Dante stared at the massive pot of stew above the crackling fire, keeping the cold breeze of the night at bay.
"So when's the rabbit stew going to be done?" a rough voice spoke up from a few feet away, its owner, Lonnie, sitting back next to the fire across from him.
"Maybe another few minutes, maybe more. No lo sé," Dante shrugged, stirring it a bit with a wooden spoon, "Either way, not too long."
Lonnie chuckled, "At least your putting the rabbit we caught to good use."
Dante didn't respond, slipping back into his own mind. It was a relatively quiet night. The old Mexican fort the gang, The Velvet Rangers, had set up in kept out the wind well enough, despite the few crumbled sections of the wall leaking in a breeze.
It was unlike most nights, with the dancing, singing, festivities effectively nonexistent (not that Dante really cared for it). It was a quiet night. A good night.
His brown eyes glanced up at the night sky.
The cosmos seemed to be alive, as was with every night. Swirls of blue and purple danced in the heavens, twinkling stars shining like gems in the celestial ocean. Patches of black with only stars giving light merely made the whole display even more striking.
Every time he looked at it, Dante felt a little bit at home. He'd slept under the stars since his birth, and he had never really stopped. You didn't have many options, being born into a gang of outlaws.
He returned his attention to the stew, and the contingency of Rangers left behind. Most were out on a mission, with Dante not really knowing about it. He never did. The boy was just the gang cook, after all, he was never told any more information than was needed, if at all.
Only five were left behind to hold the fort while waiting for the rest; Harley, Lonnie, Riley, Virgil, and Dante himself.
"Any idea when Malcolm's gonna get back with the rest of the gang?" Dante asked Lonnie, stirring the stew again.
"Dunno," Lonnie replied noncommittedly, "But they've been gone all day and they rarely go out further than a day's ride, so they'll probably be back soon. And if not soon, by tomorrow morning."
"Any idea where they went, though?"
Lonnie shrugged, "Malcom mentioned having to attend to some business in Fort Douglas."
Fort Douglas was an old frontier town several miles away from the old fort they were using. While it'd definitely shrunk from its peak of around 6,000 settlers, it wasn't exactly a small city in the region, keeping around 2,000 of them.
If you strained your eyes, you could actually see the town from the northeastern corner for the fort, thanks to the fort sitting on a small plateau. Fort Douglas stuck out like a sore thumb in the darkness of night due to all the lights.
Footsteps and whistling brought Dante's attention to his right. Riley stood there, rifle slung over his shoulder and with his signature cocky grin pasted to his face.
"So, when'll the stew be done, marronito?" Riley raised an eyebrow, almost daring Dante to take the bait.
But it wouldn't work. He'd dealt with this sort of stuff for years, "If you're going to insult me, do it right. It's marrónito, not marronito. No espero que idiotas como vos entendieran."
It was an old name they called him, being a rather on-the-nose term for his Mestizo background. Sometimes it was meant to be derogatory, other times it was just another name Dante went by. He didn't much care either way. Nothing much he could do about it.
"Watch your mouth there, bud," Riley casually stepped over, leaning on Dante's head as if he was an armrest, "or else you may cross a line. And we all know what happens to Juans that cross lines."
Dante remained silent, his face stony as usual.
Almost as if to save him, both Harley and Virgil showed up at the courtyard, both holding their rifle in their hands,
"Boss is coming up the plateau; he signaled us before we climbed. Just wanted to let ya know so ya'll don't shit yourself in fear," Harley joked, holding the firearm over his shoulder, "Has some extra cargo, too."
With that, Harley turned around and walked back to his post, Riley following him and leaving with a snide comment that Dante didn't bother listening to.
"Hope you made enough stew for a dozen more people," Virgil said, turning tail to follow the pair.
Glancing at the pot big enough to hold a child, Dante was pretty sure that he had made enough.
Lonnie gave him a glance, "Told ya so."
"So Malcolm's bringing in a hostage?" Dante quirked an eyebrow. It'd been a while since they had a hostage. The gang had been lying low for a bit.
"Whaddya think I am, a mind reader?" Lonnie snorted.
Dante leaned in over the stew, "I think it should be fine now."
"Good, 'cuz I'm famished," Lonnie quickly got up from his seat on the adobe floor and shuffled to the storage area, consisting of three carts which they'd never bother unpacking, and reached for the bowls.
Within a minute, both were eating their fill, patiently waiting for the rest of the gang to get there.
Lonnie himself groaned in satisfaction, "Damn. You look like a man but cook like a woman."
