Julia had two leads: one led to the Est and the other to the North.
There were too many for her.
At the beginning, she asked herself why Est. Knowing Dutch and Hosea they would have never gone that direction, towards the civilization, against their principles and nowhere near their dream which saw a west virgin land as the main character.
So, why east? To run away? It could be. But who didn't hear about the disaster in Blackwater? They really would have taken the risk of getting recognized?
The answer was easy.
But if they had to run away, why not to the West?
It was what Pinkertons expected and if they had gone that way, they would have found them immediately. Plus they had left a long trail of crimes behind them, coming from there.
Last option was the North.
The Ambarino's mountains were covered in thick snow in that period. The storms up there could freeze a man still alive on the spot.
Only a fool could think of going up there.
Someone desperate. Someone without a choice.
The Van der Linde gang.
The day after she talked to McGuire, she made sure to have all she needed and then she left Blackwater.
She spent two days to get to her destination.
She forded the Upper Montana River and then when she arrived at the crossroad near the Riggs Station, she took the path near Mento's Rest to spare some time.
Once she came back to the main road, she followed it till she arrived at the Wallace Station, where she spent the night.
Once she crossed the border with the Grizzlies, the true research began.
At the beginning, she stopped at Cottail Pond, but there wasn't any sign of human presence.
She followed, then, the path near Beartooth Bech, passing near Isabella Lake and then she went down to Mount Hagen where she checked every single shack, without finding any clue that showed that they had passed that way.
She thought she had got the wrong lead while she climbed back the path near Mount Hagen and then she went down, towards the border, passing near a heap of abandoned and destroyed shacks.
She decided to spend a few minutes to take a look.
At the beginning, she didn't see anything but the small, half-destroyed, wooden buildings. But then she noticed some strange signs on them.
She got down Wind Catcher, getting closer in order to see better those signs and while she touched them with the tip of her covered hands, she realized that they were gun holes.
Entering the shack, she dug in the snow to make sure she was right and after a few seconds, she found a case.
She continued her wondering, inspecting the surroundings and seeking for some hints when suddenly she stepped on something that wasn't snow.
She took a step back and she dug again till she found the corpse shot in the chest.
When she looked up again she realized that all that heaps were actually corpses.
There had been a gunfight.
But who were those men?
She searched in the corpse's pockets, but she didn't find anything. She searched on another corpse and another one. She found some bullets and cigarettes. No money nor valuable objects.
She found a kind of diary on one of them. She opened it and read the last page.
We must stay in this rathole for two more days, waiting for that damned train to cross the border. Colm says that is better if we assault it near Cumberland Falls. Then we're going to find those sons of bitches that have killed Enoch and his group in that damned ranch at North of Colter. They have burnt it down with our men. I hope for them to be dead 'cause if I find them, I will tear them to pieces.
She closed the diary and put it where she had found it.
She knew who Colm was. Colm O'Driscoll was Dutch's bitter enemy and he was there for a train.
Those were his men and she was sure that they had been attacked by Van der Linde before he stole their robbery plan. It wasn't the first time anyway.
She also heard the name of Colter. An old mining town, abandoned from years after the death of all the habitats, too old and attached to the place to go away.
She spent an hour to reach it because of all the snow that didn't allow her to speed up the pace.
Finally, she found what she was looking for. Or at least something that could be useful.
She saw burnt spots on the ground where they had started the fires and when she entered the buildings, she found some abandoned objects that could belong to them.
She found a stylographic pen on a table, which ink was frozen by the cold.
It was Mary-Beth's, she knew she liked writing.
There was no doubt. They had been there and from what she had seen, they must have left a few days before her arrival.
She looked up to the sky that had turned dark. She couldn't continue her travel, it was too dangerous. The night was the wolves' favourite moment to go hunting.
She found a few logs to light up a fire in one of the cabins and then she took care of Wind Catcher and ate something.
She sat in front of the fire, looking at the flames that danced under her empty gaze while her head was full of thoughts.
In the man's diary was written about a ranch near Colter, but if what she had read was real, it was destroyed, so they couldn't be there.
She thought about what had happened in Blackwater. Two weeks had passed since then and the waters had settled, at least in part.
Maybe they really have gone East. But, how much?
She took out the map from her sack, opening it and reading the name of the first town near her position.
It was Valentine, on the other side of the Dakota River.
A bitter smile appeared on her face at the memory that name brought to her mind.
She decided that she would have gone there the next day.
Once she put back her map, she laid down on her blankets and with the undertone crackle of the fire, she fell asleep.
