It always amazed her how much effort people put into travel. She never enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the city, and she thought momentarily that this strange behavior may very well have been a side-effect of living there – a madness inflicted by the tall buildings, and the rush of people with places to go, and things to do.
Her musings were broken – a number was called. It was now her turn at the window, and she nodded at the weary-looking auburn unicorn, sitting in the murky cubicle beyond the thick glass.
"Jus' one to Dodge, thanks."
She reached into her pocket, her hoof brushing a thick stack of notes as she scraped the jacket's felt interior, withdrawing a few dollars and dropping them into the shallow basin before her. Almost immediately a short ticket was handed back to her, stamped and ready.
"Red Steel Railway, platform seven, 3:10."
She boarded the train, and as the great iron beast lumbered out of the station, she slung her brown-duffel bag into the chair opposite and gazed out of the window. The world began to pick up speed, and the city suburbs of Sunrise Manor flashed by.
Cassy couldn't help but let her mind wander.
* * *
"Now, dear, we don't do that kinda thing," The Sheriff had said.
"What do ya mean, you 'don't do that kinda thing?'" she yelled back. "He's dead! Ya have ta do somethin'!"
"We've done all we could. It was weeks ago. The trail's long gone by now, and even if it was fresh, we wouldn't go."
"What if I paid ya?"
The Sheriff drew himself out of his chair. He was not an overly tall figure, but his figure was sharp, and the edges of his thin, pointed moustache were sharper. She couldn't help but shrink a little as he stood, his fiery amber eyes alight with irritation.
"We don't work for money. We're not hired guns."
"What are y'all then?" she rebuked. "A bunch of lazy cowards who sit 'round all day, shootin' the breeze?"
A deafening silence came across the room. The sheriff's face was calm, but as he spoke, there was a hint of controlled anger in his voice.
"Now you listen to me real good. Only reason I'm talkin' to you about this is cause your brother told me that you were still upset. But I hear somethin' else like that outta you, and I'll make sure your Granny hears about it."
She stood, her mouth opening and closing in silence, too angry and upset for words. Instead of replying, she sat back down. So did the sheriff. Cassy stared at a blank spot on his desk, blinking back tears of frustration.
"Cassidy, you have to let it go."
She sniffed. "Ah don't recall givin' you permission to use that name."
The sheriff leaned forward onto his forelegs, adopting a pleading expression.
"Let it go. It's been two weeks now."
"But ah can't – ah…"
Words failed her, and she put her head in her hands.
The sheriff let out a small noise of dismay. From behind the blackness, Cassy heard his comforting, seasoned voice as he stood once more, trotting around his desk and draping a tender hand around her back.
"Oh, Cass," he sighed, "I'm sorry to snap at you. There, there, darling. Don't go all teary-eyed on Uncle Bismarck, now."
At his request, she stopped sobbing, though the tears still trickled freely from her verdant eyes as she opened them once more.
"Y'know we can't go after it. We're lawbringers." Her uncle murmured as comfortingly as he could. "Ah'd be more than happy to try, but it's not a one-person job. It'd take at least four, and there's too many here that need us. We can't just leave em' to go on a wild goose chase."
Her lip trembled slightly, and she mopped away her own tears with a hand.
"…Do you know anyone that could?"
The Sheriff shook his head.
"And y'couldn't get Courtney or Jonathan to go to Dodge or someplace, and get some help?"
"…Well what if ah went instead?"
There was a slight pause.
"Look at me, little lady," Her uncle said. She continued to survey the floor.
She glanced up dolefully. She knew her uncle preferred pet names, and would never call her by her full title unless it was important. Even so, she was surprised to see that his face had drained of color, his eyes bright and alarmed.
"You stay right away from Dodge. That place is trouble. That's where the outlaw Arkansas Black lives!"
"But Uncle-!" she protested.
"No buts, and that's that!" he said flatly. Cassy was pushed further into guilt by his admonishment, and stared at the floor once more. Her uncle knelt down low next to her, offering a sympathetic smile.
"We're your family… we're always here for ya, dear. But you know well that huntin' and killin'…"
He paused, searching for the right words.
"Well… It just ain't the Jones family way. Yer granny'll tell ya that."
Cassy fell back into silence, defeated, fresh tears dropping off her chin and onto her hands, clasped tightly in her lap.
* * *
A sudden tap on her shoulder snapped her out of her unpleasant memory. She was frightened for a moment – she thought it was the sheriff himself, or worse yet, one of her own blood, sent to follow her and bring her back if she tried anything –
A blue-uniformed man was peering down at her, a bored expression on his face. She fumbled in her duster pockets, finding and handing him the paper stub. Without even looking at it, he took it indifferently and moved on.
As the few other passengers were roused from sleep for their own tickets, Cassy turned her attention out of the window once more. She didn't know how long she'd been lost in thought – it had felt as if it were just a moment – but the city blocks had long vanished, and had been replaced with a dusty, hazy countryside of low scrub and rolling wheat fields. In the distance, she saw mountains of the palest green, dotted with occasional, lifeless villages.
She felt bad about lying to her Uncle. He had made her promise she would not go, and yet the following night, she crept away from the farm. It felt like an age ago that she'd closed the front door behind her, duffel-bag slung over her back, her father's black coat pulled tightly across her lithe frame, its deep pockets filled with money and food.
It had to be done this way. She knew her brother would have stopped her if she tried in the day. All the same, pangs of guilt flooded through her as she imagined her grandmother discovering the neatly-addressed letter on her pillow.
The rest of the journey was quiet, and uneventful. Slowly, the world beyond the carriage window changed. The fields turned to flatter, dustier land, and the mountains themselves seemed to shrink to nothing as the train shunted on.
Gradually, the vegetation became thinner. The grass that grew beside the tracks turned a dry shade of yellow, and trees became sparse, and then rare. They vanished altogether for a while, as the train passed through a salt basin – here, the plants had been replaced by tall, prickly saguaro and endless acres of blue-green sagebrush. The land was utterly desolate. The earth was dry and cracked, and the cities that were built upon it had been wrecked by sand, neglect, and time.
