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Blackwater

Chapter Text

Afternoons stretched out longer in New Austin. It could make one appreciate nights more when the relentless heat was just a memory burned into skin. Perhaps the sun got such a kick out of how the land spit in its eye with its determination to survive that it couldn’t help but slow down to admire its grit. There was certainly enough of that blowing around as two gunslingers stood opposite on a dirt road, fingers dancing over their holsters. Hats tilted just enough to look up from under dramatically; all-American good looks not completely lost in their shadows. One hat was white, of course, like the handkerchief clutched in his sweetheart’s hand watching with bated breath from the doors of the saloon. The unkempt and heavily mustached outlaw wore the black hat. Thank God. How else would people know he was the villain?

Charles side-eyed the fans blowing plumes of dust between the actors as the four walked together behind the cameras. “I feel like I’ve seen this movie before and they haven’t finished filming yet.”

“You have.” Sadie led them down a side street. “Hollywood keeps shittin’ out the same story.”

Strauss and Swanson were last seen out near the Sea of Coronado but the four would be damned before roaming the desert, hoping to catch a footprint in the blowing sand. Where there was money, there were bootleggers and nobody had told Armadillo the economy had gone to hell. Same as the cacti or the mountains to the north, having shot up out of the parched earth towards an indifferent sky that only relented in brief violent bursts—there was a persistence. Jobs were aplenty. New houses and businesses were popping up along the paved roads. All south of Old Main Street to avoid ruining the illusion that Armadillo was still a frontier boomtown. Flush with cash from the film industry, speakeasies were plentiful and bored extras who gossiped between takes made tracking them down easy.

Well, mostly. The pharmacy they were searching for remained elusive.

“What about that place?” John pointed at a bookstore. Might as well take the door off the hinges with the way folks were coming in and out, holding large paper bags as they left.

Arthur removed his black leather hat to wipe his forehead along his sleeve. “Just ‘cause you don’t like reading don’t mean alcohol is the only way to get people in there.”

A spark of determination flashed behind John’s sunglasses. Those golden frames had been glued to his face as of late. Bloodied by burst vessels, the whites matched the lenses. “What bookstore is that busy on a Thursday afternoon? C’mon. It’s worth a shot.”

A collective shrug sent Charles and Sadie inside while Arthur and John went around the back. Even if he was right, there was still the matter of whether the O’Driscolls were the new suppliers. Until recently Dutch had the city under his thumb, supplying purveyors of vice with booze or “protection.” They gave it a few days before leaving Blackwater. Enough time for the desperate to make a switch. Armadillo was a bust so far, either turning to the Del Lobos or bathtub gin. In Hennigan’s Stead, most sought out local moonshiners or Hosea and his over-the-border supply lines. Didn’t spend long there.

John gave Arthur a bobby pin to pick the lock. “Want me to ask the questions this time?”

Hell no. Arthur didn’t want him to be here let alone risk having too many people see his distinctive scars. Last thing John needed was not one but two gangsters after him. “You stay out here, darlin’. I won’t be long.”

“Don’t darlin’ me, you—”

Upon hearing the click, Arthur quickly opened and shut the door, locking it for good measure. John flipped him off through the window and he yanked the curtains shut, chuckling softly. Slivers of sunlight still seeped in along the edges. Looked like a storage room full of metal shelves and boxes. Didn’t illuminate the floor though. He managed to trip over a box and would’ve felt like an idiot if not for the tell-tale clinking of glass bottles inside. Arthur tore it open and found liquor stashed beneath Agatha Christie’s latest.

John was going to be insufferable.

The lights flickered on. A portly, middle-aged man dressed well enough to suggest he ran the place stood comically slack-jawed in the opposite doorway. He puffed up, ready to yell.

“Don’t mind me.” Holding up the bottle worked like a pin to a balloon. “I’m just curious how you’re still serving up more than just a good read here when Mr. Van der Linde has hit a snag in his production.”

