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Cigarettes and Old Perfume

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The first time Hosea ever saw her, the girl had been seven and perched on a wooden fence, watching the fighting competition. She had purple flowers tucked into her dark braid, like a fairy. He doesn’t remember the town, only that it was small, nor whatever job it was Dutch had coerced him into. But he will never forget the concentration on her face. The two fellas in the circle fought differently. Where the bigger man fought with brute strength and frenzied punches, the other man fought with speed. He’d duck and side-step until an opening appeared before throwing a punch and then retreating. Back and forth he went like some spritely bird with clever eyes and quick fists. Hosea had to admit that this man was a good fighter, even if he lost to a cheap hit.

The girl had watched him like a hawk.

She didn’t move even as the next pair of fighters stepped up. This time it was a pair of cock-sure fools swinging their weight around. Hosea noted how the girl’s hands tightened on the wooden fence as he leaned against it a few feet from her.

“Now I ain’t no expert on young ladies, but this don’t seem the kind of place young ladies should be.” He says it casually, calmly, as if she were a horse about to spook.

“I’m learning.”

“Learning? What are you learning from here?”

“Fighting,” she says as if Hosea is being foolish. She’s less tense now but she still looks ready to run. “What’re you here for?”

“I’m learning too, young lady. What’s got you so interested in fighting, eh? There must be better things for you to learn.”

“I can’t keep running from my brother. Not if he’s got his friends with him.”

Something bitter and angry clouds the young girl’s face, makes her look older and meaner. It breaks Hosea’s heart a little.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Ava. Yours?”

“Hosea.”

“That’s a funny name.”

“Is it? I suppose for people who haven’t heard it before. Where’s your parents, Ava?”

“Ma’s out with Mr Thorpe. They got Louise with them.”

“Louise?”

“My little sister.”

“And what about this brother of yours? Where’s he?”

“At home with his nasty friends. Thought it’d be safer to stay away till Ma and Mr Thorpe got back.”

Hosea hummed, watching the young Ava wipe her tears from her eyes a little too roughly. It was then that he noticed the red handprint on her wrist, not the size of a man’s but certainly not her own. Her brother’s, he reckoned with anger burning in the back of his throat.

They watched the next few fights together. Every now and then, Hosea pointed out a move that could’ve avoided a hit or another way to block. Ava doesn’t say anything, but Hosea knew she was listening. Her head tilted towards him each time he spoke and nodded at every piece of advice. It was nice, Hosea thought, to have a young one to teach, even if it was about fighting. Bessie would’ve loved it too.

When the fights were over, Hosea turned to ask Ava if she needed someone to take her home. She wasn’t there, gone so quietly he hadn’t noticed. But there was a little purple flower sitting on the fence where she had been.

It remained in the lapel of his vest until it accidentally fell out after a hasty escape from the law.


~


When Dutch met Ava, he was immediately fascinated.

Hosea and himself had just left a meeting with a very foolish, confident business owner who just happened to have a lot of money and in need of a new consultant. So, there was Dutch and his associate, ready and very willing to help.

“Now all we gotta do is get him to invest in your mining company,” Dutch said, happy with himself and Hosea’s little act they put on.

“As long as he doesn’t travel south anytime soon.” Hosea was a little quiet. Had been for the past few days. He knew about the little girl, the one whose flower sat in Hosea’s lapel, Hosea had told him everything. And as sad as the girl’s plight had sounded, Dutch knew that she was one among hundreds, and that he’d probably never meet the little girl who wanted to learn how to fight.

But then fate had come along and dropped her right in front of them. Dutch’s hand was at his hip, ready to pull his revolver out. Hosea was the same but then he smiled and laughed a little at the sight before them. The little girl had jumped over the wooden fence between the two shops beside them and landed in an awkward tangle of skirts and legs.

“Stupid thing,” she hissed and tugged the fabric away from her legs so she could stand. Only when her unruly mop of brown hair was shoved away from her face did Ava finally see them. There was dirt on her face and a red, angry bruise on her cheek as well as a cut on her lip. But the smile she flashed Hosea cancelled all of that out.

“Miss Ava,” Hosea said with a newfound brightness. “What’re you doing leaping over fences?”

“Running,” she answered matter-of-factly. The look she cast Dutch was more curious than cautious, but he didn’t believe for a second that the little girl wasn’t on guard.

“Ah, allow me to introduce my friend, Dutch. He might look scary, but he’s got a heart of gold.” Normally, Dutch would be annoyed at such an introduction, but when the little girl smiled at him, all teeth and cheek, he can’t bring himself to feel as such.