So it was that when Cassy felt the train slow, and she first laid eyes on Dodge, she couldn't help but feel a little relieved.
Compared to the other towns she had passed on the train, this one seemed to burst with life. The buildings in the main street opposite the station were glossy, and freshly-painted. Several were general stores and saloons, and amongst them there lay a homely-looking inn with a red tile roof. There were even a few industrious individuals toting wooden carts along the dusty main road, each of them filled to the brim with bulging sacks of fruit.
She could not possibly imagine why it was her Uncle had forbid her from coming to this little oasis on the edge of the Nevada.
But as she alighted from the train, a sweltering blast of dry air caught her full-on in the face, reminding her of where she was, and what she was here for.
* * *
The saloon was hardly empty. It was always full to bursting, especially in the afternoons, and most people that dropped in did so to beat the heat. The taste of an ice-cold sarsaparilla or a good cold drink in the afternoon was more than some people could resist.
The door-chimes jangled in salute to a new-comer, and the barkeeper turned his head to utter a hello. But as his eyes fell upon her, half-framed in the doorway, he found his well-practiced words tripping on his tongue…
Starting from the tip of her steel work-shoes, and travelling up the contours of her fine, muscled legs, there was nothing about her that didn't catch his eye.
If she was a traveler, then she didn't look the part. A white button-up undershirt peeked from beneath a black overcoat that almost seemed a size too big for her, with small, dark grey tassels hanging off of the cuffs and hem. Her muscular calves were toned, but smooth, and her skin was a dark shade of tan, undoubtedly from a life spent outdoors. A dusty old black ten gallon hat obscured an unkempt hair of her roughly-tied ponytail of hay blonde of even dustier gold; and it was slung over the front of her body in a long ponytail, tied off at its end with a red leather band.
As she raised her head to look about the bar-room, the publican caught his breath. A light dusting of freckles adorned the cheeks of a youthful, pretty face – one that, like her body, had seen the sun, but not long enough for it to become tough and worn. A few stray strands of her hair fell over a pair of gorgeous emerald eyes, greener than new grass. She brushed the offending locks away reflexively, draping them behind one of her small, ears.
The young barkeeper swallowed the lump in his throat.
It was hard enough living in a dustbowl.
It was doubly as hard when there wasn't a good gal for miles around.
So it was that he didn't bother to control his mouth perking up, a silly grin forming over his face as he stared undoubtedly at the sweet little thing that had meandered into his bar.
* * *
Cassy had spied the saloon from a mile away. Unlike the rest of Dodge, which seemed new and bright, this particular establishment appeared worn and beaten, another one of nature's countless victims in the harsh sunshine. Two stories high and rather tall, it was built of weatherboards and appeared to have fallen into disrepair the windows were dusted with sand, and had turned a rich mahogany red. The walls showed signs of once being painted blue, but the coat had since faded, all but scratched away by the vicious dust-storms that so often plagued the Nevada.
The Long Branch Saloon. Admittedly, it was what she had expected from her uncle's warnings. Old. Dirty. Menacing.
She pushed on the double-doors, and entered.
It was extremely dark, and she blinked for a moment, forcing her eyes to adjust. Once she had, she saw several circular tables around the room, and nearly all were populated by small groups of two or three men. Some were cowboys, with tall hats and spurred heels, and some were just common village folk. Some drank and chatted, while others smoked and played hearts. A few were even lined up against the wall, taking turns to hurl darts at a rather well-used dartboard. Occasionally, a simultaneous round of 'ooh's' would reach her ears, as whoever was throwing would hit a good shot, before returning to the bar to sip some more of their drink. One or two solitary men sat on tall bar stools, mulling peacefully over their beer, and some – to her slight disgust – sat entranced by a pretty women, who fluttered her long eyelashes and tossed her long dark hair at them, smiling seductively. She glanced up at Cassy as she entered, and passed her a sly wink.
Cassy shuddered, and approached the bar, eager to escape the womens's come-hither gaze. The auburn, clean-shaven stallion behind the bar grinned nervously at her as she approached, and she noticed his eyebrows rise as she removed the band that kept her hair tied back, allowing it to flop around her shoulders. She dumped her duffel-bag at her hands.
"…Pick your poison," the barkeeper said.
"Ah'm not thirsty," Cassy replied, but the barkeeper shook his head defiantly.
"No, ma'am. This one's on the house."
She was a little confused, but appreciative of the friendly welcome all the same, and before long, she sat at the bar, holding a cold bottle of beer in her hands. Of course it didn't matter that she was only twenty – not out here in the more lawless parts of the land, anyway. She grinned to herself slyly as she took a long swig of the cool beverage, and couldn't help but feel refreshed.
"Whew, guess ah needed that," she muttered, depositing the now half-empty bottle back onto the bench. "Thanks."
"Sure looks that way, and don't mention it," the barkeeper replied, visibly impressed by her thirst. "What brings a pretty miss such as yer'self out here, anyway?"
"Ah need the best tracker money can buy."
"Need someone found?"
"Not quite. Something."
The barkeeper's eyes narrowed, and his lips pursed themselves together in what could best be described as deep thought.
"Well, we haven't had many around lately," he said, ticking off names on his fingers as he went. "Thunder boys live just outside of town. They're ruffians, and they know their ways round the scrub - though it's half a day to their camp, and they don't like strangers, let alone a girl, so I'm afraid yer chances are slim, missy. Then there's the Red twins, Billy and Bobby, though most folks don't see them round here much these days."
"Where can I find the man known as Arkansas Black?"
The barkeeper had continued to babble about various bounty hunters and tracking experts from the town around, but at the mention of the name he tripped on his tongue, his mouth pricking in fear.
"Y-you what?" he stammered.
"Arkansas Black. I was told he comes here."
A bead of sweat trickled down the young publican's forehead, and his eyes flitted nervously around the room, as if someone had overheard her. He beckoned her closer, and leaned in, holding a hand up to his mouth to stifle the noise.
"Are you tryin' to get us all killed?" He hissed angrily.
"What, I—" Cassy stammered, unsure of what to say. "I'm just after a tracker, and I know he's the best there is!"
