Chapter 1: 1
Vigilance was second nature to Hosea; it wasn’t something he could just turn off, even when surrounded by family in a guarded camp. A lifetime on the run had taught him what to look for when it came to having too much of someone’s attention. Be it lawmen, rival gangs, plain-clothed marshals, rats, or even the victims themselves getting wise to his games, the master conman knew all the tricks used in clandestine surveillance. Not that he really needed to use any of that knowledge with this situation. The O’Driscoll was watching him, and he wasn’t being as subtle as he probably thought.
He would look just a little too long if he reflexively looked up at a the sound of boots on the grass and saw it was Hosea. He made darting little glances as he scrubbed the already-sparkling saddles or brushed the already immaculately-groomed horses, or polished the already-shining bridles. Say what you want about the O-Driscoll, the boy knew how to work: the horses had never looked better. Every time Hosea would glance over to catch his gaze, the O’Driscoll would dart his eyes away and go back to whatever chore he was doing with renewed vigor, greasy bangs falling over his eyes like a shield.
Hosea was pretty sure he wasn’t in any danger; the kid didn’t seem the type to try to murder him in his sleep or anything like that. And, hell, if he was than Hosea would want to congratulate him on his performance, maybe ask for some acting advice. The gang would have to start showing the new best conman in the gang some respect. Hosea chuckled to himself at the thought. No, he doubted their little O’Driscoll was scoping him out as a target in some long game of cat and mouse. In fact, he looked more like he wanted to say something to Hosea, but kept getting too nervous. Like he was just waiting for the right opportunity.
He seemed to finally get it on a boiling afternoon at Clemens Point. The day was toasty enough, but the humidity off the lake made it feel like the whole camp was under an inescapable, hot, wet blanket. Most of the chores had been put on hold for a few hours; the suffocating heat had driven almost everyone under trees and into tents to wait out the sun. The middle of camp was deserted, save for Hosea and Tilly, who were playing dominoes.
But it seemed even Tilly’s love for her favorite game couldn’t compete with the boiling afternoon, and she begged of another game in favor of reading with Mary Beth in the shade. It was then, as Hosea sat alone at the table, that the scrawny little feller seemed to gather up the teaspoon of courage in his body and put it to use.
Hosea was putting the dominoes away when the O’Driscoll crept forward, hands wringing in front of his chest and back hunched. Hosea sat back and crossed his arms, raising a playful eyebrow at the kid. “Finally decided to come talk to me, eh?”
The boy’s eyebrows shot up, then he looked at the ground guiltily. “Uhm, uh, yessir... it... uh...” the boy spluttered like he didn’t know how to speak.
Hosea chuckled and decided to give the kid a break. “Have a seat, boy, you’re making me nervous standing there like a rabbit in a fox den.”
The O’Driscoll did as he was told.
“What’s your name again?” Hosea asked, shuffling the dominoes and starting to set them up.
“Uh, Kieran, sir.”
“Kieran, right.” He set seven dominoes, face down, in front of the O’Drisco-Kieran, “well I’m sure you’ve been warned to not cross us by everyone in camp by now, so I won’t bore you by adding to those threats.” He set up his own dominoes, then looked Kieran in the face, his eyes steel, “just assume it all goes double for me.”
Kieran paled and gulped, nodding quickly. “I would never... I mean, I hate Colm, and I-it-“
Hosea let his face soften and held up a hand, stopping the boy’s frantic insisting, “Easy, no use getting all worked up over something that hasn’t happened yet.” He gave Kieran a stern look, “and never will.” He gestured to the dominoes as Kieren let out a barely audible sigh of relief. “You know how to play?”
Kieran shrugged, “kinda. I mean... I used to play some... when I was a boy.” For the first time, Hosea saw an emotion other than fear on Kieran’s face. Too bad it was sadness. “With my ma and pa.”
Hosea didn’t ask about Kieran’s parents; he knew by the look on the kid’s face that they were long dead. “Well, how about a game?”
Hosea tried not to cringe. Kieran seemed to think everything was either a threat or an order. Maybe he should talk to Dutch about having the gang lay off the kid a bit; after all, he was one of them now.
They played in relative silence for a few minutes. Kieran didn’t seem to know quite how to play. He hesitated, picking his pieces up and setting them back down after thinking better of it. He seemed to be guessing a lot, and looking to Hosea to gauge when his turns began and ended. Damn, the poor kid was scared to ask about the rules of dominoes: no wonder he had been so afraid to approach Hosea. Inevitably, he made an illegal move, and Hosea jokingly reprimanded him, saying he should have known an O’Driscoll would cheat.
Kieran got really jittery then, stumbling over apologies and excuses like he couldn’t get he words out fast enough. Hosea just blinked for a moment, surprised. He knew Kieran was a nervy feller, but the kid was a step away from getting on his knees and begging forgiveness over a damn table game! Hosea rolled his eyes, annoyed. This whole stuttering idiot thing was getting old. “I was only joking with you, son, look-“ He reached for the domino to correct to game, and Kieran flinched. Hosea froze and looked at Kieran hard. Had the kid really thought he was gonna get hit? Over a damn domino game? Kieran swallowed and mumbled an apology, his hair falling over his face again, uncomfortable under Hosea’s probing stare. What had happened to this kid to make him so jumpy? Granted, they had starved him and threatened him, but Hosea knew they had never actually hit him. That wasn’t how Dutch handled people. Maybe all the flinching and placating and cowering weren’t behavior learned in this camp? Arthur and Dutch had mentioned Colm had slapped the kid around a bit, but maybe it had been a lot worse with the O’Driscolls than the little they saw. He wondered how long the kid had been tortured before Arthur even lassoed him off that horse.
Hosea sighed and reached for the piece again, slower this time. He spoke a bit softer, in a tone he usually only used on Jack, “I’m not angry, Kieran. Look, you can put it here instead.” He set the domino down. “I know you didn’t do it on purpose.”
After that, if Keiran looked confused, Hosea would explain any possible moves. He began to tell him when his turns began and ended, and was even able to prompt a small, shy smile from Kieran after congratulating him on a good play. Kieran picked up the rules quickly, and was even beginning to win when Hosea decided to start up another conversation.
Once Kieran seemed to be as calm as he was going to get staring at his dominoes, Hosea asked casually, “So, what did you want?”
Kieran swallowed and kept his eyes on the table, his face paling. Hosea recognized the look, and he wasn’t proud that he did. It was the look that Kieran wore when he would stare off into place as Hosea asked him, waiving a bowl of soup under his nose, where Colm was. He wanted to speak, but he was afraid. Something was holding him back.
Hosea leaned forward and quieted his voice. He was sure he could get the kid to talk with gentle nudging. “Tell me, son. Is it about Colm?”
“What?!” Kieran flinched back, nearly knocking his chair over, “No, NO!” His voice rose several octaves and re-adopted that desperate, nasally tone that Hosea was once again ashamed to recognize. So much for calming the kid down. “I already told you all I know!” He almost yelled it, frantic. Like he thought Hosea was about to drag him all the way back to Horseshoe Overlook and tie him back to that damn tree himself.
“Alright, Alright, Kieran.” Hosea held up both hands, like he was calming a spooked horse. He spoke in a calm tone once he had quieted Kieran, who had started to sweat and shiver at the same time. “then what is it?”
Kieran’s outburst had surprised Hosea, and Keiran too by the looks of it. He wrung his hands and his face reddened in shame behind his hair. “I-I’m sorry mister, I’m s-sorry, I-“ Then he went rigid and stood up quickly, eyes fixed passed Hosea, over his shoulder.
“I-It’s nothing. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to waste your time, sir.”
Damn it, what scared the kid this time? Hosea stood and called after him “wait, don’t you want to finish our game?”
“N-no, thank you, sir. I- the horses. They need me. I have work to do. I’m sorry...The horses...” He kept talking even as he left earshot in his retreat.
“What the hell was that all about?” Dutch asked, startling Hosea.
He turned to see Dutch take the last few steps to stand next to the table. “The kid’s sheepish. Wants to tell me something, but he’s too scared.”
“No, I think it’s something else,” Hosea said absently, watching the kid swipe up a brush and get to work on Silver Dollar, moving so fast he startled the horse.
Dutch’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at the kid, then he shook his head and clapped Hosea on the back. “well, keep me updated”
Chapter 2: 2
Thank you guys so much for the comments and kudos! It really gave me the confidence to keep writing, and I appreciate you so much!
I hope you enjoy :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hosea was the one doing the watching for the rest of the day. He kept trying to catch Kieran’s eye, but the boy wouldn’t so much as look up from his chores. And, when Hosea did approach him, the kid would skitter away. Kieran was damn near running from him! Eventually Hosea just didn’t have the energy to corral the kid; he threw up his hands and let the matter drop.
He tried not to think on it too much: after all, it probably wasn’t time sensitive if it wasn’t about Colm. ‘Prettified little feller could just wanna ask about a new shoe for a horse or more feed, or something,’ he though as he settled into his cot for the night. More than likely, it was something small, and the poor kid was torturing himself and making a mountain out of a mole hill. Yeah, that had to be it...
“Goddamnit!” Hosea hissed, tossing aside his blanket and giving up the prospect of sleep. It must have been passed midnight, and Hosea had been in bed for hours without getting a wink of sleep. What had Kieran wanted? What had made him so skittish? What was he going to tell Hosea? It was bugging him, whatever it was! He had to know, damnit! It was keeping him up!
He stood and pulled his boots on. That damn O’Driscoll probably got himself all worked up over asking for money for a new bridle or something, and had made Hosea think it was some big deal. He jerkingly pulled on his vest over his nightshirt and stomped across the camp to that stupid little fire the boy slept next to. Too nervous to even sleep next to the others! Hell, he was probably acting all squirrelly just from trying to say ‘hello’ for the first time!
Damn kid, giving Hosea the jitters from being so damn spooked all the time. Hosea huffed, tired and frustrated, and fumbled with his vest buttons as he made his way to where the horses were dozing. He was going to solve this mystery once and for all then get some goddamn shut-eye.
The only lights in the camp at this time of night were the last dying embers of the fires and the occasional spark of a firefly in the distance, but the half moon lended just enough of a glow that Hosea could see the camp well enough to get around. the cacophony of insects, frogs, toads, and who-knows-what screaming and chirping and yipping and clicking and croaking was so loud it drowned out the the crunches of Hosea’s boots on the gravelly dirt. Hosea swatted at a mosquito that had added its buzzing to the grating symphony. No wonder he couldn’t get any sleep: even the ‘quiet’ nights in this part of the state were deafening with critters and crawlers and slimy slither-ers. He hoped the gang moved on soon; he hated the south.
The walk was solitary. He was the only one up, it seemed; everyone else was in their tents asleep. Well, except Uncle, who Hosea nearly tripped over, passed out smack dab in the center of camp. Grumbling to himself, Hosea fought the urge to kick the old goat. Instead, he rubbed his hand over his face and kept walking. Damn, he was irritable when he was tired.
