The last thing that Arthur thought he would ever see was the full moon bright above his head, through a hole in the canopy of trees. The last thing he would smell was mud and swamp and his own blood, as he laid out on the mossy ground. And the last thing he would think about was how much of an idiot he’d been.
The gators and the coyotes would make a meal out of him, well before anyone from camp would come sniffing around, because Arthur was an idiot, and got in an argument with Dutch and Hosea before he left. Unless someone developed a sixth sense to tell when Arthur was in imminent danger, there was no hope for him.
He had gotten jumped by a small pack of O’Driscolls while trying to track down supper.
Usually when O’Driscolls attacked him, they came in whooping, hollering, and tripping over each other for the honour of killing “Ar’tur fuckin’ Morgan”. These ones, however, were quick and quiet, beat the fight out of Arthur hard and fast, and gave him a few bullet wounds to boot. It was like nothing Arthur had ever experienced from some wayward O’Driscolls. Maybe because Arthur had finally killed off all the stupid ones, so now what was left were the ones with more than half a brain to share between them.
The most decent thing the O’Driscolls could have done was shoot him in the head, at least, to save everyone the time. But instead they hit him in every non-vital part that they could find, and then slashed his leg before they left.
Let the bastard bleed out. He ain’t walkin’ nowhere.
A true feeling of hopelessness filled up Arthur’s heart, made it hard to breathe. The edges of his vision blurred, and he couldn’t find the strength to stop himself, much less move and try to dress his wounds.
There were a thousand thoughts on his mind, but all he could focus on was the moon high above him. A beautiful sight, and the last thing he’d ever see.
Arthur focused on steadying his breath. This wasn’t how he thought he’d go, but he should have expected it.
Just as he closed his eyes, Arthur heard footsteps nearby.
The most surprising thing to Arthur was that he eventually opened his eyes again.
Except he wasn’t laying on the mossy floor of a Lemoyne swamp; he was in a bed, presumably, under the gentle glow of a candle. He was wrapped up in a blanket, tucked in warm and cozy.
It took Arthur a moment to ponder where he was; no where he recognized, that much he knew. His space at camp had canvas walls and an oil lamp on the side table that was too bright. Any hotel he’d stayed at in the past had fancy decorations and upholstery to make the place look more sophisticated. Even Mary’s bedroom had been brighter and cleaner than this room.
The room was neat, but dusty. There were cobwebs in the dim corners of the ceiling, and the bedframe was tarnished with age. There was a closed door directly across from the bed where Arthur could see, and from under it came a strip of light. And a voice.
“What the hell,” Arthur mumbled. He pushed his hair out of his face and shifted to move.
Pain immediately ebbed through his body and kept him anchored to his spot. He clutched his ribs and hissed through his teeth. After collecting himself, Arthur tried to prop himself up a little.
He was stripped down to his union suit, no gun or pants in sight, which never fared well. Arthur could handle a scenario without his gun, and had done so many times, but not having pants was a whole other circus. Something about it made a man feel incomplete, made him feel even more naked than if he were actually naked.
Getting out of bed hadn’t worked, so Arthur reached out with one hand, turned his head, and fumbled around the side table.
His fingers groped against a tin holding a lit candle, and then the hard bristles of a hairbrush. Arthur craned his neck to see better, then he wrapped his fingers around the handle of a matching hand-mirror. Arthur picked it up and examined it; the mirror was beautifully crafted and intricate, like that you’d see on the dresser of an upper-class woman. Molly, at camp, had a similar one.
The face that stared back at Arthur wasn’t especially appealing, sunken and tired, but clean and shaven. Arthur couldn’t remember the last time he bathed, much less shaved, so that lead to a plethora of questions in his mind. He had a fading black eye and a healing split lip, and a nasty, fading bruise in the crook of his neck, half-hidden behind the collar of his union suit.
Footsteps approached outside the door. Heavy weight shifting across ancient floorboards.
Having nothing else to defend himself with, Arthur drew the mirror in and tucked it under the blanket alongside his thigh. Quietly, he prayed it wouldn’t be noticed missing.
Whoever was coming hummed to themself. Arthur held his breath and squeezed his fingers around the metal handle of the mirror.
A tall man shouldered the door open. His voice was a deep lull as he hummed, moving almost as if dancing with himself. He held a shiny brass tray at his chest.
Arthur’s expression paused in wonder, his eyebrows pinched, and mouth pursed. The man remained oblivious until he had closed the door behind him and turned around to face Arthur.
“Oh good,” said the man. “You’re awake.”
“Yeah. Somehow.” Arthur replied slowly. He eyed the man over, noting everything from his straight clothes to his well-groomed facial hair. “And, uh. You are?”