Deflated but not defeated, he shut the door. “I ain’t saying nothing without a lawyer.”

“Lawyer? Look, I’m not here to cause any grief.” Arthur set the rum down and raised his hands like he was calming a spooked horse. I just wanna know who’s supplying you and how. Then I’ll be on my way.”

“How much you want?”

“Nothing. Just pay me in answers.”

He tried at intimidation and stared Arthur down. It came across as constipated. The others were happy to open up to get rid of him. Perhaps Colm gagged his clients. He didn’t want to strong-arm him into talking. Sure, Charles and Sadie were on the other side ready to stop any interference should Arthur have to get rough, but he reserved violence for those who deserved it. Not some Joe with tight lips.

John had other ideas. The back door slammed against the wall as he stormed in. “There a problem here?”

Damn. He forgot the fool also could pick locks.

The manager bolted but John was faster, blocking him from escaping. All pinstripes and colors far too dark. Bloodied and bruised eyes on full display. Rope burn fresh around his neck. John looked menacing and sent the man stumbling backwards with a look alone.

“I don’t like being lied to.” John grabbed two fistfuls of his shirt. “There is very much a problem here. You made a deal with Mr. Van der Linde that your shelves would only be stocked by him.”

He shoved the man into the wall, took a swig of the rum, then threw it to the floor. If Arthur wasn’t frozen by shock, his mouth would be down by the broken glass. “That sure as shit ain’t ours!”

“I’m just trying to make a living, sir! I didn’t mean nothing by it! I thought—I thought your friend here was a cop. I didn’t mean any disrespect!”

“Didn’t mean any disrespect?” John barked out a harsh laugh. “You double-crossed us first chance you got!”

“Some of them O’Driscolls showed up offering to step in on account of those raids. I thought you boys were done for!”

“Well, we ain’t! Where are those shipments coming from?”

“How should I—” John grabbed him again. “—It’s the last train on Wednesdays and Saturdays! I don’t from where though!”

“You better not be lying to me and you better not say a word of this to anyone.” He got real close to the manager’s face. “‘Cause I’ll come back for you. You got that?”

“Where did that come from?” Arthur asked once they were back outside.

“Worked, didn’t it?” Smug smirk now gone, John hastily put his sunglasses back on and tilted his gray hat low. Was he expecting a pat on the head or something? “Sorry, I was just…tryin’ to act like those gangsters from that movie we saw.”

“You were a couple shades scarier than those mugs. Maybe you oughta talk to one of them film producers over on Main. See if they’re lookin’ for a handsome villain.”

“Only if you play the part of the hero. I’d let Sheriff Morgan slap cuffs on me any day.”

Thinking about the pair he had on him, heat crept up the back of his neck. Naturally that was when Charles and Sadie rounded the corner. Too flustered to speak, he let John excitedly rattle off what they had learned.

“By train?” Charles frowned. “That changes things.”

They blinked in confusion, forcing Sadie to spell it out. “If they came by car, we could just run ‘em off the road. There’ll be plenty of O’Driscolls on the ground here to distribute the alcohol throughout the city. It’ll be hard to grab one of those bastards without another bastard seeing.”

Any trouble and a few phone calls could make their job a lot harder. Colm knew a rescue mission was coming but not when.

Charles glanced around like he was expecting someone to say something obvious. He was disappointed. “So…let’s not grab one here.”

--

Scrunched up in bed with his journal on his knee, Arthur sketched how the moonlight fell down the slope of John’s back as he slept. Hair finally dry. They had gotten separate hotel rooms but for some reason John thought it would be wise to break in while he was showering and pull back the curtain to say hello. Arthur nearly had a heat attack and instinctively turned the hose on the intruder.

It was go-the-fuck-to-sleep o’clock in the morning but his brain didn’t care. Too preoccupied with all the things he didn’t want to think about. How his sketch left out the trace of the rope and the shadows under John’s eyes. Abigail blinking rapidly as she shoved him behind closed doors so their son wouldn’t see his injuries. The hotel murders and how he hadn’t come forward. Tilly and Albert both claiming he was supposed to be smarter than this after explaining why he was heading out of town.

