"Are we all ready to head out?" The air in and around the wagon was filled with whoops and hollers of excitement as you and the other ladies celebrated. You were finally getting out of that frozen wasteland. Sure, it was pretty, but a change of scenery was becoming more and more appealing as the frigid temperatures kept eating at you day after day.
Soon, the gang was off. The wagon shook with the uneven road as the wheels worked their way over the icy path. The wood creaked all around you with each motion, muffling out the steady sound of horse trot.
As time passed, you and the other ladies settled in for the journey. You sat in mostly silence with small, quiet conversations here and there. Eventually, the question you all were wondering was finally addressed.
"Hey, does anyone know where the we're actually goin'?" wondered Miss Tilly. The other ladies looked around at each other for somebody to give an answer, all realizing that nobody really knew.
"I heard Hosea talking about some place called 'Horseshoe Overlook' when I was helping out with the luggage," you piped up. "He said it was over by Valentine; maybe we're going there." Besides the name, you didn't really know anything about the place. It sounded nice at least, like a quiet little hill looking over a ranch or a farm.
"Did you just say... 'Valentine?'" asked Miss Karen, a mischievous grin crawling across her face. "Ladies, are you thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" Tilly and Mary-Beth looked at each other quickly with the same, excited smiles, clearly knowing something you didn't. Karen's rowdy voice cut through the anticipatory hush.
"I got a girl in Berryville!"
"-can't be screwed 'cause she's too damn ill!" The other two had joined in. "So I don't go down there no more. There's a blue horse lays outside her door!"
The singing grew louder and louder until it completely blocked out the sounds of the wooden wheels struggling against the terrain. Abigail had even taken a break from tending to John to come join in.
"I've got a girl in Valentine, likes to drink that fancy wine! Plumes in her hat was two feet tall, the crack in her pants paid for it all!"
You almost didn't recognize the cheery faces around you, lost in the thrill of music. It'd been so long since everyone seemed this joyful. When listening closely, you could hear each woman's individual voice- Karen's boisterous, seemingly-drunken singing, Tilly's smoother, more free-flowing sound, Mary-Beth's higher, staccato melody, and Abigail's softer, more mature-sounding croon. Miss Grimshaw was even grumbling the lyrics to herself under her breath, but did seem to be enjoying herself.
As for you, humming the tune was more of your speed. You were somewhat self-conscious about your singing ability, but the catchy tune made it impossible not to tap your foot along.
You were starting to notice that your hearing felt uneven, that your right ear didn't seem to be working as well as the left. You looked over to your right to find sitting with her lips fastened, not murmuring a peep. You leaned over to her.
"Not much of a singer?" you asked in a whisper, trying not to draw the other's attention to the widow's silence.
She awkwardly raised her shoulders and looked down to her side. "No, not really."
"Me neither," you said with a reassuring smile. At this, the ends of 's lips curled up slightly, her shoulders falling back to a relaxed state.
As you began to lean away to rejoin the others, the widow stopped you by placing her hand lightly on the side of your arm. The skin of her hand was rough and calloused, yet her touch was gentle.
"I do enjoy making music, though," she said with a reminiscent whisper and a grin that reached her eyes. "I had always liked playing the harmonica. My Jakey and I always played 'em together..." she trailed off, the smile falling from her face. She pulled back her hand and stored it in her underarm, shrinking back into the wall. Silence fell over her again, and remained control over her for the rest of the ride.
It took a while to unpack upon arriving at Horseshoe Overlook. Dutch had set up his tent in the middle of camp, showing off the many luxuries that came along with being the leader of the Van der Linde gang; it had far more space than anyone else's, the cots were well quilted, and there was an old yet shiny phonograph sitting on display. It even had its own flooring and bookcases. The rest of the tents sat subordinate in comparison, dispersed around the center.
As for the location itself, Horseshoe Overlook wasn't bad. It was actually quite pleasant. Looking over the steep cliff on one side of the encampment yielded an excellent view of the golden Heartlands. Not the ranch or farm you'd expected, but instead much better than you'd imagined. The trees that surrounded the rest of camp made for excellent protection from the prying eye of the wandering traveler or Pinkerton.
The best part of camp was the weather. Even in the evening, the sun still cast its soft, warm hands over you and the others. Air here felt good as it entered your lungs, fully expanding them without feeling as if a frozen knife had somehow found its way through your rib cage.