The walk to the outskirts of the camp gave Hosea enough time to cool his simmering anger. He was calm enough, at least, to not shout for Kieran to get his scrawny ass out this second. “Kieran?” He called quietly, surprising himself by keeping the annoyance out of his voice. “Are you out here?”
No one was next to the fire, but it was still burning somewhat. Been fed in the last hour or so, he figured, so the boy had to have been at least awake then. Maybe Kieran didn’t sleep by the fire. Did he sleep near the horses? Hosea wove carefully around the snoozing animals, avoiding swatting tails and gently brushing their flanks with his hands as to not startle them. He didn’t see the kid anywhere. Against the trees maybe? Hosea walked an arc around the trees in the outer edge of camp. No, not that he could see.
In fact, after a cursory check around the camp, Hosea couldn’t find the kid at all. A sinking feeling began to form in his gut. He must have been here, awake, an hour ago to have kept his fire going. Where had he gone? Did he desert his camp? Did he go back to the O’Driscolls? No, that didn’t make sense: they’d take his head off and he knew it.
Hosea froze. His blood turned to ice. Did he go to the sheriff?
There was a damn high bounty on their heads, and any sheriff with half a brain would be happy to grant amnesty to some lowly O’Driscoll boot boy if it meant gettin their hands on the Van der Linde Gang. Hosea was making his way to Dutch’s tent as the pieces all fell into place. That kid had been acting weird for.. well, since he got here, but he’d been acting even weirder in the last few weeks. He’d been real quiet, watching everybody, all skittish and hunched over. He’d been waiting for his time, afraid to get caught! Maybe he’d been trying to decide whether or not to desert, and that’s why he’d been up so late tonight. And that morning, had he been about to warn Hosea about the law coming? Hosea had always been kinder to the kid than most after he got back from Six Point Cabin; maybe the Kieran didn’t wanna see him hanged. So, that meant It had to have been Dutch that scared the kid off as he walked up behind Hosea! It all made sense! He had to warn Dutch! The kid was probably half way to Rhodes by now! They had to catch him!
He stopped and knocked on the beam holding Dutch’s tent up. If it had just been Dutch in there, he would have burst in, but he didn’t want to risk seeing Molly indecent. “Dutch! Get out here! It’s important,” he whispered. There was no use waking the whole camp. If they were lucky, Arthur and Charles could track the boy down and bring him back before he made it to town. Then they could just let Bill have him, put those gelding tongs to use.
There was a faint glow light coming from inside the tent, so Dutch must have still been awake. He heard shuffling and what sounded like Dutch whispering harshly to someone. He couldn’t make out the exact words, but he sounded almost... threatening. Damn, were they fighting again? He expected to hear Molly’s shrill rebuttal , but he only heard shuffling and the sound of a belt-buckle jingling. What the hell? He listened closer, and heard the unmistakable word, “stay,” in a commanding whisper. Hosea bristled. He would have to have a talk with Dutch about that: you didn’t speak to a lady like a misbehaving dog! But they had bigger problems at the moment.
Dutch opened the curtain a sliver, and slipped out, blocking any view of the interior of the tent from Hosea. “What!?” He hissed, hands on his hips and head down, and staring daggers at Hosea from under his dark eyebrows. Dutch was.. disheveled. He was only wearing wrinkled pants and a button up shirt with most of the top buttons undone. His hair was wild and damp with sweat, his cheeks were flushed, and he was slightly out of breath and trying to hide it. He smelled like liquor.
Hosea had stumbled on this look a handful of very very VERY awkward times since they’d started riding together, and Dutch had encountered him in similar.. positions. It was just how life was when adults lived in close quarters, and there was only one way to properly navigate the situation: ignore the knowledge at all costs, and don’t- don’t EVER- glance below the belt or ask why they’re winded.
So, Hosea didn’t comment on Dutch’s state, or ask why he had been awake with the lights off. “I can’t find the O’Driscoll,” he whispered frantically, “I don’t know where he would have gone, but i think he might’ve-“
“what- Kieran?” Dutch looked surprised for a split second, then scoffed, rolling his eyes, “He ain’t gone,” He said irritably, “I know where he is. Get back to bed.” Dutch turned to go back inside, but Hosea stopped him.
“Well, where is he, Dutch?” Hosea was angry now. Dutch didn’t seem to understand that they could be in danger and just wanted to get rid of Hosea so he could go back to plowing Molly. “‘Cause, I’ve looked all over camp, and I ain’t seen him.“
Dutch squeezed the bridge of his nose and sighed like he was speaking to someone incredibly stupid and his patience was wearing thin. “He... went fishing. Said he’d camp out on the other side of the lake to catch some in the early morning.”
Hosea blinked. Kieran, taking initiative? Didn’t sound like him. He opened his mouth to protest-
Then, Dutch’s shoulders relaxed, and he smiled, putting his hand on Hosea’s shoulder, nudging him subtly forward, walking him towards his own tent. “In fact, that’s what he was asking you about today, or, I guess yesterday now. He wanted permission for his little excursion. We talked in the evening, and he headed out after sunset.”
Hosea frowned as they neared his tent. That didn’t sound right at all. Who would go on a hike over unfamiliar territory at night? Much less the spineless horse boy? And, besides, the kid was stupid, but not stupid enough to think he’d be more useful as a fisherman than as a stable hand? And...
And, for just a moment, Dutch had that pinching in his left eye that meant he was lying. “My friend, I appreciate your concern, but there’s no need for it.” He gave Hosea’s shoulder a comforting squeeze and gestured to the horses, “don’t believe me? That nag, Brandy or whatever, is still here. Kid loves that horse, would never leave it willingly.” He smiled, and this time his eyes held nothing but truth. “Go get some sleep, my friend. We’re safe here, I swear to you.”
Hosea nodded, feeling a bit silly, getting all worked up over nothing. It all made perfect sense: the kid was nervous to take initiative for the first time, but wanted to be a bigger part of the camp. Dutch vouched for the kid, and that was good enough for Hosea. Yeah, some things didn’t seem quite right, but, if Dutch said he was fine, than he was. He went back to his cot and got some much-needed shut eye now that all that business was behind him. It was only when he was just on the cusp of sleep that two questions occurred to him: why had the kid not ridden his horse to the fishing spot, and why had he been afraid to talk in front of Dutch that morning?
Thank you for reading! Constructive criticism is still greatly encouraged: I’m trying to improve my writing.
Sorry if this chapter seems less put together than the first one: I really wanted to get it out tonight, so I rushed it a bit. I’ve been really busy lately, so I haven’t been able to work on this, like, at all. I’ve got more free time now, though, so hopefully I’ll be able to post better/longer chapters!
Thank you again!
Chapter 3: 3
I hope you enjoy! You guys are all so kind, and it’s given me so much confidence!
As always, any constructive criticism is appreciated!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The coffee tasted like shit, as usual, but Pearson had managed to scrounge up a half-decent porridge for breakfast. At least, Hosea was pretty sure it was porridge. What ever it was, Hosea had to eat it cold after waking up late. Still, Hosea wasn’t going to complain: he figured he was lucky there was anything left for him at all. Hosea sipped his coffee and ate his food mechanically, exhausted and heavy-eyed after last night’s adventures. He was a little embarrassed. Not only had he interrupted Dutch and Molly’s lovemaking, which in and of itself made Hosea cringe, but he had done it for no other reason than that he was a paranoid old man. Of Course the kid hadn’t deserted! Of course Dutch would know where all the members of his gang was! He just had to have some faith! He had made a real fool of himself last night, and he was thankful to Dutch that he didn’t mention it this morning or comment on Hosea’s late start of the day.
Still, Hosea was vigilant and cautious by nature, always thinking, always observing. It was what had kept his head out of a goddamn rope all these years, and he couldn’t just turn of his critical thinking. Something just didn’t sit right. Hosea tried to shoo the doubts away, but the questions buzzed around in his head like the damn mosquitoes, unwelcome and in seemingly infinite numbers. Every time he swatted one away, another would take its place, buzzing away. The kid was afraid of Dutch— hell, the mere sight of him had chased Kieran away the previous morning, despite all of Hosea’s best efforts— so, how would he have the courage to approach him about a fishing plan just hours later? Had Dutch talked to Kieran? That didn’t sound like him: Dutch had too much on his mind to worry about what was going on in some boot boy’s head. And, his horse, Branwen? So, putting aside the idea that Kieran had just magically grown both a spine and a brain AND had used those new tools to come up with some unneeded fishing trip, why would he walk instead of ride? Especially if he thought he’d be lugging fish back with him? And why leave at night of all times? Hosea rubbed his eyes. It. Just. Didn’t. Make. Any. Damn. Sense.
But, if Dutch vouched for the kid, then Hosea did too. He just had to trust Dutch. Have some faith. He was making something out of nothing. It was just a badly-planned fishing trip. There wasn’t anything wrong. God, just stop thinking about it!
Hosea looked up to see Arthur leading his white Arabian mare towards Pearson’s wagon. On the back and sides were several large fish, a fine-looking turkey, and two not-so-fine wolf pelts. Arthur had his hand on the horse’s neck, patting, while he looked at Hosea, concern lining his face.
“Arthur,” Hosea smiled, pride swelling his chest to see his son pulling his weight in the camp and then some, “Been out hunting?”
Arthur grinned proudly, shifting the rifle on his shoulder, “Yeah. God a new rifle in Rhodes, a varmint rifle, and some new fishing gear.” He gestured to the mare, “Eric and I’ve been testing ‘em out. Got a pristine turkey!”
“Good work, son. Pearson’ll be-“
Mrs. Grimshaw swatted Arthur on the back of the head with a newspaper, somehow sneaking up on both of them despite her incessant stomping. “Arthur Morgan, you get that damn horse of yours out of the camp THIS INSTANT! You know the rules!”
Arthur dodged another smack and grumbled, chastised, “Eric ain’t gonna do nothin’...” still, he turned the horse around and started walking out of camp, throwing an indignant look over his shoulder at the already retreated form of Mrs. Grimshaw as she stormed off, confident her command would be obeyed.
“Hey, Arthur,” Hosea called, standing from the table and jogging up to keep pace with him. He didn’t know why he was asking, but... “You didn’t see Kieran, did you?”
Arthur nodded as they strolled toward the hitching posts. Relief flooded through Hosea like a mountain spring. “well, sure. I gave him some Burdock root when I was leavin’ this morning-“
The relief spring dried up. “No, I meant when you were out of camp. Maybe when you were fishing?”
Arthur hitched the horse leaned on the post, eyebrows raised at Hosea questioningly, “As far as I know, that little feller ain’t been outside of camp since we got here. Why?”
“No reason,” Hosea forced an easy-going smile, “Dutch said he’d be out at the lake fishing, so I was just...” Just what? Verifying? Snooping? Going behind backs? Making sure Kieran was where he was supposed to be? Or making sure Dutch wasn’t lying about where Kieran was supposed to be? God, why couldn’t Hosea just mind his own business! “...I don’t know what I was doing, son.” He sighed and patted Arthur’s shoulder then walked back toward the table. “Good job on the hunt, Arthur.”
