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down in the red dust

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Charles kept eye on Arthur after the cornfields. The man always had a distant way about him, but it always seemed to melt away when he got back to camp after his trips away. Doing all sorts of odd jobs and tasks given to him by Dutch. He always treated the girls politely, teasing Karen, or asking Mary Beth about the book she currently had her nose in. He took Jack fishing, played dominoes with Tilly, and even spared an ear to Uncle every once in a while, when the older man was feeling particularly chatty. Arthur always seemed relieved to get back to camp, like a weight had been lifted off those broad shoulders of his. Charles always felt himself smile a little easier when he saw that Arthur was back, often sat down by the fire, listening to Javier play his guitar, and humming along to whatever bawdy song Sean was slurring.

But after the Trelawny chase a few days ago, followed so closely by that debacle with the Braithwaite horses, the mood had changed around camp. Dutch wanted everyone to stay put while things settled down in Rhodes, in case any action needed to be taken. So they all waited in camp, no one even leaving the outskirts of the forest. The swampy air near the river seemed stiller than usual - like the riverbank was holding its breath.

The tension never broke. No rioting mob from the families of Rhodes, or Lemoyne raiders in their Confederate Sunday best. No Pinkertons swarming the camp in pressed suits and prison wagons from the wings. There was nothing for the Van Der Linde gang to do but sit and stew. It didn’t both Charles much, but he didn’t leave camp often anyways. He found his own moments of peace and solace during his guard duty and hunting trips. He noticed that the others were a little nervous, but by this point they had settled back in the normal flow of camp.

Things had mainly calmed, save Arthur.

The man was a powder keg of nervous energy. Arthur took up guard shifts, but was too fidgety to hold a single post. He paced the borders of the woods like a caged wildcat; if Charles cared to look there would probably be treads in the red dirt inches deep. Arthur chopped wood until Mrs. Grimshaw snapped at him for giving her and the rest of the camp a headache from the noise. He lugged around bales of hay, sweating under the Lemoyne sun and waving off Kieran’s stuttered thanks. Poor bastard was probably afraid he was getting replaced. He also spent a lot of time with the horses, spoiling his new Hungarian Half Bred rotten, but that wasn’t new. Arthur sat on the riverbank and did laundry for hours until there wasn’t a dirty shirt to be found, and it had only been two and a half days.

Charles had the feeling that the reason for Arthur’s agitation wasn’t just because of Dutch’s imposed grounding. He just had to figure out what it was, and fix it. Else Arthur would drive the whole damn place crazy.

It was nightfall on the third day when both Charles and Arthur shared guard duty. The crickets and bullfrogs almost drowned out Karen’s drunken singing by the river, and she grew more muffled the deeper Charles went into the woods. He’d seen Arthur head that way a few minutes before, and wanted to catch him when they were both alone - a rare occurrence in the full up camp. The smell of smoke was snatched up by the breeze, but Charles caught the back end of cigarettes, the brand Arthur preferred. The package set ‘premium’, but they still tastes as stale as any other prepackaged smokes he had tried. He preferred his pipe any day, though it made him look old-fashioned. Charles followed the smoke to a clearing, so small it was basically just a gap between trees. Arthur was leaned up against one, free from his distinctive hat and face tilted up towards the dark sky. His throat was bared, collar unbuttoned just past what was decent, and Charles couldn’t help but linger on the ring of purple around his throat. It was like a blackberry stain, so dark in the night it could’ve been black.

Twigs and dry leaves crunched under Charles’ feet as he stepped closer, making himself known. Arthur’s eyes opened slow, lips curving up when he turned to see who it was.

“Hey Charles.” His voice was low and rasping, drawl warm in the night air. He was better than he’d been a few days ago, but it was obvious that Arthur hadn’t fully recovered from his encounter with the bounty hunters. A cigarette was between his fingers half smoked and forgotten.

“Arthur.”

Smoke hung still in the air between them for a moment before the breeze snatched it away. Charles found himself watching it, a wisp in the trees.

“Everythin’ alright?” Arthur was looking over at him, arms crossed over each other. He didn’t seem upset, just tired. Maybe a little amused.

