"So, you said you were comin' from Blackwater. Where were you headin'?" Wyatt asked as they neared the top of the valley.
She wrapped her hands tightly around the wooden chest, holding it like it was the most precious item in the world. Because it was. Her eyes stayed down for a long time, shifting from the dry ground to the horses, back to the chest, and to her hands until they finally went over to him. Charlotte only glanced at him for a quick second, though, before they went through the same pattern all over again. The girl did this a few times before keeping her gaze on the chain hanging from his vest. "North," she answered vaguely. "We were supposed to stay there for a few weeks after arriving. Jesse had a job arranged up there. It doesn't seem like that's going to happen now. I'll just have to stay in Blackwater. No one will let me leave there again. Not after this." Her eyes fell back to the wooden chest. There were blood stains on the right side of it from the soiled bandage around her hand shaking and throbbing hand. The pain in it was much more immense now that there was a lack of action. It was only the top part of her skin that was burnt off of her palm by the bullet, so it stung and bled but was nothing severe as long as it didn’t get infected. It certainly hurt, though.
“North, huh?” he started, giving a soft chuckle. “Only thing I know exists there is a bunch of bloodthirsty Yankees. I don’ know what kinda business Jesse had there. What’s your relation to him, anyway?”
"He's my brother," Charlotte explained, then corrected herself with, “was my brother," in a softer voice. "And he was smart. He went to college before he came back here. Who knows what kind of job was waiting there for him? It had to be something good.” The girl paused. "If you don't mind, I'd like to not talk about him anymore.” He complied, but did so silently. Apparently, they either talked about her deceased brother or they talked about nothing at all. Her eyes looked out to the horizon. “Those men did a lot of bad, didn’t they, Mr. Callahan? If there’s a bounty on both of them?” Her fingers laced in each other, unable to hold still.
The horses dragged the coach along at a quick pace, and she kept watching Wyatt glance into the cab through the small, cut-out window behind him.
"We all do our fair share of bad, Miss Masen. It's just about who gets caught doin' it," he replied flatly. That bit of wisdom hurt. Her brother didn’t do anything bad once in his life. She didn’t do bad. Did she? Charlotte’s eyes met the box once again. Was this bad? Her brows furrowed and she pulled the chest a little closer. His voice pulled her out of her thoughts, “If you don’t mind me askin’, what’s in that box of yours?” He snapped the reins of the stagecoach and sent the horses into a quick gallop, the land ahead of them now perfectly flat.
She couldn't tell him. But she owed him her life. Surely that was a debt she would never be able to repay. It would do no harm; he was a bounty hunter. How could this affect him? But he said so himself: We all do our fair share of bad. "It's a book. There's a note and a will in there, too," Charlotte lied. “My father just passed away and we were delivering it to someone.” It wasn't like she'd ever see him again anyway; he would never know. "We had to get it to a man in Wyoming by a certain day. Clearly, someone didn't want that happening." She shrugged lightly and looked up at him. "Nothing as important as you think." Wyatt only nodded in reply.
Wyatt knew she was probably lying about the contents, but decided that he didn't really care. Considering the price that the twins had on their heads, he would be playing the tables and drinking in the saloon for the next six months. He followed the beaten dirt path for a while, the both of them in silence until they came upon a road block. A few Union men stood up straight, dressed in all blue. His eyes narrowed as he pulled to a stop, "Woah..." he said quietly to calm the horses. One of the soldiers approached him.
"Sorry, sir, but this road's closed," the soldier informed, holding his weapon tightly in his hands.
"Closed? There ain't no war here. Why's the damn road closed?" Wyatt asked angrily. The Union soldier's brow furrowed and he quickly turned on his heel and headed back to the two other soldiers who were standing in the road. Wyatt listened closely, swearing he heard them toss around the word 'grayback'. "Shit," he muttered. He kept listening, and then he heard them mention the chest that Charlotte was still holding closely. His eyes shot to it, and then back to the soldier who was returning to their stagecoach. His weapon was trained to Wyatt before he could react, "Woah there, son. Be careful with that," Wyatt warned.
"Out of the cab," the soldier said, motioning for them to step out. Wyatt kept his hands over his head as he exited the cab. He looked across to Charlotte, who had gotten off at the other side, still holding the chest closely. The other soldiers, who were younger, less decorated, and much quieter, approached the coach, also lifting their rifles.
"We got ourselves a grayback, boys!" the soldier said excitedly, pulling back the hammer on his long-barrel rifle.
"Now hold up. I ain't no grayback, friend," Wyatt replied.
The men chuckled, and the eldest answered again. "Well, that accent of yours sure makes you sound like one, friend. Now, we know what you two have on you, so we're just going to be taking it and leaving."
"What the hell are you talkin' about?" Wyatt asked, his temper growing.
