“And you’re sure she’s coming?”
The view from the bench on Charlotte’s porch is gorgeous, idyllic even. The last beams of the evening sun are pouring through the trees and bathing the little homestead in their warm light, accompanied by the waterfall’s faint rushing in the background.
Charles sighs. “What if she went back to Chicago?”
“That’s not like her,” Arthur grumbles, eyes closed and resting his head against the wooden wall behind them.
“How do you know?” Charles pulls out his gun and a cloth to clean it with, and Arthur reckons it’s a wise decision to use the little spare time they have productively, but how, when he’s so tired and the sunset’s so lavish?
“I don’t,” he admits finally. “Just… a few more minutes, okay?”
Charles nods. They’re both tense these days. Always on edge, and Arthur can’t blame Charles for his impatience, they’ve got plenty more pressing matters on their minds than sitting idle here, in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a peasant-turned city slicker who may never come. Still, it’s a welcome break, and Arthur would be a fool to deny he needs it. They both do. And they both have a hard time sitting still, more often than not running around like headless chickens, so they must surely pose an unusual - comical even - sight on this tiny veranda, a lush garden in front of them, their horses grazing peacefully a few yards away.
“Can you imagine,” Arthur says, “owning a little homestead like this? Just hunting and farming away.”
Charles snorts. “Not really. But I think I’d like that.”
“Yeah, me too. At least for a month or so. Must get boring at some point.”
“If you say so.”
“Thanks for coming along, by the way. I know you’d rather be with the Wapiti by now.”
“And I know this is important to you. All in due time.”
Arthur nods. Shit, he’s tired. So tired, and the leaves’ soft rustle, along with the gentle clicks and clacks of Charles cleaning his gun aren’t really helping. He’s glad Charles has agreed to accompany him. It feels safe, and he doesn’t exactly fancy collapsing on Charlotte’s doorstep again, or worse, alone somewhere out in the woods. There’s this little voice, though, sometimes barging into his mind uninvited, always unexpected. Says things like Would that be so bad though? Quicker and more painless than what we got going on now, always one foot in the grave. Arthur has gotten good at ignoring the whispers, but that doesn’t mean he cannot hear them.
“Alright then,” he says hastily and gets up so quickly his vision fades for a second. “I think it’s time to go.”
Charles looks up from his gun, surprise in his eyes. “So you don’t think she’s coming?”
“Don’t know what I think, but it’s getting late and—”
“Arthur Morgan!” The voice coming from the weathered wooden arch is confident and kind at the same time, and Arthur recognizes it immediately. “What a nice surprise,” Charlotte adds. “I thought I’d never see you again. The last time felt so … final.”
Arthur squints against the sun. “Well, it was supposed to be final, but here we are. You’re looking good, Mrs Balfour.”
He means it. Charlotte is in a simple, clean combination of skirt and blouse, her face tan, her rifle flung over one shoulder and what appears to be a decent-sized dead turkey over the other.
“And that’s a fine bird you got there.”
“Thanks again!” Charlotte practically beams with pride. “Got him right in the head.”
“Yeah, there’s not much left of it.” Arthur can feel Charles move next to him, out of the overhanging roof’s shadow.
“Mrs Balfour,” he says and lowers his head a little.
“Oh, hi! I did not see you there. You must be…?”
“Charles. Charles Smith.”
Charlotte nods and Arthur thinks there’s a slight smirk in her voice when she says, “Good to meet you. I would shake your hand, but I’m afraid I’ll have to clean the blood off of mine first.”
As Charlotte makes her way to the house, her eye is suddenly caught by the three horses that are hitched to the fence. She stops dead in her tracks and turns back to Arthur, eyes narrowed, still a smile around her lips. “Wait a minute— who else are you hiding from me, Mr Morgan?”
Arthur raises his hands in defense. “I would never !”
“Then whose horse is this?” She lets go of the rifle’s strap she’d been holding on to, and points to the smallest of the horses. “I assume the one in the middle belongs to Mr Smith?”
Charles leans against the handrail, arms crossed. “Correct.”
“Well, that’s why we’re here,” Arthur explains as he saunters past Charlotte, over to the horses.
“It’s hard out here without a horse,” Charles says from the veranda.
Arthur nods and pats the small mustang’s backside. “You see, I don’t have much use for her anymore. And I’d like to know her in safe and capable hands, and not some rundown stable.”
It breaks his heart. He loves this horse, and knowing it’s the best he can do for her doesn’t make it hurt less. It’s just one more splinter in his foot, one more scar that won’t have time to heal.
