"I don't s'pose there's any post for an Arla Smith,'s there?"
Arthur hesitated, shifting his feet as anxiety pooled in his belly. He tried to stifle a frown as the station clerk's face turned thoughtful, and he bent to search the shelves for any parcels designated to the name Arthur offered. Veda had asked Arthur to check for any mail sent to her renowned pen name, and while he and everyone else cautioned her to have post sent to only one station, it seemed she'd spread the area this time.
Arthur's worries were confirmed when the clerk emerged from his search with a hefty package, boxes and a stash of envelopes atop it, secured with a knot. The clerk pushed it towards Arthur, one eyebrow quirked in curiosity. Arthur was never quite as good at pulling the wool over eyes as Hosea or Dutch, or even Veda, but the latter had already coached him when it came to situations like this.
"I wasn't aware Ms. Smith is staying nearby."
"She's on a bit of a trip." Arthur cleared his throat to mask him racking his brain to come up with what Veda told him to say next. "A bit of… field research."
The answer seemed to satisfy the clerk, who dipped his head in understanding. A beat of tense silence stretched between the two men, with Arthur hauling the package into his arms and the other drumming his fingertips upon the counter.
"I'm familiar with her works," the clerk finally said when Arthur found a position to ensure nothing in the package would topple off. "The less educated ones, but I admire them nonetheless. She just published two novels, right? One's philosophical and the other an adventure one?"
Discomfort bubbled in Arthur's chest as he sought for a way to end the conversation, but as he was masquerading as something of a ‘helper' to the esteemed ‘Arla Smith', avoiding talk about his supposed employer would only cause suspicions. Veda knew to become a coveted author while living in the company of outlaws was risky, and she barely managed to convince Dutch by using the quality of her works and exercising utmost caution. Whenever they moved camp and left the vicinity of their previous location, Veda would set out with Hosea to scout for the biggest city, where Veda would post Princeton University – her publisher and greatest admirer – to channel mail for her there. It was under the guise of her persona, Arla Smith, being a writer who sought new locales to find inspiration. Veda rarely held book signings, opting instead to post signed copies to those who donated charitable money, but when she did she would rent a room in the hotel and ask the staff there to turn away prospective guests. That way, she could easily slip out of her room and return to camp, flush with profit and ready to move.
At her age, Arthur found Veda too clever by half. When they found her, a scam artist at the age of 11 and a pickpocket, Arthur already expected her to be somewhat intelligent as she'd successfully pilfered Dutch's silver pocket watch and chain. She was handy with her words and even numbers, and despite her natural Scottish lilt, she could mask it with various accents she picked up in her days as a conwoman. Hosea took to her quickly, teaching her the art of swindling unfortunates out of their homes, and that was that. When she wasn't off running schemes, she would be scrubbing dishes and darning clothes at camp under the harsh tutelage of Ms. Grimshaw. It wasn't until they moved into an abandoned cabin that harbored a working typewriter that her true nature showed.
Dutch was the first to catch on, as, before that, Arthur could find them amid a fierce discussion, often about whatever book Dutch had clutched to his chest and was gesturing at. He praised her wit and brain, and it didn't take long for Veda to endear him to her using her prose and philosophies – many of her liberal-inclined books took cues from Dutch's own tenets, ascribing to his credo regarding freedom and way of living, and in her books Veda affectionately referred to the man as ‘a friend'.
The royalties Veda gained from the books were also nothing to scoff at, and as her career was at its ascent, the amount was sometimes even enough to keep the gang going on their feet for a time by its lonesome. The cut Veda gained went to primping up her wardrobe and visage for the sake of running scams, and she had a library of aliases under her belt to speak of. They could never quite coax a straight answer regarding Veda's past out of the girl, as it often changed from one believable story to a tall tale, but it didn't quite matter. Not anymore.
As it were, Arthur wasn't an avid fan of her works on account of him being averse to reading in general. He hoped the clerk would pick up on his lack of enthusiasm as something of disillusionment with his ‘employer' instead of genuine confusion, and offered a simple nod instead.
"Well, you work for a remarkable young lady, sir," the clerk tipped his hat in farewell. "Take care, now."
The ride back was unremarkable in comparison. They'd set up camp in a clearing a week or two before, hidden behind clusters of tall trees and away from the beaten path. It was enough to accommodate their small band of fools, though Dutch expressed hopes of growing this family. To Arthur, their handful was already teetering on the balance of ‘exasperating', but he wasn't one to argue with his surrogate father.
He hopped off his carriage, unstrapping the unnamed horses of their halters before moving on to the hitched horses. There were only two at the moment: his roan Ardennes, Boadicea, and Veda's cream Tennesee Walker, Minerva. At the sight of him, Boadicea snorted her delight while Minerva turned her head away in distaste.
"Aw, sure." Arthur produced two sugar cubes from his satchel, smirking to himself when the cream horse's attention was attracted to him. "Be that way, ‘til I got somethin' for you."
