It’s been two months.
Dutch sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. Half considers taking Sheba out for a ride, to enjoy this fresh, sunny morning after all the rain they’ve had. Maybe head on over into town and see if he couldn’t find that Annabelle woman again – Dutch still thinks about their long conversation that evening, how much he’d enjoyed himself, how he hadn’t even noticed the time slipping by, she was so fascinating. But it still feels wrong, somehow, leaving the camp without first making sure Arthur’s firmly ensconced with Hosea or Susan, or at least having John keep an eye on him. He’s nowhere near as bad as he was, those first few weeks. Dutch isn’t scared that he’s going to... do something very silly, not anymore. But leaving his boy to his own devices still feels like he’s abandoning him somehow.
Dutch scrubs at his face again. He’s been in this outlaw life a long time now, and it weren’t no stroll through the park before that either. He’s lost people, knows the pain of grief. But not like Arthur now does. God, Dutch can’t even begin to imagine... And he doesn’t know how to fix it. Hosea insists that it isn’t something that can be ‘fixed’, that time’s the only thing that can help Arthur, time and understanding. But surely, surely doing something with the boy was better than letting him mope around camp, stewing in his own thoughts? At least, that’s what Dutch had initially thought. After that first month, he’d decided to do something about it. He’d taken Arthur to the saloon, figured he could get properly drunk, let it all out, have a good cry or two, nothing wrong with that, and then everything could go more or less back to normal once his hangover had cleared up. Dutch would be there to keep an eye on him, so what’s the worst that could happen?
Turned out to be one of the worst ideas of his life. It took nearly two weeks before Hosea and Susan would speak to him again.
Arthur’s doing better now – spends more time out of his cot, even if it is just to sit by the campfire, mechanically performing whatever task Susan has set him to keep his hands busy. John’s even managed to convince him to take him out for a ride a few times. The kid’s been good with him – Hosea had sat him down and explained, after that first dreadful night, what had happened. Told him that they all had to be gentle with Arthur for a while, for as long as it took. And John seems to have taken it to heart, keeping a close eye on his brother, but seemingly knowing when to give him space, and when to wriggle himself under Arthur’s arm. When to coax him into doing something – whether it be getting out of camp for a bit, eating his dinner, or just getting out of bed, and when to back off and leave him be. And it seems to be working – Arthur had made some mocking comment a couple of days ago when Susan had insisted John wash his hair, something about him looking like a greasy raccoon. And John had responded like an angry cat, as was expected of him – but once Arthur’s back was turned, he’d spun round to where Dutch and Hosea were watching from by the fire, beaming at them, did you hear that?! Arthur’s slowly, slowly getting better.
But by God – no one so young should carry that much pain in their eyes.
He looks up as the flap to Arthur’s tent shifts, and John shuffles out, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. That’s the other thing he’s been real good with. The first morning Dutch had emerged from his tent and met Hosea’s gaze across camp, and they both realised they hadn’t been woken by Arthur’s screams in the night, they’d panicked, dashed over to his tent, fearing the worst. But instead they’d found their boys huddled up in the same bedroll, John curled protectively around Arthur. And it’d be funny – John’s still small and skinny as a beanpole, trying to wrap himself around Arthur, who’s tall and broad and still filling out – if the sight wasn’t so bittersweet. But the two have taken to sleeping together, like they did when John first joined them and would wake up screaming unless Arthur tucked him up against his chest to sleep. Now it seems John’s repaying the favour.
“Mornin’,” John yawns, doing up the rest of his shirt buttons.
“Morning, son. Sleep well?” They both know it’s a loaded question.
“Yeah. No... no nightmares,” John replies in a low voice, glancing back to Arthur’s tent. “We were gonna go for a ride down to the river but... I dunno if he’s up to it. Where’s Hosea?”