Then there was Molly.

“Did Dutch do that to him?” she had asked, laying on the couch with the black fabric of her evening gown spilling down and puddling on the floor like tar.

“It was Micah.” Arthur shut the door to muffle the blaring jazz, presently doing a terrible job at concealing Abigail and John’s argument. Good thing Uncle had taken Jack to the park. Each high note made her wince. “Molly…”

“Don’t.” She curled her legs to make room, slow and easy like a snake coiling. All the venom was in her eyes though not her mouth. “I don’t want your pity. I’m fine.”

“You’re fine? That why Uncle found you still drinkin’ yourself to oblivion at Beecher’s by last call?” Molly hit him with another glare instead of the slap he expected but it crumbled like the dried mascara streaked down her face. “The heat ain’t gonna cool off anytime soon. The smartest thing you can do is stay out of it.”

“Dutch’ll come lookin’ for me.” She grabbed the aspirin and glass of water left out by Abigail with a smile so broken he couldn’t piece it back together to figure out whether this inevitability was desired or loathed.

“Don’t mean you gotta be here waitin’ for him.”

Both her eyebrows shot up and Arthur didn’t blame either one. He had to speak up though. The whole mess reminded him of that day on the beat when a drunk driver veered onto a sidewalk, scattering pedestrians like a bullet through a flock of birds. One fatality, hit head-on, left him and his fellow officers scratching their heads. Had she simply failed to move in time or had she stared death in the eye and welcomed it? A wise man would steer clear but damn it he could see the headlights shining and Arthur so badly wanted to push Molly out of the way.

“What? You’ll get me out?” She set down the empty glass and laughed without humor, frowning up at the picture of John and Abigail standing before Beecher’s Hope. “Please. You can’t even get yourself out.”

Arthur left soon after but not before slipping his business card into her pearl-beaded clutch.

Just in case.

A tortured moan from John brought him back to the hotel room. He was clawing at his throat, eyeballs moving rapidly under his lids as he mumbled Arthur’s name over and over. Guess the mystery of why John was so tired lately had been solved.

“S’alright, darlin.” Arthur shook John’s shoulder. “Wake up.”

He did. Violently. Knocked Arthur’s hands away and scrambled to the edge of the mattress. Gaze wild and darting, John didn’t seem to recognize where he was until it settled on Arthur’s own.

“Sorry,” he blurted out, face scrunched up with shame.

“Don’t be. I wasn’t sleeping.”

A long moment passed before John scooted back over. The whole of which Arthur spent cursing himself. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I never should’ve—”

“Don’t.” John pressed his fingertips to Arthur’s mouth. “It’s not your fault. None of this is.”

Arthur didn’t believe that but the urge to protest died when John replaced his fingers with his lips.

--

“No way Capone is gonna get sent over for tax evasion.” Below the bridge and face lost under his hat, John was stretched out across the backseat of the Packard lent by Hosea. “I’ll laugh myself into an early grave if that happens.”

Sadie lowered her binoculars, revealing the circular indents they had left. “Well, you best pick out a plot. Financial crimes stick easier than murder.”

“Capone can’t make the evidence disappear like he could a witness,” Charles added, nudging Arthur who was nodding off.

He needed another coffee. Or three. Frankly, Arthur was surprised he hadn’t already fallen sleep and then right off Benedict Pass. The four were waiting for the train to emerge from the setting sun that had outlined the clouds in gold and cast the sky in pinks and oranges. Get on. Grab one. Get off. That was the plan. Avoiding witnesses was the hard part. To help with that Arthur had suggested the stretch of land between here and Mercer Station, near barren and bone-dry as ever. But close enough to Armadillo that they had to be on board by now.

Sadie shoved her binoculars into her large purse. “What does the lawman think?”