"Who's the best there is?!" Roared a voice from quite close to her, making them both jump.
She turned on her seat and saw a stallion wearing a white ten gallon hat. He swayed on his seat drunkenly, and his eyes were half-narrowed. "I can out-track anyone," he slurred, dragging himself a few barstools in her direction. "M'name's Colt. Freest tracker there was, for a pretty girl like yerself."
"I'm not lookin' for your help, sir," Cassy replied as calmly as she could. "I'm after a different man for the job."
"Who's that, then?" he sneered. "Who's this big hotshot, sweetheart?"
Without warning, he jumped over to just a seat away, throwing a hand around her shoulders before she could react. He pulled her close, his syrupy, alcoholic breath almost making her dizzy. Cassy wretched and turned away, pushing the stallion in the chest, but he was the quicker, seizing her forelegs and pulling her tighter towards him.
"Mind if I steal his business, and maybe a kiss or two?" He asked, leaning closer, a cruel smile on his face.
"Ah think he'd mind," said a wiry olden voice from over his shoulder.
The man frowned, his eyes unfocused. Releasing Cassy, he reached with an idle hand to his waist, where his revolver hung…
"That'd be the biggest mistake you've ever made."
The voice reached her ears above a sea of utter silence.
Cassy turned to see who had made the announcement, and suddenly realized that the bar had fallen to a deathly hush, and that it had been that way for some time. Everyone in the room was looking over at her, some of them shooting uncertain gazes at each other.
The drunken man turned to his audience.
"Who said that?"
"That'd be me," mumbled the voice again.
Cassy squinted into the back of the saloon. The dusty windows struggled to let in enough light at the best of times, and she stared into the darkest corner intently, trying to penetrate the shadows from which the voice had come.
"You some kind of law, little girl?" it asked again.
There was a nervous laugh or two from the men playing hearts to her left.
They fell silent instantly.
A sets of heavy boots hit the floor.
She heard a wooden chair scrape on the floorboards as it was pushed back calmly, and the jangle of spurs as someone began to walk forward.
One step forward.
Two steps forward.
Three steps forward. The stranger's strides quickened in pace as he emerged from the back of the room, his silhouette becoming clearer and brighter until at last she could see his face.
The first thing she saw of him was the smoldering glow of his cigar. The second thing was the crimson of his clothing. The third was the silvery glow of his revolver.
It was an apple-red haired man. He looked old, though like most things, it might have been the toll of the wind and the sand on his mortal features. His face was coarse and unshaven, and his frame was slender. About his body he wore a patterned red poncho – it had been flung back over his shoulder to reveal a tattered fur vest and a hand-woven leather belt, complete with an empty holster. Like every stallion around her, he wore a wide tan cowboy's hat, though his was more mangled and rough around the edges than any other she'd seen.
All of these details she noticed later, for at once, her focus was drawn to the stranger's eyes.
They were a shade of lime-green, stretched thin in a mean squint... They were eyes far more sinister and menacing than any she had ever seen. His mouth was curled at one corner, locked in a look of pure disgust.
"Why don't you go for a walk and cool your head, stranger?" The rough old-timer suggested, his voice as cool and sharp as chips of ice. "Leave this poor girl alone,"
The drunken man's eyes widened and he let go of Cassy as if he had been burned. Then, he vaulted off of his seat, and galloped as fast as he could out of the saloon door, crashing through them at such a pace that they flew outwards, thudding into the walls on the other side before swinging back and forth.
The stranger's eyes then flicked over to her. She caught her breath. His gaze could have stopped her heart, then and there. Like two intensely green fires, they burned with a fierceness unmatched in her memory. A great scar ran from one corner of his cheek to the other of his eye, and it aided his leer.
The revolver in his hand was little more than a formality. She knew just by looking at him that he could have killed the drunk, and her, if he felt so inclined, without so much as batting an eyelid.
"Well?" he asked again.
The silence was deafening.
"No," Cassy replied.
Everyone in the bar let out a long-held breath, in simultaneous relief. The olden man holstered his gun, and took a few steps forward, coming to sit on a stool a small way away.
"You know," the man said, "He wasn't dangerous at all. Just a stupid drunk. And I don't mean you no harm, either, so you can just let go of that there coach gun."
Cassy's eyes widened a little, and she backed the stray hand away from her duffel-bag.
"No, no, show me," The stranger said, smiling a little. "Don't be scared. I just wanna take a look."
She hesitated a little, before leaning back down to the duffel-bag, opening it up and producing a double-barreled shotgun. There was a sudden, sharp hiss of breath as the men in the bar caught sight of the weapon in her hands, their eyes following the gun as she passed it to the grizzled old-timer.
"My my, this is quite the weapon," he said, turning it over, and surveying it with quiet wonder. "Wells, Fargo & Co. Brand spankin' new. Lever trigger, grooved barrel for gripping for slender fingers. Now what do you need this big ol' thing for?"
"What're you huntin' with a gun like this? Couger?"
The mans eyes widened. Whether it was in surprise or amusement, she could not tell.
"Name's Arkansas Black."
"Cassy," came the reply. She leaned in to shake his hand, and was surprised to see the men seated around her recoil a little.
"Don't mind them," Black said with a smile, gesturing to the crowd of onlookers as he shook her proffered hand. "Just a bunch of young bucks scared of an old ghost."
She wasn't sure what he meant by his words, but nonetheless decided to press her good luck.
"I got a job for ya, if'n you're interested."
The man chuckled, and he shifted his seat a little closer to her.
"Well certainly, young miss. What do you need me to do?"
* * *
The two of them sat on the steps to the saloon, talking quietly. They had alighted outside at his request, and she could not have been more grateful – while the bar had mostly returned to its quiet hum after the little incident, occasional sets of eyes flicked over to her, as though they were still wary of trouble.
By now, it was evening, and it had cooled off somewhat. The sun was behind them, and she accepted the shade the Saloon's veranda offered her as she sat next to the tracker.
"…So all ya want me to do is find, and kill it."
"…But you don't know what it is?"
"No, I just didn't want ta' put it out there, in front of those folks," Cassy replied, gesturing back towards the bar. She leaned close, and whispered the name of the creature quietly.
