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.