Charles looks up, squinting against the sun, and focuses on the figure looming above him. It’s a bright day on the mountain, and all this damned snow is doing nobody any favors. “Arthur,” he says. “Good morning.”
“Huh? Yeah, mornin’.” Arthur tilts his head, scratches at his jaw, and tucks his chin down towards his chest. It’s a very particular mannerism, one that Charles has watched him perform countless times.
He makes it a point to know the patterns of the people he rides with. Men are little more than animals with boots and a gun, after all, and Charles knows animals. Knows their habits, their tracks, their behavior. There now, the flick of the eyes and away again. Must be something Arthur’s been wanting to ask, and is now beginning to wish he wasn’t.
Charles sits patiently, his unfletched arrows in his lap, and waits. His skin’s gone dry and cracked from the cold, despite the fire he spends his time huddled by, and he rubs his fingers together absently to get the blood flowing. The bandages around his palm are stiff with dirt; he’ll have to change them out tonight.
“How’s that hand?” Arthur finally asks, with a substantial lack of imagination.
Charles rolls his eyes. “You and everyone else,” he says. “Hand’s just fine.” One unlucky ricochet, and suddenly everyone thinks themselves a surgeon. “Dutch got you on mother hen duty now?”
Arthur’s mouth twists. So it’s something else then. “Our fine Mr. Pearson’s been after me again,” he says. “For the camp stores. So’s I figured I’d come and, uh. See if you’d be up to ridin’ out again.”
Charles looks at him, faintly amused. For such a large and intimidating man, even more so in his thick winter coat, Arthur Morgan has the air of someone who woke up one day in command and has been a complete loss as to what to do with it ever since. “If you like,” he says. “I’ll show you how to make some traps.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says. He lingers a moment longer, then huffs out a rough exhale, like a horse. “Yeah,” he says again, gruffer this time, and he tips his hat down over his eyes. “I’ll go mount up, then.” He turns and stomps his way through the snow to the small, skittish bay paint brought back from the Adler homestead. Charles watches him a moment, kicking up white drifts that dust the bottom of his blue coat, before he stands and puts away his work.
The mountain is still as they ride out from camp, Taima’s nose at the flank of Arthur’s horse. The sound of their hoofbeats are muted by the snow, a distant drumming trapped between the icy peaks. Charles breathes in, breathes out, feeling the heavy monotony of the camp already slipping away.
He doesn’t blame Arthur for always riding out on his own. Usually, he prefers the same. There’s a certain peace about it, the strength of a good horse between his knees and the sounds of wildlife rustling in the undergrowth, the smooth curve of a bow in his palm.
“Here,” he calls out, after a few minutes longer. They’re far enough from camp now that the noise of it wouldn’t scare off their prey, and Arthur wheels around, trotting back to meet him just off the trail. “Come on now, I’ll show you.” He dismounts, hears Arthur do the same behind him.
They hitch their horses to a couple of trees, and Charles points out a winding route through the undergrowth. Despite his stature, Arthur is capable of a surprising grace in the wilderness, only biting out a muffled curse beneath his breath when a hidden rock beneath the snow turns beneath his foot.
“Careful,” Charles says, and Arthur shoots him a look. He’s full of looks, Arthur is, and Charles looks down to hide his amusement.
“Here, now, look at this.” Charles squats down by a thin sapling, already stripped of its small branches by hungry, gnawing animals. “Got some droppings here. Some tracks too, still fresh. Means we’ve got a good spot for a snare.”
Arthur grunts in acknowledgment, crouching down beside him. His breath swirls out in a white cloud, before he cups a gloved hand over his mouth and coughs into his palm. “Think Pearson’s maybe sick o’ me bringin’ in rabbits for a time.”
Charles lifts a shoulder in a dismissive shrug. He’s never been particularly impressed by Pearson, who’s always seemed generally unimpressive as a whole. “Can’t bag a deer every time. We’ll set up a few of these along the way, check them every couple of days.” He tugs at the end of the sapling and decides he’s satisfied with the give. “You any good with your hands, Arthur?”
Another low grunt. “Guess so.”
“Here, take this for me.” Charles reaches into his satchel, pulls out a loose coil of wire. “Twist it, like that. Want it to be, y’know.” He mimes circling a noose around his neck with a finger, and Arthur grimaces. “‘Bout that big.”
“Yeah, got it.” Arthur hunches over, frowning in concentration as he tugs at the wire. Charles goes back to his satchel and rummages in it until he finds a roll of fishing line.
“You fish?” Arthur asks abruptly. Charles glances up at him, surprised.
“Nah. Javier’s the real angler, you ever get an itch for it.” Charles measures out a length of line and cuts it with his belt knife. “Line’s good for snares, though.” Attaching the line to the sapling is a fiddly task, and he eventually bites at the fingertips of his gloves, tugging them off and tucking them into his coat. “You finished?”
“Mm.” Arthur holds out the noose, and he rests his elbows on his knees, watching as Charles finishes rigging up the snare.
“Rabbit runs here.” Charles shows him the trigger, a small branch that he wedged into the frozen ground with the help of his knife, then follows the line up to the bent sapling, captured energy ready to be unleashed. “Knocks the line free, catches the rabbit in the noose on the upswing. See?”
“Yeah.” Arthur rubs at his nose, squints at the finished snare. “Real handy, that.”
“We’ll set two or three more over that slope there.” Charles leans in and points, feels Arthur’s arm knock against his when he turns to follow the line of Charles’ finger. “Use that pine as a marker.”
“Even Micah could do it,” Charles remarks, and Arthur’s shoulders twitch in a silent, startled laugh.
“C’mon now, don’t give ‘im too much credit.” Arthur pushes himself to his feet, swatting at the snow caked onto his knees. “Think I’ve got the trick of it now, thanks. I’ll see you back at camp.”
“See you,” Charles echoes. He listens until Arthur’s footsteps have faded, and he looks up in time to see his back disappear into the trees. He has known men like Arthur, he thinks. Half ghost, half man, like trying to capture smoke between one’s fingers.
He does not expect Arthur to ask him out riding again.
They descend into the Heartlands, before he can find out if he’s right. It’s a fitting name, Charles thinks, as he sits in the swaying back of the wagon. There’s something tender about the country here. Warm, moving. It’s a place any decent man could call home.
Sometimes, he can pretend that they are all decent men.
He thinks of the men watching them from the cliffs, somber and wary, and harsh in a way that seems unfitting in this land. Though, he supposes it was their land, not so very long ago. Perhaps there are no decent men left.
“What happened to your tribe?” Arthur asks, raising his voice above the rattling of the wagon wheels. Charles can hear the earnest curiosity there, and he wonders how to say that running with the gang is the closest thing he has had to belonging to a tribe.
“Well, I don’t really have one,” he says, and he leans back and watches the sky. It’s a story as a common as any other man’s. An absent mother, a father sick with sorrow and drink. There’s no pity from Arthur or Hosea when they hear it, and he wonders, not for the first time, if their stories are just as common as his.
Their new camp is pretty enough, but an air of inevitability lingers about it that Charles can feel creeping beneath his skin. He helps set up the tents, pounding pegs into the soil until his hand aches, and when he falls asleep that night with Javier snoring in the bedroll beside him, he hopes that their time here will at least be a pleasant one.
Miss Grimshaw has him tossing seed at the chickens in the morning, proclaiming him no good for anything else, and that “harin’ off to shoot at some train ain’t been doing no goddamn favors” for a hand on the mend. He goes along with no protest, if only to derail her attentions from him. It could be worse; he could’ve been told to keep an eye on Uncle. Or Swanson.
He’s leaning back against a tree, watching the hens peck greedily around his boots, when he sees Arthur striding across camp. There’s a certain air of purpose to the way he moves that Charles has seen countless men try to emulate, throwing their weight around for all they’re worth and somehow never mastering half the gravitas that Arthur seems to effortlessly manage.
He watches Arthur approach the space he shares with Swanson and Javier, then stop and frown in bemusement when he sees it empty. Does he think Charles has nothing better to do than lounge around at a time like this? Charles finds himself fighting back a grin that he thinks is not entirely appropriate for the situation.
“Over here,” he calls, and Arthur’s head snaps up, dog-like. “Morning, Arthur.”
“Yeah, g’mornin’,” Arthur says, as he makes his way over. Charles has the peculiar sense that they’ve done this particular dance before. “Hey, you- you busy?” He looks uncertainly at the bucket of feed under Charles’ arm.
Charles shrugs. “As much as anyone else.”
“Yeah, well, thought I’d ride out a bit, try and get the lay of the land. And you’re our best tracker, so I thought…” Arthur trails off, perhaps hoping that Charles would spare him from having to fully form a question.
It is a good and lucky thing, that Charles has no great interest in chickens.
“I’ll come,” he says, and Arthur nearly smiles.
Funny thing about spending time with Arthur, turns out, is that there’s often more silence between them than not, but it’s still a more companionable sort than what Charles is used to from John or the others. They don’t know what to make of him, he figures. It’s a fair assessment, after just a few months.
With Arthur, though, the quietness is an easy thing, settling into the spaces between them as they ride out. Maybe Arthur feels it too, he thinks. Guess it gets lonely for everyone, being out there all the time.
The excursion turns into another, then a third, until Charles finds himself recognizing the invitation in Arthur’s stride before he has to say a word. Sometimes they bring back a deer, or a brace of rabbits. Sometimes, they ride out over the plains for hours and return with empty hands and dust on their shoulders. Those times, oddly enough, Charles finds just as satisfying as the others.
Arthur likes to sing, he discovers, on the second week. Quietly, under his breath, when something or other’s spooked his horse, or when he seems to forget he’s not alone. Charles can never make out all the words, but he soon grows accustomed to the sound of Arthur’s rough voice, rising and falling with the wind.
“You two are gettin’ on,” Pearson says, a little suspiciously, when they stop by with the week’s haul.
Charles looks at Arthur, who looks at him and shrugs, then he looks back at Pearson and does the same.
“Far better company than you, tha’s for sure,” Arthur says, setting a pair of long-necked geese down on Pearson’s butcher block. “Get on with these, will ya? Belly’s damn near stickin’ to my spine.”
Pearson sniffs, poking at the geese glumly with his cleaver. “Don’t like all the lil’ bones.”
Arthur rolls his eyes, when Charles glances at him, and Charles bites the inside of his cheek to hide a grin.
“I saw that, damn you.” Pearson points a dirty finger at them, then brightens. “Here’s what, go ‘n ask Bill ‘bout them deer tracks he saw, coupla days back. Could be a whole herd passin’ by.”
Arthur groans, scratching irritably beneath the collar of his coat. “Bill? Man’s dumb as a sack o’ rocks, and you gon’ trust his word on that?”
“Don’t gotta be a damn genius to spot a herd’s worth o’ tracks,” Pearson counters, which is a fair enough point.
“Can’t hurt to scout it out,” Charles says. Arthur shifts his weight from one foot to another, and he gives a reluctant grunt.
“There, it’s a done deal then!” Pearson grins at them with a flash of yellowed teeth. “Come by in the morning, I’ll pack you boys somethin’ for the road.”
“If it’s that damn stew that made poor Tilly sick all last night, I don’ want any part o-”
“You’ll take what I give, Mr. Morgan, and you’ll be damn gratef-”
Charles leaves them to it.
Turns out Pearson’s idea of a packed meal is a stack of battered cans and a questionable bundle of dried meat, tied in some gaudy kerchief like a goddamn picnic.
“Good eatin’,” Arthur says dryly, as he shoves the whole sorry mess into a saddlebag. “Think I’m half man, half baked beans by now.”
Charles gives a hum of agreement, already mounted and ready. “Bill said he spotted the tracks back by Cumberland Falls. Think we should check it out, at least.”
“Guess so.” Arthur mounts up and takes up the reins, wondering if he oughta say something about this is all likely some big ole wild goose chase. Charles wasn’t here for the time Bill thought he saw a lion whilst they were camping by Mt. Shann and had the whole gang up in arms over what turned out to be a lost barn cat, or the time he swore up and down an angel was dancing on the river and had Swanson spouting his sins at the top of his lungs for a week. Wouldn’t be a stretch of what lil’ imagination that man has to dream up something as mundane as a buncha deer tracks.