“Alright, catch ya later, then,” Arthur said absently. He stared after Hosea for a moment, his heavy brow furrowed, then he shook his head dismissively and got to work removing his spoils from Eric’s saddle.
Hosea sat back down to his breakfast, but found he’d lost his appetite. His stomach was churning nervously, and those buzzing, inescapable thoughts were coming back two-fold. Kieran had been in the camp this morning, not out fishing like Dutch said. He tried to rationalize it. Maybe he came back early. Maybe the kid got scared of the dark or something and hightailed it. Maybe Arthur was misremembering the morning. The excuses were lame and half-baked, and he dismissed them from his thoughts as quickly as they lined up. He wracked his brain for a rational explanation, something that made a lick of sense. He only found one: Kieran had never gone fishing.
So either Dutch was lying, or Kieran was. And he knew one to be a skilled liar, a man that spun webs of half-truths and fallacies for his very livelihood, and one to be a nervy, cringing kid that and needed to tell Hosea something, but afraid of the liar.
No, no, NO! Hosea stood abruptly and snatched up his bowl and cup, marching to the washing station. That was bullshit. Whatever the problem was, it wasn’t Dutch’s doing. There had to be another explanation. There had to be a reason, a plan, that Hosea just couldn’t see right now.
Then what was it? Hosea was a smart man— stupid people didn’t last long in his line of work— and he still couldn’t made head nor tail of the situation. Maybe Hosea just needed some sleep. Maybe the stress of the move was getting to him more than he thought it would. This was all probably an honest misunderstanding, and here was Hosea getting himself all riled up, just like last night. Sighing, Hosea dropped his dishes into the soapy water and rolled up his sleeves, deigning to wash them himself rather than leaving them for the girls. He needed something to do other than think.
“... oh, come on, boy! Tell us! Who’s the lucky lady! Tilly? Mary Beth? Karen? Aaaabigaaaill?” Sean laughed heartily.
“I told you.. It- It ain’t that! Just- get away from me!”
Hosea looked up from the bowl he was scrubbing. Sean was following Kieran around, nudging him playfully, as Kieran strided across camp toward the horses. “Oh, or maybe its Mrs. Grimshaw, ay? Got a taste for the elder laddies do we?”
Sean giggled and pulled at Kieran’s duster coat, making him flinch and curl away so violently he stumbled a bit. “Quit it... Please.” The last word was desperate, begging, but Sean didn’t seem to notice.
Hosea dropped the dishes and made his way over to them. “Don’t you have work to do, Sean?” Hosea called angrily as he stomped closer, making the pair stop to look at him, Sean with a childish smile, Kieran with wide, pleading eyes.
“I don’t have guard duty for another hour,” Sean wined at Hosea, then turned back to Kieran, grabbing at the duster again. “And besides, I’ve got a mystery to solve!” He grinned, yanking Kieran closer by the lapels of his duster then putting his arm around him proudly, announcing to Hosea, “Our O’Driscoll here has got himself a girlfriend, and I need to find out who!”
“I ain’t an O’driscoll!” Kieran squirmed out of Shawn’s grasp and jerked away, pulling his coat back up, flipping the collar over his neck and holding it closed tight like he was cold.
The ever oblivious Sean wasn’t deterred and continued with a cheeky smile, pointing a mock-accusing finger at Kieran, “well, be that as it may, you do have a love bite! You can’t lie about that!”
“I don’t! It- It ain’t- I told you, it’s just..” Kieran was doing that spluttering thing again, gesticulating jerkily, not actually saying anything coherent, like he had forgotten how to speak complete sentences. His face was red and his voice was getting more and more strangled, like some invisible force had its fingers wrapped around his throat. He seemed to give up speaking, and instead started wringing hands so tightly it looked like it hurt, head down, eyes glazed slightly and glued to his feet. He took a step backwards, away from Sean, like he may bolt at any second. His eyes were brimming with tears.
Hosea glared at Sean, and he waved a harsh, sweeping hand toward the rest of the camp. “Go find something better to do!” He barked.
Shawn looked taken aback and a little hurt. He gaped at Hosea, then gestured to Kieran in way of explanation. “I was just-“
Hosea put his hands on his hips, fists clenched. “He’s got chores to do, and you’re keeping him from doing them. That’s just as bad as not doing your own work, now get lost!” If he heard another excuse from that boy, so help him god...
The anger must have shown on Hosea’s face, because Shawn deflated, cheeks reddening in shame. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” He grumbled, hanging his head as he turned, “It was all in good fun...” He trudged off, hands shoved in his pockets.
When Hosea turned back to look at Kieran, he wasn’t there.
Thank you for reading!
And Sean was just trying to mess with Kieran the same way he does everyone; he didn’t realize he was being mean!
Chapter 4: 4
I hope you enjoy :)
Hosea found Kieran with the horses, where else? The kid had his back to him, resting his forehead on Branwen’s neck while the horse nibbled gently at his pant pockets. His shoulders were shaking, and Hosea could hear small sniffles and choked-off little sobs. The kid was trying to stay as quiet as possible.
Hosea kept his voice low, gentle. He didn’t want Kieran to bolt again. “Kieran? You alright, son?”
Kieran’s back stiffened, and the quiet sobs stopped at once. One hand snapped to his face, wiping furiously while he snorted snot back into his nose. He turned to Hosea quickly with an unconvincingly innocent, questioning look. His eyes were red and puffy, and his cheeks were still slightly wet, the skin irritated. He cleared his throat, trying and failing to be casual, to hide the way his voice cracked when he croaked, “I’m fine.” His lip trembled slightly, and his watery eyes were glued to the ground, staring with desperate intensity, like he was begging it to swallow him up. “Can I do somethin’ for ya, mister?”
Hosea tilted his head down, trying to get into his line of sight and make Kieran look at him. “What’s wrong, son?” When Kieran didn’t respond, Hosea took a step forward, slowly, still studying the boy. Kieran tried to take a responding step back, but he only managed to bump into Branwen, who may as well have been a brick wall, unwilling to move from her grazing spot. Hosea stepped forward again, hands held up slightly, as if to show he meant no harm, “It’s alright, son.” Hosea took another careful step toward him.
Kieran’s breath sped up, sweat beaded on his forehead, and his eyes began to dart around quickly. Whether he was looking for possible escape routes or just avoiding eye contact, Hosea didn’t know. Probably a bit of both. “It-It, I’m not- I mean- uh-“ His voice had that strangled quality to it again, and his small movements were jerky and hesitant, hands moving in and out of his pockets. He got more frantic when Hosea took the final step so that he was within arm’s reach. He began to search in earnest for an escape route, head swinging form side to side desperately. It was when Kieran turned his head to the side, still looking for a way out, that Hosea saw it.
An angry, red and purple bruise on the spot just below where his neck met his shoulders. Without thinking, Hosea reached for it, tugging Kieran’s shirt down and moving the duster out of the way with one hand to get a better look. The boy let out a gasp that sounded like a sob then stilled, seeming to hold his breath. His eyes went misty, and he stared off into space, away from Hosea. His lip started quivering again.
It was a love bite, just like Sean said. A rough one, too. A twin pair of painful-looking, red half-moons framed a deep purple hickey. It takes effort to make a hickey that color, more than the normal amount of pleasurable sucking, and the bite had small spots of dried blood where the teeth had broken through the skin. “Shit, boy. Who did this to you?” Hosea asked, disgusted.
Kieran just trembled, still staring off at nothing. Hosea could almost feel the mortification radiating off him in waves. He put Kieren’s clothes back into place, covering the mark. A big, silent tear spilled down Kieran’s cheek, gliding down his jaw and dropping to the ground.
That horrible, sinking feeling returned to Hosea’s stomach. His brows knitted together and his mouth went dry as realization slapped him hard in the face. He was struck with a wave of terrible pity. Sure he didn’t know the specifics, but he wasn’t a big enough fool to not be able to read between the lines. The pieces of the Kieran’s puzzling behavior fell into terrible synchronicity in Hosea’s mind. Damnit, the kid had been hurt, bad. And not just where that awful mark was. God, he hoped he was wrong. Hoped he was being a paranoid old man, making something out of nothing... But he had to know for sure.
Hosea put his hands on Kieran’s shoulders, giving them a reassuring squeeze, trying to ground him. “Kieran?” He asked gently, and got no response. His left hand moved to Kieran’s neck and jaw, gently turning his head to look at Hosea. Only after Kieran’s wide, frantic eyes finally flicked up to meet Hosea’s did he continue in a whisper, “Did someone hurt you?”
Tears spilled down his cheeks freely, and Kieran let out a sharp sob, body still rigid and shaking, eyes still locked on Hosea’s. “No,” he choked, but his eyes seemed to beg Hosea not to believe him.
Kieran was afraid, and that made Hosea angry. Real angry. He didn’t let it show on his face, lest Kieran think it was directed at him, but Hosea felt like hellfire was crawling up his spine. O’Driscoll or not, this kid was part of HIS gang now. His family. Kieran was HIS boy, just as much as Arthur or John or Lenny or Sean or anyone else in this camp. And one of his boys was hurt. One of his boys was hurt so bad, and afraid to tell, afraid to ask for help.
Someone had hurt one of his boys.
And Hosea was going to fucking gut whoever it was.
Chapter 5: 5
Tw for self-harm in this chapter (very mild, but still)
I hope you enjoy :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hosea took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He could be angry later. Right now, Kieran needed comfort, not revenge. “Son, I don’t think I believe you,” He said, smiling sadly.
Kieran just sobbed brokenly, head hanging low. He seemed to give up any pretense of pretending he was fine for a moment, and Hosea was able to see past the boy’s shell to the raw agony beneath. God, he looked awful. Back hunched like there was a tangible weight on him, dark circles under his red-rimmed eyes, and face contorted like he was in physical pain. But the worst part was the crying. Not because he was crying, but because he was still trying so damn hard to be quiet about it, like he was afraid he’d be caught. Like he felt like he still wasn’t safe from whoever had threatened him, even here. In camp. Home. With his gang surrounding him. With Hosea.
“Ok,” Hosea said, sliding his hands down Kieran’s shoulders and rubbing his arms comfortingly. He looked around: no one else in camp had noticed them, which was probably for the best. “Ok,” First thing first: calm the kid down. Go from there. Kieran sniffled, looking down at the ground again. “Ok, son. It’s alright. Let’s sit you down, now.” He let go of Kieran, leaving one hand resting on his shoulder to guide him to his little camp. He sat Kieran down on a log near the fire and, after a moment of hesitation, sat next to him.
Kieran was fully crying now, and trying to stop, his hands over his face and shoulders hunched, shaking with gasping sobs. Hosea put an arm around him and squeezed him in a half-hug. “M’sorry, m’sorry... I-Didn’t-mean.. I’m-ok-you-don’t-have-to-“
Hosea shushed him and automatically moved his hand to Kieran’s back, rubbing soothing circles like he used to do when Arthur was young and would wake up from a nightmare. “It’s alright, son. Let it out. No one’s angry with you. It’s alright...”