"The chest the lass is hanging onto for dear life, you daft bastard," another soldier chimed in. He and the third soldier wrestled the chest from Charlotte's arms, Wyatt unable to help because of the rifle trained on his chest. The soldiers all climbed aboard the stagecoach and laughed. "Mighty fine ride you got here," one called out, looking at Charlotte with a lustful face. The leader of the trio hopped down and made his way to Wyatt's horse, the whole time keeping his rifle on Wyatt. The man stepped into the saddle and mounted the horse, "And we’ll take the horse, too!" he called out.
"What's your name?" Wyatt asked in a low growl.
"Captain William Sanders, and I know you won't soon forget it," the man now on Wyatt’s horse answered.
"Well, Mr. Sanders, I'm gonna kill you," Wyatt told him. The man just tossed his head back and let out a hearty laugh.
"And I wish you the best of luck, boy! Come on, men. Let's get goin'! We have a package to deliver!" he called out as the coach started to roll forward. Wyatt could hear the two twins in the back making a ruckus, but he was helpless to watch as it rolled away. He lowered his arms and let out a defeated sigh as the two soldiers following on horseback lowered their guns, too out of range for Wyatt to catch them or blow them to bits.
"Shit," he muttered again. He looked over at Charlotte, who was just standing there, awestruck at what she witnessed. He took a few steps in her direction and pulled his revolver from its holster, counting the number of rounds he had left. As a result of the last gunfight he was in, his gun was completely spent. "All of my supplies were on that horse. And they got your chest. Now, Blackwater is only a few miles west of here,” he pointed in the direction he planned to head. “I suggest we go get ourselves a couple of horses and think about what we're going to do. They ain’t gonna get far without tryin’ to crack that thing open," Wyatt said, holstering his weapon.
Charlotte pulled her brows together in both worry and confusion when they slowed to a stop. She listened to them talk, and was afraid when Wyatt started getting angry even though the emotion wasn't directed at her. She turned to him when the men walked away, gave him a worried look but he didn't see. His mind was absent, so he was clearly eavesdropping on the Union men's conversation. The two came back, guns wielded at them. Charlotte gasped and tightened her hands further around the chest. She slipped down the side of the box seat, landing on a wood step and descending to the next one before she was on the bone dry, dirt ground.
Everything moved quickly from that moment on. She heard the word 'chest' and suddenly someone was ripping it from her arms. Charlotte fought it as best she could, digging the nails of her good, left hand into the wood until they were ragged and bloody and it was taken away. She did nothing but stare in front of herself, thinking of what she just allowed to happen. No one could know she lost it. How could she go back to Blackwater now?
Lips parted, she took a few small breaths to regain herself and turned back to face Wyatt. She did nothing more than nod at his plan submissively. "I can't let them know I'm back," Charlotte told him in reply after a few seconds. "I can't let them know I lost it. I'd be lucky if they kill me over it." She took a deep breath and looked left, then right. It suddenly felt much hotter out, and her clothes felt like cages around her—suffocating her. "I'm sorry about this, Mr. Callahan. This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't asked you to bring me back."
"Apparently it would have. I just wouldn’t a been involved. I think it's safe to say that there's more than a book and a will in that box, Miss Masen.” He smirked with the knowledge that he was right, which agitated her. “Whatever it is you’re cartin’ around, someone wants their hands on it.” His hands searched his pockets, then removed his hat so he could push back his hair. “Damn Yankees took my cigarettes,” he muttered.
“I think it’s safe to say,” Charlotte interjected, “that whatever I’m ‘cartin’’ around is none of your business, sir.”
The man just looked at her and scoffed. “C’mon. We’d better get moving. I want to get there by nightfall. We don’t need to be runnin’ into any wildlife.”
Charlotte rubbed her face tiredly, barely able to make out the speck that was her stagecoach in the distance. Her eyes burned from the ghost of tears, and the thought that those soldiers just made away with her brother’s body posed a threat of even more falling. Still, she fought them.
The sun was at its hottest, just around two o’clock, and showed no mercy. Its yellow light was like a fire blazing down on them. The weather wouldn’t be any more forgiving at night, either. It would be freezing by then. And in a few weeks, the end of autumn would arrive and shove out the heat. But it sure didn’t feel that way now that they were stranded.
Charlotte rested her arms on the sides of her dress and they swung lightly as she hurried to catch up with him. "I think wildlife would be a blessing compared to what's waiting in that town," she said, eyes on the ground in front of them. She would have liked nothing more than to hide away and sleep for days, but she had to fix the mess she caused and find a way to pay her debt to this man. And odds were he wouldn't keep her around in the town. Charlotte was completely on her own without him. She anticipated that was how it would be.
