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Whiplash

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With practiced efficiency, she scouts the shelves for medicine, coffee, food. Anything useful. Anything worth something. It isn’t her first robbery and certainly won’t be her last. She noiselessly tucks vials of health tonics between the clothes in her pack to keep them from clinking together or breaking.

She’d really, truly regret someone interrupting her in this town. It’s one of the few without wanted posters with crude sketches of her face plastered everywhere. There’s no bounty on her head, no one hunting her down. She can almost pretend she’s an innocent when she walks down the dusty streets beside unsuspecting townsfolk. Yes, it would be a damn shame, she thinks, to add Valentine to the list.

It’s why, when the doorknob squeaks as it turns and the jingle of spurs echoes through the otherwise silent general store, she sighs through her nose as she unholsters her revolver and pulls back the hammer, aiming at the intruder.

Quick on the draw, she finds herself staring down his barrel as well and just above it, he wears a knowing smirk.

An impasse.

Even with her bandana on, even with her trousers on, even with her long hair slicked back into a low bun beneath her hat, she’s still recognizably female. And female outlaws are few and far between. The stranger hardly pauses at all before he identifies her and regains the upper hand.

“Well now. You must be Miss Thievin’ Maggie,” he chuckles, low and throaty. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

She squints to make him out through the dark. His features stir a vague recollection in the back of her mind but nothing concrete. “The hell are you?”

“Ain’t no concern of yours, darlin’. Let’s do this the easy way. Drop the gun.”

Her eyes flick to the bag at her feet. Nearly full. It will last her weeks if she can make it out with the loot she’s already stowed away.

“What a lucky bastard I am. Come in here looking for valuables and end up with somethin’ even better,” he drawls, circling her. “Bounty’s biggest in Strawberry. $7,000.”

And then, she places him. Like a lightning bolt, she suddenly knows him and the playing field is evened.

“Arthur Morgan showing his ugly mug in Strawberry. After what you did? You’re dumber than they say.”

He frowns and it looks downright feral in the moonlight. “Don’t have to be me turnin’ you in.”

She steps back as he steps forward but it’s too dark for her to see the gap in the wood panels. The heel of her boot lodges and she stumbles back on her ass hard enough to feel the impending bruises already.

He stands over her now, finger on the trigger and still itching to shoot. Likely would have if she wasn’t worth so damn much alive.

“The hell’d you do for a $7,000 bounty, Miss Marlowe?”

His boots are close enough to her own that one strong foot knocks his legs out from under him and he falls. As soon as he’s on his back, she’s ripping his gun away straddling him, two pistols pressed into his chest.

“Killed a few men,” she says calmly, catching her breath. “Better ones than you so don’t think I won’t fill your chest with these bullets, Mister Morgan.”

He flips his palms up, surrendered but not really. His left hand inches towards her gun but he can’t push his luck tonight. Before he gets close enough to tempt her trigger finger, the creaking of floor boards freezes them both.

Shit. Look what you did now, got the law on us,” she whispers angrily, rolling off of him and grabbing her bag.

Arthur sits up carefully. “Me? How d’ya figure this is my fault?” Crouching, he sneaks towards the back window and wrenches it open. “You was the one robbin’ the place.”

He gestures for her to go first and, bag slung over her shoulder, she slips from the store through the window. Arthur follows and vaults himself out onto the ground behind her with an almighty thump.

Subtle. She rolls her eyes. How he isn’t already behind bars is beyond her.

Their horses, hitched side by side, whinnie at the return of their owners. Magdelyn is throwing her leg over her red Andalusian just as the officers find their way into the general store. One step behind, always.

She digs her heels into Ember and she bolts forward. Arthur, not to be outdone, catches up and keeps close to her side.

If he were a better man, she might think it was to protect her. But men like Arthur think only in dollar signs.

The whip of the wind as she rides throws her hair like a lash across her cheek. “Oh, and I’m supposed to believe you was just there to bring me to justice!”

“Stop them degenerates!”

They both look behind them at the rapidly gaining officers on horseback. Magdelyn leans into her horse, pouring all of her focus into distinguishing trail from tree line as they accelerate. A crash now means capture and she isn’t keen on the idea of spending her night in a cell.

A gunshot rings out, zipping past her and clipping her arm.

She hardly feels it in the heat of the moment. Later, it will sting, but only later. Later is for whiskey and bandages. Now, there is only the pounding of hooves against dirt, churning up clouds of dust in their wake.

But Arthur—damn him—has the smoother side of the worn path. She doesn’t notice the rock jutting up above the earth until Ember is tripping and she flies from her saddle in an arc to land on her side a dozen yards away.

She raises herself onto the heels of her hands and groans. One feels broken, blinding pain shooting up into her forearm.