Kieran kept apologizing, gasping and jerking under Hosea’s grasp. Kieran’s hands moved upwards, gripping his own hair and curling into fists, pulling hard. Too hard. “M’sorry-m’sorry-m’sorry... M’sorry...” He repeated it like a mantra as he yanked at his hair.
Shit, the kid was having a panic attack. Hosea moved to crouch in front of him and took his hands gently, uncurling his fingers and moving them away from his scalp. “Alright, son. Let’s not do that...”
He didn’t fight Hosea like Arthur would when he was a child, and Hosea would catch him scratching at his arms. Kieran just surrendered, shoulders hunched and head hung low in shame. “M’sorry...” He whispered between sobbing gasps for air.
“It’s alright son, it’s alright,” Hosea reassured, “You don’t need to apologize. Can you take a deep breath for me?” The kid was gonna hyperventilate if he didn’t calm down.
“M’tryin’-M’sorry-m’tryin’-but-I-can’t-I-can’t-“ He was gasping now, near full-on hyperventilating, eyes wide with mortal terror. “I-can’t-breath-I-can’t-Mr-Matth-ews“ He broke off with a wheeze. Goddamnit, Hosea had to get him to calm down or he’d pass out.
“Kieran, look at me.” Hosea’s voice was firm, and Kieran’s eyes snapped to his face on reflex. “I need you to close your mouth and breath in through your nose, ok? Like me.” Hosea demonstrated, taking a deep breath through his nose, “try to match my breathing.” He breathed out slowly. “You can do it. You just need to calm down.”
At first, Kieran couldn’t do it. His mouth opened involuntarily when he tried to inhale, and his exhales were staccato and quick, cutting to trembling gasps. Hosea kept breathing slowly, encouraging Kieran to copy him, and after several minutes of this the kid had calmed down some, the frantic sobs and gulps turning to sparse hiccups. He kept his eyes on Hosea. “That’s good, Kieran. Just breathe. It’s alright.” The boy’s breathing was still shaky, and his eyes were still brimming with tears, but at least he didn’t think he was going to die right this second anymore.
A few more minutes of deep breathing and gentle encouragement from Hosea, and the tears finally stopped pouring down Kieran’s face. A minute or two later his eyelids started to droop. Panic attacks were exhausting by themselves, but Hosea had no doubt the kid hadn’t had a full night sleep since... well... who knew. Certainly not since joining their camp and probably not with the O’Driscolls either.
At least he’d get a good nap out of all this. “You should lay down,” Hosea said gently, “Sleep for a bit.”
Kieran shook his head, “no... I-I gotta take care of the horses.”
“You can take care of ‘em after.”
“Somebody’ll see me lazing ’round and kick me awake,” Kieran said, standing shakily, eyes darting around again like he was already anticipating a boot to his face.
Hosea tugged him back down. “I’ll sit with you. No one’ll come near you.” There was a double-meaning to offer that Kieran understood but couldn’t quite believe. That was ok Hosea decided. He was trying to help the kid; he wasn’t looking for implicit trust from him. He wasn’t Dutch. Whether Kieran believed it or not, he was under Hosea’s protection. No one would come near Kieran, whether it be to bully him in camp or to... anything else.
Kieran stared at Hosea, hope and doubt warring behind his tired eyes. “You won’t leave? You won’t let anybody...”
Hosea fixed Kieran with an intense stare. “I promise.”
Kieran nodded slowly, still looking unconvinced. “Ok...” He curled up on his bedroll, giving Hosea one last wary look as he did.
Hosea settled himself back on the log next to the fire, just a few feet from Kieran. He picked up a stick and started poking at the fire, making a show of planning to be there a while. Kieran kept opening his eyes to look at Hosea, like he was checking that he was still there.
“Uh.. Mr. Matthews?” Kieran’s voice was small, hesitant.
“Call me Hosea.”
“Oh. Ok. Um.. Mr. Hosea?”
“Yes, Kieran?” Amusement seeped through Hosea’s worry.
Hosea smiled and looked back at the fire, pretending not to notice Kieran opening his eyes to look at him every few seconds, then every few minutes, then they stayed closed. Only after he heard soft snoring did he sit back and cross his arms tightly over his chest, the stick still clenched in a white-knuckled grip. The calm demeanor he’d kept up for Kieran’s sake slipped away, leaving burning rage underneath. He glared into the fire, feeling the anger he’d pushed down swirl back up with a vengeance. Adrenaline spiced the back of his tongue, and he clenched his fists so hard his hands hurt.
The only consolation was that it wouldn’t happen again. Hosea wouldn’t let it EVER happen again. But it wasn’t enough. Someone was going to pay for this. Dearly. He tossed the stick into the fire and watched it catch and pop and writhe in the flames, feeling a flicker of surrogate gratification while he watched it burn. Someone was going to burn for this. Hosea would make sure of it.
Thank you for reading!
Once his temper had cooled, Hosea relaxed against the log in front of the fire and watched the flames. There really wasn’t much else he could do without moving from this spot. He briefly considered leaving and grabbing a book to bring back and pass the time, but decided against it. He didn’t want Kieran to wake up and find him gone, even if just for a moment. He didn’t want to risk breaking the delicate trust he’d managed to foster in Kieran. Hosea had promised the boy he’d stay until he woke up, so he was going to stay until Kieran woke up.
So, Hosea sat and thought. He gathered up the tangled threads of what he’d learned and started the arduous task of unraveling them and laying them each out carefully. He had to see each fact individually first, then maybe he’d be able to connect them into a cohesive narrative. Something that made a lick of damn sense.
One, most obviously: Kieran had suffered abuse, and that abuse had most likely been— Hosea felt his nose wrinkle in disdain and that same righteous fury spark in his chest— sexual. He pushed the anger back down. It wouldn’t help him right now. Wouldn’t help Kieran. He had to think. He had to know where to aim that rage before he made use of it. Hosea took a slow breath and let it out. Focus. He laid down the next thread.
Two: It had either happened more than once. The kid had come to Hosea yesterday for help because he knew it would happen again. And Hosea hadn’t helped. He hadn’t realized. Guilt rose up, forming a lump in Hosea’s throat, before he smashed it down to that same deep place in his belly the anger now simmered, dormant. Beating himself up wouldn’t help Kieran.
Three, as much as Hosea hated to admit it: It had been Dutch’s appearance that had spooked Kieran back into silence. Granted, it could have been that ANYONE interrupted their conversation, not particularly Dutch, but Hosea had to consider all of the possibilities. So, from this thread he knew either Kieran was too embarrassed to tell anyone but Hosea— still a likely possibility, and the one Hosea hoped was true— or Kieran was particularly afraid to say anything in front of Dutch.
Four: Kieran had been out of the camp last night, and Dutch had covered for him. Hosea didn’t know where Kieran had been, but he could only assume the worst. More than likely, Kieran had gotten that awful mark on his neck while he was out of camp. It sickened Hosea to think that Dutch would let Kieran go off somewhere in the middle of the night to be... No. Dutch would never do that. Dutch knew Kieran wasn’t in camp, but he couldn’t have known that something like THIS was happening. If he had, he’d have put a stop to it immediately. Kieran wouldn’t have needed to come to Hosea.
But somewhere, in the back of Hosea’s mind, a traitorous voice whispered that Dutch HAD been acting rather odd lately. He was distant. Not willing to speak to Hosea as candidly as he used to. He walked around camp like a prize cock in a henhouse, but Hosea could see past the false bravado. Dutch had lost that quiet, scheming confidence that Hosea knew so well and, worse still, could sense Dutch’s rising anxiety. He could hear it in the desperate, irritable way he fought with Molly and in the accusations and suspicions he tossed around camp almost at a whim. Dutch wanted the gang to have faith in him, but, as foolish as it sounds, Hosea didn’t think Dutch had faith in himself anymore. For the first time since they’d met, Hosea didn’t believe Dutch had a plan. He had never met the Dutch who wasn’t in full control, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that that man was very different than the Dutch he’d known for so many years.
Hosea pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. His head hurt. He couldn’t put together a puzzle when he didn’t have all the damn pieces! What he needed was more information. He needed Kieran to tell him everything. But the kid was scared shitless of.. what? Dutch? Someone else? The only person the kid didn’t seem to be afraid of at the moment was Hosea, and that was just barely. Who knew if the kid would even be willing to talk about something so personal.
The only other person in the equation was Dutch. Despite all the confusion, Hosea was sure Dutch only had the best intentions at heart. This had to just all be a huge misunderstanding.
He needed to talk to Dutch. Get this whole thing settled once and for all.
Hope you liked it! :)
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
I’m still alive! So sorry for the hiatus! I hope you guys enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hosea was pulled from his thoughts by Kieran’s quiet whimpering. Even in sleep, Kieran’s shoulders curled in, like he was trying to avoid a blow, and that nervous crease formed between his eyebrows. Hosea watched him, curious. Kieran twitched and whined, sweat beginning to form on his forehead. His head whipped back and forth blindly and he let out a small sob, “No no no...”
Hosea crouched next to him and nudged his shoulder gently, “Kieran, son, wake up.”
Kieran flinched away, “No-don’t”
Hosea spoke a little louder and gave him a firm shake, “Kieran!”
Kieran jolted, eyes wide open but still unseeing, and sat up so fast he almost head-butted Hosea. “I didn’t te-“ He cut himself off when he realized where he was. “Oh- I’m- I’m sorry,” Kieran looked at Hosea, eyes clear now and face reddening with shame. “Oh, Mr. Hosea, I’m- I’m sorry-“ He didn’t seem to know what he was apologizing for.
“It’s alright, son. You were having a nightmare.” Hosea patted Kieran’s shoulder.
Kieran sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Hosea was pretty sure the kid wouldn’t, but... “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Uh.. No, no thank you.. I mean, if that’s ok with you.” Kieran stood shakily, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “I should- I should get back to the horses.” He backed away, smoothing down his duster nervously, “Thank- Thank you for... For...” he waved a hand vaguely to the fire and where Hosea was still sitting, “this.” He turned and almost ran back to the horses, but Hosea scrambled up to follow him.
“Son, I think we need to talk about-“
Kieran ducked between Brown Jack and Eric, weaving through the animals like he was trying to lose Hosea in a maze, “There’s nothin’ to talk about, sir. I- I was just- I was just tired. I’m alright now.” He ducked out of sight.
