth is taking advantage. I imagine this little spring is much harder to find otherwise... It’s a real treasure you’ve shared with me, Dutch.”
“... I’m glad you like it. Very glad.” He continued to smile, but the corners of his mouth and his dark eyes revealed that the science wasn’t what he’d expected her to latch onto. She thought he was probably disappointed.
She knew, of course, that he hadn’t been the one to first discover this place. One of the others had told him about it, but that didn’t matter, she supposed. Dutch had opted to share it with her...
… Then again, she would have much rather explored the oasis with Arthur, or Charles, or Javier, or Lenny-- even John and all his impatient abrasiveness would have been more enjoyable than Dutch and all his pretense…
… ‘Garden of Eden’ indeed …
“... I suppose it would be too much to ask you to let bygones be, Miss Catherine?”
Dutch and all his pretense .
Of course this wasn’t a gift or a date or even just him thinking fondly of her-- it was a bribe. A carrot dangled before her. A trade offer in exchange for her resumed unquestioning affection and admiration. He was trying to acquire goods he himself had destroyed…
“... Do you think my affections are so easily mended, Mister van der Linde?” She sighed, eyes returning to the silver buckskin who had taken a drink and was now shaking out his mane.
“... Has anyone ever told you what a cruel woman you are, Miss Schofield?” The accusation was softened by a honeyed tone that rumbled deep in his chest-- the same tone he’d successfully employed to draw her affections before. Dutch had an enviable talent for oration… if only he would use it for more than the satisfaction of his own vanities!
“You aren’t the first to accuse me, but you would not be pleased by the comparison…” She told him, bringing her hands to her neckline, busying her fingers, “... You made clear that night that you held certain opinions about my appropriate place in the camp, and as you have yet to prove to me those disparaging opinions have changed , Dutch, then I’m afraid my opinions haven’t changed either…”
“... What do you want , Catherine?”
“I want to be your equal, Dutch, not the pretty bauble you wear on your arm when it is convenient and decorate your tent with otherwise. I want to be heard and understood and valued for the knowledge I’ve worked hard to garner.”
“It takes more than knowledge to lead a gang, Miss Schofield!” He snapped, then in confusion, added, “... What are you doing?”
Shedding her blouse and unlacing her skirt, the lady looked over her shoulder at the man, “...Well, if I’m to be your ‘Eve’ in your ‘Garden of Eden’, then I shouldn’t be wearing so many clothes…”
Dutch dismounted then, dark eyebrows crashing together, “... Tell me what it is you actually want. You want to lead the gang? Play Lady on the Green?”
“Talk like that does you no favors…” She told him coldly.
“Then tell me!”
“If you think I am so unfit to lead, then teach me ! Have I not proven myself a capable student?!”
“Not everything can be learned through study, miss.”
She rounded on him, laughing, standing bare under the waning sunlight with her clothes in a pile at her feet. His eyes remained fixed on her face, purposefully avoiding her nakedness, and there was something both angry and disgusted in his dark eyes.
“...I presume you do not mean I could learn through experience either. You mean it is an inborn talent of yours.”
“Would that offend you?”
She sighed another wry laugh and turned, stepping into the shallow water, finding the basin floor worn smooth and slippery by the comfortably cool water.
“... Answer me.”
She cupped the clear water in her hands and raised it above her head to watch it trickle, sparkling like gold in the sunset, pouring in a thin stream over her breasts and down her belly. A benediction from the desert.
Looking over her shoulder at him, she said quietly, “... So some of us are born to rule, hm, Dutch van der Linde, and the others are best left to obey?”
“That’s not what I meant--”
“--It’s what you said.”
“--’Delusional’?” She supplied, blinking and turning to wade deeper into the pool.
“Incomprehensible!” He spluttered, anger clear in his tone, “ Impossible! ”
Ignoring his retreating footsteps and wounded pride, Catherine waded toward the crevice where the water bubbled out around her knees, like the rock was exhaling water as easily as she exhaled breath. Watching closely, she wondered if that were not precisely what was happening-- if air was displacing the water somewhere. Sadly, it was too deep and dark in the crevice for her to feel bold enough to explore alone.
Part of her thought one of the others could have been cajoled to investigate with her. Surely Arthur…
Then again, Arthur would likely be beside himself with her nakedness, and unable to do anything besides protest she put something on again. The thought caused her to laugh merrily.
Why had Dutch brought her here? Did he really understand her so poorly as to think this conversation would have gone any other way? He was too busy being concerned with how she might undermine him to take advantage of how she could help the gang be even more successful. She was quite sure the only problem with her ‘leadership ability’ was that her potential offended the easily bruised pride of Dutch van der Linde!
She mused this as she explored the rest of the oasis, cataloguing details in her mind’s eye of the different flowers and the way the water caught the last scarlet glimmer of sunset before darkness started its long stretch across the sky. The water was too disturbed to reflect stars, but that didn’t bother her. Easy enough to tip her head back and admire the tapestry of constellations that seemed so much closer and more real than back in the city. Though nightfall brought colder air which chilled against her bare skin, Catherine could ignore it as she took in the wideness of the heavens above the desert.
In the stillness, she could almost hear the stars whispering their secrets--
Her stallion alerted and neighed, tossing his head. Wait! Those were human voices… and human footsteps!
“What’s this?” There were two of them, men in rough clothing and hats. She thought one of them had a rifle slung over his shoulder, “This watering hole comes with a whore!”
The moon was waxing though not yet full, and with the sky clear, she had no delusions on how visible she was in her nudity over the water. Fighting every desire to cover herself and shrink away from their staring, she instead raised her chin.
“You would be wise to mind yourselves.” She announced boldly. “Lest something unfortunate befall you for your trespass.”
“We’ll mind ourselves,” The other man leered at her, “after you tell us where Van der Linde is.”
Quite suddenly, it occurred to Catherine that this was perhaps as bad as a situation could get. These were either bounty hunters or rival gang members, not lawmen or even a usual brand of miscreant.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.” She said, edging for the side of the pool, toward her mount.
A chuckle, “I think you do.”
It didn’t matter, it seemed. They’d already decided she was their prey, and while naked and alone-- Dutch was gone, as was The Count… where had they gone? Would they come back for her?-- unless she got away, she would be in truth.
She wondered if Dutch would come if she called for help.
She wondered if the risk to his life would be forgiven back in camp if she dared. She understood it was one thing for Arthur, or Charles, or Javier, or Lenny, or John, to risk his life for her, and quite another for Dutch van der Linde to do so.
The disparity made her angry. Angry enough to determine she wouldn’t call for Dutch even if her life depended on it. Ever.
“Stay away from me.” She warned.
One lunged for her, splashing into the water, the other circled as if he intended to grab for her horse, but realized too late the stallion had no halter, lead or bridle, and like the snake earlier, he received a flash of dangerous hooves which drove him back.
Catherine lunged as well, grabbing a double-fistful of mane and hurling herself over the horse’s back, “Go! Go! Schnell! ”
Smoking his last cigarette of the night, Arthur rolled his shoulders and considered heading back to his tent. He was doing his damnedest to not think about how Dutch and Miss Schofield weren’t back from their little outing yet. He was trying not to worry.
He had lost very badly at poker doing a very bad job of not worrying. Now he’d have to live with Sean’s gloating and Davey’s scolding probably until the day he died .
“Go to bed, son,” Hosea advised with a knowing laugh, “You’re not good for anything else until you get your head together.”
“Honestly, Arthur, what makes you think you can bluff any better without the cards?”
The big outlaw just shook his head and tried to find something to occupy his attention before settling on rearranging Slim’s saddle bags. The task took him all of three minutes, but then he saw Javier out near the brush-line with a rifle, on guard duty, and decided to head back to the stew pot and fill another bowl.
“... What’s this?” Javier queried when the bowl was offered his way, “ Mi amigo , you know Hosea’s going to--”
“--Hosea ain’t gonna do nothin’, you can watch an’ eat and I’ll keep a look out too…”
“... This is good of you.” Was the cautiously prying remark.
Arthur didn’t bother answering. He didn’t trust himself to keep from saying something foolish or revealing something better kept concealed. The Mexican could prove awfully insightful at times…
They noticed the sound at the same time. Noises traveled far in the desert with little vegetation or terrain to muffle it, and strong sounds like gunfire could travel miles. From their raised vantage on the backside of the mesa, both of them scanned the desert floor below for the source. It could have been anything-- a hunter, a threat between traveling companions, even outright murder of people the gang had no care for-- but this far outside of any civilization, they had to be wary of gunfire.
Especially repeated gunfire… like that.
Something gleamed in the moonlight, gliding fast along the ground, trailing a black banner. The shape and movement was clearly a horse, and Arthur dug out his binoculars while Javier muttered something in his mother tongue and tried to choke down his dinner in a hurry so he wouldn’t have to put it down half-eaten.
Dialing the lenses in, Arthur first saw the two horses with riders in pursuit, one of them firing a rifle as fast as he reasonably could at whomever they were chasing, as if he thought his chances were better the more iron he put in the air. The other rider carried a revolver in his hand, but seemed content to choose his shots more judiciously. Scanning along the trail of dust toward the gleaming figure, Arthur at first thought he was seeing a trick of the light. The horse seemed made of moonlight, and it’s mane was far too long, trailing black almost to its tail…
Then he recognized it as the silver buckskin thoroughbred he’d broken for Miss Schofield-- the very same horse he’d trailed and caught because it gleamed like moonlight, and that the reason his shape was so strange and his mane so long was because the woman was on his back…
And she was inexplicably naked.
She was also in a bad way when it came to her seat-- she had no experience with bareback riding, and to Arthur’s knowledge, had never ridden the stallion as fast as his bloodlines could take him. They were, understandably, running hell for leather. For their lives. She was barely staying on.
“... It’s Catherine.” He said quietly, everything inside him going cold and numb, “Stay here. Kill anybody comes in not one of us or Dutch. Marston! We gotta go! ”
His rough voice cracked loud over the camp and there was a flurry of activity as he whistled sharply for Slim.
She didn’t know at what point she’d managed to twist herself astride the horse’s back instead of clinging desperately with her arms, his spine under her belly. Her wet, bare skin likely made the maneuver easier, even as it made staying seated more difficult. She’d given up trying to breathe properly what felt like miles ago as the speed buffeted the breath right out of her nose and mouth. All she could do was cling to Woden’s neck and grip as best she could with her wet knees and thighs, hanging on for dear life, frozen in the night air in her nakedness, eyes clenched against tears in the kicked up dust and tearing wind.
Beneath her, the stallion was streaking like a lightning bolt over the ground, running as he’d been born and bred to run. Dust billowed around and behind them, and in the moonlight she was certain they looked ghostly . Her dear partner was living up to his namesake! He stumbled once, and she’d almost been unsteated altogether then in the jostle, but somehow she held long enough for him gather himself under her, trying to protect her from a fall. Touched, but electrified by the chase and the knowledge that her pursuers were still after them, still shooting at them , she clenched her eyes again and gasped, “Go!”
He went, great lungs heaving. She couldn’t even be sure they were heading toward safety, as she could barely see where they were, much less where they were headed through her tears. Mild concern combined with determination and excitement, and from their solution she mused how all the stories remarked the dangers of a mortal attempting to join the Wild Hunt.
Coincidentally, it was at that moment her seat slipped too far to one side as the stallion side-stepped a rock, and it was only her bloodless death grip on his mane that kept her with him. For a moment, she was aloft in the air. Before she could even dread what was to come, the next moment her feet, and then her legs from the knees down found the hard, rough ground. Woden was still running.
Sharp pain, unlike anything she’d ever experienced before carved a cry out of her before the wind choked it back down her throat. Her grip on the mane gave out an instant later and she tumbled like a rag doll, having the presence of mind to shield her head and face with her arms as the desert tore ravenously at her soft, unprotected skin.
Her entire body burned as if with fire, but the rough fall had knocked the rest of the breath from her, and she was too stunned to scream. She could only lie there, listening to the sound of hoof beats, both advancing and retreating. Squinting open her eyes, she saw the silver buckskin slow his run and turn his head back, and she had the sickening fear that he was going to try and come back for her and be shot for his troubles.
It was then she saw the streak of blood down his hindquarters and she realized he’d already been shot for her sake.
“No! Run! Go!” She croaked breathlessly, guilt clenching her chest. At least if he made it back to the camp, someone could take care of him and treat his wound…
More riders were coming, she could hear them better than she could see them, especially when another wave of scalding pain shot up her legs and across the whole of her, turning her stomach and causing her to writhe as she desperately tried to keep from retching.
Gunfire continued to crack through the air, and Catherine wondered how it was she hadn’t been shot yet-- as easy of a target she made lying on the ground like this. She couldn’t even bring herself to crawl for cover, every part of her hurting too much to move. From the pain of her lower legs and feet, she wondered if her flesh had been abraded to the bone…
Arthur had called John because he’d seen him first and knew he could be relied on to shoot fast and aim true, but it was Mac who rode up first.
“Som’in’ goin’?” He prompted simply. Arthur nodded and spurred down the ridge, Mac and Whistle just behind and John on Old Boy racing on their heels.
“What’s goin’ on?” Marston demanded.
“Some bastards tryin’ t’gun down Miss Catherine.”
Grunting, Mac asked, “Dutch ain’t dealt with ‘em?”
Instead of wondering about that, and what it meant that he hadn’t seen Dutch at all, Arthur steered Slim around the big boulder and pointed his nose to meet the three inbound riders.
“Mac, you cut her off. John, we put these bastards down.”
The redheaded gunman’s voice was naked surprise, “You want me t’get her? I thought fer sure--”
“--She needs your damn coat! I ain’t got one. Cut her off, don’t chase that horse, he’ll keep runnin’!”
Then he drew iron and dug in and waited for his shot, letting Old Boy slip ahead. The chasing gunmen must have seen them, because the rifleman started throwing shots their way. John returned a shot, shooting wide on purpose to avoid Catherine and her thoroughbred, but making clear that they were armed men as well.
“Clear off!” John hollered, clearly unconcerned about raising false pretenses-- whoever these men were, they were going to die here tonight, regardless of whether they stopped chasing or not.
Arthur didn’t allow himself to watch the beautiful flight of the moonlight horse and his rider. He remained focused on his quarry, and on waiting for his shot and let Slim worry about managing the terrain.
That changed, however, the moment he saw the woman’s body separate from the horse out of the corner of his eye. In a blink she was floating above the pale silver back, and not even a breath later she was being dragged beside him across the unforgiving desert terrain. At that moment, the two of them had all of Arthur’s attention, as everything inside him recoiled and a formless sound tore out of his throat like it meant to hollow out his chest before he could cut himself off. It was a struggle, but he made the effort to re-cage his mind and focus on the task at hand.
She would live, he told himself.
He felt a little better when he saw her let go of the horse’s mane and tumble over and over before coming to a stop, no matter how it pummeled him in a tender place inside his ribs.
She would live. She’d be hurt , but she was still alive .
These men would not be. He had to make sure .
… Except there that damn ghost horse was still running -- she was yelling at him to keep going ! Fortunately, Mac was already dismounting nearby and shrugging out of his coat, since John and Old Boy had moved ahead far enough to force the gunmen to turn aside.
Now they were trying to escape.
Steadying his breath and leveling his focus, Arthur felt the familiar cold calm settle, and time seemed to slow. He took his shot, just below the hat. The man with the revolver fell out of the saddle, his boot catching in the stirrup and he was dragged on whatever remained of his face. The next moment, John shot the man with the rifle who squeezed off one more shot into the night as he died.
“Search them!” Arthur bellowed, turning back toward Catherine, even as his eyes sought out the thoroughbred. It had slowed considerably, but was still running away, showing no signs of circling back yet.
“I know!” Groused Marston, spurring after the other two horses.
Mac’s voice came uncertain, and he was shuffling on his feet, unwilling to touch the woman, but had succeeded, at least, in covering her indecency with his coat, “Ach, Morgan! She’s ‘urt fair bit!”
“What’s the matter with you-- Fine! Go see if you can round up that horse then!” The big outlaw didn’t even bother to stop before kicking free of his saddle and dropping to the ground to cross over to where Catherine lay.
Her legs were little more than blood from the knees down, and scrapes covered the rest of her that he could see. She trembled, and her breathing hitched, and he knew that she was hurting. It grieved him to know.
“Yer gonna be alright, miss,” He said softly, trying very desperately for something gentle and also assuring, aware that his repertoire was very lacking in that department, and left him only with the tone and manner he usually reserved for horses. One of the more self-deprecating parts of his mind took the moment to point out how that was likely one of the reasons why he would never find success in mutual human affection. Largely ignoring this unhelpful observation, Arthur brushed the hair from Catherine’s beautiful and largely un-harmed face, and the touch focused her attention on him.
“A-Arthur…!” She gasped, sounding as though she might be choking on whatever self-control she was clinging to, “Woden… Don’t… he tried to… Don’t let him…!”
The night air was cold. Her body was cold. He needed to get her back to camp. Gathering her up in his arms, wrapping the torn and dusty coat around her best he could while he did so, Arthur kept his tone steady even as she descended into a something resembling panic, “It’s gonna be alright now…”
He could ask about Dutch when she was calmer. When she was safe.
“Don’t let him hurt him! He tried to… he was saving me!”
The horse. She’d named the horse ‘Woden’, which she’d said was a variation of Odin , the Norse Father-God. She’d explained that fairy stories said that ‘Woden’ led the ‘Wild Hunt’, a supernatural group of mounted hunters…
All Arthur really understood was the way her entire face had lit up while she’d told him. The name made a great deal of sense to her , and he supposed that was all that really mattered.
“Nobody’s gonna hurt your horse, honey,” He soothed, “I need you to sit up here on Slim. Mac’s gonna go get your boy, or maybe he’ll jus’ follow us home. It’s gonna be alright.”
He could see it was a struggle for her to control her body enough to sit upright on Slim’s broad back, so he mounted swiftly behind her and held her close against him. She was gasping between her teeth in pain. Her blood soaked Slim’s shoulder and saddle. Arthur’s arms and hands.
“It’s gonna be okay.” He promised.
In the end, Woden came after a few piercing whistles, and Arthur supposed that made sense, since it was him who’d broken him fully for riding. The thoroughbred had been shot in the hindquarters, and the injury showed in his gait as he trotted gamely beside Slim. Whistle and Mac had hurried back up to the camp to get them ready to deal with Catherine’s injuries best they could. John rode on Arthur’s other side, showing him the ‘WANTED’ poster for Dutch.
“... They’re catchin’ up.” The younger outlaw said, pressing his lips into a firm line. Arthur nodded resignedly.
They’d have to move camps. That was going to be a pain, as they were getting settled fairly well here on the mesa. It had been a good spot.
“They asked me where he went…” Catherine murmured, still shivering against his chest.
“‘Where he’… You mean you were alone?!” John’s voice was high with surprise. Something hot and sickly twisted in Arthur’s belly, but he remained silent.
The woman nodded, “We argued. He left. Then they came.”
“Where is he now?”
She shook her head and chewed her lip, “... I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay.” Arthur shushed her, “We’ll go find him once we get you back an’ taken care of.”
“There’s an oasis to the south of here, along the anvil ridge. You’ll see the Joshua trees. That’s where we were. I… I didn’t see which way he went from there.”
The ladies came in force to take Catherine off of Slim’s back when they rode in, but Arthur insisted it was better if he carried her, as there was no chance he’d drop her. Jenny and Karen almost argued with him about it, but Tilly’s voice hardened and she told them to find more clean cloths and get the boiled water if they wanted to be helpful. Charles and Lenny saw to Woden’s gunshot wound while the former was put on notice to be ready to ride out and help track down Dutch. Hosea kept a respectful distance for Miss Catherine’s modesty, but got answers enough to understand what was happening, react with just as much confusion as the rest of them that Dutch had left the lady to defend herself, and walked back to his tent and belongings, muttering about the ointments he had packed away and whether he still knew how to make more. On the way, he passed Miss Grimshaw who was ushering the Reverend over to see if he could… provide the injured woman some comfort.
Arthur felt for Catherine when she snarled that the last thing she wanted was her mind muddled, but the chorus of voices insisted.
It was then The Count charged into camp, just as much in a lather as the other horses just come up. Dutch was wild-eyed but otherwise composed.
“What-- What’s happened?! Catherine why did-- She’s bleeding!”
“We found her runnin’ for her life, Dutch,” John snapped, irritated with the accusatory tone, “where the hell were you ?”
“I… well I was looking for her! I found her clothes and her gear, but she and the horse were gone!” Was the gang leader’s reply, dismounting in a rush, “When I heard the gunfire I raced back this way! What happened?”
John shook his head, scowling, “Some bounty hunters came after her looking for you.”
Arthur left him to it and instead carried the injured woman to the spot Tilly and Susan had prepared.
“You really gonna want something for pain,” The younger woman warned her, “We gotta scrub these wounds…”
The pale eyes regarded her concerned expression before flicking toward the Reverend and his needle apparatus with distaste, and then cautiously she sought Arthur’s face.
“... I don’t want it.” She whispered, her face tight, but those pale eyes swallowed up in suffering pleaded with him to either change her mind or offer some other solution.
“... I know.” He told her softly, uneasy with the task but determined to try and see it done right, “But it’s what we got that’ll work. Don’ worry. Yer too strong t’get hooked like this fool fish.”
He jerked a thumb at Swanson, who frowned and voiced his affront.
In the end, she closed her eyes and nodded, surrendering to their concern. They still had to fetch a stick to bite instead of her hand as she desperately ground down on her jaw to keep from screaming.
Most of the men kept to the other side of the camp, Dutch included, the rest of the night. Killing they could handle, but there was something about the sounds that came whimpering or howling out of her throat that got under the skin of even these hardened outlaws.
Charles and Lenny reported that the silver buckskin would be lamed awhile, but would heal in time.
“... But why was she naked ?” Mac asked Dutch, lighting a match for his pipe.
“Gentlemen, I honestly can’t tell you half of why that woman does anything…” Dutch sighed and shook his head, as if her motivations were completely incomprehensible and exhausting.
It bothered Arthur to think that might be Dutch’s view, especially considering the whole trip had been his idea, not hers.
“Well, somebody should go get her things,” He said off-handedly, stepping away from the fire.
“I’ll go with you.” Charles announced suddenly, climbing to his feet.
Just like the woman had said, they easily found the place by looking for the thick copse of joshua trees. Under the moonlight, the oasis was breathtakingly beautiful and still, disturbed only by the gurgling of more water from the base of the cliff.
“There.” Charles said, pointing at the darkness of the crevice, “that’s why she was naked.”
“Yep.” Arthur agreed instantly, dismounting to collect the pile of her clothes, “here, you take these, I’ll grab her saddle…”
“... It’s a shame this’ll be dried up by the time she’s better.” The other man observed, taking the clothes and packing them away in his saddlebags.
“We’ll be moved on before even that.”
After strapping the extra saddle to the back of his, making sure the balance was good for Slim, the big outlaw stopped and looked back, considering the gurgling water, “... Say, Charles… you got a lantern on you now?”
“... Feel like a bit of swimming?”
“What do you mean?”
Arthur shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck, “... She ain’t gonna be able to see it herself… but maybe we could…?”
Charles seemed to consider this very seriously, then he chuckled and dismounted, “Sure. Why not?”
Chapter 11: ‘Shenanigans’
Requested by Mandakatt
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…”
“She was entirely right…”
“Abigail-- What’s she right about?”
“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.”
“‘Course. I don’t… It ain’t… like that.”
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…”
Chapter 12: 'Sunrise'
Requested by: Anonymous on Tumblr
Early mornings had always been a constant in Miss Schofield’s life. In her father’s house, a good bit of time was needed to prepare herself to be presentable, not only to the master of the house who did not tolerate any lack of fastidious grooming, but any guests he’d invited into the manor also expected for her to look nothing less than the model of high society socialite, no matter the hour. Such an image took time to craft, every day, even with the help of a maid, and so she’d grown accustomed to rising early.
Even when her nights stretched long for one reason or another…
She’d grown to enjoy the small hours of the morning, when most others were still abed, and all the world seemed to hold its breath in anticipation for the start of a new day.
Outside of the city, not much was different. After a restless night under Dutch van der Linde’s arm, counting the hours patiently, she yearned for the freedom and solitude of pre-dawn. With practiced skill and mind-numbing patience, she inched her way out from under the man’s grasp and out of the bed. Silently she gathered her hairbrush and stray pins the man had pulled loose last night--she still found it strange and telling that he refused to undress her, but enjoyed unmaking her coif when he took her-- and retreated from the tent out into the dim. The sky was still cloaked heavily with night, but a thin band of gray peeked over the desert horizon. The camp was quiet, accounting for some snoring, and the lady presumed she’d have time to make up her hair before the other early risers began their days.
She’d just finished brushing out her hair when Mister Morgan emerged from his tent, stretching and rolling his broad shoulders before wiping his unshaven face with one hand, heading directly for the cooking fire. He hadn’t noticed her, too focused on fetching his morning coffee, so she continued with her long hair, draping, twisting, pinning and wrapping until it formed a neat and not-too-elaborate chignon that might last at least half the day without the need for fuss. Even without a looking glass, it had only taken her about five minutes to do-- in thanks to a great deal of practice and repetitions-- which left her plenty of time to slip out behind the tents to the very edge of the camp and admire the open sky and growing dawn.
There was something so pleasing about the pale blue-gray horizon frocked in trailing dark blue-black. So much of this was unseen in the city…
A line of orange was just creasing the edge of the desert landscape when the sounds of human industry disrupted the lady’s meditations. Mister Morgan used the early morning hours to do a round of chores to service the camp needs before the day’s demands. With a sigh, Catherine turned to see if she might be of some use. He would ride out when he was finished, and so the sooner he finished, the sooner she’d be able to enjoy the solitude and the company of only her own thoughts. Threading her way between framed canvases, she found him hauling a bale of hay out for the horses. Woden lifted his head and perked his ears when he caught sight of her, nickering softly. Grinning, she stepped over to bid him good morning. If Arthur notice her at all, he did not greet her, which would have been unusual, so she assumed he was still unaware of her presence. Instead, he spoke quietly to the horses in a low voice, so that she caught none of the words, only hearing the warmth of his tone. The silver buckskin left her petting to trail after the hay bale in the man’s arms, and Catherine hid her knowing chuckle behind a hand and retreated back toward Pearson’s wagon where she searched for the water bucket.
Movement out of the corner of her eye stole her attention from the task, and she paused to watch Mister Morgan head back to collect another hay bale from where Lenny and Sean had stacked them the day prior. The gray light cast shadows in the folds of his clothing just so that accentuated the play of his powerfully muscled frame as he moved.
Catherine wondered if he knew he walked with the self-composure and swaggering confidence of a lord in his rolling gait. She wondered what he would say if she told him.
Like as not he would not understand, and would deny her claim out of hand. He’d probably never seen a lord conduct himself across a room, and even if he had, he would compare the movement -- which were quite different indeed-- as opposed to the air and attitude.
The duality of his nature always intrigued her: Insistent claims toward un-thinking, violent potential hiding a deeply thinking, curious, sensitive, artistic mind. A keen interest in modern science and very liberal social views, all the while insisting his only place in the world was in the excessively limited role of killer and thief. Exterior, physical command and confidence sheltering interior, mental self-doubt and inquiry.
It was that self-doubt and inquiry that had convinced her to ply him, but now she found herself more and more genuinely interested in his thoughts and how they might be changed for his benefit instead of only hers. Admiring the rippling of his shoulders and back through his shirt as he stooped to pick up the next hay bale, Miss Schofield realized she wanted him to be more sure .
When he looked at her, she wanted him to accept what he wanted instead of just knowing it was there beyond him. It wasn’t enough that he wanted her, now it was important he be confident in his wanting.
Heat suffused her throat and cheeks, and quite suddenly the young lady no longer felt any desire to be of any use in the camp. Retreating from Pearson's wagon, she found the pathway down the mesa, determined to have a walk to clear her thoughts and arrange them more practically.
Of what benefit would it be for Mister Arthur Morgan-- an outlaw of no small standing who regularly took what he wanted -- to be confident in his desire for her body? How would that benefit anyone-- least of all herself? Was she not already deeply entrenched in this business because Dutch van der Linde had taken her for his own?
It was not useful to linger on the size, strength, and heat of his hands, or how the barely-bridled heat in his intense gaze might one day blaze forth enough for him to use those hands on her.
She did not want the anchor-weight that came with being Dutch van der Linde’s woman, what made her think the chain would not be any more crushing being Arthur Morgan’s ?
And he would chain her, if she let him. It was clear he was not a man with a taste for one night of lust-quenching debauchery.
… Still. She could not help but wonder what it would be like to kiss him when every thought in his mind wasn’t clamoring that he shouldn’t let her…
With an exasperated sigh, Miss Schofield turned to make her way back up the path to the mesa and the camp before she was missed. Some men were in Blackwater asking after her. Her father had likely sent them, and so Dutch insisted on keeping her in the safety of the camp. As much as the restriction chafed, she knew it was for her own good. Under no uncertain terms did she want to be returned to her father’s house. Others were stirring once she gained the top again and Arthur turned to chopping firewood since the noise would not be so unwanted after sunrise. Giving Dutch and his pipe a wide berth, Catherine circled the camp to pour herself a little coffee, if only for something to help warm her hands in the early morning chill of the desert.
Try as she might, even as she poured, her pale eyes kept straying to the strapping form of Mister Morgan working the axe.
How foolish, she scolded herself, you’re going to be caught looking, and then the teasing will only be worse.
Not that she minded the teasing at all, really. More she was concerned how Dutch might interpret such things.
… Or was she? Did she really suspect Dutch might hurt either one of them in a jealous rage? And if that fear was all that was stopping her from doing as she pleased, then could she truly allow herself be imprisoned by the feeble protests of his vanity?
