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The Glorious Second Life of Holly Monroe

Chapter Text

It was nearly suppertime, and sixteen-year-old Caterina Pozzi was just about ready to lose her dang mind.

Not because of the fact that she was left alone with her four younger sisters to start prepping supper by herself. Not because peeling carrots and potatoes had to fall somewhere between shoveling Oatmeal's droppings and having to burp baby Rosie as one of her least favorite chores. Not even because the damp weather was souring her mood. No, it was because her younger sister kept tugging on the hem of her skirt on the slim chance it would grab her attention, and Caterina had to make a concerted effort to not whirl around and throw her out on the back porch by the collar of her dress.

Adelaide, only ten years old and already a troublemaker the likes of boys twice her age, insisted on staying inside and helping her older sister with supper. Instead, she just sat on the floor to either complain about how hungry she was or try and steal vegetables from the cupboard. Every time she started back up, Caterina would have to shoo her away from the pantry with her knife and a threat or two about tattling to her father.

"Rinaaaaaaa," there she went again. Caterina sighed but didn't look up from the carrots, "I'm boreddddd."

"Then go play with your sisters," Caterina told her, one watchful eye trained on the window. Outside, Caterina and Adelaide's' twin sisters Bianca and Graziana wandered around the edge of their backyard, their tiny hands stuffed full of wildflowers.

"I don't wanna."

"Then take the veggies I just cut up and put them on the dinner table."

"I don't wanna do that either."

"Alright, then what do you wanna do, Adi?"

The girl thought for a second. Outside, Bianca held up a buttercup to her sister and started running around in circles when Graziana attempted to steal it. A little ways behind Caterina and Adelaide, baby Rosie gurgled and started slamming her wooden dog toy on the floor of the kitchen.

Only after Caterina chopped up the last carrot and moved to the final few potatoes did Adelaide pipe back up with her answer. "I wanna go out with papà and Luca and help them with the hunting!" she declared.

Caterina snorted. "Maybe in your wildest dreams," she teased. "Because papà would never let a little slacker who don't lift fingers to help her older sister go out into the middle of the woods and shoot turkeys."

"He would, too!" Adelaide complained, defiant.

Caterina turned around, seized the bowl of vegetables, and thrust it into her sister's hands. "Then help me with dinner and maybe I'll put in a good word with papà, hm?" she put a smile around her threat. "Now get to it."

Adelaide scowled, but when Caterina returned her efforts to their supper, she heard her younger sister stomp as loud as she could over to the dinner table. She slammed the bowl on it like she wanted to break the dang thing in half, which of course caused Rosie to start wailing. Caterina rolled her eyes, put down her knife, and wiped her hands down on her dress.

Abandoning the potatoes, Caterina returned to her baby sister and picked her up in an attempt to quell her crying. Adelaide, meanwhile, had perhaps sensed that she was about to be told off and rushed outside to the backyard. Sighing once more, Caterina left the kitchen through the back door while shushing Rosie. She settled herself on the back stairs and bounced her baby sister on her leg, waiting for her to tire herself out while she searched the tree line for her father and Luca, and hopefully their main course.

Bianca and Graziana were weaving flower crowns out of dandelions and buttercups when Adelaide came running up to them with a stick she'd found on the edge of the woods. Holding it with two hands, she pointed it at the twins and started making gunshot noises, to which her 'victims' deserted their projects and ran away, laughing. Adelaide gave chase too, hollering right alongside them. Rosie stopped crying and stuck her fingers in her mouth, watching the scene with as much interest as an eight-month-old could watch with.

Caterina cringed slightly as Graziana ran through a muddy patch of dirt, sending flecks of brown everywhere. "You better stay out of that dirt or I swear to the good Lord in heaven that you'll all be doin' the laundry yourselves!" Caterina shouted.

Her sisters, of course, paid her no mind. Caterina could only shake her head in disapproval and keep rocking Rosie as they darted this way and that way, oblivious to the mess they were creating for each other. "Promise me you won't be nothin' like that when you get older, Rosie," Caterina murmured, even though she knew that she wasn't going to get a response. The baby gurgled in what Caterina could only figure was enjoyment, slobbering all on her fingers.

The sun hung low in the sky, the dying light momentarily setting their lawn ablaze with a golden glow, when Caterina spotted her father and brother coming out of the woods. Gianni Pozzi, a man small in stature but large in pride, guided Oatmeal, the family's brown stallion, out of the woods with his repeater slung over his shoulder. Luca Pozzi, Caterina's eighteen-year-old brother, brought up the rear. As tall as a birch tree and only half as wide, he was nearly toppled just as easily as one when Adelaide and Bianca tackled him around the middle. A typical greeting for the only boy in the family, Caterina thought as she rose from the steps and hurried over to greet her father.

Gianni smiled warmly as Caterina reached him, holding his hands out in a silent offer to take baby Rosie from her. Caterina accepted, taking Oatmeal's reins from her father after passing her baby sister into his arms. Rosie cooed happily in the crook of their father's shoulder, reaching out to seize some of his beard.

"Buonasera, papà," Caterina greeted him, "how'd your hunt go?"

"Fine, fine, about as fine as it could ever be," Gianni said. Meanwhile, behind him, Graziana had now joined the attack on the eldest Pozzi child, seizing chunks of his dark hair and pulling like she thought it'd come up as easy as her buttercups. Luca yelped in pain, swatting at her, while Bianca and Adelaide let out cheers of encouragement from where they sat on his stomach.

"Ragazze! Fermate!" Gianni shouted. All three girls stopped and stared; Graziana still held a clump of Luca's hair in her fist. "Quit attacking your brother and go wash up before dinner."

With an air of finality that Caterina wished she possessed after all these years, her father brandished a finger back towards the house. Adelaide, Bianca, and Graziana nearly tripped over each other in an attempt to make it to the kitchen first, leaving Luca to sit up by himself, wincing on the ground after his manhandling.

Caterina let out a grateful sigh. "What did you manage to find tonight?" she asked, placing a hand on Oatmeal's nose.

"Two turkeys and the stag. Meat enough for one or two meals, I suppose," her father said, stroking his beard with one hand and bouncing Rosie with the other. Caterina's eyes fell onto Oatmeal's rump, where a deer carcass had been secured. Gianni disappeared around Oatmeal's other side, and after a moment reemerged with a turkey clutched in his free hand.

Caterina took the dead bird from him as he began to make for the house. "I trust everything's ready for dinner?" he called out to her.

"Yes, papà."

"You'll stay and help your brother bring the game in? And tend to the horse?"

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, papà."

Gianni gave her a smile from the back porch. He waved to her, then stopped to pick up Rosie's pudgy arm and wave it too, before heading inside. Caterina smiled softly to herself and shook her head as she rounded Oatmeal's side and hooked the turkey's neck back into the loops on the saddle.

"They're monsters, the lot of 'em,"

Luca stood against Oatmeal's other side, bracing his back against the saddle. He placed both his hands on his hips and cracked his back, groaning from the pain and the effort. "They see me, and I swear it becomes a goddamn competition to see who can get me to the ground fastest."

"You should feel honored," Caterina said, "it ain't like they do that to me."

With a scoff, Luca shook his head, brushing hair out of his eyes. "Be glad they don't do it to you," he warned her. "You'd break in half if Adi tackled you like she tackles me."

Caterina laughed, then gave a slight tug on Oatmeal's reins. Luca fell besides her as the two of them led the horse to the side of the house where Oatmeal's stable stood. By now, the light truly was fading, shrouding the hills around their house and beyond in semi-darkness as twilight turned into night.

"Adi wants to go hunting with you and papà," Caterina found herself saying. "She wants to come along on your next hunt. Says she's bored at home."

"What, sitting at home's not enough for her? Next, she'll be wantin' to go to school like some sort of fancy Saint Denis duchess, or whatever they call 'em these days," Luca grumbled out, opening the pen's gate for Oatmeal as Caterina led him inside.

"I mean, it ain't a bad idea, Lu," Caterina said offhandedly, taking the bit out of Oatmeal's mouth and working on slipping the harness off. Luca, in the meantime, had started sawing at the ropes that held the deer with his carving knife.

"Papà'd have to lose all his wits and more if he brought Adi within ten feet of that carbine repeater," Luca said sarcastically.

"I meant school, you dolt. I mean, not one of those Saint Denis academies or whatnot. An actual school or somethin'."

He paused, still holding onto the rope he was trying to saw through. Luca stared at her, a serious expression on his face, as Caterina took up a bucket and started filling it with oats. "Don't you need help 'round the house, Rina?" he gestured with the knife. "Like, with the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry and all that?"

"Tryin' to get Adelaide to do any of her chores is like tryin' to teach a three-legged cat to hunt—useless for all parties and the problem still don't get solved," Caterina grumbled. "And usually, I gotta end up doin' 'em for her. At least with Adi and the twins at school, I could get some work done around here without the cryin' and the complainin'. I swear, you take your eyes off her for one second, and she starts acting like no one has ever given her attention in her life."

Caterina scooped oats into Oatmeal's feeding trough somewhat violently as Luca finally got the deer carcass off the horse's back. Together, the two siblings undid the straps of Oatmeal's saddle and lifted that off his back as well, placing it on the wooden railing outside the stall. With the horse's nose buried contentedly into his evening meal, Luca once more took up the deer and Caterina grabbed a turkey with each hand. Side by side, they set out back for the house together.

"It'd be nice to have someone in the family go to school," Luca said as they walked together, then pulled a face, "Wish it could've been us."

"But if I went to school, then who'd've taught us how to actually feed you?" Caterina noted with a shrug of her shoulders. "Last I checked, I don't think that any school I know of can teach you how cook a deer and scrub blood outta your shirts."

Luca chuckled at that, adjusting the deer's weight over his shoulder. "You really want to suggest to papà that the girls should go to school? To get educated?"

"Believe me, I could use the peace and quiet. And those girls could use attention from someone who ain't me for once."

"I bet after five classes, they'll be smarter than you and me put together."

"Ha! They're already smarter than you, Lu. Even if she don't do it, at least Adi knows how to wash a pair of knickers, unlike someone else I know."

Luca's playful shove sent Caterina into the wall of the house, who promptly launched a kick at his shin in retaliation. Together, the two siblings tumbled over each other into their house as the door snapped shut behind them.

~X~

Caterina awoke later that night to what sounded like someone coming up the stairs.

Rubbing the fogginess from her eyes, Caterina perked up. Hair cascaded over her face and into her eyes, which she brushed away behind her ear. "Papà?" she murmured, propping herself up onto her elbow.

Sounds were coming from outside of her room now, so Caterina pushed herself fully out of bed and tiptoed for the door. Moonlight bathed the room, drenching the small space in cold light. Adelaide slept on in the opposite corner away from the door, drooling all over her pillow. Caterina was about to open the door up when she heard another door out in the hall creak open and someone let out a cry that was quickly cut off.

Suddenly wide awake and extremely alert, Caterina pressed her ear to the crack between the door and the wall. Yes, someone outside was heading down the hall, and what sounded like multiple pairs of heavy boots were crossing each other. Their owners said nothing, but Caterina heard the unmistakable sound of muffled screaming. Two voices, trying to cry out but unable to. "Shut your goddamn mouths," a foreign voice hissed from the hallway, deep and menacing.

Ice shot up Caterina's spine.

Instinctively, she backed away from the door, feeling herself pale. Footsteps were coming, and another door slowly creaked open. The one across from them. Rosie's room.

Caterina bit back a gasp by covering her hand with her mouth as the backs of her knees hit her bedframe. Outside, she heard the baby start babbling, then someone shushing it. Footsteps grew louder and then faded away, but not before Caterina heard the repeated thump thump thump of someone coming back up the stairs. Someone was coming up to finish the job, looking to search the last door at the end of the hall.

Without thinking, Caterina pressed herself to the floor and crawled under her bed. She tugged the hem of her white nightgown with her, scrunching herself as far back as she could in a fruitless effort to not be seen. She was about to hiss at Adelaide to wake her up before the footsteps approached her door.

All of the sudden the door creaked open. It was like something out of a nightmare Caterina must've had when she was a child. The door fell open like it'd been blown ajar by something as harmless as the wind. A singular riding boot entered her field of vision, then it's pair. Caterina shrank further back as she got the tiniest glimpse of their intruder. She could only see his boots, worn dark brown leather with rusty spurs, but the person that filled them moved almost like a phantom over the wooden floor of her bedroom. Each step he made barely creaked the floorboards, to the point where Caterina wondered if this was all a cruel trick caused by an overactive imagination she didn't know she still had.

Eventually, the booted figure made his way over to Adelaide's bed. Some piece of clothing fluttered. Her sister said something unintelligible. Then there was a large commotion that sent sheets flying and bedframes sliding across the hardwood before being followed by the sound of something hard being slammed into the wall. It only lasted a few moments, so when the room fell silent once more it was almost like nothing ever happened. Caterina watched in horror as the boots spun on heel and made their way towards the exit.

They stopped, however, just before the door, right by her bed. Caterina could hardly breathe but the boots didn't stay for long. Just as soon as he arrived, he exited, leaving Caterina cowering in a room that a mere five minutes ago had two occupants.

She didn't dare move, not in case they decided that an extra unkempt bed was fishy and decided to return. So, Caterina stayed there, feeling every minute tick by one by one, waiting for someone to come up and drag her out, kicking and screaming. But three, four, five minutes must've ticked by, yet no one came back to search for her.

Slowly, Caterina edged herself out from her sanctuary and turned to her sister's empty bed. The sheets had been tossed this way and that way, the pillow thrown to the ground. On the wall, a small smudge of something that looked awfully like blood trickled down to the floor.

It was a mad scramble for the hall and then for Rosie's nursery, which Caterina noted with horror was already open. She peered inside but found the cradle empty and the blanket askew. The same story held true for the twin's room—nothing but strewn about sheets and empty beds. Caterina's heart started pounding painfully against her chest.

Movement from the window caught her eye, but Caterina didn't dare edge forward for a closer look in fear of being seen. The house was silent now, eerily silent. The only noise now came from the curtains billowing in the late February wind.

As Caterina made her way slowly down the stairs, that lone truth was quickly broken.

She knew what a gunshot was. She'd seen her father fire a gun. She wasn't a fan of the noise, always made her jump. And that was a gunshot, clear and loud. It sliced through the quiet like a whip, reverberating through the house as if it were trapped in the wooden walls and searching for a way out. Caterina dang near passed out, gripping the railing of the staircase as she collapsed to her knees, weak in the legs and the head. Someone…no, multiple people were screaming. Or crying. She couldn't tell. Whatever it was, it was bad. Real bad.

Caterina made it to the ground floor a panicked wreck, taking in the kitchen but not really processing anything. Still, her eyes drifted to the carving knife she'd been using mere hours ago to cut up vegetables sitting on the counter, washed and clean. She crept forward, her breath catching every single time her bare feet made a sound on the floor, before she seized it.

Another gunshot. Caterina whipped around, waving the knife with her good hand in a vain chance she could fight off an attacker that wasn't there. There was someone outside who was crying now, a real ugly cry too: the kind of crying Caterina had done at her mother's funeral. Strangled and pained and mournful all at the same time.

Slowly, she rounded the corner and moved for the front door. Slowly, ever so slowly. It was shut tight but not locked. How'd they open it? Caterina dully wondered if she remembered to lock it before she went to bed.

She reached her bad hand out for the doorknob. A tear slid down her cheek.

And suddenly, Luca was there. Before Caterina could even make a sound her older brother had pressed a hand over her mouth and backed her up against the cupboard. In his other hand was their father's carabine repeater that they kept in the closet for emergencies. Caterina could only stare at her brother's illuminated silhouette in the moonlight, the carving knife still clutched in her good hand.

Her brother had always been far stronger than her. He held her steady, clearly shaken but otherwise keeping himself together. Only his eyes were wild: darting, racing, looking just as terrified as Caterina felt. Another gunshot punctured the night. Together, the siblings held their breath. Outside, one of the men was shouting curses. Someone was still wailing. Another had begun laughing.

After what felt like eons, Luca removed his hand from her mouth but pressed his finger to his lip as a means to hush her. Caterina nodded her understanding back. Another gunshot. Both siblings gave a simultaneous shudder.

"Rina, listen, you need to run," Luca hissed. "Run to Longshore, and don't stop until you get there. Get the sheriff."

"Run?" Caterina protested as quietly as she could. "I need to take the horse!"

"I already saw them put a bullet in Oatmeal a long time ago. We're on our own, Rina."

Another set of shouts from the men outside. Someone—their father, it sounded like—was pleading. Another gunshot. That was five now. The men cheered.

"Lu, Lu, they're killin'  'em," she whimpered, unable to hold back her tears. "Those men're killin' 'em. Why? What'd we do?"

She would've sobbed further had her brother not gripped her by the shoulders and shaken her. "Rina, you need to go now. Run like the wind and send for help."

Caterina stared at him, "What about you?"

Her brother didn't answer. When his eyes darted to the gun in his hands, Caterina's stomach somersaulted inside of her. "No, no, no, no, no," she sobbed. "No, please, come with me! You can't take them on your own, Lu."

Luca didn't answer her at first, but instead cocked the repeated. "We don't have a choice, Rina," his voice was solemn, almost mournful, "you gotta go, and I gotta stay."

"Luca, that is—"

"Have we reached a deal, dago?"

A foreign voice cut through the night. A horrible voice. A voice that sounded like teeth scraping on bone. A voice that sounded like a dog ready to rip out the throat of its prey. All caution forgotten, Luca abandoned Caterina and moved to the front door while she followed close behind. Together, they squeezed on top of each other to peer out the crack in the doorframe.

At least eight men in dark dusters stood in a line. Their horses stood behind them like ominous specters, the steam billowing upwards off their large bodies in the cold night. In front of them, Caterina's father knelt down with his hands up in defeat. There were four small lumps laying on the ground besides him, unmoving. The moonlight glinted off the largest man's revolver as he reloaded it; each bullet that slid into the chamber sounded like another beat of Caterina's racing heart.

"Mr. Pozzi," another bullet, "it seems as though," another bullet, "you've been holding out on us," another bullet. The man, with a flick of his wrist, clicked the chamber back into place and aimed it to her father's head.

Her father sniffed. He was crying, hard. Caterina didn't think that she'd ever seen her father cry. "Please…" he whimpered but trailed off immediately after as the barrel of the gun moved closer to his forehead.

The large man tutted like he was disappointed. The men around him roared with laughter, lifeless and cruel. "I'm afraid I've run out of second chances for you," the sound of the gun's hammer snapping into place was almost worse than any gunshot sound before it, "but then again, four chances is rather generous, wouldn't you say?"

Above her, Luca trembled with tranquil fury.

A sob racked through her father's body. Caterina watched as his whole body, dark against the light of the moon, shuddered violently. "What do you want from me?" he pleaded. "Money? I-I-I give you money! Just…just please…"

Nothing. No words. No sounds. Caterina sucked in a breath. It seemed her lungs had been neglecting to take in air.

Which made the sound of gunfire all the more jarring.

Caterina must've screamed, because she was suddenly on the floor with her brother's hands over her mouth. A series of moving images passed in front of her eyes as the moments ticked by in the dark.

Her father's head jerking back.

The spray of red erupting from the back of his head like a burst pipe.

The way he slumped to the ground, lifeless, to join the four small lumps surrounding him.

A fresh wave of both tears and nausea overcame her, and Caterina would've definitely given her and her brother away with her sobs. The pressure of Luca's hand over her mouth grew stronger the more she cried but she just couldn't stop, try as she might. A drop of water hit her forehead, much to her shock. Her brother was frantically pressing his finger to his lips again in an effort to keep her still but he was crying too. In the quiet that followed, Caterina heard the deep voice again. Both siblings immediately hushed themselves, falling silent effortlessly.

"Torch the house," the disembodied voice of the man said. "Any loot you find, you keep."

A loud series of cheers followed those words. Luca removed his hand from Caterina's mouth and helped her stand. Outside, the air was filled with sounds of celebratory whoops, the rummaging of saddlebags, and the loading of even more guns.

And then Caterina was being ushered, dragged, to the back door. Luca was pulling her along by the wrist. "C'mon, Rina, now's the time to go," his voice, while still a whisper, was as fierce as death. "Run to Longshore and get the sheriff."

They'd reached the back door. "What about you!?" Caterina pleaded, trying to tug her hand back.

"I'm gonna fight 'em off."

"You're gonna get killed, Lu!"

The sound of the front door being broken down stopped all argument in their tracks. Caterina and Luca both looked over their shoulders as moonlight bathed the hall behind them. The floorboards creaked under the weight of the house's new intruders. As they spilled in, Caterina heard the dreaded cock of a gun as one of the men loaded his first shot.

In her distraction, Luca opened the door and practically threw her down the stairs into the backyard. Caterina tumbled, the carving knife falling out of her hands as she rolled over the grass. She struggled to stand as Luca now cocked his gun himself, his brown eyes swollen but hardened. "I'll find you! Now run!" he practically screamed at her, and Caterina's last image of her older brother was of him turning back into the shadows to confront their assailants with the repeater in hand.

So Caterina had no choice but to run.

Her hair falling over her face, Caterina scrambled to her feet, scooped up the carving knife, and ran into the woods.

Behind her she heard the now all-too familiar sounds of a gun firing: her father's repeater. She heard a voice that sounded vaguely like Luca before it was obscured by even more gunfire, booming like a cannot shot yet as steady as the fall of rain on a tin roof. A scream rang out over all the fighting, then was cut off just as quickly.

Caterina fought her way up the large hill her house stood in front of, swallowing hisses of pain as all kinds of unknown things bit into her bare feet. She held the carving knife in her left hand, the folds of her nightgown with her right. She glanced back as often as she could, heart pounding so madly that she was surprised that it hadn't simply clawed its way out of her chest.

When she reached the top, she ran. She ran until her sides hurt and she felt as though God himself would have to give her the strength if she were to carry on. Her hair blew behind her and settled over her shoulders as Caterina weaved in and out of the trees, trying to make sense of where she was. Was she going north? South? She looked up but couldn't see the moon nor the stars through the foliage. She longed for a lantern to guide her way, or for Oatmeal, so at least she wouldn't have to worry about tripping over a root and breaking her ankles.

She longed for her siblings and her father most of all.

They're all dead, she wailed silently inside of her mind as she brushed past another tree, Adelaide and Bianca and Graziana and Rosie and now father and Luca! They're all dead and soon, you're gonna be dea—

Caterina's thoughts were rudely interrupted by an unseen tree root wrapping around her foot. Shrieking, she fell to the ground, the knife spinning away from her grasp. She fell face-first into the fresh mud, her ankle suddenly throbbing.

Before Caterina could stand up and hobble away, she felt the earth shake under her feet. A small thundering was coming, right for her. Horses. The bad men.

Forcing down her sheer panic, Caterina glanced wildly around and spotted a fallen log only a few paces away. She scrambled on all fours for it as the sounds of horse hooves grew louder, louder, louder still. She looked inside, almost fainting with relief to see that it was hollowed out. Caterina forced herself inside her makeshift sanctuary as quickly as she could manage, yanking the rest of her nightgown in with her and smoothing her hair down and out of her face.

The galloping grew more and more deafening. The horses' neighing grew stronger. It was bearing down on her. What if they went over the log and trampled her? What if they saw her? Were there holes in here? Caterina curled up as best she could, pressed her hands over her head, and buried her chin into the mud, desperately trying to quell another fresh set of tears.

Louder.

Louder.

Louder.

And suddenly, the world fell silent. Caterina opened her eyes, not entirely sure when she had squeezed them shut. Even though she couldn't hear or see anything, she felt their presence above her like the devil himself was flying overhead.

And just as quickly as it came, the peace was shattered by the return of the thunder. Now, the horsemen were directly in front of her, their large beasts' noises almost humanlike. The sound of horse hooves faded into the distance almost as soon as they had begun bearing down on her.

Trembling violently, Caterina edged forward and poked her head out of the log. There was no one to be seen, nothing to be heard except birds and wind and the soft rustling of the branches overhead. The moon poked its head shyly through the leaves, reflecting off the blade of her knife as it stuck out of the muck a few feet away from her. With a twinge of relief that she knew wouldn't last, Caterina realized that the men on horses were looking for her but had passed over her log with their huge horses, riding off either with all of their treasure or in search of her.

Had they seen her leave the house? Where was Luca? Should she wait for him?

What would her father do?

Head to Longshore, Caterina thought. Head there, find the sheriff, wait for Luca. Move before those men decide to come back.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Caterina inched herself out from under her cover and pushed herself up to her knees and then her unsteady feet. Her white nightgown was covered in dirt. The pain in her ankle was agonizing, but she didn't bother to pay it much mind. Rather, Caterina practically crawled her way over to her sole source of protection, wrenched it out of the ground, and started running again. She made sure to veer off from the direction the bad men had gone, lest she ran into one of them doubling back to the house.

The house!

Against all her better judgement, Caterina turned to look over her shoulder back the way that she had come. A distant glow was rising over the hill she'd sprinted over. It was warm, inviting, and possibly could've been the signal of a new dawn had there been no dark smoke accompanying it. To her, it served as an omen of destruction. Her house—and with it, her whole world—was burning.

Caterina didn't stop.

She turned and ran, sobbing, turning her back on everything that she'd ever known.

Chapter Text

Longshore was a half a day's ride by horse, that she knew. But it was a three-day journey by foot, something Caterina learned the hard way.

Doggedly, she navigated her way through the woods in an effort to make it into town. She stayed off the beaten roads in fear of being spotted by the men who'd come for her father and siblings, and thus kept herself confined to the woods en route to Longshore. Unsure of whether or not she was even going in the right direction, she just picked a spot on the horizon and walked towards it until her feet hurt and she was ready to drop dead from exhaustion.

That first night, Caterina wandered through the woods until she simply couldn't anymore, half blinded by tears and pain. The smell of burning wood faded into the background as she headed deeper and deeper into the forest, weaving in and out of the greenery like some sort of madman. She walked through the forest until her heels bled, finally dropping under a tree sometime after the sun started to rise. She slept in the mud under the roots of an oak, her knife clutched in her hands, only waking when a bright stream of light finally shifted over her eyes and spooked her back into moving.

The next day, more walking. The sores on her heels bled and bled until dirt caked them closed. Her tears had ceased falling—Caterina suspected that she simply had none left to cry—only to be replaced by headaches from dehydration. As fortune would have it, she found a stream sometime before (or after?) midday and stuck to it, drinking her fill and allowing the rushing water to wash away the dirt that clung to her legs and clothes. A few hours into her journey upstream, a large rock sliced her foot back open, sending her back to the shoreline howling. Her lesson learned, Caterina sliced off one of the sleeves of her nightgown with the knife, wrapped it around her foot, and continued on her way, trying her best to ignore how she was limping. She spent that night on the shore, the ruins of her attempt to make a fire lying in pieces at her feet. Caterina tried to sleep but found that the growling in her stomach was much more efficient at keeping her awake then her younger siblings. That just meant that she got an early start the next day.

The sun was high in the sky by the time Caterina encountered another road. This one was forked, branching off in two opposite directions. Caterina hid out of sight and observed the road for a little while, watching the passerby come and go. Many of them had horses. Most of them were men. None of them were the bad men who'd come several nights ago. For what must've been an hour, Caterina sat in the undergrowth and watched men turn to the left. If left led to the closest town, then she'd take her chances on the intuition of strangers. When she was sure the coast was clear, Caterina crossed the road and started heading in the direction of the crowds. She never stayed on the road but remained close enough to keep it in her sights. The moment she heard sounds from the road she would press herself to the ground and duck out of sight; her once-white nightgown now bore every single shade of brown that existed on Earth, it seemed.

Caterina hadn't eaten. She was too scared to. Her father had once told her that you should never eat something unless you were certain as to what it was, and she wasn't about to become a master hunter without her own gun to shoot with. But once again, fortune seemed to smile its stupid face back down on her when Caterina crossed paths with a campsite. It wasn't much, just a drunk old man with his fire, his food, and his liquor. Caterina watched him from the darkness for a while, watching him eat, then drink, then burp, then drink, then mumble something incoherent, then drink, drink, drink, drink, until he simply toppled out of his chair in a drunken stupor. When he didn't wake up, she emerged from the foliage and warmed herself next to his unconscious body. A few overcooked pieces of meat remained over the flames, and after much internal debating her hungry side won over and she took them for herself. They were gone far too quickly, leaving Caterina with a dying campfire, a collapsed tent, and a half-dead man who most likely wasn't going to remember the night.

She still left, anyway. Caterina'd already eaten his food and she was feeling guilty enough for it; there was no point to taking anything more and making herself feel worse. Or even better, staying too long and getting shot for her troubles. She did, however, steal a pair of his socks. One foot was still bleeding and the other was swollen up—she needed something to help her make it to Longshore, after all. Hopefully they wouldn't be missed.

The trees never seemed to let up. Sights and sounds and smells of all different kinds assaulted Caterina's senses. Still she wandered, her footsteps now cushioned thanks to the socks, following the cart trails and hoofprints through the wilds of Lemoyne until she ran into something, anything.

She journeyed straight through that night and into the next morning. She hardly even noticed that she'd wandered back onto the road until she caught sight of buildings in the distance. Hope sparking in her chest, Caterina started making her way towards them on unsteady, hungry, sleep-deprived feet.

Caterina stumbled into the tiny, dusty town when the sun hung high in the sky overhead, dizzy and delirious. Her skin was sunburnt underneath all the dirt, itching something fierce. Her hair was starting to clump together from all the sweat, muck, and stress, and she tugged her fingers through it absentmindedly in an effort to tame it somewhat. Her stomach hurt, her tongue was scratchy, and her legs were weak, so much so that Caterina staggered over to the nearest surface she could find and braced herself against it.

There wasn't much before her, and her heart sank at the thought that her travels were all for naught. The road she'd found herself on that day cut straight through the tiny town and spread out into the horizon beyond. There was one, two, three, four, five buildings before her, and Caterina assumed there were more on her side of the street that she couldn't see. Men and women alike milled about, constantly brushing off the dust that seemed to cover the town center like a fog. Caterina lolled her head to one side; back the way she came from, this small little place was surrounded by a beautiful meadow of Lemoyne goldenrod, coating the world in physical sunlight. It was peaceful, and she found herself lost in it long enough to consider it a moment of respite.

"You lost?"

Caterina's head slumped the other way. Two men sat on the porch she leaned against, staring at her (in the midst of her delirium, the one clear thought Caterina had was how she supposed she couldn't truly blame them). One was shorter and portly, the other taller and stocky. Dust had settled in their beards and made both of them appear somewhat older than they were. The portly man wore a red work shirt under his back suspenders. The stocky man wore white and green, with a gold star pinned to his vest.

She opened her mouth and was taken aback by what came out. Her voice sounded splintered as it rose out of her, and she coughed up dust before trying again. "Where am I?" she rasped.

The two men exchanged a look. "You're in Longshore, miss," the stocky man said, concerned. "You alright?"

She was in Longshore.

She'd made it.

The jolt of realization sent her standing straight up again. Both men on the porch gave a start before her at her sudden burst of energy.

"The sheriff," she tried her best to tell them despite the state of the words coming off her tongue, "I need to see the sheriff. Please, it's real important. I…I-I—"

And that was about as far as she got before her voice gave out. Caterina doubled over and wheezed; given the state of her body it felt more like she was folding in on herself. Firm hands gripped her arms and began to guide her away. Caterina managed to look up to find the stocky man from the porch had jumped to her aid and was keeping her steady while leading her across the street.

Caterina moaned in exhaustion. She tripped over the torn hem of her nightgown, feeling the grips around her arms tighten as the stocky man held her firm. "What the hell happened to you?" he asked.

She shook her head, unable to muster up an answer. Rather than pry further, the stocky man just continued to guide her across town. Dirt became wood as he led Caterina up a set of stairs, then through a door. Cooler air hit her like a glass of water to the face, jolting her upright, more awake than she felt in the past few days.

The stocky man had guided her to Longshore's sheriff's office. It was nothing more than a small and dusty building with creaky floorboards and hazy windows. A rickety chair sat in front of a bulky desk, papers scattered over its surface with seemingly no sense of organization. A coatrack stood next to the door, a lone jacket and knapsack hanging from it. There was a small hallway that led to a closed door, and in the back were two cells that contained no one. She was alone with the man still holding her, who guided her to the chair in front of the desk and helped her into it.

The stocky man disappeared from her field of view for a moment. Caterina heard a door open, water start gushing, and then the heavy sound of footsteps walking over creaky wood. A glass of water was placed in her hands, and her mind shifted rapidly into some sort of animalistic way as she drank greedily and the man settled himself behind the desk.

"Alright, miss, don't worry. You're in safe hands now," the man said. He flicked at the gold star on his chest, "Name's Sheriff Henry Mitchell. I'm the authority here at Longshore. What's your name, miss?"

"My name?" with no strength behind them, her words seemed to crumble into thin air.

"Yes, ma'am, your name," Sheriff Mitchell said patiently. "You do got one, do you?"

Caterina's vision spun. She downed the rest of the water in the glass before croaking out; "Caterina Pozzi."

Something in Sheriff Mitchell's face twitched. With a slowness that seemed to rival her own sluggish movements, he bent down behind the desk, opened a draw, and started digging through its contents. Caterina watched as he placed multiple stacks of papers, some folders, and even a large revolver on top of his desk before finally finding what he was looking for: a smaller looking folder with an even smaller stack of papers held within. Scowling and brushing some of the mess away, Sheriff Mitchell placed the folder on his desk and starting thumbing through it.

"Caterina Pozzi? Eldest daughter of Gianni and Juliette Pozzi?" the Sheriff asked.

"Yes sir."

"You live forty some-odd miles south of here, Miss. Pozzi. What're you doing all alone? Where might your father be?"

And just like that, all at once, all of Caterina's memories came surging back to her. She choked on air and felt tears well up in her eyes. The sheriff could only look on in alarm as she buried her face into her hands and started bawling all over again.

Footsteps clacked over the wood and hands gripped her wrists. "Miss. Pozzi, please, I need you to tell me what happened to ya," Sheriff Mitchell said.

His words almost didn't register to Caterina. But nevertheless, after a few minutes of sobbing that relented to crying, then sniffling, then hiccupping, she managed to grit out her story; "I-I-I saw t-these men. Big ol' men in d-dark coats. They came and s-stole my…my pa and my s-sisters outta their beds three nights ago and I don't k-know why. Shot 'em. Shot 'em all in the he—the h-heads. Started to burn up t-the house. My-my-my brother t-told me to come here and g-get help. I don't…Sheriff, I-I don't know what t-to do. My family and m-my home's all gone. I dunno where my b-brother is," she at last managed to look up at Sheriff Mitchell, "Sir, what if they co-come back for me?"

The sheriff didn't hold her gaze, turning away and returning to his desk. He whipped out a pen from his pocket, then rummaged around for a spare piece of paper. "Don't worry, Miss. Pozzi. We're gonna get to the bottom of this for ya," he assured her, the tone of his voice unreadable, "Can you describe these men?"

Caterina hiccupped again, rubbing her tears away with the back of her filthy hand, "They… they were all big. Tall. Real scary lookin'. Carried shotguns, I think. I-I was only lookin' through the crack of the door, sir; I didn't get a real good look at their faces."

The sound of pen scratching on paper filled the empty room. "How many men were there?" the sheriff asked.

"I dunno. Saw eight of 'em, I think."

"Catch any names? Anything to identify them?"

"No sir. There was one of 'em who talked. Biggest of the lot, too. Had a black hat and black coat," she said, wringing the fingers on her bad hand out of habit.

The sheriff's eyes darted down to her hand, so fast she swore she imagined it. She instinctually covered her two missing fingers with her good hand, but the sheriff commented on it anyway, "What's wrong wit' your hand? It missing some fingers there?"

She didn't answer. Sheriff Mitchell continued to stare openly at her maimed hand but eventually turned away to write something down on the little piece of paper. Caterina twisted her fingers in her sweaty grasp, watching him work in silence.

Without warning, he suddenly stood up, taking the paper he was writing on with him. "Wait here, Miss. Pozzi," he told her, flashing her a reassuring smile, "I'm going to round up some boys, and then we're going to take you back to check out your property. Can you wait here for me? Just for a little while?"

Caterina nodded.

"Good," and with that said, the sheriff pocketed the paper, grabbed his coat from the rack, and disappeared through the front door. It fell shut on its own, and Caterina watched in the window as the sheriff headed down the stairs and made for the road. Caterina stood abruptly and made her way to the window, wiping away the dust that'd coated the glass. Sheriff Mitchell strolled on with a haste he didn't have in his office, crossing the street for the big building down the road with purpose. There were many horses were tied in front, and several men loitered outside, clinking their drinks and having a merry time. The saloon, she figured. Sheriff Mitchell passed them all without a greeting and disappeared through the door.

Caterina wasn't much of an intellectual. Never spent a day in school. Never even learned her letters. Everything that she'd ever learned had been from the mouth of her mother, her father, or from basic life experience. But if she knew one thing, it was that a gut was the second most useful thing a person could have besides a brain. And her gut was screaming at her that something was terribly, dreadfully wrong. It was scratching something fierce in her stomach, hot and uncomfortable. Her hand that held the knife trembled.

She stared out at Longshore's main square for what felt like a year before Sheriff Mitchell emerged from the saloon. Tailing him out the door was a man who must've had at least six inches on him, possibly more. His skin was pale, offsetting the dark duster and boots he wore. His blond hair was nearly as pale as his skin, falling to his shoulders. He wore a belt over his shoulder that was loaded full of bullets, a rifle for all of them slung over his back. The man's hat—black leather with what appeared to be a band made of rattlesnake skin—was wide-brimmed and shadowed the man's face.

But she'd recognize that broad figure anywhere. In the middle of the afternoon or silhouetted against an ink-black sky. The sheriff waved him on, pointing to the office, and they started making their way back across the street.

Terrified, Caterina backed away from the window into the sheriff's desk, scattering papers everywhere. She was hyperventilating again, clutching at the ruins of her nightgown with her bad hand. She whirled around.

She needed to hide.

Her head whipped to the cells, then to the small hallway where the sheriff had gotten the water, then to Sheriff Mitchell's desk. The revolver he'd pulled out earlier was still sitting there. On instinct she took it. In that little empty office, she held a gun in her hands for the very first time. It felt like a mortal sin in and of itself, like she'd just damned herself for all eternity.

She needed to hide.

The thought boomed through her head once more. There was nowhere she could hide. This was it. They'd come to finish the job.

She needed to hide.

Think. Where? In the cell? No. Under the desk? She was on her hands and knees and scrambling to cram her body in the small space under the sheriff's desk before she could consider any other options. She brought her knees up to her chin. The pistol rocked violently back and forth in her hands, physical representation of the horror running through her mind.

The door opened and it was like all her thoughts shut off, like someone turning the nozzle on a sink. Caterina held her breath, miraculously still. Footsteps crossed through the threshold.

"Miss. Pozzi, this is—" the Sheriff voice resounded through the seemingly empty room, then broke off. Silence. Then: "The shit? She was right here, I swear it. Where'd she go?"

The dark man's laugh sent lightning shooting through her blood. His voice was cold and empty, like snow and all the death that came with it given form. What little amusement held in it was fake, a cheap replacement of a feeling that had no chance of becoming the thing it was imitating. "And you're sure it was her?" he mused.

"Called herself Caterina Pozzi. Looked around sixteen years a' age. Wore a nightgown all tattered to shit. Had two missing fingers on her left hand. Fit your description of her to a T."

"Not surprised she ran, then."

Sheriff Mitchell's response was agitated, like he was offended, "What reason would she have had to run!?"

"You're about as subtle as a drunkard in a church, Henry. I'd've done the same if you were drilling me."

Caterina's heart was pounding so hard against her chest that she was honestly surprised that it wasn't drumming against the wood on her back and giving her hiding spot away.

"Well, you were right. Now she's gone. What do we do now?"

"There's no 'we' in this situation, Sheriff. Miss. Pozzi's run off again but she's not far. She won't be hard for my men to find."

"She—" the sheriff's abruptly trailed off. There was a beat of silence before he swore loudly, "—that bitch stole my fucking pistol!"

There was a loud banging above her head as Sheriff Mitchell slammed his fist down on the corner of the desk in fury. Caterina's grip on the aforementioned revolver tightened while she fought back a whimper.

"Get a hold of yourself, Henry. You can get another goddamn pistol. You've got the money for it now."

"It was a fucking Schofield, Logan! That ain't some low-grade sharecropper weapon, you know. You're gonna have to compensate me another fifty if I have a chance to get my hands on another one!"

The dark man—Logan—chuckled as if he found Sheriff Mitchell's anger amusing. "It's a simple solution, then. You find Miss. Pozzi, you get the gun back. And hell, I'll even throw in another fifty for all of your efforts, as pathetic as they were."

Sheriff Mitchell snorted in disdain. Papers shifted in the air as though he kicked them. "Fucking bitch…" the sheriff trailed off. "C'mon, Logan, she couldn't have gotten far. We'll need to check the roads."

"I warned you that she'd try to run. You should've just taken her with you into Monroe's and let my boys and I take it from there."

"Didn't want to scare her."

"She's already scared, you fool. You just made it harder on yourself."

The door opened as their conversation continued and shut just as quickly. Caterina stayed, terror rooting her in place, as two pairs of boots stepped off the porch and wandered into the distance, still arguing. She didn't dare chance to even move a finger until their voices were lost to their surroundings.

As soon as she was sure that they wouldn't hear her move around inside, Caterina scrambled out from under the desk and made for the window. Sheriff Mitchell and the dark man were entering the saloon once more, locked in heated discussion. The door swung open and they walked inside to the shade before it slammed shut again.

Alright, no more hiding. Now, Caterina had to run. Run until she disappeared and never look back.

She couldn't go through the front door. Someone'd surely see her and all her efforts would be for naught. Caterina spun towards the hallway in the back room, her destination set. Before she left, however, she grabbed the knapsack off of the coatrack, stuffed her knife inside, and slung it over her shoulders.

The room in the corner turned out to be a bathroom: a real simple one, too. A sink sat opposite a toilet and that was about it. But a small window stood above the toilet. And that was how she was going to escape.

Caterina closed the door and locked it. Then, she clambered up to the window on wobbly limbs. She slid the window up and blinked back harsh sunlight right in her face. To the west was the start of what looked like a large forest, vast and intimidating but at the very least safe. She just had to make it through the goldenrod and then she could make it away from this godawful town.

She tossed the knapsack through first, then squeezed herself out of the sheriff's office and onto the ground several feet below. Caterina landed hard on her feet, gasping as she went to her knees, ankles flaring up again from the pain. She didn't stop. She scooped up the knapsack and bolted for the goldenrod.

The plants came up to her waist, making it hard to outright sprint for the safety of the forest. Caterina thus had to resort to wading through it like a Nwa swamp, the leaves and branches tugging at her nightgown as if acting on some sick otherworldly yearning to slow her down. She hardly kept her eyes in front of her; Caterina kept looking back the way she came, wondering if she was going to be spotted in one moment and have horses bearing down on her the next. The sheriff's gun was still in her hands, her finger curled over the trigger in a threat she knew she couldn't follow through with. But nothing ever came for her. Longshore slowly grew smaller and smaller and smaller until the dust threatened to swallow it up entirely. Caterina made it out of the goldenrod and into the forest without being spotted, and she disappeared into the bosom the forests' oak trees.

And she ran.

Caterina ran like she'd never run before. As though God had blessed her feet with wings, she sprinted through the woods and beyond. She ran until Longshore was far behind her and the sun was shining bright into her face. She ran, because it was all she knew how to do anymore. Running soon turned into walking, walking into stumbling, and stumbling into staggering.

Finally, when she was too exhausted to continue, Caterina dropped to her knees and crawled to the shade of an oak tree. There, she curled up like she'd done under Sheriff Mitchell's desk, with her knees to her chin and the revolver held so tightly her knuckles were stark-white from the grip. Her nightgown was in further tatters, but it was now streaked with yellow from the goldenrod. Marked by physical sunlight, as if golden fingers had raked through the cotton.

Caterina grabbed the knapsack and rummaged through it. The knife was there, of course; also inside was a can of peaches, a matchbox that was half empty, two cartons of cheap cigarettes, and a bread roll. Her stomach barked as her hand brushed against the loaf, so Caterina gave into her hunger and ate the bread first, savoring the first food she'd had all day.

With nothing left to do, Caterina looked the pistol over. It was a pretty thing. At least, she thought so. Sheriff Mitchell must've really cared about it for all the custom work the gun had. The handle was white, surprisingly cold in her hands, and the metal had been polished meticulously. Along the barrel, two letters had been etched into the steel—the sheriff's initials, she figured. An H for Henry and an M for Mitchell. She ran her hands over the letters and scratched at them with her fingernails, trying to root herself back in the present.

After some effort, she found the button that managed to open the space where she could put the bullets. Caterina sighed dejectedly when she saw that the gun hadn't even been fully loaded, as two of the six spaces were empty. She snapped the mechanism back into place and fingered the trigger. She had only four bullets to defend herself, but odds were that she was going to get shot before she could even get the chance to do so.

Now, where was she going to go from here? She had no idea where she was; she only knew her directions—north, south, east, and west.

Caterina raised her head to the sky and searched for the sun. Branches spread overhead, as delicate and fractured as spiderwebs, where a dying light peeked shyly through the leaves and pushed dappled shade into the clearing. It was cool and silent all around her. Another moment of respite, but this one hardly did much to ease the pain in her heart.

She could make it to another town, she supposed. Fear shot though Caterina at the thought. There was no longer any doubt that these dark men were intending to chase her to the ends of the earth in order to put a bullet through her head, so going to a town in these areas would practically be the equivalent of getting on her hands and knees and just digging herself into a grave. It might've been better to make it easy for herself, she supposed.

She couldn't go east unless she wanted to eventually wind up in the Gulf of Mexico. She could go north, just keep trekking through the woods and try to make it for the Grizzlies and beyond. Caterina had never been to the Grizzly Mountains. Not so sure she ever wanted to, either. The winter months would wane soon, sure, but apparently the snow in the mountains was year-long, unrelenting. She'd make it about three steps in her flimsy clothes and promptly freeze to death. Going north was a last resort, if anything, but Caterina had a sick feeling that those mountains were in fact just another captor, not a refuge.

Or, she could go south. Try to make it to Saint Denis, somehow. Least that was a place she'd been to before, albeit only a few times. An orphan girl like her would no doubt blend into the crowds and get lost in the menagerie. She'd live her life as some sort of street urchin until she could scrounge up enough money to make something of herself. But deep down, Caterina knew that that was the best care scenario, if not an outright fantasy. Someone would probably grab her by her hair and toss her into a convent the moment she set foot there. More likely, she'd get shot in the middle of the night for whatever pennies she had on her person. The police'd write some small little obituary that no one would care for and she'd be thrown into some makeshift grave in the swamp where the muck would smother any last memories of her. Her body shuddered violently at the thought, for once offering her something else other than tears.

What about west? Caterina's head turned to the sun, just starting to set beyond the hills. She'd never been very far west. When she was young, perhaps, but she could hardly remember a moment when her family wanted to leave Lemoyne. She had no idea what lay out west but surely it was better than either drowning, freezing, the church, or just outright murder? She'd avoid the towns. Stick to the woods. At least until it was safe, whenever that was. Could be in a few days, a few weeks. Maybe it wouldn't ever be safe again.

Her eyes fell, downcast, to her hands. Her thumb ran the length of the revolver's handle, feeling the cold seep into her fingers.

She couldn't stay here. It was either head west and seek shelter or sit down and wait for her fate to claim her on the backs of dark horses and down the barrels of shotguns. The choice seemed less like a choice the more she thought about it.

Caterina rose, swaying on unsteady feet. She stuffed the pistol into the sheriff's knapsack with the knife, slung it over her shoulder, and started following the path of the dying sun, her doubts following her like bloodhounds through the night.

Chapter Text

Caterina needed food.

She'd been moving west steady and silently. Sticking to the woods, always sticking to the woods. The forest's shade was cool on her back, sparing her of the growing March heat. At least, was it March? It had to have been by now. She was losing track of her days—the mornings and evenings all seemed to blend together after a while into one hazy stretch of time that seemed to pass her by and yet stand still all at once.

Caterina was barefoot again. The socks she'd stolen had fallen off a long time ago; one had simply unthreaded, the other had a small hole in them that grew and grew until Caterina could stick her entire foot through it. She'd kicked them off into some random river she'd passed by, resuming her travels without anything on her feet. Her soles ached, but she kept moving onward, always west towards the setting sun like she'd told herself.

In the following days, she'd quickly taught herself how to make and sustain small campfires. It took her several failed attempts, and with it several of her precious matches, but Caterina eventually managed to build them out of spare twigs, dried grass, and dead leaves. She'd tried her hardest to ration the canned peaches, but they were gone so, so quickly. Her meal for one of the days had merely been the sweet syrup on the sides of the can that she licked up with her fingers, and Caterina would've even eaten the tin for breakfast the next morning had she been able to. When she finally tossed the can, so cleaned through that it was practically brand new, on the fire, she stared at it mournfully, regretting not rationing those peaches even more than just a few pieces every single day.

She needed food, real food, and fast. She couldn't stand a chance of outrunning anybody on an empty stomach. The next day, Caterina found it.

It was night. She was in the process of falling asleep against a live oak by a small creek, concealing herself in overgrown reeds. Her fire had only recently died down, the cinders still smoking. The moon was full but clouds had quickly rolled in, so moonlight was forced to peek out through any holes in the clouds in order to reach the lowlands. Caterina was just nodding off when a shot rang out.

Her hands immediately went for the knapsack to pull out the revolver. Another shot rang out, and something cried out. Caterina listened, her fingers curled around the handle of the gun in case the shooter was close by. A third shot sounded. Now, Caterina could tell that, while in the area, it was nowhere near her. The thing from before cried out again, and now she could hear a whooping sound.

She sat upright, her good hand holding the knapsack, and peered around the live oak. Cautiously, she moved into the open, straining to hear where the sounds had come from. Her feet moved for her, taking her to the direction that she thought she heard the gunshots. Walking soon turned into running, then sprinting, driven by something that Caterina felt was no longer curiosity. She didn't have to go very far before she found the source.

It was a hunter, rifle in one hand, an oil lantern hanging off his belt, his horse grazing some few feet away. The man wore nothing but a pair of sun-bleached overalls and a straw hat that had hawk feathers tucked into the band. He was still cheering as he stood over a shot deer. The poor thing was still just barely alive, making futile attempts to get away from the hunter even though it couldn't even pick itself off the ground. One bullet had lodged itself into its hindquarter, another in its shoulder. Caterina caught a whiff of the coppery smell of blood and ducked low under some bushes, but it was clear that the hunter had no idea that she was there.

The man stopped his whooping after a few more seconds and slung his rifle over his shoulder. He drew a knife from his belt, bent down, and plunged it deep into the deer's chest. Caterina winced as more blood sprayed out, covering the leaves with crimson streaks. The poor creature gave one more shudder, let out a dying whimper, and then fell still. The hunter rose to his feet, wiping the blood off the knife with the leg of his overalls.

As he returned to his horse, Caterina's eyes flicked back to the dead deer as it just lay there. Her stomach was tying itself into knots just looking at it, hollow with hunger. Her mouth was watering. Caterina's eyes drifted to the hunter, then to the carcass, then back to the hunter, then to her knapsack.

She pulled out the revolver with trembling hands. There was no need to shoot the hunter, of course. Just fire a bullet and scare him off, then take the deer and run as fast as possible back to the river. It would be easy, and no one would have to be hurt.

Aiming the gun some five or six feet above the horse's head, Caterina pulled the trigger and felt the gun click uselessly in her hand.

Dangit. Caterina reopened the gun to check that it was loaded, which it was. Then why wasn't it firing? She squeezed the trigger again and got no response. Caterina was about to give up the endeavor entirely when she noticed that the gun's latch wasn't pulled back. With her bad hand, she clicked the thing into place, feeling the trigger stiffen under her forefinger.

By now the hunter was returning for the deer with a bit of rope, so Caterina hurriedly readjusted her aim and fired the revolver without a second's more thought.

This time, the gun exploded in her hand like a firecracker. It kicked—hard, as if it were a fussy child screaming for its mother. Caterina dropped the revolver in surprise and it fell to the forest floor, still smoking from the barrel. The bullet, meanwhile, sailed through the air and became lodged in an oak tree about two feet above the horse itself, splintering the soft bark. The hunter cursed in shock as the gunshot split the night apart. The horse, whinnying in a way that almost seemed human to Caterina, tore through the trees, it's owner completely forgotten in the dust. It crashed through the undergrowth and disappeared, the sound of its gallop echoing through the darkness.

Caterina watched, still recovering from her astonishment, as the hunter raced after his mount, shouting threats to his unknown assailant. He pushed his way through the bushes after the horse, the deer forgotten about. And then it was quiet again. The only sounds were those of Caterina's own heart in her throat and the cicadas screaming their songs into the night sky.

But there was no more time now. Caterina pushed her way through the bushes, stuffing the revolver back into the knapsack and retrieving the knife instead. She bent down next to the deer, still pristine and untouched aside from the knife wound. It was a doe, too. Probably wandered into the area in search of a mate. Caterina felt a wave of guilt wash over her that she tried to stuff down, yet the trembling in her hands only reminded her of that failure.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, then plunged her own knife into the deer's body and began skinning it.

It wasn't a pretty process. Caterina knew how to skin the pelt off a deer like she knew the lines on her scarred hand but there was little time to give the procedure the care it deserved: not if she wanted to be caught stealing from the hunter's kill when he inevitably returned. She sawed off the pelt partway to reveal the insides, then proceeded to hack out the loins and the steak with unsteady hands. She was left with badly chopped pieces of venison that probably wouldn't go for the pennies at the bottom of a wallet if she tried selling it, but it was food. The area now reeked of blood, and Caterina's arms and nightgown were stained an angry shade of maroon.

When she had cut out all that she could manage to carry, Caterina took her prizes and disappeared in the opposite direction that the hunter had run off to. The doe's mangled corpse lay abandoned on the forest floor.

She journeyed through the rest of the night and into the dawn before she finally decided to stop and rest, convinced she'd made it far enough that a vengeful hunter wouldn't be able to track her. Caterina stopped in full at the banks of a small creek; minnows darted between her legs as she scrubbed the blood off her hands and dress and watched it wash away in dark swirls with the current. The nightgown was still stained—without soap and proper care it most likely would be stained permanently—but Caterina couldn't find it in herself to care when she was so hungry. She built a fire, roasted the meat, and ate and drank her fill when she was done. The rest of it was shoved in her pack for later (she was forced to cut off several inches of the nightgown to wrap the venison up, so it now fell just below her knees). Exhaustion came to Caterina much more easily with a full belly, so she napped in the sand when the fire had died, lulled by the sounds of water rushing over the rocks.

It was the first time she'd fired a gun in her life, she reflected later as she began wandering off west again. She held the thing in her hands as she went, thinking how in the eyes of a proper gunslinger, her efforts might've been considered a waste of ammunition. If it meant that she wasn't going to starve, however, then she'd wear the title being the world's worst sharpshooter with any sense of pride she still had left on her.

-X-

Caterina needed a haircut.

Well, that was hardly the first thing she needed, but a haircut certainly ranked high up there. She needed more food, a goshdang map, a coat, and some shoes. But her hair, despite her best attempts to wash it when she could, had gotten ratted and tangled beyond repair. Maybe cutting it all off would truly be a mercy at this point; it was caked with mud and dust, twisting wildly into horrific clumps that Caterina had no chance of undoing without someone else's help.

She must've left Lemoyne by now. In spite of spring's arrival, the nights had gotten frightfully chilly. Even the brightest of days were marred by horrifically strong winds that blew in from the hills and mountains, gathering strength on their way down through the trees. Had she been heading north by accident? Caterina wasn't entirely positive, but she was certain that she'd been going dead west for at least a few days. Or a few weeks? What day was it?

Her reserves from the deer ran out rather quickly. Caterina would've chanced another encounter with a hunter had she stumbled upon one but she knew better than to actively seek one out. When she heard daylight gunshots, she got cold feet—she'd always spin for the opposite direction and bolt like a startled songbird. What little food she gotten recently came from the occasional blackberry bush she'd stumbled upon in the woods. The first time she'd found one, she'd eaten herself sick and then proceeded to stuff as many berries as she could into the cigarette cartons, their contents long since turned into kindling when she could find none. But the juice of the berries quickly turned the cardboard into a mash of purple paper and pulp. Caterina had eaten the blackberry paste one night as her dinner then tossed the ruined cartons on her fire. The bottom of the knapsack was still slightly sticky with purple spots from blackberry juice, leaving faint imprints on the back of her nightgown. Now she just ate as she traveled, the rumbling in her stomach never satisfied.

She hadn't seen another human since that night she scared the hunter away. That was good. No one, not the dark men or the authorities from Longshore or even a stranger from nearby, had come across her. It was awfully lonely, but at least it was safe. About as safe as the woods could be.

Caterina was crossing through a particularly overgrown portion of some forest, undergrowth tripping her at every turn. It was wildly green, so green that it was hurting her eyes. She stepped carefully through the shrubbery, avoiding patches of nettles and ivy that would impede her ability to keep moving. By now, her legs were covered with untreated scratches from making similar mistakes, the dried blood on her calves and ankles managing to cut through all the grime that had coated her skin since she'd set out from her home so many nights ago. She tried sidestepping past another thorn bush and sighed when her nightgown became tangled in the branches again, so she paused for a moment to bend down and yank it free.

She didn't hear the approach of another soul until it was too late for her to run.

A sharp bark made the breath in Caterina's throat hitch up. She slowly turned over her shoulder; yellow eyes met her eyes from the undergrowth. They blinked once, then twice, then just stared at her, unmoving.

Slowly, Caterina stood up, her hands inching their way for her knapsack. Her father had hunted wolves before. He'd never actively sought them out, but he'd occasionally come back with the corpse of a dead dog strung up on the back of Oatmeal. Caterina was averse to dogs to begin with but she'd never forget the gargantuan size of the gray wolf that had been tied up against the saddle. The image of their claws and teeth had been seared into her memory like a cattle brand.

With trembling hands, she drew the revolver out of her knapsack. The wolf just stared at her from the bushes, not advancing, not even moving. Caterina took a tentative step backwards and the animal wasn't matching her movements. A rush of relief flowed through her, allowing her to breathe properly again.

She took another step back, then another, then another. Caterina was backing out of the wolf's line of sight with increased pace and might've even succeeded in evading it had she been paying attention to where she was going. All of a sudden, her back hit another thorn bush and she lost her balance, crashing to the floor of the forest with a shout. Her head fell backwards, clumps of hair getting further ensnared in the thorns. Desperate, Caterina fought to recover and tried tugging her head free, but the more she struggled, the more she became trapped in the bush.

Her attention shifted when the wolf moved into view. She was a sight to behold, with her fur grayed and scarred with age. Twigs snapped under her big paws. Streaks of something that looked awfully liked dried blood ran along her muzzle. She appeared more curious than malevolent, but the she-wolf still approached Caterina as she fought vainly to free herself from her confinement, a rabbit cornered in its hutch. And to Caterina, that was more than enough reason for her to use her next bullet.

She pulled the latch back as quickly as she could, her heels digging into the dirt as Caterina tried pushing herself further into the thorn bush. The wolf was only a few paces away from her when she lowered the gun and fired it blindly.

The air cracked. The wolf cried out. Caterina recoiled as something hot and sticky sprayed against her leg. And almost as quickly as it advanced, the wolf turned and raced away with her tail between her legs, blood streaming from her shoulder. Caterina could only lay there on the ground and stare, the revolver smoking in her rocking hands.

After a few moments, she tried to pull herself out of the thorns again but found it more and more likely that it was a fruitless endeavor. Caterina's hair was so woven into the branches that it was impossible to separate them by hand. So, she drew the knife.

Caterina held her tangled hair in her bad hand, the knife with the good hand. And started cutting. And cutting. And cutting some more. She cut until she could pull herself free and run away, leaving hunks of dark hair hanging off the thorns.

She blindly ran through the trees and the thorns until Caterina couldn't anymore. She just fell to her knees, staring at the mud under her legs, safe but too drained to continue. When she regained her senses, her head hurt from where she'd pulled herself free, and her ragged mess of hair hung in the corners of her vision in uneven bunches.

With silent horror, Caterina, almost involuntarily, seized a chunk of her hair. She brought the knife to it and started hacking. For fifteen silent, agonizing minutes, Caterina sawed off her locks until she could consider herself safe from more harm. Strands of sliced hair fell away from the carnage like fallen leaves. When she'd finally finished, what used to be mid-length hair now fell somewhere around her ears in some sort of uneven and erratic style, the ends already curling in the morning humidity. Clumps of dark hair littered the ground around her, coating her arms, legs, and nightgown.

Caterina gathered as much of her hair as she could and buried it in a shallow grave of sorts that she dug with her hands. She had to. She needed to bury something.

That night, as she lay on the ground and waited for the sunrise, she prayed for a sense of closure that she knew would never come.

-X-

Caterina needed a doctor.

Her wounds were surely infected. Pus oozed from her open cuts as she slept, and no amount of washing would make the swelling go down. Every step, every movement, was just pain at this point in her journey. Days and nights blended together above her and Caterina wasn't even sure if sleep was a conscious decision anymore. More often than not, she woke up under a tree, not sure when she'd passed out, nor how long she'd slept. Caterina just continued on in a world where time no longer seemed seem to exist.

The hills rolled. The trees swayed. The sun shone. The rain fell. Caterina walked. Cold air seeped through her thin nightgown and wormed its way under her skin, into her bones. The grass under her feet had all but vanished, replaced with pebbly shorelines and rivers far too wild to cross. While the forests kept going—forever, it was seeming like—the area to the south was nothing but empty grasslands and towering stone formations. Caterina would stop and stare at them sometimes, if only to offer herself a sense of respite. She'd follow along the lines in the stone with tired eyes, sitting with her back against a pine tree because she'd surely fall over if she wasn't bracing herself against something. And then when her moment of peace was over, she'd melt back into the trees like she'd never existed there to begin with.

The ground underneath her feet was rocky and hard now that she'd left Lemoyne. Trees and forests were broken up with towering cliffs that seemed to follow no rational pattern, no sense of logic. As a result, Caterina was forced to take this part of her journey slowly if she didn't want to accidentally trip off a cliff. She edged her way along the sides of mountains along trails that were certainly not made for horses and quite possibly not even made for men. Nowadays, Caterina would hide her knapsack under a large tree or in a crevice that was impossible to see without searching for and scout ahead, looking for a way out of these death lands and back to where the ground was soft and flat underfoot.

It was surely around midday. Caterina wasn't far from the edge of the mountain base by now; she'd had to climb several feet into a pine tree to get a better view, but it seemed like her luck was finally turning around. Just a little way below these cliffs was a large span of trees that stretched for miles. If she turned south for a little while, then west again, then she'd be back in the seclusion of the forests and not exposed on these cliffsides. There was a small path that led downwards, winding but seemingly safe. If she got her things, she could be on solid ground before dusk.

Steadily, Caterina ventured back to where she'd abandoned her knapsack under the roots of an oak tree that grew against the side of a cliff on a smaller trail that seemingly hadn't bore the signs of footprints in years. She took even that path slowly; about twenty feet below, dark water ran south, rushing over the rocks at breakneck speeds. Caterina shuddered at the mere thought of the surge, putting down the knife and revolver for a moment to run her hands through her hair and steady herself.

When she reached the tree, however, she was met with a sight even worse than the thought of the river's swell.

Two men crowded around her hiding place. Their horses stood some few feet away, oblivious. They were well-built, well-dressed, and curiously poking at the knapsack with the butt of their rifles. Caterina's heart threw itself against her ribs so hard and so fast that it hurt.

One of the men suddenly looked up, caught sight of her, and pointed. His friend glanced over his shoulder, surprise written clearly on his face.

Terror sent her scrambling backwards. Caterina raised the revolver and clicked the latch back without thinking, trying to decide who to aim for first.

The first man rushed forward, his hand moving towards her, "Wai—!"

And then there was nothing under her back foot. Only air.

Caterina had sent herself scrambling right over the cliffside.

The world stopped moving for a minute. No birds sung. No stones shifted. Even her heart ceased it's hammering in her chest. Caterina stood there, suspended in mid-air, feeling her eyes grow wide.

And then it all caught up with her. She toppled backwards with a scream. Her finger pulled the trigger and the revolver fired straight up into the sky. And she was falling, falling, falling.

The river caught her, but the air still shot from Caterina's lungs with a pained cry before the river water surged over her head. Suddenly, Caterina was flipped and tugged this way and that way, struggling to fight the current. She kicked out and struck stone with her foot, pain momentarily making her vision go white. Her one hand held the knife, the other the revolver, both uselessly tossed about as the river pulled her further and further along.

By some miracle—perhaps the river took pity on her, perhaps not—Caterina's head broke the surface of the water. She sucked in air like her life depended on it, fighting desperately to keep her head above the foam, and blinked water out of her eyes. The flow of the river rocked her feverishly, caught like a leaf in a gale.

Move your arms, her father's words sounded like firecrackers in her head. She flapped her arms and they floundered about uselessly.

Kick, her father's voice spoke again. She kicked out, wincing as she struck something else she couldn't see.

Make yourself flat, she made herself go as horizontal as possible, and suddenly Caterina felt slightly more in control of herself. She kicked as hard as she could, flailed her arms a bit like she thought she could claw her way through the current, and slowly felt herself move. But not fast enough, Caterina was so focused on swimming that she missed the rock that jutted out of the river's surface.

She raised the arm with the knife to brace herself but it did no help. Caterina smacked face-first into the rock and pain seared through her as if someone was trying to rip her nose off. She cried out, water and blood spilling into her mouth, and spun out of control around the rock and back into the depths.

But the impact of the rock's blow had forced Caterina closer to the shore. She felt pebbly sand against her toes and pushed off it desperately, splashing as hard as she could through the agony.

And just as soon as she was in the water, she was out of it. Flat on her chest, blood streaming from her crushed nose and turning the sand under her face a pale crimson. The water lapped hungrily at her legs, trying to grab her again and drag her down with her. Caterina managed to look up to see the tree line only a few feet away. Hundreds of trees stood before her, old friends ready to welcome her back into the shadows.

Caterina coughed up water and blood until her lungs hurt, then crawled, her strength sapped. She pushed herself on her hands and knees and dragged herself forward until the trees enveloped her and the dappled sunlight struggled to shine overhead, and only then did Caterina collapse against a tree, her world spinning. And for a few minutes she did nothing but breathe in and out, too woozy for anything else.

She touched her nose gingerly and nearly started crying from the pain of it all. Her entire face felt bashed in, and blood and snot still streamed out of her ruined nose without any sign of stopping. Her eyes drifted to her hands. The revolver, that cursed thing, was still in her right hand, undamaged. The knife in her left hand wasn't so lucky. With a jolt, she realized that the impact of the rock must've been harder than she thought, because her trusted knife was now broken. What had once been a sharp kitchen blade had been snapped like a carrot, the metal split into a V-shape that was a third its original size. But she didn't have much time to consider the consequences of it before she used it to cut off her other sleeve. She held the cloth to her nose in a futile attempt to stanch the bleeding.

So that was that. She had one bullet, no knife, no knapsack, and no idea where she was. Caterina laughed weakly, then let her head fall back as darkness crowded at the edges of her vision. Caterina's only coherent thought under that tree, wrapped back up in the protection of the woods, was to ponder just how long she had left before nature finished her off once and for all.

-X-

Caterina needed a new name.

She was so tired. She no longer had the strength to run, so she stumbled through the wilds of America like some sort of ghost haunting the grounds she'd died upon. There was a gnawing in her stomach that no meager amount of food or water would quell. Her hands and feet were blackened, bloody, and worn. The nightgown was coming apart at the seams, barely held together at this point by a measly amount of threading. Her scratches hurt. Her nose was still in agony and Caterina was sure it wasn't going to heal straight. Her hands wouldn't stop shaking. Her eyes stung and it was getting harder and harder to keep them open.

The broken knife was starting to rust after ages of not being cleaned, and now she was scared to even use it, fearing she'd accidentally cut herself and waste away from infection. But the revolver was in even worse wear. The metal, once so shiny and polished, was tarnished to the point of near-ruin after days of travel and wear. The latch that allowed the gun to fire barely moved anymore, and Caterina wasn't sure if it would even click into place if she ever had to use it. She only had one bullet left but Caterina didn't dare use it. She was presented with opportunities, no doubt about it—rabbits to hunt, wolves to scare, wandering men with guns to chase away—but she remained steadfast in her choice. She either hid or ran. Hid or ran, all day, every day.

What a world she'd found herself in.

At this point, Caterina had to start heading into town or else she'd surely starve to death out here or waste away from her injuries, but she wasn't even sure where any towns or villages even were. The sun had risen and set five times since she'd seen someone in the flesh. And here she was, wandering through the dusk against the side of a large hill, smacking into trees without care, unsure of where she was going or when it was time to just…stop.

Caterina didn't hear the man sneak up on her. In fact, she didn't really feel the presence of another person in her midst until it was too late. She'd been so delirious from her walking that she only saw him when he appeared out of the corner of her eye, not fast enough to evade even her tired eyes. She turned around in a hurry, brandishing the knife.

She relaxed slightly at the man's appearance. Slight, feeble, little to no muscle, not at all like the hunter or the two men on the cliffs. He wore clothes that seemed like they'd been handed down to him over several generations. His hat had several bullet holes in it. His beard was peppered with age and the signs of hard living showed in every single line and wrinkle and scar on his old face. Caterina held her ground despite the fear in her head telling her to muster up the strength to sprint as fast as she could.

The man held his hands up in a sign of surrender. Caterina just held the knife up higher. Could she actually hurt him? She wasn't going to think of her answer. "What do you want?" she managed to grit out, her voice broken and ragged.

"I don' want nuthin'," the man assured, "jus' thought I'd, er, uh, see if ya needed help'r sumthin'."

Caterina drew a shaky breath. "Go away," she tried to force anger into her words, but it just sounded like she was ready to collapse into the dirt.

The man slowly raised a finger and pointed around his face, "What happened t'yer face?" he asked.

Caterina didn't answer.

His beady eyes darted around. "What're ya doin' out here all on yer own?" he made another stab at conversation. Again, Caterina didn't answer. She just pursed her lips tighter still and took a step backwards.

And suddenly, the man seemed to regard her with a sort of newfound interest. He cocked his head one way, then another, his eyes raking over her. Caterina took another step towards the cover of the undergrowth as the man reached into his bag and retrieved a sheet of paper. He stared at it, then at her, then went back to the paper.

"Yer…" he pointed at the paper and grinned an awful grin. He was missing three teeth, "yer that Caterina Pozzi girl, ain't ya?"

Caterina's heart skipped several beats.

"No," she choked out.

"Yeah, ya are. Here," he brandished the paper he held, "See? It says here that a girl wit' eight fingas went missin' last month. And you, you got eight fingas, doncha?"

Caterina tucked her maimed hand behind her back.

The man advanced on her slowly, waving his hand to her, "C'mon, lil' missy, I ain't gonna hurt ya."

"Get away from me."

"Yer pa wants ya home, Miss. Pozzi."

That sent a fresh wave of horror running through her body. "My pa's dead. So's my ma," Caterina managed to say.

The man pointed to something on the poster. "Says right here, 'a three hundred dolla' reward for Miss. Pozzi's safe return to her pa and sisters.' That sound 'bout right to ya?"

Caterina tried to say something but couldn't find her voice anymore. Her father couldn't be alive, she saw him get cut down right in front of her and Luca. Someone was looking for her.

That man, she thought, that man, Logan. And his gang. They're still lookin' for me, even all the way out here.

And a fear so primal, more intense and hollowing than anything she'd felt before, coursed through Caterina's veins like a fire igniting the bones in her body one by one.

The man, meanwhile, took a tentative step towards her, saying words of encouragement. So Caterina whipped her revolver out and pointed it at him. "I said get away from me!" she screamed.

It was enough to get the man to stop right in his tracks. He held his hands up again, the wanted poster clutched in his fist. His eyes were as wide as saucers, focused solely on the barrel of the gun in her hands.

Caterina motioned to the paper with the gun. "Drop the paper," she ordered.

Maybe she wasn't as forceful as she sounded, or maybe he was just stupid, but the man just stood there and stared at her, his head tilted in confusion.

Fighting down tears, Caterina snapped the latch into place, and the mere sound of it seemed to echo louder than anything she'd ever heard before. The man released the paper and it fell to the ground.

"Go," Caterina said, her voice trembling, "go and don't come back. And don't say you ever saw me."

The man's eyes darted to her, then the paper, then back to her. He opened his mouth, "But Mi—"

She pulled the trigger. The man yelled as the bullet whizzed past his cheek and cracked the bark of the tree behind him. The gunshot splintered what was left of the tranquil night and sent a swarm of nearby crows into the sky, squawking their distorted songs.

"I said go!" Caterina cried, clutching the now empty gun.

She had no more bullets. She had no other way to defend herself. But the man didn't know that, and he sure didn't stay to find out. He turned around and dashed into the darkened undergrowth, the bounty poster left abandoned on the ground. Caterina stared at the spot he'd disappeared to for what felt like years until the sounds of his footsteps faded away and the ringing in her ears subsided. Then, she dropped her arms to her sides and closed her eyes, trying to will herself back into her new present. Silence pressed over her ears as the last of the light faded into darkness and night befell the land once more.

Caterina took the paper with her while she searched for a place to sleep. She walked another couple of miles before settling down in a small copse, a small fire burning at her feet. The wanted poster had an image of her, roughly sketched by hand. It didn't really look much like her anymore now that her hair was short and her nose was crooked, but there was still something…familiar there. Caterina traced her fingers over the drawing of herself, following the lines of her face and picturing they way they looked to a stranger. And her fists tightened around the paper, grief taking control of her movements. Caterina felt tears well up her eyes so she squeezed them shut to blink them back.

If she knew one truth in this world, it was that Caterina Pozzi couldn't exist anymore. The realization hit her like a sack of stones on her back.

She tossed the paper on the fire, watched while it curled and blackened and burned to ashes.

And she finally wept.

She wept for her father and siblings.

She wept for help that would never come.

She wept for a life that had been stolen from her, ripped out of her grasp.

A girl with no name, lost in the wild, an empty gun in her hands, her sobs rattling the heavens above her.

Chapter Text

It was a beautiful day, and yet Arthur Morgan was already at the end of his goddamn wits.

They'd been at Horseshoe Overlook for a few days, barely a week, and yet he'd spent so little time in camp that he was starting to get antsy just thinking about all the time he was spending by being away. He'd barely set his things down and suddenly he was whisked away on a hunt for Swanson—damn near got hit by a train for his troubles, too—and then on the hunt for leads with the girls, and then he was on an actual hunt with Hosea. For a bear, no less. When the thing reared up on his hind paws, the only thing that ran through Arthur's mind was that he would be more than happy to go a second round with the train.

He still could recall Hosea's laughter atop of Silver Dollar when he said he'd stay behind. "Good luck with that brute, Arthur. Dutch and I'll be back in a few days for your body," he'd said jokingly. Arthur sent him off with a wave of his hand, perhaps a touch more overconfident in his tracking skills than he had any right to be. He'd spent the better part of that day trying to hunt the thing but a heavy rainstorm during the night washed away the last of the trail and last of his patience.

He'd departed from O'Creagh's Run and started riding due west through Ambarino, not really sure of where he was nor when it was time to turn south back towards Valentine. He'd camped another night, then began his journey away from the sun instead of towards it.

A part of Arthur was debating whether or not returning to Horseshoe Overlook yet was even worth it. On one hand, Lenny was recovering from frostbite, Mary-Beth was under the weather after catching that nasty chill, and John…well, John was still on the mend from having half of his face torn apart by wolves. Arthur sort of felt obligated to be at camp, if only to be around in case his presence was needed. He wasn't good for much, but he figured he was at least good for a drink, a few rounds of poker, and maybe a laugh if he were lucky. On the other hand, going back meant talking to Dutch. Talking to Dutch meant getting reminded that he still needed to go break Micah out of the Strawberry prison (where even was Strawberry? Arthur hadn't been this far east in years, possibly ever). Breaking Micah out of the Strawberry prison meant having to deal with Micah Bell again, a prospect about as enticing as pulling his boots off and treading heel-first on rattlesnakes. Having Micah in his debt would never, ever be worth the effort it would take to help him weasel his way out of trouble again.

That was the real reason why he was spinning his wheels so much, Arthur figured. In truth, while camp was where he belonged, he quite liked the peace and quiet out here in the wild. There was a certain appeal in not knowing where he was going and filling in the world as he traveled it. It was all a brief little moment of respite before the sins of the past couple of weeks inevitably caught up with him. At least out here, he could sketch without interruption. Sleep as long as he liked. Go fishing without having to worry about Hosea and Javier poking fun at his ineptitude. And God, Arthur had forgotten how much he'd missed the color green. That was another thing he'd fork over all his life savings for if it meant he never saw them again: Blackwater, trains, Micah, and snow.

Arthur sure hoped California didn't have snow.

But alas, Arthur knew that his current path west would lead to one of two things; either he'd continue towards Strawberry, or he'd turn back south towards camp. He let out a yawn that was lost to the trees and continued forward. Dusk was going to settle in pretty fast and he would rather not be caught without a good place to hunker down for the night. So now here he was, trekking through a forest he didn't know, the reins of his new horse held fast in one hand as he stubbornly led the beast through the mud.

Achilles was a good horse. No Boadicea but certainly not a bad replacement: fit, fast, and fairly spirited. In a way, Arthur rather envied the young steed, but good-humored jealously had quickly turned into foul-tempered annoyance when the wily mount refused to listen to his commands without being substantially rewarded for them. The sandy brown Thoroughbred seemed to have a firm mind of his own when Arthur was on his back, ignoring the nudge of the spurs for doing, if Arthur was being candid, whatever the hell he wanted. "In the end, patience is the key ingredient to a good horse!" was what Dutch had always preached to Sean and Lenny when they were breaking their own horses, but at this point Arthur was more than ready to start rooting up wild carrots by the dozen if it meant that Achilles would actually pay attention to his words.

"Would ya move?" Arthur asked, exasperated, as Achilles tossed his head for the millionth time. Moving to grip the reins with one hand, Arthur fished an oatcake out of his satchel with the other and gave it to his stubborn beast. He sniffed it, ate it, and snorted contently. Arthur gave a test tug and was relieved to find that the horse was now more willing to move than it had been in the last fifteen minutes.

Was he taming this horse, or was this horse taming him? Arthur shook his head at the thought, halfway caught between annoyance and amusement.

The next few minutes passed without more disrespect, thankfully, as Arthur wandered the forest for a clearing large enough for himself, Achilles, and a campfire. The pines and birches grew thick here, covered with vines that blocked out the slowly-dying light overhead. Wild holly bushes littered the undergrowth, which Arthur constantly found himself having to force Achilles away from. Squirrel darted in and out of the branches, chased by songbirds that hurried to get out of the way of Achilles' gargantuan presence. It wasn't terribly warm, but it was far more manageable than freezing to death in Colter. Even the memory of that fucking mine town seemed to drop Arthur's body temperature by three degrees, and the tip of his nose stung like winter winds were still nipping at it.

A loud snapping underfoot quite literally snapped Arthur from his memories of the previous two weeks. He sidestepped whatever he'd stepped on with an annoyed grunt, and Achilles responded to his movements with a bit of a displeased whinny.

Arthur glanced down and furrowed his eyebrows at what he saw. Apparently, he'd stepped in a pile of sticks and dried grass as though someone were trying build a campfire. He looked around—wasn't really the most ideal place for a camp, if he was being honest with himself. Too small and cramped for both himself and a horse to be comfortable, even only for a night. Holly bushes grew wildly around, providing far too much cover for people to sneak up on him. Arthur preferred wide-open clearings and valleys for his camps; even the dullest of folk knew it was borderline stupid to camp somewhere so closed in.

He removed his boot from the now-ruined campfire, eyes drifting about before falling at something poking out from under the roots of a pine tree. Arthur took a moment to lead Achilles over, hitch him loosely to a tree branch, and examine what he saw there.

It was a revolver, half-buried under a heaping of pine straw and dead leaves. Arthur pulled it out of the mud and debris and cleaned some of the dirt off with his thumb, but it was clear that the gun was nearly beyond saving. It was covered in so much dirt, tarnish, and soot that it would be a miracle if it ever fired again. A shame, too, because it really was a lovely revolver. Schofield, silver plating, a personal engraving along the barrel, pearl handle. Some poor bastard poured a lot of money into this thing, which made it unlikely in Arthur's eyes that they'd just let it go to ruin like this.

But that wasn't really what had caught Arthur's interest about it in the first place. Someone had deliberately hidden this gun here—recently, too. You don't abandon a gun like this. He slowly stood, scanning the bushes, trying to find anything else in his surroundings.

Achilles neighed suddenly, and Arthur felt it too. A long-honed ability to sense when there were eyes on you, even if you couldn't see them. Arthur returned his attention to Achilles for a moment to comfort his horse but his eyes remained trained on the holly bushes around him, trying to spot something, anything, out of the ordinary. And then he saw it. A flash of white, or gray. Something off-color from the earthy tones of Cumberland Forest, watching him. Arthur's eyes remained trained on that spot as he fed Achilles another oatcake, hoping against hope that the poor thing would calm down. His other hand drifted for his cattleman.

"I can see ya, y'know," Arthur said.

The white spot in the bushes didn't move, but he heard something that sounded like a soft, quickly stifled gasp.

Arthur held up the Schofield. "I found your gun," he called over to them. "You want it? You can come an' take it back."

Nothing. Still nothing but stillness and silence. And then the undergrowth parted, and the most sorry-looking thing Arthur had ever seen in his life staggered from the holly bushes.

Gently speaking, she looked like something that'd crawled straight out of the Devil's asshole. She tottered towards him on skeletal limbs and Arthur could only guess that every single one of her ribs poked through her skin like a broken corset. Her brown hair was wild and tangled—and freshly chopped, judging by the way it framed her head in thick, uneven chunks. Fading bruises bloomed across her face and her nose was crooked something fierce as if it'd been recently broken. The girl wore only a flimsy, tattered nightgown that was nothing more than threads and lace at this point, stained with days' worth of mud, grass, blood, and God knows what else. Her skin had been decorated with infected wounds, old sunburns, and poison ivy rashes, overlaid with so much dirt that it was hard to tell if she was tanned or just covered head to toe in her own filth. Her gray eyes were wide and about a million miles away from the scenario at hand, staring straight through him and into the hills beyond. She flourished a knife at him, briefly jogging Arthur from his thoughts, that'd been broken down into just a jagged piece of metal set into a handle. The girl held it in both of her trembling hands. When she lashed out again, she grunted in what seemed more like pain than effort.

"Whoa there," Arthur said, stepping back to avoid getting gutted. The girl stumbled as she overshot her slash, quite nearly falling to her knees had Arthur not caught her by the wrist to steady her. In her brief moment of distraction, he managed to wrench the knife out of her hands. Upon closer inspection, it was nothing more than some old kitchen knife, hardly suited for outdoor living. Seemed to be a reoccurring theme with this kid. Arthur stared at the broken blade as the girl struggled to get out of his grasp.

"The hell are you doing out here…?" Arthur asked, half to himself. The girl only grunted again, giving another weak shove against his chest in an effort to pull herself away.

Her fruitless struggles made Arthur snap back to his senses, and he released the girl, watching her momentum making her stumble and fall backwards onto the earth. She scrambled back a few feet before stopping, her breath ragged and her hair askew all over his face. Arthur's eyes drifted to the red marks his fingers had left around her bony wrist.

"Sorry 'bout that," he muttered instinctively. No response; the girl just stared beyond him as though he wasn't even there. Her lip quivered.

He frowned, then looked at the knife, then the revolver. Another moment's hesitation, and he tossed them one by one back to the kid. They landed in the dirt within arm's reach of the girl, but she made no move to collect them.

Arthur held his hands up in a sign of surrender. "I ain't gonna hurt ya," he assured her, trying to look as harmless as possible—an impossible task, really, given everything about his person. "Not really much of a fan of smackin' kids around, if it makes ya feel better."

She didn't laugh, and then Arthur just felt awkward.

But she did make to stand. She slowly rose to her feet, though her legs looked ready to give out at a moment's notice. The girl lunged for the knife first, then the revolver. She leveled the gun at him but didn't pull the hammer back. Would a gun looking like that even fire?

"You can put the gun down, kid. I'm not gonna hurt ya," Arthur repeated.

It took another moment, but she finally lowered the revolver and let it dangle from her hand. In response, Arthur lowered his arms. Neither of them spoke after that; they just kept staring at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move.

Finally, Arthur ran out of patience and made the first stab at conversation. "You all alone out here?" he asked.

Her eyes fell to her feet, but she did supply a response in the form of a slight nod. Arthur's stomach twisted somewhat at her implication.

He chanced another question; "What're ya doin' all the way out here on your own?"

The girl said nothing.

"You got a family around here?" Arthur prodded. "A mother, father, siblings? Anyone?"

Still, the girl didn't answer.

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. Alright, let's start smaller. "You got a name?"

Gray eyes snapped up to him and stared. For the first time, the girl actually looked present in the moment, taking him in like she'd only just noticed him there. She opened her mouth, closed it, pursed her lips, looked around, and then finally mumbled something unintelligible.

Biting back another sigh, Arthur prodded further. "What was that?"

Her eyes darted all around the clearing again and then back to the ground. When she spoke again, her voice was louder but held a tone of utter defeat, "Holly Monroe."

"And so she speaks," Arthur said sarcastically. "Ain't Holly a boy's name?"

Holly just shrugged unhelpfully. Arthur decided to drop it, "Alright, Holly Monroe, how old are ya?"

That was the real question that he'd be curious to know the answer to. At his best guess, the girl was twelve, maybe thirteen. He'd've guessed older, but her emaciated appearance wasn't doing her much good. Imagine his surprise when Holly held up her hands, spent a few seconds counting on her fingers, then dropped her gaze. "Sixteen, sir," she told him.

"Sixteen!?" Arthur echoed a little louder than he intended, sending the girl back several paces. "What do you mean, you're sixteen?"

She still wouldn't look at him. "I, um…well, I, uh, I just had my birthday a-a few months ago, mister," Holly stammered.

Goddamnit, now he was scaring her again. Arthur made a mental note to keep his voice down as he made to close the distance between him and the girl. When he moved closer, however, Holly matched his paces backwards. Eventually, Arthur stopped; any more advancing and he'd most likely send the kid scurrying straight back into the woods like a frightened coyote and then he'd never find her again. He considered trying to bend down to her level but that, to him at least, seemed like it would only make her even more terrified. Instead, he just huffed. Holly stared at him with those big gray eyes, looking like a lost cat. She stayed where she was but her body was turned towards deeper into the woods, ready to run at a moment's notice. Arthur figured he could almost rake his hands through the tension between the two of them. "How'd you end up all the way out here, Miss. Monroe?" Arthur asked.

Silence. Holly just continued to gawk at him.

"Miss. Monroe, we ain't gonna be able to get ya home unless ya give me some answers."

Holly's gaze darted down to her feet. For a few heartbeats, Arthur thought she'd stay silent before the tiniest voice piped up, "I ran."

"You ran, hm? What, ran away from home?"

She shook her head.

"Ran away from what, exactly?"

More silence.

This time, Arthur didn't really need her to help him piece together this puzzle. Even the hardiest, most headstrong of people'd have gone running back to their mamas at their age. Forget about returning her home—it seemed more and more likely that Holly Monroe didn't exactly have a home to be returned to. Which put him in quite a spot, it seemed.

Arthur's eyes trailed from her broken nose to her swollen feet. The marks of tough living showed in the kid's every movement, every expression. Mentally, he summed up just what he knew about the kid. She'd turned tail and ran away. From the law? From her parents? Alright, maybe not her parents—didn't seem like she had much family around these parts. Arthur hummed, lost in thought, trying to decide his best course of action, but his choices were clearly numbered. Last case resort, he could bring her back with him to Horseshoe Overlook, but Dutch and Hosea would chew his ears off if he brought another mouth to feed without having a good reason for it aside from 'she looked hungry and I felt bad about it'.

Maybe at this point it's best to just put her out of her misery.

Jesus Christ, what was he thinking?

And then Arthur caught Holly's eyes and felt something squirm in his gut. Pity; he was well acquainted with that feeling. Felt it every single time he passed some fellow down on his luck on the road or some mother with three kids trying to get by in a fatherless home or a group of street urchins that got by by stealing everything not tied to the ground. The world was a harsh place and more often than not Arthur had seen it beat folk into the ground, year by year, day by day, until it left behind nothing but graves and broken hearts.

But this had to have been the first time Arthur'd seen some kid her age just…alone. Utterly and completely alone, lost and maybe even thinking that they weren't ever going to be found. Most likely by choice, too; these woods teemed with hunters, and they weren't that far from the edges of civilization. And damnit all to hell if Arthur couldn't empathize with that, at the very least. He'd been that kid once: maybe he didn't have it this bad but he'd certainly had his own demons to wrestle. That wasn't something he'd wish on his own worst enemies. It was clear the kid wasn't going to talk to a complete stranger like himself without a little coaxing, but Arthur knew that leaving this girl here without doing something to try and help would be something even he'd never be able to reconcile with himself.

He pulled out his money clip with a sigh and counted what he had on his person, which was about seventy dollars. Ten would get her a decent coat, another five some food, and then another ten would pay enough for a train ride to wherever she wanted to go. Wasn't much, but it was the least he could do to set his conscience at ease.

Now Arthur was really grateful that he hadn't gone for Micah yet. He'd never hear the fucking end of this if he'd had that bastard in tow.

"Listen here, kid. I might not be the kindest'a folk but I ain't one for lettin' kids starve to death in the middle of the woods," Arthur told Holly as he put his money clip back in his satchel. "Now here's what we're gonna do. There's a place not too far from here called Emerald Station. Trains run through there every now and then, and they'll pretty much take ya anywhere ya want. So, we're gonna head there, I'm gonna give you some food and a new coat, and I'll leave ya with enough money to send ya on your way. That sound alright with ya, Miss. Monroe?"

At first, Arthur figured she was going to refuse his offer and he was going to be forced to show her a little bit of tough goodwill, but to his relief she nodded her agreement after a few seconds to think about it and said a single soft "Okay".

Arthur motioned her over to where Achilles stood, still tied up and, to Arthur's undying gratitude, perfectly placid. It could've been that he'd sensed the severity of the situation and decided to tone his immaturity back, because the horse merely nosed the crook of Arthur's elbow gently, as if asking for praise.

Alright, fine, Arthur could indulge that. He ran his hand over Achilles' blaze. "You're a good boy," he commended the Thoroughbred with a wry smile. Achilles snorted and blinked slowly, soaking in the praise.

Yeah, this horse was definitely taming him.

Arthur looked over his shoulder at the sound of approaching footsteps. Holly had edged closer to him and the horse, her eyes still wide but showing more curiosity than fear now. Suppose that was a good start. She glanced at Achilles, then back to Arthur, and he understood what she was trying to ask without her needing to utter the words.

"You can pet him if ya'd like," Arthur said, making space next to him and motioning her forward.

God, everything this kid did was slow. He wouldn't have minded so much if Holly didn't do it so goddamn often. She took a moment to soak in the offer, another two to decide, another three to shuffle over. Arthur figured he was going to be picking gray hairs out of his beard by the time they finally mounted up and headed out.

She placed a hand on Achilles' neck and gently pet him, all previous hesitation having suddenly evaporated into thin air. So, she'd worked with horses before. Maybe not often, but once or twice. Arthur's mind was whirling rapidly, trying to piece together every single bit of information about this strange lost teenager that he could get his hands on.

"This is Achilles," Arthur told her as he fished out another oatcake.

There was something on Holly's face that could resemble a smile. It wasn't quite there, but it was a start. "He's a nice horse," she said in that soft voice that Arthur wasn't sure if he was annoyed by or not, brushing back his mane.

Arthur snorted humorously at the notion she'd put forth. "Nah, don't be fooled. He's a bit of a bastard—just acts all nice when he's got appearances to keep up. S'pose I didn't break all the wild outta him just yet. Isn't that right, boy?" Achilles accepted the oatcake with a swish of his tail.

Holly continued to stroke Achilles' neck while Arthur made to untie the reins from the pine tree. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of her shivering behind him, an action that she seemed to be trying to suppress for some godawful reason. Must've been forty degrees out here. And then, Arthur remembered somewhat ruefully that he'd destroyed her campfire.

Grumbling to himself, Arthur rounded Achilles' other side, opened one of his saddlebags, and rifled through its contents. Eventually, he found the warmest piece of clothing he'd packed: his blue sheepskin coat, still tucked safely away from its time in Colter. It stunk to the high heavens, but he supposed that to a starving girl in the wilderness, it was probably the equivalent of finding the golden-fucking-fleece.

Just like he expected, his coat sort of swallowed Holly whole when he threw it over her. Her head barely poked out of the neck, her arms not even making it through the sleeves. With unsteady hands, she reached up and fastened the first clasp while Arthur turned back to his horse and made space on Achilles' rump.

As he hoisted her up on the back of Achilles (for a girl her age and size, she was alarmingly light), Arthur's eyes drifted to Holly's left hand. While the first three fingers were fine, her last two told a different story, for they'd been mangled beyond repair, scarred and calloused over with years of healing. He could still see the marks left from where the stitching must've gotten infected, then hastily removed, then finally redone. Her ring finger, having been saved to just about the first knuckle, was barely a stump. Her pinky hadn't fared as well, missing in its entirety.

"What happened to your hand?" Arthur asked casually.

Holly, surprise surprise, didn't answer him. She did, however, tuck her maimed fingers back into the confines of the coat, her face growing red as she turned to look in the opposite direction. Arthur opened his mouth to press her, then thought better of it and closed it again. He just hoisted himself into Achilles saddle, instructed Holly to wrap her arms around his midsection, and spurred Achilles into a light trot. Together, they wove their way through the trees and headed back into the open air. Arthur didn't miss the way that Holly's grip around his middle tightened as he urged the horse to go faster, trying to pick up the pace before night truly fell.

It then occurred to him that he hadn't introduced himself. "I'm Arthur, by the way," he said. "Arthur Morgan."

Arthur heard Holly let out a tiny, noncommittal grunt.

"You can call me whatever ya'd like. Arthur, Mr. Morgan, just plain ol' Morgan, no-good-bastard. I've heard 'em all, kid."

He heard something behind him that sounded like a rather large exhale. But to him, it also could've been the smallest, most pitiful of laughs.

Oh well. Beggars certainly couldn't be choosers, now could they?

Chapter Text

On and on they went. Trees dispersed and the wide-open grasslands of the Heartlands greeted Arthur as he and Holly rode on through the rising darkness. With not much of a trail to go off of, they just journeyed over hills and through valleys; the only two folks in the entire world, it seemed. But Arthur was getting pretty tired. The day had taken a bit of an unexpected twist, after all, and he stood no chance of making it to Emerald Station within the next couple of hours without passing out on his horse and hoping Achilles wouldn't lead them off a rise.

Holly offered no protest—didn't offer much of anything since they started out, really—when he suggested that they stopped for the night. Honestly, he half expected her to have fallen asleep during their ride, but she was apparently still forcing herself to stay awake when Arthur pulled to a stop somewhere northwest of the Heartland Overflow. The hills gently sloped into a sizable dip of dust and dried grass. It was about as good as he could ever hope for a camp, so Arthur hitched Achilles to the ground, helped Holly off the horse, and started gathering material for a fire.

A half an hour later, Arthur and Holly sat on opposite sides of the campfire as he dug into his dinner. He wasn't really sure what to make of this kid as of yet. He'd offered her his bedroll but she hadn't made a move to it yet. He tried forcing conversation, but given how quiet she was, it was about as effective as trying to get Sean to stop chewing the rag. The only thing she did accept was a small cup of water from his canteen. Holly drained the thing in one gulp, so Arthur took a few sips for himself, tossed her the remainder of the canteen, and left it at that. It lay completely drained besides her.

She just sat there now, staring into the flames, as closed up as a coin purse. Arthur chewed the last of his baked beans thoughtfully, attempting to figure out if she was sleepy or deliberately averting her gaze. The shadows from the fire made her face seem even more gaunt, and the coat engulfed most of her body as she retreated further and further into it with each passing minute.

He exhaled slightly, then swallowed his last mouthful of food. She wasn't going to talk, he figured. Her persistence in maintaining her stony silence was equal parts admirable and aggravating. Arthur wasn't really doing much to help himself, sure, but he knew for a fact that he couldn't possibly be that intimidating. Holly was holding him at an arm's length for reasons he wasn't entirely positive about; yet, the more he stewed in his own bewilderment, the more exhausted he became.

If she wanted to keep her mouth shut, then fine. Arthur wouldn't like it, but he wasn't about to start begging on his hands and knees for details.

Arthur fished a small roll out of his satchel to clean out the remainder of the beans. His attention strayed back to Holly but what he saw made him momentarily pause. Her eyes had lifted up from the fire and fallen squarely on the bread in his hand, ogling it so openly that her irises turned from gray to a low amber, reflections of the campfire dancing in her dull eyes.

An idea formed in his mind. Without taking his eyes off of Holly, he tore the bread in half. She must've sensed that he was staring at her, because her eyes flicked to him, then back to the bread, then back to him again.

"You hungry?" Arthur nearly chided himself under his breath—of course she's hungry, ya idiot. "I got plenty of food."

Across the flames, he could've sworn he saw her eyes narrow and her eyebrows knit together, ever so slightly, absorbing what he was saying.

"But I also got plenty 'a questions," Arthur continued. Using the other half of the roll, he started soaking up the baked bean residue on the sides of the can, tore a piece off, and popped it in his mouth. Now, he was half-sure he was just making a show out of that, but it'd be worth it for some results, "And you, kid, are one of the strangest things I ever met this side of the Grizzlies."

The fire cracked and sputtered, sending orange sparks shooting back up into the star-filled evening sky.

"So I'll tell ya what," Arthur said, "every time you answer one'a my questions, you get another piece of dinner. Does that sound good, Miss. Monroe?"

Holly still didn't say anything. She only kept staring at him with those wide eyes—some sort of owl taken human shape. Had he not heard her speak earlier in the day Arthur would've assumed she was mute and left all of that frustration in the dust, but he, unfortunately, knew better. He shook the half of roll as if he could tempt her like some sort of animal, "That sound alright, Miss. Monroe?"

She didn't answer but her stomach responded in her stead. Holly clutched it harder as it growled like it could smell the damn loaf for itself. Blinking a few times, she finally nodded, her expression scared and expectant.

Arthur laid a handkerchief on the ground, wondering what he should ask her first. Probably something about her situation before he'd stumbled upon her: that seemed the most logical. But first—

"Alright, first things first," Arthur nodded to her scarred fingers. "What happened to your hand?"

She covered it up after he'd finished speaking like it was second nature to do so. Her eyes darted from the roll in his hands and then back to her hand and then back to him, weighing her choices. When she finally spoke up, her voice was small, "Dog."