“Kieran, wait a second-“ Hosea didn’t know how the kid had gotten behind him, bucket in hand, so fast, but he spun to see Kieran’s back as the kid speed-walked to the water barrel. Hosea jogged to catch up with him. “Son, we both know damn well, that weren’t-“
When Hosea was close enough, he reached for Kieran’s shoulder, but the kid ducked out of his grasp and filled the bucket in the same movement. He expertly kept the water barrel between them as he rounded it and marched back toward the horses, the water sloshing out of the bucket to soak his grimy jeans. “It was nothin’ Mr. Mathews!” He was starting to sound desperate, his voice taking on that nasally quality. He was almost running, most of the water in the bucket ending up in a trail of puddles behind him. “I was just bein’ silly, and-“
“Damn it, Kieran!” Hosea was winded trying to keep up with the kid. The little feller could be down-right slippery when he wanted to be. “I can’t help you if you don’t-“
“Please Mr. Mathews, just- just drop it-“ Kieran was begging him, his voice low and frantic as they made it to the already-full water trough, and Kieran poured what little water was left in the bucket into it.
“I ain’t gonna just drop it,” Hosea hissed. He grabbed Kieran’s arm and turned the kid to look at him. “You’re one of us now, and-“
“What the hell are you two doin’?”
Kieran’s face contorted in horror. They both turned to see Dutch making his way to them, carefully avoiding the mud trail they had left.
Hosea didn’t understand why the sight of Dutch had scared the kid so bad, even worse than it had the first time, in fact. And he understood even less when he instinctively put Kieran behind him, like he was protecting him from Dutch.
Hopefully I’ll have this finished in the next chapter or two. The ending may be a bit abrupt, but I wanted to make sure I finished it. Thank you guys so much for the comments and kudos, and, as always, constructive criticism is encouraged!
Almost done! Thank you guys so much for the comments and kudos! It really encourages me to keep going!
This chapter’s a bit longer, and maybe a tiny bit clumsy, but I hope you guys still like it!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Goddamnit, he was going to solve this here and now! If someone was hurting Kieran, Dutch would be able to make it stop with a word. “Dutch, someone’s been...” He turned to glance at Kieran, who seemed too terrified to move. No help there then. “... erm... harassing-” that wasn’t quite the right word, but he wanted to protect the man’s pride, “-Kieran, here.” He put a hand on the kid’s shoulder, trying to be comforting. This wouldn’t be easy, but maybe Dutch could get through to the kid? After all, he was DUTCH for crying-out-loud! If anyone could help, he could! “Kieran, All we need from you is a name, and we’ll make it stop, right Dutch?”
For a second, Dutch was pale and wide-eyed, glancing between Kieran and Hosea. Then in a flash he relaxed, and an easy smile spread like butter over his face. “Aw, just some camp teasing,” he waved a hand at Hosea. “I’ll tell the boys to lay off-“
“No, Dutch, it’s more than that, it’s...” He turned to Kieran again, but the boy had his head in his hands. “Dutch, it’s...” goddamnit just say it! There’s no other way! “More.. than.. that.” Or don’t say it, you old fool. His expression seemed to communicate something more, at least.
Dutch raised his eyebrows, “That so?” Dutch peered around Hosea at Kieran. “That true, boy?”
Kieran peeked out from under his bangs and stared pleadingly at Hosea. “It’s alright, son,” Hosea encouraged gently.
Kieran, still half behind his hands, looked then to Dutch, who watched him expectantly, eyes gleaming strangely.
Then, he swallowed audibly and started to stutter out, “N-no. I was just-I mean-It-I’m not- I mean...” he looked desperately from Hosea to Dutch and back again. “It wasn’t like- I mean-“ His eyes finally settled on Hosea, big and watery and begging for something Hosea didn’t understand. “I-I’m sorry. It-“
“Maybe he’s just embarrassed,” Dutch suggested casually, circling around so that he was equidistant from both men. Kieran, if it was possible, shrank further into himself. “Got himself into a situation he’s not too proud of, and now-“
“He’s not embarrassed, he’s scared!” Hosea snapped at him. Couldn’t Dutch see that? Was he goddamn blind? Something was terribly wrong in their camp, and Dutch was picking now to play the dullard?
Dutch held up his hands. “Easy, old friend.” He sighed and scratched the back of his neck. “Listen... It isn’t what it looks like.”
Hosea crossed his arms, “oh, and do you know something I don’t?” He asked incredulously.
“I usually do,” Dutch said dryly.
Hosea gave him a withering look. Dutch and Kieran both knew something he didn’t, and being the only one in the dark, not to mention the only one wanting to fix the situation, was getting damn old. “Then please, if you would be so kind, enlighten me.”
“The truth is...” Dutch looked from Hosea to Kieran for a moment too long. Hosea had the terrible suspicion that he was thinking up a lie. Kieran was still silent and shaking, seemingly content to let Hosea and Dutch talk about him like he wasn’t there. Dutch’s left eye began to pinch slightly. His tell. Then Dutch smiled sadly, and set a fatherly hand on Kieran’s shoulder. Kieran stiffened, eyes fixed on some far away point in the woods behind them. Like he was pretending to not be here. “I’ve been letting Kieran go into Rhodes to do some work,” Dutch said, then he lowered his voice, giving Hosea a meaningful look. “The same kind of work the girls do. You can see why Kieran here didn’t want anybody finding out about it.” He smiled proudly at Hosea and squeezed Kieran’s shoulder, “He’s a good boy: wants to help the camp any way he can. Who am I to say no?”
Bile rose in Hosea’s throat. Oh, god, no. Everything made sense now. Kieran was suffering the abuse from a different person every night. He wasn’t in the camp because he was in Rhodes ‘working.’ He was afraid of Dutch because Dutch was the one putting him up to it! Cold anger simmered in Hosea’s gut. He looked to Kieran then to Dutch. “This ends now,” he said, fighting to keep his voice down, to not scream at Dutch that this was wrong. That they would NEVER need money badly enough to do THAT.
Dutch scoffed, “What, just ‘cause he’s a man doesn’t make this any less right than when the girls do it!” He crossed his arms in front of him, adopting that smug intellectual look that fit him so well, “You think the girls like doing it any more than he does?”
Hosea faltered. Dutch had a point.
Dutch pressed on, “Do you think the girls like what they do for the camp? Should the fact that he’s a man exempt him from doing the hard, demanding work we expect of the ladies of the camp, hm? And besides,” Dutch’s eyes gleamed like he was about to lay down four aces, “he offered to do it. Didn’t you, Kieran?”
Dutch and Hosea looked at Kieran, who swallowed and closed his eyes. God, he looked like he was trying to pretend he was anywhere but there. “Yes,” he whispered.
“We can’t hear you, boy,” Dutch snapped. There was a hardness, a threat, something, in Dutch’s voice that Hosea had never heard before. He looked at Dutch in shock, but Dutch’s eyes were fixed on Kieran, baleful, expectant, cruel. He had never seen that expression on Dutch’s face, and it made his skin crawl.
Kieran looked at Dutch like a mouse pleading with a rattlesnake. His shoulders hunched even further and he wrapped his arms around himself. “I- I- It’s like Mr. Van der Linde said.” He wouldn’t look at Hosea.
Dutch tilted his head and raised his eyebrows expectantly at Kieran. He wanted him to say it.
Kieran, as always, followed the command, turning to Hosea and saying quickly, “I offered to do it, Mr. Mathews. It’s just like Mr. Van Der Linde said. I- I just want to help the gang...?” The last word was almost a question, Kieran’s eyes darting to Dutch for a fraction of a second. Looking for approval. Making sure he was saying what Dutch wanted him to say. Hosea felt like he would be sick.
Dutch turned a honey-sweet smile to Hosea. “See?”
“He was probably afraid you’d kick him out of camp if he refused!” Hosea yelled, throwing his arms up. They were on the shore a quarter mile or so from camp, away from curious ears and prying eyes. Away from Kieran’s hunched shoulders and terrified flinching. Hosea didn’t want to fight in front of the boy.
“I never said that!” Dutch raised his voice to match Hosea’s, offended, “I wouldn’t threaten-“
Hosea jabbed his finger at Dutch’s chest, “Now, don’t you DARE play me for a fool, Dutch Van der Linde!” He warned, “You know DAMN WELL how to get an idea across without sayin’ it!”
Dutch scoffed, “Are you implying that I’d-“
Hosea invaded Dutch’s space, shocking him into swallowing the rest of his sentence. “You may not have planted the seed in that boy’s head intentionally,” Hosea hissed, “but you knew what he was thinkin’, and you didn’t set him right.” He turned away, pacing like an angry cougar. “You just kept on letting him think it, which is just as horrible as threatening him outright!” Hosea spat at the ground in disgust. “I’ve seen you do a lot of bad things over the years, Dutch, but,” Hosea shook his head, disappointment and hurt lacing his words more than anger now, and looked sadly at Dutch “never to our own gang. Our family.”
“He’s an O’Driscoll...” Dutch grumbled, so quietly Hosea almost didn’t catch it.
For a moment, Hosea just stood and stared. “How could you say that?” He asked in genuine disbelief. Then, furious “How DARE you say that! He saved Arthur’s life, our SON’S life, at Six Point. He’s been working his ASS OFF for YOU, Dutch, every goddamn day since!” Hosea was yelling now, screaming almost. What Dutch said was inexcusable. “Kieran’s proved himself tenfold! He’s just as much a part of this gang as anybody else!”
Dutch looked down, chastised. Hosea should hope so.
“He’s one of our boys now, Dutch.” Hosea said, gentler this time, but still edged by an accusation. One of their boys had been hurt. And Dutch had let it happen. Dutch had MADE it happen.
Dutch had the good sense to look ashamed. His shoulders slumped in a rare gesture of defeat. “You’re right. Of course, you’re right, Hosea.” he said quietly, voice breaking. “I’m sorry.”
Sorry wasn’t enough, but Hosea didn’t know what else he wanted from Dutch. It wouldn’t help anything to just stand there and yell at him, even if that’s what Hosea felt like doing. Instead, he turned away and started marching back to camp, leaving Dutch alone on the beach. They both needed some time to think.
That evening, when everyone was settling down for the night and Hosea had cooled off a bit, He went to Dutch’s tent. Dutch smoked a cigar, reclining on his and Molly’s cot. Hosea sipped awful coffee at the small table.
“Some bastard bit him, Dutch. Did you know that?”
Dutch grunted and scratched his jaw with his thumb, not meeting Hosea’s eyes.
“He was afraid to come to me,” Hosea said, concern saturating his voice. He rubbed a hand across his face. “I don’t think he’s slept in weeks. He barely eats. Only ever really talks to the horses...”
Dutch remained silent.
Hosea sighed and stared into the grain of the table, thinking. They sat in familiar, companionable silence for a few minutes, both lost in their own thoughts, then Hosea said quietly “Remember when that asshole grabbed at Tilly, back when she first started riding with us? Remember what we did to ‘im?”
Dutch’s head snapped up, “THAT was different. Tilly was still a child, Kieran’s a full-grown man.”
Hosea didn’t know why Dutch suddenly looked so offended, like Hosea had insulted him somehow or accused him of something. And honestly, he just didn’t care. He was damn exhausted, and this conversation was over as far as he was concerned. “Different or not,” Hosea stood up with a quiet groan and walked toward the door. He stopped in the doorway. “You’re not sending him out there again, Dutch.”
Dutch held his hands up in surrender as Hosea walked out. Good. Problem solved... Right?