Dante didn't bother pointing out that he was taught by a woman. The food was definitely good. It should be, in all fairness. Dante had been cooking since he was seven. He got so good at it that Malcolm could overlook his inability to kill or lack of smarts when it came to financials because of it.
Plus, it just really simplified things to have one set person cook without having to decide who would make the food.
The two were abruptly interrupted by the sound of the two gates to the fort opening. Sparing a glance, they both set down their bowls and headed out of the courtyard to the main yard, where the rest of the gang was filtering through on their horses, Malcolm at the head.
What caught Dante's eye, though, was the fact that a bound girl in a white sleeping gown with a blindfold and gag lay across the back of Malcom's horse.
The leader swung his leg over the horse's back and hopped off in one smooth motion, moving to untie the girl. Everyone else began dismounting and tying their hoses to the fence on the side, muttering amongst themselves.
Some were celebratory, some were jokes, others were general chatter.
The smell of stew wafted through the fort, gradually pulling people away from the gates and to the courtyard before the embers of conversation could turn into a roaring fire.
Dante walked up to Malcolm, who now had the gagged girl hoisted over his shoulder. She didn't seem to be moving. For a moment, Dante feared that she'd been killed, but quickly calmed at the sight of a small bruise around her temple and noticed her breathing.
She was just unconscious.
"Malcolm?" Dante asked, "Who's she?"
He was a tall man, with sleek, raven hair and cold, piercing steel eyes. Dante knew very well that the man was cruel and sadistic, but thankfully kept most of it for his enemies, opting to give subordinates the cold shoulder.
His cold eyes stared into Dante's brown, seemingly looking for something, before he spoke, "The daughter of a man who owes me a debt."
"So we're holding her hostage?" Dante asked.
Malcolm nodded, his voice even as he asked, "And why do you care?"
"No reason," the Mestizo replied, "we just haven't held anyone hostage for around a year now."
The man stared for another moment, finally saying, "Get a bowl of stew for her. She hasn't eaten. No use to us if she starves to death."
With that, Malcolm walked past the boy and off into the fort. Dante knew exactly where he was going; the prison cells. The fort had five cells in a basement underground, probably used for criminals while the fort was still in use by its previous inhabitants.
Now, the room had been mostly abandoned apart from the gang's regular cleaning. They hadn't had much use for it, but Malcolm insisted on keeping it free of clutter should they ever need to use it.
Dante followed orders, not wanting to give Malcolm any more reason to specifically dislike him out of all the gang members more than he already did. He quickly made his way to the stew pot and got another bowl, refilling his. Thankfully, he was mostly ignored by the others, chatting among themselves and singing.
He walked over to the basement, seeing Malcolm just leaving. The man didn't acknowledge his existence, but that was pretty standard.
Opening the door while holding two bowls of stew was a challenge but he managed, quickly descending the steps.
The oil lanterns were lit and he saw the girl sat against the back wall in the first cell. She looked… peaceful, almost. She had her hands folded onto her lap, and legs straight in front of her.
He slid a bowl of stew through the small slit in the bars, and sat down cross-legged, eating at his own stew.
Dante couldn't help but study her. She didn't seem to be from around the area, either. She had bright blonde hair that cascaded down to her waist and pale skin. North European, probably. Dante had seen drawings of them in the occasional book he got with pictures.
She also seemed to be around his age; a novelty for the 15-year-old Mestizo. People his age were hard to find when born into a gang where, at the time of his birth, the youngest were in their early adolescence.
Not really knowing what to do, he simply leaned against the wall as he sat and closed his eyes, resting. Of course, he near instantly fell asleep.
Dante was awoken by shouting.
In his disoriented state, he thought someone was attacking the building or something of the sort. But as the blurriness retreated from his eyes and the fog from his mind, he quickly realized it was just the girl.
"Who are you and where am I!?" she was clutching at the bars, her face pressed up against them and seething.
"Can't tell you," Dante said, stretching. Relying on his internal clock, it must've still been night. Or at least very early morning.
This seemed to only infuriate the girl further, "I'll have you know my parents are extremely wealthy! They'll hire nothing short of a small private army to get me back!"
"Listen," Dante tried seemed as unthreatening as possible, which should've been relatively easy, "I'm not going to hurt you and probably no one else will if you go along. Your parents being so well-off is exactly what landed you here."
His eyes landed on the uneaten bowl of stew, probably cold by now. He raised an eyebrow, "I can warm that up for you if you want. Se ve frio."
"What I want," she hissed, "Is to be let out."