Biting back exasperation, Arthur pressed her further. "What was that?" he asked.

"Dog chewed my hand up when I was eight," she said a little louder. "Doctor said he was a mean ol' nasty mutt. My pa put it down a day later." Holly bowed her head, "I don't like dogs much," she finished softly.

Not the answer he was expecting but an answer nonetheless, and he had an end of a bargain to uphold. Arthur placed the bread on the handkerchief, eyes on Holly the entire time. She was looking quite animalistic as she followed the bread chunk's path to its makeshift plate; Arthur wondered if she even had a clue to how she was acting, all sallow and feral-looking as she was.

He dug around in his satchel for something else he could tempt her with and settled on a sizable strip of salted meat. He held it up, and he swore that the girl was starting to drool over herself.

"Next question," Arthur said. "Just how long was you out in the woods on your own?"

The girl faltered for a moment. She glanced at her hands, then back to him. She started counting but soon stopped. "What day's it?" she asked.

"Uh, April eleventh, I think."

She resumed her counting. Holly counted for a good long while, muttering months and days to herself as she did so. After a few minutes of sitting there, she looked back at him. "I left home on February twenty third," she said.

There weren't many things these days that could stun Arthur. This did. He did his best to keep his astonishment in check, but a little bit of his surprise leaked into his words when he asked, "Are you sure about that?"

Holly thought for a moment, then nodded. "The twenty third or the twenty fourth. Can't remember."

"That's basically a month and a half on your own, kid. That ain't somethin' to sneeze at."

She shrugged, wringing the two fingers on her bad hand.

Arthur held her stare for a few heartbeats longer, then placed the meat onto the handkerchief. Holly's stomach barked again, and she pouted at it, looking one second away from scolding herself.

This time, Arthur made an effort to find something sweet for the kid and pulled out a can of peaches. He certainly didn't miss the way her tongue swiped over her cracked lips, nor the way her fists gripped the sleeves of the coat with added pressure. Seemed he'd found the kid's weak spot—canned peaches: not exactly a favorite of his, so Arthur was more than happy to exploit it.

He unsheathed his hunting knife and started to saw off the top of the can. "Third question," he said, "what exactly happened to ya, Miss. Monroe?"

And, just as quickly as she had blushed, she paled.

"What happened to your folk? They lived anywhere around here?"

Holly ran a hand over her right eye. Arthur put down the now-open can of peaches and stared at her into confusion until her heard her shuddering sobs, and she dabbed at her now-wet eyes with her fingers, trying to turn away and hide what was going on.

Shit shit shit shit shit. Arthur was well-equipped to deal with a lot of things but crying children was definitely not one of them. He'd learned that the hard way; back a few years ago when Jack was two and Abigail was getting some well-deserved time for herself, Arthur found himself alone with the boy with not a clue what to do with him. When Jack tripped over his shoes and started to cry, it was a full-on sprint back to camp to fetch the boy's mother. Child care fell somewhere between fishing and dealing with emotional women in terms of things Arthur was skilled at; at least with women, you could placate them with three dollars' worth of gifts…usually.

Arthur awkwardly scratched at his nose and tried to search for the right thing to say. "I shouldn't'a pried," he finally said, inwardly wincing at how moronic he sounded.

But to his shock, Holly actually stopped sniffling when she heard his words. She whimpered one last time, then seemed to make a conscious effort to stop crying. Rubbing her eyes with the palm of her hand, she shook her head. "Sorry," she murmured.

Arthur dismissed her apology with a wave of his hand. "You don't got nothin' to apologize for, kid. You miss your folks. I get it."

Holly nodded. She sniffed once, then brought her legs to her chin and wrapped her arms around them, her eyes back on the fire. She didn't say anything else.

Sighing, Arthur placed the can on the handkerchief, wrapped everything up and tied the ends, then stood up and passed it to her. Holly hesitated, then snatched it out of his grip like she was scared he'd try to take it back from her. She tore into her meal with some sort of crazed ferocity as Arthur resettled himself.

"I'd go easy on all that. You might…" Arthur trailed off as Holly seized the can of peaches first, stuck her hand into it, then shoved a handful into her mouth without any care in the world. Now Arthur was the one who found himself staring, observing this ravenous child stuffing her face like it was the first time she'd ever eaten in her life, "…get a stomachache."

For several minutes, Arthur could do nothing but watch. She finished the peaches in record time and used her fingers to scrape the syrup off the sides. It was animalistic. Wild. An amalgamation of everything this poor kid had been through for the past forty-five days.

That damn pity scratched harder at Arthur's gut, sharp as knives. He tore off another piece of his half of roll and returned to his own dinner, trying to distract himself from Holly as she began tearing off pieces of the meat.

Whatever happened to Holly, Arthur wasn't even sure he wanted to know at this point. Maybe he could live a full and happy life without ever knowing.

Then again, maybe he couldn't. And maybe she couldn't live that full and happy life, either.

-X-

Mr. Morgan nodded off rather quickly after their dinner, but Holly Monroe was unable to sleep. She sat opposite from him across the fire, slowly watching it die down to ashes as the time ticked on. She tucked her legs under her, hugged the blue coat tighter to her body, and stared into the flames, trying to process what had happened over the course of the last couple of hours.

Holly Monroe? Holly Monroe? Surely, she'd couldn't have come up with a name more unsuited to her if she tried. But back in those woods, she was faced with the sight of Mr. Morgan and found herself overcome with pure panic. The way he towered over her, not that she did much to help herself by cowering. The two horizontal scars that sliced through his chin while another cut down the length of his nose. And the guns, of course. Holly couldn't have missed the guns. A pistol jutted out on his right hip while a shotgun and carbine repeater were secured in the horse's saddle holsters. Holly didn't think she'd ever met a man more capable to deal with the wild than Mr. Morgan was.

Holly silently sized him up for the umpteenth time as Mr. Morgan slept on, completely oblivious to her watching him. He was about as broad as a barn door and four times as intimidating. Compared to her father's small yet still strong build, Mr. Morgan was a behemoth of a man, made for strength and perhaps not much else. His hair seemed freshly cut—Holly ran a hand unconsciously through her own recently-cut hair—and his beard was neatly trimmed: not shaven clean but just enough to leave whiskers. Every piece of clothing that he wore looked as though it'd seen better days, from the tarnished spurs on his boots to the black hat with the frayed edge that rested over his face. As he slept, his gruff voice became a snore that'd be bound to scare every rabbit within five miles of their camp back into their warrens. He seemed nice enough, Holly figured. He just asked a lot of questions.

You'd be askin' plenty of questions too if the kid you found in the middle of the woods tried to gut you like a fish, Holly reasoned.

Mr. Morgan gave a shuddering snore, made an attempt to roll over that failed, and mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "Kentucky" before falling back into relative silence.

But her anxiety wasn't the only thing keeping her awake. Curse herself, but she probably should've heeded Mr. Morgan's words before she stuffed her face. The fruit and meat went down fine but after the bread chunk she felt that her stomach wasn't sitting quite right. It'd been the first time in…well, a month and a half, truly, that she'd eaten that much food, as well as food that filling. Holly winced again as her stomach seized up, holding it in pain.

She didn't mind staying up a little bit as her gut settled down for the night. It gave her time to mull her situation over. Mr. Morgan now knew her as someone she wasn't, and if he'd recognized her from any of those wanted posters then she'd probably be back in the clutches of Mr. Logan and his gang by now. Right? Or maybe he did know who she was, and this was all some elaborate scheme to create a false sense of comfort before he turned her over the next day.

Holly hummed to herself, willing her mind to stop running off. She was honestly having a hard time picturing the rough-and-tough man next to her, who'd given her his coat and half of his dinner, would have such a sinister hidden agenda. For goodness sakes, he had the opportunity to ask any question he wanted, and what was the first thing he'd asked about? Why she had missing fingers. Mr. Morgan was only a random passerby who just so happened to stumble upon her and took pity on her. Nothing more.

That was the rational part of Holly's mind talking, though. The instinctual part of her mind had been what Holly had been relying on for all this time, and it was telling her to keep running. Mr. Morgan was asking too many questions for comfort. Pulling the layers back too quickly. If he was in any way aware of what had happened at her family's homestead, then she'd be dead before she could get another chance to make a break for it. "Holly Monroe" could keep her alive for a little while, but she simply couldn't take her chances with this stranger, never mind how sympathetic he'd been to her.

She sniffed, tracing small circles in the dirt with her finger. Holly looked over her shoulder to Mr. Morgan's horse, Achilles. The stallion was sleeping too, but he was still saddled and ready to go. She gripped the inside of the coat's sleeve with her maimed hand, thinking her choices over. Taking an extra pair of socks from a drunk man was one thing; stealing an entire horse and stranding someone in the wild was another. But her mind was running rampant, and Holly was drowning in her own paranoia. Mr. Morgan's kindness was a gateway to her own demise, and she wouldn't be blind to it any longer.

Careful not to disturb him, Holly stood as silently as possible, trying desperately not to trip on the hem of Mr. Morgan's coat. She crossed the clearing to where Achilles stood. The horse was roused as Holly approached him, and she raised a hand to stroke his face.

"Sorry, boy," she'd apologized a lot tonight, Holly realized with a pang of sadness. Just another regret on a very, very long list full of them. She had no idea where she'd go—maybe she'd keep going west or turn back south towards town—but being alone was better than being a fool. And she wouldn't be alone, though. She'd have a horse this time.

Lying. Stealing. Good God, Holly really was racking up the collection of sins now, wasn't she?

But that was the last thought about it before Holly discerned the sound of footsteps approaching. Achilles heard them too, judging by the way he suddenly tossed his head, unable to do much else because of the way he was tied to the ground. Mr. Morgan slept on, unperturbed. Thus, Holly stood her ground alone as they were joined by strangers at the campfire.

She saw her boots first, the leather shining in the firelight. Then, one by one, they approached their makeshift camp. Three men, all tall and well-built, all armed. They didn't appear to have horses, meaning they might've been camping nearby. The man on the right was blond, but his two companions were brunet, one with a beard and one clean shaven. Their shabby clothes suggested that they weren't too well off, but they probably weren't dirt poor, neither. Every single man wore a bandana around their neck—the bearded one's was purple, the shaven one's was brown, and the blond's was black. Holly's eyes darted to wear they kept their pistols holstered, then to where they had their rifles slung over their shoulders, and Holly tried to fight the fear rising in her chest.

They thankfully stopped without getting too close. The blond spoke first, his hand falling to his belt, uncomfortably close to his revolver. "Good evening, little miss," he used his other hand to tip his hat at her.

Holly kept quiet. She started to make her retreat back to the fire.

"We noticed y'all camping over yonder," the bearded one pointed somewhere over his shoulder, "Thought we'd stop by and say hello."

She nodded. She was now back at the fire, but she didn't sit back down. Her hand ghosted over the empty revolver in the jacket pocket.

The clean-shaven man cocked a brow at her. "I'm George. That's Clinton, and that's Wallace," he pointed to the bearded man and the blond man in turn. George smiled at her, but there was no kindness behind it. "You got a name, kiddo?"

At those words, Holly found herself faced with a choice. She was already lying. She could tell the truth, lie once more, or heap another lie on top of that. Her gut was screaming at her that these men were not at all her friends, and most likely weren't Mr. Morgan's friends, either, and her instincts hadn't been wrong yet. "Holly Monroe" could keep her alive—it couldn't keep her safe.

"I'm Lucille," she said quickly, "Lucille Sullivan."

From his nod, George seemed to buy it. He motioned to Mr. Morgan's sleeping body, "And that's…?"

Holly's attention darted to him, then back to the men. "That's my uncle," she said, the lie rolling off her tongue quite easily again. She took a moment to wrangle her surprise in check, then continued; "He and I are travelin' together."

They all exchanged glances, then Wallace made to sit by the campfire. Holly backed up a step as he approached, towards Mr. Morgan. "I don't think my uncle'd like this," she said.

"Then why don't you go on 'nd wake him up?" Clinton suggested, "so we can introduce ourselves to him?"

Holly backed up, never once taking her eyes off the three of them, and bent down next to Mr. Morgan. She shook his shoulders with as much restraint as she could, trying to keep the panic from her voice. "Uncle Theodore? (Holly scowled to herself—good Lord, she wasn't good at this under so much pressure) We got—erm—we got some guests."

It took quite a few shakes to rouse him, but he did eventually wrench his eyes open. When he spoke, tiredness leaked from his voice like a broken faucet. "Wha—?"

"We got guests, Uncle Theodore," Holly said rapidly, fixing him with an expression that hopefully conveyed how much Mr. Morgan needed to keep his mouth shut and follow along, "They were campin' nearby. Wanted to say hello."

Mr. Morgan's expression was one of pure bemusement until his eyes fell on George, Clinton, and Wallace across the dying fire. Just like that, his face hardened, his lips growing thin. Holly backed up as Mr. Morgan pushed himself into a sitting position, his arms resting on his knees and his heels making divots in the loose dirt.

By now, Wallace had sat down fully and was taking out a bottle of something alcoholic. Clinton was moving to join him. George remained standing, eyes raking over her and Mr. Morgan with an intensity Holly neither understood nor liked. She sat back, willing herself to stay as calm as she could while Mr. Morgan stretched slightly.

Wallace held out the whiskey bottle, to which Mr. Morgan shook his head. "You fellers need somethin'?" he asked, sounding polite enough despite the distinctive edge his tone carried.

"Just coming by to say hello," George said, equally curt, "Ain't no crime in that."

Mr. Morgan laughed slightly but didn't elaborate as to why. "Ain't a crime, but sure is a nuisance. Now, is there anything I can do for ya before you head on back to your camp and let me and the kid get back to sleepin'?"

Clinton gave Mr. Morgan a hard stare, "You this girl's uncle?"

"I am," Mr. Morgan lied without missing a beat.

"Why ain't you folks in town, err, Mr...?"

"Callahan," he supplied. His gaze drifted to Holly ever so slightly, so quick that she thought she'd imagined it, and returned back to the three men before them, "Theodore Callahan."

Wallace didn't look convinced, "You're her uncle?" he repeated with a raised eyebrow, doubt dripping off every word, "Lucille Sullivan's uncle?"

"Jesus Christ, yes. She's my sister's kid, alright? What, ya want me to whip out her birth certificates too?" Mr. Morgan's annoyed answer made all three men exchange glances, but Holly's eyes were deadlocked on the man besides her, her mind working a mile a minute.

He was taking all of this in spectacular stride. Instead of simply telling the truth, he was going along with her lies. Taking each one of them in turn and spinning some new story out of them. He was a good liar, but Holly could tell that he wouldn't just lie without reason. He didn't trust these men either. Holly's gut had told her that these three would cause nothing but trouble and so far, she hadn't been proven wrong. The fact that Mr. Morgan was lying right alongside her, comfortably bending the truth to protect her, made her think that maybe he could sense that nothing good would come of admitting their identities after all.

Suddenly, Holly felt the smallest bit of a feeling she'd long since considered lost to her. A sense of mutual understanding, of trust. If she kept up this story, then Mr. Morgan would support it, possibly never really understanding how it'd come to this or why she felt the need to hide herself.

You keep me safe, and I'll keep you safe.

And at that moment, Holly made a choice between the person she instinctively trusted, and those she did not.

"—I just think that it's awfully strange that you're riding around with this…well, this little girl. Uncle or not," Holly's attention returned to the conversation in the middle of one of Clinton's points. "You sure don't look that much alike. The kid's in rags. How do we know you ain't lying to us?"

"How 'bout you keep your nose out where it don't belong, boy," Mr. Morgan snapped, "and let me and the kid get on with our nights."

"Christ, didn't know it was a crime to ask questions. I think we're allowed to question your validity, Mr. Callahan."

"I think ya don't know shit. Might wanna stop pretendin' like ya do; it'll save us all a whole lotta time."

"I was kidnapped. Held for ransom," Holly jumped back into the conversation all of the sudden. The words tumbled from her mouth as she spoke hurriedly, without thinking. "My ma sent my Uncle Theodore to come and get me."

All three of the men turned and stared at her. Holly could feel Mr. Morgan's eyes burning holes in her head.

"Kidnapped?" George was the first to pipe back up, "The hell do you mean, kidnapped?"

And thus, Holly started weaving her tale, wracking through every nook and cranny of her brain to come up with something even slightly realistic. "My pa works up north in the mines. All the way up in New Hanover. And, well, he must've ticked off the wrong sorta folk at one point. I remember walkin' with my ma, and then I was on the back of a horse, kickin' and screamin' and tryin' to get myself loose, and then I got bonked in the head and I don't remember too much after that. Held me in some cabin—don't know where, didn't see too much of it—and they said that they wanted three hundred dollars from my daddy or they was gonna put a bullet right here," she pointed to the space right between her eyes. "Broke my nose real good. Starved me. Took my clothes. And then my uncle came along about two days ago. There was a lotta shootin'. Some shoutin', too," Holly didn't miss the way that Wallace and Clintons' heads drifted to Achilles' saddle, sizing up the good number of guns still stuck in their holsters, "And now here we are. We was gonna head for Emerald Station, but I got tired and my uncle thought we'd sleep first and head over in the mornin'."

George, Clinton, and Wallace stared at her until Mr. Morgan cleared his throat and drew their attention back to him. "That good enough proof for ya?" he asked.

None of the men spoke for a minute. Clinton broke the silence first; "You...uh, we're you, y'know, gonna actually fork over the money, Mr. Callahan?"

"I think that that's somethin' for me and my niece to know, and for the three of ya to not find out," Mr. Morgan said icily. "Now, I suggest ya boys better get back to your camp and leave us be. We got a train to catch tomorrow mornin'."

All three men opened their mouths to protest until Holly cut over them. "Please go," she said, her voice quivering.

The only sound was that of the wood cracking in the fire and of Achilles nickering behind them. No one moved for a moment. Then, Clinton and Wallace rose to their feet, expressions unreadable. Together, all three men turned away to the open plains. George tipped his hat at them, bid them goodnight, and followed his friends as they melted away into the darkness.

And then Holly and Mr. Morgan were alone once more.

Holly gripped the sleeves of the coat and hugged her arms tighter around her. For the first time that night, she suddenly couldn't bear the sound of silence anymore. "Who were those men?" she asked.

Mr. Morgan shrugged. His mind sounded far away when he answered her; "No one good."

"Were they gonna rob us?"

"It's possible."

"…Kill us?"

His mouth quirked upwards, as though she'd said something funny, "Nah, they didn't look the type. Probably thought we looked like easy targets. Nothin' more."

Holly accepted his answer with a nod. And for a few minutes they both sat there in unbearable silence. She didn't make a move to break it, nor did Mr. Morgan, leaving them at a strange sort of stalemate.

"Y'know, Miss. Monroe, I don't got much more food on me," Mr. Morgan spoke up after a while, "but if it's all the same, I still got a few more questions."

She caught his eye and nodded.

"That story you just told. How much of it was true?"

She shrugged. "Not any of it," Holly confessed.

"So ya made all that up off the top of your head?"

"I guess so," Holly wrung her fingers again as she spoke. "Didn't really think too much about it. I didn't like the look of those folk."

"And ya liked the look 'a me better?"

"S'pose I don't like it when men sneak up on me, Mr. Morgan."

Mr. Morgan nodded slowly, processing what she said. He was still smiling, something that confused Holly even though she knew better than to comment on it. Some twigs shifted in the fire, making the flames die down slightly and allowing the chill to creep in a little closer.

After what felt like ages, Mr. Morgan finally spoke again, "One last question."

"Alright."

His voice was low, but filled with some strange sort of understanding, "You don't really want to go to that train station, do ya, Miss. Monroe?"

That caught her off guard. Holly opened her mouth, but no sound came out, so she closed it again. Her cheeks burned hot with embarrassment, her stomach twisting itself into knots. "I…I don't know where I'd go," she confessed quietly, not meeting his eyes.

Holly stared at her hands until the sound of something scratching something drew her attention. Mr. Morgan was itching at his beard, also staring at anything other than her. When he felt her watching he met her eyes again, though his remained shadowed under the brim of his hat. With a snort, he pointed to the bedroll that he'd laid out for her, untouched so far tonight.

"Why don't ya try and sleep," Mr. Morgan told her, motioning towards the bedroll he'd laid out hours ago, "I'll stay up and keep an eye out in case those boys come back."

She would've protested, but exhaustion was creeping up on her like a rising swamp tide. Holly's eyes were drooping and she'd been spending the past several minutes swallowing down yawns. She dipped her head, made to stand, and stumbled over to the bedroll.

The bedroll was very soft; now Holly felt bad for claiming it when Mr. Morgan was forced to sleep in the dirt. But the longer she lay there, the less Holly cared. It was a far cry from sleeping in reeds or under tree roots or beneath rock formations. Her mind fogging, Holly tucked her arm under her head and wormed her way deeper into the jacket. The last thing she felt before oblivion greeted her was the cool air caressing her face, trying to penetrate the confides of the coat. Mr. Morgan sat some ways away, holding his revolver in his hands, eyes glued to the distance, lost in thought.

Chapter Text

The first thing that ran through Holly's head when she woke up was that she hadn't felt this comfortable in a long time. Since she'd been in a bed, perhaps, but even her old bed at home hadn't been this soft. She gradually woke up from her sleep without bothering to open her eyes, shifting around the bedroll from one side to the other. Holly felt warmer, the wind on her cheeks not quite as harsh as it had been in weeks past. The air smelled smoke and…wildflowers? And pine trees?

Her arm shifted off the bedroll, only to dangle in midair. Her knuckles brushed against the soft grass just below.

Holly wasn't on Mr. Morgan's bedroll.

At that realization, Holly opened her eyes, finally catching up to her own confusion. She wasn't in the middle of the plains with Mr. Morgan sleeping across from a dying campfire and the night sky spread open above them. Rather, she was in a cot braced up against what appeared to be an unused wagon. A makeshift night table stood within arm's reach, a barrel with a mirror standing a little ways beyond. Holly rolled over onto her back; someone had set up a tarp above the cot and tables, shrouding the entire area in comfortable shade.

Once more, Holly rolled over and tried to sit upright. She was still wearing Mr. Morgan's blue sheepskin coat, but someone had thrown a blanket over her in the meantime for extra warmth. She fought to untangle herself, then finally pushed herself into a sitting position, the blankets bunched up at the foot of the bed. As she brushed her hair out of her face, Holly at last took a good look around and was met with an interesting sight.

Somehow, she'd ended up in what looked like a camp for drifters and vagrants without realizing it. Several tents and lean-tos had been set up in a disorderly fashion as if they'd been prepared in a hurry. One particularly large tent stood in the back of the camp, a throne to stand at the head of its court. Holly could see two more wagons set up like the one she sat in now, suggesting that this group of people had seen their fair share of travels. All around the camp, people milled about without taking notice of her, going about their day. At one of the wagons, a portly man with an apron wiped his bloody hands down, standing over a pile of freshly chopped meat. Two women, one older in a red dress with silver streaks in her hair and the other younger with hair as bright as an autumn oak leaf, engaged in some kind of argument that didn't carry over to where Holly was sitting. At a table to her right, three men were playing poker, or blackjack, or some kind of card game. Over yonder, a man who looked an awful lot like a reverend was propped up against the other wagon, nursing a bottle of…well, whatever it was, it wasn't holy.

In the center of camp, Mr. Morgan stood with his back to Holly at another table, deep in conversation with three other men. He gestured as he spoke, but whatever he was talking about was lost to the wind and noise of camp. His conversation partners consisted of an older gentleman wrapped in a coat almost as thick as hers, a smaller and scrawnier man with half of his face bandaged, and a well-dressed man with dark hair, dark attire, and a dark expression to match. None of Mr. Morgan's conversation partners seemed privy to her staring at them.

"Oh, you're awake."

A woman's voice jolted Holly from her staring. She half-gasped, then turned, clutching at the folds of Mr. Morgan's jacket. A woman, not one she'd seen yet, had approached her when she was distracted. She was young and pretty as well but in a different way: with a full face, a splash of pale freckles, and golden hair that had been carefully styled into perfect ringlets. A black overcoat had been thrown over a white chemise and a purple dress skirt, hiding black riding boots that seemed a size or two too big for her. At her throat stood a gold choker with a blue stone set into it. She held a bowl of something steaming in her hands.

"Have you been awake for a while?" she asked. Her voice had a strong twang to it.

Holly shook her head.

"I hope someone didn't wake you up, then."

She shook her head again.

"Not much for talking, hm? That's fine," she said with a smile. She passed the bowl to her, which Holly took after a moment's hesitation. Heat spread to her fingertips as she held it in her lap. "That stew there's from Pearson," she continued, now handing Holly a spoon. "Arthur thought you'd be hungry again when you finally woke up."

It took Holly a moment to recall who Arthur referred to, but by then she'd already dug into the stew without as much as a second thought to what she was eating nor who it was from. Because, well, they were right—Holly was starving. Careful not to eat as fast as she'd done the previous night, Holly tucked into her meal as soon as the spoon fell into her hand.

The woman didn't leave while Holly ate. In a way, Holly was grateful for the company. "How is it?" the woman asked.

With a mouth full of venison and carrots, Holly could only nod her approval back.

"It ain't usually the best," she said with a small laugh, "Usually, it's pretty unappetizing. But hey, it's food. Guess I don't have much a right to complain about it."

Holly wanted to tell her that she could've been fed horse droppings and have still thanked whoever Mr. Pearson was for bringing it to her but she was still stuffing her face. Instead, she settled for shrugging her shoulders, digging around the sides of the bowl to scrape up the rest of her meal.

After a few more minutes, the stew had been depleted and Holly felt a comfortable warmth settle somewhere in her stomach. The blonde woman offered her another smile. "Someone was hungry," she teased. "Suppose it's a good thing that someone 'round here enjoys Pearson's cooking again."

Holly nodded her understanding back, hiding her hands back in the sleeves of the coat. As the woman said her goodbyes and began to head away, Holly finally piped up. "Um, pardon me?" she called after her.

The blonde woman turned back around, eyebrows raised. "Yes?"

"Miss…?"

"Oh, it's Karen Jones. But you can just call me Karen, sweetie."

"If you don't mind my asking, where am I?"

The expression Karen gave her was hard to read. Was it sad? Pitying? Confused? Or was she just expressing some sort of sympathy that Holly couldn't begin to understand yet? Karen wandered back over to Holly at her question, setting the empty stew bowl on the barrel next to the mirror. "You're just south of Valentine, Miss. Monroe," Holly had no idea how Karen knew her name, "Arthur brought you into camp early this morning."

"He did?" Holly asked, feeling rather stupid for needing the clarification.

"Said he didn't wanna wake you up, so he just rode on while you slept. If I'm being honest, you was sleeping sounder than a squirrel through the winter when he brought you in." Karen laughed lightly all of the sudden, "Any later, and I thought we were gonna need to blast Dutch's gramophone in your ear to get you up and out of bed."

Holly just blinked, then stared down at the empty bowl in her hands. With a wary gentleness, Karen took the bowl from her hands and headed across camp towards the portly man with the meat. With nothing else to do and no one else to talk to, Holly felt her eyes wander back to where Mr. Morgan stood. He was still talking in the distance but he'd since found a seat at the table with the other men. The older man pointed towards her like they were talking about her. Of course they're talking about you, Holly scolded herself. Bring a girl in nothing but a dirty nightgown to your camp? That'd be bound to raise questions even she didn't think she'd be able to answer.

Suppose it was better than being in the woods. Or being stuffed on a train with no destination. Holly thumbed the coat sleeve, and possibly might've lost herself in contemplation had Karen not returned with a new companion.

The man approaching them was different, fresher-faced. He had short, curly black hair and a ghost of a beard on the lower half of his face. A thick scar ran through his eyebrow, pale against his dark complexion. He was dressed very nicely, she noticed: a white dress shirt with a gray coat, complete with an orange bandana around his neck to give the outfit a splash of color. A belt held up his pants, a revolver attached to his hip. He seemed younger than Karen—in truth, Holly didn't think that this man was much older than she was. In his hands were a small stack of bills that he was thumbing through, counting them up.

He approached them with a nod for Karen. He handed some of the money to her as she patted him on the shoulder. "Miss. Monroe, this here's Lenny Summers. He's one of the finest shots you've ever seen this side of New Hanover," she told him. He waved slightly, and Holly returned it with an apprehensive nod and said nothing back.

"Good afternoon, Miss. Monroe," Lenny said (oh God, afternoon? How long had she slept?). "Are you feelin' up for a ride?"

Feeling indifferent, Holly shrugged.

Karen ran her fingers through the cash she'd been handed. "How much is this?"

Lenny's attention moved off of Holly to respond to Karen, "About forty dollars."

"Will that be enough?"

"Dutch and Hosea seem to think so."

Holly let her attention drift around as Lenny and Karen's voices dipped low. A broad fellow with dark skin and hair longer than most women she'd ever seen strolled into camp with what appeared to be a racoon slung over his shoulder. The red-haired women had ceased her arguing with the older lady and was now fanning herself besides the biggest tent, her head turned towards Mr. Morgan and his table. Another woman crossed the tents gathering clothes, a child running at her heels and picking up any pairs of socks that she might have missed.

"Miss. Monroe?"

Holly turned back to Lenny and Karen. It was Lenny who'd spoken up, but it was Karen who'd continued. "We're going to take you into Valentine, if that's alright," she spoke sweetly, her words carefully chosen, like she thought one wrong letter could set her off. "We've got some money to spend so we can fix you up proper."

Suddenly concerned, she furrowed her brow. "Fix me up?" she echoed, "What for?"

"Well, you could use a bath. And a visit to the doctor's office," Karen's eyes drifted up and down, sizing Holly up, "and I think some new clothes are in order as well, wouldn't you say?"

Oh goodness, a bath sounded nice. Absentmindedly, Holly scratched at her nose and studied the dirt trapped underneath her fingernails. She must've looked filthier than a swamp rat after a thunderstorm—certainly smelled like one, too. Not to mention she could really use a nice private moment to gather her scattered thoughts. She nodded her approval and made to stand, swaying slightly on her unsteady legs. Lenny moved forward to support her, which Holly accepted after a heartbeat of reluctance.

"Here, here, let's get this off of you," with Lenny's help, Holly slid out of Mr. Morgan's coat. He passed it to Karen, then started to lead Holly out of the tent's shade. She was colder without the coat, but not so cold that Holly felt frozen. "Karen's gonna bring that to Abigail to wash, but hopefully the general store's got some things in your size and you won't have to worry about it too much," Lenny spoke rapidly, with a cadence that suggested he was sharper than he would lead most people to believe at first glance. He had a nice smile, too. Relaxed and easy. Holly felt more at ease around Lenny than around Karen, certainly. When she got her feet better underneath her and could walk on her own, albeit still shakily, Lenny backed off. "C'mon," he said, "I'll take you to meet Maggie"

Maggie? Inwardly, Holly groaned. Just how many people in this camp was she going to have to meet?

Maggie, as it turned out, was not another member of the camp but a horse—Lenny's horse. Dirt brown with a pale mane and a white nose. She nudged Lenny affectionately as the pair of them approached, trying her luck on sticking her nose inside of his coat. Lenny laughed it off and gently pushed her face away, earning a snort from Maggie. "She'd eat you outta house and home," he told Holly with a laugh, "but she's about as brave as ten men and then some. Could probably kill a bear for you if she thought she'd get sugar cubes out of it."

Maggie whinnied and stomped her hooves into the dirt, either agreeing with him or hearing the words 'sugar cubes' and reacting appropriately.

As Lenny started to coax the bit into Maggie's mouth, Holly felt her eyes start straying again. It didn't take very long for them to land on something. There, off in the corner of camp, far away from prying eyes, was a curious sight. A young man dressed in rags in no better shape than hers was bound tightly to an oak tree, withering away in the cloudless afternoon. His skin was red from sunburn, his beard patchy and overgrown. He looked rather gaunt, too, like he hadn't been eating too well. The man must've felt eyes on him because he turned his head and locked eyes with her. Holly held his stare for a few seconds, brows furrowed, concern welling up in her chest. She turned back to Lenny; "Who's—"

"Don't worry about that," Lenny said quickly, placing a hand on her shoulder and moving her around to Maggie's opposite side. Holly strained to look over her shoulder, but Maggie's rear blocked her line of sight with the man on the tree. Holly pursed her lips, stole a quick glance at Lenny, and said nothing else, lost in thought.

With Lenny's help, Holly hoisted herself atop of Maggie. Karen mounted her own horse—a smoky-gray mare with dark socks and a silver face—behind them, and together the three of them rode from camp. In the forests, Holly spotted a man with a bowler hat, a poncho, and a mustache carrying a gun and sitting on a tree stump. Alarms rang in her head, but Lenny merely waved his farewell without as much as a second glance.

The turned north, so the wind blowing off the surrounding mountains nipped at their faces, then turned west. The sun stood high in the sky, bright and unforgiving against a cloudless day. Lenny didn't go very fast, but good Lord did he talk. He certainly would've chewed her ears clean off if they sat on Maggie for much longer. He asked her about her life, her family, how she'd met Mr. Morgan, if she rode horses before: probably would've asked about her favorite flavor of candy if the thought had crossed his mind. Holly kept her mouth sealed shut. She felt bad about keeping silent, but the last thing she needed was to start spitting out her whole life story to someone she'd known for less than an hour.

After a little while, they strolled into a town. Valentine, Holly remembered Karen saying that they were closest here. Valentine was bigger than Longshore. Far dirtier, too. Mud clung to every boot and dress hem and horse hoof, leaving each citizen with a messy souvenir of their time here. Lenny and Karen guided their horses all the way down the main street, giving Holly plenty of time to absorb her surroundings. To her left, a small shop held guns of every shape and size within its windows. On her right was the telltale red cross of a doctor's office, nestled between a building with bars on it that seemed like a sheriff's office and a place with drunkards stumbling about that must've been the saloon. At the end of the road stood a large barn that must've been the stables, where a man and woman with a horse-drawn cart seemed to be arguing with the owner.

The three of them pulled to a stop at the last building on the left. It was one of the nicer buildings, well-kept and tall. Fancier-looking folk stood on the porch, smoking cigarettes. Karen scowled at them as she got off her horse and hitched her up, while Lenny made to help Holly off of his. When her feet hit the ground, Holly yelped and clung onto Lenny's arms tighter as she sank ankle-deep into sludge. "Careful," Lenny said, then proceeded to help her unstick her feet.

Holly felt embarrassment rise in her cheeks as he pulled her legs out one by one. Her eyes caught those of the patrons on the porch, staring at this strange scene unfold before them as though they'd never seen such barbarism before. As she, Lenny, and Karen walked up the steps and into the building, Holly kept her eyes firmly on her disgusting feet.

The clerk at the front desk made to greet them but stopped rather quickly. Holly watched as he took sight of her tattered nightgown, her filthy skin, and her ratted hair, and his face quickly molded into something more serious. "A bath?" he guessed shrewdly.

"How'd you guess?" Karen joked, putting the money on the counter.

Lenny led Holly down to the end of the hall where the bathing room was, talking about finding new clothes and how she could take all the time she needed and something else that passed in one ear and out the other. She remembered bidding him thank you and goodbye before the door shut, and Holly turned to the pewter bathtub in the center of the room and the maid that was still filling it.

She might've been around Lenny's age, possibly older. The maid took one look at Holly's appearance and then seemed to make a controlled effort not to curl her lip in disgust (something Holly could not at all blame her for). Instead, she willed her mouth into a polite but forced smile and shut off the tap. "Do you want the deluxe bath?" she asked sweetly. "It's a few cents extra, but I can help you get nice and clean if you don't want to do it all yourself."

After the day she'd had so far, the last thing Holly needed was yet another person interrupting her thoughts. She shook her head.

The maid nodded. "Suit yourself," she said, making for the exit. "Holler if you need anything, sweetie."

She shut the door behind her. The lock clicked. And Holly was alone with her bath, the water steaming heavily and making the air feel sticky.

Holly stripped off her nightgown—practically had to peel it off of her skin at this point, but she got undressed after some fighting. She lowered herself into the bathtub and moaned quietly as the heat soaked into her skin. She felt her body untense like a piece of rope going slack. Dirt floated off of her and within minutes the water had gone from foamy white to sickly brown because of it.

With all the time in the world and nothing left to do aside from scrub herself clean, all of Holly's concerns rushed upon her like a frenzied steer.

What was she doing? Holly would to scream the question at herself if she was certain of her privacy, but forcefully held her words back. Lying about her identity to some stranger still clawed at her conscience but lying to an entire camp full of people was a whole other problem that she didn't even want to have to contend with. While Holly wasn't sure if she'd confess to her ruse straightaway the moment she woke up and got some food in her, she certainly wouldn't have gone up to everyone in that little encampment and introduced herself like she was obsessed with the sound of her own voice.

Holly ran her fingers down her face, savoring the warmth there that she'd long since forgotten. She couldn't really blame Mr. Morgan for explaining who she was and how he'd come across her—didn't stop Holly from being ticked off with him, but she really couldn't find fault in it. Maybe she was just angry at herself for having so little say in the situation at hand. Must've been really out of it if she'd slept through half of the dang day like some sort of fat cat and allowed this entire thing to spin so violently out of her hands. Then again, that was the first time she'd slept on something other than mud, leaves, and rocks for a month and a half. Seemed to be just another situation she'd had no control over. Holly let herself slide a little further into the quickly-cooling bathwater until her nose went under, and she blew bubbles to the surface to calm her frazzled nerves.

No turning back now. Certainly everyone at Mr. Morgan's camp knew her as Holly Monroe now and had no reason to suspect that she was hiding something. Besides, aside from her name, the little information she'd passed along yesterday wasn't false in the slightest. Vague, yes, but no one ever got sent down to the Devil for being vague. Vague could keep her alive a while longer still. If the dark men were still on her trail, then no point in planting down for a few days as Caterina and risk them picking up her scent again. No, she'd get somewhere safer than this first. Finish her bath, get some clothes, make sure she wasn't dying of typhoid, return for her things, then politely thank Mr. Morgan, Lenny, and Karen for all their help and get on her way.

And just where're you gonna go? A tiny voice in her head asked.

She ignored it.

Holly was lathering shampoo into her hair for a third time when there was another soft knock on the door. This time, the hotel maid let herself in, a bundle of clothes in her hands. "Your friends brought these in," she explained, setting them down on the chair in the corner, "They said that they spoke to the doctor, but first they're gonna get you a haircut at the saloon down the street."

Holly nodded her understanding. The hotel maid smiled sweetly. Again, just like with Karen, it was hard to tell if she pitied her, felt sympathy for her, or was just being courteous. She left without fuss, however, so Holly thought nothing else of it and began scrubbing her skin with the bar of soap.

After another fifteen minutes, Holly finally felt clean enough to get out of the tub. She'd practically washed herself raw, her skin pink and irritated but at least not dirty and infected anymore. Washing her hair had finally given Holly an opportunity to see just how bad of a job she'd done at hacking it off; it hung in thick, dark brown chunks against her face, soaked through with bathwater. A haircut was definitely a necessary step regardless of whatever she was doing next. She took her time, but Holly eventually pulled the plug to release the swill that'd become of her bath and clambered, naked, out of the tub to pick over the clothes.

The first thing that became apparent to her was that the general store clearly didn't have many options that suited girls her age and size. That being said, her outfit wasn't terrible, but necessary liberties clearly had to have been taken. Karen and Lenny had bought her a cotton combination, a pair of gray wool socks that had a hole in one of the big toes, a simple blouse the color of grapes, a brown skirt and belt, and a pair of worn leather riding boots that felt a size too big for her. Holly changed as quickly as she could, sliding the belt buckle into the second-to-last hole just to get it to stay and lacing up the boots as tight as she could. When she was done, Holly exited the tub room and made her way back to Valentine's main street.

Karen and Lenny were waiting for her on the porch when she emerged. Lenny was reading, Karen was drinking. They both stopped what they were doing when they looked over their shoulders and saw Holly coming towards them.

"Feeling better?" Lenny inquired.

Holly nodded self-consciously. "Yeah, better," she said, then added, "thanks."

Karen was up in a flash, something dark brown draped over her arm that she quickly brandished at her. "Here," she said, holding out what Holly now realized was a coat. "We, uh, found this for ya when you were in the bath. Lenny figured you'd be cold when you came back outside. Wouldn't want you to catch a chill on the way to the doctor's, right?"

It was a real ugly thing, that coat. It had so many patches threaded into it that Holly had a hard time believing it wasn't just easier to turn it into kindling at this point. But her mother hadn't raised her to turn down kindness when it was so willingly offered to her. So, Holly took the coat and shrugged it on. She let Karen fret over her appearance for a few moments longer before Lenny waved a hand and stated it was time for the haircut.

The barbershop they walked into next was tucked into the back of the saloon across the street. Truth be told, Holly had never actually been to a barbershop—barbering was one of the few household tasks that Luca was actually very decent with, so she and the girls always went to him when their hair was too long. He wasn't perfect, but he always made do. Holly was instructed to sit in a fancy seat with footrests and armrests and told to keep her head still for a trim, yet it seemed like she was doing a poor job of it because the barber kept placing his hands on her temples and grumbling about kids who didn't listen. He snipped a little here, a little there, and evened her hair out. It was still short, but far less wild. Lenny passed the man some coins for payment and tip and the three of them exited out the back door.

When they reached the doctor's office, Lenny and Karen let her know that they'd be across the street at the gun shop while she got her checkup. It'd already been paid for. She just needed to walk in and walk out.

Finally, Holly felt a stab of guilt. "You really didn't need to do all this," she muttered.

Karen gave her another sweet smile. "Don't you fret about it, kiddo. Just go in there and get yourself checked up."

"I'll pay you both back. I promise, I will."

"I said go!" Karen nudged her onwards with a laugh. Holly stumbled up the stairs to the doctor's office and, casting one glance backwards, entered the building..

Inside, the air smelt sterile. Glass cabinets lined the walls, vials of all shapes, colors, and sizes held within. At a large desk, a man with a dark set of muttonchops and thick glasses sat reading something, but he set his things down as the bell jingled above the door, signifying a new customer.

The doctor eyed her. "You Holly Monroe?" he asked, tone severe. She nodded.

She was ushered to a bench and instructed to sit while the doctor began the checkup. His eyes strayed over her broken nose, then to the missing fingers on her left hand, and he grunted. He produced a fountain pen and paper from his pocket. "Height?" he asked.

"Five foot six."

"Weight?"

"Hundred and twenty-five pounds." Probably not anymore, Holly thought with a grimace.

"Any previous health issues I should know about?"

"Don't think so."

The doctor hummed. With every new piece of information she fed him, he put them to the paper. He held her maimed hand and judged the scars as Holly explained what had happened to them. When Holly told him about her nose, he merely stared at it and declared that it'd healed enough that trying to make it straight could only happen through rebreaking it or surgery. She'd just have to make do with a crooked nose. Well, if she could make do with eight fingers for half her life, Holly figured that a slightly-askew nose was the least of a long line of worries.

The doctor was just about to ready his stethoscope when someone else came through the door. Holly and the doctor both stopped to peer at the stranger that'd just entered their midst.

He was tall, lean, and about as pale as a freshly laundered sheet. Clumps of poorly-pomaded auburn hair stuck out on the top of his head, which he absentmindedly smoothed back with a gloved hand. He wore a white dress shirt and a bright green waistcoat with fleur-de-lis stitched into the material, but most of it was obscured by the big brown duster he wore. Heavy spurs clinked with every step over the hardwood floor. "Mornin', Doc," his voice did nothing to obscure a very heavy accent that Holly was having a hard time placing, "mind lettin' me in the back? There's been a bit of an emergency."

"Mr. Whelan, I apologize but you've picked a bad time," the doctor said, motioning towards her. "I'm afraid I have a patient with me."

"'Fraid it's a bit more important than that, Jonah."

The doctor sighed, straightened up, and made for Mr. Whelan, leaving Holly to watch the scene unfold as if she weren't there at all. The two men bent their heads together and started talking in low voices. Not low enough, however; the silence around them could've carried their conversation all the way back to the camp if it wanted to.

"How much?" That was the doctor, sounding quite eager for details now that he assumed that she was out of earshot.

"Dunno. 'Bout eighty or ninety but I ain't quite so sure now," said the other man. It clicked in her head that his accent was Irish. His voice reminded Holly of a man that her father used to sell pelts to—some middle-aged fellow fresh off the boat who always talked about the views in Galway. Mr. Dorian was his name. Had a wife named Eileen he liked to spoil rotten with buckskin.

The doctor produced a pair of keys from his belt and the two men disappeared around the back, and Holly stared after them, her interest caught like a catfish on a fishing line. There was the sound of something shifting, then two more just like it, and a very heavy door open and shut very rapidly as though it was a crime to go through it.

The doctor reemerged from the corner and picked his stethoscope back up. He looked at her, perhaps expecting to get showered with questions, but when none came the physical resumed as normal. Her eyes drifted every now and then back to where Mr. Whelan had disappeared to, wondering just what he was doing back there by himself.

Ten minutes later, Mr. Whelan returned. She heard his spurs before she heard him. He sauntered back around the corner, quickly stuffing something into the inside pocket of his duster. Now, Holly wasn't the smartest girl to have ever wandered upon God's green Earth, but it didn't take a scholar to tell her that Mr. Whelan was cramming a hefty wad of dollar bills into his coat pockets that he certainly didn't have when he had entered.

As he made for the door, she followed him with her eyes; Mr. Whelan only had eyes for the stack of bills, however, and the doctor was too engrossed in filling out his paperwork than to pay either of them much notice. Mr. Whelan used his shoulder to push the front door open but stopped before exiting. "See ya tomorrow, Jonah. Normal time," he said.

The doctor didn't look up, or even say anything in response. He just waved a hand in Mr. Whelan's general direction. Mr. Whelan took that as a sign to leave, spared a moment to nod at her, and stepped back into the sunlight. Holly watched him as he left with fascination, her head cocked slightly, lost in her own thoughts once more.

The rest of the physical went on without any more excitement. The doctor treated her mild wounds with some salve, gave her some shots, and declared her reasonably healthy beyond that, save for the fact that she was nearing dangerously underweight for her height and age. He handed her a bottle of medicine, told her to take doses twice a day for a few weeks, and to eat more meat and carbs to build her weight and muscle back up. Holly accepted all of his diagnosis with a brusque nod and headed back outside to find Karen and Lenny.

They were across the street on the steps of the Valentine gun shop, just like they said they'd be. Lenny looked up from his book as Holly approached the pair. "How'd it go?" he asked.

"There's somethin' bad goin' on in the back of the doctor's office."

The words spilled out of Holly's mouth before Holly could stop herself. Karen fixed her with a hard stare, her expression concerned. "What do you mean, 'somethin' bad'?" she asked.

Holly wrung her hands. "Well, there was this man, you see. He had a green waistcoat and a big coat. Called himself Mr. Whelan. Irish feller, I think," Holly noticed that Lenny's eyes darkened and Karen's face closed up when she described Mr. Whelan in detail, but didn't dare question the reason. "Walked into some sort of back room behind the doctor's office. Came back with a big stack of bills in his pocket."

"How'd you know?" Lenny inquired quickly.

Holly mimed what she saw Mr. Whelan do. "Saw him do this. I think he thought I weren't paying attention."

Karen and Lenny exchanged a serious look, bent their heads together, and pulled away after a moment. Suddenly, Karen's hand was on her wrist as she led Holly down the street back to the horses. Lenny stayed behind, however. He merely stood up, brushed himself off, and drew his revolver.

Bewilderment bubbled in Holly's head. "W-what's goin' on?" she managed to stammer out.

Lenny pulled his bandana up over his face and started crossing the road for the doctor's office.

"Don't worry about it," Karen's iron grip on her wrist slackened as she pulled her towards the mounts, "just untie Maggie and get on the back of my horse!"

Holly did as she was told, something akin to fear but sharper coursing through her blood and making her movements clumsy. As Karen pulled her up on her mare's rump, Holly noted that Lenny was nowhere to be seen.

And then she heard gunshots. Holly's grip around Karen's waist tightened reflexively. More gunshots, someone screaming, the sound of glass breaking. And then there Lenny was. He bolted from the doctor's office, gun in one hand and a wad of dollar bills in the other. Holly could do nothing but stare, her mouth agape, but Karen screamed at him to get on his horse. Lenny practically threw himself into the saddle. Blood speckled his coat collar.

And all of a sudden, they were galloping away. Holly hugged Karen as tight as she could at the sudden burst of speed. She was hollering for her to hold on, but there was the beginnings of a proud sort of smile on her face. The sounds of horse's whinnying and hooves on mud reverberated in her ears. Holly stole one last glance over her shoulder as lawmen spilled out from next door and converged on the doctor's office. Women wailed. Men shouted. And then the three of them turned the corner, leaving the doctor's office and whatever had conspired there in their dust.

Chapter Text

"So let me get this straight. You're saying that there was this O'Driscoll business behind the doctor's office, which you promptly broke into and…let's just refer to it as 'ceased all their operations'."

"Yes, sir."

"And you got sixty dollars from it?"

"Yeah. Sixty and some spare change."

"And it was this, erm, this girl who had a hunch something was going down and told you to look into it?"

"That about sums it up."

Holly had never felt more awkward in her entire life.

The moment the three of them returned to camp she was ushered towards one of the tables by Karen while Lenny ran to gather some people. A few minutes later she found herself seated, Lenny on one side and Karen on the other, while Mr. Morgan and three other men from the camp interrogated them like she was some sort of criminal mastermind. They'd been talking about her and the situation in Valentine for some time, not really bothering to throw any questions her way just yet. Thus, Holly could really only sit there in her new clothes as she wrung her hands furiously under the table, taking in each man that was talking.

Mr. Morgan was there, of course. He'd changed since she met him out in the woods, now sporting a white shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows coupled with a black vest and blue tie. He still wore that frayed black hat—he must've been very attached to it, considering Holly didn't think she'd seen him without it so far. He'd forgone a seat in favor of standing but didn't seem keen to participate in the conversation, simply taking it all in as she was doing. He instead breezed through his cigarettes one by one; he'd already smoked two and was now lighting a third.

The other standing man was Mr. Morgan's exact opposite. He was the short and twiggy to Mr. Morgan's tall and broad. His hair was dark and shaggy, almost as unkempt as hers. Most striking about him was what she'd noticed earlier after she'd woken up on that cot, which were his bandages coupled with some particularly nasty scars. They looked like they'd been made by some sort of animal or perhaps a raving madman that'd brought a knife to a fistfight. Two scored deep through his right cheek, another cut the bridge of his nose, a fourth through the corner of his lips, and a final one through his eyebrow, all held together precariously with sutures. Once they were properly healed Holly guessed that he'd be quite an intimidating sight on first glance. But for now, he looked rather weak, still needing to support himself with the back of one of the chairs, much as he tried to play it off. She'd heard his name get passed around but Holly couldn't remember what it was for the life of her.

The two other men had claimed seats in front of her: the older looking gentleman and the dark-clad man that Mr. Morgan had been talking to when she woke up. The older gentleman was the calmer of the two. He spoke in a weedy but still authoritative voice that seemed to indicate, at least to her, that he'd seen a lot over the course of his years. His jacket was lined with gray wolf fur, and a hat covered most of the short gray hair on head. She remembered his name well: Hosea Matthews. He was doing most of the asking for Karen and Lenny's story, taking in each of their answers with a nod.

The dark man to Mr. Matthew's right was, in almost every sense of the word, intimidating. She remembered his name well too. Dutch van der Linde, a strange name if she'd ever heard one. What Mr. Matthews lacked in presence, Mr. van der Linde made up for in spades. Holly often caught herself drifting back to his face only to find him still staring at her, studying what she was doing. His eyes ghosted over her hair, then her maimed hand, then her various nicks and bruises, taking in every part of her appearance. He was even more well-dressed than she'd initially realized from a distance; his preferred colors seemed to be black and red because practically every piece of clothing he wore was some shade of those two. Two pocket watch chains dangled off one of the buttons on his waistcoat. Gold rings of all shapes and sizes covered his fingers. Even his hair and mustache were black—slicked back and well taken care of (so well taken care of that Holly was dragging her good hand through her hair the whole time without realizing it, suddenly extremely self-conscious of how she haggard she looked in comparison). Mr. van der Linde asked few questions and gave few answers back to her. It made Holly feel uneasy for the first time that day, feeling as exposed as she felt in that bathtub.

"Miss. Monroe?"

Mr. Matthew's voice snapped her back to reality. She looked his way to find him staring at her with something resembling concern. "Did you know what was going on in the back room of the doctor's office when you told Karen and Lenny about it?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"Then how'd you know something bad was going on?"

Holly hesitated, mulling her answer over for a moment. "I ain't too sure," she said. "I just sorta assumed, I guess."

"What made you assume such things?" Mr. Matthews, to her astonishment, sounded not at all critical like she expected—he actually sounded curious, like the entire debacle in the doctor's room was tricky puzzle he wanted to solve.

She took another moment. "I saw the man had money in his pocket that he didn't come in with. He was stuffin' it in his jacket all secret-like. And there wasn't a doctor in the back room. Least, I don't think there was. So I just kinda…figured somethin' back there wasn't sittin' right."

"So you weren't aware, Miss. Monroe," Mr. van der Linde's voice was a sharp contrast to Mr. Matthews. Low and booming like the rumble of horse hooves over hard soil. It naturally commanded the attention of everyone at the table, "that the good doctor's side business was an O'Driscoll money laundering ring?"

Holly just stared back, bewildered. Mr. van der Linde's expression was expectant, but fortunately the scarred man jumped in to sum up her thoughts. "Uh, Dutch, I don't think she knows who the O'Driscolls are."

Mr. van der Linde hummed thoughtfully to himself. "Where did you say you were from, again?" he pivoted the conversation, leaving his question unanswered.

"Lemoyne, sir."

"You're a far way from home," Mr. Matthews said, a hint of accusation in his words. Holly paled and looked down at her hands once more.

"Hosea," Mr. van der Linde chimed in with a teasing wave of his hand. "The poor girl's been through enough for a day without us needing to probe her for her life's story. I'm sure she's probably wondering just what's going on and why Lenny decided to make a big show back in Valentine," on her right, Lenny self-consciously scratched at the back of his neck. Mr. van der Linde folded his hands together and regarded her with an interest that quite nearly made her shrink back in her chair.

"Miss. Monroe, if you have any questions to ask, any at all," he gave her something of a warm smile, "my associates and I are all ears."

Holly's eyes flitted around before settling on Mr. van der Linde. Mentally, she sorted through her thoughts, trying to find a suitable question to ask first.

"What is all this?" she asked.

Mr. van der Linde opened his mouth to answer but the scarred man beat him to it, tone and expression both highly exasperated "Horseshoe Overlook."

"John—," John, that was what his name was, "—show some respect for our guest," Mr. van der Linde chided. John only sniffed and turned away. Mr. Morgan rolled his eyes over Mr. van der Linde's shoulder and took another drag on the cigarette.

She nodded, unsatisfied. "But what is this place?" she pressed.

Mr. Matthews gave her a hard stare. "We're just a group of travelers and wanders, nothing more," he said.

Travelers and wanderers don't hold up doctors' offices and tie men to trees.

Before she could voice those thoughts into existence, however, Mr. van der Linde cut across Mr. Matthews with a pointed stare. "Hosea, please," he said, "I think we both know this girl recognizes that we ain't just some merry band of innocent fools."

Karen coughed. John's scowl deepened. Mr. Morgan took a sharp drag on his cigarette and kept his stony silence. The look Mr. van der Linde gave her wasn't any more encouraging—it seemed to mimic everyone's reluctance around the subject, suddenly a long way away from the polite man who'd given her a smile and promised to be honest with her not thirty seconds ago.

"You're an observant child, so I'm not going to waste your time by beating around a bush or filling your head with bullshit you won't believe. Stay here any longer and I've no doubt you'd uncover the truth eventually, so I'll give it to you straight. We're outlaws, Miss. Monroe," Mr. van der Linde spoke evenly, coolly, carefully. "We make a living out of riding and robbing and thieving. Killing too, sometimes, if we have to."

Outlaws.

The word bounced around in Holly's head for a few seconds before settling somewhere deep in the middle of her brain, echoing like a church chime. Outlaws. Like the ones her mother used to read about to her when she and her brother and sisters were still young enough to find the Old West an exciting children's fantasy.

She took a breath, surprised at how calmly she was taking it all in. Suppose it could've been a variety of reasons for that. Most likely the shock hadn't hit her just yet. As her mind worked, Holly found herself peeking around at their surroundings.

"Everyone you see here is an outlaw, too," Mr. Matthews answered her question before she could ask it. "We all run with Mr. van der Linde—some of us have been running with him longer than you've been alive."

Holly returned her eyes to her hands at the explanation. Seemed like a lot of her unanswered observations were starting to click into place, most of the ones she hadn't really asked because she hadn't deemed them as important enough. Ha. All of it seemed real trivial now. She had tried to make it out there, then she had tried to keep her head down, and now here she was. In the center of some camp chock full of outlaws, probably armed to the teeth and ready to shoot the first unlucky soul that walked into—

Mentally, Holly stopped herself, because she had a hard time convincing herself that that assessment were true. Lenny and Karen, even Mr. Morgan and Mr. Matthews, didn't necessarily seemlike the kind to shoot first and loot right after like she'd heard during her bedtime stories. If they were anything like the outlaws she'd heard of, then Mr. Morgan simply would've kept the pistol and left her in that forest to rot away. Her bad hand went to the collar of her new shirt, thumbing the fabric.

Finally, she nodded slightly. "Okay," she said.

Mr. van der Linde's eyebrows furrowed slightly. "Okay?" he echoed, "And what does that mean, exactly?"

Holly shrugged. "Well, I figure if you wanted me outta here, you would 'a done it by now. Mr. Morgan didn't need to take me nowhere, but he still did. And you paid for my clothes, my bath, my health. So I suppose…okay."

John and Mr. Morgan exchanged a glance. Mr. van der Linde's fingers drummed on the wood, his signet ring catching the harsh light of the afternoon sun. "It's true, Miss. Monroe; we didn't need to show you charity," he said, "but don't go mistaking that charity for softness."

"Good deeds is still good deeds, sir. I just say what I see."

No one spoke up after that. For the longest time, Holly was worried that she'd overstepped her boundaries with Mr. van der Linde until he broke into a toothy smile and started laughing. It was a real deep laugh, too. Loud and unmistakably Mr. van der Linde's. "'I just say what I see'? Oh, I like this kid. You hear that, Arthur?" he elbowed Mr. Morgan as he spoke, who grunted lightly at the hit but said nothing about it, "Son, I need to send you into the woods more often. Any more of her and we'll have enough to keep this gang going 'til the next generation!"

Holly, scared that she'd either start laughing uncomfortably or say something she'd regret, kept her mouth shut until a thought suddenly blossomed in her head. "The O'Driscolls…?" she said.

John spat on the ground. "Nasty sons a' bitches," he said. "Real pieces of work. We shoulda burned that building to the ground instead of leaving it up."

"John, my boy, reel yourself back," Mr. Matthews chided him—not harshly, but humorously. John sniffed and pouted but said nothing else, so Mr. Matthews went on addressing Holly. "While John's certainly no poet, he gets the point across. O'Driscolls have been hounding our steps for the past several years. We don't like them, and they don't like us. But I can assure you, Miss. Monroe; they're a helluva lot worse than we are."

Holly felt a bead of sweat trickle down her neck. "How much worse?" she dared to ask.

It was Mr. van der Linde who answered. "Let's just say that if the O'Driscolls found you, and not Arthur, then you'd probably be six feet under in those woods by now."

A part of Holly wondered if he was lying or not, but the looks on Karen, Lenny, John, and Mr. Morgan's faces told her otherwise. She dipped her head in understanding, trying to process what exactly was running through her head.

"Miss. Monroe, we didn't bring you here to rebuke you or to scare you," Mr. van der Linde said. "Quite the contrary, actually. We want to make you an offer."

Holly furrowed her eyebrows ever so slightly as Mr. van der Linde continued, "Arthur tells me that you're a good liar. Lenny and Karen tell me that you're perceptive. You've got the makings of a good thief, Miss. Monroe. Quiet. Unassuming. Observant. You'd be able to wiggle into a lot of places we couldn't."

He smiled at her again. He probably didn't mean to come across as unsettling, but Holly felt something coil up uncomfortably inside her chest, "Unfortunately, this gang's a little short on manpower at the moment, Miss. Monroe, so we're going to extend you an invitation," Mr. van der Linde said, "If you join in with us, you'll have a bed, some food. Maybe even a little bit of money if we're fortunate. No more sleeping on forest floors or in caves. No more going hungry. All you have to do is pull your weight."

She could only stare at him, floored. "You're…askin' me if I wanna be an outlaw?" she echoed.

The offer sounded so simple coming out of her own mouth, but it came with a worldlike weight that crashed itself down onto her shoulders.

She said nothing else after that. Mr. van der Linde made to keep the conversation going but John interrupted whatever he had on his mind with a mocking laugh. "Dutch, you can't actually be serious about this," he said, indignant, "She's a kid. She's had a string of good luck and that's it. That don't make a good thief."

"Sometimes, good luck goes a long way, son," Dutch pointed out nonchalantly. "Arthur vouched for her. Karen and Lenny vouched for her. Way I see it, the more people we have in this gang, the better we'll all be in the long term."

"Dutch, think about this carefully," that was Mr. Matthews, expression cautious. "We were full enough in Blackwater as it was with the Callander boys and Miss. Kirk, bless their souls. Now we have Mrs. Adler to take care of, and that Duffy boy isn't exactly a boon to us neither. Is now really the time to be hunting for more members?"

Mr. van der Linde pounded his fist on the table lightly, resolute, "The more folks we have, the stronger we are, Hosea."

"She's sixteen!" John pointed an accusatory finger at Holly, "Dutch, even if you was gonna look for folk, you're gonna start with a teenager!?"

Now it was Lenny who jumped into the conversation, tone dripping with sarcasm. "She called out an O'Driscoll without even knowing what an O'Driscoll was, John. She found an O'Driscoll money laundering business by following her gut. Betcha you'd probably've missed it if that guy came up right now and started waltzing around camp with Abigail."

"You've gotta lot of nerve spitting all that sass at me, Lenny."

"You weren't there, John, so stop acting like you were."

"Can you boys just stop!?" Karen implored, irritated, "What, we're just gonna ignore the obvious? John, Hosea, we need more people in this gang if we want to keep it going to California. Ignoring this opportunity ain't necessarily an option, 'specially if it falls into your laps like this."

John shook his head in disbelief, "But a kid, Karen?"

"Oh, that's rich, coming from the man who joined up when he was twelve years old. Don't start with me, John Marston—you're about as transparent as still water on a cloudy day."

"Can Miss. Monroe even learn?" Hosea asked. "Thieving, I mean?"

Karen nodded, looking thoughtful. "Won't happen overnight, but she'll have some of the best teachers. Reckon we'd be able to get her picking pockets in a few weeks, maybe sooner."

"This is a bad idea," John insisted. "We need to send her on her way to where she came from. We got our own problems to deal without a goddamn teenager to worry about!"

"How 'bout," all conversation came to a grinding halt as Mr. Morgan spoke up for the first time. Six pairs of eyes fell on him as he held the cigarette between his fingers and blew a cloud of smoke into the air, "instead of just sittin' 'round here talkin' in circles like a bunch 'a jackasses, we simply ask the girl what she wants to do?"

Mr. van der Linde fixed him with a warning glare that Mr. Morgan shrugged off, taking another drag on his cigarette. Mr. Matthews, meanwhile, had turned back to Holly with a raised eyebrow. They locked eyes, and Holly felt herself blanch; she didn't like the feeling she got from him now, like he could stare into her mind and read it as easily as one could a newspaper. "Well, Miss. Monroe," Mr. Matthews said, "what exactly do you want to do?"

What did she want to do?

Holly averted her gaze down to her hands again, holding the two good fingers on her left hand with a vice-like grip. She'd almost run off when Karen dragged her from the doctor's office because she was scared. She'd nearly run off on Mr. Morgan last night because she was scared as well. And here she sat, a similar path laid out in front of her. She was scared out of her goshdang mind. Truth be told, she wasn't even sure if she would ever stop being scared in the presence of Mr. van der Linde and his gang of outlaws. But what other choice did she have? The past month and a half had only proved that she much didn't stand a chance out on her own, especially if the dark man and his band of thieves and killers were still searching for her, looking to put an end to the lone footnote in her family's murder. Holly grabbed a fistful of her skirt at the thought, her stomach tossing like a leaf in a thunderstorm.

She glanced up. They were all looking at her now, waiting for her to say something, and it was making it hard to hold any of their stares. Holly settled for looking beyond them, out to the mountains and valleys in the distance.

"I ain't got nowhere else to go," she said in a soft voice. "If you all would have me, then I'll stay."

"This is a big decision, Miss. Monroe," Mr. van der Linde warned. "This isn't some arrangement where you can pop in and out whenever you feel like. You can't go running for the hills the moment you find something better. This is a family. It requires loyalty and dedication and is rewarded with trust and respect. And it ain't always safe. We'll do our best to keep you out of harm's way, but you are expected to do your work and protect the members of this gang. With your life, even. Are you sure that you want that for yourself, as young as you are?"

She hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "I don't really know what I want," she admitted, "but if it's all the same, my answer's not changin'."

Mr. van der Linde suddenly slammed his hands down on the table, causing everyone around to jump out of their skins. "Then it's settled," he said eagerly. "Hosea, round everyone up. Arthur, clear some space in the center of camp. We'll put it to an official vote; we aren't savages, after all." He pointed to Holly, "Miss. Monroe, if you'll come with me, we'll make this a proper introduction."

The jump from fright to confusion had happened so fast that Holly felt as though she had been struck over the head from the whiplash. She couldn't do much but stand up and let Mr. van der Linde guide her away towards the large tent at the head of camp. She glanced back—Mr. Morgan and Lenny were busy moving the table off to the side as Mr. Matthews gathered a crowd of van der Linde gangers to the center of Horseshoe Overlook. Holly returned her attention back to the others as they did so, taking note of just who this gang was made up of. Plenty of men: black, white, a man who looked Hispanic, some young, others old. Same story for the women. The young child she'd seen earlier didn't join the group. Instead, he stood off to the side next to a woman with loose, straw-colored hair and a vacant expression. He rocked on his heels, waiting for the show to start.

Mr. Morgan and Lenny joined the throng of van der Linde gangers when they'd cleared a big enough space. When everyone was well and truly collected, Mr. van der Linde stepped forward, a hand on Holly's shoulder. Mr. Matthews stood some ways away by the recently-moved table. Men and women all fell silent instantaneously; even the young boy stopped his rocking to watch the scene unfold.

When Mr. van der Linde spoke, it occurred to Holly exactly why he was the leader of a gang of outlaws. He certainly had a way with words, an eloquence that she found herself envying somewhat. He effortlessly drew the presence of everyone in the huddle of people, and some, like Mr. Morgan and the reverend she'd seen that morning, didn't even need to be told to be quiet and pay attention. They just naturally drifted towards the sound of his voice, as though lulled by it. Holly clasped her hands and did her best to look composed, also determined to not simply avoid everyone's eyes and study the grass underneath her boots.

"Everyone, today's a special day," Mr. van der Linde clapped her briefly on the shoulder before continuing, "We've got a potential new recruit on hand. She goes by Holly Monroe; ran away from home close to a month and a half ago. Now, we are a group that, above all else, preaches the tenants of charity, compassion, and equal opportunity. And this gang needs. New. Members," several of the women exchanged worried glances. Holly jumped as Mr. van der Linde clapped her on the shoulder again, "So you know how this goes. Those in favor, stand on my side. Those not in favor, stand on Hosea's. We'll settle this before nightfall."

That was it? Holly thought that she'd at least get a chance to get a word in edgewise on her behalf but apparently that wasn't the way things worked around here. So, she had no choice but to stand, rooted to the spot, pondering what exactly her fate was going to be. The group of people clustered around camp milled around for a few moments, either still debating their answer or waiting for someone else to make the first move. Then, one after the other, they silently started to split into their different directions.

The portly man moved first, marching straight towards the 'nay' section of camp and claiming a seat there at the table. Almost as fast, much to Holly's relief, was Mr. Morgan. He headed in the opposite direction for the 'yay' section, then stood there with folded arms, looking impatient. He caught Holly's eye briefly, then looked away and became very interested in the views over the cliff.

Seeing two claims having already been made, the rest of them started to peel off for different sections. Lenny moved to stand next to Mr. Morgan in the 'yay' section, and after a small moment's hesitation, his big friend with the long hair followed suit. The two bearded men of the van der Linde gang—one massive and intimidating, the other scrawny and much older-looking—moved over to the 'nay' side. Karen was next to move to the 'yay' group, flanked by her friend in the yellow dress and the girl with the freckles. However, the pretty girl with the red hair and the older woman with the silver streak made for the 'nay' side. John joined the 'nay' side with a shake of the head for Mr. Morgan, Lenny, and the other man, shooting daggers at her the entire time. As the groups dwindled down to just four left, the rest of the gang watched on with more interest. Finally, the tanned man with the mustache made for the 'nay' group and received a clap on the shoulder from the large bearded man. The bookish man in the suit was next to go, heading for the 'yay' side (Holly noticed Mr. Morgan's grimace as the man joined their group, though he held his tongue). The reverend joined the 'yay' side, and the final member of the gang, a pretty woman in a shawl with dark hair, looked upwards and sighed before heading for those on the 'yay' side.

"Well, that's everybody," Hosea announced. "Count 'em up, Dutch."

More silence followed as the two men tallied their votes. Every single pair of eyes in the gang seemed to fall right on Holly.

The two men convened right in the middle and spoke to each other in hushed whispers. And then they looked at her.

"It's a nine to seven vote, in favor of the 'yays'," Hosea announced. "Miss. Monroe stays."

Holly released the air that she didn't know she'd been holding, not even sure why she'd felt so relieved. There was very little celebration aside from that. Their work done, the members of the van der Linde Gang dispersed. One or two of them went towards the chuck wagon for dinner. Several gathered back at the furthest table. Two of the men went to replace the table back where it'd been before the vote. The woman with the freckles and the man with the long hair both came up to her and welcomed Holly into the gang. There was some genuine warmth there, and Holly recalled that they'd both voted 'yay' when given the chance. They wanted her there, at the very least. Possibly thought she'd be somewhat useful. It was a strange consolation, but it was almost enough to make Holly smile.

Well, at least more so than when the woman with the silver streak came up to her. She had eyes that pierced Holly like a hawk's, practically carving out holes in her skull as she sized her up. Her expression was intense, her tone even more so. "You know how to sew?" she asked.

Holly pursed her lips and reluctantly shook her head.

"Tend horses?"

"I know a little bit."

"Can you wash clothes?"

"Yes, ma'am. I can cook, too, if that helps."

She scoffed. "Half the lazy bastards here can cook; Mr. Pearson just forces us to make it his job, and even then, he's not very good at it," Holly's eyes strayed over the woman's shoulder to the chuck wagon. The portly man had been the first to say 'nay'; he most likely didn't want another mouth to feed.

"Mr. van der Linde says I need to pull my weight, and I can do that," Holly tried to sound confidant and loathed the way her voice shook in spite of her efforts, "Whatever I need to do, I'll learn."

The woman didn't acknowledge any of that assurance. Instead, she just stalked away, clipping Holly's side as she made her way past her. Holly stared after her as the woman wandered over to the other women in the van der Linde Gang and started giving them tasks. Her stomach contorted, and her fists curled and uncurled in a silent effort for Holly to release some of her pent-up stress.

"I wouldn't take it too personally if I was you."

Holly dang near jumped out of her skin as Mr. Morgan's voice materialized right behind her. She turned to face him, aghast. "I'm not takin' it too personally," she defended herself, perhaps too forcefully and too hurriedly.

Mr. Morgan just gave her somewhat of a crooked grin, shaking his head. "Then why're ya staring after Miss. Grimshaw like she'd just spat on your dog?" he asked.

Holly's face burned, feeling embarrassment and indignation rising inside her like the mercury in a thermometer. "I wasn't lookin' at her like that," she retorted.

Mr. Morgan cocked an eyebrow at her.

Annoyance quickly morphed into apprehension as Holly tried backtracking, "I mean, I don't know if I was, but I certainly didn't mean—"

"Relax, kid. It's fine," Mr. Morgan's reassurance stopped Holly dead in her tracks, "You're one'a us now. Not knowin' how to patch a shirt ain't gonna change that."

Holly closed her mouth. Mr. Morgan chuckled slightly, then continued, "Believe me, ya coulda been a maid in the Oval Office and Miss. Grimshaw'd still find a way to criticize you for it. We've all been on the wrong side of conversations with her. You get used to it."

Glancing over her shoulder, Holly peered back to where Miss. Grimshaw stood with Karen, the girl in the yellow dress, and the girl with the dark hair. Karen said something that was accompanied by an eye roll, and Miss. Grimshaw's roaring reply could've been heard for miles around; "Don't you dare give me that lip, Miss. Jones, or you'll be washing Mr. Williamson's johns for a month!"

"Anyways," Mr. Morgan reclaimed Holly's attention with a clap on the shoulder of his own, "s'pose some official welcomes are in order."

"Thank you, Mr. Morgan."

"Eh, don't thank me," he said. He pointed somewhere over her shoulder towards a collection of lean-tos set up around a campfire pit, "Abigail'll set ya up with a bedroll somewhere over there. If we got any extra material, you'll probably get a tent'a your own, too. Anyways, there's food on the fire and there's drink over there if ya got the stomach for it."

Holly ran a hand through her hair, "Never had a drink before."

"Gonna make tonight your first?"

"If I'm bein' honest, probably not, Mr. Morgan."

He snorted, apparently amused. "I'd curtail that, if I were ya," he advised.

Holly fixed him with a hard stare, "Curtail what?"

"Honesty. Ain't gonna get ya far in a gang of outlaws."

Honesty. The word rang through her mind, the sound a thunderous tolling she couldn't ever hope to silence. Good God, if only Mr. Morgan knew her real relationship with honesty. Holly felt her face sag and clasped her elbows, but before she could lose herself in all the lies she'd told, Mr. Morgan interrupted her, "I'd turn in on the earlier side, by the way. Early mornin' tomorrow," he said.

Holly spared a few seconds to nod, then glanced up. Mr. Morgan was gone, strolling back to his tent. The sun was beginning it's decent, already shedding its bright yellow and transforming into a deep red as it dived for the hills. She stared around Horseshoe Overlook, taking her new home in, studying every person, every piece of property, every single piece of the camp she could see from where she stood.

Holly Monroe, the outlaw.

She'd either made the best choice she could've made given her circumstances or was about to wish she'd bolted into the bushes and left all this in her dust.

-X-

Met a girl out in the woods a few days ago. Had nothing on her but a broken knife and an empty pistol. She calls herself Holly Monroe—I don't know what she was doing out there, nor how long she'd been on her own.

Arthur looked up from his journal. Across camp, Holly sat on her bedroll, silently watching Jack as he read with Abigail and Hosea. The boy stopped, pointed at something, and shouted excitedly at Holly, who then leaned in to see what he what had grabbed his attention. Unfazed, Arthur returned to his writing.

Brought her back to Horseshoe Overlook, perhaps against my better judgement. She was barely in our company for a few hours before she, Lenny, and Karen ventured to Valentine and returned with sixty dollars and three dead O'Driscolls. Dutch seems to have taken something of a shine to her. Killing O'Driscolls is a real easy way to earn his favor. Must think she's got potential, because he invited her to join the gang. Now she's here to stay.

Laughter caused him to perk up again. Holly had risen and was chasing Jack around, their black silhouettes harsh against the dying sunlight over Horseshoe Overlook. Arthur watched the two kids run in circles until Jack turned around and raised his fingers, imitating a gun and making shooting noises. On cue, Holly stopped dead in her tracks, clutched her heart, and dramatically toppled over. Jack cheered, Hosea laughed, Abigail chided her son, and Holly lay there in perfect mock death until Jack jumped on top of her.

Damnit, now even Arthur couldn't help but smile a little bit.

She's just going to be the latest of Dutch's projects, I suppose. She's quiet, but perceptive: got a good head on her shoulders. Must be a quick enough learner if Lenny and Karen fought so hard to have her join.

Don't really know much about her, though. She's only got eight fingers—eight and a half if you care to count that little stub of a ring finger. She doesn't seem to have a family, par for the course if you're rolling with Dutch, and she seems skittish. She's a good liar, yet I feel like she don't enjoy it too much. She's just…so young. Sixteen. She's barely old enough to be out on her own and now she's run off with a gang of outlaws.

He underlined "sixteen" with a sigh, getting lost in his own thoughts. When he found Holly, she first thought her barely old enough to leave the cradle, but that could've been because she'd looked closer a sick horse. One could've mistaken her for a twelve-year-old, the way she shrank in his presence. Now, she just took in her situation with little protest. She barely had much of a reaction with Dutch and Hosea had filled her in to what they were. She just absorbed it with what appeared to be a weary acceptance, looking like a girl aged far beyond her years. It was as if she'd figured that her life had already gotten so strange that sure, this might as well happen on top of it; the cherry on top of a great big pile of shit. "Sixteen" seemed to fit Holly as well as a boot three sizes too small.

Perhaps he was being hypocritical. He and John were younger when Dutch took them in, after all. But Arthur'd already decided that this was the sort of life that he'd be destined to fall into, and John'd been so much of a similar case to him that Arthur had often wondered if Dutch simply had a knack for drawing in the poor and huddled masses. Holly didn't look as if her parents or siblings or uncles or grandparents had a drop of outlaw blood in them. Did that just make an already sad situation sadder? Or was a van der Linde gang member made, not born?

Arthur's eyes fell back across the clearing. Jack was now bouncing rather happily on Holly's lap while Hosea and Abigail finished up the storybook. When Holly was addressed, Arthur saw her either nod, shake her head, or give short answers. The four of them seemed pretty content there as the last of the light finally faded away into an inky-black evening.

After taking a moment to rub his eyes, Arthur put the finishing touches into his journal entry, losing himself in the all-too-comforting sounds of charcoal scratching its way across paper.

She's a hard one to crack, this Holly Monroe. I'm taking her out for her essentials tomorrow. I guess we'll see what she's made of then, and we'll see if I should've just dropped her off at Emerald Station when I still had the chance.

Chapter Text

Holly couldn't really remember falling asleep, nor could she remember her dreams. She could remember getting woken up by a boot to the shoulder, however.

"—nd at 'em, kid," a voice, low and quiet, sounded in her ear. "Time to get a move on."

After what seemed like an enormous effort to just wrench her eyes open, Holly moaned, propped herself up on her elbow, and did her best to rub the rest of her now-ruined sleep out of her eyes. Had she not felt so sluggish, Holly would've assumed that she'd only just fallen asleep and that the world was playing a cruel prank on her. Everyone around her was still tucked away in their bedrolls and tents. The moon, half full and threatening to tip over, hung high overhead. The smell of burnt ashes and pine trees rushed upon her like a mad hound out for blood. Mr. Morgan's silhouette towered over her, a cup of something in his hands, gently nudging her with the tip of his boot.

Blinking rapidly and feeling like an idiot, Holly managed to push herself to her knees. "Whatimesit?" the words tumbled from her mouth.

"'Bout four in the mornin'" Mr. Morgan answered.

He passed down the tin cup he was holding. Holly took it, brought it to her lips, and did her best not to gag at its contents. She'd never been fond of straight black coffee, but she was determined not to reject it. She was an outlaw now; they had to be tough, right? What kind of outlaw hated coffee and complained about the time of day?

Wherever her father and Luca were, they were bound to be laughing down at her foolishness. The thought hurt her heart.

"It's too early," not a question, but a statement. Holly had half a mind to lay back down and let Mr. Morgan have his way with kicking her ribs to pieces if it meant she got a little bit more rest. She took another sip of coffee and made a face into the rim as she forced it down.

Mr. Morgan, undaunted, gave her a soft laugh. "Too early? Pssht. It's only too early for the drunk fools, and at least they got an excuse to sleep in late."

"Hangovers'd gotta better than whatever this is right here," Holly muttered into her next sip.

If Mr. Morgan heard her, he gave no sign. "No matter, I s'pose. C'mon kid, we're headin' out."

She side-eyed him rebelliously, "Whatever for?"

"Well, we gotta get ya a horse of your own, for starters."

A horse. Hm. Holly supposed she never assumed that she'd actually need a horse. Though, she then figured that riding on the back of Achilles for the rest of her life would be a real easy way for Mr. Morgan to get sick of her. Maybe—not maybe, certainly—having her own horse was an essential part of her new life. But…

"Right now?"

"Keep your voice down, kid. And yes, right now. Early mornings like these? Good for findin' a nice horse."

If it were any later, Holly would've asked him what on Earth he was talking about, but she found that she couldn't muster up the energy to argue with him. She raked her hand through her hair in an attempt to tame it, groaning as her head spun with the effort. "Give me ten minutes," she finally said groggily, taking another sip of coffee.

"Make it five," Mr. Morgan said. The spurs on his boots clinked as he began to walk away, but not before stopping after a few steps towards the other side of camp. "And bring your gun," he added before hurrying off again. Holly nodded without question, eyes half closed as she still tried to tame her bedhead.

A few minutes later, Holly was hurrying towards Mr. Morgan through the darkness. Her skirts were clutched in one hand and her revolver was held tightly with the other. He waited patiently for her next to the horses, the cigarette jutting out between his teeth serving as the only source of light around while the rest of Horseshoe Overlook slept soundly on through the night. Mr. Morgan took the cigarette out of his mouth as she approached him, throwing it to the ground and stamping it out in the mud, then motioned her towards their ride.

Mr. Morgan mounted Achilles first in one swift motion. He didn't slide his boot in the stirrup just yet, giving Holly a foothold on her way up. As she stuck her foot through the stirrup and fought to keep her balance because of it, Mr. Morgan lowered his forearm, which she accepted. Aided by Mr. Morgan's surprisingly strong arm, Holly managed to hoist herself up onto Achilles' rump and settled herself astride on the back of the horse. She wrapped her arms around Mr. Morgan's middle, he nudged the horse's hindquarters, and off they went.

Her second ride to Valentine in twenty-four hours was not nearly as dominated by conversation as the first. It was quite possible that Mr. Morgan had sensed that she would much rather curl back up than answer any more of his questions, so the ride was mostly filled with silence. Holly just stared at the hills, valleys, and mountains around her, her face against Mr. Morgan's back. The horizon dipped up and down like the spine of some unfathomably large creature as the pair of them rode on, the moon dogging them all the way into town.

Compared to the bustle of yesterday, Holly actually found that she quite liked Valentine at its most quiet. Then again, her appearance had drawn a fair number of stares, so maybe it was just nice to not have to be the subject of everyone's attention anymore. Achilles was slowed to a light trot as Mr. Morgan rounded the corner down the main street. There was no light to be seen, save for those in the stables at the end of the street and those spilling from the saloon down a ways. They stopped right in front of that saloon, and Holly took a moment to soak up the muted sounds of a piano coming through the door. There was the sound of something snapping, then a rowdy series of cheers and applause quickly followed it. From the dirty windows, Holly could see men clutching each other for support as they clinked their glasses together and drank themselves into what was surely going to be an awful next morning.

"Off ya go," Mr. Morgan broke her train of thought by jerking his arm. Wordlessly, Holly dismounted into the mud.

She looked back at him, and Mr. Morgan waved his hand towards the saloon. "Well, there ya go, kid," he said, "your own horse, all for your choosin'."

Confused, Holly turned her attention back to the saloon, where her eyes fell upon, as she could only guess, the reason that they'd actually come back to Valentine at this ungodly hour. Three horses, left by their owners in favor of a night of revelry, were hitched to the posts outside, all saddled and ready to go.

Holly blinked, realization crashing down on her. "But that's—" she stopped herself before her words got away from her. She'd be a fool and a half if she thought Mr. Morgan gave as much as a second thought to horse theft. They were outlaws, for God's sake. It'd never even occurred to her that the horse he was riding, as well as half of the horses back at Horseshoe Overlook, had probably once belonged to different owners.

An annoyed grunt caused Holly to look back at Mr. Morgan again. He was pinching the bridge of his nose. "Miss. Monroe, with due respect, let me ask ya somethin'. Do ya know how to wrangle a wild horse?"

She shook her head.

"Do ya know how to break a horse in?"

Again, she shook her head.

"Have ya even ridden a horse, Miss. Monroe?"

Sheepishly, she answered; "Four or five times by myself, Mr. Morgan."

Another grunt. Holly's guts twisted guiltily but Mr. Morgan dismissed it with a wave of her hand as if he could sense her feelings. "You ain't the first who's green at horse breakin' and you sure won't be the last," he said, "but we ain't exactly got time to teach you how to go about breakin' in your first steed. And we sure don't got the money for a saddle or horseshoes, never mind a horse from some stable. So please, Miss. Monroe, pick a horse and mount up 'fore some feller comes out and catches us fools in the act. We're on a bit of a schedule."

Holly turned back to the horses, wringing her hands. Her stomach felt like it'd dropped somewhere between her knees. She'd never stolen anything before; save that pair of socks, she thought with some regret. There wasn't too much she had wanted for, and when she did need something, payment was the honest way to acquire it. At least, that was what her father had said.

And look where that got him, a nasty voice in the back of her mind spoke up. A bullet in the head and—

No. She couldn't think like that.

But what did she have otherwise, exactly? Cash? She had no money of her own. A gun? Good for violence and all the finery that came with it. Somehow, she figured she'd just end up back where she started, and the thought of that twisted her stomach worse than the thought of any theft and robbery she could ever commit.

Holly moved forward, sizing up her options. In front of her was a massive gray draft horse, a black mare, and a palomino stallion, all saddled like they were just begging to be taken. She took a moment to decide, but the choice was rather easy on a second glance. She'd have to grow about a foot taller if she had a chance of comfortably riding the draft horse. Holly'd look like the biggest idiot in camp, the small girl with the massive stallion. The palomino seemed fast and strong but…well, if Holly were being honest with herself, he reminded her too much of Oatmeal. She didn't even think they were the same breed or even the same color, but if she picked the palomino Holly had no doubt she'd burst into tears at some point in front of Mr. van der Linde and all the rest of them.

So, Holly moved to grab the reins of the black mare. She quickly untied the horse from the post, her eyes half trained on the windows of the saloon (though Holly figured that Mr. Morgan was posting as lookout anyway). The horse flicked her ears and side-eyed her as Holly finally took the reins in her hand. "Sorry," she whispered before giving them a tug.

The horse refused to move.

Now Holly was on the verge of panicking. "C'mon, girl, I ain't too bad," she said, flustered, patting the horse's neck. She was dismissed by the beast with a snort that Holly swore was mocking as she tugged harder on the reins, digging her feet into the mud.

Mr. Morgan whistled for her attention behind her. Holly turned just in time to slightly bobble and catch an apple that he'd lobbed to her from atop of Achilles. She held it in front of the mare, who now seemed to regard her with some semblance of interest. Slowly, ever so slowly, Holly led the black mare away from the saloon back towards Mr. Morgan and Achilles.

Hesitantly, Holly grabbed the saddle horn and swung herself up and over the horse. When she wasn't bucked off, she let out a breath of relief and finally presented the apple to her new mount. She had to lean almost horizontally to even reach the horse's mouth in order to even do so. The horse took her offering with another twitch of her ears, and Holly patted her neck again.

"Alright," Mr. Morgan nodded, "y'know how to ride that thing?"

Holly gave a slight nod. At least she could ride a little. "I can trot," she said.

"…S'pose that's fine for now. Best to take it slow, in case your new friend decides she wants to come back to her old owner," he took a moment to laugh at his own joke, another to scratch at his beard, and then nudged his horse forward. Holly did her best to copy his example, kicking at the mare's sides. It took her three or four good kicks to even get the mare to walk, another three to get her to trot, but she caught up quickly and fell back in line with him.

Mr. Morgan turned Achilles to the left, Holly at his side. And off they went, straight out of Valentine and into the plains beyond. They rode side by side for a little while through the last of the darkness, not saying anything but then again not really needing to. Holly was rather focused on keeping her new mount under control and not making a complete buffoon of herself, after all. But it was clear that Mr. Morgan wasn't even paying much attention to her; he was leaning back in his saddle and holding the reins loosely with one hand as they wandered on, looking completely at peace.

The sun eventually rose in the east, sending pale streaks of light spilling through the horizon and coloring the clouds with soft pinks and oranges. It was around this time that Mr. Morgan suggested that they picked up their pace. For a little while, it was just the two of them out in the middle of nowhere as he showed her where to kick the horse to get her to canter, where to position herself in the saddle, and how to confidently keep her balance. Within another hour, Holly was keeping pace with Achilles, trying to hide the fact that she was clinging to the reins for dear life and was squeezing her legs around the mare so hard that she couldn't bear to imagine how sore they'd both be when she finally dismounted.

Amazingly, in spite of how fast they were going and how queasy Holly felt at this brisk a pace, they actually managed to force some semblance of conversation between them. Sure, it was less of a conversation and more of Mr. Morgan saying things for her to nod and hum at, but he seemed fine with that arrangement. Holly at least gave him the courtesy of listening even if she wasn't answering. He didn't seem to mind her reservation, content in pointing out this and that for her. Besides, he certainly wasn't lacking for things to talk about, between the land, the animals, even the horses. They rode on through the Heartlands of New Hanover for another hour or two like this. Mr. Morgan made up for her silence by greeting every single passerby they met on the road and throwing good-natured insults at them behind their backs if they didn't return the courtesy.

By the time they finally stopped, the sun had climbed a good distance into the sky to reveal a bright blue day. Holly followed Mr. Morgan as he turned Achilles off the beaten path before them and started wandering through the grasslands instead. They roamed like that for a little, the grass brushing against her legs and the world before them stretching out into just about every shade of green and yellow that Holly could imagine. It was another few minutes of riding before she and Mr. Morgan rode into a small clearing where the grass wasn't so high and the earth wasn't so hard and decided that would this would be a good place to stop for a while. They both dismounted and Mr. Morgan demonstrated how to hitch the reins to the ground so the black mare wouldn't be tempted to ride off. Holly copied his example, frowning sympathetically when the mare tossed her head to test if she could break free from her handiwork.

Wordlessly, Mr. Morgan handed her a brush and three oatcakes. As Holly got to work cleaning the black mare up, he started rifling through the saddlebags to see what had been taken along with the horse.

He laughed suddenly, and Holly craned her head over the mare's back to see him hold up a rifle. It was a big gun, obviously well cared for, too. Silver and shiny and glossy like a pebble weathered by a river. Mr. Morgan held his eye to the long scope on the top of it and then relaxed. He caught her eye. "Not a bad gun," he said lightly. "Figure the previous owner must've been some sort of bounty hunter."

"How can you be sure?" Holly asked as she fed the horse one of the oatcakes.

He tapped the scope lightly. "This here's a long-distance rifle," he explained. "Could probably take some sucker's head off from sixty yards away if ya was a good enough shot with it. Or—" he brought the barrel of the rifle down ever so slightly, "—you could aim for the knees and make sure the poor bastard never walked again. Easy way to make money if ya got the skills for it."

Holly focused on brushing the mare's neck, pushing the gruesome image Mr. Morgan had described to the back of her mind. "You ever been huntin' for bounties, Mr. Morgan?" she found herself inquiring.

She was met with a shrug for an answer. "I've caught a few folks here and there. Mostly men who'd committed crimes yain't ever gonna want to know the details of (which seemed to translate into 'folk who committed worse crimes than myself'; Holly momentarily contemplated where exactly Mr. Morgan drew his moral lines in the sand). Ain't pretty work, I'll tell ya that."

Holly nodded in understanding. "You should take the gun, then," she said.

Mr. Morgan considered her offer for a moment, then slid the gun back into the holster on the saddle. "I got enough weapons for an army and then some," he told her. Holly wondered whether he was joking or not, "but you'd probably find more use outta that than I ever will."

"But I don't know how to shoot."

"We're gettin' to that."

It took another half an hour for Holly to finish brushing the mare and for Mr. Morgan to finish searching the saddlebags. There'd been some things that he deemed were helpful, and some things that he deemed were not. A pair of binoculars. A hunting knife. Some extra ammunition for the rifle. A small lantern. Two unopened health tonics. Fishing bait, shockingly enough. But Mr. Morgan still scoffed when he pulled out several bounty posters. Holly looked over her shoulder to see the pictures. "Bet he whips these out and starts braggin' every chance he gets," he growled, thumbing through the papers. "Considered himself some sorta bigwig, I guess."

"What's so wrong with savin' them?"

"The only men who brag about the bounties they bring in are the ones who never stick around for the execution," Mr. Morgan replied, a low edge to his voice.

His sour mood dissipated rather quickly when they paused for lunch. They went off in separate directions to forage for wood, then reconvened. Mr. Morgan tore up the bounty posters for kindling. Together, they arranged a small campfire and lit it, then sat back as the flames grew in size. Mr. Morgan told her to grab the hunting knife and showed her how to cook the raw meat he offered her by spearing it on the end and sticking it directly in the flames. It was certainly a…strange lunch, but Holly was hungry and didn't really see much reason to voice her thoughts about these kinds of things anymore. They ate in relative silence. Holly figured that Mr. Morgan was just as famished as she was.

When they'd eaten their fill and kicked out the flames, Mr. Morgan motioned back towards the horses. "Right, go get that revolver of yours," he told her as he fished for something in his satchel.

Holly retreated back to the mare, pulled out the revolver, and returned. Meanwhile, Mr. Morgan had pulled out a metal tube and a rag, looking a touch annoyed. "Last tube, too," he muttered to himself as he unscrewed the tube and started soaking the rag with the oil it had contained.

For the next hour or so, Holly sat there while Mr. Morgan both cleaned and explained the different parts of the revolver. He took the entire thing apart as though he could've done it in his sleep, pointing her through each and every part of the gun as he scrubbed the disuse out of it. He explained what the cylinder was and told her the difference between a bullet that still had its shell and one that didn't. He showed her how to get the cylinder open by flicking her wrist and holding the release, then snap it shut by flicking it back the other way. He told her what the hammer actually did and how to smoothly pull it back with her thumb. He explained the difference between the front and back sights and which to use in which situation. Finally, he let her fiddle with the extractor inside of the cylinder so she could get the feel of how to work it. It took a while—a long, long while—but the revolver eventually got to the point where it looked brand new, fresh out of the case. The white handle was so shiny she could see Mr. Morgan's fingerprints on it. The "HM" along the barrel blazed in the afternoon sun like a new nickel.

He handed the gun back to her along with an opened box of pistol bullets. They spent some time going over how to load and reload without fumbling, something Holly found surprisingly difficult for how simple it sounded. She was constantly dropping at least one of the bullets in her sweaty hand, sometimes all of them at once, as Mr. Morgan timed the seconds it took to shove them all in the cylinder and extract them again. He'd made it all look so easy, but Holly didn't think that Mr. Morgan understood that he had two extra fingers on his hand and therefore he didn't need to worry about all his bullets spilling out. She loaded and extracted and loaded and extracted and loaded and extracted some more until she could get all the bullets into the cylinder without dropping one, then went on for a while more so she could do it faster. When Mr. Morgan finally decided that she was good enough, it was almost a relief to drop her arms. Holly had always considered herself a girl with patience to spare, but she'd long since passed annoyance and was veering quite rapidly into exasperation.

Together, the two ventured into the grass until Mr. Morgan pointed out a large rock. She stood about ten feet away while Mr. Morgan placed an empty bourbon bottle on top of the boulder, then retreated back to her.

"Okay, first, square your shoulders," he placed his hands on Holly's shoulders to stand her up straight. "Now raise the gun. A revolver like that's gonna have a nasty kick, so place your other hand here," he cupped her bad hand around the bottom of the handle, "and make sure that hand's got an especially good grip. But don't lock your elbows. Now breathe in—"

Holly took a breath.

"—and out."

She exhaled.

"Good. Just like that. Never shoot when you're holdin' your breath. Now aim and fire. Make sure you're pullin' the hammer back after every shot."

Holly readjusted her grip on the handle of the revolver, shutting one eye. The glass bottle still had some alcohol in it; she could see it swirling even from this distance. She inhaled, and exhaled, then did it all over again.

When the gunshot went off, it was like everything she'd never hoped she'd hear again. In one instant she was back at her house with her brother shoving her out the door and in the next she was back in reality again. The revolver kicked up in her hands and nearly smashed into her nose. She yelped, stumbling backwards. By the time the noise had dissipated, Holly realized that the bullet must've missed its target by a country mile.

"Try again," Mr. Morgan's voice materialized from behind her.

She almost ignored him, still shaken, but her arms eventually rose once more. When she inhaled and exhaled, her breath tripped in her throat and left it rickety and unsure.

She adjusted her aim and fired—her eye was pressed up against the door as her father fell to the grass—but the bullet glanced off the rock. Her ears rung. "Again," Mr. Morgan said.

The hammer was pulled back. The sights were lined up. She inhaled and exhaled and pulled the trigger—tears filled her eyes as Luca wasted his bullets and his last minutes trying to buy her time to escape—and the bullet sailed so far above the rock that Holly figured it'd have a better chance of hitting the moon

Spurs clinked as Mr. Morgan walked up to her. "It ain't easy," he started, a sympathetic tone to his voice that she would've latched onto in any other situation.

Holly nodded without really understanding. The revolver's metal burned hot when she tried holding it, so she just let it dangle from her arm. "I don't…" she said, then stopped, then started again, "I don't feel…in control."

"It's a big gun," Mr. Morgan noted.

Holly didn't bother to correct him.

He drew his own revolver and busied himself by extracting and reloading it. "I don't always feel like I got a grip on situations all the time myself. No one does. Sometimes the gun jams or we get jumped by men after a job or whatever else the goddamn universe likes throwin' at me. So, I try an' ground myself to what I can work with. The gun. The people tryin' to take me down. That kind of stuff. And more often than not, you find that things just sorta work themselves out if you focus on what ya can control."

If she were being honest with herself, Holly didn't even see Mr. Morgan draw his revolver. He just suddenly had his arm raised, and then the sound of glass shattering caused her to start once again. Whiskey streamed down the rock, cutting dark trails into the stone. She gawked at it, astonished, as Mr. Morgan pulled out another bottle and overturned it to prepare another target for her. "It can't be that simple," she found herself saying, dumbstruck.

He wandered back over to her, shrugging. "Always worked for me."

Huh.

Mr. Morgan retook his place behind her as Holly raised the revolver. "Inhale," he said.

She inhaled.

"Exhale."

She exhaled.

"Now shoot."

Focus on what you can control.

Holly squeezed her hands around the handle of the revolver, her nails digging into her skin. She stared at that glass bottle and decided that if nothing else, she wanted to break that darn thing into a hundred little pieces. So, she fired.

Her mind stayed rooted in where she was through the sounds and the sights of her actions. The gun kicked like an agitated horse but didn't manage to overpower her this time. And sure enough, the bottle exploded into tiny bits that spun in the afternoon light. Holly squealed, this time in surprise, as the shards rained down over the rock.