She regained consciousness because of Wind Catcher, which neigh was the alarm that something was wrong. In fact, shortly after, she heard a loud growl.
It was a wolf pack.
She got up and run outside, taking up his rifle and shooting at everything that moved.
Fortunately, no wolf got near her horse enough to hurt it. However, after she killed one of them and wounded another, a third jumped on her.
Julia avoided it, but not entirely and the wolf got the sleeve of his coat, tearing it.
She shot him dead.
The others run away, including the wounded one.
She made sure that Wind Catcher was alright, then she looked at the dead wolves, checking if their fur was in good conditions before she skinned them, getting some meat too.
She picked up her things from the cabin and lighted up a fire near Wind Catcher, where she prepared some coffee that would have helped her to stay awake.
She checked the time. There were two hours left before the sunrise.
After she sipped her coffee until it ended, she noticed something that caught her attention.
A wooden cross with a name carved on it that she couldn't read.
She walked towards it, while she asked herself how the hell she didn't see it before and when she could read the words clearly, her feet stopped.
On the cross was written, Davey Callander.
He was part of the Van der Linde gang and, as all its members, she knew him.
The man had a brother three years older than him, Mac.
The memory of them made her smile as she felt a tightness in her gut that took her by surprise.
Why she was sorry for them? The two brothers weren't less guilty for what she suffered.
And Davey's death was Dutch's punishment.
She turned her back to the cross and walked away.
She left Colter when the sun wasn't even appeared.
She took the path near Barrow Lagoon and from there she reached Cottail Pond again, where she crossed the river after the Cumberland Falls.
She got to Valentine at two p.m.
It had changed nothing, only the buildings were older. Except for a house, which construction just began. It was exactly in front of the barn.
The stink of the animals of the neighbouring ranch reached the small town and it mixed with the stink of the mud that covered it.
Last time Julia had been there it was for a bounty. She didn't stay for long, only a couple of days and she avoided the town, except when she took the money of the bounty.
She went to the barn with the idea of leaving Wind Catcher to clear and feed him.
In the meantime, she would have gone to the hotel to take a warm bath to wash off all the tiredness of the long journey.
She got down her horse just a few meters from the entry, then she led Wind Catcher inside where there were a moustachioed man and a young boy that was discussing work.
The man dismissed the boy and then he turned towards her, saying good morning.
Julia did the same, looking at the man who she already knew and that seemed not to recognize her.
He was Barney Hook, son of the barn's owner, aged ten years from the last time she saw him.
"How can I help you, Miss?"
"I want to leave my horse for a while. I got some business to attend to. I want to find him clear and with his belly full" she answered, petting the animal on her side.
"Of course" said the man getting closer to her horse to know him.
"He's a magnificent animal. What's his name?"
"Wind Catcher" she said handing the reins to him.
The man looked at her for a bit too long before he took the reins and for a moment, Julia thought he had remembered her.
"Two hours. Not a minute later" she said and the man nodded.
Once she got out of the barn she went to the hotel on the other side of the street, where she paid for a bath.
When her skin, still cold because of the mountain air, touched the hot water, it burnt a little, while her muscles stretched and she relaxed.
Ten minutes passed when she heard a knock at the door and the voice of a young woman.
"Do you want some company?" she asked.
She thought about it for a second.
"Yes, come in"
The girl that entered was tiny, with long blonde hair, dark eyes and the face covered by freckles and birthmarks.
When she looked at Julia, her cheeks, still chubby, became bright pink.
She must be fifth-teen.
"Come closer. I don't bite" she said smiling at her.
The girl came closer to her, looking at the ground and then she kneeled at her side.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Nellie" the girl answered frightened.
"It's a cute name. Would you rub this on my back, please?" Julia said handing the sponge to her.
The girl took it and started to rub it on her back, looking at the different scars she had.
"What happened to you?" she asked unable to contain her curiosity.
"I fell off my horse when I was young. My foot got stuck in the stirrup and my skittish horse dragged me away"
It was a lie, obviously. Those scars were the souvenirs of her bounties. The men she killed.
"It must have hurt" said Nellie.
They stayed silent while the girl continued to rub her back before she moved to her legs and arms.
"What's your name, Miss?" the girl asked suddenly.
Julia thought about it for a moment.
"Margaret" she lied.
"Do you wear man's clothes often?" Nellie asked looking at her clothes folded on the chair.
"How so? If I can ask"
"They're more comfortable for doing my job"
"And what's your job?"