They ride side by side, the horses snorting faint clouds of steam into the early morning air, kicking up clumps of grass. It’s a long ride, long enough that Arthur finds himself focusing between his horse’s ears, lost in fuzzy, unformed thought.
“Hey,” Charles says, after some time, and Arthur blinks. “Y’know, I never did ask.”
“Your new horse.” Charles jerks his chin. “What’s her name?”
“Oh, uh.” Arthur’s hand twitches on the reins, enough to send his mount huffing in annoyance. “It’s, um. Dandelion.” First thing he thought of, when he saw her pale and glowing in the hideout of that snake oil conman. “Nothin’ fancy.”
“It’s a good name,” Charles says, perfectly serious. “You can make tea from the roots of a dandelion plant, did you know?”
Arthur makes a dubious sound. “Ain’t usually my kinda thing,” he admits. Coffee’s more up his lane, brewed so thick and dark that it sets his hair on end, or a splash of bourbon to warm his belly at night.
“You’d like it,” Charles says. He sounds utterly confident in a way Arthur can’t grasp, so he looks back at Dandelion’s ears and says nothing. Charles, bless him, doesn’t seem to mind.
It’s why Arthur prefers his company- or at least, part of it. Mostly, it feels like Charles ain’t there at all, not like the way the others are. He’s just...present. Like the sky or the grass or the fish in the rivers. There’s comfort in that, one that Arthur’s not too used to finding anywhere else.
They make camp at sunset, a short ride out from the falls. Charles brushes down the horses, murmuring to them indistinctly, as Arthur hunches over a pile of tinder and feeds handfuls of dry grass to their campfire.
“Here,” Arthur says, when Charles squats down beside him, and he tosses over a can of salmon. “Dinner.”
Charles turns the can over in his hands, reading the label, then grimaces. “Why do we even have a cook?” he asks. “Haven’t seen a damn thing be cooked since I joined on.”
“I cook,” Arthur says, a little defensively.
“Oh, I’ve seen what you consider as cooking.”
“The meat turns brown, and then you stop. Ain’t nothin’ much else to it.” Arthur digs the point of his knife into the lid of his own can and pries it open. The salmon is oily and heavy with salt, but he supposes he’s had far worse before.
Charles shakes his head sadly. “One of these days,” he says. “One of these days, Arthur.”
“The hell does that mean,” Arthur says, but Charles only shakes his head again.
He opens his journal later, when night falls quiet and still around their little camp, and digs out the pencil stub he’s been saving since Blackwater. Could always get another that doesn’t try to slip outta his fingers, but there’s something he likes about using a thing until the end of its time.
For a time, he loses himself in the scratching of graphite on paper, trying to capture the arching shape of a hawk in flight he saw today. Pretty thing it was, powerful and delicate all at once, there one second and soaring high again in the next.
“You writing a novel or something?”
Arthur looks up, surprised, and sees Charles watching him. He’s bedded down on the other side of the fire, lying on his side now with his head propped up in one hand. The firelight catches in his hair, spilling like black ink where it’s loose over his shoulders and pools in the open collar of his shirt. He’d make a good picture, Arthur thinks dimly. Lots of lines and shadow, would need a better pencil than the one he’s got now to catch that kinda darkness, though. Maybe paints too. Charles looks like he could live in one of those paintings- the kind Arthur sees in hotels and train stations and sometimes the nicer saloons.
“You and Mary-Beth both, always see you two buried in your little books.” Charles tips his head curiously, and Arthur looks down quickly again. His ears are hot, and he ain’t exactly sure why. He clears his throat, his hand itching with the urge to tuck the journal away.
“Naw, nothin’ like that. Mary-Beth’s gonna be a writer, see,” Arthur explains. “And I’m...well. I don’t got any stories in me.” Not the kind that good folk wanna hear, anyways, when they’re sitting around their fireplaces after dinner with their families. He’s full of the other kind, near overflowing with them until sometimes he fears he’ll go mad with it.
“You’ve been running with Dutch for twenty years. Can’t just come away from something like that without any stories.”
Arthur’s mouth quirks wryly. He taps the end of his pencil on the page, smearing a faint gray line there in the margins. “Most those stories got too much bad in ‘em to tell,” he says. Just like him, he supposes. Maybe the stories make the man, after all, and they’re all the crooks in those books Hosea’s always reading.
Charles is quiet for a long moment, and Arthur thinks maybe he’s dropped it. Then, he says, “There has to be some good left in something, for it to also have bad.”
Charles has said a lotta things before that Arthur can’t even pretend to begin to understand. This is almost one of ‘em, except some part of him thinks that maybe he gets it. Just a bit.
A pause. “I’d like to hear some of your stories some day,” Charles tells him. There is kindness in the way he says it, and it isn’t the kind that Arthur usually resists.
Arthur makes a noncommittal sound, low in his throat.
“Goodnight now, Arthur.”
He hears Charles rolling over, his back turned to the fire, and then there’s nothing but the singing of crickets and the snapping fingers of the fire.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Arthur crouches down, looking at the tracks more closely. They’re faint, yeah, a few days old by now, but still obviously there. “Guess Bill ain’t good for nothin’, after all.”
Charles stands beside him, shading his eyes with his hand as he looks across the river. “Guess so,” he agrees. “Would’ve been more useful information three days ago, though.”
“Think the trail’s gone cold?”
Charles pushes his tongue into his cheek in thought. Arthur tries not to stare, and he snaps his eyes back to the ground when Charles looks at him. The devil’s gotten into him, he thinks. Getting him all distracted by things that shouldn’t matter half as much as they seem to. “We’ll see,” he says. “Come on, let’s ride downstream a bit, see if we can’t pick it back up.”
“Yeah.” Arthur rubs at the back of his neck, where his shirt collar hasn’t quite managed to keep the sun from his skin. “I ain’t in a hurry to get back, anyways.” There’s a small stab of guilt at the admission. He’s got his responsibilities, of course, and he aims to keep them, but there’s an unrest that stirs in him when he’s in camp nowadays. Something he can’t quite place, but has been there since the mountains, since maybe even before the Blackwater debacle.
“Me neither,” Charles says, casual as anything, and Arthur wonders if maybe he understands what Arthur can’t quite seem to say.
They ride on.
It’s pleasant weather for it, the sky a cheeky shade of blue, big puffy white clouds drifting serenely across it. Arthur’s happy enough letting Charles take lead on the tracking. It’ll never be his strong suit, he suspects, though he’s getting better at the shooting part. There’s something admittedly satisfying about the pull of a bow in his hands, he’s gotta say. Maybe he should’ve taken it up sooner.
“There, think I see something.” Charles leads Taima across the shallows, water splashing up her flank. “C’mon, Arthur.”
“I’m comin’.” He nudges Dandelion onto the rocky shore, and they both watch as Charles dismounts to examine a scattering of droppings.
“Too fresh,” Charles finally says, standing with a sigh. “The herd could be anywhere from here between Strawberry and Blackwater by now.”
“Might always run into something on the ride back,” Charles says, as he hauls himself back up on Taima. “Won’t be a waste of time, then.”
“Ain’t been a waste,” Arthur says, before he can think better of it. He coughs, and he turns Dandelion back around before Charles has a chance to register his foolishness. At least he probably won’t say nothing about it, if he has. Practically a gentleman, Charles is, for men of their particular standing.
They manage to bag a pronghorn after all, and they celebrate with a cigar shared between the two of them. It’s a nice one, one he took off a dead O’Driscoll who was acting a right fool, and it tastes far better with the success of a good hunt lingering in the air.
“You been up to Valentine yet?” Charles asks, as they’re nearing Horseshoe Overlook. “Been meaning to take a look myself, once everyone’s settled in.”
“Rode by once or twice,” Arthur says vaguely. Didn’t look like much, frankly, beyond the mud. Plenty o’ mud there. “Haven’t had no business in town. Though,” he adds, “I suspect that’ll change real soon.” Dutch has had his head down for the past few days, and that’s always a promising sign of something brewing.
Whether or not Arthur’ll like it, though, is the real question.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you there now and again, then,” Charles says. He tilts his head back to loose a cloud of smoke into the air, then trots Taima closer to pass the cigar. Their fingers collide when Arthur reaches out, and he nearly drops the damn cigar.
Just the devil, he thinks. He’s always had more of it in him than most other folk, seems like.
“Maybe so,” he says. He puts the cigar in his mouth and sucks at the bitter taste of tobacco. “Maybe so.”
The fact that I can't just constantly go on hunts with Charles is, quite honestly, homophobic.
It’s a short one today but I can guarantee a long chapter next time lmao
It’s odd, being this close to Blackwater again. They make their camp barely a stone’s throw away, just on top of a hill overlooking the outskirts of town. It’s a stupid and reckless idea, in Charles’ opinion, but Trelawny seems confident enough that this is the last place they’ll be looked for. The man wanders in and out of town at his leisure, easy as breathing, bringing them supplies and the occasional news he’s picked up here and there.
Charles used to wish for such effortless anonymity. To be able to slip into another skin and simply become someone else, to be remade from head to toe. But, as the years passed, he got used to the thought that there’s no use in wishing for things that can’t ever be, and so he’s as satisfied now with his own space in this world as any man can be.
Javier looks over from where he’s been lying flat on his back beneath a tree, humming absently to himself. “Hey, Charles, how’s that go again? Heard it at the bar back in Valentine, uh. That song about the train and goin’ to Buffalo.” Javier mumbles a few notes of a tune. “Something something don’t be afraid to shake, and then…”
“Throw me off there dead or alive,” Charles says, and Javier sits straight up, slapping his hands together triumphantly.
“That’s it! Knew it was somethin’ like that.” He lies back down with a chuckle, and tips his hat down over his eyes. A moment later, the humming starts up again, but a different tune.
Javier’s good enough company, at least. Knows when to be quiet, and useful in more ways than smashing heads or firing bullets. He reminds Charles, sometimes, of Arthur.
He sets down the gun he’s just finished cleaning, the barrel gleaming with a fresh sheen of oil, and picks up another.
“You’re awful quiet over there.”
“Been two days now,” Charles says. He unloads the revolver, catching the cartridges neatly in his palm. “Just getting a bit antsy, is all.”
Javier lifts up the brim of his hat with a finger, just high enough to peer at Charles from under its shade. “Hey, ain’t nothing to worry about, alright? Trelawny’ll pull through, he always does.”
“Seems like you’re all putting a lot on a man that lives like a ghost, is all.” Charles has seen Trelawny less times than he can count on one hand, in all the months he’s been riding under Dutch. Everyone else seems to have the same confidence in him that he does in himself, but it takes more than a few words for Charles to trust a man. Much less someone like Trelawny, who seems to be a different man every time he shows up.
“We’re all ghosts here, amigo,” Javier says cryptically, and that’s the end of conversation for some time.
It’s good seeing Arthur again. Charles wants to voice it, but the words sit unmoving in his chest, and then the moment is gone. It’s only been three days, and they’ve both ridden out from camp separately for far longer than that, but...it’s good to see him, nevertheless.
Their shoulders press together briefly when Arthur throws himself behind the boulder Charles is taking cover behind, and Arthur grins at him. Fast and hard, like the way he throws his punches. “Good shooting,” Charles yells over the gunfire. Arthur’s always been a damn good shot. Charles has seen it in the way he hunts, but here is where Arthur shines, in the middle of a shootout with no other way out but through. He’s missed this, he thinks. He’s missed Arthur.
“Thanks!” Arthur shouts back, and he rolls away to put a bullet in the head of another bounty hunter.
Afterwards, when the shooting is done and there’s nothing left but the smell of blood and gunpowder, Arthur coughs a couple times into the crook of his elbow and looks around at the wrecked camp.
“Charles, best you ride back separately,” he decides, and that’s that. Outside of the camp, Arthur’s word is as good as Dutch’s, and Charles nods.
He leaves Arthur standing there, alone in a sea of dead men, and he tries not to look back.
“It’s damn good to see you all again,” Sean exclaims, from where he’s bouncing on the back of Javier’s horse. “Thought t’was the end for me, hangin’ there like a great Christmas ham. Real pretty one, though, weren’t I? Fuck, good to see you too, Charles, you big sullen lump.” For all his usual bluster, poor bastard looks like he’s been through the wringer, pale and bruised and thinner than Charles last saw him.
