The Box

"When we first broke into that forbidden box...we knew we had discovered something as surprising and powerful as the New World when Columbus came stumbling onto it."
Ken Kesey


6. Chapter Six

Their horses slowed down when they arrived in the small town of Armadillo. It was odd to think that people lived there; it was such a small, feeble town. She never thought about how different some places could be than others. She smiled slightly to herself at the feeling of serenity in the dimly lit city. It was almost peaceful. But that peace couldn't have been real. Towns like that were rugged and dangerous, at least from what she'd heard.

The reins were loose in her hands when she stopped her horse next to Wyatt's and glanced quickly at his face before they moved forward. He was annoyingly impossible to read, that same look constantly the only thing he showed—hardly any emotion. Charlotte let her hands rest on the saddle, not paying attention to where they were going as much as she was the different shops and people around the town. She was beyond exhausted, and was completely lost in the cloud of sleep in her head as she took in the soft lighting in each building.

Before she knew it, they were stopped at the Sherriff’s building at the complete other end of the small town. Wyatt hopped off his horse, and she gave him a worried look, but he returned a reassuring one and told her, “I’ll be right out,” and entered the building.

Charlotte waited up on her horse, watching the people around the city. Most of them went to the saloon down the street, while others stumbled back toward their beds. That must have been the only reason the town was calm—everyone was in the saloon.

Wyatt was back out in less than five minutes with a small stack of bills in hand. He mounted back up and turned to face her on his horse. "You probably shouldn't leave until mornin', which means you'll be needin' a room at the saloon tonight," he explained. She seemed skeptical, almost against the idea, but had no choice but to agree. "Come on, I'll buy you a drink," he said as he turned and urged his horse in the direction of the loud chatter and overflow of people on the street. She nodded and followed him toward the saloon.

“You’ve done so much already,” she pointed out and smiled slightly, not in protest but in fact. “I can’t let you keep buying me liquor, as indebted to you as I already am.”

"Don't be so proud," Wyatt warned as he hitched his horse to the post just outside the saloon. He slipped off the saddle and led Charlotte inside the bar. It was loud and uncomfortably filled with men staring at her. There were women, too, but it was clear from what they were wearing that they were the town’s whores. Charlotte just smiled politely at each pair of eyes that caught hers, feeling slightly violated by them, and slipped into a seat at the bar. Wyatt ordered himself a shot of whiskey and Charlotte a shot of brandy, the closest you could get to a civilized drink in places like Armadillo. Wyatt raised his glass, nodded at her, then tossed back his drink. Charlotte merely sipped from her glass.

"Is'at Wyatt Callahan!?" a booming voice shouted from behind them. When she heard it, she jumped and turned, half expecting John and glad to see someone she didn’t know.

Charlotte’s eyes watched Wyatt’s hand tense over his revolver then relax. The voice came from a man who was large, with muscles and confidence to match. He had a black mustache and beard, and a bottle of whiskey in his hand.

"Jedidiah," Wyatt replied, extending his hand with a smile. The man swatted it away and wrapped Wyatt in a crushing bear hug, Charlotte sitting quietly in the background. "Easy there, big fella,” he groaned, breaking away from his embrace.

"Boy, I ain't seen you since you was twenty!" Jedidiah slurred, chuckling. "Lemme buy you two a drink." The three sat together at the bar, and Wyatt introduced the man to Charlotte as an ‘old friend'. Something told her that was hardly the surface of the relationship between the two men. She greeted Jedidiah with the manners she was raised to have, unlike everyone else in the town, and then sipped quietly from her glass as the two men spoke. "So whatdya say about formin' up a posse and goin' after them couple o' them Whitton boys," Jedidiah suggested. Wyatt shook his head and chuckled, and Charlotte recalled the name ‘Whitton’ as that of the two men Wyatt got his bounty for.

"Nah, ol' friend. I went on my own for a reason," he replied, downing another shot.

"Bah. So, what's the deal with you two? This some whore?" Jedidiah asked, taking another swig of whiskey.