A hand clapped her on the shoulder. "And that," Mr. Morgan said, "is how ya shoot a pistol."

There was little rejoicing aside from that. Holly was told to back up five paces as Mr. Morgan grabbed another bottle from Achilles. Following two more wasted bullets, she'd exploded that one too. Five more paces and an opportunity to reload later, and she'd popped another one as easily as a soap bubble. The longer she practiced, the more comfortable the gun felt in her hand. It also meant, however, that Mr. Morgan kept coming up with harder and harder targets to test her aim. Soda bottles, empty medicine bottles, even a pair of glasses that he'd once nicked off some annoying fellow just for the fun of it. After a long while of shooting, Holly was most successful in hitting targets from about fifteen feet away. The ground around them was littered with broken glass and bullet shells. She and Mr. Morgan regarded the mess they made with some shared embarrassment. "I think we oughta stop wasting ammo," he finally spoke up, and Holly nodded her agreement.

She was then taught how to fire in rapid succession. Finally, Mr. Morgan demonstrated how to fan, slip, and thumb properly. It was getting to the point of being gratuitous; in just how many situations would Holly find herself in where she needed to shoot six people all right in a row!? Still, it wouldn't hurt to learn anyhow, she figured. Besides, Mr. Morgan made it clear that those styles were only to be used in case she had no other option.

Holly wasn't sure what time it was when Mr. Morgan suggested that they took another break. When he'd suggested a quick nap, she struggled to hide her relief; Holly wasn't a complainer, but she figured she must've been awake for at least twelve hours already, maybe longer. By now, the day had settled into an idyllic, lazy afternoon. The Heartlands practically glowed golden, grass dancing in synchronization while aided by the wind. The air smelled clean, refreshing. And Holly supposed that for everything that'd happened the past two days, Mr. Morgan made half-decent company.

For the first time, Holly felt somewhat at peace with her decision to join in with the van der Linde Gang. She forced herself to stop thinking about her father and her siblings and all her lies, just for a second. It was more than all that, she told herself. Surely, ten times out of ten, they would at least want her to stop running around all alone…

…right?

"What don't ya grab the bedroll off that horse," Mr. Morgan's words jogged Holly out of her thoughts. He pointed to the green roll tied to the back of the mare's saddle, "Don't know 'bout ya, but I could do with a nap."

Even the word "nap" nearly made her knees buckle. Holly made for the mare and began untying the bedroll. In her tiredness, she didn't notice how much she was tugging, how aggressive her movements were. The mare adjusted her stance. Holly barely had any time to react before she was faced with the black horse's rear end.

Suddenly, she was swept off her feet with a yelp. Mr. Morgan had hooked her from around the middle and yanked her a good five feet back. And it was a good thing, too, because the horse had launched a kick backwards that, had Holly still been there, probably would've caught her directly in the jaw and shattered it to pieces.

Mr. Morgan set her down as Holly continued to gape and wonder just what would've happened if she hadn't been pulled back. The mare stopped her hooves indignantly and tossed her head, as if daring them to approach her again.

It was Mr. Morgan who approached the mare. Holly watched as he extended his hands, making sure that the horse was well aware of his presence. He ran his hands along her side, then up to her back, then to her saddle. He untied the bedroll, then respectfully backed away. Holly blinked once or twice as the bedroll was passed to her. Mr. Morgan continued right back to the fire, forcing Holly to follow after him like a lost dog.

"Thank you," she said breathlessly as she laid the bedroll out on the ground.

Mr. Morgan accepted her gratitude with a nod, tossing more kindling into the fire in an effort to revive it. "For the bedroll, or for me pullin' you back?" he inquired.

Holly brushed dust off her skirt, "Both, I s'pose?"

"Yeah, well, gettin' your face smashed in ain't exactly a great way to start your first day with us," Mr. Morgan gave her a quizzical look as Holly settled herself on her bedroll, "Tell me, Miss. Monroe; just what exactly did ya see in that horse? She's about as temperamental as a sleep-deprived rattlesnake."

"I guess I just liked how she looked."

"There's a lot more to horses than looks, kid."

"Mr. Morgan, I think you and I both know my knowledge about what goes into makin' a good horse couldn't fill a soup bowl."

That got a laugh from him. Holly nearly felt her mouth quirk upwards herself. Mr. Morgan continued to stoke the fire but waved her off. "Why don't ya try sleepin' for a little while? I can hunt on the way back and ya can watch, if ya want."

Holly began reclining but stopped herself as she fell to her elbows. Her eyes strayed to the revolver next to her, the silver shining, "Thanks, Mr. Morgan," she said.

"You already thanked me, Miss. Monroe," he reminded her.

"I mean thanks for, erm, teaching me how to shoot, I guess," was that a thing people thanked other people for? Holly wasn't terribly sure if giving her the power to hurt and threaten others was necessarily something good, but given her hidden circumstances, it certainly would be invaluable. Supposed that was worth a little gratitude, at least.

Mr. Morgan just shook his head, "Kid, ya don't need to thank me," he said. "Spend all your time thankin' people and you'll run outta breath that ya coulda used for yourself. Just try not to be stupid with that revolver. Our lives'll be a helluva lot simpler if you don't go shootin' every bastard in the streets."

Holly awkwardly stifled a laugh, "Who do you take me for?" she asked.

From Mr. Morgan's answer, it seemed as though there was something he was avoiding. A person, or possibly a memory. "Put a gun in any fools' hands, and sooner or later they'll start gettin' high off their own righteousness," he warned, "Just try and keep yourself grounded. Havin' a gun don't mean you're invincible. A good number of men think they can hide behind their rifles and it usually never works out well for 'em."

She nodded, thrown slightly by his uncharacteristic seriousness. True, Holly had really only known him for about two days, but he didn't really seem the type to lament the folly of man like this. Holly furrowed her brows as she settled herself on her bedroll. "You speakin' from experience?" she found herself prying. Mr. Morgan only shrugged.

Disappointed but not surprised, Holly reclined on her bedroll. Tiredness slammed over her the moment her head hit the ground, her eyelids drooping like quickly-wilting flowers.

"I'll wake ya when it's time to head out," was the last thing Holly heard from Mr. Morgan before sleep swept over her, and she thought nothing else of it.

-X-

By the time Holly finally clawed her way back to consciousness, she could tell that she'd slept for a bit longer than she'd originally intended. A baby blue sky was now fading into a pale gold and purple, with dim stars already peeking through the color. The fire was dying again, the last of the ashes curling and smoldering. Holly pushed herself onto her elbows, blinking sleep out of her eyes.

Mr. Morgan was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter Text

"Mr. Morgan?" Holly called out as she scrambled to her feet. No one answered her words, the calls of a flock of geese flying overhead the only thing close to a response she was going to get.

She whipped around. Achilles was missing as well. His bedroll had disappeared from its spot opposite their fire. If there had been any prints, then a brisk wind coming from the hills had long since blown them away.

Holly's mind immediately sent itself down into a panic. Had he just left her? In the middle of nowhere!? Just up and left without as much as a goodbye? Was he taken? Kidnapped? Shot and dragged away? Oh God, she could barely fire a gun and ride a horse and now she had to mount a rescue all on her own!?

Her runaway train of thought came to a screeching halt once Holly's eyes fell down to the remnants of the fire. There, sitting next to the embers, was a small folded piece of paper, three apples, and a pocket watch that'd certainly not been there before she'd settled down for her nap.

Holly focused on taking deep breaths to steady herself first before picking up the piece of paper. She didn't even bother trying to make heads or tails of it; weren't like she'd miraculously be blessed with literacy as she tried to decipher the words, after all. The handwriting was surprisingly clean, not at all like what she assumed Mr. Morgan's penmanship would look like. Beautiful cursive that flowed evenly along the paper like veins spreading out across human skin. But without any reading comprehension, it was about as useful to her as the burnt-out fire. Holly pocketed the note with a pout and then retrieved the pocket watch.

If it was correctly wound, then it was just about six o'clock. The sun wouldn't set quite yet but each second ticking away was just another moment that could've been spent doing something else. Holly pursed her lips, swallowed down her fear-turned-annoyance, and followed the path of the setting sun as it dove for the hills across the other end of the Heartlands. A gust of wind barreled over the grass, kicking up her skirt and making Holly's short hair fly into her face.

Pocketing the watch as well, Holly set about collecting her things. She rolled up her bedroll and tied it to the back of the mare's saddle. The apples were gathered and placed in saddlebags, alongside her pistol. Holly kicked enough dust over the fire to keep it extinguished, then set about untying the black horse from her hitch.

This had been the part Holly was least looking forward to. The entire time Holly cleaned up and prepared for travel, the mare grew more and more restless: tossing her head, stamping her hooves, and neighing dramatically. She could've sensed that it was time for travel, or probably didn't like being tied down for so long, or maybe she wanted to return for her original owner. It wasn't like Holly was an expert on horse behavior so she ignored it as best as she could. Holly wasn't much too pleased with the situation either, being alone with an unruly and frankly quite bratty horse that knew it didn't belong to her, but circumstances were circumstances. The two of them just had to get by in the same manner Holly had done for the past month and a half—grit her teeth and live with it. Yet, by the time she was ready to get on the road, it was clear that the mare wasn't much in the business of sitting back and letting strangers handle her however they wanted.

Holly had barely pulled the reins from the ground when the horse gave an almighty heave of her head and nearly threw her on her behind. Holly shouted in surprise, her hands reflexively tightening around the lead as the black mare attempted to rear on her hind legs. Ducking as one of the hooves came dangerously close to her face, Holly yanked down on the reins and managed to bring the mare back on four legs, but she still had to fight as though wrestling with one of Hell's angels themselves as she and the horse battled for dominance over the other.

"C'mon, girl, don't do this," Holly pleaded as she grappled with the reins. The mare refused to heed her; she just kept stomping her hooves and tossing her head, black eyes fixed on her and filled with what she imagined as…anger? The mare kept trying to rear up again, and Holly had to fight with everything she had in order to keep those front hooves on the ground. This battle went on for a minute, then two, then five. Holly just wrapped her hands up in the reins, bared her teeth, and dug her heels into the soil with all of her strength.

Eventually they both tired. Holly let the reins fall from her hands, winded, and the mare nickered in what seemed like equal exhaustion. Fearful that the mare'd run off on her the moment she recovered her power, Holly made a grab for the horse's bridle. The two stood there for a moment and replenished their strength. Holly leaned some of her body weight into the horse's neck, relieved that the mare didn't immediately back away and send her sprawling into the dirt.

"You…must've really loved that owner of yours," Holly said between gasps, caught between the sheer futility of the situation and her waning anger at having to deal with it all by herself, "…because you…you're the most stubborn horse I've ever met."

The mare nickered again as if pleased with the designation. She wasn't fighting anymore, at least, so it was a small victory in the end.

Holly ran her bad hand along the mare's side as a sign of intention like Mr. Morgan had done, making sure the horse knew where she was at all times. She grabbed the saddle horn and swung herself, still gracelessly, onto the saddle without much fuss. The mare suddenly gave a small hop with her back legs, and Holly yelped and fell forward to clutch the horse's neck in surprise. But it was all still after that. Holly rose upright, trembling, yet the mare remained perfectly placid. It was as if she was playing a trick on her.

Holly tugged the reins to the right. The horse spun in a tight circle, following the direction she was pulled. She didn't resist in the slightest. Alright, Holly thought, thankful, now we're gettin' somewhere.

But where to go from here?

Holly's rewarded the horse's patience with her with an apple as she charted a course of action. Horseshoe Overlook was south of Valentine, which was in New Hanover. She was in New Hanover right now, that she was sure of. It didn't seem liked she'd left the state or else Mr. Morgan might've mentioned something about it. They hadn't really deviated from their path when they'd set out. It'd been a straight shot east, over hills that in Holly's mind all looked the goshdarn same.

But still, heading west was better than just sitting put. Once she found the road it was hopefully just a straight shot back to Valentine and then back down to camp. Get to Valentine and she'd be able to find her way back to camp on memory alone, right? And then she'd figure out what to do from there.

Dear Lord, this was hardly what she'd been expecting from her first day as an outlaw.

Holly kicked the mare into a walk. Together, they left the clearing, searching for the main road back to civilization.

It took some time to find the path she and Mr. Morgan had taken. Undisturbed horseshoe prints cut their way through the thoroughly treaded soil, old remnants of wanderers on their own journeys. Holly turned the mare west and spurred her into a trot, and together they retraced their steps west, racing the setting sun before it settled down for the night and took the last of the light with it. A trot soon became a canter. Holly relished the cool air hitting her face and reinvigorating her senses. The mare seemed far more at ease in travel than it did standing still, and she raced across the open countryside as thought she'd wanted nothing more from her life than to ride with the wind rushing around her.

The roads were blissfully empty at this time of day, giving Holly plenty of time to get lost in her own mind. It was mostly about Mr. Morgan, in truth. Why leave without telling her? What would be gained? Perhaps this was his way of initiating gang members, but what good would that do if she got lost or hurt along the way? Holly grimaced to herself at the notion of encountering danger out here, especially at this time of day where there was nary a soul around that could come to her aide. The thought crossed her mind that he could be watching her from afar, to the point where Holly occasionally glanced over her shoulder to see if she could spy the familiar shapes of Mr. Morgan and Achilles trailing her, but nothing ever came of it. She was on her own again, that much was certain, yet Holly felt a certain ease at this kind of loneliness. At least she had a place to head back to, a place to call home. Well, okay, maybe not home. Still, she had a place to sleep that was somewhat permanent and more to wear than a ratty nightgown. Seemed as close to home as she was going to get for now.

But, truly, deep down, in a way that she couldn't explain, Holly also knew that Mr. Morgan and the rest of them wouldn't abandon her barely a day after accepting her into the van der Linde Gang. It was a vile concept, almost against human nature. And strangely enough, in a realization that Holly thought was peculiar but didn't subtract from its truthfulness, it seemed too rude for Mr. van der Linde and his gang members to leave her on her own. Mr. van der Linde was a mystery, sure, but a polite and well-mannered mystery. Mr. Matthews, Mr. Morgan, and John Marston all seemed to follow the example he'd set forth in that regard. It would be too…unseemly.

Holly simmered in her thoughts about her predicament for another hour. The black mare carried her for a good long while without slowing down until Holly decided she could use a break to reassess their situation. One more apple and another check of the pocket watch later, Holly was faced with another dilemma. They'd been going this way for a while now and still had nothing to show for their work. Where was Valentine? They could still be on the right path, or they could've gotten lost miles back and have never known it.

As the black mare ate her snack, Holly scanned the area up off the path. There, a little way ahead of her, was a large hill that crested up and above the dirt road. It didn't look too steep, but it seemed high enough that she could get the horse up it without risking her ankles and get a better sense of her bearings before the remainder of the daylight vanished.

When they were ready, it was up they trudged. The black mare climbed the hill with ease, almost appearing to enjoy herself. It'd been so long since they departed, and she didn't appear to have expended any of her energy. It occurred to Holly that she'd probably have to come up with a name for her new mount at some point. Couldn't keep referring to her as 'the black mare' forever. Wonder what name she had before all this?

All thoughts on the matter ceased once the mare made it to the top of the hill. Holly scanned the land below their feet, searching for any signs of civilization, but her thoughts melted away and her breath tripped up in her throat for the briefest of moments.

The world stretched out before her as far as her eyes could see. An endless ocean of green grass below bowed to the winds that rolled in from the north and made its way across the plains as if it had a devil on its heels. The ground rose and fell, rose and fell, again and again and again forevermore. The sickly-sweet scent of wildflowers that rode in on the breeze wrapped itself around Holly and the black mare. A pale-orange sky set the heavens above them on fire, the moon starting to rise all the way opposite it, ready for its turn to watch from the heavens. In the distance, large rock formations rose from the earth like teeth in the jaws of some great beast. The plains eventually gave way into forests, cool and secluded, hiding secrets. Mountains rose high above in order to see the world down below. Further along the road, tiny blurs of faraway horses and their riders followed the dirt roads—heartlines that ran along the ground they all lived and died upon.

And for another brief second, Holly forgot about the lying and the fear and the outlaws and the dark men and the fact that she still had no clue where she was and just found herself captivated with what stood before her.

Holly breathed out, at a loss for words, and then snapped herself out of her stupor. Her eyes traced the roads below herself and the horse, but they didn't seem to lead anywhere that she could see from the top of this crest. Valentine remained lost in the bowels of New Hanover. Whatever disappointment Holly might've felt, however, never really hit her.

At least the view had been nice.

She kicked the mare back into a trot, and then into a canter, and started down the hill for the road again. Going down the hill was pure ecstasy, the lengthy gait becoming wings to glide over the grass, the mare's hooves seemingly never touching the earth. Their shadows flew over the grass, chasing them along the way as the last of the light began to die out.

Another half an hour later, punctured with occasional looks at the pocket watch, and Holly came across the first sign of life in the Heartlands since she'd set out. She pulled the reins and got the mare to stop just before they'd run headlong into a buck grazing on the path cutting around one of the stone formations, stubbornly tugging at a patch of grass that hadn't managed to get trampled into the ground by cart tracks.

Holly stared at the stag, barely twenty feet away from her, but it ignored her and kept trying to pull at its dinner. Mr. Morgan had said something about hunting before he'd left. Did he find anything on his way back, or even tried? It was a safe assumption that he'd probably veered off the beaten path and found a deer, or possibly some turkeys, or maybe even spent some time fishing in one of the nearby rivers.

The thought occurred to Holly that she'd be coming back to camp without anything to give—not a bit of food, supplies, or anything else that the gang needed to keep going. To be fair, she still had no idea what that was, but hey, everyone needed to eat. No better time to start pulling her weight then now.

Holly, her eyes never once leaving the stag, reached into the saddlebag and retrieved her revolver. While she checked to see if it was still fully loaded, the stag finally caught sight of her and raised its head, staring at her with big black eyes.

Inhale. She extended her arms and pulled the hammer back. The sound of the cylinder clicking into position reverberated through the valley, bouncing back and forth on the rocks around them.

Exhale. She shut an eye and adjusted her aim. Holly's finger curled around the trigger.

The deer stared. Didn't run. Didn't cry. Just stared.

Bittersweet remorse stabbed at her heart.

-X-

"She's late."

"She's not late yet, Dutch."

"This was a ridiculous idea. She's about as green as a fir tree and we let Arthur just take her and drop her off in the middle of the wilderness?"

"If Arthur says that she's coming back, then we should trust that he knows what he's doing."

Arthur didn't bother to look up from his journal as Dutch and Hosea sniped at each other. The sun had long gone down and the three of them were impatiently waiting for Holly to return from the Heartlands where Arthur had left her earlier that afternoon. He'd arrived back at camp himself sometime around seven, telling Dutch and Hosea he'd left Holly instructions at the camp they'd made to return by midnight to Horseshoe Overlook. They'd all sat down at the scout table by the horses sometime around 9:30, placing mock bets about when she'd return and passing around a handle of whiskey to keep themselves company. By now, it was nearly two hours later, the whiskey had been finished for nearly a half an hour, and they had more than enough people to spare themselves from loneliness anyway. Miss. Grimshaw sat down in the remaining seat sometime after 10:45, with John joining them a few minutes later. Abigail arrived on the scene after putting Jack to bed, closely followed by Charles. Swanson had wandered over not five minutes ago but had already drained the last drops of their whiskey and was now pining for another bottle.

While Dutch and Hosea continued to argue, Arthur kept his feet propped up and his head down as he sketched away. His mind naturally found the shape of Holly's mangled left hand and his pencil followed suit, trying to replicate the image of her missing ring and pinky fingers. He'd already redone the scar markings from the infected stitches several times, silently cursing that he couldn't remember exactly what they looked like. Arthur erased some stray lines he had made around the amputated stub of Holly's ring finger as Hosea made yet another check on his pocket watch.

"It's twenty minutes past eleven," Hosea informed their little crowd with a sigh. "She should've been back hours ago. You didn't leave her that far in the Heartlands."

"She'll be back," Arthur said dismissively, still not looking up from his work.

"She's lost," John interjected, evidently ticked off, "The kid's never been in the wilderness by herself. What else should we have expected?"

Arthur wanted to scoff at how he showed more concern for a girl didn't know than his own goddamn son but Abigail beat him to the punch. She gave John a clipped and bitter laugh, "If Arthur says she's fine, then she's fine. It can't be that hard of a ride."

Arthur didn't have to look up to know that Dutch was rolling his eyes at her. "If we have to send a search party for Miss. Monroe in the middle of the night, then I swear—"

"We ain't gonna have t'send a search party for her! Jesus Christ, Dutch," Arthur half-snapped, exasperated. As he spoke, he gesticulated with his pencil. "Look, I left her instructions on when she'd need to be back, and she's still got, what, forty minutes? She's probably close by and ya don't even know it."

Charles still sounded skeptical. "Three hours is an average travel time for a skilled horseman, but you said that Holly had ridden a horse four times in her life?"

"Five times, but yeah," Arthur corrected with a shrug.

Their group started arguing again. Charles mentioned that he was going to go about readying Taima soon, to which John and Dutch started saying something along the lines of letting Holly stay out in the wild for the night if she couldn't even find her way back to the gang. Abigail and Hosea started arguing about the likelihood that Holly'd already been robbed and left for dead somewhere in the plains. Miss. Grimshaw threatened that Arthur'd be up to his eyeballs in chores if anything happened to Holly before she came home. Swanson complained yet again about the lack of whiskey. Rolling his eyes and shaking his head, Arthur began to reshape the index finger.

"Who goes there!?"

Bill's threat from his guard post effectively ceased all arguing at the table. Arthur finally looked up from his journal. Dutch and Hosea stopped obsessing over that damn pocket watch and were staring into the tree line like they expected a pack of wolves to burst through the undergrowth. Even Swanson, a complaint about alcohol still halfway out of his mouth, seemed to sense the importance of the situation and let the rest of his words die on his tongue.

There was a beat of silence, and Bill had to shout once more. "Speak up, or I'm shootin'!"

"It's me, Holly."

Her voice was quite soft but unwavering. She didn't sound hurt, at least not that Arthur could tell. At least six pairs of eyes fell on Arthur, who closed his journal, removed his feet from the table, and tried to mask his growing smugness behind a serious demeanor.

The bushes shook, a bird or two squawked before taking flight into the night, and then a black horse emerged from the woods with her rider. Holly rode into camp with still-unsteady-but-much-steadier-than-this-morning hands and a seemingly better sense of what she was doing on top of her mare's back. She guided her new horse to the hitching posts without managing to start a panic, at the very least, sliding right between Achilles and Old Boy. Arthur could see the handle of the pistol they'd been practicing with sticking out of one of the saddlebags.

Holly dismounted somewhat ungracefully, getting her foot caught in the stirrup for a good five seconds before finally tugging it free. She brushed the hair out of her face, smoothed down her outfit, and straightened herself upright. Her eyes fell on the eight or so people crowded around the table, a naively confused expression dawning on her face. "Is everything alright?" she asked, clearly concerned.

Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Dutch and Hosea exchange a glance. Hosea then returned his gaze to his pocket watch.

"11:23, on the dot," he announced to the group, "thirty-seven minutes to spare."

No one spoke up. Holly made her way over to the table, Arthur's instructions to her in good hand. She eyed him warily, avoiding Dutch and Hoseas' quizzical expressions. "You left me," she said matter-of-factly.

Arthur shrugged. "Ya made it back on time, though," he pointed out as he waved at the paper in her hands. "See, I wrote it down for ya right there."

Holly just kept staring at him. Even in the dim light of camp, Arthur couldn't have missed her fist tighten around the small slip of paper like she wanted to choke the life out of it, face turning as red as a beet.

It just then occurred to Arthur that he taught her how to clean a gun, fire straight, and get a stolen horse to trust her, but he never even bothered to ask her if she could read.

"Miss. Monroe, we are very impressed and relieved that you made it back to camp in one piece," that was Dutch piping up now. Holly, along with the rest of them, turned to the sound of his voice, "but I have to ask; what on earth delayed your arrival?"

She shrugged, still not looking at him. "I found a deer," she said, "but I don't think I can take it down from my horse."

Eight pairs of eyes flew to the back of the black mare at the same time, where a buck had been haphazardly tied to the back with a length of rope. Blood still dripped from the bullet wound in its neck, speckling the grass below. Arthur saw another bullet had pierced its leg and yet another had found the stomach. All around, a messy kill, but a kill nevertheless. But the buck was pretty sizable: eight points, well fed. No wonder the kid couldn't take it off the horse—it was honestly a goddamn miracle she was able to get it on there in the first place.

Dutch and Hosea shared another look. Charles was scrutinizing the buck carcass with narrowed eyes, probably trying to determine if the pelt was salvageable. Abigail and Grimshaw only had eyes for Holly, looking concerned and angry respectfully. It was John, however, who'd spoken up next, "It's nearly midnight. What made you think hunting a deer was necessary?"

He sounded so overtly critical for something that really was none of his goddamn business. Arthur bit his own disapproval back; last thing that the camp needed was another of their late-night shouting matches.

Holly looked down and mumbled words none of them could catch.

"Speak up, Miss. Monroe," Miss. Grimshaw ordered.

Holly's face, if it was even possible, grew a shade redder.

"I'm just pulling my weight, Miss. Grimshaw."

Miss. Grimshaw, her expression caught somewhere between approval and dissatisfaction, didn't respond. It was an answer born of worry, something that Arthur knew about as well as anyone else in the gang, so he knew when she sensed that she truly had nothing to worry about she would back off and leave it at that. Holly waited expectantly, but when she sensed that no one else was going to be chastising her, she simply folded her hands and waited to be instructed further.

At long last, Dutch waved a hand to John and Charles; "You two, take the deer off the horse and bring it to Mr. Pearson. If he's not awake, then take it out of camp and skin it yourselves. Hosea, meet me in my tent. The rest of you, get some sleep," Dutch turned his attention to Holly, who, if it was even possible, made herself stand even straighter, trying to look as appropriate and receptive as possible, "And you, Miss. Monroe, can unsaddle your horse and get some shut-eye. No doubt you've had a long day."

The aforementioned members of the van der Linde Gang went their separate ways with sleepy nods for each other. John and Charles made for the black mare, their knives at the ready to saw the ropes holding the deer, with Holly lagging a few steps behind. Arthur caught Dutch and Hoseas' eyes and pointed at himself—a silent question to know if his presence was required in Dutch's lodging—but he was met with a reassuring shake of their heads. Hosea patted him on the shoulder as the pair of them made their way back into camp.

Arthur brushed past John and Charles as they made their way over to the chuck wagon, a stag leg in each hand. Holly was undoing the straps of the mare's saddle and Arthur went to help her. Together, they hoisted it off of the horse's back and set it down on one of the makeshift holders a little ways away.

As Arthur started to retrace his steps back over to the horses, he was met with Holly standing at his side, holding out his pocket watch. He took it from her and turned it over in his hands.

"S'pose I shoulda asked ya if ya knew how to read," Arthur admitted, pocketing the watch.

Holly shrugged. She didn't seem mad: just slightly self-conscious. "Ain't your fault," was her dismissal of Arthur's piss-poor attempt at apologizing. "I figured that you wouldn't've just up and left me without good reason."

Well, that was sort of exactly what he'd done. She'd passed out on her bedroll in about ten minutes, and by then Arthur had written her instructions, left her some things, and been on his way. It was tried and true van der Linde Gang method of testing the current skillsets of their newest members—he'd done the exact same thing with Sean, Lenny, Tilly, and Mary-Beth when they'd joined the gang however many years ago. Oh boy, now those were some stories. The one about Sean getting stuck somewhere in the middle of the Mojave on a day of heavy winds and arriving back looking like he'd lost a fistfight with a sandstorm was a story that still could reduce even a sober Bill and Javier to tears. But Holly had by far been the slowest to arrive back to camp of all the newbies; probably went hand and hand with her easily being the greenest gang member he'd ever had to do it with. The girl barely knew how to ride a horse, didn't know how to properly shoot, and seemed much more willing to let herself be ordered around than to try and find it in her to speak up for herself.

They'd reached the black mare and Arthur returned to the here and now. "Did ya name your horse?" Arthur asked, changing the subject.

For the first time since Arthur's known her, Holly broke into something that could resemble a smile. It looked almost unnatural on her face, but he'd consider it a welcome sight after a few days of constant moping. She patted the horse's neck lovingly. "I named her Shining Star," she told him.

"Shining Star?"

Holly pointed to the mare's forehead, at the white splash between the eyes. "See? It looks like a star, don't it?" she asked him as she moved on to pat Shining Star's nose.

Arthur personally thought that he'd never seen anything that looked less like a star. Maybe a lopsided raindrop or a distorted sort of spade, but not a star. Not that he'd ever voice those concerns. Shining Star fixed him with a look that he could've sworn was a threat, as if daring him to tell her new owner what he really thought.

Holly pulled out one of the apples that he'd left with her and fed it to the horse. A swish of the tail, a contented snort, and a slow blink later, and Shining Star had become about as docile as a newborn kitten. The mare must've been quite attached to her former rider, and Arthur was really hoping that Holly would've picked the Palomino Turkoman because it was just the all-around better option, but the mare must've gotten all the aggressiveness out of her system with the ride. Now, she seemed perfectly happy to just stand there while Holly, running a hand alongside the flank to make sure the mare knew of her presence, pulled out a brush and started cleaning the dirt from her coat. Arthur, thumbs looped into his belt, only rocked back on his heels and observed with a watchful eye, his mind once again drifting off.

If anything, Holly really did take instructions well and had an ability to learn quickly, as well as on her feet. The level of confidence she'd had when she'd started out versus arriving back was already marked improvement. It'd barely been a half a day ago when he'd had to yank her away from Shining Star's kicks, yet now here they were, soaking up each other's' presences comfortably as if they'd been mount and rider all their lives.

"It gets easier, y'know," Arthur said suddenly.

Holly looked up, fixing him with a stare he couldn't really read. Something halfway between apprehension and relief, like she was grateful he was addressing the topic. "What does?" she asked him.

"All…" unsure of what point he was even trying to make, Arthur waved his hand around, gesturing to the campsite, "…this, I s'pose. All this outlaw business. The killin', and the runnin', and the stealin', and the constant watchin' over your shoulder. It gets easier. Ya just gotta give it a little time, kid."

Holly held his gaze for a little while longer and then nodded her understanding. She went back to her brushing, her eyes a bit distant, and Arthur took that as his cue to start going to bed himself.

A yawn overtook him as he made his way past Holly and Shining Star. "Don't stay up too late, or you're gonna hate yourself tomorrow. Miss. Grimshaw's gonna start puttin' ya to work first thing in the mornin'," he said as he ambled back to the tents.

He reached the scout table and was gathering his things when he heard Holly speak up again, "Mr. Morgan?"

Arthur turned. Holly's mouth was open but she quickly closed it again. The words "Thank you", frankly undeserved, hung in the air. But it seemed as though she was remembering their earlier conversation, because whatever was going to be said remained unspoken. She just waved him on instead. "Good night, Mr. Morgan," she called after him.

So,  she can be taught.

Arthur snorted. He tipped his hat in silent acknowledgement, picked up his journal, and headed back to his cot. Fireflies danced in the air, fallen starlight from the clear skies up above their heads.

Chapter Text

And so that was how it was. The days came and went, and the longer Holly found herself staying with the van der Linde Gang, the better she seemed to navigate the raging sea that'd become of her life. Mr. Morgan had said that every day would get easier, and to his credit he was more right than wrong.

Holly got used to rising with the sun and falling asleep long after the twilight had faded away. She got used to the endless comings and goings of the van der Linde Gang—their activities, their preferences, and their seemingly endless penchants for wrongdoing. Every single one of them was like a battlefield in and of themselves to cross, so Holly took it upon herself to keep her mouth shut, look presentable, learn the ropes, and do what she was told like a good little outlaw.

She didn't necessarily need to rouse herself with the gunners, but habit and being a light sleeper got the better of her every time. Holly resigned herself to the bitter taste of coffee as she sat silently around the campfire with the other men and women who'd managed to get up around this time too. She was usually joined by Mr. Morgan—always the first to rise and always the last to come home; Holly had no idea how he managed—Mr. Pearson, Miss. O'Shea, Mr. van der Linde, Mr. Matthews, and Miss. Grimshaw. The group of them would wake up together in silence, not speaking but then again not really needing to, before they all went on their own separate ways. From there, Holly would float from one camp activity to the next, looking for ways that she could be productive.

Cooking duties with Mr. Pearson tended to be her fallback. It was the one thing in camp that she felt one hundred percent assured that she knew something about, although Mr. Pearson wasn't necessarily the most amicable of fiends. The gang's cook had a short temper and an even shorter repertoire of cooking skills, but Holly soon learned better than to outright challenge him. Rather, she just listened with rapt attention and followed his orders, operating on his schedule. The communal stew was always to be ready by noon, then the rest of the donations to the camp were to be skinned, salted, and stored for later batches. Over the course of one month, Holly skinned more animals, both in quantity and variety, then she'd ever done in her entire life. Deer and rabbits and turkeys and foxes and wolves and possums and songbirds and badgers and squirrels and several other animals she didn't even know were editable. Charles once brought in an entire cougar, claiming that it'd blindsided him and Taima on the road back to Horseshoe Overlook one day. Holly said nothing but just nodded, wide eyed, while Charles dumped it on the table with an apologetic shrug. As she and Mr. Pearson skinned the thing down, Mr. van der Linde and the others celebrated the kill around the campfire. Mr. Pearson pocketed most of the fangs but passed one to her. Charles returned for the pelt after some time, which Holly was more than happy to give him.

When she wasn't skinning animals or chopping up vegetables, Holly found herself wandering around Horseshoe Overlook in search of more busywork. As it turned out, the van der Linde Gang wasn't just a bunch of crooks and thieves left to their own devices. It had real wants and needs, and Mr. van der Linde ran a tight ship with Miss. Grimshaw. Holly quickly realized that she had to tend to all of those wants and needs, whether she was familiar with the chore or not.

She learned how to patch a quick hole from Tilly, who kindly taught her how to guide a needle and how to tie off her knots securely. Later, she watched Mr. Matthews brew several herbal remedies until he felt as though he could trust her with a few basic recipes. She tended to the horses, helping with their grooming and feeding and general wellbeing as their owners came and went. Sometimes, Miss. Grimshaw would stick her on cleanup duty if the gang partied too hard the night before. They even started handing down Kieran's basic needs to her as well, which made it incredibly awkward when she went to deliver him food or water. He'd stare at her with those big, sad eyes, and Holly would wonder how he felt, watching her walk around as a free man when he'd been stuck to that tree for God knows how long. She wished from the bottom of her heart that she had the courage to sneak him a spare apple, if only to make him stop staring at her like she was Gabriel himself whenever she approached.

But Mr. Morgan was certainly correct, however; it did become easier. After two weeks, Holly could skin a deer faster than John could and knew how to set up, stoke, and put out the gang's campfire. After three weeks, she could mend most any hole in a shirt without Tilly's guidance and had finally managed to get Mr. Pearson to heed her advice when it came to sticking too much thyme in the stew. By a month's passing, she'd made an herbal tonic nearly to Mr. Matthew's level of perfection, who'd then gifted her with harder recipes to try her hand at.

Not all of her duties were nearly as backbreaking as those. In fact, some were rather…enjoyable (what a paradox, to enjoy herself while living in a gang full of wrongdoers). Sometimes, Holly'd just sit amongst the other women in camp and chew the fat as they worked—Mary-Beth and Karen in particular were good at spinning tales, though most had warned Holly that Karen had a habit of exaggerating her stories. Javier had let her strum on his guitar once or twice and was surprisingly encouraging when she apologized for how bad she was. And, when Ms. Roberts was too busy to look after little Jack, Holly was more than happy to volunteer for babysitting duties.

One day, about ten days into her initiation into the gang, Holly found herself with nothing to do. She sat at one of the tables and let her eyes wander, finally settling down on Mr. Morgan's tent. He was writing something in that journal of his. Holly found herself drifting off into space as she watched the pencil rise, fall, then go between his teeth, then return to the paper.

"Having fun?"

Mr. Matthew's humorous inquiry sent Holly right back to the earth with an unpleasant bump. She yelped like a dog getting trodden upon, nearly falling out of her chair. By the time she'd regathered her composure, Mr. Matthews had settled down in the vacant chair to her right and had whipped out a book of his own. "Fun?" she repeated stupidly.

He looked up from his book, taking her in. "Do you know how to read or write, Holly?" came the question.

She didn't answer for a moment. "I know my numbers, sir," she said, feeling her cheeks grow hot.

"But you never learned how to read? Never got taught that sort of thing?"

This time, Holly accepted defeat and shook her head. "My family was the real busy type," she told him, averting her gaze. "Only my ma knew how to read, and my pa said it weren't even that important for folk to know."

Mr. Matthews scoffed, shuffled closer with his book, motioned Holly towards him, and that was the start of their reading and writing classes. She'd sit with Mr. Matthews at the lookout table and practice when she had nothing better to do. It was long and frustrating at times, considering her letters looked like they'd been made by some sort of lame chicken, but Mr. Matthews talked her through it with a sagely persistence that could've only come with much trickier participants. "If I could teach John Marston how to make his letters," Mr. Matthews told her one night, ignoring the scowl John threw his way from the campfire, "then I can teach just about anyone in this goddamn camp."

She could spell her name after a few weeks and was getting the hang of reading simple sentences. Holly certainly didn't miss the irony in knowing how to spell "Holly Monroe" and not "Caterina Pozzi", but she did her best to shove the thought into the back of her mind.

When all was said and done, Holly'd retire to her bedroll and settle down for the night. She'd usually pass by one or two of the men heading out for guard duty, eyeing her and the other women enviously; Lenny once jokingly offered her ten dollars to trade places with him. Someone, either Mr. Matthews or Ms. Roberts, found enough extra material to make a lean-to for her. Holly would usually wait for the world around her to grow quiet, absorbing the soft sounds of the night birds and the familiar smell of the dying smoke of the campfire and the stars twinkling overhead, before falling asleep. Her material possessions had amassed to everything held on Shining Star, two or three extra outfits handed down from Tilly and Mary-Beth, the cougar fang, the broken knife—she could've, should've, tossed it sooner, but found that she just couldn't bring herself to—and her revolver. Holly kept it within arm's reach at all times. Always loaded. Always at the ready. Holly wouldn't let herself get caught unprepared. Not now, and not ever again.

The days passed them by. Food was delivered. Stagecoaches were robbed. Men were held up. Money was brought into the camp and placed into that little wooden chest right next to Mr. van der Linde's tent. Holly had no money, else she'd surely contribute. The girls assured her that her time would come when she was expected to get out of Horseshoe Overlook and start earning her keep. "Not with the way you look right now," Ms. Roberts had told her one Thursday morning when Holly asked if there was anything more than she could do to help out, "You look like one good breeze could knock you flat on your ass."

Slowly, steadily, Holly gained weight. She was still scrawny. Truthfully, she always had been, took after her father in that regard, but her arms and legs filled out. Her face went from thin and gaunt to full and healthy. Wasted muscle reformed and grew firmer. On her first day she could barely handle a half-full bag of laundry, and now Holly could at least drag two full ones at a time to Shining Star before her strength got sapped. An improvement all around. Mr. Pearson's cooking wasn't good, but it sure did the job that Holly needed it to. The camp's cook paraded it around like some sort of victory on his part, though Holly wasn't going to be the one to tell him off for it.

She did enjoy his company when she had to work for him. If she was being sincere with herself, Holly enjoyed all of their company. Miss. Grimshaw showed her how to play dominos one night and didn't take any survivors as she promptly whooped all of their behinds in a mock tournament. Charles, as wise as he was imposing, would slow down and guide Holly through his busywork with arrows and such when she came up and asked him about it. Even Mr. Williamson, the most boisterous and unnecessarily confident van der Linde ganger, had his positives. Sure, Holly loathed the way that half of the beer bottles she tended to pick up were his, but he had been the one who'd taught her how to play poker and may or may not have even thrown a few rounds in her first go-about. Though she had no real proof, Holly was certain that Mr. Williamson's flush would've beaten her three of a kind had he not chosen to fold a minute beforehand (she didn't dare look deeper into it—Mr. Williamson wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, after all).

There were only two people around the camp that Holly tended to avoid. One of them was Mrs. Adler, the widow from the Grizzlies that they'd picked up barely a month before her. Mr. Morgan filled Holly in on her story one day, and she found nothing but empathy in her heart for the poor woman. Yet there was something there that pulled her away from Mrs. Adler, something dark and pained. The way that she sat at the edge of camp, her eyes hiding under her straw-colored hair, filled with sorrow and rage and fear. The feelings emanating from her were familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time, and Holly didn't even want to know what being in her presence for a prolonged time would do to her. So, she avoided her, somewhat reluctantly. Not that Mrs. Adler seemed to care much. She just sat there and read her books or whittled with her carving knife. Sometimes Holly would hear her cry or snap at someone. Mostly, it was just silence. The unbearable kind; the kind that'd sooner suffocate you in your sleep.

The other was Mr. van der Linde himself. Dutch, as referred to by everyone from old Mr. Matthews to young Jack Marston. Sharp as a hunting knife and never without something big and fancy to say, he swept around Horseshoe Overlook and helped to facilitate the comings and goings of just about every aspect of his gang's operations. Needed to finalize a big score? Mr. van der Linde was there, ledger in hand and a word to say about how the rewards were to be divided. Needed to resupply Mr. Pearson's chuck wagon? He would be by the horse stables before you could count to three, the movements of the deer and pronghorn herds already written down on a slip of paper. Wanted to just talk about the world and the various people that inhabited it? Mr. van der Linde pulled out his gramophone practically every single night and let the tunes play throughout the clearing, engaging with just about anyone who wanted to talk with him about human nature. Mr. Matthews and Lenny were common participants, while Holly would hear some of the words getting thrown about their conversations and would have to retire to bed early from the instantaneous headaches they would bring about.

Mr. van der Linde was present at camp for nearly every hour of the day, just watching. Studying her. Holly could never shake the feeling that he had his dark eyes on her whenever she wasn't looking his way. She'd glance up and find him thumbing through one of the pages of his books, but she could still feel where his eyes had just been looking her up and down, like he was determined to burn holes in her clothes with his stare. Holly just accepted it—uneasily, but she accepted it. They didn't talk much. Mr. van der Linde didn't say much of anything to her and Holly didn't say much of anything to him. Just greetings and goodbyes every morning over the fire, or passing praise that was acknowledged with a nod, or a request to grab laundry that was received with a "Yes please, Miss. Monroe" or a "No thank you, Miss. Monroe". A peaceful coexistence, if nothing else. Just a couple of tents over and yet still worlds away from each other: not fully understanding but not seeing a need to try.

Holly, along with her reading lessons, was also given a brief run-through of the gang's entire history thanks to Mr. Matthews, all twenty years of it. From his and Mr. van der Linde's initial meeting, to their massive exodus in and around the wilds of the American West, to their adopting of Mr. Morgan and John, to their recent failures in West Elizabeth and their subsequent fleeing to the mountains for several weeks to elude the authorities. She sat and listened, either sewing or practicing her letters, nodding attentively as Mr. Matthews followed the long road that was the history of the gang. Occasionally, someone would come along and join in on the storytelling—Holly quickly learned who in the van der Linde Gang was in Mr. Matthews' good graces just from his reactions to their own recountings of their escapades.

"And what about you?" Mr. Matthews asked one afternoon after a story, starling Holly out of the dishes she'd been scrubbing, "Anything to ask, Miss. Monroe?"

Holly shook her head, "Can't say I've got too much to say on my own behalf, Mr. Matthews. Just happy to listen and learn."

"I've told you, Holly; Hosea's fine," Mr. Matthews said.

She set down a stew bowl and picked up another, rubbing at it a little harder than she needed to. "My pa always told me to mind my manners," she said with a shrug.

As Holly started on the collection of ceramic coffee mugs, looking so used and ancient that it was hard to believe they weren't crumbling to white dust in her hands, Mr. Matthews gave her a keen look. "You don't talk much about your folks," he noted.

Holly hid her inner panic behind another hasty shrug. "Not much to say, I s'pose."

Mr. Matthews quirked a brow. "Any parents?"

"We all got parents, Mr. Matthews."

Mr. Matthews gave her a wry chuckle at that. Holly started cleaning the silverware, knives first. "Siblings, then?"

"Some."

"Brothers? Sisters?"

"Little bitta both."

"You younger or older than them?"

"Little bitta both, too."

He laughed again, then stopped all conversation as his eyes found the center of camp. Holly followed his gaze; Mr. van der Linde was locked in conversation with Mr. Morgan, John, and Charles. They hunched over a map, pointing at various locations and heatedly discussing them. Neither Mr. Matthews nor Holly said anything else as they watched them bicker until John shoved Mr. Morgan and Mr. van der Linde moved to place himself between the two younger men. Mr. Matthews stood then, mentioned something about going to play mediator, and bid her farewell.

Holly avoided him like the plague for the next few days. He never spoke up again about her family, but Holly figured she could only pick up the folds of her skirt and dance around the topics for so long before she had to create an entirely different life in order to placate him. When Mr. Matthews talked to her again, it was all about horses, all traces of their last discussion having seemingly been washed away. When he bid her goodbye and walked away, Holly had to support herself against Shining Star's neck again because the rush of relief she felt when she could stop holding her breath in his presence had nearly made her faint.

To be fair, he was really the only one who seemed to care about that sort of thing. The van der Linde Gang seemed to treat her on a strictly shallow basis. No one aside from Mr. Matthews and Mr. Morgan bothered to pry into what little personal life Holly'd managed to fabricate for herself, and even then they did it so sparingly that she was positive she could make up an entirely different story and not be questioned about its validity. Though it surprised her, she didn't exactly see the purpose of wandering over to the campfire and spilling her lying heart out in front of strangers.

At first.

On a night when the van der Linde Gang decided to celebrate for the heck of it, Holly was swept off of her feet, caught up in the high of the others' ecstasy. She was pulled into a dance by Lenny, who twirled her around and dipped her low like he'd been a vaudeville star in a past life. She was passed between Javier, Karen, Mr. Pearson, Miss. O'Shea: dipped and spun and turned and rocked and whisked and weaved and bobbed. She must've blushed pinker than a primrose as Uncle finally took her hand and began leading her through an erratic waltz that could've only been conceived in the mind of that old coot or a madman. As they danced their wild routine, the group of them all started hollering encouragement. Holly was abruptly dipped with a squeal and would've slipped straight through Uncle's fingers had she not clung to the back of his suspenders. When she came back up, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Williamson were both supporting each other because their cackling was making it hard for them to stay upright. Tilly and Ms. Roberts waved with wide smiles. Holly was spun again by her drunken dance partner before she could call any of them out.

She was given the space of honor around the fire when Uncle finally released her from his dance of death. Reverend Swanson toasted her with his bottle of bourbon. "To Holly Monroe," he slurred as the others raised their drinks, "the only woman courageous enough to dance with Uncle in twenty years!"

The gang around the fire cheered in unison while Reverend Swanson passed the bourbon over to her. Holly pursed her lips, only sparing a heartbeat to hesitate, before taking a pull straight from the bottle. It scorched her cheeks and tongue like wildfire, burning her throat the whole way down. She passed it over to John, rubbing the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand. "And the last one to dance with him for another twenty more!" she declared on a whim.

The group roared, drowning out Uncle's good-natured objections. And Holly laughed with them, caught up in the fervor around her.

It must've been the first time that she'd laughed since that night.

She laid awake for a long time after the party died down, drowning in her own conflicted feelings. Was she truly happy, or just caught up in the zeal of it all? Internally, Holly wondered if she even deserved to be happy, living as she was. But it was with an aching heart that she finally admitted to herself that she was happy. This was the first time in two months that she'd actually felt safe. Like she was a part of something, however minor her role had been. She was genuinely glad that Mr. Morgan had found her, that Mr. Matthews was teaching her, that Tilly and Mary-Beth and Ms. Roberts had taken her in without question. But every time she tried to justify those feelings, her guilt pulled the noose around her throat a little tighter.

She stewed a little longer, heart heavy. In doing so, Holly ultimately realized that the more time she'd spent around the van der Linde Gang, the more she'd found herself drawn to them. Their lust for whatever dreams Mr. van der Linde weaved in that tent had become endearing to her. They helped each other, treated each other equally and without malice, like a family. There was celebrating, arguing, laughing, insulting, joy, anger, peace, violence. A long and suffering crowd of people determined to stick by each other. It was charming, heartwarming even, in its own strange and twisted way. So different from what Holly was used to…but was it really?

And for the first time in her life, Holly hoped that there wasn't an afterlife so her parents and siblings wouldn't have to see what had become of her. Her shame burned worse than that swig of whiskey; her entire life was a lie and they didn't even know it. She wasn't Caterina Pozzi and she wasn't Holly Monroe—she was just a lost soul masquerading as something that didn't deserve to be found.

Holly pushed herself up on her elbows and then onto her knees, staring around the camp. As far as she could tell, Mr. Morgan was the only one still awake, journaling on his bed to the light of the lantern on his table. For a brief moment, Holly considered going over to him and confessing every dirty little lie she'd told him over the past month like a sinner on Sunday. He'd listen, surely. Maybe he'd even spare her his own judgement. But she still stopped herself. Holly liked Mr. Morgan, she really did, but he'd hear her words and bring them straight to Mr. van der Linde. That, Holly realized with a start, was true for any of them. It was a risk she simply couldn't afford to take.

Yes, she was happy. But she was afraid, too. Afraid that the mask she made for herself was never going to come off. Her father had always said that if you make your choice, then you have to live with the consequences. Holly always assumed that her consequences would manifest if she was found out, but it was there, sitting in her lean-to with a stolen gun, a stolen horse, and a stolen name, that she learned that she was already trapped in her real punishment.

She laid back down and fell into a dreamless slumber. It was Holly Monroe who'd woken up the next morning, and every morning after the night her home was razed and everything that'd been precious to Caterina Pozzi had been ripped out of her hands. But everything important to Holly Monroe was right here in front of her. She supposed that mattered, in some way. The reconciliation neither eased her mind nor pained it. Holly decided that was probably a good thing.

So Holly got up and went on with her new life, with her doubts and fears chained to one foot and her past life chained to the other. And when Mr. Matthews commended her writing and Miss. Grimshaw nodded approvingly at her busywork and Mary-Beth snorted at a story she told, Holly found it easier and easier to move. It wasn't perfect, but it was easier. Every day got a little easier.

Chapter Text

Kieran Duffy was a strange man. It'd been a shock to see he'd finally been released from his confinement on that tree, and an even bigger shock that Mr. Morgan, John, and Mr. Williamson were taking him out of Horseshoe Overlook. Holly heard very little of their conversation aside from a casual threat of murder—not very uncommon in her world anymore—and a mention of O'Driscolls—also not quite uncommon anymore. Seemed Mr. van der Linde and the others wouldn't be sated until every last O'Driscoll was wiped off the face of the earth as though they themselves had a say in God's eventual rapture.

That was three days ago. Next Holly saw Kieran, it was two days later, he was newly clothed, and he was serving himself dinner like he'd lived his entire life with the van der Lindes. When they all sat together around the fire and exchanged news, Kieran just kept quiet, focused on his meal, unaware of Holly casting sidelong glances at him. He didn't do much. In fact, the most he did was turn a startlingly bright shade of crimson when Mr. Williamson joked about clipping his privates off only a few days beforehand. The other members of the gang regarded Kieran suspiciously, but not unkindly. Even Mr. Morgan, once Kieran's biggest persecutor, now acted a touch less prickly in the smaller man's company.

Though Holly knew that she should be wary of him, she had to confess that she actually quite liked Kieran. For all the big personalities crowding the van der Linde Gang—Mr. Williamson's loud mouth, Karen's loose lips, Mr. Morgan's sarcastic quips, Mr. van der Linde's booming philosophy—it was refreshing to spend time with a person not too absorbed in his own bravado. Holly supposed that if she'd fallen in with the gang even a few weeks sooner, she'd have plenty of reason to doubt Kieran's allegiances to his former gang and Colm O'Driscoll, but she had a hard time really seeing this half-starved, reserved man being a willing turncoat. Kieran could barely hold a pistol, seemingly much more content to be the van der Linde Gang's stable master rather than one of their enforcers. His wealth of knowledge about horses seemingly knew no end, so Holly found herself hanging onto his every word as she took him through the makeshift stables and introduced him to all the horses she'd had to take care of for the last month.

"And this here's my horse," she told him as their neared Shining Star. The mare nickered, pawing at the ground eagerly. She probably was begging for a quick ride, but with so many things to do today Holly wasn't sure if she'd get the chance.

Kieran placed his hand on Shining Star's hindquarter. "You got a nice lookin' horse," he said. His voice just seemed to be naturally meek, because he wouldn't quit talking like he had a pistol pointed at his skull, "She's an American Standardbred. Maybe three years old? I dunno, can't tell for sure."

"How can you be so sure about all that?" Holly asked, genuinely curious.

He gently moved her out of the way and ran his hands up and down Shining Star's front legs. The horse snorted as he did so. Kieran waved Holly closer, "See how her legs are shaped?" he inquired. Holly nodded, "and the way her shoulders got a lot of power in 'em? Standardbreds are made for racin', you see. Gotta have good legs and compact builds."

"All horses sorta look the same to me," Holly confessed.

"Once you know what to look for, it becomes easier," Kieran sympathized. He placed a hand on Shining Star's neck. "You just gotta pay attention to the neck, the legs, the shoulders, and the gait. After that, and once you know the different breeds, you'd be able to tell a Morgan from an Arabian if you was standin' a mile away."

She smiled lightly, stroking Shining Star's nose. "You'd show me?"

"You…you wanna learn?" Kieran asked, looking surprised.

"Don't s'pose it'd hurt to know, right?"

"Miss. Monroe!" Holly and Kieran both turned at the sound of a newcomer in their midst, his voice resounding through the small clearing on the edge of camp.

Mr. van der Linde, looking as fresh as the morning sun that'd rose over the hills, sauntered over with an undeniable pep in his step. He stopped at his own horse, The Count, and called to her again, "My dear, I think it's high time that we take a little ride. Just the two of us."

Holly balked at the notion. "What for?" she asked, biting her apprehension back.

"Can't a man just enjoy some fresh air in his face? Some sun on his back? A peaceful ride on a lovely day? Where does it say that simple pleasures cannot be enjoyed by complicated people?" Mr. van der Linde asked while swinging himself up onto The Count. "Furthermore, Miss. Monroe, I feel as if we haven't had the chance to talk one on one yet, because I'm curious to see how you're faring. It can't have been the simplest month of your life; I believe even you aren't that naïve."

An understatement if she'd ever heard one. And a thin excuse to boot. He was going to be the third person so far to try and pry information out of her, following Mr. Matthews and Mr. Morgan's failed attempts at trying the exact same thing. Yet, Holly knew better than to outright refuse Mr. van der Linde's offer. Still didn't stop her from trying.

"The horses—" she turned around and broke off when she noticed that Kieran was no longer at her side. Holly turned to the left, then to the right, finally spotting him attending to Old Boy. He had his back turned away from Mr. van der Linde, studying the specks of dirt in the stallion's coat like he thought he'd be able to glare them off of Old Boy's hide. When he ran a brush over the horse's back, it was hard to miss the way his hands shook.

"I think the O'Driscoll is more than capable of handling stable duties for the time being, Isn't that right, Mr. Duffy?" Mr. van der Linde called out to him, tone chipper. At the sound of his name, or truthfully, his designation, Kieran nodded vigorously and didn't look up from his work.

Her last chance to excuse herself from whatever Mr. van der Linde had in store for her and it had fallen flat on its face like an intoxicated Uncle on Saturday night. With no other choice, Holly began untying Shining Star's reins.

Maybe it'd be nice to leave camp for a little while. Shining Star's periodic mile-long romps weren't going to sate her forever, and it was a gorgeous day out. All she had to do was dodge the evasive questions. Simple enough. Holly pulled herself up into the saddle, walked her mare forward to meet Mr. van der Linde, and fell behind him as he led her out of camp without another word.

For a while, they headed north in silence. The clouds, thin and puffy like down feathers, were stretched taut across a pale blue sky. The ground underfoot was hard, the wind brisk. The breeze rolling through the grass whistled a pleasant tune as Holly followed Mr. van der Linde up the trail and away from camp. Sunlight drenched the world in a warm glow, a sign that summer was close at hand.

It wasn't until the pair turned towards the forests past Valentine, wandering through speckled sunlight and shadows, that Mr. van der Linde spoke. "How are you doing this fine day, Miss. Monroe?" he asked, slowing The Count down slightly so they walked side by side.

Holly ran a hand through her hair. "Just fine, Mr. van der Linde," she said.

"This has been a big change for you," he pointed out. "I assumed most kids your age would turn tail at the prospect of living with a bunch of outlaws, but you've handled yourself remarkably well. No doubt the girls will see you fit to start going out on the town and earning us some real money," he chuckled at that, and Holly gave him a smile that she felt didn't reach her eyes.

A brief pause. A father and his son passed them by with a quick greeting. "Do you know why I wanted to take this ride with you, my dear?" he asked when they'd gone out of earshot.

Feigning innocence, Holly shook her head, "No sir, I can't say I do."

"I pride myself on fostering relationships with every single person that rides with me," Mr. van der Linde explained. "Hosea? I'd consider him the one person I'd trust more than anyone in the world. Arthur and John? They're like sons to me. Tilly, Abigail, Mary-Beth, and all the other girls? I'd lay down my life to make sure they stay safe. And Jack? I think we'd all move mountains for him with smiles on our faces," with a sigh that seemed to carry the weight of the world, he continued. "You're new, and you're young to boot. You've been through a tragedy. I'm not going to snoop into what you don't want to share, but it's my responsibility as this gang's leader to make sure that this isn't overwhelming you."

That honestly stunned her. Holly blinked, processing his offer. Mr. van der Linde seemed the kind to hate secrets and lies—if he learned he was being lied to, she could only assume that hell would hath no fury like Mr. van der Linde on the other side of a betrayal. Holly, her mind working, found a hard time telling if Mr. van der Linde had no interest in her backstory or if he did and for her sake wasn't asking. Either way, it was a burden off her shoulders, and Holly drew a deep breath before remembering that she still had to answer him.

"It's been different," she said. "Guess I ain't used to livin' with so many different folk 'round. But I've been alright for myself."

"No one's been giving you any trouble?"

"Not that I can think of, sir."

Mr. van der Linde hummed in acknowledgement. A tree that had felled during a recent storm, it's branches and bark scorched from a lightning strike, blocked half the path in front of them. Holly carefully brought Shining Star around the trunk while The Count made a magnificent leap over the felled tree, landing on all four hooves. They fell back in place as Mr. van der Linde offered the stallion praise.

"Do you remember that first conversation you had with me? About outlaws?" Mr. van der Linde spoke again after another minute of silence. "I thought you'd be scared, in all honestly, but you took it in as if I'd told you we were a group of traveling circus performers," his dark eyes fell on her. Holly could feel them boring into her head, "Why's that?"

"I ain't too sure, really," she said honestly. "Well, my ma used to read to me about outlaws when I was real young. They were all 'bout these bad men who shot lawmen in the streets and kidnapped women from their beds. But I don't really—"

"See us as the type to do that?" Mr. van der Linde supplied.

She thought for a moment, then nodded.

Another beat of silence. "What was life like for you, Miss. Monroe?" Mr. van der Linde asked casually, urging The Count on a little faster, "Before you found your way to us, that is?"

Holly let her mind peacefully drift down the sea of memories starting to flood through her. Old reminders resurfaced in her head, dusty and faded but still good, still precious and pure. Her father's good-natured scolding of her and Adelaide when the two of them conspired to sneak food upstairs into their shared room. That one time she and Luca snuck off to Shiloh's Creek and nearly cracked their skulls open slipping on rocks in the dead of night. The way her mother used to brush the tangles out of her hair when she was younger, telling her stories that she'd recall over and over again to Adelaide, Bianca, Graziana, and Rosie when their mother had passed on. Holly smiled softly, the memories warm in her chest.

"Peaceful," was the word she'd settled on. "It weren't all perfect, but it was peaceful. S'pose that was all you could ask for in those parts."

"The halcyon days of our youths," Mr. van der Linde said, nodding his understanding. Holly nodded back as she urged Shining Star to match The Count's speed. "Your father do a lot of manual labor? Farming?" he pressed further. Not in an invasive manner, however; it sounded to Holly like he was sincerely interested.

"He was a trapper," she said, "Didn't have too far a spread of customers, but those who were local would come for buckskin. Sometimes gator skin if he managed to find some small ones. And catfish, too, when they was in season."

"And your mother?"

"I 'member her workin' odd jobs here and there when I was young. She stopped after she gave birth to my twin sisters."

Mr. van der Linde smiled but it quickly faded in a matter of seconds. "My mother, Greta, was a difficult woman," he told her, his voice distant. "Had no siblings but I had her. As for my father, I…well, I didn't know him too well, I suppose. Died when I was young. I was only seven, I believe, when he was shot down in Gettysburg. Took one bullet here," he pointed to his left arm, right below the shoulder, "and still managed to take down three more Confederate men before taking one to his skull," Mr. van der Linde's eyes were glued to the distance, seeming almost wistful in Holly's eyes, "And when I learned he'd passed, I'll tell you, Miss. Monroe, the only thing I found myself wishing for was that he'd taken one or two more with him."

Holly blinked in surprise, then returned her attention to the road, her heart thrumming. "My family didn't fight for the rebels. Least, not that I know," Holly found herself saying unprompted.

"Oh? How's that?" Mr. van der Linde appeared to have snapped himself from his trance and rejoined the present.

"My ma's family's from the North. New York. City folk, the lot of 'em. I don't know if they fought—never met any of them before. My ma didn't like talkin' about 'em much." Holly bit her tongue, trying to recall information that'd become so lost to her, "Could've moved outta the city for all I know. My ma didn't bother to keep contact after she married."

"Your father? Did he fight?"

"He immigrated a few years before I was born. Met my ma when he was workin' as a sharecropper outside of Saint Denis and eloped not long after it. Built a house further north. Had my brother a year later, me two after that."

Humming thoughtfully, Mr. van der Linde straightened himself upright in his saddle. The Count tossed his beautiful white head, and Shining Star copied his example as though she was his living shadow. The road sloped downwards, wind picking up speed as it curled over the rise.

"You ever wanted to go back home?" Mr. van der Linde asked. "Your father's home, I mean."

"No, sir."

"Please, child, Dutch is fine."

Before she could say anything else, however, Mr. van der Linde pulled The Count to a halt. Holly did the same with Shining Star, soothing her as whinnied in protest. Looking up, she saw what had caught Mr. van der Linde's attention all of the sudden—their path split slightly towards deeper in the woods.

"Is everythin' alright, Mr. van der Linde?" she spoke up.

Mr. van der Linde gave a start, like she'd snapped him from deep thoughts. His hand went to stroke his mustache. "Would you be up for a slight detour, Miss. Monroe?" he asked a question in turn.

"What for?"

"Sometimes, you ever just feel something just, err, call to you?" catching sight of the bemused look on her face, Mr. van der Linde explained further, "It's about…becoming obedient to the will of your gut on some occasions. Having a certain amount of faith in your ability to…to," the more he explained, the more he gesticulated, like he was making grabs at the words he was sought to use, "…to go off the beaten path. Does that make sense?"

Holly, for his sake, nodded, "I s'pose so, sir."

"Well, Miss. Monroe, I feel something calling to me in my gut," Mr. van der Linde turned The Count towards the small trail. "I'm feeling good about this here path."

Without warning, he broke into a hard canter, The Count neighing his excitement, leaving Holly with no other choice to follow behind him.

It wasn't much of a trail, in truth. More of a small path leading to a handmade home, hardly an adventure in and of itself. The cabin was quaint and unassuming. One floor only, hardly big enough for a single room. The wood it was constructed with was old and weathered from age and the elements, vines and moss clinging to just about any surface it could reach into. Nothing shone through the darkened windows. Unclaimed letters had been wedged in between the wall and the doorframe. A few skinny hens had slipped free from the pen besides the house, pecking at the ground in search of food.

Mr. van der Linde slid off his horse and Holly followed suit. She stood next to him, looking the house up and down. "Don't look like anyone's home," she said.

"Not exactly," Mr. van der Linde said cryptically. When Holly looked at him, confused, he waved a hand around, "Look around, Miss. Monroe. Does something seem strange to you?"

Holly rescanned the house with fresh eyes, trying to find what was amiss. It wasn't until her eyes fell back on the windows that she realized what Mr. van der Linde was talking about; "The windows're cracked," she said, brow furrowing in concentration, "no one out here'd leave windows cracked for robbers to squeeze through if they were headin' out."

"Well seen, my girl," Mr. van der Linde told her, tone approving, and Holly felt a small flash of pride. He motioned her to the front door, and she fell next to him as he pulled out something small, long, and metallic. A nail file.

"Take this," he said, placing it in her hands. Mr. van der Linde pointed to the keyhole, "Insert it here and shift it around a little. Wait for a click, then try the door."

Holly obeyed, her tongue between her teeth as she fell into a concentrated state. She bent closer to the lock as she twisted the file up and down, waiting for the clicks of the gears being…shifted? Broken? Truthfully, Holly wasn't quite positive as to what she was doing, but she was certainly doing something. And it worked, because a minute later she twisted the file around and heard the loud chunk of the lock sliding back into place. Mr. van der Linde tested the door; it swung open. One by one, the forgotten letters fell free from the doorframe and dropped to the ground.

A pat on the shoulder, and another prick of pride. "Good work," Mr. van der Linde praised. "We'll make a thief of you yet."

He let her open the door, which she did gladly, for a moment high on the bliss of her successes. She opened the front door to a small, one room home with a bed in one corner, a makeshift kitchen in the other, and a horror show in the middle.

In the center of the room, a man hung from the ceiling, his belt around his neck. His face was a pale blue, eyes bugged out and sightless. He still swung slightly, aided by a slight breeze that blew through the open window. Flies had long since claimed him, swarming above his head, unable to be swatted. A piece of paper was clutched in his stiff hands.

Holly heard nothing save for the blood beating in her ears. Didn't even hear Mr. van der Linde enter behind her until he spoke over her shoulder. "He's had to have been dead for a few days," he spoke softly, as if in mourning. "Christ. Poor bastard's hung himself."

But Holly wasn't paying attention. She could only stare, dread rushing upon her until it dragged her into the depths of memories she'd thought she'd long since abandoned.

-X-

Juliette Catherine Mariano Pozzi was warm. That was how Caterina's father always described her, a smile on his face as he sipped his morning coffee and stared at her while she washed the dishes. "Sunshine given human shape," he always called her.

Her hair was the color of chocolate and her eyes resembled earth after a summer rainstorm. Her skin was sun-kissed and her hands were gentle. Juliette had a smile that could fetch the sun on a cloudy day, a laugh that could bring angels to their knees, a kindness that was almost as infectious as a child's own innocence. Gianni Pozzi could sit in that house he'd built for her for hours on end and describe his wife until the moon rose over the hills; he'd always say that he was a man who didn't deserved her, and she would laugh and just say that he was "the only man who'd ever deserve me."

Luca was born in August of 1880, virtually an exact replica of his mother, from his warm glow to his big brown eyes. Caterina came in December of '82, tanner and fussier, to which Gianni would laugh and say that the girl was far too much a Pozzi and not nearly enough a Mariano. She had the olive complexion of her father, the gray eyes of her father's father, and the lungs of her father's father's father—for six months after her birth, Caterina wailed through the night and deprived her parents and older brother of precious sleep, never comfortable being surrounded by the high bars of her cradle.

After that was sweet Freddie, born in '86. Then feisty Adelaide in '89. Then the beautiful twins, Graziana and Bianca, in '93. Caterina, now twelve and well on her way to becoming a caregiver in her own right, would happily tail after Juliette and copy whatever she did. When she and Luca weren't pushing and tugging as siblings do, they showed the younger Pozzis how to play hide and seek and weave flower crowns from dandelions. Juliette would tell her children the same bedtime stories of cowboys and vaqueros and the Wild West that drew her out to Lemoyne in the first place, her husband leaning against the doorframe with a smile on his face. Her stomach was already swollen with another child.

Things were different when baby Anthony came into the world in March of '95.

He was born sleeping. Despite the way that Juliette clung to the baby, pleading with the midwives that he'd wake up, that he'd start breathing any moment, that he was "…just fine, you don't understand!", the baby was taken from her arms with a sad shake of the head. Caterina and Luca sat together in the room upstairs, their younger siblings playing at their feet, oblivious. The two of them didn't understand. Wouldn't until Gianni sat his eldest children down and explained why their baby brother wasn't coming home. Luca held his mother's hand and Caterina held her father's as the family buried the baby behind the house.

That winter, Freddie fell sick. He fought— "he fights just like a Pozzi," her father stated proudly yet shakily in Italian—but in the end it wasn't enough. Freddie, only nine years old, was laid to rest next to his baby brother the following weekend.

At that point, Caterina didn't know how to process her relationship with death. She avoided them like a bad smell, shooing her baby siblings away from the headstones when they played too wildly and avoiding any mention of them when strangers comforted her at random. Her reluctance, Caterina realized as she turned fourteen, was one of ignorance and not one of apathy. So, when she had the time or a moment to spare, she'd try and acquaint herself with death. Caterina laid wildflowers plucked from the edges of the woods on Freddie and baby Anthony's graves. She cried a decent amount, but mostly, it was just fond recollection. A sister mourning her siblings, as normal and natural as the changing of the seasons.

"Mamá misses you," she said one day. "She misses you both so much."

Lord, did she. Juliette hardly spoke to any of them following the death of her third-born. For the first months of spring, it was practically expected to find her at her sons' graves, shedding tears as fresh as the day they passed. Caterina would step up with a heavy but determined heart and play mother in Juliette's stead: washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking dinner, sweeping the floors, dressing the girls. Gianni would try as hard as he could to pull his own weight, but it seemed as though their sunshine was gone for a time.

Juliette returned in the summer of '96. Slowly at first, then in full. While her smiles were still bright and her laughter was still pure, there was an undertone of sadness that she pushed back. Caterina did her fair share of her mother's chores now, not that she minded, and let Juliette flit back and forth between attentive and sorrowful, hoping she'd strike a balance between the two. And, when she announced that they had another baby on the way, it seemed like that balance was finally found.

Baby Rosie was born in July of '98, following the coldest spring Caterina could ever remember. She remembered how her father had passed Luca the fattest, reddest-faced baby she'd ever seen with a grin. "Your baby sister," he murmured to the crowd of remaining Pozzi siblings, crowding around to welcome their newest member. The only one missing was Juliette. Caterina never understood why, but in the coming weeks, a new version of her mother made itself present to the rest of the Pozzi family.

In the weeks following baby Rosie's birth, Juliette refused to sleep. Her face always bore a frown. She burst into tears at odd moments, to the point where Adelaide and the twins were afraid to talk to her for several days. Most concerning, she refused her duties with baby Rosie. She wouldn't feed her, hardly held her, couldn't even stand to look at her most days. In desperation to feed his daughter, Gianni forked over several precious cents a day to pay for a wet nurse.

Diligently, Caterina did her chores in her mother's absence. She and Luca would try talking to Juliette when they were in the same room, but it was as if they were talking to an empty shell. Their mother just stared at one sole spot in the corner. Her hair was flecked with gray strands and the lines around her mouth and eyes became more prominent. For the first time since Freddie died, Luca was nearly reduced to tears after so many failed attempts to rouse their mother from her catatonic state.

It was August eleventh, two days before Luca's eighteenth birthday. Thunder shook the house to its foundations. Caterina awoke in the dead of night to footsteps outside of Rosie's door, then her soft cooing as someone picked her up and took her down the stairs. In nothing but her nightgown, Caterina slipped out of her room and followed the sounds down the stairs.

Her mother stood in the open doorway and watched the sheets of rain pour down, the baby wrapped in her arms. Juliette's hair, usually plaited, was loose over her shoulders. She wore her own nightgown, a shawl thrown over it. Baby Rosie caught sight of Caterina and babbled, making her mother turn around.

Caterina halted dead in her tracks. Her mother's expression was calm, opposing her horrifically red eyes that were swollen from crying. Unsure of how else to react, Caterina crept forward. "Mamá?" she called out softly, her voice trembling.

For a moment, neither woman did anything. Then, wordlessly, Juliette held baby Rosie out to her eldest daughter.

When Caterina took up her sister, Juliette's hand ghosted over her cheek. Neither of them moved. Caterina's heart thrummed against her chest as her mother caressed her face. It felt almost caring, loving; the first time she'd done something akin to that since baby Rosie was born.

And then, Juliette Pozzi turned around and walked out the door, disappearing in the deluge.

Caterina clutched baby Rosie, not moving, not understanding. She searched vainly for her mother from the doorframe, wondering when she'd stop playing her cruel trick and return. But when she did not, and Caterina's horror overwhelmed her confusion, she sprinted through the house, hollering for her father.

Gianni and Luca sped off on the horse with lanterns in hand but returned in a couple of hours, unable to find Juliette in the downpour. When the weather subsided, they set off again, this time to fetch the law. Caterina guarded the house alone with her four sisters. She didn't rest at night; instead, she sat in a chair she'd placed next to the front door, an axe clutched in her shaking hands.

Three mornings later, the manhunt was over. Gianni returned to their house without as much as a greeting to his daughter. Luca trudged behind, head hung in defeat, sobs racking his thin body so viciously she thought he'd surely collapse in on himself.

It took Gianni and Luca five hours to reach the authorities, and from there it was a manhunt through the surrounding areas for a soaking woman in a nightgown. They'd finally found her after a full two days of searching. She lay at the bottom of a thirty-foot ravine. Her nightgown was torn, and her shawl was missing. Her neck had snapped instantly from the fall. The lawmen assured her father that she'd died painlessly.

Caterina had no idea if her mother had slipped and fallen by accident or threw herself into that gorge of her own accord.

The funeral was small. Juliette was buried on a sunny day next to her sons. Letters had been sent to the Marianos of her death that would never be returned. Everyone sobbed, even Gianni. Caterina held baby Rosie just like she'd done that night. She'd never told her father or Luca about what had happened when Juliette vanished into the rain. How she'd froze when Juliette had brushed her cheek, not even thinking to race out into the rain and drag her back inside, even if it met her or her mother's own harm. Caterina knew death well now, and their final gift to her was a sense of blame that gnawed at her very core.

A tug on her dress distracted her from her own misery for a heartbeat. Bianca, gray eyes watery, had buried herself into Caterina's skirt, fistfuls clutched in her tiny hands. Adjusting her grip on baby Rosie, Caterina placed her hand around her sister's.

"It's gonna be okay," Caterina promised her before she could think better of it.

Bianca looked up at that. Her broken face nearly shattered the remains of Caterina's heart. "How do you know?" she sniffled softly before another sob overtook her.

She didn't. Caterina was just spitting out lies at this point. But she remained resolute in spite of her doubts. When she took her little sister's hand, the pain of the blame gnawing at her stomach was a little softer, less noticeable. The weight of her new responsibilities, a mountain of thoughts and fears and guilt, shrunk just ever so slightly.

Caterina squeezed Bianca's hand and smiled through it; "Because you got me."

"Holly! Are you paying attention, my dear?"

At the sound of Mr. van der Linde's voice, Holly returned to the present with a very unpleasant bump.

She wasn't at her mother's grave behind her family's house, but in a dead man's empty home. Holly's fingers dug into her palm where she swore her little sister had wormed her tiny fingers into her hand. Mr. van der Linde snapped her out of her daze fully by passing something directly into her chest, which Holly struggled to grasp with hands that still felt stuck in the past. It was a leather satchel, picked off of one of the hooks off the front door.

Holly finally found feeling in her hands and took up the satchel. "Sorry, what?" she excused herself, feeling embarrassingly stupid.

Mr. van der Linde had crossed the room and was rifling through a wardrobe in the back. He held up a slip of paper—it took a moment to realize that it was the note from the dead man's clutches. "See this? According to our corpse's final words, the man's wife left him after he beat their children in a drunken rage, so he killed himself in remorse. We'll let his soul get what it deserves in Hell, but the way I see it, the Devil will have no qualms with us robbing this dead man blind. So, start searching."

It wasn't until she slung the satchel over her shoulder that the gravitas of what he was suggesting hit Holly in full. "We're robbin' a dead man?" she repeated faintly.

"Cheating, abusing bastards don't deserve to keep their money," Mr. van der Linde said, emphatic. "What would a dead man need with money, anyhow?"

He said it with an air of finality; it was an unspoken law, a rule of the world that Holly had been too naïve to know about and too foolish to follow.

She started searching.

Holly rummaged through the coat pockets on the hook first, finding nothing but spare change. Next, she checked the small table besides the door, then the windowsill, and after that the drawers of a rickety desk on the opposite wall. For a little while, the only noise was that of Holly and Mr. van der Linde opening and shutting drawers and cabinets. The body of the dead man remained suspended, a centerpiece, his very presence claws sunken into Holly's back as she made a colossal effort not to look at him.

Something shiny caught Holly's eye as she moved on to the small nightstand next to the bed. There, a thin golden wedding band had been placed on the corner. She held it up to the light, quietly admiring the way the light glinted off the yellow metal.

"Take that," Holly whipped around at the sound of Mr. van der Linde's voice. He had been searching through the cabinets underneath the sink but paused when he caught sight of the ring in her hand. "Check inside. If that's solid gold, then that'll go for good money."

Holly did as she was told, ignoring the queasy feeling in her gut. She squinted; inside of the ring was a small inscription with numbers, "There's a fourteen and a little 'k' here," she told Mr. van der Linde.

"That, my dear, is solid gold right there," Mr. van der Linde said, apparently so excited that he slammed the cupboards shut with a flourish. Holly jumped a little as he did so, stifling a yelp, while Mr. van der Linde made for the bed. He wore a large, proud smile when he passed her, "Pocket that ring. Ask the girls to bring you into town next time they need to go and sell it. Let's keep searching. There's bound to be more money here somewhere. You ever just…feel it? Well, I feel it today."

He got down on his hands and knees once more, sticking his hand under the bed. Holly, her stomach tying itself into knots, slipped the ring into the satchel and resumed her own searching.

Another ten minutes of fruitless searching and Holly was beginning to wonder if they'd exhausted all their possibilities until she felt a floorboard shift underfoot. She glanced down—one of the floorboards wasn't nailed down, shifting ever so slightly in place when it was stepped on. Curious, Holly bent down and pulled the board up. Underneath, covered with an old rag, was a rusted lockbox.

"Mr. van der Linde?" she called out to him. He was still sorting through the things underneath the man's bed.

Mr. van der Linde was at her side in an instant. Together, they pulled out the surprisingly hefty box and set it down on solid ground. He demonstrated how to break small locks by wedging a hunting knife under the lid, and after a few seconds of struggling managed to pry open the lockbox. The peered inside together. Holly pulled out a small stack of dollar bills; Mr. van der Linde retrieved a coin purse. He opened it and held a shiny Morgan dollar to the light before replacing it and probing through the bag again.

"There's got to be at least fifty silver dollars in here," Mr. van der Linde said with a smile. "Not bad, Miss. Monroe. Not bad at all."

Holly blinked at the praise. The wad of bills was heavy in her hand.

"Put this back, then put this board back too," Mr. van der Linde passed her the empty lockbox. Holly slid it back into its hiding spot and replaced the rag, then put the board back overtop, "Now, pass me those bills, my dear. We need to count them up."

She handed him the bills for him to count, and her eyes drifted back to the corpse as they made to stand. Mr. van der Linde, eyes only for the money in his hand, made for the door, but Holly hung back. "Shouldn't we cut him down?" she asked.

Mr. van der Linde glanced up from his counting. He looked at her, then at the man, then back to her. "It's best that no one knows we were here," he told her solemnly. "Someone'll come and take him down eventually. But for now, it's best for us to leave before we're caught here."

Holly lingered for a moment longer, even when she heard the door open and Mr. van der Linde's bootsteps faded further and further away. Guilt, sharp against her stomach like the point of Mr. van der Linde's knife, kept her rooted to the spot. Tearing her eyes away from the dead man was a harder task than she'd originally thought, but urgency overtook her sense of accountability. Yet, before she slipped out the door and made to follow, she hung back one second longer. Holly pulled out the wedding ring from her satchel and set it gently down on the table next to the door.

One good deed to offset one bad deed. An eye for an eye. Only then did she find the willpower to leave.

Mr. van der Linde had already mounted The Count again by the time Holly exited the house and shut the door behind her. He beckoned her over; Holly went to meet him, extending the nail file. He gave her a curious look, "Whatever are you giving that back for?"

"I'm returnin' it," she said, holding it higher, "it ain't mine."

A broad smile on his face, Mr. van der Linde only shook his head, apparently amused. "Keep it. I'm sure you'll find more use for it than I will."

She slipped the file into her satchel with a nod, only to find that it was now Mr. van der Linde's turn to hold something out. Holly looked up; he was brandishing several bills at her.

"What's this for?" she asked, confused.

"Thirty dollars. It's your cut of the profits."

Holly took them but remained bewildered nevertheless. She thumbed through them, feeling them in her hands. "I don't…" she trailed off, unsure of what she was even going to say, and then bit her lip. With Mr. van der Linde watching her, she stuffed the wad of money into her satchel. Even though it was only paper, she could almost feel her bag become several pounds heavier, still weighed down.

"Thank you, sir," were the words she chose to say despite the hundreds of others echoing through her head.

Mr. van der Linde had since turned away, tugging The Count's reins over and guiding him back towards the main path, reassured in his own actions in a way that Holly knew she wasn't. It was unspoken, but the suggestion to head back towards Horseshoe Overlook seemed to be on the tip of his tongue. Holly made to follow his lead, quickly pulling herself into Shining Star's saddle and trotting after him. The lonely little house grew further and further away, calling back to them.

She hung back a bit, letting Mr. van der Linde take the lead, still processing what they'd done. The guilt was passing, passing impossibly fast like songbirds racing for the open sky. Holly's courage was fleeting, her determination never absolute—not since that fateful day when she held Bianca's hand and told her everything was going to be just fine when their world was lying in splinters at their feet.

Holly hated this feeling. She hated this powerlessness, feeling as though she had no control of the way the world wanted to break her down over and over again, as if purely for its own amusement.

If she could lie and say that it would be alright, and if she could lie and say that she was someone she wasn't, then she could lie and steel up false courage. She could be calm and collected in the face of horror like Mr. van der Linde had been. She was an outlaw, same as him, same as all of them. The world wasn't going to wait around for her to reacquaint herself with death. She already knew death: knew them now more than ever before.

Her heart a little more hardened, Holly spurring Shining Star forward and made to catch up with him.

Chapter Text

The past month or so had done numbers to Holly's idea of what she thought an outlaw was. Before encountering the van der Linde Gang, she'd've been forgiven if her narrow worldview made them out to be nothing but bank robbers and poker-playing gunmen who were a bad hand away from flipping the table and shooting everyone in sight. But it turned out that Mr. van der Linde took in many different trades and tactics under his wing, all in the name of fortune. Tilly and Mary-Beth, their smiles holding promises and their hands as swift as running water, would come in from a romp in Valentine with pockets overflowing with stolen jewelry. Mr. Matthews never went to rob a homestead without an elaborate plan, virtually all of them involving acting (also usually accompanied by eyerolls from whomever he roped into his schemes). Karen was just as inclined to charm a man's pants off as she was to steal the wallet right out of his back pocket. Herr Strauss would then take all that money and lend it out to the less fortunate, sending Mr. Morgan across New Hanover to collect their debts.

Mr. Morgan certainly didn't have the look of an outlaw. Mr. Matthews didn't have the look of an outlaw neither. Even Mr. van der Linde, for all of the reputation that preceded him, had an air of sophistication that clashed with Holly's conception of what an outlaw should be.

Micah Bell was exactly what Holly assumed any given tall tale of the outlaws of the Wild West were referring to.

He strode into camp one day, a mere stranger in Holly's eyes but clearly not to anyone else. She didn't even notice his presence until Miss. Grimshaw ordered her to tend to the strange new horse at the stables on the edge of camp. Holly did so without complaint, but Baylock turned out to be a far feistier beast than she'd had to tend to yet. When she tried to feed him, he would turn his head away as if rejecting her offerings. Any touch of the brush on his fur and he'd start neighing dramatically as though he'd been shot. Holly even had to give the horse a wide berth as she moved from one side to the other, genuinely afraid that Baylock might kick her if she strayed too close. Baylock had been tethered next to Shining Star, who clearly didn't like her new neighbor any more than Holly did, if her tossing and snorting was anything to go by.

Finally, Holly had had enough. The bothersome beast had been lightly brushed but that was about all she could manage. She placed a block of hay at his hooves and called that a day. When she was sure no one was looking, Holly untied Shining Star from her hitching post and led her over to where Brown Jack and Silver Dollar stood, if only to spare her the anxiety of Baylock being too hot-tempered even for the company of his own species.

When she finished, Mr. Pearson beckoned her over to help with the noon stew. Holly busied herself with carving off pieces of venison from Lenny's latest kill, losing herself in the monotony of her task. Her disdain for Baylock and how he'd riled up her own horse soon faded into the background as she carved strip after strip. Before long, she'd completely forgotten about the van der Linde Gang's newest arrival—until she met him face to face, that was.

"Say, Pearson, when's the meal for the day going to be ready?"

Holly froze halfway into her next cut. She hadn't ever heard a voice like that before; a voice that seemed to drip ice from every word. And God help her, she searched for the source.

The stranger on the other side of the table looked more worse for the wear than anyone else in camp. His blond hair seemed a stranger to his long face and sunken-in eyes: thin and stringy and unkempt, like he cared very little for it. The stranger wore a black duster over his red shirt and brown pants with a blue bandana that didn't seem to match coherently with anything else on his person. His white hat was lopsided on his head. Dried blood coated every piece of clothing, his hair, his mustache, his face. When he stretched and placed his hands on his sides to crack his back, she caught sight of two revolvers on either hip. Perhaps most jarring about this stranger was the crooked scar that curled under his lips. It scoured through the bottom of his chin and just barely nicked his lower lip. It was as if someone a long time ago had tried to slice open his jaw and cut out his tongue with a hunting knife but made a bad job of it, leaving him with an ugly memento instead.

Mr. Pearson looked up from the stew and eyed the stranger in their midst, then shrugged. "At noon like always, Micah," he said, a strange tone to his voice that Holly couldn't place. Mr. Pearson turned back to his work before the stranger could retort or otherwise. Leaving Micah to turn to Holly.

He looked, leered, at her, but even once was more than enough for Holly. She turned back to the venison, knife held unsteadily in her hands, yet she couldn't seem to make heads or tails of what she was supposed to be doing anymore. Something had sunk in the bottom of her stomach, somehow leaving her slightly dazed. She could still feel Micah's eyes on her, as if his gaze were a pair of hands rifling through every part of her.

"And who might you be?" Micah asked, tone unreadable.

For some reason unknown to her, Holly found that her voice was remarkably steady despite her body refusing to cooperate with the rest of her. "Holly Monroe," she told him, forcing herself to make her next cut on the meet.

"You're new," Micah noted astutely. Another cut. "Where'd you come from?"

Another cut. "Mr. Morgan found me runnin' around," Holly answered. Another cut. "I was lost, so he brought me here to help out around camp." Another cut.

He was silent for a while, still taking her in. Holly cut the venison until she simply had no more left to carve, all while Micah waited for her to finish. She didn't set the knife down.

"What's Arthur Morgan want with a small thing like you?" Micah asked.

Holly bit the insides of her cheek. She wiped the knife down with a rag, streaks of red dragging over the cloth. The world seemed to have constricted to just her and Micah and when Holly searched around to catch someone's eye, she found that there was no one around who could help her. Thus, she forced herself to look Micah in the eye, trying to remain steadfast. "He didn't want nothin'," she said. "He just took me in and thought I could be useful."

Something in his eyes sparked, "Oh, I'm sure you'll be useful, alright. The younger ones always are."

Holly didn't dare look deeper into what those words meant. "I ain't that young," she forced out.

Micah smiled. The scar under his lip contorted, almost writhing as if in pain. "The young'uns always get where no one else can get. Girls especially," he told her, pale blue eyes locked on her dark gray ones. "It's always the girls. No one expects the girls."

Good Lord, how can a man's very words sound so slimy!?

"Micah!"

The sound of Mr. van der Linde's greeting was a hammer straight to a sheet of glass, shattering her conversation with Micah. The world around them seemed to expand enough for Holly to draw a steadying breath when Mr. van der Linde came over and interrupted their conversation, drawing Micah's attention away from her. The two men greeted each other with a firm handshake, Micah's back to Holly. She looked down; she'd been gripping the carving knife so hard her knuckles had gone stark white, and only through another three deep breaths did she relax her hand.

"It's a pleasure to see you back, Mr. Bell," Mr. van der Linde's warm greeting was a baffling notion to her, "I hope you encountered no trouble on your return journey?"

Micah waved a hand in mockery as they started walking. "Bah, no trouble at all, boss. In fact, I gotta little present for you on the way back from Strawberry…"

Holly heard nothing else. Partly because they'd gone a bit out of earshot, and another part because she forced herself to look away. She twisted the good fingers on her maimed hand out of habit until she felt her heartbeat slow down.

She truly wasn't expecting Mr. Pearson to speak up, so when he did Holly couldn't bite back gasp in time, "You okay, kid?"

She nodded. Whether it was the truth or not wasn't really her concern.

Mr. Pearson sighed heavily. "Micah's…well, he's something," he said, and Holly appreciated his concern. "I wouldn't necessarily say keep your distance, but no one around here would blame you for avoiding him."

The rest of the day, those words rung in her mind, and Holly longed to ask him why. It wasn't until later that she discovered she really didn't need to. As it turned out, Micah was far from the most popular member in camp. From her vantage point at the chuck wagon, Holly had a good view of his activities around Horseshoe Overlook throughout the rest of the afternoon, and it seemed like her reaction to him wasn't out of the ordinary in the slightest. He only talked to Mr. Matthews for a minute and yet even he was left scowling long after Micah had left his presence. He seemed to take great pleasure in needling Lenny and Javier but neither men rose to the bait in a manner that told her they'd been through this routine before (in Holly's eyes, it was a miracle they didn't pull out their sidearms and shoot him point-blank after the third racist remark). And most telling, every single woman he talked to either walked away or cursed his presence. None of it seemed to bother Micah, however. He just strolled along, immune to everyone's hostility. Holly, not much caring for the way her gut clenched whenever she caught sight of Micah, only did her best to avoid staring too openly.

Night was beginning to settle in and the members of the gang who'd ventured out were slowly returning. Mr. Morgan and Charles, having spent the entire day hunting, returned to the chuck wagon with arms full of game. Charles passed three turkeys over to Mr. Pearson, strung up by their necks, while Mr. Morgan deposited the corpse of a pronghorn buck in front of Holly, the antlers having already been sawed off.

"Save that pelt, Miss. Monroe, 'cause I'll be turning that into something!" Mr. Pearson called over his shoulder. A stray turkey feather dangled off his mustache.

Holly nodded distractedly and took up the carving knife again before turning the pronghorn onto it's back and rolling up her sleeves. Mr. Morgan, as sharp as ever, must've noticed something was off with her mood. "What's wrong?" came his inevitable inquiry.

Holly said nothing, merely shrugging as she made to start skinning the pronghorn corpse. In the end, her eyes betrayed her, involuntarily darting across the way towards the center of camp. Mr. Morgan followed her gaze, craning his neck to see what she was looking at.

Micah sat at the poker table with Mr. Williamson and Herr Strauss, engaging in idle conversation. He'd since changed clothes—Holly stomach churned at the thought of having to scrub all that blood out of his things—and was now cleaning and fiddling with his sidearms. Mr. Williamson said something from across the table and Micah chuckled at it while opening another container of gun oil.

Holly returned to the pronghorn, the tips of her ears burning, and a moment later Mr. Morgan's gaze dropped back to her. Perhaps it was merely the time of day or the shadow that spread out from the brim of his hat, but the look he gave her was dark; it was quite possibly the most serious Holly had ever seen him.

"Stay away from Micah," Mr. Morgan said, his words soft but barbed. "He's nothin' but trouble."

"Okay," Holly said without a moment of hesitation.

For a stretched-out moment, Holly and Mr. Morgan regarded each other in understanding—the same exact sense of understanding she felt back at that campfire the night they'd met. Mr. Morgan remained there for another moment before nodding, turning away, and heading for his bed. As he crossed camp, Holly heard Micah call out to him but was only met with stony silence in response. Micah's lip curled ever so slightly but didn't press him.

Holly reverted her attention to her work, trying to lose herself once more in the repetitive motions. Her eyes never strayed back to Micah. Even when she felt his stray back to her.

-X-

"Holly, my dear, are you busy?"

She looked up at the sound of Mr. Matthew's call. Holly set her sewing down in her lap as he approached her, an annoyed looking John hard on his heels. Both men were sliding their coats on over their shoulders in preparation for travel.

Holly set her things aside and stood up to meet them. "Are you headin' out? Need your horses?" she asked politely, brushing off her skirts. "I can get Kieran for you and we can prepare your mounts, if you want."

Mr. Matthews shook his head with a small smile. He placed a hand on her shoulder, and Holly found herself walking step for step with the older man, hearing John's annoyed bootsteps keeping pace a few steps behind them.

"I'd like to think that I'm not quite so old that I need younger blood to slap a saddle on the back of my horse," Mr. Matthews said good-naturedly. "Quite the opposite, actually. How do you feel about helping John and I make some actual money today?"

The three of them passed Micah on the way towards the edge of camp, playing blackjack with Lenny, Mr. Pearson, and Reverend Swanson. Holly certainly didn't miss the way his eyes flicked to her ever so slightly, then back to his hand when he saw her staring. Her head snapped forward, busying her nervous hands by brushing her hair behind her ears.

It'd been six days since Micah had returned and it'd already felt like seven days too long. Mr. Morgan's remark was an endless rattle in her head like loose pennies in the bottom of a wallet, his words resurfacing every single time she and Micah locked eyes, even for a brief heartbeat. She avoided him, exactly as instructed, but he always seemed to find some sort of excuse to make his way over to her and the other women in camp and bother them endlessly with words that were far less amusing than he'd make them out to be. The things she'd heard to describe Micah behind his back were unsavory at best, crossing-oneself-worthy at worst.

Despite all the chores and other work to be done, Holly was dying to get out of Horseshoe Overlook, even if only for a few hours. A few minutes, even. Another meddling comment from Micah and she swore she was going to leave the camp on her own accord just to not have to deal with him—never mind the ire she'd certainly receive from Miss. Grimshaw for shirking her work.

So, when Mr. Matthews presented her with the opportunity, she didn't even hesitate; "Yes, sir," she said with a nod. "What kind of money?"

"I'll explain on the way," Mr. Matthews said as they reached the horses. "Just saddle up and ride with us. It's best we have another set of hands for this."

Several minutes later, the three of them departed from camp on horseback, heading for the river west of Valentine. Holly rode between Mr. Matthews and John, their pace brisk as they took the long road and wound their way underneath Valentine towards the rocky paths and pine trees beyond the town. The road empty, John and Holly spurred their horses forward to fall alongside either flank of Silver Dollar.

"One of the girls got a tip at the saloon of some older couple coming in from Strawberry," Mr. Matthews said in a hushed voice. "Apparently, they're the type to spend money like it's going out of fashion. They're making their way over to Saint Denis all the way from Kansas in order to appraise some of their jewels in preparation for selling them off."

"Now why'd they need to do that?" John grumbled, and Holly privately agreed with him, "Jewels are just jewels."

"Not if it's estate jewelry, it's not," Mr. Matthews said pointedly. "We're talking pieces that've been passed down once or twice already, and from the sounds of it, these folks don't mess around when it comes to what passes to and from their hands. They're only taking it to Saint Denis so they can figure out how much to sell it for. See if they can make a profit. Seen it happen time and time again."

The trail began to slope a bit downwards. Holly adjusted the strap of her satchel. "All that money they got ridin' with them, and they're travelin' alone?"

Mr. Matthews laughed, "Hardly, my dear. From what Mary-Beth has told us, there's two hired guards with the carriage at all times. They get a fifteen percent cut of the profits."

"So how're we gonna manage to nick 'em with armed men?"

"With a little finesse, Holly. You can wrestle your soul out of Hell itself and knock on the pearly gates if you've got enough charm spilling from your words," Mr. Matthews pointed to the left towards the trees off the trail, "Let's take the horses over here and hide 'em in this thicket. This is as good a spot as any."

They brought the horses a ways off the trail, and Holly was left to tie them to the ground as Mr. Matthews and John made their way back to the road. By the time she returned to them, Mr. Matthews had pulled out a map and was pointing at something she couldn't see. Holly made to stand on John's opposite side as Mr. Matthews pointed once more at the trails on the paper.

"They'll be coming down this road over the river before heading into Valentine in about," he checked his pocket watch, "ten minutes, so here's what's going to happen. Holly and I will come down from the opposite side of the road, striking up a conversation. You'll be my daughter, and we'll have been coming from Emerald Ranch when our horse took a stumble in a rabbit hole and, well, let's pretend it was just too gruesome to talk about. John, you'll be on the opposite side of the road. When they're distracted, you'll head to the back of the coach, bust open the lockbox, and swipe what you can."

Holly and John exchanged a look, and she was relieved to see that he was looking as dubious as she felt. Mr. Matthews looked old enough to be her grandfather, and there was little similarity to be found between his silver hair and pale skin and her mess of dark brown locks and olive complexion. They looked about as related as a mountain goat to a great blue heron.

"Mr. Matthews," she began awkwardly, "with all due respect, we don't look nothin' alike."

A second of hesitation, a glance to her, and then another to John, who only shrugged in response.

"Well, you and John ain't too similar neither," Mr. Matthews hummed, deep in thought. He removed his hat and scratched at his hair, "but someone needs to play a part and someone needs to pick the lockbox."

"I can pick the lockbox."

Without thinking, the offer slipped from her mouth despite her brain telling her how stupid an idea that would be. Holly fished out her new nail file from her satchel, "Mr. van der Linde showed me how to pick locks a week or so ago."

John cocked an eyebrow, skeptical. "Wouldn't it be easier for you to just sit back and play along with Hosea?" he asked.

"You want me to help? This is how I can help," Holly argued, imploring more to Mr. Matthews at this point than John.

Mr. Matthews regarded her for the longest while before nodding. "Alright, my dear. You'll pick the lockbox."

"Hosea!"

"Son, she's got to learn at some point, and we've done more than our fair share of father-son acts. We don't got time to argue."

John closed his mouth and frowned but didn't offer up more resistance. Heart fluttering half with excitement and half with apprehension, Holly gripped the nail file harder.

Mr. Matthews drew them both back to the map. "John, you and I'll put on the 'old coot with exasperated son' act. Holly, you're picking the lock and taking the loot. Should anything go wrong, we'll reconvene here, across the river," Mr. Matthews tapped his finger at a point south of where they stood, on the banks of the river a little way downstream. "If we aren't altogether by sunset, then we'll meet back at camp."