Thank you for reading!
Thank you guys for your patience! I hope you like this chapter! Things’re about to get real messy! Thank you all for the comments and kudos that you’ve left! I know I don’t always reply to them all (I get really nervous) but I still read them all and they always make my day. Just wanted to say thank you!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
No, Hosea wasn’t a big enough fool to think everything would be just fine and dandy from now on. Still, he had expected Kieran to look just a little less depressed when Hosea joined him for dinner that night. He had expected a reaction other than barely-concealed mortal terror as Hosea assured him that he would never be sent out to Rhodes again. He had expected Kieran to look just a little bit more hopeful. Look, Hosea wasn’t expecting to see Kieran whoop and dance for joy— the kid was traumatized, he knew that— but he had at least expected Kieran to stop... shaking! He hadn’t expected Kieran’s eyes to be glazed with fear. He hadn’t expected to see tight fists shoved into his duster pockets or for him to barely touch his soup, which wasn’t even that shitty today.
Hosea put a fatherly hand on Kieran’s shoulder and only started speaking when Kieran finally looked up at him. “Kieran,” Hosea spoke slowly and clearly, looking him right in the eyes, “you will never have to go to Rhodes to sell yourself again. Do. You. Understand. Me?”
Kieran swallowed. Nodded. Looked away. A tear escaped one of his flooded eyes.
Hosea tightened his grip but softened his voice. “What are you not telling me, son?” He whispered.
Kieran rubbed at his eyes. “N-nothin’. I’m grateful, Mr. Hosea. I am. For everything. I just.. I’m... It’s...”
For a breathless moment, the air around them was thick with anticipation. He was going to tell Hosea what he’d been holding back, Hosea could see it. He could see the words crawling desperately up his throat, making their way, hesitantly and slowly, but-
But then Kieran’s shoulders curled in, and he let out the air he’d been holding in a puff. The atmosphere evaporated. The moment was gone. Kieran continued, sounding defeated “I’m just tired, sir. I.. I think I just need sleep.”
Hosea nodded and rubbed his shoulder comfortingly before pulling his hand away. He didn’t want to force it out of him. The boy would tell him when he was ready. Hosea stood up, grunting at his aching knees, but lingered a moment. He didn’t like the idea of leaving without at least trying to put the kid at ease. “Kieran, you come to me for anything, understand? Day or night. Wake me up if you need to.” He turned to leave, but stopped again and turned back around. Kieran was staring into the pitiful fire, legs pulled up to his chest and chin resting on his knees. He looked so young. Hosea crouched next to him again. “It really is over.” Hosea tried to put as much resolve in the words as he could. Tried to make Kieran understand. “And if Dutch tries to take you back out there, you come to me. Immediately. Understand?” But, of course, he didn’t really need to add that last part. Because Dutch wouldn’t do that. He had promised Hosea. Dutch wouldn’t go behind his back.
Kieran nodded. More silent tears. His adam’s apple bobbed. Hosea’s heart broke a little.
Before He could stop himself, he had reached out and ruffled Kieran’s hair affectionately, like he often did with Jack. To his surprise, that earned him a quivering smile. He stood again and made his way to the rest of the gang. Maybe the boy just needed his privacy for a while. Maybe Hosea was being overbearing. He’d check in on him later tonight.
Arthur was shoveling cold soup into his mouth as Hosea passed by him on the way to Kieran’s place. Hosea stopped and stared at him for a moment, lip curling. Arthur snorted up the soup like a wild animal, nearly choking he was eating so fast. Hosea frowned, disgusted. “No one’s gonna take that away from you, Arthur. Have some manners.”
Arthur drained the last of the broth in his bowl then belched loudly. Hosea was surprised he didn’t start licking the bowl. “Been out all day. Hungry.”
“Boy, I did not teach you to read and write and use your manners for you to say to an old man,” Hosea lowered his head and grunted in a parody of Arthur’s raspy voice “‘me hungry. Me out all day. Me need soup. Me-‘“
“GODDAMNIT, HOSEA, I GET IT!” Arthur snapped suddenly. He stormed over to the washing barrel and slammed his bowl in, splashing soapy water back up to soak into his own shirt.
Hosea just watched, eyebrows raised, waiting out the tantrum.
Arthur growled and stumbled back, irritable. He looked down at his soaking clothes and seethed for a moment, trying to control his anger.
Hosea bit his lip to keep from laughing.
“goddamnit...” Arthur’s shoulders slumped, and he sighed, done with his little outburst. He turned to Hosea. “I’m sorry,” he grumbled, looking at the ground.
Hosea smiled fondly. He was used to Arthur’s brief temper tantrums. He wasn’t usually bothered by Hosea’s ribbing; he was upset about something else and misdirecting his energy. “What’s really bothering you, son?”
Arthur sighed and scrubbed a hand across his face. “It’s nothin’, Hosea... it’s just...”
Hosea waited patiently for Arthur to gather his thoughts.
“It’s Dutch, Hosea. He’s... He’s just not himself. He..” Arthur leaned closer, lowering his voice. “Sometimes I don’t think... Hosea, sometimes it’s like he don’t have a plan. And the way he’s been treatin’... well...” Arthur trailed into silence.
“Go on, son.”
Arthur hesitated only for a moment. He trusted Hosea more than anyone, including Dutch. “I think he’s gettin’ too rough with Molly. I walked by their tent earlier, and, Hosea, you just don’t treat a lady like that. He was talkin’ all mean. I couldn’t hear what he was sayin’, but they way he was sayin’ it was...” he trailed off. “And she didn’t argue or nothin’. That’s the worst part, I think.” Arthur shook his head, looking lost. “He just ain’t himself, Hosea. I never seen him act like this.”
Hosea nodded. He remembered hearing Dutch being rough with Molly a few nights back, but all the shit that’s been going on with Kieran pushed it to the back of his mind. Damnit: Kieran. He should check up on him.
“You’re right, son. I’ve noticed it, too. I’ll talk to him about it in the morning.”
Arthur nodded absently, still unsettled.
Arthur’s problem was never thinking too little: it was thinking too much with a heart as big as his. He needed some work to do. Stop him from thinking himself into a frenzy. Hosea gave him the first job that came to mind. “Would you help me find Kieran?”
He had expected to just walk with Arhtur to Kieran’s camp, but a sinking feeling began to clench in Hosea’s stomach when he wasn’t there. Shit. Don’t panic, yet. He could be anywhere in camp. It doesn’t mean that Dutch would... No. Dutch wouldn’t. He had PROMISED Hosea.
But most everyone had already retired to bed by now. The camp was near empty, and they didn’t see him as they walked in circles. Hosea was getting more and more angry while Arthur grew more and more concerned, shooting darting looks to Hosea. “Somethin’ wrong?”
“No.. Yes.” Hosea stomped toward the girls’ tent where the muffled sound of giggles could be heard. Arthur followed behind in his wake.
“Ladies?” Hosea knocked on the side of the wagon, and the giggling was suddenly choked behind hurried hands over smiling mouths.
Karen was the one to answer. Breath stinking terribly of whiskey and still laughing. “Yes, boys?”
“Have any of you seen Kieran?” Hosea snapped.
“Kieran?” Karen laughed, “No, no boys allowed in here,” she said mock-sternly, “So you guys’d better go before-“
“Oi, let ‘em in here if they want!” Arhtur and Hosea both froze. Molly wasn’t supposed to be there. She was supposed to be in Dutch’s tent.
Karen stepped aside with a heavy sigh, rolling her eyes.
Molly stood, sort of. She was almost literally slobbering drunk and leaned heavily on a tipsy-but-concerned Abigail. “If they wanna gawk an’ laugh at how far‘ve fall’n,” she sneered and waved a half-empty gin bottle, dribbling on alcohol on tilly’s dress, “Let ‘em!” The movement threw off her precarious balance, and she stumbled into Karen’s arms. Tilly stood and supported one of her elbows, trying to keep her on her feet as well as holding her back from lunging at Hosea and Arthur. “You gonna go run t’Dutch ‘n tell ‘em everyth’n? Huh? You two g’na have a good old laugh-“ she cut herself off with a hiccup. Her face went pale. “‘M gonna hurl.” Tilly and Karen got her to the tree line in the nick of time.
Hosea stopped Abigail as she stood to hurry after the other girls. “How long has she been in here?” That terrible suspicion was growing in him again. He pushed it down down down. No, this was all some terrible misunderstanding.
“ You mean tonight? Or how long has she been sleeping here?” Abigail asked, always so innocent and confused.
Hosea put one hand on the wagon to steady himself. She hadn’t been sleeping in Dutch’s tent? No, oh, no. “How long has she been sleeping here?”
“Um, maybe a week? She and Dutch haven’t even spoken in-“
But Hosea was already turning away, stomping to Dutch’s tent. He vaguely heard Arthur’s confused reassurances to Abigail fade away, whether it was due to the distance between them or the rushing in his ears Hosea didn’t know.
Before, it had always been thousands of questions in the beginning. Lines and lines and groups of annoying, buzzing inconsistencies and suspicions, but now it was one resounding chorus screaming one question over and over and over in a terrible, synchronized cricendo: then who was in the tent- who was in the tent- whowasinthetent WHO WAS IN THE FUCKING TENT?!
Thank you for reading! I’ve almost got all of the rest written now, so hopefullly the next update will be pretty soon.
(Disregard the last note that always shows up about maybe not finishing it: I don’t know how to get rid of it lol, but I am planning on finishing this)
Constructive criticism, as always, is very much welcome!
Hosea stormed through the camp. It was fortunate that no one was around, because if anyone had gotten in his way Hosea would have bulldozed right through them. Probably without even noticing. He understood now. He understood everything. He understood Dutch’s jilted excuses. He understood Kieran’s fear. Oh, god, Kieran. The boy must have been even more terrified than Hosea had even known. And Hosea had kicked up dust! Hosea had gotten SO CLOSE only to be blinded by Dutch’s silver tongue. He had extended a helping hand while all the while unknowingly nudging poor Kieran into the lion’s den. Hosea felt sick. Hosea felt angry. Hosea hoped he was wrong. Oh, please please for the love of all that is sacred on this earth let him be wrong.
It all depended on who was in the tent with Dutch. Hosea could see Dutch’s tent now. Could see the faint light under the burlap. Dutch was awake. He had meant to yell out Dutch’s name on his way there, but something was closing around his throat. Something clenched his jaw tight sealed his lips shut. The only sound he made was the stomping of his boots on the dirt and his heavy breathing through his nostrils.
This time, he didn’t knock. He didn’t warn Dutch that he was coming inside. He threw open the burlap and charged right in.
Then he froze.
Oh no. Oh, god, no. He had been such a fool.
Kieran was in the tent.
They were on Dutch and Molly’s cot, facing Hosea. Kieran was on his back. His face was covered by the ringed fingers tangled into the hair on the top of his head. His shirt was hiked up, exposing his scrawny stomach, ribs visible under bruised skin. His duster was crumpled on the floor. Dutch was on his knees straddling Kieran, leaning over him. The hand that wasn’t yanking painfully on Kieran’s hair was on his fly.
