Nobody was surprised when Arthur decided to bow out and return to camp. When it became clear that the evening was turning into a social affair at the saloon— complete with poker tournaments in one corner, loud betting over arm-wrestling in another, and Hosea and Dutch in the center, playing up the crowd with their cons and stories— hardly anyone paid any mind when the big outlaw pushed away from the bar, adjusted the hat on his head, and indicated to his companions that he was leaving for the night.
He wasn’t surprised, really, when nobody followed him. He made even poorer company than usual after Tumbleweed and then Donald. There was a lot to think about, and he was tired of thinking about it. Unfortunately, lucrative jobs were starting to dry up as folks started hunkering down to prepare for winter. Trains and stage schedules grew sparse as the weather worsened up north, and better guarded as reports made it back to the companies about the robberies. That was part of the reason why most of the gang was here in town tonight, fishing up new and better leads for a few last jobs before they too planned to button-up for the winter. Hosea was fishing around, itching ears, for details about some complaints concerning real-estate in the area. Grifters maybe. Hosea always did prefer robbing other crooks, assuming it could be done without violence. He was planning to enlist Arthur’s aide, too, once he had a better idea of which direction to take it. Arthur was fine with the idea. But until then, he had too little to do, and too much he didn’t want to think about.
He was in no mood for a big noisy crowd, especially as he’d have to stay sober so as to avoid a scene, so it was really better he left. Nobody minded.
Nobody was surprised.
What did surprise folk was that Catherine had elected not to accompany Jenny and the other girls into town, and instead stayed behind with Pearson, Strauss, the badly hungover Reverend, Abigail, and Jack. She was helping the boy practice his reading while his mother took some much needed time for herself. Arthur heard them on his way to his tent, searching for something to do to occupy himself. Writing or sketching didn’t suit his current mood. He needed something to focus on… Something besides all the dark corners he didn’t want to inspect in his own head.
Something besides the ever-increasing tangle he’d wound up in concerning Miss Schofield…
“… ‘no… body… else would…v…ven…ven’…?”
“What’s the next letter?”
“… ‘t’?…” The boy answered, confused but not yet frustrated, “and then a… ‘u’… and… a ‘r’… and a ‘e’. ‘Ven…too…ree?’”
“That’s pretty close. You say it ‘venture’. Do you know what it means, Jack?”
“It means ‘to go out and try something risky’. Sometimes it can also mean ‘something risky being tried’.”
“Yes. Here, Gluck is saying ‘nobody else would venture to knock a double-knock at the door’. Meaning nobody would go and try to do it. But if someone did decide to go and try, it would be their venture to do it. But that second meaning isn’t used too often anymore. It’s an old word. Do you know what word is used more often instead?”
“I know that word! I know what that means!”
“Well, do you suppose Gluck is going to have one?”
“No,” Jack told her emphatically, “He’s just sitting in his house. Nobody has an adventure in a house.”
“Are you sure?” Catherine replied, “What if an adventure is coming to find him?”
“Well… I guess we’ll have to read more and find out.”
Catherine had noticed from her peripheral that Arthur had returned early and stalked to his tent. She also noticed when he came back out again and gathered up all the longarms used for camp guard duty. Moments later, she noticed when he looked around, as if torn about where to go next. Daylight was starting to fade and of the two campfires, both were occupied: the main one by Jack and herself, and the other by the Reverend.
Jack noticed him too.
“Uncle Arthur!” He called out, “What are you doing?”
“Don’t mind me, Jack. I’m just gonna clean these.”
“… All of them?” The boy pressed, little face scrunching in a mix of confusion and disgust, “Why?”
“Needs doin’ is all.” The big outlaw answered back, distracted, watching the silhouette of the Reverend like he was willing him to disappear somewhere else.
Jack seemed to think about this a moment, then said, “… I’m reading with Miss Schofield.”
Nodding to himself, Arthur’s response was little more than a mumble, “I heard. Yer doin’ a good job. You shouldn’t let me disturb you…”
“You’re not a disturbance at all, Mister Morgan,” Catherine said quietly, “provided you take a seat so we aren’t left desperately wondering what you’re after.”