Everyone was exhausted after the long journey, some even sick to their stomachs from the bumpy ride. It was easy to read the body language of your gang mates, their hunched and tired physiques communicating effortlessly that each just wanted the end of the day to arrive. You couldn't help but agree, so when everything was finally unpacked and set up, you headed off to your own tent and laid down. Sleep came to you swiftly, your exhaustion putting you to rest within minutes.
The next morning, camp was abuzz as if each person had lived there their whole lives. The gang was moving every which way, each somehow knowing exactly what to do and where to go to get it done. Pearson was toiling away chopping whatever food was left to make the morning stew. The ladies were cleaning the dust-coated shirts from the recent journey, working tirelessly away at the stains so ingrained within the linen fibers. A couple of the boys were standing guard on the outskirts of camp, watching for any unwelcome visitors.
Across camp, you saw Arthur consulting with Uncle- not a normal thing for him to do. Willingly, that is. Arthur's sarcastic pat on the old man's shoulder as they talked, followed by Uncle's displeased saunter over to the horses told you all you needed to know about their conversation- they were going robbing.
When Uncle had hitched up the wagon, Karen, Mary-Beth, and Tilly convinced the two men to let them come along. When Arthur gave them the okay, they all climbed into the wagon, giggling with enthusiasm to finally be around civilization again. Sounds fun, good for them, you thought. You thought of the other ladies as your friends, yet there had always been a feeling nipping at you that said you were an outsider. Perhaps it was your different everyday-roles, but that didn't seem to be quite right.
As you walked over to pick out a horse for the day, Arthur turned away from the others to light another cigarette when he saw you. You were about to climb on to Hosea's horse when you heard his voice from behind.
"Hey, how'd you like to take a break from huntin' and come have a little fun with us?" he asked. "It wouldn't kill ya to change it up a bit."
You turned around to face him, biting your lip in thought. "Hmm... I don't know, Arthur. Food supply is low after all the traveling- Pearson needs some more meat to feed everyone. Besides, you know I'm a rotten thief, anyways," you said, rubbing the back of your neck.
"Ah, nonsense, you're fine. And Pearson can wait- we already got some of us out huntin' right now, but if you don't wanna..."
"Oh, come on, it'll be fun! We'll help ya if you need it!" called Karen, clearly itching to get you into the wagon as soon as possible so that you could finally leave. You could tell that she knew you weren't going to give up a chance to be around other people again.
"Oh, alright," you said, trying to create a reluctant tone but failing to erase the eager smile from your face.
You climbed in next to Mary-Beth, and with a snap of the reins, you were off to Valentine.
Valentine was just the type of town you'd hoped for. It was small and compact with any type of establishment you could want to throw your money at- a general store, stable, and saloon to name a few. The stores lined a dirt path going down Main Street, teaming with lively people going about their day on horseback and foot. Neighbors called to each other from store porches, happily greeting or playfully antagonizing. The town was flanked with mutton farms to the south and a quaint churchyard in the hills to the north, composing the type of town you wish you'd grown up in. Despite the charming atmosphere, Valentine was filled to the brim with tough-looking lone men, drunk bastards, working girls, and shady thieves. You'd all blend in well here. It was perfect.
Arthur parked the wagon in front of the stable and you all clambered out. The nice shoes you were wearing sank into the shallow mud. The one time I have a reason to wear nice shoes and they get dirty. Just my luck.
Karen seemed to be enjoying the leading role she had taken. "We'll start at the saloon," she declared, waving off Arthur and Uncle while guiding you and the other ladies to the town hub. The doors of the bar were constantly flying in and out; sober men quickly entering while drunkards were exiting significantly slower.
"Come on ladies, imagine we're in Paris," said Karen.
"I imagine Paris and Valentine are easily confused," said Tilly sarcastically, chuckling. The smoke stacks coming from the buildings' chimneys were the closest thing in town to any Eiffel Tower.
"Oh, shut it. Just go find some leads, money, or better yet, both!" Karen said in a hushed voice as your group entered the bar.
The men lazing in the saloon didn't appear like the type to see sin as a stranger, meaning your task would be that much easier. Even the piano player couldn't help but steal a glance that lingered a second too long. As the other ladies found targets around the lower level, you made your way up the staircase to try to find a victim away from the main action around the bar.
