The blood-red light of dawn is just cresting the treetops around Shady Belle when Arthur stumbles back into camp, closely followed by Dutch and the small group that went with them to assault Bronte’s house. Charles isn’t on watch, but he’s sitting by the campfire facing the front entrance, which means he catches the haunted look on all their faces as they approach. All save Dutch, who’s got the self-satisfied smirk of a man who got exactly what he wanted. Charles’ gaze catches on Arthur’s face. Something awful must have happened for Arthur to look like that, face pale and eyes dark under the brim of his hat.
Arthur’s eyes meet his, and Charles’ inquiring look is met with a slight shake of Arthur’s head. We’ll talk later, it means, and Charles watches him follow Dutch into the house, Dutch’s bruised shadow, reluctant but unwavering.
Charles turns back to his cup of coffee and tries to push his curiosity aside. He’ll find out what happened in due time; Arthur has always been good about keeping him informed, and if all else fails, news travels around camp like a brush fire. As the camp slowly wakes around him, Charles feels their black mood settle on his shoulders like a heavy blanket. The deaths of Sean and Kieran have hit them all hard, and unlike after Blackwater, they are having a tough time picking themselves back up. Fate has dealt them too many blows in a row.
When the sun has taken its firm position in the sky and turns the morning warm and sticky, Charles gets up from his spot at the campfire, sets his tin mug aside, and trudges out to where the horses are grazing. Young Kieran had taken a liking to the horses and often took care of their morning needs, but with Kieran gone, someone needs to shoulder the weight. The boy had been nervous and a bit whiny, but Charles had liked him. Charles feels his absence as he gives Arthur’s horse a gentle scratch on her velvety nose. Penny is a good steed, and Charles knows the horse has taken a shine to Arthur just as much as he to her.
It’s nearing midday by the time Arthur makes a reappearance, and Charles can tell by the ruffled quality of his hair and clothing that he took a short nap, or tried to. Charles is sitting on a tree stump a short distance from the outskirts of camp working on carving more arrows when Arthur joins him, firmly shoving his hat back into place on his head as he settles on the trunk of a tree across from Charles.
Charles offers him a simple tilt of his head. “I’m okay. You?”
Arthur sighs heavily and leans his elbows on his knees. “Been better, to be honest.”
“What happened out there?” Charles asks. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Arthur rubs a hand across the short beard on his chin, a nervous gesture he’s been doing more and more recently. “We got into Bronte’s house from the river, and it was the usual shitshow, no big deal. We kidnap the guy and take him back on our boat. I’m thinking, oh we’ll be ransoming this feller off for some big bucks it’ll be real swell and then right in front of all of us, Dutch drowns him and feeds him to a fucking alligator.”
Charles feels something cold settle in his chest and it matches the expression on Arthur’s face.
They’re far enough away from camp that no one will overhear them, but Arthur leans in anyway, his voice going quiet and thin. “It was like I didn’t know that man. Dutch was suddenly a stranger. We were all spooked out of our goddamn minds.”
“I haven’t known Dutch long, but I get the feeling this was something that’s been building for a while.”
Arthur ducks his head and the brim of his hat hides his expression. “I think you’re right. I don’t like it, Charles. I feel like something terrible is going to happen—more terrible than what’s already happened, of course.”
“Listen up, everyone!”
Arthur tenses as Dutch’s booming voice sounds from the front porch of the house.
“Gather ‘round, please.”
Charles pulls himself to his feet and waits for Arthur to do the same before making his way towards the crumbling building. They stand side-by-side near the back of the group as Dutch puffs himself up and begins his speech.
It’s the same old thing; they need one more win and then they’ll head off to the West or Tahiti or wherever it is that Dutch thinks they’ll be safe, as long as they just get one more win.
This time, Dutch wants to rob a bank in the middle of the city.
Charles can feel Arthur’s tension beside him. It’s a terrible idea, one that’s likely to get some of them killed and the rest of them put behind bars. No one in their right mind would try to rob a bank in the stronghold that is Saint Denis, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? Dutch isn’t in his right mind, and no one is willing to step forward and put an end to it before everything comes crumbling down around them, much like this aging homestead that creaks under Dutch’s feet.
Dutch goes on for a while about his great plan and tells everyone to start getting ready. They ride in three days.
Arthur immediately follows Dutch into the house, and Charles can tell by the angle of his shoulders that he’s planning to argue with Dutch. Charles doesn’t imagine it will be successful.