“I’m Ava,” she announced confidently, reaching out her hand like a gentleman. Dutch chuckled a little and obliged her.

“A pleasure to meet you, sweetheart.” He took her hand and brushed a quick kiss over her scraped knuckles that were already bruising. She smiled to hide the wince.

“How’d you get so scruffy looking, huh?” Hosea asked. It was then that they heard yelling and rushed footsteps approaching. Dutch turned around to find a small group of boys, four or five, rush around the corner of the gun store. Ava tensed at Dutch’s side with an angry scowl on her face. She looked about ready to fight before he stepped in.

“Now what’s the meaning of this?”

“Whatever that girl said, sirs, is a lie.!” One of them piped up. All of them were rough-looking and red in the face, huffing from exertion.

“Really?” He asked and looked down amusedly at Ava. “All she told us was her name.”

“Sir,” another boy said, stepping forward. He struggled to hide both the anger and fear on his face. It was then that Dutch noticed the bruise on his cheek and swollen eye. “That’s my sister you’ve got there.”

“You’re her brother?” It was surprising how even Hosea, for all his tricks and charm, couldn’t keep his own anger from his tone.

“I am, sir. And Pa said that she’s to come home with me.”

“Is that so?” Dutch replied, dropping his voice. There was something about the way this boy had glared at Ava, as if she were some disgusting insect, that pissed him off. “You wanna explain how she got this bruise on her? Or that cut?”

The boys hesitated, shuffling where they stood like a flock of birds. Hosea watched Dutch out of the corner of his eye while he reached back to put a reassuring hand on Ava’s shoulder.

“We don’t want no trouble,” the brother answered.

“I don’t remember offering some. Why don’t you run off with your friends and we’ll take care of your sister? Wouldn’t want her getting hurt more, would you?”

“She ain’t yours to worry about.”

“I ain’t worried, boy. But she might need her injuries looked at and me and my associate here are more than happy to make sure she gets seen to.”

“Ava, get here.” The boy snapped, realizing that Dutch wasn’t one to mess with. “Ma wants us home, remember?”

“I ain’t going with you,” she said with a sharp growl. “I’ll make it home by myself.”

“Listen to your brother,” another one of the boys hissed.

“Shut your Bo, I ain’t going.”

“You heard the little lady,” Dutch intervened. “Run along now. Don’t want no trouble like you said, right?”

Dutch made a show of his gun, tapping gently at the holster and it had the boys running. It took a moment for him to realize that he may have caused Ava more trouble; but the girl was smiling.

“Thank you,” she said as if threatening her brother was the kindest act imaginable.

“I hope our intervening don’t cause you problems at home.”

Ava shrugged, “Mr Thorpe don’t like us causing trouble. I just gotta stay out of Michael’s way till dinner.”

“And who’s this Mr Thorpe?”

“Michael and Louise’s father. Louise and I share our mother, Michael’s died a few years back.”

“That explains his blonde hair.” Hosea remarked, still with a hand on Ava’s shoulder.

“Well, if you’re needing to avoid him, why don’t we take you to a show? There’s one on soon at the theatre.” Dutch offered, proud of himself for making Ava jump from excitement.

“Really? Is that okay?”

“As long as you’re okay with it, little lady.”

“I ain’t a lady.”

“No, not with those roughened knuckles, you’re not.” Hosea chuckled and took hold of one of her hands. Dutch took the other.

That afternoon, Ava had sat quietly, enraptured by the show; from the magician to the singer, the sword juggler and the lion tamer. Dutch found himself more entertained by Ava’s reactions and his applause was both for the performers and her. When they walked her home, Hosea had continued to keep her entertained with his stories about Greek heroes. She especially like the one about the man who spent a decade fighting gods and nature to get home to his family.

“You were right, Hosea.” Dutch had announced once they dropped Ava off, bittersweet by her departure.

“I always am. But what’s it about this time?”

“Ha! How modest you are! I mean about Ava. She’s surely something.”

“I told you, Dutch.”

“That you did, Hosea. That you certainly did.”


~


The first time Bessie had met Ava, the girl was an orphan.

She had clung to Hosea’s hand as they approached the house, one they had taken over from a drunken farmer, quiet and grim faced. There were tear tracks along her ruddy cheeks and they collected at the tip on her trembling chin.

“Bessie,” Dutch called, tense and visibly angry. “Would you mind helping our young lady here into a bath, then perhaps some food.”
“Of course,” she had answered, knowing that now wasn’t the time for questions. Bessie looked down to Ava who seemed unable to look away from the dirt. “Come with my, dearie, let’s get you clean and fed, hm?”