Smiling into the lip of the cup, she wondered at the answers as Abigail came to greet her and get her own morning coffee.
Chapter 13: ‘Aristotle’s Wisdom’
This was inspired by my research, when I stumbled across this VERY. INTERESTING. BOOK. that is totally a real book, and was totally used for the purposes Catherine describes during that time period! You can read a digital copy of the book here or here (translated into modern English). The book was published under two different titles: 'Aristotle's Masterpiece' and seperately 'The Works of Aristotle: The Famous Philosopher’
This story takes place chronologically after 'Mirages'
A doughy middle-aged man leaned against the brick wall behind him. Despite the finely pressed clothes, pomaded hair, and shined shoes he wore, his hands were jammed in his pockets and he smoked the stub end of a rolled cigarette as if it was his last indulgence in an otherwise tormented existence. Beside him was a long table covered in books in haphazard stacks.
Arthur had passed this street several times chasing various leads in Blackwater and had seen more than one person investigate the table of books. They’d approach the man, they’d speak a moment or so-- the man never seeming any more enthusiastic about their presence-- and sometimes they’d pick through the books and hand over some money.
“You selling these books, mister?” The big outlaw asked curiously.
“Just doing what I was told, sir.” The man sighed, as if the courtesy to answer Arthur’s question required the last bits of strength he still retained.
“Someone put you up to this?”
“Obviously.” The man looked at the tiny smoldering stub of his cigarette with genuine demoralization, the first emotion Arthur had see him display all day.
Digging in his satchel, the outlaw withdrew his rolling tin and started making a cigarette, speaking casually, “... Some fancy dress t’sell some books second-hand…”
The man’s eyes were on the practiced movements of Arthur’s fingers, “I’m a butler. The old master of the house passed away two days ago-- wonderful man. Wonderful employer. His thug of a son wants all the books in the study gone. Says he’s turning it into a billiards room .”
“Young men ain’t much into reading.” Arthur shrugged and passed over the cigarette and began rolling another one.
“Neither are the help ,” The butler agreed, gesturing to himself with one hand and holding the cigarette with the other, “Even those of us who know how . But it’s the principle of the thing...”
“Just books, ain’t they?”
“Some of them are quite old, and quite valuable. But does he care? No, of course not!”
“Do you care?” Arthur asked, very much doubting it. With a match he lit his cigarette, noting how the butler apparently still had spare matches, for he had lit his.
The man sighed and shrugged, “... I’m not an expert, and I was told to get rid of them quickly. Collectors need verifications and documents, all of which takes time and investments… It’s a shame, I suppose, but… No. I suppose in the end I don’t. The new master won’t allow me to just give them away… so here I am selling them on the street, instead of doing my usual duties.”
Arthur considered the table, then looked back at the doughy face, “How much you sellin’ for, mister…?”
“Princewell. Howard Princewell. Call me Howard.”
Dragging deeply on the cigarette, Howard gestured to the table, “For a dollar, you can have as many books as you can carry, Arthur, with my thanks.”
The outlaw gave him a look, “... You sure? I thought you said some of these were valuable?”
Shrugging, the butler said, “My time is valuable, and so is yours, and you’ve been more a gentleman to me today than many men of supposed better breeding.”
“... That’s real good of you, Howard, thank you.” He gestured to the table, “Mind if I take a look?”
Stepping over, Arthur began perusing the books. Most of them were hardcover, some even leatherbound. He was no expert either, and had no real hope of finding any of the supposedly ‘valuable’ books, he was simply looking for something interesting for them who liked to read in the camp. He found a few that would do-- most of the books were the sort that would interest Hosea, and occasionally his own self when he was in that sort of mood. Dutch might have liked some of them before, but now he was all wound up about that Evelyn Miller. He managed to find a collection of old medieval love stories that he thought maybe Mary-Beth and the other ladies might like. Lenny would read most books that circulated the camp. Catherine would read anything , he knew, and in her state would be eager to read everything .
That was when he found it. ‘ The Works of Aristotle: The Famous Philosopher’.
“I’m goin into Blackwater, Miss Schofield,” He’d told her, leaning his shoulder against the tent post and hooking his hands on his belt, doing his damndest to not look like he felt as sorry for her as he did. He’d known his sympathy would be mistaken as pity and anger her, “was wondering if you needed anything while I was thataway?”
She’d smiled, warm and serene as ever, but he could see the agitation in her eyes. Her legs were still healing from her bad tumble in the desert several nights ago and she was restless and bored in her forced idleness. “I can’t think of anything in particular, Mister Morgan, thank you for asking.”
“Of course. You uh… you managing alright-- all things considered?”
She shrugged, “Aristotle says ‘the ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances’. I am… doing the best I can. Trying to stay busy.”
“Tilly said you might be able to move around a bit in a few days…?”
The dark-haired head had nodded, and she fussed with the nail of her other hand, “... The skin should be grown back enough by then, yes…”
“...I don’t suppose ladies share the stories of their scars like fellas do?”
“I usually heal very clean. With luck, the scarring should be minimal.”
Both of his brows raised, “Ain’t that a nice trick?”
“Yes… it’s been very useful in… preventing many awkward questions.”
Not wanting to press, but also not wanting to leave the subject hanging like that, Arthur had said, “What’s that Aristotle say about that?”
“Hmmm… Nothing I can recall just now about awkward questions…,” She replied with a wry smile, “But I do remember something about ‘beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference’...”
“Shucks, Miss Schofield,” He smiled, “you ain’t need to worry about that any.”
It was hardbound in tan leather with a red label on the spine. A good sized book, but somewhat thinner than he’d expected such a tome to be. But then again, what did he know about Aristotle?
“I’ll take these, then.” And he passed Howard a dollar, “All the best.”
“And you, sir.”
Arthur waited until she was alone, which was harder now that she could no longer move about. She’d been treated under the ladies’ tent, and there she remained, instead of being moved to Dutch’s tent. There not far from the middle of camp, someone always seemed to be willing to stop and linger, chatting with her, or one of the ladies would come to do some washing or mending. There was a brief moment, however, when Tilly and Jenny left to check on the five-way poker game between Dutch, Hosea, Lenny, Davey, and Pearson after the sun went down.
“Good evening, Mister Morgan,” Was her smiling greeting, “It seems everything went well in town.”
Taking a seat on the crate nearby, he opened his satchel and passed over the book, “For the most part. I picked up this book. Figured you might find it interestin’...”
The same words he used for everything he brought back for her ‘you might find it interesting’ . He wanted to capture her interest, over and over again, as if he could bottle it and carry it around with him, so he could always have the way it shaped her smile and sparkled in her eyes.
Taking the book and looking it over, that smile and sparkle shifted however, and her brows knit together a moment, looking back into his face.
“... Somethin’ wrong?”
She cocked an eyebrow and her smile turned sly, “... Are you trying to tell me something, Mister Morgan?”
“... I… no…? What do y’mean?” He gestured at the book, confused and feeling a cold dread creep up his spine, “Just… thought you might like an Aristotle book t’read…? From what you were sayin’ before…”
Her sly smile slid effortlessly into a grin, “... This isn’t a philosophy book, Arthur…”
“What do you mean? It says ‘The Works of Aristotle: The Great Philosopher’--”
Swiftly, she opened the book and began reading in a clear voice with the same gravitas as the Reverend often gave his fireside speeches when he was sober, “‘The next thing is the clitoris, which is a sinewy and hard part of the womb, replete with spongy and black matter within, in the same manner as the side ligaments of the yard; and indeed resembles it in form, suffers erection and falling in the same manner, and both stirs up lust, and gives delight in copulation’--”
When Arthur snatched for the book in alarm, the lady snapped it closed and pulled it away, out of his reach, grinning at him again, pale eyes alight with amusement.
Arthur’s face and neck felt afire, and he was sure they looked it. He tried several times to protest that his intentions had been entirely wholesome, but couldn’t find his voice, strangled as it was in his throat by shame.
Reaching over, the lady pressed his hand gently with hers, laughing softly, “... Aristotle didn’t write this book. Nobody is really sure who did… but it wasn’t him. They used his name to make the book sound important… and it is an important book. Without it, most men and women of means and status wouldn’t know a thing about making and delivering babies.”
“... It’s… it’s a sex book?!” Arthur spluttered in a low voice, and Catherine laughed again, squeezing his hand sympathetically.
“A sex manual , in part, and also a midwifery book. It was an important part of my education when I was younger.”
Arthur shook his head and dug for a cigarette, avoiding the bottle of rum in his satchel with reluctance, “... So you rich folk learn sex from a book …”
“Of course. It isn’t as if we could talk about it. The impropriety and scandal would be a death sentence! But of course, it’s not just for the rich, it’s for anyone who could read. Women, mostly, at least in my experience. Any man who has read it would likely deny doing so.”
Lighting his cigarette, Arthur remarked, “Sure. Way it goes on about a lady’s privates…”
“Oh, would you like to hear the part about the penis?” Catherine blinked innocently at him, hands already moving to open the book again.
“No thank you, Miss Schofield!”
She laughed again, and even if her joy was at his expense, the outlaw inwardly admitted it was a little bit worth it.
Chapter 14: 'Pampered'
This takes place, chronologically, right after 'Disproportionate'
TW: Allusions to child prostitution/forced prostitution
“... So this is a real thing?”
Miss Schofield gave him an amused look and answered dryly, “Mister Morgan, I would like to believe it’s clear I’m rather fond of you, but I am not so fond as to spend an evening arguing with Dutch van der Linde over a false lead , thereby lying to his face, just to ride out several days in the wilderness with you to eventually return to him empty handed . Even I am not so brazen …”
“Well alright…” Arthur chuckled, tilting his head to take in the glimpse of peaked roof he could see between trees, “Sure big enough for a rich man’s house.”
Catherine adjusted her blouse and attempted to brush dust from her sleeves, “It’s not his house. It’s his autumn and winter retreat. His house is in Boston.” Suffering Arthur’s disapproving look, and interrupting before he could give her a scathing reply on what he thought about that, the lady continued, “I only make mention of it because he has likely only recently arrived and will therefore not be anticipating company.”
“Is that important?” The outlaw wanted to know.
“It might be. It will likely affect how many people are on the property and how easily he can send word to town if he decides it’s prudent-- which reminds me, we should scatter the horses or lock them all in the barn or something…”
Nodding, he motioned for them to turn off the road, into the trees, “An’ yer sure he’ll speak to us?”
Grinning, Catherine indicated herself, “... I’m Catherine-Louise Schofield, remember? If nothing else, I’m his social peer. It’s his obligation to treat me graciously and provide me whatever hospitality he has at his disposal. He’ll see us.”
He shrugged and shook his head, “If you says so…”
“There are rules, Arthur,” She told him with a sigh, “ Real rules. Having a lot of money doesn’t mean there aren’t rules to follow, it just means there are different rules.”
It left a bad taste in his mouth, and sour memories crept forward from the dark, threatening to tug at his heart, “... I know…”
She gave him a long look before saying in a soft voice, “... That sounds like a story, Arthur…”
“Maybe. Later.” The outlaw wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready to tell Miss Schofield about Mary, “Speakin’ of stories… I suppose yer gonna want t’sell one t’this feller?”
“Well, as briefly amusing as it might be to introduce you to Mister Walker as ‘Mister Arthur Morgan of the notorious Van der Linde gang’, I don’t think that will assist us in getting any useful information…”
“Probably not… ‘Mister Walker’ you said?”
“Abraham Fitzgerald Thomas Walker, the Third,” Catherine explained with an off-hand gesture, “His family has packed ammunition since the start of the industry and has bought out most other labels. I think it’s his older brother, however, who’s in charge of all the business…? You’ll probably hear all about it tonight…”
“I can hardly wait…” The outlaw rolled his eyes, “So…?”
The lady gave him an appraising look, “... It depends on what sort of story you’re willing to go along with, Mister Morgan. As much as I’d like to portray you as a man my father has hired for my protection, I don’t have the materials and you have made clear your disinclination to wear a disguise.”
“I don’ play dress-up.” He replied firmly.
“Indeed,” It was Catherine’s turn to roll eyes, and she grinned, “So perhaps it would be easiest to explain you as an ill-advised paramour?”
“... What do you mean? You want to tell him I’m your lover?”
“Essentially. You’ll be Dutch .”
Arthur snorted a laugh, “... I cannot tell you how poor a Dutch I make…”
“No, you’re filling his role, not play-acting as him! I ran away from home and my father to join you on your adventures!”
“What ‘adventures’ would those be?”
Catherine looked him over, then shrugged and said simply, “Bounty hunting.”
“You ran away from home to be a bounty hunter ?”
“No, silly man, I ran away from home because I was seduced by your rugged charms and untamed lifestyle!”
Arthur gave her a very dubious look, “You think he’s gonna buy that ?”
“I’m going to sell that.” She smiled confidently back, “Will you help me?”
“... I don’ have any better ideas… So I guesso…” He shrugged, looking aside uncomfortably, feeling heat climb his throat at the idea of acting as if he fancied Miss Schofield when he was so used to spending all his effort acting like he didn’t , “... Though usually when I need to get information out of a man--”
“--I know. But it’s not as if he’s alone, he’s going to have some security around the premises. Even if you could shoot our way out of there again, we don’t need a massacre drawing all kinds of attention. Believe me, I know you think beating him half-senseless and putting a gun to his head is easier, but this time, it’s really easier to just sit down and have a nice dinner and talk.”
“He’s gonna feed us?”
“Of course. He’ll ply us with expensive liquor too if you like. That’s all you have to do, my dear Mister Kilgore,” She smiled winningly at him, “Accept what he offers you, answer questions or decline to answer them politely-- ‘I’d rather not say’ will do-- watch, and listen, and ultimately make sure we leave again. Under no circumstances do we stay the night, though he will probably offer to put us up.”
“Kilgore, huh? Tacitus Kilgore?”
“It’s one of your better stage names.”
They finished locking half the horses in the stables and scaring the other half out the open back gate of the pasture. They saw noone and went unchallenged for the entire endeavor, and even all the way to the front door of the sizeable lodge.
Arthur’s loud knocking brought a barrel-chested man to greet them, his impressive size blocking them from seeing, much less trespassing, indoors.
“... Who’re you?”
Placing her hand lightly on Arthur’s forearm, Catherine smiled winningly and answered, “Miss Schofield, calling on my dear family friend, Mister Walker.”
The man’s distrusting scowl deepened, “Mister Walker isn’t expecting friends to come calling, Miss…”
“Oh, I understand entirely , but will you please let him know we’re here anyway?” Was her reply, her radiant smile never flinching.
The man closed the door again-- making no attempt to hide his disdain in the gesture-- and Arthur and the lady shared a look.
“Don’t worry.” She assured him confidently, despite the quirking eyebrow he’d noticed.
It was only minutes later that the same man opened the door again, this time looking much more chastened and respectful, which Arthur supposed was good enough that he wouldn’t have to arrange for it himself. As he’d fully intended to.
“My apologies, Miss Schofield. Mister Walker will see you in the sitting room. This way…”
The cabin was large, and to Arthur, who had seen any number of rustic homesteads, it looked strange. The rooms too spacious, their arrangement too manufactured and furnishings too polished. An artifice. A rich man’s approximation of what living on the brink of civilization looked like without giving up too much of the luxury and elegance with which he might be accustomed. Before even laying eyes on the man, Arthur decided he very much did not like him. He was everything wrong with this country.
His opinions didn’t change when he saw the man in the sitting room. Upon seeing Miss Schofield, the gentleman rose and approached, a broad smile on his face.
“My dear Catherine-Louise! My God, just look at you! One would hardly think it possible, but I am quite certain you are more beautiful every time I see you!”
He was a spry middle-aged man of average height, and save for some thickness around the waistline, slender in a waistcoat and collared shirt, cravat loose around his neck. His narrow face featured prominently a long, beak-like nose and was crowned with thick, curly hair of a warm brown, trimmed neatly along the sides, but longer and more wild at the top of his head. With long booted strides, he crossed the wooden floor to the young woman, and for a moment, Arthur thought he would pull her into an embrace.
The big outlaw cleared his throat and held back every other urge to interfere more directly.
Catherine demured and smiled, “Mister Walker, it’s so nice to see you again! I’m glad you seem to be keeping well.”
Another woman was stepping gracefully to meet them. She appeared perhaps not too much older than Catherine-- maybe closer to Arthur’s own age-- and somewhat fuller figured. Her blonde hair was pinned up elaborately and dressed with a comb and sprig of lavender to match her patterned dress. Her wide blue eyes lowered to the floor and she blushed visibly under Arthur’s brief examination, which made him immediately uncomfortable and turn his attention back to the more out-going Mister Walker.
“Me? But it’s you who-- I’m forgetting my manners. I do not think you’ve ever the pleasure of meeting my charming and manifestly superior half! Miss Schofield, this is Missus Delilah Walker. My dearest, this is Miss Catherine-Louise Schofield, Robert Schofield’s daughter.”
The women shook hands, smiling fondly at each other, and then Catherine reached for Arthur’s elbow, “Meanwhile, I have the singular pleasure of introducing you to my dear, intimate friend, Mister Tacitus Kilgore.”
“Abraham Walker, a pleasure.”
Arthur accepted the handshakes offered him, “Sir. Ma’am.”
“Wonderful, delightful, please, won’t you sit?”
They moved to the seating area, and Catherine took the outlaw’s hand, causing him to freeze at the side of the couch and look at her in surprise. Still holding his hand, she smiled and sat herself elegantly, using his arm for support. It occurred to Arthur that she’d just created the illusion that he had the first idea of what to do or how to behave in this room with these wealthy socialites. Dipping his head to her in acknowledgement, he noted the movement of her eyes toward the seat beside her, so he went and sat somewhat stiffly and awkwardly next to her. Meanwhile, Mister and Missus Walker had settled into a pair of overstuffed chairs across from them.
Quite suddenly, it began.
“It’s quite a ways from Boston, my dear. What brings you to West Elizabeth?” Asked Abraham, smiling pleasantly.
Catherine’s smile and tone were mildly teasing, by contrast, “You would be well acquainted with the distance, wouldn’t you? Seeing as you travel it every autumn and spring…”
“I’ve said it before haven’t I? I cannot abide the frigid winters, and here the punishing summers. I’d much rather escape both.”
“It’s only just now started to cool a bit, isn’t that right, Mister Kilgore?” When Arthur nodded, attempting to make a thoughtful sound in his throat, Catherine continued, “Which is a welcome relief. Still, I must say you are depriving your lovely wife by taking her out of New England during the prettiest of its seasons.”
“It is sad to leave behind the fall colors,” Missus Walker confessed quietly, but then she smiled at her husband indulgently, “But I suffer deplorably in the chill. My husband is so good to look after my health.”
“I’m more surprised to see you leaving behind the vibrant northeastern autumn,” The husband interjected, turning the topic back toward the one he’d intended. “I know how much you used to enjoy them.”
“A sacrifice, I assure you, but one gladly made,” Catherine replied casually, giving Arthur a long glance he couldn’t immediately interpret outside of it being part of the act and not an actual communication-- or so he hoped, “but I had more than the harsh winter to escape, Mister Walker. I’d appreciate your discretion on the matter…”
For all his apparent foolishness, Abraham Walker was quick , “... My dear Catherine, don’t tell me you’ve run away ?”
“I’m a woman grown, Mister Walker,” was the contradiction, “I’ll thank you not to infantilize my desire for freedom like I’m some wayward girl.”
“No, no, that wasn’t my intention, forgive me. But do you mean to say you are here against your father’s wishes?”
Shrugging, Catherine answered, “As of late, I know very little of my father’s wishes, and have even less concern for them. I tired of being his prisoner, so I left.”
Mister Walker did not immediately reply, instead his gaze fell upon Arthur, noting the number of weapons as if just now realizing they might signify a danger, “... Is that where you come in, sir?”
Considering carefully, the outlaw picked his words with trepidation, meeting the other man’s eyes, “... A lady tells you she wants to go west, are you gonna say ‘no’? ‘specially a lady like Miss Schofield?”
“Ha, you make a fine point, Mister Kilgore!”
“I find it strange,” Catherine observed, smoothing her skirts, “that this is the first you are hearing of this. I was certain my father would have enlisted your aid in the matter months ago.”
“He might have,” the gentleman replied, “were we still on speaking terms.”
The silence was abrupt and stifling, chasing tension through Arthur’s shoulders and into his hands. He looked at Miss Schofield. What now?
Catherine blinked her surprise, “...This is astonishing news! I was not aware you and my father had had a falling out…”
“I’m embarrassed to confess that we had a… very severe disagreement.”
“It must have been, so,” She replied, “The two of you have been friends longer than I’ve been alive!”
Mister Walker shrugged, smiling sadly, “It is my understanding that there are two sorts of men in this world: the sort who, after confession, feel gratitude, and the sort, who, after confession, feel nothing but resentment.”
“You will not surprise me by revealing my father numbers among the latter.”
“Most men do, my dear Catherine. Still, I think it a shame to lose his companionship. I have long admired the ingenuity and energy of Mister Robert Schofield.” Then the gentelman’s head tilted a little to the right, and his expression changed, as if the new vantage provided a whole new perception of the woman sat across him, “You much re--”
“--I am aware of our familial similarities, Mister Walker, and would prefer not to be reminded,” Catherine’s voice was cold, but then she softened again, “...I cannot say that I share your opinions of your situation, for your own sake, but I do confess it complicates my own endeavor…”
Abraham straightened in his seat, “You come to me in need. How may I be of assistance, dear lady?”
“... If you are no longer in contact, then I suppose you do not know anything about my father’s plans for Manzanita Post--”
“Miss Schofield.” Arthur rumbled, checking her tongue. It was part of their approach: the moment she mentioned the location, he was to interject.
It worked amazingly well. Immediately, Mister Walker’s interest only sharpened, they could see it in his face and in his dark eyes, but then he deflated again.
“No, I can tell you nothing. I’m sorry.”
“It’s just as well,” The young woman relented with a sigh, seeming to sink into the couch, “Nevermind, Mister Walker. I’m sorry to trouble you over it.”
The man started to protest that it wasn’t any trouble at all, but Missus Walker smoothly rose to her feet.
“Our guests would probably like to refresh themselves before supper, my dear. Miss Schofield, will you accompany me upstairs?”
Catherine stood with equal grace, prompting both men to their feet as well.
“Yes, yes, of course!” The gentleman, addressed Arthur directly, “You will be staying for supper, of course, won’t you?”
“Well…” He wanted to say no. If Mister Walker didn’t have the information Catherine was after, then they needed to make themselves scarce and find something else to take back to camp. Absolutely, under no circumstances, did he want to return to Dutch with nothing to show… not with what little he could remember of leaving him. Besides that, he didn’t like this man, or care for his company
But then he felt Catherine’s fingers slide against his calloused palm as she took his hand, and he turned his face to meet her look.
“... We could use a good meal,” Were her soft words, “and I could do with a proper bath…”
She was trying to communicate something more, he knew it, but he just couldn’t tell what it was. Chafed with frustration, the outlaw held her hand fast and pulled her after him, away from the couch and to the corner of the room without even an ‘excuse me’. He knew it was incredibly churlish, even for a coarse man, but at present, he didn’t give a damn. Thankfully, Miss Catherine went without protest, and didn’t resist when he tugged her into the corner and blocked out their hosts with his broad back. Ignoring the gasps and alarmed mutterings, he kept his voice low and minded his words carefully-- they could probably still hear him. They were most certainly listening …
“If you want a bath, I’ll take you into town--”
Her smile was all sweetness, her pale eyes wide while she adopted his hushed tone, “My dear, I didn’t mean to offend! You take such good care of me, I’ll be sure to make that very clear--”
“--That’s not… I don’t… What’re we doin’ here?” Stamping down his frustration of the situation was hard enough, but now she’d assaulted him with the embarrassment of the implications of the act they were putting on, and already Arthur could feel heat climbing up from his collar.
“We’re going to have supper,” She told him quietly, squeezing his hand that still held hers, “I’m going to wash up beforehand, as is only proper, and I’m certain you’ll have the opportunity as well, should you want it. In the meantime, I’m sure you and Mister Walker can find something to talk about…? I’ve gone and monopolized the conversation, as usual…”
“... Catherine…” He ground out the syllables between his teeth, making clear along with every facet of his expression how much he did not want to talk with the gentleman.
“It’ll only be a little while,” She promised, “just for a bit of tidying up-- Oh, but Missus Walker will probably want to show me the rooms upstairs…”
“... You know I ain’t got patience for long conversation, Miss Schofield…”
“Your best manners, you promised me…”
Mister Walker called from the middle of the room, “Is everything alright?”
Holding Arthur’s look for a moment-- and he was impressed as well as irritated with the sharpened steel he saw there in her pale eyes-- Catherine smiled all graciousness at the gentleman, “Yes, of course, everything is quite well. My dearest Tacitus is just unused to the usual motions of social calls. Now, Missus Walker, we were going upstairs, weren’t we?”
The outlaw did not hold on to her hand to keep her from going, despite his every desire to do so. Part of him wanted to haul her over his shoulder and stride out the front door no matter how she might holler at him for the indignity…
Together, he and the gentleman watched the ladies ascend the stairs. The mousy Delilah was whispering something in what Arthur thought looked like a nervous fashion, and that Catherine smiled over her shoulder at him made clear she was commenting on him and his behavior. She was probably mentioning how poor a match they were…
He’d warned her , dammit. He couldn’t play these complicated smooth-talking roles!
“... She’s quite something.” Abraham said after the women had vanished through a doorway, “Always has been, that Catherine-Louise…”
The gentleman turned his gaze to Arthur’s face, and the lightness in his tone vanished, turning it very grave, “... Do you plan on keeping her, Mister Kilgore? Or just until the fancy passes?”
Scoffing a light laugh, Arthur fixed Abraham a hard look, “I ain’t in the practice of havin’ nothin’ taken from me, Mister Walker, if that’s what you’re suggesting…”
Watching the rich man squirm almost made the evening worth the trouble.
“... I don’t want to give you the wrong idea… Just a friendly warning : if you care for her, and intend to keep her, then stay far out of the reach of her father.”
“I’ve heard some of dear ol’ Daddy Schofield.” Arthur shrugged.
“I don’t think you understand…” The gentleman tugged at his collar, “... You see, she’s what? Nearly thirty now? It’s an important time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… she’s nearly too old to be of her… previous uses to him… So now his only recourse is to marry her off to the highest bidder!”
“... Excuse me?”
“Do you think it is an accident she is so charming? Do you imagine you are the first man she has beguiled? My dear Mister Kilgore, the poor girl is only doing as she was trained to do!”
“I’m the ill-bred man,” Arthur snarled, “and here you’re talkin’ about a lady like she’s no more than a trained hound!”
“We are all products of our training, Mister Kilgore.” Abraham said quietly.
“Unless you want to see what my training has turned out, Mister Walker, you’ll shut your goddamn mouth about Miss Schofield!”
He was quaking with anger. Still, he knew silencing the other man was a mistake-- whatever information he had, even the distasteful sort-- was information he shouldn’t turn aside out of hand.
But he couldn’t help himself. He kept picturing Catherine in the moonlight, on the ridge, telling him she intimately understood already that she was an object, a plaything, for men, despite all her fierce independence and cunning. Catherine, bent over the little side table, her face distant, as if she’d turned dead and cold inside-- like it was a familiar habit-- while Dutch rutted into her.
Catherine wanted vengeance on her father. That much had been clear since the very beginning.
Abraham had said ‘nearly thirty’ was ‘too old’ for her ‘previous uses’. Arthur wanted to tear him apart.
Their eyes met, and Abraham was solemn, not afraid.
“If you care for her--”
“-- take her far away. This is not nearly far enough.” The man shook his head, “Heed my advice. She’ll think it silly. Overcautious. But she has always famously underestimated him.”
“If I was you,” Was the low reply, “I’d worry more about my own damn self, the way you keep on…”
With a heavy sigh, Mister Walker made a gesture as if sweeping the matter aside. Then he brightened.
“... Can I offer you a cigar, Mister Kilgore?”
Supper was a brief, bright event. Arthur’s appetite had abandoned him, though, and Abraham did not seem to be faring much better, no matter his attempts to maintain a cheerful demeanor. Catherine must have sensed the change, for she did not protest when Arthur suggest they bid their farewells and move on for the night.
The Walkers did not invite them to stay.
Once out of sight of the cabin once more, they mounted up where they’d left the horses in the near-dark just after sunset. The lady’s pale gaze looked far beyond the road when she spoke to him, her chin held proud, but not haughty.
“... I’m sure you’ve heard a little about my history. I knew it was a risk. So I would appreciate it if you kept whatever it was to yourself, Arthur.”
“... I didn’t hear anythin’ worth repeatin’, Miss Catherine.” The outlaw shrugged, scowling as he adjusted his hat, “... I’m just hopin’ you did.”
“No, but I did find this…”
He saw her pull the folded memo from her skirt and took it when she passed it over.
“Missus Delilah Walker is a lovely, trusting soul, bless her.” The young lady sighed, “She didn’t even notice while we were in his upstairs study. It was on the desk, under a few less interesting papers.”
Smirking, Arthur shook his head and offered the paper back-- but she held up her hands for him to keep it, “... If I had known you meant to steal somethin’ like this when you went for yer 'bath', I wouldn’t have made a fuss!”
“You were brilliant, Mister Morgan. I couldn’t have scripted you a better part.”
Chapter 15: 'Fathers'
(This chapter takes place chronologically at some point after 'Girl Talk')
“What have you done to my boy, Catherine?”
The lady had thought it suspicious. Both the invitation to ride out alone with Mister Matthews to only check the post office, and his uncharacteristic silence once they’d set off. She’d determined not to break it herself, instead trying to figure out its cause and reason.
“I wonder which one you mean…”
He smiled at her from Silver Dollar’s back, but his words were stern, “Don’t be coy. That may work on those younger fools, but I’m a cantankerous old man whose sap is all dried up. You know what I’m talking about.”