Holly and John both nodded.

"Alright then. Holly, behind that tree. John, my boy, you're with me."

Holly was about to head off for her position when John caught her arm. In his hand was a dark green bandana. "You're gonna want this," he warned. "Not a good idea to start your first robbery by showing off the full brunt of your guilty face so they can sketch it later."

A fair point.

Holly took the bandana from him with a nod of thanks and they went their separate ways. She positioned herself behind a pine tree in time to see the John and Mr. Matthews disappearing in the trees on the hill opposite the road, getting ready to put on their act. Holly tied the bandana around her neck, trying her best to ignore the tense feeling in her bones.

The minutes ticked by, one by one. No one came down their lone little path. Holly peered around the tree more than once in search of the stagecoach, yet nothing ever came down the road. Birds chirped happily in the bright blue sky while the water from the river chugged along and along behind her. She shifted the nail file between her good hand and her bad hand in an effort to keep herself occupied and distracted from her growing nerves.

If she were being honest, she smelled them before she saw them. A perfumed scent so sickly and unnatural that Holly would've thought it witchcraft. And then, noise. Horses and voices and the sound of the something heavy straining on four good wheels. Holly dipped her head low as the stagecoach, bright red with a black roof and driven by four draft horses, rolled into view. From the tinted window, she could just barely make out the silhouettes of the aforementioned rich couple as they passed by, safe and clean and out of the wilds. The coach was led on by a man on a brown horse, rifle slung casually over his shoulder; another guard brought up the rear, looking impossibly bored as he scratched at the sunburns on the back of his neck. The lockbox stood embedded in back of the carriage, unguarded aside from the lazy hired guns.

Holly slipped the bandana on over her nose, waiting for Hosea and John to start putting the plan into motion.

The coach abruptly came to a halt. The trailing guard moved his horse around, hand on his rifle but obviously not interested enough to level it just yet. Two pairs of footsteps were approaching: one firm and steady, the other meandering and clumsy. "Howd'a do, folks?" Hosea's high-spirited greeting was about as innocuous as one could hope for.

Holly slipped around from the pine tree and made for the back of the coach. She kept low, hiding as best she could from view. Hosea was still talking and now John was chiming in about being late for ma's dinner (though perhaps his agitation wasn't quite so fabricated). Hand on the lockbox, Holly paused for a moment and listened to make sure no one had caught sight of her.

"A fine day for fishing, no doubt," Hosea's tone was bright, "my son and I were going to catch some bluegill down by the stream."

A hearty chuckle from inside the coach, "Fishers, hm? How quaint."

"Name's Howard Macintosh. This here's my son, James."

"Angus and Clara Robinson. Charmed indeed."

Holly inserted the file into the lock and started picking. For a little while it was just the sounds of the file scratching against metal and that of Holly's own breath against the bandana as she turned and twisted and shook the file until finally, mercifully, the thing clicked open. She lowered the lid so slowly that she swore she aged three years doing so, keeping her eyes and ears trained on the scene Mr. Matthews was orchestrating. The Robinsons, and from the sound of it, even the guards, were chortling at a joke he'd just told, completely oblivious.

Inside the lockbox were several small bags of jewelry, a couple of boxes, and a large wad of dollar bills. Holly took the bills first. Mrs. Robinson mentioned something about her disdain for Missouri and Mr. Matthews agreed wholeheartedly while John complained again. She reached for the boxes next.

"I, for one, would never dream of going to Saint Denis. I consider it a city full of degenerates. You're a braver man than I am."

"Mr. Macintosh—"

"Call me Howard. I insist."

"Pa, please."

Holly was shoving the last of the bags into her satchel when someone started howling with laughter at another of Mr. Matthews' jokes when she wasn't expecting it. The bag flew out of her hands and dropped like a stone to the road, spilling its contents over the ground. In an instant, she'd bent down to shove the jewelry, mud and all, back into the bag.

A different voice from before hushed everyone, and Holly felt her heart stop, "What was that?"

"What was what?"

"Somethin' just fell off the back'a the coach."

Hide, hide, hide, hide.

Unable to think properly, Holly abandoned the final bag, got on her hands and knees, and started crawling underneath the stagecoach.

Footsteps rounded the back of the coach. "What the—Mr. Robinson, yer lockbox is open!"

"What do you mean, the lockbox is open!?"

"I mean, the goddamn lockbox is open. We've been fuckin' robbed!"

Holly pressed herself into the mud, her hands around the strap of her bag. And without warning, someone grabbed her ankle and yanked her backwards with a scream.

"Someone's hidin' under the coach, Mr. Robinson!"

Now working entirely on instinct, Holly started thrashing as hard as she possibly could, desperate to break free, but it was useless. She was dragged from the false safety of the stagecoach's underbelly and flipped over onto her back, her satchel stuffed to the brim with all the loot she'd grabbed. She heard Mr. Matthews and John shout something, but it sounded so far away. All Holly could do was struggle and stare up at the massive figure of the guard, rifle in hand.

At the sight of her, the man's face swelled up with fury, "You fuckin' little bi—"

He didn't get a chance to finish that sentence. One of Holly's frenzied kicks cut off any more talking by accidentally catching him in the groin.

His words turned into a low, stifled groan that quickly rose in pitch like a badly-played church organ. Brown eyes bugged out to twice their normal size as if trying to claw their way out of their sockets. Holly felt the grip on her ankle loosen, and she managed to shake her leg free as her captor's pain distracted him from what was right in front of his face.

Holly didn't waste any more time. As quick as she could, she grabbed the dropped jewelry bag, scrambled to her feet, and booked it for the safety of the woods.

Branches whipped at her face, trying to make a grab for her hair, her face, anything, as Holly sprinted down the hill towards the river. She shoved the jewelry bag into her satchel and used her now-free hands to hike up her skirt. Her heart was pounding ten miles a minute in her ears, making it hard to tell if she was being pursued. Her mind briefly strayed to Mr. Matthews and John before snapping back to the present as a tree root tried to wrap itself around her ankle. Holly slowed down to shake herself loose, chancing a glimpse back the way she'd come. No one was coming after her—yet. Thus, once she was freed again, she spun back around and continued to race for the river, trying her hardest not to fall face-first into the dirt and finish her decent by rolling down the incline.

Something like a gunshot shouted far behind Holly but nothing hit her nor anything around her. Holly broke off to the right, towards the towering cliffs, hoping to get out of sight behind the rocks. Another gunshot, even more distant than the first. The ground leveled off underfoot as Holly made it back to the road as it cut through the cliffs, the river charging off to her left.

She rounded the corner and then, taking a chance, peered off the edge of the cliffs. A few feet away and about several feet down, a small outcrop jutted out of the rock wall, hidden from prying eyes. Holly hiked up her filthy skirt and started lowering herself down onto the bluff, testing her weight before allowing her body to completely stand on it.

Panting, Holly sank down and pressed herself against the cliffs.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

She waited until what felt like hours had passed and no one had some stomping down the road in search of her. The rushing of the river only a few feet below became more calming than anxiety-inducing, to the point where Holly relaxed herself entirely. She pulled down the bandana and tasted something other than her own sweat.

Holly could've chanced a peek back onto the road but decided against it. Instead, she reached into her satchel as she started pulling out her, Mr. Matthews', and John's score for camp.

She counted the bills first. All twenties, twenty of them in total. It took a while for Holly to come up with a sum of four hundred dollars, but she got there eventually. Next, she picked apart the jewelry bags. There were six in total, each containing a different kind of accessory; one was all necklaces, another was bracelets, yet another was earrings, and so on. Holly couldn't believe the sheer number of gemstones in each piece she pulled out. Pearls of all shapes and colors were strung up and hefty over her hands. A bracelet was adorned entirely in red gems arranged like flower petals. Gold rings, so numerous that there were three for each of her fingers, were studded with large blue and purple stones. Holly's jaw dropped when she pulled out a necklace covered clasp to clasp in opals that blazed in colors she didn't even know existed.

Holly took enormous, childlike pleasure in holding the jewels to the light and watching the way the sun shone through them. She laid each piece out on the rocks, counting as she went. Soon, twelve necklaces, twenty-six rings, eight bracelets, fourteen pairs of earrings, four brooches, and seven belt buckles had been neatly arranged on the rocks around her.

Whilst Holly took stock of her take, she felt an unexpected emotion rising in her—anger. Every single piece of jewelry, every gemstone and ounce of silver and gold along with it, was just another unnecessary possession to her. There wasn't anyone on earth that needed this much wealth to their name. This much money and power. With each piece of jewelry that she pulled out, Holly made wild guesses of how much money she could've sold them for.

With so many kids growing up, her family never truly had money to spare.

Her mind drifted back to the dead man she'd robbed.

This went beyond wants and desires, beyond living comfortably. This was…greed. Physical greed that Holly could hold in her hands: sinful, wasteful, almost sickening.

Holly had never hated anyone. Holly felt as though she might've hated the Robinsons.

But that dark thought catapulted her right back to her present, and it was like she could think clearly again. She took a minute to take deep breaths, another to make sure she was still safely hidden, and then picked up one of the boxes.

Inside was a silver pocket watch. Holly's father had one similar, handed down by her grandfather before he left Sicily for Lemoyne, but it wasn't nearly this extravagant. Beautiful thin swirls were etched into the metal plating, spiraling this way, that way, over, under. Holly pried open the watch's cover; dozens of tiny green gemstones studded around the watch's edge, each one meticulously sized, cut, and placed around the face. They glinted beautifully in the sun, light swimming in and out of them. Holly, mesmerized, picked at the stones with her fingernails like she wanted to pry one out of its setting.

Sixteen years of living—sixteen years of seeing a decent chunk of what the world had to offer—and yet this had to have been the single most expensive thing that Holly had ever seen in her entire life. And it fit perfectly in the palm of her hand, small and fragile like a bird's egg. People'd defend these tiny things with armed guards and paid escorts. There'd probably be at least one man around here that'd be willing to kill someone for this pocket watch. Maybe even just to get to touch it, to brush their fingers against it only for a moment and feel what it was like to possess such wonders often unobtainable to people like her.

Yet, this watch had fallen in Holly's hands. No one else's.

The thought made Holly smile, though she couldn't quite put her finger on why.

She carefully put each piece of jewelry back into its bag but held onto the pocket watch. Holly didn't really need to hold it but found that she really didn't want to put it down anyhow. She sat on those cliffs, watched the river rush by and listened to random horses and their riders passing overhead. No one ever came around like they were searching for her. Holly busied herself by opening and closing the pocket watch, enjoying the little clunk it made each time the cover snapped against the glass. When she held it to her ear, she could hear all the little springs and gears turning to produce a second, a minute, an hour. Time that slipped between her fingers, fast and fleeting.

Holly sat there until the watch face read 6:33 and the sun had vanished behind the cliffs. With sunset fast approaching, she pulled herself back onto solid ground and, making sure to keep her eyes and ears open for the law, started to make her way south. The gold and silver in her satchel jingled with every single step she took.

She avoided the roads for the most part. Winding her way back to the banks of the river where the ground wasn't so rocky, Holly trekked over the shoreline, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to make sure she wasn't being followed. There was nothing out of the ordinary, however; it was like the entire country was sound asleep, not a soul to be seen.

John and Mr. Matthews had made camp about an hour's walk from where Holly had been hiding. She splashed through the shallows to meet them a little off the shore, a small fire blazing at John's feet. Silver Dollar, Old Boy, and Shining Star were all hitched some distance away. Both men jumped to their feet as Holly approached with a wave and a smile.

They recounted their tales very briefly. Mr. Matthews and John made camp a couple of hours ago to wait. The Robinsons and their armed guard continued on to Valentine to report the crime to the authorities, but neither man was convinced that it was going to cause trouble. "It took some convincing, but we managed to spin a yarn about you being some poor Valentine orphan who prowled about this neck of the woods," Mr. Matthews told her. "We even offered to help 'em search, too. Didn't come up with nothing, of course, but they seemed to think we just wanted to get back to fishing and let us go."

"What was the take?" John interjected.

One by one, Holly emptied the contents of her satchel into their hands. With every new thing she passed to the men, their eyes grew a bit wider. Even John looked somewhat impressed at the take.

"Good God," Mr. Matthews breathed out as Holly passed him the final bag, "there's enough jewelry in here to sink an armada."

John, holding one of the belt buckles to the fading light, glanced back at him, "How much you think we got here, Hosea?"

Mr. Matthews was silent for a minute, taking stock of all the jewelry in his head. "Gotta be about eight hundred dollars' worth of goods here," he reported.

The pair of them exchanged a look—Holly was relieved that John looked just as astonished as she felt. "Eight hundred for the entire take?" John repeated back at Mr. Matthews.

"At least. Maybe a little more," Mr. Matthews' smile was all for her. "Well done, my dear. It was a little rocky for a moment, but it all worked out in the end. That's about all you could hope for."

Holly couldn't help herself. She beamed at his praise.

"It's your first job, right?" Mr. Matthews waved a hand at the piles of jewelry before them, "Well, how about you take something for yourself? Consider it a reward for your first successful robbery."

Hesitating, Holly held herself back. "Wouldn't Mr. van der Linde want to sell all this?" she asked doubtfully.

John looked ready to agree with her, but Mr. Matthews beat him to responding, "Dutch won't mind if something goes missing. We can subtract it outta your take for the score."

His permission granted, Holly let her eyes flit over the pieces of jewelry they'd managed to swipe. It wasn't really much of a question as to what she wanted, really. Holly didn't even give a second thought to her choice before she reached out and took the pocket watch.

"Really!?" John chimed back in, agitated. "You take the most expensive-lookin' piece of jewelry we got?"

"Mr. Matthews said I could take anythin' I wanted," Holly said hotly. She clutched the pocket watch to her chest.

"Then take a necklace or something and let Hosea sell that thing for some real money."

"Well, I want it and he said I could take it. Why can't I have it?"

"Because, kid, you don't just take the most expensive things for yourself!"

"John!" both John and Hollys' heads snapped back to an irritated-looking Mr. Matthews, who was starting to put their take back into the jewelry bags. "Quit being disrespectful and let Holly have the damned pocket watch."

John looked scandalized, "Hosea!"

"Son, it's just a watch," Mr. Matthews said, exasperated. "There'll be more than enough chances in the coming weeks to get more scores. We've done well today; let the girl have the watch and leave it at that."

Despite a look on his face that Holly swore meant he would've argued to the ends of the earth, John relented with a defeated wave of his hand and made a move to the horses. Holly smirked to herself as, victorious, she slipped the pocket watch into her satchel, helped Mr. Matthews gather up the take, and saddled up with the others. With Mr. Matthews leading and Holly bringing up the rear, they splashed back across the river and made for Horseshoe Overlook. Holly distracted herself from her mounting tiredness by playing with her pocket watch, snapping the cover on and off and reading the time just because she could.

She thought about showing it to the girls—Tilly and Mary-Beth would probably be overcome with pride, Ms. Roberts would give her a pat on the shoulder and congratulate her, while Karen would affably tease her and say how she wished it could've been her with the boys instead. Mr. Morgan would certainly enjoy hearing about how she got her way over John but would nevertheless commend her with a lopsided grin. Jack would ask if he could see the watch and then she'd have to run all over camp trying to get it back. Maybe even Mr. van der Linde and Miss. Grimshaw would tell Holly how impressed they were with her getting out there and earning her keep for the gang.

And for the first time ever, Holly actually felt like she understood the allure of the outlaw life. Not for safety or for her own protection, but just for the thrill of living free.

She didn't stop smiling the whole way home.

Chapter Text

Holly wasn't quite sure what to make of Sean MacGuire.

Throughout her time in the van der Linde Gang, she'd heard various accounts of the gang's missing members. There was Jenny Kirk, the formerly youngest member of the gang, who made Lenny smile wearily as he recounted a time the pair of them went off drinking and she ended up stealing five times the amount they'd spent. On the other hand, there was the Callander brothers, Mac and Davey, apparently equal parts brutish and stupid. Mr. Williamson told Holly about a time that Davey managed to beat a man so badly that he passed three of his own teeth the following day; Charles recalled a time when Mac once asked him how much a nickel was worth.

Sean was a bit of a mystery to her. Holly'd heard some differing opinions about him depending on who she asked at the time. Mr. van der Linde described him as a young buck, tough as nails, unaware of Mr. Matthews rolling his eyes over his shoulder. Javier considered him eager, but a complete liability on every job he'd worked with him. Mr. Morgan called him a pain in his ass but a highly entertaining pain in his ass. Tilly likened him to a hyper toddler—endearing but unpredictable. And Karen, her face growing as red as a tomato, called him a piece of shit before excusing herself to grab breakfast.

So, when Mr. Morgan and Javier approached her about heading across New Hanover to find Sean, Holly jumped at the chance. The three of them set off for West Elizabeth the following morning, the air crisp and the day holding promises of excitement. Not before Mr. Morgan had tossed her his old gun belt, though; "I get antsy just seein' that thing hangin' all loose outta your saddlebag," he'd said as they saddled their mounts, pointing to her revolver. "Either stick it in that, or yain't comin'."

Four days had passed since she, Mr. Matthews, and John returned with the jewelry score to praise and congratulations. Since then, she'd spent some of the money on another skirt and shirt, a snugger pair of riding boots, and a brand-new sheepskin coat (she, Karen, Lenny, Mary-Beth, and Tilly took her old coat out of camp and set that ratty thing ablaze as celebration). Holly wore that outfit with Mr. Morgan and Javier: the proud new owner of a cream blouse, a navy skirt, and black preacher boots, with her gun belt holding her revolver at her hip. Fending away her spender's guilt, Holly set the rest of her money aside for an emergency at the bottom of her satchel. Her pocket watch was tucked away in the pocket of her coat.

That job was a rush of adrenaline that Holly craved another dose of. Being out of camp was a pleasure in and of itself, but there was something about being out with the other members of the gang, hatching plans and pulling off schemes, that made her feel useful. It was small wonder anymore that all the girls—even Ms. Roberts, who usually had Jack attached at her hip—jumped at the opportunity to get out of their chores and ride along on stagecoach holdups and shop robberies. Miss. Grimshaw would kill her if she knew what Holly was really thinking, but she felt far more prideful in helping the camp survive through making them money rather than scrubbing their union suits, a sentiment she was sure the rest of the girls shared.

When Javier had said that they needed Holly to go rescue Sean from the law, Holly had genuinely never felt more important to the van der Linde Gang.

The ride was long. Achilles, Boaz, and Shining Star labored in the growing heat as the day progressed. It was past twilight by the time that Mr. Morgan suggested they stopped for the night. Holly tended to the horses, Javier built the campfire, and Mr. Morgan found two rabbits and some wild raspberries by the stream further north. They ate, talked, slept, and finally crossed the border into West Elizabeth early the next morning.

Bits and snippets of their mission had been passed to Holly along the way through New Hanover. After their failed Blackwater heist, Sean and Mac had been captured, presumed dead or worse, while the rest of the gang was forced to make their escape. News was only received recently that Sean was going on public trial— "They're gonna dangle him out for us like meat for a dog, hopin' we'll come sniffin'," Mr. Morgan had said. Charles had already gone out the previous day to scout ahead. Another member of the gang that Holly hadn't met yet was going to meet them all outside Blackwater and assess from there.

"You're the only member of the gang that the law and Pinkertons definitely don't know of," Javier had explained to her, "so if we need someone to sneak in and out to find Sean, you're our best bet."

Holly's mind strayed to the handmade wanted poster of her that she'd burned on that fire so many weeks ago. Her stomach flipped at the thought of them making it as far west as she had, but she stuffed the thought deep, deep down in the back of her head and spoke nothing of it.

Their trip through West Elizabeth cost most of the morning despite their early start. Javier took the lead, setting a slow pace with Boaz that he wouldn't compromise. Holly held the middle, binoculars in hand—she'd heard horror stories of all the Pinkertons that still traversed the state, searching for the gang that'd nearly taken off with so much money. Mr. Morgan brought up the rear, repeater loaded, eyes ever vigilant for patrols behind them. Even Shining Star seemed to sense the severity of the situation and remained calm and obedient under her. But the trio took the trip slowly, away from the roads, and no one ever came for them.

It was just past noon by the time they found Charles on a shaded rise overlooking the edge of Blackwater. He lay flat on his stomach, watching the scene below with a pair of binoculars, his face unreadable. Javier crept up on Charles' right with Mr. Morgan squeezing his way between them, while Holly settled herself on Charles' other side.

"How many?" Javier asked in greeting as he slid up further to peer off the cliff.

The look Charles gave them wasn't encouraging, "A lot. Uniforms everywhere."

"You see Sean?"

"No, I don't think so."

A growl escaped from Javier's throat at that, "Damnit, where's Trelawney?"

"Who knows?"

"Where is that little Irish bastard?" Mr. Morgan grumbled, half to the others and half to himself.

"Not quite sure," Charles said, taking one last look through his binoculars before passing them to him, "Trelawny's off trying to find out."

Mr. Morgan held the binoculars up to his face. "Has anyone been to Blackwater to see how things lie?" he asked aloud.

Javier shook his head, "Place is crawling with Pinkertons, bounty hunters. Pictures of Dutch and Hosea."

Holly watched as Mr. Morgan's face contorted into a grimace, letting out a growl of his own, "We gotta lot of money sittin' in that town," he said, almost complaining.

"And that's where it's going to remain," Javier said. "For now."

The sound of footsteps, light and almost silent, was enough to momentarily distract Holly from the pointed conversation. She raised her head to look back, Charles and Mr. Morgan raising theirs a heartbeat after her, to see a well-dressed man in a bowler, a red overcoat, a puff tie, and the most egregious mustache she'd ever seen in her life pad his way over to the four of them. He settled on Javier's other side, nodding a quick greeting.

"Gentlemen," the man—Trelawny, Holly figured—said brusquely, "Sean's being moved up the Upper Montana, then to a federal prison out west."

Charles buried his face in his hands at that news, though Holly wasn't sure if it was in despair or frustration. Javier looked aghast; Mr. Morgan just looked dumbfounded.

"Damn. We can't be rescuin' people from some federal prison. We either rescue him now, or…" Mr. Morgan hesitated for a heartbeat, "…cut him loose."

The look Charles gave him was scathing. "We aren't cutting anyone loose," he said firmly.

"Course not."

"Ike Skelding's boys are moving him to a camp nearby before handing him over to the government," Trelawny informed them, his eyes trained on the mess of law enforcement still scurrying down below in Blackwater.

Mr. Morgan didn't respond right away. Holly could almost hear the gears in his head turning, trying to think of a plan. He glanced at Trelawny, then to her and Charles, then through the binoculars again, and finally spoke up. "So I guess we need to stop 'em before they get to the camp," he said, handing the binoculars back to Charles. He pointed over his shoulder, "Charles, why don't ya head up on the north side and we'll head up the other side of the valley and meet ya. That way, we have them in either direction."

Next, to her astonishment, he pointed to her, "Holly, take your horse and follow the river back the way we came. Find this camp 'a theirs and wait for us there. If Sean moves, then follow. We'll find ya. If the government rolls around and we ain't gotten to ya, then try an' distract them until Javier, Charles, or I can catch up."

"Me?" Holly managed to squeak out in surprise.

Mr. Morgan huffed. "Yes, you," he said pointedly.

Holly blinked, processing her instructions, and nodded her understanding. She and Charles moved to mount Taima and Shining Star, and Holly's heart began to beat with excitement.

"I'll do my best," she promised.

Mr. Morgan waved them on with a gloved hand. "Good luck," he called over his shoulder as Holly remounted her horse, "and don't do nothin' stupid."

Flashing him and the others what she hoped looked like a self-assured smile in return, Holly kicked Shining Star into a quick canter and sped for the river, Charles on her heels. The three of them bent their heads together as she rode off, leaving her alone with her task.

Charles split off quite quickly to find a place to cross the river, so Holly found herself on her own fairly quickly. She scanned the horizon for any signs of life and hurried Shining Star along when none were to be found, trying to bite back her annoyance. The hills to her left remained eternal, golden in the sun; the river thrummed and rushed like blood pulled through a vein. There wasn't another human in sight.

For such an easy-sounding task, it certainly wasn't going as fast as she'd liked. Holly harrumphed and pushed onwards.

An hour later, it seemed as though her luck turned around. The river had reached a mouth at the bottom of a deep gorge and smoke curled into the sky not so far in the distance. Holly spurred Shining Star onwards, a triumphant feeling overtaking her and making her feel woozy. What was the term? Drunk on victory? Whatever it was, Holly was certainly feeling it.

She was feeling it so much that she didn't put much consideration in a plan when she thundered into the small camp and was met with the cold reality of the situation.

Three men—one older with a salt-and-pepper beard, another with a stern-looking face and a raw scar on his chin, and another that looked no older than Lenny's age—stared at her as Holly abruptly slowed Shining Star down. They'd made camp in an abandoned lumber mill of sorts, several ruined houses and one more complete cabin forming a loose ring around the trio. Meat sizzled over the fire, the smell of fresh lunch making Holly's stomach yip. At first glance, they seemed friendly enough. Like wandering passerby, or friends stopped for a quick bite.

But then there were the guns. The rifles and repeaters of each man sat next to them. And it was right there that the reality of the situation hit Holly over the head, cold and sudden.

This was a rescue. Sean could die. Mr. Morgan could die. Charles or Javier could die. I could die.

She needed a plan.

"Hi there," Holly greeted them in as chipper a voice as she could. She led Shining Star closer, ignoring the horse's annoyed tossing of her head, "Would y'all have happened to see a young woman of about twenty years old?"

All three men exchanged looks and shook their heads.

She pouted, somewhat dramatically. "Oh. Well, thanks anyway," she kicked Shining Star into a walk and hung her head, "I just hoped—"

"Are you lookin' for someone, miss?" one of the men asked.

Got 'em.

Holly perked up. "I just thought that you might've been my sister is all," she said. "You see, my sister Caroline and I are visitin' from, uh, Missouri. On our way to Lemoyne—visitin' family, you see. And she rode out from the hotel early this mornin' and I haven't seen heads or tails of her since." Holly swiped a crocodile tear away from her eye, "I've been travelin' all day and I'm so tired, I must confess."

The youngest looking one, the same one who'd called out to her, answered. "Would you like to rest up here?" he asked.

"I could never impose."

"Nonsense," that was the stern one, who'd stood up and headed for her, extending a hand. "A young woman like you, all alone in West Elizabeth? It's a goddamn miracle that we're the first people you've come across."

Holly put on a tight smile and accepted his hand. She climbed off her horse. "Thank you, mister…?"

"Ike Skelding. That there's Luke Masters," the youngest man waved in acknowledgement, "and Rian O'Connor," while the elder man said nothing. He merely brushed a hand over his gun and nodded at her.

Skelding guided her over to the fire and let her share a log with Masters while he resettled himself. Masters extended a hand that Holly shook in an effort to be polite. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Lucille Sullivan."

"What happened to your hand, Miss. Sullivan?"

O'Connor growled out a warning before Holly could answer, "Mind your manners, boy!"

"It's fine, really," Holly assured the group of them as Masters balked at the reprimand. She held out her maimed hand, "Lost it in a farmin' accident."

Skelding took a pull from a whiskey bottle. "Daughters'a famers?" he asked. Holly nodded.

"My pa wants my sister and I to take a visit to our grandfather outside of Saint Denis," she was endlessly grateful that Skelding was taking what he was assuming were educated guesses about her life—it was making it a lot easier to churn out lies as she went along, "but my sister, she likes the wide open air and the feelin' of a horse at her command. She must've gotten a little carried away today."

Skelding nodded his acceptance of her answer. Masters smiled sympathetically. O'Connor merely tutted and gestured for Skelding's bottle of whiskey.

"So, what is it y'all're doin' out here?" Holly enquired. "Don't look like much of a place to make a good home, if you don't mind my sayin'."

"We're bounty hunters, Miss. Sullivan," O'Connor said between sips of drink. "and we've got a big prize coming in for the government."

"The government? The United States government?" Holly feigned ignorance, making an effort to have her eyes go wide. "Must be a big troublemaker."

"Ever met bounty hunters before, Miss. Sullivan?" Masters asked. Holly swore he was puffing out his chest in an attempt to make himself look bigger.

"Can't say I have Mr. Masters."

And on and on they went for another twenty minutes. Holly fed the men whatever came to her mind and they ate it out of her hands like starving songbirds. Skelding seemed keen in hearing how Holly's non-existent farmer father believed in arming his daughters with revolvers in case they ran into trouble, while Masters just took it in with rapt attention and amazed expressions. Even O'Connor, a sour-looking man, managed to relax enough at Holly's story of Lucille and Caroline's ruined birthday party when they were teenagers. Enough so that he managed to take his hand off his repeater, at the very least, and Holly felt the tension in her chest dissipate at that.

She kept her ears pricked for Mr. Morgan and the others, but nothing ever came their way. Not until the rest of Skelding's men arrived, at least.

He rose to greet them, leaving Holly's story about their mother's favorite types of pies hanging without an end. At once, Masters and O'Connor were alert, moving to follow. Holly remained at the fire and craned her neck to see just what was going on.

Three new men approached their tiny camp. The man they carried was tied up like a prized hog for slaughter. One held his bound wrists, another his bound ankles, and a third trailed on guard. Their prisoner wore thin clothes, damp from sweat and the river. The mottled bruises of a black eye were slowly fading back across his skin. His head hung limply in midair; Holly gawked at his mop of shoulder-length hair, so crimson it could give Molly a run for her money.

Skelding pursued the newcomers, Masters and O'Connor on his heels. "What happened to him?" he demanded.

"Sorry, sir. Bastard got a bit feisty goin' upriver," the man holding Sean's ankles said. "Kept shoutin' how we were all gonna be dead meat once Dutch's Boys came chargin' in."

Skelding barked out something of a confident laugh. Holly resisted the urge to tug at her collar. Sean moaned feebly but didn't awaken.

Skelding picked up a length of rope and motioned them over to a spindly tree a couple of feet away. Masters and O'Connor went to help him. Holly remained at the fire in silence and watched the six men tie the rope around Sean's legs, toss it over a branch, and hoist him into the air upside-down. Sean awoke from all the commotion and might've even said something had the butt of Skelding's gun to the temple not sent him straight back into unconsciousness.

"Fuckin' bog-trodder," he sneered. Sean's body swung limply, suspended some four or five feet off the ground.

As the group settled back around the fire, the mood around the fire changed. The air had taken a definite spiked with anxiety, so much so that the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. People shuffled for their guns and glanced over their shoulders. it occurred to Holly that if Sean was here, then there was a strong chance that Mr. Morgan and the others weren't too far behind. The space was a bit too open for them to get a reliable drop on Skelding's men without…some sort of distraction.

"Tell me about that man," Holly summoned every ounce of politeness she could muster and crammed it into her request. She kept her ears open, listening with all her might for the sound of footsteps approaching.

It was Masters, since recommenced his guard duties, who answered. "That there's Sean MacGuire. Enforcer of the van der Linde Gang. Wanted in eight different states for about every single crime that could've possibly be committed," he told her. "He's about as dangerous as an unbroken horse. Completely unpredictable."

Nothing. She needed more time. "He don't look dangerous," Holly said critically, batting her eyelashes.

One of the newer men spoke up, "Little lady, that there's one of the men responsible for the Blackwater Massacre a couple'a months back."

"Pardon my askin', mister, but what's the Blackwater Massacre?"

The other man on guard duty relaxed somewhat at her feigned ignorance, enough to turn at her and cock a brow. "You ain't never heard of the Blackwater Massacre? Good God, lady, you been livin' under a rock?"

"She's coming all the way from Missouri, Hughes. Course she's never heard of the shit that went down in Blackwater," O'Connor said.

Hughes, guard duties now completely forgotten, was giving Holly all his attention. Every one of Skelding's boys had at least one eye on their conversation.

"Dutch van der Linde, the nastiest bastard to've ever scorned the Lord's good Earth," Hughes surmised with a spit. "Well, one day, he decides that Blackwate—"

Hughes didn't get a chance to finish that sentence. A bullet straight through the temple sent blood shooting into the air. He dropped like a stone, his rifle falling his hands.

Several things happened at once.

Holly glanced over her shoulder. Mr. Morgan had fired the shot that killed Hughes, with Javier and Charles approaching on either side of him. He caught Holly's eye and she swore that he nodded in approval at her.

Skelding cried out, "Fuck me! It's the van der Lindes!" 

Several of the men around the fire groped around for their own weapons. The man who'd carried Sean's wrists was so panicked that the revolver he'd drawn slipped from his hands and spun away into the ferns.

And Holly was suddenly yanked around the middle and dragged behind the abandoned house. She offered little protest, still working out what was going on. Skelding fired in return and suddenly the air was filled with the volleying of gunshots. The arid scent of gun smoke pricked her nostrils.

She was set down; the horrified face of Masters stared back at her. "Stay here," he urged her before drawing his revolver and running back into the fray. Holly pressed herself up against the back of the house as the firing grew louder and more frenzied. A man let out a shout that was cut abruptly short. She could feel the wood quaking under her palms when misaimed bullets hit the side of the house instead. Her hand strayed for her revolver.

And then she caught sight of Sean's body dangling from the tree branch. A bullet whizzed dangerously close past him, then another grazed his skin and left a long red welt. Another scream, and Charles shouted something that Holly couldn't hear over the sound of the gunshots.

Her hands held the shaking revolver. She fired once, twice, three times without much luck. The fourth shot found it's mark; Sean crashed to the ground in a heap of limbs and red hair, the remains of the rope swaying lightly in the wind.

Holly sprinted for Sean's body, not even daring to lift her eyes to the carnage she was sure lay before her. She cried out and threw herself onto the ground as a bullet ripped right above her back, feeling the way the wind ripped past her, a death she'd just barely avoided. Holly forced her eyes open, dug her feet into the ground, and practically crawled on all fours to where Sean lay. Someone—either one of Skelding's men or Mr. Morgan—shouted her name.

Sean was still passed out despite the fall. Holly hooked him from under the arms and pushed him against the tree. "Mr. MacGuire!?" she called. No response.

It took some effort, but Holly at last managed to get Sean around the backside of the tree. From her gun belt, she drew her hunting knife and began hacking away at the ropes on his wrist. A bullet skimmed the bark about a foot above their heads and showered them in splinters. Holly whimpered but refused to stop her work.

"Sean!?" she called to him. "Sean? Can you hear me?"

He mumbled something unintelligible as the ropes fell away from his hands. Holly began to slap his cheek lightly in an effort to rouse him, fighting back her rising panic, but he refused to respond.

"Sean, my name's Holly. I came with Arthur Morgan," another gunshot struck the tree dangerously close to her head. "Can you hold a gun?"

The only thing out of his mouth was an incoherent murmur. Another man let out a shriek before it was cut short. Sean's head lolled to one side and back.

In desperation, Holly took out her revolver and pressed it into Sean's hand, guiding his finger over the trigger. "Can you fire a gun? Sean, please," she pleaded. "If Ike Skelding or any of his men see us—"

And speak of the devil. As if God himself was determined to drain any last bit of safety she'd felt behind that thin little tree, around came Skelding, frantically retreating under the heavy fire of the van der Linde Gang. Holly, as defenseless and exposed as a turtle without a shell, could only sit there in dawning horror as he caught sight of her, his former prisoner at her side.

He certainly didn't look as though he was making out of this fight alive. His pristine clothes were now torn, ashy, and stained with red. A bullet had found his hip, making him limp. Fresh blood pooled into his left eye, another bullet having grazed his forehead and leaving a long welt that wouldn't stop gushing. His hat was gone, revealing hair matted with blood, a look in his eyes that only showed dismay until they fell upon her.

Holly knelt there next to a still-disoriented Sean, staring on in terror. Skelding's eyes darted back and forth between the pair of them, his face contorting. First in shock, then in rage.

"You!" he snarled. He cocked the shotgun in hand—a death knell if she'd ever heard one.

Bang.

The gunshot next to her ear sent Holly cowering, covering her head with her hands with a shriek. Skelding's head snapped back from the impact of a bullet going directly through his eye socket. Fresh blood splattered her skirts. Skelding toppled backwards, the unfired shotgun still clutched in his stiff grasp, and hit the ground. His legs flopped, and he lay there, stone dead.

Holly, ears ringing loudly, turned to see Sean drop his arm and let her revolver fall from his hand. His head fell back against the tree, wearing a smile so broad it practically split his face in half.

"Eat shite, fucker," were the late rites that Sean settled for, no strength behind his words. He closed his eyes, spat out a clot of blood, and laughed at nothing in particular.

The sound of footsteps registered to Holly, drawing closer and closer until they rounded the corner. Mr. Morgan, Javier and Charles right on his heels, came up to the pair of them, two smoking sidearms in hand. Upon catching sight of them, he holstered both of them and pulled Holly to her feet.

Mr. Morgan caught sight of the blood on her and grimaced. He hurriedly gave her a once-over. "You okay, kid?" he asked gruffly.

Holly swiped her fingers over her cheek, wincing inwardly when they came back bloody. Nevertheless, she nodded.

He pointed around his own face, looking unconvinced, "You've got—"

"It ain't mine," she insisted, finally finding the tiniest semblance of her voice.

Mr. Morgan's gaze drifted down to the corpse at Sean's feet, and understanding swiftly replaced his concern. Assured of her safety, he passed her off to Charles, who had a handkerchief already in hand. Holly started cleaning her face with a nod of thanks while Mr. Morgan unsheathed his hunting knife and started sawing at Sean's ankle bindings.

"Y'know," Sean said in a mischievous tone that overtook his previous weariness, "you're a lot less ugly from that other angle, Arthur."

The ropes fell away. Mr. Morgan sheathed his knife and extended a hand, which Sean accepted, "C'mon," he grunted, pulling the younger man to his feet mostly by himself. He looked Sean over once, brushed dirt off his shoulder, and would've headed straight back to the horses had Sean not caught him by the elbow.

He grinned—Holly wondered if Sean had gotten his front tooth knocked out at a much younger age or during Blackwater and all the problems that came with it—and extended his arms. "Don't I get a hug, Arthur?" he implored, faux-wounded. "A warm embrace for a lost brother, now found?"

To Holly's everlasting surprise, Mr. Morgan let out a genuine chuckle and placed a hand on Sean's shoulder. "Y'know, nothing means more to me than this gang. The bond we share? It's the most real thing to me. I would kill for it, I would happily die for it. But in spite of all that," he jabbed a finger into Sean's chest, "I woulda easily left ya here to rot if Charles hadn't stopped me."

Sean laughed, shaking his head, that dumb, broad smile still plastered on his face. "I don't believe a word'a that, Arthur!" he said sardonically.

"Get him outta here!"

"You're a great man, Arthur Morgan! The kind a young whippersnapper can really admire!"

"Ah, shut up," Mr. Morgan grumbled. His attention bounced from Sean to Holly to Charles and then back to Sean. "Right, we should split up. Javier, Holly, will ya two escort Mr. MacGuire back to camp? Charles, best ya ride separately."

They all whistled for their horses. "What about you?" Javier asked.

Mr. Morgan shrugged, "I'm gonna see what's worth takin' here. I'll meet ya back there as soon as I can."

And at that, they all went their ways. Javier and Holly helped Sean, still needing to be supported despite insisting he was just fine, clamber up on back of Boaz. Then, she went to mount Shining Star, patting her gently. "Good girl," she whispered, and Shining Star leaned her face into her hand.

"Be careful, there's patrols everywhere," Mr. Morgan warned.

Holly walked Shining Star up to Javier, who was adjusting his reins. Sean clung to the back of the saddle, his eyes still a bit unfocused but his spirits still high as heaven, "Have I got stories for you!"

"Yeah, can't wait," Javier said, sounding less interested by the minute.

"I imagined you all missed me a lot. But fear not—the joy's back in your lives now!"

Javier didn't respond. He only shot a knowing look to Holly, who smiled sympathetically but didn't offer him a response. They kicked their horses into a fast canter, her and Javier heading north, and Charles splitting off west with a wave farewell. Only Mr. Morgan lingered, his hands going through the pockets of the lifeless body of the great Ike Skelding.

-X-

The party started practically the moment that they arrived back in camp. Holly offered to tend to the horses while Javier escorted Sean back into camp. She did it in part out of habit, but mostly because she needed a moment of silence. Because Sean would not. Stop. Talking.

Once he had graced them with every single story of his two months' worth of imprisonment, he remembered that he'd never met Holly before and started rattling off tales of every single moment of his life, from birth until his run-in with the van der Linde Gang in North Elizabeth three years back. By the time they strolled back into Horseshoe Overlook, dusk was settling fully into darkness and Holly knew every tiny detail about Sean's life from County Clare to Chattanooga. If exasperated looks were money, then she and Javier would've each exchanged enough to buy the other a new horse. Maybe even two.

Holly brushed, fed, and watered Shining Star and Boaz as Sean's return party went underway. By the time she wandered back over to the fire, half the camp was drunk as skunks and the other half was well on their way to joining them. Mr. van der Linde, opera pouring from his gramophone, was alternating between dancing with Miss. O'Shea and taking pulls from John's bottle of bourbon. Micah was nursing something from a hip flask that got him a hollering mess faster than anyone. Lenny and Mr. Williamson had started off playing a drinking game but quickly stopped caring once they both got five beers in apiece. Kieran drank tentatively at first and was guzzling whiskey straight from the bottle by the end of the hour, egged on by Reverend Swanson and Uncle. Tilly and Mary-Beth had to sit down, supporting each other back to back, passing a bottle of gin between them. And of course, the man of honor, complete with new clothes and a freshening up courtesy of Miss. Grimshaw, was having what seemed to be the time of his life, an inebriated Karen on his lap at all times.

Charles rode back in an hour after Holly and Javier returned and promptly retired to bed after exchanging greetings. Mr. Morgan arrived thirty minutes after him, insisting that he wasn't too interested in drinking after the long couple of days they'd had; fifteen minutes later, he was locked in fierce competition with John to see who could chug an entire bottle of rum the fastest, Mr. van der Linde, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Matthews, Miss. Grimshaw, and Lenny cheering them on. Holly, feeling pleasantly light on her third beer, was more than happy to just watch from a distance.

As Mr. Morgan slammed down his empty handle amidst raucous applause, Holly found herself approached by an unexpected visitor, "Might I have a dance, love?"

Holly whipped around to find Sean standing behind her, extending a hand. "A dance?" she echoed, staring. "Wouldn't Karen wanna dance with you?"

Sean pointed over his shoulder. "Karen's a little preoccupied at the moment (Holly looked past Sean to see Karen curled up in—strangely enough—John's tent). And I know she wouldn't want me to be dancing all on my lonesome with nary a hand to hold. 'Sides, be a bit rude to get saved by a friendly face and not give her a dance in return."

It was certainly an offer to consider. Mr. van der Linde was playing one of his less boisterous opera records, so a soft piano filled the air, lulling and gentle. Mr. Matthews had pulled Miss. Grimshaw into a beautiful waltz, each moving as one with practiced grace. Mr. Morgan and Mary-Beth danced their own version some ways off, completely falling over each other with laughter as he tried to dip and spin her.

Maybe it was the pleasant atmosphere. Maybe she just wanted the company. Maybe it was the drinks. Holly accepted Sean's hand and let him drag her to her feet.

He set a hand on her waist, she placed a hand on his shoulder, and they began a relatively fast-paced dance that wasn't at all in tune to the music. Holly spun so fast she knew that it was only a matter of time before her beers came up, but Sean appeared to be just fine with his dancing skills.

"So, Holly Monroe. The newest blood," he said after a moment or two. "When'd you fall in with Ol' Dutch?"

"'Bout two months ago."

Sean laughed, "Is that so? Alright then, what's your sob story?"

Holly spared a second to wince as Sean treaded on one of her toes, "My sob story?"

"The outlaw life's not exactly for the faint'a heart, love," Sean said with a wink, "so what's your tale?"

"That's my business."

"It's dead parents, ain't it?"

Holly fell silent.

It took a moment, but Sean seemed to realize he'd overstepped his boundaries, "Sorry. It's just, well, it's not that uncommon when running with Dutch. Let's see…myself, Lenny, Javier, Charles, Bill, Tilly, Mary-Beth, and that's just to name a few. Even old Arthur lost his folks back in the day."

"S'pose I never bothered to pry about it," Holly said curtly.

Sean's blush spread right to his ears, and for once he seemed at a loss for words.

A minute of silent, uncomfortable dancing later, and Sean found his voice, "My da got killed when I was about your age. Us MacGuires, we're rebel stock. Couple'a cunts followed us 'cross the sea and…" he drew a finger across his throat and left it at that.

A stab of pity hit her chest. "I'm real sorry 'bout that," Holly murmured.

He pouted slightly. "It's fine. Really," he added, catching sight of Holly's troubled expression. "Happened, what, eight years ago? Am I gonna cry about it? Nah. I mean, it's not like I can do anythin' t'change the past. Know what I mean?"

They danced on. Sean managed to slow his lead down and they stepped more in tune to the music.

"You ever miss your folks?" she asked suddenly.

Sean cocked a brow at her, "Why're you asking?"

"Ain't curiosity good enough?"

From the corner of her eye, Holly saw Mr. Morgan try to awkwardly bow to Mary-Beth but stumble over his own feet. Likewise, Mary-Beth attempted to curtsy but yelped when her knees buckled. The pair of them then doubled over, howling, clumsiness tossed to the wayside.

"My da was a right-ol' bastard, but two of us made a pair of right ol' bastards," Sean smirked at his own joke, and Holly almost snickered. "Me and him, though? We had a good life. Between his skills and my charm, ain't not a pocket that was safe from the MacGuire boys."

Holly cocked her head, "But do you miss him?"

Sean thought on that for another moment. The music swelled. Someone, voice thick from alcohol, shouted at no one in particular to shut the dang thing off.

"Guess I do," he said after a moment. "But Dutch and Hosea and all the others? They're as much my family as my da ever was. It's how Dutch raised us. Taught me to shoot. To survive. Reckon they feel the same way about me."

"What makes you say?"

"Well, they came back for me, didn't they?"

Holly blinked and didn't respond, her mind wavering.

It was right around then when the song ended. Sean released her and bowed so comically low that his hair nearly brushed against the grass. Holly mimicked it with a curtsey so deep she fell flat on her behind. Sean helped her up with another laugh, and this time Holly laughed alongside him.

"It's a glorious life we live, Holly Monroe," Sean said, "and I can tell you, I wouldn't have it any other way."

And for the briefest of moments, Holly might've been inclined to agree with him.

The party ended. The booze ran dry. When they all went to bed that night, fleeting pictures of her parents and siblings drifted through her mind, keeping her awake, keeping her torn. Her father's head snapping back. Her mother's caress of her cheek. Bianca clinging to the closest things she now had to a mother. Luca laughing one moment and telling her to run for it the next. A life that was torn from Holly's hands by forces she couldn't stop, even now.

She was Holly Monroe, the outlaw.

To her, it was just a reminder of the things she could never get back.

Chapter Text

June seventh started off about as normal as could be. Holly roused herself at around four in the morning, earlier than even Mr. van der Linde and the others who usually rose before the sunrise. The camp was suspended in a sort of purgatorial state, with not a soul awake and not a sound to be heard. The beginnings of the day—baby pink light that made the trees turn inky black—leaked through the forests around Horseshoe Overlook, trying to gather the strength to rouse its residents.

Holly rose, silently made herself up, prepared and chugged a small cup of coffee to stave off her tiredness, snatched three apples from the chuck wagon, and lugged two bags of laundry over to Shining Star. Past the sleeping figures of the van der Linde Gang she went, dragging one bag, then returning for the other. She and her horse departed Horseshoe Overlook for Caliban's Seat barely fifteen minutes later. An exhausted-looking Lenny was posted on guard duty, not reacting when Holly waved a farewell at him.

The silence was almost as serene as the cool air on her face as Holly rode west, following the now familiar path under Valentine towards the Dakota River. It was an early Monday morning, and the rest of New Hanover seemed to be in a similar state to those she'd left at Horseshoe Overlook. No one passed her. No one called out to her. No birds sang and no deer bleated. The sounds of Shining Star's hooves clacking over dirt was her only reminder that time was still ticking onwards.

West of Caliban's Seat was a wide turn of the Dakota River. The water there ran speedily but shallow enough that Holly could wade through the current without getting unbalanced. She arrived there about an hour after she'd headed out, so that the pale pink streaks of light bled across the sky like wine through a white tablecloth. She dismounted, hitched Shining Star loosely, fed her an apple, and got a head start on her daily chores.

First, she spent her last remaining moments of privacy before the world woke up to quickly bathe herself. Holly redressed, her sopping hair hanging in clumps on her shoulders, and began to launder the rest of the van der Linde Gang's garments. She worked meticulously, using the same methods she used when she did the laundry at home. Socks were placed in pairs on flat rocks to dry. Union suits got to soak for longer, so Holly weighed them down with river rocks and let the current run through them. Holly scrubbed away at every little stain with the sponge Miss. Grimshaw purchased last week, fading away into her silent work. Her skirt hem tugged at her ankles, her boots abandoned on the shore, and Holly felt at peace with the cold water lapping under her toes.

She felt so at peace that Holly seized up the moment she felt the shotgun barrel press right between her shoulder blades.

"All your money," an unknown voice, grating and scratchy, hissed in her ear, "now."

Holly couldn't breathe, never mind think too properly. Her hand involuntarily drifted for her revolver.

The barrel of the gun pressed harder into her back. "Don't even think about it," the voice said, wavering slightly.

A prickle of doubt went off in Holly's mind. That wasn't the voice of a poised conman with notches on his belt. There was a definite strain in his voice that she'd heard when Mr. Morgan and Ms. Roberts playing with Jack—it was the voice playing a part. Someone that was trying lower their voice to appear intimidating and barely succeeding.

Slowly, she stood. The barrel of the shotgun never left her shoulders. Holly raised her hands in the air in surrender, her mind trying to come up with a plan. "I ain't got no money," she lied smoothly, "but I do got friends that'll sooner put you in a grave if you shoot me."

She was expecting the man behind her to retort, or make a threat, or even call her out on her lie. Holly certainly didn't expect the man to lower his gun, nor to stagger away from her like her words had struck him across the face.

And then, he spoke again. "Rina!?" he squeaked out.

Holly's heart leapt in her throat. She whirled around the face the man who'd threatened her, a man she knew all too well, "Luca!?"

The man before her was shaggier than her brother. A little more strangely dressed than her brother. A little more well-armed than her brother. But he was undoubtedly her brother. Luca Pozzi wore a duster that'd seen its fair share of hard life, a gray dress shirt and red waistcoat underneath. He removed a bandana from his face to show the shadow of a full beard, which barely hid a thin scar over his jawbone. Whereas her hair had only gotten shorter, his had only gotten longer; when he removed his gambler hat, stray clumps of hair fell onto his shoulders.

Luca threw down his rusty shotgun and swept her into an embrace before she could say anything else. Holly returned it in full, burying her head into her brother's shoulder. She squeezed her eyes shut as tears pricked the corners of her eyes.

And then they pulled away. Luca, a grateful smile growing over his features, quickly looked her over. He lingered over her face. "Your hair," he motioned inanely to his own hair. "Your nose…good God, Rina."

"Things've happened, Lu," she confessed, feeling a bit faint.

Nodding, her older brother ushered her out of the Dakota. "We gotta talk," he said with an urgency she didn't understand, picking up his shotgun. He pointed somewhere back to solid ground, "That your horse?"

Shining Star was exactly where Holly had tied her, but she now stood next to a piebald stallion (a Tennessee Walker? An Appaloosa? Holly's mind was far from working soundly). She snorted and turned her head away from the newcomer, but the stallion just blinked, unmoving, as a trained horse should.

"Yeah, that's my girl," Holly nodded as she started gathering up the soaking laundry and shoving them in bags.

Luca looked like he wanted to ask something but thought better of it. He grabbed the reins of both mounts, walking them back. "I'm campin' not too far from here," he said. "It's 'bout a twenty-minute ride. That good for you? I mean, I can—"

Holly shook her head, shoving Mrs. Adler's blouse into the bag and tying it tight, "No, no, that's fine. Just give me a sec."

She took one bag. Luca returned for the other. Together they loaded them onto Shining Star before mounting up, and then they were off. Holly cantered behind the brother she'd been sure five minutes ago was completely dead and gone.

The next several minutes were spent in a wordless trance. Holly stared ahead and simply followed the piebald stallion, feeling as though it was all she could do at that moment. A million emotions and thoughts were swelling and swirling in her mind and they all whirled around so fast that they all just seemed to cancel out, leaving her drawing a blank. Before she knew it, the siblings turned a corner and there they were. It wasn't really a sound place for a camp, if she was being honest with herself—Luca had led her directly to a town that looked as though it'd been built upon earth already scorched. It was nothing more than a couple of burnt shambles that only vaguely resembled homes and stores and anything else that could've been livable, hollowed shells of what used to be a thriving town. The only building that looked remotely intact was a church at the head of the tiny, broken town: either a sign of God or a sign of the Devil depending on who was asking. A faded sign, one end snapped off its post and half-sunken in the ground, read "Limpany" in peeling letters.

Luca led her around the back of what she could only guess was the town's saloon—she could see the ruined furniture through the windows, almost smell the sour scent of ruined liquor. Together, the pair dismounted, tied their horses up, and Holly followed Luca through the back door. The hinges squeaked and the floorboards groaned, like the building was welcoming its first visitor in years.

Her brother motioned her past the barroom to a set of stairs. Holly hooked her arm through Luca's as he helped her up to the second floor. Dust and soot spilled from every crack in the saloon, but at least it was private. Holly's heart felt somewhat at ease knowing that at least her brother had the sense to camp far, far away from prying eyes.

Over in the corner, on the portion of the second floor that hadn't yet fallen away, was Luca's camp. A firepit had been constructed, containing only ashes burned out from the previous night. Luca's bedroll lay out next to it, a collection of small tins and bags stacked at the end. Several bottles of alcohol that were so coated in ash that they could've only been scavenged from the ruins below lined the wall. But perhaps most curious, or possibly most unnerving, was the papers that were plastered across the wall. Holly took them in as she settled herself across from Luca's bedroll. They were composed of papers with horrifically-scrawled handwriting, several wanted posters, a couple of maps, and what even looked like a page ripped from a ledger.

Holly's eyes dropped down to Lucas to see that his were on her. For a minute, both siblings stared at each other. Both seeking answers, neither daring to speak first. She finally shattered the silence, unable to bear it anymore, "Luca," Holly shook her head slightly, "I—"

But just like that, she was silenced just as quickly by Luca's raised hand. "Hold that, Rina," he said, voice giddy, as he reached out for one of the tins next to his bedroll, "Before we say anythin', I got a surprise."

Brows furrowed, Holly's confusion evaporated immediately as Luca removed the lid of the tin and passed her something that she hadn't had since their mother died. "Pignoli?" he offered, grinning at her like the biggest halfwit on God's green Earth.

Oh God, she'd managed to keep her tears back and yet she was probably going to start crying over a danged cookie.

Holly took a pignoli and bit into it. They were getting stale, but their father never exactly could bring home fresh ones. She'd take this last little bit of home even if it was dust in her hands. "Where'd you get these?" she asked through a mouthful of crumbs and pine nuts.

"'Member that bakery in Saint Denis that Papá used to go to?" Luca told her biting into a pignoli of his own, "There're from there."

"Angelina's?"

"Yeah, that's the one."

Suddenly, the cookie didn't taste as sweet to her anymore. Holly gripped the folds of her skirt with her maimed hand, giving her brother a long, hard stare. "Lu," her voice barely rose above a whisper, "It's been nearly four months. Where you been?"

He wasn't smiling anymore. The beard and the scar and the clothes didn't help much, but the frown was certainly the most foreign thing about Luca she'd seen yet. "It ain't that simple a story, Rina."

"I went to Longshore," she said softly. "You never showed up."

"I know. I—well, they, uh," with a shake of his head, Luca abandoned words for pulling up his shirt and waistcoat. Holly recoiled; three quarter-sized scars, one on his hip, another in his shoulder, and a final one on his opposite collarbone, showed angry and red in his skin. She could still see where the stitching had held the skin together.

Luca wasn't meeting her horrified expression, "They got me good, Rina," he said flatly. "Shot me up and left me to die. Crawled outta the house as it burned. Woulda died if Mr. Jacobson hadn't showed up." She remembered Walter Jacobson. A customer of their fathers, and their closest neighbor. Holly assumed that gunshots could carry a half a mile, surely. "Practically dragged a corpse to a doctor, but they stitched me up and left me in the hands'a God."

A horrible thought came to her. "Papá and the girls. They…?"

"Mr. Jacobson and his two boys buried 'em out back with Mamà. They're restin', Rina. No one's gonna hurt 'em anymore."

Holly released the air she'd been holding, a hand on her heart, trying to hide how it'd come out like a sob instead. Luca just stared at her with those big, sad eyes. Brown eyes that could bury you. A far cry from their mother, not that Holly at all blamed him for it.

"And then what?" Holly dared to ask.

Luca blanched. His hand went, ever so slightly, for the shotgun. "Mr. Jacobson and his family, they let me stay at their place 'til I got all fixed up, and then I could figure out what I was doin' from there. I tried to go to Longshore, Rina, I really did, but the doc woulda shot me a fourth time if I opened my stitches. Hadn't heard heads or tails about you," his lip quivered. "And then…God."

"What, Lu?"

"God, they found me again."

Her heart dropped somewhere between her knees.

"They found out where I was stayin' and they told the Jacobson's that they had to give up the dago before they slaughtered 'em all. Mr. Jacobson, he was a right fool but he was no coward. Said there was no way in Hell that I was goin' with them. And…and, oh God, Rina, they shot 'em all right there. I was watchin' from the window and they just shot 'em like lame cattle. Took their horse and I just bolted. Ran for it all the way down to Saint Denis and I just didn't stop until the nag ran herself into the grave and I walked from Nwa onwards."

Holly watched as Luca, hands shaking, tried reaching for one of the bottles but failed. He took a hard breath, and at last met her eyes. "Stayed in Saint Denis for a month or two. Tried workin' at a priory and a butcher shop but I couldn't make ends meet, so I resorted to stealin' on the side. At that point, I thought it was just me and me alone. Asked up and down for you, Rina, but no one could tell me nothin'. And then I got into some trouble with the law and I just ran for it again. Stole a horse from the stable—that's Buckley down there—and decided that I'd ride west and see what I'd find. And I've been makin' camps ever since," Luca grimaced, "but it ain't been all bad. I mean, I'm still myself, at least."

You just pointed a shotgun at my back and told me you'd shoot me for all my worth.

Even Holly was shaken at the hostility her own thoughts.

"Got wanted posters all over Lemoyne for horse theft and larceny, but it ain't too bad. And I ain't dead, neither. And you're here! We're both fine!" Luca's smile faltered. "Which reminds me. What're you doin' here? I guess you got to Longshore, but what've you been doin' all these months?"

And here was the question. Could she lie to her own brother? Would he be horrified at her choices? Proud? Dismayed? Would he demand that she left the van der Linde Gang and ride with him? Holly twisted her fingers and weighed her choices silently, staring at the ashes in the firepit.

But she looked up, and it only cost her one glance to know that her older brother was the one person she could never, ever lie to.

"I ran into the men who…well, they had the sheriff in their pocket, so I stole his gun and ran for it. Then I spent the next month and a half headin' west until…" Holly trailed off, then soldiered on, "…until I got picked up by a gang of outlaws."

Luca just stared at her.

"They took pity on me and invited me in. Guess they thought I'd be useful to 'em, so they got me doin' their chores and such. Sometimes they take me out robbin'. But I've been livin' with 'em ever since. They're good to me, even if they ain't necessarily good people."

The look Luca gave her was cutting. "You're actually an outlaw," he said, sounding crossed between disapproving and awestruck, "and you like bein' an outlaw?"

Holly didn't say anything.

"You ever had to shoot someone?" he enquired.

"Have you?"

Now it was Luca's turn not to answer.

"They don't really know, well, me," Holly confessed. "They think I'm a girl named Holly Monroe. Ain't all bad. Least I'm safe."

"'Holly Monroe' has gotta be the stupidest made-up name I've ever heard of."

"Trust me, I know. I thought the men who killed Papá were after me; it just sorta stuck, I s'pose, and I don't see much of a need to correct 'em."

Just like that, Luca's expression changed. Something dark passed over his features and lingered there, ugly and cross. In a single second he got up, wincing at his old wounds, and motioned her to follow. Holly rose and made to stand beside him as Luca gestured to the collection of papers he'd set up on the wall. The more Holly stared at it, the less sense she could make of it.

"Those men who killed Papá," Luca lingered over his words, his tone undecipherable, "you know much about 'em?"

"No."

"They call themselves the Winslow Gang. Run by this man here," Luca tapped a wanted poster directly in the center of his arranged chaos. "Goes by Logan Winslow. Been runnin' wild with his men for three odd years."

Holly stared at the face before her, her throat dry. Light, unkempt hair that fell past the shoulders. Eyes so pale the artist drawing the poster hadn't even bothered to fill in the irises. A permanent sneer etched onto paper. If the paper could speak, she swore she could hear his low, threatening baritone, deep enough to cut bone with a single sentence.

"I met him," she whispered. "In Longshore. He and the sheriff were workin' together. Lookin' for us, I think."

Luca pointed over to a map of what Holly soon recognized as Lemoyne. Someone had starred various locations, about twenty-four or twenty-five of them in total, with a black fountain pen. Several were outside of Saint Denis, while others were as far west as Rhodes and the surrounding towns. Holly, however, only had eyes for the small star that marked where her family's homestead had once stood.

"Logan Winslow and his gang of bastards have been runnin' around and killin' Italian families for the last several years," her brother spoke in her silence, an uncharacteristic venom dripping from his tongue. "Sharecroppers, grocers, peddlers, you name it. Usually families. Always Italians. Kills 'em and burns the houses before lookin' for his next targets."

Startled, Holly blinked in confusion before turning to looker at Luca, "Italians? And just Italians?" she hardly believed the words coming out of her mouth, "So that night, it wasn't because of a debt or because of a crime or any other reason. It was just—"

"Random violence," Luca finished for her. "Random violence against Italians for the sake of random violence."

Holly glanced back at the wanted poster, straining to read the words. "Wanted: Logan Winslow. Wanted in relation for ten counts of murder in the first degree and five counts of arson. Leader of the Winslow Gang. Extremely dangerous. $200 if returned dead; $400 if returned alive."

"They made one mistake, though, Rina," Luca said gravely.

"What?"

"They couldn't find me. Well, they couldn't find us, really."

Holly only shook her head, not understanding, so Luca continued. "These men're thorough. Don't leave survivors. Probably woulda chased me to the ends of the Earth if they could. We've headed far enough west to stay outta their way, but eventually, we gotta go back. Don't you get it? The law don't care—law's either corrupted or in Winslow's pockets."

"So, what're you suggestin' you do 'bout it?" Holly asked.

"We gotta go back to Lemoyne, Rina. Draw 'em out. Kill 'em all. Simple as that."

"We?"

Luca turned her around and gripped her shoulders. "Rina, they killed our family! They burned our home! They ain't gonna stop til we're six feet under with the rest of 'em. This is personal—us or them! Of course it's gotta be us."

It was all she could do to shake her head and step away. Holly wrung her fingers, fighting down her dismay at her brother's suggestion. "Luca, all this talk of revenge…I just don't think it can happen. You're just a person against…against these killers! You gotta horse and a shotgun and you think that's enough!?"

"It'll be enough," Luca promised, "if you come with me."

"I can't shoot real well."

"I can teach you how to shoot better. It's easy."

"Luca, I don't like this. I can't live like this."

"Rina, don't you want this? We got our family ripped away and what? We're supposed to lay down and let it all blow over? Revenge might be a lost cause, sure, but this ain't revenge. This is justice."

Justice. The word was like a lightning strike, white-hot down Holly's spine. She looked down, then at the map. Different names had been underlined, a number next to each of them. Natolli—six. Pescatore—five. Anzalona—three. Serafino—five. Pozzi—seven.

She tore her eyes away. "Justice?" she murmured.

"I mean, sure," Luca said with a shrug. "I mean Rina, really. Is any of this just?" he gestured to the papers on the wall. "Is it just to kill families and tear apart siblings? Of course it ain't. We can start by bringin' Winslow and his men to justice ourselves, because let's face it. No one else is gonna do it."

No, no one else probably would do it. The revelation was both a feverish jolt of horror and a hardening rush of burden, and Holly found herself sandwiched between, for the first time ever, her own common sense and something that she coveted all for herself.

"I want to help, I really do," she finally said, her gaze returning to her brother, "but what you're suggestin' of me just can't happen, Lu."

Her brother looked at her like she'd just hurled an insult at him. "Why not?" he demanded, clearly trying to hide his hurt.

"I'm a part of this gang now. They're decent folk—I guess for outlaws, I s'pose. I told them I'd stay and I can't just leave 'em behind and start runnin' after Logan Winslow. I don't know if I even want to go after Logan Winslow."

"Not even for justice's sake?"

"Justice can't fire my gun for me, Luca. Forget shootin'; I can barely ride a horse."

"I can—"

"I know, Lu. But I can't. Not yet. I…so much has happened, and it's all happened so quickly. I gotta think about this."

Luca looked as though he was ready to argue but caught sight of her face and rethought his decision. He scratched at the back of her neck, staring at the wall of posters, before tugging down the bounty poster of Logan Winslow and holding it out to her.

"At least take this," he told her.

"Luca."

"Rina, just take it. There's hundreds of 'em," he thrust it into her hands, "I need you to take it and promise me that if you want to do this, you'll find me, because I can't take on Winslow without you."

She gripped the paper tightly, "Lu, I—"

He cut across her, unblinking brown eyes so intense she could feel them burning straight into her soul. "Mi prometti, Rina?"

That was what broke her. At long last, she nodded once. "Io prometto," she whispered.

Luca finally blinked and released her from his gaze. Holly tucked the bounty poster into her satchel, wondering what kind of burden she'd just taken up. Her brother, meanwhile, had retrieved the tin of pignolis and placed it in her hands as well. "Take these too," he said with a grin, "'cause I don't think you're headin' back out to Saint Denis in the near future."

Holly just shrugged distractedly.

"You stayin' somewhere close here? Valentine?"

That jogged her out of her trance. "South of Valentine. Horseshoe Overlook," she said. "But I don't think it'd be smart to go there and say you're my brother and all."

"Wasn't goin' to. I learned some letters at the priory," there was a hint of pride in his voice, "Thought if I needed to get in touch with you, I'd write. I'll use a pseudonym—no names necessary. Gotta be someone in that camp that can read it to you, at least."

Holly nodded again, "Sure, sure. Just post it at the train station for Lucille Sullivan. I'll check in."

And with that, Holly excused herself, saying that she'd spent too much time away from camp and that the others were going to be wondering where she was. Luca, while not exactly looking none too happy to say good-bye her, did so without complaint. The tin of pignolis went into Holly's saddlebag. With her brother's help she mounted Shining Star, wishing him farewell. She promised that she'd visit if she was in the area again: a promise that felt about as empty as one of Luca's charred alcohol bottles.

Before she left, her brother took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "If those folks in that gang bring you trouble, I want you to come find me," he said. "I don't know how well I can take care of you—truthfully, it'll probably be you takin' care of me—but I'll try and look after you. Mi prometti?"

"Io prometto," she said. Another promise made, another she wasn't sure if she could keep. The two siblings bid each other farewell as the sun climbed over the hills, and Holly departed Limpany for home, her mind split in two directions.

She thought and thought on the way back east. The wanted poster remained at the bottom of her satchel; if Holly was a wise woman, she'd toss it straight into the mud and leave it in her dust. Something made her keep it, however, yet she didn't know if she had the courage to fully examine what exactly that something was. Instead, she ate two pignolis to keep her confictions at bay (Luca had given her seven in total—they bounced loosely around the tin whenever Shining Star took her over a dip or rise).

Holly was so preoccupied that she didn't realize she'd reached Horseshoe Overlook until Charles greeted her for a third time. He was running a brush down Taima's back, his black coat slack over his broad shoulders. Holly bid him a good morning, dismounted, and fed Shining Star another apple, her head running rampant with unanswered questions.

"Charles?" Holly spoke up suddenly, "May I ask you somethin'?"

He turned to her. "What's on your mind?" he asked.

"You 'member that time you and Mr. Morgan went and found those bison poachers a couple of weeks ago? You shot one of 'em?"

He shrugged, "Sure."

Holly worked her boot heel in the dirt, avoiding his gaze. "Was it worth it?" she asked softly.

Charles began to walk past her, motioning her to follow. They went a few paces outside of camp, away from prying ears, so they were allowed to speak more freely. Eying her up and down, Charles gave her a concerned look, "Why're you asking?"

"I just…" Holly ran out of words to say, so she paused and started again, "Mr. van der Linde always says that—"

"'Revenge is a fool's game'. Yeah, I know."

"So why'd you do it then? Why'd you shoot him if it weren't worth it, or you could've gotten hurt, or anythin' else?"

Charles drew a deep, steady breath, his head turning to the side, staring right through the trees and off into the distance. Holly waited with her hands clasped as Charles gathered his answer.

When he finally spoke, his voice was subdued. He raked a hand through his hair, "My people consider bison to be sacred. My mother's tribe used them for their homes, their food, basically their entire livelihoods. When I saw what those poachers had done, I guess I knew that if I didn't do something, then no one else would."

Holly nodded, sympathetic. "But killin' him?"

"Sometimes it's the only way to send a message. Sometimes peace doesn't cut it anymore."

Holly waited for Charles to elaborate but he never did. Ever the stoic, he just stood there, reflecting on his own words. He was surprisingly easy company, Holly realized. Unapproachable from time to time, but he had a good ear and he didn't ask nosey questions. God, I shoulda come to him a long time ago.

"Do you ever think life's…" Holly lingered over the word, "…unfair?"

"I think we both know it is," Charles said matter-of-factly.

"We can't ever make it fair, can we?"

Charles gave her a long, hard stare, but his expression softened somewhat. He placed a hand on her shoulder. "We should always try to be just, even when the world tells us that it's pointless," he said. "Things have a way of working themselves out, but it's always better to take matters into your own hands if you can."

"Like justice?" she asked, half to herself.

"If you want to call it that, then yes," Charles told her with a nod. "The best kinds of people know when justice is needed and enact it fittingly."

"Are we just?"

"We're complicated. Some of us understand the value of justice. Dutch, Hosea, even Arthur from time to time. But I think we can always choose to be just, if that's what we want."

Holly said nothing. Charles, sensing there was nothing left to say, just pat her on the shoulder again, offered some parting words, and wandered back into camp. She stood there for a little while and tried to weather the storm in her mind before making to follow. Chores floated by during the rest of the day, but her attention was somewhere else—somewhere far away.

Holly had said when she first joined up with the van der Linde Gang that she didn't know what she wanted to do. Suppose in a lot of ways, she still didn't know what she wanted to do. Trying to survive had turned into trying to get by, which had then turned into trying to pull weight, and even that had transformed into trying to thrive in a lawless land that seemed like it didn't have much a place for her anymore except on the backside of a horse and down the barrel of a gun. Could the ideas of lawless and justice intersect? What would that make her brother, who'd fallen down a similar anarchic path she had? What would that make her?

She simmered in her jumbled thoughts for the rest of the day. Yet the more Holly stewed, the more Holly was able to sort through her jumbled emotions. Despair? Sure. Fear? Typical. But there was also anger: a whole unexpected heap of anger. Anger that made her stitching crooked in the patch on Mr. Matthews' shirt and made her brush off Jack when he asked to play with her. Anger that sputtered and boiled and made her hands grow hot just thinking about those ice-blue eyes and that baritone voice.

Holly wasn't sure if she liked that anger, nor was she sure if she liked the concept of hopeless revenge. But justice? Yeah, maybe justice was something she could get behind.

Chapter Text

Over the course of the following days, Holly didn't get much of a chance to process her early morning encounter with her brother. Things in Horseshoe Overlook dragged on as they always did, and she'd be mistaken to get dragged down by her own ever-growing lies and secrets. Miss. Grimshaw was certainly never without tasks to be taken care of, and the others had yet to run out of stories to tell and poor souls to rob. She'd be the world's biggest fool to let herself fall behind without a reason.

She checked Valentine's post office every day when she was done with her tasks and she had a moment to spare in the evening. Nothing had been posted yet, and Holly had half a mind to bite a bullet and just write something out to Luca in crooked handwriting and post it herself. But Holly wasn't resorting to that yet; she hadn't come up with a viable excuse yet as to who she could be writing a letter to. A paramour? A family member? A forgotten friend? The less questions she raised, the better she'd be. Holly didn't much mind waiting.

After all, there were a few more valuable things that she could be doing with her time.

"Alright, let's go again."

It was just after noon. Holly, Mary-Beth, Tilly, and Karen had taken a break for lunch and it was beyond clear that none of them wanted to return to their chores on such a beautiful day. Instead, Holly took turns with the others to practice pickpocketing at the edge of camp. Borrowing one of Mr. Williamson's dusters, they took turns hiding various knickknacks inside the seemingly endless number of pockets and showing Holly the best ways to lift watches and steal bills.

It was her turn again now, this time facing off against Tilly. Mr. Williamson's jacket dragged on the ground as it dwarfed her small figure. Mary-Beth and Karen sat between the pair of them to watch and judge. Holly curled her fingers in and out of fists, tasting her own anticipation.

"Remember, look natural," Karen said. "Holly, you look like you got a rat crawlin' around in your bloomers. Stop hunchin' and straighten up."

Blushing, Holly adjusted herself, eyes on Tilly as she held up a five-dollar bill. She folded it up and spent several seconds shoving her hands in as many pockets as she could. When she opened her hands, the bill was gone, and a sly smile was growing across her features.

"All ready?" Mary-Beth called out to the pair. They both nodded, "Alright, then start."

Holly moved forward and Tilly went to meet her in the middle. She kept her eyes fixed on her challenger, but Tilly wasn't doing much in terms of giving up where she'd hid the dollar bill. She was good at this, probably the best out of every single van der Linde gang member, never revealing anything in a twitch of her eye or a twinge of her lips.

Thinking rapidly as they approached each other, Holly lowered her shoulder and attempted to brush past Tilly. But her attempt was quite hard; what was supposed to be a light shove at most had practically become a charge, and Holly could only watch on as Tilly was sent sprawling. Karen gasped behind them.

Immediately, Holly went to help her. "Oh my goodness, I am so sorry!" she exclaimed, "I just went by too hard and I—"

"It's fine, it's all fine," Tilly assured her. Holly extended a hand and she accepted, getting pulled to her feet. "Geez, Holly, you really know how to bowl a girl over."

Holly brushed the duster off, still stuttering out her apology, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to."

"It's fine!"

Karen and Mary-Beth were at their sides now. "You okay, Tilly?" Mary-Beth asked. At Tilly's nod, she sighed, relieved, "Well, suppose we should start again. Give it another go."

"You sure about that?" with a smirk, Holly held up the five-dollar bill. "I thought I did alright for myself."

All three girls didn't react instantly, staring dumbstruck at the bill. Tilly took a moment to check her pockets and patted down the one she'd hid the bill in. And then, all three women broke into wide smiles. Karen whooped. Mary-Beth took her hands and congratulated her. Tilly patted her on the shoulder, laughing the whole way. Holly broke into a toothy, bashful smile of her own. "You fuckin' little sneak," Karen praised teasingly.

Sparing a moment to bask in the praise, Holly turned back to Tilly. "I really am sorry for bowlin' you over," she told her, "Didn't mean to do it so hard. It just sorta happened."

"Hey, look. If there's one thing I know, is that if it gets the job done, then it gets the job done," Mary-Beth dismissed her apology with a wave of her hand. Tilly and Karen nodded in agreement, "Be hard to stagger a man like Bill or Arthur, but I for one would love to see you try. We can use those shoulders of steel right here."

"What's going on?"

All four women turned. Miss. Grimshaw, bowl of lunch stew in hand, was marching over to their little group with a tone so reproachful it could make mountains cower. Immediately, Holly, Tilly, Karen, and Mary-Beth broke apart. Tilly shrugged Mr. Williamson's duster off her shoulders and threw it over her arm.

"Just practicing pickpocketing, Miss. Grimshaw," Tilly spoke on behalf of all of them. "Holly's really coming along. We might just take her along next time we all head into Valentine, if you let us."

Holly bowed her head, hid a grateful smile, and busied herself by brushing hair out of her face.

"Maybe someday, Miss. Gaskill, but not today," Miss. Grimshaw said pointedly. "We got plenty of things to get done by the time night sets in and pickpocket practice don't do nothin' to move them along. Miss. Jackson, go bring that duster to the laundry pile and take Ms. Roberts with you to do the wash. Miss. Jones, go help out Mr. Pearson with the cooking—I think Mr. Smith and Mr. Morgan just brought in some fresh meat. Miss. Monroe, go feed the horses. And Miss. Gaskill, we got dishes that need to get scrubbed." She clapped her hands, making all four of them jump, "Now get to it!"

She stalked off. Holly bid the rest of them farewell and made for where they kept the hay. It was an idyllic day at camp, Swanson was spinning a tale with Charles, Micah, and Herr Strauss enjoying lunch at his side. Uncle sat down in his lean-to, grumbling to himself as he tuned his banjo. Kieran and Javier were playing five-finger filet, but Holly didn't even need to look at Kieran's face to know that he wasn't enjoying it in the slightest.

Holly wove past Sean, fresh off of guard duty and complaining about it the entire way, and rounded the corner around the chuck wagon. Mrs. Adler was reading something, Jack sitting next to her. For a moment, Holly could've sworn that she was smiling at the kid with a fondness that seemed alien to her. Holly bid the pair of them good afternoon; Jack waved at her, beaming, but Mrs. Adler did not. Mr. Morgan was enjoying a cigarette a little ways away, leaning against a tree.

Mr. Pearson had set out two bales of hay, tied and at the ready for someone to pick them up. Holly lifted the first one up with ease, then made to grab the second.

"You ain't gonna be able to lift that, kid," Mr. Morgan called to her around his cigarette.

Holly, the second bale already in her maimed hand, looked on incredulously. "I can carry it just fine!" she retorted.

"You're gonna drop it."

"I ain't gonna drop it."

Mr. Morgan snorted in a way that plainly said, 'suit yourself' and took another drag on his cigarette. Rolling her eyes, Holly hoisted the second hay bale over her shoulder, trying her darnedest to tuck the other under her arm. The twine used to tie it altogether was slipping from her left hand because her fingers couldn't get a firm grip.

She knew Mr. Morgan was watching her struggle. Probably getting some real amusement from watching her hop around, now trying to use her knee to shove the hay bale under her right armpit. Even Mrs. Adler had forgotten about her book and was now staring at her openly as Holly struggled with the hay bales. Finally, her three fingers failed her. The hay bale tumbled from her hand, bouncing onto the earth.

Mr. Morgan, in the meantime, had wandered over. He threw the butt of his cigarette into the dirt and stamped it out, "Do ya want help, Miss. Monroe?"

Holly would've given anything in the world to be able to swallow and choke on her own tongue. "Fine," she managed to grit out, cheeks burning with indignation.

"How 'bout, 'Why sure, Arthur, I'd love for ya t'help me drag some hay over to the horses for Miss. Grimshaw. The horses need to be fed, after all.'"

"I'd appreciate the help, Mr. Morgan. And that's as good as you're gettin'."

Mr. Morgan let out a single chuckle, picking up the hay bale she'd dropped. Holly gripped the remaining one with both hands and fell next to him as he led her to the stables.

"You try too hard, kid," Mr. Morgan said.

Holly nearly laughed, but caught herself, "I think I try just fine enough, Mr. Morgan."

Something passed over his face—an emotion that Holly couldn't place. "You're a kid," he said it like she wasn't aware of it, "Go and do, uh…God, I don't know. Kid things."

"Like robbin' stagecoaches and organizin' darin' rescues?"

"Sure, somethin' like that."

Holly readjusted her grip on the hay bale. "Actually, the girls and I were practicin' pickpocketin' a little while ago," she couldn't help the way her words became thick with pride. "They think I'm ready to start headin' out to town, pullin' some scores of my own."

"That's good," Mr. Morgan nodded. "You could stand to get outta camp a little more."

They'd wandered into the stables. "What's that supposed to mean?" Holly implored.

"I mean, the West's too big for ya to just stay stuck in camp all day, and ya still ride a horse like you're 'fraid she's gonna trample ya in your sleep. Betcha even Jack could ride better than ya."

Holly scoffed, not really angry, "The first time I ever rode a hors—"

Her retort died on her tongue when Mr. Morgan suddenly held out a hand, catching her in the chest and stopping her in her tracks. She looked at him, confused, and then followed his gaze to the woods beyond camp. It took several seconds of staring before she eventually found what had startled him; there, hidden in the foliage that grew in an untamed ring around camp, was the small frame of a man who wasn't a gang member. Holly cocked her head, now staring herself, as the man tried to crane his neck over the leaves and failed. He ducked under, scanning the small sliver of Horseshoe Overlook that he could see through the undergrowth. Holly got the sense that he had no idea that she and Mr. Morgan could see him.

"Put the hay down," Mr. Morgan's voice, quiet and intense, sounded in her ear.

Holly put the hay bale down.

"Listen to me, kid," he said lowly, like a growl. "Turn around—not fast, keep it slow—and head back into camp. Don't start hollerin' and spook everyone: last thing we need's a riot. Go to Dutch's tent and get him and Hosea. Tell him that we got company. He'll know what it means. Go now."

Holly swallowed, "But Mr. Mor—"

"Now, Holly."

Holly spun on heel. Heart hammering and fists clenched, she forced herself to look as casual as possible while she went back into camp. She kept her pace slow, fighting down the primal urge to sprint for Mr. van der Linde's tent and start hollering for some help.

She marched past Lenny and Javier, ignoring their looks of concern, and stepped into the shade of Mr. van der Linde's tent. He was there, as was Mr. Matthews, both of them locked in a discussion concerning a map. Miss. O'Shea sat on the end of Dutch's bed, fanning herself, not looking the least bit interested in what the other men were saying.

Mr. Matthews looked up as she entered, and concern washed over his features. "What's wrong?" he demanded.

"Mr. Morgan says we got company at the edge of camp."

Immediately, the atmosphere in the tent changed. Mr. van der Linde looked up, expression suddenly alarmed. Miss. O'Shea snapped her fan shut, standing up, dawning horror slowly working its way through her makeup.

Mr. Matthews, looking equally perturbed, set the map down. "I'll round everyone up."

"I'll find Arthur," Mr. van der Linde turned to Holly, "Where's Arthur, Miss. Monroe?"

She pointed back the way she'd come. "Over there, by the stables," her words were breathy, caught up in the other's dread, "He told me to fetch you."

Mr. van der Linde ran out for the stables. Mr. Matthews was escorting Miss. O'Shea out the other way. Holly stood alone, not knowing what she should do next. She glanced both ways. Her smarts told her to follow Mr. Matthews, her gut told her to follow Mr. van der Linde.

She turned and sprinted back the way she'd come, hiking her skirts up.

All around her, van der Linde gang members were moving in the opposite direction, heading deeper into camp. She brushed past Jack, followed closely by Ms. Roberts and Mrs. Adler. Mrs. Adler shot her a quizzical look but neither stopped her nor questioned her, and she fell back into the throng of people. Holly managed to reach Shining Star and hid herself around her side, peering over the mare's back.

Mr. Morgan greeted Mr. van der Linde with a silent nod. Moving so seamlessly they could've been working through the same brain, they each pointed to the woods, drew their revolvers, and slowly began their approach.

Holly's heart began to race. Whatever this was, this had happened before. They clearly had some sort of advanced protocol for a stranger spying on camp. Holly wondered who he was, and her mind dashed back and forth between several different options. Lawmen, O'Driscoll, maybe some poor soul that'd strayed too far from the road in search of game.

What if it's Logan Winslow.

Holly shook her head. It wasn't Logan Winslow. It couldn't be Logan Winslow. Stop thinking like that.

But what if it is?

Her hand brushed against something cold against Shining Star's flank. Holly tore her eyes away from the scene unfolding before her; there, sitting unused in its holster since she'd taken Shining Star as her own, was the silver rifle.

-X-

Dutch jogged up to Arthur with purpose in his step and apprehension in his eyes. Behind him, all throughout camp, all the gang members were scurrying into the back of camp. Jack'd hopefully be hidden away safely, and Holly with him. This wasn't anything that hadn't happened before, but it was Hosea who'd always said that more precaution was far better than throwing it to the wind. After the scare they had outside of Tulsa five years ago with the Paradise Rider gangers, Arthur didn't see much a reason to argue with him about it.

Wordlessly, Dutch drew his Schofield and Arthur followed his example. It was a damned miracle that the spy hadn't fled the moment that he'd seen the commotion unfold in camp—took someone either real bull-headed or real fucking stupid to think it had nothing to do with them. Arthur might've even admired the man's misplaced tenacity had the situation been taken care of already. Easier to admire the courage of dead men than the foolishness of living ones.

Arthur let Dutch take the lead as he pushed through the ferns. The spy had retreated back into the foliage, sure, but it wasn't in a rushed or terrified manner, which meant that he probably was on foot or was returning for his horse.

"I swear, Arthur, whoever was on guard duty's going to get my boot so far up his ass he's going to be tasting my shoe polish for a week," Dutch muttered, moving a branch out of the way for the two of them.

Arthur shot a quick prayer up that it was Micah but didn't grace Dutch with his thoughts.

The pair of them rounded a tree and came face to face with their snoop. He was a beanpole of a man, not too young but not too old either. He sat atop a blood bay thoroughbred, jotting something in a journal as he muttered something to himself. A beard that seemed too old for his face was growing in. His shabby clothes and thick stench were all the signs Arthur needed to tell him that he wasn't much a fellow too tied to civilization. Which meant he was a bounty hunter. Or worse.

The spy was so engrossed in his writing that he only looked up when Dutch cocked his Schofield. His eyes fell to the barrel, then to Dutch, and Arthur found amusement in the way his eyes grew large. He snapped his notebook shut and might've muttered something on his behalf had Dutch not cut over him.

"Enjoying the views, son?" Dutch asked cordially, as he always did. "See something that interests you?"

The stranger's eyes flicked to Arthur. He still didn't speak.

"You recognize us, boy?" Arthur chimed in. "See somethin' ya don't like? Or'd ya swallow your tongue just now?"

That seemed to spook him into a response. His eyes darted back to Dutch. "You're Dutch van der Linde," he said, "and you're Arthur Morgan."

Dutch chuckled, "Now did you hear that, Arthur? We really do got a sharp eye in our midst."

"Sure seems so, Dutch," Arthur said. The man on the saddle looked ready to start emptying his stomach. The blood bay, sensing its rider's fear, was kneading the ground with its hooves.

"You got a name, son?" Dutch enquired.

"…Finley."

"A pleasure. Now, Mr. Finley, just who're you working for?"

Finley didn't answer. His wide eyes were flicking this way, that way, trying to plot some sort of escape. Arthur simply raised his cattleman. "We can do this the easy way, or I can just put a bullet in ya an' call it a day," Arthur offered.

"Wait, wait!" Finley shouted desperately, his hands shooting into the air. Fear made his voice shoot up several octaves, "It's Colm, alright!? I work for Colm O'Driscoll! There, I told ya."

Arthur refused to lower his gun. He could practically smell the sweat pouring down Finley's face, his eyes firmly trained on Arthur's gun.

Dutch, meanwhile, had lowered his Schofield. "So, Colm's sending scouts out now, is he?" he mused, his voice holding back a storm. "I always knew Colm as a coward, but even he's never stooped to scouting out camps. Always preferred to play cat and mouse. Would you agree, Mr. Finley?"

Finley chewed his bottom lip, and then he spoke. His tone was even in spite of the definite tremor in his words. "I know you, Mr. van der Linde, Mr. Morgan. You ain't gonna let me go, even if I paid you both all I had on my person. I ain't a sucker and I refuse to die a sucker—"

"You ain't gonna have much a say in that matter," Arthur interjected.

Finley's fists curled around the reins of his blood bay, "This here horse's my pride and joy. He can outrun the North Wind if he set his mind to it. Reckon he can outrun you lot no trouble."

Another laugh from Dutch. "You must gotta lot of confidence in the idea that a horse can outrun bullets," he said. "Because I can assure you—Arthur won't miss. And neither will I."

"You sure about that?" the tremble had left his voice. Finley was gathering confidence. "Let's say your guard dog," he nodded to Arthur, "up and misses me. I'll be gone in the hills before your folks can saddle up. And tell me, Mr. van der Linde; how long will it take for ya to pack this place up? Got a lot of wagons, lot of supplies, lot of women," Arthur flared his nostrils as he released the air from his lungs. "I guarantee that you'll still be here by the time Colm brings Hell down upon ya. But I'm willing to play my hand. Are you?"

Now it was Dutch's turn to hold his tongue. He held Finley's eyes for another few seconds before he holstered his pistol. With some trepidation, Arthur followed his lead. His hands never left his cattleman, just in case, but something upsetting coiled down in his stomach.

"Now, let's say there's a small chance—small, but possible—that ya can buy my silence, Mr. van der Linde," Finley said. "What would it cost for ya to let a poor feller be on his way and forget this ever happened? And I must warn ya, Dutch; my price will be quite high."

-X-

Holly, in search of a vantage point, had clambered up on top of the scout table in order to get a better view. The rifle was heavy over her hands in the way that the Robinsons' jewels were not: weighed down with all the wrath that could be brought down if she fired it. She held it with both hands but didn't curl a finger over the trigger. It seemed loaded but she wasn't quite positive if it really was. Holly held the scope to her eye, looking for the cause of the camp's retreat.

Mr. van der Linde and Mr. Morgan stood with their backs to her. Perched atop a russet-colored stallion was the man she'd seen in the bushes. A tall fellow, he would've towered over the pair of men even without the horse. A repeater was slung over his back but he wasn't making much a move to use it. Instead, he clutched a weathered journal with one hand and the reins of his horse with the other. His mouth moved but Holly couldn't make out what he was saying at this distance.

The scope wobbled with every movement she made on top of that table. Holly set aside half her focus for making out what was going on and the other half for taking deep, steadying breaths. Nothing was happening. Mr. van der Linde had slowly lowered his revolver—if Holly could read reactions, she would've said that it was an action borne of reluctance—and motioned for Mr. Morgan to do the same. Defenseless, they stared at the spy. He'd since grown a slight smile, the sight of which made Holly's fingers go cold. She didn't recognize him, but it could've been possible that he'd seen her. Maybe even recognized her. 

She inhaled. She exhaled.

She watched as the stranger's hand drifted, ever so slowly, to the revolver at his hip.

-X-

Dutch was firmly working out a course of action, but Arthur's eyes were solely for Finley's hand, drifting ever closer to his revolver. He wouldn't draw it. Not if he wanted to make it out of this ordeal with his head still intact. Still, it took every ounce of Arthur's willpower to keep his sidearms at his sides and let Dutch work out a plan.

At long last, Dutch broke the silence. "And what would you have in mind, Mr. Finley?" he asked, each word punctuated.

"Four hundred even, and the journal's yours," was the offer Finley rose.

Scoffing, Dutch shook his head, "You've got balls, I'll give you that, but not a sliver of brains. One hundred, and I'll let you leave this place with your head still intact."

"Three hundred and fifty then."

"Son, did you learn to haggle in a whorehouse? I raise one hundred and twenty-five. I ain't going higher."

"Three hundred then. Plus, five guns of my choosin'."

"One thirty. A bag of provisions. Nothing else."

Finley let out a scratchy laugh. Arthur watched in mounting dismay as Finley tucked the journal into one of his saddlebags. "Oh, Mr. van der Linde, I must confess that I'm quite frustrated. Colm says you're a man to be feared. An adversary worthy of the Devil himself. But all I see is a desperate feller that's trying to buy time." He smirked. His one hand was hovering just above his revolver and the other was tugging the reins of the blood bay. Arthur was so, so tempted to just shoot him, but he obeyed Dutch's orders and stayed his hand.

Which made Arthur all the more confused when Dutch began laughing. He studied the dirt under his fingernails, completely disregarding the O'Driscoll threat in front of him. Arthur furrowed his brows slightly but held his tongue.

Finley, on the other hand, spoke up with a voice that shook with anger and confusion, "Somethin' funny?"

"It's just, you said I was a desperate man who was trying to buy time," Dutch said overtop another fit of laughter, "and you couldn't have hit the proverbial nail harder on the head, my dear boy."

"What're ya playin' at?"

"As we've been speaking, Mr. Finley, I've had a hunting party that's been out almost all morning. Three of my finest; Micah Bell, Lenny Summers, Bill Williamson. No doubt they'll be back for their afternoon meal. What do you think they'll see when they come trotting up down that rise?"

Arthur dipped his head so Finley couldn't read his face. Dutch was an excellent liar—he'd shared lunch with Lenny and Bill already, while Micah had been cleaning his guns again by the firepit—and he wasn't going to risk blowing the ruse by laughing alongside him.

"Y-you're…you're fuckin' lying. You're a f-fuckin' liar," Finley spat.

"Oh, so you want to wait for my men to come this way and shoot you in the back like the dog you are? Or hound you down on their steeds until you run yourselves straight down into Hell? So be it, then. I await your choice."

Arthur looked up. The bravado had drained out of Finley's face like a tide receding. He looked about as pale as freshly-fallen snow, his mouth a thin, tempered line as he watched Dutch play with one of the rings on his fingers.

"You said you weren't going to die a sucker, Mr. Finley, and I dare say you'd be right," Dutch said maliciously. "Instead, you're going to die an idiot. Colm's men always do."

A beat passed. Finley's eyes were wide again, but they weren't moving anymore. They were trained only on Arthur, who could see every single emotion pass over his big, fish-like eyeballs. It wasn't too long before Arthur saw the figurative final nail in his coffin light up in those eyes. His final realization. Finley was downright fucked in ways he hadn't even begun to comprehend.

The world slowed down. Finley seized the handle of his pistol and Arthur followed suit. He drew his cattleman. The wind whistled. Dutch was moving at his side, but Arthur only had eyes for the O'Driscoll before him.

What happened next was almost instantaneous. Arthur hardly had time to react before the lone sound of a gunshot rang out. Arthur flinched backwards as hot blood sprayed over him and Dutch. His hands had flown over his head in shock, his cattleman still clutched in his hand.

He glanced up just before Finley toppled from his terrified horse. Arthur had barely enough time to see that the O'Driscoll hadn't much of a face anymore—he'd been shot straight through the nose, his head just an open cavity of blood and flesh. The blood bay, meanwhile, turned tail and fled from camp, whinnying to Hell and back, leaving its former rider dead on the ground in a pool of blood.

Arthur and Dutch exchanged a look with the other, each holding up their own revolvers, silently wondering if the other had fired the shot. Confusion flooded through him when he saw that Dutch had the same question written on his face. He held up a non-smoking revolver and stared at Arthur's, then back to Finley's corpse.

It wasn't until Arthur turned back towards camp did he get his answer.

He made his way back towards the tents, his pace slow and refusing to pick up. Dutch followed after him, silent. A crowd of gang members had formed back at the scout table. Abigail was ushering a wailing Jack away, her face pinched. John was standing off to the side with his mouth agape, a bewildered look in his eyes that clearly meant he was still processing what was going on. Tilly had a hand over her mouth. Kieran looked shaken. Micah, hands on his own guns, shot him a dark look that made Arthur's insides curdle like soured milk. Hosea, interestingly enough, was the calmest of the lot, staring at the scene unfolding in his own camp with a morbid interest that Arthur made a point to ask him about later.

On top of the scout table, the new center of attention, was Holly Monroe. Her face had gone stark white, her gray eyes so wide Arthur could practically see himself in them. In her shaking hands was the silver rifle that he'd found on her horse all those weeks ago. Smoke curled from the nozzle.

Silently, Arthur turned back and took a rudimentary estimate of the distance. At his best guess, she'd taken that shot from about twenty-five yards away, through trees and foliage and whatever else nature threw in front of her. And she'd nailed Finley on the first try.

"Kid?" Arthur addressed her quietly as he processed his own astonishment.

Holly's head snapped to him. She looked down at the gun in her hands and then stared over his head.

Finally, she took a deep, rattling breath, and uttered only a single word: "Shit."

Arthur felt wholly inclined to agree with her.

Chapter Text

Holly had never considered herself much of a thinker. She was much better at putting one foot in front of the other and losing herself in doing things. Life was much easier when she didn't have to worry about what she was doing and why she was doing it, but instead simply did. Instinctive motions, instinctive thoughts, and suddenly her world made a lot more sense to her, even if the rest of her life didn't.

She could only guess that Mr. Morgan had a similar idea as she stood on that table with that rifle in her hands, the sound of the gunshot still shattering the silence of her mind. Over and over it fired. It replayed in Holly's head like one of Mr. van der Linde's records: mesmerizing yet paralyzing. And she couldn't move. Couldn't do anything but think.

Holly hadn't noticed Mr. Morgan approach her, Mr. van der Linde on his heels. She was only staring at the place where that man had sat atop his horse. He was still there, she knew that much. Dead. It was such a final word. She felt nothing. Did nothing. Just drowned in the ocean of her thoughts, her mind taking on water. The image of the man's head snapping back, blood erupting from his head, all caused by her own hand. It would surely haunt her for the rest of her life.

It wasn't until Mr. Morgan took the gun from her hands that she snapped out of her thoughts. He took it gently, as though fearful she'd turn the barrel on him and pull the trigger again. But Holly didn't much have the strength nor the conviction to move her muscles. She let him take it, her arms dangling limply at her sides.

Mr. van der Linde was shouting orders. Micah and Karen were to remove the body. Lenny and John were to run the horse down and "burn that journal for all it was worth". His eyes were the openings of deep, dark caverns—intense, obscured. It struck Holly that she had no idea what was running through his mind.

Mr. Morgan didn't have that problem. His blue-green eyes were half concerned, half flabbergasted. She felt her shoulders tense, bracing for a punishment, but it never came. When he spoke to her, his voice was empathetic for a reason that she couldn't place, and Holly almost found herself wishing that he'd open his mouth and reprimand her instead of staring at her like he took no issue with her becoming a murderer.

His voice didn't betray those emotions. It was as listless as a cold autumn morning, "C'mon, kid, we're splitin'."

"…I—"

"You got a coat? Somethin' warm?"

"Y-yeah, but—"

"Then get it. We're goin'"

That was a day ago. Holly and Mr. Morgan departed not five minutes later, their coats slung over the backs of their horses. And Holly thought no longer.

They rode completely in silence. Holly didn't bother to break it, and Mr. Morgan didn't even look backwards to see if she was following. It was a tempting thought, running away for a little while to scream and cry in the woods until her voice grew hoarse and her tears turned hard and became trapped in the back of her throat. Supposed it was better than making her burdens Mr. Morgan's. But she didn't think. She only did. So, on she rode, her eyes purposely avoiding the glint of the silver rifle slung over Mr. Morgan's back.