You walked slowly around the upper level, trying to make eye contact with any man who looked particularly desperate for the services of a woman. Many of your "potential clients" instead stared a good distance below your eyes, quickly turning away when they'd seen you noticed. Damn it, why won't they just take the bait already? Maybe I'm worse at this than I thought.
The experience was becoming more painful and tedious by the minute. It already felt filthy to make eyes at these scoundrels, but imagining letting one of them actually have their way with you? The thought made you queasy.
Just as you were about to complete your lap around the floor, a middle-aged blonde man staggering up the stairs met your eye and held the gaze. His build was lean and he wore a long, tattered jacket that went down almost to his knees. His hair was greasy and uncombed, matching his short beard. His eyes had a slight droop to them like a bloodhound. The eye contact felt more than uneasy for you, but for him it seemed like the best thing that could have happened that day.
"Well, how 'bout that?" he said, a chilling grin forming on his sallow face, exposing a mouthful of awry, yellow teeth. "I didn't know I'd find myself such a beauty here today!" His voice was deep and sluggardly, setting off further alarms in your mind that were telling you to get this done as soon as possible. Against every instinct, you approached the man.
"Is that so?" you said, trying to keep the nervous shake out of your voice. "And what would you like to do, now that you've found a lady of my... caliber?"
"Oh, I got me some ideas," he said. Disgusting.
The man took a step closer. Looking for a reason to increase the distance between the two of you, you said, "Well, there is an empty room back here. Maybe there you can show me what you have in mind?" You turned and entered the private room as quickly as you could, though you could have walked at any pace you pleased- the man's movements were laggard, weighed down by the alcohol in his veins.
All that was in the room was a single bed, a nightstand, and an old painting. When the man entered, the dim lighting made his facial features all the more defined and menacing. He slammed the door behind him with force, making you cringe at the deafening sound. As the drunk closed the space between you with a hungry look in his eye, you started to panic. Oh shit, what's the plan? Why didn't I think of a plan? Damnit, I should have thought this through!
Before you could do anything to stop him, the man had you by the hips and was forcing you backwards towards the bed. Thinking quickly, you grudgingly grabbed onto him, putting your head to his shoulder as you clung onto his jacket. He smelled deeply of whiskey and burnt tobacco. You lowered your hands to his pockets, rummaging through them for anything you could find but only coming up with an empty cigarette pack. Thankfully, he didn't seem to notice as he was too busy fussing with the end of your dress. His coordination was inhibited by his intoxication, failing repeatedly to make a secure grab onto the fabric.
You eventually felt the material of your dress rising, quickly looking down to see the man had found the hem and was now lifting eagerly. You swiftly broke away, pausing. The two of you were both breathing hard now, but for very, very different reasons. Re-stabilizing yourself, you went back in to remove the ragged jacket. It fell to the floor to reveal a weapons belt, including a leather sack that you could bet contained the man's money. Also present were a pair of golden revolvers in the man's holsters on either hip. Those don't look cheap, you thought.
You grabbed the money sack off the belt, an easy feat considering that the scumbag's vision was likely swirling all over the room. Here came the issue, though- how were you going to get out of there?
The man didn't give you much time to think. He let out an animalistic growl before shoving you onto the bed and trying to crawl on top. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.
"Wait wait wait, I, uh, cost a good dollar! Probably more than you can afford! Um... two hundred dollars!" you cried out quickly, throwing out the first absurdly high number to come to your head. Maybe if he knew the price, he'd back down.
The regret came almost instantly. Instead of looking down with mad desire, the gross creature that now straddled you began to fume with rage. His hands grabbed tightly around your wrists, squeezing hard enough for you to feel the circulation cutting off. You were stuck.
"You fucking bitch!" he boomed, spitting in your face. "I ain't payin' for nothin'! I'm here for one thing and one thing only, and I'm gonna get it!"
You tried to twist and kick to get away but nothing was working- he had you pinned. Seeing this, the beast began to lower his face to yours. With all other options exhausted, you braced yourself for pain. With a mighty thrust, you struck your forehead as hard as you could against his.
"Fuck!" He cried, releasing your wrists to cradle his own head in his hands. While you were both still dizzy from the collision, you took the opportunity to push him off of you to the floor. With the man now off, you pull yourself up, causing a wave of throbbing pain to rush through your skull. Your vision felt cloudy and thoughts felt like too much energy to form. A metallic smell brought your hand to your upper lip, coming back covered in blood.