They slow to a trot just outside state borders and lead the horses off the main road, taking a moment to rest in the shelter of a small grove of trees.
“I should split off here,” Charles says. They’ll be looking for a group of men traveling eastward, and as much as he likes Sean, he’s had plenty of noise over the past few days to last him a good while.
“Fine by me.” Javier’s busying himself with uncapping a flask of whiskey and passing it back to Sean. “Ride safe, brother, we’ll see you back at camp.”
“Ride safe,” Charles replies. They clasp arms, Sean gives him a wink over Javier’s shoulder, and then Charles is watching them take off again in a cloud of dust.
He decides on a long, winding route back to camp, in no particular hurry to get back. The thought occurs to him that he ought to see if Arthur’s gotten away in time, and he considers it briefly before discarding it. Arthur knows what he’s doing, and the cliffs are no doubt crawling with lawmen by now. Best not risk it, when they’re all this close to safety.
There’s something more beautiful about the sky, after living through a day like this. Charles doesn’t often dwell on the idea of mortality. Time is a fickle thing; to think on it too much seems to only invite disaster. But he thinks on it now, and as he rides along, he watches a lone coyote darting in and out of the undergrowth, chasing a rabbit through the brush.
He doesn’t remember his childhood as clearly as he once did, but he remembers some of the stories. Coyote dancing with the prairie dogs, Coyote and the two running rocks. Coyote dying again and again, returning to life just as quickly as he left it.
He used to envy Coyote, who had more time than he knew what to do with. Now, he knows better. To know there is an end to one’s time is the greatest gift a man can have.
The sky is truly beautiful. He turns his face up to the pinks and oranges and reds of the sunset and he thinks of the time he has stolen today.
It’s been a long while since the last time they’ve had a proper party, and Arthur feels himself being inevitably roped into the undertow of the atmosphere. He comes in tired from the ride, dusty and bloodstained and saddle sore, but Bill slaps a bottle of whiskey into his hand and Karen yanks him down by the bottom of his coat to sit by the fire, and soon he’s mumbling along to Javier’s guitar as best as he can.
Somewhere, someone is laughing, high and bright and joyful. Lenny suddenly stumbles into him from behind, sloshing warm beer over Arthur’s shoulder with a wave of earnest apologies, and Arthur laughs, tugging him down with an arm around his neck. “C’mere, kid, pull up a pew.”
“You’re drunk,” Lenny says loudly, then hiccups and clinks his bottle messily against Arthur’s. “But so’m I!”
They all have a good laugh at that, Bill and Javier and John and everyone else at the fire. Arthur spies Dutch, swaying with Molly in front of his tent, their heads bent low together. Hosea leaning against a post behind them, uncapping a beer bottle. The flap of Karen’s skirt as she disappears around the back of the provision wagon- with Sean, if Arthur has to guess.
“Hey,” Arthur slurs, slapping a hand on John’s shoulder. “Hey, you seen Charles?” He’s the only one Arthur hasn’t spotted staggering around somewhere, and it seems an odd thing with everyone else here. Ain’t fair, Arthur decides. If he’s making a fool out of himself, seems only right that Charles do the same. “He make it back from Blackwater alright?”
John burps in his face, eyes unfocused. “What?”
Arthur leaves him be.
“Hosea,” he tries, stumbling up to the man. Hosea regards him with that look of faint amusement he always seems to wear, the very air of composure despite the bottle in his hand.
“Can I help you, son?”
“You seen Charles?” Arthur rubs at his eyes, then squints around the camp again. “Can’t find him. Was wondering if, uh, if maybe-”
“Mr. Smith? Oh, he must be somewhere around here.” Hosea reaches out to steady him, when Arthur starts turning to look. “He’ll turn up, I’m sure.”
“Naw, I’ll go...go ‘n look for ‘im.” Arthur pats heavily at Hosea’s hand, then reaches past him for the crate of whiskey in the tent. “Ain’t right for anyone t’be drinkin’ alone on a night like this.”
The horses look at him curiously as he stumbles his way towards the outskirts of camp. Taima’s still here, he sees, grazing calmly at Dandelion’s side, so that’s something. “Charles!” he calls, wobbling towards the darkness of the surrounding woods. “Charles, you out here? Shit-” he curses as he stumbles over a stump, barely catching himself against a tree in time. “Charles?”
He moves further into the woods with minimal disaster, occasionally tripping over a branch, or a tree root, or his own damn feet. Behind him, he hears Javier still strumming away on his guitar, leading the rest in another rousing chorus. “Charles, goddamn you, if you ain’t here-”
“Arthur?” A dark shape finally peels away from the shadow of a tree, catching Arthur by the arm. “What’re you doing?”
“Looking for you, weren’t I?” Arthur grabs onto Charles’ shoulder, relieved, before he can do something foolish like disappear again. Charles feels solid enough to be real, he decides, and Arthur slaps a hand insistently against his chest. “Sit down, sit, I’ve got somethin’ for ya.”
“Thought you’d be with the others,” Charles says, but he lets Arthur maneuver him back on the log he was sitting on. The smell of tobacco lingers heavily around him, and Arthur wonders if he’s been out here all night, smoking alone.
“Was.” Arthur sits on the ground and starts working at the top of the whiskey bottle. “Thought I’d share a bit o’ the fun. Figured you would’ve been there, your first big party and all.”
“Someone should still keep watch.” Charles accepts the bottle anyway when Arthur offers it, and he takes a polite swallow.
“You work too hard,” Arthur accuses. Nine times out of ten, he’s seen Charles out there in the woods when he ain’t out hunting or riding, and most those times, Arthur knows he wasn’t the one scheduled for a shift. “Anyone ever tell you that?”
“Funny. I could ask you the same thing.” Charles’ leg presses against his arm, a solid and reassuring presence. There’s a rifle leaning against the log beside him, an open packet of cigarettes sitting by it.
“Lemme see that.”
“This?” Charles hands over the open pack, and Arthur fishes out the card inside with a triumphant sound, his fingers feeling thick and uncoordinated.
“Met a feller while you was gone,” Arthur says. “At the train station.” A strange few days, they were. Had nothing much to do around here without Charles’ company besides ride around and talk to folk. “Was real interested in them lil’ cards.”
“Yeah?” Charles leans over him to look, setting a hand on Arthur’s shoulder for balance. “How come?”
“Said he’d buy ‘em off me for a good price.” Arthur tries to focus on the card, but the colors bleed into each other, indistinct in the moonlight. A horse, maybe, or a deer? “Sounded kinda crazy t’me, but guess it takes all kinds, huh?”
“There are worse vices,” Charles says. His hand is still on Arthur’s shoulder, heavy and warm. He’s got good hands, Charles does. Practical ones, strong ones. Seems like something Arthur thinks he oughta have noticed before, but he’s noticing now. God, is he noticing.
“Think I’m maybe, uh.” Arthur’s having trouble focusing his eyes. And his words. And his thoughts. Slippery, they are, like eels. “Help a...help a feller out, eh, Charles? Han’ me that.” He waves a hand vaguely in the direction of where he last set the whiskey, but slaps it against something warm and soft instead. Charles’ arm? A leg? God, he’s drunk.
“Think you’re maybe, uh, fine without that for now.” Charles mimics his drawl, roughening his voice with gravel, which sounds...well. Sounds pretty damn nice, if Arthur’s got anything to say about it.
Turns out, he does. “Say somethin’ else,” Arthur demands, squinting blurrily. Charles’ face swims in and out of view, clearly amused.
“Hmm? Couldn’t hear you there.”
“No, no, not like that. Wanna hear you all…” Arthur loses his grip on this particular train of thought, and he fumbles at it clumsily before it can go howling away down the tracks. “Improper, like,” he lands on triumphantly. “Y’kno. Like me.”
“You want to hear me be improper, Mr. Morgan?” Charles’ voice is lower now, closer, and when Arthur turns to look at him, he feels Charles’ hair tickling the side of his face. Soft, he thinks stupidly. Smells cleaner than anyone else at camp, that’s for sure.
Charles laughs, a quiet little sound by his ear, and puts his hand briefly on Arthur’s head, sliding it from back to front and mussing his hair. “You should go on to bed. Before you forget where that even is.”
Arthur makes an incoherent noise, trying to pat his hair clumsily back into place. “I’m fine.”
“Sure, Arthur.” Charles pats at his back, his hand warm and solid through Arthur’s shirt.
“It feel hot out here to you?” Arthur asks. His voice sounds too loud, and he tries again, lower this time. “It’s too damn hot.”
“Quit that, come on,” Charles says, and Arthur realizes he’s tugging at the open collar of his shirt, trying to get the night air on his skin.
“I just got here,” Arthur complains. “Can’t a coupla fellers share some peace ‘n quiet in peace?”
“Sure.” Charles sounds as if he’s biting back a laugh, and Arthur frowns at him suspiciously. “Go to bed, Arthur,” Charles says again, gently. He’s always gentle, Charles is, either when he’s cutting the throat of a deer, or brushing down his horse, or putting dumb old men to bed on account of too much liquor on a warm spring night. “You’re hardly an old man. And you’re not dumb.”
“Huh?” Was he still talkin’? Can hardly tell when he’s running his mouth anymore.
“Never mind. Here.” Charles’s hands slip under his arms, heaving him up off the ground with surprising ease. “Come on, let’s get you up.”
“You- you comin’ along, then?” Arthur lets himself be pulled to his feet, and the world sways alarmingly for a second before he fumbles for Charles’ shoulder and steadies himself. Good man, Charles is, always there, always reliable.
“Someone’s gotta make sure you make it there alive.”
“Hey now, that’s plain hurtful. I’m a- I’m a grown man, is what I am.” Arthur leans his weight against Charles as they begin making their way back to camp, and Charles takes it easily. Impressive, that.
The party’s beginning to simmer down now, the singing mostly made of Javier’s humming, his head beginning to nod over his guitar. They pass by Uncle, sprawled out and snoring on one of the tables, an empty bottle in each hand. Sean and Karen are nowhere to be seen, though Arthur thinks he’s got a good idea as to where they’ve gone off too.
It’s getting mighty hard for him to think much of anything else, his mind all fuzzy and the world pushing in and out around him. Charles’ arm is around his waist now, the only thing keeping him from getting real intimate with the ground, and he clutches at a handful of Charles’ shirt.
Everything suddenly turns on its end, and he finds himself blinking up at the bottom of the canvas stretching over his cot. Charles’ face appears above him, his smirk smearing into the lines of his face. “Looks like you’ve got it handled from here.”
“Hey. Hey, hold up.” Arthur’s hand is still locked tight in Charles’ shirt, and there’s a moment when he forgets how his fingers work. He tries to sit up and only manages to tug Charles down towards him instead. Their faces jolt close, Charles catching himself with a hand braced against the edge of Arthur’s cot. Arthur blinks up at him, trying to remember how the hell he got himself into this.
“Yes, Arthur,” Charles says, infinitely patient. His voice is low, and when they’re close like this, Arthur swears he can feel the vibration of it against his knuckles where they’re pressed against Charles’ chest.
“Uh.” Arthur’s never claimed to be a particularly clever man, but it’s rare moments when he finds himself starkly aware of the fact. He blinks a few more times, then swallows. His mouth is suddenly, desperately dry. “Thanks for...y’know.”
“Sure, Arthur.” Charles sounds too even now, his eyes carefully shifted to the side. The smell of smoke clings to his collar, stronger around his throat and jaw, and Arthur leans in thoughtlessly.
Charles suddenly straightens, and Arthur’s hand falls uselessly to his side. He feels disoriented all over again, as if he’s fallen through his cot and then the ground beneath it.
“Sleep well now,” Charles says. He pats at Arthur’s shoulder, pressing him back lightly against the cot. His hand slips briefly inside Arthur’s coat, tucking something into the inner pocket, and is gone again before Arthur can question him.
Arthur makes a faint, bewildered sound in return, which Charles seems satisfied enough with.
“Goodnight,” Charles says, and he’s gone again, fading back into the night like he was never there.