The rode north the entire day, and the winds grew bitter like the breath of some vengeful winter god in those mythology books her mother used to read to her. The ground tilted upwards, into the Grizzly Mountains and beyond. They shrugged on their coats after a little bit, and Holly couldn't help but bury her face into the sheepskin, trying to spare her cheeks from the worst of the winds. Steam rose off of Achilles' rump. The sky clouded and then it grew light, and before long snow was drifting lazily down. Shining Star sneezed whenever a snowflake drifted into her nostrils. Mr. Morgan's black hat was soon dusted with quickly-melting snow like powdered sugar atop a cake.

Up they trekked. Holly still hadn't the faintest clue what on earth they were doing up here, but she didn't find the will to raise a complaint. Now, the only thing important to her at the moment was making sure her ears didn't freeze and break off.

They stopped at about four in the morning on the top of a large rise overlooking a frozen lake. Nestled on the shoreline were the ruins of an abandoned settlement, decrepit and empty-feeling even without the snow. A crescent moon peered through a gap in between two mountains, waning and almost invisible. Mr. Morgan, speaking his first words to her since the previous day, asked if she needed to sleep. Holly lied and said she was fine. She asked if Mr. Morgan needed a fire and he said no. A lantern, then. Still no. With little else to do, Holly resigned herself to standing at his side, a pair of binoculars in hand, staring down at all the nothing on the lakeshore.

Finally, she couldn't take it. Her teeth were chattering so hard Holly was frankly astonished that they hadn't shattered from it yet. Mr. Morgan's cheeks were so red they looked sunburned (though Holly knew for a fact that she wasn't much of one to be talking, because her face felt as raw as his looked). Shivering, she put down her binoculars. "W-w-w-w-what are we doin' here, Mr. Morgan?" she complained.

"Watchin'" was his simple response.

Holly couldn't help the way her face morphed into a scowl, 'What, watchin' the snow? Watchin' that stupid lake?" she sniped.

He was smirking now, "Aw, what? Is the lil' kid a touch cold all the way up here in the mountains?"

"I'm from Cajun country, 'member?" she reminded him curtly. "If we get so much as a squall down there, we call it a sign of God's wrath, clutch our rosaries to our chests, and start prayin' accordingly."

Mr. Morgan sniffed, "Sounds a touch dramatic for my tastes."

"You ain't wrong."

He held up his binoculars again, even though Holly knew there wasn't any change on the shores of Cairn Lake. Behind them, Achilles neighed loudly in protest, and Shining Star snorted again. It was freezing, but the snow wasn't letting up yet. Dawn was still an hour or so off and the horses must've been frozen to their bones.

Holly excused herself and made her way back to their horses to pull up their blankets. She did Achilles first, then Shining Star. Her mare nosed the crook of her elbow as she tugged the blanket up around her neck, looking for food. "I know, girl," Holly murmured, stroking her nose. From the saddlebag, she retrieved two peaches, fed one to each horse, and then retrieved the tin of pignolis that her brother had given her.

She returned to Mr. Morgan as she devoured one. Reaching for another, she hesitated, and then held one out to him, "You want one?"

Mr. Morgan regarded it suspiciously, eyes narrowed. He took it but didn't eat it. "What is it?" he asked rather critically.

"It's a pignoli."

"The fuck's a pignoli?"

Holly frowned. Mr. Morgan scowled at the cookie like it'd personally offended him, and Holly felt a twinge of annoyance. "It's a pine nut cookie," she said, trying to keep her attitude in check. "They're fine. Just eat it."

Mr. Morgan, ever the skeptic, sniffed the cookie one last time before taking a bite. It took him a good seconds of chewing before he returned with a verdict.

"It's good," he said, taking another bite, "not great, but good."

Holly sighed before taking up the binoculars again, "If you're hungry, Mr. Morgan, there's some more where that came from."

"Kid?"

She looked up, "Yes?"

"You've known me for, what, two months now? For Christ's sake, just call me Arthur."

His expression was still critical, though less now for the cookie and more for her. Holly flushed and turned away. "Okay, Arthur," she tested the word on her tongue, and when he didn't rebuke her, she continued. "You still ain't answered why we're here, though."

Mr. Morgan—no, Arthur now—wasn't paying her much attention anymore. Instead, his binoculars were glued to the horizon. "That's why we're here, kid," he said. Holly followed his gaze and held her own binoculars up to her face.

There, riding on between those two hills in the far-off distance, was a posse of riders, their shadows almost blending in seamlessly with the gray snow on the other side of the lake. Holly changed the lenses on her binoculars; there were about six riders, headed by the largest-looking man of the bunch in a big coat and a…sombrero? They charged into the abandoned collection of cabins on the shores of the lake like they had a pack of wolves on their heels, scattering clouds of powder when they brought their steeds to abrupt halts. Holly stared at them all; the man in the big coat hopped off, turned around to shout an order, and then marched over to the farthest cabin. His men spread about accordingly—lighting fires, laying out bedrolls, pitching tents, pulling out the liquor. Soon, a large fire blazed in the center, the only source of light for miles around. Holly even thought she heard someone singing.

"Get down," suddenly a hand on her back forced Holly to her knees. Holly bit back a protest as wet snow soaked the front of her skirt and bit straight into her skin, making her grimace. Arthur seemed no not mind it, however, and raised his binoculars again.

Holly followed suit, and Arthur spoke again, "How many do ya see?"

She peered down. "'Bout six or seven," Holly reported back, now staring at a man who was holding something on a stick over the fire.

"Includin' the one in the cabin?" Arthur asked.

"Yeah. Who is he, exactly, and why's he so important?"

Arthur puffed out a breath, and a cloud of steam floated upwards into the night sky. "Man named Flaco Hernandez. Some old has-been who used to run with Jim 'Boy' Calloway—y'know anythin' 'bout Calloway?" seeing her shake of her head, he continued, "Before your time, then. Well, anyway, some feller's payin' me good money to hunt down Calloway's old ridin' crew. Hernandez is one of 'em, said he'd be somewhere up here this time of year. Gettin' paid quite handsomely for photos'a him."

Holly felt a small twinge of jealousy that she quickly swallowed down, "And we gotta go down there and ask him for an interview like we're a bunch'a newspaper writers or somethin'?"

"Sure, if that's how you wanna view it," Arthur said with a shrug.

Holly's attention shifted to another man who appeared to be fiddling with his shotgun. All of the sudden, his finger brushed too hard over the trigger and it misfired straight into the air. Everyone around the campfire jumped. The man cleaning it threw it into the snow in shock. And then, he threw his head back and laughed like it was all a funny joke, completely ignoring the way the shot still echoed through the Grizzlies.

"They don't seem too, err, friendly," Holly noted, "or bright."

"Sooner ya realize that half the world's fulla bastards and the other half's fulla morons, you'll sleep a helluva lot better at night," Arthur said as he put away his binoculars. He waved her back to the horses. "C'mon, let's go see if Flaco wants to have a chat."

Holly made to follow, "Think he'll even wanna talk with us?"

"Eh, I dunno, kid," He snorted suddenly, "Maybe he will if ya can offer him some of your cookies."

Not sure if she should be offended or not, Holly mounted up and followed Arthur's lead as he led her down the side of the hill and around the lake. There were plenty of other things to focus on otherwise, like the way that her lungs hurt with every breath because the temperature was dropping so quickly. Or perhaps the cracking of ice under Shining Star's hooves as Holly reassured her every step of the way. Or possibly the fact that every single one of Hernandez's men seemed drunk, stupid, and not at all in the mood to be accosted by two strangers in the dead of night.

They dismounted about thirty feet away from the camp in the coverage of some straggling pine trees. Arthur led the way through knee-high snow, Holly a pace or two behind him. She gripped her skirts and held the fabric so tightly she swore she was trying to strangle the life from it.

Arthur must've heard her heart thumping for how loud it was in her ears. His voice, cool and focused, cut through it, and Holly latched onto that stability as best she could. "Whatever happens," Arthur said quietly, "ya keep your mouth shut and ya stay behind me. Got it, kid?"

Someone at Hernandez's camp shouted. A couple of heads snapped towards their direction. Holly felt her hand inadvertently stray towards her revolver. She nodded her affirmation, trying not to focus on the growing lump in the back of her throat, "Okay."

One of Hernandez's men approached them, a sawed-off shotgun in one hand and an open can of smoked salmon in the other. Holly and Arthur halted. She was already raising her hands up in surrender, but Arthur just hooked his thumbs into his gun belt and remained where he was, perfectly composed.

The man barked something she didn't understand. She could almost taste Arthur's sarcasm as he asked, "You speak English?"

"Yes," the man growled, "and you in the wrong camp, stranger."

Holly noticed several of Hernandez's other men taking note of the commotion. One of them reached for his repeater.

"We don't mean no harm, okay?" Arthur said, now beginning to raise his arms. "Just wanna speak to Hernandez is all."

"We don't take to visitors up here," the man snapped.

And then there was silence. Arthur's hands, already halfway up over his head, stopped moving. For a moment the pair of them just stared at each other, locked in their mental standoff. Holly could only watch helplessly as the rest of the men started to stand, weapons in hand, anger and discontent on their faces.

Before she could even process it, Arthur had drawn his pistol. With a loud bang, the man who'd bid them their "welcome" was dead on the ground, a bullet through his eye.

"Find cover!" Arthur shouted, diving behind a stack of crates.

Holly didn't need to be told twice. She hurled herself to the ground and scrambled for safety behind several barrels. Bullets whizzed through the air in the space where she and Arthur had stood mere moments ago. She pressed herself into the wood as Arthur drew his second sidearm, stood up, and began returning fire.

One man cried out, then another. Holly bit back a whimper as bullets clipped the sides of the barrel. Arthur, several feet to the left of her, rose out of cover and fired six shots before dropping down to reload. He stood to fire, once, then twice, then three times, and another man screamed out into the night sky. Holly covered her ears as a shotgun fired towards him, and her ears rung as the sound deafened all else around her.

When her ears had stopped buzzing, she could hear that it was only Arthur returning gunfire with one other man. Nervous but positive that their attention would be off of her, Holly cautiously rose her head above the crate barrels and peered around at the carnage. Blood was splattered all around the camp, making the white snow turn a dirty-looking red and brown. One man had been shot and toppled over a felled log that'd been used as seating, his legs draped over the wood. Another lay dead barely three feet in front of her cover, like he'd been advancing but stopped just short.

Movement far to the left caught her eye. Another of Hernandez's men was rounding the side. Arthur was still locked in combat with a man at the far end of camp, quite possibly unaware of the man flanking him. She stared on as the man leveled his repeater.

She automatically drew her revolver. Holly aimed her gun and pulled the trigger without even sparing a second to think. The gun kicked up in her hands and she nearly dropped it. Her shot was off-target—the bullet sailed about two feet two his right— but aimed just close enough that it drew Hernandez's man's attention. In that split second of hesitation, Arthur shot him clean through shoulder, and again through the neck. The man clutched his throat, unable to scream as he fell to the snow.

Holly stared at the place where the man once stood, then at her revolver. Arthur, meanwhile, had holstered both pistols and turned to her with annoyance written all over his features. "I thought I told ya to keep your head down and stay outta this!" he snapped at her.

Whatever dread or fear she'd felt at nearly shooting another man was replaced with a sudden rush of outrage at his words. She held out her hands, her revolver motioning to where the man had been not several seconds earlier. "He was gonna shoot you!" she fumed back.

Arthur scoffed, rolled his eyes, and began to head for the cabin. He only took a few paces before he turned around and stared at her, still stagnant, "You comin'?"

Scowling, Holly bounded through the snow and fell beside him. The cabin Hernandez was in was still shut tight; Holly briefly wondered how on Earth he could've possibly stayed inside while all his men were slaughtered right under his nose. "You should be thankin' me," she muttered, not necessarily to Arthur.

"Yeah, yeah, sure. You're a real Landon Ricketts, kid," he told her. "Tell me again how that shot was so wide it probably hit some poor soul in Cincinnati by now?"

Holly's frown deepened but couldn't reply. The door to the cabin slammed open (Arthur held her back with his hand, and Holly retreated a pace) and out stepped the man they were looking for.

The first thing that hit Holly about Flaco Hernandez was his smell. First came the gunpowder, then the sweat and body odor, and then the sharp tang of rum. Flaco's sombrero was lopsided on his head. Wrapped around his person was a large, furry coat that looked like it was made of grizzly fur, two bandoliers crossed over his shoulders. Despite all that warmth, he still shivered rather violently as he stepped into the cold. He already had his pistol drawn, his cold expression cutting as he stared down at the pair of them.

"I just wanna talk," Arthur began. Hernandez just spat on the ground, muttered something in Spanish, and didn't grace them with the translation, so he tried again, "About Boy Calloway?"

"Sure," Hernandez said, his tone hostile. He widened his stance and let his hand fall for the gun at his hip, "here's your message."

At once, Arthur mirrored his stance. Getting the idea that this was something she had no business being a part of, Holly retreated another five steps further, her hands clasped to her chest. Hernandez's eyes strayed to her for just the briefest of moments, and Holly felt her heart stop dead in its tracks.

Arthur must've noticed it too, because his next words leaked venom; "You so much as lift a finger towards that kid, Hernandez, and I'm gonna put so many holes in ya that you'll be able to use 'em as pockets."

Hernandez smirked without answering. Holly denied him the option by backtracking to a wooden crate and lowering herself behind it. She took several deep, unsteady breaths, and waited, waited, waited.

And then, they moved. A single shot fired. She heard something fall hard into the snow. Holly shot to her feet, hand on the handle of her revolver, Arthur's name on the tip of her tongue, but she relaxed herself upon seeing the outcome. Hernandez lay about five feet to the right of where he'd started, a bullet in his forehead. Arthur holstered his gun in a flourish. He bent down and picked up Hernandez's pistol as Holly made her way back over to him.

"Tried to jump outta the way," Arthur grumbled, like he was offended. "It's like I told ya, kid. Half the world's fulla bastards and the other half's fulla morons. Hernandez was just a bastard leadin' a buncha morons and look where it got 'em."

Holly looked on as Arthur pulled a small black box from his satchel. It looked like a tiny camera. "Go and search Hernandez's cabin and see if there's anythin' worth takin'," he told her, holding the camera over the corpse in the snow. "Still gotta take a picture 'fore we leave…"

"But he's dead," Holly said matter-of-factly.

A shrug. "Feller didn't say Hernandez had to be alive for these things."

"Ain't that a little, I don't know, macabre?"

"Macabre? You been hangin' 'round Dutch too much. Go search the cabin, kid."

Leaving Arthur to his photos, Holly walked up the steps, entered through the creaking door, and began to look through the cabin. Decrepit furniture, rotted from age and frost, barely stood against the half-collapsed walls. The smell of burning meat overwhelmed Holly to the point where she tugged her bandana over her nose to spare herself from the stench. She did a quick search of the cabin and took several cans of food, two boxes of revolver ammunition, a carton of cigarettes, and an unopened bottle of rum. Before she left, Holly checked under the rusted bed next to the door and pulled out a lockbox. Wedging it open revealed a small bill fold and a piece of paper that looked more ancient than the house it'd been sitting in. Holly unfolded it; someone had made two drawings of hills, and someone else had scribbled arrows and directions all over it with red ink. Holly didn't even bother trying to make sense of it.

The cold air hit her face in full blast when she returned to the lakeshore. Arthur had abandoned Hernandez's body in favor of clearing the camp of corpses. He dropped them in a small pile next to the cabin, looking up at her return, "Find anythin'?"

Holly tossed him one of the boxes of pistol ammo, a can of strawberries, and the carton of cigarettes. Arthur cracked open the carton first, took a second to pull out the card inside, and then lit a cigarette. He held the box out and retracted it when she shook her head.

Next, Holly showed him the map, "It says poo…poise…pose…"

She was spared from struggling any further when Arthur snatched the paper from his hands and read it himself. "The Poisonous Trail," he read aloud, and Holly peered over his shoulder to get a better view, "how ominous."

"What is it?"

"Sure looks like a treasure map'a some kind."

Holly grinned despite herself, "A treasure map? Like, real life treasure?"

"Don't get your hopes up too high, kid," Arthur warned her. "Can ya even read heads or tails of this? Looks like the ravin's of some sorta lunatic, if ya ask me."

Disappointed, Holly folded the map up and tucked it into her pocket. Arthur looked over the camp before flicking his cigarette butt into the snow. It extinguished itself with a weak sizzle.

"Why don't we rest up here before we head back," Arthur suggested. "We could eat, get the fire goin' again, warm up the horses. Folks in camp won't miss us too much."

"I'm starvin'," Holly confessed. "I could use a meal."

Fifteen minutes later, that was exactly what they did. Holly restoked the fire as Arthur retrieved the horses. They ate very fast and talked very little. Holly plowed through two cans of peaches while Arthur chowed down on a can of beans and two pieces of salted venison he'd hunted several days ago, washing it all down with the bottle of rum Holly'd found. After a while, they just focused on warming themselves up. Holly had scooted closer to the fire, finishing up the last of the pignolis.

With nothing much else to do, Holly opened the carton of pistol ammunition and slid a new bullet into the chamber. She closed it with a flick of her wrist, staring at the way that the silver glowed orange in the light of the campfire. With brittle fingers, she untied the bandana around her neck and cleaned the silver a little of soot and blood. She hardly even heard Arthur ask her if she wanted a tube of gun oil.

So much dirt for just one shot, she thought. Her brow furrowed. Against her better judgement, she looked over her shoulder, staring at the pile of bodies that stood against the wall of the cabin. Her stomach dipped, and she looked away again.

You shot one of them.

I didn't hit him. I missed.

You didn't miss before.

Holly's eye, as though her body was possessed by something otherworldly, drifted upwards. Arthur was still eating. The silver rifle glowed hellishly in the firelight.

And suddenly it all came flooding back to her, up her spine and directly into her mind, leaking through like water seeping into cracks in rocks.

The blood and the sound of the gunshot and the way the man had tried to draw his gun and the blood and the way her heart pounded a ferocious dance in her ears and the way Arthur and Mr. van der Linde recoiled backwards and the blood and the feeling of the rifle in her hands and the blood and the way Jack wailed in Ms. Roberts' arms and the taste of her breath leaving her throat and the feeling of the world slowing down around her and the blood and the blood and oh God there was so much blood make it stop please make it stop—

"I didn't mean to shoot him," Holly murmured suddenly.

She said it softly, like a prayer. In some small sense, maybe it was. A quick little plea to God to absolve her of her guilt. Perhaps her remorse would be enough to keep her out of the Devil's grip, but even Holly wasn't dumb enough to think there was redemption to be found in her words. Just something silent and empty. Far from flying to the heavens, her words seemed to drop heavily like a stone sinking to the bottom of the river.

Her words were loud enough, apparently, that Arthur set down his breakfast and blinked at her. "What'd'ya mean?" was all he asked. No accusation, no malice, nothing. There was a simplicity to his demeanor that nearly made Holly break down. Instead, she just clutched her arms tighter and stared into the fire.

"Back at camp. I-I didn't mean to pull the trigger. I just—" she broke off. It took a couple of seconds before she recomposed herself, but then she continued, "I wasn't even thinkin'. I saw him go for his pistol. I watched him hold his hand over that…that damn thing and I thought there wasn't a chance in heaven he'd pull it out. Not with you and Mr. van der Linde so close. I just…" Holly trailed off, her words escaping her. She was so close to the fire yet she was still too damn cold.

Arthur waited for her to finish, but when he sensed that she wouldn't, he supplied his own words, "If it makes ya feel better, if ya didn't kill that O'Driscoll, either I would've or Dutch would've," he said. "There wasn't a chance in hell that boy was gettin' outta that camp alive."

It didn't make her feel better. If anything, it just made Holly feel worse. Before, she'd felt horror and dread at the thought of ending a life. Now, there was just a sense of futility. A nasty little voice in the back of her head was chiming in that she knew that this could've happened. She was joining an outlaw gang—of course she would be signing up for something like this. The gun at her hip, one bullet lighter after their rampage through Hernandez's hideout, was the perfect reminder of that. Holly continued to stare into the fire and saw nothing but hopelessness staring back at her. Even felt hopelessness in the form of Arthur Morgan looking at her, clearly concerned but blissfully unaware that he was exactly Holly was terrified she was becoming.

Memories of her father smiling at her and her sisters running around her legs and her own wanted poster burning on the fire and Logan Winslow's cold face and Mr. van der Linde praising her quick thinking and her own brother thrusting a shotgun into her back and making her swear a promise to futility on the lives of their dead family—they all swam through her vision until tears pricked the corners of her eyes and Holly was left with no choice but to swipe at them like she was a lost child crying for her parents to come home.

She finally found her words. At this point, Holly didn't even care if Arthur was staring at her, "I don't…I don't want to become something I hate," she said quietly, voice thick with emotion.

Arthur was silent. The fire crackled. The snow had let up now, and a break in the cloud line revealed the first streaks of the approaching dawn.

At long last, Arthur spoke. When he did, his voice was light, but serious. "Think of it like this," he said. "When ya shot that Del Lobo a little while ago. Or shot at him. Whatever ya did," he waved the discrepancy away like one would swat at a fly, "When ya shot your gun and I got all mad at ya, what'd ya say?"

Holly stared at him, "Why's this matter?"

"Answer the question, kid. What'd ya tell me right after I yelled at ya?"

Blinking in confusion, Holly cocked her head. "I said that he was gonna shoot you," she said.

"And when ya shot the O'Driscoll at camp, what was he gonna do if ya didn't?" When she didn't respond, Arthur filled in for her, "Because he was gonna shoot me or Dutch. You saw him draw his gun and ya fired to protect us."

"But you said you didn't need protectin'. You said the O'Driscoll wasn't leavin' camp alive."

"Did ya know that when ya fired?"

She didn't answer.

"You said ya don't want to become somethin' ya hate. I get it. I really do," Arthur said evenly. "Some men killed your family. Your folks, siblings, whatnot. I don't know nothin' 'bout it and I'll live a happy life not knowin'. But the difference between ya and me, and fools like that, is people think they can hide behind their guns. Think it means no one can hurt 'em. Just look at Hernandez, the sorry sack'a shit. He thought he could march out here, hand on his gun and reekin' of drink like a sinner in confession, and try and hide behind his men and his shootin'. And what'd it get him?"

He paused. It took Holly a moment to realize that he wanted her to answer, "A bullet to the head?"

"A bullet to the head and seven folk dead in the middle of God-Knows-Where, Ambarino," Arthur jabbed a finger at her. "But you, Miss. Monroe, don't hide behind a gun because ya know better than that. The fact we're even havin' this conversation proves yain't got nothin' to worry about."

Holly gripped her sleeves tighter. "Don't try and act like I got some moral high ground," she spat. "I killed a man, Arthur! I killed a man and left his body cold on the ground and I didn't even bother to think about it until I rode all the way out here and watched you murder a whole other group of men! So don't try and act like I got any sorta moral righteousness to cling to when I got blood on my hands and you in my ear tellin' me I shouldn't care about it."

"At least yain't me, kid."

The bitterness in Arthur's voice caught Holly off-guard. He seized her moment of pause and continued, "I killed so many people in my days that I stopped countin'. Used to count 'em in my old journal, ya see. Tallied 'em up by fives in the back pages, probably startin' when I was eighteen-ish. Added to it every single day because there weren't a day gone by when I weren't killin' someone. Went up to numbers I couldn't even count to before that. And I realized when I was twenty, addin' another thirteen lines in the margins, that I spent a whole lot more of my life worryin' 'bout just how many people I was shootin' that I didn't even stop to think about just how many'a those people wouldn't of hesitated to fire a slug into me. So, I stopped. Quit worryin' because I knew the world didn't give too much of a damn 'bout what I felt about it."

Now it was Holly's turn to stare as Arthur continued, "You know how many people Dutch got that felt the way ya do? I killed my first man at fifteen and didn't look back on it. But Sean shot a feller in the chest who had a gun on Bill. He was nineteen and on his first stagecoach job. First time he ever killed a man: cried about it for a week afterwards. Jenny Kirk killed the men who raped her ma when she was your age—told me that she nearly lost herself at the bottom of a bottle tryin' to forget about it. Mary-Beth slit the throat of a man who tried to kidnap her when she was twenty, and every single year since she makes this little thing'a flowers and floats it down the nearest river. People mourn in different ways. You ain't the first and ya sure as shit won't be the last.

"I ain't sayin' ya shouldn't care. Hell, seein' ya care so much about it honestly makes me worry a whole lot less. But you're a part of a gang now. And there's a whole lotta people that'll gladly see ya swing because of it. Never mind the fact that you're a kid. Never mind the fact that you're a girl. Because when ya run with Dutch, I'm 'fraid that folks don't care much either way. Sean gets it. Lenny gets it. Mary-Beth gets it. You're young, but you'll get it too. But don't, and I repeat—don't—let someone nab ya before ya come to grips with it, 'cause you'll find that ya might not be able to pull the trigger again."

She didn't say anything. Holly let the silence wash over her, absorbing his words. Meanwhile, Arthur grabbed the strap of the silver rifle and slung it off his shoulder. He tossed it to her from across the campfire, and Holly caught it with both hands.

"That's yours now," Arthur said. "I suggest ya learn how to use it."

-X-

They returned to Horseshoe Overlook two days later in higher spirits. No one spoke of the incident with the O'Driscoll. Holly busied herself with chores and excused herself from camp at noon.

She went to Valentine and purchased three boxes of rifle ammunition.

With her rifle on her back and her heart hard in her chest, Holly went into the wilds of New Hanover and started practicing. She thought of Flaco Hernandez, the O'Driscoll, Logan Winslow. And thus, Holly began to learn exactly how to come to grips with it.

Chapter Text

Another gunshot rang through the air as Sean tried his hand at quick-drawing again. Holly, leaning against the stolen oil tankard, glanced up from her pocket watch. None of the glass bottles they'd set up were shattered, but there was a fresh hole in the fencepost about a foot and a half below where he'd been aiming.

Holly closed the pocket watch as Sean swore loudly and holstered his revolver. "The others should be comin' soon," she said. "Sunset was an hour ago."

Sean huffed. He removed his hat and ran a hand through his sweaty, rust colored hair. "They better not be fuckin' late," he groused. "Don't even get a spot on the job, and they still got us t'guard this stupid oil tank. Ain't gettin' no respect."

"Did you ask John if you could come along?" Holly pushed herself off the oil tank and approached Sean, amused.

"Ah, y'know Marston just as well's the rest of us by now," Sean said. "Got a stick so far up his arse that ya can see it in the back'a his throat. If I'd ask, he'd probably just huff and mope and say that I'd be nothin' but trouble."

Privately, Holly wondered just who she agreed with more—Sean, or John.

It was a calm and uneventful afternoon. Holly and the rest of the women were left with little more to do aside from waiting around for fate to drop something in their laps. Tilly and Karen joined Javier and Micah on an impromptu homestead robbery that Javier had learned about that morning. Kieran had bashfully confessed that he didn't know his letters, so Mary-Beth recruited Lenny's help for a reading lesson. Ms. Roberts was stuck at camp with Jack, bedridden with the flu, working hour after hour coaxing Mr. Matthews's elixirs down his throat. Holly worked at the chuck wagon until she'd cut up every last potato that existed in New Hanover and it was still barely past two in the afternoon. Which made it all the better when Sean asked if she wanted to accompany him on guard duty of the oil tankard that Arthur'd stolen a couple of days ago. Holly had practically sprinted to her horse, and Shining Star seemed just as eager to race over the hills as she was, Sean hollering behind her on Ennis for her to slow down.

The tankard had been hidden for a few days now, far off the road in a small copse next to a dilapidated cabin. Charles, on guard before Sean and Holly, bid them farewell as they arrived, promising to return in a couple of hours. The pair of them exchanged food and stories as they waited, but before too long Sean got bored, as he tended to do. He spent the next fifteen minutes wandering around for discarded bottles and cans, then another ten setting up a makeshift shooting range on the ruins of the broken house. For the last forty-five minutes, Holly just sat and watched as Sean alternated between complaining about John's upcoming train job and practicing his quick draw. For Holly, it was as entertaining as it was exhausting.

"I'm sure John'll let you come if you just ask," Holly said as Sean took a sip from a beer bottle he'd brought.

He grimaced, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you'll be tellin' me next that Charles's gonna start dancin' vaudeville in San Francisco." He fired another shot, which sailed right over a tin can and chipped the side of the chimney.

"Y'know," Holly said with a smile, "I'd stand to think most outlaws try to aim for the things they're supposed to be hittin'."

"The cheek on ya…," Sean didn't finish the thought. He holstered his pistol and waved her forward. "Wanna take a shot'a your own, oh Duchess'a-Perfect-Aim?"

Holly laughed out loud and drew her revolver. "Oh, with pleasure, Sir-Can't-Take-A-Joke," she teased. Sean made a show of comically bowing away from the range as Holly took his place and started aiming.

"Well, for starters, most folks don't shoot with one eye shut," Sean joked. Red-faced, Holly opened her eye and readjusted her aim for an empty moonshine jug.

Her first shot was wide to the left. Her second shot was wide still but this time from above. Her third shot was so close she could see the jug totter just ever so slightly as the wind rippled past it. It wasn't until Holly's fourth shot that the moonshine jug shattered from a direct hit.

Behind her, she heard Sean start laughing. "Duchess'a-Perfect-Aim, my arse," he said to her.

She jabbed her gun towards him, and Holly very much enjoyed seeing Sean retreat backwards with his hands raised. "Keep talkin', and you're gonna see just how perfect my aim is," she growled.

And then they both burst into laughter.

They laughed until the drumming of hoofbeats distracted them. Up onto the ridge rode Arthur, Achilles rearing at his sudden stop. He certainly knew how to dress for the occasion—black overshirt, dark brown pants, coupled with black boots Holly was sure were borrowed from Mr. Matthews. In her opinion, he looked like a shadow that'd lost its body. Arthur'd already equipped himself with his preferred weapons, his shotgun and repeater, slung cross-ways over his back. As Arthur dismounted and approached, Sean retook his position and began firing again.

"Well, at least it ain't your job," Arthur chuckled as he watched Sean miss.

"Ah, shut up, Arthur," Sean retorted. He tried another shot; this time, he nailed an old can of baked beans, and Holly watched it spin through the air and bounce into the undergrowth.

Arthur hooked his hands in his gun belt, "Yeah, your job's startin' fights," he said in good-humored jest, "it ain't winnin' 'em."

Sean slid his revolver back into place, readying for another try. "I can scrap, Arthur. I'm just no good at homework," he said. Another draw. This time, Sean's aim was about three feet off diagonally, and the fencepost burst into splinters.

"I can see," Arthur said. Holly began to laugh but quickly bit it back.

"Besides, what do ya care, Englishman? You got no time for me!" the frustration had left Sean's voice, replaced with a teasing of his own, "I tried t'find ya work, but then you're off cuttin' jobs with other folks, and your boy Sean doesn't get a look-in."

"Guess I don't wanna get shot, that's all."

Sean spared a second to roll his eyes, "Ah, you're a real fuckin' funny shit, Arthur Morgan. Eh? Real fuckin' funny. You better sleep with your eyes open."

Arthur's eyes flashed, "Yeah? Well, you're gonna sleep with your chest open if yain't careful, boy."

For a brief second Sean regarded Arthur in stunned silence. Holly momentarily wondered if Arthur's words might've wormed through Sean's carefree demeanor, but she knew she shouldn't've gotten her hopes up when Sean started laughing and smiling at the threat. "Ah, I love ya, Arthur Morgan! I love ya! C'mon, take a shot!" he closed his eyes, stuck out his chin, and tapped the wisps of hair that made up his nearly nonexistent beard, "C'mon, take your best shot!"

But Arthur didn't take that kind of shot. Instead, he drew his revolver with a kind of speed that Sean could only dream of and, without looking, fired at the shooting range. The gin bottle exploded into hundreds of tiny little pieces. Sean's eyes snapped open, caught off guard by the noise.

"Grow up," Arthur said, grinning at the look of bemusement on Sean's face. Next, he turned his attention to Holly, "And what're you doin' here, kid? Stuck with babysittin'?"

"Somethin' like that. Talkin', eatin', shootin'. A right barrel of fun," Holly replied.

Arthur snorted as he moved towards the oil tankard, "If you wanted to practice shootin', you shoulda picked someone who can aim better than a nearsighted badger like Mr. MacGuire."

Behind her, Sean huffed at his words, affronted. He slammed his gun back in the holster. "Let us come on the raid with ya!" he called out.

"Raid?" Arthur asked.

"Don't play coy with me, son. It's unbecoming. That bloody train ya and him has set up," Sean pursued Arthur and the conversation, Holly following on his heels. "What you're doin' out here; you're goin' t'need guns, and you're goin' t'need men."

Arthur brushed his hands along the oil tank, checking it over. "Oh, that," he said unconvincingly. "So, Marston told ya? It ain't a big show. I need calmness. If I took ya, I might as well bring the kid along. Hell, I might as well bring Micah along."

"Compare me to that oily turd again and you're a dead man," Sean snapped, while Arthur chuckled at it and conceded. "Anyway, Arthur, what's your problem wit' me? In fact, don't tell me—I already know. You're threatened by me."

"Threatened?" Holly chimed in, unable to keep her sarcasm in check.

"Threatened by ya?" Arthur mused. It looked like he was only half paying attention.

"Yeah. My youthful vigor. It intimidates ya!"

"Does it?"

"It's a story's old as the hills," Sean waved his arms dramatically. "The changin' of the guard. The fadin' of the light. You're toast, old man."

Arthur inspected the horses, running a hand down along one of the legs. "Okay. And what're ya?"

"We're the future," Sean jerked a thumb back towards Holly, "in all its glory."

More footsteps. Holly glanced over her shoulder, knowing Arthur and Sean would likely forsake all their arguing in favor of being on guard. But it was only John stepping through the woods, Charles at his side with the reins of their horses in hand. "What're you two doing here?" he asked, but it seemed his glare was all for her. Holly felt herself shrink back somewhat.

Sean, ever the optimist, was undaunted, "We're comin', John! On the job!"

"I said you weren't coming," John shot a sideways glance back at her, "And that goes same for the girl." Holly held her hands up defense and said nothing to argue.

"Yeah, well, Arthur says we are. And it's his party, boys, so come on! Let's go!" And with that, Sean hoisted himself up into the passenger seat of the oil tankard, leaving four confused gang members on the ground. Arthur merely shrugged but didn't rebuff him. Sean, sensing victory, laughed aloud. "Me and the big cheeses! Love it. Can't wait to slit some bastard's throat!"

John angrily opened his mouth but closed it again, perhaps sensing that Sean's blind confidence was a wall he had no hope of knocking down. Instead, he turned his anger back to her. Holly opened her mouth to defend herself, but it was Arthur who managed to cut across all of them. "Ah, just let her come too, Marston. It like we couldn't use one more set'a hands."

John whirled on him next, "What happened to this bein' a three-person job, Arthur!?"

"You really wanna let the teenager wander back to camp on her own in the middle of the night? She's here now; let her tag along. I'll think'a somethin' for her to do."

Though he looked as though he'd just been scolded like a petulant child, John put up no argument against Arthur's words. He clambered up on the back of the oil tankard, grumbling about something or the other. Holly was left with just Charles as Arthur moved to man the horses, who held out the reins for her to take.

"Ride behind us," Charles instructed. "Make sure the horses follow. We'll need them later."

Two minutes later, they were all set and prepared for their trip. Holly gripped Shining Star's reins tightly, apprehension and excitement making her nerves spike. Arthur glanced at her and nodded when he saw she was ready. "Gentleman! And lady," he added as an afterthought. "Let's go make us some money!"

The five of them barreled down the road towards the spot where the train was set to come through. Charles and John clung to the rungs on the side of the oil tank. Sean sitting next to Arthur and happily chirping away now that he'd gotten his way. Holly brought up the rear on Shining Star, sparing the occasional look back to make sure Achilles, Old Boy, Ennis, and Taima were following behind. The night was cool, the roads empty, the moon growing in size and casting a cold gray glow over the Heartlands. A perfect night for a train robbery, Holly assumed.

She lagged behind somewhat but managed to catch up to the four of them took the tankard slowly over a set of train tracks. Holly fell on Arthur's side, slowing her horse to a trot. Sean was prattling on as though talking were the only thing he knew how to do, "—back in business, boys! Y'know, my da always used to say—"

Sean's speech was cut short when every other man on the oil wagon raised their voices in exasperated unison.

"Not the da, please."

"No, no…"

"Not this again."

"Fine! Damn you three," he pointed to each in turn, "sulky, angry, scarface. A right barrel of laughs. At least Holly likes my stories. She's never heard 'em before."

"Please, do not drag me into this," Holly called over to him.

Sean pouted yet had the sense to finally drop the topic. "So, we block the tracks with the wagon and then jump 'em? That's the plan?"

"Pretty much," Arthur said, snapping the reins. "Charles, ya deal with the engineer. John, secure the passenger car fast—take charitable donations and make sure everyone behaves. Little Mr. MacGuire, ya focus on the baggage car, grab any valuables ya can find. And Miss. Monroe," Holly's head snapped back towards Arthur, "stay on that horse'a yours and trail the side of the train. You'll be our getaway girl. We'll pass you all the goods and you keep an eye out for trouble. Anything happens, ya bolt with the money. Think ya can do that?"

Holly nodded, "Sure," she said, trying to sound assured. She could practically feel John's scowl raking down her back, "I can handle anythin'."

Another lie. She really needed to be keeping track of all this.

John's voice cut through their conversation. "Here's good," he pointed towards a crossing about fifty feet ahead of them, lined on one side by trees and another by rocks. "Stop the wagon on the tracks."

The oil tankard screeched to a halt. Holly and Charles led the horses into the woods and tied them loosely so they could pull free from their hitching when called. Sean, Arthur, and John worked on cutting the Shires who'd pulled the tankard free from their harnesses. With several good slaps, the horses ran for freedom, leaving behind one abandoned-looking oil cart over the middle of the railroad.

"Remember, these are innocent folks," John said. "We handle this right, no one needs to die."

Everyone nodded their agreement. Holly tried to hide her relief by wringing the fingers on her bad hand.

"Mr. Marston, Mr. Smith, Mr. MacGuire, Miss. Monroe, get over there," Arthur instructed, pointing to the tree line. "When she slows, board her."

John, Charles, and Holly obeyed, but Holly turned when she heard Sean's confused voice call out, "And you?"

Arthur stood, immobile, one foot pressed firmly to the steel of the rail line. "I'm gonna make sure she slows," was all he said.

Sean spirited for the woods, laughing and smiling like a fool on Christmas. Holly made sure that she and Shining Star were as far out of the line of sight as possible before mounting. Her blood was pounding hard in her ears yet she couldn't tell anymore if it was out of excitement or out of trepidation. She gripped the reins hard as a way to release the tension building in her body. Charles and John fell on either side of her, Sean a little ways off on the right behind a tree. Arthur climbed atop the oil tankard and stood there, still as a statue. Watching. Waiting.

He wasn't waiting for long.

When the train sounded, Holly tugged her bandana over her nose. The light from the searchlight pierced through the darkness like an arrow, almost blinding. Shining Star whinnied and it took several pats to force her to stay still again. Charles gripped his sawed-off shotgun with both hands. John glanced back at her—probably trying to see if she was getting cold feet, which made it all the better when Holly met his scrutiny head-on—and returned his attention to the train.

A whistle cut the silence like a knife. The train had seen Arthur, it had to have by now. A moment later, the sound of metal on metal grinding and screeching on each other was nearly enough to burst Holly's eardrums. Arthur, unmoved, merely slung his repeater off his shoulder and loaded a single shot.

The train, struggling to break before it smashed into the tankard, rolled into their field of vision. Smoke and steam poured from the front of it, obscuring the view of the rich passengers inside screaming and scrambling in their seats. Sparks flew from the wheels like fire-colored snow.

And then, just as soon as it started, it was over. The steam and smoke cleared, and Arthur remained standing on the oil tankard. Someone climbed off of the front of the engine, clearly irate. "What's going on here? What's goin—"

He didn't finish that sentence before Charles rushed forward and knocked him out with a single blow to the back of the head. The conductor crumpled to the ground, unconscious. "Nothing good," Charles growled.

Sean, Holly, and John followed. Holly followed John's lead, going past Charles as he rounded the other side of the train. Arthur moved towards the first passenger car, not even flinching when a guard hopped down off the train with a rifle in hand. Sean knocked him out this time, then saluted Arthur and John before moving for the baggage car. Holly brought Shining Star along the side of the train, level with the windows, giving her a perfect view of what was going on inside.

Arthur and John approached from opposite sides. John shouted something. Arthur fixed a man with a pistol. Everyone on the trains stood up and screamed. One woman fainted right then and there, slumped against the glass.

It was pandemonium. One by one, Arthur and John made their way down the rows and took their valuables. Watches, necklaces, money clips, wallets, even a pair of jewel-studded cufflinks. Those who didn't comply became well acquainted with Arthur's fists until they gave up their things. They all went into John's little bag with frightening efficiency—the entire process must've only lasted a few minutes at most, but Holly didn't bother to check her watch to keep time. Their seamless teamwork was impressive; Holly wouldn't've been remiss to assume that John and Arthur were sharing the exact same brain.

Some passengers caught sight of her sitting there and stared. Others cried out. Holly figured she must've looked a hundred times more intimidating than she felt, out there on a black horse like an omen of death come galloping straight out of the Bibles some women were clutching to their chests. Seemed like an overreaction. Even on the other side of the glass, she was still a scrawny teenager in ill-fitted clothes and a ratty haircut.

Suppose that was the real power of the pistol on her hip.

It showed, too. Holly glanced up from her contemplation at Arthur's shout; a man in a sporting jacket was squeezing his way out of the window over his wife's lap, desperately trying to escape with his riches. He kicked and writhed so hard that neither Arthur nor John could get a hold on his legs and tug him back through

She went up to him. Holly didn't even think before drawing her revolver and aiming straight for the man's head. The escapee looked up to see the barrel of a Schofield right under his nose.

"Don't even think about it," Holly felt as though she had to reach a hand down in her throat and yank the words out. Please, please, please don't make me do this. John said no one has to die here. Please.

The man said nothing, but the message was well received, judging by the way his face drained of all color. He merely backed himself through the window and settled down in his seat. Holly didn't stop until he emptied all his pockets into the bag. For a second, she swore she even saw John nod his approval to her. And curse it; despite herself, Holly felt a damn surge of pride that, once it'd passed, made her question her own sanity until it was time to start moving again.

Holly met Arthur and John as they crossed cars. John tossed his bag to her and she caught it with both hands. It was rather heavy, to her astonishment. She tied it to her saddle and readjusted herself so she wouldn't go slipping sideways off of Shining Star.

"Good work, Miss. H," Arthur said the name rather pointedly, and Holly nodded her understanding back. He motioned her down the line, "Keep goin'. Follow me and Mr. J. Still got plenty more folk to talk to. And remember—eyes open for trouble."

The next car wasn't as full as the last one. Holly kept her revolver drawn but uncocked and aimed for the sky. Patrons gave up their things quite easily, trapped on one side by Holly's revolver and on the other by Arthur's repeater. When he smashed the butt into a man in a top hat and green cravat, blood sprayed up the window. His wife wailed mournfully while she tossed her husband's pocket watch into the bag. They completed the next cart in half the time, but the bag John tossed her was just as heavy as the first.

John and Holly completed the third car on their own. Arthur had run ahead to join Sean in the baggage cart. By now, Charles was rounding the other side of the train to join them at the back. When John tossed her the third bag, it wasn't nearly as weighed down as the others, but still stuffed full of bills and a couple of belt buckles.

A shot rang out, along with what seemed to be Sean cursing. Then two more shots in quick succession. Holly, John on her heels, raced over to find Sean sprawled and grumbling, rubbing the side of his head. A dead man lay on the ground next to him. Arthur was nowhere in sight.

"Where's Arthur?" Charles asked, clambering onto the flatcar.

"Cleanin' out the baggage," was Sean's irritated reply.

"You had one job, MacGuire," John barked. "So much for this changing of the guard you kept jabbering on about."

"Ah, bite my arse, Marston. The damned bloke surprised me is all."

But Holly had stopped paying attention. Back behind them, coming through the very trees they'd been hiding in when the train first stopped, were two lantern lights helmed by mounted riders. She couldn't see them quite yet, but the road on the way here had been dead as carrion. There wasn't a chance in Hell this wasn't trouble.

"Uh, boys?" she called out over her shoulder.

"Just a second," Arthur's disembodied voice sounded from the final car, "I'm almost done in here."

His blasé answer did little to calm her down. Fighting to keep the tremble out of her voice, Holly shot back, "We gotta problem. There're two men on horseback comin' our way."

John and Sean ceased arguing and followed her gaze. Arthur reappeared with a bag of goods draped over his shoulder. He tossed it to her as he asked, "How many of them'd ya say?"

"I just see a pair of them so far."

Arthur and Sean immediately ducked behind a crate. John and Charles retreated back into the final passenger car and crouched against either side of the doorframe. Holly spurred Shining Star into a canter and rounded the other side of the flatcar. The goods in the four bags jingled and bounced at her sides.

"You men come off the train now, do you hear?" one of the men shouted. Even at this distance Holly could see the firelight glint off of the tip of his Lancaster repeater. When no one moved, he spoke again, this time more agitated. "We said, you men come out, now!"

Sparing a final glance back at Sean, then Holly, Arthur shouted into the darkness, "There's only two of ya, ya fools!"

Just like that, Holly saw another flash of light in the woods. Another appeared, then another. "Mr. A," she called out to Arthur, who ignored her.

"We gotta whole lot less to lose! Why don't the two of ya just ride away? That way, neither of ya gets killed!"

More lanterns. Several reinforcements had appeared in the distance, at least five or six, by her best guess. All of them were armed, and angry. Holly felt her blood freeze. "Mr, A!" she screamed. "We got more comin'!"

Arthur craned his neck over the crate and then ducked back down. He was silent for a second, and for the longest of heartbeats no one moved. The lanterns flickered in the distance, holding the promise of a wrath not yet enacted.

And then Arthur stood, repeater in hand. "Run!" was the last thing he shouted at her before turning to fire at the lawmen who'd showed up, Sean rising to follow his lead.

The firefight began, and Holly ran like she'd never ran before.

Holly urged Shining Star straight into a gallop, racing away up the hills like her life depended on it. Gunshots broke out, the cries of the lawmen screeching to chase her down nearly getting drowned out in the chaos. Bags of valuables in tow, Holly pressed herself low into Shining Star's back and felt the wind whip around her as they raced away into the night.

She rounded an abandoned house first, taking Shining Star around the long way until they were completely covered by the broken structure and out of the line of possible fire. Holly kicked her horse faster yet, taking her over hill after hill without knowing where and how far she was going. She pursued the moon, now staring down at her far above New Hanover as Holly fled for her life. Holly didn't dare chance a look back. No one had fired at her yet—she hadn't felt the now-familiar feeling of bullets ripping past her nor heard the banging of gunshots that crept close like starving wolves. She just ran and ran until Shining Star refused to gallop any further.

Holly hadn't much a clue where she was, but she knew that she was alone. All the bags managed to stay tied securely to her saddle. Once she was confident that no one had pursued her (or those who had tried to got cut down before they could get very far), Holly forced herself to loop back around, searching with her binoculars for the rest of the gang.

She started back the way she came but gave the train a wide, circling berth. Holly scanned the horizon as best as she could, straining to hear any sounds of gunfire or horse hooves. The latter came real fast; Holly forced herself and Shining Star to remain perfectly still as a group of five or so riders galloped off into the distance. She couldn't hear much, but it didn't seem like they weren't pursuing: just searching.

After another five minutes of looking, she spied the familiar gray and white spotted hide of Taima, along with two other horses and their riders. Relieved, Holly raced for the group of them at the top of the hill. John, Sean and Charles all stood there, pacing back and forth on their mounts, looking anxious but relatively unhurt. Charles nudged Taima and went to meet her as she made it to the top of the rise.

"Are you hurt?" he asked, voice nervy.

Panting, she shook her head.

John rode to join them, Sean at his side. "You got all the money?" he demanded, sounding shaken.

"It's all here," she assured him, patting one of the bags. "No one followed me thanks to y'all. I think we're…where's Arthur?"

"We don't know," Sean said. "We whistled for our horses when the law thinned out but I dunno if Achilles ever got over to 'im."

Fear surged through her. "So he's still back there?" she squeaked out.

"Arthur'll be fine," Charles assured her, though the waver in his voice didn't make him sound nearly as convincing, "I've seen him get out of worse scrapes than this."

Holly just stared at them all, "I thought you said we don't cut anyone loose!"

John moved forward, "Holly, just wait—"

But Holly didn't hear the rest of it. She was already kicking Shining Star back into a gallop. Down the hill she raced, all three men shouting after her but not audacious enough to follow in pursuit.

It certainly wasn't hard to spot Arthur; Holly only had to race up and down one hill to catch a glimpse of him, the madman. He was but a black silhouette running for his life with five armed men on horseback bearing down on him, more vultures than men. His repeater had been abandoned to the wayside, bouncing over his shoulder with every step he took. Every dozen steps or so he turned around and fired his revolver on heel, but nothing ever found a mark. Conversely, the bullets from the lawmen's' misfired shots peppered the dirt as Arthur zigzagged in an effort to throw off their aim. It was a chaotic game they were playing, and every stride of the lawmens' horses brought Arthur ever closer to a losing hand.

Fear was a fist that closed hard around Holly's heart. She dug her heels into Shining Star's flanks and forced the mare to go faster. She raced in from the side, praying that she intercepted Arthur before the riders could trample him.

Four of the five riders saw Holly before Arthur did. A bullet whistled just over her ear, another skimmed her arm. Holly jerked the reins ever so slightly, not chancing to slow Shining Star down more than she needed to. Holly and Arthur locked eyes. She lowered her left hand as he raised his. Even with only three good fingers, she still managed to make a grab for his wrist and gripped it so tightly that for a second Holly was fearful she'd take his hand clean off his arm.

Holly heaved with all her strength. Arthur hopped slightly onto Shining Star's rump as his momentum suddenly carried him sideways. With their combined effort, it was just enough to pull Arthur safely up onto the mare. Holly spurred Shining Star with all her strength, and together they all rumbled back into the darkness, their pursuers struggling to turn and follow.

Bullets blindly whizzed past them, unable to find their mark. Shining Star, sensing the imminent danger right behind them, merely dug her hooves in and went all the faster. Holly bounced and rocked and fought with every last ounce of her might to keep herself seated proper. She guided them over a hill and into the wide-open plains ahead of them, soaring over the horizon. Arthur hugged Holly's midsection with one hand and held his pistol with the other. He fired—someone behind them screamed.

"You alright?" Holly asked over the noise as Arthur fired thrice more.

When he found time to answer, his voice was heavy with an anger she'd not yet heard from him: almost a staggering show of fury. "Are you a fuckin' moron!?" he snarled. "Why the fuck'd ya come back for me with all the money in tow? Turn left!"

Holly jerked the reins hard. Shining Star's legs skidded in the dirt but she kept her balance and continued to gallop. Holly didn't look back, yet she heard several men and their horses collide with each other as they attempted the turn themselves. Another let out a scream as he was shot off his horse by Arthur.

Holly was scandalized enough into a reply, "I'm a moron!? You needed rescuin'! If one of us didn't come for you, we'd be usin' this money to purchase your corpse from the undertaker!"

"You really that stupid—"

"Don't you dare call me stupid!"

"—to think that these men want us dead just yet!? They'll have us taken to jail first, which will've given Dutch plenty'a time to mount a rescue. You know how many times I been to jail, kid? Least once a month since ya was sucklin' at your ma's tit."

A bullet strayed dangerously close to Holly's leg, so much so that she swore it left a hole in her skirt. Shining Star let out a whinny that sounded almost like a scream, and Arthur cursed aloud. "Fuck, we need to shake 'em or we'll be grindin' this horse's legs to stumps," he pointed to the right, towards a dense forest, stony in the moonlight, "Head in there. We'll lose 'em goin' through."

Holly urged Shining Star over to the woods, ignoring the mare's protest under her legs. They thundered into the forest with the two remaining lawmen hot on their tail. They didn't follow them through, however; when Holly glanced back, she saw that they weren't behind them anymore.

"Stop the horse," Arthur said suddenly.

Holly pulled Shining Star's reins back. The three of them skittered to a halt, pressed on all sides by massive pine trees so thick that barely any light passed through. There was no sound, no noise. Absolutely nothing.

Holly craned her neck to try and catch a glimpse of their pursuers, "Where are they?" she murmured.

"Gone around, tryin' to flank us," Arthur said. "When I say so, turn this horse around and go back the way we came. We'll lose 'em for good that way."

They waited a little while. After a couple of minutes, Arthur gave the go-ahead and Holly turned Shining Star around. They cantered slowly back through the forest at Arthur's behest, not even daring to raise their voices. But they exited the forest unchallenged, and no one came for them as Holly led them all back into the empty wilds of the Heartlands.

It wasn't until after another few more minutes that Holly, fully basted in her own anger now that the danger of the moment had passed, spoke up again, "Y'know, you should be thankin' me, Arthur."

"I don't thank lil' kids who don't use common sense," was Arthur's agitated answer.

"It ain't stupid to save your life," she snapped.

"You know why Dutch and all the rest of us ain't dead yet? Because we follow orders and we use our brains and we listen. You hear that? We listen," Holly's scowl deepened at Arthur's scathing response. "Try it sometime. You might find ya like it."

"I do listen," Holly argued for herself, "but some gratitude for comin' back for you would've been nice, at least."

Arthur spat at the notion. "You ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, ya should've passed off the money to the others before mountin' this little rescue mission?" he sneered. "Or maybe told John, who can shoot, ride, and kill far better than you can, to go and get me? If ya were to lose all this money, Miss. Monroe, then tell me what I'd say to Dutch and Hosea when I have to explain that the sixteen-year-old who tagged along singlehandedly lost all our take. Or better yet, tell me what to say if I came back and had nothin' to show for this job except for the corpse of that sixteen-year-old who tagged along, but didn't use the few remainin' thoughts in her brain to know when to listen to orders and stay outta trouble she don't belong in."

That shut her up good. Holly didn't even bother to open her mouth because she knew she had no rebuttal.

They rode in silence for a while. They never spotted John or the others, but then again, they never spotted the law again. Holly supposed that was a decent compromise, but she couldn't much bear the anger Arthur had held for her as she raced down that hill in an attempt to save his life.

"I'm sorry," she finally said. "It woulda been better if I stayed back with the money."

She wasn't expecting Arthur's surprised grunt. "It ain't just that. Dutch told me when I was younger that in this life, every second wasted is another cent lost," he said. "And every second I don't spend worryin' 'bout ya, or Sean, or even Marston, is another second I get to get myself outta my own scrapes."

"You ain't gotta worry about me. I can handle myself just fine," Holly assured him.

"Kid, ya do realize that's just 'bout the stupidest thing you can tell yourself. If people were honest, they'd make that the epitaph of every single fuckin' gravestone from here to Seattle," Arthur snapped, though there wasn't that much passion behind it anymore. "The only people that say they can handle themselves are downright fools. And you, Miss. Monroe, are not a fool. Least, I don't think so. Tonight's provin' me otherwise."

She wasn't a fool. Alright, she was a liar and a coward, but she wasn't a fool. Holly twisted the reins in her hand as she mentally corrected herself. Damn herself if she slipped further and further into her own growing self-disgust without doing something to help herself.

"I'm sorry," Holly whispered again. "I didn't think about it that way. It won't happen again."

For a second, Holly braced herself for Arthur to scold her further. He didn't. "Just count yourself lucky we kept all our money and got outta this unscathed," he said evenly. "But for fuck's sake, keep your head next time. I already got Sean's ego swellin' up to be bigger than Arkansas, and John's always been fulla himself. Not to mention the tick on my side by the name of Micah Bell. I'd prefer to not have to concern myself with ya, neither."

"I'll do better. You can count on me."

"Words mean nothin' if ya can't back 'em up," he sighed at that, "Just…just don't do it again."

She nodded vigorously. As she did so, they found the path back out towards camp, snaking back along west. Holly kept their pace brisk, not much liking how the loot kept jingling with every step. It was nothing but an alarm to signal exactly where they were. No one else ever came for them, however.

"Hey, Arthur, can I ask you somethin'?"

"Hm?"

"I thought this was a foolproof job," that was one of the first things Sean had sulked about when filling Holly in that afternoon, "Why'd the law turn up so quick?"

Arthur grunted in a manner that told her that the same question had been running through his mind as well. "I dunno, kid," he confessed. "Between ya and me, I'm startin' to get a bit nervous stayin' here. Pinkertons know we're close, and I've already had a run-in with some feller who recognized me in Blackwater. 'Fore long, we're gonna have too many hounds with our scent. The money we got from this job, it ain't near enough to move us out west for good."

"Are we in—" Holly broke off. "Are we in that deep of shit?"

"I think that lot was just locals. I wouldn't worry about it too much."

Funny. Holly didn't think she'd stopped worrying since she set foot in Horseshoe Overlook for the first time. She didn't necessarily find solace in the reassurance.

"Arthur! Holly! Hey!"

Holly and Arthur snapped their heads up towards the sound of their names. Sean thundered down the rise on Ennis, Charles and John in tow. Achilles trailed behind them, to which Arthur growled something about his dumb horse and lowered himself off of Shining Star's rear.

John approached her with a tirade on his lips, eye blazing, "You think that—"

"Cool it, Marston," Arthur said, tone clearly signaling that the situation had already been dealt with. He untied the loot bags one by one, "We're fine. We got the money and no one tailin' us."

John appeared to be biting his tongue so hard it was difficult to believe he wasn't bleeding from the mouth. Arthur, loot in hand, mounted his own horse and started tossing their share out to the lot of them. Holly bobbled a thick stack of bills with her maimed hand but managed to hold onto it.

"That was fun, boys! Real fun!" Sean said, joyfully ignoring the tension as he took his own reward, "I can see why they call ya professionals'a the outfit!"

"Shut up," the four of them groaned at the same time.

Sean laughed it off, "Least we made some money. And what did I get? Gotta be a hundred dollars here! Very nice!"

"And you weren't even invited," Arthur grumbled.

John, flipping through his own stack of bills, made a face. "What now?" he asked over Sean's delighted laughter.

"We still need a real big take," Arthur said. "Enough for us to get outta here."

John accepted that, though he still looked none too happy about it, "I'm gonna head into Valentine, see if I can get something started there," he offered.

"Good idea," Arthur said, looking thoughtful. "Either way, we should split up. Charles and Sean, ride east and loop around north. Holly, stick with me and we'll circle south. John, head for Valentine. You know the deal—don't be followed."

"Ah, a' course not, boss," Sean said with a mock bow on top of his horse. Charles rolled his eyes and didn't dare indulge him.

All five of them galloped away. Holly fell behind Arthur as he led them up and over the hills once more, feeling the heat of the rising sun hot on her back as a new day dawned before them.

Chapter Text

Inhale. Exhale. Holly loaded another bullet and brought the scope up to her eye. "Just you watch, girl," Holly said aloud to Shining Star. No doubt the mare was burying her nose into a nearby patch of grass instead of paying attention, not that it mattered much.

She pulled the trigger and felt the gun kick back into her shoulder. Some fifteen or twenty yards below, the soda bottle she'd been aiming for burst into fine dust, scattering about the ground. Holly lowered the rifle, sighing in a way that she supposed suggested contentedness. She fished around in her satchel for another bullet but only came up with an empty carton.

"Darn," Holly murmured.

Back into Valentine it was.

The wind whirled around Citadel Rock, hot and brisk and unyielding. White, puffy clouds hung high in the sky, casting their giant shadows over the unending plains. Holly slung the rifle over her shoulder, tossed the empty box of rifle ammunition next to the other two boxes she'd gone through that morning, and set about readying Shining Star for the return trip. Far below at the bottom of the hill, the broken remnants of bottles, cans, and other acceptable targets littered the earth.

It'd been three weeks since she and Arthur had gone to confront Flaco Hernandez, two since the five of them had robbed that train. June was winding down into July, finally chasing away the persistent chill that seemed to have sunken it's teeth into New Hanover since April. Every day when she'd finished her chores, Holly would come out here and practice her rifle shooting. It was like she had an entire world to herself; most days it was completely devoid of people, and Holly was more than happy to shoot away to her heart's content and get a handle for her new gun without someone raising an eyebrow.

A part of Holly wondered why she was even bothering. She wasn't going to be taking part in a shootout or going out and nailing O'Driscolls in the head at her first opportunity. Holly toiled in her reasoning for a little while until she went on a small stagecoach robbery with Lenny and John. She was only serving as the distraction. All she had to do was lie down on the ground, clutch her ankle, and wail like a lost child. When her part was done, she spent the entire rest of the robbery staring at the way Lenny held his rifle—the way he held it, where he placed his hands, how he seamlessly loaded shot after shot and never had his eyes stray from the target. Holly was so transfixed that she almost didn't notice when the driver tried rushing off for the law. Three shots into the air from her revolver and a barked curse from John was more than enough to change his mind.

"Your morbid curiosity with Lenny's gun nearly cost us this job," Holly was honestly impressed John didn't spit on the money he handed her after all was said and done.

After that, she told herself that that was all it was. Morbid curiosity. Had a nice ring to it. Sometimes, Holly thought of John's face as she practiced. Immature, sure, but she found that she placed her shots a lot better when she did so.

Learning to fire a gun was a slow, painful process. Literally. Holly had only just stopped nursing a bruised shoulder from the gun's recoil, fierce and unwieldy like a roiling storm. Targets were usually anything Holly could get her hands on that wouldn't be missed around camp. Every drained beer bottle and vodka handle found its way into her collection at some point or another. Sometimes she'd buy moonshine jugs and canned food from the general store, much to the shopkeeper's confusion. Holly'd even started trying to place bullets through apples and pears like some sort of proverbial William Tell. Most of her spare change went to boxes of ammunition—three per day she practiced, usually. The first day, she'd hit a target four times, and dotted the earth with holes from all the rest of her attempts. It took all the pride she could muster up to not quit right then and there.

And after all was said and done, she'd head back to Horseshoe Overlook. Usually she'd save a few bullets for hunting on the return trip. If she couldn't bag a deer, she'd look for herbs or berries (aided by the compendium that she'd "borrowed" off of Arthur's night table). And if that failed, she'd spend some of her own money at the butcher's for fresh meat or cheese. Holly tried her best not to return to camp without contributions for Pearson or Mr. Matthews; Miss. Grimshaw was far more likely to forgive her for straying out of camp if she at least came back with something useful to show for it.

But it was purely Holly's own fault that she was riding back into Valentine empty-handed. She had only just reached a point where she was hitting more targets than she was missing. Of the ninety shots she fired, she'd hit forty-nine and missed forty-one. So caught up in the euphoria of her success, Holly forgot to ration the remainder of her ammo and kicked herself about it the entire ride back into town…

…Which led her here, at Mr. Wilson's stall, scrutinizing the meager amount of meat that remained. Holly tried not to frown as she purchased the spareribs and loins from the butcher's final kill. "A pleasure as always, Miss. Sullivan," Mr. Wilson bid her farewell with a smile as Holly tucked the meat into Shining Star's saddlebag. She returned it, waving goodbye as she guided her horse up through Valentine's main street towards the gun store.

For as beautiful a day it was, there was hardly anyone outside. Two men in suits that looked far too polished for the likes of a livestock town were the only souls milling about, sharing beers on the steps of the general store. Holly gave them a wave that wasn't returned. Pursing her lips, she wandered on, not thinking much of it.

As she tied Shining Star outside the sheriff's office, a curious sight came marching out of the Valentine gun store. About five or six men—all dressed to the nines in alike crisp suits—filed out the door, chatting amongst each other. None of them paid much attention to her, turning the corner and heading down the road to the hotel down the street. Holly paused halfway through a brushstroke and observed silently. Every single one of them carried a new repeater. She could see the way the sun glowed off the freshly-oiled metal, each gun as identical as the men who wielded them: sets of long-lost twins, it seemed.

But Holly thought nothing much else of it as she entered the gun store. Mr. James Farrow, a plump, eager, and unmindful man of fifty, stood behind the counter. His tart expression melted as he caught sight of her; "Good afternoon, Miss. Sullivan," he greeted her chipperly.

"Afternoon, Mr. Farrow," Holly returned the greeting with a smile, "How's business?"

"Ask the men who just left. Near cleaned me out of house and home," Mr. Farrow bent down under the counter as Holly fished out some money. "Let me guess. Same order as yesterday?"

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Farrow placed a box of rifle ammunition on the counter, still looking around for more, "Your brother enjoying that rolling block?" he asked from the floor.

"Sure is, Mr. Farrow. Uses it every day. My pa can hardly get him to put it down."

Standing up with the two extra boxes of ammo, Mr. Farrow wiped his brow with the back of his arm. Holly placed the exact change on the counter and swept the boxes towards her. "You'll have to excuse my clutter, Miss. Sullivan," Mr. Farrow apologized as he counted up the money. "Those fellows who were in here before you near bought every rifle, bullet, and scope from here to Tuscaloosa. Swear they were out looking to bag a herd of goddamn bison, if you'll pardon my language."

Holly hesitated. Something was twinging in her gut. "You know who any of those men were?" she asked as innocently as possible, stuffing the last box into her satchel.

"Afraid not. Looked real fancy, didn't they? Like city folk or something," Mr. Farrow was polishing the volcanic pistol he kept in the display case now, unaware of Holly's momentary pause, "They mentioned something about keeping inside. Weather's probably rolling in."

Sure, weather. On the clearest day since last June.

Holly found herself gripping the strap of her satchel, her mind beginning to race. She forced a smile on her face that didn't seem at all natural, but Mr. Farrow's attention was still all for his wares. "Better get home 'fore my pa gets mad. Don't want to get caught up in the storm," Holly excused herself hurriedly, "Thanks again, Mr. Farrow."

He didn't look up, "Come back any time, Miss. Sullivan."

"Will do," Holly said as she closed the door. When the lock clicked in place, Holly turned around and rescanned Valentine with fresh eyes.

The town was well and truly deserted. Not a soul in sight. But was it? As Holly crossed the road towards Shining Star, she caught a bit of movement here, a flash of color there. Someone was hiding behind the corner around the bank. Yet another was crouching behind the railing on the balcony of the doctor's office. Several were filing around the corner behind the hotel, the patrons outside watching them in interest. Holly saw one of the mysterious men pause, speak to the hotel-goers, and them move to follow his brethren. As if each possessed by the same creature, the men and women outside the hotel filed one by one back into the hotel with a haste that seemed too atypical of the citizens of Valentine for Holly to think that it wasn't prompted by something urgent.

Every single man she saw was wearing some immaculate suit. Pristine and pressed, not at all here for livestock or hunting. Here for something else.

"Van der Linde! Get out here! Get out here now!"

Holly turned towards the shout. The shout of a man who was unmistakably very, very angry. Angry enough, she quickly realized, to arm an entire city's worth of men to satisfy that anger. A storm indeed. But not the kind you could just hope to weather—not if you ran with that very gang of outlaws.

Acting more on fright than logic, Holly slid the rifle out of Shining Star's saddle holster and slung it on over her shoulder. Then, she untied the mare's reins and gave her a good slap on the hindquarters. Shining Star tore up the hill past the church, neighing. It was as if she could sense the impending storm for herself.

Holly ran for the side of the building where the newspaper boy usually stood (now long gone, of course, though probably for the best given the inevitable), and peeked around the side towards the train station. A crowd had formed in front of Keane's Saloon, and Holly's stomach flipped in on itself.

The man dressed most sharply of all had been the one doing all the shouting. Holly couldn't get a good look at his front, but if the back of his bald head told her anything, his face was reddening at what would've been a very humorous pace had the situation not been so grim. He spouted curses from safely atop his Tennessee Walker, as polished and authoritative as he was unhinged and furious. He was accompanied by several more men in suits and bowties. One grappled with a man in a light gray suit, another was forcing a man who looked alarmingly like John to his knees, a pistol pressed to his temple.

"Get out here, you depraved piece of trash!" the affluent man screeched at the front of Keane's as though he thought he could simply yell the door down. "You think I got where I am by letting scum like you rob from me?"

Her eyes frozen on the scene, Holly could only watch as the man in the light gray suit was forced to the ground. The affluent man issued an order with a wave of his hand, then urged his horse into a gallop. Holly retreated backwards and pressed herself into the side of the wall, not even daring to breathe as he thundered past her down the road. Mud sprayed everywhere. Holly stared, surprising even herself at her composure. But the affluent man didn't see her, and she didn't dare look back to see if he would return.

Instead, she turned back to the standoff. Mr. van der Linde had since come outside, all dressed in his own dark finery. Arthur stood several paces to the side. Mr. van der Linde was saying things she couldn't hear from this distance, clearly trying to appease the men who were holding his own at gunpoint. The man in the suit—it had to be Herr Strauss, it couldn't really be anyone else—squirmed desperately, but John remained perfectly calm. No, not calm. No doubt he was scared shitless, but he was expecting something.

Holly's eyes fell on Arthur just as he moved for his sidearm.

He was as quick as a gator and three times as deadly. In what was barely five second, three of the suited men were dead from headshots. Mr. van der Linde claimed a man of his own with several bullets to the chest. And John, free from his captor's grip thanks to Arthur, managed to lunge for the sidearm of the man holding Herr Strauss, grab it, and fire it as he fell. In what had barely been a single beat of Holly's heart, all five of the suited men were dead.

But there were more coming. There were dozens of more coming.

Holly ran out of cover and sprinted for the four gang members but she couldn't have chosen a worse time to do so. From the other side of town rode in two horse-driven carts, suited men jumping out the back. They were firing before they even had clear targets; Holly felt bullets ripping through the air around her, trying to find a mark, any mark, never mind what that mark was.

Herr Strauss was the first to notice her arrival. She didn't hear him shout her name, but Mr. van der Linde turned like her presence had summoned him. Holly, for the first time since falling in with him, saw something other than the dark brown of his eyes; the whites of surprise. "Duck!" he shouted.

Holly threw herself into the mud behind an overturned hay cart. The air was a symphony of gunfire and Herr Strauss's terrified wailing. Arthur grunted in outrage, and Mr. van der Linde shouted out something encouraging. Holly didn't dare to raise her head to make sense of the bedlam erupting around her.

Until John pulled her to her feet, that was. He was pale, bleeding from a graze on his arm, and almost as incensed as the affluent man was. "What are you doing here!?" he screamed at her, his grip making her arm go numb.

She shook her hand away. "I was just in town! I wasn't doin' nothin'!" she cried. "What's goin' on!?"

"Pinkertons are what's going on!" John fired at a man over her shoulder—Holly turned around to watch the Pinkerton fall from the headshot. Arthur turned back with the intent to thank him but found her standing there and clearly had a shift in mindset.

Without warning, Holly was shoved aside by John. She toppled behind a stack of crates and was joined by him not a second later. John raised his stolen gun and fired at a man coming down the stairs of the gun store. Blood splattered the gray walls as the Pinkerton lost the use of his legs and collapsed down the remainder of the steps. Arthur joined their cover right afterwards, cutting down man after man with deadly precision.

"Push up! Stay with me!" Now it was Mr. van der Linde yanking her to her feet. She fell in line with him. Herr Strauss led the way to Valentine's main street. Mr. van der Linde and Holly were in close pursuit, the former shielding the latter with his body while firing from all sides. John and Arthur brought up the rear, the metallic clinking of bullets being loaded and extracted almost as persistently jarring as the gunfire itself.

Mr. van der Linde motioned towards a cart abandoned next to the gun store, half empty and missing horses to pull it. "Where are you going!?" Herr Strauss screamed, "That's right at them!"

Holly looked up. Two Pinkertons were coming around the sheriff's office, charging right at their defenseless positions.

"We don't run, Mr. Strauss!" Mr. van der Linde declared.

Holly heard the click of Mr. van der Linde's pistol right in her ear, and it was as if her senses were jogged straight back to the present.

She drew her own revolver. As Mr. van der Linde cut one man down, Holly fired five shots of her own at the other one. Two missed, another two found his shoulder, one found his left side; a final shot to the head from John's gun finished him off.

Behind her, Holly heard Herr Strauss cry out in pain. She turned—he'd gone right to the ground, clutching at his leg. Blood was streaming from it, staining the mud crimson.

John and Arthur came up from behind and joined the three of them at the abandoned cart. Men were shouting. Bullets were flying. Holly couldn't recall a moment before this where she'd felt more terrified in her life. Her heart pounding against her ribs was the only indication that it simply hadn't burst out of her chest and run away by now.

John and Arthur were loading Herr Strauss in the cart, per Mr. van der Linde's instruction, "John, we'll push the wagon. Miss. Monroe, climb up there and use that gun to provide covering fire. Arthur, shoot something!"

Before Holly could protest, question, or even clarify, she was suddenly lifted off her feet by Mr. van der Linde and thrown into the back of the cart. Her eyes met his, and she saw her own panic reflected back in them. "You do know how to fire that gun, Miss. Monroe?" Mr. van der Linde asked. But it wasn't truly a question, and Holly knew that. Rather, it was an unspoken burden.

It was as if the entire world was suddenly muted, only for a second. A new, indescribable weight fell on her shoulders. Responsibility that would break the back of a weaker man.

Against her better judgement, she couldn't bring herself to lie. She nodded.

"Then you best aim true," Mr. van der Linde told her with a solemnity that carried death itself.

Holly scrambled over Herr Strauss, mumbling a quick apology when she accidentally treaded over his fingers. She grabbed her rifle and the world resumed.

Inhale. The scope went to her cheek, just as she had practiced. Pinkertons were streaming out of every door, window, crack, side, crevice, and post like ants racing out of an anthill. Exhale. Holly aimed for a man coming around the corner of the general store and fired. She caught him in his dominant shoulder, and he dropped his gun to clutch at his mangled arm. Holly ducked down into cover as she fished around for a new bullet. She heard Arthur shout something incoherent as he himself reloaded.

The cart moved excruciatingly slow. John and Mr. van der Linde would pause every couple of feet to fire at a never-ending wave of Pinkertons who wouldn't stop coming, as though they were making multiples of themselves around the corners. Holly loaded and reloaded, inhaled and exhaled, shot as many men as she could see. They would usually go down screaming, clutching at their shoulders and chests, their guns clattering uselessly to the ground. If they got up again, a well-placed bullet from Arthur's repeater gave them a precious few seconds to regret the very last decision of their lives. Mr. van der Linde had gone from panic to laughter with incredible speed at their efficiency. Still, they rolled on. Holly fired at every opportunity she had, and one box of empty ammunition dropped to the floor of the cart, soon to be joined by another.

"You wanna aim for their fucking heads?" John yelled over the commotion when Holly crippled another man's shooting shoulder on the balcony of the hotel. He went down screaming. Holly ignored John, too focused on reloading another shot. Beneath her, Herr Strauss moaned.

John spoke up again, but this time his ire wasn't for her, "It's just a scratch! Shut up!"

"You can talk," that was Arthur's biting reply, "We all heard ya whine about a little knick from a wolf!"

"Would you shut up and kill these bastards!?" Mr. van der Linde screamed.

Holly rose, rifle in hand. Her eyes flicked upwards to the man she'd downed not a minute ago on the hotel balcony. He had pulled himself up, leaning against the railing. Blood streamed from his shoulder, his perfect suit soiled. In his good hand was his revolver. Trained right at her face.

She moved to hold up her rifle but she wasn't quick enough.

"Miss. Monroe—"

That was the last thing Holly heard before blinding pain seared across her cheek and ear.

She fell backwards. Holly heard herself scream but it was a strange sound, distorted and cut short. She toppled over Herr Strauss's legs onto her stomach, one arm hanging out of the back of the cart. The sting told her the bullet ripped a path down the right side of her face and nicked her ear along the way. Holly could feel blood streaming down the side of her face, but it hardly seemed to register through the pain. Her sweaty hair fell in her eyes. Someone, Holly wasn't sure if it was Mr. van der Linde or Arthur, was screaming her name but it was about as effective as calling from the other side of a canyon.

Holly tasted blood in her mouth. She panted, lips parted, staring at the mud below her.

The world slowed down.

She looked up.

Holly saw Mr. van der Linde first. Wide eyes threatened to engulf her, deep and dark in alarm for her. Holly saw his mouth moving, heard the beginnings of words on his lips, but that wasn't what was concerning her.

Arthur was looking at her too, surprise leaking through that stony façade he wore whenever they found themselves in situations like this. But he was so caught up in staring at her to make sure she was still even alive that he forgot to cover their rear. Two Pinkertons were charging, unchallenged, getting ever closer. One heartbeat equaled one foot to them. They raised their guns. Bellowed words she wouldn't hear. Not for the first time, Holly found herself staring death in their face, pinned down by all the weight on her shoulders.

Are you a weaker man, Holly Monroe?

So Holly took up her burden.

As though she was moving underwater, Holly drew her revolver and aimed, her mind startlingly clear. One shot for the man on the left, his head jerking back as the bullet found a home in his right eye socket. Holly readjusted her aim for the other Pinkerton, who was now slowing down for the death of his brother in arms. He certainly felt the first bullet go straight through his throat, but probably didn't feel the second bury itself right through his head. Red rained down. The two bodies fell. Time rolled onwards.

Arthur's words died on his lips as the shots from Holly's revolver snapped him back to attention. He turned around in time to see more Pinkertons charging in from behind. Mr. van der Linde helped her to her knees, a horrified-looking John watching on, "Holly, are you alright?"

Holly didn't answer. She thought she nodded but for all she knew it could've been just an unconscious wobble of the head. She returned to her place without prompting, picked up her gun, and loaded another shot.

The Pinkerton who'd shot her was long dead thanks to John, red dripping from his head and onto the ground below. Holly adjusted her aim; a Pinkerton had somehow gotten onto the second floor of the horse stables and was preparing to rain hell down upon them. Holly fired once and missed. She reloaded quickly. The next bullet found it's mark, and the sniper toppled backwards, dead as a doornail.

Holly cut down another man who'd come running out from the doors of the stables, then another who poked his head up from behind a water trough, and yet another who attempted to round the butcher's stall. The pain along her face was far gone now, tucked into the back of her mind like all of her many lies, and Holly could practically taste the adrenaline roaring through her body in its place.

"Why don't you run now, while you still can!" Mr. van der Linde jeered as Arthur, John, and Holly each killed another Pinkerton apiece.

The cart lurched to a full stop right in front of the hotel. Holly gripped the edge of it with her left hand to prevent herself from toppling face-first into the mud. Mr. van der Linde pointed across the road as Holly reloaded her pistol, John dropped another man, and Arthur narrowly ducked under the bullet of another Pinkerton coming around the general store, "That's our horses over there! Come on, grab Strauss!"

Holly jumped to the ground, nearly losing her balance. Blood dripped down her face and onto the earth. Herr Strauss screamed in the back of the cart as John rushed off to join Mr. van der Linde at the horses. "Please, you can't leave me like this!", he cried.

Arthur dropped another man with his revolver, and Holly fired three times at a man coming down the street in one last-ditch effort to gun them down. One hit his chest, and another hit his head. He slid slightly on the incline as his body hit the mud and didn't move any more.

And then silence. Beautiful, blissful silence. Holly holstered her pistol and, after a moment's pause, slid her rifle over her shoulder. The stench of death was slowly accumulating, dragging Holly ever so slightly out of her trance.

Meanwhile, Arthur had taken up a still-bawling Herr Strauss. "You're fine," he growled, annoyed.

"I'm not fine," Herr Strauss insisted.

It was around there that Arthur ceased paying attention. He turned to Holly instead; she didn't miss the way he suppressed a flinch when he saw her, but for what she didn't know. "Where's your horse?" he demanded.

She shook her head, "Dunno. Gone." Her voice didn't sound like her own.

"Then go on!" Arthur shouted at her, "Go find your horse and get outta here!"

"But I—"

Arthur's next order was halfway to a snarl. He waved her on with his free hand, "But nothin'! Get your horse and get the hell outta here 'fore more show up!"

Holly wanted to protest but her legs were backpedaling against her will. With one last look at the four van der Linde gangers, Holly spun on her heel and raced for the woods on the outskirts of town. Behind her, she heard the stamping of hooves and the neighing of horses as Mr. van der Linde, Herr Strauss, Arthur, and John bolted from the massacre.

She whistled with all her breath and might for Shining Star, and when it didn't work she did it again. Holly, lost in all her thoughts, tripped over the hem of her skirt and fell face face-first in the dirt. She rose shakily, venturing off the road and sprinting into the woods. She whistled again to no avail.

Someone shouted after her. Holly turned. Three Pinkertons were hot on her tail, revolvers raised.

Holly drew her own gun and fired blindly as bullets scored through the trees around her. She didn't hit anything, but it was barely enough for her pursuers to pull up a meager amount. Holly cut up the hill, tired and fumbling.

Something above Holly screamed down on her. She glanced up in time to see Shining Star galloping down the hill, slowing down gradually next to her rider. Holly barely had enough time to scramble up into the saddle and clutch at the reins with slippery hands before her mare, spooked by the sound of Pinkerton gunfire, sprinted for the safety of the woods. It was a battle to keep mounted with only one of Holly's feet in the stirrup but she managed to hold on, clawing for Shining Star's neck and anything else that would give her a better grip.

For ten minutes, she let Shining Star gallop without guidance, heading for the safety of the New Hanover wilderness. Holly was merely a passenger, if nothing else, and clung on for dear life as Shining Star's hooves boomed throughout the forests. And then, finally, she slowed. First to a canter and then to a trot and finally to a walk. Holly rearranged herself on her steed and guided her onward when they both recovered their wits enough to keep going.

Holly went north first, then looped east through the woods, then turned south when she knew that she was well beyond Valentine. Not a Pinkerton had managed to find her, but Holly wasn't taking her chances by cutting any closer to town in case more remained there. As they headed south, cutting between Citadel Rock and the Heartland Oil Fields on her way to Twin Stack Pass, the adrenaline that had been keeping Holly going was starting to fade. The pain in her face gradually returned, and fresh air only made it sting worse. Holly, dizzy and weak, now found herself fighting to stay awake as twilight descended over New Hanover and the long day drew to a merciful end.

By the time Holly found her way back into Horseshoe Overlook, the last of the light had nearly faded away. Camp was noisier than she remembered—Holly wondered why on Earth Miss. Grimshaw was letting the gang get so rowdy for no apparent reason. They were just attacked, for goodness sake. This wasn't the time to celebrate.

"Who's there?"

Holly weakly lolled her head towards Javier's call from the undergrowth. "It's Holly," she managed to say.

The bushes parted to reveal the man in question, lowering his rifle. "You're back!" Javier exclaimed. Holly nodded to him, light-headed and woozy, as he went on, "Where've you bee—oh mierda, what happened to your face!?"

"My face?" Holly echoed stupidly.

Javier drew a finger across his cheek, "You got a nasty cut on your face, chica," he said anxiously.

"I do?" Holly pressed fingers to her right cheek and was vaguely surprised when they came back soaked with blood. The pain seemed so far away not so long ago, like it'd never happened. She glanced down and flinched; her cream blouse was soaked down to the chest with her own blood, sticky and warm and wet against her skin. Absentmindedly, she brushed her fingers over her cheek again and this time peeled back a clump of her own hair, blood having long since stained the brown to black.

Javier didn't waste any time, "Miss. Grimshaw! Holly's hurt! Get Hosea!"

Holly wondered if she passed out after that, because she didn't remember dismounting, nor heading deeper into camp, nor being helped to the ground with Miss. Grimshaw on one side and Mr. Matthews on the other. Holly whimpered as she finally came to and sat, supported against Swanson's wagon of medicine and aliments.

"Jesus Christ, that's deep," that was Miss. Grimshaw. Holly didn't think she'd ever heard her sound so concerned. "What do you think, Mr. Matthews? Stiches?"

Mr. Matthews worry seemed to rival Miss. Grimshaw's on the reply, "We don't got much choice. Cut's still bleeding after all this time? It's deep, no doubt about it."

Holly heard Mr. Matthews lower his voice and saw him lean in to whisper something in Miss. Grimshaw's ear. The look she gave him as she pulled away was haunted, but resolute. With one last look at her, she pulled away. "I'm going to go get the needle," she announced. Holly watched the folds of her red dress swish as she hurried away.

Her head lolled to Mr. Matthews. "What'd you say to her?" Holly asked softly.

Averting his gaze, Mr. Matthews answered with a short "Nothing, Holly. Don't worry."

"Mr. Matthews?" Holly whispered, and his eyes shot back to her.

Finally, he answered with a reluctant shake of the head. "I said that it was lucky that bullet didn't take your head off," he said firmly.

Holly knew that she had to breathe but could barely manage that. His words felt like she'd just been shot in the gut instead of the face.

"Holly, listen. We aren't going to concern ourselves with ifs, buts, and maybes," Mr. Matthews bent down to her level, gaze intense but sympathetic. "We're going to stitch this up and leave this all behind us, alright? Alright?"

It took several more "alrights" before Holly at last nodded back.

"Miss. Monroe!"

Mr. van der Linde was cutting his way through the busy crowd of gang member scrambling here and there, Miss. Grimshaw hard on his heels with a needle and thread clutched in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. He bent down on her other side, and Mr. Matthews made room for Miss. Grimshaw to join them on the ground.

"Here, use this," Mr. van der Linde handed Miss. Grimshaw a handkerchief, which she took and promptly overturned the bottle into. Mr. van der Linde clapped Holly on the shoulder, "Miss. Monroe, my dear, that was some lovely shooting you did back there."

Through the fogginess, Holly managed to nod slightly. "It was?"

"Oh, most certainly," Mr. van der Linde took Holly's maimed hand with both of his, beaming at her. "We'd've all been government mincemeat without your gun."

Holly didn't manage to thank Mr. van der Linde for his praise before Miss. Grimshaw butted in, handkerchief in hand. "I'm sorry, but this is going to hurt, sweetie," she warned.

The budding smile was wiped clean off of Holly's face as the alcohol-soaked cloth was pressed into her cheek. Holly let out a scream that she quickly bit back. Her one hand was safely trapped in Mr. van der Linde's clutches, and Mr. Matthews was quick to take her free hand in his, wincing as she gripped it with all her strength.

The handkerchief came back russet. Mr. Matthews moved to give Miss. Grimshaw a hand as they began to sew the wound closed. Mr. van der Linde lingered for a moment longer, however. "You were very brave. And excellent with that rifle, I might add," he said. "Miss. Grimshaw and Mr. Matthews will have you stitched up and you'll be able to rest up on the way outta here. You've got nothing to worry about, Miss. Monroe."

Out of the corner of her eye, Holly saw something dark flash across Mr. Matthews' features, though he held his tongue and remained focused on the stitching.

Confusion registered through the pain. "What'd'ya mean, 'on the way outta here'?" she mumbled, but quickly shut her mouth with Miss. Grimshaw ordered her to keep still.

The look Mr. van der Linde gave her was as uneasy as it was final. "I got Arthur and Charles scouting out a place east of here. A place where we can go back to lying low again. We'll be nice and safe there—safer than we ever were here, I assure you."

Holly blinked, sorting through her thoughts. At once, the urgency of the camp became clear to her. Her attention flitted around. Mr. Pearson was directing Mrs. Adler and Bill on how to go about packing up the chuck wagon, while Sean and Kieran were slipping the horses into their bridles and bits. Even Jack was doing his share, rolling up clothes with his mother. The air buzzed with fear, cold and palpable.

But that wasn't what made Holly's blood freeze up. Moving east was just Mr. van der Linde's fancy way of saying they were moving states. Heading east, away from the Pinkertons and away from the consequences.

And the only eastward state they could go to before hitting the Gulf was Lemoyne.

Home sweet home.

Chapter Text

Their escape from Horseshoe Overlook was a disoriented, hazy blur to her. Holly, stitched, bandaged, and light-headed, was instructed to sit back and let everyone else handle the packing. Miss. Grimshaw said it was because her stitches were in danger of coming undone with too much exertion and Holly couldn't muster up enough strength to argue with her. Conversations passed by her like fish darting downstream. She heard her name once or twice, as well as Arthur's, and John's, and other ones that didn't make sense to her. Milton, Ross, Cornwall, among others. Holly was passed out, curled up on a spare bedroll, without pestering the others about what it all meant.

She was roused a couple of hours later as the last of the supplies were loaded and people were climbing onto their horses and into the wagons. Mr. Matthews looked like his heart near about stopped after Holly asked where her horse was so she could mount up. She was directed to a cart with Ms. Roberts, Jack, and Reverend Swanson instead, directed by Sean and Lenny with Maggie and Ennis driving. They sat in silence, either unable to talk or unwilling to, as the caravan began its long journey east.

Holly, wound burning, spent most of the trip drifting in and out of consciousness. When she awoke, it wasn't for more than a couple of minutes at a time before she floated off again. Once, she blinked her eyes open to the harsh light of the noon sun high above, Lenny reading Paradise Lost aloud to the cart's passengers. Another time, Holly managed to keep awake for several of the reverend's best hymns; Sean sang in a boisterous baritone, immune to everyone's jesting. At night, Holly awoke to her head in Ms. Roberts' lap as she stroked her hair, using a gentle touch mothers reserved for their children. Holly kept her eyes closed and lost herself in the motion. She'd never dare admit to it, but something warm sparked in her memory as Ms. Roberts whispered soothing things in her ear: some long-lost emotion now found. Holly clung to consciousness for as long as she could until Ms. Roberts herself passed out, and then sleep claimed her once more.

The van der Linde Gang met up with Arthur—he himself looking ready to collapse on his own two feet right then and there—two days after abandoning Horseshoe Overlook. What they'd decided camp was lay on the shores of Flat Iron Lake on a tiny little spit of sand and dried grass. A live oak marked the center of camp, casting shade with its long branches and bright leaves. Waves lapped on the shore, gentle and calming. They all needed something gentle and calming after what had happened in Valentine, Holly figured. Even two days after the massacre, half the camp was still ashen-faced and shaky upon their arrival to their new home. Several hadn't slept in as many days. Holly asked to help but was told that she should get some more rest instead—setting up camp could come tomorrow. Unable to argue, Holly dragged her bedroll to the farthest corner of camp and passed out again next to Abigail and Jack. Thankfully, it was a dreamless slumber.

Holly woke up groggy on her first morning at Clemens' Point. She'd started sweating during the night, so she changed into a new cotton blouse, unbuttoned the top two buttons, and rolled up her sleeves. The cut across her face burned like a line of straight hellfire. Her hair had puffed up so thick from the humidity Holly swore it was trying to choke her in her sleep. After tying half of it up, she checked her pocket watch and sighed. It was only four in the morning. Everyone in camp was still asleep, exhausted from the travel and the stress. Abigail snored softly to her right, Jack tucked up tightly against her chest.

Knowing she wouldn't get anymore sleep that morning, Holly picked herself up and wandered around "camp", though it didn't take long for her to settle down somewhere else. Charles had already set up a campfire close to the horses, stirring something in a cast-iron skillet. A percolator sat next to him. When she made her way over, she nodded a greeting, unable to string together a sentence.

"Morning, Holly," Charles said, voice quiet. He motioned to the percolator, "Coffee?"

If she'd had the words for it, she'd've thanked him. Instead, she only nodded. Charles seemed to understand her tiredness and silently obliged her. Twenty minutes and three cups later, Holly was feeling much better about herself, watching Charles eat a breakfast of robin's eggs and bluegill.

"How'd you sleep?" she managed to mumble between a yawn and another sip.

"I didn't," Charles replied. "I took first watch. Everyone was bone-tired from packing up, and Arthur was a dead man walking. Bill just relieved me."

Holly nodded, eyesight fuzzy. She finished her coffee and set the mug down by her foot. The sun wasn't risen yet, but red was already bleeding into the lake to mark the coming dawn. An osprey circled lazily above their heads in search of a meal.

She started as Charles spoke up again without warning, "I heard about what happened at Valentine," he said, attention set on scraping at the sides of the skillet with his fork.

"Arthur told you?"

"Yeah. Said all kinds of hell broke loose over there. How's your face?"

Her fingers brushed against the bandage. "Hurts," was all she said. Charles only nodded.

Holly didn't realize how desperately she wanted Charles to scold her, to tell her off and force her to feel ashamed of what she'd done in that godforsaken town. Yet, she also wanted him to praise her just as Dutch had done and say that her heroic actions were just another successful step towards the outlaw life. She'd been revisiting this battle between herself the last two days, simply looking for someone to absolve her. To tell her which way to turn or advise which side should just lay down their weapons, roll over, and accept a swift death with dignity and grace.

But Charles didn't compliment her nor admonish her. He didn't tell her about how the Pinkertons deserved it for initiating the fight and he didn't rebuke her for spilling so much blood. He just said the most middle-of-the-road thing he could've said; "You did what you had to. No one could've asked for anything else."

Holly felt like crying, or stamping her feet, or screaming at him to stop being so ambiguous and just tell her how she should feel without beating around this goddamn bush between them. "What if it happens again?" she asked instead.

Charles only shrugged. "It won't," he said. It was the closest thing to assurance she knew she was going to get, so Holly didn't bother to ask him to elaborate.

She didn't know what was making her more on edge—the fight in Valentine, or the fact that she was moving ever closer to Logan Winslow's territory. Perhaps they were going hand in hand. The closer she got to a killer, the more of a killer she became. The world reveled in that cruel sort of irony, didn't it?

But the more she thought about it, Holly realized that she didn't really feel…guilty, at least not in the same way that shooting the O'Driscoll had. She felt bad, sure, but not entirely guilty. The thrumming of her cheek kept that thought process in check. She and Charles had spoken of justice once like it was something sacred; maybe some sort of personal creed or sacred oath. Didn't feel so sacred when bullets were firing from all directions, doing both the Pinkerton's judging and her own. But justice to her was a double-edged knife—it was all a matter of who deserved it more in this case. And Holly was well aware of who threatened who first.

"Did we do the right thing?" Holly found herself wondering aloud. "In Valentine, I mean."

Charles glanced up, "What do you think?"

"The Pinkertons got us first."

"And from the sounds of it, Arthur fired the first shot. Don't know if you can dictate blame just from who shot first."

She sighed, weary. "I wish the world weren't so confusin' all the time," she couldn't help but sulk.

Setting his breakfast down and picking up a coffee mug in its place, Charles only offered her a pitying look, "Good thing about living this way is that we get all the time we need to sort the world out," he pointed out, "Figure out what's right and wrong ourselves without someone else telling us."

Holly pondered those words for the rest of the morning until the sun rose, the camp following close behind it, and she got up to start helping them make a home.

-X-

"Seven days!?"

It'd been two dawns since the gang arrived at Clemens' Point. In that time, the camp had been fully set up, half of the gang had gotten eaten alive by mosquitoes despite Holly and Charles' warnings not to sleep so close to the lake (the image of Uncle itching his whole rear end in full view would surely build the foundation of so many nightmares), Micah had nearly tread on a cottonmouth, and Arthur and Charles had hunted so much meat that the entire camp stunk like overcooked boar. Then, and only then, did Miss. Grimshaw give Holly the all-clear to remove the bandages from her stitching.

As it turned out, that came with its own annoyances.

"I gotta stay in camp for a whole week!?" Holly fumed as Miss. Grimshaw bundled up the used bandages, "That's bullshit!"

"Language, Miss. Monroe!" Miss. Grimshaw snapped, fixing her with a look that could've frozen the lake over.

Though still furious, Holly attempted to roll in her temper. "I ain't gonna open my stitches, Miss. Grimshaw, I swear. But please let me leave. Please."

"This ain't negotiable, Miss. Monroe," Miss. Grimshaw said sharply. "You rip those stitches and I swear to the good Lord in heaven Himself I will give you some real scars to worry about. You should be counting your lucky stars that that bullet didn't carve more outta you than it did."

Well, Holly supposed that was a truth she could agree with. Miss. Grimshaw had given her a pocket mirror to see her face and it wasn't much of a pretty sight. Her face now bore a wound that ran the whole way down her cheek and had nicked a portion of her ear on the way out. It stung like crazy, but it wasn't infected. Mr. Matthews had said that the stitches could probably be taken out in two weeks, all things permitting.

Didn't mean that Holly was going to sit around camp and let people fuss over her, though. "John got to leave camp with his face all stitched up," she muttered mutinously.

Miss. Grimshaw looked affronted. "Need I remind you that Mr. Marston is one, a whole ten years older than you. Two, a good deal more experienced in this kinda life than you are. And three, most definitely was confined to camp before you came moseying along," she retorted.

Holly grimaced. "I feel fine," she insisted, "It ain't fair."

"Life ain't fair. You're nearly a woman now, Miss. Monroe, so start acting like one," Miss. Grimshaw growled, unsympathetic, as she gathered her things and made to stand. "Now go and help Mr. Pearson with lunch before I get really angry."

Holly stalked off to Pearson's tent, surprised her hair hadn't caught fire from how angry she was. She took up a knife and started slicing carrots into crooked ribbons. Mrs. Adler worked next to her, carving a boar leg, tight faced and looking about as irritated as Holly felt. Pearson stood off to the side and took inventory, unaware of their agitation.

"…mushrooms, onions, radishes, cheese…" Pearson trailed off, lost in contemplation, "Say, Holly, you're from here, right? We need grains. They have good rice down here?"

"Grits're cheaper," Holly muttered, peeling a new carrot.

She heard the sounds of pencil on paper as Pearson wrote it down. "Alright, that just about does it. I'm gonna go out later and pick up some more food in Rhodes," he said. "Heaven knows we're gonna need it."

Holly looked up as Mrs. Adler piped up, "Need me to go into town?" her offer was polite, despite being forced out between clenched teeth.

Pearson laughed out loud, "Not a chance, Mrs. Adler. We need this food ready before noon."

"Then why don't you lift a damn knife and help us?" Mrs. Adler snapped, brown eyes blazing.

"How about you let me do the ordering, and you can do the prepping instead of wasting my time, you goddamn battleaxe," Pearson's voice rose an octave as his own temper flared.

"Say whatever you damn well please but if I don't get outta here soon," Mrs. Adler was pointing her carving knife at him now, a wild look on her face, "I'm gonna kill somebody."

Far from calming the situation, Pearson merely held his own knife up in retaliation, "And if you don't stop hissing at me, I'm gonna kill you!"

Holly only looked on, not daring to put herself in the middle of this wildfire. Both of them inched ever closer.

"You come near me, sailor, and I'll slice you up," Mrs. Adler threatened, lip curled in a snarl.

"You put that knife down or you're gonna be missing a hand, lady!" Mr. Pearson snapped.

"What is wrong with ya two!?"

That was the voice of a sweaty, exhausted, and pissed-off-looking Arthur, walking briskly up to the chuck wagon. The pair backed away at his arrival, though both refused to lower their knives. Holly moved to place herself between Mrs. Adler and Pearson, hoping against hope that they wouldn't try to attack each other again with her in the way.

For one brief moment, Holly worried that Mrs. Adler would instead turn her knife on Arthur, but she slammed it into the table, point first. "I ain't choppin' vegetables for a living," she complained, enraged.