Charles smiled. “I think so.”

“You sure?”

Charles must paused for a beat longer than he thought. Arthur was turned to him fully, with that little smile he reserved for people he didn’t mind being patient with. It was less of a rare sight now that he’d know Arthur for longer. The more he looked, the more he saw it everywhere. It was mainly directed at the girls drawing him into their chatter, with him shaking his head good-naturedly at their antics. Though once or twice, when most of camp had gone to sleep, Charles had seen Arthur over by the scout fire, near the horses, sitting quietly next to Kieran Duffy. They didn’t talk much - Kieran still to gun shy and Arthur too stubborn to give up his gruff exterior, but they sat, maybe talking about horses, maybe just looking at the fire. Other than Bill’s hamfisted attempts that riled him up more than anything, Arthur was the first one of the gang to try with the O’ Driscoll.

“Yeah, I’m good.” Charles said, thoughtful, “I just wanted to check on you. See how you’re, ah, doing.” He winced inwardly at his phrasing, but Arthur, as always, didn’t mention it.

“Me?” Arthur laughed hoarsely, rolling his shoulders. The worn flannel of his shirt stretched thin at the seams and conformed to every muscle. The way the faded fabric moved across his chest was nearly obscene. “A little house arrest never killed nobody, I guess.”

Arthur seemed to realize that he didn’t really answer the question, because Charles didn’t say anything else. The half smile turned sheepish. “I’m alright, really. Just a little...antsy is all.”

Charles raised an eyebrow. “Antsy?”

“Well sure,” Arthur straightened up, putting his hands in his jean pockets. He started walking again, tracing his path by the border of the woods. Charles hung back for moment, but then saw that the other man had paused, waiting for him to walk with him. He hurried to fall in step.

They were quiet for a bit. Silence had always been comfortable to Charles, but it also had its other uses. Too much made most people awkward, but it usually made Arthur all the more talkative when he usually is happy to let people talk over him. Case in point, Arthur soon opened his mouth to continue his thought-

“It’s just that, well…” He started, then chuckled at himself. “I got some bounties in New Hanover that I haven’t paid off since me an’ John rustled those sheep. And… these bounty hunters not after Trelawny got me thinkin’ is all.”

Charles hummed low. “Thinking?”

Arthur huffed out a laugh, hand going to rub at the back of his neck. Charles wondered if the bruises still stung, or if they’d settled into a low ache by now. “Dangerous for me, I know.”

Charles frowned, torn from his wondering. “I wasn’t going to say that.”

The self conscious smile died on Arthur’s lips. “Oh.”

The crickets picked up again, red dirt turning to damp grass beneath their boots. They could just barely see the road now, empty at this time of night, but the air was fresher here than down by the river.

“I guess… well I guess I just been thinkin’ if it’s a good idea. Me being at camp right now.”

Charles didn’t have to look over to see the small frown twisting up the gunslinger’s face. It didn’t soften the sudden snap of anger he felt, though, and he fell back a step. “If you weren’t layin’ low here with us, where would you be? Sleeping in the swamps?” He couldn’t help the accusation in his voice.

“Maybe, I’ve slept in worse.” Arthur was immediately defensive, shoulders drawn up and tense. Charles caught him by the arm and turned him around with a sharp tug. “Did those hicks really shake you up so bad? You figure you’d be safer out in the middle of nowhere than here with us?”

To protect you- is what he left unsaid. Arthur shook Charles hand off him, brows creased and face closed off. He was the gang’s watchdog, after all. Of course he didn’t need protecting. But no one would ever think to offer in the first place.

“Well hell, Charles, they just about hanged me today while my feet were still on the ground. I don’t want to put y’all in danger-” Arthur snapped, angry and washed out in the moonlight. His drawl got stronger when he was mad, thick and biting like spiked honey.

I know, Charles wanted to sooth. I hear you. He wouldn’t forget anytime soon that first moment when he rounded the row of corn to see Arthur on his back, legs kicking and hands clawing desperately at his neck. At the rope tight around it. The gunslinger hadn’t even had enough air to call out - his lips moved soundlessly while the piece of shit bounty hunter dragged him through the dirt like an unruly steer.