Almost immediately, he let out a barking laugh.
"A twenty foot bear?!? Y'must be crazy."
The stallion's eyes flicked to the large wad of notes she had produced halfway through their discussion.
"…Though now that ah'm lookin at it, you're actually willin' to pay me the five hundred I asked for."
"Crazy deal for a crazy gal," he said.
"…Well, I know where that old thing might live. She's been round' for a long time, alright. Why d'you want me to kill it?"
The question caught her off-guard. She had not expected to do any more than pay the man to track the beast. "You won't have to. Ah'll be doin' that," she replied curtly.
The man snorted, removing the cigar from his mouth with a hand.
"Nuh-uh. I work alone."
"What?" she cried indignantly.
"You heard me. I don't cater to amateur enthusiasts."
"Ah ain't no enthusiast!" Cassy snapped back, her forest green eyes flashing in anger. "Now, ah'm comin' with you, or you get nothin', and ah'll find somepony else who's willin' and able."
There was a short pause while the olden man surveyed her.
She reminded him of her, in a way. She even looked a touch like her in her younger years, too. Maybe it was her eyes.
He brushed such thoughts from his mind. She was either stupid or brave. Perhaps both. Either way, he didn't care, so long as he got his money – but nonetheless, he could not help but feel curious.
"You really want this thing dead, huh?" he inquired, trying to peer past her angry veneer.
"Mind if ah ask why?"
"None of your business."
"Actually," the man said, replacing the cigar in his mouth and puffing on it for a moment, "It's all of mah business."
"What's that 'sposed ta mean?"
"You think any one of them fellas in there'll help you?" At this, he turned his head and spat to one side. "No, little miss.
They'll take your money and leave you by the side of the road."
Cassy couldn't help but feel the color drain from her face.
"Worse. Now tell me what this is all about."
She swallowed nervously.
"Alright, well… it just started attackin' my home-town one day, just outta the blue," she said. "It killed thirty cattle. Ate three, butchered the rest for fun."
"That doesn't seem like five hundred's worth of revenge to me."
"This ain't the first time it's happened," she continued. "All the other people in the town just wanna relocate it, or ignore it, or let it go away. But it keeps comin' back, and… well, ah can't let it go this time," she said.
The words echoed in her head. She couldn't let it go. That was what her brother had said, too.
"Seems reasonable," the man replied with a nod, flipping his poncho back across his shoulders. "But I still can't take ya with me."
"Why not?" She replied hotly. "It's mah money, and ah'm payin' you."
No sooner had the words left her mouth then she found herself quite intimidated by the olden man's piercing glare once more. He held her there fiercely for a moment.
Wiping a bit of dust off of his red poncho as it fluttered back down in front of him.
"Wait, wait, why the sudden change of heart?" Cassy asked, surprised.
"You questionin' me, girl?" he snarled.
She shut her mouth tightly, gazing up at his scarred face. Her obedience brought a smile to the man's features, and he grinned broadly, revealing a dazzling row of white teeth. One of them was gold.
"Ah, shucks, kid. Can't you take a joke?" he said with a wink, offering a hand to her. While she was still uncertain of him, she took it, and he yanked her up with an incredible amount of strength – far more than his physique belied.
"Hell, ah just can't refuse your attitude," he continued, dropping his cigar on the ground and crushing it out with a metal-toed boot. "Ah'm a bit used to folks bendin' over backwards to accommodate me, but ah promise to keep you safe." He spat on his hand, and held it out. "And that's a promise ah can't break."
She followed suit, spitting on her own hand and meeting it in the middle.
"Good! Now, whaddaya say we leave here 'bout six tomorrow, go hunt this twenty foot bear o'yours?"
She didn't pursue his sudden enthusiasm.
"Well, alright then."
* * *
The two of them departed early the next morning. Cassy had arrived at the steps of the saloon fifteen minutes before they had agreed to depart, only to find Arkansas leaning against one of the beams, hat drawn down over his eyes.
"You're early," he mumbled gruffly, not looking up as she approached.
Cassy was surprised by his earliness, but chose to say nothing.
"The quicker we're done with this, the better."
"Well, that's friendly," Black replied dryly, pushing off of the wooden beam and beginning to walk. "Come on. Let me just grab my essentials."
She was slightly taken aback at this. He did not even carry a bag or a pack. She thought at least he would have come prepared to leave – she had spent all night preparing a smaller, more robust set of bags, and now wore the shotgun freely on a shoulder-strap. Her duffel-bag was discarded in a lonesome alleyway. After all, there was no need to hide the weapon now.
She ran along-side him, passing people in the main street, all up and about before the heat kicked in. Like the men in the bar from the day previous, they cast Black a wide berth, whispering furtively to each other. At the first general store they came to, he politely asked her to wait.
As Arkansas went into the store, Cassy leaned on a barrelful of wheat stalks, thrumming her hands impatiently. Seeing that one was sticking out of the top, she plucked it free, and put it in her mouth.
To her surprise, though, Arkansas emerged half a minute later, holding something to his mouth. He removed his hand and shook it a little. She glanced back at the face of the man again, and was shocked to see him holding only a small box of cigars in his hand. One was lit and in his mouth, and the others he put into a small leather pouch on his flank.
"Cigars?" she said, gaping at him.
"And a box of matches."
"But what about your supplies?"
He looked up from his belt, a thin smile on his lips.
"You know, your food? Your maps?"
He turned his attention back to his belt, the hat covering his face. Despite this, she could see his front shoulders shaking slowly, in silent laughter.
"What's so funny?"
He took a few steps forward, brushing past her, and back out onto the main road.
"I don't need either," he replied.
They set off from town along a broad road that ran parallel to the railway track. It wasn't long before the two separated though, and they were left on a wide, dusty trail, that seemed to run on into the badlands forever. It tapered in front of her till it reached a set of shallow hills in the middle-distance.
"We'll discuss a route once we get to the trees," Black said, gesturing vaguely in front of him.
Cassy squinted against the sun.
"Trees? Ah don't see no trees."
"Well you're blinder than an old goat," he replied. "Right over there, on them hills in front of us."
