A wagon would have been preferable. Pants too, come to think of it. But the job had called for her to fit in and her worn ranch pants wouldn't have done the trick.
So here she was. Caught again and trussed up like a hog, slung across the back of some bounty hunter's horse in her only skirt and halfway to the mud and shit of Valentine. And this time she didn't even have innocence on her side. She spared a thought for her mare, left behind where she'd been picked up heading back into camp. Styx would have been a more comfortable ride, Clem thought, wryly amused that the bounties she'd picked up had been comfortable at least.
Abruptly the horse stopped, shuffling Clem into the back of the bounty hunter and forcing the air out of her lungs.
'Move along, mister,' the bounty hunter growled, injecting his voice with enough menace to pique Clem's interest. She craned her neck to try to catch a glimpse of the rider who'd caused the sudden halt but all she could see from her angle was the side of his horse, a dusty pants leg and a worn boot slotted into what looked like a fairly well-made stirrup.
'Looks like you boys caught yourselves a real criminal there,' the newcomer called, his voice an amused drawl.
'Bounty's ours,' the other bounty hunter said. 'She's wanted in Valentine.'
The horse bearing Clem skittered slightly to the side, briefly granting her a better view of the stranger in the dim light afforded by her captor's lantern. He was leaning across his saddlehorn, his face masked by the brim of his hat.
'Wanted for what?' he asked. 'Only seen one female bounty poster in Valentine and I'm pretty sure that ain't her.'
'We don't have to tell him shit, Lou,' the other bounty hunter hissed, apparently as skittish as his friend's horse.
'Sheriff in Valentine wants a word,' Clem's captor said.
'A word? Don't sound like it pays too well. Why don't you boys run along, leave the lady be? Ain't proper to have her slung across your horse like that.'
Lou straightened in his saddle, affronted. 'I ain't about to take lessons in what's proper from some shitheel cowboy. Move aside, friend.' He shifted again and Clem heard his hand come to rest on his holster, his poorly maintained gun rattling.
At the edge of her field of vision, Clem saw the stranger's leg shift, as though he'd straightened too. When he spoke his voice was low suddenly, somehow filled with more threat than either bounty hunter had managed throughout the entirety of their short acquaintance. 'We ain't friends, mister, and you sure as shit don't want me as an enemy, so why don't you take my advice an' get your hand offa that gun unless you plan on using it. Let the woman go.'
Suddenly it seemed everything was happening at once. Lou drew his gun and Clem flinched, squeezing her eyes shut as two shots were fired in quick succession. She heard the sound of a body hitting the dirt and hooves beating a hasty retreat. Lou shifted in his saddle, shoved his hands under her stomach and Clem was flying, hitting the dirt behind his horse with enough force to knock the wind out of her for the second time in as many minutes.
Clem's eyes snapped open as she felt hands grip her coat, turning her onto her back. The stranger loomed over her, his eyes on the retreating back of the bounty hunter as he rode away. The second bounty hunter lay on the ground a few feet away, the hole in the centre of his forehead a fairly good sign that Clem wasn't out of the woods yet.
'You alright, miss?'
Clem looked up, blowing her hair out of her eyes so she could glare up at the stranger. 'Just dandy, mister,' she snapped. 'You wanna untie these ropes or are you fixin' to take me in yourself?'
The stranger snorted his amusement before drawing a hunting knife from his belt and kneeling to cut the ropes at Clem's ankles. As he worked, Clem eyed the dead bounty hunter. 'You some kinda gunslinger or somethin'?'
'Or somethin',' the man shrugged. 'There someplace I can take you?'
'You got nothin' better to do?' Clem asked, wriggling until she could sit up.
The man glanced down the road. 'Got business at Downes Ranch,' he said. 'Nothing that can't wait. You really scam that bastard Malloy?' he asked, glancing up at her from under his battered hat before turning his attention to the next set of ropes.
Clem regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, watching as surprisingly gentle hands cut the ropes binding her wrists. 'He had it comin',' she said, rubbing at the red marks the rope had left.
The man smirked, just a flash across his face before it was gone. 'No doubt,' he said, sitting back on his haunches.
'You know him?' Clem asked.
'As well as anyone,' he nodded, rising to his feet. 'I've been known to do a bit of bounty work.'
Clem raised an eyebrow. 'When you ain't callin' on ranchers and rescuing damsels in distress.'
'Forgive me miss,' he said, stepping back and watching as she got to her feet. 'But you don't look like much of a damsel to me.'
Despite herself, Clem gave him a crooked grin and extended a hand for him to shake. 'You ain't wrong, Mr..?'
'Arthur,' he said, taking her hand.
Clem shook, looking him dead in the eyes like her daddy taught her. Everything you needed to know about a man, you could tell from his handshake, his horse and his eyes. The handshake was warm, firm, the palm and fingers calloused in a way that spoke of years of hard work, but the care was there, as though he was afraid he'd hurt her. The horse was... impressive, Clem decided; a silver fox trotter, fast, loyal and not easily spooked. Well looked after, like the man - Arthur - knew he needed to earn the loyalty of a horse like that. And the eyes… the eyes glittered at her from under his hat, blue and then green and then blue again, fairly dancing with amusement - at her expense, no doubt - but behind that, something else. Sadness, maybe.
'And you are?' The amusement in his eyes suddenly plain in his voice.
Clem snatched her hand back, abruptly aware she'd left it in his too long. 'Clementine Warren. You got a last name, Arthur?
'Sure,' he said easily, clearly in no hurry to share it. He turned and laid a hand on his horse's nose, murmuring softly at her before raising his voice to ask, 'Where'd they pick you up?'
Clem watched him run a hand down the horse's neck. 'I was camped down on the Dakota.'