Ava didn’t move. She was shaking at Hosea’s side and more tears tumbled from her painfully red eyes. Bessie moved to take a step forward but then Dutch was there, crouched
in front of Ava with a large hand on her little shoulder.

“You’re safe now, Ava, you hear me? We’ll be taking care of you from now on. Anything you need, you ask us or Miss Bessie here, alright? We can be your family now, if you’re okay with that.”

The little girl stared at Dutch for a moment, scared and unsure, before stepping forward. Bessie’s own heart tightened at the sight of little Ava leaning into Dutch for a hug. This dangerous, lying, thieving outlaw was comforting such a helpless little girl. There was a conflicting look on Hosea’s face too, like he knew that this was both something wonderful and terrible. But Dutch had made a decision and, as far as Bessie was concerned, Ava would be with them for the foreseeable future. Maybe even longer.

“Come along little miss, let’s see if we can get that dirt off you.” This time, Ava took Bessie’s offered hand and followed without complaint. Neither of them said anything about how quickly Hosea and Dutch had launched into a discussion, mentioning Ava several times while they remained within earshot. “We’ll get a tub heated up for you, probably the smaller one, seeing as you’re so little. And we’ll have to find you something to wear while we wash those clothes of yours.”

“Yes ma’am,” Ava said in a quiet voice.

“Ma’am? Now we’ll have none of that. You call me Bessie and do as you’re told, we’ll get along just fine. How does that sound?”

Once again, Bessie’s chest tightened, but there was nothing ill about it. Not when Ava smiled at her like Bessie had just given her whatever it was little girls dreamed of.

“Yes Bessie.” This time, Ava’s voice was more confident, sure. Her steps lightened a little, but her hand remained tightly wrapped around Bessie’s fingers.
Bessie smiled back, “That’s my girl.”


~


The first time Arthur met Ava, he was a nervous wreck.

He’d been riding with Dutch and Hosea for just over a week. They’d met Arthur at the worst point of his life like a pair of unlikely heroes. Dutch’s speech had sounded way too good to be true, most of it too grand for Arthur to fully understand. But he believed it, every single word. And he knew that he’d follow Dutch anywhere, for as long as he could.

As they traveled back to the house they’d procured for a few months now, a big enough farmhouse away from the town, Dutch told Arthur all sorts of things. The main one that stuck in Arthur’s head was Dutch’s little girl, Ava.

The way this man had gushed about her, his smile never dropping as he did so, spoke volumes about how important she was. A little princess, protected by one of the most ruthless outlaws Arthur had ever met, and he was going to be her big brother. Not daunting at all.

Ava had been hiding beside Bessie’s skirts when Dutch finally introduced them; so caught up in the plans he had for Arthur already forming in his head. However, all Arthur’s nerves had seemed to flitter away when Ava stepped forward to shake his offered hand.

“I’m Ava,” she had said, shifting from shy to confident between on breath and the next.

“Arthur Morgan. I’m going to be your big brother, if that’s alright with you.”

Ava had looked at Dutch first, as if asking for permission, before nodding.

For years, long after their first meeting, Arthur could never understand what it was that changed him. As if there was something that clicked within him, something that finally made sense even if he could never figure it out. Arthur smiled at Ava like he had known her for all his life. Maybe they did, from another life before this one. Or maybe it was the mix of adorable and wild he saw within her. But most likely, it was because of how she smiled back at him as if she had felt just as he did.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

A few years had passed, and Ava was eleven years old. Still the youngest of the gang by seven years with Arthur being second youngest at eighteen. They were Dutch and Hosea’s kids and everyone in the gang knew it. Even though Dutch doted on Ava and called her his princess, Ava knew that Arthur was the favourite. Not that she really minded. But it was strange how much Dutch had suddenly put on Arthur and the latter had taken it all on as if his life depended on it. Arthur never complained, never questioned, and it began to worry Ava.

   He was her big brother, strong, kind, dependable. Of course she would worry; especially when she saw how his shoulders would drop once Dutch turned away, how he barely got any sleep at night but would drag himself out of bed early each morning.
   Ava had asked him a few times if he was alright, and each time Arthur would smile and say he was fine. She couldn’t work out why he lied to her. But she knew not to bring it up to Dutch, not when Arthur was so faithful to him.