“Didn’t come back last night, guessing he stayed in town, what with all that rain. Probably didn’t want to get bogged down on the road – Lucky Penny ain’t as sturdy as she used to be, the old girl. We was talking about finding a nice farm for her to retire to, heading on over to the stables in Ridgeston – they’re famous for their Turkomans. Might see about getting you something other than a pack pony as well.”
“Really?!” John’s eyes light up.
“Well, sure!” Dutch laughs, ruffling his hair, “besides, reckon it’ll be good for all of us, having a change of scenery.”
“Yeah...” John murmurs, looking across at Arthur’s tent again, “yeah, reckon it will be.”
Hosea returns mid-afternoon – sure enough, both him and Lucky Penny are coated up to their thighs in mud.
“I’ve travelled through bogs that were more durable than that damn road,” he gripes as he tosses a bag of supplies onto the table. But then he returns to Penny, and unstraps a wooden crate with much more care.
“Now, I’m sorry I’m late,” he begins as he walks back over, still carrying the box carefully, “but I had a most interesting diversion on the way back.”
“What happened?” John asks, immediately curious.
“Well,” Hosea lowers himself onto the log next to Arthur, balancing the box on his knees, “there we were, plodding our way through the mud, when all of a sudden I hear yelling. I look over, and there’s this woman running down a path towards me, hollerin’ and hoolerin’. She gets to me and she’s in a right state. Says she needs help, so I ask her, what seems to be the problem Ma’am? And she says she lives on the farm just up the way, and her husband is away hunting but she’s got little ones inside the house and she doesn’t know what to do. I thought the poor woman was gonna give herself the fits, she was so worked up. So I get her to calm down and tell me what’s wrong. Her old well, she says, is haunted. That they’ve been hearing strange noises from it ever since midnight last night – eerie wails and eldritch howls.”
Hosea’s in full Story Telling Mode; John’s hanging on to his every word, and even Arthur has looked up from the bag of rags he was sorting for Susan.
“And she’s awful worried because her husband has taught her how to use a shotgun, but if she misses and the horrid fiend gets her, who’s going to feed the baby? So I tell her not to worry, I’m sure there’s nothing to be afraid of, I’ll sort it out for her. So she hops on and off we go. Nice little farm, a few sheep and cows – you know, the nice brown ones, with the sweet faces? And she takes me over to the abandoned well and sure enough, there’s a wailing, whining noise. And she gets a fright so I send her back inside before she gets all worked up again. And I go over and have a look, but it’s dark down there, couldn’t see nothin’ even when I held my lantern down. The woman said they’d filled it in when it ran dry about a year back, so I went and asked the good lady if I could borrow some sturdy rope, explained what I planned to do. She wasn’t too happy about it at all, but I managed to convince her. So I got my rope, made myself a harness, tied the other end to a sturdy tree, and lowered myself down into the well.”
“Hosea! You had no idea what could have been down there!” Susan scolds from where she’s come to stand behind Dutch and John.
“No, but I had a hunch!”
Dutch is starting to get a hunch too. Hosea is a master conman – he knows how to direct and guide his audience to see what he wants them to see. And at the moment, he’s gesticulating a lot with his hands, being expressive with his face – keeping attention away from the box in his lap.
“So, down I go, with my lantern on my belt. The wailing and crying gets louder and louder – and then the moment my boots hit the soil, it goes quiet.” He pauses for effect, and John’s nearly falling off his box he’s leaning forward so much, completely enraptured. Even Arthur looks interested – which is a welcome change from the near-expressionless mask his face has been for a long time now.
“I raised my lantern, looked down, and guess what I saw?”
“An injured bird?” Susan tries.
“A would-be thief who tried to hide in the well and broke his legs?!” John guesses breathlessly, eyes wide.
“The woman’s lover whom her husband has bound, gagged and thrown down the well?” Dutch chuckles. Susan swats him upside the head.
“Nope,” Hosea replies cheerfully, “no idea how it got down there, but I found this!”
And without warning, he slides off the lid and tips the contents of the box into Arthur’s lap.