“Oh, Arthur.” Charlotte carefully places rifle and turkey on the porch and comes to join him, followed by Charles. “You didn’t.”
Arthur looks down to hide his smile. It’s astonishing, really, her face is so easy to read: genuine surprise, delight, doubt. And yet he always feels like there’s something more lurking under the surface, something he can’t grasp, can’t read. It reminds him of Charles.
“How wonderful!” Charlotte examines the horse as if looking for a defining feature, but to no avail. “She’s… grey!”
Arthur chuckles. “Well, she may not look like much, but she’s a tough little thing. Brave. And loyal to a fault. Even trampled some wolves once, up in the Grizzlies.”
“Oh! Oh my. You won’t have to do nonsense like this here, darling. What’s her name?”
“We didn’t have a spare saddle, unfortunately,” Charles says and Charlotte turns to give him a shy smile.
“That’s okay, I still have one in the shed. Listen, gentlemen, I still have some leftover soup and a whole fresh turkey. Why don’t you join me for dinner? It’s the least I can do.”
Arthur rubs his neck. He has demanded far too much of Charles’ time already, and to be frank, of his own as well. “Ah, we shouldn’t, really.” To his surprise, behind Charlotte’s back, Charles gives him a subtle nod toward the house, a soft come on!, and Arthur knows he has lost already.
“What the hell, why not.”
“That’s the spirit, Mr Morgan,” Charlotte laughs and leads the way.
The house is just as messy as Arthur remembers it to be, but it’s undeniably a home. Four walls and a rainproof roof, that’s more than they’ve ever had in the last two years, not counting wretched Shady Belle.
“You can leave your hats by the door there. Please, sit, sit!” Charlotte puts her rifle down next to the fireplace and takes a good look at the turkey in her left hand. “I guess it’ll be fine to salt this up later tonight, there should still be enough soup for the three of us.”
“That’s a fine little house you got here,” Charles says, looking at two kitschy paintings on the wall.
Charlotte is already heating up the stove, her movements quick and practised, almost ritualistic. Arthur could watch her for ages. It’s got nothing to do with Charlotte per se, he’s always enjoyed observing people working away in their familiar surroundings, especially kitchens — the epitome of domesticity. Hell, he’s even watched and drawn Pearson rummaging around his wagon and preparing that dreaded stew of his more than once. Before he became an alcohol-drenched shadow of his former self, that is. But who could blame him.
“Thank you, Mr Smith,” Charlotte says, turning around to them while already stirring the soup, “If you need anything, Arthur should know his way around by now.”
“So I’ve heard.” Charles finally decides to sit down and looks a little lost, alone at the big table, so Arthur joins him, chair grating over the wooden floor.
“To be honest,” Charlotte says from the stove, “I don’t know how to properly thank you. A horse!”
Arthur shakes his head. “You don’t have to. Really.”
“So how’d you make it so far? Without a horse I mean.” Charles asks and leans back in his chair, legs stretched out beneath the table.
“Oh, I’ve had an excellent teacher,”— she casts a glance at Arthur —”and before that, well, we had a horse, Cal and I. A wagon, too. But this is Murfree territory, you see. They weren’t ours for very long.”
Charles lowers his head. “Sorry to hear that.”
“Nasty bastards,” Arthur adds.
Charlotte smiles mildly and begins to distribute the soup onto three plates. “It’s okay. Now at least. Have you seen my new chicken coop, by the way?”
“We thought we had heard some chickens,” Arthur says.
“You heard right! Well, the coop is not exactly new. It was already there, just needed some minor repairs. A man from Butcher’s Creek sold me the chickens. Sketchy fellow, but the birds seem to be fine.” She places the steaming plates on the table and sits down herself.
“Good for you!” Arthur says and means it.
Charlotte picks up her spoon. “Enjoy your meal, gentlemen. And thanks again.”
“Thank you , it smells real good,” Charles says and begins to eat.
Arthur leans forward to smell the soup (that is more of a stew, really), too. “Hmm, brings back memories.”
“Don’t you dare and faint on me again, Mr Morgan!” Charlotte warns, a familiar glint in her eyes, pointing her spoon at him.
Arthur snorts, only narrowly avoiding a coughing fit. “I wasn’t planning to.”
They eat in comfortable silence for a while, the fire crackling, Charles’ leg occasionally brushing against Arthur’s, as if coincidental.
I’m here , it says, and so are you .