Minerva snatched up a cube with her lips while Boadicea was slower in savoring her treat, setting her muzzle on Arthur's open palm as she chewed her share. Chuckling, Arthur ran his fingers along her wide and pinkish head, untangling knots he found on the way and making sure to massage the crevice between her eyes. They set up the posts a bit far from camp for a reason, so the horses had space for themselves and the smell of their waste didn't waft into camp and kill their appetites. For Arthur, it meant he had a place for reverie, a quiet spot to reflect on nothing in particular and revel in the silence and peace. For the little number of people they had back in camp, it could get unbearably rowdy quick. He also didn't appreciate Dutch's gramophone belting out loud opera ditties much.
That, however, didn't mean the inhabitants of the said camp couldn't come looking.
Minerva nickered in anticipation at the voice of her owner's lilt, and Arthur looked up to find the incorrigible young woman herself powering over to him. Her fists were balled into the brown maxi skirt she wore, hitching it up until her bloomers were nearly visible as she took wide strides. As it were, she never could to walk properly in a skirt when in privacy. Susan would tan her backside for this, but she and the other able adults have left to scout for potential hits. Her dark braid swung behind her, and atop her head, a tan Stetson with a turkey feather accent that was her distinctive feature.
She stopped short of Arthur, out of breath and grinning. Clapping her hands together, Arthur could see her hands were pruned; laundering an entire camp's worth of clothes have worn down her fingers, but considering the amount of time she spent with her typewriter, having unfeeling fingers seemed to be a benefit. Arthur eyed what would be her left hand's middle finger, which was now a dull, wrinkled stump, no longer bandaged despite the scarring.
"Did'ya get my post?"
Arthur sniffed. "I did. Station clerk had things to say ‘bout you."
Her grin turned conspiratorial. "Nice things?"
"Who cares? You ain't told me what to say if fellers recognized you!"
"Just be ya'self," she said, unconcerned, striding past Arthur towards the wagon. "I know ya genuinely admire me."
Snorting, Arthur followed behind her and flicked the scruff of her neck with his fingers. She yelped and cast an irritated glance at him, but the smirk playing her lips betrayed the act she put up.
"That's also fer havin' post get sent to the middle of nowhere, you fool."
"It's just the one time," Veda argued, climbing up the wagon to view her parcel. Caught in the light, her eyes glimmered with excitement, accentuating the deep flecks of amber within limpid pools of hazel. She hoisted it into her arms with some difficulty, but anyone reared by the hardened Susan Grimshaw wasn't as liable to be weak. Despite Veda's build, body coming to seem shapely, she wasn't as fragile as she seemed.
Her arms full, she threw Arthur an expectant glance, and the other man grabbed her by the waist and lifted her up to set her on the ground.
"What's so different that you couldn't wait?" Arthur asked, once Veda settled on her feet. She passed the package to him, and when he opened his mouth to grouse she silenced him with a tut. Fishing out two oatcakes from his satchel, she sauntered over towards Minerva and Boadicea to feed them. Grumbling under his breath, Arthur lumbered towards her.
"Dutch promised you can head out tomorrow to pick up yer pay."
"I know," Veda said, casting her eyes downward. She shifted her feet in the dirt. "But I'm planning on takin' a break. From writin'. Fer just a bit."
Arthur's eyes widened; from how she spoke about her work and its contents, one would expect that composing all her publications was the only thing keeping her alive. "What? Why?"
"I'm only fifteen!" she reasoned, giving Minerva one final pat on her nose before whirling around to look up at Arthur. There was a flame starting in her eyes, one prevalent whenever she was writing or in a bout of passionate discussion with Dutch. "I've published way too much for now. I don't wanna hit my prime and lose it all when I'm twenty."
It was logical. That, and the way things were going in the gang, it would be harder to keep up appearances when conditions were becoming hectic. Arthur hummed his comprehension. "Makes sense."
Dutch made sure to collect every book Veda had, which wasn't a feat considering the girl remembered to give the first two copies to him and Hosea, free of charge. She kept the original to herself, of course, and while it was a simple hardcover with flat color instead of a cover Dutch seemed to lust for it. In any case, it was often a chore to cram the books into his luggage and more of a task to whip it out when he wanted to do some reading on the road – what was more were the papers upon papers of essays Veda wrote, at least the papers she didn't donate to be slotted into Princeton's library's bookshelves. Arthur still couldn't wrap his head around the sheer amount of things Veda had produced in her short lifetime, and what's more, many of the essays she wrote were on a whim.
Who writes on a whim?
An impish look took over her expression again, snapping Arthur out of his reverie. "What's more, somebody's gotta look after yer boy."
Arthur's eyes softened at that, and warmth along anticipation swelled in his chest. "How is he?"
Veda whipped around, skirts swirling as she did, and began to trail off. She motioned for him to follow. "Come see for ya'self."