He looked at her, expression carefully tucked into something unreadable and guarded, “… I-I don’ want to interrupt.”
Smiling in response, she saw the realization in his eyes that he was already an interruption, and was, in fact, only prolonging his interruption. The outlaw looked away and moved to one side of the campfire to settle and clear a workspace without another word.
“What do you think, Jack?” Catherine prompted, regaining his attention.
He looked up at her and made a face, “… Cleaning guns is boring.”
She was forced to disguise her laugh with a delicate cough, then shook her head, “About Gluck and the knock at the door, I meant.”
“Who is it?”
Their voices, and whatever book the pale-eyed lady was having Jack read, faded from the forefront of Arthur’s attention as he got to work. It was an ideal sort of task— just detailed enough to require his attention, but familiar enough, too, that his mind could settle in an inactive fashion, and not pester him with nagging thoughts. Flushing barrels with kerosene before brushing them out. Scrubbing hammers and chambers. Wiping everything down before applying the gun oil. On the road or in the saddle, a quick dab of oil here, and a quick wipe down there could mean the difference between an accurate shot and a malfunction— and ending up on the wrong end of a bullet— but it was good to take the time now and again to break the guns down and give them a real cleaning.
Jack was right: it was boring work. That’s why nobody had bothered to do it in awhile (if the state of these repeaters was any testament). But it was just the sort Arthur needed now.
Catherine closed the book, smiling indulgently as Jack scampered off— she could only hold his attention for so long before the boy succumbed to the demands of all his youthful energy. Off he went to play, leaving the adults to their boring chores and the mysteries of unfinished books. Uninterested in finishing the fairy-tale on her own, the lady instead turned her pale gaze over to the outlaw, intending to only give a quick glance to verify that his attention was on his task instead of elsewhere, but then found her interest piqued. Arthur’s hands moved with practiced skill, and his attention on his work, eyes hooded, brow creased, nose slightly scrunched. His mouth worked, seemingly thoughtlessly, full lips pressing tightly together before slipping open as he tilted his head to better inspect the carbine in his hands.
She was helplessly transfixed, and something fluttery beneath her breast started to race.
Fighting back the smirk that threatened to curl at her lips, as well as the blush which was wanting to bloom in her cheeks— though unsure how well she succeeded against either— Catherine shifted in her seat to lean a bit nearer him, resting her weight on a hand that dropped near her hip.
The big man must have noticed her movement toward him— as he had not seemed to notice her staring until that moment— and spoke up without shifting his attention from his work, “… Somethin’ you need, miss?”
“I was going to ask if you wanted some help with that.”
“No, thank you.”
Now the smirk was irresistible, “That’s alright, I wasn’t sure I wanted to help anyway. It’d be more difficult to enjoy your face if you gave me something to do…”
“… Enjoy what?” His entire expression scrunched, not sure he’d heard her correctly.
Leaning further still, Catherine answered, “Your face. You make the most delightful facial expressions when you’re concentrating on something.”
Working his jaw, Arthur resolutely did not lift his eyes to look at her, even though his hands paused in their task while he exhaled slowly out his nose, “… I ain’t of a mind to be played with today, miss.” He told her.
“… I’ll forgive you your assertion that I’d do you the disservice of treating you in such a way,” She answered, hiding her smile behind her rounded shoulder, “Surely you are aware I have only the highest respect for your profound stodginess.”
Arthur wasn’t sure he knew what she was talking about, but regardless he determined to put it out of his mind and refocus on his work. He hoped she’d find something else to occupy herself with and leave off of him. He should have known better that he’d be better off setting down over with the Reverend instead…
The pale-eyed lady quieted, but Arthur couldn’t quite ignore her and concentrate fully as he had before, knowing he was in her sights. Was she still looking at him— at his face, she’d said? He noticed immediately when she scoot closer.