“You see,” Charlotte says after a few minutes, her tone indicating some uncertainty, “I don’t know know an awful lot about horses. That was always Cal’s business, as short-sighted as that sounds now. I don’t even know how to clean them, let alone saddle them.”
“I can show you,” Charles says immediately.
“That would be fantastic!” Charlotte exclaims, “Can we leave you alone for ten minutes, Arthur?”
When did everyone start treating him so overcautious, like a raw egg, only touching him with silk gloves, if at all? He furrows his brow and says, “Why wouldn’t you?” and regrets his irritated tone immediately.
They finish dinner quickly after this, and with a “That’s too kind, Mr Smith!”, Charlotte swiftly stacks the empty plates and leaves them in the sink.
“We’ll be right back.” Charles puts a reassuring hand on Arthur’s shoulder as he gets up and turns to leave the house alongside Charlotte.
When the door finally closes behind them, Arthur lets go of a raspy breath.
This ain’t right.
Two wanted men having dinner with one of the brightest women he knows, practically out in the open, while everything around them is crumbling. He shouldn’t have come back, dragging Charlotte into all this. But then again, are they really dragging her into anything? They are giving her a horse, for God’s sake, and in two hours they’ll be gone again, most likely forever.
He can hear them talk outside, voices all calm amidst the sound of crickets, Charles conversant, Charlotte curious. Arthur has never noticed how similar their names are, and for a moment is overcome by a wave of heartache and affection. He stares into the flame of the candle before him, smells the fire, hears the voices, and the certainty that good people still exist in this world, and always will, feels like a slap in the face. Too much.
And he wonders how to write a love letter to a moment, a place in time, this right here.
God, he’s pathetic, a sentimental bastard.
A ghost, desperately clinging to the wrong world.
And what does it all matter anyway, in a few year’s time he won’t be much more than a footnote in the grand tragedy of the dying West, and that’s if he’s lucky.
No stupid love letter can change this, and that’s okay with him (he likes to think).
He thinks of bones bleaching in the sun.
Does he want to be remembered?
Not like this, that’s for sure.
Scraps of conversation are floating through the window, hold the stirrup like this and now pull and he saved my life, you know .
Realisation washes over Arthur. He’d give anything to stay here. There are two bedrooms after all, ain’t there? A double bed and a single. Four chairs at the table. Chickens and a little garden. Oh, he’s a silly, silly man.
Creaking, the door opens and he can hear what appears to be the last part of a statement confidently made by Charlotte, “The way I see it, Charles, yes, I am alone most of the time, but I seldom feel lonely.”
“That’s very wise,” Charles says and closes the door behind them.
“And now with Ginseng and the chickens… I don’t think I have to worry about a thing. For the next few years at least.”
“Always glad to help,” Arthur mumbles into his cup, and he hears Charles’ footsteps approach behind him, and then there are two strong hands gently squeezing his shoulders.
I want to write you out of my bones.
“Of course.” He looks up and in the warm shine of the fire notices for the first time the shadows under Charles’ eyes, and the weariness around his mouth. And although it shouldn’t be surprising after the weeks they’ve had, it somehow catches him off guard. Shit, he can really be a self-centered pile of self-loathing sometimes. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay,” Charles replies, slightly amused by the unexpected question, as he settles down next to Arthur again. “As good as it gets. I think I’ll leave for the Wapiti tomorrow.”
Arthur nods. “I could accompany you. Just to take you there, I mean.”
“We can sort that out tomorrow morning.”
Charlotte clears her throat and awkwardly places three bottles of beer on the table, before sitting down again. “I know you’ve both got places to be, and I know I owe you far more than that,”-- she gestures toward the bottles--”but at the moment it’s all I got.”
Arthur takes a bottle. “You don’t owe us nothing. Just take care of Ginseng, will you? And of yourself.”
“Of course I will.”
Silence falls again, and Arthur clings to his bottle with more force than necessary. He looks around the room, taking it all in, the pots and pans, the pictures and the candles. When he can no longer avoid it, his gaze settles on Charlotte’s dirt-spotted face. She looks so… free , and the sad smile she gives him is one of the most honest ones he’s seen.
He turns to his right, to Charles, all calm, all tired smile, shadows dancing on his face.
They are the future. This is the first and last time they’re together like this, and all three realise it at the same time.
Arthur doesn’t know what else to say, and he knows he doesn’t need to.
This is home.
Hamish’s cabin is home.
The campfire at Horseshoe Overlook.
The Big Valley.
Hell, even the hotel room in Strawberry.
It’s all home, and it’s waiting for him.