There’s a lot of straw. And, within the straw, something’s wriggling.
“Hosea, what-!” Arthur asks, bewildered.
Dutch fights to keep the grin off his face. He guessed right.
Arthur picks away some of the straw, and there in his lap is a little, chubby, squirming red coonhound puppy. It manages to right itself, looks around at them all with a vaguely confused expression, before turning to look up at Arthur. Then it promptly puts its front paws on his chest and starts licking at his face.
“Eugh, I, hey!”
And now Dutch can’t keep the grin off his own face, because Arthur, despite his protests, is smiling for the first time in two months.
They’re leaving the state, with two new additions since they first arrived.
Copper, as Arthur has named him, is dumber than a bag of bricks. Confused by most things, he’s had to be rescued multiple times from nefarious foes such as a box, half a bag of potatoes, and a particularly scary-looking twig. Arthur won’t hear a cross word about him though, insisting that he’s just a puppy and he’ll wise up as he grows. On the one hand, it’s nice to hear the boy speaking up, and Dutch doesn’t know much about dogs – but Hosea’s grimace as he extracted the yelping pup from a vicious pile of blankets told him they didn’t have the smartest of hounds on their hands.
But his lack of brains is more than made up for by their other new member.
Annabelle is the most incredible woman Dutch has ever met. He’d sought her out, when they’d made the decision to pack up camp, to say his farewells, and that he was sorry they never got to have another long conversation. She’d declared that she hadn’t nearly finished her argument on the nature of human self will, and that she’d need a day to pack her things; and she hoped they had a gramophone because she’d just purchased the most wonderful recording of The Proms all the way from London and hasn’t had a chance to listen to it yet. Clever, well-read, with a razor sharp wit and cheeky smile, he can and has stayed up for hours just talking to her, debating and discussing philosophy, politics, books, music, everything.
What’s more, she slots into the gang like she’s always been there. She and Susan get along like a house on fire, which Dutch is equal parts pleased and dismayed by. Pleased, because while the thing between him and Susan had ended a long time ago, she is still one of his dearest friends, not to mention an excellent judge of character, and he values her opinion highly. Dismayed, because he strongly suspects he is the subject of a lot of their whispered, cackling conversations. Hosea likes her too; they are both well travelled, and have spent many an hour regaling and comparing each other’s stories about the places they’ve been. John is slightly in awe of her – and probably has a bit of a crush, by the way he blushes beet red when she pecks him on the cheek as a thank you, much to everyone else’s amusement. And as for Arthur... Annabelle has managed to coax more conversation out of him in the past few days than Dutch has managed in the past two months. She looks genuinely interested as he speaks about his new favourite subject (Copper) or his second favourite (horses), adding an amusing anecdote here and there, always somehow managing to keep the conversation light but sincere. Dutch just watches her talking to his boys sometimes with a goofy smile on his face, wondering where she’s been all his life.
Before they leave the area, Hosea takes Arthur to visit the cottage by the pond one last time, to say goodbye. When they come back, Arthur looks almost as bad as he did that first night, ashen-faced and desolate. But upon their return, Copper dashes over from where he’s playing with Annabelle, trips over his own legs, tumbles over himself for a good few rolls, then rights himself and immediately continues on his trajectory, bounding up into Arthur’s waiting arms. And Arthur’s expression softens, not into a smile, but at least into something that isn’t pure misery.
They’ve made camp for the night in an old logging clearing. The wind is shushing gently through the trees, moonlight dapples the roof of the tent, and in the far distance, wolves howl to one another. For those who loved the wildness and freedom of the great outdoors, it was really quite romantic.
Or at least, it would have been, if Copper hadn’t been howling back.
Dutch sighs as Annabelle stifles her giggles into his shoulder – they can hear Arthur’s frantic attempts to keep Copper quiet, and John’s cackling snorts.
