When Hopps had been a much younger man he had spent some time with a gang of bandits. They had hidden outside town and terrorised travellers coming over the mountain road. He liked them, because they liked him. "Nothing wrong with +anima," the leader, a fellow called Welkin with a shock of red hair and an easy grin, had said. "Glad to have you aboard." It was the first time anyone had been glad to see him since his parents had thrown him out, and it made his heart swell with pride.
It didn't last, of course.
Just five months later they had attacked a tiny caravan carrying grain and spices. Most of the defenders fled when they made their very noisy appearance, Hopps, in his crocodile form, at their head. The carts were left deserted in the road. They opened the doors, laughing with glee at their bounty. The first two were full of nothing but barrels and sacks. Hopps threw open the third, and inside was a girl, lying in a pile of blankets atop the sacks. She was half-sitting up, pointing a knife right at them. She looked terrified and feverish.
"Now, miss," he said. "We're not gonna hurt you. Let me help you down and you can be on your way - "
At that point Welkin came up behind Hopps. "What's the - Are you mad? She's seen our faces! Did you not noticed we'd all taken our masks off?"
"She's just a sick girl," Hopps said. "She's barely sitting up, look. Must have been asleep in here. Maybe I should ride down to town with her - "
"No. She comes back with us." Welkin elbowed him aside and grabbed the girl's wrist, and she dropped the knife with a startled cry. "Don't cough on me, I don't want to catch whatever you've got," he growled. The girl whimpered. She came quietly enough, wrapped up in blankets and thrown over the back of Hopps's horse like she was part of the haul.
Later that night she was burning up. Welkin gave her a little water, but refused to give her medicine. "Let me take her to town," Hopps begged. "I'll wear my mask, they won't know it's me, it's not safe to keep her here - " He broke off. "You're hoping she dies, aren't you."
"She can't leave," Welkin told him evenly. "If she lives, she'll have to stay in the caves. Maybe she can do our laundry. You think that's a good life?"
Hopps didn't answer.
He lay awake in his blankets that night, listening as the breathing of the other bandits evened out into contented snores. After a while, he wandered out. The watch was used to people taking walks to clear their head, and he didn't have a horse, so they exchanged nods. As soon as he was out of hearing he broke into a run. Antsmine was only a few miles away. He walked right into town and banged on the door of the inn until someone opened it. "I need the sheriff," he told them. "And the doctor. Right away. I know where Welkin's Gang is hiding." It took a while to rouse a possee, but they were willing enough. The ride didn't take long, and the fight took less time yet.
Welkin spat at him as he was hauled away in chains, and called him all sorts of nasty names. "They won't like you any better!" he finished with. "You idiot! They hate you!"
The sheriff blinked a few times. "Well, he doesn't know how to go gracefully," he muttered, and patted his horse's shoulder. Hopps carefully guided his borrowed horse in line behind the sheriff's. "You know, kid, everyone said there was a +Anima in the gang. Didn't see any sign, though."
"There wasn't," Hopps lied. "We just used to dress someone up in an alligator mask. To be intimidating."
The sheriff gave him a long look before he nodded and urged his horse into a trot. Hopps followed, idly watching the sunrise over the rocks from the corner of his eye. It was a very pretty sunrise. "Will she be okay? The girl?"
"She'll be fine once she has some medicine in her. Her parents are at the inn. I've sent word ahead. They were worried sick."
"How long will I be in prison?"
The sheriff was silent for a long while, then let out a raucous laugh. "Prison, boy? You turned tail on them. We're not going to do anything to you, 'cept maybe make you a deputy. Think you can handle that? I figure you've got a good head on your shoulders."
Hopps allowed himself a small grin that wasn't toothy at all.