Except he was. He was. Arthur closes his eyes, too damn confused to make sense of anything but that he’s lying down and the world’s finally stopped tilting all over. And maybe that’s enough for tonight, he decides.
Arthur wakes the next morning with a pounding head and the all too familiar feeling that he’s done something profoundly stupid. The earliest rays of dawn have just pierced the clouds, the distant sounds of the rousing camp beginning to rise around him.
He passes a hand over his face, stifling a groan, and scratches idly at his chest. There’s something there, he dimly registers. He reaches inside his coat, and he pulls out a cigarette card, the edges slightly bent from a night spent in his pocket.
The picture on it’s easier to make out now, in the gray wash of early morning. It’s a stag, its head flung to the side, standing strong and tall in a mountain stream. Arthur looks at it for a long moment, then slides the card back inside his coat. Somehow, it only seems right to keep it.
The ashes of the campfire are still smoldering gently when he staggers his way to a washbin. He can hear Bill snoring from here, and he spots Javier still unconscious, curled around his guitar like he fell asleep with it in his arms.
Cold water helps some, slapping him awake with a welcome rudeness, and he shakes the dampness from his hair, pushing it back from his face with a wet hand.
“Mornin’, Mr. Morgan,” Pearson says feebly, from where he’s poking at the stew pot with a long ladle. “Coffee ain’t made yet,” he adds, when Arthur grunts and goes for his tin cup. “Bit of a late start.”
“You and me both,” Arthur mutters. He turns away, and he sees a familiar figure sitting at the edge of camp, rolling a cigarette between his fingers. Something tugs faintly at his drink-blurred memory, and embarrassment blooms hot and sudden in his chest. He wishes he can remember what fool thing he must’ve done.
“The hell,” he mutters, and he makes his way over before he can talk himself out of it.
Charles glances up at him as he approaches, his tongue darting out to seal the white cigarette paper, and Arthur stops dead in his tracks. They look at each other for a moment, Arthur frozen there like a damn fool, then Charles’ mouth twitches and he lowers his hands from his face.
“Mornin’,” Arthur mumbles. He doesn’t know where to look, so he settles for his boots, and he sits down heavily beside Charles. He remembers going after Charles in the woods, remembers a hand warm on his shoulder. The smell of bitter smoke, and-
“You look like shit.”
“Better than how I feel.” Across the camp, Pearson drops a pot with a rattling clang, and Arthur grimaces as his headache spikes. Feels like a couple of rail spikes getting hammered in behind his eyes.
Charles shuffles forward, kneeling by the fire and reaching for a battered kettle sitting by the side. “Here, I brewed this. Figured most of the camp would need it, after the night you’ve all had.”
Arthur is briefly at a loss. “Thanks, uh. Mighty kind of you.”
Charles makes a dismissive sound as he fills a tin cup and hands it over to Arthur, the contents still steaming. “Here. Drink.”
“Wha…” Arthur squints inside the cup. Looks like coffee, he thinks. It’s brown, at the very least. Doesn’t smell like it, though. He can’t decide what the hell it smells like. “This that tea you were goin’ on about?”
“Drink it,” Charles says again, in that even tone of his that forbids further nonsense, and Arthur drinks.
The tea, or whatever, has a weird, nutty quality to it. A little smoky, like something left out roasting over a fire. It ain’t all bad, Arthur has to admit. Feels better in his stomach, once he gets a couple swallows in.
“Good?” Charles looks at him expectantly.
“It’s just fine.”
Charles is still watching him, a queer look in his eye now, as if he’s expecting Arthur to say something else. Somehow, Arthur doesn’t think it’s about the tea. Charles takes a breath, and for a moment, Arthur thinks he’s gonna ask something, and then a shadow falls over them, followed swiftly by Uncle.
“Whatchu boys goin’ on about over here?” He throws himself down between them, accompanied with a wave of sour, unwashed stink, and grins at them with a smile missing more teeth than not.
“You’re lookin’ good, Uncle,” Arthur says, not dishonestly. Uncle looks the same as ever, which is more than can be said for everyone else today.
“Oh, that? Psh, ain’t nothin’. Takes more than a wee night of merriment to turn me sour.” Uncle slaps his belly and laughs, dry and wheezing. “You drink like that everyday, and soon ‘nough you’ll be like good ole Uncle.”
“Heaven forbid,” Charles mutters. He puts his cigarette in his mouth and lights it with a match struck off the bottom of his boot. The familiar smell of smoke curls around them, and Arthur frowns down into his cup, some hazy recollection tugging at the corner of his mind.
“Pass me one, son,” Uncle says, and the tenuous grip Arthur has on the memory slips away.
In the afternoon, Charles takes him bison hunting, and this feels familiar. Safe. Whatever has unsettled Arthur since the morning begins to slip back beneath the depths. This, at least, has always been easy between the two of them.
Arthur’s seen bison before, of course, large and hulking shapes moving about on the plains. Never thought to try and hunt them, though, not when there’s plenty of easier prey around. Charles makes it look utterly effortless, his back straight and his hair flowing as he rounds them up.
There’s a moment of electric anticipation, when Arthur sees all of them wheeling around towards him, kicking up dust and snorting in confusion. For a moment, he can see himself gored on those gleaming horns, tossed up like a rag doll and left broken in the dirt. Dandelion shifts uneasily beneath him, tugging at her bit as the bison surge around them.
In the distance, Charles is shouting, his mouth moving soundlessly over the thundering of hooves. Arthur lifts his rifle instinctively, a movement he’s repeated so many times that it requires less than a thought. A couple of pulls of the trigger, and a bison falls, its momentum carrying it a few more staggering steps before it collapses to its side.
“Well done,” Arthur hears dimly, as Charles brings Taima around to rejoin him, and all seems well enough.
All is well, until they find the carcasses. Riddled with bullet holes, the bison are shrunken in death. One of them is a calf, curled alongside its mother, and Arthur looks up to see Charles staring at it, silent. His face is a thunderstorm, rumbling on the horizon.
“There, that must be them,” Charles says, when they spot a distant column of smoke. “Come on!” He kicks Taima into a gallop before Arthur can get a word out edgewise, taking off for the camp.
“Wait-” Arthur bites back a curse and follows, already chasing Taima’s dust. He can hear Charles’ voice before he even dismounts. That itself is strange enough- ain’t like Charles could be considered talkative in any kinda way, much less this loudly.
The first hunter falls before Arthur can register the gun in Charles’ hand. There are times when he forgets how truly capable Charles is, how he’s fought tooth and nail his whole life, even more so than the rest of them.
The gentle Charles from last night seems miles and miles away. Arthur feels the rage crackling around him, lightning splitting the dark skies. Calm Charles, kind Charles, who never kills for pleasure, standing there now with his bandaged hand clenched tight by his side and a man lying dead at his feet.
His mother’s people, his mother’s bison. Arthur doesn’t blame him much for his anger; he’s done much worse for much less.
“Don’t worry, Charles,” Arthur says. His own voice sounds distant, and he feels himself hollowing out with a practiced ease, the way he always does when it comes to this. It’s simpler this way, saves him the nightmares afterwards and the black, clawing guilt in his guts. “I’ll deal with him.”
Arthur kills the hunter with his bare hands, and he feels the weight of Charles’ eyes on him the whole time. When the man’s wet choking finally ceases, Arthur adjusts his sleeve cuffs calmly around his wrists and sits back on his heels. Been a good while since he choked a man’s life away, he muses. Only seems fitting, though. The other one got off lucky with a bullet, in his opinion.
“Well, that’s that,” Arthur says. “Might as well see what’s worth takin’ from here.” He stands and kicks aimlessly at the hunter’s boot in passing. It makes a dull sound, one that he barely registers. “Y’don’t gotta stick ‘round,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.” That’s what he does, after all. He takes care of things. Of the camp. Of the family.
Charles takes a sharp breath, as if he’s forgotten to do so in the past few minutes, and he looks at their horses, then back towards Arthur. “I’d rather stay,” he says eventually, “if that’s alright.”
Arthur shrugs. “Suit yourself.” God forbid him, of all people, to tell another man what to do with his time.
They move the bodies away from the camp and stash them in some bushes a ways from the road. There’s nothing much worth taking, just a lockbox that Arthur cracks open with the point of his knife and takes a couple of clips from. Charles is quiet throughout, but Arthur can feel the dark mood peeling away from him bit by bit.
“Thank you,” Charles says quietly, as they’re riding back towards camp. “For what you did.”
“Dunno what you’re talkin’ about.” Arthur looks forward, at the wispy white clouds strewn across the sky. Looks a bit like the feathers he always sees Charles carrying around for his arrows. Might bring some back for him, next time Arthur finds himself in the mountains.
“Of course not.” Something in the way he says it makes Arthur look at him, but Charles is watching the sky as well, eyes carefully averted from Arthur’s direction.
“Ain’t somethin’ you should’ve had to do,” Arthur says, finally. “Not you.”
“Do I really seem that incompetent?” Charles asks dryly.
“Naw, ain’t that.” It could never be that. Arthur’ll eat his damn hat before he says a word against Charles’ competence. “Jus’ didn’t seem right.” He could never see Charles doing what he did, digging his knees into the dirt as he chokes the life from some lowlife. Job like that’s for someone who ain’t got any good in him to lose in the first place.
“Well,” Charles says. “Thanks anyway.” He sounds almost normal, then, like the Charles who leaves bundles of arrows in Arthur’s tent when he thinks Arthur’s still asleep, like the Charles who made him tea and taught him how to make a snare.
Arthur fiddles with the brim of his hat, suddenly feeling too warm. “Don’t you mention it,” he mutters.
I spent ages looking for Charles at camp after the Blackwater mission and he waSN'T THERE, so I fixed it.
Arthur is gone from camp for the next few days. Something about a man and some photographs. Charles wonders if perhaps it’s some sort of bounty, but a strange one, by the sound of it. Wouldn’t be the first unusual job Arthur’s taken.
He uses the time to dress the bison skin Arthur brought back from their hunt. It’s something he recalls seeing his mother doing, when he was still very young. He remembers the scraping sound of toothed bone over hide, stripping the remaining flesh from the skin. The softness of the leather afterwards, pale and moon-like. It was meant to be a woman’s job, he remembers. As he stretches the skin out and fixes it to the ground with crudely carved pegs, he thinks that it doesn’t matter much now what is meant to be a woman’s job and what is not.
“Seems an odd hobby,” Hosea remarks, from where he’s been watching Charles work.
Charles spares him a glance. There’s something about Hosea that quietly demands respect, something that Arthur seems to have inherited over time, and Charles doesn’t half mind his company. “Not really a hobby,” he says shortly.
“Nothin’ wrong with having a hobby, son,” Hosea says, and he leaves him with a chuckle.
On the third day, Charles softens the hide with a mixture of boiled rabbit brains and fat, and he removes the hair in precise, deliberate strokes. He’ll make a shirt from it, he decides. Nothing better in the rain or sun than well-tanned bison hide.
He works on the skin, and he thinks.
Arthur would’ve kissed him, that warm and drunken night, if Charles let him. He didn’t know then if it’s what Arthur wanted. If he were honest with himself, he still doesn’t know now. He doesn’t know if Arthur even knows, and perhaps that’s the real crux of the problem.
Charles had a compass once, one that eventually slipped from his saddlebag and fell against a rock and never worked right since. The needle would spin around and around, pointing this way first, then that way. Sometimes, when Charles looks at Arthur, he thinks of that old compass, spinning and spinning without end.
At the tail end of the week, Charles is rubbing coarse salt onto the nearly finished hide when he looks up and sees Arthur standing over him. He’s covered in what must be a pound of dust and grime, his beard grown longer and a few new nicks in the brim of his hat.
“Come on a hunt with me,” Arthur says, as if he has not been gone for days on end. He’s got a full kit with him, his winter coat bundled beneath one arm.
Charles dusts his palms off calmly and looks up at him. “This one of those special hunts Hosea’s got you on?” He’s never seen the appeal himself, hunting an animal just for the color of its pelt, or the size of it.
“Different kinda hunt.” Arthur hefts his pack higher. “I’m lookin’ for some gunslinger up towards Cairn Lake. Maybe swing down by Strawberry after, see if they’ve got any open bounties.”
“This business up at Cairn Lake a bounty too?”