   “It’s about loyalty,” Hosea had said once, while he’d been teaching her how to read. Ava was a quick study, eager too, and after a year with her, Hosea knew she’d grow to be a brainy little devil. “Arthur’s mighty loyal to Dutch, so that means he doesn’t want to disappoint him. Even if that means working hard and doing things he might not be entirely sure of.”

   “But shouldn’t he tell Dutch? I’m sure he’d understand if Arthur needed a break.”

   “Maybe, Ava, that could happen. But Arthur’s got his pride, you see. He doesn’t want to look weak, or Dutch might not depend on him as much anymore.”

   “That all sounds stupid.”

   “Maybe so,” Hosea said with a bark of a laugh. “But that’s just the way it is, my girl.”

   That didn’t sit well with her.

   After that, Ava did all she could to lessen Arthur’s stress. She’d help Ms Grimshaw with as much of the cooking and cleaning as she could, she’d read along with Arthur without interrupting to ask questions while Hosea taught them, she even brought him dinner when he looked fit to fall over.

   It didn’t take much for Arthur to notice, not when their gang was so small. When he told her that she didn’t need to worry about him so much, Ava had hit his arm. It didn’t hurt but she put so much effort in it that he was taken aback.

   “I’ll stop worrying when you quit giving me reason to,” she’d snapped with all the authority an eleven-year-old could muster. He’d wanted to laugh but the genuineness of it all warmed Arthur’s heart.

   “Alright kiddo, I’ll try.” 

   Neither of them noticed, too caught up in the story Arthur had for her about his recent job, that Dutch had watched them; melting a bit at how determined his little princess was. She was a firecracker, quick witted and even faster with a punch, but with a heart as gentle as Hosea’s. He knew he’d been laying it on tough for Arthur, expected no less from his boy. Dutch had always saved the coddling and care for Hosea while he pushed Arthur to be a better man. Now, at least, Arthur would have Ava to help with the caring; something she did very well. Even for him.

~

   Arthur has just gotten out of his dirty clothes, after being away for a week, and into new ones when Ms Grimshaw storms up to him with a furious scowl.

   “Mr Morgan,” she says, a little out of breath. “Have you seen Ava?”

   “Can’t say I have. Maybe ask Dutch.”

   “I did, and he told me he’d rather stay out of it.”

   “What she done?”

   “Never you mind. If you see her, drag her scrawny little behind to me.”

   “Yes ma’am,” Arthur agrees as seriously as he can, lest he be on the receiving end of Susan’s wrath. Even though she’s Dutch’s lady, Susan’s no-nonsense approach to life garnered her respect from everyone. Which meant that most people didn’t trifle with her. Except, apparently, for Ava.

   After Susan storms off, Arthur scans the camp for any sign of their resident she-devil. In the months he’d come to know her, Ava proved different from the sweet little thing he’d first met; not that he didn’t still find her sweet. It doesn’t startle him when a small hand gently grabs hold of his a few moments later, even though it should.

   “She’s mighty mad at you, Ava.” He says with a fond smile. Ava looks so innocent beside him, dressed in a pretty, blue dress and her hair tied up with a white ribbon. But the dirt stains on her dress, the scrapes on her knuckles and the cut on her lip say otherwise. “What’d you do?”

   “Nothing.”

   “Mhm.”

   “It wasn’t my fault.”

   “Never is.”

   “They started it!”

   “Who did?”

   Ava pauses for a second before mumbling, “Some boys in town.”

   Arthur can’t help the anger that suddenly climbs up his back. His own hand tightens around Ava’s as he crouches in front of her. There is anger on his face, he can’t help it, but Ava doesn’t look scared of him. Never has, never could. Arthur then asks, with a voice like gravel, “What did those boys do?”

   “They said they wanted to play ‘cause I looked like a little doll. But I told them to get lost and then one of them grabbed me.”

   “Where?” Ava bites her lip, always a stubborn one. “Ava, where did he grab you?”

   “Just my arm.”

   “Show me.”

   She does, and there’s a nasty red handprint on her skin that makes him hiss. “It ain’t that bad.”

   “What happened after?”

   “I hit him.” She says it proudly, even if she’s reluctant to tell. Arthur knows that she doesn’t want to worry him, that she hates when he fights her battles for her. But he can’t help it. Not when it’s his little girl getting hurt. “Then I hit his other friends. But then one of them called over their big brother which weren’t fair. So I ran.”

   “You tell Dutch or Hosea?”

   “No! They’d fuss and bother me and not let me out of camp!”

