Chapter 39; Enter, Pursued by a Memory - Grimshaw

Susan stood in the chill of the fragile dawn, dragging on a tightly rolled cigarette and wondered how it had come to this.

All around her, the gang packed up their bedding. She had delegated the task of tearing down Dutch's tent while the man himself stood off near the wagons with Hosea, planning their best course. They spoke quietly, heads bowed over the gang's worn-out map, tattered at the edges, and yellowed in the worn seams from spilt coffee.

They had led this rabble out of scrapes before. Nothing like this, mind you. But this past winter had been hard. Spring, and the move to Blackwater, was supposed to set them right. Instead of this chain of disasters that had befallen them. Dutch and Hosea were so focused on the threat chasing them that they did not see the rot destroying them from within.

But Susan Grimshaw missed nothing in her camp.

Susan watched now, with guarded silence, as the doc woke for another day of misery. Why had she not left yet? Emelia set about her myriad tasks with all the ponderous dignity of a woman carrying the weight of the world. Needing to piss about as often as a mare in-foal. Her ailment nothing a good stick could not fix.

Arthur crossed the messy camp to where the women folded the drying clothes, to his soiled dove. Like a moth to the flame, blinded by the glow and ignorant of his impending demise.

Susan could not hear what they said, but she understood the way of things. The softer the voice the closer a man will lean to listen. And Arthur was just about ready to fall over. The girl continued to play him beautifully; weeping and withholding her warmth just long enough for his loyalties to crack a little further. Only then did she reward him with soft affection and Arthur fell further under her spell. Like a boy half his age. Goddamn fool.

Arthur left shortly after, and the little tart went back to her work. Griswold nibbled timidly at the jerky he had left her, struggling to stomach it while the gang starved. Arthur's concern for the family that raised him would only further constrict the longer this dragged on.

Why had Dutch allowed it to go so far?

"Things are gonna start turning around," Dutch promised the gang as they piled into the wagons. "We'll meet up with Arthur along the river tonight and we will feast on the bounty of this great land like free men!"

Susan flicked away the last nub of burnt up paper and kept her doubts to herself. For now.

They drove the wagons as fast as they could manage. The river stayed to their right, cutting more roughly into the land, and all around them, the grasses stretched out for miles and miles. Vaulted in by limitless sky. It was easy to feel free when you saw no one in country so huge. But off to the west and north, the great mountains lay, and the dark line of their presence started to tease at the edge of the horizon, and everyone knew true safety lay in their dark valleys and forbidding crags.

Susan puzzled over the trouble brewing in her family and rode with the women who had not turned traitor; Tilly, Mary-Beth, Molly and Karen. They discussed little over the rumble of the wagons, and what they did speak of was unimportant. Inane commentary about the shape of a cloud or the flowers along the trail or how to convince Doc to lighten up. Uncle drove. The healthy, younger guns rode astride; Javier riding ahead, Micah and Lenny falling behind and watching their backs.

Without feed for the overworked animals, they needed to stop more often. After two hours, they paused. Between the brown river and a grassy knoll that hid the wagons from view of the main trail. Some of the men were sent down to the river to fetch water in large metal pails, Uncle whining about back pain all the while. The water sloshed with a metallic ring with each step. Pearson looked lost without anything to cook. They all looked a little lost, truth be told. They watched the horses graze the tender spring grasses with resentful eyes and rumbling stomachs.

Their hopes pinned to a man suffering a crisis of loyalty.

It should not have been allowed to go on so long. Susan smoked another cigarette and waited until Dutch wandered off to relieve himself. She caught him on the edge of the wagon train before he could return. As far as possible from any potentially sympathetic ears.

"What are you waitin' for?" she demanded in a harsh, furtive whisper.

"Well 'hello' to you too, Ms. Grimshaw," Dutch said with that amused little smirk.

That same smirk had so often made her go weak in the knees. But he put more value in pretty faces than experience or devotion. Even as the fabric of their family was being torn to shreds. Maybe he, too, was blinded by the eastern harlot's youthful bloom. The thought drained any trace of warmth or patience from Susan's soul. "You need to get rid of that girl," she hissed.

Dutch stared at her, blinking. Stunned, as always for a moment when anyone questioned him. Finally, he leaned toward her and in a low and dangerous tone that sounded more like a growl he said, "You think I don't know that?"

Susan placed her hands on her hips and did not flinch from his dark gaze. "I think you left your balls in Miss O'Shea's purse," she levelled brazenly.

The insinuation hit the mark. Dutch's nostrils flared in anger. "I've been tryin'!"

"Try harder! Or are you waitin' until we have to add Arthur to our list of lost?"

"Of course not," he snapped. "But I can't just shoot her!"

"Why not?" she demanded hotly. "I'll do it myself. A shotgun and a shovel is all it'll take!"

Dutch took a breath, raising his hands in placation. His gaze flicking toward the wagons and Susan realized too late her error. By sheer luck, no one seemed to be paying any attention.

"Because then we lose Arthur for sure," Dutch said in his most honeyed, reasonable tone. He raised his plush brows in that elegant, condescending way. "Now… are you done with the hysterics?" he asked smoothly, and the heat climbed to Susan's face. "So we can have a more civilized and productive conversation?"