Arthur pulls a face. “Naw, that’s...an errand, more like. Thing is, the feller in question usually runs with a gang. Could be more trouble than what it’s worth, but then again. Could be just fine.”
“Safety in numbers,” Charles says. “I understand.” He’s surprised, frankly, that Arthur isn’t planning on taking on this job himself anyway, despite the risks. Not like he hasn’t done something like this before. Charles pushes himself to his feet. “I’ll grab my gear.”
Charles has never been a particular fan of the cold. The snow, even less so. This blizzard they’ve suddenly caught themselves in, though, has to be even worse than the one that drove them to Colter those long weeks ago. He pulls his coat tighter around him, the snow deepening around Taima and Dandelion’s legs with every new burst of wind. “How much further?” He has to raise his voice to be heard, and ahead of him, the dark shape that’s Arthur turns back towards him and yells something incoherent.
“-up ahead!” He makes out the last couple of words this time, before the wind snatches them away. He nearly loses his hat to a howling gust, and he clamps a hand down on it, squinting into the flurries. “This fucking wind,” he mutters. There’s a cabin now, he sees, half-buried in a snowy slope. The windows are dark, and there’s no smoke rising from the stone chimney poking out beneath a drift. Arthur’s already there, tethering his horse to a post on the leeside of the cabin, and he turns to grab Taima’s bridle with a gloved hand as Charles approaches.
“Go on in!” Arthur yells. His beard is frosted with ice, the shoulders of his coat heavy with snow. “I’ll handle the horses.”
Charles dismounts, his movements stiff from a long, frozen ride. He takes their packs and rams the cabin door open with his shoulder, dislodging a few icicles from the roof above. The door gives way with surprising ease, creaking open and spilling a swirling cloud of snow in with him. Place has been abandoned for a long while, looks like. There’s a small table against the wall, a couple of broken chairs piled by an empty pantry.
Arthur comes stomping in, a lantern swinging from his hand, and he kicks the door shut behind him. The sound of the storm is suddenly muted, and Charles’ ears feel odd, as if the storm’s taken up to roaring inside his head instead.
“Bad luck,” Arthur grumbles, as he knocks the snow from his boots. “Looks like we’ll have to lay low for the night.”
“Fine by me.” Charles will happily live the rest of his days in this shack if it means never stepping foot out there again.
Between the two of them, they manage a decent little camp. Charles breaks a few wooden legs off the chairs in the corner and works on getting a fire going in the fireplace. Behind him, he can hear Arthur banging about in the cabinets, pulling out the drawers in the nightstands and digging around in those too for whatever supplies there are left.
Outside, the wind whistles and batters at the roof of the cabin, rattling the windows and shutters. They heat up a couple of cans of food over the fire and eat it sitting on the floor, blankets around their shoulders and their wet coats and boots propped up by the fire to dry.
“Your hand’s lookin’ better,” Arthur says suddenly.
“Hm?” Charles glances up, spoon halfway to his mouth. “Yeah, guess so.” He took the bandages off on the fourth day of Arthur’s absence. The skin beneath has healed, though he’ll probably have the scar for the rest of his life. It’s a tangled mess of pale, tender scar tissue, like he’s reached out and caught lightning in his palm.
Arthur makes a quiet, satisfied sound, and goes back to scraping at the bottom of his can.
There’s a single bed pushed up against the back wall, and when they’ve finished eating and taken it in turns to relieve themselves, they both stand and regard it solemnly.
“Go on,” Arthur says, predictably. “I’ll take the floor.”
“Why?” Charles asks. He feels as if it’s a reasonable enough question, but Arthur looks flummoxed by it.
“Well, y’know…” Arthur makes an all-encompassing gesture, looking as uncomfortable as Charles has ever seen him. “Look, just take the bed, alright? Christ.” He begins spreading his bedroll out on the floor, as if the decision’s already final.
Charles sits down on the edge of the bed and watches him for a moment, then lays down. The mattress is cold and thin, but he unfolds his blanket and pulls it over himself, and it isn’t too bad, despite the smell of horse and old sweat. Feels odd, though, after sleeping on the ground for so long.
He looks up at the wooden beams of the ceiling, listening to the cabin creak around them, then turns over onto his side. Arthur’s just beginning to settle down, his hat sitting at the head of his bedroll next to his satchel and his journal.
“You know,” Charles says evenly. “There’s plenty of room up here.”
Arthur grunts. “That so.”
“Seems a shame, that’s all. Not often we get a bed for free.”
Arthur stops fussing about with his bedroll, and he sighs. His head is bent, eyes fixed on his hands, and Charles watches the side of his face, where the firelight catches the line of his brow and nose.
“Alright, fine.” Arthur says. Quickly, like pulling off a bandage. His face is tinted red, but that could easily be from the wind, or just the glow of the fire. “Move on over.”
Charles lifts the edge of his blanket, and Arthur fits himself onto the bed next to him. It shifts beneath Arthur’s added weight, sagging down towards him, and after some grumbling and elbowing and polite shuffling of their feet, Charles finds himself pressed against Arthur’s back, an arm over his waist that neither of them says anything about.
“Ain’t slept like this since I was a kid,” Arthur mutters unexpectedly. His voice is already rough with drowsiness, his body warming against Charles’ chest.
“Mm.” Charles finds he has a hard time imagining Arthur as a kid. Sometimes, he thinks Arthur sprang from the womb just as he is, gruff and broad-shouldered with a gun on each hip. The thought makes him smile, a small one hidden against Arthur’s back.
“Had t’bunk with John, those days. Lil bastard liked to kick.”
“You getting nostalgic on me, old man?” Charles murmurs, and Arthur gives a huff of silent laughter, jostling Charles’ arm.
“Maybe.” He goes quiet then, long enough that Charles closes his eyes, ready to fall asleep. Then, Arthur clears his throat and speaks again, low and quiet like he’s hoping Charles won’t hear. “This ain’t nothin’ like the old times.”
Charles is suddenly completely awake. He lies still, listening to the sound of Arthur’s breathing. If any part of him was still cold, it no longer is.
“Hey, you awake?” Arthur asks quietly. He shifts slightly, his shoulder pressing against Charles’ chest.
Arthur moves again, this time with more intention, and Charles pulls his arm back, letting Arthur roll clumsily onto his back. There’s less room like this, and Charles feels the cold wall pressing behind him, but his attention is on Arthur now, and the way he keeps glancing at Charles before dragging his gaze back to the ceiling.
“I’ve been thinkin’,” Arthur begins.
“I’ve been thinkin’,” Arthur presses on doggedly. “Maybe I done somethin’ I shouldn’t‘ve. Can’t remember it, for the life of me, but I know it.”
“We’ve all done regrettable things.” Charles watches Arthur’s eyes flick towards him. He thinks of that hazy night, of something bright and determined in those eyes, of Arthur’s hand pulling him down. “Some more than others.”
“Yeah, well.” Arthur frowns a little in thought. “Don’t seem like it was quite like that, though.”
“Hm, yeah?” Charles murmurs. He shifts away from the wall and closer to Arthur, bumping against his elbow, and Arthur finally looks at him properly. His eyes, Charles thinks, are really too damn blue.
“What brand d’you smoke?” Arthur asks abruptly. “Been drivin’ me crazy, tryin’ to figure it out-”
Charles leans in the rest of the way and kisses him. Arthur’s mouth is cold at first, but it warms quickly enough between the two of them. Arthur clutches at his arm with a breathless sound, and, for a terrible moment, Charles thinks he’s miscalculated. Then Arthur pulls him closer with a fierceness that speaks of relief, of delight, and Charles smiles against him as Arthur kisses him back.
Arthur kisses like he shoots- hard, fast, and like he’s not expecting to see the next light of day. He makes a noise of confusion when Charles slows it down, his breath hot and unsteady on Charles’ chin as Charles slides a palm over his cheek and pulls him in again. Arthur’s beard scrapes against his scar, his throat working as he swallows and tries to press impossibly closer. There’s nothing but warmth between them, the storm seems miles and miles away.
In the end, it’s Arthur who breaks first, with a hand squeezing unevenly against Charles’ shoulder and a faltering inhale as he pulls back. Charles waits, anticipation thrumming through his fingertips, the taste of Arthur still on his tongue. God, he wants to kiss him again. Wants to never stop doing it, if it means Arthur will keep on looking at him like that. He licks his lips and watches Arthur’s eyes snap down to the movement.
“I think,” Arthur starts. He makes an odd sound in his throat, then tries again. “I, uh, maybe. Maybe I shouldn’t’ve-”
“Stop thinking,” Charles interrupts. He can almost feel Arthur’s brain working from here, straining and whistling like a train trying to go faster than it can bear. “It’s not your best trait.”
Arthur makes a little cough of helpless laughter at that, and Charles reaches around him to pull the blanket back over the both of them. It still smells like horse, but he no longer minds. Arthur lets him do it, gone quiet now, and he doesn’t protest when Charles settles his arm back around his waist.
“Go to sleep, Arthur.”
Charles wakes first. It’s no surprise there; Arthur seems to sleep and wake with haphazard abandon on the few nights he spends in camp. It’s quiet, he notices first. The storm must have passed over during the night, leaving only the eerie silence that comes from deep snow and cold. He hopes they haven’t been snowed in.
There’s a low rumbling against him, the solid warmth curled around him shifting and settling heavily again with a sigh.
Charles turns his head, and he finds himself facing Arthur. They’ve switched about in the night, Arthur’s arm now draped around him, his face tucked against the side of Charles’ head and the blankets tangled around their legs.
Arthur mumbles again, his brow furrowing, and Charles wonders if he’s dreaming. He can’t remember the last time he dreamed, and part of him is grateful. “Arthur,” he says quietly. He slides his hand down Arthur’s arm and closes his fingers around Arthur’s wrist. Somehow, this simple act seems more intimate than spending the night in the same bed, sharing the same warmth, the same air.
Charles begins to ease Arthur’s arm away, intending to sit up, and Arthur scrambles to wakefulness in the next second, his hand fumbling beneath the pillow. Charles raises an eyebrow at the gleam of gunmetal; he didn’t even notice Arthur putting the revolver there last night. Arthur at least has the grace to flush.
He looks much younger like this, his hair disheveled and his shirt collar loosened around his neck. Somehow, this seems like something Charles shouldn’t be seeing, some secret that should’ve been kept hidden away. Charles looks at him for a long moment, marveling, and Arthur eventually rubs a hand over his face, ducking his head.
“Quit that,” Arthur mutters. He sets the revolver down by the pillow and lies back down.
“Alright.” Something is rattling inside Charles’ chest, glowing and warm and content. He touches his hand to his sternum in a halfhearted effort to settle the feeling.
“What’s so funny,” Arthur grumbles, and Charles fights back his smile.
“Nothing,” he says. “It’s a good morning.”
The rest of the ride is quiet, with only the sound of the horses and the jingling of their gear. There’s a stillness in the world that comes only after a storm like the one last night. Even the tree branches seem afraid to stir, glistening in ice and freshly fallen snow. The wind itself is subdued, as if weary from exertion.
They reach Cairn Lake shortly, and Arthur comes to a stop at the edge of the tree line. “Best you keep back,” he says. “Might make ‘em nervous, seein’ the two of us riding in.”
“I thought that was the whole point,” Charles says dryly. Arthur gives him a look, and Charles shrugs. “Alright, alright. I’ll keep an eye out.”
He hitches Taima to a nearby tree and dismounts, taking his rifle from his saddle and blowing warm air into his cupped hands. Arthur’s riding across the frozen lake now, towards the small camp at the opposite shore. Charles takes up position between two trees, leaning against a trunk and squinting across the distance. Looks like they’re just talking. Maybe this is just a strange errand, after all, and there’s nothing to worry ab-
A single gunshot cracks through the frozen air, and Charles tenses, his rifle at the ready. He watches the few men lingering about turn and run for their horses. Arthur’s still standing, and Charles lets out a long exhale, white clouds forming before him.
He’s about to make his way over when Arthur starts heading back, a handheld camera in his hand and a sheepish look on his face. “I’m startin’ to think maybe I ain’t cut out for this business.”
“Stick to smashing heads next time,” Charles suggests.