Blinking innocently at him, the lady smiled warmly, “You’re hardly cantankerous, Mister Matthews! Why, I find you positively affable and equanimous.”
“That may not last if you keep trying to duck my question, girl…”
Catherine didn’t think he really meant it, but she valued the old conman’s candidness with her too much to risk it for the brief amusement of her act now, “You will still have to clarify for me which ‘boy’ of yours you mean…”
“Well,” Hosea shrugged his shoulders and looked further up the road, “I don’t mean Dutch , as he’s a little too close to my own age to call ‘boy’... Though, don’t get me wrong, I’d like to know what you’re doing to him , too. But if there’s more than one besides him, I probably need to hear about them all…”
“Are you really so interested in the silly flirtations of this silly girl?”
“Catherine,” Was his quiet chiding, “you know I know better of you. If you don’t, I’m telling you I do.”
Sighing, the pale-eyed lady stroked her fingers through Woden’s mane, just in front of his withers as he stepped out lightly, calm beside the older and shorter, gray Turkoman. It was a frequent joke around camp that the gray horses in the herd all got along well, despite Woden’s seeming disinclination to get along with anyone . More than one horse in the herd sported bites on the hindquarters owing to the thoroughbred. But Silver Dollar was spared his bullying for reasons unexplained, and Slim was patient with his posturing right up until teeth were bared-- then he pinned his ears and stamped a massive back hoof, as if in warning to remind the upstart that he could kick him right out of the camp if he really wanted to. The only horse in the herd to bully Woden was Taima, but that was because she was what Arthur called a ‘mareish mare’.
“... You’re asking about Mister Morgan, then?”
“Obviously,” Hosea chuckled, “The entire camp is whispering about how twisted up he is over you.”
“I’m sure you’re exaggerating, Mister Matthews. He’s a fairly private person-- keeps things close to the chest. The gossips in camp talk because they’ve not enough other ways to entertain themselves.”
“I’m not much for camp gossip, but I can tell you I know Arthur, and I know you’ve got him twisted around your little finger. What I don’t know is exactly how , and why . What have you done to my boy, Catherine? What do you intend to do with him?”
“What makes you think I’ve done or will do anything at all, Hosea?” Catherine looked up from her hands and over at the older man, who was already watching her intently.
“... You don’t fool me.” He told her, “You’re not that vain or heartless.”
She laughed, “What?”
“No, I’m not fooled at all. Even if you were that vain or heartless-- which I don’t believe for a minute!-- you’re certainly not that stupid . You wouldn’t toy with his feelings just because you could while having to hang around and suffer the consequences! You’re after something , and whatever it is, you’ve decided it’s important enough to deal with the mess. But even that is too cold in my opinion.”
“You know already I don’t invest much in sentiment, Hosea…”
The old man nodded, “Oh, I know. But I’ve seen you and the way you talk to him, the way you look at him when you don’t think anyone is watching. I’m not about to accuse you of falling in love with the poor fool, but you are very fond of him, and that leads me to hope you aren’t out to hurt him, at least.”
Frowning, Catherine turned her gaze to the road, enjoying the feel of the breeze on her face and neck, “No. I don’t intend to hurt him or anyone … but I doubt my intentions or desires will matter in the end.”
“Then why have you done it?”
“... Self-preservation, Hosea. If I were forced to choose between myself and Arthur Morgan, you know I would choose myself every time.”
“Well sure. I expect most anybody would choose the same-- to save their own lives first. It’s only sensible. But far as I see, nobody is holding a gun to your head, Catherine--”
“-- Not yet. I imagine it’s not far off, though.”
She felt his eyes boring into her, but the lady sat straight-backed until he spoke again, “... You’re talking about Dutch. Your plan is to use Arthur against Dutch-- ”
“-- No. That would truly be a stupid and vain aspiration. No. But…” Catherine sighed, and felt the weight settle inside just a little heavier, “at the very least, he would stand for me. If Dutch decides… if he means to hurt me like we both know he could , I will at least have an equally dangerous man to stand for me. Arthur would never oppose Dutch to please me, but at least I could have him oppose Dutch to protect me from him… if I needed.”
The strength of the old conman’s piercing look did not lessen, “Dutch isn’t going to hurt you, girl.”
“That’s the plan--”
“--No. I mean he’s not going to try --”
“--You don’t know that, Hosea. You think that he won’t. You hope that he won’t. But I know that he might, even if it would outrage everyone else in camp. In fact, he might do it because it would . If he thought it would ‘put me in my place’ or ‘teach me a lesson’ about trying to turn his gang against him, he absolutely would. Dutch van der Linde is a monstrously jealous man, I’m sorry to tell you, especially of his followers.” She met his look, and was sorry for the concern she saw behind the stern mask of his features.
He was sorry too, especially as he noted her word choice. Contemplating a moment, he said quietly, “... But you decided to try and seduce one of his most loyal, anyway?”
“It was a risk I needed to take,” She shrugged helplessly.
He didn’t reply, and they rode on in several minutes of silence, letting the morning seep into them and chase out the sudden chill.
Finally, Hosea took a breath and said, “... I hear them talk, sometimes-- in the camp-- about you. About what you’re doing here. Some think you’re like Molly-- just so wrapped up in Dutch.”
“He’s very charismatic. I don’t fault her for feeling as she did.”
“Some others think you’re just out on a lark. That when things get hard, you’ll run back home to Boston.”
“Is that what you think?”
“I didn’t think much about it. You were here, you were helping, you were clever. You seemed genuine,” Hosea nodded, patting Silver Dollar’s neck affectionately, “You said you were leaving your old life behind. Now I see why. I always thought the rich and important civilized folks were just naturally suspicious… but now… Well, it’s clear someone or something taught you to be guarded and afraid all the time.”
“Even of your friends.”
“... I suppose. You are my first friends, you know. The only people I’ve ever met without my father’s interference.”
“Terrible shame you were so desperate as to choose us miscreants.”
She smiled at him, “Pickings were thin, Mister Matthews.”
Laughing, he made a gesture at her, “So what happens if you’re wrong?”
“What do you mean?”
“If Dutch never tries anything, like I said, what happens with Arthur?”
Catherine shrugged, “That depends on Arthur, I imagine. Probably nothing. I don’t consider him the sort of man to come forward to try and stake a claim.”
“But you’ll go on letting him love you anyhow?”
Scoffing, Catherine answered, “He doesn’t love me. He wants me-- as many men before and after him.”
“Oh no,” Hosea said, both eyebrows raising, brow wrinkling, “you’re mistaken.”
“I’m quite sure you’re the one who’s mistaken, sir.”
“Fathers know these things,” Hosea told her, “Fathers who care and pay attention, anyway. I told you: I know Arthur. I’ve seen him in love before.”
“He doesn’t love me, Mister Matthews,” She told him with a frosty tone, displeased, “He’s not that much of a fool.”
“Oh,” Hosea laughed quietly, “you’ve miscalculated dreadfully , my dear! For he is very much that sort of fool.”
Catherine didn’t answer, feeling heat climb her throat. Hosea’s words chafed along her collar, heating her cheeks.
“... Now, what are you going to do about it?” He asked with a knowing grin.
Feeling his strong fingers close around her wrist as she passed, Catherine turned her head and smiled at the man seated on the chair in the shade of the canvas stretched out in front of his tent. He smiled back at her, but there was something sharp in his dark eyes.
Even so, without protest she moved to his side, sliding her free hand across the top of the backrest of his chair.
“Did I ever tell you how much this place benefits you?” He asked fondly, his hand moving from her wrist to her waist, a gesture both intimate and possessive.
“Benefits me?” She continued to smile despite her confusion and trepidation.
“The light, the sky, the colors… The first moment I saw you I thought you beautiful beyond words, my dear Miss Schofield, but out here in the desert, you are even more breathtaking. I’m not sure what it is…”
She laughed lightly, “As much as I enjoy the fresh air and wide open spaces, I can’t imagine how I could be more beautiful sunburned and dirty, Dutch…”
“Nonsense.” With a sharp, strong movement of his hand at her waist, he tugged her down onto his knee, setting his book aside. “Look-- Arthur! Arthur come here a minute…”
Catherine’s heart jolted in her chest, and it was only a lifetime of practice that kept the reaction from showing in her face and demeanor. The big outlaw seemed just as confused and cautious as he crossed the camp to stand across from them. The question on his face was directed first to Catherine-- for which she could give him no answer-- before he furrowed his brows at his mentor and leader, “Yeah, Dutch?”
“Isn’t Miss Schofield here the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?”
“Dutch!” Catherine scolded in a hushed voice, leaning heavily upon some pretense of modesty, even though she greatly suspected he was doing this expressly to humiliate her.
Arthur, too, looked terribly uncomfortable, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, “She’s quite beautiful, sure, Dutch… Everybody knows that.”
“ Remarkably beautiful,” Dutch insisted firmly, as if Arthur had contradicted him, “ Exceptionally lovely.”
“ Really , Mister Van der Linde…” Catherine made a point of trying to stand up from her seat, but he held her fast. She saw Arthur’s look, the tension in his shoulders and the flexing of his hands, and was glad that Dutch was looking at her .
“You aren’t fooling anyone here, Miss Schofield,” The outlaw leader laughed at her, “We all know you’re just as aware of it as we are. There’s no reason for false modesty. It doesn’t become you.”
“Beauty isn’t everything,” Replied the lady archly, “as Miss Grimshaw will be quick to remind us all: it is helpless before the ravages of time--”
“--Common beauty, yes, but I think Mister Morgan will agree that yours is not so common.”
“No,” Dutch tipped up her chin with his hand, turning her face to be better advantaged by the light, and looked at Arthur, “What do you think? A face men would go to war for, wouldn’t you say?”
“... Well… I…” Arthur coughed into his fist, visibly discomfited by Dutch’s pointed questions and handling of the lady in front of him. He kept shooting Catherine confused, desperate glances, as if she could provide some sort of explanation or escape.
She wanted desperately to give in to the boiling of her temper and slap the outlaw’s hand away from her face and tear out of his grip with a scathing rebuke, but she very much suspected that from the firmness of his grip at her waist with his other hand that he would not easily let her go. It would lead to a struggle which would only put Arthur in a worse position-- and that, Catherine supposed, was best avoided for now.
“... Some men,” The big outlaw grunted after a few breathless moments, resting both his hands on the front of his gunbelt, “I guess. I don’t know any, myself…”
“No,” Dutch agreed, praise in his tone, “you’re driven by loyalty , Mister Morgan. I’ve always relied on that.”
Arthur nodded, “Sure. You need anythin’ else? I ought to get goin’...”
Dutch dismissed him with a head nod, “Go on, then.”
Arthur shrugged, then touched the brim of his hat before turning to leave, “...Miss.”
They watched him saunter away. Catherine was certain she could see the weight of the strange encounter settle over his broad shoulders and the cinch of Van der Linde’s collar tighten around his throat.
Even though she suspected already, she asked in a hushed voice, jerking her chin from his grasp, “What in the world was that all about, Dutch?”
“My dear,” Dutch’s voice turned cold as well as patronizing, “aren’t you clever as well as beautiful? I think you know already…”
His hand at her waist pushed her roughly so that she was forced off his lap. Fortunately, she was able to stand with a modicum of grace.
“I warned you, didn’t I?” Were his words before she walked away, “Mind your self-conceit.”
Leaving him, Catherine mused at how unsurprising and familiar this dread was. The weight of a man’s will, threatening to crush her for the crime of desiring freedom...
Chapter 17: 'Lightning'
(Warning: Little bit of [terrible] smut in this one... Also I don't have any personal grievance with the Catholic church, nor is my intention to offend!)
Storms had been building on the horizon for weeks.
They rolled through slow and continuous, one after another, and the thunder growled out across the dry lands, even though above the desert basin the sky remained bright blue and virtually cloudless.
At night, Catherine watched the lightning flicker. Sometimes the girls would join her-- usually Tilly or Jenny. Sean would join them if Karen was there, and they’d share drinks and jokes. Arthur and Charles would smoke in deep contemplation, eyes fixed on the flashing horizon, but only long enough for one cigarette.
“You’d best get some sleep,” Arthur warned her, flicking the butt of his into the dirt before scuffing it out with his boot, “Hosea’s got us ridin’ into Tumbleweed to check in on his ‘friend’, Mister Graff.”
Hosea often had them riding out to follow up on his leads. Catherine was there as her ‘father’s’ representative, and Arthur was Hosea’s favorite choice for her guardian as he was more obviously physically capable at first glance than either John or Javier, and Dutch had Charles running another job. Catherine suspected the old man was stirring up trouble after their talk about how he thought Arthur was in love with her. If Mister Morgan suspected anything, he didn’t share his thoughts with her. Altogether, he was behaving much more aloof, and Catherine was certain Dutch’s recent behavior had much to do with it. If not everything .
“I remember. I’ll be ready.”
“Maybe bring a change of clothes this time?” He teased, corner of his mouth twisting ruefully, “Don’ want t’be delayed on account of rain.”
“I suppose that would be best for both of us, then. Goodnight, Mister Morgan.” She smiled back warmly.
He avoided looking her in the face and instead turned away, heading for his tent, “‘Night, Miss Schofield.”
It twisted in her guts like a sharp piece of metal, and she wasn’t sure exactly why. At least this new arrangement suited Dutch’s sensitive pride better, it seemed, and so Catherine took it upon herself to bear it with quiet dignity. As well as treat Dutch with the same cool aloofness. She spent her nights with the other women, and did not entertain any of the outlaw’s flattery.
Lenny was having better luck. He’d convinced Miss Kirk to ride out with him to try and shake out a lead somewhere. Catherine found it decidedly encouraging that they were not back yet. If any man in this world could treat Jenny right, it was surely Mister Summers. His youth and inexperience were strengths in this regard, because he was open to education, which Jenny could surely provide if she only gave him the chance…
With a sigh, Miss Schofield turned to retreat to her spot, settled between Tilly and Mary-Beth under the canvas, the lightning still flickering on the horizon behind her.
They left early in the morning, and ate a light breakfast in the saddle. Arthur was particularly withdrawn and taciturn, and the lady suspected he hadn’t rested well. Or maybe Dutch had made a point to chap his hide over their being alone together? She didn’t ask, and he didn’t say.
Likely, the outlaw was determined to make it a long, quiet ride. She let him, for about an hour and a half, but then her patience was exhausted and she began to make conversation, refusing to become discouraged by his resistance. In the end, he was helpless before her. She was too well-trained in the arts of social discourse, and he was not nearly skilled or stubborn enough to resist her efforts.
He’d spent twenty years learning all the best ways to rob, threaten, and kill people. She’d spent nearly that long perfecting how to charm them.
Arthur soon warmed to the conversation, and with Dutch and the rest of the camp so far behind them, relaxed into their former camaraderie. As ever, it took a bit of work and encouragement to turn his thoughts and words from the immediate and practical, towards something they could both muse over. Presently, they’d stumbled into a discussion about justice and capital punishment.
“You know I don’ flinch away from killin’ at all, Miss Schofield. Folks that need killin’ should be killed.”
“So you are for judicial, summary execution, as it stands now?”
“Well…” He laughed a bit, his humor dark-- as it often was, “I much prefer dispensation with a bullet instead of a rope.”
“‘Dispensation’ is a good word, I approve.” She grinned at him, “But you must accept that a rope is altogether more economical.”
“What are you talking about-- bullets come mighty cheap--”
“--Bullets, sure, but to keep a gun in killing condition, for the number of executions a sheriff or other authority might need to dispense … These costs rack up swiftly as opposed to acquiring a rope which can be reused…”
Arthur shrugged, “Sure, but you was talkin’ justice , not economics . You want death on the cheap, jus’ cut out the throat or drown’ ‘em in a trough, or hell, just beat 'em t’death…”
Making a thoughtful sound, brow furrowing, Catherine said, “So you contend that shooting a man is more just than hanging him?”
“You been to many hangin’s, Miss?”
“No. I never understood the entertainment in watching someone die-- deserved or otherwise.”
“--That’s a different discussion altogether, but I’ve seen a good number of hangings. Civil and… outside the law proper. Ain’t none of ‘em just from where I was standin’. It’s a bad death, even if the end of the rope kills quick-- an’ it don’t always.”
“... From my… limited study… the mode of execution is the severing of the spine-- the force breaks the victim’s neck. I’ve heard that sometimes this doesn’t happen and the victim strangles to death.”
“Your limited study bein’ readin’ about it?”
“Mostly, though some of my peers back home have a grotesque fascination with the subject of execution and attend them as frequently as garden parties.”
“Your books and rich, fancy gawkers ever talk about what it’s like to watch a man kick his legs while he spins helpless at the end of a rope, jerking up and down, before he starts seizing up? Or how he looses his bowels in front of the crowd jeering for his blood before he blacks out?”
Catherine looked at him to find he was looking at her. Though his mouth was in a firm line, none of his displeasure was directed at her-- he didn’t blame her for her ignorance on the matter, he was simply trying to teach her, and express his point of view. He wanted her to understand.
If only Dutch talked to her this way… things could be so different. So much better …
“Alright, Arthur,” She said with a nod, “you’ve made your case against the noose. Now explain how a bullet is better . Death by firing squad was conceived very specifically in the military to diffuse the blood guilt. So now we’d need five guns and bullets and men of courage with steady aim…?”
The outlaw snorted, “Or just one.”
“Not many men in this world can carry the burden of a hundred or more deaths, Arthur.”
“No,” He agreed, “Fortunately sheriffs are elected in an’ out, ain’t they? After their term of service, they can retire quiet-like someplace.”
“Even besides the shooter, there’s the crowd to think of. You mentioned the indignity of a victim loosing their bowels, what about the horror of flesh and bone being ripped apart by a gunshot?”
“I thought the point was to make an example …” He raised both eyebrows at her, as if surprised she didn’t understand this basic premise.
Scoffing, Catherine shook her head, “If it is , then we aren’t talking about justice at all, and I stand even more firmly in my position against the supposed moral and legal superiority of capital punishment.”
“So no hangin’s or shootin’s? Whatchu gonna do with rotten folk like us, then? Lock us up?” Arthur laughed.
“Educate you.” She said frankly, looking him dead in the face so that he sobered and knit his brow together.
“ Educate us…? You want to educate the killers and thieves and rapers?”
“That should be the burden of the government, should it not? Look at yourself, and most folks in the gang! It’s a question of why you’re killers and thieves! Surely if you had been taught necessary skills with which to integrate into society you wouldn’t feel like you’d been rejected by it like so much refuse--”
“--You know, I don’ much follow news like this,” Arthur interjected suddenly, “but I heard tell the government is doin’ something like that very thing with the native peoples they’d rounded up. The tribes. Takin’ their kids an’ puttin’ them in these schools to teach ‘em how to be ‘American’ an’ ‘acceptable-like’…”
Under his clever, pointed look, Catherine blushed, torn between embarrassment at her dangerous ignorance, genuine pleasure that he’d challenged her, and a small sense of pride in knowing it was her influence that had engendered this willingness to engage in a tête-à-tête at all.
“...There’s a marked difference between educating and equipping the poor in one’s own culture… and destroying the culture of another people. I’m not suggesting education can cure all the sins of man’s collective black heart, Mister Morgan, but I am suggesting that it’s clear that the current system only benefits the select few-- the rich. For it is the poor who are turning to crime to satisfy their needs, and the poor who are summarily executed for it. Yet we call it justice and tell ourselves we’re doing very well.”
Arthur shook his head, “Some folks are jus’ evil, Miss Catherine.”
“Yes, but unless everyone has their needs fulfilled, we’ll never be able to tell the evil from the simply desperate . The way they tell it, only God Himself has that power.”
“I suppose the Reverend might agree we ought to leave justice in the hands of the Almighty…” remarked the outlaw dryly, “but I expect not much’ll get done either way…”
This led to a discussion about the failings of the good Reverend as an individual, and the Catholic Church as an institution. This more serious conversation quickly devolved into the trading of off-color jokes and humorous stories. Arthur’s humor was dry and dark as the tomb, but it was his sense of timing that threatened some inelegant, unladylike laughter out of Catherine. Though she had little talent in entertainment, for her part, the lady had a small but efficient repertoire at her disposal, and soon discovered how much she liked hearing Arthur laugh unrestrained until he wheezed for breath. She determined then and there to acquire greater skill in humor.
It was then the arroyo opened around them, and Tumbleweed greeted them, starting with the chapel to their right, which caused them to shoot each other half-guilty, half-smirking looks. But it was the tree standing in the graveyard that drew Catherine’s attention and held it.
The thing was dead, as it had been the last time she’d seen it some weeks ago, but now half was torn away, broken off and lying at an awkward angle on the ground amidst shattered bits of branches.
“What in the world..?” She murmured stunned and intrigued. Never in her life had she seen anything like it.
Arthur had, it seemed, for his tone, though interested, lacked the note of naked shock hers held, “Lightning.”
Smiling at her, he nodded, “Yes’m. That’s lightning for sure.”
Dismounting, Catherine could hardly stop herself from approaching the ruined tree, unconcerned with how Woden snorted and trotted toward the water trough in front of the saloon where he would be certain to drench the entire length of his reins getting a drink. Chuckling quietly-- either at the horse, his rider, or both together-- the big outlaw dismounted as well, though his steed was well-behaved enough to stay where he’d been left on the side of the road. All of it barely registered, the lady was fixated by the appearance of the tree and entirely engrossed in trying to piece together exactly how the lightning had done this.
“... I’m certain we haven’t seen any storms this close…” She murmured.
“Mhm…” Was Arthur’s quiet acknowledgement over the scratching of his pencil on paper. He was in his journal-- sketching the image in front of them, she was sure of it. He’d never shared his drawings with her, and she’d never been so bold as to pry-- not with how quick he was to tuck away the journal any time her eyes rested on it longer than a moment.
Her curiosity gave her an infamous reputation in many respects among those in the camp.
“Does lightning really travel that far from its source?” She wondered aloud, instead, “...And isn’t it supposed to strike the tallest structure-- that church steeple is much taller! Besides, I don’t see any scorch marks, do you?”
Arthur was chuckling again, low in his broad chest, “Miss Schofield, if you don’ believe me it was lightnin’, you can come out an’ say so, plain…”
“It’s not that,” Was her quick amendment, “You’ve seen it before, so I must acknowledge your greater experience in the matter… it’s just… the evidence here seems to contradict so many things I understood about the nature of lightning!”
Snapping closed his journal, Arthur’s eyes were on Catherine’s face-- she could feel the weight of his gaze-- and his smile was warm, but there was teasing in his eyes when she turned her head to meet his look, “‘Things’? Like thunderbolts bein’ thrown down from Olympus by Zeus?”
“That would be a myth , Arthur, not a theory backed by scientific data documented in books,” She rolled her eyes, and he laughed.
“What about ‘lightning don’ strike the same place twice’?”
Blinking at him, she frowned, “You mean that’s not true? The odds seem mathematically very slim.”
“I dunno about mathematics, an’ I’m pretty good with odds, but--” He stopped suddenly, a strange expression crossing his face. Catherine didn’t bother asking, she sensed it too, just for a moment: a strange smell in the air-- sharp and acrid on the tongue, and a queer sensation over her skin that raised the hair at the nape of her neck and tickled at the thin hairs on her arms.
It lasted only a moment-- in the same moment she saw Arthur lunge for her-- and then everything exploded in white hot light flanked in boiling red, and they were thrown to their knees, shouting their shared alarm. Slim gave a piercing whinny, the stout warhorse was unmoved by most threats, but this terrible explosion frightened him all the same. The air around them seemed to tremble with the echo of a terrible, earth-shaking roar, and the lady wondered if she’d ever hear again as it reverberated in her ears and through every bone in her head enough to send her entire body trembling.
She was not alone. Once her vision bled back from the blinding flare of light, she saw Arthur, hatless, on his hands and knees nearby, shaking as well. She could not hear him yet, but his mouth shaped words she knew to be vehement curses before his eyes turned toward her, worry chasing shock over his features.
But her eyes went to the tree, where flames licked the sky.
“Je-- Go--... Shit …” Arthur whispered, and Catherine started to laugh, knowing what he’d started to say and why he hadn’t said it.
Arthur Morgan, infamous outlaw, thief, and killer, was afraid to blaspheme the Name of the Lord here in front of the church and this tree that had been-- against all odds-- struck by lightning twice . For all his teasing of her just a moment ago, Arthur apparently believed-- at least in this moment, at least a little-- the God of Abraham might strike down sinners with lightning from Heaven, should they incite his anger.
Stranger still, she could think of no reason, in this moment, to contradict him. Her laughter softened, but turned all the more hysterical as she felt his trembling hands take her shoulders.
She couldn’t stop laughing long enough to assure him she was unhurt, despite the quaking of her bones, and when she met his look, she understood that where the white-hot light had seared through her with terrible shock and amazement, it had set him ablaze on the inside.
He was concerned for her, certainly, but just behind that concern--chasing like a hound on the heels of a hare--was something hot and desperate. She reasoned she understood: though he was a man who’d faced death countless times, it was rare indeed to face death ordained by the Heavens themselves-- and see it thwarted somehow.
Insane odds and a more pressingly desperate, mortal, desire to survive had reshifted priorities in Arthur Morgan’s mind, perhaps? He wanted her-- had wanted her for a long time. Until now, he’d been willing to deny himself for the hundreds of reasons piled up inside and around him, perhaps forever .
But now… now after facing the wrath and judgement of the Almighty...
Perhaps not so long, after all? Time was short. Life was brutal and fleeting.
Still gripped by the mad giddiness that caused laughter to spill from her lips, Catherine brought up her hands and traced both sides of his unshaven jawline with trembling fingertips, and watched as something dark and hungry framed the heat in his eyes at her touch. In a rush, one of his hands moved from her shoulder to the side of her head, fingers threading into her dark hair, half-undone from its chignon, and dragged her in to meet his rushed, exhilarated kiss.
Shock chased up her spine immediately. Not because he’d kissed her, but for fear that someone might see them. Tumbleweed was a small town, and the lightning and fire would certainly draw a crowd at any moment. How long would it take for their lack of restraint, and disregard for modesty and propriety, to enter the usual rounds of gossip?
How long before someone back at camp heard about it? Until Dutch heard?
Pressing her thumbs lightly against his chin, on each side of the cleft there, Catherine eased her face from Arthur’s. Though he leaned eagerly after her, pressing against her fingers, he did not use his hands to drag her back or force another kiss upon her. No matter the violence of his thundering desperation for her, he wasn’t going to force her.
It was… surprising, given her experiences, and she found it-- like so many things on the growing list she kept in her head for Arthur Morgan-- terribly endearing.
“Wait,” She whispered, “... Not here. Somewhere quiet.”
He released her, to cover her hands with his, nodding, more to himself than anything. Then he climbed to his feet and pulled her up after him.
The burning tree was forgotten. The horses forgotten. His hat, there on the dusty ground, forgotten. The job forgotten. He pulled her after him direct to the gunsmith. He wasn’t thinking, Catherine supposed, only doing-- driven by instinct or need, or both. Her own thoughts were whirling in disorder so quickly she could hardly piece them together. She’d always been aware that at any moment he might desire for her to make good on all her flirtations-- like every man before him-- but after Dutch’s threats…
After Hosea’s accusations…
The timing was certainly poor, but she wasn’t really concerned about it, now. This was…
… this was familiar territory. She knew what to do. She knew what was expected. She could go through all the motions with hardly a second thought. It was something of a relief, really, because she’d need her thoughts to decide just how to arrange things afterwards to prevent a disaster…
She was too distracted by her thoughts to catch whatever Arthur had said to the proprietor-- maybe he hadn’t really said anything at all-- nor did she notice precisely how much money he set down on the counter-- though it looked like a rather large sum. But then the man handed Arthur a key. In a rush they were back outside and circling the building and climbing the stairs in the back.
Arthur’s hands still trembled a bit, and he cursed them under his breath as he struggled with the key in the lock. Catherine couldn’t help the laughter that bubbled up-- he was still minding his oaths so as to perhaps not offend the Almighty-- but she bit her lips to hold it in.
She couldn’t help the way her heart raced when the door opened and he pulled her inside the dimness after him. Or the stuttering it made as the flat of his hand closed the door behind her again. This was familiar territory, certainly, but she had not done so well for herself by becoming complacent. Every man was at his worst behind closed doors, when the lights went down. It would be beyond foolish to not meet Arthur Morgan at his worst with a touch of apprehension.
But those large, calloused hands, shaped and scarred by a lifetime of violence, were gentle as they cupped her face like it was the finest china. Even though there was a rampaging storm of urgency and desperation in his heated gaze, he did nothing more . Not until she looped her arms over his broad shoulders and around his neck, tilting her face up toward him in invitation. Then he met her like the breaking of a wave against the cliffs on the coast of the northeast, with a similar heavy sigh, and a great deal more care.
He had no time or room for self-doubt now, and though sorely out of practice, Catherine could tell he knew how to conduct himself so as to please a lady while kissing her. She wondered whether Dutch had taught him, or Hosea, or his previous lover-- Mary, wasn’t it? Perhaps all three had their share in his education. Maybe unknown others. It didn’t really matter; she was quietly pleased that he was aware of how best to make use of his generous mouth. Few men bothered to learn, and even fewer bothered to make use of the knowledge, in her unfortunately broad experience.
It was one of the things that had drawn her to Mister van Der Linde, initially. For all his faults, the man knew how to use his mouth well.
When she felt the outlaw’s fingertips brush down the smooth skin of her throat, she moved her hands as well, sliding over his shoulders and down the broad planes of his chest, quickly working open buttons as she went. At the same time, she stepped into him, urging him backwards. Bothering only to make a vaguely inquisitive sound in his throat while he kissed her, Arthur moved as she directed, until the back of his knees hit the bed frame. By then, she’d gotten his shirt open-- perhaps far more swiftly than he’d expected-- and he’d torn his mouth from hers for want of air, gasping for breath.