"Can't do that. Do you want your stew warmed or not?" Dante asked, keeping his voice even.
Her eyes connected with his, trying to look for something. He quickly noticed how strikingly blue they were. They maintained eye contact for a little longer, Dante still confused on what she was trying to do but playing along.
She finally gave in, looking down at the ground and speaking in a tone that thinly concealed her anger, "Yes."
"Alright. Could you push it through the slot?" Dante asked.
"I am not doing that," she growled.
"Well, do you want stew or not?"
"Fine, but you have to grab it."
She grabbed the bowl and held it half-way through the slot, with Dante grabbing the other side and pulling it all the way through. The Mestizo quickly made his way out of the basement and out into the courtyard again.
His internal clock had been correct. It was still dark, but he could see the beginnings of the morning light shining. Most the gang was asleep around the still-roaring fire, with Lonnie awake and still keeping it hot, if only for warmth since the literal cauldron of stew had been moved to a table.
"Hey, Lonnie," Dante greeted, walking over.
"Hey," the man greeted simply.
"The hostage is awake," the boy spoke in a monotone voice, standard for when he was just waking up. He placed the uneaten bowl of stew atop the fire.
Lonnie nodded, "Good. Now we play the waiting game."
The two sat in silence while the stew warmed.
"So, did you sleep?" Dante asked, trying to make some conversation.
Lonnie twisted his hand in a "so-so" movement, "A little bit, but I'm planning on catching a few more hours later. Benjamin and a few others are already on watch for now, so I'm free to do as I please."
The Mestizo nodded, quickly grabbing the stew. It'd warmed enough. He quietly returned to the basement, handing the hostage the hot stew.
He sat in silence against the wall, watching her eat. It was a bit like watching a rabid animal, if Dante was being honest. Oddly enough, after a few ravenous bites, she stopped. She glanced down at it, disgusted, and placed it back on the floor.
"So what's your name?" Dante asked, ignoring what had just happened and trying to be polite. Or as polite as he could to a girl being held behind bars for a ransom.
She snorted, "What? Your boss didn't tell you?"
He shook his head, "No, he barely tells me anything."
She grunted in a mixture of annoyance and frustration, "I'm Eva."
"You can call me Santiago," Dante shared. It'd been his alternate name, used when he couldn't risk saying his real one. Still, it was better than nothing.
After a moment, it was rather clear that the conversation had come to a lull. Dante simply laid his head back against the stone wall, closing his eyes.
"I almost pity you," the girl said, tone mocking.
He opened his eyes again, staring at her with a quirked brow, "Hmm?"
"You're all going to die when my parents get their act together," she stated matter-of-factly, as if it was as certain as the sun rising, "whether it be by a bullet or rope, you'll all meet your end."
She said it with such vindication that Dante had to suppress a shudder. He'd dealt with the possibility of death since he was a child; why did it bother him now of all times?
"Now that's not very nice," he replied, not really knowing how to respond to that.
She snorted, "So is kidnapping and ransom."
"To be fair," Dante shrugged, "I'm feeding you way better than I could."
"Oh?" she stared at him. Another shudder suppressed.
Yeah," he nodded, "If it were up to Malcolm, you'd be fed what little scraps remain of our meals with some loafs hard enough to beat a man senseless."
He gestured to the stew plate, "That is as good as the rest of the gang is eating."
She quietly tried a bit, probably incredibly hungry from the day's excitement. The two sat in silence for a while, the girl begrudgingly eating the rest of the stew as Dante simply relaxed against the wall. It must've been half an hour before either dared speak.
"Y'know," Dante started, "You're lucky."
Despite having his eyes closed, he could almost feel the curios glance she gave him, "Even if you're in a rough patch now, your parents will probably pay the ransom and you'll get to go back to your home, free as a bird. I'm stuck here and probably will be until Malcolm decides I've earned enough stripes to be trusted on my lonesome."
He had no idea where that had come from, but it felt good to have someone to talk to. Most of the gang was at least nominally loyal to Malcolm, either out of genuine respect or fear, so speaking to them about it would probably be little more than just saying it to Malcolm directly.
But, like he said, this girl would probably be gone from the site within a week or two, and the entire situation would be forgotten. He'd move on with his life, as a cook and scheming to get away, and she'd move on with hers, whatever it may be.
To his surprise, when he opened his eyes, he found Eva fast asleep on the floor.
Ignoring the stinging guilt of seeing her sleep like a homeless drunk on the adobe floor, he got up and walked out of the cellar to greet the new day with anything but joy.