'Camped?' he said, turning and eyeing her skirt.
'This ain't exactly my… normal attire,' Clem shrugged, feeling defensive.
He nodded, seemingly satisfied. 'I'll take you back. Keep any more... opportunists at bay.'
'I can take care of myself,' she snapped.
He chuckled, dropping his hands to rest on his gunbelt. 'I don't doubt it, Miss Warren. But you ain't got a horse and you ain't armed.'
And he was, she thought, eyeing over the arsenal strapped to the man's saddle before dropping her gaze to the revolver and sawed-off shotgun in his belt. 'What about your rancher friend?' she asked, looking up again to find him watching her from under his hat.
He glanced away, an expression she couldn't read flitting across his face. 'It'll keep,' he drawled, pulling himself into his saddle and leaning down to offer her a hand up which Clem pointedly ignored, dragging herself up behind him despite the hindrance of her skirt.
When she was finally situated, she hesitated a moment before settling her hands at his waist, looking up to see him looking at her over his shoulder. 'We headin' out, cowboy?'
They rode in silence a ways, Clem wincing as even the smooth gait of the stranger's horse jarred her bruised ribs. The stranger must have heard her or something, because with barely a tug on the reins he slowed the horse from a trot to a walk, turning his head slightly to look at Clem over his shoulder.
'You alright miss?'
'I'm fine,' Clem snapped, annoyed she'd shown yet more weakness.
Arthur shifted, reaching over and pulling something from the satchel at his side. 'Here,' he grunted, handing a bottle back over his shoulder.
Whiskey, Clem realised as she took it. Almost empty. Not to her taste but it'd see her right for now. She bit down on the cork, pulling it free and spitting it into the grass before taking a long swig of the liquor. 'Thanks,' she murmured, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
Arthur nodded, letting the horse walk a few more minutes before clicking his tongue and urging her back into a trot once he was sure the whiskey had taken effect.
After a while Clem found herself uncharacteristically uncomfortable with the silence. 'Why'd you stop?'
He shrugged. 'Didn't seem right.'
Unseen, Clem rolled her eyes. 'They was bounty hunters, takin' in a bounty. What ain't right about that?'
'You wasn't movin', miss. Someone's guilty, they'll holler and kick up an almighty fuss when you pick 'em up.'
'Even the women?'
He chuckled. 'Especially the women.'
It was full dark when they made it back to her camp and Clem eyed the remains of her campfire as she slid to the ground, refusing Arthur's hand again and trying not to notice his snort of amusement when she stumbled.
Styx appeared between the trees, walking to Clem with what she interpreted as a sheepish expression. Clem smiled and reached up, running a hand down the mare's blaze. 'It's alright, girl. I'm okay.'
She looked up to find Arthur appraising her camp with a keen eye. 'What?'
'How'd they catch you?'
Clem raised her eyebrows, surprised. 'What d'you mean?'
He rubbed his jaw absently. 'I mean… seems to me you've been out here a while, don't look like you have a real permanent home. And if you're the scam artist they said you'd be used to bein' on the run… so how'd you get yourself caught by those morons?'
'I got sloppy,' Clem said simply, moving away and attempting to resurrect her fire. Arthur murmured something she didn't catch. 'What?'
'You always on your own like this?' he asked.
It wasn't what he'd said but Clem let it drop. 'These days.'
'Ain't exactly safe out here.'
Clem glared at him. 'I do well enough.' He shot her a look and she conceded his unspoken point with a curt nod. 'Usually. I ain't stayin' in New Hanover long anyways. Headin' to Blackwater tomorrow,' she said, wondering why she was telling him even as the words left her mouth and fast becoming even more surprised at herself when she added, 'Maybe ill see you there sometime. Pay you back for helping me out.'
Arthur raised a hand and rubbed the back of his neck. 'Weren't no drama. But I doubt you'll see me in Blackwater. Any time soon anyhow.' He straightened in his saddle and tipped his hat to her. 'You take care, Miss Warren.'
'It's Clem,' she said, wondering at herself again.
He gave her a crooked smile. 'Miss Clementine . There's bad men in these parts. Ain't safe for a woman alone.'
'I'll be fine,' Clem said, rising and turning away to feed Styx a beet she found in her saddlebag. As she raised her arms pain shot through her side and she gasped.
At a sound behind her, she turned and saw Arthur had dismounted. He moved around her and held a hand up to Styx, palm flat and holding something her usually reserved horse swept up greedily.
'Why don't you get some rest?' he said, running his hand gently down her horse's nose. 'I'll keep watch a spell.'
'You ain't gotta -'
'You need sleep and I ain't got nowhere to be until the morning.'
Clem straightened, ignoring the twinge in her side. 'And why should I trust you? You could be just as bad as those bounty hunters.'
Arthur laughed at that, the sound somehow making Clem smile despite herself. 'I'm almost definitely worse, Miss Clementine. Fact remains I ain't them though, and you look about ready to drop, whether you trust me or not.'
Clem stared at him a moment, before realising she was too tired to argue. Not tired enough to be stupid, though. Brushing past him, she pulled her revolver from her saddlebag, giving him a look that dared him to comment. When he said nothing she laid down on her bedroll, watching as Arthur settled beside the fire, one leg drawn up so he could rest his arm on it. As she felt sleep start to overwhelm her she murmured, 'I don't believe you, you know.'
''bout what?' he asked, prodding at the fire with a stick and watching the embers drift skywards.
'You can't be all that bad. Savin' me like that.'
He was silent awhile and by the time he spoke, Clem was almost asleep, the low drawl of his words following her into a dream before drifting away. 'Man who raised me s'got a sayin'. Like almost everything he says it's got a lot of words. But I always liked the second part best: we save folk as need savin'…''