And Dutch tries not to get frustrated – reminds himself he still needs to be gentle with Arthur, and it’s not his fault the pup’s a howler – but really. How the hell did such a small animal make a noise that was simultaneously so pathetic, yet so loud?! He’s about to voice this thought to Annabelle, before he’s interrupted by a long, chilling howl.
And it’s far too close for comfort.
He and Annabelle freeze, staring at each other in the faint moonlight for a moment, before Dutch slips out from the cot.
“Stay here,” he tells her, pulling on his boots and coat and buckling on his gun belt, before stepping out of the tent. He’s just in time to see Hosea and Arthur doing the same. Hosea tosses some more logs onto the fire as Dutch and Arthur stare out into the woods, hands on their revolvers, looking for yellow eyes shining in the darkness. There’s nothing to be seen, but the three of them agree to keep watch for the rest of the night.
“Told you he’d make a good guard dog,” Arthur murmurs to Hosea before they part ways.
“Heh, can’t say his technique is quite what I had in mind, but you aren’t wrong,” Hosea chuckles back.
Dutch makes his way to the third point of the loose triangle they’ve made around camp, sets himself up with a large tree at his back. Scans the undergrowth for little longer, before he notices there’s a distinct... dampness...
He looks down. Twists his foot up. Sighs.
“Arthur... ” He tries to keep the annoyance in his voice to a minimum.
“Your damned pup has chewed right through the bottom of my boot!”
“He’s teethin’!” Arthur calls back defensively, over John’s laughter.
“They grow up so fast!” Hosea titters, clearly having no sympathy for Dutch’s plight.
“These are good boots, Hosea!” he growls back.
“We’ll get it re-heeled in Ridgeston,” Susan snaps from inside her tent, “now while I appreciate you boys standing watch out there, the rest of us are trying to sleep!”
“Sorry Miss Grimshaw.” They chorus.
A few minutes later Copper starts up howling again, and Dutch thunks his head back against the tree with a groan.
It’s gonna be a long night.
The mood in camp further improves when Bessie meets up with them near Ridgeston. She’s immediately sequestered into Susan and Annabelle’s little gossip group, and Hosea calls them the Witches Three. But Bessie, like her husband, has always been a calm, rational force in the gang, capable of gently but directly getting to the root of a problem and sorting it. She gives Dutch a good slap upside the head when she hears about the saloon debacle, but then manages to convince Arthur to come with them to the stables in town – the first time he’s allowed himself to be taken near other people since that unfortunate misadventure. They get Hosea’s Turkoman – a fairly young gelding with a silver coat. He had been eyeing up a gorgeous black mare, but Arthur had pointed out that when Copper came gambolling in behind them, the mare had spooked while the gelding had stayed calm. An important trait, in their line of work (which was land prospecting, Dutch had assured the dubious stable master).
They run a few jobs around the town, nothing too ambitious, just a bit of light pilfering here and there. But one day, Susan, Dutch and Hosea are out running a con, John has managed to convince Arthur to take him out hunting, leaving only Bessie, Annabelle, and Copper in camp.
This leads to what was forever after known as The Moose Incident.
Once they’ve salvaged enough furniture to sit on around the campfire, Annabelle tells the story.
“We were just minding our own business – I was hanging out the laundry, Bessie was doing some mending – when I hear this grunt from behind me. I turn around, and I swear to God, the biggest bull moose that ever lived is just strolling into camp. His antlers were wider than a stagecoach, I tell you! And I’m hissing Bessie, Bessie! Whadda we do?! – I ain’t had as much experience with the local fauna like you folks have – and she whispers back that it should just leave again as long as we don’t upset it, but better climb a tree just in case.”
“Why not just shoot it? Moose meat’s good eatin’.” John interjects.
“Because he were a magnificent creature who weren’t gonna do us no harm. ‘Least, that’s what I first thought. And Anne don’t know how to use a gun yet.” Bessie replies.