Charles returns to his spot outside of camp and settles back down on the tree stump. His posture is calm and his shoulders are curved over the carving he’s working on, but his mind wanders far from this campsite, from this gang. Charles ran on his own for a long time before he joined the gang, taking jobs where he could and robbing where he couldn’t. A younger Charles would have scoffed at the fact he’s considering a suicidal robbery just because his gang leader wants it, but a younger Charles had constantly watched his back in fear of someone putting a knife in it when it was turned. With freedom came danger. Charles has grown comfortable in this gang, despite his reservations.
Charles thinks about all they could lose in this robbery and feels his hands still on the wood he’s carving. Maybe there’s another option.
Every day, Arthur comes back to camp looking more haggard and worn, and Charles can tell his ghosts are catching up to him, nipping at his heels and gaining more ground each day. Back on their first hunting trip together in the thick mountain snow, Charles had asked Arthur why he hadn’t left yet. It’s a mystery Charles hasn’t figured out, despite Arthur’s response, and sometimes Charles thinks about the man Arthur could have been had this life not found him. Arthur has a good heart beating behind his ribs, one that Charles knows Arthur can’t see and that Dutch is doing all he can to extinguish.
Arthur and Dutch have taken their argument to the porch on the second story of the house, and though Charles can’t quite make out the words, he can hear the frantic tone of Arthur’s voice.
All around them the world sprawls, and though Charles knows they are tethered to this place and these people, bonds can destroy just as much as they protect.
Charles comes to a decision.
Arthur leaves his conversation with Dutch feeling like he's been hit over the head with a broom by a maid who caught him snooping in the pantry: reprimanded, embarrassed, and carrying a wounded pride. He stomps out of the house and is considering riding his horse into the surrounding fields to sulk when a motion to his left catches his eye. Charles steps into view.
“Arthur, do you have a moment?”
Charles’ voice, always so even and warm, eases something that had tightened in Arthur’s chest. “Sure, Charles.”
“Will you ride with me?” Charles asks, and there is something about the look in his eyes that compels Arthur to say yes.
Not that he would ever say no to riding with Charles.
They mount up, and Shady Belle disappears into the trees behind the beat of their horses’ hooves. As the trees break into the open fields of West Lemoyne, the sun beats a relentless pattern on their backs. Arthur can feel heat where the edge of his hairline and the collar of his jacket gap just enough for the sun to press in, harsh on his skin.
Arthur clears his throat. “Did you have something you wanted to talk about?’
Charles’ gaze is focused on the flow of Taima’s mane, and he takes a moment to respond. “That bank job.”
“-is going to be a goddamn disaster,” Arthur finishes for him. “Anyone in their right mind can tell.”
“And Dutch?” Charles asks, and he finally looks over at Arthur, his expression carefully quiet.
Arthur thinks about the look on Dutch’s face when Arthur had expressed his concern about the robbery, the sneering disdain for Arthur’s opinion, hidden beneath the bluster and a speech about Arthur not having enough faith. “Dutch is in a bad way. And he certainly don’t want my opinion on the matter.” Voicing the thought aloud feels like a betrayal, but Charles is calm and attentive, and that eases the painful sting of admitting what Arthur’s been thinking for months now. He heaves a weary sigh. “Getting Dutch to change his mind has never been easy, but now…”
“Will you follow him?” Charles’ question is direct, and Arthur feels his pulse quicken.
“What choice do I have?”
“There’s always a choice.”
Arthur tugs Penny to a stop in the dusty field, and Charles does the same with Taima. They watch each other across the short distance between their horses. “I’ve been following Dutch for twenty years. I can’t betray him.”
“You’d follow him to your death? When he wouldn’t do the same for you?” Charles moves Taima closer. “Arthur, he had no plans to rescue you when you were captured by the O’Driscolls. If you hadn’t shown up when you did, I would have gone looking for you myself.”
Arthur’s mouth is dry, and he looks away from Charles’ intense gaze to watch a hawk wheel in the distant sky. He can still feel the ache in his shoulder where he was shot, and he’s reminded of the horror of those few days. It’s not a surprise that Dutch wasn’t coming for him, not really, but the confirmation still stings. The thought that Charles would have gone looking for him, despite Dutch’s inaction, is a balm, one that he can’t spend too much time thinking about right now despite the way it warms his chest.
“What do you propose, then?” Arthur eventually asks, when he’s sure his voice will come out even.
“Get out of there. There’s no reasoning with Dutch and no staying behind without a fight. Leaving is the only way to save yourself.”
He’s already shaking his head. “Shit, Charles. Listen to yourself,” Arthur says, voice rough with the defensiveness he can feel building up behind his teeth. “You’re suggesting I ditch everyone and run away because I don’t like what Dutch is doing.”