“Miss, this is what I was saying,” He grumbled at her, “I know you can find somethin’ better to do than toy with me…”
“Do you want me to leave you alone, Mister Morgan?”
“It’s for the best…”
“I don’t agree, but if it’s what you’d prefer, then I’ll do so if you do something for me.”
Catherine watched him sigh, “What’s that, then?”
“… If we’re to bargain, Mister Morgan, you really ought to look at me like a man, don’t you think?” She frowned.
Cautiously, and a little begrudgingly, the big outlaw stilled his hands and turned his head to look at her, “… Well? What you want to get you to let me work in peace, woman?”
“… I want you to give up your share of the blame for Tumbleweed,” She told him quietly, meeting his impatient gaze, “I want you to lay it at my feet.”
He held her look, searching her eyes, her expression, then shook his head and looked back at his hands, “It don’t work like that…”
“It absolutely does if you permit it to, sir.” He heard her contradict, “Simply accept that I took advantage of your… disorientation.”
“… That ain’t what happened.”
“Isn’t it?” Catherine allowed the sly smile.
She sighed, “You seem awfully sure…”
“… You said you wouldn’t use me…”
It caught her off guard, admittedly. She remembered that night, though apparently their conversation had lingered longer in his thoughts than hers. She’d meant it then, in a way, and hadn’t meant it in others.
That was the usefulness of words— they could be twisted and shaped so easily by one who knew how… and she certainly did know.
“… I did say that.”
He nodded and started working again, “… You must be gettin’ desperate. Even I can see what yer doin’…”
“What is it that I'm doing?”
Instead of answering, he only shook his head again, “It won’t work…”
“Won’t it?” Catherine mused, then adjusted her skirts to scoot all the way over to him, until they were shoulder to shoulder. She was pressing close, so that the tip of her nose almost touched his when he turned to look at her— even though he’d tried to flinch away.
She watched the recognition and acceptance of her challenge scramble across his expression, and so she was not surprised when he finally elected not to retreat from her.
“… What really happened in Tumbleweed?” He asked instead, voice little more than a whisper.
He’d been trying to figure it out all this time on his own. He didn’t have the answers. Not by himself, anyway.
The vulnerable sincerity in his question sent that fluttering thing into a dizzying panic, bashing itself recklessly against all her ribs and sending her guts into knots. Her first instinct was to reject it— to laugh and answer in a light tone that all that had really happened in Tumbleweed was that he’d lost his temper after a very short, likely fairly poor bit of handiwork.
It was all but on her lips— the laugh and smile. The easy, playful tone, and matter-of-fact words.
But his eyes were on hers, and she could not watch him close himself off again after opening himself this way to her. She could not betray his trust and see what it looked like in the aftermath…
When had she become so sensitive to him? When had his feelings begun to mean anything to her?
And they did; why else was she willing to play the villainess to expunge his guilt?
Was his avoidance of her so galling that she’d rather he hate her instead? Or was she simply trying to make him commit to one or the other— either fully avoid her and leave off arranging nice things for her, or give up his avoidance and let her return to his good graces?
… Since when had she invested so much of her energy into what Arthur Morgan thought and felt for her?
Run. He’ll chain you if you don’t. Run. Run!
That soothsayer had said she would be betrayed and lose everything she’d hoped to gain. From the very beginning, the purpose of this entire enterprise was to secure her own freedom. So she’d laughed at the portents, because Catherine wasn’t foolish enough to gamble her freedom by entrusting it to another now that she’d slipped Dutch van der Linde’s leash. She couldn’t— didn’t— trust anybody that much.
… But then that meant the only one to betray her would be herself…
With a gasp, the lady suddenly drew back. Arthur bit his tongue to keep from the reflex of asking after her— it was written all over her face for just a few spare moments. Abrupt, naked emotion in her gently parted lips and the blood in her cheeks, pale eyes wide.
“… I-I’m not… sure.” She said quickly, “… Excuse me.”
The outlaw was not surprised to see her go, but it still took a little while to regather himself and resume his work on the guns.