A rush of heat hit her cheeks in irritation, but she chose not to pick a fight. Of all the places to lose her temper, now was not the time. She was being led through a strange land by a potentially dangerous bandit, and before long they would be out in the wilderness, where his betrayal would undoubtedly result in her death.
She followed him stoically, through her eyes widened as the hills drew nearer.
They were indeed wooded, as Arkansas had said – but there was no green on the branches of the trees. They had blended in perfectly with the blue-grey sagebrush that coated the landscape like a weed, their dead limbs as parched and dry as old, lifeless bones. They reached the dry copse, and pressed through it.
The man seemed to peer on the ground around him as he walked. Cassy could not help but follow his gaze, though like before, she could not see what he saw. Soon before long, he halted, kneeling close to the ground.
"What're ya lookin' at?"
He said nothing, but gestured to a broken branch on the ground, and a touch of scratched earth.
"It's here?" she said, feeling herself stiffen.
"Maybe. It's a beast. It goes where it pleases," he replied, a hint of disinterest in his voice.
"And it goes as close to town as this? That don't seem right. It came all the way from Northfield, why would it be here?"
At the mention of the town's name, the old stranger's ear twitched. He paused from his inspection, looking up at her.
"Northfield, eh?" A thin-lipped smile spread across his face. "Well, ain't that just somethin'," he murmured, before falling
silent, continuing to examine the tracks.
There was a long pause while he surveyed her closely. Cassy felt a little uncomfortable at his stare, and fidgeted with the straps of her pack.
"What do you mean?" she asked nervously.
The smile was extinguished almost instantly.
"Nothin'," he snapped gruffly, swiftly getting to his feet and beginning to walk again. "Come on."
"Huh? Wait!" she said, calling out to him. He spun on the spot, clearly annoyed about something.
"Are you sure it's the same bear?"
He shook his head in disbelief, a familiar, irritated look coming on his face.
"Are you serious?"
"About what?" She replied, unsurely.
Arkansas let out a snort of disbelief.
"It's the only one left," he said exasperatedly. "Do you know nothin' at all?"
Again, she found herself fighting the urge to bite back. The man turned away, and resumed his purposeful stride through the scrub.
* * *
They carried on for the next few hours, the sun beating down on the two lone figures as they pushed through the Barrier Hills. They were aptly named, for they ran in a great, long line that separated the floodplains of the east from the Nevada. Every now and again, Black would stop for a drink, and she would follow suit, resting only when he did, with no conversation being exchanged at all. The hills grew steeper and rockier, and some of them proved impassible, but despite her growing weariness, Cassy continued to follow the man doggedly.
Having picked up the path of the bear, Black seemed to know exactly where to go, and every broken twig and bush seemed to carry some deeper meaning. He would stoop for a moment, peer closely at it, and then carry off, sometimes in a tangent completely different to the way they had walked, often through thickets of more sagebrush.
It was tiring and frustrating, but she steeled her resolve, thinking of the end goal as either she or her pack was scratched for the millionth time by the rough, claw-like grasp of the scrub.
She was doing it for him.
Hours blurred together as she trudged on, mouth dry, and head down.
She was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she was taken completely by surprise when she ran into the back of Arkansas. She thudded off of him, falling onto her rump, and she shook her head wildly, looking around.
The hunter gestured with his head into the distance.
"A campin' site."
She peered in the direction where he was pointing. It was merely a small clearing, but the charred remains of a fire pit and the scattered earth told her that it was a popular passing.
"How far are we behind it?"
"About a day and a half, give or take."
Her breath caught up to her in a small rush. It was much closer than she had imagined.
"Quite a stroke of luck," Arkansas added, eyeing her carefully. "Almost like you knew where he was headed."
Cassy said nothing, but re-shouldered her pack.
"We should get goin', then."
She moved to set off, but a hand across her chest held her back.
"It's five o'clock," Arkansas pointed out.
"Well," he said patiently, "Down here in the Nevada, night comes fast, and it gets a hell of a lot colder, faster."
She looked up at the clear blue sky, stained with an orange hue from the evening sun. There was not a cloud to be seen. He was right. Even though dodge junction was merely on the edge of the Nevada desert, it was still going to be freezing.
* * *
As darkness fell, the campfire sputtered and crackled into life. Determined to prove she was at least useful for something, Cassy had lit it herself while Black watched. It hadn't taken her long to start it. Now, as the two sat opposite each other, the burning flames causing the shadows to dance and flicker across their clothes, they spoke properly for the first time.
"You should eat," Black murmured. "You'll need your strength."
Cassy felt inclined to sit and do nothing, though her stomach growled in agreement. The strange man eyed her across the campfire.
"Ah'll eat when you do," she replied stoically. He laughed.
"Well you might be left waiting. I'm not hungry."
Cassy nodded, reaching over to her pack and withdrawing a serving of corn cakes and dried apple, which she wolfed down hungrily. She had not eaten breakfast that morning, and the feeling of anything in her stomach was incredible. After she had finished the corn cakes, she licked her hand greedily, and reached for a little bit more of her apple. Almost immediately she regretted doing that – she became aware that her silent counterpart probably thought her very childish.
She looked up to see him watching her with something close to a grin on his face. Quickly she folded her hands around her knees once again, pretending she had never been starving.
"How old are you, kiddo?" Black asked.
"Twenty," she said, resisting his jab.
"Whoa-ho, not so little then."
She did a double-take of comical proportions. The old hunter laughed for the second time that day.
"Yeah, ah know. Ah'm old."
"Oh! No… Ah didn't mean to…"
"Forget about it," he said, with the smallest wave of his hand. "Everyone does it."
She nibbled at her apple reflexively, offering a break in the conversation.
"Why are ordinary folks afraid of you?"
"'Cause of my job."
"What, a hunter?"
"What's so scary about that?"
"Nothin' at all."
"So… Why's everyone treatin' you differently?"
"A few rumours here and there," he said with a wry grin. "'Course, it doesn't help that there's a prize on my head."
Cassy's eyes grew wide.
"…Back when I was your age, I used to do a lot of bad things," he replied.
"Did you kill someone?"
