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A Hollow Ground

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Arthur Morgan catches sight of it out of the corner of his eye. Soft golden light, a brown silky pelt and twelve points dancing atop its head. The stag is gorgeous. Can’t help feeling haunted everytime it comes around. He’d considered, once. Grabbing his Rolling Block and just...ending it all. Perhaps he’d go with, a life for a life type of thing. Couldn’t help but hope it would be that way.

Arthur shifted against the tree stump, soft groan escaping his raw throat. Each movement was getting more painful, the pull in his lungs a constant, screaming reminder his time was short. Couldn’t help but wish he had done more, when capable. His chest rattled with a heavy cough and Arthur bent double, head between his knees.

“Hey, hey. Easy now. Water?” The words are soft spoken, barely caressing his ears as the wind whistled by. Charles. Arthur’s saving grace, lately. He’d been dragged back to camp, over and over the last few times. Barely making it out of their heists with his lungs intact. Hated the way every time his vision began to gray, he was visited by his lovely friend. Started calling the stag Bastard in his head.

“Fine.” Arthur’s voice was gruff, a rasp where he’d normally be a rumble. “...Thanks.”

Charles made an accenting sound low in his throat, settling back against his own tree trunk. Arthur gave a quick glance over, admiring the way the setting sun washed along the bridge of Charles’ nose, highlighting his skin tone and turning his eyes into pools of gold. Dying made Arthur painfully aware of the beauty in the world, the inherent goodness in those who knew better and yet continued to open their heart and try.

He shifted forward, nodding his thanks as he grabbed the canteen from Charles. Popped the top and tipped it back, letting the cool water sooth the ache in his throat. Settled the canteen between his thighs and slowly capped it again, taking his time. Took a long, deep breath and looked up. Seeing the stag always stole Arthur’s breath from him, and it hadn’t taken him long to learn to prepare for it. The damn thing wouldn’t leave him alone unless he acknowledged it, though. Persistent. Stubborn, perhaps.

The great beast was as stunning as ever, slowly lifting its head and letting its gaze catch Arthur’s own. It was serene, standing there silently and just calmly licking at its lips, tail twitching every now and then. Arthur was both taken by its beauty and absolutely sick of it. It was a taunt, now. A sign of his sickness. Perhaps an ever increasing omen of when his time would come. A scoff escaped his lips and he let his skull thunk back against the tree stump. An exasperated huff slipped out and the stag rose to full height. As if a distant noise caught the beasts’ attention, the heavily adorned head swung around and it took off, a golden streak in the middle of the night.

Sudden movement to his left startled him out of his reverie, body following instinct and jerking silently to his feet. His gaze caught Charles’, who had his hand up and finger pressed against his lips. Arthur could hear the soft crackle of dry leaves crunching beneath too heavy boots slowly approaching. He knew the damn stagecoach job had gone too south to be salvageable. They’d gotten the gold from the purse, but none of the goods. A true fucking shame when good horses met their end for no reason.

Arthur shifted his hips just slightly, hands clasping around his revolvers and gently tugging them free of his belt. He presses his back tightly against the tree stump, the soft footfalls coming from the south of their position. Signaling to Charles with his hand, Arthur curved to the right of his hiding spot, attempting to catch sight of exactly who managed to trace their trail. A pair of law were stalking towards them, slow as could be.

Had to be new deputies, Arthur thought, to be this inconspicuous. They weren’t even ducking to blend in with the bushes. Amatuers. Easy enough. Glancing back at Charles, Arthur shifted his weight away from the tree and kept low, replacing his revolvers and slowly pulling the throwing knife from his belt. Best to deal with them silently and avoid attracting more attention.

Charles gave a small nod, tugging his bow from around his shoulder and notching an arrow silently. Arthur lost sight of him then, both of them shifting from their original spot and moving to flank the law. He moved slowly, keeping an eye on exactly where he was putting his feet down. His shifting was as silent as he could make it, blending in with the movements of the law less than two feet from them. As he finally circled around a big oak tree, Arthur glanced over and caught sight of Charles, situated in the trees directly across from him.

With a soft nod, they both set to work. Within seconds of Arthur’s throwing knife meeting its target in the right ones skull, Charles’ arrow thunked home. Rising from his crouch, Arthur placed his finger against his lips and made his way towards the two, Charles following silently behind. He leaned down, pressing his palms along the cops’ body, looting as ingrained as eating.