   “Maybe it’s safer if you told-” Arthur’s barely gets the words out before Ava rips her hand away and bolts. “Dammit kid! Get back here!” But she’s gone, quick as a whip, out of sight. Arthur sighs and pulls out a cigarette. He knows she won’t come back even if he begged. Once Ava was gone, not many could catch her. Or find her.

   For a second, he debates whether or not to tell either of their fathers. They could probably do a better job at helping her than he could. But she was right. They’d never let her out of camp if they knew she was getting caught up in scraps. Ava was a fighter; he knew that the first time he’d called her a little girl. She’d shoved him off his chair and held him down till he took it back.

   With not much he can do, Arthur heads over to Hosea, hoping for a lesson that can distract him until he can find her.

 

   Arthur doesn’t find Ava until the following morning. He’d heard the shouting the night before. Ava had returned long after sundown which had sent Dutch into a panic. Already settled down to sleep, Arthur had laid there and listened to Dutch and Susan’s yelling, threats and sounds of frustration. Not one word came from Ava. It was something he was proud of her for: she always took her punishments without complaint. Then Hosea had led her off to bed with another, quieter, lecture.

   He finds her sitting underneath a tree. There’s a large book on Ava’s crossed legs and her body is bent over it while she reads. Even dressed up like a boy, Arthur can’t help but grin at how pretty she looks.

*   But then he notices the back of her hands, the numerous moon shaped scars from her nails. *

   That scolding from the night before must’ve made her more upset than Arthur thought.

   “Morning, Trouble.” He calls as kindly as he can. It’s not an easy angle to discern Ava’s mood from. However, when she looks up at him, Ava smiles like there’s nothing wrong in the world.

   “Morning.”

   “You doing alright?”

   “Mhm.”

   “You sure? It sounded pretty rough last night, what with both Susan and Dutch having a go at you.”

   Ava shrugs. “Weren’t that bad.

   “No? What was their verdict, huh?”

   “I can’t go in town for two weeks and I’m only allowed outside of camp with an adult.” Ava says with a sigh that’s more suited to a grown man than an eleven-year-old girl.

   “Better than that time you was grounded for a month after taking that man’s gun.”

   “You got grounded too!”

   “Yes, but only because you can’t handle a goddamn rifle.”

   “And you were only grounded for a week until Dutch needed you to ride with him.”

   “Well he needed an extra rider, so I had to.”

   “I could’ve gone if I were good at riding.”

   “You ain’t?”

   Ava shakes her head with what can only be described as a sour pout. “Been too busy. I always end up riding with Dutch or Hosea. Never had my own horse neither.”

   “Want me to teach you?

   The offer comes easily, without thought, and Arthur will always be glad it did so. Ava looks up at him like he’s just offered her the whole world. Or something really, very nice. Arthur feels stupid for thinking he could ever give her something so remarkable.

   “You mean it?” Ava’s already on her feet, her book discarded and forgotten on the grass.

   “Sure. I’m an adult and it ain’t like we’re going robbing or nothing.”

   “Can we go robbing too?”

   “Of course not!” Arthur says with a laugh, pulling Ava to his side as they make their way to his horse. “If anyone’s taking you robbing, it’s Dutch. And that won’t be for a long while yet.”

   “We’ll see.”

   “That we will, now let’s get you up.” Arthur’s horse, Gwen, is too big for Ava to climb up by herself. So, she waits patiently on the ground while Arthur mounts up and lowers a hand to her. In one smooth motion, Arthur lifts Ava from the ground and up into the saddle in front of him. Ava pats Gwen’s neck while Arthur gets his reins under control.

   “You gonna tell Dutch or Hosea before we leave?”

  “Hosea knows,” Arthur answers with a nod towards where Hosea watches them over the rim of his coffee cup. “And we’d best get out of here before Grimshaw sees.”

   “Go! Go, go, go!” Ava giggles, hitting his leg as if to spur Arthur on. He laughs, can’t help it, and kicks Gwen’s side. They’re off quickly before anyone can stop them. Ava smiles the whole way to the field Arthur takes them to.

   It’s not until he’s dismounted, with Ava taking the reins in her shaky hands, that Arthur realizes that he had been smiling the entire time too. 

 

TBC 

Chapter Text

A few years later, John arrives. The first thing Ava notices about the boy is that he’s her size and dirtier than she had been when Dutch and Hosea had adopted her. 

   Ms Grimshaw and Hosea look a little sceptical, but Dutch is brimming with joy. It doesn’t take much for Dutch to convince them. Hosea pats the boy on the head with a warm welcome and Ms Grimshaw sets about getting him a bath ready.