“He really was splendid,” Annabelle agrees, “so, I climb that big oak over there, Bessie gets up into that birch. And the big fella just moseys around camp for a bit – I’m afraid he found the box of apples, Sue, gobbled ‘em all up. And it looked like Bessie was right – he started to lose interest, began to wander back the way he came, when your damn dog,” and she jabs an accusing finger at Arthur, but the grin on her face says she’s more amused than angry, “came back from whatever hole he was digging and started kicking up a fuss, barking and snarling. Stupid little bugger – this is the same pup that gets scared if a large leaf blows by, mind – tries to take on this big ol’ moose! Lord, Arthur, I thought I was gonna have to tell you that your puppy got squished by an angry, thousand-pound ungulate. But the moose looked more confused than anything else, can’t blame him. But then Copper went for his ankles, and the moose didn’t seem too impressed – he just ducked his head, caught Copper with his antler and tossed him a good forty feet in the air! That’s why he was up in the tree when you boys got back.”
Arthur sighs, curls himself around Copper even more. Apparently the pup hadn’t been too bothered by the whole ordeal – when John, the only one still small enough to get up into those higher branches, had managed to reach him, he was wagging his tail and giving him his usual doggy grin, tongue lolling out. When he got his paws on solid ground again – and Arthur had stopped fussing over him – he’d apparently spat out another baby tooth then started gnawing Arthur’s boot like nothing had ever happened, completely oblivious to the devastation around him.
“But, I guess that whole experience soured Mr. Moose’s mood somewhat – he turned around and decided he took umbrage with the table, smashed it to bits. Then he decided he didn’t like Hosea and Bessie’s tent, then Arthur’s, then mine and Dutch’s... Me and Bessie tried yelling at him, but he didn’t pay us no mind.”
“And I would’ve shot him at this point, if I had a gun with me,” Bessie adds, “but I didn’t fancy trying to make a run across camp to grab the shotgun.”
“So, he spends a good ten, fifteen minutes just wrecking the place. Shredded up the tents, tipped over the wagon, smashed up the furniture. Then he seemed to be satisfied, wandered around a bit more, ate his way through half Hosea’s library, and finally ambled off, wearing my and Dutch’s bed sheets draped over his antlers like a bridal veil.”
There’s a long silence, as all eyes land on Copper, who’s currently trying to bite a button off Arthur’s shirt. Arthur protectively folds his arms around him, looking nervously at Dutch.
Who, despite everything, doesn’t have the heart to be mad at him.
“Ach, these things happen,” he shrugs, “besides. A moose in a bridal veil? Oh, I would’ve paid to see that!”
It has the intended effect – Arthur’s shoulders drop from where they were hunched near his ears, as everyone else chuckles, shaking their heads.
“Too late to go into town now; we’ll head over tomorrow, get the wagon fixed, replace what we can.” Hosea declares, rising and patting Copper on the head before going over to see what he can make of the tents.
Susan finds her heavy-duty sewing kit, and they end up salvaging one tent, which Dutch insists the ladies take. The rest of them settle in their bedrolls around the campfire. Dutch is just dozing off, when he feels Hosea nudge his leg.
But Hosea just nods to the other side of the fire with a smile, and Dutch pushes himself up to look.
Arthur and John are curled up together again, Copper in between them, on his back, paws in the air and over-sized ears flopped out either side of his head. Arthur’s got his face nuzzled into the pup’s fur, and Dutch really wishes he had one of those new-fangled portable cameras that he’d seen advertised. Then his gaze slides to their right, and he sighs.
“Add ‘Arthur’s boots’ to the list of things that need to be fixed, will you?”
They repair what they can, replace what they can’t, and make do without when they can’t manage or afford either. Luckily, the gramophone somehow survived, and Annabelle’s Proms music is playing from where it sits on their one remaining table, punctuated occasionally by an excited yap from Copper. He’s become fast friends with Hosea’s new horse, Silver Dollar, and is playing his favourite game of running around and between the horse’s legs, while Silver swings his head back and forth, trying to keep an eye on him and whickering. It’s pretty damned cute. But, Dutch muses as he surveys camp from the beside the little stream they collect water from, The Moose Incident has made him realise something:
They need to grow the gang.