“Lawman? Ain’t much of one these days.” Arthur mulled over the question. “If he’s smart, he’ll take a plea deal. Otherwise they’ll make an example outta him.”

“Gangsters don’t take plea deals.”

“You some sorta expert on criminals, Marston?”

“He’s probably picked up on a few things,” Charles said, “given the company he’s been keeping.”

Arthur smiled in spite of himself. “Can’t argue with that.”

“They better not nab Colm for something like that,” Sadie grumbled. “I’d have to scam my way into the prison to kill him myself. He deserves the chair, not a couple years behind bars.”

“I’m surprised you don’t work for Dutch.” John lifted his hat. “From what Arthur’s told me, he hates Colm as much as you.”

“I couldn’t betray Hosea or the folk I’ve come to know.” Sadie gave Charles half a smirk which he completed. “Besides, Dutch has been after him and Colm forever. How much headway has he made? They’re too strong. The law can’t or won’t touch ‘em. Even if they did, they’d never hire a woman to help. I want all them bastards dead. Not just Colm. Way I figure? This is the best of my limited options.”

“You might get your wish with the way Hosea’s been lately,” Arthur said dryly. “I still don’t know why he encouraged this wild goose chase. He has enough going on without stirring up more shit.”

The comment lingered like a nasty odor until Charles tried his hand at clearing the air. “I think Hosea’s acting with the future in mind. A future he’s not part of. I don’t know if this is the best way to go about it but trying to preserve peace in the long run is a worthwhile endeavor.”

The purse of his lips promised that whatever else was coming, Arthur wouldn’t like it. Trust Charles to try to better word something that would be hard to hear.

“It seems like he wants to neutralize his two biggest threats so his successor doesn’t have to.”

The hot air building up in his chest solidified and settled into a heavy weight in his stomach, leaving Arthur plain nauseous when the sleek passenger train finally dotted the skyline. Arthur tried to push everything that wasn’t the task at hand out of his mind. On their disguises went. A pair of black bandanas while Sadie used John’s sunglasses. With her teal scarf wrapped around her no-nonsense bob, she looked like a reclusive actress set to join two outlaws on a heist.

“We gotta land on the baggage cars so no one will hear us.” Arthur held out his hand to Sadie. “When I let go, wait a second, then jump. Charles, you do the same with her.”

He gave a nod. “Looks like a full train. We’ll need to be extra cautious.”

They both looked at Sadie. “Don’t give me that!” She snatched Charles’s hand. “I can be discreet.”

Thick black smoke swallowed them whole when the train rushed under their dangling legs. Holding his breath and hat, Arthur jumped from the rusted iron beam. Not a long fall but they had to grasp the steel beneath to keep from sliding off. Sadie dropped down onto a platform to begin her walk through the passenger coaches. Meanwhile Arthur and Charles focused on the baggage and mail cars, empty save for a clerk sorting letters, before climbing back up. Rounder than the boxcars of yesteryear they ran single file. Funny how muscles could also hold onto memories years later. Arthur’s feet stayed light when traversing the rail cars. Despite the familiarity, he couldn’t escape a strange tightness in his chest. It was sort of like realizing one had grown only after slipping on a favorite jacket and finding it snug.

Sadie had beat them to the dining car. “No luck either?” Her chipper tone confused him until he noticed the pair of fancy green Pullmans ahead. “Funny having two sleepers on a train that terminates in Armadillo.”

Arthur jumped over and climbed down the steel rungs along the side. When he leaned towards the window, he got distracted by the dust spewing from the tires of the Packard. Arm resting along the windowsill, swerving around boulders and shrubs one-handed, John was chasing the train’s tail like he had a fleet of cops on his ass. Maybe deep down he still was a lawman. The desire to take away John’s license was overwhelming.