Julia lowered her lag, that Nellie was rubbing, and leaned towards her.
"A very dangerous job"
The girl smiled.
"Bring my sack here please"
The girl did as she told her. Julia took out a dollar and gave it to her.
"The pay for us is only fifty-cent Miss"
"Keep the change for you" she answered.
The girl thanked her and left.
She stayed in the tub until the water got cold.
She wore her clothes and when she saw her necklace on the chair, she took it and went in front of the mirror to wear it.
Her eyes looked at the pendant. The animal's maw was open, with two long fangs coming out of it and his eyes were full of blood.
She shook her head and got out of the room, coming back to the entry where the host asked her if she wanted a room for the night.
She declined the offer and went to the saloon.
As always she went straight to the counter, ignoring the looks of the people there.
The barman was the same as ten years ago, Clarence.
She hated him and she had good reasons to.
What can I serve you, Miss?
The dish of the day and a beer
The man nodded and gave her the beer, telling her that she had to wait for the stew.
In the meantime, she sipped her beer.
Two men got closer to the counter and asked for a whiskey. She looked at them from under her hat for a while, noticing the guns on their belts and their clothes.
They were bounty hunters.
"I received a letter from Sid" said one the two.
"What he said?" asked the other looking around.
"He said that they're moving near Upper Montana intending to bring him to Strawberry"
"You think they're gonna give him to the Pinkertons?"
"Just like that. The agents paid Skelding to bring him to them, even if he didn't tell them a damn thing" answered the other.
"I heard he talked"
"Yeah, right. And with whom?" laughed the other drinking his whiskey.
"The Hound's looked for the prisoner. It seems that he knew him and there's also the chance that he knew Van der Linde himself" said the other man softly.
"It can't be. Sid would have written it to me2
"I swear. I heard that he tore off almost all his teeth" continued the other.
Julia rolled her eyes.
"Really? That fella is a demon. I wouldn't like to meet him, not now, not ever. I wouldn't want to be in the same room as him!"
She smiled and shook her head.
Clarence came back with her stew and when he gave it to her, she took it and sat at a table near one occupied by some elegant men that didn't even turn their heads her way.
She started to eat.
She had to admit it, Clarence could have been a bastard but he damn knew how to cook.
While she looked at the two elegant men, she asked herself why they were in that town composed by shit and mug for the ninety percent.
From what they were saying, she understood they were two oilmen that had to meet another of them any day.
One of them caught her attention when he started to talk about a train robbery at the border with the Grizzlies.
The same robbery she had read about on the O'Driscoll's diary.
"Damned criminals! They're society's scum answered the other when he heard the new."
"Cornwall must be very angry"
"What that have to do with Cornwall?"
"Didn't you know? It was his train. We must hope he doesn't blow the deal"
"What the hell"
So that was Cornwall's train. Interesting…
She checked the hour on her pocket watch. It was time to go to Wind Catcher.
Once she reached the barn, Barney was saddling him, giving him a sugar cube.
"Thanks" Julia said coming closer to him.
"It was nothing"
"How much for…everything?"
She gave them to him.
Barney thanked her, taking the money and then his gaze lingered her.
"Have we met before? You're a familiar face" he said.
Julia looked at him for a while, thinking about her answer.
"I don't think so. I would remember you. I remember everyone I meet"
"Oh well, if that's so…nice to meet you. I'm Barney Hook" said the man sticking his hand out.
She shook it and answered:
"Just Margaret?" he asked frowning.
Once she mounted Wind Catcher, she went to the south-west of Valentine and then she cut across a path towards the north that brought her to an abandoned hut.
She had been there other times and she never had found it occupied.
It seemed that no-one, except Julia, knew about it.
She cleared up a little bit and after she looked around for some firewood, she lighted up the fire.
She spent her time thinking and in the meantime, she cleaned her guns.
She checked if Wind Catcher was good and then she laid on the cot she covered with her blankets.
She planned to stay in Valentine for a couple of days, waiting to someone of the gang to show up. She didn't know what she would have done when she would have found Van der Linde.
A part of her wanted to take his revenge on all of them, while the other wanted only the money of the bounty on Van der Linde's head to disappear as quickly as possible, get over with being a bounty hunter and killed the Hound.
But at that moment, the only thing she could do was rest, so she closed her eyes and she let herself go to the dream world.
So this was the chapter, I hope you liked it.
I really don't have a day to post so I'll just do it when I feel like it, but normally I'll do it once a week (hopefully)
Anyway, I'll stop boring you :)
I'll see you next week.