Arthur rolled his eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry, madam. Were there insufficient feathers in your pillow?" he asked sarcastically, fatigue clearly making him short-tempered.

"Look, I ain't lazy, Mr. Morgan. I'll work, but not this!" Mrs. Adler said, stalking away. Holly watched her bump Pearson purposefully, nearly knocking him on his rear.

And then she stood there, arms folded. Holly and Arthur trailed after her. "Well, ain't cookin' work?" he called over to her.

Mrs. Adler turned. She took a moment to gather her thoughts, her lips pressed, and then explained; "My husband and I, we shared the work—all of it. I was out in the fields. I can hunt, carry a knife, or use a gun," her voice was rising again as she pointed to Pearson, "But I tell you, if you keep me here, I'll skin this fat old coot and serve him for dinner!"

"Watch your damn mouth, you crazy, goddamn fishwife!" Pearson spat.

It took both Holly and Arthur to hold Mrs. Adler, screaming to the high heavens, back as she attempted to launch herself at Pearson. Arthur threw her backwards, and Mrs. Adler readied for another attempt at murder.

"Enough! Both of ya!" Arthur shouted. "Come with me, then. You wanna head out there, run with the men? So be it. But we do more than just huntin'—we're hunted. And them thing huntin' us? Well, they got guns'a their own."

Mrs. Adler held his gaze, chin held high. "I ain't afraid of dyin'," she told him.

Arthur nodded slowly, anger waning. "Good," he said. He waved to Pearson, "Need anythin'? Maybe me and Mrs. Adler gonna take a little ride."

Pearson, still stunned, snapped from his trance and nodded. He handed Arthur the list he'd been making, as well as a small letter. "Can you post this for me while you're there?" he enquired.

"Sure," Arthur nodded, tucking them into his satchel. He waved Mrs. Adler on, "C'mon, princess."

Mrs. Adler hesitated a moment, clearly not expecting this situation to have worked so well in her favor, before jogging after him. Holly watched on enviously until she noticed that Pearson wasn't watching her. In fact, no one was watching her. Not a soul had their eyes trained on the chuck wagon.

Holly sprinted after Arthur and Mrs. Adler.

She caught them just before Arthur snapped the reins of the horse-drawn wagon, tugging on his arm. "Let me come with you, please," she pleaded. Holly was too proud to start begging, but she also wasn't quite sure how many rejections she was from falling on her knees and giving it a try.

"I heard ya was confined to camp for a week," Arthur said with a raised eyebrow.

Goddamnit, Miss. Grimshaw. "I could go where I wanted in New Hanover," Holly pointed out, carefully reeling in her annoyance, "so why not here?"

"Last I checked, ya weren't recoverin' from gettin' shot 'cross the face in New Hanover," Arthur countered.

Holly's face was reddening, "This ain't fair!"

"Oh my God, just bring her!" both heads snapped up at Mrs. Adler's exasperated voice. "It's just goddamn errands."

Arthur looked ready to quarrel but clearly didn't want to weather an argument against the both of them. Wordlessly, he jerked a thumb to the back of the cart in defeat. Holly clambered in back, trying to keep the victory smile out of sight before she got scolded for it. "You get in trouble, I had nothin' to do with it," Arthur grumbled.

The reins snapped and they were off. Hot sun became cool shade as the cart rolled into the forests surrounding Clemens' Point, and Holly took a second to relish the absence of the sun on the back of her neck.

"You cooled down yet?" Arthur asked Mrs. Adler.

She clicked her tongue. "I guess," she said. "And I ain't no scullion. And I sure as hell ain't takin' orders from that sweatin' halfwit!"

"Well, I guess we all gotta do our share, princess," Arthur answered her retort with biting sarcasm of his own.

Holly pushed herself to her knees and peered through the space between Arthur and Mrs. Adler—the latter had grabbed Pearson's mail and was eagerly ripping it open. "You're goin' through his mail?" she squeaked out in surprise.

Mrs. Adler grinned at that, fixing her with a look, "Oh, robbin' and killin' is okay, but letter readin' is where we draw the line?"

Holly couldn't come up with a decent counter to that before Mrs. Adler wrenched the letter out of its envelope, unfolded it with a flick of her wrist, and began reading aloud. "'Dear Aunt Cathy'," she recited in a poor imitation of Pearson's voice, "'I haven't heard from you in some time, so I prayed to the Lord above that your health has not deteriorated further'." She flipped through another page, "Blah blah blah, boring…oh! Wait a sec, both of ya, listen to this. 'Since we last corresponded, I have traveled widely, makin' no small name for myself.'"

They all shared a snicker at that. Mrs. Adler flipped the page, "'Before you ask, I am still yet to take a wife—'" Holly snorted audibly at that, "'—but I can assure you; it's not for a lack of suitors!'"

Arthur led the laughter this time, quickly followed by Holly and Mrs. Adler. The wagon took a left around the corner of a large farm and bounced over train tracks. "Suitors?" Holly echoed with a chuckle, "Only suitors Pearson can get've gotten their eyes poked out by crows."

"Or take a shine to the only man in America that's wider than he is tall," Mrs. Adler added.

Another bout of shared laughter. When they settled down, Mrs. Adler scanned the letter again, "He ever actually talk to a woman he ain't paid for?"

"Look, we're all hidin' behind somethin'," Arthur said. It came out half as an apology and half as an insult.

"And what's this? 'Return to Tacitus Kilgore?'"

"Oh, that?" Now, that's Dutch's idea. All mail is sent to the same alias. Whenever we set up somewhere new, Strauss heads into town, tells 'em to start expectin' mail from a Tacitus Kilgore, or whatever they changed it to."

Holly felt the urge to chime in, "That's a dumb name."

"Won't really disagree with ya on that one, kid," Arthur said before motioning for the letter, "Here, gimme that back. We got work to do."

Indeed, they did. Mrs. Adler passed the letter back over just as the wagon rumbled into town. The sign, coated in a generous layer of red dust, read "Rhodes" in barely-visible letters. The town itself didn't fare much better; it wasn't too much an exaggeration to say that the buildings themselves looked either rusting or bleeding, depending on who you asked. The cart wheels only kicked up more of the stuff, scattering orange clouds like dandelion seeds. Rhodes looked, if it were possible, even older than Valentine. Richer, too. Women wandered around in expensive dresses, their hems ruined from the dust as they dragged in the road. Men smoked cigars on their porches and drank liquor from expensive crystal glances that glinted in the sunlight. Holly stared openly, not even bothering to disguise the disgust on her face.

Arthur took them past the train station and the small park with a tarnished bell and parked them right outside the general store. He slung himself off the driver's seat, and Holly stood to exit the cart herself.

"So? What's the plan?" Holly glanced up and nearly fell out of the wagon face first in shock as Mrs. Adler held up an already cocked revolver, "I shoot the shopkeeper while you two—"

"No! Are ya insane!?" Arthur demanded as he jerked Mrs. Adler's arms down and out of sight. Holly checked over her shoulder, but no one lifted as much as a finger towards the commotion.

Mrs. Adler laughed again, like this was just another funny line in Pearson's letter, "I thought we was outlaws!"

"Outlaws, not idiots," Arthur corrected. "We rob fools that rob other people. These people," he motioned to the general store, "they're just tryin' to get by. So, head in there and buy us some food to eat," he pressed the food list into her hand, tone strict, "and no guns."

Reluctantly, Mrs. Adler went for the front of the store, and left Holly to wonder just whether or not she'd been entirely joking when she'd held up a nicked revolver and promised to shoot a shopkeeper between the eyes.

Clearly, Arthur had the same reservations. "Stay with Mrs. Adler," Arthur ordered her. "Make sure she don't do nothin' that's gonna bite us in the ass. We got enough problems as is."

Holly nodded. As she went inside, Arthur made for the train station.

The inside of the general store was cool and clean enough. Red footprints were scattered about the floorboards. Mrs. Adler stood at the counter, showing the list to a nodding shopkeeper who was smoking a cigarette in the meantime. As Holly approached, the shopkeeper excused himself and disappeared into the back room.

"You know, I never realized just how much of a spoilsport Arthur is," Mrs. Adler said as Holly came up next to her. "All work and no jokes. Swore he was gonna throw me outta the wagon for that back there."

"That was a joke?" Holly asked, failing to keep her disbelief from her voice.

Mrs. Adler snorted but didn't exactly answer yes or no. Holly didn't dare press her.

The shopkeeper and another employee came from the back, arms loaded with supplies. Mrs. Adler checked things off of the list to make sure they were all there, but Holly knew she was only half paying attention. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the duty was thrust upon her. "You mind makin' sure these things're all there?" Mrs. Adler asked her. "I gotta check somethin'."

"Check what?"

"Somethin'. Hey, don't give me that look, I ain't goin' nowhere," she at least had the sense to drop her voice as she said her last bit, "and the gun ain't readied, don't worry."

Holly spent the next five or so minutes with the shopkeeper and his employee—Ezekiel and Ezekiel Jr., father and son—loading up the wagon. Arthur still hadn't returned from the post office, so Holly ventured back inside the general store to check on Mrs. Adler. What she saw stopped her dead in her tracks.

Mrs. Adler had shed her blouse, waistcoat, and skirt for a bold yellow overshirt, black jeans, a pair of cavalry boots, and a wide-brimmed town hat to bring it all together. She was admiring her new look in the mirror with a short, flustered woman who was surely Ezekiel's wife. Mrs. Adler saw Holly reappear in the mirror and turned to face her. "Well, what'd'ya think?" she asked Holly. "Gimme your honest opinion."

Holly blinked, taking it all in. The strangeness of it hit her in waves: the colors, the fact that she was wearing pants, the fact that this was the first time Holly had actually seen Mrs. Adler look genuinely happy without it being meanspirited.

"My honest opinion?" Holly said. "You look like a giant bumblebee."

To her undying relief, Mrs. Adler found it humorous rather than insulting, and laughed alongside Holly for a couple of seconds. Ezekiel's wife merely stood there, lips thin and smile a sham, clearly unsure of what to make of the strange scene before her until Mrs. Adler handed her the money for the clothes.

"I'd taking lookin' like some giant bumblebee over a fishwife any day," Mrs. Adler said as she gathered up her former outfit. "Fishwife…with that kinda eloquence, God help any woman Pearson tries to court."

Holly snorted once more.

"You want anythin', kid?"

She gave Mrs. Adler a look, "What, like peaches or somethin'?"

Mrs. Adler returned her question with a shrug, "No, moron. Clothes. You'd get a lot more use around camp wearin' a pair of slacks versus some skirt."

"But Mrs. Adler—"

"Call me Sadie."

"—Sadie, pants are man's clothes."

"Pssht. Men's clothes? You're funny, kid. Real funny," Sadie scoffed. She waved to Ezekiel's wife and told her to bring out an extra pair of pants, two sizes smaller. Before she could offer up a protest, Holly was suddenly ushered into the back corner of the general store, several pairs of pants and blouses in hand, and told to start changing. All the while, Sadie cracked jokes and offered up her opinion on her outfits. Too tight. Too small. Too old-fashioned. Holly had always had something of a nearsighted eye for fashion, so she silently let Sadie fuss over her.

In the end, the "Sadie-approved" outfit was a light green cotton blouse, a pair of brown slacks tucked into her preacher boots, and a gray neckerchief to bring it all together. The entire outfit looked rather strange on her—Holly looked herself up and down in the mirror and came to the conclusion that she looked like what her sisters would've thought a Wild West outlaw would look like if they had the chance to dress one up themselves, dramatic-looking scar and all.

"Whatda you think?" Sadie asked.

Holly pulled at the inseam of the pants. "It tugs on the crotch," she admitted.

"You get used to it," Sadie stubbornly waved away her complaint, "but it is missing something…here."

Sadie plucked a dark brown Stetson off of the hook and plopped it on her head. It fell into Holly's eyes, and she had to lift the brim out of her face to even see herself. "Now you look like a tried and true outlaw," she said under her breath, looking oddly proud of her own handiwork.

First playing the part, now looking the part. In this weather, Holly had a strong feeling she'd be smelling the part before too long. She pulled on the crotch one last time and put on a polite smile—it didn't take a genius to guess that Sadie wouldn't let her walk out of this store without this outfit in tow; "How much for everythin'?" she asked the shopkeeper's wife.

That was, before Sadie brushed her aside, wad of bills in hand, "Nope, not a chance. I'm payin'."

"No, Sadie, please, it's fine. I got money."

Sadie scoffed again. "Spend your money on somethin' you kids like. I dunno, buy some candy or some shit."

Holly raised an eyebrow, "I'm sixteen, not six."

"Y'all kids look the same to me," Sadie said, handing the wife thirty dollars, "My sister's kid likes to run around with toy guns. Jack likes readin' or whatever. And you, you like…?"

"Apparently, I like big hats and pants that ride up my damn nether regions."

And they shared a good cackle again. They left the store in their new outfits. And Holly walked back into the heat thinking that maybe, just maybe, she'd spent the better half of three months judging Sadie Adler a little too harshly.

Arthur stood outside by the cart, overseeing the loading of their supplies. He glanced over at the pair of them and Holly was quite entertained upon seeing his double-take. She'd never seen him balk at anything before this—Holly briefly considered what else would make him drop his guard and throw on a look like Heaven itself was falling out of the sky.

Ezekiel approached her, also looking quite aghast. "Well, I think this is everything," he said as Ezekiel Jr. threw the final sack of grits into the back.

"Thanks. Here, take that for yourself, okay?" Sadie thanked him with a silver dollar. Ezekiel caught it, waved to the three of them, and went inside, his son following close behind.

The three of them climbed back into their respective places. Holly situated herself between a box of cornmeal and three sacks of apples, craning her neck to see over the side. Arthur offered the reins to Sadie, who accepted, and the cart rumbled back into action with a flick of her wrist (Holly gripped onto the sides for dear life, because Sadie clearly didn't see the benefit of taking things slowly).

"So, you get everythin'?" Arthur asked Sadie as they flew out of Rhodes.

"I think so."

"And some," Holly met Arthur's eyes as he glanced back at her, taking in her pants and hat. Holly just shrugged unhelpfully, "…new clothes, I see?"

"Don't start," Sadie warned him. "We can wear whatever we damn well want. Like I told you, my husband and I shared all the work. I wasn't some little wife with a flower in her hair bakin' cherry pies all day."

"Yeah, I don't doubt that. You sure look the part now," Arthur said offhandedly, clearly trying to avoid a confrontation, "Won't be long 'fore you're smokin' cigars and playin' the harmonica."

Arthur and Sadie continued their conversation in the front of the cart but Holly wasn't listening anymore. Something flashed in the corner of her eye. She pushed herself upright; two men on horseback had cantered onto the road in heavy pursuit of their wagon. Their pace was brisk, and deliberately so. Holly felt her mouth go dry.

She pushed herself back in between Arthur and Sadie as the latter growled out a venomous threat; "Just treat me equal and know…nobody's takin' nothin' from me ever again."

"Arthur," Holly butted in. "We got company comin'."

Instantly the two adults snapped out of their conversation, alert and wary. In the nick of time, too, because their followers had caught up with them. One hung back, lurking several feet behind the cart, while the other drew himself up level with Arthur. His clothes were ratty and filled with holes that'd been meticulously patched over time, though for the life of her Holly couldn't figure out the reason why. It appeared to be some sort of uniform he was wearing, but why on Earth he'd be wearing something dark, gray, and woolen in this part of Lemoyne seemed to suggest a stupidity even Holly wasn't brave enough to look into.

"Hey there," the man next to Arthur greeted them in a tone that wasn't in the least bit suspicious, "What you folks up to?"

"Just headin' home," Arthur replied, cool and casual.

A third man, similarly dressed, had joined them, flanking Sadie's side. The man tailing their cart smiled nastily. Holly felt her hand stray to her revolver, but she didn't draw yet. Holly heard Arthur mutter a warning to Sadie to keep her head.

"You're in Lemoyne Raider country," the lead man said. "You'll need to pay a toll to pass through here."

Arthur yawned, like the conversation bored him, "No, I don't think so."

The lead man's response was scandalized. "You don't think so?" he repeated. "How about you pull over right now?"

"Pull over?"

"That's what I said."

All heads snapped towards Sadie as she suddenly shouted, "Hey! How's about this!"

Before Holly could protest or Arthur could stop her, she whipped out her revolver and aimed it for the man riding next to her. In one quick moment, he had his brains blown out all over the Lemoyne countryside. In the next, with a deadly precision that Holly was frankly astonished she'd possessed, Sadie aimed around Arthur's back and shot the lead man in the side. His horse reared from under him as he, screaming and writhing, tumbled to the Earth.

Arthur gripped the seat tightly as the horses charged forward, away from the gunfire erupting all around them. The opportunity for peace shattered, Holly herself whipped out her gun and fired several times at a Raider racing out into the fray. He fell eventually in a bloodied mess. Away they raced, five Raiders in a hot pursuit.

"What the hell was that?" Arthur demanded.

"They was gonna rob us!" was Sadie's enraged justification.

A bullet hit the back of the seat, carving a hole straight through the wood between Sadie and Arthur. Holly reloaded and fired again, nailing the Raider in the shoulder twice, and he pulled his horse back to retreat. Arthur had passed the reins back to Sadie and rose to fire himself. He nailed a Raider straight through the temple, and he went limp like one of their apple sacks.

"I'm gonna run this sonuva bitch down!"

Holly barely had time to tell Sadie to stop before the horses barreled straight into a Raider who'd somehow gotten in front of them. Holly and Arthur, still standing and therefore horrifically unbalanced, were tossed from the wagon with unholy force. They both tumbled over the ground, bruised and disoriented. Holly groaned; she felt like Shining Star had finally gotten her way and kicked her square in the ribs.

With all her remaining strength, she picked herself back up off the ground and scrambled for the cover of a rock. Arthur crouched five feet away, Sadie dismounting from the cart and heading for the opposite direction. A crushed Raider lay under the cart's wheels, effectively crippling it's use. "Well, ya wanted t'see some action, lady! Now ya got your wish!" Arthur bellowed over the commotion.

Wincing and clutching her ribs with her bad hand, Holly rose and fired singlehandedly at a Raider crouched behind a boulder. Sadie and Arthur continued to talk in the middle of the firefight but Holly's concentration was solely for the second set of men trying to gun her down in four days. It took her five bullets before she killed her next Raider, and she shrank back into cover. She extracted, reloaded, and stood back up…

To nothing. As quickly as the battle had started, it had ended.

Sadie crippled the last Raider, running for his life towards the hills, with a well-placed bullet to the spine. She whooped as the man fell face-first to the ground, stone dead. "Told you I could shoot a gun, didn't I!" she shouted.

"I don't remember askin' ya to prove it!" Arthur responded tartly.

The three of them reconvened at the cart. Arthur tugged the dead body of the Raider free from under the wheels. As they crammed back into the wagon, Holly took a brief moment to prod her ribs and came back stifling a wheeze. Definitely bruised. No doubt they would turn purple before the day was over, but at the very least it didn't hurt to breathe. Not too much, at least. Worlds better than a broken bone. And world's more inconspicuous.

Sadie slid into the seat. She, somehow, looked gleeful in the aftermath of their shootout, "Alright, I'll drive us back."

"No, no, pass those reins here," Arthur took them from her, an edge to his voice.

"Why?"

"Because you've caused enough trouble already."

They began moving again, finding the road back towards camp. Holly clutched her side and breathed deeply through her nose.

"How ya doin' back there kid?" Arthur called over his shoulder.

Holly managed to grit out a, "Just peachy."

"You sure? Wouldn't say that 'bout your stitches comin' undone."

Panic shot through Holly. She pressed a hand to her cheek, mind racing on how on Earth she'd be able to explain that to Miss. Grimshaw but pulled back when she heard Arthur laughing dryly behind her. "I'm jokin', kid. Just jokin'. Man, dunno how ya'd pass that off to Grimshaw, but I'd've loved to see ya try."

Holly got her own revenge by punching Arthur on the shoulder. He grunted at the force of the hit, so Holly grinned to herself and declared her honor satisfied.

"We showed those bastards, huh?" Sadie said proudly.

"Yeah," Holly wheezed out, "sure showed them."

"Remind me and the kid not to get on your bad side," Arthur added.

"And they was clearly plannin' to bushwhack us!"

"You did good. But that's a lot of mess to make near camp," Arthur's voice drifted away in contemplation, "Hope it don't bring anyone sniffin' around."

They'd reached the woods to Clemens' Point by now. But Holly barely had a moment to enjoy the shade again before Arthur drew the reins up and pulled the horses to a halt.

He pointed to her, "Outta the cart."

"What?"

"I said, get your clothes and get outta the cart," Arthur told her.

"Why on Earth would I do that?"

"Because you're walkin' back,"

Holly stared at him, "You can't be serious."

"You want Grimshaw to see ya in that?" Arthur waved to her new outfit, and Holly felt herself blush something fierce in embarrassment and indignation. She shook her head after a moment of contemplation, seeing his rather unfortunate point.

"Then go change and head on back," he sounded like he was really trying his best to hold back more laughter. "We'll tell Grimshaw you was pissin' or somethin'."

"For ninety minutes!?"

But Arthur didn't answer her, instead choosing to snap the reins and move the cart forward. Holly frowned, clutching her bundle of clothes, stunned as he and Sadie started laughing together. Sadie turned and waved at her before the wagon turned a corner and melted into the trees.

Adults, Holly thought bitterly as she wandered into the woods for a private place to change her outfit, already hopping on one foot to remove her boot.

Chapter Text

Dear cusin Tate,

I hope you are doing well. I am writeing to you frum the toun of Rhodes in Lamoyne. We resently moved due to persenel reasons. I wud love to talk to you in persen. Please considir comeing out to Lamoyne to see the famly.

Hope this letter finds you allright.

Your loveing cusin,

Lucille Sullivan

Holly chewed on the pencil while she stared thoughtfully at her penmanship. Seemed about as nondescript as could be. She might've misspelled something here and there, but it probably wasn't too bad to the naked eye.

Luca had sent her exactly one letter, and it'd unfortunately arrived three days before they departed Horseshoe Overlook. Holly had honestly forgotten about it until she retrieved it from her own dirty laundry, crumpled in the pocket of her coat. She read it on the shore of the lake to lanternlight, far away from prying eyes.

His letter was short and to the point. Luca was still west, near Strawberry now. Still robbing. Still dead serious about justice. He was persistent in that sense, and Holly wondered if the rush of admiration she felt for her sibling was at all misguided. Luca had apparently held up enough people that his bounty was about seventy-five dollars now. He was planning on heading back east in his own time to dodge the law, and in his final line, he asked her to come with him. Of course, he didn't know that she was one step ahead of that idea. Hopefully he'd make his way over here and they could have another discussion, brother to sister. But Holly could only wait to see if that idea ever bore any fruit. Your loveing cusin, Tate Sullivan—that was how he'd signed off. Holly burned the letter after reading. It was irrational and stupid, but dangit, she still couldn't free herself from that paranoia.

There were several things Holly thought of including in her own letter, but she stopped herself. Such things were supposed to remain in the inner circle of the van der Linde Gang. Like how they were now inserting themselves into the lives of the Rhodes upper class, for one. Holly finished out the rest of her week's confinement to camp without risking another disaster like what'd happened after the general store (Miss. Grimshaw never found out about her romp with Arthur and Sadie, and Holly's hide remained momentarily intact), so the little information about this newest heist mostly passed through Dutch and Arthur's mouths, leaving Holly to piece together the rest.

The Grays and the Braithwaites. Each came from old Civil War money. Specifically, old southern Civil War money. Holly knew the type well; they were the kind of folk to send their children off for expensive, private, city education while perching in their ivory towers and finding new ways to get wealthier. Holly figured she must've hated those kinds of families long before she even knew what hating them felt like. Rich folk rubbed her the wrong way ever since she joined the gang; jury was still out whether or not it was because of the gang, but to Holly it was neither here nor there. Otherwise, she might find a reason to admire the way the two families clung onto their wealth in the same way a tick clung to flesh.

Supposedly, the Grays and the Braithwaites each sat on enough confederate gold to sink a dozen ships. Dutch had had his ears to the ground for work practically since they'd gotten there, aided by Arthur, Mr. Matthews, and an unexpected visitor in Josiah Trelawny, the man who'd helped them recover Sean from Blackwater.

In Holly's eyes, the entire thing was bizarre, including the gang's approach to it. Holly still remembered with extreme clarity how Sean and Karen laughed their rear ends off together when Dutch and Arthur walked back into camp with shiny gold stars pinned to their waistcoats. They had gone out earlier that morning to help Sheriff Gray and were deputized for their efforts. Something about busting up a moonshining operation connected to the Braithwaites but run by the Lemoyne Raiders. It was either high-class plantation families who couldn't see past their own noses or old men stuck thirty years in a past they wouldn't let go of. Were there any normal people in this county?

"Look at you now, Arthur! A shining example of the law to us degenerates everywhere, the Lord help us all," Uncle said one night as he, Arthur, Holly, Mary-Beth, Sadie, and Mr. Matthews ate dinner around the campfire. "I, for one, am flabbergasted you ain't gone and arrested all us lowlife scum yet."

Arthur didn't rise to the bait quite yet. He merely stared at his baked beans like he wanted to disappear into the can. "Guess I'm a shit deputy, then."

"Shit deputy and shit outlaw," Uncle placed a hand over his heart in mock sorrow. "Oh, how the mighty fall to their knees in the grace of civilization."

"Least I fall to my knees in the 'grace of civilization'," Arthur said, making finger quotes, "Only thing ya ever fell to your knees for is a few bucks in the back of a bar, old man."

Holly snorted so hard that soup came out of her nose.

Those gold stars on their chests seemed to affect them differently. Dutch proudly paraded it around, puffing out his chest around camp with new air of authority—not that he needed it. Spent half of his time cleaning the thing like one of his rings, holding it up so the sun glinted off it in different ways. Arthur, meanwhile, seemingly did everything he could to keep the thing out of sight by tucking it under coats and keeping it pocketed. Only when Dutch admonished him for not wearing it ("We need to keep sharp and play the part, Arthur! We'll be swimming in gold before long!") would Arthur pin it somewhere visible. Holly knew him decently enough to tell when he was biting back a scowl, but he never voiced his objections. Maybe in that journal he kept, but Holly wasn't seeking to lose a hand.

Holly considered writing her own misgivings down to her brother but stayed her hand for the time being. This game…it felt akin to riding several horses at once. One bad decision, one wrong jerk of the reins, and the entire thing would come apart and leave them tumbling in the dust. Dutch and his merry crew didn't seem so ambitious in New Hanover when it was just minor heists to keep them going.

Things were so complicated now. She wondered if she was the only one who felt it.

Holly folded the letter up and stuffed it into an envelope, sealing it. She scribbled "Tate Sullivan" on the front and stuffed it into her satchel.

Mr. Matthews had told her to make for the Gray plantation around two in the afternoon to check in on Arthur's business with them. She was waiting patiently on the outskirts of the property, sitting atop the fence, penning her letter to pass the time. The sun beat down on acres upon acres of orchards and farmland, the yellow grass bowing to the unrelenting heat. Caliga Hall stood proudly in the distance. It was probably the biggest house Holly'd ever laid eyes on, what with its two chimneys, brick walls, huge white porch, and fancy façade to boot. Holly spent ten minutes just combing all of it over with her binoculars. She'd've chanced a closer look, but her eyes had fallen to the two guards posted at the front gate and immediately decided she was more comfortable where she was.

Her Stetson fell in her eyes again as she looked up, forcing Holly to push it back out of her face. It was the only thing that Sadie had bought for her that she wore regularly; the pants sat untouched in one of her saddlebags. Pants were for men's tasks and Holly had spent the last week sewing, cooking, cleaning, and playing with Jack. God forbid she go shooting again—she'd seen enough bullets to last another Civil War.

The clomp clomp clomp of horse hooves caught her ear. Moments later, Arthur appeared atop of Achilles, horse and rider both sweating and panting. Arthur caught sight of her on the fence and pulled his horse to a stop, "What're ya doin' here?"

"Mr. Matthews told me to come check on you."

He didn't bite back his scowls in her presence. "It's hot," he said like she didn't realize it. "Why didn't ya wait in the shade or somethin'?"

"Y'all're keen to forget I grew up in this kinda weather," Holly retorted, not unkindly.

"Yeah? And you're as insane and idiotic as the rest of the folks in this town, but I already knew that."

Holly gave him a sympathetic look as Arthur dismounted, pulled out his canteen, and drank deeply. "The Grays really that bad?" she asked, curious.

He shrugged, wiping his mouth with the inside of his arm. "I dunno. Strange, sure. Bad remains to be said. But I trust a whole family that singlehandedly controls the law in this town 'bout as well as I trust a mountain lion not t'attack me when my back's turned."

"What they got you doin'?"

"Got me letter deleverin'. Thrillin', I know," Arthur produced an envelope and a smartly wrapped parcel from his satchel. "You ever read Romeo and Juliet, kid?"

Holly laughed aloud, "We really gonna rehash that conversation? Y'know I can barely spell my own name."

"Right. Well, seems I'm to be the Friar Lawrence to Beau Gray's Romeo and Penelope Braithwaite's Juliet," Arthur said.

She smirked, "What, like they fancy each other or somethin'?"

"Love makes asses of us all," there was something in Arthur's tone that Holly couldn't necessarily place, "I swear, there ain't a feller anywhere in this damn state with two coherent thoughts to rub together. These kids're playin' a very dangerous game."

"How so?"

"Romeo and Juliet don't got a happy endin', y'know."

Holly took off her hat and fanned herself with it. "I can do it if you want. Ain't got much else to do today," she offered. Not buckling at the skeptical look Arthur shot her, Holly continued, "And 'fore you start tellin' me no, 'member you been doin' all this business with the Grays and whatnot. If these families hate each other as much as everyone keeps sayin' they do, then I don't think the Braithwaites'd take kindly to a deputy of Mr. Gray knockin' on their doors."

Arthur gave her a thoughtful glance and then finally nodded. "Eh, s'pose ya raise a decent point," he conceded. He held the mail out for her.

"And I want a half split of the reward," Holly quickly added as she took the things from him.

He barked out an offended laugh at that. Arthur tried to grab the letter and gift back from her but Holly was too fast for him and held it just out of reach. "I don't haggle with kids," he said firmly.

"I'm doin' all the work and you're takin' all the credit," Holly pointed out mildly. "Count yourself lucky I ain't askin' for more."

"Count yourself lucky I don't hit ya for suggestin' it," Arthur snapped, only half serious. Like he'd ever hit anyone. Arthur was somewhat trigger-happy at times and tended to swing before he thought, but he'd never stoop to someone like Micah's level of scumminess. Better to not press her luck, though.

"Sixty-forty," Holly re-offered.

"Seventy-five, twenty-five."

"Seventy-thirty."

"Fine."

Holly made a show of dramatically tipping her Stetson, "A pleasure doin' business with you, Deputy Morgan," she said, grinning.

"Yeah, yeah," Arthur grumbled. Before he spurred Achilles on for home, he pointed over the hills towards the east, "Braithwaite Manor's somewhere over yonder. If it's anythin' the size of this place, I'm sure you'll find it no trouble. And try not to do anythin' stupid—apparently the Braithwaite lady's a real crone."

She examined the name on the letter, confused, "Who, Penelope?"

"Her aunt. Catherine Braithwaite," Arthur clarified. "Try not to get on her bad side. Hosea and Dutch still wanna play both sides'a this."

"They're still really goin' through with that?" Holly swung herself down from the fence, "Seems risky."

Arthur shrugged, "Dutch and Hosea know what they're doin'. Always have. Just keep your head down and your mouth shut, and we'll see where it takes us."

They exchanged goodbyes and went on their separate ways. Holly kept Shining Star's pace steady but not terribly fast on the way to Braithwaite Manor, taking a moment to reorder her feelings in privacy. Blackbirds twittered and bounced at her horses' feet, taking to the skies with incredible speed. The sun disappeared for a moment behind a lone cloud, and cool wind escaped through the trees like the entire world was sighing in relief.

Dutch and Hosea and Arthur and all the like were smarter than her; they could run mental circles around her. But Holly knew these kinds of folks they were dealing with. Grew up with these sorts of men and women and all the people that detested them. They were stubborn and prideful, but they certainly weren't blind. In fact, Holly rather dreaded the kind of reach these families had. Towns like Rhodes were close-knit and didn't take kindly to strangers—especially strangers like Dutch van der Linde, who embodied everything an old Lemoyne aristocrat would fear on a whim. Fine clothes. Fancy words. A northern attitude and mindset. They weren't exactly Yankees, but Holly figured someone like Catherine Braithwaite would have no reservations lumping them all into the same category. And that meant that she could be facing the end of a gun if she weren't careful. People like the Grays and Braithwaites usually met change with guns. And they would sooner raze their homes to the ground then accept that change.

She wondered if Arthur sensed that. Holly knit her brows together at the notion and decided it better to assume he did. If he was still confident in their ability to construct this ruse, at least long enough to nab all their gold, then she could push her own budding doubts aside. After all, Dutch and Mr. Matthews had to know the risks. They were both smart and had much more experience in conning than she did.

What'd Arthur say? Head down and mouth shut? She could do that. Holly was good at that.

By then, she'd reached the Braithwaite's property. Holly didn't certainly know that this was Braithwaite Manor, but it was hard to imagine that this property belonged to a simple rancher.

Even the road itself was elegant and refined. Massive, lush live oaks lined the roads, precisely planted ever dozen feet. Gravel crunched underfoot. The road up to Braithwaite Manor was far longer than that to Caliga Hall—Holly kicked Shining Star into a canter to make some time—and ended in a beautiful stone archway that officially marked where the front yard started. Several farmhands were toiling out in the courtyard, shirts soaked through with sweat. The house itself was bigger than Caliga Hall, and far fancier. Huge pillars and a large wraparound porch coupled with a light in each window and a large glass chandelier in the foyer that Holly could see through the open front door. The entire thing loomed overhead as if specially constructed to intimidate people (and if the coiling sensation in her guts were any indication, it was doing a pretty good job).

Holly was stopped at the archway by two armed guards. One went to grab the head of the manor, who arrived rather quickly, tailed by a guard on either side. Holly removed her Stetson and raked a hand through her hair to smooth it down.

First and foremost, the women approaching her resembled an evil stepmother out of any given fairytale that Holly's mother had read to her as a girl. The Braithwaite matriarch stood before Holly with her hands on her hips, poised and controlled. She looked ready to start spitting fire just seeing her on her horse without an invitation. A severely hooked nose and beady eyes gave her the unfortunate look of an aging vulture. Her clothes made Holly's feel poorer just for being in her presence—the highest grade of cotton, handstitched lace collars and cuffs, elegant folds and patterns in her skirt, so on and so forth. A sapphire brooch glittered at her throat.

"Who're you?" she barked. Her voice twanged like a badly-tuned banjo.

Holly, remembering her manners, politely dipped her head first. "Good afternoon, ma'am. I'm Lucille, the postman's daughter. Just deliverin' some mail, if that's quite alright."

Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "I weren't aware Alden had a daughter," she hissed.

Holly didn't skip a beat, "Don't know no Alden, I'm 'fraid. Just arrived in town. Lived in Saint Denis, you see. My pa and I're headin' west. Just lookin' to make some money in the meantime."

At the mention of Saint Denis, Holly sensed Braithwaite's hackles were slowly falling. "You've certainly traveled a far way," Braithwaite noted, words clipped. "That letter. Who's it for?"

"It's for a Miss. Penelope Braithwaite, ma'am. Your daughter?"

"My niece, actually. And you can leave that with one of my sons," Holly's eyes flicked to the two brutish men flanking Braithwaite, "They'll make sure Penelope recieves it."

"I sincerely apologize, ma'am, but I'm afraid my pa would think it very rude if I didn't personally see to it that Miss. Braithwaite received the letter herself," Holly chose her next words extremely carefully. "My pa prides himself on doin' jobs to the best of his ability. I have no doubt the letter would make it to Miss. Braithwaite in due time, but I'd rather not risk my pa's ire—or worse, his pride—by not makin' sure her mail's safely delivered to her hands. Else, I fear I might not get more work in the future."

Holly made damn sure to hit all the points she knew would get Braithwaite to agree. Family, pride, good work ethics. She was a rich woman, sure, but rich people held pride close to their hearts in the same way Southern Lemoynians held the Word of God close to their hearts. And sure enough, following some thought, Braithwaite nodded sharply, "Penelope is in the gazebo on the lakeshore. You're to deliver her mail and then depart my property. Leave your horse here; my men will watch it."

"Much obliged, ma'am," Holly said, swinging herself off of Shining Star. With one more nod to the Braithwaites, Holly made for the lake around the side of the house, brushing past farmhands and guards en route to Penelope's gazebo.

As it turned out, the Braithwaites had several gazebos. Five of them, to be exact. Holly knew how many because she accidentally went up to the wrong ones twice and found no one there. Ten minutes later, a hot, tired, and bothered Holly climbed up the steps of the third gazebo. "Are you Penelope Braithwaite?" Holly asked to the girl sitting inside.

Well, if she wasn't, then Holly would be hard-pressed to find another girl on the property who could match this one's opulence. The girl in question just seemed to sweat money, from the clothes she wore to the makeup she'd applied to the very seat she sat upon. She'd been dressed in a beautiful white dress that was adorned in lace and baby-blue ribbons (Holly personally thought she'd looked like a horse dolled up for a fair). Her dirty blonde hair was curled into ringlets that fell gracefully over her shoulder, tied with the same blue ribbons in her dress. Her cheeks were dusted with powder and rouge, giving her a youthful look that made Holly extremely aware of her dirty and abused face. White gloves were discarded to the side in favor of handling what looked like a pitcher of sweet tea.

The girl glanced up, green eyes lighting up in surprise at Holly's sudden appearance. "Why yes, I am," her voice, in Holly's opinion, was the exact opposite of Sadie's. Light, harmless, completely lacking in any experience of life's hardships. Holly wasn't sure if she loathed that about Penelope Braithwaite or greatly coveted it.

Instead of focusing on her own feelings, Holly reached into her satchel and pulled out the things Arthur had given her, "I got a letter for you," she said, placing it next to the silver tray with the sweet tea, then did the same for the package, "and a gift."

Penelope smiled. "A letter and a gift? Well, we don't even know each other," she joked, and Holly found herself laughing in spite of herself.

"It ain't from me," she confessed. "It's from, err—"

"From Beau," Penelope finished. Holly shrugged and nodded.

All of the sudden, it was as though Penelope's entire demeanor changed. She grabbed the letter almost ravenously, tearing it open with her fingernail. It wasn't until she tugged the paper free from the envelope that she suddenly remembered herself. Penelope motioned to the white wicker seat next to her. "Sit, please. I insist," she said. "It's blazing outside. Stay awhile and rest yourself in the shade."

Holly sat down cautiously, looking over her shoulder like her aunt was going to manifest behind them and screech in her ears to leave. Penelope, oblivious, read the letter as though each word were sustenance. Her grin was wide, her eyes bright, and even Holly couldn't help but smile slightly at her evident infatuation.

Finally, Penelope finished reading and clutched the letter to her chest. "Oh, he is so…human," she remarked dreamily. She set the letter down and tore off the paper from the gift, revealing a small little box. She opened it, gasped, and held it up to the sun. It was a bracelet adorned with sapphires, each bluer than a sea of prairie violets. Just like that, Holly felt a cold surge of jealousy. A bracelet like that could feed everyone at camp for a week—she should've just taken it while she had the chance, gave Penelope the letter, told Arthur the job was done, and sold it to someone else. Better in her hands than in the hands of someone who certainly didn't need it.

But those thoughts all but halted in their tracks when Penelope held out her wrist. "Would you mind…?" she broke off. With her other hand she extended the bracelet to Holly.

"Oh," Holly blinked, feeling duller by the second. "Uh, sure. Here," she took the bracelet, looped it around Penelope's thin wrist, and fixed the clasp. As Penelope admired it again, Holly softly sighed. No point in trying to steal all the silver off her now, she lamented,the thought sour on her tongue.

Meanwhile, Penelope had stopped staring at the gems and was now pouring two glasses of sweet tea. She passed one to Holly, who drank deeply. It'd been so long since she'd had sweet tea, but it was gone far too quickly. Holly set down her empty glass before Penelope had even taken a sip.

Fortunately, Penelope just seemed to find her thirst amusing. She reached for the pitcher. "Another glass?" she asked, a laugh hidden behind the request.

Holly gave in to her thirst again. She held out her glass, "Please."

Penelope obliged. Holly took another sip and forced herself to stop at the one. She, quite consciously, set down her glass and eyed the beads of water rolling down the crystal as Penelope took a few sips of her own.

"You know, my father used to say that there was three ways to tell a southerner from a Yankee," Penelope said out of nowhere. "What words they used, what foods they preferred, and just how fast they could down a glass of sweet tea on a hot day."

Damnit, that made Holly laugh again. The more Penelope spoke, the more Holly—God help her—found herself grudgingly liking her. "I grew up outside of Saint Denis," she admitted. "It was really my younger sister with the appetite. If it were her, you'd be down three glasses and I'd be apologizing on her behalf."

This time it was Penelope who laughed. She spared a look at Holly's attire, "You're with that group that just rolled in, right? You're certainly a little young to be wandering on your own?"

"My pa and sister's a part of that group," Holly lied quickly. "It's just us and him now. We look after each other."

"Oh," was her simple reply, then, "I'm sorry for assuming. I didn't realize."

"Don't apologize, Miss. Braithwaite."

"Oh Lord, call me Miss. Braithwaite again and I'll be tossing you into the lake. Penelope's quite fine enough," she said, hand over her heart. "And you are…?"

Holly thought of lying once more but decided against it, "Monroe. Holly Monroe. And just Holly's alright, if you was askin'."

"Holly Monroe. A true southerner in a camp full of Yankees. Quite a story that must've been," Penelope mused.

"A story for a later day."

"Of course. At least care to spare me the story of this?" Holly glanced up as Penelope traced her pinky across her cheek.

Holly's hand brushed against her stitches, brain racing for another lie. "Horse ridin' accident," was what she settled on.

"I see," Penelope's expression was somewhat off-putting, grinning at her as though she thought Holly was some antique on a shelf she could smile at and admire from a distance, "And your clothes? They got a story too?"

Her clothes!? She was wearing a blouse and skirt, not leaves and twine. "What's wrong with my clothes?" Holly's response was hot, her cheeks reddening.

"You got a revolver on your hip!"

Right. That.

It took all of Holly's willpower not to run to the lake and dunk her head under the water to smother the blush creeping up her neck. Holly was so mortified that her lie dropped pitifully to the ground; "Err…my pa thinks I, uh…that I should know how to defend myself."

Penelope, to Holly's everlasting surprise, seemed enthralled at the prospect of her knowing how to wield a firearm. Excitement seeped from her next words, "Can I ask a strange question?"

"Sure?"

"Can I hold it?"

Again, absolute bewilderment at Penelope's attitude overtook Holly's common sense. She didn't even realize she'd unholstered her gun until Penelope took it from her and aimed it out towards the water.

"Be careful with that. It ain't a toy," Holly found herself falling into the exact same tone of voice she'd use to reprimand Adelaide when she misbehaved. Which was funny, considering Penelope must've been at least four years her senior.

Penelope lowered the gun, and then after a second handed it back to her. "Sorry, I know. It's just, you don't see a lot of Lemoyne ladies around here with guns on their person."

Holly holstered her revolver. "Guess my family just runs different," she murmured, in part to herself.

Penelope leaned back in her chair. "It's preposterous. The Grays—you know the Grays—and ourselves, we're stuck in the Dark Ages, or…well, I don't know. Cave people, perhaps," she said. That dreamily look passed over her face again. "Beau's different. But if they find out, they'll kill him and send me to live in someplace awful. Like Ohio. Have you ever been to Ohio, Holly?"

She shook her head.

"Well, neither have I, but my uncle has a factory there," Penelope said quietly, her eyes looking someplace far away. "He was sort of the black sheep, on account of having left. But now they tolerate him," she spoke the word 'tolerate' as though it was the nastiest curse she could muster up, "because he's a vicious snob. Families are…are…they're something else. They tolerate him because of the money. But me, with my ideas above my station, they can't stand."

Holly nodded her agreement as she finished her second glass of sweet tea.

"What's your family like?" Penelope asked innocently.

Now there was a loaded question. Her answer couldn't have been vaguer if she'd tried, "…Unique."

"Unique how?"

"We been movin' a lot. Headin' this way, that way. Not really settlin' anywhere. Sleepin' under stars and singin' songs 'round a campifire," Holly was surprising even herself when she found that her lies were more of a truth in retrospect—just a different kind of truth, "Ain't for the faint of heart, I s'pose."

"Sounds so exciting," Penelope fawned aloud. "You must never be bored."

"It gets mundane after a while. But not in a bad way, though. Just in a way that means you get used to it," Holly confessed, then sheepishly added, "I hardly 'member what it's like bein' in a house, if I'm bein' entirely truthful."

Penelope gave her a sympathetic look. "What happened to it? Your house?"

"My pa said it was time to move on," Holly said simply and left it at that. You ever gonna run outta questions? Good God.

Nodding sagely, Penelope sat back in her chair. "Time is a fickle beast, Holly. It has a manner of making clowns of us all, and I am but another lost soul in its enduring rampage. Day after day, I wish that time would release his cruel grip on me and let me drift off into nothingness, so I don't have to bear one more second here without any future to look forward to." She suddenly blushed, tone apologetic, "I'm sorry, you must think I'm the most dramatic woman on this side of the San Luis. And it's going to sound rather archaic of me to say, but every second without Beau at my side, I fear I might never get a chance to free myself from this hellscape."

Holly stared in disbelief. "Don't seem so bad. I mean, you got this…" she waved to the manor as she tried to find the words, "…big manor to stay in. And a family that provides for you." And all the money you could ever ask for. "Seems like Eden, if you ask me."

"What, this is Eden?" Penelope sarcastically extended her arm to the sea of grass, golden yellow and fried under the Lemoyne sun, and to the Braithwaite manor standing regally in the afternoon fog, "If this is what folks call paradise, then I must be the snake that tempted Eve with the apple, for how my family treats me. I'd happily see this place all burn for all it's worth."

Something familiar yet horrifically cold crept slowly up her spine. "Burn?" Holly echoed, shocked.

Penelope nodded. "There's nothing to say, aside from I hope they all rot," she said, all humor gone from her voice. She blanched suddenly, seeing Holly's disturbed expression, and backtracked, "I-I don't. Well, um, maybe a bit."

"But…" Holly babbled, "Forgive my forwardness, but you live in a beautiful house, with just about everythin' you could ask for, and you got all your family at your side. Ain't that paradise? Or at least somethin' similar?"

"And yet, I'm kept on a leash so short I can barely go off this property. I have to rely on the charity of other people to even talk with Beau, and even then, we need to keep our relationship a secret, else he'll get strung up by my cousins. I put one toe outta line and I get shipped off to worlds unknown," she smiled at Holly, and she could see every ounce of disillusionment held behind it, "But you? You live so free that you could almost just fly away like an eagle. You say your life's mundane, Holly, but you dress how you want. And you can ride and shoot and your family can live how they want to live. I get what I need, but you get what you want. Truth be told, I'd give anything to be like you."

A silence grew between them.

It was Holly, her thumb circling the rim of her glass, who broke it first. "You got a grievous misunderstandin' of the kinda life I'm livin', Penelope," she said.

"Strange," Penelope countered with a knowing grin, "I found myself about to say the exact same thing."

Holly smiled somewhat, nodding in defeat. "If we was two halves of a whole person, then I guess we'd either be perfectly happy, or the good Lord's most perfect idiot," Holly said absently.

Penelope giggled at that. "Life ain't fun if it ain't fair," she said with a smile.

God, she didn't know how wrong she was.

"It's getting late, you know. Are you allowed to stay out late?" Penelope said suddenly.

Holly checked her watch and cursed under her breath; she'd been sitting here for two hours. Arthur and Mr. Matthews were either going to think she was in trouble, but truth be told it was still Braithwaite's wrath she was really afraid of. She stood so violently that the wicker chair she sat on nearly toppled. "I'm real sorry, Penelope," she stammered out an excuse as she packed up her belongings, spewing out lies as she thought them up, "I gotta be home for dinner soon. Pa'd be cross if I didn't get home before sunset and it ain't really that close a trip—"

"Wait!" before Holly could leave, Penelope caught her arm. She held out a letter, expression pitiable. "If you see Beau again, would you give this to him? Please?" she implored.

Holly wordlessly took the letter.

"And if it would be alright with you," Penelope added, trailed off, then asked awkwardly, "could I please send you a letter from time to time?"

Holly, ever the intellectual, blurted out "What for?"

Penelope winced at Holly's unintentionally-blunt response, "This is going to sound like the most pathetic thing in the world to someone like you, but I don't have a lot of friends my age who are girls. And if it makes the slightest lick of sense, I'd like to at least try and keep one."

"Oh," Holly said, shocked. She shook her head to clear some of her doubts, then absently nodded an affirmation, "Yeah, sure, I guess. Sorry, Penelope. Just…send anythin' my way to the Rhodes train station. Address it to Lucille Sullivan and it'll find its way to me."

Penelope frowned, "Lucille Sullivan?"

"It's a work name," Holly said without even knowing what the hell that meant.

Mercifully, Penelope accepted the answer without fuss, and Holly managed to escape without any more invasive questions. Lord forbid Penelope started asking her for family photos. By the time a farmhand had shown her where Shining Star was being kept in the stables on the other side of the property, the sun was falling and the sky was smoldering down to embers and ash. The trees lining the main road up to the manor became shadows of themselves, now dark and foreboding instead of bright and inviting. The Spanish moss that hung from the branches swayed ominously in the breeze. When Holly glanced back over her shoulder, she swore she saw the slight frame of Catherine Braithwaite disappear from the upper window. Watching. Holly kicked Shining Star hard and didn't look back again.

Holly had to pull out her lantern in order to navigate through the darkness back to Clemens' Point. She ate dinner on her bedroll, floating around in introspective silence. And when that was done, Holly pulled out another piece of paper and tapped her pencil down at the top of the page.

After several minutes, she started writing.

Dear Pin—

That didn't sound right. Holly erased it and started over.

Dear Pena—

Mumbling some choice words, Holly once again crossed out her writings and began anew. This time, she sounded out each letter in her head just like Mr. Matthews had told her to do.

Dear P-E-N-E—was there an "e" in there? Oh God, she hoped so—L-O-P-Y.

Once she stared at the words until she saw red, Holly erased her words again. She pressed so hard that the paper tore under her fingers, at which point she merely sat back and gave up completely. Sean shouted something teasingly over at her and a couple of gang members laughed. Holly ignored him, scowling at the mess she'd made and wondering just why on Earth she was even bothering.

Because they were friends? They hardly knew each other.

Holly closed her eyes and sighed.

Well, if they were to be writing each other, then Holly really needed to double down on her writing lessons. She'd already made a fool of herself enough times in one day. Of all the Leymonians around Rhodes, she'd at least like to lump herself in with the smart ones—whomever they may be.

Chapter Text

Holly put on her best outfit to see the fence. Her new green shirt, the only skirt she had that didn't have holes or patches or nothing else, her recently-polished boots, and her gray neckerchief tucked tightly under her collar. Her hair was tamed down, a testament to Tilly's twenty minutes of feverish brushing, as a way to spite the humidity spike that had rolled in off the lake that morning. It fell just past the back of her neck, the ends already curling slightly against her cheeks. Only the sutures in her cheek marred her appearance, but Holly had to have figured the fence had seen men much worse for wear than her. Came with the territory.

The fence was just finishing his appraisal of the various things the gang had brought in over the past couple of days. Holly, silent and respectful, couldn't help but look at the assorted earrings, necklaces, belt buckles, and other valuables that needed to be sold. It was a busy few days. Holly and Mary-Beth had done a minor theft trip through the Rhodes Saloon, Arthur and Sean had pulled a score on a house full of stick-up artists, while Bill, Karen, and Mr. Matthews had robbed two stagecoaches out by Emerald Ranch. It was a decent haul all around, but the valuables still needed to be sold discreetly. The entire pile reeked of alcohol—Holly, Karen, and Abigail had spent the entire day yesterday cleaning the things for the fence, including scrubbing all the blood out of them. It wasn't until that day that Holly realized that one could, indeed, get tanked up from the mere scent of vodka.

At long last, the fence looked back at her, and Holly instinctively straightened up. He set down a silver necklace with a topaz pendant (Holly had nicked that off of seventy-three-year-old Ethel Marlow while Mary-Beth regaled her with tall tales of Arizona) and gave her a hard stare. "I'll give you two fifty for the entire take," he said.

It took everything Holly had to bite back a laugh. "You serious?" she asked. "That necklace you was holdin' was a hundred alone."

"Might stand to go three hundred if you tossed in that watch you got in your pocket," the fence proposed.

Holly frowned, "Ain't for sale."

"Then you either take my generous offer or go traipsin' on out to find 'nother vendor for all your stolen goods and pray they ask as few questions as I do."

All she could do was press her lips together and nod. The fence, smiling broadly, swept up the take with his arm and Holly only had a brief second longer to see it all before it fell out of sight. He deliberately took his time counting out the money, then slid the stack of bills towards her. Holly took it before he decided to change his mind and withhold it until she gave him the very clothes on her back.

"A pleasure doin' business with you, miss," the fence said, bidding her farewell with a wave.

Hah, business. That was a funny thing to call what he just did there. Holly pasted on the politest of smiles and thanked him anyway, tucking the billfold in her satchel.

The fence orchestrated his business out the back of a ramshackle house in the shantytown on the outskirts of Rhodes. It wasn't much more than a small number of houses tucked away atop a hill off the road from the town, small and cramped but still familiar and homey. Outside his home, a man strummed on a beaten guitar and sang something bluesy under his breath. A fire crackled in the firepit despite it being only just past ten, sending sparks and smoke into the air so they rose to the overcast skies above them. It was incredibly peaceful. Unassuming and calm, and Holly mellowed out somewhat as she approached Shining Star.

"Hey, Holly! Over here!" Holly whipped around to see Lenny jogging up to her, Maggie's reins in one hand and a repeater in the other. Sweat shone on his forehead, and his white shirt was damp enough that it was starting to become translucent.

Holly fed Shining Star an apple and smiled a greeting, "Mornin', Lenny. What got you all the way out here?"

"Talking with a colored folk around here. You hear a lot more of the grapevine than you ever would in Rhodes proper," Lenny answered. He rubbed his forehead with the back of his arm.

"I got no doubt about it. Hear anythin' worth notin'?"

"Actually, I might have something that'd be interesting," as he talked, Lenny pulled out a pear and a hunting knife and started carving off slices. "Ever hear of the Lemoyne Raiders? Some gang'a crazies that runs around here?"

Holly pulled a face, "Met 'em. Didn't go so well. Ain't my breed of people, Lenny, so don't go gettin' no ideas."

Lenny raised his hands defensively, "Wasn't implying nothing. All I'm saying is that there's a house deep in the swamps called Shady Belle. Folks around here say it used to be real pretty, but now it's run down to shit. No one goes out there no more." He handed her a slice of pear; Lenny continued on as Holly ate, "These Raiders've been dealing arms down south since the end of the Civil War. Now, let's say that we head on down there, take a peek, and we happen to see a big house full of crazies that're sitting on a flush of gunrunning money like a hen sits on eggs…"

"Or a stock of guns," Holly finished, "that we can sell for ourselves."

"Exactly," Lenny said with a nod. "Either way, we're getting paid, and ain't no one gonna shed tears when we're done."

It was tempting, truly. Dangerous, but tempting. Guns were more lucrative than stolen jewelry (And would probably get less smack from the fence, Holly thought sourly). But perhaps most important; a gun out of the hands of Lemoyne Raiders was probably in everyone's best interests. She'd heard a story here and there—if not from Arthur and Dutch and any of the other enforcers, then floating back and forth between the Rhodes townsfolk—about Raiders posting near bridges and by farmland. They demanded taxes, usually. Often from the other end of a revolver. A gun out of their hands meant a safer Rhodes, for both them and the town. Holly could get behind that on concept alone.

Holly retrieved the camp's portion of the score and passed it to Lenny. "Put this in the donation box for me and tell Mr. Matthews it's from me. I can go scout Shady Belle for you if you want. I'm all finished up here," she offered.

Lenny pocketed the money and have her a unexpectedly eager look, "Y'know, Dutch told me that you're good with that rifle," he said, a little too casually. "Was thinking that maybe—"

"Not a chance."

"C'mon, even the scouting's gonna be dangerous. Better to have a gun and not need it than need it and not have the gun."

Holly felt herself get slightly hot under her collar. She huffed but neither agreed nor disagreed, simmering in her confliction for a moment. "Get someone else from camp anyway. Arthur, Javier, John, I don't think it'll matter too much. We'll need more than the two of us to do this, dontcha think?"

Lenny looked ready to argue with her but then appeared to rethink that decision. He accepted her proposition with a sharp nod before he pointed somewhere over her shoulder, down the hills and over towards the woods beyond, "Shady Belle's out towards Saint Denis. Locals told me it sits southeast of here by the water, maybe about a couple hour's ride. You gotta ride through Bolger Glade, but no one really knows where it is for sure after that."

That gave her pause. "Bolger Glade?" Holly repeated, "As in the Bolger Glade?"

"Don't think there's any other Bolger Glade," Lenny said with a shrug. "Why, it mean something to you?"

"Bolger Glade's where they fought the Battle of Scarlett Meadows. My pa had customers whose families fought in that battle," Holly said. "Dang, I shoulda figured…I mean, we must've been so close to begin with."

She closed her mouth and crossed her arms, staring at her shoes. Holly could feel Lenny's budding concern coming off of him in waves, "You alright?"

Now there was the everlasting question. How could she phrase this without either sounding like a loon or blowing her lies clear out of the water? Holly gripped the sleeves of her shirt, "You ever feel like…I…I ain't been back this far east since my pa died. All this familiar stuff's makin' me a bit on edge. Don't like ghosts, never did. Guess I'm just skeeved out, is all."

"I know what you mean," Holly nearly flinched as Lenny patted her twice on the shoulder. "Just…I'll meet you at Shady Belle in a couple of hours. Okay?"

It took her a couple of seconds and a deep breath before Holly nodded and said "Okay" back to him.

They parted. Lenny sped off back towards town with Maggie while Holly and Shining Star took off for the opposite direction. Rhodes soon fell behind them, and she was alone once more, lost in the wilderness on the back of a horse, her mind worlds away.

The Battle of Scarlet Meadows was a permanent scar for the people Holly used to live by. Her father's clients each had a story—a father who fought, or a mother who lost a child, or a grandfather who bled to death. Mr. Broussard, strong and proud, needed a crutch for support after gangrene claimed his leg below the knee. His children would dart in and around his leg, and he would laugh it off whenever her father would casually ask him about it. But even as a child, Holly hardly missed the way his face fell ever so slightly.

Bolger Glade crept up on Holly, both physically and mentally. First, it came in the form of trampled, broken stems of dead grass that had never regrown. Then, in the form of a steep incline that made Shining Star whinny and stumble. Finally, she approached the former site of one of the bloodiest battles in the entire war, and the memories grabbed Holly's shoulders without warning.

The entire thing was like something out of a Bible passage, like some sort of war-torn warning towards humanity. Bolder Glade was entirely covered in old Civil War machinery that'd been abandoned by the men who'd fought there. In the trenches they'd dug were unsalvageable rations, motheaten clothing, guns and swords abandoned for fleeing or in the mere heat of the moment. Every several or so feet down lay another piece of carnage, another broken cannon or another splintered wall. The smell of rusted iron seemed to leech out of the earth itself, until the entire world was drowned out and all one could taste on their tongue was the fragmented remnant of a war that was so long gone. Or should've been. A past not let go of, either because of reverence or because of something akin to it, yet far more twisted.

The air stilled as Holly walked through it. It was cold without the sun, she remarked. The clouds overhead rolled over and over each other like waves tumbling over the lakeshore. It was strange seeing a place so close to a town so devoid of people. Not a soul stirred, not a leaf twitched, not a sound resonated. It must've been the one place on Earth where the land was holding its breath. Out of respect or mourning or even just pity, it was a mystery to her.

Don't like ghosts, never did.

It was a full-on gallop towards the end of the battlefield. Holly didn't look back.

She had, on multiple occasions, wondered if she was truly comfortable here like she insisted she was. Dutch and Mr. Matthews had each come up to her in the past week—not prying, not pressing, just curious. Saying she was uncomfortable was pointless, so Holly just smiled and nodded and assured them that it wasn't even on her mind. Dutch was visibly relieved, Mr. Matthews uneasy but accepting. Neither brought it back up to her.

It was akin to not scratching at a scab, because sure, it hurt for a little bit, but if she peeled it back, then it would bleed and bleed and just wouldn't stop.

Holly could probably tell Sadie. Or maybe Charles. Sean? She wasn't quite sure if she wanted to be scoffed at, pitied, or joked about, in that order.

I could tell Arthur. Maybe he'd get it.

No, he wouldn't.

Ahead of her, an abandoned church loomed over her head and cast its long shadow over the grass. The entire inside looked gutted, and Holly could see where cannonballs had blasted the rock away and sent it spilling onto the ground. Curious, she dismounted, leaving Shining Star to her own devices.

Silently, Holly entered the ruined interior of the church. The inside was as scarred and desolate as the outside; rubble had smashed the pews, the altar had been reduced to a pile of timber and rust, and the place had been stripped of its valuables in the thirty years it'd been left to nature and whomever else had come looking for something to loot.

Her eyes fell on a small setup in the corner, however. A spindly chair that looked out of place as it was had been tucked against the wall. Next to it was a large crate that served as a makeshift table. A bottle of rum, a water stained Bible, and an ashtray full of cigarette stubs had been placed on top of it.

This was a place for waiting. So, Holly did just that. She waited patiently, yet she still wasn't even waiting for that long.

She heard a man cursing before she e even heard the cart rumble in. Holly snapped her pocket watch shut and hid herself behind a chunk of the broken wall, listening. The cart and the horses pulling it rolled in from the left, then crossed over the path next to the church, then continued on without as much as a second glance towards where she hid. Holly chanced a peek over the rock the moment she figured she was out of eyeshot.

Two Shire horses ambled onwards, pushed along by two men in front. Their wagon was stuffed full of red boxes. A third man in the back sat on one of them as their lookout. Holly's brow furrowed in confusion until she saw the man besides the driver pass back a handle of moonshine, which the passenger took greedily. She didn't need her binoculars to see that he was already intoxicated. Nor did she need them to see the ratty gray uniform that they wore in spite of the sweltering humidity.

As the three Lemoyne Raiders disappeared into the bayou, Holly returned to Shining Star. She was about to mount back up, determined to follow, but she wavered for a moment. Her hands on the reins, Holly's eyes fell to her saddlebags.

Lenny had warned her that this wasn't going to be resolved peacefully.

Holly sighed, loudly. And then she opened up the saddlebag and grabbed her trousers.

-X-

It took Holly a good three hours to find Shady Belle, even though she didn't get lost once. It was impossible to lose the Raiders' footprints and cart tracks when the mud bore them so blatantly, but it was hidden. Really hidden. So hidden that Holly completely understood why on earth they made their base of operations. It was unlikely that any person would ever stumble upon this place, intentionally or not.

A few years ago, Shady Belle might've been a proud plantation house—a heart in the middle of the Lemoyne Bayou. Thirty years of age, disuse, and looting hadn't been kind to it. Vines had long since claimed the walls, twisting and clinging like long fingers closed around the walls. Holly was almost positive that there was a large hole in the lichen-covered roof. Overgrown plant life sprouted up in the cracks on the porch. Most of the windows had been shattered from the inside out, so glass was strewn all across the yard. If any of this was a bother to the Lemoyne Raiders, then Holly would never be able to tell. The men milled about the front, chatting indistinctly. Sometimes they would retreat in and out of the manor. Other times, they'd be taking stock of the various cargo wagons in front of and around the sides of Shady Belle. Two were posted as guard out front by the small bridge over the creek. Another leaned against the balcony's railing (Holly had seen him breeze through four cigarettes, and he was now working on a fifth), where a crank gun had been mounted.

Holly watched from the safety of the dilapidated stone archway. Altogether, it was hard to tell how many Raiders were in Shady Belle. They all had beards and suspenders and dirt smudged on their face and they all looked the goddamn same. At least three were taking stock of what appeared to be a wagon full of dynamite. Two more were passing moonshine back and forth. The cart that she'd been tailing stood all the way in the back by the stables, and the three men there were chewing the fat nearby. Every single man had a rifle strung across their back.

Lowering the binoculars, Holly wiped away the sweat across her brow with her neckerchief. Her new trousers weren't exactly helping matters; if anything, they just made her feel hotter. Her hair had puffed up, so Holly ruefully stuffed it into her Stetson to keep it out of her face. She took a sip from her canteen and resumed her spying.

"Kid."

Holly glanced over her shoulder. Arthur and Lenny were approaching her, guns already at the ready. Both men looked as though they'd rather be anywhere else, what with the sweat pouring down their shirts and the gnats that circled their heads. Arthur slapped at one as he and Lenny took up positions on either side of her against the archway.

"Y'all took your sweet time," Holly greeted them as she stowed her binoculars.

Lenny's nostrils flared. "Yeah, yeah. Whatcha see?"

"They brought in a big cart. Dunno what's in it, but it might be worth somethin'. It's off on the right," Holly told them. "They loadin' dynamite on the other side. Two guards posted out front. Rest of 'em're either drunk or unsuspectin'."

"How many we dealin' with?" Arthur murmured.

"Dunno for sure. I counted nine millin' 'round. Could be more inside, though."

"I'd bet on it," Arthur said with a complementary grimace.

Arthur snuck a peak over the wall for himself. Holly and Lenny waited with bated breath as he took stock of the situation for himself. When he was finished, the trio leaned in close. "Right, here's what we can do. We can hit 'em head on—fight 'em honest. Or," Arthur jerked his head towards Lenny, "ya can go down there actin' friendly,"

From the look Lenny gave him, one would've thought Arthur'd just asked him to run through a burning building. "Friendly? With these folks?" he hissed.

"Just draw 'em into one spot, then the kid and I'll start shootin'," Arthur's assurance, in Holly's eyes, was less 'comforting' and more 'we'll-try-not-to-get-you-killed-on-a-complete-hunch-ing.'

"Well, that might be the dumbest idea I've ever heard," Lenny shot back. But then, he stated, "But hey, I'm always up for a performance."

Arthur waved a hand onwards, "Then go on, kid. Give 'em both barrels'a charm."

"Wouldn't try anything less," Lenny grumbled.

Standing up, rolling up his sleeves, and snapping his suspenders, Lenny sauntered out into the open. At once, the air around Shady Belle changed—even Holly could feel the hostility spike the air like an incoming thunderstorm. The guards bristled, guns already drawn. Lenny had his hands raised in surrender, but Holly knew there was still a chance the Raiders would outright disregard it and shoot anyway.

Holly raised her rifle up and took aim. Her eyes fell on one of the guards approaching Lenny. Out of the corner of her other eye, she saw Arthur do the same with his own gun.

"On my signal," Arthur whispered. Holly nodded.

Back down the hill, Lenny had begun a jaunty speech, "I, uh…today is a fine and fabulous day! As all days! And so many it be! Praise be, my people!"

"Whatdya want?" one of the guards demanded.

"Praise be, my people! Praise be!" Lenny said, ignoring him. "Now, I come in peace to discuss the merit of glory, and interest you in e-ternity. Praise be, my people, praise be! Now, uh, are you…have you…will you be saved, my brother? Praise be!"

One of the Raiders spoke up, bordering too closely on a perilous rage for Holly's tastes, "I want you outta here now, boy."

Her finger curled around the trigger.

"Steady," Arthur warned, voice low. Holly took a slow, measured breath, her eyes only for the man at the end of her sights.

Holly couldn't see Lenny's expression. Judging by his hand's waving about, he seemed to be controlling his panic remarkably well. "Hey, praise be, my people, praise be!" he said quickly.

By now, the Raiders who'd been taking stock of the dynamite had approached the commotion. One of them, a portly man whose gut was spilling out the top of his trousers, spoke up. His hand was already on his cattleman revolver, "We said, get outta here."

"Uh, praise be?" It sounded like Lenny was running out of material. Still, Arthur would not give her the signal to start shooting, "Or a, uh, um, a great miracle will strike you down, my family!"

"I said, get outta here, you darkie!"

"Now," Arthur told her.

Holly didn't spare another second. She pulled the trigger and watched the first guard fall to the ground, clutching his shoulder. Arthur fired at the other guard and sent him down to the earth with a head less than he used to have. Lenny dived for the ground, pulling out his own revolver and finishing off Holly's target with a shot through the forehead.

Mayhem erupted at Shady Belle. Drawn in by the commotion, the Raiders began shooting wildly—first at Arthur and Holly's position, then at Lenny's, seemingly trying their damndest to shoot through their cover. Holly loaded another shot and took aim for one of the men firing at Lenny, dropping him with a shot through the throat. Arthur fired and reloaded with a dangerous efficiency, picking off two men for every one that Holly shot at.

As Holly nailed a Raider in his side and watched as he fell in a flurry of limbs and blood, Arthur waved at her to move up. She fell behind him as they scrambled for more cover, heads down as bullets sprayed from all sides.

Lenny wasn't so lucky. His attempt to move up had been intercepted by a Raider who'd charged him like a madman. He was slammed into the ground by the Raider's superior weight, struggling to free his pinned hand. The Raider leveled his shotgun in Lenny's face—

Arthur and Holly both shot the Raider at the same time. Holly's bullet grazed across the man's back, leaving a red welt that seeped blood into his dirty overshirt. Arthur's bullet was truer, finding the Raider's shoulder. The Raider reared like a frightened horse, giving Lenny enough time to place a bullet in his jaw.

Holly and Arthur slid into cover behind a stack of burlap sacks as more Raiders streamed out of the house and around the side. Arthur, Holly, and Lenny held back their advance as best as they could, and the ground was soon littered with dead bodies. One man had attempted to ford the creek but was shot dead by Arthur, and his body lay face-down in the reeds, blood making the stems turn crimson.

"Up there on the veranda! He's going for the Gatling!" Holly heard Lenny's very distant voice off to her right as she reloaded again. Whatever thought she had about it quickly disappeared as the air was suddenly filled with the sound of rapid-fire shooting, as well as someone yelling cusses to no one in particular. Holly shrunk as close to the ground as she could as bullets peppered the burlap. Arthur was practically flat next to her, hand over his hat. Across the road, Lenny cowered behind a rock.

And that's when Holly's eyes fell on the abandoned dynamite.

The man behind the crank gun shifted his attention from Holly and Arthur to Lenny, and the boulder itself seemed to tremble under the strain. Chips of rock flew into the air like terrified birds. It was enough of a distraction for Holly to chance a peek over her own cover; the Raider wielding the crank gun had a wild look in his eyes that she could see even from so far away. His half-smoked cigarette dangled from his lips. He screamed obscenities, curses, anything. Holly hoped the catharsis was worth it.

She aimed for the boxes of dynamite and pulled the trigger.

The inferno was instantaneous, the explosion powerful. At once, the front of Shady Belle was swallowed in flames as a dozen boxes of dynamite detonated at the same time. The man at the crank gun could only scream as the explosion engulfed him—seconds later, his charred body was spit back out and landed on the front steps of the manor, the broken remains of his crank gun falling around him.

Holly loaded another bullet but was met with eerie silence. Arthur unloaded one more shot and painted an oak tree with blood as one last Raider collapsed, dead, onto the ground. Lenny stood up, shaky but otherwise unhurt. The entire front of Shady Belle was scarred over with soot and scorch marks, yet it had somehow remained standing. Holly waited for someone else to come around the corner but there was no one else around.

Arthur lowered his gun. "Guess that's everyone," he said.

"Seems so," Holly mumbled an agreement.

Slowly, they made their approach. Dead men were everywhere: in the abandoned fountain, crashed through tents, toppled over crates. Arthur and Lenny searched their pockets while Holly posted as lookout.

Arthur and Holly approached the wagon together. It, by some miracle, had escaped the shootout unscathed. The horses pulled against their restraints, only somewhat soothed when Arthur offered them two oatcakes apiece. "This the cart?" he asked Holly as he stroked one of the Shire's noses.

"Should be," Holly pointed towards the back. "There's red crates all up in the back."

With a grunt, Arthur hoisted himself into the seat and then swung on over the back of the wagon. He shot the lock off the crate with his pistol, then bent down to examine the take. "Hey, this could be promisin'," Arthur said aloud.

A ways off, Lenny glanced up from his searching of a busted crate, "Whatcha got?

Arthur stood back up. In his hands was a glossy new gun, looking fresh off a production line. The metal bolt shone like a silver wedding ring and moved without a hint of resistance as Arthur loaded a shot up to test its quality. "This is fulla new rifles," he announced, looking incredibly pleased.

"We can sell those, right?" Holly asked.

"Sure can," Arthur gave her an affirming nod as he placed the rifle back in the crate. "Now c'mon, we'll check the rest later. Lenny, ride with me. Holly, ya split off to the west and meet us back at camp. If we ain't back by sunset, get Dutch to send someone sniffin' for us."

Holly nodded, "Right. Stay safe."

"You too, kid," As Lenny climbed in with Arthur, Holly whistled for Shining Star. She tore across the bayou for the lakeshore as Arthur and Lenny drove back up the road, their prizes in tow.

-X-

As it turned out, Arthur and Lenny were back by sunset. Battered, bruised, slightly bloodied, and extremely ruffled, but they made it back right before the sun sunk back under the waters of Flat Iron Lake. And it was a good thing, too. The sky finally opened up that night, and it poured and poured and poured until Holly thought the heavens would simply run dry. It wasn't much of a night to socialize. Everyone was asleep by eight that night, crowded like packed fish under the limited tarps. Dutch and Molly were still awake in their large tent, though the flaps were drawn shut. Arthur wrote in his journal to lamplight. His blond hair stuck up in sticky, untamed clumps, only worsened with the bad weather. And honestly, Holly felt the exact same way. She'd changed out of her damp shirt into a fresh one, but it hardly mattered in this downpour. The trousers stayed on. They were already filthy: no point in ruining one of her skirts and creating more work for herself. Holly sat under the tarp set up against the back of the chuck wagon, a bowl of tepid grits and sweet potatoes in her lap, watching sheets of rain speckle the lake and losing herself to the comforting and familiar sound of summer thunder.

Familiar. Holly could recall all the times when she and her sisters would gather in her room and listen to the rain patter against the roof, wondering if it would ever succeed in finding a way in. And when the thunder was so loud, Graziana would yelp and bury her head in her skirt, requiring her to assure her sister that there was nothing to be afraid of.

The thunder boomed again.

"Holly? You alright?"

The sound of Lenny's voice jarred Holly from her momentary self-pity. She glanced up; Lenny resembled a wet dog more than a human, his clothes clinging to his thin frame. Whenever he moved his head, pooled rainwater in the brim of his hat sloshed down to the mud under his boots. "I was saying, there room for one more?"

Holly blinked, blushed, and scooted over, "Yeah, yeah, sorry. Sure, c'mon."

"Thanks," Lenny collapsed gratefully next to her. He took of his hat and threw it off to the side. With a look up to the tumultuous sky above their heads, he shook his head, "Glad we made it back here before we got stranded in the countryside."

Holly cracked a small grin. "That ever happen before?" she asked around a tiny laugh.

"Once," the memory was clearly not a fond one, because Lenny's expression was that of someone who'd just smelled a rotten egg. "Bill and Uncle and I ran a homestead job a year ago outside of Austin and we got caught in a storm like this before we made it back to camp. Now, as you are well aware of, the last person you'd want to be stuck with for an extended period of time would be Bill first, Uncle second. Except maybe Micah." Holly laughed again while Lenny continued, "We got stuck in a cave for two days. Didn't know who I wanted to kill first; Uncle, Bill, or myself."

Holly grinned. "If it were me, it'd be myself. No doubt."

"Yeah, well, thank God it didn't come to that. Dutch, Hosea, and Arthur found us before we could tear each other apart," Lenny leaned more weight against the back of the chuck wagon, and a splattering of rain droplets spilled over the side of the tarp as a result. "Worst thing? Wasn't even that good'a take. We each got sixty bucks apiece. Swore Bill was gonna rip Hosea's arms off when he got handed the money."

A thought crossed her mind. "How was our take?" she asked.

"Remains to be said. Dutch and Hosea are convinced it'll be decent. They're bolt action rifles, so they'll fetch a good price. Arthur and I each took one—I'm sure Hosea'd let you snag one for yourself if you keep your head down about it."

Holly shook her head, her gaze on her feet. She set her half-eaten dinner aside and drew her legs up to her chest.

Lenny's next question was not one of malice. He wasn't angry or hurt or even confused. He merely spoke with a gentle concern that Holly'd hadn't heard in what had felt like a lifetime long past her by; "You doing okay?"

Thunder rumbled overhead once again. Lightning briefly grazed its thin fingers along the horizon, a distant deity momentarily touching the earth. Holly and Lenny watched the rain fall for a moment, what little light remaining around camp making the downpour dazzle at just the right angle for just the smallest amount of moments. It pitter-pattered overhead, in the distance, all around, and Holly felt it resonate with her like her entire body was synching with the storm whirling through Clemens' Point. A storm inside, a storm outside. Perfectly balanced.

"Bein' here scares me," Holly confessed. "It makes me think of my pa, and my siblings, and all the little things I thought I had to leave behind."

She waited for Lenny to say something but he never did. She could feel his eyes on her, so Holly moved her gaze to the lake's uneven surface and soldiered on, "I thought it'd be easy. I could head west and never come back. But there's things here that make my stomach curdle up, Lenny. There's all these gangs that'd sooner shoot me for all I'm worth, and to be honest it really ain't much. And then there's this business with the Grays and the Braithwaites that I still can't even wrap my head around. And the worst part of it all is that it's all so familiar. I knew folk like these when I was growin' up and I never gave it as much as a second thought. And now we're here and I just hate 'em. I hate their big houses and their fancy clothes and this confederate gold they all sit on. And I feel as though…" Holly broke off, gathered her thoughts, and continued, "I feel as though if we were anywhere else, it'd be so much easier. But it's not, and I feel like a burden because of it."

She hugged her legs tighter against her chest. Lenny kept his silence, and for a little while the only sound was that of the rain pouring down over their heads and the crackling of thunder over Flat Iron Lake. The clouds sparked, and for a heartbeat the world was lost in blinding white as lightning came shooting down from the heavens as if God Himself was trying to crack the sky in half.

"I'm sorry you're scared," Lenny murmured. "I get how you feel. To be honest, I'm scared too."

"You are?"

"Folk down here ain't the same as you an' Dutch. They don't really see me and you the same."

Her mind flashed back to the show he put on at Shady Belle that day. "Right," Holly said softly, trying to keep the pity out of her words, knowing full well that that would be the last thing Lenny would want from her. He merely sat back on his elbows and relaxed his body a bit, oblivious to her efforts.

Holly ran a hand through her hair, parting the wet clumps into perfect lines. "I'm tired of feelin' like this. All useless and such," she spat. "I keep doin' these jobs and with each one I do, I feel more and more like a burden and not like a help."

"You gotta give it time," Lenny said sagely.

She sniffed, "Givin' time implies I get somethin' outta it. It's been months, Lenny, and I only feel like I'm sacrificin' my time like a lamb on an altar."

That drew a chuckle from Lenny. "That's rich. You're the youngest outta all of us, 'sides Jack. You got the most time outta all of us. Got a whole future out ahead of us."

He laughed at his own joke. Holly didn't dare look him in the eyes.

In absence of a response, Lenny moved the conversation onwards, "I can guarantee you, Miss. Monroe; in a few years, we'll be far out west with all these problems behind us. And either two things will've happened." He held up two fingers, "Either you'll be older, and more mature, and you'll make your peace with it. Or, you'll be swimmin' in enough cash that you'll be able to pay off your problems. Simple as that."

Now it was Holly's turn to laugh aloud despite her misgivings. Lenny soon joined in, and they snorted for a couple of seconds in each other's pleasant company.

"Personally, I'm hopin' for the second," Holly admitted, still snickering.

"You and me both," Lenny said in agreement.

The rain poured. The thunder rolled. The light in Dutch's tent was extinguished, and the canvas grew dark against the rippling lakefront.

"Think we'll make it, Lenny?"

"How you mean? Out west, or til old age?"

"I dunno. Both?"

Lenny cracked a wide smile, "If we make it out west, you gotta promise me that we both make it to the ripe old age of eighty-five. That way, we'd've killed all our demons twice over."

"Eighty-five?" Holly echoed with a grin of her own, "Why eighty-five?"

"Because my nana lived til eighty-four, and my pa told me that she'd whoop my ass in heaven if I died before I reached eighty-five."

They laughed again and continued to do so until Bill raised his head and told them to shut up and go to sleep. Holly stayed up until it was well past midnight and then fell asleep on her bedroll, her clothes somewhat soaking but her fears slightly alleviated. It seemed like a fair trade to her.

The next morning, the rain was gone and the sun was back.

Holly hadn't realized just how much she'd missed it.

Chapter Text

Holly gave Kieran another uneasy glance, determined to keep her eyes off of it, "I'm tellin' you, Kieran. He hates me."

Kieran, halfway through another brushstroke down Ennis' back, gave her a concerned look. "He don't hate you. He's just confused is all," he said patiently.

Shaking her head, Holly put all her focus into shining The Count's saddle. Her motions were so vigorous and punctuated that the leather polish was streaking.

"Just look at 'im," Kieran implored. "He don't seem like he got a mean bone in his body."

Biting the inside of her cheek, Holly forced herself to glance sideways.

Cain, the stray dog that Jack had found wandering around the edges of camp, sat several paces away. Someone had finally washed the thing's coat, so his dappled cream and brown fur was finally smoothed down to the point that he no longer resembled a giant, waterlogged muskrat. His black eyes settled on her. His head went to one side, tail wagging hopefully.

Holly had been terrified of dogs since she was a little girl.

She had to admit that she didn't really hate them; they seemed like innocent enough creatures and she'd known more than enough folk in her youth that kept well-trained and sweet ones. But losing half her hand to a dog had left her with a bit of a crude fear for them. Every time she saw a mutt in the distance, she'd make it a point to cross to the other side of the road. If the dog had no lead, Holly'd more often than not just turn around and head back the way she came, maimed hand clutched tightly to her chest.

So, when Jack had approached her a day ago to show her his newest friend, it wasn't an exaggeration to say that she didn't take it so well. She had to be coaxed out of her lean-to by Dutch, who looked half-torn between thinking her reaction was either the funniest or stupidest thing he'd ever seen in his life. For the first time since she'd joined in with the van der Linde Gang, Holly was on the receiving end of their jokes— their teasing lasted well into the night until Holly'd finally had enough and decided that turning in at seven was worlds better than Bill woofing in her ear for the umpteenth time and laughing his ass off about it.

To her dismay, the dog didn't leave. No, Cain was here to stay. Dutch had take a shine to him and declared the dog an official member of the gang (even though he didn't get a vote, a notion that left Holly rather nettled). Cain sauntered around like he had lived at Clemens' Point his entire life, accepting Pearson's leftover scraps and happily yipping when John gave him belly rubs. The one worse part about this entire Cain situation was that the only other person who seemed to have a problem with him was Micah. Micah, a man who radiated bad energy like ill-tempered sunlight also appeared to dislike Cain with a passion that seemed to rival her own. And the last thing Holly wanted was to share anything in common with Micah, but here they were.

Kieran, thankfully, hadn't resorted to making fun of her yet, but if she were being candid his pity was more frustrating than his potential mocking. "Go and pet 'im," he encouraged her, resuming his brushing.

"No, Kieran."

"You ain't gonna get over your fear if you keep ignorin' 'im."

Watch me.  "It ain't a fear. It's a..." Holly mulled over her words for a moment, "...thorough dislikin'."

Kieran let out a singular little half-chuckle, "Sounds like some razzmatazz way of sayin' you're scared of 'im."

Holly huffed and dipped her rag back into the can of leather polish.

Several minutes of shining and silent fuming later, Cain's yapping signaled an approaching guest. Holly glanced up to see Arthur heading over towards the stables, sporting an old leather duster while carrying several others over his arm. His shotgun and repeater were slung crossways over his back. Cain eagerly darted between his legs but when Arthur ignored him, he loped off back towards camp.

"Mornin', Arthur," Holly greeted him with as much cheer as she could muster up but was met with a curious response when Arthur took one of the dusters off his shoulder and threw it at her.

"Ready your horse and Karen's. I'll get mine. You," Kieran balked as Arthur jabbed a finger at him, "ready Bill and Lenny's." While Holly struggled to wrap her hands around the massive bundle of leather suddenly thrust upon her, Arthur stalked past her towards Achilles, moving with the kind of purpose that suggested a possible job or definite trouble. Possibly both, Holly mused, as Arthur spoke again, "And get your guns. We're goin' back to Valentine."

Puzzled, Holly set the duster on the saddle holder. "Back to Valentine?" she echoed. "You hit your head or somethin' durin' breakfast, Arthur? Why on Earth're we headin' back to Valentine?"

"We got work to do, kid," was all he said, in the process of hoisting his saddle onto his horse's back.

"'Fraid I don't follow."

"The five'a us are robbin' the Valentine bank," Arthur said. "Seems like Bill still thinks there's unfinished business, so we're goin' to take a look at the place and see if it's worth hittin'."

Holly cocked her head, her hands on her saddle, "Do we?"

"Do we what?"

Kieran rushed over to help Holly place the saddle over Shining Star's back. "Got unfinished business in Valentine?" she clarified. "I mean, they're bound to be lookin' for us—"

Arthur interrupted her with a dismissive wave of the hand, attempting to get Achilles to accept the bit with the other, "Karen's been back and forth a couple'a times to scout the place out, and nothin's come of it. We'll be fine."

"Last I 'member, Karen didn't shoot up a couple dozen Pinkertons two weeks ago," Holly shot back. "We did."

"Don't matter. We'll be in and out and that'll be that," Holly knew Arthur well enough by now to know when he was keeping his real thoughts in check. His words were deliberately clipped and to the point, like he'd purposefully been trimming them back. It did nothing but make Holly's temper flicker.

With a firm hold on her anger, Holly finished with Shining Star and started prepping Old Belle. "I'm just airin' on the side of caution, Arthur. I don't think that's a crime," she said.

"You've always been a worrier, Monroe."

Bill and Lenny, each donning a leather duster of their own, had since wandered over and caught the tail end of the commotion. Bill carried a sizable box of dynamite left over from the Raider job. Lenny was carrying several bandoliers.

Self-conscious, Holly busied herself with Old Belle's bridle. "I ain't a worrier without good reason, Bill," she said, tempered. "And 'sides; you weren't there in Valentine when we was ambushed by Pinkertons. I was, and I don't ever wanna go through somethin' like that again."

Bill scoffed. "What, kid, you want a goddamned medal? Someone to pat you on the back and tell you it was a job well done, like mommy used to do?"

"Bill," Arthur's tone was low with an unspoken warning. Bill shot him an offended glare but had enough sense not to retaliate.

"Holly does have a point," Lenny chimed in, and Holly flashed him a small, grateful glance as he elaborated, "Regardless of whether or not Karen says it's an infallible heist, we were in Valentine for a long while. People are bound not to have forgotten our faces quite yet. Especially their faces. They did sorta shoot up half the town."

Fishing sticks of dynamite out of the crate and sticking them in Brown Jack's saddle, Bill rolled his eyes at Lenny's point and and instead glared at her, "Look, Monroe, if you wanna stay here and let us go through with it, I sure as shit ain't stopping you. But if you wanna actually do some real robbing, then by all means, saddle up and come along. Morgan might have time for complainers like you (Holly saw Arthur give Bill a glare over the top of Achilles' saddle) but my patience runs much thinner than that. And even that's not saying much, all things considered."

"I never said I weren't comin'," Holly said pointedly. She grabbed the duster Arthur had tossed her and threw it over Shining Star's back, "I just don't think we should wander in expectin' an easy come-and-go." So excuse me if that's askin' too much.

"Mr. Morgan!"

All four of them ceased their argument before Bill could get a word in edgewise. Herr Strauss approached the stables with his ledger in hand. "That man, the debtor, Thomas Downes? Apparently, he's dead," he said.

Holly very briefly caught Lenny's expression, his narrowed eyes an exact copy of her own. Even Arthur seemed caught off guard; "Dead?" he repeated, a hint of surprise hidden in the way his eyebrows knitted together. "Well, no, he didn't seem very well."

If Herr Strauss noticed any of their reactions, he didn't see the need to comment on it. "His wife, she will assume the debt, of course."

"Of course," Arthur agreed.

Something tight squirmed in Holly's gut.

"When you're done, head up there and collect. We lent them a lot of money," Herr Strauss said, and then he walked away. Just like that. Like what he'd said didn't faze him like it'd fazed all the rest of them. Holly resisted the urge to lock eyes with Lenny again, afraid that Bill or Arthur would sense her discomfort. But mercifully, a distraction came in the form of a provocatively-dressed Karen Jones. The first five or so buttons of her blouse were undone, giving them a very covetous view of her assets. Holly whipped around and started at Shining Star's neck, a blush crawling its way up her face.

"Gentlemen!" Karen proclaimed, approaching Old Belle, "Let's go rob ourselves a bank!"

-X-

They all fell into their respective places. Bill led the group, followed by Karen. Holly took the middle, Lenny a step or two close behind her, and Arthur brought up the rear like he always did. Travel was steady, from through Lemoyne late in the morning to re-crossing the New Hanover border well into the night. They camped out by Flatneck Station, singing songs to keep their spirits high, before setting out early the following morning. The sky was clear, the air crisp. Holly, per Bill and Karen's instruction, was dressed in her nicest outfit, her hair pinned back and out of her face in a manner that might've suggested elegance at first glance.

The five of them rode into a quiet Valentine just after noon. Holly's heart was hammering, and she could see that Arthur was looking a little green around the gills himself— he was just worlds better at hiding his unease than she was— yet no one gave them as much as a second glance as they clomped past.

"Let's take it nice and easy," Arthur warned them as they rounded the train station.

It was practically unneeded advice. One after the other, they slowed their mounts to walks. They passed a group of children, most only a couple of years older than Jack, and received no strange looks or surprised glances. Karen greeted a passing pair of ranchers on their way to the livestock auction and they returned her kindness with unaware nods. Even the folks at Keane's Saloon, where Holly could still see the bloodstains in the wood, didn;t bother so much as to raise their brows as they went on past.

Bill led the lot of them off the main road and instructed them to leave the horses off the path. As Holly dismounted, Lenny nudged her and pointed to something at the wall. "Looks like you're finally famous," he said jokingly under his breath.

He was point to a collection of wanted posters nailed to the side of the gun store. One in particular stood out— the one with the largest bounty bore a bizarre rendition of her face, along with those of Arthur, John, and Dutch. Every word of it was like another stab straight to her gut:

WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE:

Wanted in relation to the activities of the van der Linde Gang—

Dutch van der Linde -$10,000 reward

Arthur Morgan -$5,000 reward

John Marston -$3,000 reward

Unidentified female -$200 reward

For eighteen counts of first degree homicide and manslaughter

Last seen near Valentine, NH. $100 reward to anyone with information on whereabouts.

Immediately contact nearest U.S. Marshall's office

As Holly tore it off the wall, she heard a light laugh slip from Lenny. He clapped her on the shoulder, unaware of how drained of color her face had become. "You're a real outlaw now," he said, "No turning back from here.

Holly plastered on a thin smile that she knew didn't look at all natural, folded up the poster, and slipped it into her satchel.

They grabbed their things and started for the bank. The five of them avoided the main road, opting instead to climb up and down the porches of the various stores on Valentine’s main thoroughfare. Karen had taken the lead this time, using a brisk pace that the other’s struggled to match. Holly fell between Bill and Arthur; the unease emanating from the latter was doing nothing to calm her nerves, but she took some solace in the fact that she wasn’t the only one having second thoughts. Holly’s fists tightened every single time a wayward eye so much as blinked towards their direction.

"So, we never decided," Karen said as the five of them stepped off the final porch before the bank. "Is it the lost little girls you want? Or," she suddenly swayed dramatically, her next words faux-slurred, "the posse of drunken harlots?"

Arthur hummed in thought before saying, with a coy smile, "I think I'd like to see the little girls lost."

Karen smirked as she redid her top buttons and closed her blouse all the way up to her neck. "So even you long to save the fallen women, eh Arthur?" she tased him. Holly hid her own smile with a dip of the head as she brushed off her own blouse and skirt. Lenny gave her a discreet thumbs up as she made a last-ditch effort to smooth her hair back. Lastly, Holly took her revolver and stuffed it out of sight in the waistline of her skirt.

"Alright, ladies," Arthur waved them on, a gentleman to the end, "Time for a show. Give 'em what they're payin' for."

Suppressing giggles, they climbed up the porch steps, Holly just a step behind Karen. As she pulled the door open, Karen's voice, soft but serious, was in her ear, "Follow along."

Holly barely had time to agree before Karen began crying like a cat that’d just been stepped on. Her sudden shattering of the peace inside the bank yanked each patron’s attention away from their own devices, so they all turned and stared at the pair of strange women who’d just walked in and started howling at nothing in particular. The bank’s patrons— a man with a finely-trimmed beard, a man in a yellow sporting jacket accompanied by what appeared to be his wife, another woman in a pink and white dress, and the bank teller, all looked on in pure confusion. Holly could only watch on as Karen sank to her knees and folded in on herself, bawling fiercely, planting herself between the patrons and the door to freedom.

"But I'm ruined!" Karen wept, covering her face with her hands and sobbing with an authenticity that Holly would've completely fallen for had she not been in on the scheme to begin with. Moving as quickly, and hopefully naturally, as she could, Holly joined Karen on the tile and pulled her into an embrace. 

The patron with the beard approached them, awkwardly hovering over them, unsure of what to do. "I-I'm not sure this is quite the place—"

Karen only wailed louder. The man recoiled backwards as though he'd been smacked.

Holly jumped into the conversation before anyone else could try to escape the uncomfortable circumstance they'd created. She shot daggers at the man with the beard. "He said he loved her!" she almost spat directly onto his perfectly polished shoe, trying to force as much contempt into her voice as she could muster up.

The rest of the people, the teller included, looked hopelessly at each other. Karen managed to look up, tears ruining her makeup. "He said he'd make a lady of me!" she cried, then promptly stuffed her face back into her hands.

The man in the yellow coat stepped forward. Holly watched him stretch out a hand for the door. "Would you care to—?"

"She's with child!" Holly blurted out. The man froze. The woman in the white and pink dress gasped. With all of them caught on the line, Holly had no choice but to ramble on, "And if my older sister don't get a loan, she's gonna have to go back to the workhouse to support us! All'a us!"

Karen screeched at the word "workhouse" and curled deeper into the folds of her dress. Her hand had slipped inside her coat, and Holly knew in that moment that their little show had finally reached it's curtain call.

Holly and Karen stood up with their readied revolvers in hand. As they went up, the patrons went down, petrified. It only took a heartbeat for Arthur, Bill, and Lenny to burst in behind them. Arthur threw the man in the yellow coat to the ground. Karen pistol-whipped the man with the beard so heard that he was unconscious before he hit the tile. Bill and Lenny socked a man apiece with the butts of their rifles and sent blood spraying across the once-immaculate floors.

"Get your hands up! This is a goddamn robbery!"

"Nobody move! Don't make us hurt you!"

"You heard 'em! No one move!"

Holly, revolver trained on the man in yellow, watched as Lenny took the keys from the unconscious bank guard and tossed them to Karen. Swift as a starling, she unlocked the gate to the teller's desk and opened it for Arthur, her revolver never leaving the terrified patrons behind her. Arthur slipped inside with a nod of thanks; Holly tried her best to disregard the teller's desperate pleading and the heavy thud that answered it.

Holly, Bill, Karen, and Lenny fell into a line, side by side. It was Bill who made the first suggestion. "Get 'em up against the wall," he said. "Better to keep 'em there, not have to worry about 'em pulling some hero shit..."

They set to work. Lenny and Bill dragged the man with the beard's limp body together. Karen hardly had to wave her gun about to send the women, sobbing and gasping and sounding more and more like they'd be the first people ever to suffocate on air, scrambling for the far corner. Holly forced herself to kick the man in the yellow coat several times to get him to join the rest of their hostages. Together, they leveled their weapons at the patrons, some unconscious, all scared. Holly swallowed as much of her guilt down as she could, not daring to meet any of their eyes.

All four of them looked over their shoulders as Arthur unexpectedly called out to them from the very back of the bank, "I'm in! Someone come make sure the suit behaves himself in here!"

Grumbling, Bill turned on heel and disappeared through the gate. The rest of them remained where they were, not daring to move a muscle. A minute passed, then another, then another.

All of a sudden, it was Bill's aggravated voice calling out; "Miss. H, you're needed! Get your ass back here now!"

Holly looked up and found Karen and Lenny shooting equally perplexed looks back to her. Holly only shrugged. "Go," it was Karen who urged her on, "we got this."

Nodding her appreciation, Holly backed up to the gate and raced for Bill and Arthur.

She entered the very back room to find Bill pressing the barrel of his rifle against the teller's bruised and bleeding head, growling obscenities under his breath. Arthur was crouched at the first of five safes, his ear pressed against the steel. He held up two fingers; as Holly entered the room, he raised three, gave the handle of the safe a tug, and pulled the door open, revealing more money than Holly had ever seen in one place in her entire life.

Bill tossed her saddlebag and Holly had just enough reflexes to catch it. Arthur had since moved on to the next safe, but he pointed to the one on the opposite end. "We gotta crack these by hand before the law shows up," he explained. "Know how to...ya know what? Just go over there and press your ear next to the dial. Spin it clockwise 'til ya hear a click, then go the other way, then the other way again, then open her up."

Arthur might as well've knocked her upside the head with a wooden plank for how well she understood that. She shook her head and stared at him in confusion, "Huh?"

Instead of clarifying, Arthur just cursed aloud and spun the dial several times. "Get crackin', Miss. H!" he barked.

Holly got cracking.

With the saddlebag over her shoulder, Holly moved to the furthest safe, pressed her ear to the face just like Arthur did, and spun the dial clockwise. She spun and spun and spun some more and bit back curses when nothing happened. "It ain't workin'," she said.

"Spin slower, then," she heard Arthur growl unsympathetically.

Stuffing down the urge to roll her eyes for the single ounce of levity it would offer her, Holly took a deep breath and tried again. To be honest, if she were spinning the dial any slower she’d be going backwards, but she kept her gripes to herself. The numbers spun by, one by one. Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six…

On number twenty-nine, Holly heard the faintest chunk , like something underneath the door just dropped into place. She paused for a heartbeat, then went in the other direction like Arthur had told her to. Another chunk at the number three. Behind them, she could hear Lenny threatening one of the hostages. Holly spun the dial clockwise once more until it finally gave her a third chunk at number fifty-three.