The man smiled. His lips were full and soft-looking, and his cheeks high and hollow. His eyes were steely and steady, but somehow managed to hold a hospitable warmth while drilling holes into Arthur’s forehead.
The man laughed, quiet and gentle. He shook his head as he came around the bed.
“Oh, I forgot. We haven’t been introduced. Rick Ballard.”
“Rick.” Arthur repeated. The closer Ballard got, the more Arthur felt a cold strike creep up his spine.
“Mm-hm.” Ballard came to the side of the bed and lowered down the tray. He glanced up and met Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur faltered. A sweat broke out on his hands under the sheets. He loosened his grip on the mirror handle.
“And you?” Ballard prompted.
“Morgan.” Arthur mumbled, voice trailing off. “Arthur.”
“Morgan Arthur? Interesting name.”
“Reverse it. Arthur Morgan.” Then, almost out of habit, Arthur muttered, “Smartass.”
A smile crept up Ballard’s lips. He laid the tray down on Arthur’s lap, scarcely covered by sheets and his underwear. There was an inviting bowl of piping soup on said tray, along with a roll of bandages and other sparse medical supplies. The sight and the smell of the soup made Arthur realize how hungry he was.
“Alright, Mister Morgan Arthur,” Ballard said. “You’ve lost a lot of blood, and as such you’re extremely weak. You must eat, get back your strength. I was so hoping you’d be awake by now, actually… Hence why I brought you dinner, in wistful thinking.”
Arthur looked skeptically between Ballard and the meal as the man spoke. When Arthur made no immediate move either way, Ballard flicked his eyes between Arthur and the bowl, nodding.
“Well, go on.” Ballard encouraged.
Despite himself, Arthur wearily picked up the spoon. For all he knew, the soup could be poisoned or made out of the last poor soul Ballard picked up, and now Arthur was next. But the hunger and the pain and the light-headedness were all wearing on Arthur, and if this was going to be his last meal, he may as well enjoy it.
After a few spoonsful of soup, which was surprisingly good, Arthur glanced up at Ballard lingering by his side and asked, “How’d you… Find me?”
Smiling absently and softly, Ballard sat down on the edge of the bed. He crossed his legs and watched almost intently as Arthur ate. It made him feel uncomfortable, being watched this closely, but Arthur was in no position to say anything yet.
“Oh, it was easy,” Ballard said. “I smelled you out there.”
Arthur cocked his brow. Despite the leaden feeling in his gut and the creeping cold in his spine, Arthur couldn’t find anything immediately dangerous about Ballard. He didn’t look like he had a weapon on him, and if he were going to kill or rob Arthur, he would have already. Better yet, he wouldn’t have saved him at all.
Arthur snorted. “It’s that bad?”
“No, not at all.” Ballard assured him.
With that same smile, Ballard reached out and brushed a strand of Arthur’s shaggy hair out of his face. This made Arthur pause, his whole body tensing up unsurely. Arthur watched the hand, followed it up to Ballard’s face.
His eyes were tantalizing. The kind you could fall into it.
“You smell quite good, actually.” Ballard whispered. “Like a hard-working man.”
Ballard’s hand stroked Arthur’s cheek. His fingers were ice-cold.
Arthur didn’t notice. Instead, he found himself pulled into Ballard’s steady, firm eyes.
“What I smelled, though, was your blood out there. Thought that someone was poaching gators again.” Ballard slid his palm down to Arthur’s clean-shaven jaw and then landed his hand on Arthur’s chest. Arthur struggled to breathe a moment. “But I went out... And I found you, barely alive. You healed up nicely, though... Took a couple days, but you’re much better now.”
“A couple days?” Arthur croaked. His voice hitched as Ballard’s hand gently flattened over his chest.
“Well... Yes. You lost so much blood, so you were unconscious. I’m surprised you came back from it all, honestly...”
Arthur wriggled to sit himself up more. As he did, Ballard politely moved the tray from his lap, which had gone mostly forgotten now, to the side table.
“Look, I ‘ppreciate this all, but I gotta leave,” Arthur said, quickly.
He dropped his eyes to avoid Ballard’s, in a crude attempt to keep them from picking apart his psyche. Arthur shifted to leave the bed, only to be stopped when Ballard pressed his hand harder down against his chest.
“It’s the middle of the night,” Ballard said. There was a mite of worry in his voice, but his words were still steady and practiced. “You ought to stay at least until morning... You need the extra rest, and it’s so dangerous out this time of night.”
“M’fine, jus’ let me go—”
“Mister Morgan Arthur.”