Found a nice shiny pocket watch and a gold ring around his finger. Couldn’t help but feel the littlest bit of shame burn in the pit of his belly. Knew it was why the stag followed him, a constant reminder of exactly why he’d gotten sick. Arthur shook his head and stood up swiftly, the bout of dizziness almost knocking him off his feet. Took him a moment to settle his head, before he spoke.

“Seems like we didn’t make it out as clean as we’d thought. Should move, tonight.” Arthur’s voice broke the stillness of the night, sending a few birds soaring. Charles nodded, a thoughtful look upon his face. It prodded Arthur to ask, but he kept quiet. Figured it wasn’t his place to pry, quite yet.

Charles whistled softly, barely a sound and yet Taima gave a whicker of acknowledgement and began to trot towards them, shortly followed by Arthur’s white Arabian. Maze was a sight to behold, and stole Arthur’s breath every chance she got. He shifted his weight forward to meet her, cooing a soft nothing in her ear as he stroked along her slender, arched neck.

She rode through thick and thin with him, for him. He couldn’t count the many times he’d expected her to buck or rear, unseat him and leave his dumbass to his fate. She’d whinny and neigh and prance back and forth, but she’d never left him. Hadn’t made him eat dirt since the very first time he’d found her.

Arthur could still remember the day he’d come across her, completely and utterly unaware something so precious existed in that cold, drafty, shitty place. He’d fucked up, robbed what he thought was a lone rider and gotten two extra tails with shotguns behind himself. His Admiral, a trusty Tennessee Walker had ridden hard and long, spooked by all the noise and not quite as sturdy as Arthur needed his horses.

They’d slowed, eventually, near Lake Isabella. Admiral had worked a lather up, foam dripping from his mouth and saddle slick with sweat. But Arthur hadn’t been able to hear their tail, and as the minutes ticked by with only the natural sounds of wildlife around them, had finally relaxed. Slid down from his saddle and began to calm the red roan Walker, stroking his neck and speaking softly to him.

Made a camp and had laid some hay down for Admiral, only to wake early morning to the soft whicker of more than one horse. Arthur’d been ready in a split second, revovler in hand and already creeping out of the tent, ready to defend his horse, and himself. It’d ended up only being Maze, damn beauty that she was. And a piggy to boot.

Admiral had been nipped away from his own food, ears pinned back and tail flicking. But the stallion had let it be, that pretty, pretty Arabian stealing all his food. Clad in his pants and undershirt, Arthur had approached slowly, aware of the pinned back ears and dancing hooves that could...damage, some very sensitive parts of his anatomy.

Been lulled into thinking she was docile already, pretty and broke. No spook, no outwards signs of distrust or wildness as he’d calmly stroked her neck, humming and cooing soft words to the mare. Shit changed quick when he’d mounted, having barely gotten his left leg over her withers when she took off.

Couldn’t get a grip of her mane damn quick enough, thighs pressed tight to her sides and all his horse wrangling skills weren’t enough to keep him on that damn mare. She’d bucked his ass right off and he’d eaten dirt for the first time since he was a scrawny 22 year old. It’d been a chasing game after that, a catch me if you can.

Damn it all, it had taken Arthur forever, but he’d finally lassoed her and tamed the wild beast. If that’s what you could call it, honestly.

A sharp noise to his left drew him out of reminiscing, Charles looking at him impatiently from atop Taima’s back. Shaking his head quickly, Arthur found his stirrup and mounted, slotting into place perfectly. Couldn’t help but feel like this was the only place he belonged, anymore. Riding a horse was the only thing he’d been good at as a child, and the only thing he was good at as an adult, now, too. Tapping his heels against Maze’s belly, they took off, Arthur in the lead.

“Reckon they caught sight of our faces?” Charles asked, just loud enough to be heard over the clatter of their horses’ hooves against the frozen ground. Arthur glanced to the side, watching Charles for just a moment too long, tearing his gaze away a second later.

“Think we’ll be good when we put distance between us and those bodies. They was too new to this type of thing. Green, just walking up on our camp like that.” Arthur’s voice was still hoarse, as was the usual these days. Couldn’t get his throat to smooth out from all the coughing, leaving his usual rumble scratchy and harsh.

Caught Charles nodding out the corner of his eye, usually reserved for the stag anymore. Blew out a breath and kicked Maze into a faster canter, wanting to be done with Roanoke Valley. As if Beaver Hollow was any better.