Isaac Morgan was two years old, and even then only rose up to Veda's knees. He was a sweet little boy, too sweet for someone who was raised by toughened outlaws. While they fancied themselves harsh outdoor survivalists, it wasn't hard to see that the boy melted most of their exteriors; while Dutch never bounced him on his knee, per se, Arthur would catch him watching and smiling as Isaac played with toy soldiers whittled for him by Hosea. The latter was never short of things to make for Isaac, and while Arthur told him what Isaac already had was enough, the older man was already beginning some talk of making the boy a fishing pole. Susan, while she was firm in shooing the boy whenever he wandered too close to laundry basins or other such workstations, she would smile to herself as she saw him toddle away.
Arthur and Veda, though, they were bona fide parents for the boy.
Nobody lingered in camp as much as Veda, Uncle, and Pearson did, and only one of them had that maternal touch. While Veda didn't much like carrying Isaac on her hips, she usually had the boy on her back while she walked around camp, whether to the chuckwagon to grab food or into the trees so they could spot a branch to play swords with. Arthur wasn't much of a father; he wasn't accustomed to any form of fatherly comforts as Lyle Morgan wasn't fond of that attitude, and Arthur figured Dutch's style of parenting wouldn't sit well with a literal infant. But he picked up quickly and learned fast, that even though taking care of Isaac felt like a chore, it was a necessity and the boy just wanted to spend time with his pa. Knowing that someone out there, someone he would always value above any lover, would be waiting at camp with pure and unconditional love was enough to keep Arthur going.
When they approached, Isaac was busy digging patterns into the ground with a stick. Upon hearing the heavy footfalls that Arthur, produced, though, he jumped to his feet and pitched at his father's legs. Hugging tightly, he looked up, a smile on his lips. Arthur chuckled and pushed away tufts of brown from Isaac's eyes, though the color of his hair elicited a soft pang of hurt that curled in his gut. Isaac was two years old, two years past the incident that robbed him of a mother; robbed Arthur of Eliza.
And here Isaac was, more a spitting image of his mother than his father, despite his blue-green eyes and chiseled nose.
Arthur promised himself that he'd weathered past it, promised himself it wouldn't affect his parenting for Isaac, but sometimes he couldn't help the memories that simmered back to surface. The pain was dull now, numb and aching without feeling, but it was still a pain nonetheless. Two constant reminders roamed camp now, Isaac himself and Veda's missing digit.
"I don't know if it matters much to ya," he recalled that night two years before when Veda sat by him on the fringes of camp after Isaac was already asleep. Her finger was still bandaged, the scar still open and ugly. "But… but I'm writin' somethin', and-and, well, I figure the main character's supposed to remind one of Eliza."
That was the one book Veda wrote that Arthur kept, on his bedside table for him to see every night under the warm glow of an oil lamp. For him to reminisce, and for him to cry over two years before. The ache then was fresh, but at least there was an outlet.
Isaac stuck out his arms, beckoning Arthur to pick him up. He obliged, with Veda grinning beside him.
"Yer becomin' a slave to his needs, Arthur."
"Oh shut up," Arthur said. "I ain't the one shovelin' food into him ‘til he's bloated."
"No, you ain't," Veda said with a pointed but exaggerated tone. "When are ya gonna stay back and watch the boy grow, Arthur?"
Arthur frowned, putting the boy back on the ground. Without a care in the world, he scurried into Arthur's tent, where he liked to sleep as of late, curled into Arthur side or using his father's torso as his pillow.
"It ain't like I don't want to, Vee," Arthur stressed, facing Veda. Her eyes were hardened, arms crossed in front of her belly. For a girl who rarely betrayed any evidence of her past life, she could be critical towards Arthur's skills of fathering the boy. "It's just– we've been real busy. Dutch, he wants us to move someplace far and better, and I just… I just wanna find a place where Zack can be comfortable. I do want to stay and watch ‘im grow, I will. I promise."
At that, Veda was disarmed. "You don't gotta promise me nothin', ya buffoon." She peered over his shoulder, and he followed her line of sight. Isaac barreled with the grace of a drunken elephant out of Arthur's tent carrying his toy soldiers, then plopped down in the grass. He gazed up and fixed Arthur with an expectant look.
Veda barked out a laugh, breaking the tension between them. "Go on now, be a pa."
Arthur glanced at her. "You ain't coming?"
Veda shrugged, gesturing at the chuckwagon's general direction. "Pearson will be wantin' my help with dinner."
Arthur huffed, but a small smile tugged at his lips nonetheless. Truth be told, spending his time with Isaac was becoming one of his favorite activities, placing above the various robberies and stick-ups he'd performed throughout his life. While he would be helpless without Veda's straightforward guidance, he would forever appreciate alone time with the boy, even if it meant him becoming a spluttering and awkward mess who didn't know how to jibe well with a soon-to-be toddler.
"Oh, and Arthur?"
Arthur glanced over his shoulder, finding a beaming Veda.
"Try chattin' with him."
She continued on her way, a wry smile stretching her lips as Arthur stared after with confusion. She kept this smile later when she gutted fish for supper, and it grew when Arthur called after her in frustration after his son spoke to him in a gurgling Scottish accent.