He wasn’t Dutch. Not the the one Hosea had known all these years. His face was contorted into some sort of cruel, aggressive possessiveness. Smug power. His mouth was open, growling something quietly in Kieran’s ear. Hosea could imagine what he was saying. That no one could help Kieran. That no one cared enough to try. That Dutch had fooled the one person in the camp who had even noticed Kieran needed help. That Dutch had won. Hosea felt sick. Dutch was one goddamn coincidence from being right.
All of these terrible observations and realizations had slammed into Hosea on the half-second it took for Dutch to notice his presence and look up. He scrambled off Kieran. He was talking, lying again, Hosea knew. He couldn’t quite hear him. The rushing in his ears had become deafening. Kieran, curling up on the cot, peaked out at Hosea from under his bangs. His face was tear-streaked. His hair still knotted from where it had been grabbed like reigns on a damn horse. Still, under the pain smeared on his face, under the mortification that rolled of the boy in waves, under the fear that covered the poor kid like a cloak, there was the barest hint of hope in his eyes. A tiny crumb of relief demonstrated by the minute raising of eyebrows, the barely perceptible curl of his body towards Hosea, seeking safety, seeking comfort. Despite everything. Despite what a blind fool Hosea had been.
It didn’t matter. He was here now. He could see now. He could help now. One of his boys was hurt. It didn’t matter by whom. He would make it stoop. He HAD to make it stop. He had to make HIM stop.
Hosea wasn’t entirely sure what happened next. He had only meant to look at over at Dutch, but one moment, he was staring at a half-dressed, crying Kieran, the next he was standing over Dutch, who was splayed across the dirt outside the tent. The burlap was ripped, and through it Hosea peered at Dutch as he rubbed at his newly-bloodied nose. Hosea wasn’t glaring at Dutch. He wasn’t angry. No. He was far passed that. It felt like hellfire was licking up his spine, twisting and tingling across his muscles, over his back, through his veins so that it flared through every inch of his body. It felt like if he shook his hands sparks would fly off his fingers like water droplets. His entire body was on fire, but, somehow, he felt calm.
He did not look calm. He carefully followed Dutch through the rip in the tent and took measured steps forward. Dutch crab-crawled backwards, for a moment losing all composure, wide eyes fixed on him. Afraid of him. He should be afraid. He should be so afraid. Dutch knew better than most what happened to people that hurt members of their gang. What Hosea was willing to do. Dutch held up one defensive hand, “Now, Hosea, brother, it ain’t-“
“It ain’t.” Hosea repeated numbly, still advancing on Dutch. He had meant to scream at Dutch to shut his goddamned lying mouth. He had meant to beg Dutch to tell him it wasn’t true. He had meant to demand to wake up from this nightmare. Instead, he just kept walking calmly forward. He saw red. “It ain’t?” He whispered.
Dutch seemed to realize how pathetic he looked and scrambled to his feet, finger-combing his hair back into place, still stepping backwards. His hands were dirty, and a smear of mud ended up on his forehead. Blood dripped out of his left nostril and clotted in his mustache, dripping over his mouth. His eyes were wide and terrified, frantic. This man looked less and less like Dutch by the second. He was still backing up. “Hosea, listen to me-“
“What have you done?” It was barely a cracked whisper, but it still managed to be so much louder than Dutch’s pleading. Hosea was slowly coming out of whatever shock he had been in. His hands were shaking, so he squeezed them into tight fists. He started striding faster toward Dutch. He was balancing on a razors edge of the calmness that had just a few seconds ago kept his voice quiet and his movements slow and fluid. He was a hair’s breadth from teetering over the edge. It felt like his entire body was made of delicate, cracked china somehow filled with molten metal; one wrong move would make him shatter, and everyone around him would be pelted with burning, broken glass.
For a second, Dutch just looked at him, mouth gaping like a drowning fish, gesturing vaguely back to the tent, thinking up a lie. He finally planted his feet, stood still. That brittle, fake, reassuring smile was still clinging to his face. His left eye pinched. Then he tried to lie again, “This is all some big misunderst-“
And it was enough to make Hosea shatter.
Almost all done! I just have some editing to do, so hopefully I’ll have it all published in the next week or so. Thank you for reading!
(Ignore the note that comes after this one. I don’t know how to make it go away lol, but I will finish this.)
Thank you all so much for your comments and kudos; it really gives me the motivation to keep going.
Hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He flew at Dutch, knocking them both to the ground. Dutch’s back slammed against the hard dirt, Hosea on top of him, knocking the wind out of him. Hosea straddled him in a sloppy pin, in a near frenzy. His goal was damage: do as much damage as he possibly could. He just started punching. By the time Dutch had recovered from the shock, his face was a swollen, purple mess. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth and smeared on his cheeks from the wounds splitting Hosea’s own knuckles. Hosea had never beaten anyone this hard before, had never been this furious before. Admittedly, there was some sick pleasure in letting go to the righteous fury. It ended too quickly.
Dutch recovered from the fall and reached up to grab Hosea’s neck. Despite his rage, survival instinct took over; Hosea abandoned his assault, both hands going up to claw at Dutch’s grip. Dutch used his greater weight to roll them over. Hosea’s pin had been sloppy, driven nearly mad with rage as he was, and he was easily flipped to his back with Dutch on top of him.
Dutch did not let go of Hosea’s throat. He settled his weight on Hosea, immobilizing him, then squeezed. Panic began to drown out the anger. Hosea’s legs scraped uselessly at the dirt for leverage, but he could not get free. Hosea couldn’t breath. He couldn't break Dutch’s hold. Dutch looked crazed. Frenzied eyes in a black and blue face. Hair disheveled, curling crazily around his head like some sick parody of a crown. He looked insane. He looked like he wasn’t going to stop. He growled over Hosea’s gagging, blood and saliva dribbling out of his mouth to drip down his chin, “Listen to me, GODDAMNIT! WHY DON’T YOU LISTEN TO-“
Dutch cut himself off with a yelp. Hosea felt his weight leave him completely, all at once, his throat blessedly unobstructed. While Hosea gulped sweet oxygen, he caught a glimpse of Dutch suspended in the air, arms and legs flailing. Behind him, Arhtur had one hand hooked in his belt, the other fisted in the back of his collar.
Arthur tossed Dutch aside like a rag doll while Hosea sat up, rubbing his throat. He had only been without air for a second, maybe two, but the experience had shaken him to the core. Dutch had no intention of stopping. He had wanted to kill him, even if it had just been for a moment of lost temper, he had wanted to murder Hosea.
“What the HELL HAS GOTTEN INTO YOU TWO!?” Arhtur stood between them, looking from one to the other for an explanation.
Dutch stood and tried to make himself presentable, brushing off his vest. “Hosea-“ He was breathing heavily, both from the physical exertion and from contained rage, “Hosea ain’t well, son. He’s- He’s not thinkin’ straight-“
But Arthur had gone still, staring at a point over Hosea’s shoulder. Hosea looked behind himself to see Kieran making his way out of the rip in the tent, arms tight around himself, tears still pouring down his face, over the fresh bruise on his cheek. Arhtur was not nearly as stupid as he believed. As Dutch would have him believe. Sickening understanding dawned on Arhtur’s face. He looked back at Dutch.
“Arhtur,” Dutch begged, “It ain’t what it looks like, we-“
“No,” Hosea sneered at Dutch, “It’s worse.” He spat on the ground then went to Kieran. Dutch wasn’t worth the trouble. He picked up Kieran’s duster and draped it over the boy’s shoulders. “Can you ride?”
Kieran nodded, hugging the coat more tightly around himself.
Hosea put an arm around his shoulders. “Arthur, we’re leaving.” He marched them in the direction of the horses. “Come on.”
Dutch reached for them, “Now, hold on-“
But Arhtur blocked his way, stone faced.
“Arthur,” Dutch let out a disbelieving laugh, “Son, surely you can’t actually believe that-“
“You try to follow us,“ Arthur said, standing nose-to-nose with Dutch, “I’ll put a bullet in your head.”
Arthur ignored him. Instead, he turned and whistled for Eric who, after a bit of hesitant prancing, tossed her head and trotted into the forbidden territory of the camp. Branwen and Silver dollar followed behind her.
“Wait...” Dutch said desperately.
Kieran hopped nimbly onto Branwen, despite her not having a saddle, and hid his face in her mane. Hosea heaved himself onto Silver Dollar’s back with some difficulty. Luckily, both mounts were well-trained enough to neck-reign and sure-footed enough to ride bare-back without slipping off. Eric stuttered and stomped, uncomfortable and jittery, but allowing Arhtur to put her between Dutch and the other horses as their riders climbed aboard.
It had felt like they’d been very loud, but Hosea was surprised to see no one awake to see the commotion. Probably better that way. Hosea prodded Silver Dollar’s side with his heal, and they were off. Branwen followed obediently behind Silver Dollar, and Arhtur covered their back.
Dutch’s protests followed them into the night as they rode farther and farther away, but he did not follow them out.
It’s almost over! I hope you guys liked the confrontation. I know it probably wasn’t quite as long as it should have been, but I’m trying really hard to get it all finished on my day off. I hope you guys liked it!
The innkeeper at Rhodes seemed used to wary travelers trudging in at late hours of the night. He was also used to those travelers’ only response to his friendly greeting being gloomy silence.
He raised his eyebrows however when, despite the three men frugally opting to share a room, he was offered a wad of bills by the big fella in exchange for his discretion. “If anybody asks,” he said as the old man and the skittish little fella made their way up the stairs, “you saw us ride through town headed northward.”
“You folks in some sort of trouble?” He felt like a moron as soon as he asked, but the big man just shrugged.
“I hope not.”
It was safer to share a room. Besides, Hosea had a feeling none of them would be sleeping tonight anyway. They didn’t talk much on the ride over, and that pattern continued as they settled in for the night. Arthur took a chair from the room and excused himself to keep watch in the hall. Kieran avoided the bed, settling tiredly on the remaining chair in the room. Hosea rolled himself a cigarette and went out on the balcony.
The air wasn’t crisp like up north, but at least it wasn’t as muggy as it was during the day. Hosea wouldn’t call it cool, but without the sun beating down, the temperature was at least bearable. He leaned on the railing, keeping watch from the high vantage point. The cicadas’ cacophony of chirping was the only noise in the town this late, and Hosea meditated on it, taking in long drags of tobacco and glancing periodically around the outskirts of the town. It didn’t look like anyone was sneaking up on them. Yet.
The door opened and closed quietly. Kieran stepped forward, standing an arm’s length away and settling his hands gingerly on the wooden rail. They stood in relative silence, listening to the nocturnal insects. Hosea rolled another cigarette. “Couldn’t sleep?” He lit it up himself, then held it out to Kieran.
Kieran huffed a quiet, bitter laugh and took a grateful drag.