"No!" he said swiftly. "Sweet Celle's bells, no. Ah could never do that. It's against my morals."
She breathed a sigh of relief.
"… But I hurt a lot of people, and I had a dust-up with the law, once or twice."
He paused, lost in thought.
"Or maybe it was three times. All the same, really."
"…So you've shot someone, then?"
The old hunter's mouth twitched into a frown.
"Yes. The worst thing I ever did. I regret it every day."
Cassy didn't know what to think of that. Every instinct in her body told her the man before her was a dangerous outlaw. But the way he spoke, and his strange, benevolent, even kind attitude… It didn't seem criminal.
"Well, you aren't a bad pony in mah book."
"How do you know that?"
"Well if you were, wouldn't ah be dead-or-worse by now?"
Arkansas let out a low chuckle.
"'Spose so. Though maybe I'm just bidin' my time."
She smiled, looking into his green eyes.
"Well, ah don't believe that."
Arkansas smiled back.
"What do you believe?"
"I think you're just a nice man."
He laughed again, but this time it was more pronounced and merry.
"Yeah, well, maybe you'd like to tell the Sheriff's department that," he said, still smiling.
"Maybe I could. My uncle works for them, y'know."
"Well, does he just?" Arkansas murmured, the firelight glittering in his eyes.
"Yeah, he's spineless, though," she replied bitterly, her brow furrowing.
The man squinted at her through the darkness.
"Why's that, then?"
"…Well, for starters, he wouldn't even go out and chase this thing down. Said it was too dangerous."
"Ah, I see. And that's why you've come here?"
She looked up.
The man then did something she had not seen him do before. He removed his hat, giving her a clear look at his face.
His head was set with a wiry head of dark brown. It had once been colored and thick, but like him it had aged rapidly, and was now straw-like and faded. His eyes, which had blazed so fiercely back in Dodge, lost all of their power. Even his seemingly fearsome scar was less intimidating in the fire-light.
Thick eyebrows ran across his head, covering two soft yellow-green sparkles, half-closed in weariness.
"So you're a runaway, then?"
Cassy flushed a little at the truth.
He laughed again. It was a rich, deep, soothing sound, and it made her ears prick. It was the kind of deep laughter that lifts the soul to merely hear it.
"Ah, well. Nothin' I wouldn't have done at that age."
She smiled. For once, it felt good to get approval.
"You shouldn't call your uncle a coward though," Arkansas added.
Cassy flushed angrily. "But that's what he is!"
"Or maybe," Arkansas said pointedly, "He just cares about you very much."
She paused, lost in thought.
She had actually never bothered to think about it in that way. It was a strange realization to make, partially because it was so apparent, and partially because it hurt her deeply to think of the all the people she'd so selfishly snubbed. They were only looking out for her, after all.
Cassy shivered, though the night was not cold yet.
"…So, Northfield?" Arkansas murmured.
"Yep," she replied quickly, eager to change the subject.
"Ah've been there before. Nice little place," he said, scratching his bearded chin. "Lived there once, when I was married."
"Oh… you have a wife?"
"Did she?..." the end of the question became stuck in her throat.
"Nope. Divorce." He smirked at the sad expression on Cassy's face, looking into the fire. "Save your pity."
"Why'd she go?"
The man simply stared at her for a bit, mouth agape, stunned by her boldness.
"Well, if it's all the same to you, little miss," he said testily, "I'd rather not say."
"Oh…" Cassy said. "Sorry."
There was an awkward pause. The man sighed to himself.
The crickets lamented the two lone souls. Above them, the moon shone, thick and waxy against the velvet-like night sky. The very vaguest puff of wind pushed its way through the night air, causing the flames of the fire to flare and stutter.
"Ah'm sorry I snapped at you this morning."
Cassy, who had been watching the heart of the fire in the vain hope that it might warm her up, glanced over at the stranger. He was sitting on his rump, resting his elbows on his knees, hands extended towards the flame. His face was barely visible, and his eyes were once again hidden underneath the brim of his hat.
"I'm sorry?" she said. She wasn't trying to be facetious. She just hadn't expected it.
"Ah said I'm sorry. You're not a bad kid at all."
He then rolled onto his back, letting his hands rest on his chest.
"Now go to sleep. The fire will burn out on its own."
Cassy followed suit. She fell back, resting her head on her pack and staring up at the night sky above. It was a sea of deep blue and black, dotted with a million stars. She had never seen them so bright, not even from her friend's observatory, and certainly not from Sunrise Manor.
"My drinkin', if you must know," Arkansas added, as an afterthought.
She craned her neck to look at him, but he had his back to her, the fire casting strange shadows against his red poncho.
* * *
The next day began as the previous had: early. The sun roused Cassy from her sleep, and she lifted her head from her makeshift pillow to see that the fire was long out, and that Arkansas was missing.
She got up, tying her hair back and rummaging in her pack for some leftover apples. The thought didn't even cross her mind that the man would leave her, and indeed, it was not long before she heard him approaching from the dry woods, singing a tune to himself.
It was undoubtedly a kid's song of some kind, and she frowned to hear him utter it. It seemed unnatural, or at least out of place with his outward appearance.
Our 'prentice Tom may now refuse,
To wipe his scoundrel Master's Shoes,
For now he's free to sing and play,
Over the Hills and far away.
She followed the sound of his voice until he emerged from the trees, and saw, to her surprise, a full pail of water hanging from his neck, with a few fresh apples bobbing in it. He deposited it next to her.
"Mornin'," He greeted her. "Fill your canteens and eat these. We'll get goin' before it gets hot."
"Where'd you find these?..." Cassy said, picking up one of the red fruit. It looked a little bumpy, but as she bit into it, it exploded with tart juice, hard, and crunchy. It too tasted familiar, but even though she had grown up on an orchard, she could not tell what variety it was simply by taste.
"There's a creek over the next hill," he replied, looking over her. "Wild apples grow on the trees there. Crossing it marks the start of the floodplains."
She nodded briefly in gratitude and understanding, and went to look back to apple in her hand. But her eyes strayed idly down his form, and she halted, gazing at his neck, where something shiny had caught her eye.