   Ava watches from her tent, already forgetting the book in her hands. It’s easy to see how nervous the boy is. His grubby hands can’t keep still and his eyes dart around to every face and corner in camp. For a brief second, he sees Ava and freezes. Ava offers up her kindest smile before he looks away again.

   “There’s my girl,” Dutch calls with a large grin. He wants something, it’s obvious, but Ava can’t bring herself to be annoyed. Not when he opens his arms for a hug. Part of her thinks, as she jumps up to hug him, that no matter how old she gets, she will always be happy to see Dutch happy.

   “You’re glad about something.”

   “And why shouldn’t I be? I have my health, my family and the best daughter any man could ask for.”

   “Alright old man, enough buttering up, you’ll make us both sick.” The mood sobers quickly as Ava asks, “who’s the kid?”

   Dutch’s smile drops and she knows he means business. “That boy is John Marston. Found him at the wrong end of a noose.”

   “Are you serious? He’s just a kid!”

   “My thoughts exactly. I managed to talk the gentlemen who had him into handing the boy over to me.”

   “Another lost soul to add to the collection?”

   “To the family, Ava. He’s one more unfortunate our family will keep safe. Just like it’s kept you and Arthur, Bill and the others all safe.”

   “I know, Dutch. You’re the one who taught me what family is, remember?”

   “Yes, I do, sweetheart. Now there’s something else.” Dutch hesitates like he’s ashamed or guilty to ask; if Dutch could ever feel guilty. “Ava, I need you to do something for me,” Dutch says with a hand on Ava’s shoulder. It’s nerve-wracking and exciting, that Dutch needs her help. “Now it’s mighty important and you’re the only one I can trust to do this.”

   “Course I can. Whatever you need, Dutch.”

   “I need you to take care of John for me. He’s had it rough, like you when you first came to us. No one else here has a better understanding of what that boy is going through than you. Now, I know it’s a lot, but I need you to do this. Can I count on you?”

   Ava doesn’t hesitate. “Yes Sir.”

   “You sure? He’s family now, a brother, but he needs lots of love and care to see that.”

   “Don’t you worry, Dutch. I can take care of him. He’s my brother now.”

   “That’s my girl.” Dutch’s smile is warm, proud and everything Ava strives to earn. “Then I leave him in your capable hands, sweetheart.”

 

~

 


   It’s later in the evening and Ava has yet to talk to John. The boy has been with Dutch and Hosea for the afternoon as they get him situated. Arthur had stopped by Ava’s tent earlier to share his thoughts on their new family member. While Arthur had been hesitant, Ava had been excited. Her own younger brother to take care of. At first, Arthur had thought it was strange that she’d been so eager to have a younger sibling. But then he remembered the stories she told him about her sister, Louise, and that had been it.

   Pearson, the new cook from the Navy, has just finished up the stew; a mix of meats and mystery. Ava lets most of the adults in first, seeing as though they’ve all been working so hard. She grabs two bowls and hurries off before someone snaps at her. One of them is for the boy sitting by himself at the edge of camp, a small knife and a piece of wood in his scratched up hands.

   “Got you something to eat,” Ava announces and smiles at the way he jumps like a small cat. But he takes the bowl with thanks and doesn’t flinch when she sits down next to him, so that’s a win in Ava’s book.

   “So, you’re John Marston.” She says it as both a fact and question.

   John nods. “And you’re Ava Munroe.”

   “Yep, that’s me. How old are you?” She asks, taking in his small, wiry frame. He’s way too skinny to be any kind of threat.

   “Twelve.”

   “You sure? Seem pretty small for your age.”

   “Well how old are you?”

   “Fifteen.”

   “Maybe you’re just big for your age.”

   There’s no malice to it. Just cheek, nerve and a whole lot of boyish foolishness. This, Ava thinks with a smack of resentment, is what having a brother is supposed to be like.

   “I’m bigger than you, so watch yourself.”

   “I’ll be the one saying that to you soon enough.”

   It’s not quite a laugh that escapes her, but it brightens Ava’s mood, nonetheless. John’s too.

 

~

 

   After that, Ava and John are practically inseparable. She’s right by his side while Hosea teaches the boy to read. It’s more about the learning than the stories for John, but Ava sits with him and enjoys the plots and characters for him. When Dutch takes him out shooting, Ava’s there too. Growing up training with Arthur was heaps of fun, the friendly competition urged them to work harder. That’s what she wants for John. If only Arthur was as keen to help the boy as she is, but he always seems to be ‘busy’ or ‘tired’ whenever she asks him to come with them.

