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Ghosts Around the Fire

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Bill arrives when John enters Blackwater. He jumps with a curse halfway on his lips for John when he sees Javier standing there with a solemn smile. Beyond Javier sits people Bill hasn’t seen in years.

“Hello, Bill,” Javier greeted pulling him by the shoulder and towards the fire where everyone stares him. He sees no rage from the others merely identical smiles like Javier’s. “We’ll explain in a second when the fire is done showing us. Just sit down for now.” He lets himself be led by Javier though a part of him remains weary. He fully expects Arthur to jump out of his seat and punch him square in the face.

But Arthur remains focused on the fire before him, occasionally sending Hosea meaningful looks as John walk through the streets of Blackwater and into the police department. Everyone is greeted by the sound of a man counting money. John tries to get his attention, but the man keeps counting for a second later before telling John upstairs on the right. John passes through the small gate as the man resumes his counting, unbothered by John’s appearance.

When John reaches the top of the stairs, the partner from before greets him holding a board clip. “Mister Marston! So glad to see you. How was your journey?”

“Where’s my wife and son?” John asks sharply, fully confirming what the dead already knew.

“Being well looked after. Well looked after.”

“I wanna see them.”

“Mister Ross wants to speak with you. We’ve had some important developments.”

“You want me to take out a gun and blow a fucking hole in your head, right here, right now? You want that?” He moves closer in his anger, and the partner simply makes clears his throat.

“Mister Marston.”

“You want that?”

“Mister Marston, I ask you to calm down.”

“Why? Why? I did what you asked. I got you Williamson and Escuella. It’s over.” They see Ross lean against the doorway. “Stop playing games with me.” Ross scoffs shaking his head.

“No one’s playing games with you, Mister Marston! But if we were to play some games, there’d be some interesting ones we could play.” He walked towards John after glancing at the board before waving his partner away. “Like hanging you for murder, or confiscating all your property like that little farm of yours or having you put in the electric chair. Those are the sort of games we could play, but we choose to play a different game, so calm down, and play along with us.”

“God, I hate this man,” Lenny commented resting his chin on his palm.

“That makes two of us,” Arthur agreed.

“Where’s my wife?” John asked again.

“I forget… but I hear it’s very nice this time of year….” Ross glanced out a window with a sigh. “Mister Marston, please, I’ve never insulted your meager intelligence. Do not insult mine. We’ve done this little deal for your freedom in exchange for all your men from your old gang. You gave us Williamson and Escuella. We still don’t have van der Linde or Charles Smith, but now we know where Dutch is.” Hosea’s fists tightened along with the rest of his body. Arthur placed his hand over Hosea’s fists comfortingly.

“Sounds like Charles disappeared pretty good,” Arthur said, squeezing his father’s hand. “Then again, he did say he was going back to Canada after that business with Micah.”

“Micah? Charles… dealt with Micah?” Bill asked, half-surprised, half-nervous about speaking up.

“Well, he, John, and Missus Alder shot him dead on Mount Hagen, but yes,” Arthur replied, voice betraying nothing of how he felt about Bill.

“Oh, that was them, okay,” Bill muttered rubbing the back of his neck.

“Then go and shoot him,” John replied to Ross, while turning his back to the man. Ross’s partner returned form the room.

“No, sir. I want you to shoot him for me. And then I’ll let you be. The last thing I want to do I make martyrs out of all these people. He can be killed by some petty squabble by another low life.” Ross moved away, and the partner spoke up again.

“We believe van der Linde is holed up with a group of renegades near the wreck of the Serendipity river boat.” A sigh left Ross who glanced up at the ceiling almost dramatically.

“Ah, yes. Another group of renegades, obviously, the first group, your group has, shall we say, been disbanded.” That was a mild way of saying it considering all the death and destruction they had left behind. “Anyway, Mister Fordham, Mister Marston, shall we go?” Ross walked forward a few steps. “Oh, Mister Marston, your wife and son are doing well. Let’s both try to ensure things stay that way.” He walked off and the other two followed until they had reached halfway down the steps and Ross turned around with a gun they didn’t recognize pulled out.

“Oh, Mister Marston, one more thing. This is for you.” He held it out barrel first pressed against John’s stomach, and finger on the trigger. For half a second, most of the dead wondered if he would flat out shoot John, but then John’s hand pushed the barrel down.

“You’re too kind.”

“See, I having nothing but your best interests at heart.” Somehow, the dead doubted that.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t go off by mistake,” came John’s reply as he followed Ross down again.