There, hanging by a thin chain was a circular pendant of burnished brass. It had slid from under his shirt when he lowered the water to the ground, and now that she was sitting, it put it at her eye level with it.
"What's that?" she inquired, leading the dangling pendant into her hand, flipping it open.
Inside was a faded, daguerreotype photo of two people, one of whom was obviously a much younger Arkansas Black, and the other of whom was -
Arkansas whipped his head away, yanking the pendant out of her grasp. He grabbed it, snapping it shut with his hand and glaring down at her.
"Don't touch that!" he said angrily.
Cassy gaped in confusion. She had not enough time to discern who the second figure was, though there was an air of familiarity about her that was more than uncanny.
She thought to ask more of it, but Arkansas was now hastily stuffing the pendant back inside his undershirt.
* * *
She was amazed at the news that they had made so much progress, and when they began their hike for the day, she saw that it was quite true. Over the first hill, a river stretched before her, broad, clear, and running swiftly. She sloshed into the shallow stream with gusto, taking the lead.
The morning passed in a rush. Cassy felt renewed, and freshened. Though it was just as hot as the day before, she felt restless, full of boundless energy, invigorated by the stranger beside her. They chatted as they walked about all manner of things – the man spun tales about the various daring encounters he'd had with the sheriffs, and some of the more unusual things he'd done. She would laugh, and clap her hands, and scoff, and scold, all at the same time – and then, just for something different, she'd tell one of her own stories about kicking a real cougar in the face, and of her friends back in Northfield, and how she'd once met two former presidents in the same day.
They sat for lunch by the banks of the stream, underneath a tree. Here, the trees had some leaves, and they relaxed in the shadow against the midday sun. The stream was very small – more a creek, a tiny tributary of the wide, shallow river that they had crossed earlier. Its cool waters were crystal-clear, and they drank greedily from it. Either side of the bank was littered with warm rocks, and where there was earth, hickory trees and grass grew unfettered.
Today was very different, Cassy decided. The man was less of a fearsome stranger, and she even found herself enjoying his little mannerisms. Even the way he told his stories captured her imagination – he would never fail to give mention to the slightest detail. She reminded him of her good old Granny back home, in a way.
As they headed steadily eastwards, the terrain began to bloom. The new greenery carried with it a revitalizing gush of life that surged through Cassy. Arkansas was full of an uncharacteristic mirth, too, and he reveled in the way that she would ask questions of his stories. She was not stupid, as he had first imagined – merely headstrong, and fiercely devoted and honest, to the point where it was almost a fault.
They passed the afternoon away, chatting idly to one another, until they stopped for lunch by the river.
"Y'know, mah name's not really Cassy?"
She folded her legs beneath her pack and laid down. The man grinned, and followed suit.
"Is that right?" he inquired, removing his hat.
"Cassy is just mah nickname. Mah real name's Cassidy. Cassidy Jones."
She leaned back into the shady grass, continuing to babble.
"…Mah friends just call me CJ, though, so it's really up to you."
She stared into the patchy blue sky far above, mottled by the canopy of green leaves from the Hickory tree they lay under. She waited waited for a response, but the stream's trickling was the only noise she could hear.
She looked up.
The man was staring at her strangely again, mouth slightly ajar.
"What's up, partner?" Cassy inquired.
Arkansas broke into an uneasy grin, and he looked back down at his russet-colored hat on his lap.
"Nothin'," he replied.
Cassy grinned back.
"What're you thinkin' about now? That time you got all mixed up with the chief's daughter and those Apple merchants outta Kentucky?" A giggle escaped the corners of her cheeks.
Arkansas smiled, resuming his languid posture, and his response was much calmer than before.
"No, no, I was just thinkin' about this job of yours."
"Oh. Are we close?"
"We're practically there. Just over the next ridge, in fact."
Cassy felt her spirit drop to a new low. The morning and afternoon had been a pleasant break from the dangerous task in front of her. It was something she wished had gone on for much longer.
"Do you... Really need to do this?" the hunter asked.
"Why?" Cassy replied far too swiftly for her own liking. "Havin' second thoughts?"
"Nope," he replied, putting a fresh cigar to mouth and lighting it. "I only got one question for ya'."
"Why do you really want this thing gone?"
The question froze her to the inner core, shattering her relaxed happiness in an instant.
"H-how do ya mean?"
"Ah mean that ah don't buy that little story with the cattle," he replied. "And ah figured you might want to come clean with me before we have done with it all."
He was right. She burned to tell him the truth, but the pain of doing so was almost unbearable.
"It's revenge, isn't it?" the man mumbled quietly, looking at her. "And not fer the cattle."
She felt guilty and ashamed for deceiving anybody, let alone Arkansas Black. Telling the truth and being honest was in her blood.
"Ah'm sorry for askin'," he said, shaking his head. "But I know most of the details already."
Icy fear leapt through her. "H-how!?"
"You talk in your sleep."
She cursed her misfortune inwardly, staying silent. When the man did not press her, she got to her feet and began to pace, searching for something to say. Arkansas simply sat and watched, puffing on the cigar.
"…You know, killin' this bear ain't gonna bring your Papa back," he finally said, breaking the unbearable silence.
Immediately, the girl wheeled on him, her face livid with fury. She did not utter a single word, but her face said far more than words could ever say.
She was angry. In pain. And behind it all, stricken with grief.
"Ah have to do it," she said steadily.
"No, you don't."
"Yes ah do," she pressed more insistently.
Her rage was swift and explosive. She aimed a kick at her unbound pack, sending its contents flying in an arc. No sooner had she done so then she leapt on Arkansas, clutching his shirtfront with both hands. Her hat flew off, and together, they sprawled into the dust by the riverside bank.
Arkansas remained motionless. Cassy hit him in the chest. It hurt, but he bore it anyway. She did it again, though this time her aim was a bit higher. It nipped him on the chin, and he looked away, closing his eyes against the barrage.
Her fury was the worst kind. Wordless. He knew she had no choice but to see what she had started all the way through, and she loathed every bit of it. She was torn between the determination to stop it from ever happening again, and her hatred of all things violent.