That was enough for Charlotte. After all she went through that day; after the loss of her brother, being threatened, being robbed, losing the wooden chest, being confronted by John, stealing horses, and being insulted, she could no longer hold in the mess of emotion in her head. "I am not a whore," she interjected loudly and stood. "Am I acting like one? Do I look like one?" Charlotte stared at the man just as he was staring at her. “Take a look around this room and tell me I fit in here.” She scoffed and threw her brown drink on Jedidiah, the liquid splashing all over his chest, stomach, and filthy face, then stalked out of the saloon to her horse. Taking deep breaths to calm down, she whispered, “Loved by God?” to it and scoffed. “He’s loved only by himself.” Then, she walked around to the saddle bag where she stupidly left the wooden chest. It was still there, thank god, and she pulled it out, just staring at it.


Wyatt quickly snatched Jed’s arm when he stepped jumped from his chair to follow Charlotte out of the bar. He knew what could happen in this town and go unpunished—just about anything. And he wasn’t about to let that happen. Wyatt gave him a warning look, concealing the surprise he felt from what he just witnessed. "Easy partner," he said slowly. The two made eye contact until Jed broke away and turned back to the crowd.

"You always were your father’s good one, Callahan," he taunted, taking another swig from the full bottle of whiskey he still held tight in hand. Wyatt turned away from the bar and headed in the direction that Charlotte went. He found her outside standing beside her horse, staring at the wooden chest.

"You must have a death wish,” he started, making Charlotte jump and look at him, then face the horse again. “Most grown men wouldn't even consider tossing a drink in Jed's face.” Wyatt paused. "You alrigh’?"

“I’m fine. You didn’t have to come out here.” She took a deep breath. “I didn’t mean to do that to him. It just…happened.” She placed the chest up on the saddle. “But I understand that it’s different here.” Wyatt glanced to his left to find Jed grimacing and drying himself off. “I probably shouldn’t go back in,” she started again with a slight smile.

            “I don’t think you get it, Miss Masen.” A grin started spreading across Wyatt’s face. “You just earned respect from every one of them. Except Jed, o’course. Reckon you could get a room for free now if you assert yourself like that again,” he pointed out. The two exchanged smiles, then Charlotte looked down at the ground shyly. There was a loud clattering sound in the saloon, which Wyatt turned around to investigate, when the saloon doors flew open. Jed was standing there with his hand over his revolver and rage in his drunken eyes.

"Ain't no bitch gonna make a fool of me," Jed growled. Wyatt pulled his brows together and narrowed his eyes.

"Now, now, partner. Let's not get excited," Wyatt said in reply. He took a step forward but stopped when Jed raised his revolver. "You don' wanna do this, Jed."
             "What's gonna happen, Callahan!? They gonna hang me for killin' an outlaw?"
            "No one’s an outlaw in this town," Wyatt stated in a low voice. "Let's settle this like men, not drunkards." Jed simply cocked his revolver.

"You think I'm gonna duel at ten paces with you? I know you got the fastest draw 'round here, Wyatt," Jed replied. Wyatt’s hand moved slowly for his gun as the bigger man continued with, "I'm gonna kill you righ-” A gunshot rang out from behind Wyatt and blood exploded from Jed's shoulder, sending him tumbling backwards to the ground. Wyatt spun around to see Charlotte standing there, holding a revolver with smoke trailing from the barrel and a look of complete terror on her face.


Charlotte just stared with wide eyes, lips parted in surprise and gun still raised. She was beyond shocked at herself and paralyzed by the feeling of what she did. Suddenly, her hand was in just as much pain as it was when Wyatt first shot her, but she couldn’t let go of the gun. Adrenaline still trickled through her, faded just enough for her to realize the severity of what she’d just done. Her eyes were glued to the man writhing in pain on the ground. She didn’t see Jedidiah, though. She saw an Indian. "I..." The weight of his gaze was crushing. "I didn't know what else to do." He was going to kill you, she thought. And she wouldn’t let him die. Not while she was around. Her breathing was even deep and shaky. She heard Wyatt ask her something, but her mind comprehended it as nothing more than a blurred echo of his voice.