Inside the Pullman all the beds were folded up, concealed by shiny wooden wall panels with intricately carved designs. No crates pretending not to be holding alcohol laid about. Yet the olive-green walls matched the upholstery, including the seat of the chair propped up under the first doorknob. Arthur slid Micah’s stiletto knife into the window near the latch and flipped the lock. He opened the window. One. Two. Three male voices all laughing about something. Held up as many fingers, then drew his pistol. Sadie climbed down to the first platform while Charles waited above.

Their laughter became harsh whispers when she knocked. The back of a man came into Arthur’s view as he removed the chair. “You lost, love?”

“Oi!” Another came over. “Get her outta here.”

“Ain’t you a friendly bunch.” Sadie scratched her nose. They were armed. Arthur gave Charles a nod and he vanished. “You mean to tell me this isn’t the smoking car?”

The first one spoke again. “Run along, girlie. You can smoke anywhere on this train.”

“Anywhere?” Sadie leaned against the wall casually, digging into her purse. “How ‘bout here then?”

Charles kicked open the other door. The two O’Driscolls spun around. Sadie had silencers pressed into the back of their necks before they could draw. “You boys better play nice ‘cause I certainly don’t.”

The third O’Driscoll flung himself into a seating booth and popped up brandishing a shotgun. Too bad Arthur and Charles already had him at gunpoint. Skinny, heavily freckled, unimpressive in size and stature, he couldn’t be older than Sean and was likely little more than cannon fodder for Colm. “Who the fuck are you people?”

“Does it matter?” Charles advanced slowly. “No one needs to die. Lower your weapons.”

Various guns were set down and kicked away as Arthur climbed in. Halfway through the window, Arthur remembered the missing alcohol. Being valuable property, they couldn’t have left it too far away nor unsupervised. His eyes fell to where the sun was stretching a thin shadow in through the doorway behind Charles.

He landed without an ounce of grace on the Persian rug. “Behind you!”

Charles swung his arm back and fired. He got to his feet in time to watch a man, jaw agape with the lower half missing, topple over the platform rail. Now only stacks of crates occupied the second sleeper car. Two more muted shots rang out. The young O’Driscoll backed up into the wall staring down in horror at how Sadie had made good on her promise.

“Is that what you call discreet, woman?”

Sadie rolled her eyes at Arthur. “We only need one.”

No time was wasted. After tossing the two corpses off and rearranging the furniture to hide the gore, Arthur pulled the emergency break. They jumped while the train was still slowing. Bound and gagged, the O’Driscoll was thrown in the back the moment John pulled up. Once Arthur hopped in, they drove hard into the red that was now seeping up from the horizon.

“I’m gonna ask you some questions and you’re gonna answer them.” Sadie retrieved a knife from her boot. “Otherwise, it’ll be up to you how many fingers you wanna sacrifice along the way.”

His terrified huffs of breath over the gag only grew louder as Charles grabbed his arms to keep him still. When she removed it, the man spat out, “I ain’t sayin’ shit! You think I don’t know how this goes? You’re gonna kill me regardless, you crazy bitch!”

“There goes two fingers,” Arthur murmured.

“I was thinkin’ three.”

Not realizing they were joking—well, Arthur was—John blanched. Train no longer in sight and surrounded by empty desert, he slowed to a stop and draped his arms along the second windshield. “How about if he tells us where their hideouts are and they turn out to be true, we let him go?”

“You gonna drive all over the state checking them out? Those two blokes will die before you get there.” He laughed bitterly at John’s stunned face. “Think you’re so bloody smart, huh? I know why you’re here. Colm is waiting for you!”

Swanson and Strauss being alive? A welcomed surprise. Colm being with them? That might be a problem. Sadie got real still and the O’Driscoll must’ve sensed the danger. He stupidly tried to escape by kicking her shins and swinging his head back. Charles grabbed his skull before it could smack into his nose and Sadie seized the man’s bound hands, forcing them down so she could hold the knife to his throat.

“Th-there’s one south of the lake! Colm’s at the other one. Rattlesnake Hollow!”

He began pleading to be let go but Arthur spoke over him. “Neither of those are on the train line. Where’d you come from?”