“He’s leading everyone to their deaths,” Charles hisses, and this is the first time since they’ve left Shady Belle that his careful, calm façade cracks. “Arthur, they all look up to you. If you decide you’ve had enough, others might finally open their eyes.” Charles is silent for a long moment, brow furrowed. “Leave with me, Arthur. Let’s escape this sinking ship before we both drown.”
Charles is a loyal man. He’s smart and honest and Arthur trusts him with his life. Here he sits, compelling Arthur to give up everything he’s ever known, to ditch their found family and save themselves from the destruction barreling towards them like a steam engine. And the worst part is that Arthur wants to. There’s a clawing, desperate fear growing in him that surges whenever he sees the manic look in Dutch’s eyes, and he thinks that the more ground he puts between him and the gang, the less power this fear will have. Arthur aches for peace. Aches for an end to the pain and suffering, the fear he sees in people’s eyes when he approaches them.
“You don’t have to decide right now,” Charles says, and he speaks with the voice of someone soothing a spooked horse. “Make a decision before the bank robbery.”
Arthur toys with the leather of the reins in his hands. “And if I decide to stay? What will you do?”
Charles sighs. “If you stay, I’ll stay. I won’t go it alone, not again. And I won’t abandon you.”
Arthur looks at Charles, really looks at him. There’s a tension in his shoulders, and desperation in the way he looks at Arthur, as if Arthur holds the thread of both their lives in his hands. And Arthur supposes he does. Charles has handed the reins to Arthur and is trusting him to make the right decision.
“I’ll think on it,” Arthur replies, and it doesn’t feel like enough.
Arthur spends the afternoon restless and the night sleepless. He doesn’t wander far from Shady Belle, but after a few hours staring at the ceiling, he leaves the homestead and sits on the small dock that hangs over the swamp. The daytime mugginess has eased just enough for it to be comfortable, and so Arthur sits in the moonlight and thinks. It’s not his strongest suit, anyone would agree, but he knows that if he doesn’t he’ll regret it for a long, long time. He pulls his journal from his pocket and thumbs through the pages. It’s too dark out to do any drawing, but he knows the words that rest inside, knows the doubt and the fear intimately. These words would tell him to leave, to pack up his things and ride with Charles into the west, never looking back.
Arthur’s fingers linger over a drawing of Hosea. Hosea, with a wisdom and poise that Arthur could never hope to learn. He wishes Hosea would make Dutch see sense, but Dutch has always been Hosea’s weak spot and with Dutch going more and more off the rails, Arthur can see Hosea’s tenuous grasp of some semblance of control growing shakier. If he told Hosea he was planning on running, somehow, he doesn’t think Hosea would blame him.
Arthur tips his head back and stares at the sprawling dusting of stars above him. Arthur has never been particularly spiritual, but there’s something settling about the reminder of how small he is. Does he really have the power to sway others’ opinions of Dutch just by leaving? Arthur knows what he thought when John skipped on them. Would Arthur’s exit be any different?
Arthur is so tied to these people that sometimes he thinks that there’s nothing of him left, no authentic Arthur that’s for him and him alone. Untangling those strands seems to Arthur like a fool’s game.
Remembering Charles’ intense gaze in the afternoon sun, Arthur wonders if Charles sees more of him than Arthur has ever been able to.
Arthur closes his journal and swipes his thumb over the worn leather binding. Arthur has given so much of himself over the years. What does he have left? Evidently, Charles thinks there’s something in Arthur worth saving, as difficult as that is to believe.
Arthur thinks about John and Abigail, about little Jack, all caught up in this mess. He thinks about Mary-Beth and Tilly, smart and capable, of Karen, fallen so far. Of Lenny, intelligent and full of life. These are people worth saving. Can Arthur save them if he’s not around?
But Charles’ words have gotten to him. Is he leading them to their doom just as much as Dutch is?
Heart beating in his throat, Arthur stands from the dock and moves back into the homestead. The stairs creak under his weight in the echoing silence of the small hours of the morning, and he feels like a ghost moving through a household long dead. In his room, he digs through his belongings until he finds a few sheets of paper and a pen, and he sits down at the little desk in the room, pushing aside boxes of ammunition to make space.
Dawn is creeping its weak fingers through the dirty window by the time Arthur is finished, and his eyes are gritty with exhaustion as he folds the pages and tucks them into his bag. As he lets his gaze wander the dirty, peeling room he realizes that he made up his mind at some point in the night. Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose and breathes for a long moment, trying to clear some of the panic rising in his chest, but there’s a new sort of clarity filling him as well, a new purpose.