Your mind only came back into focus at the sound of a ticking noise you knew all too well. Slowly turning to your left side, you found the sweaty, vile, depraved man pointing one of the golden revolvers directly at you, his hand unsteady. His finger was resting on the trigger, able to slip at any moment. The end of the weapon was mere inches from your face.
You raised your hands slowly and carefully, like when dealing with an animal on a hunt. The difference was that this time, unlike with poor , the animal was more akin to a wolf or grizzly, able to snap and take your life.
The sweat that had been beading on your forehead was now dripping down the front of your face, mixing with the blood to give off the taste of salted iron. You could almost feel your neurons firing for an idea, resisting the fight or flight instincts to try to find a rational thought. Once again, seeing no other escape, you took a gamble.
In the blink of an eye, you threw your hands to the gun and aimed a palm at either side of it. You pushed, freeing the revolver from his clammy hands. The gun flipped around and was now in your possession. Holy shit, it worked!
A normal bastard would have seen that he'd lost and given up, but a bastard full of liquid courage was different. He lunged, tackling you to the ground with himself on top. Your head slammed against the wooden floor, sending another swell of blurring agony.
Before realizing what you'd done, the sound of two gunshots were bouncing around your eardrums. The man was now limp, his full weight laying over you, unmoving. You threw his lifeless body off of yours and scrambled away, leaning against the wall to catch your breath. The golden revolver was still clutched tightly in your grasp, its golden color now complemented by streak of blood. There were two holes in the man's back that cut through his shirt, of which the material was now turning a deep, violent shade of red.
I killed him. I just... killed somebody. You'd killed countless animals before, observed your fair share of shoot-outs, so why did this feel so drastically different? You realized that you didn't even feel particularly bad about it- he'd deserved it... right?
Sitting alone on the floor of the Valentine saloon's private room, you felt your heart racing at a pace that felt too fast. Your skull was aching on all sides and blood was rushing freely from your nostrils. Understanding your emotions, or any of the events that had just occurred for that mattered, was too much of a strenuous task.
The ringing in your ears was interrupted by the sound of hurrying foot steps that seemed to be getting louder and louder. A fresh feeling of panic rose in you and the door flew open. It was Arthur, followed by the other ladies. You let go of your breath and felt your heart rate fall once more.
"Jesus! What in the Hell happened in here?" said Arthur as he came to help you up. The other women's eyes were wide as they scanned the scene- a messed up bed, dead body, and your blood-stained beaten-up self.
"I... he... tried to... I shot him," you managed between breaths. "I shot him." The words felt uncanny rolling off your tongue.
"Yeah, I heard. I think the whole building heard. You're lucky we was here- I told the bar tender I'd check the noises. The coward didn't seem too keen to check on it himself," Arthur said, closing the door to shut out any possible onlookers. "Well, I'm just glad you're okay. By the looks of it, we ran into a similar situation with Karen."
"Oh yeah," she was exclaimed, "Arthur had to come in and beat the weasel! We at least got some decent cash for it."
At the mention of cash, you realized you hadn't yet checked the amount of money you'd made. It better have been a good amount to be worth this mess.
Arthur seemed to be wondering the same question, looking around the space for coins or bills. With a shaky hand, you pointed over to the bed. He picked up the brown bag and shook it. There was no sound of coins jingling but a thick wad of something was bouncing around in the sack. Arthur took it out and couldn't help but grin as he counted the bills.
"Looks like that's a good forty-seven dollars right there! Nice work!" Figures. Of course that idiot would just be carrying around what was probably his life savings.
Arthur then shoed the others away and turned back to you. "That looks like it could be worth a good buck," he said, gesturing at the revolver still held in your hand. Looking closer, you saw small engravings in the golden plating. "I'm sure Dutch would be real happy if you donated that to the gang's shares."
You knew he was right, but strangely, you didn't want him to be. In spite of the bad memories that you'd always associate with the weapon, you couldn't help but want to keep it for yourself. You'd never owned a hand gun before- a gun for dueling and action. It was different, somewhat exciting, but if it would help the gang then-
"Luckily I won't tell Dutch how you got 'em," he said, giving you a reassuring smile and a soft pat on the back. "Now come on, let's get you home."
*** End of Chapter 2 ***