The knife went back into her boot. Sadie threw open the door and dragged the O’Driscoll out by his shirt. He jerked and twisted. Kept trying to hit her while yelling for help that wouldn’t come. When she let go, he got his legs underneath him, only to get kicked in the back. Down he went. Got a mouthful of sand too. He spat it out while staring up at her gun through his stringy blonde hair.

“Ever been up to Ambarino?”

“W-What? What are you talking about? It’s Gaptooth Breach! Alright? I came from Gaptooth Breach! Don’t! Plea—” Sadie shut him up with a bullet to the crown of his head.

“What if he was lying?” Arthur asked, even though it made sense as the location. The abandoned mine was close to both the train line and the Sea of Coronado.

“You don’t lie when you’re in the middle of pissin’ yourself.” She refused to meet their concerned stares, dropping down and gripping onto the seat beneath her. “Can you get us there?”

A wide-eyed John nodded silently, key missing the ignition twice before it went in.

--

Gaptooth Breach looked about a smart a place to sneak into as a war zone, what with the armed soldiers milling about dilapidated buildings, but that sure didn’t stop them. They split into pairs, agreeing to meet back at the car, hidden nearby in the hills. Down below, men were pushing carts holding huge barrels of water along the tracks that rolled out of the mine like a serpent’s tongue. It ran up the slope past the shaft tower, now permanently missing its guard.Long after midnight the air was crisp but he could hardly feel it. Nothing warmed the blood like being pissed off. Arthur wasn’t happy about his tag-along but John never let common sense stop him from doing whatever he wanted.

Stairs wrapped around their next destination, a three-story warehouse. They crept inside and found nothing. Except an old desk covered with sketches of the mine and a foul stench seeping up through the floorboards. Not sure what they would find, Arthur tucked John behind him and they slowly made their way down. Chains hanging from the wall shone in the moonlight, holding up the limp arms of what looked like two corpses. Until they opened their eyes.

“Strauss? Swanson?”

The shorter one tilted his head back to keep the cracked spectacles on the tip of his broken nose. “Who wants to know?” Despite how traveling over a parched throat made his voice raw, the accent was clear and gave his identity away.

John slipped out from behind. “That’s Arthur Morgan. I’m John Marston. We’re gonna get you out.”

You would’ve thought he had waved a magic wand and erased the past week with how much they lit up. Sporting nasty cuts and bruises wherever any bit of skin showed through their torn clothes, stained with sweat and blood, Arthur felt like an absolute bastard for initially wanting to leave them to their fates. Swanson, a redhead with gray streaks in his frazzled hair looked a bit worse off. Hands trembling something fierce it was hard for John to grasp his shackles.

Swanson licked his lips, split in three places. “You wouldn’t happen to have—”

“Water is the only drink you need right now,” Strauss gave his suddenly heartbroken companion a one-eyed glare. The other was swollen shut. “We didn’t expect Dutch to send you, Herr Morgan. Are the others here?”

Arthur grabbed the metal cuff around Strauss’s bruised wrist. “No, it’s a long story. I’ll—”

“I was starting to think we were forgotten men!”

John shushed Swanson which set off a flurry of apologies, which got him shushed again.

“Dutch? Forget a slight against him? Ain’t a chance,” Arthur teased.

“I was referring to our heavenly Father but I must confess I was having my doubts about him too.” Swanson frowned. “Don’t tell him I said that.”

Arthur would have chuckled if footsteps outside hadn’t startled him. When he rushed over to the window, he almost tripped over the coats and items strewn across the floor. Three men with rifles slung over their backs were approaching. Arthur had to think quick. They would kill the hostages and probably John too if they were caught.

“Thought you didn’t trust me with a gun?” John snapped when Arthur pressed his pistol into his hands. Brows bent. Jaw clenched. Already getting angry before anything had happened.

“John…”

“Arthur, no.”