“Yeah, maybe.” Arthur stops halfway to Dandelion, then glances at Charles. There’s a moment of deliberation, in which Charles waits patiently for whatever it is Arthur’s making his mind up to do now, then Arthur tips his hat back and leans down to press a quick, hard kiss to the corner of Charles’ mouth.
It’s over in the span of a blink, and Arthur turns away abruptly, angling his hat back down over his eyes. Charles watches his retreating back, his face still warm in that one, lingering spot, before he mounts up with a grin.
Fun fact: I rode up and down the Grizzlies doing this mission as research for this chapter and ended up accidentally finding and catching the White Arabian
NOW WITH ART BY @PPitteArt, I'm still crying over it, it's so fuckin tender and beautiful
God may not be out there, Arthur thinks, but he’s becoming more and more inclined to believe in something plucking maniacally at the strings of fate with every passing moment. The snow turns to mush as they begin descending from the mountains, then a faint drizzle, then a full, raging thunderstorm by the time they’re back on flat ground. If that ain’t punishment for something, he doesn’t know what is.
It’s hell on the horses, Arthur knows, riding them across ground that’s steadily becoming more water than earth. He’s starting to feel like a damn fish himself, spitting rain out of his mouth every time he wants to breathe.
By some miracle, they manage to reach Strawberry before they drown. It can’t be long past noon, but sky’s already as dark as night, split across by forks of white lightning. A No Vacancy sign at the hotel swings mockingly in the wind, and Arthur angles his hat down over his eyes, squinting down the way at the wooden lodge declaring itself to be a welcome center.
Charles takes the horses, and Arthur makes his way on in. He’s soaked through to the skin, and he leaves a decent puddle on the floor of the welcome center with every squelching step.
“Need two rooms,” he grunts, slapping a hand down on the counter. It lands with a wet squish, and the concierge looks down at it, then up at him.
“We’ve got just the one, sir,” he says, politely indifferent. “Hell of a storm out there.”
Arthur hears the door open and shut behind him, and Charles steps up to his side. Even standing at this distance, with a foot of space between them, Arthur is keenly aware of him. He doesn’t have a clue how there was ever a time when he wasn’t aware of Charles.
It’s damnably distracting, is what it is, especially since after they-
“Room 3,” prompts the concierge. “Just up the stairs, to the right.” He looks uncertainly between the two of them, and Arthur can’t help but wonder how he sees them. “Shall I mark it down for you two gentlemen?”
Arthur opens his mouth, then hesitates. He glances at Charles before he can help it, and he wants to curse himself. Goddamn him, it shouldn’t even matter, a small thing like this.
Charles only shrugs, his face annoyingly unreadable. “Beats camping in this weather.”
“We’ll take it,” Arthur says, snatching the key off the counter.
“Fancy,” Charles remarks, as they climb the stairs. There’s a stuffed bear, of all things, rearing up by the bannister. Makes Arthur’s hair stand on end. “Too fancy, you think? For being way out here.”
“Yeah, well. Weird kinda town.” Arthur unlocks the door to their room. It’s a decently large room, with framed pictures on the walls and even a vase, of all things, with some flowers that Arthur doesn’t know. He’ll draw them later, he thinks vaguely, maybe see if he finds any more in the wild.
The bed, he notices next, is much larger than the one at the cabin. Arthur looks at it for a long, nervous moment, and cannot, for the life of him, think of a single thing to say. Charles moves past him, dumping his pack onto the table and looking around. “Nice place.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says, for want of anything else. He crosses the room and scowls out at the curtains of rain washing down over the window. In the distance, lightning flashes over the mountains, and a rumble of thunder rolls through the air.
“Fuckin’ hate the rain,” Arthur mutters. He lets his coat fall to the floor with a wet slap and starts working at the buttons of his shirt. “Ain’t been a storm this bad in a while, huh? Hope it’s alright back at camp.”
“It’s a bad one,” Charles says. He sounds a little off, like there’s something caught in his throat, and Arthur turns towards him as he’s peeling his shirt off.
Charles ain’t dressed in much more, he realizes first. His wet shirt is in his hands, his necklace glistening on his bare chest, his hair dark and wet on his neck and shoulders. It’s nothing Arthur hasn’t seen before- hell, he’s seen the whole damn camp splashing about buck naked, but somehow this is nothing like that at all. His tongue sits heavy and useless in his mouth, his feet frozen in place.
He still remembers the look on Charles’ face, when Arthur kissed him there in the snow on some mad, mindless impulse. He can’t explain it if he tried, only that he looked at Charles then and thought it’d be a fine thing to do, and it was.
Charles has much of that same look now, but his eyes are lingering below Arthur’s face, and-
“Why’re you always lookin’ at me like that?” Arthur asks unthinkingly. He snaps his mouth shut a moment too late, but Charles is already smirking. That little, crooked grin that Arthur can never make head or tail of. Charles is broader than him, Arthur realizes, wider in the chest and shoulders, and Arthur has not a fucking clue how he’s managed to miss that before. Could probably take him in a fight, Charles could, maybe pin him to the floor easy as that-
“You’re good to look at,” Charles says offhandedly. He turns away to hang his shirt over the radiator, and Arthur looks away hastily.
“Never figured you for the jokin’ type, Smith,” he mutters. Despite the chill from the rain, his face and neck are suddenly blazing warm.
“You’re right,” Charles agrees. “I’m not.”
The rain keeps falling.
Arthur goes downstairs and orders himself a bath. It’s the first indulgence he’s allowed for himself in weeks, and he’s damn well planning on taking his time. The water is hot enough to sting his skin as he sinks into the tub with a long groan, bubbles tickling and bursting around him.
There’s a light knock on the door as he’s scrubbing the grime from his hair. “Need any help in there?” A woman’s voice, light and teasing.
Arthur’s knee thumps against the side of the tub in reflex, and he bites back a curse. “Naw, I’ll be- I’ll be just fine. Uh. Thanks.” He clutches at his knee as it throbs and listens as the woman leaves. Jesus. Looks like this place ain’t as fancy as all that, after all.
The rest of his bath is decidedly hurried.
He comes back to the room with his hair still wet, dripping down into the collar of his shirt. It’s warmer now, the radiator humming determinedly in the corner. Charles has somehow managed to find them two hot meals, the plates waiting on the table where he sits.
“Left some money at the counter for you, Charles,” Arthur announces. “If you’re fixin’ to wash up soon.”
“Maybe later,” Charles says absently. His shirt collar is loosened, a thin blue book propped open in his hand. He lifts his head as Arthur approaches, then pauses before looking Arthur over slowly, from head to toe. Arthur looks away, suddenly feeling like he’s all steamed up in the bath again.
“What’re you readin’ there?” he mutters, as if it didn’t happen. He’s not half sure it did, anyway. Harder and harder to be sure of anything anymore, really, these days.
“Found it in that dresser,” Charles says, by way of explanation. “You a fan of poetry, Arthur?”
Arthur makes a dubious sound. “It’s alright.” Hosea used to read some aloud, when he and Dutch were teaching John to read, and that wasn’t so bad. Then later, Hosea made John read it to them, and that was much worse.
Charles looks back down at the pages of the book, his expression inscrutable. “My father had this book,” he says. “I remember it.”
Arthur ain’t too sure what to say about that. He pulls out the second chair and sits down, pulling one of the plates towards himself. Pushes a hand through his damp hair and looks at Charles for a considering moment. “Why don’t you read some to me, then?” he finally asks. Seems a decent enough idea. Charles has got a good voice, clear and smooth when he feels like using it.
Charles looks up at him, surprised, and Arthur gestures with his fork. “Go on, just a bit. Ain’t never heard of, uh-” he has himself a quick peek at the spine of the book, “-Bridges, is it? He any good?”
“If you like this sort of thing.” Charles turns a couple more pages, then stops. His mouth quirks in a small smile, and he sets the book aside. “Let’s eat first,” he says. “I’ll read some to you later.” There’s an intimate sort of promise in that, something quiet and private. The kinda thing Arthur wouldn’t ever say to Bill, or Javier, or Sean. He finds himself looking at Charles’ mouth, then curses when his food slips off his fork.
Charles laughs at him, and suddenly the storm doesn’t seem too awful.
It’s not long before Arthur remembers why being cooped up at Colter drove him outta his damn mind. These nights of sleeping out in the open, going wherever he pleases whenever he pleases, a horse and a gun always within reach- he’s forgotten how much being behind four walls all day makes him wanna tear his hair out.
He circles around the lobby downstairs after lunch, staring at all the photographs on the walls until the concierge politely asks him if he needs anything else, and then he reluctantly moves his circling upstairs. Charles hasn’t even moved, his chair tipped back idly on two legs as he reads his little book.
“Back already?” Charles glances up at him and turns a page. Arthur blinks, realizing he’s been standing there like a fool with one foot still out the door, and he steps fully into the room.
“Can’t do much else with all this comin’ down,” he says, waving a hand at the rain still washing down the window. “They’re sayin’ the river’s burst now. Won’t be able to cross ‘til it lets up.”
“Hm.” Charles regards him for a moment, then jerks his head. “C’mon, sit down.”
“Feels like I been sittin’ too much-”
“Just for a while, Arthur.” He sounds the same as when he made Arthur drink that tea- ain’t no getting around someone with that tone. “You can’t make the rain stop by stomping around at it.”
Arthur hesitates a moment longer before taking a seat at the table. He sets his hands on his knees, then crosses them in his lap. Christ, he doesn’t know what’s come over him.
“I got a pack o’ cards,” he suggests. Something’s fidgeting up inside him, fighting against the beat of his heart, and the longer Charles looks at him, the worse and worse it gets.
Felt just like this, when they were lying together in that little cabin, when all he could feel was the heat of Charles pressed against him, that scent of smoke always clinging close around him.
“Never been much good at cards,” Charles says.
“Well, could always ask up front if they’ve got a domino set,” Arthur continues, a little desperately now. “Tilly got me playin’ recently, ain’t a half bad way to kill time.”
Charles keeps on looking at him, and Arthur is seized by the urge to swear at him, or to turn away, or- damn him- he wants to kiss him until Charles stops his looking. “If you want.”
And just like that, Arthur feels whatever it is that’s struggling so mightily in him begin to still, curling in on itself until he’s grasping helplessly at the spaces it leaves behind. “No,” he says. “I don’t- you don’t gotta do that.”
Charles puts his book down carefully and sets his hands on his knees. His eyes are calm, dark, and he watches Arthur like he’s searching for an answer to a question yet to be asked. “Or, if you like,” he says, “we could do something else.”
Yes, there is porn coming up.
Rating goes up to Explicit in this one, but y’all knew what you were here for.
Arthur stares at him, brows raised in blatant surprise, and Charles waits patiently. Then the embarrassment comes, flooding bright and blazing across Arthur’s face, and he ducks away predictably. “Dunno what you mean,” he mutters. His hand clenches and unclenches on the tabletop, and Charles reaches out impulsively and covers it with his own.
This much, Arthur seems to allow, his fingers tensing briefly before relaxing. Charles leaves his hand there, watching Arthur’s face. “Doesn’t have to be anything,” he says carefully. He’s been giving this a good deal of thought, all through the ride down from the mountain. Doesn’t take a genius to tell that Arthur’s been thinking himself into a corner that doesn’t exist. “Can be whatever you want it to be.”
Arthur gives a low, uncertain grunt. He’s still not looking at Charles, but he hasn’t moved his hand away either. A win, perhaps, or a stalemate. “What...what d’you want?” he asks, unexpectedly reserved. He glances at Charles once, then down at the table again.
“Well, to be honest,” Charles says. He’s never been anything other than honest with Arthur, and he sees no point in stopping now. “I’d like to touch you. If that’s alright.”
Arthur looks, of all things, immensely confused. “Nothin’ you ain’t seen before.”
Charles sighs. Of course Arthur would take it that way. “You big fool,” he says, affection coloring his tone. “Don’t you know a proposition when you hear one?”
Arthur makes an odd choking sound at that, and Charles finds himself wondering how much truth he’d struck upon in his jest. Impossible, he thinks, and yet the look on Arthur’s face tells him otherwise. “It’s been,” Arthur begins, then has to start again. “Been a while since El- I haven’t-” He fumbles to a stop when Charles reaches up to touch his jaw, and he finally looks up again, eyes wide and stricken.