Apparently his education hadn’t included remembering to breathe through his nose whilst his mouth was occupied, or perhaps he was too wound up to remember. He’d forgotten a great deal else outside, after all...
He said nothing, just gazed at her like she was the only cup of water left in the desert, and he was already a man on fire, his fingers toying with the pearl button at the throat of her shirtwaist as if he was afraid any further efforts might break it. Or break her .
Or this-- that she might, in the end, reject him despite coming this far…
Under her hands, and his heated skin beneath them, his heart galloped wildly in his chest. He was shivering all over like a fly-stung colt, quaking as her fingers slid down his body toward his belt without her eyes ever leaving the storm in his. There was something to be said about the satisfaction of having such a physically imposing man so wholly in her power.
“Lie down.” She commanded in a soft voice, uncinching his gunbelt with both hands in two smooth motions. He stooped slowly, the bed too short and too low for him to sit with any kind of real grace, considering his size, and especially with his focus elsewhere. He stumbled, mumbling a soft curse as his legs and balance forsook him, but the lady used his momentum to push him to the side, so he might fall the length of the bed instead of the width of it to hit his head on the wall. He flipped to his back in time to reach for her waist with both hands as she climbed after him, parting her riding skirt so her legs wouldn’t bind up together as she moved.
The bed groaned beneath their shared weight. Catherine wondered if the shopkeep downstairs could hear. She wondered if he were listening on purpose . It was still better than the middle of the street in front of the church and cemetery. At least here they had plausible deniability for whatever accusations might be thrown…
The pressure of the outlaw’s fingers kneading into the stiff bones of her corset at her waist sharpened her attention back on him and the task at hand-- he needed something to do with those hands, she supposed. For whatever reason, he couldn’t find a proper task for them himself. With one of her own hands and a practiced twist of fingers, Catherine popped the pearl button at her throat open, noting how Arthur’s eyes followed their motion. How the apple of his throat bobbed as he swallowed hard. Her other hand guided one of his to her throat, willing to suffer his fumbling-- willing to sew buttons back on her own clothing for a change, if necessary-- to see this done, “Here.”
While he worked the buttons open so slowly, one at a time, her hands found the buttons of his suspenders, and then the fasten of his pants.
She only paused when she heard his voice, “Wh…?!”
Her shirtwaist was only half open, and under it, he was pawing the material of her corset cover, confused by the additional row of buttons as an obstacle to get to her. It was at this precise moment Catherine realized that whatever he might have done, or planned to do with his fancy ‘Miss Mary’, he’d never actually taken her to his bed, or even seen her under-dressed.
Further, any women he might have taken his pleasure with were either not women of means and fashion, or he’d encountered them already undressed.
She wondered if this were also the reason Dutch never bothered attempting to undress her: he didn’t want to risk looking a fool.
Laughing again, Catherine leaned down to smother his frustrated incredulity with a kiss-- which he gladly, hungrily answered-- and opened his pants, sliding her fingers inside. Moaning into her mouth, the outlaw’s hands clenched hard around the silk-wrapped bones circling and cinching her ribs and waist while his own contracted in a seemingly unconscious manner, rolling his hips to meet her hand. She found him already hard and slid him free, throbbing heat. The curious, whirring, analytical part of her mind noted that while his cock-- like the man himself-- was above average in size, it was his girth that made her insides clench and turn icy. Even as… well used… as she might be, she could not help but feel apprehensive dread at how he might tear through her with his size and strength.
But it wouldn’t do for her hesitation to show. What a mess it would be if he were to question her willingness…
Fondling the length of his shaft with light brushes of her fingertips, Catherine used her free hand to coax one of his to the laces for the waist of her skirt-- with a normal skirt, the hem could be pulled up around her hips to accommodate the joining of bodies, but that which made this garment more decent and ladylike for riding astride a horse made more difficult the riding astride of a man . She felt his fingers clench suddenly into a fist around the laces and fabric when the second stroke of her hand around his member wrapped her fingers more firmly around him. His mouth tore from hers again, his face sliding into the hollow of her shoulder while his hips bucked in frantic jerks. He muffled his wordless shout of surprise, ecstasy, and shamed frustration into her body.
Equally surprised, Catherine froze as hot ejaculate spattered against the inside of her forearm before dribbling heavily onto her wrist and into her hand. They sat there a moment, trying to steady their breathing and thoughts. Her shock wore off quickly. He was far from the first man to reach completion early--always much to his embarrassment-- and in a way she was relieved. If this was all it might take to satisfy him, then--
But Arthur was moving. Gripping her arms, he pushed her to the side, over his legs, and out of his way as he climbed unsteadily--but determined -- to his feet, hands busying themselves to put himself back in order.
Thinking him shamed by his lack of performance, Catherine said, “There’s no reason for embarrassment, Arthur. It’s a perfectly natural--”
Her words stuttered, snapping into shards in her throat when she caught a glimpse of his expression, however. He didn’t look embarrassed . He looked angry .
Standing in the middle of the small room, his back to her, the outlaw started for the door, and Catherine was suddenly mortified that he might leave her here like this. But he stopped halfway, then doubled-back across the room to the washbasin on top of the dresser in the corner, near the foot of the bed, with heavy footfalls that betrayed his emotion. He took the drying cloth from where it was folded next to the basin and tossed it to her. Watching the ragged cloth hit the equally ragged bedspread nearby, the lady blinked, mortification still brewing inside.
This… this had never happened before. She’d never lain with a man and had him angry-- or even displeased --by the end. Never once! Opening her mouth to ask after him, he instead spoke, cutting her off with his low, disgusted voice.
“This… this ain’t right…” He shook his head, still refusing to look at her, presenting her only with his broad back.
Mortification swelled, and it took only moments for it to give way to anger of her own. Her tone turned icy, “... You must forgive me , sir, I was not aware my attentions were so displeasing--”
“Woman, hush .” His scolding came in a sharp, but resigned tone. “You ain’t stupid. You know precisely what I’m on about. You… you’re Dutch’s woman, dammit! How can I… I can’t… This… This ain’t right !”
Anger bubbled inside, boiling thick and heavy like a pot of coffee, “Yes. Dutch’s woman . As much a possession-- an object -- for his display to prop up his vanity and pride as all his others. A pretty and gaudy trapping to use or set aside as he pleases! Is that ‘right’, Arthur?”
He didn’t answer her.
Her emotions strangled her, forcing her voice out so hushed it was almost a hiss, “He doesn’t love me. He hardly cares for me. He just wants to keep me . Like… like a jewel. But I’m not a jewel , I’m a woman with my own mind! So don’t… don’t you dare try and shame me for this, Arthur!”
Saying nothing in reply, Arthur turned for the door, still refusing to look at her. She knew he was going for certain this time, and Catherine desperately tried to find words and voice-- something to say that might stop him. Of his own accord, he paused in the doorway.
“I’ll get the horses. Clean yerself up an’ meet me in front.” His voice was the opposite of hers-- calm, quiet, dispassionate . Businesslike.
Mortification and anger fled in the wake of humiliation, and Catherine suddenly had nothing more to say. How shameful that in this moment, Arthur Morgan be more composed than she.
She did not watch him leave, instead turning her attention to the cloth and wiping his seed from her hand and arm. The sound of the door closing behind him and his heavy, booted steps back down the stairs hammered against her turned back, and try as she might, the lady could not help but feel as if she was being isolated from the rest of the world. Again.
Determining the best and only way forward was to make the best of the terrible situation, Catherine endeavored to be nothing but sweet and agreeable, despite the pit of aching, gnawing emotion between her ribs.
She waved and smiled at the gunsmith through the window, and he smiled and raised his hand in acknowledgement before she turned to meet Arthur and the horses. The outlaw’s expression was a mask of granite, and his eyes rested on her only the moment it took to verify she could mount the tall thoroughbred well enough on her own.
“I see you found your hat,” The lady observed cheerfully, “Thats a bit of good luck.”
“C’mon,” Was his quiet reply, turning the solid Ardennes with a push of his knee, “we still need t’find Mister Graff.”
Hosea would be expecting a good report. Stifling a sigh, Catherine followed the iron grey warhorse and his rider, smoothing her mount’s mane idly as her eyes turned back toward the tree in the graveyard. Blackened by the fire, parts of it were still smoldering, though the flames had gone out.
(This one-shot is kind of pivotal, in that it represents the crossroads that intersects the 'Thieves' AU into the more canon-compliant 'Roulette' ending stories or whether it offshoots into its own thing that will be much less canon-compliant, based on the choices characters make. You'll see in 'Rivals' what I'm talking about, I think...)
Got questions? Want to talk about it? Want to suggest or request a prompt? Here's your mic!
Chapter 18: 'Rivals'
This takes place chronologically after 'Lightning'.
(This is also the first significant step down a timeline/narrative/plot that is DIFFERENT from the one that ends up with 'Thieves: Red Dead Roulette'.)
Arthur didn’t need anybody to tell him he’d handled things badly.
But he’d meant what he’d said: what had happened between him and Catherine wasn’t right. For all of their sakes. She deserved better than a rushed groping in the upstairs room of a nowhere town by a reprobate fool who couldn’t even conduct himself for the task. Dutch deserved better than for his lover and trusted associate of twenty years to go behind his back like that. And Arthur… Arthur didn’t have the right to touch her; he sure as hell didn’t deserve her, but…
“Dutch, may I have a word?”
The dark eyes never left the pages of the book, but his free hand came up, “Of course, Arthur-- you know, I have to tell you this Mister Miller is the Plato of our times…”
“If you say so,” He resisted the grimace, “... You have a minute? I… I need to talk to you.”
Now the dark eyes came up, and the set of his jaw told Arthur that his tone or expression had the outlaw anticipating something he wouldn’t like, “Certainly. What’s on your mind?”
Catherine-Louise Schofield. Too much and too often. Worse yet, he could still feel her hands on him. Taste her mouth in his…
“... Back in Tumbleweed… the other day…” He began uncomfortably, and knew Dutch recognized it immediately. It was a wonder he didn’t guess it all at that very moment.
He wondered what he would do once he had the truth… Not knowing almost made him think twice, but… no.
“... I… I was with Miss Schofield.”
Dutch blinked, then furrowed his brows, “… I know.”
“You do?” Arthur was poleaxed. How did he know?! Had Catherine told him?
“... What’s gotten into you-- are you drunk? Yes, I know! I watched the two of you leave!”
He wasn’t understanding. He had to be more clear… “No, Dutch… I… we… had relations. I took her to a room.”
Mister van der Linde said nothing, just gave him a long, steady look. It was all Arthur could do to hold that look and not start babbling excuses or apologies.
He didn’t bother telling him about the lightning-- there was no way to explain how it’d broken something inside him, convincing him for long minutes that he was most certainly going to die, and that he absolutely did not want to die without ever having her in his arms. It would sound crazy, or like a pathetic excuse.
It didn’t make any difference why he’d done it, anyway. He’d done it and knew it was wrong, same as every crime in his life as an outlaw. The only difference was that this one had been against family . This was the one that counted, where it mattered .
So no excuses. Apologies, on the other hand…
“I know I shouldn’t’ve… I know it weren’t right… I- I’m sorry.”
Hearing these words, Dutch cocked his head to the side, something in his gaze sharpening, “You… No.” Then he climbed to his feet, leaving the book on the chair, and reached for Arthur with both hands. Prepared for retribution, Arthur didn’t even bother to flinch.
But Dutch only took hold of his shoulders, same as he used to when he was younger, “No, Arthur. I’m sorry. This is my fault.”
Frowning, confused, Arthur almost pulled away, “How do you figure…?”
“I knew what she was. I’ve known this whole time--”
“--What do you mean ‘what she was’--”
“--I just… I guess I told myself she couldn’t trick me, seeing as I already knew,” Dutch sighed, “... But you... I didn’t count on her turning on you . I’m sorry, son. I should have warned you…”
“Warned me about what , Dutch? What are you talking about?!”
“This is what she does , son. She charms men into doing what she wants. She’s a beautiful devil, stealing mens’ souls to put in her father’s pockets--”
“--Her father?! What’s her-- Nah, Dutch…”
Arthur had heard this before. He remembered Mister Walker’s words: ‘Do you think it is an accident she is so charming? Do you imagine you are the first man she has beguiled? My dear Mister Kilgore, the poor girl is only doing as she was trained to do!’
It had made him angry then, and it was making him angry now. They had to be wrong. After all, she had nothing to gain by seducing him .
He had nothing to offer her, and she was clever enough to see that.
He didn’t know if that meant she cared for him-- he doubted it, really. Certainly not like he cared for her . Why should she?-- but he was certain, nonetheless, that she wasn’t trifling with him for some underhanded gain.
“I should have warned you…” Dutch repeated gravely.
Shaking his head, Arthur stepped back, resting his hands on the front of his gunbelt, “... I ain’t some kid anymore, Dutch, to lose my head over any pretty face that goes by. It ain’t on you to warn me. An’ she ain’t some succubus or special-trained spy , either! What we did was wrong, I admit, an’ I wanted you to know what happened, and that I’m takin’ responsibility for it…”
Dutch was looking at him, watching his face, “... Christ Almighty…”
“... That she-devil’s stolen your heart!”
“I… well… Look ,” Doing his best to ignore the heat that climbed his throat and face, Arthur gestured decisively with one hand, “... maybe I do care for her, but I know my place and my loyalties-- even despite what I did what was wrong-- and I ain’t tryin’ to make your affairs my business… but, hell Dutch… This is what I’m talkin’ about! This between you two has got to stop!”
“...’This’...?” Thunderclouds started brewing on the older man’s brow, and his hands went to his hips.
“The fightin’ and snipin’ at each other all the time! You don’ treat her right.” Arthur paused then, the realization of it dawning on him as the words came out his mouth. Dutch didn’t treat Catherine as he ought, and it had bothered him ever since he’d witnessed it the first time.
A harsh bark of wry laughter came from the outlaw leader, “I don’t treat her right?!”
“... I know she tests you. Pushes at you. But you... you say things and do things to demean her. On purpose. I know it ain’t my business, and that’s why I’ve kept my mouth shut… But you know, most of us around here are wonderin’ if you two even like each other any more.”
When Dutch didn’t say anything, Arthur wondered if he’d overstepped himself. Part of him suspected he’d taken a running leap across the line…
“... Is that so…”
Dutch turned his face away, looking momentarily across the camp, as if he could see for himself the evidence that his failing relationship with his paramour was obvious to them all. Exhaling heavily, Arthur rubbed the back of his neck, then adjusted his hat. He considered excusing himself, offering to make himself scarce for a few days, but the older outlaw suddenly reached out and patted his shoulder companionably.
“... Alright. You’ve convinced me.”
“Convinced you what?”
“You’re right. Miss Schofield and I… we aren’t any good for each other as lovers.”
“... I… Well… That…”
“No, no, you’re right. Who knows,” Dutch patted his shoulder again, harder this time, and gave him a crooked smile, an odd gleam in his dark eyes, “maybe you’ll have better luck, my friend?”
Arthur’s throat and mouth went dry. He gaped at the other man, dumbfounded. All he could do was watch as he turned and walked away.
“Are you gonna tell us what happened?” Tilly demanded into the companionable silence under the women’s tent. When noone answered and Catherine felt all the eyes resting on her as she sewed a patch onto a pair of pants, the lady realized she was being addressed. She didn’t bother looking up.
“What are you talking about?--”
“-- Don’t play games with me, Catherine,” Tilly scolded with a knowing smile on her face, “The way you rode in from Tumbleweed the other day, and how you an’ Arthur can’t even be in the same part of camp together ever since? Everybody knows something happened.”
Arthur had been avoiding her ever since. He carried his sense of guilt about their transgression very poorly and obviously. Honestly, Catherine wondered why the girls were bothering to interrogate her when Mister Morgan would probably crumble easily beneath their inspection.
She was waiting for Hosea to accost her with another talk about ‘what have you done to my boy?’
“... Well, everybody is certainly welcome to think what they like, Miss Jackson.”
“You really won’t tell us?” Jenny nudged her with an elbow, leaning back on her hands, abandoning any pretense of sewing any longer. She’d recently come back from some very lucrative robberies with Mister Summers, and was quick to remind Susan of that whenever she gave her any side-eye about slacking on chores.
“Are you going to tell us about your adventures with Lenny?”
Miss Kirk had to school her face very strictly, but even so, her blush showed around her collar. The smirk slipped around the corner of her mouth too, “... Eventually.”
“Tumbleweed was far less interesting, I assure you. Though there was a tree that had been struck by lightning somehow. Not a cloud in the sky, either…”
“I ain’t interested in no lightning or trees , Catherine!” Karen scoffed, “I want you to tell me why Arthur’s even grumpier than usual! Did you finally tell him his attentions were both obvious and unwelcome?”
“That would be rather unkind of me, don’t you think?”
“But would it be true ?” Tilly pressed.
“That I told him or that I think so?”
Karen threw the sock she was darning at the pale-eyed lady, “Augh! Either one! Both!”
Catherine’s laugh was cut short as Mary-Beth hurried over, fussing with the corner of the book in her hands.
“... Dutch and Arthur were talking just now, and I heard Dutch say you two aren’t good lovers for each other anymore…” The young woman said quietly, her face curious and concerned by turns.
“... Very interesting,” Catherine replied in a soft, toneless voice, setting aside her mending and climbing to her feet amidst the glances between the other women, “Excuse me.”
She made extra sure to carry herself with graceful, unhurried dignity as she left the tent and went searching for the outlaw leader.
He was easy enough to find--always a striking silhouette, Mister van der Linde-- toward the rear of the camp, and Catherine thought he might have been on his way to speak to Hosea when she intercepted him.
Never hesitating, she met him with quiet fury, “What have you done?”
She watched him gather himself, the same he did every time he was challenged, but he chuckled low, “Me? What did I do? We both know what you did, miss. I’m the injured party here.”
So he knew. Arthur had told him. Hosea had been right: she’d dreadfully miscalculated. But how badly would things turn out?
She wouldn’t let him see her shrink. She raised her chin, “What are you going to do?”
“...Nothing.” He said, spreading his hands, showing her his palms. Then he stepped close and bent near, lowering his voice as well as his tone, dark eyes searing into her unrepentant stare, “I’m going to let you break his heart. Much as it may wound me. You won’t be able to help yourself.”
Frowning, narrowing her eyes, Catherine wondered what all Arthur had confessed before Mary-Beth had overheard. Had he told his mentor that he had significant feelings for her-- or was Dutch just guessing, or baiting her?
Either way, Catherine swore to herself that she would never break Arthur Morgan’s heart. Even if he became everything she detested. Even if he beat her every day. She might be forced to orchestrate or arrange his death , but she would never break his heart.
Dutch would never have that satisfaction.
Straightening, Dutch looked down at her from his full height and said, “One day, I hope you stop looking at me like that,” then he sighed, and said louder, as if no longer concerned who overheard, “but until then, Miss Schofield, you’ll be wanting to get your things out of my tent.”
“... Of course.” Catherine replied, turning to go.
“Your days of resting on your laurels are over, I hope you realize,” He warned her, and she saw Hosea, Pearson, and Strauss turning their heads at his voice, “You’ll have to pull your weight if you want to stay. Find a way to earn us some money.”
The lady was careful to keep her expression schooled as she made her way into the big tent to gather her things-- there wasn’t much, Dutch had taken her almost off the street-side-- but her heart was racing.
This was it. This was her chance. She could make her own decisions, come and go as she liked, plan her own jobs, earn her own scores. Make her own way! She’d done it! She’d slipped his lead--
She caught a glance of movement from the open flap of the tent. Mister Morgan was mounting up, exchanging a few words with Lenny who mounted up nearby. They were apparently riding out together for something. The sight of the big outlaw doused her excitement utterly.
She had him to thank for this situation. Would he be expecting her gratitude? If both Dutch and Hosea suspected his affections were in her keeping, would he have… more and other expectations? How many? How heavy ?
Was she free at all? Or had she just…
… Changed hands. Again.
Chapter 19: 'Vermin'
(This takes place some time after 'Rivals')
Susan had accepted her back in a more permanent fashion under the women’s tent without comment, but Catherine knew she wasn’t holding her tongue out of tact. Miss Grimshaw was clearly torn between her respect and loyalty for Dutch, and her genuine admiration and appreciation for the young lady who had-- apparently-- spurned him.
Catherine was grateful, as she had no intentions of trying to explain herself. She also had no intentions of staying under this damned canvas crammed between Tilly and Karen. The girls were lovely, and she adored them, but Miss Schofield was determined to have her own space.
Her first purchase for herself would be a tent. Once she got some money…
Already she was thinking up plans, remembering details she’d learned from her outings. It would have been nice, though, to have some more recent information. There weren’t any jobs worth doing in Tumbleweed now, and she’d been nowhere else in almost two weeks.
Mister Escuella had returned from the Blackwater area just an hour or so ago and was settling down in his usual place with his guitar and a bottle, carefully tuning the former and slowly nursing the latter. He was much at his leisure, so Catherine presumed things had gone well.
“Welcome back, Mister Escuella,” Was her warm greeting, noting too late the way tension climbed through his shoulders at her approach, “How did you find Blackwater?”
When he didn’t reply, his dark eyes fixed on the tuning pegs, she waited. Catherine could be patient, even though she recognized quickly that he was purposefully ignoring her. To her memory, she’d done nothing to slight him-- after all, he was one of the men she got along best with, besides Lenny and Arthur. All of the men had treated her respectfully, but few of them bothered to engage with her beyond courtesies or bare practicals. (The Callander brothers notwithstanding, as they had little enough decency between the two of them for anybody, and indeed seemed to enjoy testing the sharpness of her tongue and wit until half the camp was howling with laughter at her biting remarks.) Only a few-- Mister Bell, Mister Williamson, and the Reverend-- seemed to harbor true dislike for her.
When the silence stretched too long, and Javier seemed stubbornly committed to pretending she wasn’t there at all, Catherine prompted in a soft voice, “I’m sorry, am I bothering you?”
“Yes.” It was a blunt reply with a flash of hard eyes. Both were so uncharacteristic and antagonistic that the lady found herself honestly taken aback. Like her, he usually resorted to sarcasm and witty retorts instead of open confrontation.
“... Have I done something to offend you, my friend?” Was her query, slipping into Spanish in the hopes he would be more forthcoming in his birth tongue that nobody else would fully understand.
Scowling, Javier turned his attention back to his guitar, “... You know what you’ve done. I don’t make friends with traitors.”
He said it in English. He wasn’t talking to her, he was talking for the benefit of everyone who might hear except her.
So this was about Dutch-- if not Dutch’s direct doing. Javier’s loyalty to the man was unquestionable, but never before now did Catherine suspect it bordering on fanaticism.
“...I wasn’t aware that making my own choices made me a traitor, Mister Escuella.” She replied gently, “I thought we stood for freedom-- for not being ruled by others.”
“We don’t stand for trying to tear family apart, Miss Schofield,” Now he switched to Spanish, speaking fast and harsh, “Will you go away, already? I don’t want to see you.”
Too well-mannered to maliciously make a nuisance of herself--and likely too proud to try and convince him against this thinking, at the risk of it looking like regret or remorse, with her feelings of injury being what they were just now-- Catherine dipped a small curtsy and turned on her heel.
“You shouldn’t be surprised,” A voice informed her condescendingly as she passed the boxes of liquor under canvas to protect them from the heat and light of the day, on her way to the chicken coop. The nonsensical busyness of the birds always seemed to help her focus her thoughts. This time, however, it seemed her introspection would be interrupted, “It was only a matter of time before they saw you for what you are-- as slow and simple as most of them are.”
“And what, pray tell, am I, Mister Bell?” The lady demanded, holding tightly to her composure, aware that he’d likely been watching her for awhile now and was looking to catch her in a moment of weakness to take advantage of.
“A snake,” He hissed-- actually hissed the first syllable with an oily smile--at her, moving to lean casually against the small structure, fiddling with his belt knife, picking absently at his fingernails, “Beautiful, and cunning, and poisonous . Vain. Sharp-eyed and fork-tongued. Prone to biting the hand that feeds it.”
Smiling, Catherine stepped near, “You would know, wouldn’t you?”
“I ain’t a snake --”
“--No,” The smile slipped effortlessly into a grin, “you are correct. You’re a rat , Micah Bell the Third. Wretched, greedy, inducing disgust and hatred in everyone. Thinking yourself very clever, but ultimately driven by your basest urges. Cowardly, filthy, and back-biting . You revel in the destruction you inevitably bring with you everywhere you go, even to those whom might foolishly call you their ally …”
He forced a growling laugh, grinning back at her-- more a fierce baring of teeth than anything-- and his hand tightened around his knife handle at both her accusations and proximity.
Tilting her head coquettishly to the side after coming to a halt before him, she finished, “And as everyone knows: snakes hunt and devour rats. There are few things rats fear more...”
“I’m not afraid of you, whore .” He spat, teeth still bared, hands still clenched.
“Am I supposed to be offended that you lump me in with the other excellent women in this camp who refuse to give you any attentions, much less affections , Mister Bell? You must be very lonely , indeed. Shall I give you the touching you crave, again…?” Her voice turned sickly sweet, as did her smile.
“You know,” He advanced a step, causing her to arch an eyebrow at his boldness, “you ain’t Dutch’s bed warmer no more, so what’s to stop me from--”
“--This is what I meant ,” Catherine interrupted with a laugh, “when I said that rats were both cowardly and thinking themselves very clever. You think I am without protections, do you? You suppose it would be easy, now, to strike at me? Would you care to test your malformed theory…?”
She watched his gaze flick over her shoulders, looking at the rest of the camp, before he sneered at her and pushed away from the coop, “...You’ll get what’s coming…”
Smiling as he walked away, the lady replied, “So will you. We shall see who gets what , Mister Bell.”
Chapter 20: ‘Midnight Eclipse’
So focused was Catherine on the flames in front of her, which didn’t provide enough heat or light to keep her from shaking from the dark inside her, that she didn’t notice Mister Summer’s approach until he was there, settling on the log to the left of the chair she was in.
“...No.” She admitted quietly, “What about you?”
“I’m up on purpose.”
Still hugging her arms around herself, she looked over at the young man, “... Important midnight rendezvous , Mister Summers?”
He grinned at her, something playful and knowing in his expression, “You could say that.”
“ Shocking .” She pretended to scold him in affront, but could not help but smile back, despite the chill echoing through her bones. She dreaded he might notice and ask. She dreaded he might not and she be forced to hold onto this alone.
It was something that should be borne alone, shouldn’t it? Like all weaknesses. Only trusted friends could bear the fears of one another without the tagalong of shame blocking the way for comfort and healing. Otherwise, she was just airing her dirty laundry and exposing herself to ridicule…
Was mister Leonard Summers a trusted friend? She’d never had one before, and wasn’t certain she could rely on her own judgement about the matter now. More simply: could she trust him?
Could he trust her ?
… Why should he? He’d certainly heard the talk, same as the others. Nobody bothered to keep it hushed , except around Mister Morgan and Mister van der Linde, as if their integrity and standings in the gang were the ones up for inspection.
She wished it was such talk that made her doubt herself. But it wasn’t.
“What’s keeping you awake?” Lenny prompted after a moment, drawing her gaze back from the fire, “Whatever it is, it obviously still got a hold of you…”
“... It would seem so, wouldn’t it…” She sighed, “It is… decidedly difficult to stay not a prisoner. At least in… some respects.”
Dark brows furrowing, the young man asked, “What do you mean?”
“Fear is a prison…”
“--Ah, that’s right. Sure.--”
“... and to succumb to it makes you a prisoner. I swore to myself years ago that I would never be a prisoner again.”
“That’ll be tough, to never be afraid again.”
She shrugged, “There’s a difference, I’m certain, between experiencing being afraid, and succumbing to fear. The rush, the shock, the racing heart… those are all very natural… but when it paralyzes, when it takes the place of reason and sense… that is when it makes you a prisoner. When it dictates your choices for you, you are imprisoned.”
“That makes a lot of sense. So… something going on that… makes you want to be afraid like that?”
She looked at him, silently a few moments, then said, “... I wouldn’t want to trouble you, Lenny…”
“It’s no trouble,” Was his earnest reply, “... I know what’s being said, but that’s none of my business, way I figure. Bunch of folk around here still trust you-- at least the ones worth worrying about their opinions--”
“--Like Dutch?” Catherine asked dryly, raising both eyebrows meaningfully at him.
“--Trusts you enough to keep you around,” He pointed out, “Other than that? None of my business. Besides, you’re Miss Kirk’s good friend.”
Catherine wasn’t sure what to say to that. Jenny considered her a ‘good friend’?
She’d never had a friend-- certainly never a ‘good friend’. Were these Jenny’s words, or just Lenny’s as he tried to get something out of her?
Either way, something fluttery beat between her ribs…
“... Do you remember the sandstorm?”
“... Arthur and I… interrupted a robbery in the general store. There were two men. One had a gun on the shopkeep, the other had a gun on Arthur…”
Lenny didn’t say anything, waiting for her to continue, his eyes fixed on her face.
Swallowing, the lady spoke on, focusing on keeping her voice steady, “... I killed the one threatening Arthur. He killed the other one.”
“... You never kill anybody before that?”
She laughed, and it sounded broken to her own ears, “Of course not. Men have claimed to fall deathly ill from ‘broken hearts’-- theoretically because of me-- but never because I did anything to… specifically arrange it.”
A silence fell between them, and Catherine listened to the crackling of the fire, desperately trying to keep from remembering just how the glass had twisted into the flesh of the thief’s face, and just how the blood had felt staining her hands…
“... It was self-defense, Miss Schofield. Nobody can fault you--”
“--I understand that perfectly, well, Mister Summers. They would have killed Arthur, killed that shopkeep, and then raped and killed me-- they said so plain enough. I know I should not feel as… conflicted… about the matter as I do. I do not regret my actions, but… they still haunt me.”