“I’m gonna create a distraction.” John shook his head and tried to grab him but was pushed away. “When the coast is clear, get them out of here. Stay with them and please, please don’t follow me.”

John cursed him, then immediately shifted into calling after him in frantic whispers. Arthur still left, hurrying out onto the balcony then down the slope towards a decrepit shack. Once in cover, he grabbed the rifle off his back and used the scope to pick off the first, second, and—shit—the third one dodged in time. Only got out one cry for help before he went down too. Desperate to put distance between him and the warehouse, Arthur took off again. The noise drew O’Driscolls out of the mine and from the surrounding buildings, forcing him behind a boulder.

Back pressed against the cold stone, Arthur took a deep breath and yelled, “That the best you can do?”

While scattering those who got too close, another shack caught his eye. On a scale of one to suicidal, it was about an eight but he needed better cover. Bullets pierced the ground near his feet but Arthur ran and ran and ran. Up the steps. Reached for the doorknob. The door was ripped back and a double-barrel shotgun greeted him. He almost wished it went off.

“My, my. Arthur Morgan. This is quite the surprise.” One would’ve thought he had just been served Dutch’s head on a platter with the way Colm O’Driscoll’s lips cracked into a smile. “Where are the others? Of Dutch’s sons, you weren’t the one I was expecting.”

“Sorry to disappoint.”

That went over about as well as expected. Pain exploded behind his eyes when he got whacked across the face with the shotgun. Several hands seized and searched him while he was on the ground dazed. Arthur got to suffer the indignity of having his own handcuffs snapped around his wrists.

“Find the rest and bring them to me. Except Bell. Shoot him.” Colm pointed at one of his henchmen. “You. Go deal with the other hostages. I have no use for them now.”

“No!” Arthur thrashed but all it got him was a kick to the back of his knees which sent him down.

“Why don’t we go on a tour of the site?” Colm twisted his fingers into Arthur’s hair, forcing him to look up. “Take your mind off things.”

By tour he meant his henchmen dragging Arthur by gunpoint into the mine. Around and around, following the rail tracks and hanging light bulbs that ran through the winding tunnels. Empty sacks of barley and corn lay by wooden pillars and underneath crisscrossed planks along the rock walls. Passed by the mine shaft lift along the way. That’d be his best chance at escaping. Colm wouldn’t shut up about looking into new real estate now that several properties had become available. Arthur barely listened. Too caught up by the smell of yeast, heavy in the heated air. It reminded him of those afternoons where he’d play with Isaac while Eliza was busy baking bread.

They brought him to the core, a hollow that parts of the tunnels overlooked that held their four copper stills. All large enough to hold several hundred gallons. At least a dozen grunts stopped their work to circle around as he was handcuffed to one of the overhead pipes between two stills. The heat radiating off them was immense. Sweat was already starting to form along his skin. Occasionally bits of debris sprinkled down from the ceiling. Maybe if Arthur was lucky, the whole place would come crashing down, sparing the others from having to rescue his dumb ass and from burying him.

“Does Hosea know you’re going behind his back to help out dear old Dutch?”

“You think I’d be here if he did?”

“Fair enough.” Colm got far too close. “I was hoping to capture someone that Dutch would surrender his territory along the Dakota for. But now? Now I can dream bigger.” He poked Arthur’s fresh bruise, causing him to wince. “What would Hosea give up for his pride and joy?”

“Nothing. He’ll just do to you what he did to Dutch.”

“He can try. I have more friends than him. Higher-ups who want them both gone. Especially Dutch. Always causing problems, that Dutch. If Hosea had a backbone, he would’ve killed him ages ago but he’s soft. That’s why he’s so easy to provoke.”

Colm yanked Arthur’s shirt out of his pants then began unbuttoning it, snickering when he tried to squirm away. “Don’t move. Unless you want to find out how hot those stills are ahead of schedule.”

Everyone laughed when Arthur, now wide-eyed with panic, desperately tugged at his handcuffs and tried to use his body weight to break the pipe. No luck.