Charles slides his hand carefully around the back of Arthur’s head, leaning in closer. Arthur’s hair curls at the ends when it’s drying, he discovers. It’s a delightful thing to discover. He tightens his grip unconsciously and Arthur gives a startled jolt.
“Sorry,” Charles says, not sorry in the slightest.
For a moment, they watch each other, and Charles has never considered himself a gunslinger, but he imagines there’s something of it now in the tension in the air. Then Arthur exhales, rough and sudden, and he reaches out and grabs for the front of Charles’ shirt, pulling him down.
This kiss is just as good as the first- no, better, Charles decides. He can see Arthur properly like this in the lamplight, can feel the shake in Arthur’s hand as he tugs Charles closer. He’s out of his chair now and leaning over Arthur’s, with no real recollection of moving there, a knee braced on the wooden seat between Arthur’s legs. His hair falls around them, and Arthur pushes it back for him, his palm sliding warm and rough over Charles’ cheek.
“How’d you get this?” Arthur gasps, his breath hot against Charles’ jaw. It takes Charles a moment to realize what he’s talking about.
“In a fight,” he says. He pulls at the open collar of Arthur’s shirt as he speaks, dragging his thumb through the hair beneath his collarbone, and grins when Arthur makes a throaty, startled sound. “When I was an angry kid who wasn’t afraid of pissing off big, drunk bastards with really big knives.” He’d won that fight, though, in the end, salty blood flooding his mouth and dripping from his knuckles.
“I’m glad you won,” Arthur says seriously.
Charles kisses him again for it, licking deeper into Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur rises to respond. He drags his thumb over the scar on Charles’ face again, tracing down the splintered lines of it like he’s committing them to memory. He smells clean, like soap and heat, and Charles buries his face against the exposed line of Arthur’s throat, breathing in deep.
“You’re really somethin’, Mr. Smith,” Arthur says. His voice is ragged, gravelly beneath Charles’ mouth. Charles’ shoulders shake in a silent laugh, and he runs a hand down Arthur’s torso, stopping just above his belt.
“We’ve just barely started, Mr. Morgan.” He keeps his hand there, listening to Arthur’s breaths quickening, feeling the heat of his skin beneath his shirt.
“Get on with it, then,” Arthur finally says, his knees spreading wider. He’s flushed down to his chest, his throat working as he swallows. Charles drops his gaze, lets it linger on the filling crease against Arthur’s thigh. He gets on with it.
Arthur’s belt hits the floor with a clatter, and he flinches at the sound, but only briefly. Figures, Charles thinks, that a man who wouldn’t blink twice at a flurry of gunshots would suddenly shy away at a time like this. He kisses Arthur again and again as he works his trousers open, until their breaths are heavy and damp and he tastes as much of Arthur as Arthur does of him.
He shoves a hand in Arthur’s trousers, plucking impatiently now at the lower buttons of his union suit. Beneath it, Arthur’s skin is hot and damp, his cock jumping against Charles’ fingers. Arthur makes a rough, guttural noise against him, his hands jumping and clutching uncertainly at Charles’ shoulders, as if he’s forgotten what to do with them.
“Jesus,” Arthur begins, shocked, then groans when Charles grinds his palm against him, pressing his cock flat against his belly. “Jesus, oughta warn a feller-”
“Quiet down, or the whole place’ll hear you,” Charles tells him, amused. Arthur’s mouth snaps shut at that, a mortified tint of realization touching his cheeks. He makes a muted sound, deep in his chest, when Charles wraps a hand around him, working him slowly.
“You ever done something like this before, Arthur?” Charles asks, just loud enough that he knows Arthur will hear. He watches the red spread across Arthur’s face, staining the tops of his ears, and it’s enough of an answer. “You ever think about it?”
Arthur’s growing harder by the second, heavy and twitching, and he makes little gasping noises on every slow stroke that Charles is certain he’s not aware of. His hair’s starting to fall in his face, grown longer now than he usually keeps it. He’s a vision, in the firelight, a damn prettier sight than any Charles has ever seen. Will ever see again, as far as he’s concerned.
Arthur mumbles something, his mouth panting open, and Charles sees the tip of his pink tongue, darting out to wet his lips. Distantly, there’s a loud clap of thunder, and Charles couldn’t give half a damn even if the walls fell down around them.
“I think ‘bout you,” Arthur says, clear as day this time, and he drags Charles down into another kiss. It tastes of coffee and old tobacco, bitter at the back of Charles’ mouth, and he chases it shamelessly, tangles his fingers in Arthur’s hair and holds him fast.
“Arthur,” he gasps, and Arthur groans against him. He fumbles at Charles’ wrist, dragging his hand up, and suddenly that damned mouth is pressed against him, Arthur’s beard scratching at the inside of his wrist.
“Charles,” Arthur says. “Charles, fuck-” He kisses at Charles’ hand, his mouth hot and open on the jagged knot of the scar there. It’s a dirty sort of kiss, the kind Charles wants to leave all over him, wants to sear into that pale skin and see it flushing pink afterwards. Charles watches, his breath caught tight in his chest, and Arthur licks at his own taste between Charles’ fingers, eyelashes lowered and trembling against his red cheeks.
“Don’t stop,” Charles tells him. His voice is thick and strangled to his own ears, scraping against his throat. He presses his fingertips against Arthur’s tongue and Arthur sucks at him desperately, wetly, his breaths panting out in great, heaving gasps. “Don’t you dare stop.” He lets go of Arthur’s hair with his other hand and shoves at his knee, knocking his legs wide apart so Charles can settle between them.
Arthur chokes around his fingers, when he realizes what Charles is aiming at. His teeth graze against Charles’ knuckles, a brief sting of pain that Charles barely has the mind to register.
He braces a shoulder against Arthur’s thigh, keeps him spread and still, and mouths a messy stripe up Arthur’s cock. Arthur jerks beneath him with a muffled sound of shock, his mouth working clumsily.
“Charles,” Arthur says above him, or tries to. Charles curls his fingers, strokes against the inside of his cheek, and Arthur falls quiet again. Charles knows without looking how red he must be, knows how easy it is to fluster him like this. God, he should’ve done this sooner.
He swallows Arthur down proper this time, wrapping his hand around what he can’t take, and Arthur whines, the sound shivering out of him and vibrating around Charles’ fingers. Charles has to pull off then, stroking Arthur slowly and watching him squirm.
“Christ, Arthur.” It’s not his god, but it’s a name that feels fitting on his tongue at the sight of Arthur, blushing clear down his throat with his lips red and swollen, his chin wet with spit and his jaw stretched wide. Charles wants to see him bare, wants to learn the lines of him, wants to read the scars that hold the stories Arthur won’t tell.
Arthur makes an incoherent sound, and Charles lets his fingers slip free, feels his cock twitch at how wet they come out, still warm from the heat of Arthur’s mouth.
Arthur coughs, licks his lips a couple of times, and seems like he’s trying to look anywhere but at Charles’ face. “Stop lookin’.”
“Damn waste of a good view,” Charles comments, and Arthur somehow manages to turn even redder.
“Now, I thought you an honest man-” Arthur loses the rest of his words when Charles takes him in his mouth again. He fucks him like that, until Arthur’s legs are shaking around him, his hands clenched tight in Charles’ hair and his knees knocking against Charles’ shoulders.
“Charles, goddamn you-” Arthur’s voice grates low, deep and breathless. He tugs at Charles’ hair, then loosens his grip, pushing his fingertips apologetically over Charles’ scalp.
So damn considerate, Charles thinks, endlessly amused. He hooks two fingers against the opening in Arthur’s union suit, tugs the fabric down and presses his knuckles behind Arthur’s balls, and Arthur makes a wild, broken sound that Charles decides he has to hear again. Arthur is one to speak of honesty. Charles has never seen him more honest than in this moment, shaking apart with his hands buried in Charles’ hair.
It’s almost a surprise, when Arthur curls over him and shudders once, twice, his release flooding hot and bitter over Charles’ tongue. He pulls off slowly, carefully, and makes sure Arthur is watching when he swallows it all down.
Arthur curses beautifully, when he has a mind to. He slumps back in the chair, panting, his hand shaking where it’s curled loosely around the back of Charles’ head.
“Good?” Charles murmurs. He pats at Arthur’s thighs and drops one last kiss on Arthur’s knee before standing. His own trousers are straining, his skin damp beneath his clothes and itching with want. He ignores it, running a hand through his hair instead.
Arthur makes a dazed sound of agreement, tipping his head back to look up at Charles. “Do you wanna…” Arthur makes a vague, clumsy gesture, and Charles’ mouth twitches with amusement.
“Don’t worry about it.” Charles stands, and he settles a hand against Arthur’s jaw. Arthur exhales, then turns his face to press a kiss to Charles’ palm.
“You lemme decide what to worry ‘bout,” he says, the words muffled against Charles’ hand. “C’mere.” He settles a hand on Charles’ hip and draws him close, and Charles allows himself to be pulled into Arthur’s lap like some buxom saloon girl.
“You know, there’s a perfectly good bed right there,” he murmurs.
Arthur’s hands are large and warm, rough with scars and calluses alike, and he touches Charles with a clumsy tentativeness at first, until Charles leans into him and bites back a tight groan. He moves faster then, murmuring all manners of nonsense against Charles’ jaw, and Charles digs his fingers into the bedsheets and breathes Arthur’s name as he spills over Arthur’s knuckles.
Outside, the rain drums on, and the restless night settles around them.
He wakes to the faint sound of scratching, tickling feather-like at the edge of his awareness. The bed dips beneath him at the slightest movement- too soft, he reflects- and he turns his head, just enough to lift his face from the pillow.
Arthur’s still there beside him, his silhouette dark against the dimmed lamplight. His journal’s propped open on his knee, his back to the headboard and his head bent over his work. He’s drawing something, by the looks of it, the motions of his hand too long and measured to be letters. Charles slides a hand across the bed, nudging it against Arthur’s hip, and Arthur looks up with a start.
“You’re, uh-” Arthur’s hand jerks over the page reflexively. “Didn’t mean to wake you.” His voice, Charles observes, is hoarse. He thinks of Arthur’s mouth tight around his fingers, the way Arthur shook as he held back his groans, and he feels his gut tighten again with a slow, drowsy heat.
“Show me what you’re drawing,” Charles murmurs. He stretches out onto his side, the sheets slipping down his chest, and Arthur shifts uncomfortably beside him.
“Ain’t a big deal.”
“You don’t have to.” Charles regards him for a moment, until Arthur glances at him, and then he quirks a smile. “But I’d like to see.”
Arthur coughs, turning his head to the side, and he runs his thumb restlessly down the pages of his journal with a dry rustle. “Well, alright,” he finally says, and Charles feels something curling in his chest, warm and satisfied.
He props his head up on one arm, tilting his head closer as Arthur angles his journal towards him. He’s been working on drawing the vase in their room, the flowers painstakingly detailed and lifelike. There are a couple of roughly depicted animals in the margins, a squirrel clutching a thin branch and a fox startled mid-step.
“These are remarkable,” Charles says, surprised, and Arthur makes a dismissive sound. “No, really, Arthur, I’m serious.” He doesn’t know how many times he’s glimpsed Arthur scribbling away in this journal, but to think he’s been hiding all his drawings away like this…
“Naw, it’s nothin’, just…just a sketch, is all,” Arthur says, but he sounds reluctantly pleased by the praise.
“You have quite the gift for understatement.”
Arthur chuckles. “Well, can’t said I’ve heard- wait, hold on-”
Charles has already turned back to the previous page. It’s the beginnings of another sketch, he sees, spanning two pages, the lines loose and sprawling. But this isn’t a vase, or a woodland animal.
“This is me,” Charles realizes. He reaches out, touching a fingertip carefully to the slope of his bare back, the shadow on his sleeping face. Arthur is firmly silent above him, but his fingers twitch, as if tempted to cover the drawing again. Charles looks down at the page, his chest growing tight with something that’s not quite pleasure, not quite embarrassment. Arthur’s made him look...well, if not soft, then something adjacent to it. He wonders if that’s how he looks, or if it’s simply how Arthur sees him.