He endured everything she threw at him, his eyes closed.
The blows stopped, and a final weight thudded into his chest.
He opened his eyes.
Cassy had slumped onto her knees. She still held him tightly by his shirtfront and coat, but she had buried her head in his chest. He felt a slow, damp warmth beginning to spread there.
The girl took a great, stuttering breath.
Silent tears. She was too proud to cry out loud, and it pulled at his heart to see it.
"Ah don't want to," she said, her voice shaking. "Hell, ah don't want to. But ah have to!"
Arkansas put a hand on her hair. It was silken to the touch, and he stroked it, listening to her while she told him everything. She told him how her father had awoken, and hearing the splinter of the front-door to the bear's claws, rushed to get the shotgun. How he had fired round after round, to no avail, trying to draw the bear away from his home, just for sake of his family.
It was the last, noble, valiant thing he could do. It worked.
She told him how they had found his body later, a peaceful look on his face, quite dead.
Arkansas dragged a hand across his own eyes at the sad tale.
"Ah hell, now you're makin' me all upset," he grumbled.
"So now ya' know," she said. "Why ah've got to go and get my own back. So that no one will have to lose anyone, ever again."
Arkansas felt his whole body freeze.
She had traveled here alone, unguided, and unsure. But it wasn't all about revenge. She did it because this was about doing the right thing. Doing the right thing. That was something he had always wanted to do. And he regretted not doing it more often.
He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.
"Ah'm sorry," he said, grasping a nearby rock.
Cassy didn't even feel the blow on the back of her head as she was knocked out cold.
* * *
Cassy awoke to a dull pain in her head, and a tightness that ran all the way across her body. As she blinked and came to, trying to move her limbs, she realized that she was tied to the very same tree under which they had been sitting.
The man smiled up at her as she wiggled against her restraints.
"Ah, there's nothin' like a nice piece of hickory," he said, removing his red poncho, and tossing it to one side.
She glared at him.
"How could you?" she said. Her mind was groggy, but invigorated by a mixture of adrenaline and panic, mixed with a burning hatred.
"I know," he replied wearily. "I'm sorry."
Cassy's face became instantly contorted with anger. "Ah knew you were no good! Ah can't believe ah trusted you, you low-down, dirty old thief! You liar!"
"These knots will undo themselves if you struggle hard enough," he said with a smile, before turning away, her shotgun slung over his shoulder.
"Oh, so you're just gonna take mah money and run, is that it? You… You sidewinding, yellowbellied scum!"
Arkansas winced. Every one of her insults stabbed him like a knife, but he knew what he had to do.
"Ah don't have your money. It's in your pack. And ah wish ah didn't have to lie to you, Cassidy," he called back, not looking over his shoulder. "Goodbye, and stay safe."
"Huh? Cassidy? What -"
Her words seized in her throat, as she looked at the man's tattoo.
A dark, crimson, half-cut apple, rotund and glossy.
The apple she had eaten earlier suddenly took a name.
An Arkansas Black Apple.
Her stomach lurched. All along, it'd been right in front of her, and she'd never once thought of his name. Never once noticed his tattoo because of his poncho.
She felt a brushing against her neck, and looked down. The locket was open in front of her. Even upside-down, the girl in the picture was unmistakable.
Her breath rushed from her as she let out a strangled cry.
Arkansas flinched visibly at the sound of her realization. He had hoped to slip away unrecognized, before that horrible moment that she found out. Her call, scared and alone, was the worst sound he'd ever heard, and it made his heart ache with sadness so great that it burned inside his chest and throat. It hurt worse than any pain he'd ever borne, worse than getting shot or stabbed or beaten up, and yet he bared his teeth and kept walking, willing himself not to look back.
"You tell your Grandma that I love her very much now, y'hear?" He yelled, trying to keep his voice level.
His grand-daughter shouted back. Her voice was desperate, pleading.
"Grandpa! Please, don't go! Don't go and fight that thing! I mean it!"
"But then how can I fill my promise?"
"What? No! To hell with the deal! I don't want to do it anymore!"
"That's not the promise I was talking about," he replied.
"What are you sayin'!?" Cassy yelled, still viciously struggling against her bonds.
As Arkansas reached the top of the hill, he glanced back to her, just once. He couldn't resist. It was the last time he would see her, after all.
"Yer' daddy might not have been my boy, but you're mah little girl. Now, ah promised to keep you safe and it's a promise I intend to keep."
And with that, he strode over the top of the hill, the calf-high wild oats brushing at his underside, singing to himself softly. The gentle melody did not obscure the cries of anguish from his beloved grandchild, and he felt his own tears flow freely as he hummed the bits he couldn't quite remember.
The sun beamed down brightly on him. The wind gently pulled the hat from his head, tossing it away and letting his brown hair go free, stirring the scent of the wild-lands into his nostrils.
Courage, boys, 'tis one to ten,
But we return all gentlemen,
All gentlemen as well as they,
Over the hills and far away.
His spirit soared. For the first time in his life, he felt ennobled, free from his life of sin. He had a purpose – to do a good thing. He didn't care if he lived, or died. Only that he would leave this world giving back to those he loved the most.
And come hell or high water, that's what he'd do.
* * *
Cassy ripped against her bonds frantically. She felt them coming slightly looser with every heave, though every second that she lost to the rope tied around her made her feel sick with anxiety.
And then, far off in the distance, she heard the sounds she feared the most. Two colossal booms, followed by a roar. And then, the crack of a six-shooter as it was unloaded once, twice, three times.
Every muscle in her body strained harder and harder. She kicked and screamed, cursing and crying angry tears at the same time, until one of her hands came free.
Four, five, six times.
She furiously pushed more of the rope out of her way, freeing the other hand.
Scraping her sides against the tree to the point where they bled, she wormed out of her bonds, eventually falling over in a heap.
Instantly, she was up and running, sprinting, begging every ounce of strength from her legs.
As she crested the hill, the shotgun sounded twice again. There was a roar of pain, a shout, and then a great crash, followed by silence.
She thundered down the hillside towards the sound, and, seeing the bear's shallow den in the distance, came to a skidding halt at the cave's opening…