   When John calls Ava his sister, she’s ecstatic. Hosea’s smile is almost as wide as her own when he hears about it. They’re close, thick as thieves, Dutch jokes, and it motivates Ava to be the best sister she can be.

   At camp one night, John is quiet. It’s been about two months since he came along and it’s the first time in several weeks since he’s gone quiet. Ava’s by his side, perched a respectful distance from him on a massive log. Arthur and Dutch had taken John out that morning and they only arrived an hour ago. Neither Dutch nor Arthur seemed bothered about anything. But something was bothering John.

   “You alright there?” Ava asks, friendly and casual lest he snap and run. He’s done it before; but not to her. “You look as sour as a wet cat.”

   “It’s nothing.”

   “You sure? Because if it is something, you can talk to me about it. I won’t tell.”

   “Not even Dutch and Hosea?”

   “If it were their business, you’d tell them, right?”

   “I guess so.” He quiet for a minute. But then he looks at Ava and sees nothing but kindness and support on her face. “We got into a fight just outside of town. Arthur and Dutch took them all down but I managed to shoot one of them in the leg.”

   “So you didn’t kill him?”

   “No… but Dutch did. When the fella went for his gun.”

   It still doesn’t explain what’s upset him, so Ava asks, “you don’t wanna kill folks, then?”

   “That’s not it.” John’s voice is quiet, close to a whisper, and Ava leans in to hear him say, “I killed somebody. Before I joined.”

   “You did?”

   He nods, angry and ashamed. “It weren’t my fault. He attacked me.”

   “That why they was going to hang you?”

   “No. I got caught stealing.”

   “Stealing? They’d hang a kid for that?”

   “The fellas who caught me wanted to. But then Dutch stepped in and saved me.”

   “That’s old Dutch for you,” Ava says. She looks over at the man in question with a fond smile. He’s busy talking to Hosea, Susan and Arthur. The latter notices her staring and tilts his head, as if asking is everything alright? Ava nods at Arthur, happy for his concern; unnecessary as it is. It’s become a thing, Arthur’s concern, and it happens way more often than it used to.

   “I just don’t know what he wants from me.”

   “I reckon he just wants to keep you safe. Teach you all you need to know, that’s what he did for Arthur and me.”

   “Really? Did you kill someone?”

   “Nope,” Ava admits before her own anger rushes forth, it coils tightly in her gut and rages in the empty hole in her heart that won’t close. It probably never will. “But I’m gonna. When I’m old enough to.”

   “Who you gonna kill?” John asks, unperturbed by her admission.

   It’s surprising. John accepts it like a fact, neither upset nor concerned. It’s a secret she’s kept to herself for years. The others wouldn’t understand, Ava knows without a doubt, and they’d try to stop her. But John seems to understand.

   “The man who killed my family.”

   “You had a family? You ain’t Dutch’s?”

   “Nope. Had me a mother, my father died before I was born. Then she married Mr Thorpe who had his own nasty son. But they had a baby together and I got myself a darling little sister. Sweet, little Louise.”

   “What happened?” Now they’re whispering, leaning in close and very aware of the others around camp. This secret of hers is now theirs, and Ava feels better about it with John’s easy acceptance.

   “Mr Thorpe got in the bad books of this feller, Gregor Brolton, both of them business men. Mr Thorpe’s company got in the way of Brolton’s. What we didn’t realize was that Brolton was in with this local gang of bastards, really terrible men.” She pauses for a minute, biting back the ache in her chest and the tears in her eyes. John carefully takes her hand and nods, understanding even without an explanation. Ava continues, stronger from John’s support. “I was out late in town, just messing about with some of the locals, and I realized that I was late for dinner. So, I ran back home but… By the time I got there, the house was on fire and the men who done it were riding off. No one escaped from the house. By the time other people showed up to see what happened, Dutch and Hosea had already found me and taken me away. Said it was dangerous to stick around in case Brolton’s men heard about me.”

   “And you’ve been here ever since?”

   “Yep. This is my family now, you included.”

   Between one breath and the next, the mood lightens. Ava feels like she can breathe easier than she ever has. John smiles at her, taking his hand away from hers to pat her shoulder.

   “If you ever need help taking this bastard and his men down, you can count on me.”

   “Hah! Not with your aim, you fool. We gotta make a better gunslinger out of you yet.”

   They both laugh, easy and freeing, and the others around the camp stare at them for a moment. But to them, it’s just two kids joking about, especially when John shoves Ava along the log and she retaliates by pushing him backwards.