"You keep believin' that, and try not to get eaten by a pack of coyotes," he replied. At the mention of coyotes, she scanned the area with both caution and nerves. One thing they didn't need was the missing chest and the two of them, the only two that knew it was missing, dead. "Who exactly are you doin' this job for anyway?" he asked, not taking his eyes away from the horizon. The sun was already slipping from the sky, more and more with every step they took. It felt like it was getting hotter although it was cooling off. His question brought her back to what was happening in that moment rather than the possible future.
"I'm not doing it for anyone." Why did everything she did have to be for someone? He kept quiet at that answer and the feeling of stating her self-control and dominance satisfied her for no more than a few seconds. "I'm sorry," Charlotte breathed, shaking her head slightly. "I was doing it for my brother. It was his to deliver. That’s why I wasn't supposed to go. I just wouldn't quit on it until he let me." She smiled fondly to herself, her lips a twitch of a smile. It was just a glimmer of happiness that faded immediately so her sorrow could resume. "At least he didn't die alone." Her eyes raised to meet the side of his face, taking in what he actually looked like for the first time.
Being from Blackwater, she wasn't used to this kind of man. Rugged, harsh and quiet. Men there tended to be entitled, loud, and womanizing. But from only one short experience, she was more than familiar with men like Wyatt. That was a brief time; a time she didn't like to remember but often did. The city was barely in view now, a small dot. Thank God.
Wyatt sighed. "Well, I'm sorry for your loss," he replied, keeping his pace, "but I'm sure he knew the risks of transporting whatever’s in that box.”
Charlotte didn't even pay attention to the men camping near them until they were standing right in front of them. She realized what Wyatt was watching so intently, and it wasn’t the city. The campers were about the same height, both tall and averagely built. Their teeth were black leeches stuck to their gums, their clothing all brown from dirt and dust with splotches of dark reddish black that was more than likely dried blood. One had curly hair that went to his shoulders, and the other had fair hair that was brown from uncleanliness but probably lighter under the dirt, and was brutally chopped at ear length. And their smell… The man with the curly hair smiled right at her, revealing an image Charlotte nearly vomited upon seeing. Her jaw clenched tightly in fear and disgust, and the girl glanced over at Wyatt who seemed unnervingly calm. Why today? she thought.
"You folks ought not be travelin' by foot out here. Could be dangerous, you know," the man with the straight hair said, a grin creeping across his face.
"Look, partner, I dunno what you're thinkin', but it's a bad idea.” The two men drew their revolvers, but Wyatt was quicker and a faster shot. Two gunshots. That was why he was so calm. Both of the men fell to the ground in pain, the straight-haired one clutched the remnants of his hand and the one with the curly hair held his arm. Charlotte took a few backward steps away from them. Did he always just shoot people to get what he wanted? Her eyes went to Wyatt and she shrugged internally. It worked. He stood over them, his gun shifting between the two. "Y'all have a horse?"
"Two," one of the men groaned. "Please don't kill us. Take whatever ya want." Wyatt nodded. Charlotte relaxed slightly, relieved that they would be in town faster and away from this. It was only a few miles away from civilization and people still managed to change out here, generally for the worse.
"Much obliged.” He turned to look at Charlotte and gesture to the men with his head. "Take their guns," he ordered her as he turned for their camp. There were two horses there, and Wyatt took one by the reigns, leading it back to the beaten road. Charlotte walked cautiously between the men, doing what he ordered of her with great hesitance. At first, she thought the scum would grab at her, try to get her down there or hurt her to make Wyatt leave them alone, but Charlotte wasn't sure he would care if anything happened to her. She’d known the man for less than a day. What would she do if he got hurt? It was clear to her who needed who. Quickly, she swiped away their guns and retreated a safe distance back from them, next to Wyatt.
He took the guns from her and shoved them in one of the saddle bags on the horse, stowing them away. He mounted, and then offered Charlotte a hand to get up on the horse. She didn't move. "Well, come on. I don't want to leave these fools stranded out here. We're only takin' one horse."
When he spoke again, her gaze lifted to fall on his hard one. "It seems not everyone is bad, Mr. Callahan.” His hand was rough and from what she could see, scarred. She took it and swung up onto the horse. The girl adjusted herself in front of him, unsure how she felt about the position they were in. The horse took off and she was forced back into him for a moment. It was all she could do to keep her gaze forward and not apologize for being pressed against him. This was probably an average day for a man like him, and she shouldn't have been thinking like she was anyway; she should have been mourning her brother. The thought of his body being taken away by those soldiers crept back into her mind and made her feel so absolutely horrid, she had to grip the front of the saddle until her knuckles turned white to keep her ill feeling down. She swallowed thickly, the cool breeze of their speed helping her keep control of herself. The city was in sight, and as long as she wasn't recognized when they got back, things would turn out fine. They had to.