You’ve done it this time, Maggie, she curses herself. Delivered to the law at the hands of that selfish bastard—

Hooves trot into her field of vision and she looks up to an outstretched hand.

—Arthur Morgan.

“Get on, woman!” he shouts impatiently. “We ain’t got time for all ’a this.”

One glance behind her and she can see the law closing in on them, lagging by only a few miles and loading their weapons. She shoots him a glare, prickly as she can muster, before she takes his hand and he hauls her up in front of him on the saddle.

The only thing worse than Arthur Morgan is prison. She’s short on options and he will have to do.

“Yah!” he orders, voice tense, as he snaps the reins.

Arthur knows this area. He leaves their pursuers behind quickly, swallowed in the dirt storm they leave as the only proof they were there.

That, and the empty shelves of the general store.

After miles without seeing a single soul, she sternly orders him to return her to her horse, or at least where she’d left him.

“And give up seven grand? I don’t think so, Miss Maggie,” he laughs against her ear. “Nah, you’re comin’ with me.”

Such hubris. Enough for both of them, enough to crawl under her skin and grate her nerves. It will be his downfall. If not from her, then someone else. But she wants that privilege for herself enough to yank the reins still clutched in Arthur’s hands back hard and pull them into her stomach.

His horse shakes its head defiantly, rearing up as it suddenly slows.

“Chrissakes, woman,” Arthur bellows, “You tryna get us both killed?”

He wrestles her hands away from the reins, cussing all the while, and his horse brays beneath them.

“Take me back,” she demands.

His fingers close forcefully over hers, his blue eyes icy. “Dammit, woman—”

“Take. Me. Back.” She jerks from his hold only for him to grab her again. His grip is harsher this time. Less forgiving. He wraps the fingers of one hand tightly around her wrists and her injury flares, hot and angry.

She attempts a different route, as close to pleading as she’ll come.

“You wouldn’t hurt a lady.”

“Sure would turn in ‘er in for the right price, though.”

He starts them galloping once again towards God-knows-where and she glowers into the mane of his steed. It’s muddy and matted. Wherever he’s been, it’s been a while since he’s been home.

Whatever home means for men like him.

Like her, she corrects.

Arthur Morgan may be less than a gentleman but they’re still cut from the same cloth. Fugitives on the run, never staying in one place too long. It’s the way they live and the way they will die. The life of Magdelyn Marlowe has never been conventional. She carries what little she values on her person so she won’t miss the dingy camp she has set up east of Valentine. Easily replaceable, nothing to mourn. But she will miss Ember and God Himself can’t help Arthur if he doesn’t bring her back to that horse.

She can’t move at all with his body around her. He’s too big, too aware of every move she makes, and his reflexes are quick. The knife in her boot is warm against her leg but removing it now means revealing her hand and she isn’t sure she’d win.

She’s truly stuck. Frustratingly stuck and at the mercy of a merciless man known as much for the beatings he gives as he is for the criminal company he keeps.

When she finally lets up, ceases struggling to search for a more strategic exit, she huffs. “Where are we goin’?”

“It’s your lucky day. Er, night. You’re gonna meet the gang.”

The van der Lindes, he means. She’s heard of them, mostly from the times she’s passed through Blackwater. It’s refreshing to hear talk about anyone but herself so she remembers it, how the voices dripped with disdain. How big of a failure they’d been.

She goes for the jugular.

“You mean it?” she says, tone steeped in false veneration. “My my. What a privilege.”

“I’d watch that tongue of yours,” he warns.

“Or what?”

He squeezes her wrists, restricts his fingers uncomfortably but she doesn’t wince at the pain. She’s stronger than that. Better than that.

“Them words will get you into trouble,” he mutters, defeated.

It’s an empty threat. He won’t do anything to a woman. He’s gone soft, or he’s always been.

“Not with you,” she goads.

In a moment of distraction, while his horse rears back as a deer darts in front of them, she wrenches her hands from his and throws herself from the side of his horse. She rolls across the ground and pushes herself upright and then she’s sprinting. As fast as she’s ever run, she’s flinging herself away from him into the cover of the forest.

Her breaths come heavier and she rests behind a tree, cradling her throbbing hand and listening intently for the cracks of twigs that signal pursuit.

One breaks, unnervingly close to where she’s crouched and heaving and then a strained silence follows.

“MAGGIE.”

She covers her mouth. When she hears him grudgingly walk back to his horse, too tired or too inexperienced to track her in the dark, she slides down to the ground and despite everything, despite the threat of capture and the shadowy figure that is still retreating, she wants to laugh.

Somehow, she’s free. Her muscles burn and her wrist is sore but it’s freedom that pulses through her slower and slower as her heart calms its nervous rhythm.

Her luck will run out one day but not yet.

“Arthur Morgan,” she sighs, biting her lip, “you’re one sorry excuse for an outlaw.”