 

~

 

   Ava’s up before most of the camp a few days later. Some of the boys came back last night after successful job. The most successful one in a while. Arthur had been a part of it, had ridden back into camp proud as a peacock. But then Dutch had praised him on a job well done, and Ava saw Arthur’s expression change. Despite the man he’d become, there would always be some childish joy at Dutch’s approval. And Ava knows that feeling well.

   After feeding the horses and cleaning up after the small party they had, Mrs Grimshaw shoos her away.

   “Leave some work for the others, girlie.” The offer is rare, as Susan always seems to have more work somewhere, but she’s in a good mood so Ava doesn’t question it.

   There’s a small creek not far from camp, snaking through the trees and leaving patches of moss and flowers around it. Ava finds herself a comfy spot on a rock with her feet dangling in the cold water. A few fish stream past and a part of her wants to draw them. But she’s no artist, not like Arthur.

   He’d been so nervous when Ava had asked to see what he was sketching. Of course, she told him not to worry if it was personal. But, as Arthur has only done for Ava, he’d softened at her concern. He first showed her a sketch of Gwen, then of Hosea and Dutch at a table, then one of a dog rolling in the dirt. They were amazing; simple sketches that captured details and images so easily. When Ava had told him that, Arthur had blushed and mumbled out a thanks before tucking the journal away.

   Ever since then, Ava has wanted to be able to draw like that. But shapes and figures didn’t come to her so naturally; they looked disproportioned or just down-right ugly. So, she writes. Writes about what she sees, who she meets, whatever thoughts seem to stick with her. Hosea had given her a few poetry books when she’d asked him what the hell a sonnet was.

   With the water babbling past her, and the forest a quiet murmur, Ava tries to form her own poem. “Through the endless lands, you move with silver… ah… hands… bands… strands? Through endless lands, with silver strands, you ebb and flow so freely. With twists and bends that never end, you…”

   “That creek’s too small for a swim, you realize?”

   Ava turns, with a hand at her hip, and sees Arthur walking towards her. “You always manage to find me, huh Arthur?” Then it hits her and Arthur tenses as if there was a threat around. “You always manage to find me! That’s it!”

   “What are you on about?” There’s a fond grin that replaces Arthur’s concern as he sits down next to her.

   Ava smiles, “I was thinking up a poem and couldn’t think of the last line. But then you showed up and there it was.”

   “I did? Does that mean I get to hear it?”

   “It’s just a silly little thing,” Ava admits, suddenly nervous even with Arthur.

   “I’m sure it ain’t,” he replies as he bumps his shoulder against hers. “And if it is, I promise I won’t laugh.”

   “Alright then. Through endless lands, with silver strands, you ebb and flow so freely. With twists and bends that never end, you always manage to find me.”

   “That’s a cute little thing, kinda like you.”

   “Oh don’t you start with that. I’ve already got Johnny-boy teasing me about my height, even though he’s shorter.”

   “Johnny-boy, huh?”

   There’s a change in Arthur’s tone, quiet and distant. When she looks at him, Arthur’s brow is furrowed and there’s a small pout on his mouth. Ava tries her best not to smile.

   “That better not be jealousy I’m hearing, Arthur.”

   “I ain’t jealous of that scruffy, little kid.” But the way he chucks a handful of rocks and dirt into the river says otherwise.

   “You know if there’s something wrong, you can tell me. No judgement or laughing. You know that.”

   “I know,” Arthur sighs, softening at Ava’s easy kindness. “It’s just… Ever since John came along, it ain’t been just you and me. Not like it used to. I just miss being with you, I guess. I know that’s stupid-" 

   “It ain’t stupid, Arthur, if that’s how you feel. Why didn’t you say nothing?”

   “Because I felt like an idiot.”

   “So you decided to act like one? Is that why you’ve been so ‘busy’ lately?” Arthur nods, embarrassed and blushing. “Listen, you big fool, I do my best to take care of John because I remember how much it helped growing up with you beside me. I want him to feel cared for like you make me feel. But... if you feel like... we’re getting distant, all you gotta do is tell me. I can’t read your mind.”

   “I know, Ava. I know.”

   She takes Arthur’s large hand in her own and squeezes. “I care about you a whole lot. If you’re upset, let me take care of you.”

   “As long as you let me take care of you.”

   They smile at each other for a moment, lost in their own little world, and something in Ava’s chest twists. It’s both pleasant and painful. In that moment, Ava realizes one important truth: that she’ll never be happier than when she can make Arthur happy.

 

TBC