"You were supposed to be back nearly an hour ago, boy. What could possibly have held you up so long?"
Carter shrunk away from Bazzoli as his employer towered over him. Carter wasn't actually that small and he was definitely not frail, but Bazzoli still loomed over him with enough mass that he might be able to lift a horse if he wanted. Carter didn't know and didn't want to. The absence of knowledge was, many times, a friend to him.
"Um," Carter said, picking at the straw the basket was woven from that was still attached to Reese's saddle. Reese snuffed into his hair and Carter flinched. "The-the um, there were a-a lot of people, and-and, um. I-I got delayed by, um, by them."
Bazzoli's temple bent into a scowl, but he leaned away from Carter so he was no longer breathing in his face. His breath was hot and always smelled like meat and it was one of the things Bazzoli knew made Carter squirm.
"Why do I pay you if you can't even do one simple job?" he growled, crossing his arms over his chest in such a fast motion that Carter flinched, his heart skipping beats in his chest.
"I'm, um, I'm sorry," Carter said, but it came out as a whisper and he bowed his head, trying to tuck his neck into his shoulders.
The scowl of Bazzoli's face deepened and he growled. "Stop that pathetic 'um!' noise, boy! It makes you sound no more educated than one of Mr. Wilson's swines!" he snapped, shaking his head rapidly.
Although he said it with a commanding, harsh tone, they both knew it was just a part of a song and dance. Bazzoli told Carter at least daily to stop saying 'um' all the time, and at least half the time, Carter replied by saying 'um'. It was a cycle that had gone on since Carter was young, and it wasn't likely to end anytime soon.
When Carter didn't move, his heart beating wildly in his chest like a caged animal, Bazzoli harrumphed. "I don't pay you to sit around on your pretty behind all day boy. You have the stock to tend to!" Bazzoli turned away from Carter. "We're hoping to have some buyers in the coming days. Don't you dare disappoint me, or I'll have you skinned for the market."
The sound of the barn door slamming shut made Carter stumble backwards into Reese, who shifted her weight to lean into him. Carter caught himself on her saddle, his breathing faster then he wanted it to be.
Even though Bazzoli made such threats all the time, it didn't mean Carter's heart didn't palpitate any less than it ever did.
Reese nickered at him and craned her neck towards him. Carter steadied himself on his feet and she leaned over to snuff his hair. He turned to give her a half-hearted scolding look, but she just let out a long breath into his face.
He took a deep breath, not that it helped when he reached up to detach the basket from Reese's saddle and his hands were shaking like leaves. He flushed, heat creeping up the back of his neck and spreading up towards his cheeks, before setting the basket aside after getting it loose from the saddle.
Once the basket was set aside, he pulled out a saddle rack that had been sitting nearby and starting undoing Reese's girth.
After Reese was taken care of and returned to her respective stall, the horses' feed was put away, and Carter put away his tack, he snuck out of the barn. The sky was growing a waning grey, and he could no longer see any clouds in the sky. The sun gleamed dully in the sky, still hanging high in the sky, though it was several hours now past noon.
He left the light in the barn on, not planning a long excursion. Carter followed along a small cobble path that lead straight into a thicket of trees. Tiny lights littered the side of the path like fireflies, and though none of them were on right now, they always filled Carter with a sense of serenity.
Even though Shiloh wasn't going to be back to the property until sundown, the earliest she even got home, Carter still wanted to drop into their little cottage that Bazzoli let them stay in before he got back to his chores.
The path through the stretch of forest that clung tightly around him was a dark contrast to the sunlight outside of them, but Carter didn't mind. He preferred the comforting darkness and, in a way, liked the uncertainty of it. Better than the uncertainty of people anyway.
A gentle breeze drifted through the forest, ruffling Carter's hair. Not that it wasn't already a mess, but he did appreciate the cool draft. The afternoon and the market had left him feeling sticky and uncomfortable, and he couldn't bathe until after chores were done lest he want to nullify the point of cleaning himself.
Ahead about thirty yards, Carter glanced up to see as the trees gently split to give way to the opening and, past that, the small cottage Bazzoli let Shiloh and Carter live in. A wave of ease washed over Carter that had evaded him at the market, even when talking to Whisper.
He knew it was dumb to let himself believe that the cottage was unquestionably safe because the security was non-existent - Carter was almost positive both the stables and Bazzoli's tool shed had more locks or defences than the cottage - but it was the lack of people to disturb him.
Birds sang around him, even as he started to come out of the woods, and flew around overhead. He glanced up, still on the worn cobbled path, to see two blue jays fly overhead into the thicker part of the forest.
He smiled despite himself, turning back to the cottage and letting his shoulders sink into an eased position. The cottage was built from stone, sturdy if not cold, and had one window Carter could see on the entryway side. He knew it was overlooking the kitchen and living space, and it let in beams of sunlight throughout the day.