Arthur tensed all over. Ballard’s voice slid around him like a snake and penetrated his mind. Fight or flight instincts filled Arthur’s chest and made his heart swell, though he’d never admit to being afraid. There was something just off about Ballard, and his strange acts of kindness, that didn’t settle well with Arthur. People were never just nice to him for no reason. Especially not strange men he met in the swamp.
But a quick escape wasn’t an option right now, not with his leg in the shape it was. And the only weapon Arthur had was the mirror.
Ballard dipped his head down a bit and tilted it to one side. His eyes met Arthur’s once more.
“I implore you,” Ballard whispered. “To stay for the evening. It is so late, and frankly too dangerous for you to leave right now. You can go in the morning. Does that sound fair to you?”
Arthur’s mouth suddenly felt dry. Carefully, he shifted his hands to the blanket under the impression he was pulling it up, then let his right hand come to rest on the mirror handle.
Arthur nodded his head. “I... I s’ppose so.”
Ballard smiled softly. His hand slid across Arthur’s chest and rested on his shoulder, where he squeezed.
“That’s a good man. A little rest is all you need.” Ballard smiled, kindly. “Here— let me adjust your pillow, and then I will leave you be.”
Ballard leaned more over Arthur, and brought with him a potent, flowery kind of smell, as if he’d put on too much perfume. There was an undertone to the smell, one that resided on the tip of Arthur’s tongue.
Arthur held his breath as Ballard leaned over his chest and got fully into his space, because deep down he was afraid. Something about Ballard wasn’t right, and though Arthur had woken up in his share of strange places, this felt especially wrong. Carefully, Arthur clutched the mirror and drew it out from under the blankets.
While Ballard fluffed the pillow on either side of Arthur’s head, humming softly to himself, Arthur lifted the mirror, slow and subtle, behind Ballard. From here, Arthur just needed to hope he could overtake the man with brute strength alone. Ballard was tall, but thin; Arthur had an easy fifty pounds on the man.
Arthur held the mirror adjacent to Ballard’s head and readied his strike.
His breath hitched instead with confusion.
Arthur only saw himself in the mirror, with the pillow rippling behind his head, as if Ballard were invisible.
“What the hell,” Arthur rasped, without thinking. His hand trembled.
Ballard smiled. “You really do smell quite good, Mister Morgan Arthur,” he said.
Then with a flash of a sharp, grinning smile, Arthur felt Ballard bite his neck.
For the second time, Arthur woke up sweaty and disoriented.
Light filtered into the room through a dusty window next to the bed, which Arthur hadn’t realized was even there to begin with. There were bird songs outside, along with various ambient noises, but nothing else from inside the room itself. The room was the same one that Arthur had woken up in before, though notably more well-lit.
Breathing heavy, Arthur pushed himself upright.
His body ached, but more in the way you got after a fitful sleep, rather than a brawl. The wound on his leg throbbed, though after pulling back the sheets and examining it, Arthur saw that it was neatly packed with clean bandages, hardly bled through. There were bruises and other small cuts across Arthur’s arms and legs, however they were faded smudges which told him that it had easily been days since he was jumped.
Ballard told him the truth. Arthur had been unconscious for that long.
Arthur felt a twist in his stomach and a weariness haze over his mind.
On uneasy feet, Arthur managed to draw himself out of bed. In a chair across the room, he found his clothes neatly folded with his gun laid on top. Arthur dressed himself quickly as he could, given the wooziness that washed through him. Everything he had after encountering the O’Driscolls was accounted for; his hat, his gun and ammo, even the cross-necklace Hosea had given him, which Arthur always kept tucked in the breast pocket of his shirt. As far as Arthur could tell, nothing had been stolen.
Once he was dressed, Arthur drifted back towards the bed. Quickly and quietly as he could, he pulled open the side dresser’s drawers and looked inside. Nothing of note was to be found, except for the hairbrush and the hand mirror on top.
Curiosity got the better of him, so Arthur picked up the mirror and examined himself one last time.
He knew what he saw last night, but he hoped it was a dream, or a trick of the mind. There was no way it could be true. Men don’t disappear from mirrors, and they certainly don’t bite people’s necks. Well, some do. But that was different. Hopefully.
After scanning his face over, Arthur hesitated. He hooked a finger into his bandana and pulled it down an inch.
The side of his neck was claimed by bruises of varying stages. Low by his shoulder was a pale-yellow smudge, while directly in the center, just below his ear, was an almost purple hickey. There was a small collection of circular scabs climbing his neck like a dotted line, each hole about two inches from each other.
Arthur felt sick and strange, but mostly confused. He set the mirror back down on the dresser top and then pushed his bandana back into place. He drew his gun instead, loaded and locked it, before leaving the room.
Whatever happened these last few nights were best forgotten, and Arthur was just glad he didn’t remember most of it.