 “It’s alrigh’,” he gently assured, slowly stepping closer to her. She heard him and felt her muscles start to relax. One of his hands went to her shoulder, the other wrapped around her fingers holding the gun. He pushed them down so the gun was facing the ground. “But you need to tell me exactly what it is you’re holdin’.”

Charlotte took a deep breath before digging up the small bit of courage she could manage and looking at him. "It's a gun," she said, pointing out the obvious. "It's..." She lifted it up to look at it. “My brother made it." It took her a few more seconds to look back at him once again. Her face was blank aside from the shock and surprise still lacing her eyes and the ghost of worry on her lips. Quickly, she turned and stuffed the gun back into the chest, locking it behind her before setting it back up on the horse and twisting her hair back up to hide the key. "Please don't tell anyone." Charlotte glanced at Jedidiah, who was too busy scrambling to his feet to be listening to them, then focused on Wyatt again. "No one is supposed to know. This" She exhaled and shook her head at herself. "Please."

"Don't worry. I ain't got nobody to tell. But we should get you indoors," he explained as people started to leave the saloon to investigate the commotion. He led her inside to the bartender, where he exchanged words and bartered for a room, which they got at a discounted price because of Charlotte's actions. She was clutching the chest tightly as they made their way upstairs past numerous women, all of which were prostitutes.

Wyatt unlocked their door and headed inside. "You take the bed," he started, setting a chair down in front of the closed door and sitting down on it. He clicked the hammer down on his revolver as he drew it from the holster and pointed it at the door. Charlotte didn't fight him about the bed. She didn't mind at all. She looked around the small space, only turning around when he started talking to her again. "You should get some sleep. I'll keep an eye on things," Wyatt said over his shoulder.

As he spoke, she unbuttoned the vest over her clothes and set it on the ground, followed by the heavier outer pieces of her dress. The ripped long-sleeved shirt was the final thing she removed; at that point, she was only wearing a long slip and a few other layers to keep her covered. She sat on the edge of the bed, unraveling the makeshift bandage around her hand and looking at the bloody mess smeared around it. "Mr. Callahan?" Charlotte asked softly, and then continued when he didn't answer. "Why are you helping me?” He didn't look back at her as she asked the question. Instead, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cigarette, letting it hang from his lips unlit.

He took a deep breath. "I dunno, Miss Masen. I must be tryin’ to convince myself I ain’t so bad.” He laughed once under his breath, finally striking a match against the bottom of his boot and bringing it toward the cigarette in his mouth. He puffed a cloud of smoke. "Maybe it's because I know what you got in that there box now. And I’m thinkin’ I know what it's meant to do." He pulled the cigarette away from his mouth with two fingers and blew another cloud of smoke. "What you got there with you... You even know what it's for?”

She looked over at the chest sitting on the floor next to the bed. "I know plenty," Charlotte answered. She ripped off a long piece of the ruined shirt on the floor and went to work re-wrapping her hand. "Jesse told me what it was going to be used for. If he didn't and something happened to him, it could have ended up in the wrong hands, like it almost did. So he didn't have a choice." Once the wrap was finished, she slipped under the blanket on the mattress and looked out a window parallel to the bed at the dark sky and the stars that dotted it. "He never told me who exactly we were supposed to give it to, though. He gave me an idea of who it was, but he didn't want anyone to know that but him just to be safe. I think he knew I would figure it out if anything were to happen. The problem is, I’m not sure I can." She paused, counting the twinkling stars until she reached thirty and, in a voice barely more than a whisper, she told him, "We have to get it there. Then things will fall into place.”

"We?" Wyatt repeated. “I said I would bring you here. I said I’d help you get back on your feet, but I don’ think I said I’d take you all the way there. I can’t take you far north as you’re wantin’. From the sound of it, you’re goin’ quite a few hundred miles. I just don’t have the means, Miss Masen." He remained facing away from her, the smell of the cigarette beginning to fill the room. Charlotte didn't answer.

Sleep took her immediately; something about the twinkling of the stars lulled her to sleep.  And above that, the exhaustion the day dropped on her drained any bit of consciousness she had left. She didn't recall having any dreams that night aside from a blank one that stretched for what seemed like hours of nothing but dry, endless desert and the stench of hot, rotting flesh. 

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