Susan took a breath and took strength in the knowledge that she was not making something out of nothing. "I just don't like what I'm seeing," she retorted.

"Nor I," Dutch said amicably. His conspiratorial tone set her at ease. He laid a hand across his heart. "It had been my sincere hope that nature would take its course. Spoiled little thing like that, I'd a thought she'd run home soon as the lice set in."

The rich little bitch refused to run home. Stubborn, stupid girl. Despite the hard sleeping and the rain and the lice and Pearson's cooking. "She's determined. Got her claws in him good."

"We also ain't been near a town with a train yet," he said with a little smirk. "A pity she's so… rigid. Woulda been nice to have a proper doctor around."

Susan grimaced. "She's got a talent for fixin' folk," she admitted grudgingly. "Worth more than Abigail and Tilly and Molly combined. But it don't lessen the damage she's causin'."

"There ain't nothing to be afraid of," Dutch soothed, confident to a fault. "We raised him right. He'll see her for what she is."

Susan glared at her ex-lover and wondered how men could be so infuriatingly oblivious. "You think he'll care when he figures out she's knocked up?" Susan could not help the sneer that pulled at her lip. "You think he'll see then?"

Dutch looked at the ground and let out an exasperated sighed. "You're certain about this?"

"It's early yet," Susan said. "But she's showin' plenty of signs."

Dutch shook his head. "We've been through this before," he reasoned, but his voice had lost its confident warmth. "Arthur didn't leave then."

Last time. Arthur had been a boy then. Too young and brash and stupid. Saddled with a few precious traces of gullibility that allowed him to think he could both ride with outlaws and be the head of a family. Split between two worlds.

It ended in a bad way.

Susan did not think Arthur had it in him to pay that steep price a second time. Dutch looked away from her, from the camp, and gazed out over the great plains. He always did his best thinking while contemplating the majesty of America.

But all his dreaming and brilliant plots did not negate the cold facts. The girl was pregnant and Arthur's increasing shift in priorities spelled only one single outcome.

"This ain't like last time, Dutch."

He nodded but did not look at her. "So. He's got himself caught has he. Good lord. You'd think he'd a learned after that whole fiasco with the waitress. Insipid thing. What was her name again?"

"That was a long time ago," Susan said.

"She told Arthur yet?"

Susan shook her head. Where Marston had the instinct to run from the trouble he helped cause, Arthur hunkered down and dug through his messes. "No. It's why we gotta act. Now."

Behind them an argument broke out, and Susan looked. She was not surprised to see the doc there, like whiskey on a fire. Tempers already running high under all the stress. Hosea was there, calming and reasonable. Charles and the doc broke off with Mary-Beth and Tilly trailing behind. Her own girls betraying them. Where they should have been showing Arthur's succubus a cold shoulder, they instead warmed to her. If her high ideals and fancy words had poisoned Arthur against the gang...

"She's ripping the heart out of this family," Susan remarked bitterly.

Dutch turned to her, bristling. "I am the heart of this family, Susan."

She still saw Dutch as he was then. When she'd first fallen under his spell. Gleaming and assured of his place in the world. What a lovely dream he had. She would gladly follow him into hell to make it a reality.

With his best friend at his side. And the boy they considered a son. Unruly as an untamed colt and desperate for any scrap of approval or maternal affection they tossed him. And in turn Arthur had sacrificed his first love and his first born to the cause, so boundless had his loyalty been.

The loss of his son had come close to breaking him, though Arthur never spoke of it and Susan doubt he had it in his heart to pay so heavy a price again. She shook her head. "Yer the soul, Dutch," she allowed. "Hosea's the brains. But Arthur -"

Dutch scowled. "I know, Susan. He is dear to me. You seem to forget that I raised that man up like a son!"

"I ain't the one forgetting."

"I ain't forgetting!" he snapped. "I am trying to come up with a plan that won't end in Arthur blaming us. If we could get her to run off, like that Gillis woman, he'll never look at another girl again."

Susan shook her head. "She'd have done it by now."

Dutch laughed. "In all fairness, she ain't really had much opportunity."

"She's fixated and selfish," Susan decided bitterly. "It's unhealthy. Hasn't asked, even once, to take that horse of hers and go her own way. And Arthur… he wants her here. He's made that much clear to anyone with a set of eyes."

"Or ears," Dutch said with a chuckle. "Of course, he wants her around. He's only human."

They lapsed into silence then, watching the grass ripple beneath the shade of the white clouds chasing across the sky. He had a point, about needing to do it right. The tense fragility of the problem only made Susan more desperate to simply be done with it. A bone was best set quick. Shoot the little harlot and tell Arthur she ran off. It was for his own good, damn it all. What could go wrong? How could he possibly find her corpse in so vast a countryside before the coyotes and buzzards cleaned the mess?

"Though," Dutch remarked, thoughtfully, finally breaking the silence. "I have noticed she don't do too well when her buck's away."

"Dutch?"

"Don't you fret no more, Ms. Grimshaw." He smiled, warm as the sun, and indeed the worry went silent inside her. "I've got a plan."

The words were music to her ears.