Specifically, they need more guns. With no disrespect to Bessie – he knows she’s a good shot when she has a proper rifle in her hands – they can’t afford, literally, to be in such a situation again, leaving camp unprotected. And Bessie’s only with them for another few weeks before she goes back to her homestead, and Hosea will probably go with her for a few weeks more – what would have happened to Annabelle if she’d been caught alone? He hates to think.
So, they need more guns. And he thinks he’s got just the people in mind; he got chatting in the saloon to a pair of brothers, about Arthur’s age. Callander, was their name, Mac and Davey Callander. They were big, brash, and not afraid of getting their hands dirty, judging by the stories they’d shared. They seemed like they’d fit in perfectly. And it’ll be good to have two extra pairs of hands for some of the bigger jobs, what with John still not being quite old enough, and Arthur feeling out of sorts, though he’s sure that won’t last forever.
He’s planning how he’s going to word his invitation to them, when he’s interrupted by the tell-tale click of a gun hammer.
Dutch releases a calm breath, obligingly raises his hands, and slowly turns. And honestly?
He almost bursts out laughing.
His accoster looks like he should be on stage, playing the part of the foppish, spoilt Lordling. His pale blonde hair is slicked back with too much grease, he has a stupid little curly moustache above his patchy excuse for a beard, and his clothes are, frankly, ridiculous – all luxurious fabrics and patterns in rich colours, yes, but together they make him look like an artist has dropped their painting palette. Even his boots are dyed purple, for chrissakes.
“Well, well, well,” he drawls, “what do we have here?”
“Afternoon, friend,” Dutch says genially, “who might you be?”
“Theodore Dashlingwood. Bounty Hunter.”
“Theodore Dashlingwood? My, that’s... quite a name.”
“You’re one to talk, Dutch Van der Linde. Yeah, I know who you are. You know there’s an eight hundred dollar bounty for you and your gang back across the border? Dead or alive. So let’s go say hi, shall we?”
“By all means.” Dutch smiles. Bounty hunter, his ass. If they really were wanted dead or alive, he should’ve killed Dutch quietly and picked off the rest of them one by one – not try to walk into the middle of a camp of outlaws. He’ll play along, they’ll go into camp, and one of the others will put a bullet in the man’s skull – not that there appears to be anything important in there, the overdressed idiot.
He walks slowly into camp, hands still held up high, Mr. Dashlingwood training his gun on his back.
Some guard dog you’ve turned out to be, he thinks ruefully as they pass Copper and Silver Dollar. The pup just carries on with his game, oblivious.
“Everyone, gather round! We have a visitor,” he calls cheerfully as they reach the tents. John and Annabelle are the only ones sitting outside by the campfire. They twist around, eyes widening at the gun pointed at his head, and damn, John doesn’t have his guns with him. No matter, there’s still...
Susan comes out of her tent, and freezes in surprise. She’s not carrying a gun either. But that’s okay, because...
Bessie emerges from Hosea’s tent, gasps, half turns, hand raised up in a ‘stop!’ gesture, but it’s too late, Hosea comes out too.
And he doesn’t have his gun belt on.
Dutch looks towards Arthur’s tent, silently willing him to-
Arthur comes out, pauses, taking in the situation, then straightens. Hands hovering over his revolvers.
“Who’s your friend, Dutch?” he asks lowly.
“This here, is Mr. Theodore Dashlingwood,” Dutch smiles, “and he’s come to collect our bounties.”
“So, you’re a bounty hunter, Mr. Dashlingwood? How long you been in the business?” Hosea asks, as if he’s remarking on the weather. And it works – Dutch can hear the man shifting on his feet behind him.
“You folks are all awful calm for a group of soon-to-be ex-criminals,” he snaps, but Dutch can hear the uncertainty in his voice. “Not so fast, lady,” he adds, pressing his gun against the back of Dutch’s head – Susan makes a face, but ceases her attempt to edge towards the shotgun leaning against one of the crates.