Outside, around the steps leading up to the front door - a worn, wooden thing that creaked any time anyone shifted it - was a small garden that was partially wilted. That had been Shiloh's idea. A sort of spur-of-the-moment gesture that Carter had never been and would never be capable of achieving.
She loved to sink her fingers into new ideas whenever they rolled around, and Carter, for the most part, simply went along with it. But because of her new job working with the caravans that were running to and from the crossroads a few miles out of Midvale, Shiloh hadn't been able to keep up with her green thumb the way she had hoped.
Carter sucked in a deep breath through his nose as he climbed the few stairs to the front door and unlatched a rusting lock before letting the door swing open.
He took a step inside and shut it behind him, light from the pale evening sun still wafting it through that window towards the front. It cast white beams into the living room where they had a secondhand, floral patterned and fading blue sofa. The rug was practically patchwork at this point, and something Shiloh had tried to fix several times without success.
"One day, we're going to live in a grand house, and you're going to have room to have your horses. We're going to make it, Carter. We'll figure it out." Shiloh had told him once over dinner, her dark eyes glittering as she grinned. "Maybe we'll even live here one day."
He had unhelpfully pointed out that they already did live here, even though he knew Shiloh meant Bazzoli's nicer, larger, and significantly safer house.
Despite the heat outside, the cottage was pleasantly cool when Carter dragged himself in. He knew it wouldn't do him any good to sit down right now, not when he'd just have to go back outside again and start working. When it would just make him more tired than he already was.
A small flash of some pale resting on the tiny, rickety kitchen table that Carter and Shiloh shared their meals at together caught his eyes. Carter paused and stared at the table before he realised it was a slip of parchment. He blinked and glanced around as if the answer to what it was doing there might crawl out of one of the walls.
His heart crept into his throat and Carter drummed against his thigh nervously. Had that paper been there this morning? Surely it hadn't, he definitely would have noticed it. But he could also miss things sometimes.
Who could have left a note there? It couldn't be Shiloh, she would still be at work. Bazzoli? What if someone had broke in and stolen their stuff? Oh God, then Shiloh and him wouldn't have anything and Bazzoli would get mad and they'd be forced to live like this forever-
Carter didn't realise how hard he was breathing until he noticed black fuzz covering his vision and he had to carefully lower himself onto the ground as he grew light-headed.
The sensation of falling crashed into him like a tidal wave and his stomach dropped. Thankfully, the fuzz around his vision cleared, but that didn't mean his breathing steadied out.
In his mind, Carter knew it was stupid to freak out over just the sight of a little piece of paper, but it didn't reach all the corners of his brain.
You're never going to know whether it's worth losing your mind about if you don't read it, Carter offered to the part of his brain that insisted on panic despite the logic against it at hand.
He drummed his fingers against his leg in a suspended moment between getting up and sitting there, but he managed to collect himself enough to stand up and scramble over to the table.
The handwriting on the letter was flowing and beautiful, written in large letters to make the cursive clear. But it didn't matter how big it was, it would have been clear anyway. Carter knew that handwriting any day, it was the same lilt he saw every time he practised his own.
Carter still read the lovely Shiloh over several times before he frowned down at it. His heart clenched in his chest and he flipped the note over in his hands. Why had Shiloh come back during work hours just for this?
He started unfolding the parchment with quivering hands. He leaned onto the table in an attempt to steady them to no success. Carter let out a deep breath as he finished unfolding the note.
To all the things I never told you and for all the things I meant to.
He reread the note several times before he had to sit down at one of the chairs. It gave a great squeaking noise as his weight came down on it, but Carter couldn't bring himself to worry about the chair giving out on him right now.
The note wasn't in cursive, and it's scrawled out almost illegibly. Shiloh had a terrible habit of blending her words when she was writing too fast and Carter doubted this was an exception. She must have been in a rush while she was writing.
But what did it mean? Why C? What did Shiloh mean, everything she had never told him? What hadn't she told him?
His stomach gaped open into a pit and the sensation of falling returns as Carter leaned back in the chair, still staring dumbstruck at the note. Nausea crawled into his throat like a worm wriggling through an apple.
There was no reason for Shiloh to have written such a vague note. She knew how much Carter hated when things weren't explained to him. He could never work out what to do in his mind when it involved anyone else and it ended with Carter spiralling downwards because he could never not overthink things.
Carter set the note down, swallowing back a lump in his throat, and turning to the window. The note didn't have to mean anything. He'd just ask her about it later. There had to be a good explanation for it.
The thought of Shiloh giving him a reassuring smile later and ruffling his hair for worrying over nothing brought him a little more comfort. He'd just have to survive the wait until she got back.
He tapped against the table. Villa, one of their mares, needed exercise. She was full of energy, and she'd be enough of a handful to keep his mind occupied for a while.
Yes. Villa could keep him distracted for a while. He could worry about his sister and vague notes when his head was clearer.
word count: 2,174