Turning her face to meet his gaze, she saw that he wanted to say something, but he wasn’t sure whether it would be appropriate. She went on, “... I left my father’s house so that I would have the opportunity to be more than his commodity or tool for the rest of my life. But these last few weeks, all my sleeping hours are plagued by twisted horrors, and leave me wondering just what it is I am becoming instead…”
“There was never a freedom not paid for in struggle and blood, Miss Catherine.” Lenny told her quietly, “Sometimes yours. Sometimes others’. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. You don’t know until it’s done. You just gotta be willing to pay or don’t.”
It was such an insightful and terrible thing to say--especially for someone so young. The lady was stunned to silence by the gravity of his statement. It left her wondering just how much she was willing to spend. She wondered how much would be demanded…
“The bad dreams go away after awhile,” He said it confidently, as if he knew precisely what he was talking about. It made Catherine wonder what paths had brought him to this group, and she almost asked. But then the young man checked his pocket watch and stood up, “It’s about time…”
“Your rendezvous ?”
“Yeah. Come on. I think you’ll want t’see, too…”
Hesitating, Catherine glanced toward the womens’ tent, trying to see if Jenny’s spot under it had been vacated, “... I wouldn’t want to intrude…”
“You can’t intrude if I’m inviting you.”
Meeting the young man’s gaze again, the lady laughed quietly, “...You have a lot to learn about courting women, Mister Summers…”
The confusion on his face made clear he didn't understand her meaning at all, but after noting her raised eyebrows and the tilt of her head toward the womens’ tent, he seemed to catch on.
“Oh… Oh you thought I was… Oh no, Miss Schofield,” He laughed, “Miss Kirk made clear she was keen on getting her shut-eye tonight.”
“More’s the pity…?”
Shrugging, he smiled and indicated she follow him away from the fire, toward the edge of camp, “I’m not in any hurry. I’d rather her trust me first.”
“You’re too good to be true,” Catherine replied, smiling warmly at him and standing up from the chair, dusting off her skirts, “No wonder she’s doubtful…”
“Doubtful! What do I do…?”
Taking hold of his elbow and letting him lead her out into the dark, habitually mindful of their proximity and body language just in case they were spotted by someone else, she answered, “Stay the course.”
Away from the warmth of the fire, the chill was quite noticeable, but as they left the red orange light behind them, Catherine quickly gathered what it was Lenny had brought her out to see.
Hanging high in the clear sky, more than half of it was swallowed in darkness-- in shadow-- and they could see that shadow spread, inch by inch.
“... Is this… is this an eclipse?”
“Never seen one before?” Mister Summer’s voice betrayed how he was grinning, but she didn’t bother to look and see if he was looking at her or not.
She replied in a breathless whisper, “... Not like this.”
The city lights washed out so much of the night sky back in Boston, and though some of the academic circles her father had introduced her too would hold ‘eclipse viewing parties’, the viewing was seldom good. If she was able to view them at all. So often, she would be engaged in…
Rust bled into the moon’s shadows as the eclipse and it was painted in the colors of the desert, showing itself full once more.
“... It’s beautiful…” She told him. “Thank you…”
“Sure. Though,” The young outlaw patted her hand in the crook of his other arm, “in truth, I didn’t even know it was happenin’ tonight for sure until Arthur said so before he left. I was supposed to tell you earlier, but I guess I forgot until Mary-Beth pointed out how the sky was clearing up around sunrise…”
Catherine froze, surprised to hear him mentioned now, even though she really shouldn’t have been. Wasn’t he all the camp seemed to tease her about before? “... Arthur did?”
“Yep. He thought you--”
“--‘would find it interesting’...” The lady finished for him, her pale eyes still on the rust-soaked disc. Wherever he was, she wondered if Mister Morgan was watching the eclipse as well. She rather thought he was.
He was probably wondering if she liked it like he thought she would…
Was he still so eager to try and please her, even with what everyone was saying..? Even after he rebuffed her in Tumbleweed and had avoided her since..?
Catherine did not listen to the faint whispering of her buried, secret heart, but gooseflesh chased over her skin all the same, and she couldn’t be sure it was from the chill of the midnight hour.
He should have been abed hours ago, but his mind was too restless, circling and gnawing at him. His campfire had all but burnt down, so he easily noticed the changing light as the eclipse started. But it only had half of his attention.
The rest of it was trailing after the restless circling of his thoughts. Something in the wind was changing, he could feel it. Arthur had been at this business for twenty years, and he’d been surviving by his wits and instincts the whole of his life. Something was on the horizon. Change was coming.
But what sort? And from where?
Maybe it was the dawn of the new century, and all the industry and civilization it was bringing to the west-- the end of their heydays.
Maybe it was all the tension and whispering in the gang, and the mess between him and Catherine and Dutch-- though he’d come clean with Dutch, so surely that part was dealt with.
Maybe it was the whisper of trouble, of a turning of their luck. Things were going well now, and they were spoilt with money and opportunity. Maybe it was just the paranoid cynicism in him, thanks to a past full of hardship and want, but he couldn’t believe it would last…
Especially since if he looked back long enough, he started to see how much things had already changed… and not always for the better …
But Arthur didn’t spend much time looking back. There was a lot of bitterness that way that he didn’t want to stumble into by mistake.
Maybe the change was just in him . Parts of him he’d thought dead and buried stirring with new warmth and life… not matter how he’d tried to warn himself that no good could come of it.
Exhaling cigarette smoke through his mouth and nose together, the outlaw tipped back his head just as the moon turned the color of old bloodstains. He wondered if Miss Catherine had taken the opportunity to see it-- if she were seeing it now.
He wondered if she liked it. He found himself hoping she did.
Chapter 21: "Fortune"
The man had been watching him for more minutes than Arthur was comfortable with— and with far more skill at disguising it than he was used to seeing out of the usual lawman or bounty hunter— so he made his way across the saloon floor and offered to buy him a drink.
He was tall and lean, of a height with Charles, maybe, and built a lot like John. Lanky, but none of it awkward or gangly. Introducing himself as ‘Donald’, he carried himself with quiet composure and a pair of pistols at his belt. He was a riddle, this man.
“You got business with me, Donald?” Arthur asked pointedly, “Otherwise I dunno why you been eyeballin’ me…”
Shrugging easily, the man fiddled with the sleeves of his smoke gray jacket, “Given the alternatives, friend, I’d say I’m better off looking at you than anybody else. Especially since I’m getting a free drink out of it…”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, we ain’t friends,” Allowing some of the familiar snarl to enter his voice, the outlaw sat forward in his seat, “make no mistake about that…”
If Donald sensed the threat in Arthur’s tone, he was completely unaffected by it, “So you’re the sort of man who buys drinks for men not your friends?”
“Don’t see how it’s your business how I spend my money.”
“Certainly not, nor how you choose your friends, mister…?”
“Mister Kilgore,” Donald nodded to himself, “But if you didn’t come over here to discuss how we might go about becoming friends, why did you bother? I imagine if you were keen on telling me to stop looking at you, you’re the sort of man to tell me outright instead of dithering about first…”
“You sound awfully sure you know the sort of man I am, Mister Donald…”
“I’m awfully sure I’ll find out before the day is done, Mister Kilgore.”
Their look held, and the still quiet in the rest of the saloon only increased the tooth-edge strain of the moment.
“You cannot be serious…”
Catherine did not spare the girls a bit of her annoyance while they grinned at her, all except Mary-Beth, who was still pouring over her left hand, enraptured, as if she too could see all the ‘palmist’ had said it foretold.
“Sounds a bit to me like you’re scared, Miss Catherine,” Jenny teased.
Scoffing, the pale-eyed lady fixed her a look, “What in the world might I be afraid of out of a con-artist?”
Tilly and Jenny exchanged a brief smile, that Catherine suspected she was not supposed to catch, before the former answered, “Maybe you’re scared she’ll see a future you might not like?”
“Maybe a future like Mary-Beth’s over there,” Karen cackled, “with a man and a big old house…”
The girls were in such a good mood, the lady didn’t want to bring them down, but really, a palmist of all things to tease her with? “The only thing she’s going to see in my palm are new callouses on soft skin and make up some nonsense from there.”
“If it’s all nonsense,” Jenny smiled, “what’s the harm?”
“I don’t want to be party to or paying for a silly story told to me under the pretense of some occult wisdom or insight. It’s an affront to my intelligence.”
“You’re right, Jenny,” Tilly nodded, “she sounds scared.”
Rolling her eyes, Catherine noticed the palmist— a beautiful middle-aged woman with dark olive skin, wearing an elegantly embroidered white blouse under a dark blue vest, and a bluish skirt, both embroidered and decorated with silver coins, and a red scarf tied over her thick black hair. Her tawny eyes were knowing, almost laughing.
It truly tested her patience.
Setting her jaw, she marched over and sat herself down on the little stool across from the keen-eyed huckster, “… Best make it a good one for these silly girls, soothsayer.”
“Only the best for you, my dear.” The woman purred, grinning broadly as she slid the coins handed to her into her purse.
He couldn’t help it. Arthur started to laugh— a dry chuckle high in his chest. Donald was sitting much at his ease, hands nowhere near his person to draw a weapon, and Arthur’s were on the table. The stranger wasn’t even trying to call his bluff-- Donald wasn’t intimidated in the least— and Arthur confessed to some small admiration for that bone-deep self assurance. Donald knew exactly the sort of man he was, what he was capable of, and where he belonged in the world. He had no need to defend himself against Arthur’s or anyone’s inspection.
Donald’s reedy laugh joined his, not a note of it mocking, and the big outlaw allowed himself to like him just a little. Maybe they could be friends. Eventually.
“You rode up on that gray war horse out front, didn’t you?” Donald gestured toward the windows that faced the street-front, “I ain’t ever seen a horse like that this far west, Mister Kilgore. How’s he handle the heat?”
“He handles it fine. Likes it better this way than the southeast where I got’em.”
“Cavalry or Artillery?”
“He was used in the war, wasn’t he? Was he cavalry mount or artillery draft?”
“Oh…” Arthur shook his head, “Dunno. Probably cavalry, way he handles an’ thinks.”
Nodding, Donald said, “It’s one of the nicer things about those breeds: they think. Not like my borrowed Morgan.”
“Morgans are pretty hot,” The outlaw waved his hand absently, “No attention, all run. I like a more solid mount, myself.”
“Must not need much in the way of speed or distance...”
“He’ll go all day,” Arthur amended with a shrug, “But he ain’t winning any races.”
Smiling at the lady who brought them their full glasses, Donald asked, “You had him awhile then?”
“Less than a year. Had a paint mare before him.” The big outlaw did not mind that his fond memories of Boadicea showed in his voice.
They raised their glasses to each other briefly. Donald drank the whiskey readily, though confessed he ‘usually drank brandy at home’.
“Graysea,” Was the easy answer, then he gestured toward the ceiling with his free hand at Arthur’s expression, “Michigan.”
“Cold up in those parts, I hear.”
“Especially now,” Agreed the other man, “I can’t say I miss the weather, but I’m hoping to be back in time for Christmas.”
“Here for work, then?”
“Yes, and I’ve left a family-- three young ladies who’ll be missing me, I imagine.”
Grunting in his chest, Arthur gestured for the barman to bring them another round before prompting, “Some business to drive a man from that…”
Something cold and sharp was threatening to twist free inside him, thinking about this man leaving his family miles behind him for other obligations…
But that was the way of the world, wasn’t it? Surely everyone knew that as well as he did…
It was with effort Arthur relaxed the fist on his thigh under the table.
“Five thousand dollars is hard to turn aside when you’ve a house to keep and young ladies to care for and protect, my friend.” Donald smiled casually, meeting Arthur’s gaze. He didn’t even lower his voice to mention it--not that he’d be easily heard by anybody other than Arthur as the evening crowd rolled in the doors.
“Jesus Christ!” The outlaw sputtered before lowering his own voice, not wanting to attract the wrong sort of attention, “Fi--five… thousand?! For what?!”
And just who was this man that felt sure of himself enough to tell a complete stranger— and a man who looked and dressed like Arthur did— about it in plain language at first blush?
Donald reached into his jacket and pulled out a small photograph, which he showed Arthur, “For her.”
Admittedly, it was a much different, far more interesting foretelling than what Catherine had overheard of Mary-Beth’s.
So far there was no man, children, or old houses— except the very shrewd guess that she’d come from a man and an old house. Which, honestly, could have applied to any number of women— especially ones with manners, diction, and hands like hers.
More than the words themselves— which Mary-Beth was listening to enraptured, and even Tilly and Jenny had stopped their giggling and paid keen attention (Karen continued to snigger and scoff)— Catherine was intrigued by the palmist’s methodology. The way she alluded and prodded for information in careful questions and vague statements, slowly piecing back a narrative that the information she’d gleaned or guessed about her client she’d actually foreseen in her hand. It was very well done, and the lady confessed to some small admiration for the skill of this ‘Madame Nazar’.
They’d mostly talked carefully around her past— how she had left behind the house of her father, with whom she did not get along, who was very wealthy and moderately influential. There had been a few odd statements concerning “multiple romantic liaisons and suitors” as well. Now, Nazar was making vague mentions about a “journey” when she suddenly stopped and carefully inspected the lines of her palm.
“… You will be betrayed,” She said gravely, looking up into her pale eyes, “You will be betrayed by one you have chosen to trust, and you shall lose all you sought to gain when you began.”
“... Who is she?” Arthur breathed, already knowing.
It was a photo of Catherine. There was no mistaking it. She was seated in a chair at a small round table with a large bouquet of flowers in a vase at the center, dressed in high fashion with her hair coifed to perfection, piled dark and silky upon her head with a fancy comb. Her pose and expression made it very much seem like the shot was a candid photograph, and yet Arthur suspected it was a carefully planned artifice. He’d seen her surprised— genuinely surprised— and she was a little too composed in this image.
“Catherine-Louise Schofield,” Was Donald’s answer, watching the outlaw’s face in a way that had Arthur wondering with twisting guts how much he’d given away already, “Seems she’s gone missing… You wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”
“... Friend, that sounds a little bit like an accusation…” Dragging his eyes from the photo, Arthur met Donald’s sly look with a scowl.
“Not at all,” The other man replied casually, putting the photograph in his jacket again, “But if you did know something, I’d be prepared to pay you four hundred dollars for anything that points me in the right direction…”
A chill settled over Arthur, “You goin’ around makin’ this offer to everybody?”
“No sir, I’m not quite that foolish or desperate,” Donald smiled, and then indicated Arthur, “But you look like the sort of man who keeps an ear to the ground to find what he needs. I’m just wondering if you’ve heard anything that might help me.”
“What makes you think she’s in these parts? Woman like that looks like she might be more comfortable in New York or Europe…”
“Her father, Mr. Schofield, has connections there and around here. Seems a lot of people want in his good graces or want to remain there. He said he received word that she was this way instead of any other.”
“Alive?” Arthur’s mind whirred frantically, trying to figure out who it was that had given her away. Someone in town? Mr. Walker or his mousy wife? Someone in camp?
“I haven’t heard otherwise,” The man in the gray jacket leaned forward, folding his hands on the table, “I’m thinkin’ a pampered lady like her isn’t going to be doing so well for herself this way.”
“If she’s this way at all, she’d surely be staying in Blackwater,” Arthur mumbled, gesturing with one hand toward the door of the saloon, thoughts still racing. How many men like Mister Donald had old Daddy Schofield hired? How many people had Mister Donald here already talked to? Catherine hadn’t necessarily been shouting from the rooftops about who she was and where she came from, but there had been more than a few situations where her name in the right ear had made things easier for herself and the gang.
“I’d agree with you,” Was the shrugging reply, “except she’d be easily found there. Miss Schofield is known for being rather clever— too clever for her own good, in the words of her father. Too clever to be where she’s sure to be found, I suspect. No, I’m thinking she’s somewhere else…”
“Not sure, but I’m certain wherever she is, she’s not alone. Woman like that will have protection…”
Arthur accepted his drink from the bartender and drank it thoughtfully before speaking again, “You suppose she’s with some man out in the wilds? Woman like her?”
“Woman like her? No,” Donald shook his head, “she’s got a whole host of men at her beck ‘n call. Men addled by her beauty and charms to support her and defend her— I was warned that she would be anticipating his sending us. I expect she’s made her preparations.”
“You think all this up yourself?” Arthur laughed, despite the growing knot in his belly.
Four-hundred dollars was good money, especially just for information…
Blinking, Catherine laughed lightly, “How dramatic!”
“Who?” Mary-Beth asked, more curious than concerned. Tilly was frowning, and Jenny’s face seemed to threaten violence. Karen had stopped scoffing.
“I cannot say for certain who.” The woman shrugged, “But assuredly, it would be someone with the means and motivation to do so.”
The girls didn’t seem satisfied, but Catherine decided this silly adventure was concluded and carefully withdrew her hand, “I must thank you for your insight, Madame. This has been most instructive…”
Nazar’s look was pointed, but not harsh, that knowing look still in her eyes and tugging at her lips, “You are quick to discount me, but I advise you think well on what you have learned.”
“Oh, believe me,” Catherine smiled back, “it will be long on my mind.”
Without another glance back, Catherine went to where they’d left the horses.
When Donald didn’t answer, Arthur sighed and started to climb to his feet.
“…Well, my friend, it just so happens,” He said, “I heard some things that might help you.”
Four-hundred dollars was good money, the sort that would guarantee a good lead eventually—especially around these parts. Donald was smart enough, or experienced enough, to scent a good lead from a bad one at face value. There really only seemed to be one way to benefit from this situation.
“I knew it wasn’t a vain hope you might say so, Mister Kilgore.”
“Call me Arthur.”
Adjusting his hat, the outlaw indicated the street, “Your morgan tied up outside?”
“Certainly. Are we leaving?”
“Might as well tie up this business quick-like. Pretty sure you’ll find what you’re looking for a few minutes out of town. I’ll show you if you’re up for the ride.”
“Lead the way.”
Arthur hesitated, “That ain’t such a good idea,” With a jerk of his chin at the bartender, Arthur frowned, “Like you said: she’s like as not got all sorts of fools in her pocket…”
“… We’ll leave separately then.” Donald was quick to catch on, nodding, the gleam in his eyes seeming to approve of Arthur’s foresight, “Where do I meet you?”
“Other side of the arroyo south of town there’s a fallen in building with half a roof. Only real landmark ‘round here.”
Then Arthur walked out, noticing Donald approach the bar, asking something about the whiskey they’d been served.
It only took him a few minutes to ride out to the meeting place, and there he dismounted, leaving Slim loose to investigate the scrub while he waited in what little shade could be found. Afternoon marched on, and though autumn had come to the desert, the sun remained hot during the day. That would change as they drew closer to winter. Resigning to wait, Arthur sketched out his still-fresh memory of his meeting with the man from Michigan. If things went well, he’d see little of him afterwords. Which was a shame—parts of Arthur still suspected the two of them could have been friends.
Some time later, even despite the drone of industry that could still be heard from town, it was impossible to miss the approaching hoof-beats and the nervous disconcerted nickering of the morgan horse as they approached the dilapidated construct.
“You weren’t kidding,” Arthur smiled ruefully, “Poor thing must spook at its own shadow.”
“You weren’t either,” Donald replied, “about this being the only real landmark.”
“Sure. Lemme tie him up here so he don’ spook off while we’re lookin’…”
The hunter didn’t protest when Arthur took his reins as he dismounted to hitch the anxiously dancing horse to one of the standing posts, “Looking?”
“You got binoculars?”
Looking over his shoulder, Arthur said, “There’s a mesa further south. Take a look up there. See if they’re millin’ about…”
Already following his instructions, Donald dug in his saddle bags, withdrawing a nice pair of binoculars, and brought them up to his face to inspect the terrain to the south. Arthur stepped to his side and touched his shoulder with one hand and pointed with his other to the familiar plateau. “There. See ‘em?”
There wasn’t much choice in the matter…
While Donald’s eyes and hands were occupied, turning to focus on where he’d indicated, Arthur dropped his pointing hand and took the opportunity to bury his belt knife in the other man’s windpipe from the soft spot under his jaw, to the hilt. Choking on six inches of steel and his own blood, the hunter’s hands were still quick to abandon the optics, letting them simply fall, and reached for his gunbelt.
“Shhh-shhh, Donald…” Arthur muttered, knocking the faster hand aside and interrupting the other by yanking the knife out in a spray of blood, slashing down through the throat, and jamming the knife bodily between the third and fourth ribs, “No reason to get the town in a fuss…”
A gunshot would draw attention. A fleeing horse would as well. The morgan smelled blood and danced aside, tossing its head, snorting harshly, but remained fastened to the post.
Bright blood throbbed in time with the dying man’s pulse, filling the air with the scent of iron, soaking into both Donald and Arthur’s shirt as the killer held his victim upright, slowly lowering him to the desert floor. The parched ground gladly drank up the blood that pattered down onto it.
Donald’s eyes locked with Arthur’s even as his mouth worked uselessly, his voice cut open with his throat to prevent him from shouting.
“…It’s bad business, partner.” Arthur told him quietly, his own voice devoid of inflection.
With that, the mysterious hunter, Donald, from Graysea, Michigan, passed from this world.
Arthur did not think about the daughters and wife that would not see him at Christmas time, and would not be benefiting from five-thousand dollars— or any income from the man of the house, at all. Instead, he concerned himself with the task of checking his possessions— a dead man had no need for cash and valuables, after all, and taking his effects would help disguise this situation as a simple anonymous robbery.
He was not too surprised to see that Donald did not carry the four hundred dollars on his person. He was not that much a fool. Maybe it was waiting in his hotel room, or a deposit box in the bank. Both out of Arthur’s reach right now.
The others knew right away there’d be nothing good coming of approaching Arthur now. If his being covered in blood and dirt without an animal carcass to show for it didn’t deter them, the look on his face surely did.
All save one.
She was perhaps the very last person he wanted to see. Especially now.
She knew it as well, but that nobody would give him more than a glance, much less ask after his welfare, Catherine’s ire was sparked, as well as her alarm and curiosity.
“What—” He turned and stepped quickly to avoid her, but she maneuvered deftly to stay with him, “—what in the world—”
“—It’s nothin’ Miss Ca—” He cut her off, his voice rough. He’d have to tell her, but now wasn’t the time.
His tone and obvious falsehood only increased every aspect of her vexation, “—Don’t be absurd! You’re covered in blood—”
Too late she heard his tone sharpen in warning. “—Ain’t nothin’ you need to concern—”
“—Is it human blood—”
Something about the way she was needling him, some quality in her voice just now, as well as the incessant pressure, rubbed him raw inside. A blister of bitterness in his memory. She wasn’t the first woman to disparage him his actions…
Thoroughly aggravated, the outlaw loomed over the lady, his mouth a tight line as his brows cinched together.
“Yes.” Was his admission, his voice cold and quiet, “It is. If you didn’t know, Miss Catherine, that happens sometimes in the outlaw life—”
An angry, likely humiliated flush bloomed in Catherine’s cheeks and she began to protest, “—I’m well aware—”
He talked over her, his voice growing in volume and open anger with every word, as if they were being pumped fresh from the open sore that had flared to feeling inside him, “— so as to keep safe our free way of life. We do as needs doin’, Miss Schofield. I’ll do whatever necessary to keep these folk safe, and I ain’t gonna go out of my way to mind your ‘delicate sensibilities’ whilst I do it. I ain’t gonna dissemble with you ‘bout that. If you feel strongly about it, miss, I advise you to mind your peace!”
The sudden quiet informed that much of the camp had overheard. Catherine’s face remained expressionless, however, as she watched his face, remaining silent long enough for the usual camp activity to resume.
Also long enough for Arthur to feel the niggling discomfort of guilt for his outburst.
"... Don't do that." Her words cracked with frost, "Don't look at me and see somebody else— don’t speak to me like I'm someone else."
"Well I'm sorry—”
“—You're not sorry! You don't understand at all what I mean. But I see you, well enough, and I thought that was your own blood. I thought you were hurt. Don't confuse me with some noble soul who cares about the general suffering of others, Arthur. You're making it enough trouble worrying about those in my vicinity..."
Clearing his throat, uncomfortable with her inspection of the deeper goings-on of his self, Arthur reached into his satchel and wordlessly handed her the photo he’d taken from Donald.
“… Man from Michigan showed me this,” He explained quietly, “Offered me four-hundred dollars for any information I could give him. Says your father hired him.”
Her expression was closed, despite the sudden blood-drained pallor of her skin, “… I see. Are you hurt?”
“No. No, I’m fine…”
“That’s good,” The lady nodded and handed him back the photo, “… You should wash up before Miss Grimshaw finds you like this.”
Without another word, he turned to do so.
Catherine chewed her lip, turning over these troubling tidings in her thoughts. She would need to plan wisely and keep even more sharply aware of any news…
More than once, however, her thoughts snagged on the fact that Arthur Morgan had killed a man, seemingly in cold blood, for her.
For her freedom? Or simply to keep her?
Or should she take him at his word— that he’d done it to protect the Van der Linde gang?
Chapter 22: 'Concentration'
(No kidding, this was inspired entirely by the expressions Arthur makes while cooking over the fire. His 'concentrating face' is precious.)
(That said... I intended for this to be cute and flirty but uh... nobody else played along, I guess.)
Nobody was surprised when Arthur decided to bow out and return to camp. When it became clear that the evening was turning into a social affair at the saloon— complete with poker tournaments in one corner, loud betting over arm-wrestling in another, and Hosea and Dutch in the center, playing up the crowd with their cons and stories— hardly anyone paid any mind when the big outlaw pushed away from the bar, adjusted the hat on his head, and indicated to his companions that he was leaving for the night.
He wasn’t surprised, really, when nobody followed him. He made even poorer company than usual after Tumbleweed and then Donald. There was a lot to think about, and he was tired of thinking about it. Unfortunately, lucrative jobs were starting to dry up as folks started hunkering down to prepare for winter. Trains and stage schedules grew sparse as the weather worsened up north, and better guarded as reports made it back to the companies about the robberies. That was part of the reason why most of the gang was here in town tonight, fishing up new and better leads for a few last jobs before they too planned to button-up for the winter. Hosea was fishing around, itching ears, for details about some complaints concerning real-estate in the area. Grifters maybe. Hosea always did prefer robbing other crooks, assuming it could be done without violence. He was planning to enlist Arthur’s aide, too, once he had a better idea of which direction to take it. Arthur was fine with the idea. But until then, he had too little to do, and too much he didn’t want to think about.
He was in no mood for a big noisy crowd, especially as he’d have to stay sober so as to avoid a scene, so it was really better he left. Nobody minded.
Nobody was surprised.
What did surprise folk was that Catherine had elected not to accompany Jenny and the other girls into town, and instead stayed behind with Pearson, Strauss, the badly hungover Reverend, Abigail, and Jack. She was helping the boy practice his reading while his mother took some much needed time for herself. Arthur heard them on his way to his tent, searching for something to do to occupy himself. Writing or sketching didn’t suit his current mood. He needed something to focus on… Something besides all the dark corners he didn’t want to inspect in his own head.
Something besides the ever-increasing tangle he’d wound up in concerning Miss Schofield…
“… ‘no… body… else would…v…ven…ven’…?”
“What’s the next letter?”
“… ‘t’?…” The boy answered, confused but not yet frustrated, “and then a… ‘u’… and… a ‘r’… and a ‘e’. ‘Ven…too…ree?’”
“That’s pretty close. You say it ‘venture’. Do you know what it means, Jack?”
“It means ‘to go out and try something risky’. Sometimes it can also mean ‘something risky being tried’.”
“Yes. Here, Gluck is saying ‘nobody else would venture to knock a double-knock at the door’. Meaning nobody would go and try to do it. But if someone did decide to go and try, it would be their venture to do it. But that second meaning isn’t used too often anymore. It’s an old word. Do you know what word is used more often instead?”
“I know that word! I know what that means!”
“Well, do you suppose Gluck is going to have one?”
“No,” Jack told her emphatically, “He’s just sitting in his house. Nobody has an adventure in a house.”
“Are you sure?” Catherine replied, “What if an adventure is coming to find him?”
“Well… I guess we’ll have to read more and find out.”
Catherine had noticed from her peripheral that Arthur had returned early and stalked to his tent. She also noticed when he came back out again and gathered up all the longarms used for camp guard duty. Moments later, she noticed when he looked around, as if torn about where to go next. Daylight was starting to fade and of the two campfires, both were occupied: the main one by Jack and herself, and the other by the Reverend.
Jack noticed him too.
“Uncle Arthur!” He called out, “What are you doing?”
“Don’t mind me, Jack. I’m just gonna clean these.”
“… All of them?” The boy pressed, little face scrunching in a mix of confusion and disgust, “Why?”
“Needs doin’ is all.” The big outlaw answered back, distracted, watching the silhouette of the Reverend like he was willing him to disappear somewhere else.
Jack seemed to think about this a moment, then said, “… I’m reading with Miss Schofield.”
Nodding to himself, Arthur’s response was little more than a mumble, “I heard. Yer doin’ a good job. You shouldn’t let me disturb you…”
“You’re not a disturbance at all, Mister Morgan,” Catherine said quietly, “provided you take a seat so we aren’t left desperately wondering what you’re after.”
He looked at her, expression carefully tucked into something unreadable and guarded, “… I-I don’ want to interrupt.”
Smiling in response, she saw the realization in his eyes that he was already an interruption, and was, in fact, only prolonging his interruption. The outlaw looked away and moved to one side of the campfire to settle and clear a workspace without another word.
“What do you think, Jack?” Catherine prompted, regaining his attention.
He looked up at her and made a face, “… Cleaning guns is boring.”
She was forced to disguise her laugh with a delicate cough, then shook her head, “About Gluck and the knock at the door, I meant.”
“Who is it?”