When Ross passes the man counting money, a familiar voice rings out screaming about he had a patent for it. West Dickens is being led in cuffs by an officer, and he comments on John being alive. John replies with a hello of his own, and a comment on how he thought West Dickens was headed to Peking. West Dickens thought so too, until he was being arrested and charged with narcotic possession or some other such nonsense. John turns to Ross and tells him to have them release West Dickens. Ross questions it, and John tells him that West Dickens is an harmless old fraud; the kind of man that built the country. And that he helped John get Williamson, which was very true.

Ross tells the officer to let West Dickens go, and that he’s apparently a hero. The officer moves to uncuff West Dickens while Ross tells John to come along. West Dickens stumbles around the lobby for a few seconds after being released before finally moving outside, and then the flame flickers to show them John entering the automobile with the agents.

The automobile rumbles down the streets of Blackwater, where the gang has noted some change, and Ross starts talking about how it was something that lawmakers and lawbreakers were working together for the good of civilization. Fordham replies about how Ross always said, the higher the stakes, the smarter you have to play the game. Ross says he can’t imagine saying something so trite, and he wasn’t so sure john would agree with them. Fordham replies that John wasn’t as broadminded to appreciate the offer they were giving him.

“Son-of-a-whore,” John muttered.

“You best watch your damn mouth,” Fordham snapped.

“And it’s strange you should say that, Mister Marston, because, according my files you are the whore’s son,” Ross added.

“More files? Ugh,” Arthur muttered, remembering what Milton had told him all those years ago.

“Now, what else can I recall from the files? Oh let’s see. You killed hundreds of innocent people. You robbed at least forty banks that we’re aware of…”

“They told us there was a prize when you got to fifty,” John deadpanned sending the dead into roaring fits of laughter and giggles.

“Why does that sound like something you would say, Pa?” Arthur asked, wiping a tear from his eye.

“A con man never tells,” Hosea replied winking and sending the both of them into harder fits of laughter.

“I’m glad this is all such a joke to ya,” Fordham said. The automobile rumbled pass a farmhouse.

“I want my family.”

“And I’m sure all the men you murdered wanted their families too. Come now, you’re stupid, but you’re not that stupid. We both know how this has to be. And it could be all over today. As as soon as we find Dutch van der Linde, you can go back home and play being a farmer again, or whatever else you’ve been pretending to do for the last few years,” Ross said.

“First it was Bill, now it’s Dutch. After Dutch, it’ll be somebody else. Where does it end?” John asked prompting Fordham to say it ended when they said it ended, and John was in no position to make demands.

“The life you lived,” Ross spoke, “you don’t just walk away from that, buy a few chickens and make it all disappear.” No one could refute what Ross said. What he said was true, and John was seeing and living it first hand. Though some of them wonder if John hadn’t gone after Micah, would Ross still have found him? It was very likely Ross still would have, but no one could say for sure. “You should be dead or rotting in a jail cell by now. We are giving you a chance at new life, a chance at redemption. You can’t erase your past, Mister Marston, but we can.”

Silence held until Fordham said that the automobile was running well. Ross replied it was an elegant way to travel, and asked John what he felt about it. Slow was John’s reply. Ross replied it was convenient and reliable before asking John if he was comfortable. John said he wasn’t. Ross turned to Fordham calling John the brooding cowboy, and that weren’t many left. That he was a cliche, but still a dying breed like the buffalo, just as dumb, but not quite as noble.

Fordham says he hears that most cows are moved by rail, and John says not from where he is. Fordham says he’s not from anywhere. Ross comments a new dawn is breaking signaling this as the age of the machine. This prompts John to reply that they all would be living on the moon. Ross isn’t sure, but there was a possibility, it is the future, anything is possible. He also comments that this godforsaken land was finally entering the twentieth century. Prosperity has arrived, but for who?

Ross turns the subject to the wreck of the Serendipity, and how it’s been used as an occasional criminal hideout for years. They had been informed that Dutch and his new gang were making camp there. The group would stop on the cliff above, and John and Fordham would go on foot while Ross stayed with the vehicle to keep watch. Fordham reminded John that he would do as he said, and not to do anything stupid. Ross commented that John knew what was at stake. John replied that he wanted to find Dutch and finish this.

The vehicle stopped at the cliff, and John and Fordham jumped out to head down to the wrecked boat. There’s brief talk about Dutch, and what happens if John steps out of line. But as they grow closer to the wreck, Fordham comment son the lack of lowlifes, and told John to keep his eyes open.

When they’re almost on the boat, a loud yell echoes around the area. Fordham orders John to go investigate while he keeps watch. John says nothing as he climbs to where the sound is revealing a man bound to chair and a bag over his head. John shouts he’s found the man and takes off the cloth revealing a man of some native descent. Fordham says it’s their informant, Nastas. Nastas breathes out it’s a trap after John cuts him loose. Fordham informs John he has to carry Nastas because he doesn’t think the man can walk. With no complaints, John picks him up just as the fire flickers to show two men running towards the three guns drawn.