“I won’t do it again,” Arthur finally mutters. “If it ain’t...if you don’t…”
“No,” Charles says. He finds himself at a bit of a loss, and he clears his throat. “I meant, you could do it more.”
“Oh.” For a moment, Arthur does nothing. Then he stretches out two fingers and takes a bit of Charles’ hair between them, rolling the strands gently between his fingertips. Arthur seems to like his hair, Charles has noticed. He likes that, he thinks.
“If you are trying to distract me,” Charles says, “you’ll have to do better than that.”
Arthur laughs, a huff of surprise, and bends down to kiss him.
The rain clears the next morning. Arthur sleeps through the sunrise, his arm heavy and warm over Charles’ chest, and he doesn’t wake when Charles slips out of bed and goes to hunt down his trousers. He vaguely recalls Arthur flinging them across the room, and he finds them half draped over the dresser. That done, he slips a coat on over his bare chest and goes out onto the balcony to roll a smoke.
The air is cool and crisp and smells of the mountains, of wet pine and melted snow and an edge of ozone from the retreating storm. He leans against the railing and breathes out a cloud of smoke, watching wagons rattling down the street below.
There’s a long, muffled groan behind him before too long, and he turns to see Arthur struggling out of the pile of covers in the bed. He manages to make it halfway, and he blinks silently at Charles, owl-like. There’s a faint imprint of teeth high on his shoulder, and a scattering of other fading marks across his chest, disappearing down past his waist into the sheets.
Charles looks at him, and he wonders what Arthur will say. Wouldn’t exactly be surprising if he chalks it all up to a night of rain-soaked madness, of wanting to save a few dollars on the company of a warm body. Some things, no matter how sweet in the darkness of night, aren’t meant for the light of civilization.
Arthur squints at him. “Damn cold out there,” he says, and he reaches out, beckons with a couple of fingers. “Get on back in here, will ya?” Then, he looks closer. “That my coat?”
Charles grins, his chest unlocking with a warm, relieved rush, and he grinds out the rest of his cigarette on the railing. “Come and get it.”
Work’s been killing me, so this is out later than I wanted it to be BUT IT’S HERE NOW!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Arthur takes a can of tinned vegetables off the shelf, turning it over in his hands absently under the pretense of reading the label, then sets it back into place. It’s the fourth or fifth time he’s done it as he loiters by the window facing out across the street, and the shopkeeper’s glances have taken on a familiar edge of nervous wariness.
“You sure you don’t need a hand?” the shopkeeper asks, and Arthur makes a reassuring gesture over his shoulder. He sets the can back and picks up a tin of salmon.
“Just takin’ my time, partner, no worries.” He glances out the smudged window, and there- finally- Charles steps out of the sheriff’s office, holding Arthur’s hat in his hands.
“Makes you look more official-like,” Arthur told him earlier, before clapping it on Charles’ head and sending him on his merry way. In truth, Arthur thinks now, maybe he just likes the way it looks on Charles.
He waits until Charles is on the planked walkway before stepping out to join him, just around the corner from the sheriff’s office.
“You were right,” Charles says wryly. “Think the sheriff remembered you just fine.”
“Be dumber than a wagon o’ shit, if he didn’t.” Arthur takes his hat back. It’s still warm when he sets it back on his head, and he lets his fingers linger on the brim. “You got anything?”
Charles takes out a folded poster from inside his coat and hands it over. Arthur reads it while they mount up, squinting at the ink and wondering if they’ve always printed the words this damn small.
“Stagecoach robbin’, huh?”
“Hear it’s good business,” Charles says, deadpan.
Arthur snorts and tucks the poster into his coat. They mount up and ride east out of town, heading towards the Dakota. It’s always a fine day for riding, after the passing of a storm. Charles rides just ahead of him, and Arthur finds himself watching the way Charles’ shirt tightens across his back, the way the wind moves in his hair.
Fine day for riding, he thinks again.
“Y’know, it didn’t occur to me to ask earlier,” Charles eventually says, breaking the settling silence. “But wasn’t it you who put that hole in the jail?”
“Yeah, and it weren’t worth half the trouble that came after.” Arthur scowls darkly at the memory. “Wouldn’t say I would’ve wept much, if I’d come a day or two too late.”
“Hmm.” Charles looks unaffected, and Arthur remembers that he’s never been particularly friendly with Micah either. “Guess it would’ve been a fitting end.”
Something wrenches oddly in Arthur’s stomach at that, and he looks at the reins twisted around his hands. “You think he would’ve had it comin’?” he asks. “‘Cause he was a bad man?”
Perhaps Charles hears something queer in his tone; there’s something slow and considering in the way he glances back at Arthur.
“No,” Charles answers. “Don’t think anyone has it coming. But it comes anyway.” He lifts a shoulder and drops it again. He looks both older and younger than his years all at once. “Sometimes it comes faster to those who go looking.”
Arthur only has to shoot their robber once before he drops, yowling like a bobcat. Afterwards, he tries not to watch the effortless heave of Charles’ shoulders as he throws their bounty over Taima’s haunches, stuffing a balled up rag in his mouth for good measure. They found the poor bastard squatting a dozen miles down the river, paychest out in the open like a goddamn amateur, half his reward’s worth of whiskey scattered about his camp and the other half in his belly.
Would almost feel sorry for him, if it weren’t Arthur’s job not to.
He waits for Charles at the edge of town, holding a cigarette loosely between his lips as he watches a couple of birds flitting about the treetops. Dandelion shifts peacefully beneath him, chasing clumps of grass poking along the roadside.
When Charles returns, he tosses half a money clip to Arthur and they set a course back to the Heartlands. Only been a few days since they set out, and it seems to Arthur like it’s been much longer. His skin feels too small for what it contains, this shifting, growing thing burning inside him.
“Let’s stop for a while,” Charles says, when they loop back to the Dakota River.
“What, we takin’ the scenic route?”
Charles makes a vague gesture as he dismounts. “You want a scenic route? Pick one. I want a bath.”
And so, Arthur ends up watching as Charles undresses and folds his clothes neatly over Taima’s saddle. There’s a bite mark, dark and prominent just beneath the collar of his shirt. Arthur looks at it and feels his face burning. He can still taste the salt of Charles’ skin hot against his tongue, the yielding of flesh beneath his teeth. He wonders if he’s gone a little mad, and if it’s madness in itself to not give a damn.
“Could’ve washed up last night,” he says. “Saved me a bit o’ coin.”
“Bounty made up for it, don’t you think?” Charles wades into the river, stepping carefully on the stones underfoot. Arthur can’t keep himself from looking at Charles’ bare legs disappearing into the shallows, the line of his bare back, his waist.
“You just gonna watch?” Charles calls back. He dunks himself for a count of three, then splashes to the surface and shakes the water off him like a wet dog. “Damn, it’s fucking cold.”
Arthur chuckles as he dismounts, wandering over as Charles splashes halfheartedly around. “Not really makin’ a good case for a swim, Mr. Smith.” He finds himself a nice spot to sit, on a bit of sun-warmed rock jutting out over the rushes, and pats inside his coat for a cigarette.
“You’re getting worse than Uncle,” Charles says, which is downright hurtful. “You could try catching us dinner.”
Arthur snorts. “I could try all I want, bet ya I won’t catch a damn thing. ‘Sides, you’ll scare off the fish.”
Charles looks at him for a long moment, hands set on his hips. His hair gleams wetly in the sun, dripping down his shoulders. “You sure you don’t want to come in?”
“Nah, think ‘m good.” Arthur takes his hat off and scratches at his head. “You hurry on up, before you freeze in there.”
Charles takes a sidling step closer, and Arthur eyes him suspiciously. “I think you could use a good wash.”
“Wha- I had me a bath just yesterday!” Arthur protests, indignant. “Anyway, didn’t hear you complainin’ none this morning when we-” He curses at the sudden icy splash of water in his face, and Charles grins at him. A wide, shining grin that makes him suddenly look years younger. It tugs at Arthur’s gut like a rope around his waist, pulls him off the rock, clothes and all, and towards the deeper water where Charles stands there laughing.
The water is still cold, but Charles is warm, glowing like the first breath of summer. Arthur slides a hand over his shoulder, curls his fingers in Charles’ wet hair, and kisses him there beneath the blue sky as the river floods his boots.
He had a vague inkling it might be different, doing this in the sun, in the open. Turns out it ain’t different at all, not with Charles. He kisses Arthur just the same here, slow and deliberate, only rushing a bit when Arthur groans and leans into him. He touches Arthur the same, too, broad palms sliding down his back, his sides, pushing at Arthur’s soaked jeans until they peel down his hips inch by inch.
“Arthur,” Charles murmurs, rolling his name over his tongue like some golden curiosity. Charles presses in behind him, warm and steady in the rippling water. He wraps an arm around Arthur’s waist, his hand flattening over Arthur’s belly, and Arthur looks down at it, suddenly struck dumb.
“You know, someone could catch us like this,” Charles says, almost conversationally. His fingertips slip under the gap between the buttons on Arthur’s shirt, tickling at the skin beneath.
“Don’t really care.”
Charles chuckles, the sound of it rumbling through them both. “I know.”
Arthur turns in the circle of Charles’ arms and lets Charles take them both in his broad, gentle hands, lets Charles run a thumb slowly up the length of his cock until he’s trembling on the balls of his feet, breathless in the water.
He finishes with Charles’ teeth in his shoulder, Charles’ breath hot and unsteady on his skin, and the river washes them both clean.
They lie out in the sun afterwards, and Charles presses slow, lazy kisses along Arthur’s neck and jaw while his clothes dry.
“Pretty day,” Arthur says, looking up at the seashell sky. He’s never seen the ocean, but Trelawny showed him a shell from the coast once. Pearly and curved, like the underside of a petal.
“Pretty day,” Charles agrees. He spreads his hand over Arthur’s heart and keeps it there.
“Shit,” Arthur says, half an hour’s ride away from camp.
“Problem?” Charles asks.
“No, jus’...” Arthur frowns at the road ahead. It’s early enough still that the sun has yet to warm the sky, and the air smells of spring rain, of new growth budding beneath the mud, dampness clinging to his skin and hair. “Remembered something that needs doin’.”
Charles tilts his head. “Another bounty?”
Arthur gives a hollow laugh. “Wish it were.” Dutch had all but chewed him up and spat him out for taking so long running Strauss’ errands. He’s managed avoiding the damn thing so far, run all the way to the mountains and Strawberry and back to keep from doing it, but Dutch ain’t half that forgiving to let him put it off twice.
He can’t see the pleasure in it, hounding folks for money that they ain’t got- though he’s good at it, Dutch tells him. Tells him too much, of late. Arthur wishes he were less good at it. It wakes something terrible in him, something that churns his stomach and claws it up into dark tar.
“You go on ahead,” Arthur says. “I’ll see you back at camp.” The sooner the damn thing’s done, the sooner it’s out of his mind.
“I could come with you.”
“No, you go on.” He says it maybe too forcefully, enough that Charles sends a lingering glance his way. Arthur pretends not to see it, and Charles lets it pass. It’s for the best, Arthur thinks. He thinks of Charles’ mouth soft and warm against his, Charles’ hair sliding smoothly between his fingers, Charles’ careful touches, and yes, it’s for the best.
“I’ll tell Dutch you’ll be along, then.” There’s something of a question in the way Charles phrases it, something searching in the way he watches Arthur’s face. How much of him has Charles always seen, he wonders. Too much or too little. He won’t let Charles see this, at any rate.
“Yeah, I’ll be along.”
For a moment, they regard each other, and Arthur suddenly wishes they’re back in that frozen cabin, warm only where they’re touching and Charles’ hand on his cheek.
“Later, Arthur,” Charles finally says. One flick of his fingers in a small salute, and he’s off, Taima’s speckled haunches ghost-like in the trees. Arthur watches him go, and something loosens slightly in him, seeps out warmly from the very center of him.
“Later, Charles,” he says quietly, just to himself, and he turns Dandelion north. The first fingers of dawn curl over the horizon, scarlet and molten, and Arthur takes a deep breath. The air is cool, fresh, crisp in his lungs. It’s a new day, he thinks. Ought to make the best of it.
Thanks for being on this ride with me pardners