“Now here’s what’s going to happen. There’s a nice bonus if I bring you in alive, but I don’t mind going without it if I have to. So you’re gonna do as I say, nice and quietly, or Mr. Van der Linde here gets it! And if you’re really good, I might even let the ladies and the boy go before we reach the Sheriff’s office.”
John pulls a face, but Hosea just smiles politely.
“I take it you haven’t been a bounty hunter too long, Mr. Dashlingwood?” And he takes a step to the side – trying to get the moron to match his movement. Trying to give Arthur a clear shot. But perhaps Mr. Dashlingwood isn’t quite that stupid, because he stays right where he is.
“Not long, I must confess. Three weeks, in fact. But I believe in quality over quantity,” the man sneers, “in just those three weeks I’ve already brought in your other two boys.” And Dutch shares a glance with Hosea.
What other two boys?
But Mr. Dashlingwood continues.
“They swung for that shit you pulled in Albaston, and you will as well! You’re wanted for larceny, forgery, fraud, and murder.”
“Murder?” Dutch scoffs. Because – and he was commenting on this to Hosea just last night – they’d actually had a bit of a clean run, and hadn’t had reason to kill anyone in a good few months.
“Yes, murder. Or do you not remember killing a woman and child just outside of town? Or perhaps you’re so cold, so monstrous, that you just don’t remember them from all the rest you’ve killed? In a pretty little cottage it was, by a pond.”
Dutch – and everyone else – looks at Arthur. The boy’s gone sheet-white.
And Dutch can feel an incredible rage boiling up inside him.
“How dare you.” He seethes, barely above a whisper. “How dare you even suggest...”
“Oh, don’t try and pretend you had no hand in it, the boys I caught up with confessed themselves, said they ran with you. Said I had better let them go or the Van der Linde gang would find me and make my life hell, ha! But looks like I found you. But still – here’s your blood money.”
From behind Dutch, there’s a rustle, then Mr. Dashlingwood tosses something at Dutch’s feet. Dutch glances down. Some coins and crumpled notes lie at his boots.
“Here’s your ten dollars, Mr. Van der Linde. Was it worth it?” Mr. Dashlingwood jeers. And to hell with the gun pressed against the back of his head, Dutch is gonna spin around and smash the man’s teeth in-
He looks back up at Arthur, but he’s just staring down at the money, face blank.
“Are you telling me, they died, they was murdered, for ten dollars?”
“That’s what your associates said they got. That and a real nice blue shawl, pretty it was. Shame about the blood on it.”
And Dutch’s heart breaks, because he knows Arthur got that shawl for Eliza’s last birthday.
Everyone else’s face is somewhere on the spectrum between anguished and enraged. Except for Arthur. His face is like stone. Still looking down at the money.
No... not at the money, something behind...
Turns out Dutch isn’t the only one who’d noticed the extravagance of Mr. Dashlingwood’s boots.
It’s a small distraction, but it’s enough, as Dutch feels the pressure of the gun barrel leave his head. He dives to the side – catches a glimpse of Copper, jaws firmly clamped around Mr. Dashlingwood’s ankle. Then Arthur shoots from the hip, and the empty, pomade-covered skull of Theodore Dashlingwood, Bounty Hunter, explodes.
There’s a yelp – and to be honest, Dutch isn’t sure if it comes from himself or Copper, as a little ball of red fur streaks into the bushes – and then Arthur is emptying both his revolvers into the man’s corpse.
Hosea grabs one arm, Susan the other, and Bessie’s holding Arthur’s face in her hands, trying to get him to look at her. But Arthur’s doesn’t seem to notice as the guns are pried from his grip, just staring at the bloody corpse, somehow even paler than he was before. Dutch can see how badly he’s shaking from here.
“Come on, come on, let’s just go and sit down, that’s the way...”