John carries Nastas to the automobile while Fordham gives him cover. They’re able to load him onto the car before taking off. Ross asks what happened, and Fordham tells him it was a trap. Ross asks who the man is, and is told that he’s the informant. Ross questions the man if he speaks English, but draws the sentence out. Fordham, again, says he speaks English, and repeats that he’s the informant. They found him tied up on the boat, and then they were jumped. John dryly thanks Ross for his help, and how great of an idea it was to send two men to take out an entire gang of outlaws. Fordham snarls at John to shut his mouth.

Halfway to Blackwater, the motor gives out, and Ross tells him to hurry up and fix it. They needed to take the man to a doctor. Fordham jumps from the machine, and when his feet hit the ground, bullets ring out. Ross tells John to hold them off with him before yelling at Fordham to fix the engine. Lenny leans forward to squint at the incoming gang.

“Is it me, or are they Indians?” he asked as John’s bullet pierced through one’s chest.

“Yep, they sure are,” Arthur confirmed. “Using them again? Of course, he is. Easy to rile them into a fury against the government, though I can’t say I blame them.”

“Yes, it’d be easy for Dutch to have a large amount of numbers from them, and good God, look how many are coming,” Hosea said, eyes intently focused on the fire fight before them.

“It’s like… he’s turned into Colm in a way,” Arthur replied. “More numbers over a decent few.”

“Oh, yes,” Hosea agreed as the firefight ended with the agents and John as the winners. “I can see it already.”

Fordham is able to restart the machine, and it rumbles along the dirt road back to Blackwater. There’s chatter about how lucky they were, John’s skills, and if the automobile was the future, then God help them all. Fordham’s driving skills were insulted as well by Ross, and John commented on how he preferred a horse, and that he could walk faster than the machine.

“So, what now? Do I get to see my family?”

“Where is Dutch van der Linde?”

“I don’t know.”

“In that case old boy, no, you don’t get to see your family. It’s a fairly simple agreement Mister Marston, even for a man as devoid of intellect as yourself. If you’d like me to explain it to you again, I’d be more than willing.”

“No, you’ve said enough.”

“We’ll find van der Linde soon enough. For now, however, I suggest we call it a day.”

“So how does it feel? Taking a man’s wife and child from him? Does it make you feel good?” John snapped at Ross.

“How does it feel to kill hundreds of men in cold blood?”

“You’re a coward. You’re a murderer. Actions of consequences, Mister Marston. Come now. Try to look on the bright side.”

“The bright side? There ain’t no bright side.”

“Your family is enjoying a much needed vacation. And in far more luxurious surroundings than those to which they’re accustomed, I assure you. Soon you will be able to start a new life together, absolved of all your sins. I can think of far more upsetting alternatives. We should take the Indian to Professor McDougall. See what he can get out of him.”

“Good idea sir!”

“I just can’t communicate with them,” Ross says as the vehicle stops in front of a green building.

“God, he’s an asshole,” Lenny muttered, and several of them nodded.

“So, this is the office of an anthropologist name MacDougal. He was thrown out of Yale for degeneracy,” Fordham said, getting out of the machine.

“Which should tell you something.”

“Indeed, but he’s been helping us deal with the natives in this area.” Everyone gets out of the automobile, though Fordham moves to open the door where Nastas still lies.

“They see him and they presume we’re all idiot academics,” Ross comments while Fordham and John get Nastas out. Ross knocks on the door, and a man opens it. It’s easy to assume he’s the professor.

“Mister Ross, Mister Fordham, good day, good day, what’s on earth’s going on here?”

“Kid got shot in the leg, beat up pretty good,” John answers. Fordham hands him over MacDougal.

“Now, MacDougal,” Fordham says, confirming what they thought, “we need information from this fellow about Dutch van der Linde. Can you see what you can find out for us?”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” MacDougal replies taking Nastas in. Fordham tells him to make sure he does while Ross speaks to John.

“Professor MacDougal has been a good friend of the U.S. government, Mister Marston. Just like you. Why don’t you see if you can help him in his study of the native problem in this county, that’s good fellow.” Ross leaves with Fordham while John watches them head off.

“Well, so far, no Dutch,” Arthur said.

“But it sounds like he’s near by at the least,” Hosea replied, clasping his hands together in front of him. “We’ll see how long it takes before they find him, especially with this Nastas fellow with them.” He turned to Bill. “But enough of that for now. Bill, obviously you’ve just seen what the fire does and shows us, let’s explain the rest to you while we wait for it to come back. For starters, we’re not going to attack you despite everything. We’re dead, and there’s no point either way, because we can’t change what’s happened.”

“Right,” Bill muttered before falling silent to listen to Hosea and the others speak.