Holly tested the handle of the safe and smirking to herself as the door swung open. At the exact same time, Arthur managed to open his second safe.

The pair of them exchanged no words. Holly might’ve said something boastful if Bill hadn’t been presiding over the scene with his gun pressed to the teller’s temple. The teller, with his face down against the desk and blood streaming onto the mahogany, whimpered as Holly and Arthur swept all the safe’s contents into their respective saddlebags and moved on. 

Pressing her sweaty face against the door and hearing her blood pounding back in response, Holly started spinning the dial. She worked a bit faster this time, confidence making her motions surer, only to stop altogether upon the first number in the code.

Another twenty-nine.

You can’t be serious.

But apparently they were. Twenty-nine, three, fifty-three. And just like that, the fourth safe popped open.

As Holly stuffed the money into her saddlebag, she turned to Arthur, who was still working on his third and final safe. “Try twenty-nine, three, fifty-three,” she hissed under her breath.

Arthur shot her a look but tried it nevertheless. A moment later, the final safe eased open with a loud creak. The teller squirmed in despair, only to fall still again following a low threat from Bill.

Their escape was quick. Bill dispatched the teller with the butt of his gun and took the saddlebag from Holly. The three of them quickly made for the front of the bank again, tense but alert. Lenny was handling the patrons all by himself, his repeater trained on the man in the yellow jacket. Karen had since taken up the lookout role by the door; she glanced over her shoulder as Arthur, Holly, and Bill reappeared. “I think we’re fine,” she said, though in Holly’s opinion she didn’t sound so sure. “C’mon, I’ll lead the way.”

One after the other, they left the bank. Holly was acutely aware of the looks of terror she was receiving from the patrons huddled in the corners, of the cold metal of her revolver tucked against the small of her back. She blinked back sunlight as she stepped outside and did her best not to stare at the men sitting on the steps of the general store. A hand, Arthur’s hand, fell on her shoulder, steadily guiding her back to the rest of the gang as they began to make for the horses.

No one even dared to speak. Karen held onto her pistol with one hand and had a stranglehold on the folds of her dress with the other. Lenny’s lips were pinched, eyes bouncing all around for unseen enemies. A dog barked somewhere up the road. Holly’s throat and lips were dry. Bill and Karen wordlessly guided the five of them back around the gunsmith’s to their horses without so much as a word out of place. No one had raised the alarm yet, though Holly didn’t chance a thought about the fact that their rendezvous point was in plain view of the sheriff’s office.

Arthur and Bill threw the saddlebags over their horses as Holly and Karen shrugged on their dusters. Lenny tossed her a bandolier filled with rifle ammunition. She had just took her rifle from it’s saddle holster when a panicked voice rose up from down the street, “Oh my God, someone’s robbed the bank!”

Holly froze with her hands on Shining Star’s saddle horn. Several voices echoed the words back like wolves answering a pack’s howl. From the corner of her eye, she saw someone throw the door to the sheriff’s office open.

“Shit!” Lenny exclaimed.

Bill kicked Brown Jack, “Go, go! ” 

Too fast, the bullets began flying. Bill and Lenny had already began racing off towards the edge of town and the Heartlands beyond. Holly stuffed her boot into the stirrup but by then the damage had already been done. Shining Star, whinnying in fright and with no rider to calm her down, had already started to gallop away from the angry men shooting at her. Holly was able to hold onto the saddle horn for only a couple of seconds, making desperate grabs for the reins, before she was bucked off and tumbled through the mud. Holly managed to raise her head quickly enough to catch a glimpse of her loyal mount speeding away after the rest of the gang, terror making her go all the faster. And Holly knew that the chances of catching up with her were slim to none.

One gunshot. Two more. Someone shouted behind her in triumph.

Oh God.

Just then, someone on a horse slid to a messy stop right beside her. He fired his pistol once at their unseen pursuers. Through muddy strands of hair, Holly barely managed to make out the angry face of Arthur Morgan glaring back at her, “You comin’ or what!?”

She picked herself up out of the mud and threw herself on the back of Achilles. Arthur, in the same way a mother cat would grab the scruff of it’s kitten, seized a fistful of her duster and heaved her up the rest of the way. She barely had any time to situate herself before Arthur kicked his horse straight into a frenzied gallop, and Holly clutched his shirt as the pair of them made for the open road, leaving the authorities scrambling for their horses.

Arthur and Holly burst into the Heartlands like they had a Devil following their every step. Despite the extra weight, Achilles seemed to sense how dire the situation had become and pushed faster and faster until Holly felt like they could outrun the wind itself. Arthur momentarily kept to the main road before veering off of it, heading as eastward as possible. Wiping mud from her eyes, Holly kept her sights firmly trained on their rears.

“Think we lost ‘em?” she asked despite already knowing the answer. Arthur didn’t grace her with a response, which told her all she needed to know. Holly drew her pistol.

The first shapes of the law were coming back over the rise they’d just climbed. She could see two, then a third lagging behind. A fourth was attempting to flank them from the left, the sights of his repeater already aligned. 

Holly raised her pistol but was nearly struck across the face instead as Arthur drew his own gun and, in his efforts to aim, nearly pushed her off of Achilles. He shot three times and missed three times, but it was enough to get the flanking man to back off. Holly turned her efforts towards the three men behind them and began firing, leaning nearly sideways off of Achilles in order to avoid Arthur’s arm. She nailed one man in the shoulder while Arthur nailed another man in the chest and head, and both men were left sprawling across the dirt. By now, the law was practically on top of them— Arthur’s efforts to hold back the authorities had taken his attention away from Achilles, who had since fallen back into a confused half-canter of sorts. Arthur let out a frustrated yell and kicked his horse back into a gallop as Holly managed to finally take the flanking lawmen down. 

"I can't shoot with ya hangin' off my shoulder!" Arthur shouted. It took the combined efforts of both their pistols to take the final lawman down, and he slumped into the neck of his horse, bleeding from several different holes in his chest and shoulders. Arthur holstered his pistol and took the reins with both hands, and Holly gripped his coat that much harder as Achilles dug his hooves in and pulled them forward.

Holly looked over her shoulder. She could see the distant shapes of horses charging at them: a fresh wave of law about to bear down on them. "There's more comin'!" she wailed.

They're all yours, then," Arthur said. He snapped the reins. Achilles neighed. "Keep 'em off our backs long enough for me to think of somethin' to get 'em off our tails."

It was either the dismay or the weight of the the problem he'd haphazardly tossed onto her shoulders that kept Holly silent. She could already see that there were more men in this wave. Six, at least. Trying to take them all down with her pistol was a fantasy if she’d ever dreamt one. If she had her rifle in hand, then it could possibly be a manageable fight, but a rifle required two hands and a steady seat. Arthur was already swerving Achilles back and forth so rapidly that Holly was somehow beginning to feel seasick. There wasn’t a chance she could take all the men down with both halves of her body twisted in two different directions and not get bucked off the horse.

Unless she didn’t have to twist her body?

Holly blinked, weighing her options.

Well, she’d had to have had stupider ideas at some point.

"Arthur!" Holly shouted over the commotion, swinging one leg over to the other side of Achilles' rump, "I need you to grab the back of my coat and hold me in place!"

They went over a small lump of dirt as she said it, but even that was enough to nearly buck a now-astride Holly straight off the back of the horse. She screamed and clung to the back of Arthur's duster, her heart nearly leaping straight through her nostrils. The rocking ceased rather quickly, and only then did Holly gather the shreds of her courage and start readjusting herself once more.

By the time Arthur spoke up, Holly was fully facing the opposite way with nothing to keep her balanced. And he let her know just how he felt about it; "What the fuck do ya think you're doin'!?"

Holly grabbed her rifle and pulled a bullet from the bandolier. "You want me to keep the law off us!? Then I'm doin' it! Just grab the back of my coat," she loaded the shot, "and keep this goddamn horse steady!"

Arthur said nothing else. It took a few seconds, but Holly suddenly felt the leather tighten against her neck and back where Arthur had reached behind him and seized a fistful of her duster, holding her slightly in place as the posse drew nearer and nearer. Achilles rumbled on, steady as could be. One lawman appeared, then another, then another, but she now had a clear shot at every single one of them.

Holly raised her rifle as soon as the first man brought his gun up. 

Her first shot hit true. The leading lawman was shot clean off his horse when the bullet ripped through his chest, and he might've screamed had the bullet not pierced a lung. The force of the bullet sent him tumbling into the dirt, but Holly didn't stick around to see if he was dead or alive. The lawmen's' bullets started flying, speckling the dust of the New Hanover frontier like raindrops over the surface of Flat Iron Lake. Holly, tongue between her teeth, slid another bullet into place. The next bullet missed her target by a hair, but he shakily pulled back from the rest of the crew nonetheless. Holly reloaded and fired again, this time at the man who’d taken their former leader’s position up front. The bullet found a home in his collarbone, but it was far too close to his horse’s head for comfort. She watched as the horse reared, lost it’s balance, and fell directly into the rider behind it. Both men went to the earth screaming in a tangle of limbs, pinned by the weight of their steeds.

The hills were beginning to fall away, revealing the men that had been trying to hide behind them. Two lawmen were thundering in from the right, becoming level with Holly and Arthur. One had already begun firing while Holly desperately tried to reload faster. His first bullet was wide. His second bullet missed Holly, but the hiss from Arthur told her that it might’ve been truer than what she’d believed at first.

Holly finally got the bullet loaded up. “Go left!” she shouted.

The world under her bottom swayed. Arthur tugged Achilles to the right. Holly paled as the two flanking men, now gifted with a full view of their targets, barely missed them with their respective shots. Holly could almost see her reflection in one bullet as it sailed past them. 

“I said go left!” Holly yelled, firing. Her bullet went wide of the nearest rider, who’d ducked behind his horse’s head.

“I went left!”

My left!”

Achilles protested under the hard jerk of the reins Arthur gave him. The stallion skidded and swerved over the loose dirt, fighting to keep upright, and took off for the opposite direction. Holly’s body lurched, only staying seated thanks to Arthur’s vice-like grip on her coat; her head fell so far forward she could see the skid tracks left by Achilles’ hooves. Three or so lawmen managed to copy Arthur’s riding talents (though Holly grimaced as she saw one horse’s ankle give out, crushing it’s riders’ legs as they rolled to the dirt together), but they managed to put a little bit of distance between them as they got back on track. Holly shot one more rider through the forehead as the chase continued, further and further and further into the open plains.

More specks appeared in the distance. At least another half a dozen men with fresh horses and fresh guns. Holly tugged another bullet out of the bandolier and saw that she was already halfway through with her ammunition. Were they expected to fight until they could return to Clements’ Point? Would the law chase them all the way to Lemoyne and back? What would happen in the law from Rhodes cut them off?

Something whistled in the distance. Holly grit her teeth as her doubts melted away and she fell back into the present. “Is that a train!?” she demanded as she fired and missed again.

“Sure is,” Arthur said. Holly bounced precariously as Achilles put on another burst of speed, “Hold on, kid. We’re gonna beat it over the tracks.”

There was an unspoken measure of blind faith required in that crazy statement, so Holly chose to curb her protests. She managed to unseat another rider, leaving one remaining in the second wave of lawmen. The third wave was edging ever closer. Holly could practically see the glint of the guns in their hands as they brought them to their cheeks. The train whistled again, this time longer and louder, like it was trying to ward them away from this nutty idea before they became mincemeat painted across the railway.

And then the train was there. Her heart damn near stopped because of its sudden appearance a mere three feet in front of her nose, Holly heard the bullet she’d fired glance harmlessly off the metal front of the train as it stormed past her and Arthur, creating a barrier between them and the law. From her vantage point, Holly could see the lone lawman pull up on the other side of the tracks, frustration written on every feature as he searched in vain for a way around. He was joined by the third wave of lawmen but by then it was too late. Holly and Arthur had made it safely into the thick of the woods, where the trees swallowed them up and the train gradually faded from earshot. Sighing with relief, Holly lowered her sore arms and let the rifle fall into her lap. The tension on her back disappeared as Arthur let go of her duster in favor of guiding them safely through the trees.

“We lost ‘em?” he asked.

Holly nodded before remembering that Arthur couldn’t see her, then answered, “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.” 

“They hit ya?”

“Nah, think I got lucky. You?”

Arthur grunted, “Got clipped once or twice, reckon I’ve had worse.”

“I’d bet,” Holly said absentmindedly. Her hair had fallen loose thanks to their hard ride, clumps stuck against the back of her neck. Watery sunlight poked through the holes in the branches and the leaves, turning the bark of the trees golden. Achilles slowed to a trot, then to a walk. Holly craned her neck but heard no sounds of their pursuers. It was like they’d entered an entirely different country, with no lawmen or order to worry about.

She considering thanking Arthur for saving her hide, but then again, it wasn’t like he was thanking her for saving his. And they’d already had this conversation— save your breath for other times, etcetera and all the like. Holly managed the smallest of smiles at the memory. Seemed so long ago and so far away that she was standing there in the middle of nowhere, hands shaking and quiet as a mouse with a cat outside of it’s hole. She didn’t have a two hundred dollar bounty back then. Though, probably fair to say that she didn’t have a two hundred dollar bounty now. More like two thousand dollars. 

Maybe she should just turn herself in and give the gang her bounty money (probably would just be money worth sneezing at, considering the haul they’d just brought in). Save them all the trouble of digging around for this confederate gold they were so keen on finding.

Holly made note of the uncomfortable twinge in her stomach. It was similar to the feeling she’d had before they’d left, when Herr Strauss had spoken to Arthur about a debt that needed to be claimed. A thought was on the tip of Holly’s tongue, cold and sharp to the taste, yet the moment she spared it any bit of thought it had evaporated like mist. The twinge remained, though, like an ache from an old wound. Holly frowned, watching the trees pass them by one by one, fleeting in a way her own feelings were not.

To keep her mind busy, she instead spoke aloud; “Arthur, can you promise me somethin’?”

“Sure, kid.”

“Next time we go to Valentine, can we please manage to leave without shootin’ someone?”

Chapter Text

"Hold still."

"I am holdin' still."

Holly suppressed a shudder as another suture came free. Hosea retracted the scissors but didn't remove his hand from her chin. He carefully rotated her face to get a better view down the length of her cheek. "Just two more left," he said. "If you want, I can probably snip 'em both at the same time."

"Do it," Holly said, discomfort making her curt. Her rear end hurt from sitting for what'd felt like years— she had shockingly not grown roots and ingrained herself quite into the chair yet, but any longer and she felt like that might be changing.

Hosea, tongue between his teeth, carefully inserted the scissors under the stitch. Holly tensed up, waiting. At least, he cut them loose, and Holly relaxed in his hand with a sigh.

After tugging the threads loose, Hosea held up a pocket mirror for her to look at herself. "It ain't pretty, but at least it'll make for a good story down the line," he said amusingly as Holly took the mirror with one hand and ran her fingers along the scar with the other. He was definitely correct about one thing; the jagged line that the bullet left in her cheek still hurt like a thousand different Hells and looked like something straight from one of them. Holly brushed her hair away and lingered over the chunk the bullet had taken out of the tip of her ear. She traced it lengthwise, fingernails sliding into the crevice left behind where the wound had been sewn up.

Holly scratched at the scar. "Sure hope you're right, Hosea," she murmured, distracted. It took her a few seconds to realize that the older man hadn't answered her.

She set the mirror down and followed his distracted gaze. Micah, Pearson, Arthur, and Dutch had gathered near Dutch's tent, locked in a conversation she'd previously been oblivious to. Dutch's scornful gaze was, to Holly's astonishment, all for Micah, and he smoked his cigar like he thought the world was going to end. Pearson was watching on helplessly, for some reason holding his hunting knife. Arthur hung back, face unreadable, though if she were to take a guess it didn't look like he was none too happy with the course this conversation had taken.

Holly shot Hosea a concerned look but he hadn't been paying attention to her. He was staring after the group that'd assembled over yonder with a look of worry. She opened her mouth to say something to him, but was cut off as Micah started preaching again. Holly only caught the tail end of his impassioned sentence, "...but don't fight wars ain't worth fighting."

Hosea called over to the lot of them, "They want a parley?"

They all turned. Dutch nodded.

"It's a trap," Hosea said matter-of-factly.

Micah shrugged their way before facing Dutch once more. "Well of course, it's probably a trap. But what do we got to lose finding out?"

"Get shot," Arthur said dryly. Dutch pointed to Arthur and nodded at the obvious fact, and Micah's expression soured ever so slightly.

"We ain't getting shot," Micah said, insistent. He clapped him on the shoulder and until that exact moment Holly had never seen Arthur wear an expression so poisonous, "because you and the girl'll be protecting us."

"Me?" Holly squeaked out. Even Hosea looked surprised at the suggestion thrown onto the table.

"It's a trap, you'll shoot the lot of 'em," Micah continued, ignoring her outburst. "If it ain't a trap, that slim chance—"

Dutch didn't let Micah finish before he began to storm off, brushing him aside and making for their table. "I don't see the point in any of this," Dutch said, taking a drag on his cigar.

Arthur, Micah, and Pearson kept their distance as Dutch leaned himself against the table, directly across from Holly. Micah, persistent if nothing else, was still pressing his point; "It's a chance we gotta take," he said firmly.

Dutch didn't answer straight away. He stood silent, five pairs of eyes boring into him, as he gathered his thoughts. Finally, he spoke, staring at the cigar in his hand. "I killed Colm's brother. Long time ago (from the corner of her eye, Holly saw Hosea stand respectfully, and hastily copied his example). Then he killed a woman I loved dear."

He fell silent again. After several seconds, Micah was the one to break it, "As you say, it's a long time ago, Dutch."

No answer. Dutch held his cigar up, watching the smoke curl upwards from his fingertips, and then he threw the thing half-finished into the mud. When he looked up again, his eyes were sharp with a deadly determination. "Let's go," he said, voice hard and resolute. He pointed at every person named in turn, starting with Micah, "You, and me, with Arthur and Holly protecting us. No one else."

"What about me?" Pearson asked.

"This ain't the time for tigers, my friend."

Holly, baffled, glanced back and forth between Hosea and Arthur for confirmation. Hosea offered her nothing but an unhelpful shrug. Arthur's annoyed and conflicted expression dissolved into one of reluctant acceptance, and he waved a hand to her to follow. Resigned to the mission, Holly headed for her bedroll to change her clothes.

"Mount up then," Micah called back to the pair of them. "We head out in ten."

Out of camp they went, Micah taking the lead. They rode in tense silence for the first couple of hours as they retraced their steps back to New Hanover once again. Holly and Dutch rode side by side, The Count maybe a step ahead of Shining Star. Arthur kept guard at the rear, and if he was still upset she'd've never been able to tell by his face alone. Micah brought them down the main road stretching west until they broke away, heading northwest. The hilly landscape loomed over the horizon.

The unexpected sound of Dutch's voice drew all of their attention, "You know, I've been fighting Colm for so long now, I can hardly remember a time when it was different."

"How long's it been, Dutch?" Holly asked.

"Not quite too sure, my dear. A decade? Maybe longer?" Dutch replied, shoulders drooping, "The fighting, it blurs together after so long."

Arthur piped up behind them. "You're still fightin' him, make no mistake of that," he said.

"Here he goes. Doubting Thomas," now it was Micah's turn to jump in, "Is there any plan you ain't sour on?"

He didn't respond right away, and then, Arthur gave his begrudging admittance; "Eh, maybe you're right. Just nervous. Let's not waste any more lives needlessly."

"I ain't costing lives here. I'm saving 'em," Micah said, resolute. Holly found herself privately agreeing with the sentiment, even if she felt the person behind it didn't necessarily match the ideals he preached, "What'd you say? We had Pinkertons coming after us?"

"Because of Blackwater."

"And Leviticus Cornwall and his private army! Then, who knows when this local hillbilly thing will come to a head, hm? Can we really afford to be fighting on all these fronts, and O'Driscolls?"

Dutch was nodding along, "There is wisdom in that."

The four of them had reached the empty shell of Dewberry Creek. Shining Star nickered as she lept down into the dry bed of the stream, keeping pace with The Count even then. Holly patted her neck and whispered praise as they crossed the creek and began their ascent up the first of many foothills.

"It's really that simple?" she inquired. "One parley, and we wash all this bad blood away?"

Micah's tone was heavy with annoyance as he answered her, "Look, yain't even going to be the ones in danger. We'll get on over there, find some nice perches for you and Morgan to settle into. You both got rifles, dontcha? Then me and Dutch walk right into the lion's den with the pair of you to cover us."

"Just keep calm," Arthur said, before adding, "unless I give you a reason not to."

Dutch glanced back at Arthur with pride in his words, "Oh, we'll be fine, my dear and trusted friend. We got you. With you watching over me, I would walk into Hell itself."

Holly shot a look behind her and swore that she saw Arthur duck his head to hide a proud grin.

"As would I," Micah chimed in. Arthur's smile fell somewhat.

They crested the first hill and gradually wound their way down the other side before making to climb the second. Holly adjusted her Stetson as the sun made a reappearance from behind the clouds. It was a bright day, mostly clear and not a sign of bad weather to come. Holly prayed that that was a good sign. It'd better be.

"Up there," Arthur suddenly announced. "Men on the ridge."

Three other heads shot upwards. On the top of the next hill over stood four mounted men atop their horses. Upon seeing them, they all turned and raced over the other side, down into the valley below. Micah jerked Baylock to the right and everyone followed suit. Dutch echoed what Holly was thinking, "O'Driscolls, from the look of them."

Holly dropped back slightly and fell in line with Arthur, whose expression had darkened considerably as they began making their way around the hill. "I don't like having eyes on us," he growled.

"We're close. You'll be the eyes soon enough," came Micah's assurance. Arthur snorted and said nothing else.

Out of nowhere, Micah suddenly shook his head, "Maybe he's right, Dutch," he said dramatically. Holly and Arthur exchanged a look, "Maybe I have pushed too hard, got us into situations that could've been safer. I just...I see all those mouths we gotta feed and I dream too big. Caring too much; that's my problem."

Tasting the bitter tang of an argument on the horizon, Holly butted her way into the conversation before Arthur could start spewing venom. "I don't think there's such a thing as carin' too much," she said mildly.

Yet, Arthur apparently still had his piece to say, and Holly winced at his lack of...well, tact, as he proclaimed, "That is horseshit!"

Now Dutch was chiming in, "It might be! Micah might be full of shit. Colm O'Driscoll might be full of shit. The promise of this great nation— men created equal, with liberty and justice for all— that might be nonsense too. But it's worth trying for. It is worth believing in. Can't you see that, friend?"

Arthur let out an embattled sigh, muttered "I don't know," and left it at that.

"Try," Dutch implored. "All I ask is you try."

They all fell silent once again. Arthur, thankfully, had the sense to let the conversation go, even though Holly had a sinking suspicion that he had a novel's worth still on the tip of his tongue. It was either nerves or respect for Dutch that kept his mouth shut for good this time, his lips pursed and eyes distant.

As they passed a fork in the road, Micah pointed upwards at the peak of the nearest hill. Holly's eyes traced a manageable path between the stones. "Alright, cowpoke, you're gonna peel off up ahead. We'll be meeting down on the plains; find a spot just above us where you can keep an eye on things," Micah ordered.

Arthur removed his hat and stuffed it on one of Achilles' saddlebags. "Alright, alright. But however this shakes out, let's agree to meet back at this fork in the road afterwards," he said.

"We'll be there, partner," Micah replied. They split off, and Holly followed Micah and Dutch around the hill while Arthur made his way up to the top, rifle already in hand.

At the bottom of the slope, Dutch pointed onwards and instructed Holly to keep following the path for another two minutes or so, then climb to the tip of the next hill and wait. That way, they'd have a man on either side of the confrontation and two pairs of eyes looking at the parley from two different angles. Holly did as she was told, eventually finding herself at the edge of a remarkably high and steep hill overlooking a large dip of dust, grass, and shrubs that stretched on into the horizon. Arthur's spot was somewhere far to her left but Holly didn't bother to search for him. She dismounted, hitched Shining Star to the ground, and retrieved her own rifle.

The cliff she was watching from was dizzyingly high. She took a knee as Dutch and Micah, nothing more than white and black splotches of color at this distance, came racing down into the valley. With her binoculars, Holly could see three O'Driscolls come racing down the opposite hills on horseback. All five of them met somewhere in the middle, with Dutch and Micah on one side and the O'Driscolls on the other. They stopped a few feet away from each other. No one moved for their guns. Yet.

Holly brought the scope up. The crosshairs naturally found the O'Driscoll in the middle: the biggest and most important looking of the lot. He raised his hands in greeting but Dutch didn't return the gesture.

She felt each minute of waiting eek by, slipping through her sweaty fingers as she held the gun. Holly bounced back and forth between the leader of the O'Driscolls and his lackeys on either side, her hands fighting to keep stable because each movement down below, no matter how insignificant, could've been the start of a firefight. Whatever they were talking about didn't carry this high up, so Holly was left to focus on every single bit of pressure that was weighing on her shoulders. Were they arguing, or just talking? Anxiety turned to agony. Fortunately, her finger didn't listen to the frantic mess inside her head, so she remained concealed.

And then it was over. Just like that? Holly moved her eye away from the scope for an instant, puzzled, but her eyes weren't playing tricks on her. Dutch was shaking his head, and Micah was saying something heated in response. Holly didn't lower the rifle until every single person had made it back to their respective horses, and only then did she relax (physically as well as mentally; she didn't realize how hard she'd been breathing until she heard the rasp in her throat for herself). Slowly, Holly gathered her things and went back to her horse, watching as the O'Driscolls left over the same ridge they'd come over from.

Dutch and Micah were waiting at the fork in the road, just like Arthur had suggested, when Holly found them again. Dutch seemed impassive, Micah incensed but momentarily in control. Holly pulled to a stop, "What happened?"

Micah looked at her scornfully, as though whatever had transpired down there was her fault. "The parley broke down," he growled. "Talk grew too personal for Dutch and Colm, so we called off the peace talk."

She raised her eyebrows, concerned. "That's it?" Holly asked.

Micah sneered. His scar rippled. "That's it?" he shot back at her in a nasally imitation of her own voice, "What, you were expecting sunshine and birthday cake? Can't bury a hatchet when someone's already holding it over your head. Today wasn't the day for peace despite fat man's best efforts, as pathetic as they were."

Holly, shaken, glanced at Dutch, "Does that mean we got trouble comin'? Are we gonna have to move?"

"O'Driscolls don't come east. They got no business knowing where we are. Least, I don't think so," Dutch's tone was uncharacteristically flat, as though he was genuinely disappointed things had gone so south.

"Then we oughta start heading back to camp," Micah muttered, already putting Baylock in a speedy trot, "Don't wanna take no chances with O'Driscoll scum."

Dutch murmured an agreement. The two men were already nudging their steeds down the road but she hung back. "Err, Dutch," Holly found herself hesitating, unsure if it was right to speak out against two higher-ranking members of the gang, but her unease won over, "where's Arthur?"

Dutch and Micah exchanged a glance— clearly, neither of them had noticed he was missing until now. To her displeasure, Micah was the one who answered her, tone nonchalant. "He's probably on his way," he said. "Or hunting. He likes hunting. He'll catch up."

Holly cocked her head, "Well, shouldn't we wait for him, then? Or go lookin'?"

"Morgan's a big boy, he knows his way back to camp," Micah responded, already swinging Baylock's reins back around.

This ain't about if Arthur can find his way back or not, Holly thought as a wave of frustration momentarily drowned out her anxiety, this is about stickin' to-godamn-gether like we agreed on, you insufferable, selfish sack of horsemeat. "But—"

"Arthur is capable enough to handle himself," Dutch, at long last, slid into the conversation by cutting across her. His stare made Holly immediately back down, her courage crumbling.

"But I—"

"That's enough, Miss. Monroe. If Arthur's not back by tomorrow night or the next, then we will send Charles out to look for him. Until then, we ride back to camp and prepare for another day," Dutch snapped. The finality in his words shut Holly up for good, and in the ensuing silence he turned The Count around once more and brought him back into a trot, Micah following so close the pair of them were practically sharing the same air. Holly lagged several paces behind, the tips of her ears burning with mortification.

The three of them followed the winding roads down to level ground again but no one seemed to have their thoughts back on solid earth anymore. Micah had begun spouting off rumors and conspiracies and had Dutch leaning halfway out of his saddle to hear them. Holly, keeping pace with The Count and Baylocks' trots but barely making any efforts to catch up, kept her eyes focused on the space somewhere between Shining Star's ears and contemplated what in God's name was making her so uneasy.

So what if Arthur hadn't caught up with them yet? Micah had a point when he said that he was probably hunting or something or another, because it wasn't like Arthur didn't spend half his life outside of camp like a nomad. His horrifically long leash was something she'd learned to deal with as a normal part of van der Linde life. Though, it wasn't like he was using that leash to go out looking for trouble. Trouble usually found them, not the other way around.

Holly momentarily considered the idea that a good portion of her nerves were just leftover from the standoff. She still felt an itch in her hands, only sated by the way she gripped the reins with varying levels of intensity. Holding lives in her hands was a bit of a heavy task. Though, to be fair, it had hardly been the most intense thing she'd ever experienced in her life. The meeting hadn't broken into a firefight. Parleys didn't lead to massacres. It was just Dutch, Micah, and the three O'Driscolls talking without much more—

Holly felt her breath catch in her throat and had to awkwardly cough to avoid choking on air. Dutch and Micah, heads still bent together in heated debate, paid no attention to it.

There had been four O'Driscolls on that rise when Dutch and Arthur had pointed them out. Holly wasn't sure about a lot of things but even she knew how to count to five. If there were four O'Driscolls, where'd the final man gone off to?

Arthur still hadn't caught up with them.

Something was terribly wrong.

Holly, without thinking, yanked Shining Star's reins to turn her around. The mare whinnied at the sudden change in movement, protesting by tossing her head irritably.

Her abrupt reversal didn't go unnoticed by Dutch and Micah, of course. "Whatda you think you're doing?" Micah snapped as Holly situated herself.

Her mind reeled. "Saw a group'a deer up that way," she lied, pointing in the direction of some hills off to her right. When Dutch and Micah followed her finger, she quickly lied again, "They disappeared over yonder, though. Charles told me yesterday that there's some herds in the area, maybe a pronghorn or two. Got nothin' better to do. Would it be alright if I hung back, hunted a little?"

Micah scowled. "If you're thinking you're gonna go looking for Morgan, then I told you; he can handle himself," he sniped.

What in the Hell was getting him so riled up about this?

"I ain't worried about Arthur. You're right, I'm sure he's fine," her fib made the assurance taste sickeningly sweet over her tongue. Micah's frown deepened. "But two hunters out gettin' food are better than one. And I'm sure Charles and Mr. Pearson would appreciate the extra help. I ain't got nothin' else to do, and I'm already here, so I'm happy to help out."

Dutch also seemed skeptical, but far less hostile than Micah, at the very least. "There still might be O'Driscolls about," he said thoughtfully. Holly briefly thought he was going to tell her no, but he finally gave her an approving nod. "If you see any, I want you to head straight on home. No point in taking chances."

Holly dipped her head, relieved. "Yes, sir," she promised.

She turned back the way they'd come, making a show of fishing out her map from the saddlebag. Suddenly, Dutch's voice rang out, "Miss. Monroe!"

Terrified, she turned. Micah had gone a few paces but Dutch hung back. "If you see Arthur out there, tell him I need to talk to him when he gets back," he said. "We got a lot to work out in the coming days."

"Sure thing, Dutch," Holly said with a heartened smile.

He returned it with a nod, and swung The Count around again. Micah and Holly locked eyes for the briefest of seconds, and she was perturbed to find the sheer amount of loathing that his ice-blue eyes seemed to hold for her. But he turned the moment Dutch caught back up with him, and the thought of what was running through his head left her mind almost as soon as it entered it, replaced by far more pressing matters.

Holly kicked Shining Star off towards where she "saw the deer", hoping that it'd at least look like she was telling the truth in the insane case that Dutch and Micah decided to trail after her. She gave her paranoia a good ten minutes to settle down by tracking imaginary herds of deer before she turned Shining Star around in full and raced back for the valley, searching for the exact hill that she'd seen Arthur climb earlier that day.

Fifteen minutes later, Holly found herself at the top of the hill that she was positive Arthur had gone up. It was completely deserted, not a soul to be seen. Even Achilles was gone. Worry pierced Holly's gut but then dissipated almost immediately. It'd been almost, what, a half an hour since the parley broke down? She checked her pocket watch with a pout and snapped it shut, humming to herself.

Holly dismounted several feet away from the cliff's edge and gave the area a quick once-over. Grass struggled to grow and did so only in scattered clumps, fried brown under the heat of the sun. Dust and pebbles kicked up with every step Holly took. Some unlucky fellow had died on this clifftop; the turkey vultures that'd claimed his corpse ruffled their feathers and took to the sky as Holly approached the cliff's edge and looked down.

He hadn't fallen, otherwise she'd've seen the grisly remains of it. But it also didn't seem like he'd simply up and wandered off to his own devices. Arthur was a lot of things, but she didn't take him for an erratic sort. He'd've at least told Dutch if he was going to head off on his own? Right?

Holly took a knee, trying to copy what she'd been doing in an effort to visualize the situation. If he was keeping an eye out, then Arthur had to have been watching the O'Driscolls approaching Dutch and Micah, just like she had. There were only three of them down there. The fourth man had to have been somewhere else.

She glanced over her shoulder. Shining Star kneaded the ground with a hoof, her restlessness almost palpable. Holly furrowed her brows. There really weren't that many places up here to get the drop on someone as observant as Arthur. A shrub here, a sizable rock there. Although, Holly supposed that if someone were real quiet— really, really quiet— then maybe they've been able to sneak up on him and knock him unconscious with a swift blow to the back of the head.

And then what? Suppose you had him? Where would you go from there once you were done?

Holly's attention fell back on the spot where the parley had taken place. The O'Driscolls hadn't come from the same direction they had. Dutch said that it was unlikely that the O'Driscolls would find camp because they didn't come this far east. They had picked out a middle ground to meet: not only metaphorically, but literally. Which means they had to have come from the…

Holly raised her head and looked westward. She squinted.

There, so impossibly far away in the distance, were several black specks making for the forests beyond the hills. It was useless trying to make out who, or exactly what, they were from her vantage point, but they were moving at a breakneck speed. Either some herd of startled buffalo or horses. Horses and their riders.

It was a full sprint to Shining Star to fetch her binoculars. Holly brought them up to her face the moment she returned to the cliff's edge, her heart thrumming a mile a minute. It took several seconds to spot the shapes of riders again, but she eventually spied them near the tree line on the horizon. Holly clicked the lenses into their furthest range and stared.

She couldn't see much, even with the binoculars, but she counted five horse-shaped silhouettes. Four were being ridden. The fifth lagged behind, almost like it was resistant. It definitely had something draped across it's back, but they were all getting steadily further and further away and Holly couldn't make out what it was. Cargo, maybe? Or something more substantial than that? Like a body. Maybe fresh meat from a successful hunt.

Or something else.

Someone else.

Arthur.

Holly lowered the binoculars, feeling her hands and stomach instantly go cold.

In theory, she had two options.

She could go back, chase down Dutch and Micah, and tell them what she'd seen. Either spill the beans and admit she went back to the valley or lie and say that she just so happened to see a gaggle of O'Driscolls with Arthur tied to the back of his horse like a stuffed pig for a holiday meal. She could rouse a generous rescue party then, though at the risk of getting shut out of it herself. Still, Dutch and Hosea would no doubt drop everything they were doing and ride like Hell to get Arthur out of the O'Driscoll's clutches. Holly wouldn't be surprised if everyone in the van der Linde Gang who could wield a gun came along just to get him back. But that left a whole host of problems in its wake. The trail might be cold by the time they returned to Clemens' Point, took stock of the situation, and came back to this point here (which, and Holly was guessing wildly, would probably be about eight or nine hours in total of lost time). They could wander around and get lost and might never find out where they'd taken him. And by then, Arthur could be dead. This felt a touch more critical than getting arrested— Holly had a sinking feeling that Colm O'Driscoll had no intentions of posting Arthur's bail.

Or, she could go and do it herself. Forsake the long haul back to camp, along with the panic it would surely bring about, and simply go about tracking Arthur on her own. There were so many problems with that idea that Holly knew counting them all would waste the eight hours she'd be making up. She wasn't near as good a tracker as Charles, not near a good a shot as John, certainly not near as good a diplomat as Hosea. She would have one rifle on her back, one pistol on her hip, and a horse that hated sitting still for more than ten minutes against four O'Driscolls, possibly more. And then there was the matter of how she'd even go about rescuing Arthur without bungling it up and him getting a bullet placed between his eyes as a reward for it.

But this was a choice in theory, of course. There was no choice in reality. Holly was in her saddle and urging Shining Star on down the hilltop before the thought of going back even crossed her mind, steely determination clouding out all other doubts and second guessing. Several minutes later, the pair of them thundered across the plains and back into the depths of New Hanover, hot on the tail of Arthur's captors.

Chapter Text

It was amazing what fear and worry did to a person's mindset. Because Holly didn't think that her brain had ever been this singularly-focused before.

When she was younger, it was all about juggling responsibility after responsibility, constantly adding more duties until she felt like she'd have to grow three more sets of hands in order to keep up. For the past several months, everything Holly did was with an air of hesitation, making sure one stray word or one misplaced fact didn't send the elaborate ruse she'd constructed of herself into a spiraling freefall.

Now? Holly had only one thing on her mind.

Where in God's name were these O'Driscolls taking Arthur?

Holly lived on Shining Star's back for about a day and a half, steadily making their way through the underbelly of New Hanover. Either by sheer fortune or sheer stupidity, the O'Driscolls made no efforts to hide their trail, making Holly's attempt at tracking them remarkably successful. The four of them stuck to a specific pattern: never go onto the roads, always stick to the woods if there are woods to be found, keep heading west as if you wanted to ride off the end of the world. Shining Star seemed to relish the ride, so their trip was smooth. Racked with anxiety, but smooth nonetheless.

About sixteen hours into her ride, not long before the sun was set to go down, Holly stumbled upon a spot that sure looked like an old campsite that'd been vacated far too quickly. They'd settled near a ridge overlooking Limpany, the spot where Luca had made his home several weeks ago. Her examination of the camp left a little to be desired and a lot to be feared. Someone had tried to make a break for the hills but was quickly incapacitated. A large, dark splotch of blood stained the soil in a perfect circle like a cigarette burn. The lone hope spot she could take away from this bleak campsite was that the blood wasn't fully dried and the coals of the fire weren't completely cold. If they were the O'Driscolls, and the man that'd tried to run and paid dearly for it was Arthur, then Holly must've just missed them. Maybe by a mere hour or so.

Even though her mind was screaming at her to keep going while she still had them right under her nose, Holly reignited the coals and spent the night at the campsite to give herself a break from riding. Sleep came fitfully, the talons of her anxiety a tight grip that had no intentions of releasing her. Holly guessed she'd only gotten two hours of sleep in total before sunlight began leaking into the skyline. She was back on Shining Star and plodding west once more before the day could climb it's way over the hillside.

It was around there, south of Valentine and into the forests beyond, that Holly began to lose the O'Driscoll's scent. She knew that they'd taken him across the Dakota because she saw their prints in the sand at Bard's Crossing, and that was it. Holly wandered down the trails through the pines until she came across Riggs Station, then doubled back east, her frustration building. She turned north, then back south, then eastward again, trying not to let her mind wander down the treacherous paths of time and distance and other factors rapidly slipping out of her control. Lack of rationality would be the death of her. Just don't think, do anything but think.

Holly ended up clearing her mind so thoroughly that she nearly ran headlong into trouble by accident. Shining Star saved her, shockingly enough, by going lax. Holly kicked her when she noticed that she'd abandoned their trot. When the mare refused to move, she looked up, scanning for what had upset her enough to stop moving. When she found none in front of her— the same firs and ferns and undergrowth that cloaked the entire landscape with a green blanket— she sniffed the air. It was then that she sensed the danger her horse had: something burning, something sickly. The wind was blowing in from the northwest end of Flat Iron Lake, bringing about a slap in the face of human activity.

Holly hitched Shining Star to the low branches of a pine tree, fed her several apples, gave her a hasty patting, and set off on foot. She decided against taking her rifle; the less noise, the better. Thus, she crept towards the commotion with nothing but her revolver, her hunting knife, what little she had in her satchel, and her wits, as fried as they were.

She slunk around for several minutes before the trees thinned and a small campsite rose before her. The centerpiece of the property was the small stone cabin, with a few wooden sheds and outhouses scattered about for good measure. The cabin had a cellar on the right side. A dozen men armed to the teeth milled about, some sitting at the campfire, others posted as lookout. Their horses were all tied off at the far corner. For such a small space, it was definitely a large draw for activity. Why a dozen men chose to hunker down in a teeny place like this was beyond her.

Hosea had marked this exact location on her map as Lone Mule Stead, southeast of the Big Valley but northeast of Blackwater. Holly didn't realize until that moment that she'd spent the last two days traversing several state lines, and now she was practically back where they'd rescued Sean all those months ago. The air had taken a sharp drop in humidity here, with the cold front from the lake curling around the cabin.

Watching from the safety of the undergrowth, Holly was making note of the guards' positions when the door to the cellar burst open. Every single man in a twenty foot vicinity jumped as a man stepped out, holstering his pistol. It was the same man she saw in the valley, the one who met Dutch in the very middle of the parley. She could see him clearer now. Holly noted the way his gray hair hung in ragged, greasy clumps, the way his gloves and waistcoat were made of peeling and ill-maintained leather, the way that some of the men subtly shrank back from him like they were afraid he'd randomly lash out and strike them. There was really only one man this could be. Colm O'Driscoll turned to the closest man; Holly was startled at the rasp at came out of his mouth, like several horror stories condensed to a singular tone of voice. "I want this door chained tight," he ordered. "If Morgan so much as takes a shit on himself, I want to know about it."

A chorus of "Yes, Colm" rose up from the O'Driscolls. One man came forward, produced a chain and boxcar padlock, and locked the doors shut. Another rushed in with Colm's horse, a big, agitated thing that tossed his head in anger. Colm mounted up, issued some orders Holly couldn't hear, and raced away from camp, accompanied by two guards. The rest of the O'Driscolls at Lone Mule Stead went back about their business. Holly could feel the release of tension in the air, like each person around that property had exhaled at once.

Silently, she weighed her options. It was either wait, letting Arthur suffer down there in that cellar in the hopes of coming up with a plan (or some God-given miracle, but Holly had a feeling that divinity didn't exactly come at her beck-and-call). Or, fight now, and try to tackle upwards of a dozen O'Driscolls at once with her bare hands. The location, the distance, the cold...they came with several problems of their own, and that was even if she managed to get Arthur out of the bosom of this deathtrap.

What would Dutch do? What would Hosea do? What would Arthur do?

Holly lowered herself into the ferns, kept her eyes glued on the cellar door, consciously decided not to dwell on the issues springing up in her mind like weeds in springtime, and bid her time.

The hours ticked by, slower and slower as the noon sun rose and fell. Holly busied herself by watching the comings and goings of the O'Driscolls, and when that bored her, she mapped the path the shadows took across the clearing. O'Driscolls went about their days. Roughly every two hours, someone would enter the cellar, linger down there for a couple of minutes, and return topside. Some returned with jeers, others with shakes of their heads. At least one man hurried up the stairs and complained loudly about the smell down there, to which several of his companions nodded their sympathy. The one bit of divine intervention Holly was hoping would happen never did; in spite of their varying levels of intoxicated states, every O'Driscoll who went down to Arthur always remembered to chain the door when they were finished, shutting him back in darkness and erasing any windows of opportunity that could have arisen from it.

Holly watched, low to the ground, as the morning turned to day and as day turned to twilight. At the first sign of the setting sun, three or four O'Driscolls, lanterns in hand and repeaters at the ready, ventured into the surrounding forests to patrol the area. Holly kept still as stone as an O'Driscoll picked his way through the ferns about twenty feet away from her, sending prayer after prayer upwards that he wouldn't come any closer. The remaining O'Driscolls kept setting off on their own over the course of the night, one after the other. They wouldn't return. A campfire was lit. Songs were sung. Someone had whipped out a guitar and another man was keeping beat by banging a cowbell with a stick. No one had gone down to the cellar since about nine o'clock, and it would remain like that as the hours bled away.

Sometime after midnight was when Holly decided it was as good a time as ever to make a move. Anxiety had since gnawed a pit in her stomach as she took stock of the situation around her. The O'Driscolls had dwindled down to about four strong, and while not incredibly intoxicated, still seemed tired enough that she'd at least stand a chance at outwitting them.

She checked her pocket watch. 1:17 a.m.. The O'Driscolls chatted lightly around the fire— one poked it in an effort to reinvigorate the flames, another was tuning his guitar, and Holly was almost positive that one had already nodded off— and hadn't gone towards the cellar in hours. She picked herself up from the forest floor and crept towards the nearest cover she could see, a rickety shed that had half it's boards stripped away, surrounded by rotted wooden crates. Holly ducked behind one crate and then slipped around another before peering over her cover, relieved to find that the O'Driscolls hadn't noticed her.

But before she could make a break for the cellar door, she caught sight of something familiar. Someone had stuck the various things Arthur must've had on his person in a small crate, with his rifle propped up against the wall and his satchel strap hanging out over the rim. Holly grabbed his gun, his satchel, and his gunbelt and slung them in various ways over her body. Peering over the crates again and closing her eyes in thanks when it seemed that her detour hadn't cost her, she slipped out of cover and, as quickly and silently as her feet could carry her, bolted for the cellar.

She paused against the back wall, breathing heavily and listening. No footsteps, no shouts, not even a change in tone. Holly was so woozy with relief that she nearly dropped the nail file as she went to pick the padlock.

After a couple of seconds, the padlock clicked open. Holly took great care to slide the chain off the handles of the doors so the links wouldn't rattle, then gently laid it on the ground next to the lock. She opened the cellar slowly, wincing when it creaked on rusty hinges, and slipped inside, closing the door behind her and shutting herself in half-darkness.

Her boots clicked on the steps as Holly made her way downstairs. A soft light glowed at the bottom of the stairs, where she could see scattered bits of hay, stones, and other things that had no earthly business in a house. Mentally, she began bracing herself for what she found down there, her mouth going dry.

One thing was for sure— it weren't a pretty sight.

The smell of infection came as a staggering blow, and for a sheer second Holly swore her nose had been broken again from the strength of it. She cupped her nose and forced herself to take in Arthur, bound tightly and nearly unconscious, in full. He'd been stripped of his clothes and left in nothing but his union suit. A burlap sack had been tied over his head, half of it ripped away to show his broken and bruised face. Apparently, O'Driscoll hospitality mandated that he needed to be suspended by his ankles like a freshly-skinned stag. Because of that, to Holly's unyielding horror, a bullet wound in Arthur's shoulder steadily dripped blood, soaking through his union suit in black patches and pooling on the floor.

Arthur stirred slightly as Holly made her way up to him. As she pulled out the nail file, he managed to wrench one eye open (amazing in and of itself, considered his eyes were so battered and swollen they'd almost been closed shut). "Wha…" he mumbled, then trailed off. Perhaps he figured that the person next to him wasn't going to hurt him. Perhaps he recognized her, understood the severity of the situation, and fell quiet on his own. Most likely he was just too exhausted from several days' worth of starvation and beatings. Holly couldn't really blame him for any one of those things; she was just grateful she didn't have to stuff a sock in his mouth to shut him up.

It took a few minutes, what with the keyhole being almost out of her reach coupled with the fact that she had to pause every now and then to make sure they weren't making too much noise, but Holly eventually heard the soft click of the lock coming undone. Arthur fell to the ground with an unceremonial thump, wheezing. Holly held her breath, watching, waiting. Outside, one of the O'Driscolls shouted something about keeping the noise down, and then it was quiet again.

With some effort, Holly managed to get Arthur to his feet and guide him to the spindly chair in the corner. As she pulled off the ripped sack over his face, Arthur finally seemed to take the situation in with a touch more clarity. He pressed a finger to his lips. Holly mimed it back with a nod.

Next, he pointed to her necktie. Obediently, Holly tugged it off her neck and gave it to him, which he promptly tied around his mouth to gag himself.

His hand came up out of the darkness, finding Holly's hand and guiding the nail file to the single candle that cast both light and shadows across the cellar. Together, they held the metal blade over the fire until it glowed red with heat. Then, Arthur pointed to his shoulder wound.

A resigned sort of understanding flooded through Holly. Her eyes dared back and forth between the wound and the file, feeling her gut churn uneasily. But Arthur's one open eye was impatient, almost angry. Steeling herself, she gripped Arthur's right shoulder with her free hand and studied the bullet wound for a moment longer before plunging the nail file into it.

Arthur bit down on the necktie, thankfully unable to scream. Holly struggled to keep him still with her bad hand as she worked the file around his shoulder with the other, trying her damndest not to gag as blood streamed out of the wound again like water rushing from an unclogged creek. Underneath the blade, she felt something hard and started to force it out as quickly as she could. Her efforts were rewarded after a few moments when a bloody rifle shell the size of her forefinger came to the surface, which Holly tugged out of Arthur's shoulder and threw away into darkness.

Despite being in what was easily some of the worst pain Holly had ever seen him in, Arthur looked astonishingly unfazed as he yanked the necktie down, grabbed a stray shotgun shell off the table, and used his teeth to pull of the casing. He handed it to her. "Buckshot…" he muttered, again pointing to his injury. Holly overturned the gunpowder into the wound, watching the dark dust fall into the hole in Arthur's shoulder. She brushed any excess away as gently as she could, flinching back when Arthur hissed in pain.

Finally, Arthur leaned forward to grab the candle but Holly held him back. She grabbed it instead, knowing that he was already pointing to his shoulder one last time without needing to. As Arthur readjusted her necktie so it was back between his teeth, Holly held up the three good fingers on her left hand.

Three. Holly took a deep, shuddering breath in the hopes that it would calm the storm raging in her stomach. It did not.

Two. Arthur gripped her shoulder— to brace himself, Holly guessed.

One. He nodded, his good eye fixed on her.

Holly pressed the flame directly into Arthur's bullet wound. He'd've certainly screamed had be been blessed with the chance, clenching his teeth so hard Holly was certain he was going to crack them into pieces. Holly held the thing there until Arthur knocked it away himself, and she set the now-unlit candle on the table. They stood there together in the darkness for a few moments, both trying to ignore the smells of sickness, buckshot, and burning flesh.

A loud banging above them snapped Holly back to reality. Someone was throwing open the doors to the cellar, and they didn't sound happy. "What's going on down there?" a voice demanded from the top of the stairs. Holly had to abandon Arthur to hide against the wall next to the stairs, pressing herself into the cold stone.

Thump. Thump. Thump. They were coming down now. Holly unsheathed her hunting knife.

The O'Driscoll had barely reached the ground floor and spotted Arthur free from his shackles before Holly jumped him. She clung to his back, using her free hand to cover his mouth as she plunged the knife into his throat. Blood streamed over her hands and spilled onto the floor, and the pair of them toppled forward as the life drained from the O'Driscoll's body.

She stood up, took a moment to wipe her hands and knife clean of blood on the dead man's shirt, and then returned for Arthur. If he had seen what just happened, then he gave no sign of it. In fact, he didn't even stir until Holly slung his good arm over her shoulder and heaved him out of the chair, spending several seconds tripping over himself before finally finding his shaky footing.

Holly tugged his arm as far onto her shoulders as she could. "Can you walk?" she whispered.

Together, they took a tentative step forward. Arthur staggered but didn't fall. He nodded weakly, not seeming in the least bit present anymore. One step, then another, then another. Arthur managed to make it to the stairs without collapsing, which was frankly far more than Holly expected of him. It took some more effort, but she eventually got him to raise his foot just high enough to reach the first stair.

They'd successfully climbed three before Holly heard the sounds of approaching footsteps. Thinking rapidly, she threw herself against the walls, taking Arthur with her. He let out a low cough as the force of the action shot all the air out from his lungs.

"What's he still doing down there?" a disembodied voice of an O'Driscoll said aloud, passing by the entrance to the cellar. He sounded dubious as he added, "It's one thing torturing a man, it's another putting him through stories of the homeland."

"He better hurry it up," another voice said. "I don't wanna be here when the law comes for that side of beef."

And then they were gone, and Holly could dare to breathe again.

Another couple of minutes and several stairs later, and Holly could finally drag Arthur through the open cellar door and back into the fresh night air. She poked her head out and, seeing the coast was clear, brought Arthur up and out of the room stinking with his own filth. She guided him around the back corner of the house and lowered him against the side of the cabin between a sack of cornmeal and a crate of empty glass bottles. Arthur collapsed in on himself, too weak to even lean against the stone. He was out of it— really out of it. There was no chance in Hell she was going to be able to carry him to Shining Star like this. Not when he was so weak and delirious. They desperately needed another horse.

Just then, Holly remembered that if Arthur was here, then Achilles had to be here as well.

Holly bent down next to Arthur and shook him awake. When she was at least certain he could hear her, she took her knife and held it out to him, handle first. "I'm gonna go get Achilles, and then we're splittin', okay?" she whispered, softly shaking him.

Arthur just blinked his bleary eyes at her. She might as well've spoken Italian to him, because it didn't look like he'd understood her in the slightest.

Fighting down a strange blend of dread and exasperation, Holly took Arthur's hand and closed it around the blade. "If anyone sees you, stab 'em," she hissed before standing. Arthur didn't drop the knife. She decided that that was about as good as she was going to get from him.

Holly cautiously ventured to the opposite corner of the house and peered around the corner. The remaining O'Driscolls hadn't returned to check on their missing companion but she knew that it was only a matter of time before they grew too suspicious of his absence. Her eyes flicked up to their horses. Achilles, whom she previously hadn't caught sight of, was tethered up in the back as far away from the O'Driscoll horses as possible. Holly could feel his anxiety from here, watching helplessly as he jumped in place with agitation. He was itching to break free, and she was itching to help him, but at the moment there simply wasn't a good way to approach him from any side without being spotted.

A shout broke Holly's concentration. When Achilles dared to rear a little too high, one of the O'Driscolls yelled obscenities at the poor thing and hurled his drink at him. She watched the bottle arc through the air and go right over Achilles' head. All the horses neighed, frightened. The bottle must've hit a rock, because the next thing she knew, the air was filled with the sounds of glass shattering. The O'Driscolls guffawed like it was the funniest goddamn thing in the world.

Holly might've given a thought to her fury had an idea not suddenly blossomed in her mind.

She made her way back around the house as the O'Driscolls kept laughing over each other. The cellar entrance still stood half open, so Holly opened the other door. She grabbed the padlock and chain left abandoned on the ground and came back around the corner to deposit them near Arthur's feet. Finally, she grabbed several empty beer bottles from the crate next to him.

And then she went back to the cellar door, a bottle held above her head. And she waited.

When thirty seconds had passed and the laughter had finally settled down, Holly hurled a bottle down into the cellar. It hit a stair on the way down; the sounds of glass cracking into a million pieces split the relative calmness of the night like a hot knife cleaving through butter.

The voices around the campfire died down somewhat. Holly took another bottle and threw it against the wall, where it exploded. Glass shards rained down the stairs.

By now, the O'Driscolls had stopped talking altogether. One of them called out into the night to no answer.

Holly threw the third bottle— the largest of the lot, an old rum handle with week old drink still swirling about the bottom— down into the basement with all her strength. The almighty sound of that bottle breaking could've been heard from Virginia and back, she reckoned.

"Is that Morgan?" she heard one of the men ask.

"...Can't be," was the hesitant answer of another, "He's chained up too good. There's no way in Hell."

All her breath was lodged somewhere in the back of her throat. Holly hurled one last bottle downwards. No one talked as it shattered. She waited. Heard Arthur cough. It was so quiet that Holly could practically hear their stomachs dropping as the O'Driscolls realized that something was worryingly amiss.

She heard someone across the clearing get up, coming to investigate. Her work done, Holly retreated around the corner and waited with bated breath.

An older man in a duster came from around the corner, a half-finished beer in hand. Despite the situation she'd found herself in, there was something sort of satisfying at watching how fast the O'Driscoll paled at seeing the open cellar, conclusions being drawn in real time as he processed what he saw. He dropped his beer bottle in favor of his revolver. "Boys, we got a big fuckin' problem," his voice shook with fear as he called out to his fellow gang members, eyes never once leaving the darkened hole of the open cellar doors.

His two companions were at his side in an instant, going equally as stark-white as the first. A pair of them immediately disappeared down the stairs into the cellar, their revolvers already cocked and horror at their situation crawling it's way up their faces. One man remained up top, and did a brief scan of the surrounding area before the two O'Driscolls called back up to him and he turned around to answer.

"He's gone!"

"Whatdya mean, he's gone!?"

"I mean he's fuckin' gone, you gobshites! Collin's here wit' his goddamn throat sliced and Morgan's nowhere to be fuckin' seen!"

The man at the top of the stairs stared down into the cellar, shared panic with his fellow guards making his vision tunnel. Holly retrieved the chain and padlock, crept out from the side of the house, and approached the oblivious O'Driscoll, still standing there with his back to her.

"There's no goddamn way a man in Morgan's shape could break his way outta there with no weapons, no light, and no arm."

"How the fuck did Morgan slit a man's throat upside down and bleedin' like a stuck pig!?"

"The shite? There's glass everywhere down here."

"Oh God, Colm's gonna fuckinkill us."

With an almighty shove, Holly lowered her shoulder and sent the O'Driscoll, flailing, down the steps of the cellar.

The man bounced down the stairs with a startled scream. His shouts drew the attention of the other two O'Driscolls, just in time to watch their comrade take out their legs as he crashed to the bottom of the stairs. As they lay there in a six-legged pile of limbs, groans, and bruises, Holly quickly slammed the doors to the cellar shut. She looped the chain around the handles and locked them as tightly as she could with the padlock. Groans became shouts as the three men were shut in the dark, and shouts soon turned into angry roars once they realized what'd just happened. Holly retreated a pace as the doors upheaved, the O'Driscolls trying their damnedest to bust them open with sheer force. But the chain and lock held fast, so the cellar remained closed. The remaining O'Driscolls had been trapped like fish in a basket.

If there was time to admire her handiwork, then Holly might've taken it. Rather than waste what precious moments they still had, she sprinted across the now-abandoned grounds to the horses, mind racing for next steps in a plan that by some miracle hadn't killed them all yet.

First, she freed each O'Driscoll mount and sent them running with a smack to the hindquarters. Then, she untied Achilles, who was too busy tossing his head in panic to heed her. Holly wrestled with the reins and brought him level once again. "Hey, hey, shush, Achilles, it's alright. It's me, hm? It's Holly," her efforts to soothe the fitful stallion tumbled from her mouth in a rush of desperate half-sentences. She ran a hand along Achilles' blaze and offered him a singular oatcake to sate the poor thing, well aware of the time limit she'd created for herself by trapping the O'Driscolls like she had. Following a minute of feeding and pats, Achilles calmed down enough for her to handle him proper. Holly deposited Arthur's things onto his saddle, then gave the lead a tug. "We're gonna see Arthur, hm? Arthur?" she whispered, more in an effort to calm her frayed nerves.

Arthur had remained motionless throughout the entire ordeal, his strength sapped from the self-surgery. He barely even stirred when Achilles, clearly concerned, nosed and sniffed him in greeting. Getting Arthur back to his feet was absolutely torturous. She'd have better success trying to get a wet sock to stand upright, given the way his body flopped and swung as she tried to get him into the saddle. Acting through a fog of panic, Holly forced herself to take it in stages. First, she got him against the walls of the cabin, then she swung both arms over the saddle to take his weight, and at last heaved him upwards into his seat. Arthur, groaning in pain, slumped over and would've slid straight down to the earth had Holly not caught him by the sleeve of his union suit and tugged him back to center.

An unexpected gunshot made Holly gasp, which she fought to stifle. The O'Driscolls in the cellar had realized trying to force their way through the door was useless and were now resorting to shooting through it. A nickel-sized hole had appeared in the wood. Holly shrank backwards as another shot rang out, with this hole mere inches away from the padlock.

"C'mon boy," she tugged on Achilles' reins. The horse blinked, snorted, and began moving. Together, the trio walked back to the ferns surrounding Lone Mule Stead, disappearing into the undergrowth. Holly didn't chance a breath, her eyes set behind them. Arthur moaned something unintelligible. The O'Driscolls shot once, then twice through the cellar door to no avail, and one of them let out a bloodcurdling scream of fury and helplessness as Holly and Arthur made their escape into the night.

One gunshot could be chalked up as a misfire. Two could maybe be dismissed as an accident or someone getting spooked. But four? If there were any O'Driscolls left in the immediate area, they were bound to abandon their posts and come running to investigate. Holly tugged Achilles' lead harder. "Let's go," she hissed, hearing how thick with terror her voice had become.

Locating Shining Star took a bit of time. Her mare was wide awake, catching sight of her and frantically pulling against her hitching as Holly approached with familiar faces. Holly greeted her mount with a breathless bit of praise and fed an apple to each horse. The forest was silent, too silent, and Holly felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.

Suddenly, Arthur's head dipped and he began slipping off the saddle again. Holly, alarmed, managed to grab his union suit and pull him upright once more, and he swayed in a dazed fashion that did nothing but tell Holly that this was going to be a continual problem.

As her mind raced for an answer to this new problem, her eyes fell on the lasso hooked into Achilles saddle. Thinking quickly, she grabbed it, took out her knife, and cut out a sizable length of rope. There weren't many other options for her to work with, so Holly set to work.

First, she bound Arthur's ankles to his stirrups, one chunk of rope for each foot. Next, she crossed both of Arthur's wrists over each other, placed them over his saddle horn, and tied them to it as tightly as she could. "Sit still," Holly hissed through clenched teeth as she pulled the rope tighter, trying to ignore how Arthur's breathing labored and how time was ticking by, bit by excruciating bit. When Holly tested her handiwork and came to the conclusion that only an act of God could unseat Arthur at this point, even if he was unconscious, she took the remainder of the shredded lasso, looped it around Achilles' neck, and tied it to Shining Star's saddle. There was about ten feet of slack between Shining Star and Achilles: plenty of space to give two unruly horses from distance apart from each other.

As Holly remounted, she heard distorted shouting from the way they'd come from. Someone must've finally heard the O'Driscoll gunshots and came to see the mess she'd left behind. Achilles tossed his head and nickered a warning. Arthur, unable to do much except bob his head and speak, could barely even manage to do just that. He merely turned his head slightly towards the noise but said nothing. Holly regarded the action with a stab of worry that she immediately stuffed deep, deep down into the back of her head.

She spurred Shining Star and raced away, Achilles carrying a disoriented Arthur trailing close behind. The forest opened its maw to swallow them up, welcoming them back like old friends as they made their break for home.

~X~

Nighttime bled into daytime and back again. The sun replaced the moon, and then the moon replaced the sun, playing their game without a spare thought for Holly and Arthur as they trudged through the heat and the cold back on Earth.

Holly didn't sleep. Actually, she flat-out refused to nod off until they returned to Clemen's Point and got Arthur the medical attention he sorely needed. Together, they made a hard break for the eastern road and didn't stop until Shining Star splashed into the shallow waters of the Dakota River sometime just after sunrise. The only break the four of them took was a slight pause at the other end of the river, waiting for someone to come hounding them down from the forests, and when none came Holly turned the horses around and resumed their long, long trek back towards Clemens' Point. Her paranoia didn't cease the further from Big Valley they went. Really, it only increased. Their road back to Lemoyne was so long and winding because every single time Holly would see another soul on the road, she would take them off the path and not return to it until she was sure they weren't being tailed. The horses went from gallops to canters to trots and before long they were barely even walking. Shining Star panted hard under Holly's legs, saliva dripping from her mouth and her tongue lolling around over the bit. Achilles wasn't faring much better, his head bent over in exhaustion. Holly had to tug on the rope more times than she cared to count, mumbling soft and encouraging words through a voice hoarse with fatigue and thirst.

The heat of the day was insufferable and made the chill of the night that much worse. Holly shuddered throughout the evening as the winds swept in from Flat Iron Lake and tried its very best to blow them off their saddles. She'd draped Shining Star's blanket over Arthur in an effort to spare him from the worst of the weather. Holly shivered all night and well into the next morning, half-awake and in a trance.

Arthur went through varying stages of presence as they went. Sometimes, she'd catch him looking at something, fully awake save for the vacant look in his blue-green eyes. Other times, he'd be hunched over, mouth hanging open, his breathing sounding like it was being done by a man who'd been stabbed five times in each lung. Holly's handiwork had managed to do its job, thank God, so at least Arthur never once fell. He just rode through the days and nights, either awake or comatose but entirely unresponsive either way. The only time he ever made to move was what, at least to her, appeared to be an attempt to clutch his cauterized shoulder wound, but he must've quickly realized that his arms weren't working for him (whether or not he was aware of the reason, she couldn't tell for sure), because she never saw him try it again.

There were multiple times that Holly feared that he was good and gone on that journey. When she gave him water from his canteen, it just dribbled down his front like he was a messy infant. Sometimes, she'd glance back and see him staring at his hands, his eyes just one dull shade away from lifelessness. Yet, as if possessed by some stubborn entity Holly couldn't even begin to fathom, he clung onto life. His chest rose and fell, his fingers curled in and out, his words a lost cause despite there still being moments where some of the gibberish he'd utter into Achilles' neck sounded almost like praise to her ears.

The next night wasn't quite so cold and bracing as humidity replaced the chill they'd felt the previous evening. Holly didn't realize she was back in Lemoyne until she noticed that they'd been on horseback for an entire day at least, so they had to have crossed the state line at some point. She couldn't see anything clearly anymore, her exhaustion making her vision permanently fuzzy. There was a pounding in her head that a drink from her canteen couldn't sate. Her head drooped and she was too tired to correct herself, so she stared at the road underneath her feet and watched it pass by and pass by and pass by and pass by and pass by and pass by and pass by and pass by and pass by and pass by…

She glanced up, eyelids fluttering. Trees flanked them on all sides. Shining Star was wandering on, unguided. Her trusted horse appeared to know where she was going, because Holly could tell she was putting on just a tiny bit more speed than she had been half a day go.

Where were they?

Had she nodded off?

It was nighttime now?

Arthur? Achilles?

With the last of her remaining strength, she forced herself to look backwards. They still trailed, the shredded lasso stretched tight as Achilles lagged behind them, barely finding enough energy to keep pace with them. Arthur was out of it again. The cyclical rise and fall of his shoulders, faint as they were, let her know that she didn't need to pull over and start digging a hole just yet.

Holly glanced up to see the trees part. She narrowed her eyes at the bright orange spots in the distance. Big shapes and small shapes and all kinds of shapes in between were milling around, blurred and indistinguishable. Shining Star neighed loudly, spittle flying everywhere, and was answered back by the cries of several other horses. Voices swelled up, alerted by the sudden appearance of strangers. Holly thought she heard someone call her by name, and knew for a fact that several were calling out Arthur's name.

Relief rushing upon her, Holly made a grab for the reins but was so fatigued that she slid straight off of Shining Star. She hit the ground hard but she didn't care. Shining Star stopped walking. Holly blinked up at the hundreds of stars above her; the crescent moon hanging above her head looked like someone had sliced open the very sky itself, letting heavenly light leak through. Shining Star slobbered all over her as she pressed her big nose into Holly's forehead.

The voices came closer. Several figures appeared, blocking out Holly's view of the stars. Through scrunched-up eyes, she could barely make out the shapes of one female, quickly joined by another female and finally a male.

"Holly?" that was Mary-Beth's frightened voice. Holly groaned a greeting.

"Oh my Lord, is that Arthur?" and that was Karen. She too was standing above her but Karen's attention was mostly for the half-dead man tied in place to his saddle.

The third figure said nothing. Holly thought she saw his mouth open and close like he was trying to make sense of what he was seeing but having no such luck. Blinking through her delirium, she swore she saw Dutch, mouth agape and eyes wide, staring down at her.

A pained moan shifted the focus fully off of Holly and back onto Arthur. Whether or not he'd fallen from his saddle was lost upon her, but for the first time in three days, she heard him utter something coherent. "I told ya it was a set-up, Dutch…" he wheezed.

Dutch's head snapped back and forth between Holly and Arthur, "My boy, my dear boy, what?"

"They got me," Arthur's voice was soft as he straddled the fine line between responsiveness and unconsciousness. "But the kid found me. And we got away."

Quick as a flash, spurred by something she couldn't see, Dutch moved out of Holly's field of vision. By now, Mary-Beth and someone else was forcing Holly into a sitting position. She heard Dutch answer Arthur in a tone she'd never heard him use before— the gentle voice of a worried father, "Yeah, that you did."

Holly struggled to look at them. Arthur was slumped against Achilles' neck, Dutch feeling his head and cheeks for a fever she already knew he possessed. John and Charles were hacking through the bindings she'd tied in order to free him from the saddle. Dutch turned back to camp proper and hollered with urgency, "Miss. Grimshaw! I need help! Reverend Swanson!?"

Both appeared in an instant, Miss. Grimshaw unnaturally quiet and Swanson unnaturally sober. Someone new bent down to Holly's level, pressing a canteen to her lips. Her concerns melted away as she gulped down the water, coughing once it was taken away from her. She raised her head to find the alarmed face of Hosea staring back at her.

"Are you okay?" he asked, shaking her slightly to rouse her. "What happened? Tell us."

She shook her head and spat out greasy strands of hair from her mouth. "O'Driscolls..." she mumbled, then trailed off.

And then Sean and Abigail were there. Both seized an arm and pulled her upright, taking the brunt of her weight. Abigail was saying something soothing but Holly didn't hear a word of it. Conversely, Sean was silent, apparently too shocked to even crack a joke. Holly struggled to find her footing and nearly took all three of them down when her boot caught something and they all stumbled. Dutch and Pearson were doing the same for a now freed Arthur, his bare feet dragging through the grass.

"He was gonna set the law on us," Arthur forced each word out like every letter sent excruciating pain throughout his body.

Dutch readjusted his grip on Arthur's side, "Oh, of course he was!"

"I'm sorry, Arthur," Pearson stammered.

"It is a bit late for apologies!" Dutch snarled, making Pearson fall quiet again.

And that was the end of it. Holly was brought to one side of camp by Sean, Abigail, and Hosea while Dutch, Miss. Grimshaw, Swanson, Karen, Pearson, and Mary-Beth attended to Arthur on the other. Through clumps of hair hanging in her eyes, Holly watched the group drag Arthur to his tent and lower him onto his cot. She could practically smell the fear from that side of camp, stinking worse than the smell in the cellar.

"Holly, are you hurt?" Hosea asked.

She shook her head as best she could.

"Just tired?"

She managed an "Mhm" and nothing more. Hosea asked her no more questions.

"You're safe now," Abigail said quietly. "We're gonna get you and Arthur right as rain in no time, don't you worry."

"Yeah, what Abigail said," Sean chimed in, all his humor momentarily stowed away. "Right as rain, you're gonna be. Takes more than that to knock out you 'nd English, aye?"

Holly didn't acknowledge them. She merely bowed her head once more and began to drift off as they brought her back to her bed. She groaned, felt her head drop, and lost herself to the sweet bliss of unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

The longest period of time Holly ever spent asleep was when she fifteen. Her mother had been in a right state— barely eating, not sleeping, still in a dazed sort of stupor that she wouldn't snap out of as if actively refusing to do so. With her father venturing into Saint Denis with Luca to sell to the vendors at the French Market, she woke up at dawn and did every last chore around the house until the moon hung high in the sky and she couldn't feel her feet anymore. She climbed into bed, still fully clothed and sweating from head to toe, well past midnight following a three-hour nursing of a feverish Adelaide. Her mother had said nothing. Didn't move, didn't speak, didn't so much as lift a finger. Luca said that he and their father had found her in bed the next morning, hair in her mouth and splayed over half her bed with her legs spilling over the mattress.

Luca had told her she slept for sixteen hours that day. There was an unspoken bit of sadness in the way he said it, staring through the window at the twins playing in the backyard. When she went downstairs, Luca was at their mother's side with his hand in hers, head bowed. They never spoke of that day afterwards.

After they returned from Lone Mule Stead, Holly proceeded to obliterate that sleeping record in one fell swoop.

Holly fell asleep to darkness and woke up in darkness. A misty haze had crawled over the shores of the lake and wrapped itself over Clemens' Point. Someone had thrown a blanket over her, which slid from her shoulders as she pushed herself to her elbows. Her head pounded like someone was attempting to bore into her brain through her ears with spoons. Holly'd barely had enough time to blink the sleep from her bleary eyes before someone was hollering "Hey, everyone! Holly's awake!"

The ground rumbled. Just like that, her bedroll was suddenly crowded with what must've been half a dozen semi-formed, darkened shadows of van der Linde Gang members that Holly couldn't even make out through the pain in her head and the hair in her eyes. She could only manage a pained moan as several voices began shouting at once, swelling into an unbearable assault on her senses.

"Move, move, outta the way!"

"Give her some space, folks. She ain't in a good way."

Two figures budged their way through the crowd and crouched beside her. It took several seconds for the forms of Miss. Grimshaw and Hosea to materialize, and even then, Holly had to stare long and hard to make out exactly why their features seemed so foreign to her. Hosea bore the look of someone who'd just gone eight rounds in a fight and gotten beaten down every single time; his body sagged under the weight of untold worries, making the creases in his face all the more prominent. Miss. Grimshaw arguably had it worse. The sleeves of her dress were bunched up past the elbows, her arms stained a faint red with what Holly could only assume was fresh blood. Her hair was frizzy and awry, as if she'd been neglecting to take care of it. Both adults wore looks of concern, but they softened the moment they bent down to Holly's level.

"Welcome back to the world of the living, Miss. Monroe," Miss. Grimshaw said, breathy. She sounded like she'd just made the entirety of Holly's journey on foot and did it in half the time.

Holly made to sit up but Hosea reached out and steadied her. "Settle down, Holly, settle down," he warned. "You've been asleep for nearly a whole day. Twenty hours and—" he took a moment to check his watch, "—pardon, twenty-one hours and about seventeen minutes."

The news made Holly's head spin. She gave Hosea a vacant stare. "Twenty-one hours?" she murmured. "But that's almost a whole day."

A voice piped up from the faceless crowd. It sounded like Uncle, "We thought winter was gon' be rollin' around before you ever woke up!"

"You fools want to make yourselves useful instead of just standing there like a flock of waterfowl!?" Miss. Grimshaw barked. With every person she pointed to, they retreated without a single word of protest (and that was Holly's first inkling that perhaps their situation over the past day had been more severe than she'd originally thought). "You, get a towel. You and you, find some soap and start drawing a bath for her. You, get some food. Nothing solid right now, and if Pearson says he ain't got none, then tell him I will personally yank each hair outta that horrid excuse of a mustache with my tweezers. And you, Mr. MacGuire, go fetch Miss. Monroe some fresh clothes to change into. Now!"

They all dispersed like dandelion seeds flying off the stem. Holly swore Sean's boot prints were smoking as he sped off in search of her garments. She watched them go one by one, holding her forehead in her hand. Hosea passed her a tin mug and an uncorked bottle of tonic. "It's just water, not coffee," he told her before she could protest. "And this is a tonic for aches and sores. It'll help with your headache if you got one."

Wordlessly, Holly took both of them. She downed the tonic first, pulling a face at the bitter taste of liquified feverfew, and took small sips of water to wash it away. Miss. Grimshaw excused herself and wandered off to facilitate the rest of camp, leaving Holly and Hosea to their own devices as the night settled down once more.

She set the empty mug down, only for Hosea to refill it with his canteen and pass it back to her. Holly didn't care much for the look he was giving her; calculating and deathly serious, as though he was questioning her for the first time all over again. He finally spoke once more, in a quiet voice that Holly found too off-putting for comfort, "Holly, I know it ain't quite fair to grill you when you're as you are, but what happened over those past few days?" At the worried expression she wore, Hosea explained, "The camp's been in a frenzy. When you and Arthur didn't come back with Dutch, we assumed it weren't too much to worry about. And then a day rolled by, then another, and we got uneasy. We didn't know what was going on."

Holly gave him a strange look. "Arthur didn't tell you yet?" she asked, confused.

Hosea was quiet for a moment. For the quickest of seconds, he avoided her gaze.

"Arthur's not awake," he said gravely. "Been drifting in and out of consciousness, but he ain't managed to keep his eyes open for more than a couple'a minutes. Fighting infections, fever, all the like. We've got folk sitting with him at all hours of the day. He's about as comfortable as we can make him, but he's got an uphill battle on his hands. The only thing we can do now is wait and see."

And all at once, everything made sense to her. The way Hosea looked ragged and stretched thin, and Holly briefly wondered if he'd slept himself since she came back to Clemens' Point. The way every gang member did what Miss. Grimshaw had ordered them to do without so much as a murmur of dissent. Camp was horrifically silent, like some mythic something-or-other was holding its breath. Holly briefly glanced over Hosea's shoulder towards Arthur's corner and saw that the flaps had been drawn shut, as though the rest of camp couldn't bear to look at him.

A mixture of grief and regret flooded through her. Holly's fingers clenched the blanket in her lap and let her face drop, tears pricking her vision. She fought as hard as she could not to sniffle in front of one of the van der Linde Gang's leaders, shame making her body hot at the same time that despair was making her body cold, leaving her nothing but a trembling mess.

As if he could feel her emotions himself, Hosea placed a hand on her shoulder. "Holly, look at me," he ordered.

She looked up.

"It wasn't your fault," Hosea said softly. He squeezed her shoulder in a reassuring manner, "No one here thinks it was, and I'm sure if Arthur were awake, he'd be saying the same thing."

She could've gotten him home quicker, or she could've taken him to a doctor, of she could've killed Colm O'Driscoll and forced the rest of them at gunpoint to patch Arthur up. She could've done something instead to drag him through three states and bring him closer to death's door in the hope that someone at camp could work miracles. "I w—"

"You were scared," Hosea interjected before she could say anything else, "and you were confused and alone and lost in the woods without a clue of what to do with a dying man at your side. It's a lot to deal with, and hindsight's no man's friend. No one blames you, Dutch least of all. You did what you thought was best. We're just happy to have you back safe."

Holly closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and nodded. The world swam.

"All we can do now is pray Arthur pulls through," Hosea said. "But he's strong; heart like an ox, that boy. Plus, he's here and not with the O'Driscolls. He's got all the cards in his favor."

She nodded again. Holly longed to latch onto the stability Hosea seemed to naturally radiate: a rock in a swirling storm that she could cling to until the waters receded. Rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand, she stared at the mug and said nothing else.

Hosea stood up. "When you feel up to talking, come and find us," he told her. "Charles oughta be done with drawing that bath soon. You'll…" he lingered over his next words; Holly could almost taste the uncertainty on the tip of his tongue, "...you'll feel better when you get yourself clean."

She didn't acknowledge him, so Hosea left without another word. Holly was left to her thoughts. She ended up staring vacantly at Arthur's closed living space until Karen and Charles approached her with the empty promise of a bath, a hot meal, and a distraction from the hurricane brewing in her head.

-X-

Clemens' Point had just started to feel like home and in the blink of an eye, it had suddenly become intolerable. Night in and night out, Holly sat on her bedroll, her eyes firmly set on Arthur's closed-up tent, and wondered if the rest of the camp had felt it too.

He was in a bad way. A real bad way. The first time Holly saw him was two days after she'd arrived back at camp and it wasn't a pretty sight. Too queasy to dine with the others and too restless to simply lay down and wait for sleep to claim her, she'd volunteered her company to Reverend Swanson while he tended to Arthur. Holly felt as though she didn't provide too much use, however, as she stared at the lifeless body in the cot and wondered why on Earth God was still keeping them waiting in suspense. He was flushed with septic fever, sweating profusely. His cauterized wound needed to be reopened and sewn properly, and it was suitably heavily bandaged. Arthur's eyes were screwed shut and he mumbled nonsense in his sleep as Swanson replaced cold press after cold press and told her that his condition was no better, no worse.

Holly had to excuse herself to shit through her teeth on the outskirts of camp. Twice.

Arthur's condition had stolen any sense of normalcy from camp. If people weren't outright talking about him, then they were tiptoeing around the sleeping bear that'd basically become Arthur Morgan and his physical state. The cheer and optimism that'd been building with multiple successful heists had all been ripped away overnight, replaced with a suffocating cloud of dread. Folk around camp were bending over backwards to help Hosea and Miss. Grimshaw with Arthur's medical care. Every chore was done without complaint and without needing to be told, even without Miss. Grimshaw hovering over their heads. Javier and Sean had proposed robbing a doctor's office for supplies, an idea that Dutch and Hosea vehemently shot down. Even little Jack, who certainly didn't understand the severity of the situation but must've known that there was at least something on everyone's mind, wove flower necklace after flower necklace for his honorary uncle. He even presented Holly with one before she took an early morning shift on medical duty. As she took it with a sad smile and an empty promise, she saw Abigail sewing some couple yards away, tears spotting the pocket she'd been repairing.

On the third morning after she'd returned, Holly was ushered to the stables by Kieran, a tired but relieved grin lighting up his features. He'd spent the last four days feverishly nursing Achilles and Shining Star back to health after their odyssey back from Lone Mule Stead, both apparently so fatigued and sweaty that Kieran wasn't quite sure if they'd make it. Shining Star's black hide had been clipped so short it was practically nothing but fuzz. Her mane had been thinned, as had her tail. She wasn't panting or salivating anymore, but Holly did notice that she wasn't fighting as hard as she normally would against the hitch.

Holly, close to tears, tried to force a couple of dollars into Kieran's hand but he refused it. "It ain't worth a payment," he promised her, the usual tremor in his voice absent. "If I'm bein' honest, I don't think these horses coulda died if they rolled over and tried to."

That just made Holly almost break down. Because shit, she already had one friend on his deathbed; she couldn't much stand to learn that her loyal and tenacious and infuriatingly hardnosed steed didn't make it, either.

She wrapped her arms around Shining Star, not even caring if Kieran was going to watch her sob into the neck of a horse. "You," Holly murmured into her hide, "are the most stubborn horse I ever met."

Shining Star nickered in her ear, almost proud of the title.

Holly spent most of that day brushing her down feeding her, and leading her around the edge of camp to get a feel for her energy. She gave Shining Star a week before she'd be back to full strength, soon amended to four days when the damn mare pulled herself free from her hitch and started prancing around the edge of camp, whining for a ride. And it almost felt normal, Holly supposed. But the normalcy wouldn't last.

A week ticked by. No better, no worse.

The entire situation, to Holly, was unbearable. Almost as unbearable was the way that the van der Linde Gang had begun treating her. After she'd given him and Hosea the full story about what she'd done, Dutch had delivered a five-minute-long speech atop his soapbox in veneration of her heroic efforts. Holly was told to stand at his right side, her hands clasped against her skirt and her head bowed slightly, as the gang sang her praises. Her face burned so hot that she was positive if she stuck it into the lake, all the water would start boiling instantaneously.

Since then, Holly had suddenly become the camp's center of attention. Praise was heaped on her like cargo on the back of a pack mule. Mary-Beth, between bouts of unhappiness, had hugged her and thanked her for having the sense to go after Arthur. Uncle cheersed her for six straight nights around the fire (Holly was much too stressed to eat, never mind drink). Even Bill, Bill, approached Holly three days after she returned and gave the most awkwardly sincere praise she'd ever received in her life.

"You've got good, um...a good horse," Bill had said to her as she took in some peace and quiet at the lakeshore. "Y'know, to have gotten Morgan home and all."

Holly stared at him. "Thanks," was all she said.

Bill scratched at the back of his neck and excused himself, redder than the setting sun.

It was the last thing that she wanted, in truth. All this praise and attention. Holly felt it was neither warranted nor deserved because she felt that if anyone had been in her position, they'd've done the exact same thing without question. But honestly, all this flattery was making her dreadfully uncomfortable. Holly had spent four months, for the sake of herself and all the lies she'd told, making sure she'd stayed out of this exact position she'd suddenly found herself in. It was much easier to float through life without someone trying to talk to her every minute of every day as if she were a priest taking confession. She'd gradually grown less guarded as time wore on with the gang, and with that came distractions from her lies and her sorrow. Now? It was as if everything had been knocked right down to the beginning, with every member of the gang treating her like a strange little girl they'd never known before. She'd told the tale of tracking Arthur down ten times by now, each received to raucous yet anxious applause. Holly endured their endless questions and hoped against hope that they wouldn't grow personal, her entire body burning with guilt and shame.

It was as if Arthur wasn't still dying a mere twenty feet away.

It was as if she was actually who she said she was.

Holly felt horrible for thinking so ill of the rest of the van der Linde Gang when they were clearly beholden to her for not bringing back a corpse. But the attention she was getting was much more than she could bear, and she felt it too rude to ask them to stop.

Besides, at least embarrassing praise and unwanted pedestals were just that: praise and pedestals. Something positive could've been taken from that. Some of this had gone in a profoundly different direction and Holly couldn't do a damn thing to stop it. John had stopped talking to her altogether, for example. He was despondent with most everyone, to be completely fair to him, but he seemed to be making it a point to ignore her in particular. Every time Holly tried to speak with him, he'd keep his words locked up or find some way to excuse himself. Talking to Abigail about it didn't help; she seemed just as clueless and frustrated as Holly was. Though, judging by the amount of times that Holly saw John slip into Arthur's tent when he thought no one was looking and sneak out the back, she could only assume that this had less to do with her than what she'd thought.

Micah, per usual, was a different story.

"It's a good thing you found that ol' cowpoke when you did," he said one night four days after she'd gotten back to Clemens' Point. Holly was playing a half-hearted round of poker with him, Hosea, and Lenny, marred by worried glances back towards Arthur's tent. Micah kept silent. His words to her were the first of the night.

"Guess so," Holly said, peering at the cards under her fingers. Five of hearts and seven of diamonds. She raised.

Lenny revealed the turn. Nine of spades.

There was a hint of a smile under Micah's mustache. "Imagine what've happened if you'd listened to dumb ol' me, hm?" he proposed. "Morgan might not've made it. I hear Colm O'Driscoll's real nasty with prisoners. Least, the ones he wants to keep alive, that is."

Lenny, eyes on their conversation, turned over the river. King of clubs.

"Had my guns and my gut," Holly was surprised at the hard edge in her voice, sharpened with some sort of aged bitterness, "Weren't too hard a choice. Didn't need no knowledge of O'Driscolls to do what I did."

Micah, his eyes narrowed ever so slightly, grinned.

Hosea ended up taking the pot with a straight flush. Micah excused himself following the round and Holly watched him make his way across camp, her blood simmering.

Another week came and went, slower than the first, as July rolled into August. No better, no worse.

There was really only one person in the gang that appeared to be handling the Arthur situation differently from everyone else.

Holly had barely finished her morning cup of coffee on the final day of July and there was suddenly someone tossing a worn Lancaster repeater into her lap. Surprised, Holly fumbled around and dropped the gun.

"Get up and get changed," Sadie Adler growled, braiding her straw-colored hair over her shoulder. "We're going shootin'. And don't give me that look," there was a hint of humor in her tone as Holly remained where she was, utterly perplexed.

Holly stared at her, "Why?"

"Because I'm tired of seein' you sit around in camp actin' like a storm cloud lookin' for somethin' to rain on. We're gonna get out of camp and shoot at stuff until you stop lookin' so miserable," Sadie said. She nudged the gun with the tip of her boot. "Not too far; just to let off some steam. And if you ain't crackin' a smile by the time we're done, then I swear I'm gonna throw you into the lake."

Not sure if she should be offended or not, Holly put up no resistance to her words as she retrieved the gun, changed into her trousers, and hiked two miles through the hot midsummer until Sadie decided to stop.

They found a place deep in the woods and started shooting at random trees. Sadie and Holly made up little challenges for themselves that both took somewhat seriously but neither made a huge competition of— who could put a bullet directly through an oak leaf, who could shoot the biggest branch off the trunk, who could place a shot in the smallest knothole. Sadie won every single time, not that Holly really minded much. And they talked. About Sadie's life as a homesteader, about her late husband, about their time at Horseshoe Overlook. It seemed strange to Holly that Sadie would just talk so much, but the more they spoke, the less thought she gave it.

"He was a good man in a world that has a shortage of 'em," Sadie murmured, only half paying attention because she was lining up a shot. "Woulda given the clothes off his back for any stranger that've fallen on his doorstep. He…probably woulda liked you. Maybe Arthur, too, if they could stand to be in a room together for more than five minutes."

She fired. Holly watched the bullet bury itself into the bullseye they'd carved in the bark of the live oak. Sadie studied the shot before passing the gun back to Holly.

Lips tight, Holly aimed. "Sounds like your husband were real special," she said softly, pulling the trigger. The bullet struck the bark a few inches above Sadie's.

"He was the best," was the quiet response Sadie gave her. Holly lowered the repeater.

Her mind involuntarily strayed to her father, her brother. "I knew people like that once," she said before she could stop herself.

"We all knew people like that," Sadie's voice had grown hard. "Knew bein' the operative word."

Holly said nothing. It felt like someone had stepped down on her throat, keeping her words trapped there and unable to escape.

It was only a distraction, though admittingly a very good distraction. Holly felt a rush of respect for Sadie's seeming aversion to moping around Clemens' Point (like she'd been doing, a realization she'd guiltily come to). But the more time passed, the more Holly felt her anxiety start to spike, and the idea of spending so much time away from camp began to catch up with her. When Holly proposed that they started to head back, Sadie put up no protest.

They went back to camp sometime around three in the afternoon. Sadie didn't throw Holly into the lake. They shot together three more times in the next four days. Holly ended up proposing most of the trips, much to her never-ending surprise, and Sadie always agreed.

Days ticked on. Holly checked in on Arthur and often caught several gang members on the verge of tears. No better, no worse. Holly offered money from her own pocket for more medicine so Swanson wouldn't have to dip into the camp's savings. No better, no worse. Holly and Lenny and Mary-Beth and Charles split night shifts at Arthur's bedside that left all four of them exhausted and frustrated. No better, no worse. Holly held her mother's cold hand yet received not even the smallest of squeezes back. No better, no worse. Holly urged her mother to hold Baby Rosie and didn't protest when she turned her cheek. No better, no worse. Holly watched on as her mother slipped and slipped and slipped and it was no better, no worse until she disappeared into the night and dropped down a ravine and was laid to rest next to her two children with her husband and daughters following her six months later and everything was so much fucking worse.

It was strange, the way her old life seemed to constantly parallel her new one.

If Holly knew one thing about grief, it was that it stuck around. Never really went away no matter the amount of time that went by or the amount of distractions one could partake in. She knew more than anyone that none of that made the slightest lick of difference, only time, but Holly never considered time an ally. So much heartbreak, too little time to grieve. She'd spent the better part of a year carrying her own grief like a carpet bag, and the month and a half Holly spent on her own only served to make it grow heavier and heavier until she could hardly stand to bear its weight. And now, she was watching everyone else carry their own carpet bags. Holly saw it when Sean made a halfhearted joke that seemed to have no energy behind it, when Luca said "I miei genitori (my parents)"and went pale before hastily correcting himself, when Javier's strumming trailed off during Arthur's coughing fits, when her father laid flowers on her mother's grave every morning without fail.

It felt weird to say that Holly hated death. Yet, deep down, she felt that she did. Or at least how powerless death made her feel. Maybe that was it. Too many people yanked too unfairly from her hands, she figured. No justice, no answers, and little to help make that bag any lighter. Just…nothingness.

On one particular night, when the sky was clear and the weather was being kept at bay, Holly spent the last few precious moments of the evening watching the sun sink below the waves of the lake. Another day gone by, and another day of no changes. Charles brought in food. Bill, John, Lenny, Karen, and Javier took turns guarding camp. Jack wove six more flower necklaces. Reverend Swanson rode into town with Pearson and Miss. Grimshaw for supplies. Sean cracked bad jokes. Tilly cracked strained smiles. Not a word or glance out of place.

Bluegill leapt for the sky, jumping from and falling back to the water. Hosea had enlisted Kieran's help in fixing up some old boat someone'd found a ways outside of camp. Said it'd be good for getting more food, but Holly knew that it was just another distraction, and not even a very effective one. Mary-Beth had spent several hours going back and forth between the pair of them and Arthur's tent, as if hoping the prospect of a job would be enough to rouse him from his comatose state. Holly had been sitting next to her at dinner and was starting to get irked by her never-ending sniffling and whimpering, so she excused herself and departed for the lakeshore.

It ain't her fault, Holly's thought was more a reprimand than a reminder. She cast a glance over her shoulder, somewhat involuntarily, and turned back when she couldn't spy Mary-Beth from the shore. Holly blinked before dragging her fingers down her face, stifling a groan. The cicadas screamed into the night sky, the frogs joining in with their own off-pitch songs.

Someone was heading this way. Holly could hear their footsteps, soft over the loose sand, padding over towards her. Holly turned, expecting Abigail or Charles or Lenny or Sadie. She genuinely did not expect to see Dutch, waistcoat unbuttoned and hair ragged, standing over her. He carried a half-empty bottle of something brown in one hand and two small glasses in the other—Walker's Old Highland was adorned along the bottle's label in gold lettering.

"Might I sit a spell, Miss. Monroe?" he asked. Even his voice sounded unkempt, like he'd found little real use for it over the past several days.

She just nodded and gestured to the space next to her. Dutch lowered himself onto the ground a foot or two away from her, set the bottle and the glasses in the sand, and said nothing else.

Several minutes ticked by. A twang from the other side of camp told Holly that Uncle had finally gotten sick of the somber mood much like she had and had retrieved his banjo. A round of songs, the gang's enthusiasm for them smothered like a wet blanket over flames, rose from the distance. Holly and Dutch said nothing and did nothing, keeping their eyes on the lake and not on each other.

Dutch broke the silence by uncorking the bottle of alcohol and pouring two glasses. He offered Holly one, which she accepted but didn't try. The crystal had seen its fair share of hard travels, judging by its various scuffs and chips. Dutch took the other glass and held it up in his left hand. Moonlight filtered through the glass, glinted off his rings.

"You ever had Scotch, Miss. Monroe?" he asked, dreamlike.

She shook her head.

Dutch laughed. "Arthur and I, we got this bottle from the home of this…this…" he gesticulated wildly, "…foreign fellow in Wyoming. Rich as sin. Came over from Scotland, had family in the liquor-making business. Built this huge, three story mansion in Cheyenne for no one but himself. Arthur, Hosea and I'd been in the area for about a month, and this schmuck comes into the saloon on the day his home was completed and starts yammering on about it. So, we did the sensible thing. Hosea got him drunk, and Arthur and I went to his house and robbed it for all it was worth. What we didn't anticipate was that the fool was arrogant enough to hire his own private guard for his magnificent Eden.

"You see, my dear, Arthur was only seventeen at the time. Barely older than you were. Never been shot before. And while we were making for our horses, someone got him here," Dutch pointed to his other side; Holly imagined he was referring to the fleshy part of the torso. "Rode like the wind that night. I thought we'd make it to Boise before the sun rose up. And when we finally stopped, and Arthur damn near rode his horse into an early grave, we started to assess that wound. Imagine my surprise to find that it was just a nick, no bullet or nothing serious. Bled like a sieve, but from the way he was wailing, you'd've thought he'd been castrated in the back of a barn. When I was sure he'd live to see another moonrise, I popped open this bottle of Scotch and poured ourselves two glasses. A cheers to our good health and good fortune. And you know what that boy did?"

Holly shook her head again.

"He poured it directly on his wound and called me a damn fool for not helping patch him up. 'I'm dyin', you fuckin' idiot'; those were his words verbatim. He had such a colorful vocabulary, even at that age. Well, Arthur cursed me and my shadow out for the week afterwards. Stopped once he realized that the scar he got was barely anything to mope about. To this day, I still give him a splash of this every time he gets shot enough to need bedrest. Half a chance I get it thrown back in my face. That boy's got his own sense of humor, sure, but he's never been quite good at forgiving and forgetting."

Staring at the bit of Scotch in her hand, Holly took a small sip. It tasted like she'd somehow swallowed a swarm of very angry bees.

As she struggled to get the drink down, Dutch continued. "It's only happened, God, Hosea would know for sure. Five times? Six? He's…we're… usually so careful."

"I'm sure," Holly croaked out.

There it was again. That dark, unreadable look in Dutch's eyes. It was the same one from back at Horseshoe Overlook, when she'd shot that O'Driscoll and he had approached her afterwards. The hold on his glass was tightening. Holly could see where his knuckles were going white gripping the bottom of the base.

"I just spoke with Swanson a few minutes ago," Holly had never, ever heard Dutch this quiet. "Said that Arthur's showing no signs of breaking out of this fever yet. I—" he cupped his chin, thumb itching the beginnings of a beard along his jawline. "He's given him a few more days, though I fear that we might have the accept the inevitable. I thought that, since you brought him back, that you deserve to hear it first."

Holly gaped at him.

No.

No. No, that wasn't happening on her watch. Not while she was still sitting here with her feet still working and her mind still sound. Not if she had any goddamn thing to say about it.

"With all due respect, Dutch, ain't it a bit premature to assume that Arthur's…?" she couldn't bring herself to finish the thought. "I'll go sit with him tonight, give the Reverend a break. It's the least I can do."

"You've done more than enough, Holly."

"It ain't enough 'til Arthur's up and walkin'. Until then, we keep tryin', right?"

Dutch opened his mouth and then closed it again. He looked at his glass, then out to the lake, and then back to Arthur's tent. "Arthur's a warrior. Son's got a lot of heart to keep waging this fight. But before long, we might have to just put the poor boy out of his misery."

Holly blinked back hot tears, feeling her anger mix in with her desperation. "So we're just gonna let him die?" she whispered.

Dutch's response was grave and straight to the point; "He's suffering."

"But he's still alive," Holly protested.

"Is it better to offer a doomed man a shortcut, or let sepsis rot him from the inside out?" Dutch asked. "Deep down, my dear, I think that you know the right answer."

She didn't reply. Dutch didn't bother to try and get one out of her.

"It hasn't come to that yet," was his placid reminder. "Swanson's given him another few days before he's beyond helping. He said there's a small dip in his temperature that could be promising. Whether or not the fever breaks and Arthur wakes up, I'm not sure. We'll just have to wait and see. It's all we can do at this point."

It was all hopeless. Waiting and seeing, instead of helping and doing. Just as it was a year ago when Holly saw her mother disappear into a storm and never came back. Just as it was six months ago when Holly saw her family slaughtered through a crack in the doorframe. Parallels. Echoes. Repeats. No better, no worse. Exactly the same. Exactly the same.

Holly gripped her hair with her bad hand and fell silent. Dutch, staring at her, heaved a sigh so great that it seemed to carry the entire world with it. He glanced down at the liquor in his glass, then overturned it. Holly watched, mute, as the Scotch trickled downwards into the sand and puddled into a small mess between his boots. And then, Dutch took the bottle of Scotch and overturned that too.

"I've always hated Scotch," Dutch muttered, eyes dark.