For a moment, Charles had been afraid to move, terrified that the bounty hunter would take that pistol in his hand a send a bullet straight through Arthur’s head. He’d barely listened to word out of him, and as soon as the man reached for his pocket - for the bribe money, like he could just buy Arthur Morgan off him - a throwing knife was embedded in his throat. A quicker end than that slime deserved. But what was worse than any of it was the split second of surprise on Arthur’s face when Charles threw the knife and snarled at the bounty hunter to shut up. Something in the gunslinger, if only for a moment, expected to be sold off for a wad of cash.

That hurt deep, like a kick in the ribs with a steel-toed boot.

Even hours later, that hurt in Charles’ chest twinged when Arthur found him at camp after dinner. He’d thanked him, again, for saving him. As if there’d been a choice. As if I’d leave you there, he wanted to say, but didn’t. “You’d do the same.” Often he’d find himself biting back words around Arthur. They were starting to build up behind his teeth, in his chest. Charles wondered who he was being so careful for, him or Arthur.

In the forest, silence hung between them, heavy like a thunderstorm. Charles stood steady, chin held up and trying to hold Arthur’s eye. The gunslinger seemed to have lost his burst of anger, looking away with his mouth pressed in a thin, unhappy line. He ducked his head - if he had his hat his face would be hidden beneath the brim, but the silvery moon painted the plains of his face clear as day. Arms crossed tight and leaning away, Arthur was trying to make himself small. A ridiculous attempt for the bear of a man. Were the air less tense between them, Charles might’ve chuckled at the thought.

“Listen, Arthur, are you really that worried about all this?” Charles figured a compromise was better than this posturing they were both doing.

A nod was all the answer he got, but Arthur had his eyes tiredly fixed on him, waiting for the catch. He was smarter than most people gave him credit for. But that’s what made him dangerous.

“You’re wanted around here, but Dutch knows you can handle yourself. He can probably spare you for a couple of days.” Charles looked past the thin trees on the outskirts of the forest, noticing how the slats of weak moonlight pushed through them. They were starting to feel a bit like bars on a cell. “I’m coming with you, though.”

Arthur opened his mouth like he was gonna disagree, but Charles kept going. “I’m serious, Arthur. You either go with me or someone else. I don’t care- John, Javier, Sadie, even. Just not alone.”

“I’m not a child, Charles-” Arthur snapped, rough voice going hoarse in his anger. He was all drawn up and puffed up like a tomcat corned in an alleyway. Part of Charles knew it wasn’t fair springing that on him, that Arthur would only hear the implied distrust in his abilities, or worse - pity. Weakness was deadly in their line of work, and Arthur would rather roll over and die than show any.

“I know,”

Arthur snorted.

“Trust me, I do.” Charles kept his voice low, but firm. The last thing they needed was someone hearing them at camp and getting too curious. Arthur’s mouth snapped shut, lips twisted unhappily. But he hadn’t started yelling, or storming off. So Charles kept on, trying his luck and Arthur’s bruised pride.

“We don’t have to make a big deal about this. We can head up Strawberry way, make a hunting trip out of it. Pearson will overlook us being gone if we bring back an elk and a brace of rabbits.”

No reaction from the other man, jaw still clench and eyes anywhere but on Charles. A line of ants marched across the leaf litter, visible only when the moonlight reflected off their tiny black carapaces. They disappeared once they crossed into the shadows.

“We can leave first thing in the morning.” Half statement, half question. All was quiet for a beat.

“Fine.” Arthur’s shoulders were still squared up, but some of the tension had left his face. Charles let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.

“Yeah?”

Arthur nodded jerkily. As he unfolded from himself, the moonlight shone on his bared throat, showing off the rope burn and bruises. Charles had the sudden urge to run his fingers -gentle- over them, to see if it burned as hot as it looked. He shook himself. He needed sleep, and it was nearly time for the shift change. He turned himself back towards camp, only taking a few steps before Arthur’s hoarse voice stopped him.

“Hey Charles?”

“Hm?”

“Thank you.”

He smiled to himself. “Get some rest, Arthur.”