Their voices, and whatever book the pale-eyed lady was having Jack read, faded from the forefront of Arthur’s attention as he got to work. It was an ideal sort of task— just detailed enough to require his attention, but familiar enough, too, that his mind could settle in an inactive fashion, and not pester him with nagging thoughts. Flushing barrels with kerosene before brushing them out. Scrubbing hammers and chambers. Wiping everything down before applying the gun oil. On the road or in the saddle, a quick dab of oil here, and a quick wipe down there could mean the difference between an accurate shot and a malfunction— and ending up on the wrong end of a bullet— but it was good to take the time now and again to break the guns down and give them a real cleaning.
Jack was right: it was boring work. That’s why nobody had bothered to do it in awhile (if the state of these repeaters was any testament). But it was just the sort Arthur needed now.
Catherine closed the book, smiling indulgently as Jack scampered off— she could only hold his attention for so long before the boy succumbed to the demands of all his youthful energy. Off he went to play, leaving the adults to their boring chores and the mysteries of unfinished books. Uninterested in finishing the fairy-tale on her own, the lady instead turned her pale gaze over to the outlaw, intending to only give a quick glance to verify that his attention was on his task instead of elsewhere, but then found her interest piqued. Arthur’s hands moved with practiced skill, and his attention on his work, eyes hooded, brow creased, nose slightly scrunched. His mouth worked, seemingly thoughtlessly, full lips pressing tightly together before slipping open as he tilted his head to better inspect the carbine in his hands.
She was helplessly transfixed, and something fluttery beneath her breast started to race.
Fighting back the smirk that threatened to curl at her lips, as well as the blush which was wanting to bloom in her cheeks— though unsure how well she succeeded against either— Catherine shifted in her seat to lean a bit nearer him, resting her weight on a hand that dropped near her hip.
The big man must have noticed her movement toward him— as he had not seemed to notice her staring until that moment— and spoke up without shifting his attention from his work, “… Somethin’ you need, miss?”
“I was going to ask if you wanted some help with that.”
“No, thank you.”
Now the smirk was irresistible, “That’s alright, I wasn’t sure I wanted to help anyway. It’d be more difficult to enjoy your face if you gave me something to do…”
“… Enjoy what?” His entire expression scrunched, not sure he’d heard her correctly.
Leaning further still, Catherine answered, “Your face. You make the most delightful facial expressions when you’re concentrating on something.”
Working his jaw, Arthur resolutely did not lift his eyes to look at her, even though his hands paused in their task while he exhaled slowly out his nose, “… I ain’t of a mind to be played with today, miss.” He told her.
“… I’ll forgive you your assertion that I’d do you the disservice of treating you in such a way,” She answered, hiding her smile behind her rounded shoulder, “Surely you are aware I have only the highest respect for your profound stodginess.”
Arthur wasn’t sure he knew what she was talking about, but regardless he determined to put it out of his mind and refocus on his work. He hoped she’d find something else to occupy herself with and leave off of him. He should have known better that he’d be better off setting down over with the Reverend instead…
The pale-eyed lady quieted, but Arthur couldn’t quite ignore her and concentrate fully as he had before, knowing he was in her sights. Was she still looking at him— at his face, she’d said? He noticed immediately when she scoot closer.
“Miss, this is what I was saying,” He grumbled at her, “I know you can find somethin’ better to do than toy with me…”
“Do you want me to leave you alone, Mister Morgan?”
“It’s for the best…”
“I don’t agree, but if it’s what you’d prefer, then I’ll do so if you do something for me.”
Catherine watched him sigh, “What’s that, then?”
“… If we’re to bargain, Mister Morgan, you really ought to look at me like a man, don’t you think?” She frowned.
Cautiously, and a little begrudgingly, the big outlaw stilled his hands and turned his head to look at her, “… Well? What you want to get you to let me work in peace, woman?”
“… I want you to give up your share of the blame for Tumbleweed,” She told him quietly, meeting his impatient gaze, “I want you to lay it at my feet.”
He held her look, searching her eyes, her expression, then shook his head and looked back at his hands, “It don’t work like that…”
“It absolutely does if you permit it to, sir.” He heard her contradict, “Simply accept that I took advantage of your… disorientation.”
“… That ain’t what happened.”
“Isn’t it?” Catherine allowed the sly smile.
She sighed, “You seem awfully sure…”
“… You said you wouldn’t use me…”
It caught her off guard, admittedly. She remembered that night, though apparently their conversation had lingered longer in his thoughts than hers. She’d meant it then, in a way, and hadn’t meant it in others.
That was the usefulness of words— they could be twisted and shaped so easily by one who knew how… and she certainly did know.
“… I did say that.”
He nodded and started working again, “… You must be gettin’ desperate. Even I can see what yer doin’…”
“What is it that I'm doing?”
Instead of answering, he only shook his head again, “It won’t work…”
“Won’t it?” Catherine mused, then adjusted her skirts to scoot all the way over to him, until they were shoulder to shoulder. She was pressing close, so that the tip of her nose almost touched his when he turned to look at her— even though he’d tried to flinch away.
She watched the recognition and acceptance of her challenge scramble across his expression, and so she was not surprised when he finally elected not to retreat from her.
“… What really happened in Tumbleweed?” He asked instead, voice little more than a whisper.
He’d been trying to figure it out all this time on his own. He didn’t have the answers. Not by himself, anyway.
The vulnerable sincerity in his question sent that fluttering thing into a dizzying panic, bashing itself recklessly against all her ribs and sending her guts into knots. Her first instinct was to reject it— to laugh and answer in a light tone that all that had really happened in Tumbleweed was that he’d lost his temper after a very short, likely fairly poor bit of handiwork.
It was all but on her lips— the laugh and smile. The easy, playful tone, and matter-of-fact words.
But his eyes were on hers, and she could not watch him close himself off again after opening himself this way to her. She could not betray his trust and see what it looked like in the aftermath…
When had she become so sensitive to him? When had his feelings begun to mean anything to her?
And they did; why else was she willing to play the villainess to expunge his guilt?
Was his avoidance of her so galling that she’d rather he hate her instead? Or was she simply trying to make him commit to one or the other— either fully avoid her and leave off arranging nice things for her, or give up his avoidance and let her return to his good graces?
… Since when had she invested so much of her energy into what Arthur Morgan thought and felt for her?
Run. He’ll chain you if you don’t. Run. Run!
That soothsayer had said she would be betrayed and lose everything she’d hoped to gain. From the very beginning, the purpose of this entire enterprise was to secure her own freedom. So she’d laughed at the portents, because Catherine wasn’t foolish enough to gamble her freedom by entrusting it to another now that she’d slipped Dutch van der Linde’s leash. She couldn’t— didn’t— trust anybody that much.
… But then that meant the only one to betray her would be herself…
With a gasp, the lady suddenly drew back. Arthur bit his tongue to keep from the reflex of asking after her— it was written all over her face for just a few spare moments. Abrupt, naked emotion in her gently parted lips and the blood in her cheeks, pale eyes wide.
“… I-I’m not… sure.” She said quickly, “… Excuse me.”
The outlaw was not surprised to see her go, but it still took a little while to regather himself and resume his work on the guns.
“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.
Arthur woke uneasily, sensing something amiss. Opening his eyes, there was Miss Schofield, standing just inside his tent, holding a tin cup with both hands, watching him.
Watching him sleep?
“What is it? What’s wrong?” He groaned out, throwing back his wool blanket to sit up and put his boots on.
Even as he brought a hand up to rub at his eyes, he could see her shifting on her feet. Her voice was a little more than a whisper, “Nothing… I… I need to talk to you, is all.”
“… Now?” If nothing was wrong, he couldn’t understand what in the world would be so important to talk about so early in the damn morning she couldn’t even wait for him to wake up at his usual hour...
Hearing his impatience tightened the line of her mouth, drawing her full lips thin. It was then that Arthur noticed the bruised look around her eyes, and he wondered if she’d slept at all. Though, he supposed, he’d observed already that she really hadn’t seemed to sleep well ever since being shooed of out Dutch’s bed. He wondered momentarily if she had conflicting feelings about that incident, itself, or if her lack of rest had more to do with the situations in camp. Or perhaps fancy Miss Catherine-Louise just couldn’t tolerate sleeping on the ground?
“Yes, now,” She answered, not allowing any of the tension her face betrayed to be revealed in her hushed voice, “Before anybody else wakes up and the day’s demands need addressing.”
Arthur didn’t like it. Whatever she had to say was certain to trouble him. He’d been doing well enough with the two of them not interfering in the business of the other these past few days. It’d been a struggle, of course— he cared for her, there was no way he could outright ignore her, but he could keep his distance and keep busy and do his damndest to not turn his head every time he heard her voice. She’d seemed content enough with the situation, too, after their brief talk at the campfire both too many and not enough nights ago. Why was she disrupting that unspoken truce between them, now?
Noticing his prolonged hesitation, she insisted, “Will you please just walk with me a bit and hear what I have to say? You asked me a question, and I didn’t give you a proper answer. That’s all I want to do.”
Sighing heavily, both wondering and dreading which question she’d never answered him straight she’d be addressing so early this morning, and how it might shape the rest of this long day for the worse, Arthur nodded resignedly and gestured toward Pearson’s wagon.
“Can I get some coffee first…?”
“I brought you some here…” She looked aside uncomfortably and held out the tin cup.
“… Is it still hot?” He asked, lurching to his feet with a loud crack that could either have been from his pallet or his joints, in truth.
“Cup’s warm enough. I… I made the coffee fresh this morning, so it should be good.”
“Hm.” He grunted noncommittally. After taking the, indeed still quite warm, cup from her, he indicated she precede him out of the tent and grabbed his hat before following her out.
It was early— still pre-dawn, and the light was thin and gray across the desert. Their breath came out in icy clouds in the chill. Winter seemed closer and closer every day, and watching the lady fold her arms tightly to her body, Arthur thought again about how she had no coat. She’d bought for herself a tent and bedroll, but no coat, and had put more than fifty dollars in the box.
He thought about that more than he probably ought.
He left it to Hosea and the ladies to chide her about getting a coat— with winter coming— but she’d said her next monies would go toward another riding skirt, as hers had been torn and, though mended, was in sore need of replacing.
They walked in silence between the wagons and tents, and the sounds of snoring bodies, past where she’d set up her little solitary canvas just beyond the women’s tent and their wagon. It was far from the fires, and as it didn’t look like she’d built one of her own; he wondered if she were cold at night.
She’d made clear she wanted to do for herself, but Arthur couldn’t help but think she didn’t rightly know how, and with how things had changed in camp, might be too proud to ask as she’d done before. As it was, she’d put the little tent together by herself, but by Arthur’s estimate, only one good storm rushing through would do in for that.
Maybe… he could fix it for her next time she was out of camp…
Though it was none of his business. She wanted to do for herself— had told him plainly she didn’t need looking after, hadn’t she? If she’d rather be proud than dry and warm, that was her business.
The coffee was hot, and brewed nicely. If she’d intended to try and butter him up for whatever it was she wanted… this wasn’t a bad start— even despite the strange waking and early hour.
They’d walked beyond where the horses were tied— well outside earshot if they kept their voices low, and immediate eye-line of the camp, unless someone came looking. Slim nickered at him, and at the war horse’s greeting, the other horses also looked up, expecting breakfast. Their disappointment was obvious as the two people simply walked past, and Catherine muttered a sheepish apology to them under her breath.
Stopping beside her in a small, bare space between some scrub and a large boulder, Arthur sipped his coffee and watched the lady’s face, waiting for her to start. When she didn’t immediately speak up, he prompted, in a soft voice.
“Alright, let’s hear it.”
She hesitated a moment more, worrying her lip with her teeth and scanning the scattered desert floor, as if for the pieces of her courage to gather up. Which troubled the outlaw considerably, as it seemed she always had it close at hand— at least in his experience. Once she’d composed herself, however, she faced him, chin raised in the way he loved, despite himself, her eyes on his, “You asked me, some time ago, at the campfire, what had happened in Tumbleweed…”
Oh. She wanted to talk about that. No wonder she didn’t want anybody else awake or around to hear or see them. Immediately, Arthur’s belly clenched into a painful knot, and he lowered the tin, only barely keeping from choking on the coffee he swallowed.
“I didn’t give you a proper answer, then. I hadn’t really thought about it— had decided it was better not to think about it, but—”
“No, miss, you were probably right… Probably better not to think about—”
“—But now I have, Arthur. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since you asked me.” She gave him a wry, somewhat helpless smile, “… You know I can’t stand to not know something…”
He couldn’t stop staring at her, and yet he knew if she looked him in the eye longer than a moment that he’d look away. His heart was hammering hard in his chest.
She was going to tell him what he already knew: it was a mistake. She didn’t know what she’d been thinking, and regret was eating her up on the inside like it was him. He knew it already, but if she said it out loud…
Well, he wasn’t sure what it’d do to him… Nothing good.
“Will you hear my answer?”
“… I don’ suppose I have much choice now that—”
“—Of course you have a choice.”
She looked so lovely and delicate in the gray light, and the strength of the sincerity in her eyes and expression only increased her vulnerability. Arthur knew, looking at her, that he really had no other option. He was already a man half conquered.
“… I’ll hear you, Miss Schofield.” He said quietly, ignoring the desire to hurry away in self-preservation.
“… I was well-aware of what was happening. I am… far from a naive girl on those matters. I was, in fact, a girl of twelve when I went to the bed of the first man my father instructed me to seduce. I know this part of my… upbringing and education… are not news to you. I told you already, myself, that… I was accustomed to a certain treatment, by men. I am well-acquainted with what men usually think when they look at me. I’ve known since the beginning that you, also, desired me.”
He couldn’t look at her. All Arthur could do was clamp his jaw shut and try to hush the sound of blood roaring in his ears.
“… You know already that I am not afraid to intercede in matters to ensure that… you are receiving what is necessary. Things that you need. You have been kind to me. Kind, and respectful, and obliging to even my more… unusual and perhaps irritating proclivities. You have humored me and my interests far and above even what the man who claimed affections for me, at the time, had done. To my knowledge, you’ve never uttered an ungenerous thing about me, though I know at times I’ve tasked your time and patience. Therefore, when… when the lightning affected you, and I knew your desires were in earnest… I… I went with you because I thought it was what you wanted. I wanted— it was important to me to give you what you wanted. But… it wasn’t what you wanted. Nor was it something you needed.”
“I was mistaken, and confused and humiliated by my error, which only caused me to continue to behave wrongly. I wronged you, Mister Morgan, by thinking I understood matters when I… clearly did not.”
“It’s alright.” He told her, “I had no business sayin’ anything to you when it was me who took you to that room…”
“Arthur, I was fully aware of how such a liaison between us might affect your relationship with Mister van der Linde. I was prepared to suffer his displeasure for my own behavior due to our… enduring disagreements… but I… I am sorry if what has transpired has soured things between you two. I know you value his trust. I do think he knows already the blame lies with me… but I will be certain to speak with him if—”
“—You don’t have to do that. Things between Dutch an’ I are fine. I’d rather you… work on fixin’ whatever it is between you two but… I suppose that’s your business, not mine, Miss Schofield.”
He still couldn’t look her in the face, or even look at her for longer than a moment, not with how the weight of her pale gaze weighed on his chest as if to crush his racing, thundering heart.
Suddenly, he felt her cool, delicate fingers brush the back of his hand, and he looked down to see her place her hand on his wrist.
“… Is that what you want from me?”
Arthur quaked inside, his chest clenching like a vice, forcing his words out breathlessly, “You shouldn’t trouble yerself over me or what I might want…”
“I told you just now, didn’t I? What you want has… becoming important to me. I don’t know whether it’s… profound gratitude or… a more arrogant and selfish desire to think your kindness fairly repaid— to settle the debt, as it were. I’ve never been in this position, before, Arthur. I’m accustomed to knowing what others want from me, and understanding clearly that they treat me well because they want those things. Unless it pleases you to watch me fumble uselessly, won’t you tell me what it is you want from me?”
He frowned, “… Has it ever occurred to you, Miss Catherine, that someone might treat you well because they cared for you?”
“…It’s a rare occurrence from the life I’ve left, and hardly ever in earnest,” She answered with a small smile after a brief hesitation, “But yes. It has.”
She stepped nearer then, and when she propped up on her toes and he felt her breath on his face, he knew she meant to kiss him, and he only barely managed to turn his face away. She was not discouraged, and her full, perfect lips pressed against the scruff of his cheek.
...Then the line of his jaw, near his chin.
Then she pulled away, again, and the outlaw was once more able to draw breath.
“… I won’t presume to speak for you, but know that I am in earnest: I want to please you, though I am not certain I can vouch for the purity of my motivations. It has… troubled me, lately… how much I displease you. I will not compromise my own desires for what I want with my life, Mister Morgan, but if I can work toward my goals in a way that is pleasing to you… I would be glad to try. Please think on this.”
She stood there, then, and it became clear even to him— despite the utter and complete absence of any sense in his head at all at the moment— that she was waiting for him to say something.
“… I-I will, then…”
Catherine left first, and he watched her go, the vice in his chest slow to release him.
She wanted to please him. What he wanted had become important to her…
Davey was already mounted, complaining loudly under his breath about how long it was taking the lady to saddle up her horse after she’d asked him to wait so she could go with him into town.
He shut up at his approach.
Touching her shoulder, Arthur watched her turn and look up at him, confusion sketched across her face.
“Let me— You need a coat,” He told her, the words tumbling haphazardly out of his mouth in a rush while his throat and face heated, “… Let me buy you a coat.”
Davey was staring at them.
Catherine blinked at him, then lowered her pale eyes demurely, the barest hint of rose at her cheeks below where her long dark lashes seemed to brush, “… If you insist.”
Chapter 25: 'Renegade'
Prompt: ‘broken tack?’... 'diamond dust/tiny snow flurries?'
Requested by: ProwlingThunder in chat on Discord.
(Thanks for always being willing to throw ideas out! <3)
“Thank you,” She said softly, watching his hands and trying to control her shivering. Honestly, at this point she wasn’t sure whether it was repressed rage, fear, or the cold.
“’S no trouble,” He informed her, his breath pluming in the lantern light while tiny flecks of what might be making an attempt at snow fell gently and silently around them, “Sure did a job, though, whatever it was…”
When she didn’t answer him, Arthur’s eyes left the tent pole he was repairing to look at her, “… What happened?”
She hesitated. She didn’t want to tell him what she suspected, because if he came to the same conclusion she had, he’d do something about it. The last thing she wanted was for the impression in the gang to be that ‘fancy Miss Schofield couldn’t handle her own business’.
Especially since, in all fairness, she had likely started it.
The other night, in what was probably meant to be a show of bravado, Micah had ordered her to get him a drink from his comfortable seat near the fire while Bill Williamson, nearby, drunkenly sniggered. Never one to cater to the big egos of pathetic men, Catherine had answered that he should get his own damn drink, unless his legs had been recently rendered useless. Not liking this answer, Mister Bell informed her that she shouldn’t back-talk him, as the money he went out and earned helped support her while she mooched off whatever good-will the gang still had for her. To this, Catherine laughed and replied that according to the ledger, she’d earned more money for the camp in the last week than he had in the last month, and therefore, by his infantile logic, he should be getting her a drink. The only reply he could sneer back was that he didn’t serve any woman, much less a filthy whore. Shrugging, Catherine agreed that he certainly didn’t seem much use to any woman whatsoever.
That he hadn’t any immediate reply had convinced her that neither of them had understood the extent of her statement, but maybe it had dawned on them later. All she knew for certain was that both her bridle and the girth-strap of her saddle had been cut in such a way as might break while riding— particularly during any kind of emergency. Fortunately, she’d taken Mister Morgan and Mister Escuella’s early advice to heart concerning the inspection, care, and maintenance of her tack leathers and had discovered the sabotage before mounting up.
And then tonight, as she’d slept in her tent, something or someone had struck the outside of it to break the tent poles and collapse it in on her. If she hadn’t heard retreating boot steps, she might never have suspected it to be intentional. After all, some of the horses were not so disciplined as to stay out of camp if they came untied.
“I… I’m not sure,” She lied vaguely, her eyes dropping to his hands again, “… I was asleep when it came down on me.”
“Well… it’s a good thing you weren’t hurt…” Arthur sighed. She nodded and did not tell him about the long, panic-filled minutes that had strangled the breath from her, preventing her from calling for help after being hit on the head by a tent pole and smothered by canvas. She wasn’t hurt; only frightened and angry. Arthur had bigger responsibilities than her feelings. She could handle her own business…
Arthur knew she was being evasive— her facade had slipped with her high emotions and the shock of the incident. He’d found her trying to figure out how best to repair the damage to her tent herself and stopped to offer his help. More than once he’d had to deal with broken tent poles.
Looking at her, the lamplight revealed the high color in her cheeks— the angry blush he’d only seen once or twice before— and sparkled against the tiny, dusty, not-quite-snowflakes melting against her dark lashes and in her dark, unbound hair as she watched his hands, learning to do for herself in the future.
She was so beautiful. He wanted to tell her. But that would be foolish— she knew already, of course. Everybody knew.
Just like everybody knew she really had no business being out here with all of these outlaws in the dwindling autumn, sleeping in a tent that fell in on her at night.
Suddenly, and entirely uninvited, the thought sprung into his mind that she’d be quite safe and warm in his tent— in his bed...
Cussing, his hands slipped, completely undoing his progress.
The lady was blessedly unaware of the contents of his thoughts and simply asked him, “Would it be helpful if I held the pieces?”
“… Sure. There you go.” He handed her the two pieces, and together they got to work repairing them. Of course, now she was positioned more directly facing him instead of at profile, and he was immediately distracted by how red her full lips looked— as if she’d been chewing or worrying them.
“… This should hold for a night or two,” He said quickly, hoping to fill the silence and keep from thinking about that soft, full pout, or how much renegade parts of his thinking wanted to taste them again, “but yer gonna want to get these poles replaced sooner or later…”
“There will be a list next time I’m in town, it seems…” She muttered moodily, and when she glanced quickly at his face, it was apparent he’d not been meant to hear it.
Holding her look he ventured, “… Something else need replacing… aside from yer riding skirt?”
Her facade still wasn’t in place— and that itself made him wonder…— so he saw the hesitation in her eyes and knew she intended to be evasive with him again.
“Catherine.” His brow furrowed at her, “… What’s goin’ on?”
Wise enough to know herself caught, she simply sighed, “… My tack. My bridle and girth strap are damaged. They… look like they might have been cut.”
“… With a knife.”
Her eyes left his face and dropped to where his hands had stilled, “It’s just a foolish prank…”
“A prank that could get you killed!”
“If I hadn’t checked my leathers like you taught me to always do, maybe— But I did. Nothing happened. It’s inconvenient is all…”
Arthur wasn’t so sure. Even he didn’t check his leathers every time, no matter what he’d taught her. Fortunately she was still novice enough to not have learned that bad habit. He resumed working on the tent pole, tying off the wrap, “… So is that what happened here, too? Another ‘foolish prank’?”
“… Might be.”
It was cold enough he could feel the scowl deepen in his face, “… You got any ideas who might be responsible for all this nonsense?”
“There are more than a few people around here who wouldn’t mind me being made a fool of, Arthur…”
“Maybe,” He admitted, not liking how the idea of it sat. How it niggled in a guilty place that reminded him how things had been different before Tumbleweed, “But how many of ‘em want to see you hurt?”
“… Perhaps just a few…” She answered softly.
The second broken pole was repaired with less trouble than the first, and then they set about straightening the canvas in preparation to drape and fasten it to the poles.
“You sure you don’ want t’be closer to the fires?”
“… I like my privacy.”
“Sure, same as anybody. I’m just worried you might be cold…” He gestured, “out here in the dark by yer lonesome…”
She took a long time to answer, and he wondered if she was being evasive again. He wondered if she might like the idea of piling in with him in his tent, where she was certain to be warm.
He wondered what it might be like to hold her through the night…
“… There are worse places to sleep.” She finally said quietly, and for a moment Arthur wasn’t sure whether she was responding to his words or his unruly thoughts, somehow.
They ended up setting up her tent where it was before, just beyond the women’s wagon. Once it was up, Arthur checked the stability with a few hard shakes. Satisfied, he crouched near the opening and stuck his hand in, both to prop it open so Catherine could go in with her bedroll, and also to verify for himself that it was, in fact, still pretty cold in there. Her body heat would change that a bit, but—
— Well, his additional body heat might help…
The lady turned her head, furrowing her brow at his sudden outburst, “What?”
“Nothin’. I’m sorry, don’t pay me any mind…”
She looked at him for several breaths, and despite the harsh shadows thrown by the canvas, he saw her expression soften before she crawled to the doorway and knelt there facing him, “It’s late, and cold. I’m sure you’re tired.”
Knowing a dismissal when he heard one, Arthur nodded and withdrew his arm, shifting his weight back so he could stand up again. Catherine moved first. Rising up on both knees, she cupped his face between both hands and pressed her warm lips to his.
For a split second, Arthur considered immediate retreat, but he didn’t move back. Instead, his hands gently circled her upper arms as he let out his breath through his nose and hesitantly, carefully answered her kiss with his.
It was brief, and sweet, and burned in his chest like a coal long after she pulled away with a soft smile.
“Thank you for your help, Mister Morgan.”
“Sure.” He cleared his throat, abashed, “I… I told you before: you just let me know you need something.”
“Hm. And you’re to let me know when you want something…” She pressed another, softer kiss to his lips before he could protest how those things weren’t equal, “Goodnight.”
Then she withdrew and sat back again, smiling at his mumbled reply, “G’night…”
Rubbing the back of his neck, Arthur climbed to his feet and headed toward his own tent…
To tell the truth, Catherine couldn’t say what had happened to start the brawl. One moment it was business as usual in the saloon, and the very next there were angry voices and the scrape of boots and chairs against the floor before the cacophony of clattering wooden furniture and shouts.
The lady had seen her share of bar fights during the hot summer, when tempers were made thin in the heat, and the novelty of them had worn off after the first. Other women gasped or shouted, but Catherine wouldn’t have even turned her head had she not been surprised to recognize one of the angry voices in the thick of things.
She didn’t even known Arthur had been at the saloon!
Yet there he was, in the center of a thickening circle of eager on-lookers as he pursued the man he’d shoved back while the other slowly picked himself up off the floor. She wondered what in the world had instigated this, as he seemed to be the aggressor. It was no revelation that Mister Morgan was comfortable with violence in most of its forms-- after all, Dutch and the gang relied upon him to exercise it and, even more often, the threat of it with regularity for their needs and goals. The pale-eyed lady had observed more than once before that his hands had seemed to be wrought expressly for the purpose of bringing violence against others. So she was not surprised to see him engaged in this brawl, or how formidable he was, even outnumbered.
And yet , she could not help but remember the delicacy and care with which he’d cupped her face during their illicit tryst in Tumbleweed. Even if his large, powerful hands had been crafted with the express purpose of violence, they were at the command of a human being with a human mind, which had ever held transformative powers on the environment around it, for good as well as evil. When given a lump of iron, some men would hammer out hoes while others swords, as necessity and inclination dictated…
So it was not so strange that the same hands that had touched her so gently could be so pitilessly hard as he swung a massive fist to crack against his opponent’s jaw that weakened his knees and turned out his lights.
No. It was Arthur’s face that gave her something for consideration. Under the bruising from poorly blocked punches, his expression was closed-- a granite mask of resolute fearlessness. His voice too, growling out taunts and threats as he ducked another concerningly well-controlled swing, expressed only steely determination. It seemed, from where Catherine was sitting, that Arthur Morgan was… strangely absent… from this encounter, and had been replaced with a more one-dimensional doppelganger.
Or rather… a mask for his more usual mask.
It made her desperately curious what his true thoughts were concerning the violence he subjected others to. She knew, of course, what he would tell her: he would say that he did as needed doing, and there was nothing more profound about it. But the existence of an extra layer of separation between his circumstance and his true self led her to think his explanation would not be entirely truthful-- certainly it wouldn’t be complete .
After all, she learned to do the same thing when subjecting herself to the unwanted attentions of others simply so she did not have to think about what she was doing and allowing.
It was the only way she could compromise her fierce independence and intelligence with the subjugation of her will and flesh to the desires of others.
Perhaps they were the same this way. Perhaps they both withdrew deep within themselves to do what they’d been taught must be done for the reasons given them.
A man from the crowd had suddenly stepped up behind Arthur to grab him from behind and control his arms, leaving him defenseless as his opponent laid down several devastating blows to his face and body before the outlaw as able to free himself. A heavy elbow to the ribs loosened the newcomer’s hold, and from there, Arthur was able to throw him over his shoulder, crashing into a nearby table, breaking it.
It was at this moment Catherine heard a woman shout about getting the sheriff.
The combatants did not react, leading her to believe they had not heard. Arthur knew already the importance of keeping out of the eyes of the law, both per Dutch’s request, and also due to the unfortunate fact that the local law was looking for any excuse to string the big outlaw up due to some ill-advised activities at the beginning of the summer.
She did not think the sheriff had forgotten or forgiven, despite the months in between, “Tacitus!” She called loudly, desperate to be heard over the shouting and cheering. When he did not turn or answer her, the lady stood and made her way toward him, pushing through the crowd. More than one individual caught hold of her, warning her of the dangers, or simply not wanting her to interfere in their entertainment. She heeded none of them and slipped free, finally emerging into the circle.
Knowing better than to try and catch Arthur’s arm-- she hardly had the strength to be effectual attempting that-- she instead took advantage of her quickness and stepped between the combatants, ducking under the big outlaw’s swinging arm before throwing her back against his front and digging in her heels. She wouldn’t be able to push him backward, but he would be loathe to move forward through her.
He was spluttering his demand for what the hell she thought she was doing, while at the same time, his opponent was regretting the punch he’d thrown low, toward Arthur’s unguarded ribs, which was now headed directly for the woman who’d --by his reckoning-- inexplicably appeared between them.