They looked on as the Scotch ran along the sand and drained into the lake, where the waves welcomed them into the fold. And then Dutch picked himself up, brushed himself off, bid her goodnight, and returned to camp. Holly spent the night in Arthur's tent, just as she promised she would. Thought of the tone Dutch'd used when she'd brought Arthur back. Thought of parents, of promises, of O'Driscolls and Winslows and justice and futility.

A day passed.

No better, no worse.

Another day passed.

No better, no worse.

Holly would soldier on, her hands warm and steady, and keep her silence. Keep her faith. Keep her secrets. Day in and day out; a hope dangling on the thinnest of strings. No better and no worse.

They all had carpet bags, sure. But Holly'd be damned if she let her carpet bag get any heavier on her accord.

Chapter Text

Saturday, August fifth. Everyone was at Clemens' Point, no one bothering to suggest robberies or chores to keep their minds occupied. A fog of anxiety-induced sluggishness had settled over camp. Even Miss. Grimshaw seemed lethargic, choosing to occupy her time with Arthur's state instead of harping on Holly and the other girls about one thing or another. Camp volume was at a dull buzz, only occasionally pierced with the sharp cry of that stupid osprey or Jack bouncing back and forth from one gang member to the other, Cain on his heels, in hopes of finding something to sate his boredom.

Holly had found herself at the scout table out of habit more than anything else. Javier, Tilly, and Trelawny were playing a game of dominoes to distract themselves while she penned letters under the mid-morning sun, a cup of coffee growing cold besides her. She'd already completed a letter to her brother and was now in the process of finishing up one to Penelope Braithwaite. Mentions of Arthur were avoided by name, but she couldn't help but write out her growing anxieties about a sickness in the family. Luca, of all people, would understand. Maybe Penelope would too, as sympathetic as she was. Time and distractions. No better, no worse.

Holly signed the letter harder than she intended, the charcoal smudging. She suppressed a sigh and brushed away any excess from the paper.

"And that," Tilly said cheerfully as she placed her last domino, "is the third win in a row. Pay up, fellas."

Javier and Trelawny, scowling, tossed several coins Tilly's way as Holly stuffed Penelope's letter into an envelope and sealed it. Javier glanced up. "You gonna join in this round?" he asked.

She considered it for a moment, then shook her head. "Gotta mail these off today," Holly told him, apologetic, as she placed the letters in her satchel.

"Well, guess we'll be here when you get back," Tilly said, still basking in her victory. "If these boys haven't had enough of me by then, that is."

"You'd best watch that tone, Miss. Jackson," Trelawny bunched up his sleeves to his elbows, expression severe. "I feel as though a new victor might soon be emerging over the horizon."

"In your dreams, Trelawny."

"Mr. Escuella, I assure you, I don't get intimidated. I merely get results."

They began flipping the dominoes for another round, jabbing amicably at each other. However, Holly'd stopped paying attention to their mock spat, her attention falling on a commotion across the camp. One by one, she heard the other three van der Linde gangers stop their heckling and follow her gaze, curious.

Molly O'Shea was the one person at camp Holly rarely interacted with. Dutch had taken several mistresses in the twenty years of the van der Linde Gang's history and Molly was but the latest in a long line of them, and from what Holly'd gathered, easily one of the most despised. She was both infuriatingly aloof yet as needy as a housecat, loudly pining for Dutch's attention whenever he was absent and turning her nose up at all offers for meals, games, or otherwise from any other member of camp, even Hosea. Holly'd seen Arthur, Mary-Beth, Charles, and Abigail interact with her once or twice apiece, polite for polite's sake, but she could tell that her arrogance was something that bothered them incessantly. The others at camp were far less subtle; Karen had, on multiple occasions, stated that she'd gladly trade Molly for a jug of good moonshine if presented the chance.

Holly wouldn't lie and say that Molly's callousness, narcissism, and overall disdain for her and the others didn't bother her time after time, but the Molly O'Shea she was witnessing was an entirely different person than the one she'd known since April. She was approaching Sean, dozing at the base of the oak tree, with her hands folded rather timidly against her chest. Holly didn't hear the conversation, but the next thing she knew, Sean was lashing out at Molly with a ferocity that she couldn't tell was warranted or not. Molly recoiled backwards, then gathered up her dress and sped away. Sean stared after her, lip halfway curled in a snarl, and returned to his nap.

"Good riddance," Javier mumbled.

Holly turned to him, "What'd she even say? Sean just started yappin' at her with no warnin'."

"I'm sure she deserved it," Tilly jumped in, face stony. Her tone, however, was apologetic, "Look, Molly can't read a room if her life depended on it. No one here wants to pay her any attention, and Dutch is too preoccupied with Arthur's condition to spare her some. It's clear that she's just bored and's taking it out all on us." Trelawny and Javier nodded their agreement. Holly twisted the good fingers on her maimed hand, uneasy.

She excused herself from the table and set off for the other side of camp.

Molly had ended up running off towards the stables where there were few prying eyes. She'd pulled out a pocket mirror with several large cracks in it, raking shaky fingers through her fire-red hair. Holly approached her, carefully considering what she was going to say.

"You doin' alright?" Holly asked gently, her hands clutching the strap of her satchel.

Molly's face was turned away and she didn't bother looking up. "M'fine," she muttered darkly, still grooming herself with her broken pocket mirror.

Holly took a deep breath. "I gotta go into Rhodes to mail some letters. And if you was feelin' up to it, I was wonderin' if maybe you wanted to come with?" she asked nicely. "Just to get out of camp for a little while."

As she expected her to, Molly bristled. "I don't want your pity," she snapped.

"It ain't pity, Holly lied. "It's just, I don't really wanna go alone. Plus, my only other option is John. And if I'm bein' honest, I don't really think John likes me all too much."

Both women glanced over towards the horses. John was brushing down Achilles in Arthur's absence, holding his peace even though Holly knew he had one ear trained on their conversation.

Molly's face was so red that her freckles blended right back into her fair skin. She opened her mouth, then closed it, and then finally spoke again. "I guess," she murmured, almost reluctantly, as if humiliated by the admission.

Flashing her what she hoped looked like a genuine smile, Holly went to prepare Shining Star. From the corner of her eye, she could see Molly standing off to the side, looking completely bemused at the sudden turn of events.

Holly guided her horse over and saddled herself, then extended a hand to help Molly up. She instructed Molly to place her hands around her stomach and urged Shining Star into a slow trot. Together, they picked their way across the stables, into the woods, and out of camp. Holly let the peace and quiet wash over her and did her damn best to ignore Molly squeezing her gut like a tube of dental cream.

"It's such a nice day," Molly said out of the blue. Holly glanced back to see Molly staring at the mottled bits of shade and sunlight above their heads. She caught on to Holly's staring and blinked her big green eyes at her, "Camp's gotten so dreadful, ain't it?"

"S'pose so," Holly said lightly. They turned onto the main road and started rounding the farmlands.

"Haven't seen Arthur in days. It's like he's dyin'."

He is dyin'. "It's been a few weeks and nothin's changed. Folk're just worried is all. Hosea's convinced he'll pull through, soon as his fever breaks."

"You brought Arthur back ta camp, dincha?"

"I don't wanna talk about it," Holly said without thinking.

To her everlasting shock, Molly actually held her tongue and didn't bring it back up. The pair of them crossed over the train tracks. Rhodes lay in the distance, shrouded in a shimmering mist of heat and dust. She could hear something stirring in the distance.

"Dutch's been all over," Molly spoke up again, as if she couldn't bear the silence like Holly could. "If he ain't talkin' 'bout Arthur, he's in Arthur's tent, or sittin' wit' 'im, or doin' somethin' else I don' know 'bout. That's all I was askin' Sean 'bout." Now it was Holly's turn to blush, "Hadn't seen Dutch since last night, so I was gettin' worried. Sean told me I should be knowin' where Dutch is… 'cause it's all I talk 'bout."

A pretty sizable part of Holly thought that Sean rose a decent point.

Molly sniffled. It took all of Holly's willpower to keep her eyes on the road ahead, "Abigail, she told me couple'a days past that Dutch don'… I-I wrote 'im a poem. I just wanted to show it ta 'im. Thought it'd make Dutch...remember, or somethin'. I left it on his nightstand last night. I don' think he even saw it sittin' there."

Holly blinked a bit. That was actually...touching. It sounded like something her mother would've done for her father when Holly was a little girl. "What's it called?" she asked, shocked to discover a bit of genuine curiosity in the question.

"Don' got a title. Couldn't think'a one," Molly's voice was barely audible.

"Why don't you show it to Mary-Beth?" Holly suggested. "She likes writin'. I'm sure she'd love to read it."

There was a bit of a lull in the conversation. Molly's grip hardened. "I don' think she'd want ta talk wit' me," she admitted, voice quiet as still water.

Into Rhodes they rode. Holly might've said something, some promise about reading Molly's poetry in Dutch's absence, if the massive crowd in front of the bank not stolen all her attention away. Holly gently pulled Shining Star to a light stop outside the general store, she and Molly looking on curiously at the commotion. It seemed that most of the folks who lived in Rhodes proper had gathered around to bear witness. A group of sign-toting women, singing and chanting, had assembled around the steps of the bank to listen to an older woman in a blue dress and a sash give some sort of speech. A large swarm of men had descended on them like vultures, forming a loose semicircle around the protestors. Holly had a hard time hearing much of what was being said by the woman at the top of the steps through the insults being hurled at her.

As Holly dismounted, a flash of white caught her eye. Her sights fell on a familiar figure somewhere deep in the throng, baby-blue ribbons in her dirty blonde hair. She was holding a sign that read VOTES for Women! Abolish Discrimination Against Half of Every Home!

"Molly, I gotta do somethin' real quick," Holly said while Molly lowered herself off of Shining Star. "You don't mind if I be a few minutes, right?"

Molly's concerned gaze fell onto the protest at the bank, "You really wanna protest votin' rights?" she asked, more puzzled than judgmental.

"Not particularly," Holly conceded. "I just gotta handle somethin'. Should hopefully be done soon. I'll meet up with you in a little bit, alright?"

Both women split up. Molly wandered deeper into Rhodes, her attention flitting back and forth between the various shops along the main thoroughfare. Heaving a deep sigh, Holly made for the mob of folk and began pushing her way through it.

She reached Penelope and caught her by the arm for balance as she nearly fell to the ground when a man shoved her from behind. Holly, exasperated, straightened herself and met Penelope Braithwaite's shocked gaze with her own. Penelope's expression softened all at once, replaced with one of immediate excitement.

"Holly! I didn't know you were coming!" she reached out to hug her and Holly found herself unexpectantly swept up in her embrace. She barely had time to acknowledge it before Penelope pulled away and brushed her clothes off. "You're certainly wearing mighty strange attire for a voting rally," she joked.

Until that moment, Holly didn't even remember she was wearing her trousers. It was becoming more and more of a habit if anything else at this point. Holly dismissed the observation and gave Penelope a look. "Penelope, what is all this?"

"It's a rally, to protest a woman's right to the vote!" of all the things that excited Penelope, politics was the absolute last thing that Holly would've pointed towards.

"All this for votin'?"

"Of course! The right to elect our officials, our senators, our lawmen," Penelope's last point was punctuated with a wink. "We got women from all across the county coming to join us, but I didn't know you were interested in politics. You should've written to me sooner; I would've told Miss. Calhoun we'd've had an extra!"

Her eyes flicked up to the women on the stairs just as she finished a point about equality that Holly'd only half been paying attention to. The women, including Penelope, cheered. The men booed with equal fervor.

"Founding Fathers, not Founding Mothers, you silly old goat!" one of them called out. A round of laughter swelled up from the back of the crowd. The women held their signs up higher, chanted louder, packed tighter together as men closed in and the space grew smaller around them.

Holly opened her mouth to say something, reconsidered, and closed it. She turned back to Penelope, "I don't think this thing'll be as peaceful for much longer Penelope," she hissed, tugging on her arm.

Shockingly, Penelope resisted. The look she gave Holly was somewhere between hurt and disbelieving. "Don't you believe in equal rights for men and women?" she implored.

Not at the cost of my skin, I don't, Holly thought as she shot Penelope a hard stare."There's times and places to fight a battle, Penelope. And this sure ain't it," she said firmly.

Before either Holly or Penelope could continue their argument, a pair of brutish men—one short and stocky, the other thin and lanky, both sour-faced and grumbling—cut past them. Penelope's expression melted into one of horror as the pair approached a younger man standing off in the corner: the only man Holly could see who looked somewhat interested in what Miss. Calhoun had to say. He had handsome face and very expensive-looking clothes, coupled with a head of thick brown hair. He met the men approaching him with a look full of scorn, but there was fear underneath it, too. Holly instantly knew that this was a man who was greatly outmatched and knew it. And that was the last she noticed before Penelope shook her hard to reclaim her attention.

"Please, can you go and help Beau!?" Penelope pleaded, motioning to Holly's revolver. "His cousins are morons. Please, stop them from ruining the speech."

"That's Beau?" Holly exclaimed, incredulous. "What on Earth's he doin' here?"

"He's showing his support for us! And he was worried I'd be hurt is all."

"I thought this thing between you and him were a secret? People're gonna put two and two together, Penelope."

"Please, please go and help him!"

Pursing her lips, Holly nodded. She took Penelope's hand, "If this goes south, please go home before you get hurt," she pleaded.

"But I w—"

"Please, Penelope, listen to me. If this gets violent, it ain't worth losing your head over."

Now it was Penelope's turn to look conflicted. She glanced at Miss. Calhoun, and at Beau over Holly's shoulder, and reluctantly nodded.

Holly flashed her a smile, tipped her Stetson down over her face, and began pushing her way through the crowds towards Beau Gray and his two cousins. She cast one last glance over her shoulder and caught Penelope's worried expression for one heartbeat longer before she turned back forward and resumed her protesting efforts.

As Holly approached the Grays, she caught the tail-end of their conversation. "Haven't you got anything better to do?" Beau argued, his attempt at a serious threat almost comical coming from such a childlike voice.

The bigger of the two cousins was rolling up his sleeves and uttering a threat of his own when Holly, not breaking her stride, caught Beau at the elbow and dragged him away. Beau yelped in surprise but didn't resist as Holly glared at him. "Beau? Weren't we just leavin'?" she asked, her tone both sweet and very, very severe. She gave Beau no time to answer before she began ushering him around the back of the bank.

"Who the hell is that!?" one of the Gray cousins demanded, though they seemed to stunned to follow after her.

Beau cast her a quizzical look, to which Holly muttered "friend of a friend" under her breath before whistling for her horse. Blinking, Beau did the same.

The both mounted. The Gray cousins seemed to recover from their initial confusion and began making pursuit, but Holly had already spurred Shining Star into a speedy canter with Beau a pace behind her. They followed the road around the back of Rhodes as it quickly curved south, leaving cousins and rallies and danger far in their rear view.

It didn't take long for Beau to pull up next to her on his own horse. "So, a friend of a friend? And am I to assume this friend is Penelope Braithwaite, or perhaps another fellow roughneck that I'd encountered before. You certainly..." he let the sentence hang as he took in her appearance, "…have similar senses of attire."

"Both, I s'pose. Does it matter?"

A pregnant pause. "I guess not," then, "You gotta name, at the very least?"

"Holly Monroe."

"Well, Miss. Monroe, I know a place to go," Beau accepted her with a shrug. "It's an old battlefield no one goes to."

They thundered out of Rhodes, red dust billowing behind them like curtains caught in the wind, and made for Bolger Glade. Beau spurred his horse into a gallop and Holly followed suit.

"I don't know whether or not to take you seriously, Miss. Monroe," Beau noted. "My cousins are my primary concern right now. If everyone knows about Penelope and me—"

"Everyone knows about Penelope and you," Holly interjected, exasperated. "I know about Penelope and you and I'd barely known Penelope for all of five minutes when she told me!"

Beau looked offended but didn't retort as they rounded a small bit of woods outside of Caliga Hall and raced over the rise. "Our families, the Grays and the Braithwaites, we bury our secrets. And we bury 'em deep," he said aloud (Your secrets and your treasure, Holly mused).

"Catherine Braithwaite's got a daughter. No one's seen her in years. She weren't right, but Penelope said she'd sometimes wake up in the night to hear something wailing in the woods. Like a ghost, or a banshee," Beau gave a shake of his head. "This land, this county, these families. They ain't right, Miss. Monroe."

Holly eyeballed him, "I grew up near Saint Denis, Mr. Gray. I've known this land since I was born."

"Then you should know better than anyone what this town is truly like. And if you do, and I have little doubt that you are not as nearsighted as Mr. Morgan, then I must wonder why you choose to remain here."

By that point, they'd reached the north end of Bolger Glade, where the remains of the old battlefield stretched out before them. Smoke was rising from the ruined church in the distance. Crows took to the sky to avoid the horses, cawing their awful, broken songs. Holly spared a glance behind her and let out a sigh of relief upon seeing no one else on their tail.

"This is awful!" Beau complained as the pair of them pulled their horses to a stop.

Holly got down from Shining Star and fetched two peaches from the saddlebag. She took a bite of one as she offered the other to her mount. "No one died," she pointed out through a mouthful of fruit, "Ain't that awful."

Beau stared at her as he made to get down from his own horse, "My cousins are vindictive bastards. My brothers are vindictive bastards, but my cousins are worse."

Watching him fish through his saddlebags in search of something, Holly couldn't help but feel a stab of pity for him. Beau might've been young, and rather naive, but he was still intelligent enough to see the danger in this town for himself, which was frankly more than Holly could say about herself and the rest of the van der Linde Gang. What with their snooping and lying and sneaking around in the hopes of finding this elusive confederate gold that Dutch and Hosea kept chirping about, seemed more and more obvious that there was something seriously dangerous about Rhodes. She could practically smell it in the air, like smoke from a distant forest fire.

Was it pity, or maybe envy? Setting aside all her personal grievances, even if Holly could call the shots for herself, she couldn't just up and leave town with everyone in tow. Arthur was still battling his wounds and was in no state to head out so suddenly. And half the gang would still hold out for a week, a month, however long until this heist had a firm answer. But Beau and Penelope? They could leave right now if they really wanted. No obligations, no pressure, nothing keeping them here except maybe some memories of happier times that weren't already tainted something foul. What was stopping them from stealing away in the night and never coming back?

"If this place's as awful as you say, why don't you and Penelope just leave?" Holly dared to ask as Beau began searching through another saddlebag.

Beau didn't look up as he responded, "We will, as soon as we have enough money. My family...we have money, but I don't."

"Ain't your family rich?"

"Yes. Well, I believe so. But they keep me out of the discussions. I have more of an artistic temperament, so..." he trailed off, apparently too distracted to finish the thought. Holly furrowed her brows at the phrase but said nothing.

After finally finding what he was searching for, Beau made to meet Holly in the middle of the road, between their two horses, expression almost bashful. "I love her, I really do," he admitted. "And I worry if we stay here much longer, and keep sticking ourselves out of where high society has drawn their primitive lines of social acceptability, then, well, I truly don't know."

There it was again. No, it was definitely pity. Pity for a man that seemingly had enough money to swim in yet here he was, barely a sentence away from groveling in despair at her feet. God, she'd been feeling a lot of pity for a lot of people today. Holly hardly even noticed Beau approaching her, a wad of dollar bills clutched in his fist, with appreciation and apprehension carved into every line on his face. It was enough for Holly to act more on her instinct than her desire, in spite of the temptation dangling so tantalizingly in front of her face.

Holly shook her head at the small stack of bills in Beau's hands before he could present it. "Keep the money. I don't want it," she said.

Beau blinked, eyebrows rising so high they were threatening to disappear into his hairline, "I insist—"

"I don't want your money," Holly repeated firmly. "Save it for somethin' important and get train tickets or somethin'. Take yourself outta here when you can. And bring Penelope. Go to the coast, or wherever else's far enough away from here. Get married. Go do… ah, I don't know. Just keep the money, Beau. Don't waste it on me."

Beau only regarded her with bemusement. Only when Holly resaddled herself did he seem to snap back to his senses, and he tucked the money back into his breast pocket with a small nod, still looking unable to wrap his head around the concept.

As Holly turned Shining Star around, Beau called out to her; "Thank you!"

She waved at him, offered a small smile, and raced back for Rhodes.

It was almost admirable, his and Penelope's…affections. At least to Holly, it was one of the only things that made staying near this insufferable town somewhat bearable. But pity soon dissolved into dread, and Holly couldn't place her finger on why. She didn't much like lingering on it, however, because she knew the more that she did, the deeper down a rabbit hole she might fall into.

Something wasn't right here. Something was coming.

She decided it was time to find Molly.

By the time Holly returned to Rhodes, the voting rights rally had dispersed. Penelope was nowhere in sight, which was a weight off of Holly's shoulders at the very least. And that was only replaced with another as Holly quickly skimmed the main street and failed to locate one Miss. Molly O'Shea. It was as if she'd simply melted into the heat of the day, leaving no trace behind. Holly forced herself to bite down her alarm and start at the train station. She posted her letters with the clerk and asked if he'd seen Molly, only to be met with a shake of his head and a guarantee that if he saw her, he'd come running. Holly checked the general store, the saloon down the road, and was about to hike all the way up to the shantytown on the hill when a flash of green and red caught her eye from around the corner of the gunsmith's.

"Molly!" Holly called out. Molly glanced up in surprise—she'd rounded the side of the gunsmith's store and was staring down through the window into the cellar. Something, Holly just couldn't see what, had spooked her, as her face was tight with concern. Holly crossed the street and was about to ask what was the matter before she looked down and her words rather quickly failed her.

The window had been barred, which already seemed like a curious choice. A man was hanging off of them (it struck Holly that he and Molly must've been locked in conversation before she'd come running up and interrupted them), but even that wasn't the strangest part of the scenario. No, strange was the white and blue sailor suit the man was wearing, and clearly not of his own will.

"He's locked under the store. Says he's been down there for two weeks," Molly explained, unprompted, but Holly was still at a loss for words.

"Ma'am, oh kind ma'am, please, I've been trapped down here," the man pleaded. He sounded half-close to tears— from relief or despair, Holly couldn't say.

Holly cocked her head, "Why're you dressed up like that?" she asked, rather bluntly.

That was the tipping point. The man in the basement started sobbing right there in front of Holly and Molly. His dry whimpers were lost to the bustle of Rhodes barely five feet away from them, and no one so much as raised an eyebrow as to why two women, one dressed in finery and one not, were conversing with the gun store owner's basement window.

"P-p-please, you gotta help me," the man blubbered, "It's that crazy gunsmith. He made me dress up like this. He got me chained to the goddamn bed." As Holly and Molly exchanged a glance, the strange man gave one more shake of the bars, "You gotta do something. He's never gonna let me go!"

"Oh Holly," Molly chimed in, her green eyes pleading, "we can't just leave 'im? We gotta break 'im outta there."

"I never said we was leavin' him," Holly said, sparing the strange man a final, mystified glance. But he'd buried his face into the windowsill, and so Holly couldn't pick his mind further on just what on Earth kind of predicament he'd landed himself in.

Holly rounded the side of the gunsmith's with Molly on her heels, the gears in her mind clicking as she tried to come of with a plan. By the time the two women reached the front door, the best plan Holly'd come up with was something she'd practically been doing for the last four months without fail: lie.

Good enough.

Giving Molly a quick once-over (and holding her tongue on just how uncharacteristically serious she seemed to be taking the scenario), Holly dropped her voice. "Keep the gunsmith distracted. Make sure his eyes ain't on me," she whispered.

Molly nodded. Both women entered the store. A bell above the door tinkled pleasantly overhead to announce their arrival.

If she hadn't already known what she'd known, then the gun store would've raised no alarms in the back of her mind. It was simple and quaint: a rather nice family-owned shop that showed its years of use and wear. The floorboards creaked and shifted underfoot. Pistols and rifles and repeaters and shotguns lined the walls in neat lines, boxes of respective ammunition stacked on tables below them. The gunsmith of Rhodes was an older-looking gentleman with flyaway hair, a large beard, and shrewd eyes. He stood behind the counter, counting tubes of gun oil. He glanced up when Holly and Molly stepped through the door. "Good afternoon, ladies," he greeted them cheerfully, "How might I be of help today?"

Molly cleared her throat. "I'm lookin' for a gun," she said. Then, clearly flustered, she clarified, "a small gun. For my, uh, husband. He was lookin' for somethin' new but I don't remember what it was. I was 'opin' you'd be able ta help."

The gunsmith stepped out from behind the counter. Holly retreated to the wall as he approached Molly with practiced friendliness. "I'd be happy to help jog your memory, Miss," he said, his words honeyed. Molly smiled lightly at his kindness, all previous hesitation gone. She, for a fleeting moment, caught Holly's eye, a silent assurance that she'd be able to hold his attention for a good long while.

Holly's eyes swept across the back of the store and settled on a small, nondescript door in the corner. It appeared to be locked.

The gunsmith brought Molly over to the pistols and revolvers, his attention solely for her and not for Holly, who pretended to examine the rifles on the wall. Slowly, she inched her way over to the door. Holly's attention briefly strayed to a photo hanging next to it, showing the gunsmith and a young boy standing proudly in front of the store. Shifting her efforts back to the task at hand, Holly cast one last glance over her shoulder and, upon seeing Molly locked in full conversation with the gunsmith, fished out her nail file.

"What's the difference 'tween a pistol and a revolver?"

"Well, a pistol don't got no cylinder, see?"

Holly started picking the lock as fast as possible. After a few seconds, it clicked. She tested the door and it swung open silently.

"Spin it again. I wanna see."

The metallic tick of a rapidly spinning cylinder filled the silence. "Like that?" the gunsmith asked, eyes only for Molly.

Holly slipped inside and quietly closed the door. Molly's delighted laughter—she actually sounded surprisingly invested in the ruse—became muffled behind the walls as she found herself in a small closet. Half the floor was taken up by the house's cellar door, securely locked with a padlock. Uneasy, Holly bent over, picked that lock too, and crept down the stairs.

The basement of the gunsmith's was incredibly spacious. Several shelves contained a multitude of different guns and ammunition, and there was something in the back corner that looked like a rack of old bandoliers. Which, of course, made the man against the back wall all the more unexplainable. Now that she could see him clearly, the rest of his circumstance made themselves more apparent. Maybe Holly just hadn't noticed it before, or better yet, maybe she just didn't want to know the answer regardless. This little basement had been refitted with children's toys and books, all of which were scattered about the floor in a jumbled mess. A rotted rocking horse sat in the corner, it's paint peeling and discolored. A small shelf above the bed held melted candle stubs and water-stained photos of a young woman. The entire scene might've been an attempt at charming, but it did nothing but make Holly's skin crawl.

"Y-y-you came?" the man in the sailor suit whispered. His expression was pious, as though it was God Himself and not a teenager appearing before him. The man bolted up off his bed—as he did so, Holly caught sight of the chain shackled to his ankle and connected to a metal hook that someone had hammered into the wall. The man motioned to said chain; "Please, please help me. He's got me chained up."

She approached him with a quick nod. The man sat back on the bed and held out his ankle, looking damn near close to sobbing again.

As she began to undo the shackle, Holly dared to voice her baffled thoughts. "You never said why he got you wearin'…that," she muttered, a bit at a loss for words.

"That crazy maniac put me in it!" he seethed, and Holly swore he sounded almost offended at her frankness. "He thinks I'm his kid son! Kidnapped me, he did! Do I look like a kid!?"

Holly thought back to the photo on the wall upstairs. The boy there couldn't have been more than eight years old, yet the man here was easily older than Sean. Might've even had his own family. Holly's gaze drifted back to the photos on the shelf, and she felt a pang of uneasy understanding.

Just as Holly broke through the lock and let the cuff fall away, the trapdoor slammed open. Holly bolted upwards, the man jumping to his feet besides her, now free from his chains. Holly drew her revolver and leveled it just as the gunsmith walked in, Molly following a step or two behind. The gunsmith's livid expression melted into one of despair and shock as his eyes settled on the barrel of Holly's gun trained on his forehead.

Molly shot them all a horrified look, "What's goin' on?"

"He was being a bad little boy, stealing candy from the store again!" the gunsmith explained precariously, cowering at the sight of Holly's revolver trained at him, "It's for his own good!"

"I'm not your little boy, you mad son of a bitch!" the man in the sailor suit snarled.

The gunsmith took a test step, only to falter when Holly matched his pace and held the gun higher. Molly's eyes darted from the gunsmith to the man in the sailor suit. Possibly emboldened by Holly's gun, the former prisoner began making for the exit, spitting curses and venom along the way. The man in the sailor suit clipped Holly's shoulder as he stalked past. The gunsmith reached out a hand as he went, the movement almost something out of reverence, and shrunk back when Holly stepped closer.

"Don't shoot me, please!" he begged, falling to his knees. "Just, just leave us be! Don't take him away from me, please."

The man in the sailor suit curled his lip at the words but didn't grace them with his personal thoughts.

"I'm sorry!"

They all turned, even the man in the sailor suit. The gunsmith was reaching out to him. "Please forgive me. I know it was wrong," his voice was barely above a whisper. "I just couldn't face that he was gone."

He reached into his waistcoat. Holly was about to cock the revolver in warning but all he produced was a small photo of the boy she'd seen upstairs. The gunsmith held it with trembling hands, voice cracking.

"I was teaching Sammy how to hold a rifle out by the river. The recoil…shot him backwards. He slipped into the river. The water pulled him downstream so quick. It all happened so fast, I didn't know what to do," the gunsmith wiped away tears with his free hand. "I searched up and down that riverbank for days, but I couldn't find my boy. I just…miss him so much. And you…" the gunsmith pressed his hands into the ground and buried his face into stone floor. All Holly heard after that was a depressingly soft, broken, "…you remind me of him."

Far from being comforted, the man in the sailor suit's face twisted into an expression so scornful it could've made a sinner turn to dust. "It's too late for apologies," he spat. He turned to go upstairs, paused, and then turned back to the gunsmith, face full of rancor, "Just count yourself lucky I don't kill you for what you did."

And then he was gone. Holly and Molly remained motionless as the man raced up the stairs, his footsteps heavy over the floorboards as though he sought to stomp holes in them, and shut the front door with a slam. The bell rattled, it's chimes eerie and empty. Silence followed, soon broken by the sound of the gunsmith's rattling sobs as he burst into full-on tears on the floor of his cellar. Holly, motionless, could only watch on. Wasn't much honor in shooting a man groveling on the ground, even if he did do something so heinous. Disgust and sympathy settled somewhere in her gut, and she did nothing except watch on as the gunsmith screamed his sorrow and grief into the earth. Against all her better judgement, Holly lowered and then holstered her revolver.

"Holly."

Holly turned, jogged from her thoughts. Molly was opening a case on the corner table, pulling out a gold-plated Lancaster repeater. She held it up to her, an unanswered question written over her features. Holly wandered over and took it from her hands, feeling the weight and testing the lever. It moved smoothly, like it was brand new.

"What do ya want ta do wit' it?" Molly asked.

Holly's gaze went from the repeater, to the gunsmith, to the repeater again.

-X-

An hour later, Holly and Molly strolled back into camp.

That Lancaster repeater had fit perfectly into the extra holster in Shining Star's saddle. She'd decided that a gun that nice had no business being in the hands of a man like the Rhode's gunsmith, so with her it went. She debated on giving it to Dutch or Hosea in case the camp's guards needed an extra but decided against it. It wasn't like the camp didn't have enough as it was—John and Arthur each had enough guns and ammunition to stock the entire gang five times over—and sure, maybe Holly was feeling a little selfish.

Molly was abuzz. Holly had never seen her this excited before: not about Dutch or scores or really anything else. She kept gushing about the look on the gunsmith's face when he realized that he'd been played and how exciting the entire ordeal had been. Holly was honestly just happy to see her so chipper, so she deliberately took her time getting back to Clemens' Point and let Molly jabber over her shoulder. Given the somber environment they were returning to, it was the least she could do to keep her spirits high.

"Think he'll be alright?" Molly's question broke Holly from her thoughts, "That man, I mean?"

Holly snorted, easing up on Shining Star's reins. "I'm sure he'll be fine. And if he comes back in the dead'a night for the gunsmith, I honestly don't think it'd be that much of a loss."

Confliction emanated off of Molly in waves. "That poor gunsmith," she said sympathetically, "Losin' a boy. Horrible."

"Don't justify lockin' a man up in a basement," Holly said brusquely.

Molly let the conversation drift off. They'd just broken through the tree line, with Clemens' Point in sight, when Holly heard her mutter something softly under her breath:

"We done worse, dontcha think?"

Holly blinked, let the thought sink in, but didn't offer any indication that she'd heard her.

Instead, she called out to the lookout and was met with silence. She tried again, and still nothing. A prick of concern bit at the back of her brain. Even stranger, when the two women brought Shining Star to the stables, there wasn't any signs of milling about. Camp looked practically deserted to the naked eye.

Or, it would've, if Sean hadn't come sprinting up from the lakeshore.

"Holly, Miss. O'Shea!" Sean hollered over to them. From the corner of her eye, Holly saw Molly shrink back slightly. However, if their last conversation was on his mind, Sean gave absolutely no sign of it. In fact, Holly didn't think she'd seen Sean this excited in weeks. "You're back! Hosea's been wonderin' where ya lot went off to."

"We were in town," she said, giving him a severe look. "Sean, what's goin' on?"

"Arthur's awake!"

Holly's heart jumped in her chest so hard and so violently, she swore it broke a rib or two. "He is!?" she inadvertently shouted, taken aback.

Sean nodded spiritedly, "Woke up 'bout an hour ago, he did. His fever broke and he was up demandin' water and food like a madman possessed. Tilly 'nd Mary-Beth started cryin' right on the spot. Think Grimshaw damn near started cryin', too, if you'd believe it."

He waved the pair of them over as he turned back towards camp proper, not waiting to see if the two women would follow. Holly matched his quick pace with Molly several steps behind as the three of them wove their way back towards Arthur's tent. The reason that Clemens' Point seemed so deserted had made itself all the more apparent; practically every van der Linde ganger who was in camp at the moment had gathered in front of Arthur's tent like they expected the Lord Himself to come waltzing out of it. Spirits seemed to be higher. Uncle was already passing out beer and Javier had begun tuning his guitar while Jack bounced back and forth between one camp member to another, pursued by a tired but clearly happy Abigail. Sean was pulled off to one side by Lenny and Kieran, the promise of a drink apparently too tempting to pass up.

As Holly approached Arthur's tent, Dutch and Hosea were exiting, their heads bent together in discussion. She thought she saw Dutch raise his head as though meaning to ask her something but Holly ignored him, brushing past the two men with a hasty apology and entering through the flaps.

Save for the two of them, it was empty. Arthur certainly looked worse for wear but it was the first time in two and a half weeks that Holly'd seen him awake. Someone had managed to prop him up against the back of the tent, a bowl of half-eaten broth in his hands. A wild and unmanaged beard had grown in, giving him a somewhat feral appearance. He was somewhat pale, and there were more prominent bags under his eyes, but he was awake and conscious and to Holly that was more than enough.

She wanted to say something joyous, relieved, exuberant. Instead, in all of her everlasting grace and dignity, the first words that decided to spill out were, "You look like shit."

Arthur chuckled, coughed, and smirked. "I feel like shit," he grit out. Holly snorted, even though what he'd said wasn't funny in the slightest.

"I thought we'd be puttin' you six feet under by the end'a the week," she admitted, half to herself.

At that, Arthur barked out a wheezy laugh. "Don't go gettin' all emotional on me, kid," he warned.

"You shoulda seen how you looked these past few weeks," Holly said, furiously wringing her bad hand. "Had all the camp worried clear outta their minds, myself included."

Another laugh. Arthur winced at that one, like it genuinely pained him. "I'll try harder not to go and get shot next time," he joked his way through a groan. "Although, I don't figure any sorta God's gonna spare any bit of good fortune for a feller such as myself."

"Miss. Monroe," Holly glanced up to see Miss. Grimshaw coming in behind her. While her expression was warm with relief, her voice had found that familiar sternness once more, "I think it's best you give Mr. Morgan some space for the time being. He's been through an ordeal" ("And here I thought the sorry sight of me dyin' in my own shit'd be enough to soften you up, Miss. Grimshaw," Arthur said humorously; the corners of Miss. Grimshaw's mouth quirked upwards ever so slightly).

Holly stood without protest. She voiced some promise about coming back to check on him and left the tent. As she exited, Sean and Lenny tried to squeeze their way in to visit but quickly retreated when Miss. Grimshaw barked at them to give Arthur some damn space. Holly felt like a weight had been lifted straight off of her chest and tossed somewhere into the depths of Flat Iron Lake.

There wasn't a thank you shared between them. There didn't need to be. Holly knew it was there, unspoken. Someone thrust a beer bottle in her hand, asked her for a dance, and then there was music and celebrations and a release from the worry that had been burdening them all. For the first time in weeks, Holly wasn't plagued by her own doubts and fears, and the residents of Clemens' Point slept through the night in relative peace.

Chapter Text

The sun burned bright, almost burning straight through the leaves. Warm light freckled the bark at just the right angles. It was the fourth straight day of beautiful weather, but it wasn't doing much for her mood. "C'mon," Holly muttered to herself for what seemed like the millionth time that morning, "get out here, you furry little nuisance."

As she expected, nothing happened. Seemed to be that kind of day.

Holly silently grunted and readjusted the scope of her rifle.

She knew the events that had led her to this here point, but they still befuddled her to a degree. Holly was never exactly one of the van der Linde Gang's designated hunters—to be honest she barely considered herself one of their gunners, never mind the arsenal she was quietly amassing—yet Arthur's condition had left a bit of a vacancy. Miss. Grimshaw gave him the typical week or so before he was even to consider leaving camp, much to his chagrin, and when she put her foot down, Holly knew that she put her foot down. Holly wondered if he had raised a protest in the beginning, and just how quickly he was shot down. But Arthur just did busywork around the camp and never once uttered a complaint about it. He certainly wasn't much of a sewer and gave half the camp a heart attack when he tried to chop firewood, but he seemed fine to hang back and help either Pearson or Hosea or Swanson with whatever they needed. He even found some sort of middle ground with Kieran, because Holly had seen the pair of them tend to the horses without Arthur growling curses or Kieran cowering with his tail between his legs. It was unspoken that everyone was keeping an eye trained on Arthur at all times, but he never so much as expressed a word of frustration. Holly had a sinking suspicion that if the pair of them were ever within ten feet of the other, Miss. Grimshaw would watch him like an owl and mentally prepare herself to bind him to his cot by his ankles and wrists if he was showing any signs of lingering illness. It did raise a bit of an issue with another part of camp life, however.

Two days or so after Arthur's fever broke, Holly was working at the chuck wagon when Charles came hurrying in. She perked up at his call, just in time to watch him slam four turkey carcasses onto the table before her. Feathers scattered everywhere. One of the birds still had an arrow stuck in it. Holly took a step back in surprise at the abruptness of it all.

"Sorry," Charles mumbled. He seized the arrow shaft and, after a couple of tugs, managed to yank it free. Yet Holly hardly minded nor cared about his sudden directness. Charles looked more worse for wear than she'd ever seen him. His hair had been tied back but strands of it were falling loose in clumps. He was sweating up a storm, winded as though he'd run instead of rode. Although it was hard to tell, there were places on his face and arms that seemed to be turning rosy with sunburn. It was hot, yes, but Holly then remembered she hadn't seen heads or tails of Charles all day. Had he been out the entire day, hunting and baking in the sun?

"You alright, Charles?" she asked, troubled.

Charles looked as though he wasn't intending to respond, then reconsidered. He leaned some of his weight into the table, wincing. "Arthur and I usually share the hunting between us. Without him, I've been having to do it for two," he said. "Somedays, I can manage fine. Others are more difficult, Today was so hot, there was hardly anything out of their dens. There's not really anything I can do about it."

Holly gave him a concerned look. "Why don't you tell Dutch or Hosea?"

"They have enough on their plate with this Braithwaite business."

"Well, what about the others?"

"Have you tried hunting with Bill or Sean?"

Fair enough. "If you want an extra set of hands, I can come with you tomorrow," Holly offered as she began plucking the first turkey. Before Charles could voice a concern, Holly added; "Arthur's been doin' busywork 'round camp for a day or so now. With an extra set of hands, Miss. Grimshaw'd probably be alright if I went with you, so long as we brought somethin' back to show for it."

Charles regarded her thoughtfully, "Are you alright with leaving early tomorrow?"

"Whenever you wanna leave, I'll be up," Holly promised him.

"We'll head out at five, try and get some game before the weather turns for the worse. Heard in town that there's a group of boar roaming northwest of here," Charles was about to pick up one of the turkeys when Holly slapped his hand away. Getting the message, he left with a nod and some more advice, "Get some rest. Hunting's easier the more patient you are. We could be out there a long while."

They were out there for fifteen hours.

But it was a successful fifteen hours, at the very least. Holly and Charles found a sounder of about ten pigs somewhere just beyond Scarlett Meadows and by the end of the day had managed to track and kill every last one of them. What parts they didn't take back to camp, they sold. Soon, Holly and Charles had accumulated a decent take from hunting (something the locals were very grateful for). Pork was on Pearson's menu for the following four days. The entire camp stunk of pig stew and dried pelts. Even Holly's dreams had become particularly…swine-y; she would close her eyes and swear she'd hear oinking through the night while she slept.

Holly and Charles hunted together the next day, and the day after that. Then, she caught wind from the butcher of some strange fox with pure white fur living near Mattock Pond. Could see the thing five miles away in all directions, apparently, but it had the disposition of a horse with a rattler permanently underhoof. No one had had the perseverance to track the thing to its end. "I know folk who'd pay good money for the pelt, and others who'd pay more for the tail," the butcher joked as he gave them some bills for the meat. Holly and Charles were exchanging glances as he continued, "Thing's like a ghost. It's what a couple'a fellers've taken to calling him. You catch him? You'd probably be able to haggle a good price."

She got Dutch's blessing to try her hand at tracking the thing the very next morning. That was two days ago. She'd been out there since, her patience unthreading by the hour.

Holly usually took directions and warnings at face value. Didn't much care for exaggerations or hyperbole, and she found herself at a strange crossroads because of it. Because yes, the fox was beautiful. She saw it for the first time around midday north of the pond, where their paths had crisscrossed on accident. She only got one good look at him—a small thing, but with a pelt of snow that would've made even the richest of Saint Denis aristocrats empty their bank accounts on sight—before he turned tail and bolted into the woods. Holly chased that fox until midnight had come and gone, and returned to her camp at the edge of the woods tired, aching, hungry, and in need of a different approach. For how much this damn thing was ticking her off, Holly had half a mind to nickname him "John Marston"; the cranky, immature part of her brain told her that naming even a fox after him would be too generous a compliment.

She was sure her father'd be cackling if he could've seen her, running around like a chicken with her head cut off and calling it "trapping". Thus, Holly summoned what little trapping knowledge she remembered her father teaching her brother, woke up early the next morning, and set to work.

She laid traps throughout the woods. The forest was heaven for an animal as skittish as this one, so it gave Holly a bit of reassurance knowing that she didn't have a wide swatch of land to trek across. She set up bait in three different areas within forty or so feet from her position in the undergrowth: one to the north in front of what looked like a den, another to the south by the edge of the pond, and a final one to the west in a clearing surrounded by ferns. Now here she was, waiting out at Mattock Pond for the past seven hours, hoping that this fox would show it's beautiful, infuriating muzzle. Holly had been lying in the same position. Scope to her eye. Sweat running down her back. Earth to her stomach. Waiting as time leaked away.

A flash of white in the corner of her eye jogged Holly from her own defeatism. She quietly turned towards the pond, pleased to see a small muzzle poking out of the brambles. The nose twitched.

Holly readjusted her scope, "C'mon, boy. Little bit further now."

Another twitch. Then, a hesitant paw stepped out, followed by another. The fox emerged from the undergrowth and padded towards the bait Holly'd laid out. Biting the inside of her cheek, her finger curled over the trigger.

One second, two seconds, three seconds. A blackbird called. The fox perked up, alert.

Holly pulled the trigger. The peace and quiet of the forest was shattered instantaneously. A flock of birds rose into the air, screeching. The recoil of the bullet had snapped the fox's head back, but it fell to the ground nonetheless, dead in its tracks.

Getting up was a relief in and of itself. Holly slid down the slope, clambered over the rocks surrounding the pond, and inspected her catch. Right through the eye, just as she'd hoped. The pelt had been spared aside from a bit of blood, but it hardly mattered. Smiling and feeling incredibly proud of herself, Holly grabbed her knife from her belt.

"So, this is where you've been?"

A familiar voice made Holly whip around.

Luca was dismounting from his horse, a coy smile the only thing she recognized about him. He'd gotten new clothes—a -mustard yellow waistcoat paired with a gray dress shirt and a green puff tie that was so disjointed and unsightly that Holly knew at a glance that he didn't pay so much as a cent for them. His efforts to grow a beard had, to her amusement, actually borne some fruit, because a thick one had overtaken the bottom half of his face. The scar along his jaw stood out against his facial hair like a raven in a snowstorm. His pants, boots, and horse were splattered with mud. Buckley snorted and tossed his head in an irritated manner, breathing hard.

Pleasant mood dissolving into apprehension, Holly gawked at him. "What're you doin' here?" she asked.

"A hearty hello to you, too."

"Lu."

"Been makin' my way east for a couple'a days," was his clipped explanation. "Law caught up with me near Valentine, so I thought I needed a change of scenery."

God, her brother had always been a piss-poor liar. Holly kept her mouth shut about it, however, and bent down next to the fox.

"Seems like I ain't the only one'a us that the law in Valentine's got a bit of a distaste for, though."

Holly caught his eye as Luca reached into his bag, pulled out a piece of paper, and unfolded it. It was another wanted poster of her, not one of the Winslow's but another professional-looking one like Lenny had pointed out to her in Valentine. They still hadn't gotten her likeness quite down but they'd gotten her name now. That, and a bit more:

WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE in relation to the activities of the van der Linde Gang:

Holly Monroe— $100 reward if dead, $200 reward if alive

For 10 counts of homicide and grand theft of the Valentine National Bank

Last seen near Valentine, NH. $25 reward to anyone with information on whereabouts.

Immediately contact nearest U.S. Marshall's office

"God, is that real?" Holly asked aloud.

Luca nodded, expression almost apologetic, "I got one too. My bounty's up to about eighty, but Jesus, Rina, you're really embracin' this whole outlaw business like I ain't never seen. Robbin' banks? Next, you'll be tellin' me you're blowin' up trains and wavin' guns at the poor and dispossessed."

A rock settled somewhere in her stomach at his words. Blushing something fierce, Holly busied herself by turning the fox over and studying it, looking for the best place to start skinning.

Footsteps came up behind her. Holly groaned inwardly as her older brother glanced over her shoulder. As the tip of her knife hovered for a brief second over the stomach, she heard her brother utter a humorous "Wrong."

"If you'd caught him, you'd get to skin him," Holly growled. "But you didn't, so chiudi il becco (shut your mouth) and let me do this."

"If you wanna ruin the pelt, then fine by me."

Holly's frown deepened but she didn't have a good retort.

Luca's next reply was dry with sarcasm, "Or, you can let the one with actual trappin' expertise do the skinnin'."

Making sure to sigh as loudly and dramatically as she could, Holly passed the knife back to Luca and traded places with him. He bent down next to the fox and grabbed a leg, making an insertion at the paw.

"I hate you," Holly groused.

"Nah, you don't."

"I'm really startin' to."

"Yeah? You and the entire state of New Hanover."

Goddamnit, Holly couldn't help but smirk a little at that.

"Nice scar, by the way."

Instinctively, she covered it with her hand. "It was from an ambush," she said. "Pinkertons in Valentine."

"And you still went back and robbed that bank?" Luca sounded half-impressed, half-incredulous, as he pulled the tail free with a couple of yanks. "Rina, the hell've you gotten yourself roped into?"

Weren't that the question of the year.

Her brother began cutting the pelt away from the meat. "Y'know, every single time I see you, you look a little worse for wear," Luca joked. With one final slice, he freed the fox pelt. Tugging it out from under the body, he passed it up to her.

Holly rolled it up around the tail, curbing her annoyance. "Been busy," she reminded him. "Not a lot of time for lazin' around, Lu."

"You callin' me lazy?"

"Well, I've known you for sixteen years. Cats don't change their stripes."

Luca grinned. "And you're still la mia sorellina pezzo di merda (my piece of shit little sister)," he said affectionately.

Now she could place a finger on her unease. There was something off about Luca— something too chipper about his tone, about the way he was dancing around a subject he clearly wanted to discuss but wasn't sure when to. Holly felt a pang of something eerily similar to regret, only sharper. Maybe it was because it was coming from her brother. Maybe it was because he was trying so desperately to pretend that there was still a sense of normalcy between the two of them, in the way he joked and jested and prodded like they'd done when they were kids. Maybe it was because she so desperately wanted to follow along with it and believe that it was still there.

Holly, the pelt tucked under her arm, whistled for Shining Star before flashing her brother a weary look. "You wouldn't've come out all this way if it weren't important. What's goin' on?"

Expression morphing from mild surprise into something more serious, Luca finally nodded. "It's about Logan Winslow," he admitted.

"I already told you, Lu, I can't just up and head off on my own without raisin' suspicions around camp. Last time I did it, I was gone for five days and came back with a man who had a foot in the grave," Holly said. "I already got a lotta attention on me, and I can't afford to do nothin' to give myself more."

Shining Star came trotting down over the rise, her tail swishing. She pulled to a stop next to Buckley while Holly began tying the fox pelt to the back of the saddle. Luca approached from behind. "Rina, I wouldn't be talkin' about this with you if it weren't a far trip," he assured her. Then, solemnly, he added, "And I wouldn't've come for you if I wanted to handle it on my own."

Holly knew arguing with him was quite pointless. She could tell he was being honest, and she owed him the benefit of the doubt, at the very least. "How far?" she asked.

"'Bout a half hour's ride due west from here. Place in Southland Flats called Robard Farm," Luca informed her as he swung himself into Buckley's saddle. As Holly saddled herself, her brother explained further; "Some nice folk. I been talkin' to 'em for a couple days—"

"A couple days? Lu, how long you been out here?"

"Like, two or three? Look, Rina, what does it matter? What matters is Logan Winslow and his gang of psychopaths. So, are you with me or not?"

Ultimatums now? And Luca was complaining about her lifestyle. Holly swung the reins around and snapped them, falling in line with him in silent acceptance. They set off in brisk trots, Luca half a horse length ahead of her as they wound their way through the trees towards Southland Flats.

"So, Robard Farm," Holly called over to Luca, "and I'm to assume folks're comin' out of their doors offerin' you charity, lookin' like that?"

Luca flashed her an offended look, "What's wrong with my— y'know what, fottiti (fuck you). They're a small family, just started farmin' tobacco about six months ago. Family of sharecroppers from Bari, or somewhere just outside it. They was havin' trouble with some strange folks and must'a thought I looked capable enough. Offered me a couple'a meals and ten bucks in exchange for keepin' 'em off the property. Couldn't turn that down."

"Strange folks? You talkin' 'bout Winslow?"

"Nah. These weird fellers dressed like Johnny Rebs. Don't think they had a bone to pick with Italians; I think they were just a loony sort."

"Lemoyne Raiders," Holly explained. "Had a few run-ins with 'em myself."

Nodding, Luca continued. "Well, anyway, I did my due diligence and I don't think that lot'll be botherin' the Robards again. They're a sweet family. Husband and wife with one kid. A daughter, name's Maisie. She's around your age, I think. Maybe younger.

"They invited me to dinner last night before I was gonna depart and started tellin' me real interestin' stories about the Italians around here. There's a smatterin' of abandoned homes and farms that used to belong to families like the Robards. Most of 'em are gone now, homes as well as people. Matteo Robard had a friend of his named Gabe DiVito that he knew from the farms. He moved out here a couple months before the Robards did, and Matteo ain't seen 'em since."

"You're thinkin'…?"

"Seems like it, don't it?"

Holly thought for a second, and then nodded.

"We got to talkin' about it. Didn't mention our situation; only that I might've had a run-in with 'em. Turns out, they'd been spooked about it for a while now. Don't think Winslow's bothered 'em, not yet. But that's where you're comin' in."

"Oh?"

"I knew you was in the area, so I said I had a friend that might be willin' to help out with the situation. It ain't much, Rina. All we're doin' is introducin' ourselves. You can call yourself 'Holly Monroe' or however you're takin' to callin' yourself these days," at that, Luca brandished a hand somewhat flippantly, and Holly fought to stifle a prick of annoyance. "I say we stay at the Robards a couple'a nights, see what happens. Who knows? Maybe Winslow'll come knocking, and he'll be in for a helluva surprise."

Holly blinked, partly surprised, partly confused, "That's a plan built entirely on a hunch, Lu."

"Better than nothin'."

"…Guess not."

The trees parted. Buckley and Shining Star picked up their speed slightly as they were met with hard ground to run free on. The siblings crossed over the dirt road and turned slightly south towards the hills.

"The Robards…" Holly began, "…what're they like?"

Luca shrugged. "Kind, honest folk, just tryin' to get by. Lot like the way we used to be, I guess. Maisie's real sweet. She wants to move to the city, be a teacher. You'll like her."

A laugh escaped from her, "'Member when I was, what, six? And I wanted to be a nurse?"

"A nurse. Can't believe that thought ever crossed your mind," Luca jested, "You couldn't patch up a scraped knee without Graziana wailin' her head off."

Their laugher was minimal, falling to the ground like stones. A pang of sadness burst through Holly's chest, leaving her quiet. She lowered her hand and rested them over the saddle horn, letting Shining Star do most of the guiding. Her brother seemed to have a similar reaction, because he didn't tease her again. A poignant pause stretched between the two of them like a spider's web.

Luca, still as averse to silence as he'd always been, soon broke the peace, "Y'know, Rina, when you said you was runnin' with a gang, you never told me who you was runnin' with."

"Who cares?" she asked, still downcast.

"Who cares? You never said you was caught up with Dutch van der Linde!" Luca's tone was mostly light, but there was a hint of something else that Holly couldn't place. Concern, maybe even fear, "The van der Linde Gang're a nasty ol' bunch. Wanted in ten different states, I heard. Don't y'know how big some of their bounties've gotten? Thousands. More money than papá made in a year."

"Don't go gettin' no ideas, Lu."

Luca raised a hand in mock defeat, "I'm just sayin'—"

"It ain't funny," Holly shot back, a touch too defensively than she originally intended.

There was a bit of a lengthy pause. For a while, the only sounds were the steady strides of Shining Star and Buckley as they cantered over the sunbaked earth.

"I ain't a vulture," Luca said after a while. "You don't gotta worry about me. Rattin' them out means rattin' you out. I know that. And if we can't stick together full time, we at least gotta make sure we ain't visitin' each other behind prison bars."

Holly sighed, "I know. Things're just so—"

"Complicated, yeah, I know. I've read it in your letters so much, I've taken to sayin' it in my sleep."

The pair of them ascended a hill as they spoke. Luca pulled to an abrupt stop as they summited, and it didn't take much of a genius to wonder why. Holly jerked the reins and brought her horse right next to her brother's. A cloud of horror descended upon them, worming straight into Holly's gut.

"Is that…?" Holly trailed off.

Luca's brown eyes were wide, "Yeah."

"Wha…what happened?"

"I was only gone for a few hours."

A modest little home stood in the distance, surrounded by a couple of small tobacco gardens. And every last bit of it was ablaze.

"Shit!" Luca spurred Buckley and took off down the rise, Holly following his example. Together, they hurried off towards the Robard's farm, shock and dismay keeping her eyes glued on the scene before her. Smoke billowed into the air like an angry spirit, expanding in and out as it rose. Orange flames licked the wood and quickly burned it all black. All the small plots of land that had been plowed for crops had been razed, so the air was thick with the smell of tobacco.

"Matteo!? Lenore!? Maisie!?" Luca hollered as they made their approach. The house offered no answers.

The two siblings brought their horses to swift halts and dismounted. In front of the farmhouse was a grisly scene that Holly thought she'd locked deep down in the corners of her mind. A man and a woman lay face down in the grass. They'd both been shot in the back of the head. Blood had accumulated so fast and in such large quantity that it all had simply pooled together. Frozen in place, Holly hardly noticed Luca attempt to approach the house, still screaming for the missing Maisie Robard. She watched as he tried to approach the house, only to halt when the flames became too much to bear.

"Lu, Lu, they're killin' 'em. Those men're killin' 'em. Why? What'd we do?"

"We don't have a choice, Rina. You gotta go, and I gotta stay."

"You're gonna get killed, Lu!"

"I'll find you! Now run!"

"Caterina!"

Holly recoiled at Luca's shout, violently flung from her memories. He was standing over a patch of loose dirt bearing the prints of several horses. There was a dangerous, incensed look in his brown eyes that made it seem as though they were burning right alongside the farm. He whistled for Buckley. "These prints are still fresh," he snarled. When his horse came trotting over, he yanked his repeater free from its holster. "C'mon, Rina. We got some bastardi (bastards) to kill."

She nodded. Luca saddled and spurred Buckley onwards to confront their assailants with the repeater in hand, and Holly made the choice to follow. They rumbled due north, guns in hand. Holly loaded a single shot into her rifle and slid it over her shoulder as they rounded around a small grove of oaks and began climbing the hills. Luca, simmering in his own anger, offered no words. Holly kept Shining Star behind her brother as he led her through the outskirts of Scarlett Meadows and far into the Lemoyne countryside. They flew through the grass at such a swift pace that she wondered if their horses were even touching the ground.

The scream of a young girl shattered the otherwise tranquil air of the fading morning. Holly and Luca jerked the reins of their horses hard, and both of them skittered several feet as they pulled eastwards.

"That's gotta be Maisie," Luca panted as they hurried off in their new direction. "God, those fuckers. What're they doin' with her?"

There was a very simple answer to that question that Holly didn't dare voice.

Another scream. Holly dug her spurs into Shining Star's sides and urged her faster, Luca doing the same. They reached the top of another hill and gazed down at the stretch of country below. Her brother didn't stop, but Holly pulled up just a touch, reaching for her rifle.

Six men barreled for the open country at a breakneck pace on the backs of their mounts. On the rump of the leader's horse was a girl, all tied up. If her writhing and squirming told her anything, she was still putting up a Hell of a fight. She couldn't throw herself from the back of the horse without being trampled by the men behind her, but even at this distance, Holly felt a rush of respect at her continued struggles.

"Hold on, Maisie," Holly whispered to herself, "We're comin'."

Luca shouted as he charged the back of the Winslow posse. Half of them turned, but only one of them pulled back to engage him. Holly, concurrently, brought Shining Star down the slope around the left to flank. With one last glance at her brother (who was firing his repeater with a ferocity that was surely making the fool who went back for him regret that decision), Holly brought the gun up, aimed for the closest man, and fired.

Her bullet missed, kicking up a puff of dust where it struck the hard ground. Holly kicked Shining Star to gain more ground and fired again, this time striking the closest man in the shoulder. He shrieked as the impact jerked him hard enough to unbalance him. The leading man glanced back, taking sight of her as Holly reloaded and fired for another of his men. She got that one in the head; red rained down as he crashed to the ground. Maisie screamed again.

"Fuck, fuck!" Holly heard someone shout but she wasn't sure who. The three that remained all began to pick up their pace, but not before one of them was peppered with bullets. Luca had rejoined the attack— Holly quickly turned behind her and saw the bloody corpses of the Winslow rider who'd engaged him, as well as his horse, sprawled over the ground.

Luca and Holly fell in side by side as the Winslow party dwindled down to two riders. Maisie was screaming as though her lungs would simply not run out of air. With a small nod, the final lackey drew back, leveling a shotgun. Recognition hit her, and Holly ducked behind Shining Star's neck and yanked the reins as a deafening blast of gunfire narrowly missed where her body had been a moment before. But curse her luck, she'd leaned too far sideways. Shining Star neighed and jerked back. With a yell, Holly slipped from the saddle and landed hard. As she blindly rushed to pick herself off the ground, her boots scrambling for a purchase in the dirt, the man fired his shotgun again, this time at her brother. Luca grunted. Buckley nickered. Horse hooves battered the ground, and from the corner of her eye, Holly watched her brother ride hard as he gave chase to the leading man, still making his break with Maisie.

Holly spat grass out of her mouth and glanced up in time to see the Winslow rider start to give chase, reconsider, then turn around to finish her off. Eyes sliding up the barrel of his gun, she moved instinctively. The world slowed down. She drew her pistol as the man brought the shotgun up.

A small memory clicked into place in the back of her head. Holly brought her bad hand up to the hammer. She inhaled. Fanning the hammer back, she unloaded the entire cylinder without much of a thought for aiming. At least four shots got the rider in the chest or the stomach, and he went limp as his horse, now unguided, careened past Holly. She exhaled, watching. The body slumped sideways into the mud, the unfired shotgun still clutched in his stiff hand. Holly retrieved her fallen Stetson, holstered her pistol, and whistled for Shining Star just as another shot rang out in the distance.

It was a full-on gallop to her brother, who'd gotten some couple hundred yards ahead of her in the time it'd taken to down the final goon. She pulled up next to him as struggled to reload his repeater, cursing.

"What happened?" Holly demanded, caught up in the fervor.

Luca swore as a bullet slipped from his sweaty hands. "Shot the horse. Didn't shoot him," he spat out. Holly glanced up. The leader of the posse—well, the former leader of the posse—had abandoned his dead horse and was making a break for it with a thrashing and hysterical Maisie Robard draped over his shoulder. Holly remained for a heartbeat, watching her brother struggle and watching the Winslow man get further and further out of range, and then she couldn't bear it any longer. She kicked Shining Star into a canter, taking both hands off the reins in order to bring her rifle up.

She aimed. She had a clear shot of the man's head. Maisie's head bobbed with each step. It would've been quite easy. Quite quick. But Holly didn't take that shot.

A primal fury closed its' hands around Holly's heart. Burning like the fire that still was roaring through the Robard's home, that had burned through her own home. Images of her family flashed through her head.

She could take the easy shot, but why should she?

The world slowed down again.

Holly brought the rifle down ever so slightly, to the man's leg.

She fired.

The Winslow man released Maisie as he went down. His squeal of pain could've been heard from across state lines. He dropped like a stone in a river, writhing in pain and clawing at his now-ruined kneecap.

Heart pounding, Holly dismounted and sprinted for Maisie. The poor girl, with fair hair and a round face that was covered in ash and blood, was still sobbing her sorrows as Holly slid in next to her, knife at the ready. She didn't look hurt or…like that, but her skirt and apron were both singed and there were burns up and down her arms and neck. She also had a black eye; perhaps a reward courtesy of the Winslow man for all the screaming that'd saved her life. Holly took a second to look her up and down, but when she couldn't see anything that needed immediate medical attention, she moved to cut Maisie's bindings away from her wrists. Behind them, the Winslow man continued to struggle and scream and swear his way through the pain, yet no one gave him even the lowly benefit of their attention.

Maisie took sight of the hunting knife in her hands and sobbed harder. Holly backed off, her anger melting down into an enervating sort of empathy that tasted like salt on the tip of her tongue.

"it's alright, Maisie," her voice couldn't go above a whisper. "My name's Holly. Luca's my brother. You're safe now. We ain't gonna hurt you."

She gave it a couple more seconds, then tried again. Maisie didn't shrink back this time; she soundlessly observed as Holly sawed away the bindings on her wrists, then the ones on her ankles. The shreds of rope fell away, bit by bit.

Holly sheathed her knife. "I'm…" she broke off, overwrought for a moment. And for a moment, just a moment, the two of them were drowning together. Bowing her head, Holly murmured, "I'm so sorry. I am."

Maisie, brown eyes brimming with fresh tears, threw herself on Holly's shoulder and began bawling once more. Holly held her without complaint, rubbing circles in her back. Luca had been wrong, because Maisie couldn't've been older than fourteen, maybe fifteen. And here they were, one holding a stranger as they cried, the other wordlessly understanding. Holly'd been there time and time again with comforting her sisters. It was like something out of when she'd been a kid.

A moment of clarity brought Hollys' thoughts to a screeching halt. Maisie hiccupped, tears cutting tracks in the dirt and soot that marred her face.

Like something out of when they were kids?

They were still kids.

Where was the justice in that?

And there it was again. That burning, raw bit of rage that'd formed a hot fist in her chest. Holly sat there on her knees, stewing. And the more she stewed, the angrier she became.

"Anythin' to say?"

Luca had approached the Winslow man while Holly'd been taking care of Maisie. Shotgun in hand, he'd placed a foot onto the outlaw's wound and pressed, earning groan of pain.

Holly reacted quickly, "Lu!"

Her brother turned, surprise making his eyebrows shoot up. Her attention darted back to Maisie for the quickest of moments, and Luca seemed to get the message in her pointed stare. To compensate, he pressed his heel down harder. The Winslow man's groan turned into something more guttural, and his good leg kicked uselessly as he tried to free himself.

"Killin' him here's too good for him," Holly spat. "I say we bring the bastard in and let him swing."

Luca agreed. From Buckley, he retrieved a length of rope and began binding the man's hands and ankles. With Holly's help, Maisie managed to stand, albeit on wobbly feet and supported on Holly's shoulder.

"You got anywhere to go? Somewhere far?" Holly forced herself to be as gentle as she could, but it was hard: so, so hard. Fury was making her shake like a leaf caught in a gale, and she fought hard to retrain herself.

Maisie's crying didn't cease. Holly knew it wouldn't. She waited. Quietly, she took Maisie's hand in her bad one, and for a few moments they just stood there, hand in hand. Sobs turned into gasps and then to sniffles as Maisie fought to think properly in order to answer Holly's question.

Finally, Maisie nodded. "My ma's friend. She moved to—" she hiccupped once again, "—she moved t-to Des Moines. Said we'd…we'd always be w-welcome."

Her voice had a strong drawl that reminded her of Arthur's or Karen's. It was the sound of a kid who was born and raised in the bosom of the country, who knew of the land she was born on and didn't know nothing of the land that'd gotten her parents killed.

Holly felt sick.

"There's trains outta Saint Denis that can get her there," Holly turned to her brother as he jumped into the conversation. He was putting the finishing touches on the Winslow man's restraints. The fellow in question grunted aloud as Luca knotted the rope too tightly.

Holly shook her head, "We gotta get her outta state. No tellin' where Winslow and the rest of his lot are. Emerald Station ain't too far off. That's the safer bet."

After a moment, Luca nodded his agreement. "You good to take her?" he asked before whistling for Buckley.

"Can you?" Holly inquired. She stood and brought Maisie up with her. The girl stood precariously, so Holly then offered her shoulder for balance. "Folk 'round camp'll miss me if I'm gone too long with no explanation," she reminded him.

The stare Luca gave her was slightly dismissive, but he relented without complaint. Not without one last kick to the Winslow man's side, but he relented. "You sure you're good to take this bastard in?"

"One wrong move, and he'll wish I put that bullet in his head when I was still feelin' charitable."

"Fuck you," the man grit out.

A swift boot to the head was all it took to quiet him. "Chiudete il vostro becco fottuto (shut your fucking mouth)," Luca snarled.

Their prisoner remained unconscious, making it far easier for the siblings to hoist him onto the back of Shining Star. Luca saddled himself and extended a hand for Maisie. She situated herself on Buckley's rump, bloodied and messy, and buried herself into Luca's back. Holly held her hand in her own for the briefest of seconds in shared sadness before letting go.

Holly dug through her satchel and pulled out some money, giving Luca twenty dollars. "Make sure she goes somewhere safe," she said.

Luca's nod was a weight removed from her chest, "Nothin'll hurt her when I'm with her." His eyes strayed to the man on the back of Holly's own horse, "And you promise me that that motherfucker swings."

"Io prometto. Stay safe."

"You too, Rina."

She remained for a minute while Luca and Maisie rode westward back to New Hanover. Buckley brought the pair of them around a copse and up a rise before they disappeared. Holly only returned for Shining Star when their shapes had vanished over the horizon. Mounting and sparing a single glance at the body behind her, Holly spurred her horse and made for Rhodes.

Ten-ish minutes of peace were broken from the pained sounds of the Winslow man stirring. He said nothing until Holly prompted him, "You gotta name, mister?"

"Fuck off," he growled, voice heavy with pain.

"That ain't quite nice," Holly said, rage giving her an edge to her voice. "You go and kill that girls' parents, burn down her house, try and kidnap her? And you ain't even gonna give me the decency of a name?"

There were the sounds of something shifting in back. Holly slowed down ever so slightly to reach behind her and yank her prisoner back in place.

As they made to continue, the man retorted, "You broke my fucking leg, you crazy bitch."

"Yeah? Give me a name and I'll convince the Sheriff of Rhodes not to break your other one for stealin' a fourteen-year-old girl outta her home and makin' her an orphan."

The sound of Shining Star's quick gait was, for the moment, the only answer Holly received. Then, he mumbled something. "Hm?" Holly questioned.

"Samuel Boone."

"A pleasure, Mr. Boone," When Boone didn't grace her with a reply, Holly prattled on, "You run with that Logan Winslow feller?"

"So what if I do?"

"I heard'a your kind: your gang. You folk been doin' a lotta disgraceful things 'cross the state these past couple'a years. Y'all make O'Driscolls look benevolent, and believe me, that's sayin' a lot."

"I don't gotta take smack from you," Boone sneered, "You're nothing but a dago-loving cunt if you were following that dirty ginzo bastard with the—"

Growing more irate by the second, Holly didn't bother to let him finish, "Forgive my joke, Mr. Boone, but you ain't got much of a leg to stand on by insultin' my brother like that," she said evenly.

There was a bit of a lengthy pause as Boone absorbed her words. Right as Rhodes appeared in the distance, it seemed to click together for him, "Your—?"

Holly unholstered her revolver, gripped it by the barrel, and brought the handle down hard on Boone's face. He slumped over, unconscious once more with a mottled purple and yellow bruise blossoming across his eye. Sliding her gun back into her holster, Holly curled her lip at the sight and continued onwards.

Boone didn't wake as she approached the sheriff's office. Sheriff Gray, a sturdy man with a big mustache (and, if Arthur's words rang at all true, an even bigger ego), was enjoying an afternoon cigar with his deputy and several others when Holly came trotting up. They were also passing around a bottle of bourbon; one of his deputies had it up to his mouth as she approached and choked on his drink, splashing them all with wasted liquor.

She dismounted with a nod and grabbed Boone, yanking him off Shining Star with such vigor that the impact of his fall brought him back to consciousness. He coughed and curled in on himself right there on the road, moaning. Several men, including the sheriff, approached Boone. One of the fellow's cigars burned slowly, forgotten in between its owners' teeth.

"Good afternoon, Sheriff Gray," Holly greeted him with as chipper a voice as she could muster, "I was wonderin' if you might've had an outstandin' bounty on one Mister Samuel Boone, of the Winslow Gang?"

From the way Sheriff Gray was eyeing her, her must've thought her a muskrat suddenly blessed with the fine gift of human speech. Nevertheless, he motioned to one of his deputies—a lanky man with hair so blond his mother might as well've named him "Towhead"; "Archibald, go check the remainin' bounties in the desk," he murmured. After Archibald nodded and departed, the sheriff's gaze flew from Boone, still writhing at their boots, back to her, "And who on Earth might you be?"

"'Fraid I ain't no one, sir," Holly said. "In the eyes of our good Lord, I guess all I am's a good Samaritan."

Chapter Text

"Samuel Boone, the authority of Rhodes hereby sentences you to hang for your crimes."

Holly, from her vantage point on the other side of the street, exhaled. It was a forgone conclusion but one that came as a relief nonetheless. Boone had been standing there for the past ten minutes, flanked on either side by Sheriff Gray's men. That noose was made for his neck for how quickly and easily it slipped on. Boone stood (well, sort of; they hadn't offered him a crutch, and so he went through his trial on one good leg and wobbled on it all throughout) silent. In the eyes of the crowd of thirty or so that'd gathered below, it might've been penance, but Holly only considered it cowardice. He knew he wasn't going to get salvation and that he certainly didn't deserve it. His silence was nothing more than a wall to hide behind.

Regardless, Sheriff Gray stepped back respectfully and let the pastor read him his last rites. A hard wind came blowing in from the south, kicking up the jackets and skirts of the crowd. Holly glowered at Boone as she leaned on the walls of the saloon, waiting for him to look her in the eye one last time.

He never did.

Holly found it impossible to tell if she was disappointed or not.

Soon, the pastor closed the Bible and nodded. Sheriff Gray acknowledged him wordlessly, moving to grab the lever. "Do you have any final words, Boone?" he asked.

Boone, eyes fixed on his feet, said nothing.

"Then may God have mercy on your soul."

Sheriff Gray pulled the lever and so ended the ugly life of Samuel Boone. The platform fell away from under his feet. The crack of Boone's neck snapping like a bundle of twigs resounded through the mostly-empty town. Some observers cheered, others winced, and a couple turned away entirely. Holly saw nothing except for Boone's legs as they kicked uselessly in the air for a moment, then fell still.

One by one, the crowd dispersed, hushed whispers and words of assurance filling the eerie silence. Sheriff Gray and his men moved to cut Boone's corpse down from the gallows. With little else for her to do, Holly pushed herself off the wall she'd been leaning on and trudged down the road for the train station. The town was still, as though still asleep in bed, and not much else around stirred despite the sun climbing ever higher in the sky.

They'd offered her credit. Holly refused to take it. Instead, they just gave her the two hundred and fifty dollars he was worth and sent her on her way. That money sat like a brick in the bottom of Holly's satchel, who hadn't the faintest clue what she was going to do with it. But that was an ant-sized problem compared to the behemoth that had arisen before her in the past day and a half.

The state of Lemoyne had indeed issued a bounty for Boone, but not just him. Boone was but a single face of the Winslow Gang. When the authorities had offered her the remainder of their bounty posters, Holly took Boone's, as well as the other three, and spent the night outside of Clemens' Point pouring over their names, their faces, their crimes. Searing them into her head now that she had men to pin to her family's murder.

Samuel Boone. Twenty-nine years of age. Formerly, the scout. With a horse that was described by the authorities to be able to outrun cougars, he was the one called upon for searching areas and gathering information about potential targets. Any he wanted to sack for himself, he simply did so. He'd been wanted on nine counts of arson and seven counts of murder, and that was just by his own hands. Caught by a John Doe and hung for his crimes in the small town of Rhodes, Lemoyne.

Clarence Deschamps. Thirty-seven years of age. The brawn. Some rumors stated he was as wide as a steer, while others thought him to be as tall as two grown men put together. Official reports had him at six foot seven, and strong enough to pick up men with one hand and throw them through their own doors. Another stated he'd broken so many arms that he'd earned the nickname of "The Doctor" among his fellow gang members. He was wanted on ten counts of arson, three counts of murder, and eight counts of assault.

Earnest Serrier. Forty-seven years of age. The mind. He was the brains behind most of the Winslow Gang's exploits— the planner, the poet, the intellectual. What he lacked in youth, he made up for in smarts. He always seeming to know the comings and goings of the law and moved the gang accordingly. The key reason that the Winslow Gang was untraceable, it made him invaluable…and a target. He was wanted on four counts of arson, one count of murder, two counts of extortion, and six counts of bribery.

Logan Winslow. Thirty-four years of age. The leader. No one knew much about his origins or his motives. He was a face in the crowd to some, a phantom to others. Coming in the middle of the night to kill and burn, leaving cinders scattered in his wake. Just looking at his face again made the contents of Holly's stomach curdle. Wanted on twelve counts of arson and eighteen counts of murder.

The Winslow Gang's leaders, in their entirety. Motives: unknown. Leads: none. Most recent sighting: unknown.

Holly had burned Boone's poster and stashed the rest of them. Sleep didn't come that night. She just stared up at the twinkling stars above her and pondered what her next move was, not expecting the sky to offer answers. She found herself, not for the first time, desperately wishing her brother was there. Just to have someone to talk to.

Holly's boots were covered in a generous layer of red dust from wandering down the road. The day was fairly calm, and still fairly young. The thought of going back to camp to do chores and hold her tongue didn't appeal to her in the slightest. At the same time, the idea of searching for things to do or waiting for her brother to get back from Emerald Station wasn't a much better option. There was leftover anger simmering in some cavity in her chest that Holly supposed needed to be drained, else it'd fester. But her list of distractions and releases were either sit around all day and feel guilty about it, or go back to camp and baste in her own bad choices.

Heaving a sigh so bitter it surprised even her, Holly kicked a bit of dust up with her boot. A red cloud caught the wind and tumbled over the street.

"Hey!"

Startled, Holly turned at the unexpected sound of her own name.

John was picking himself up off the porch of the general store, tossing the apple he'd been eating over his shoulder and into the bushes. His pace was somewhat hurried as he met her in the street, as though afraid she'd turn tail and try to run from him. Holly studied the quickly-fading scars on his face as he neared, bracing herself for something biting. But John's trademark snark never came. "Where you been?" he asked her, and Holly found the question nosier than anything, strangely enough.

Holly forced herself to stop instinctively bristling. She shrugged, offered a simple "'Round," and offered no indication that she'd elaborate.

Luckily, John seemed to get the message. "You feeling alright?" he asked, tone deceivingly nonchalant.

Holly blinked. Oh, so, we're on speakin' terms again? she thought sardonically. Swallowing her animosity down, she shrugged. "I'm fine. Just stopped to see the commotion," she gave her excuse, then added, "Why you askin'?"

"Just curious. Hangings and all that stuff's a bit violent for kids."

"I ain't a kid, John."

John looked like he wanted to say something but for once in his life he had the conscious sense not to. Holly breathed hard through her nose, not much caring to look him in the eyes. "Is that all?" she pressed, "Or is this just gonna be you scoldin' and me apologizin'?"

"I ain't scolding you. Folk around camp've been wondering where you've been is all," John said mildly.

Guess that settled it. The anger in her chest cooled a bit, turning into something more akin to disappointment. "S'pose I'll head back, then," she muttered, waving a halfhearted farewell. "I'll see you back at camp, John."

"Before you go," John said before she could lumber back to her horse, "…Can I speak to you?"

Holly turned, giving him a hard stare. "About?" she barked, irritation making the question staccato more than she'd intended.

The look John gave her, stunned and confused, made Holly instantly regret her freshness with him. "Folk've told you about Blackwater, right?" John asked, his tone abnormally amiable. Holly, puzzled and mortified to the point of docility, nodded.

John's shoulders rose and fell in a silent sigh. "I got shot durin' that whole mess. Then I got separated from the rest. Spent two whole days lost in the cold with a bum arm, wondering if I were gonna make it outta there. And then wolves came, used me as a chew toy for a little bit," John made a vague motion towards his scars. "I sat on this cliffside up in the Grizzlies, wondering if I'd end up dying as an icicle. Least if I did, the view'd've been nice. But Arthur came for me. We hadn't been seeing eye to eye much. Made fun of me until I thought he'd wear his tongue out. Not to mention his bedside manner. Called me an idiot and a moron and a dumbass and just about everything between...but still, he came for me in the end."

Holly furrowed her brows. This time, John's sigh was audible. He crossed his arms and worked the heel of his boot into the dirt.

"I guess, what I'm trying to say is thank you."

Well, that wasn't what she was expecting. Holly was so caught off guard that she forgot herself for several seconds. "You don't gotta thank me," the words tumbled out in a confused heap.

John just shrugged. "I ain't been real fair to you over the past few months," he said. "S'pose I thought you were gonna be nothing but dead weight we'd have to lug. Some days, I still think it. But you risked your neck to get Arthur back to camp, and that means something in my book. So, thank you, and I'm sorry."

In any other situation, Holly would've accepted his words with a nod and some reassurance. This was not one of those situations. "You smack your head on somethin' this morning, John?" she asked, rather bluntly.

To her amazement, John took it in good humor. "Sure seems like it, don't it?" he replied.

This was brand-new waters for her to tread. Holly had never heard John apologize for something, not once. She'd had an ear open to more arguments between him and Abigail than she'd cared to count in the time she'd spent with the gang and the words "I'm sorry" had never once left his mouth. She'd once heard Uncle describe him as the mule of the van der Lindes: hardworking, determined, a little homely, but so stubborn he could stare down a mountain until it crumbled into dust. Only recently had Holly seen a different side of him. But, in a moment of self-reproach, she realized that maybe she'd been a bit stubborn too. Only focusing on the silence, on the distance, on what she had seen with her own two eyes. Not focusing on the roots, only the thorns.

"You don't gotta thank me. I mean it," Holly insisted before John could argue with her. "If you were in that position, I'd've done the same for you. Honest."

A chuckle slipped out from him, "If I were bein' saved by some kid, I think I'd rather Colm O'Driscoll just put a bullet in my head."

"Hey, that ain't fair! You can't say you're sorry one second and then start makin' fun of me the next."

"You need thicker skin, Monroe."

"You need better insults, Marston."

"Fuck you."

"Go jump off a cliff."

And they laughed together, maybe for the very first time.

"You're a real piece of work, you know that?" John shot back at her as he wandered off towards the gunsmith's, "Some days, I think Morgan should've just left you in those woods."

Unable to muster up a good retort (okay, so that was a bit of a fib; the response she did have was too cruel even for his standards), Holly stuck her tongue out at his retreating figure but John didn't turn and acknowledge it. He disappeared into the gunsmith's and didn't reappear. Watching him go, Holly felt a smile creeping up her face, her chest already feeling lighter than it had all day.

It only got lighter once she reached the train station and caught sight of Arthur out of camp for the first time in weeks.

He stood in brand new clothes—Holly recalled chipping in a couple of bucks one night to a camp fund to get Arthur a new outfit as a gift for all the suffering he'd gone through on that cot—in the small park near the train station, hands crossed over his chest as he spoke with some ragged fellow on a bench. As Holly approached, the man lay back down, mumbling to himself about something or another. Arthur just watched on in pitiable silence, shaking his head.

"So, they finally let you leave?" Holly announced her arrival.

Arthur started, then gave her a faux-withering look. Holly noted that he was clean-shaven, and someone had given his hair a trim. "After all this time. It's a miracle they didn't bury me," it was said in jest, sure, but Holly couldn't help the hidden, involuntary cringe at the notion.

Instead, she asked, "How's your shoulder?"

At her words, Arthur flexed it. "S'good," he said. "Still sore."

"I can imagine."

"You doin' much right now, kid?"

For the first time that day, Holly felt something other than resentment, bitterness, or confusion. She practically jumped at the opportunity; "Not at all. Why, you gotta lead?"

Scratching at the back of his neck, Arthur explained, "More of an errand."

"…For?"

Arthur's gaze dropped, and Holly's followed it. The man on the bench gave a pathetic belch, causing a little bit to slobber out. Holly's excitement vanished like a match getting snuffed out.

"Time…time is Hell…" the man murmured to no one in particular, his fingers circling the rim of a bourbon bottle. Holly considered the idea that he was so drunk, he didn't much care who he was speaking to, nor if anyone was listening.

"I'll explain on the way," Arthur said, placing a hand on her shoulder and leading her over to the hitching posts. He sounded just as jaded as she felt.

Already a fantastic start.

-X-

Holly, tongue between her teeth, focused on picking the rusted-over lock and tried to disregard the musty smell of moth-eaten curtains and termite droppings. "Y'know, when you said you had an errand to run, this weren't exactly what I had in mind, Arthur," she complained without looking up from her work.

Arthur's 'errand', as it turned out, was a bit less of a favor to some old man down on his luck and more of a breaking and entering. North of Scarlett Meadows was a dilapidated manor named Compson's Stead. The place had seen far better days: the roof had half-caved in on the second floor, the windows had been boarded up, the grass around the house was wildly overgrown and overrun with weeds of all kinds, and the barn in the backyard must've recently burned down, leaving nothing but a blackened husk of ashes and cinders behind. In Holly's opinion, a house that derelict had no earthly business allowing anyone near it. As it turned out, she was partially right—a notice on the front door stated that the house had been reclaimed by the Bank of Rhodes almost four years ago, and it clearly weren't drawing in a lot of buyers. Arthur tried the doorknob anyway, and to neither of their surprise it was locked tight.

Holly figured that would be the end of it. Maybe she'd just forgotten that she hadn't gone on a job with him for a while, because Arthur and the concept of giving up paired together about as well as oil and water. So here they were, on the back porch of an abandoned homestead, with Holly trying to pick her way through years' worth of tarnish and rust in order to just make it inside.

Arthur, posted as lookout, snorted. He leaned more of his weight against the support beam but quit it when the wood gave a very audible groan. "Get off my ass, kid," Arthur grumped.

"Just sayin'," Holly muttered, just before she gave one final twist of the nail file. The lock clicked. When Holly tested the door, it opened, but only very slightly. Holly threw her shoulder against it and growled aloud when it barely budged.

Arthur joined her upon seeing her struggle with the door. He gave it a test shove of his own, and when that didn't work, he motioned her over. "On three," he said. "One, two—"

Together, Holly and Arthur slammed their shoulders into the door. Their combined efforts managed to punch the back entrance open wide, nearly taking it off its rusted hinges. Old crates clattered to the ground. For a moment, Holly couldn't see or breathe through the amount of dust they'd kicked up, and she drew her neckerchief over her face to avoid getting a mouth full of it. Arthur wasn't as lucky; he doubled over and began coughing so hard that Holly became convinced he was trying to sneeze his lungs out through his nose.

"You good?" Holly asked once the dust had settled somewhat and Arthur had managed to get upright again.

Arthur took off his hat and fanned the remainder of the dust away with it, expression sour. "I'm fine, I'm fine. You worry too much," was all he said.

"I've been watchin' you die in a bed for the last three weeks," Holly shot back, only half-joking, "Excuse me for showin' any concern for your well-bein'."

Arthur brushed past her, rolling his eyes. Holly fell a pace behind him as Arthur pushed the broken door further out of their way. They entered Compson's Stead, light struggling to stream between the cracks in the boarded-up windows and painting thin stripes of sunlight over the floorboards and walls. The wood creaked with each step they took, giving off the feeling that the entire house was alive. Holly felt the hair on her arms and neck stand straight up.

"We're lookin' for an old watch, a pistol, and some sorta ledger," Arthur said, already sifting through the bookshelves.

Nodding, Holly left him to his devices and scanned the area behind him. They'd entered the house into some sort of kitchen. Tarnished pots and pans stood forgotten on the shelves, their lids scattered about. Someone had busted the window from the outside in, so glass crunched underfoot with each step Holly took. She quickly bent down and scanned the shelves for any of the things Arthur had mentioned but nothing stood out to her.

"This place's been abandoned for years," Holly remarked as she searched a pot, "What's the chance someone's already found 'em and made off with 'em?"

"High," Arthur said, now pulling an old can of beans out from a cabinet.

Holly made a face and stood up, coming face to face with a faded daguerreotype hanging on the wall. Curious, Holly removed it from the hook. The man shown bore a resemblance to that old fellow on the bench, though younger and far better put together. He was joined by his wife, and a child that looked no older than Baby Rosie. Holly flipped the daguerreotype over and read the small note on the back.

June seventh, 1855

Dear sir,

Please accept this likeness of your family as a small token of appreciation for your assistance in the recovery of my Property.

Like your ol' Pa, you're a cunning old dog, and a credit to this community.

Yours,

Col. Joshua Nixon, The Ascension Plantation

Something odd struck out about that note. Holly's eyes strayed back to 'Property'. With a capital 'P'. What were those? Prim nouns or proper nouns or something like that? The rest seemed correct but this was a strange mistake if she'd ever seen one. Holly refrained from falling in too deep of a rabbit hole, and set the photo down before she began picturing all the grammar lessons she'd ever received. In the back of her mind, she made a point to ask Hosea about the proper forms of capitalization when she returned to camp.

In the meantime, Arthur had grabbed another framed photo and was staring at it intently. Seeing her looking at him, he wordlessly turned the frame towards Holly; a child had scribbled Jeremiah Compson's likeness, as well as that of his dog. She handed the framed photo of Compson's family over, and let him look at over as well as she turned and wandered into what must've once been the living room.

A mess of mint green and sunflower yellow décor met Holly's eyes with the force of a charging bull. In her opinion, the living room looked worse for wear than the kitchen. The wallpaper, it's glue ancient and rendered ineffective, was peeling down the walls in chunks. Curtains were faded and ripped, not even stirring in the gloom. An old frame hung over the fireplace, the painting it contained long stolen probably before they'd even set foot in the state. Holly made her way around the overturned table towards the back corner of the room. There, by a small shelf lined with empty cans and sitting on an old stool, was a letter.

Holly unfolded the letter and read it slowly. She heard Arthur enter the room and head towards the fireplace but she didn't acknowledge him, nor he her.

April second, 1870

Dear Mr. Compson,

I'm afraid there's no more work for you down here at the plantation. I'm grateful for the help you've given us, and the help your pappy and your pappy's pappy gave us before you. These are trying times for all of us. You are in our thoughts and prayers.

Yours truly,

Col. J. Nixon, The Ascension Plantation.

The Ascension Plantation. That was the second time she'd read those words today. Under her breath, she sounded out the letters to make sure she wasn't mistaken.

Holly knew that name.

"Here's the watch," Arthur's exclamation marked an end to Holly's reading. She glanced up in time to see Arthur pluck a discolored and rather gross-looking pocket watch off the mantle. When he shook it, there was a small clinking sound that made it seem like one of the hands had snapped off and was rattling around under the glass. It only made Holly undyingly appreciative of her own beautiful silver pocket watch.

Arthur showed Holly the watch and then pocketed it, yet his satisfied expression fell somewhat when he caught sight of her troubled one, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. It's just…" she handed the letter over, then made to inspect the cabinet against the front wall. "It's that name. The Ascension Plantation. I know it from somewhere, and I can't remember where."

Arthur was rummaging through the secretary desk next to the stairs now. He pulled his knife out and used it to wedge one of the drawers open. "God, where is all this old crap?" he grumbled, sticking a hand inside.

The stairs were too destroyed to climb, so Holly decided to search the final room on the first floor. This room was reasonably cleaner, with all the trash and splinters and debris swept back against the walls. Liquor bottles now joined the collection of cans, tins, and cups that were littered throughout the house. A discolored red sofa stood against the back wall (two old yellow bedrolls lay at the foot of it, but Holly couldn't tell who's they were and how long they'd been there), with another fireplace nearby.

Holly stepped over the old carpet, intent on searching the cushions and bedrolls, but stopped when something squeaked underfoot. She furrowed her brow and worked her heel down into the rug. The wood underneath bounced, like it was loose and there was nothing underneath it.

"Hey, Arthur, come here for a minute and help me move this rug!" Holly hollered over her shoulder.

Arthur emerged from the other room with nothing else to show for it. Together, they grabbed the edges of the carpet and pulled it back. A trapdoor, shut tight with a padlock, had been hidden beneath it. A wave of trepidation swept through her. What would a feller need a trapdoor for?

Before she could ask, there was a small chuckle from the other side of the house.

Holly and Arthur whipped around as two sweaty and haggard looking men entered the room. Her eyes darted from the abandoned bedrolls and back, understanding clicking into place. One of the men was leveling a pistol at Arthur but it was unlike any Holly'd ever seen before. It seemed to have a wooden—albeit very old and slightly rotting—frame, and it was amazing how the gun's hammer could even be operated through all the rust and tarnish.

"What you doin' here?" the one with the gun sneered, "We found this place first."

"Easy. We're just lookin' around for some things," Arthur said, starting to raise his arms. After a beat, he asked, "That old revolver yours?"

The man's smile grew wicked, "Finders keepers."

And without fair warning, he pulled the trigger.

Something jerked hard in Holly's ribs, as if someone had reached in and pulled them out a mile before letting go and snapping it back into place one by one.

He'd only just gotten better. He'd only just gotten better and he'd only just managed to survive and now here they were, another madman with a gun staring back at them and shooting without consequence. And what good would all the riding and the shooting and the killing and the stuffing it all deep, deep down have been for if she couldn't even go a day, a day, without having to watch someone die and not being able to lift a finger about it?

Holly felt flames licking her. The rage in her chest simmered, bubbled, boiled over. Heat coursed through her and drowned all other sensations out. It was as if her entire body had immolated itself where it stood.

How many times would she have to see this without being able to do a thing to stop it!? How many times would Holly have to sit back and let this shit happen!? What was it about her that God decided to make her life so fucking unfair!?

She hardly even noticed nor cared that Arthur didn't collapse with a new bullet wound. In fact, the pistol just clicked uselessly in the squatter's hands. He tried it again, and another time, yet Holly just felt her fury double with each attempt he made to shoot Arthur point blank.

The man with the pistol had since lowered it, cursing. His friend was fumbling around for the knife on his belt, "Come o—"

That was as far as he got before Holly grew sick of the hullabaloo unfolding before her. She drew her revolver and fired, an odd ringing in her ears. Her first shot nailed the squatter in the chest, though he had little chance to cry out in pain before her next shot got him through the cheek. His friend's expression was still changing from smug to horrified when Holly rounded on him and shot him too, and he collapsed over the floorboards with a bullet straight through his forehead.

Arthur recoiled backwards as Holly holstered her revolver with a sigh. She stepped over the body of the nearest squatter and started rifling through the other man's coat pockets. She then picked up the old pistol, turned to toss to Arthur, but faltered. He was staring at her, expression closed. Standing, Holly returned his stare, "What?"

He merely scrutinized her, far too intense for her liking. A look of confliction passed over his features. "You feelin' alright, kid?" Arthur asked.

Like a dam breaking, all of Holly's collected anger surged out of her.

She whipped around, a tirade brewing on her tongue. "Why does everyone keep askin' me that!?" she demanded. "I'm fine. Ain't got nothin' wrong with me except for a buncha morons bargin' in and actin' like they own this…" in her frustration, she kicked the limp body of one squatter, "…this goddamn pile of twigs and piss!"

Arthur answered her with an explicit edge to his voice, "You just shot two fellers in cold blood and now you're kickin' their corpses!?"

"They was gonna pull knives on you!" Holly shot back, defiant.

"Don't mean ya go 'round puttin' bullets in folk that rub ya the wrong way."

"You consider bein' shot at and held at knifepoint 'gettin' rubbed the wrong way!?'"

"That's—" Arthur stopped to pinch the bridge of his nose and groan, "That ain't the fuckin' point, Holly."

Holly snorted. "You gotta lotta nerve lecturin' to me about moral righteousness, Arthur," she growled under her breath as she pilfered through the pockets of the second body.

She could feel his stare searing holes in her back, "What's gotten into ya today?"

"I'm tired."

"You're actin' like Marston. And yeah, ya should be takin' that in the worst way possible."

Holly stood up and tossed Arthur a bill clip. He caught it with one hand, his face dark. "Guess I'm just not in the mood to get preached at," was her hot response.

She was about to turn back towards the other room when Arthur caught her on the bicep.

"You're tired. You don't wanna get preached at," Arthur mocked. Holly grunted and made an attempt to twist herself out of his grip but it was like he'd strapped a handcuff onto her arm. "He's some preachin' for ya, kid. I didn't bring ya all the way out here so ya could stomp your feet and act like a spoiled brat who don't know how to behave herself. You wanna keep actin' like this? Be my goddamn guest. But if I hear one more word outta ya, I'm gonna make sure Grimshaw'll keep ya in camp scrubbin' union suits for a month. Understand?"

Glaring daggers at him, Holly nodded. Arthur released her, then pointed to the padlock, "Now, Miss. Monroe, would ya kindly pick this lock so we can put this mess behind us."

Insides coiling with anger and shame, Holly retrieved her nail file and bent down over the padlock. Several silent, agonizing seconds of silent work later, the lock clicked open. Holly threw open the door harder than she'd intended, rusted hinges shrieking. Arthur glared at her but didn't say anything about it. She fell behind him, eyes firmly on her shoes, as they descended into the basement.

Arthur took the lantern off the wall and lit one of his matches to work it. A musty glow filled the room, and both of them came to a halt at the foot of the stairs as they finally got a good look at Compson's cellar.

"Shit," Arthur said aloud, and it didn't take much to see what had driven him to that choice word so fast.

Ropes and chains hung like vines from the ceiling. Planks of wood had been hammered into the stone, with rusted shackles and cuffs bolted into them. Dark patches of what sure looked like but Holly was hoping wasn't blood were scattered about periodically over the floors. Even now, the cellar still stunk of human waste and rotted food, to the point that Holly actually tied her neckerchief around her face to spare herself of the worst of it. Arthur drew his bandana up around his own nose, examining a wall of old boards suspended from the roof that could've only been Hell's version of beds. Holly snapped back to attention and nearly shrieked as a rat scampered across her boot and vanished in between a crack in the stones.

Anxious to find this ledger and get the hell out of here, Holly's eyes fell on a book with a red cover sitting on a desk. She took it and flipped to a random page, hoping for answers.

Well that's that. I was somewhere near Rhodes when they caught me. 'Til the day I die, I ain't gonna forget the sound of that dog barking at my heels. But I don't suppose that day going be far off yet.

It was fifty lashings yesterday and fifty more to come. I don't think I can take any more. Man said he was doing his job. Funny kind of employment, if you ask me, but I suppose you ain't.

Light's fading, so that's it for now. I do hope I live to see the end of this war, and justice win out.

June '64.

Holly stared at the entry. This wasn't a ledger she was holding. It was a diary. Her eyes strayed up towards the shelves. A bottle of bourbon was the only normal item amidst the collars and the cuffs and the whips and the ropes.

And then the answer unwillingly found its way to her. The job. The plantation. The shackles. The capital 'P'. And Holly damn near threw up in her mouth.

"God…"

Weakly, Holly turned to see Arthur holding another book he'd picked up from atop a pile of crates. She made her way over to him and peered over his arm to read what'd been written down. This was a ledger, alright. But unlike any she'd ever seen, and one she'd sooner burn if given the freedom of her own choice.

Rewards. January 15 th : Betsy— Seventeen dollars

Rewards. January 18 th : Louise— Twelve dollars

Rewards. May 18 th : Wilfred— Eighteen dollars

Rewards. May 24 th : Minnie & child— Twenty dollars

"This your ledger?" Arthur hissed to himself as Holly scanned the writing, "A list of slaves?"

With a resounding clap, Arthur snapped the book shut. Holly jumped back, frightened, right into a pillar covered in chains that rattled emptily when she brushed against them. Arthur's anger and disgust were rolling off of him in waves. Like heat, or flames, but only this time she could feel the way they burned against her skin.

And Holly was ashamed to admit that in that moment, she felt scared of him, in a way.

What a hypocrite she'd made from herself.

"What now?" she dared to ask.

One single blue-green eye caught her from under the brim of his hat. Holly was terrified that he'd lash out at her in his anger (and she felt her shame swell even more until it was almost all-consuming) before growling out, "We're gonna bring his things back to him, ain't we?"

"Arthur—"

"We're leavin'. Grab the pistol. We're goin' to Eris Fields, payin' Mr. Compson a little visit," the words came through clenched teeth.

They exited the cellar, Holly in the lead. She retrieved the fallen pistol and presented it to Arthur, who took at and stuffed it in his