He will try to reason with Dutch one more time.
Arthur finds Dutch in the gazebo by the water, smoking a cigar with his boots kicked up on the table. He looks like a king surveying his kingdom, and the thought sits wrong with Arthur. When did Dutch stop being a mentor and a father?
“Arthur. You look terrible, son,” Dutch greets him, and Arthur shakes his head.
“Dutch, I need to talk to you.”
Dutch’s mustache twitches, oily in the early morning light. “Is it about the bank job? Because if it is, I don’t want to hear it. I’ve heard enough of your doubting.”
Arthur huffs out a frustrated breath. “Everyone but you seems to recognize that it’s a bad idea!” he snaps. He moves forward into the shade of the gazebo and wishes he could grab Dutch by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. Maybe if he shakes hard enough, whatever madness holding onto Dutch’s brain will relent, and this nightmare will end.
Dutch pulls his feet off the table and sits forward, expression going dark. “You are wearing my patience thin, son.”
Arthur feels his own patience fraying. “How many people have to die, Dutch?”
“No one is going to die! Where has your faith gone, Arthur? All this doubting and doubting. I’m beginning to think I’ve lost your loyalty.”
Arthur looks away from Dutch’s piercing gaze and out across the swamp, to the small bugs dancing over the surface of the water in buzzing clouds. “I ain’t disloyal, Dutch. I’m just thinking about people’s safety, is all, and I suppose I’m not convinced that’s your priority.”
Dutch scoffs. “When has it not been my priority?”
Arthur turns back to Dutch. “This bank job is a suicide mission.”
Dutch’s expression doesn’t shift. “That’s enough, son. Don’t you have work you should be doing?”
As Arthur turns and leaves the gazebo, the world becomes over-sharp, its edges heavy and hard against his eyes. The sun is harsh and unrelenting, and its brightness muffles the sounds around him. Arthur stands in the middle of camp, a fool among sudden strangers, and tries to breathe in the air that’s growing thicker around him. The bright sun threatens to swallow him.
Arthur closes his eyes against the violent stillness and waits two seconds, three, and when he opens his eyes again, his breathing has evened and his vision is normal. He picks out Sadie where she is polishing a pistol by the storage shed, leaning against the dull wood and working the weapon to a shine. He makes his way to her.
“Sadie,” he greets, and she tosses him a friendly smile.
“Hey, Arthur. You alright?” She holds the gun up to the light, and satisfied with its gleam, tucks it back into her hip holster.
“Sure,” Arthur replies. He feels his words threatening to stick in his throat, and he pushes through. This is important. “Um. I actually have something for you.”
She looks up at him then and seems to actually see him. She frowns.
Arthur retrieves the folded paper from his pocket. It’s thick and dry under his fingers, unassuming. Arthur knows Sadie is the right person for this task, and so he gives her the letter and tells her to read it when he’s gone. He can see in her eyes that she understands, and she doesn’t ask questions. He’s grateful for her strength, and in another life, he thinks they would have been old friends. As it is, he hopes she finds what she’s looking for. He hopes she finds peace.
Arthur spends the day quietly packing, which he spaces between doing camp chores and acting like he’s interested in helping plan the robbery with Dutch and Hosea. His nerves jitter in his chest like he’s got his hand around a live wire, a buzz he can’t shake no matter how hard he tries. He worries that someone will question him, that Dutch will see through his act and keep him from leaving. Arthur has made up his mind, but he doesn’t know how he’d fare if Dutch questioned him outright.
Arthur has saved up a small bit of cash, and in the past few weeks, he’s been donating less to the camp fund, suspicious that Dutch is squirreling it away, and as he tucks it into his bag, he hopes it will be enough.
Arthur wonders if this will be the last time he sees some of these people. The thought tugs at him as he finishes packing and the sun finally dips below the horizon.
The night is still around him as Arthur hauls his bag over his shoulder and moves through the darkness towards where he knows Charles is keeping watch. Arthur doesn’t think he’s ever seen the man sleeping, and the thought catches in his mind, something to focus on when his fears threaten to spill over into the moonlight like black blood from a wound.
Charles has his back to the stone half-wall that sections the homestead from the rest of the forest, and there is smoke gently flowing upwards from the cigarette he holds between two fingers. He lowers his hand to rest on his folded knee as he looks up at Arthur, the moonlight painting the side of his face in an otherworldly glow. His eyes land on the bag Arthur has tucked over his shoulder.
“I’m ready,” Arthur says.