Catherine saw it too, and brought up her arms to defend herself, wondering momentarily whether the steel bones of her corset might provide any protection at all, or make things worse. The other man must have adjusted, somehow, as the blow glanced across her shoulder, and though startling and painful, was certainly far less than he’d initially intended for Arthur’s ribs.
Catherine had suffered worse. She gave a wounded, alarmed cry anyway and clutched at herself, playing up her injury. The effect was instantaneous, and much to her expectation: she had an excellent reputation in this town, and the crowd was quick to turn against the man who’d struck her-- mistake or no, her own fault or otherwise-- against every notion of what was good and proper conduct.
Unfortunately, Arthur too was fooled, and he snarled his rage, “What in the-- you sonov--”
“--No!” Catherine hissed, shoving her shoulders hard, back against him, “We need to leave . Now .”
After what she presumed was a confused hesitation, the outlaw complied, bringing an arm around her to usher her out, slipping through the crowd that was swiftly dissipating behind them to instead swallow up the new scuffle between the other man and those who were making much of the perceived injustices he’d committed against a lady.
They stumbled through the doors and out onto the street where Catherine dropped her act in favor of grabbing Arthur’s arm with both of hers to haul him toward the well on the far side of town.
“Wh-what the… what the hell was that all about?!” He demanded, though he made no effort to resist her.
“I could ask you the same,” She replied simply.
“I didn’t think you was stupid enough to stand in the middle of a fight--”
“Only when trying to stop it-- which, as you might notice, was incredibly effective.”
She heard him scoff, “An’ reckless. You coulda gotten real hurt… Are you hurt, or was you jus’ playin’ that up?”
Turning her head, she grinned up at him, “I’m fine. You, on the other hand… you look like you need a bit of work…”
Aside from the way he seemed to favor one side of his jaw, he had a black eye and a split lip as the more prominent injuries. Meanwhile, a glance down revealed that the back of his knuckles were bleeding freely-- probably from where they’d caught on somebody’s teeth while knocking them loose.
“Ah, I was already ugly, miss. Ain’t no fixing that…”
Furrowing her brows at him, she said, “You certainly know how to choose your misconceptions, sir…”
“... What do you mean?”
“I mean you know full well I’m not the sort of woman to waste my time with ugly men, so why you insist that you number among them is a mystery to me…”
“--Nor do I have the patience to tolerate the company of stupid men, as you know,” She insisted, interrupting his protest, “But all of this is academic, really, in light of my intention to see how I might assist you in cleaning these scrapes up. Come along.”
Arthur insisted on drawing the water bucket for her at the well, though he did ask what she wanted it for.
“I’m not about to wash your wounds in a rain barrel, Arthur,” she told him, “Even I know the dangers of that…”
“There ain’t no need to make a fuss, miss… These scrapes ain’t--”
“--Why don’t you let me decide what to make a fuss over, hm?” Was her smiling answer as she filled both of their canteens from the bucket before wetting the freshly laundered pair of handkerchiefs from her pocket. She’d adopted the habit of carrying two ever since leaving Boston, as the availability of spare, clean cloth swiftly evaporated as she travelled west, and it proved immeasurably useful in the day-to-day needs of a lady.
Lifting his hand, she pressed one wet handkerchief to his bleeding knuckles, “I don’t suppose you have any grain alcohol on you?”
“Not for scrapes…” He grumbled at her in such a way that caused her to smile at his steadily reddening face.
“I’ve a bit of iodine otherwise. Here, hold this handkerchief…”
“I really don’t-- ow!” The outlaw hissed at the sting after she’d opened the small brown bottle from her pocket and dripped a tiny bit over his knuckles.
Taking the handkerchief from him again, she blotted the brown liquid over the whole of his knuckles before pressing the cloth over his hand,“There… Now hold this in place while I see to your face...”
“This ain’t necessary, I’m fine, woman!”
Raising an eyebrow at him, she mused, “Why, if you’re embarrassed, I don’t know why you’re making such a scene…”
Not that anybody was paying them much attention beyond a few curious looks.
His eyes met hers after a brief glance to survey the surroundings, then he opened his mouth like he intended to reply, then just sighed heavily and rolled his eyes.
“Sit.” Was her instruction, indicating the old, worn stool nearby that shorter women and children used to stand on for drawing water. He did so, though not without grumbling protest, and Catherine was treated to watching the emotions flicker across his face as she bent over him with her second handkerchief soaked in cold well water and a drop or two of iodine to blot against his split lip.
He did not protest further aloud. He seemed to be holding his breath. Blue-green eyes were fixed over her shoulder, but she didn’t think he was looking at anything in particular. His blushing was rather severe, and Catherine wondered if it was her proximity, position, or the fact that she was touching his face that discomfitted him so. Regardless, she had to admit how much it amused her.
The skin around his lip was red, irritated by the iodine, but the bleeding had stopped, “There. That’s better. Now that eye is looking pretty swollen…”
“Feels it…” He mumbled, refusing to meet her look
She soaked the handkerchief again wrung it out, wanting the cold more than the wet, and folded the cloth to press against the heavy bruising.
“... You really don’t have to go out of your way…” Arthur murmured after a moment.
“I know,” The lady answered, shifting the cloth to spread its coolness more evenly, “But maybe I wanted to.”
He dared to look at her then, his eyes meeting hers, and Catherine’s heart stopped. The moment stretched, and it suddenly became very difficult to draw breath, for they had somehow arrived at something very intense and intimate.
There were no more masks, and the flickering, hopeful reverence she could see in Arthur’s eyes shook her to the core.
Hosea and Dutch had both warned her that she held this man’s heart. Even Abigail and Jenny had speculated that it could be so. In this moment, for the first time, she feared they might be correct .
“They don’t have any riding skirts in stock…” Catherine explained, doing her best to hide her disappointment. The tailor apologized again, saying something about shipment schedules, but Jenny’s attention was fixed on her beautiful and proper friend.
“That’s a shame,” She said without inflection, then shrugged, hearing Karen and Mary-Beth giggling in the dressing room, “... Really, Catherine, I don’t know why you bother with those silly riding skirts anyway.”
“I only have the one petticoat, my dear, and it won’t support riding astride, even if I were to have a skirt that might-- which, I remind you, I do not.”
Jenny snorted, “So buy some trousers.”
The tailor stared at her. Catherine stared at her. Jenny gave the tailor a dirty look, making clear it was wiser he find his own business to mind, and he scuttled over to fuss with one of the hanging outfits.
“Jenny… I’m a lady …”
“So? Your legs split in the middle like everyone else, don’t they?”
“Well, yes, of course--”
“--So they’ll fit in trousers, which, as it turns out, were made with ridin’ horses in mind.”
“You cannot be serious…”
“Fine. Don’t buy trousers. I just ain’t gonna listen to your belly-achin’ about ridin’ in your tore up, foolish ridin’ skirt, that may as well be trousers wrapped in a skirt, anyway!”
The pale-eyed lady looked at her, then around at the tailor shop, the primary reason they’d come all the way to Blackwater, despite the risk, and then back at Jenny, “...It’s… highly unorthodox, my dear. A woman of my status wearing trousers… it would draw a lot of attention…”
Sneering, Jenny teased, “You’re right. Maybe you ought ask yer daddy first?”
Catherine startled like she’d been slapped, “What!--"
“-- Or your man--”
Straightening, the lady’s hands went to her hips and her voice turned ice cold and sharp, “--I don’t need anyone’s permission to wear anything , Miss Kirk, let us have that understanding first and foremost!”
“That’s more like it!” The other woman laughed, “Now come on, just try a pair on! I’m sure you’ll like ‘em once you do…”
Slowly lowering her hackles, Catherine sighed and shook her head, “... Oh alright…”
The tailor had her measurements already, so despite any opinions on the matter he might have (which he wisely kept to himself) he provided a selection of trousers in various colors, fabrics, and styles in sizes that would best fit her (with minimal alterations). Leaving the pale-eyed lady to her decisions, he gratefully left her to assist Mary-Beth with the vast selection of shawls.
Jenny started to step away also, apparently intrigued by the new hats on display, when Catherine called, “... I just realized… I don’t think I’ve ever seen-- Jenny do you wear trousers?”
“I own a pair I’ve worn once or twice. Does it make a difference?”
The lady gave her dark-eyed friend a look, “Here you stand, taunting me about trousers when you hardly wear yours…? It isn’t kind to make fun of me, Miss Kirk.”
Sighing her exasperation, the outlaw said, “I ain’t, either. Do as you like, Miss Fancy! Wear your tore-up ridin’ skirt until you can buy a new one. Or buy a less fancy petticoat, a new crinoline, and a skirt to wear. Or go nekkid for all I give a damn!”
They looked at each other a few moments, then Catherine said, “... Why do these have leather sewn on the backside?” holding up a pair of warm brown work pants.
Jenny laughed, “Oh, those’re padded work pants. I think the leather is so you stick to the saddle better.”
Laughing also, the pale-eyed lady said, “... I might want to consider them, then… it might help save me from falling off another time before the year is up.”
“If anything can.” The other teased.
“How unkind!” But Catherine laughed still.
“You gonna try ‘em on? Won’t be long before them Callander boys get bored-- or too drunk-- and start makin’ trouble.”
“Yes… Let me try these few, then…”
Karen stopped them on their way to the dressing room, on her way out from trying on a new blouse that had caught her eye.
“... Miss, what’re you doin’ with those trousers?”
Jenny ushered Catherine forward again, “She’s gon’ try ‘em on. What you think she’s doin’? Keepin’ ‘em company?”
“... But they’re trousers …”
“That’s what I said!” Catherine laughed as Jenny pushed her into the dressing room.
Reaching over, Karen grabbed the curtain before the other outlaw could close it, and pushed her way in, “This I have to see!”
With a scoff and roll of her eyes, the pale-eyed lady handed her selections to the other two women, “You might as well make yourselves useful, then, if you insist on teasing me the entire time…”
The blonde ended up handing the pair of trousers she was holding to Jenny to help Catherine out of her coat and riding skirt, “You gonna wear these trousers with your corset?”
Jenny burst out laughing at the open bafflement on the fancy lady’s face.
“I… I hadn’t planned on taking it-- should I not?”
“You and Grimshaw are the only ones who wear one every day,” Karen told her, “Hell, I’m only wearing one because we’re in town and not at the saloon!”
“Trousers waist ain’t gonna work well with your corset if it comes down proper…” Jenny warned between laughs.
Catherine sighed, muttering something in one of her foreign languages, “...Well… alright, help me take it off, then… If I’m going to scandalize the town and the camp, I might as well do it right the first time.”
“Oh, we’ll call the papers,” Jenny rolled her eyes, “‘Miss Catherine’s got her tits out’…”
Karen snorted laughter, “The men’ll like that!”
“I’m still wearing my combinations and blouse, thank you!”
The blouse did have to come off first, to facilitate the removal of the corset. Jenny and Karen both admired her combinations. Karen announced an intention to get some of her own some day, while Jenny shrugged and said she didn’t have a desire for ‘lacy fancy things’.
Catherine grinned as she pulled her blouse back on, “Maybe Mister Summers has a desire for lacy fancy things?”
“Did Mister van der Linde?” Jenny needled back.
“Yes.” Catherine shrugged, “As you might have guessed.”
“What about Mister Morgan?”
Shrugging, Catherine reached for the first pair of trousers, the padded work pants, “I don’t know. I suppose we’ll have to ask him.”
Karen and Jenny exchanged a look before the blonde outlaw blurted, “You mean he didn’t see in Tumbleweed?”
Before the lady could answer, the curtain was suddenly drawn aside, and Mary-Beth was standing there, “I had wondered what you ladies-- Miss Catherine are you wearing trousers ?!”
Karen dragged her in and closed the curtain again while Catherine rolled her eyes and sighed long-suffering.
“Almost… certainly not enough for the public eye, Miss Gaskill…”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize… But… trousers ?”
Finishing with the donning and fastening, the pale-eyed lady regarded herself in the mirror, smoothing her hands against her hips, turning this way and that, “... What do you think, Jenny?”
“You look fine. How do they feel?”
“Strange.” She looked at the blonde in the mirror, “... What about you, Miss Jones?”
“They look alright, I guess,” Was the answer, then she grinned, “Nice to know you got a bit of a rump there and it ain’t all crinoline and paddin’...”
“Not all of us are blessed with your commanding, womanly physique, my dear.” Catherine smiled, “Mary-Beth?”
“... I think the boys are goin’ to have some things to say…” She answered, “... Not to mention Miss Grimshaw.”
“... I’ll deal with that when the time comes, I suppose.”
Jenny waved the pairs she was still holding, “You trying these on or am I just holdin’ them for show?”
“No, no… Here let me…” Catherine laughed as she worked the button-front, “... You think I’d know as often as I’ve done this for men… but it really is easier to get in and out of…”
Once again assisting, Karen grunted, “... Maybe. But doin’ a necessary is gonna be a pain… Men can just open and pull out. Yer gonna go bare arsed to make water.”
The lady blinked, apparently not realizing herself until it was said, “... That won’t be pleasant in the cold at all…”
The ladies laughed together, and Catherine put on the next pair of trousers, this one a dove gray pair of wide-legged pants. Jenny didn’t like them, but could tell right away that Catherine very much did from her expression and the way she held herself straighter as she turned to admire them in the mirror.
“You want to get those, then?” She asked, wrinkling her nose.
“No…” Catherine started to open them again.
“No? You liked those! I could tell-- are they expensive?” Mary-Beth cried, “I can lend you a bit of money… You looked so nice in them, really!”
“They’re lovely,” The lady said, “but not as practical as the other pair.”
“Get the ones you like,” Jenny told her, “These will do fine.”
“I’ll get those others.” Announced Miss Schofield stubbornly.
Karen looked at Mary-Beth and said, “... Keep your money, girl. We’ll just let Arthur know…”
Catherine looked over, “... Let Arthur know what…?”
“Oh, nothing,” The blonde grinned, “just how you was mooning over these pants you didn’t see fit to get for yourself.”
“... I don’t understand.”
“Yes you do.” Jenny told her, tugging on the sleeve of her new coat hung on the wall hook. The one Arthur had bought for her. It was a nice coat-- certainly worth some good money, with thick fur on the inside and around the lapels and collar.
The reaction was immediate: Catherine flushed a dark pink from her hairline all the way down to what could be seen of her decolletage , “You will not !”
Mary-Beth giggled. Karen and Jenny couldn’t help but cackle wickedly.
“There’s nothing wrong with letting a man treat you now and again, Catherine…”
“I’ve found that very much depends on the man, Karen…”
Batting her eyelashes, the freckled brunette said, “Oh, but Arthur’s a good sort…”
Jenny rolled her eyes. Karen scoffed, “ Grumpy sort… but he does try to take care of us girls, I suppose…”
The lady frowned at the three of them, “... I’ll buy these two then, if only so you don’t try and put any ideas into anyone’s head that he should get them for me.”
“Fine,” Jenny laughed, “Is that you decided, then? Can I go look at hats now?”
“By all means,” Catherine answered, “Before the tailor wonders what we’re plotting in here…”
“‘Ent roight fer a lass t’ware trousers.” Mac professed with all the blunt sagacity that could be expected of him at the bottom of as many bottles as he was.
“My dear, Mister Callander,” The pale-eyed lady sighed, “where were you ten minutes ago when I was being harangued by these brigands?”
“Nevermind,” Laughed Miss Jones as she sashayed herself over to the bar next to the drunken outlaw, “I wouldn’t take any advice from this fool.”
“You hush, wench!” Scolded the man, “‘Ent roight, oi say.”
To be fair, the nature of the looks Catherine was getting were a little different from the usual. Though she was often turning every head in any place with her looks and gracious mannerisms, it was clear her current apparel was giving them something to chew over they didn’t seem to much like the taste of.
“... If it’s all the same to you,” She said quietly, “... I’d rather we were on our way.”
That Mac didn’t answer, and his brother hadn’t even looked over a second time from his poker game in the corner, made clear that they weren’t for leaving any time soon.
Jenny didn’t often turn down a drink, but she was eager to get back to camp and see if Lenny had come back from his ride south, looking for leads. “Yeah, alright. We’ll go, then. Miss Jones? Miss Gaskill?”
“I’ll keep an eye on these two,” The blonde replied, waving over the bartender.
Mary-Beth fidgeted a moment before letting out her breath, giving Catherine a hopeful look, “... I should head back too. Miss Grimshaw wanted me earlier for something…”
The lady was, as ever, quick to catch on, “Best come with us, then. I’ll just have to let her know you were helping me.”
Miss Kirk knew that they were betting on Susan’s good opinion of Miss Schofield to come through as it usually did-- the lady had a way with her, there could be no doubting-- but she didn’t put much stock in the old nan-goat’s ‘good opinion’. Susan Grimshaw was a moody old bitch, and with the camp’s opinions turned against Catherine, Jenny suspected that the girls’ reliance on her to get them out of trouble would only get Catherine in more trouble. Already she could hear the harsh voice cracking out about how ‘Miss Schofield fancies herself a lady with maids to help her spend up all their money’.
Nevermind how the money had been earned by Catherine herself.
Out by the hitching posts, the two more-experienced thieves mounted up while Catherine checked her leathers. She’d grown even more strict about it since some mysterious incident where her latigo and one of the headpiece leathers of her bridle had needed replacing-- fortunately, more than one man in camp knew how to cut and stitch leather to suit, and there had been spare hide around. Apparently finding everything in order, she too mounted up and they were on their way.
“It is strange how that happened…” Miss Gaskill observed, “your bridle and your latigo…”
Catherine shrugged, “Bad luck, I guess.”
“Maybe,” Then the curly-haired brunette looked at her, “... How do your trousers feel in the saddle?”
“... I’m not sure I want to say,” Was the answer with a grin, “as I’d rather not listen to Jenny’s ‘I told you so’s the whole ride back.”
“Ha! I did tell you so! They ride nice, don’t they!”
Susan had an earful for them when they got back. Something must have happened, for she was in a temper, and could find pleasure in nothing. Tilly had apparently rushed off in tears and was in hiding somewhere after being on the receiving end of the matron’s sharp tongue most of the day. With new victims, she was quick to scold Jenny and Mary-Beth for being gone so long, for leaving Karen behind, for returning without the men, and for letting all the chores pile up. Catherine quickly came to their defense, and though Susan quieted long enough to hear her, her hands were firmly on her hips and a scowl deep in her face.
When Miss Schofield was finished, the camp boss informed her sharply that if she wanted to be treated like a proper lady, she ought to dress like one. Laughing at this, Catherine said that wearing trousers didn’t make her less of a lady.
“Ladies don’t wear such things. You look foolish. How can anybody take you seriously-- I don’t know how you can expect me to!”
“Well,” Catherine smiled, “if the way I dress dictates my treatment, will you treat me like a man , Miss Grimshaw?”
Mary-Beth slapped a hand over her own mouth. Jenny didn’t bother and cackled loudly before catching sight of Lenny and heading over. The old nan-goat was still gaping at Catherine’s retort.
Behind her, Jenny heard Catherine call loudly in a sugary tone, “What do you think, Mister Morgan? Do I still look fine?”
From her peripheral, Jenny saw Arthur staring openly alongside Hosea where they had apparently been discussing something. The big outlaw chuckled and shook his head, either bashful or embarrassed or both, “... Miss, you could be wearin’ a potato sack an’ still look fine…”
“... Your idea?” Mister Summers was saying quietly, taking her hands with a smile, clearly hearing the victory in her laugh.
Nobody had anything to say. For awhile, not even Dutch. Hosea just looked at them sitting around the fire, easing their aches and settling their nerves. Everyone else quietly went about their business, as if trying to ignore the steadily encroaching black mood without disturbing it.
Catherine remembered this from a job that had gone badly before. Still, it was admittedly a bit of a shock to see after everything had seemed to be going so well...
Slim and Arthur were still out, but nobody was saying anything, and it was too early to really worry, she supposed. He’d take the long way around to make sure nobody followed him to camp. He’d ride until the next morning if necessary.
Arthur knew his business, and knew how to take care of himself.
Dutch started to talk, addressing the men around the fire and the women who had started to curiously slip closer, eager to learn what was going on without drawing the wrath of Miss Grimshaw.
“This is just a simple misstep,” He was saying his voice firm, but calm. He wouldn’t sound so calm if something truly bad had occurred, Catherine didn’t think, “We all knew with winter coming, it was only a matter of time before all our opportunities looked like long-shots. And it was. But we got away with it, even if we got a few bumps and scrapes…”
Pale eyes leaving Dutch to inspect the circle of men, Catherine wondered who she should ask about the situation. There were few she found to be reliable for information even before her falling out with Dutch, but now, those sources were drying up swiftly. Like Javier, who was still punishing her for ‘betraying’ their leader with her act of ‘disloyalty’. Lenny was an ideal choice, but he was sitting close to Miss Kirk, and the lady did not want to intrude upon them-- that they would welcome her did not change that. Mister Williamson had never, in Catherine’s opinion, had anything useful to say, and Mister Bell would take too much pleasure in sharpening his tongue on her-- whether he said anything she could trust or not.
That left John and Charles. John was also an ideal choice, as he’d tell her what he’d seen frankly, not bothering to gloss over or sugarcoat anything. It was probably her favorite thing about him-- for all his youthful, sometimes arrogant , impatience, it also meant he lacked the patience to be anything but brazenly up-front about matters. If she asked him, he would tell her, whatever he thought about her or her situation with the gang, she was sure. But as she looked at him, she felt another gaze weighing on her. From her peripheral, Abigail watched her steadily, and Catherine did not need much imagination to picture what it was she was thinking, even though she couldn’t make out her expression without turning her eyes.
Instead, the lady went and sat beside Charles, who only spared her the briefest of glances-- which she suspected he’d do for any other person who sat next to him. They’d bonded, the two of them, somewhat, over the death of her first horse, a miserably abused shire, but Mister Smith didn’t open up or warm to much of anyone, and seemed particularly wary of her. Catherine suspected he recognized that if he caught her attention long enough, she would apply her not-insignificant skill, and pry him open like a particularly stubborn walnut.
“Good evening, Mister Smith, and welcome back,” She said softly, choosing a pitch that would allow him to hear her under Dutch’s speech, but not carry to the rest of them, “... I was hoping you might tell me what’s happened?”
He hesitated a long moment, ignoring her gaze as well as he might, but then he sighed, deciding he didn’t have the energy for withstanding a long siege, “... Pair of coaches had a group of security tailing them we didn’t notice until it caught up to us. Must have been a trap.”
“It was fortunate you weren’t hurt!”
He shrugged, “... Got lucky. Horses took the worst of it, I think, when we scattered.” Catching her look, he gestured with a flick of his fingers, “... Nothing serious.”
“What a relief…” She breathed, “... I imagine Mister Morgan is taking his time returning…”
There was another hesitation, one long enough to force Catherine to look at the big man again, wondering what in the world he was hiding from her. She hadn’t been worried about Arthur until this moment…
The realization Charles was finally looking at her made her wonder if that had been his goal-- to see if she was worried about Arthur, “... Last I saw him, he was leading a few of ‘em toward Tall Trees.”
“I’m sure he knows what he’s doing…” She replied carefully, holding his look. Then, “... But that is a long run for Slim…”
“For Arthur too. Pretty sure he was bleeding…” When his words brought the steel in her pale eyes, Charles nodded, but said nothing else.
Catherine wanted to ask him why he hadn’t stayed with Arthur, but she realized the man himself had probably ordered him back here. Arthur was the enforcer-- it was his job to keep the others safe.
“... If he’s not back by morning,” Charles murmured distantly, looking back at the fire again, “I’ll go take a look.”
“Thank you.” With that, Catherine got up and walked away from the fire, toward her tent. Dutch was talking about California again, and ‘the plan’ to buy some land of their own and avoid the clutches of Uncle Sam and all his terrible industrialized civilization there. In California, they would truly live free.
Catherine had her doubts…
Roughly two hours later, with full dark upon the camp, they heard galloping hooves as someone left in a hurry. Hosea, among a few others, had no doubts as to who it might be, and likewise recognized there’d be no point giving chase: they didn’t have a horse that could outrun the moonlight thoroughbred, even though every one of them could likely outride the lady (with a few exceptions in Miss Grimshaw, the Reverend, and some others…).
Mister Strauss vexedly informed the silver-haired conman that he’d been in the middle of inventory and between one moment and the next, a few bottles of medicine had gone missing.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’ll be put to good use, Herr Strauss…”
Out under the clear desert night, racing beneath the moon and starlight, Catherine was filled with exhilaration, like that night out in the rainstorm. For just a moment, the speed and power of the stallion beneath her let her believe that she could truly be free. She could just keep riding without looking back! None of them could catch her…
It only lasted a moment though. A temporary distraction from her righteous anger.
How dare they leave him out here, injured or worse, so they could rest comfortably in camp?
How dare he take such a risk upon himself with no help or recourse if things should go badly?
… It was not lost on her that, once again, her emotions were getting the better of her concerning Arthur Morgan…
Maybe she should just ride off…
No. That would truly be foolish. Much as she wished it were otherwise, much as she worked to change herself, she was still very much a creature that needed keeping . She wouldn’t be , one day, she was certain of this, but that wasn’t today.
She told herself that perhaps it was that reason which had spurred her off in an all-fire hurry: less any true concern or feeling for Mister Morgan himself, and more concern for her investment in him. After all, if he were to die, she would lose her champion in the Van der Linde gang. Without Arthur, who would stand for her when others made clear they wanted her gone? The girls might, and Mister Summers might-- despite his own junior position in the gang-- but only Arthur had the position and authority in the gang, and trust and open-rapport with Dutch himself to speak up for her with any guarantee of success.
If she lost Arthur, what stopped the Van der Linde gang from throwing her out?
… What stopped them from selling her back to her father for ransom? They were outlaws, after all. It would be foolish for them to do anything else with her once they deemed her unworthy of them.
She needed him. She couldn’t lose him. It wasn’t about sentiment, it was about survival.
Thus convicted, it was a few minutes of riding through the moonlit chill of the open desert before she realized she had no hopes of finding him in Tall Trees without a lantern…
“I really am a hopeless fool… needing so much looking-after… I can already hear Mister Matthews scoffing his ‘I told you so’s…” She muttered under her breath.
Prudence would have dictated she turn back-- at least to get things she might need-- but stubborn pride won out, and she rode forward instead. Still, they slowed on the turning for Tall Trees, Catherine taking only a moment to appreciate the glistening of Woden’s coat steaming and shining like polished silver under the pale light before pulling the old, soft cloth from her saddlebags to wipe the sweat from him and spare him a chill. He puffed and grunted, but his ears were pricked forward and his eyes soft, and so the lady was certain he had enjoyed his run as much as she had. Even better, her padded work pants had indeed helped her sit steady in the saddle. Ahead, the long, deep shadows of the forested foothills loomed. In there, the night waited to swallow them up, away from the moonlight.
It was alright, she figured, if they kept to the road, they would do alright.
Admittedly, it was Slim who found them . Catherine would have ridden right by the well-concealed camp, in the deeper shadows of the underbrush, had the warhorse not nickered gently upon recognizing a horse from his own herd. At the sound, Woden halted and turned his head with an answering chuffing sound, and so Catherine simply let the reins loose and allowed him to make his own way carefully around the massive trees. It was only on the other side that she saw the tiny sliver of golden light, shuttered from the lantern, inside the canvas half-engulfed, but fully camouflaged by underbrush. They were invisible from the road, and the lady was impressed by the outlaw’s ingenuity.
Slim was alerted, so Catherine was wary. She’d seen the big warhorse advance, without command, on people approaching Arthur without his greeting them. Ardennes were usually bred and trained cavalry, and many cavalry mount schooling included kicking, biting, and trampling living things (mostly people, dogs, and horses) in defense of their rider. It wasn’t like Woden-- though an intelligent horse in his own right-- the thoroughbred’s flashing of hooves and lunging was the instinctive actions of a stallion protecting himself and his herd. It had little enough to do with Catherine. Slim, however, had been trained by people to put himself at risk for Arthur, and had been bred with the brains to consider that more often than relying on the instinct to run.
She’d seen it, when the warhorse had put his big body between Arthur and the ornery thoroughbred more than once. In the end, for all his bluster, Woden had been born and bred to run and run fast, and Slim had been bred and trained to fight.
Catherine knew herself to be watched. She had the warhorse’s undivided attention as she slowly dismounted and made her way to the tent entrance. She thought maybe it’d be wise to call out and let both the horse and outlaw know she was there-- that it was her . But Arthur wasn’t demanding she identify herself or her intentions, and that made her refrain from raising her voice. Instead, she let the horses bump noses and chuff at each other before hitching Woden to the same tree Slim seemed to be fastened to. Either because he recognized her, or because he was distracted with the other stallion, Slim lost interest in the lady altogether, and so she was free to crouch by the tent entrance and pull it quietly open.
She was greeted by the muzzle of a revolver and the utterly cold-blooded scowl of an unrepentant killer, twenty years in the making. The hammer was already cocked, and his finger on the trigger.
She would have been frightened-- truly frightened -- had she not already seen this mask and wondered over it before. Even so, the threat of lethal consequences at the twitch of a finger did give her pause, forcing her to swallow before flashing a coy smile.
“Good evening, Mister Morgan.” She whispered.
“W-what the hell are you doin’ out here?!” He demanded, keeping his voice quiet, which only made it sound all the harsher as he growled his shock and displeasure. Fortunately, he lowered the weapon and returned it to a configuration less suited to immediate usage as he spoke. With him thus distracted, she pushed her way into the tent, not bothering to wait for an invitation. It was cold out, even despite her nice coat.