More silence. Hosea rolled another cigarette for himself. “I’m sorry.”
Kieran looked at him in surprise. “For.. For what?”
Hosea stared hard at the cigarette in his hand. He couldn’t make himself look at Kieran, too ashamed. “For not seeing,” he whispered, “For not realizing what... what that bastard was doing.” Finally, he met Kieran’s confused eyes. “I’m sorry for not protecting you. You were depending on me, and I let you down.”
Kieran spluttered. “Wha- you? Sorry? Mr- Mr. Hosea- I- it- you-“ Kieran took a second to gather his thoughts, “I came out here to thank you... To thank you for what you did to- To Mr. Van der Linde. For me. No one’s ever, I mean. I know- I know you two were friends, and-“
“We’re not friends anymore,” Hosea said bitterly.
“I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s not your fault, Kieran.” Hosea turned to the boy, looked him in the eyes. “None of this was your fault. It was all Dutch’s”
Kieran wrung his hands, looking away. “Maybe,” He said so quietly Hosea almost didn’t hear him.
“Maybe?” Hosea prompted.
Kieran kept his eyes down, but Hosea knew they were brimming with tears. “Maybe... If I hadn’t... told him.” His voice was strangled, working to not sob. “About... About Colm. Then. M-Maybe-Maybe he wouldn’t’ve..” He trailed off, shoulders curling in.
“You mean Six Point? Kieran, you were only doing what you had to-“
“No,” Kieran wiped his tears with the heal of his hand, “I mean later- when- when he asked me- i-if,” Kieran was visibly shaking now, both hands moving over his face, half hiding and half wiping away the incessant tears, “If Colm had... If-If Colm had ever-“ he broke off with a sob.
Hosea’s hands hovered over Kieran’s shoulders, wanting to offer comfort but wary of making him even more uncomfortable if he wasn’t ready for that yet. “It’s alright, son. You don’t have to tell me. Let’s just get you inside. Can.. Would it be alright if I help you?”
Kieran didn’t respond, but when Hosea gently put an arm around his scrawny shoulders, he leaned into the comforting touch. Hosea led him slowly inside, sitting him on the bed. Kieran had degraded completely into inconsolable sobbing, and he was beginning to wheeze. He was on his way into another panic attack. Hosea kneeled in front of him and put a hand on either side of his face. Kieran’s hands came up to grip Hosea’s wrists like he was afraid he would fall through the mattress.
“Kieran, son, try to breath with me. Like before. It’s alright: you’re safe. I’ve got you.” Without thinking, he pulled Kieran forward, squeezing him to his chest. Luckily, it was the correct thing to do for Kieran, who burrowed his face into Hosea’s shoulder. Hosea felt tears soak into his shirt as he pressed the boy closer to himself. He couldn’t help but think of Arthur and John at times like these. He had wanted to do this for them when they were young: hold them, protect them from the world for a moment. If he was being honest with himself, he still did. They had both begun to refuse his fatherly affections younger than he thought healthy; they hadn’t wanted to appear weak in front of Dutch. As much as he hated that Kieran was suffering, it was almost nice to be allowed to nurture someone. To be a father again. He held Kieran close, shushing and mumbling reassurances. He even caught himself rocking Kieran slightly at one point.
Eventually, Kieran cried himself out and pulled away. “M’sorry,” he mumbled.
“Nothing to apologize for.”
“No, I’m sorry about the gang. About Mr. Van der Linde. Everything.”
“Kieran, you didn’t do anything wrong-“
“No, if-if I had lied, he wouldn’t’ve.”
“Kieran,” Hosea shook his head, “you’re not makin’ sense.”
Kieran hid his head in his hands, “Dutch asked me- he knew what Colm- Wh-What Colm liked t-to do. He asked if- if that was why I’d been with the O’Driscolls so long.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Colm... Colm did the same thing th-that Mr. Van der Linde.. I mean, Colm, he used to..” Kieran gulped, then it all came out in a rush. “Colm did it. It’s-It’s why he kept me around. I mean, I didn’t like hurtin’ people, and-and I had nowhere else to go so Colm said- Colm said I had to make myself useful somehow. Mr. Van der Linde asked about it. He knew Colm, knew why he kept me around, and if I had just lied to Mr. Van der Linde, said Colm never did that to me, than maybe, maybe he wouldn’t have ever...” Kieran trailed off, unable to finish.
Hosea sat back, horrified. “Oh, Kieran,” he said. “Oh, son, I’m sorry.” He pulled Kieran close again, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. But none of that was your fault. None of it, you hear me?”
He felt Kieran nod against his shoulder. He doubted the boy believed him, but it would do for now.
It’s finally done! I know it ended a bit abruptly, but I really wanted it finished quickly so I could move on to other things.
Thank you all for your encouragement! It means so much to me!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
John showed up in the early hours of the morning. Hosea could hear him speak quietly to Arthur through the door, jolting him from the doze he had fallen into. He was half-laying on the bed, over the covers, with his back against the frame; Kieran was curled up to his left under the covers, snoring slightly. The first rays of dawn were just beginning to seep into the horizon, the sky still mostly dark. Hosea was just starting to quietly slide off the bed when he heard John’s footsteps fade down the stairs.
Hosea stepped out the door, closing it quietly behind him. “John here?”
Arthur nodded glaring at the ground, “Wanted to hear the story from our side,” he murmured.
“What did Dutch say happened?”
Arhtur’s jaw clenched, lip curling. “It don’t matter. Most of the camp don’t believe him.”
Hosea chuckled. “That bad, huh?”
Arhtur just grunted. Apparently he didn’t find it funny.
Silence. Hosea thought of Kieran. “So, what did you tell him?” He couldn’t imagine Kieran wanted the whole camp knowing...
“I didn’t go into specifics,” Arthur seemed to understand Hosea’s worries. “But he’s with us, and most of the gang too. They’re afraid Dutch and Micah won’t let ‘em leave. They wanna meet us in two days.”
Hosea hadn’t expected so many.
They couldn’t see them in the thick morning fog until they were only a hundred or so yards away. He, Arhtur, and Kieran waited on the outskirts of Saint Denis, close enough to a police presence that Dutch wouldn’t cause trouble and far enough away that their meeting wouldn’t be too conspicuous. He thought he was seeing things when the wagons came into view.
Jack was the first to them. He hopped off the moving wagon, much to Abigail’s frustration, and sprinted the final distance, wrapping his little arms around Hosea’s legs. Hosea picked him up and hugged him back, laughing. Charles was the second to them and padded Arhtur’s shoulder, smiling softly. “Almost everyone decided to come along. We couldn’t leave secretly like we planned.”
Shawn grinned and waved, standing up on the wagon. Mrs. Grimshaw pulled him back down by his belt loop. Javier tipped his hat aloofly. Uncle just looked annoyed to be awake that early.
Almost everyone was in the convoy. Bill, Reverend Swanson, Micah, and, of course, Dutch, were the only ones that didn’t ride away that morning.
It was overwhelming at first. Everyone looked to Hosea to lead. To decide where the convoy would go next. Surprisingly, no one seemed to connect Kieran to his and Dutch’s falling out except John and Arhtur. Hosea hadn’t meant to start a damn coup; all he had wanted was to get Kieran to safety. It was a position in which he never thought he’d find himself, but there was no use getting all worked up about it. He would do his best for his people; it was all he could do. He climbed onto Silver Dollar and led the convoy with Arhtur on his right and Charles on his left. He didn’t plan on ruling an autocracy like Dutch: he’d listen to his advisors. He wasn’t alone.
They laid low, covered their tracks. Did a lot of small jobs rather than a few big ones. No more train heists, bank robberies, or anything like that. Their goal was to survive and stay out of the lawmen’s sights long enough for the storm Dutch had brought down on them to blow over. They actually did rather well, and, slowly but surely, they were able to make their way westward.
Then Arthur started to cough. Then he got sick. Then he got sicker.
It was awful. Hosea lay awake all night in their temporary camp listening to him wheeze and cough, choking and hacking up phlegm. He almost regretted sending a grumbling Arthur to the doctor when he came back, much quieter, with news that almost knocked Hosea off his feet. Tuberculosis. That there was no cure. All they could do was hope and let him rest as much as possible. After that, he lay awake all night listening to his son die. He lay awake all night praying to whatever or whoever may be out there to let him live.
But praying never helped much of anyone as far as Hosea knew, and they had a whole camp full of people who were willing to do a hell of a lot more than pray. Everyone pitched in to take care of him. Nearly all of the money from the lockbox went to pay for medicine. Hosea worked on tonics tirelessly and near forced them down Arthur’s throat. One of the girls was always at Arthur’s bedside, both to watch over him and to make sure he didn’t sneak off to work. Lenny and John stole what medicine they couldn’t afford. Charles was able to get some herbs from the reservation after helping their chief. Even Uncle got off his ass and went into town, somehow coming back home that night with a smug smile and several doses of powerful sedatives.
It was the worst month of Hosea’s life, but, somehow, they got through it as a family. It took time. It took effort. It took money. But Arhtur, the stubborn workhorse he was, started getting better. He started sleeping through the night. Then he stopped wheezing. Then he started eating more. Then he started gaining weight back. Hosea felt himself getting more and more cautiously optimistic. Hope began to grow like a delicate flower after a long winter. It wasn’t until he watched Arthur playing a game of tag with Jack that Hosea felt himself breath easy. Arthur had beaten the odds and recovered. At least, as much as a tuberculosis survivor could. The doctor said the tuberculosis would affect him for the rest of his life. His days of being the camp workhorse, at least when it came to manual labor, were over. Not that anyone really worried too much about that; they were just relieved that he was alive. He would have flare ups from time to time, but, with enough rest, he should survive those too.
Hosea’s son lived. The gang stayed together, more or less. They laid low. They avoided the lawmen. Hosea shuddered to think how this would have turned out with Dutch breathing down Arthur’s neck all the time to get more money. If Dutch’s greed had pushed the gang into more trouble. If the gang had been on the run so much that Arthur wouldn’t have time to rest. If the gang had taken risks, lost people. If Arthur had suffered injuries due to Dutch’s carelessness. There was a very real possibility that Arthur wouldn’t have survived. Dutch would have worked him to death. Dutch would have worked them all to death.
The Mathews Gang was never famous like the Van der Linde Gang; In fact, very few lawmen ever even knew of its existence. Hosea understood that the make of a good, of a sustainable, gang was not its infamy, but its lack of reputation. The best outlaws weren’t just never caught: they were never even suspects. They kept moving. Started going westward. Kept their heads down. Didn’t make a fuss. Eventually, they somehow scraped enough money for a small ranch. It wasn’t much, but it was a place to call home and honest work... mostly.
Thank you for reading! This was my first work, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. You’ve all been so kind, and I appreciate your comments and kudos so much!
One day, I may rewrite this fic with better planning than I did this time, but right now I’m gonna start writing shorter one-shots for practice. So if you have any ideas for a short fanfic, or even just a scene, you want me to write, I’m open to suggestions :)
Thank you guys so much!