“I’m curious.” Colm made scissor fingers to one of his henchmen after pinching the fabric of Arthur’s undershirt. “Did Hosea go after Dutch because his boy got scratched by a wayward bullet or because my boys taught a certain traitor a lesson?”

“You son of a bitch!” Blinded by rage over Kieran, Arthur tried to headbutt and kick at Colm, only to get a fist in the stomach, knocking the air out of him. Colm thought this was hysterical, laughing and seizing Arthur’s chin as he gasped for air.

“Look at you! All fire and wasted potential.” He tilted his head side-to-side as if inspecting a horse. “You could make so much money if you worked for me instead of pretending to be a good boy. You were born to be a killer, Arthur.”

Sparks flew from the handcuff chain. A perfect shot just above his wrist. Arthur punched Colm so hard in the face the bones and cartilage of his nose crunched under his knuckles. He fell back against the closest still, crying out as his hands and the back of his head were burned by the heated copper. The sniper continued to fire, dropping the O’Driscolls closest to Arthur one-by-one. Some tried to run but were blocked as more gunmen came into the room.

Sadie came out with a Tommy gun on the opposite side from one of the tunnels above. “I’ll kill all you bastards!”

Remembering Owanjila, Arthur dashed into the first tunnel he could as she rained down hellfire, arms shaking from the strong recoil. This long straight path wasn’t the way he came. Hopefully it still led back to the lift. Without a weapon if Arthur came across any O’Driscolls, he was be done for. The rattling of gunfire echoed all around him, drowning out much of the furious yells and screams until, as expected, someone hit a still. The loud bang set off the others and the force of explosions had the walls shaking. Arthur dropped to his knees, covering his head as the mine quaked. Clouds of debris came from all angles. All the lights went out. In total darkness and covered in dirt, Arthur struggled to stand up, coughing until his throat was raw.

“Arthur!”

He spun around, half hoping he was hearing things. Nope. Heard it again. Where was John’s voice coming from? Arthur tried to follow the sound as John called all their names. Navigating uneven terrain in pitch-black was slow-going, even with a hand on the rough walls.

Gunfire flashed in the dark just ahead. Arthur froze. The rapid bangs were mixed with laughter, rolling wheels, and footsteps coming up fast. Someone crashed into Arthur. They sputtered something in Gaelic and when he failed to respond, the O’Driscoll grabbed his arms.

“Thought you could escape, huh?”

A lantern cut through the dark like a train at night. The beam of light turned the O’Driscoll into a silhouette right before he was shot in the back. He slumped down, groaning and writhing in agony. Sadie was all smiles despite her bloody leg, holding a lantern while sitting beside her Tommy gun in a mine cart. She hastily retrieved one of her pistols and executed the O’Driscoll. Charles was on the back of the cart, a still smoking rifle in his hands. Caked and covered, all three were in dire need of a bath.

“That’s twice you’ve saved me within the same half hour.”

“You’re becoming a regular damsel in distress,” Charles replied.

Arthur nodded, then eyed Sadie. “You get Colm?”

“Not sure. I hope not. I hope he got burned alive when those stills blew.” Sadie patted the side of the cart. “Hop on.”

Coast cleared and with the tracks running downhill, the three rode the cart right back to the mine shaft. John was at the top and slapped a relieved hand to his forehead upon seeing them, then went to turn on the lift, bringing them back to the surface. Several O’Driscolls shot dead were strewn about at the top. So much for breathing in that fresh night air. Another surprise? The car was there. Strauss and Swanson were in the back, alive and not well, both needed medical attention, but they weren’t dead. So that was something. Arthur didn’t get a chance to ask John about any of it, only scarcely avoiding a fist to the face by ducking in time.

“Gotta be faster than that, Marston.” Practically shaking with anger, John looked ready to toss Arthur back into the mine. “Yell at me later, alright?”

“Oh, I will. You self-sacrificing bastard.”