He moved slowly to accommodate her, and what she first assumed to be begrudging was soon revealed to likely be pain . Like Charles had said, the entire ride side of his shirt under his arm was wet with blood. Catherine realized he must have very recently taken off his coat to address his wound when she’d interrupted him. It was laying beside him. Arthur noticed her looking at his bloody side, and growled at her again, “Don’t you start…”
Biting her tongue, Catherine met his gaze, took a breath, let it out slowly, then asked, “... Do you need help?”
He blinked and furrowed his brows at her like she’d said something strange, so she bit off a laugh, and shook her head, holding up her hands, “... I’m not Miss Jackson or Miss Grimshaw, I know. I probably won’t be good for much, but if you’ve a use for this pair of hands, they’re yours for the tasking.”
“... I can manage on my own jus’ fine, miss…”
“I’m quite certain of that… just… it’s there on your side, so I’m only wondering if it would be difficult to reach?” When his displeased expression didn’t change, she dropped her hands to her thighs and glanced aside, “... May I watch , then?”
“You ain’t supposed to be out here! Especially not by yerself! After dark, even!...” He groused at her, still minding his volume while his tone remained harsh.
Never one to suffer a lecture, and recognizing that unless she did something about it, he was likely to worry at her like a bone until she capitulated or left again, Catherine scoot nearer and touched his hand-- which he immediately jerked away-- effectively shutting his mouth, “... But I’m not out here alone. I’m with you.”
Unsporting of her to work him over with her wiles-- the coy meeting of his gaze with hers, the subtle pout of her lips, the barest flutter of her eyelashes-- while he was wounded, but she hadn’t charged out here to be scolded for her efforts and chased off again.
“Cut that out…” He grumbled. But the growl had left his voice and he couldn’t hold her gaze long.
“Are you really not going to let me help you with that wound?”
“You really not gonna stop fussin’ about it until I say y’can?”
Catherine couldn’t help but grin somewhat impishly at the look he gave her, “You know what they say about idle hands…”
“Ain’t ever been keen on what ‘they’ say, miss…”
“‘Idle hands are the devil’s tools’,” She quoted, “From Chaucer.”
“Nevermind,” She watched him slowly untuck his shirt from his trouser waist, but he froze when her eyes left his face, so she raised them again, “... Why do you do that?”
“... Do what?” His tone and expression couldn’t be more guarded, making clear he was definitely trying to hide his wound from her.
So… A little bait and switch, then…? “Insist on calling me ‘miss’. ‘Miss Schofield’ makes sense, particularly when you’re irritated with me, or when you’re discussing me with others. But ‘miss’ by itself sounds as if we are strangers, when we certainly are not.”
Furrowing his brow at her, he seemed to consider this only a moment before saying, “... Well, what do you want me to call you then?”
“My name.” Her hands snatched out and grabbed his bloodied shirtwaist and yanked it up.
“Hey! Dammit, woman!”
“I suppose that will suit for the moment…” She fought the grin as well as the wince as his powerful hands were crushingly strong around her wrists, “Good Lord, for such a small wound, it bleeds such an awful lot…”
“Yeah, well for such a dainty person, you sure make a lot of trouble in a short time!”
Now she couldn’t fight the laugh, “Go on and be cross with me, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m here and that you could make good use of an extra pair of hands.”
He was growling again, “One day yer gonna shoot your mouth off to the wrong person at the wrong time--”
“--It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been whipped for being ‘smart’, Mister Morgan.”
“Lotta good it did you, I see…” He snarled back, “Though I’m supposin’ what you rich folk call ‘whippins’--”
“-- You may recall we talked about this once before,” She quipped archly, “when I told you I healed clean and do not often scar. My father was sure to hire only the most demanding and harshest of tutors and governesses. Rest assured: I was punished for my impertinence to your satisfaction.”
He said nothing, and the lady was uncomfortable with his silence. After several moments of reflection, she sobered and released his shirt, “... I didn’t have the right to touch you without permission. I-I apologize, that was… egregiously ill-mannered of me.”
“...Well,” He cleared his throat, apparently equally uncomfortable, “just so you know…”
“If you truly do not want my help, I’ll leave you alone. I’ll go back to the camp.”
The look he gave her made clear he had every intention of saying something biting, but he held his tongue and let out his breath instead. “...No, come on. May as well make yerself useful since you’ve insisted on fussin’ in affairs not yer business…”
At his direction, she wordlessly acted as his second pair of hands: moving the lantern so he could see better what he was doing, holding his shirt out of the way, handing him things from the pile he had set aside. He didn’t want her touching the wound, as she suspected he didn’t want her getting bloody.
Or maybe he didn’t want her touching his skin.
...Maybe he still remembered the last time she’d done so, with revulsion...
It wasn’t as if she could really blame him. The experience altogether had been largely unsatisfactory-- certainly one of her poorer performances. What it had done, however, was reveal to him the sort of woman she was, and the lengths to which she’d ply her trade of deceit. No matter his gentler affections for her, it was no surprise that he wouldn’t desire the touch of a filthy jezebel.
He wouldn’t be the first to consider her with disgust upon learning just how well-used her beautiful body was, and how stained with the lusts of others her flesh betrayed. One didn’t remain pure when living as a plaything for whichever man she was pushed into the path of. Certainly less so when practicing skill and proving agency in the doings...
“... You really want me to call you by your name?” His quiet voice interrupted her suddenly melancholy thinking as he packed the wound and surrounding skin with a mash of strong-smelling plant matter.
“Unless you insist on maintaining a formal distance,” She replied softly, perturbed, “In which case, I suppose I will have many more apologies to make…” Her thoughts turned to all the kisses she’d been so bold as to give him. Could she have been so mistaken this entire time? Had she, despite her repeated and insistent protests, allowed the gossip of others convince her that this man gave her any special consideration? She’d pushed so many things-- everything !-- and risked so much on the presumption that he desired her, and possibly even cared for her.
Hadn’t he said so, himself?
Well. No. He’d asked her if it ever occurred to her that someone might do things for her because they cared for her. Words could be so easily twisted, and she wasn’t the only one who could twist them into effective weapons. She’d learned from her father…
Surely Arthur had learned from his .
From Dutch .
“... It’s a little late for that…” The outlaw muttered wryly.
“No. Never. You are within your rights to withdraw,” Was her gentle correction, watching both of their hands: his large and busy, hers delicate and little more than useless. If she weren’t here, he might have removed his shirt altogether and not have to bother with it being held up at all. What a fool she was. What in the world did she think she could accomplish rushing out here? Even the medicine she’d brought was unnecessary: he already had enough in his satchel. “Hardly anybody would blame you, as long as you made your position clear.”
“... Blame me for what? Why is it soundin’ like we’re talkin’ about somethin’ else, now?”
Shaking her head, the lady huffed her self-reproach but said no more.
“... Anyway, I ain’t much for ‘formal’ in any case…”
“I suppose not.” It was a pointless discussion. She’d only brought it up as a distraction anyway. He’d call her whatever he liked. Or nothing at all. Perhaps it wouldn’t be long before his thinking was turned against her like Javier’s had…
Surely if she kept behaving in ways that tested his patience or outright angered him…
His hands paused with the bandaging, and his tone was acerbic, “... I suppose you think you can do so much better, then…?”
“I… What?” Blinking, her eyes moved to his face. His brows were creased, and the twist of his lips was somehow equal parts self-deprecating and scolding her.
“You must think you can wrap this better… Otherwise I dunno why yer giving the job such a nasty look…”
Had she been? With horror, Catherine wondered how it could be that her bitter feelings were showing so openly on her face! What was happening that she couldn’t conduct herself like usual and conceal her inner workings? This wasn’t the first time she’d been so disarmed in his presence! What was happening to her? What was he doing to her?
Turning away quickly, hoping the low lantern light would conceal the heat she felt in her face, she blurted, “No. I… was thinking about something else. In fact, it’s quite clear I’m a hindrance to you here more than anything. You’ve my deepest apologies, Mister Morgan. I’m quite ashamed of myself.”
He didn’t reply-- not to confirm her words or deny them, and the silence yawned deep with uncertainties.
Heart already racing, the lady could not resist the urge to fill the silence with more words, “Surely it was my insufferable pride that drove me to believe it prudent to disobey clear instructions… As usual, I thought very highly of my own ideas and abilities. It would be best if I remember my uselessness the next time I--”
“--What the hell is this, now?”
“... I…” She didn’t know. It was nonsense, really. “Nothing. Nevermind. Don’t pay me any attention, sir. I’ll say no more.”
“No, I ain’t gonna ‘nevermind’... What was all that?”
“It was nothing--”
“--Didn’t sound like nothing.” Arthur pointed out, finishing with his bandaging and tugging his shirt down again, out of her grip, “It sounded like you was scoldin’ yerself for my benefit.”
“Then there you have it.” She gestured dismissively as she drew away from him, eager for some space so she did not have to consider his disgust at her touch and her otherwise uselessness with so much immediacy . She froze, however, when after he wiped his hands clean on the front of his shirt, he reached for her. His hand hesitated when he saw her reaction, but then his fingers slowly uncurled and he tipped her chin gently back toward him.
“... If it’s all the same to you, Catherine, I’ll do the scoldin’ if I feel it needs sayin’. I’d rather not hear you say such things about yourself, again…” He cleared his throat when she met his eyes with hers, and added, “... Since you did say somethin’ about wanting to please me… before.”
“... As you wish.” Was her quiet answer. She wasn’t often speaking against herself in any case. What he asked was little trouble to provide. Even so, tension clenched through her spine, as she couldn’t decide whether the way he was touching her was displeasing or not… Usually this gesture was one of control and patronization . But his expression was anything but, and his touch was gentle enough she could pull free at any moment without struggle.
“You come out here lookin’ for me?”
Blinking, she frowned at the question, “Yes? I thought that was already clear…”
“Maybe, maybe it weren’t. Somebody tell you I needed help?”
Scoffing, Catherine almost withdrew her face from his hand. Almost, “Certainly not. Mister Smith informed me you might have been injured, but he seemed convinced you could see to yourself. Which, as it turns out, he was correct…”
“‘Course I could.”
“Of course you can.” She sighed.
“... So why’d you bother?”
Now she did withdraw, giving a helpless little laugh, “... Oh, I understand now. Very clever, Mister Morgan. I am not to humiliate myself, that is only your pleasure.”
His expression was naked confusion, “Is this humiliating to you?”
“How would you have me answer? Do you want me to tell you I was worried about you? But how can I say so when it is apparent my worry was both unfounded and offensive to you? My only recourse is to say I came to satisfy my own curiosity or sense of pride, and yet you’ve already told me not to say such things!”
“I’d have you tell the truth, is all.” He shrugged, confusion still hanging in the shadows of his face, sharing space with growing irritation at her tone. “Ain’t complicated…”
“Maybe I don’t have any simple answers to your questions, Mister Morgan. Again, I can only apologize.”
“I wish you’d quit…”
His words stung like a slap to the face. “... Very well.”
This time she did not try to fill the silence. She had no recourse, after all. Or her prattling had annoyed him beyond his patience. She let it stretch infinitely between them as he shrugged back into his coat with a slight shiver.
“... What I meant…” He began after he’d settled again, “... is that you don’t owe me any apologies. Surely not so many.”
“If you insist.” Was her cool reply.
After another moment of weighted silence, Arthur’s voice came quiet, “... Was you really worried about me, Catherine?”
What was the point of continuing the struggle? “I was.”
Then she moved for the exit.
“Where are you going?”
“... I… was going to go back to camp… Seeing as… Well… Surely you didn’t want me to stay here with you?” She smiled her apology, “... I didn’t think to pack my own tent. I don’t want to intrude upon you… any more than… I already have.”
He frowned and shook his head, then sighed, “... There’s no help for it, I guess. I don’t want you riding out alone again, and this’ll open up again if I mount up any time soon…” Then he flashed a small, teasing smile, “So if you behave yerself , Miss Schofield, you can stay here in th’tent where it’s warm.”
“How generous of you, Mister Morgan.” She kept her voice empty of all feeling. Nothing but naked civility, “Please excuse me: if I’m to stay, then I should see to my horse for the night.”
He protested no further and she left the dim light of the tent to untack her horse and tie him with a simple rope halter instead. The air was sharp with threat of frost. The cold would make leather stiff and the bit unbearable to soft horse mouths. The chill was welcome, draining the heat of her roiling emotions, even as it bit sharply at her hands. How distressing it was that she lost her composure so frequently when alone in this man’s company. How irritating. How upsetting, too, how every action and word spoken seemed to contradict itself inside her, as of late. She sought her own independence and did not want to be chained to Arthur Morgan and his will-- or any other person, for that matter! But at the same time, she needed his alliance until she no longer needed to depend on others to support herself, and in the meanwhile did not wish to be a burden to him. If he liked her, things would go so much more smoothly. But being pleasing so often meant being obedient , which grated against her independence!
Worse still , there were rebellious parts within her that truly did want to please the man, and not just for her own convenience…
No less frustrated and dissatisfied with herself, Catherine finished with her horse. Her saddle went with Arthur’s, where it would stay dry, and the bridle and bit went back into the tent with her.
The outlaw looked like he’d been doing some reflection of his own, with no satisfying conclusion. Still, he made the effort, offering his hands to help her in comfortably, and tugging her near him, “It’s cold out there…” was his blunt observation.
“Yes.” She shivered, even despite her coat, and clenched and unclenched her aching hands.
“I… uh…” He glanced around the tent, as if searching for the words to best use, as if he’d written them down on the canvas somewhere, “... I shouldn’t have scolded you so much. You… didn’t mean any harm, I know. I… don’t like you putting yerself in danger, is all. Especially not for me…”
Catherine almost opened her mouth to tell him it was fine, and that he didn’t have to apologize to her about it, but she decided against it. If she spoke up, he would stop talking. It was probably better to let him finish.
The outlaw continued awkwardly, and his awareness of his stumbling showed in the small, wry smile twisting the corner of his mouth. But his eyes were soft, and there was something very warm in his expression, “... It’s been a… long, long time since somebody was worried about me, is all, I guess. I should probably act more grateful, seein’ as I don’t deserve it at all…”
Reaching over, he covered both of her hands with his, his large palms easily swallowing her delicate, ladylike hands, “... I am grateful… Even if I don’t best show it… I just… Don’t risk yerself on my account. Alright?”
His touch was so impossibly warm that Catherine was also immediately grateful despite herself, and that gratitude spiked straight through her heart, causing it to skip a beat.
“I… Sorry…” He pulled away again, as if suddenly recognizing how intimate and forward his behavior was.
“No, please…” What was the use? After all, she was a kept creature , and she was exhausted and dissatisfied with her attempts at trying to be anything else for the time being. He was warm, and she was not.
It was… and was not… that simple.
He studied her face in the faint, shuttered glow of the lantern what seemed a breathless eternity, the shadows across his face leaving his usually light eyes dark. But he reached for her again, this time cupping the side of her face. Again, she marvelled at how tender and gentle his calloused hand, wrought by a life of violence, could be. And so warm against her cheek. Entirely without thinking or calculation, she leaned into his touch, seeking his warmth.
Her reaction must have emboldened him, because he moved again, this time leaning in with his body, bringing his face near hers, and she immediately realized he meant to kiss her. But he hesitated at the last, smallest possible distance, as if entirely convinced she would draw away if given the chance.
Catherine didn’t move. She didn’t dare breathe or blink. She simply waited, eyes lowered, demure and nonthreatening, settling into the warmth of his nearness.
The press of his lips was almost shy, at the start, but her continued patience and willingness to allow his attentions encouraged him to commit fully to his course of action. She’d noted, before, how satisfying it was that he seemed to know how best to please a lady by kissing her, and her observations had not changed, but this was an entirely different sort of kiss. In Tumbleweed, he had been hungry, starving -- grabbing and taking, hoarding whatever he could get a hold of before he lost his chance. Now, he moved slow, tasting every inch of her lips like they were expensive wine, and as one breath rolled languidly into the next, he dared to sample beyond the fruits of her lips and into the sanctity of her mouth. Fitting, she supposed, for an outlaw to dare beyond what propriety might require. Though she could suppose very little, as her racing pulse and the heat of his touch made her all too pliant and yielding, her mind tumbling into something soft and rosy.
She wanted him to delve deeper. For his hands to grow firm and his mouth demanding. She wanted him to plumb as far into her as he dared and to scorch his touch across her skin so she’d never feel the cold again…
But he didn’t do that. He pulled away, slowly, leaving her in that soft, befuddled, rosy place so she could offer no protest nor wonder at how she’d never longed after the heat of a man’s body before now.
“... So sweet…” He murmured, open affection in his expression and voice as he admired her face still resting in his hand, “... you’re always so sweet to me…”
She was a kept creature. Self-satisfied. Thoughts muddy and inconsequential. A token contradiction to his statement niggled somewhere under the rosy fogginess, but she ignored it, “You’re warm.”
“Yeah…” She watched him think about it a few moments, weighing the consequences and the risks, but then he dropped his hand, taking hold of her arm above the elbow instead, his touch gentle. “Come on.”
She went, folding herself into his left side, resting her head against his shoulder while his arm went around her. He was warm.
Woden’s whinny woke them with a start, but they were still caught off-guard when seconds later Charles’s voice called out,
“... Yeah, Charles.”
“... Catherine with you?”
“... Can you two be ready to ride in a few minutes?”
Arthur didn’t understand the purpose of the inquiry. Catherine did.
“Yes, Mister Smith. It’s only the tent and tack needing addressing.”
“Good. Let’s get going, then.”
Arthur muttered under his breath about the ‘strange question’ while Catherine pulled away from the warmth of his body and noted the stiffness with which he sat up.
“... He was concerned we might need to dress, Mister Morgan.” She explained in a whisper .
“Why would we…?” But when Catherine indicated herself and then the front of his trousers with a vague gesture and a knowing look, he caught on, “Oh.”
It took a great deal of self control to not giggle at how red his face became.
Catherine looked up, watching the lovely figure of the woman stoop awkwardly to peer under the nearby wagon. Sometimes, the boy liked to play under there-- a space he alone was still small enough to comfortably fit, “Your son is taking a walk with Mister Pearson, Missus Marston. I heard something about eggs…”
Straightening, Abigail gave her a strange look, “... What did you call me just now?”
The lady blinked back at her, equally bemused, “... ‘Missus Marston’... I apologize for my presumption… did you not take his name?”
On reflection, it made sense that she might not have, especially if he were as notorious an outlaw as she’d come to believe he might be…
“It’s not that… just…” The young mother laughed in a decidedly cold way, bitterness in her smile, “... You probably don’t want John hearing you call me that…”
Now Catherine laughed, and then put her hands on her hips, “Oh? Why is that? Will Mister John Marston deign to instruct me on the finer points of manners and appropriate address?”
Some warmth finally entered Abigail’s expression, “You make a fine point there, I guess…”
“Any man on this Earth would be proud to call you his wife, Abigail,” Catherine told her solemnly, “ That man’s reticence on the matter is no reflection on you. Only him, and his immaturity and lack of self-confidence.”
“Oh I don’t know,” Sighed the other woman, dusting off her skirts, “anybody can tell you that fool is plenty confident in himself…”
“Too confident,” Arthur added, stepping near on his way past, “if I’m to be any judge.”
“He’ll be glad we don’t put you in a position of judgement then.” Catherine smiled at him, “Is there something we can help you with, Mister Morgan?”
He looked at them, his expression warm but non-committal, as if aware he’d taken a risk by inserting himself in their conversation uninvited and expecting a chastising or firm rebuff for it, “No, miss--Miss Catherine, I’m alright. Jus’ thought I might join you two and be sociable… Am I… uh… not welcome?”
Glancing at Abigail, Catherine saw the discomfort under her expression and realized she probably wanted to talk to her alone now that the conversation had started and they were both without other distractions for the moment. Maybe about John. Maybe about Arthur. Maybe just about Catherine herself, “‘Unwelcome’ would be a strong word, Mister Morgan.”
“... But still true…” He grimaced inwardly and raised a hand briefly before stepping back away from them, “I get you.”
“Oh, please don’t be mistaken, sir,” She interjected sweetly, “we just don’t want to trouble you with our unimportant chatter.”
Her tone seemed to give him something to think about, so he flashed a wry smile and winked at her, “...Oh, sure, I’ll move along so you two can talk about me next, I suppose…”
“But of course!” Catherine replied, batting her eyelashes dramatically, “You can be assured we’ll only use the most flattering terms!”
Laughing, he touched the brim of his hat toward Abigail and turned, walking away. Miss Schofield found his laughter very encouraging: let it never be said the outlaw was too obtuse for her teasing barbs. Better still either her delivery of humor was getting better, or he was just generous enough to reward her even for a bad job.
Abigail was looking at her again, “You two seem to be getting on pretty well…”
“I suppose,” Catherine smiled with a small shrug, “He’s very accommodating.”
“I’m sure he’s nervous… after last time.”
“The mysterious and notorious Miss Mary.” Catherine smiled and shook her head, sighing. Everyone seemed to know just a little, but never enough about Arthur’s previous lover for anyone's satisfaction.
Abigail’s face was very serious and she lowered her voice, stepping near, “... Mary Gillis. Yes. She… It hurt him very badly.”
“‘Mary Gillis’…” The lady repeated the name, “...I’ve never heard anyone here mention her favorably, but I imagine she must at least be pretty…”
“You mean you don’t know her?” The young mother seemed surprised by this.
Blinking, Catherine was equally surprised, “Should I?”
“Oh… I don’t know, I just… thought you might. From the way I hear it, she must have come from money, and…”
Now the lady laughed quietly, “Oh, well, that may be so, but my father preferred the company of ‘new money’ circles, as most ‘old money’ families were bleeding wealth during and after the war… I’m afraid I’ve never been introduced to anyone named ‘Gillis’.”
“Oh…” The outlaw glanced aside, “... Well, yes, she was rather pretty. He’s still got a photo of her somewhere in his tent. He might have hidden it, but I don’t think he’d throw it away…”
Catherine considered asking if Abigail was encouraging her to go digging through Arthur’s belongings , but the other woman continued, “... He’d proposed to her. With a ring and everything. I guess she said yes… but something went wrong…”
“Her family, I imagine. But this was years ago, wasn’t it?”
“Little more than ten years, I think. Before I was around…”
“That’s a long time for a man to nurse his pride, but I suppose he very much cared for her.”
“Oh he was fully in love with her… even after…” But then Abigail’s brow furrowed and she folded her arms and sucked on her lips.
“... After what?”
“... After that other woman…”
“... Besides you?” Catherine smiled brightly.
It took Abigail completely by surprise. Her face turned white and then red, and only after several breaths, was she able to say with some composure, “... Did he tell you that?”
The pale-eyed lady’s tone was gentle, “No, but you just did.”
Her expression twisting, Abigail appeared to consider being genuinely angry about this, but then she sighed and put her hands on her hips, “... That was... It wasn’t… like that. It was… well, it was part of my place here, I guess. I laid with… most everybody, Miss Schofield. You don’t have to worry. He was very, very drunk and... that was… before…”
“Before John.” Nodded the lady, “... And Jack.”
Abigail sighed again, “Sure.”
“Do you regret it?”
“How do I answer something like that? I… didn’t ask to become a mother--”
“--I meant John. Do you regret falling in love with him?”
“... I didn’t ask for that either.” Abigail said quietly, with a helpless shrug, “It just… sort of happened. I’m stuck with it now… Maybe you can tell your heart what to do, but mine… just don't listen.”
Catherine touched the young woman’s shoulder with one hand and tucked a stray lock of her dark hair back with the other, “Before you go envying me over that on top of the rest, let me assure you that most assume I don’t have a heart whatsoever. But I have eyes, and I know John Marston loves you, even if he can’t seem to get over his youthful sense of inadequacy to treat you or your son properly. I don’t know if that’s any comfort to you at all… It wouldn’t be for me…”
“Nobody can make him want… what he doesn’t want, I guess.”
“Well, he doesn’t want me ,” Catherine told her, “You don’t have to worry about that…”
Abigail watched her face, then laughed, soft and helpless, “You see everything, don’t you…”
“Almost as well as you do, my dear.” Catherine dropped her hands, “... He loves you, Abigail, and he is afraid he cannot give you what you deserve, and that you know this. He cannot see a way to change what he cannot provide you and your son, so instead he distances himself from the situation. He tells himself-- and you-- excuses, and accepts the insults and criticisms for his purported indifference. He’s young, yet. You both are. I’ve no doubt you’ll come to an understanding in time.”
“Time! How much time?! It ain’t just me!” The young mother seethed, “There’s Jack who needs a father!”
“Jack has a camp full of men to help direct him. If anything , he might do well to have other children his own age to talk and play and learn with.”
“... Maybe, but… what am I supposed to do? Take him by the school yards? It’s not safe… so many things could happen… because of who we are, and how we live…” Abigail stopped talking and looked quickly toward Dutch’s tent. Catherine could think of no reply either, though she found herself wondering if Missus Abigail Marston also wasn’t buying wholesale into Dutch’s belief that they lived ‘free’ on the outside of society.
“... Maybe things will be different in California…” Said Abigail quietly.
Arthur looked up from his journal when he saw her lingering by the entrance of his tent, and she smiled at him when he did.
He smiled back, “You have a nice talk with Abigail?”
“I think so. I think we’ve a better… understanding, between the two of us.”
Nodding, he started to put away his journal, “That’s good. Hosea’ll be glad to hear that. He’s been keen on you two gettin’ on well.”
“Sure. He’s real fond of you, and he’s been lookin’ after her like a daughter since the beginning…”
The pale-eyed lady made a thoughtful sound in her throat, then said quietly, “... May I come in?”
“Oh… Sure, I guesso… Sorry it… ain’t nothin’ fancy…” He blinked at her and climbed to his feet, as there was nowhere to sit except his cot, and to ask a lady to sit on his bed beside him wasn’t something he was prepared to do today. As if unaware of the conflict going on inside him, Catherine stepped near, looking him in the eye.
“I want you to know that… for some time now… the girls have been talking to me about Miss Mary Gillis.”
It hit him like a punch to the gut, and he sucked in a breath despite himself, letting it out slow, hiding the wince as best he was able, “Is that right…?” He was trying to read her expression, but she had come here well-prepared for this discussion and was composed.
“I thought it was best to let you know,” She answered, “as I remember you didn’t much like learning that your business was being talked about, before.”
“... Mary… That was some years ago, Miss Schofield…” He began, but she cut him off by raising her hand.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, Arthur. The way I understand it, it’s really not my business. But if you wanted , I would be willing to hear you on the matter. Furthermore, unless you tell me otherwise, I will henceforth make clear to the others that I’ve no interest in the topic.”
“... Is this what you and Abigail was talking about?”
“No. She wanted to talk about John. About John and I.”
“What about John--”
“--Nothing!” She smiled ruefully, “Which is what I also assured her of. He’s… distant with her. She worries his interest is elsewhere. It isn’t uncommon for that interest to fall on someone like me. That’s all.”
“... Well, alright.”
There was an awkward silence, and Catherine watched his face before smiling pleasantly again, “... I’ll let you enjoy your evening in peace…”
He caught her wrist, gently, before she finished turning to leave again, his words coming heavy and quiet, “... I proposed to her. About fifteen years ago, now. Her family… didn’t approve, an’ she said she couldn’t marry against her father's wishes. It’s… it’s been done between us ever since. I ain’t heard from her or seen her. She’s probably married to somebody else. Someone decent.”
“You don’t owe me any explanations, Arthur.” She assured him.
He was looking at his hand around her wrist, feeling her steady pulse under his fingers, “... Don’t I?” Cautiously, he brought his gaze up to her face, expecting rejection.
Maybe he’d made himself vulnerable simply so she would . To get it done and over with and not worry over it any more…
She pulled her wrist from his grasp and turned, placing her other hand in his before he could drop it limply to his side, and then stepped closer. Automatically, he brought up his other hand to take hers, and he had to remind himself to handle her gently instead of hanging on for dear life because it felt like his heart had stopped and his knees were going to give out underneath him.
“Before you met me, Arthur, I was my father’s creature. I obeyed him with few questions and little hope for being anything except obedient. You’ve heard a little about what that obedience demanded of me, and yet you’ve still treated me with more than fairness and dignity. How can I not do the same with your history? So, no, you don’t owe me any explanations, and I would rather you not tell me anything out of any sense of obligation. Rather, I want you to tell me the things you want to share with me.”
“... Seems like I ought to tell you, though, don’ it? Considerin’...”
She laughed, and he could hear the bitterness in it, even under the warmth, “Sweetheart, you know already I’m in no position to expect, much less demand , your fidelity…”
That was… He hadn’t thought about it like that. She’d been Dutch’s lover before their tryst in Tumbleweed and his confession of it to his boss... “Well… even so…”
Shaking her head, she stepped nearer still, and Arthur only knew he was breathing because he was drowning in the scent of wildflowers, “... Your taking me for your own does not grant me rights to your personal affairs and private thoughts. If you wish to share them because you trust and enjoy my opinions and insights, that is a different matter. But that trust is something earned, never demanded.”
“... Can I?” He breathed.
“Trust me?” She blinked, amusement curling at her lips, “I couldn’t say. I know some others--”
“--No.” His thumbs brushed across her knuckles and the outlaw was forced to clear his throat and then lick his lips before he could continue, “... The other part…”
She lowered her eyes, demuring, as color bloomed in her cheeks, and it was only after an agonizing, suffocating moment, that she parted her lips to answer him, “...I--”
“--I hate to interrupt,” Dutch said from not far outside the entryway to Arthur’s tent, looking pleased with himself for having snuck up on them, and not sounding altogether too upset for having, in fact, interrupted, “but Arthur, I need you in my tent just now. Seems we’ve got a bit of a problem…”
“Sure, Dutch…” Nodding resignedly, Arthur couldn’t help but glance down and see the empty air where his and Miss Schofield's hands had been clasped together just a moment ago. He couldn’t clearly remember which one of them had been the one to let go…
Something told him it was him. It had always ever been him ...