Bessie and Hosea lead Arthur away to his tent – Hosea comes out a few moments later, shutting the flaps behind him. Susan takes charge.
“Dutch, Hosea, we need to dispose of that body, I’ll go get some buckets of water. Anne, would you go and see where Copper’s got to? Don’t stray too far from camp, mind. John, you’d best take a horse, go down to the road and see if anyone heard that.”
“But if you see anyone, don’t confront them, just come straight back and tell us,” Hosea adds and John nods, dashing over to the horses.
Dutch huffs, sets his hat back on his head, then they get on with getting rid of a body.
“You all right?” Hosea asks quietly, grabbing the arms while Dutch picks up the legs.
“Fine,” Dutch grunts as they lift. “Is Arthur okay?”
“No, no he ain’t, Dutch. Would you be?!”
“No,” Dutch sighs, “no I wouldn’t.”
The road is empty, John returns, and helps them bury the body in a shallow grave. When they start shovelling the dirt back in, Susan calls out for them to wait a moment, and if she says something about the man deserving a proper burial, Dutch might just lose it.
But instead she runs over, something clenched in her fist, and tosses it down into the grave. It’s the ten dollars, the blood money – now actually coated in blood.
“Good riddance,” Susan spits, before stalking back to camp.
“What, uh,” John asks slowly as they resume shovelling, “what happened to his boots?”
“I took ‘em.” Dutch says simply. John looks at him in surprise.
“What, you wanna wear those things?!”
“Nope.” Dutch replies, with a nasty grin.
When they’re done, they head back to camp, tired and gloomy. Bessie, it seems, is still with Arthur, while Susan and Annabelle have set about getting dinner ready, and have already started putting away all the things they won’t need before tomorrow morning. It goes without saying they’ll be moving camp the next day.
As they pass the campfire, Dutch leans down, gives Copper a pat on the head.
“Good dog,” he murmurs.
Copper looks up at him, tail thumping a few times, before he goes back to his prize: not one, but two purple-dyed, fine leather boots.
It’s been three months.
Dutch cracks his eyes open, looking around blearily from where he’d been napping with Annabelle under an oak tree.
“Hah! Oi Arthur, look at this!”
Dutch blinks at Davey’s shout, shaking his head to rid himself of the last vestiges of sleep, and gets up. As he wanders over, he sees Hosea stick his head out from his tent, no doubt to see what the fuss is about.
The source of the strange noises soon becomes clear.
Copper has somehow managed to get a bucket stuck on his head, and is wandering around camp, crashing into things. He’s snarling and yipping, but his tail is wagging, so clearly he’s not in too much distress. But he’s got himself into a predicament, trying to navigate around the legs of the new table and chairs.
By now, Davey and Mac are bent double, guffawing like a pair of donkeys. John’s also in hysterics, and Arthur’s come up beside them.
And Dutch hears a sound he was worried he weren’t ever gonna hear again.
Laughter bubbles out of Arthur, fresh giggles spilling out every time Copper bumps into something. Dutch feels something in his chest loosen, and he glances across at Hosea, who gives him a knowing smile.
“You really find that pup inside a well?” he asks out the side of his mouth as he comes to stand next to him.
“Nah,” Hosea chuckles. “Got talking with a farmer at the saloon, said he was looking for a nice, gentle horse, just something his children could ride around the lanes and such. I figured Penny was the perfect fit, so I went to visit his farm, make sure it would suit her. Saw he had pups, asked if I could buy one off him.”
Dutch hums in amusement, lighting his cigar as they watch Arthur finally rescue Copper from the bucket. Copper looks around with his signature vaguely puzzled expression, one ear flopped over, tongue hanging out, before zeroing in on Arthur and bounding up, knocking him down from where he’s crouching and licking all over his face. Arthur’s orders for him to stop have absolutely no effect, probably because he’s laughing too much.
Dutch leans back, smiling.
Even if it costs them a few pairs of boots, they’ll be okay.