Working Villa didn’t end up taking Carter’s mind off the letter or Shiloh or anything else. Instead, he spent the whole time with shaking hands and wobbly legs. Villa, sensing his discomfort, had grown irritated by this and even bucked a few times.
He’d made the executive decision to get off before she threw him. Villa had continuously rubbed her face on him as if in spite. She had, however, amended by nuzzling him for a few moments to make him feel better before she nipped him.
Carter’s pocket felt weighted as though he were carrying lead. He had stuffed the note in there after going back and forth between whether to take it with him or not. After several minutes, Carter had grown too worried that Bazzoli would somehow know he was idling – he never did, he couldn’t be bothered often enough, and Carter was quick if he did ever come by to – and there the note had stayed since.
What did it mean? Why would Shiloh leave a note knowing full well Carter would overthink it?
He tried to force his mind on his work, checking the water in the stalls to find several of the dull mahogany buckets partially empty. Fill the horses’ water. That was simple enough. He’d just have to go out the back left door to the pump with another bucket to carry the water back.
What does she mean ‘all the things I never told you’?
Maybe it wasn’t Shiloh who wrote the note. Maybe it was Bazzoli, or somebody playing a trick on him. Someone who didn’t know him and Shiloh well enough to know they told each other everything. Her and Whisper were the only two people Carter trusted with anything.
Of course. It had to be that. It had to be.
With a milder squirming in his gut, Carter walked along the smooth stone aisle, freshly swept, towards the back corner where he had left a few spare buckets in a stack just outside the supply room.
Sure enough, sitting patiently just beside one of the dark, rich walnut walls that enclosed the small room full of supplies, three neatly stacked buckets waited for him.
As he reached down to pick one up, he frowned disapprovingly at a cobweb that had already stretched between the rim of the bucket and its handle. And, glancing up to the rafters, he could spot more cobwebs extending between the posts and the ceiling.
Carter had just spent the last week cleaning everything, but nothing he did could deter the spiders from building their webs.
It wouldn’t even be such an issue if they didn’t catch on fire so easily.
He sighed, swiping away the web with only a spark of guilt for the spider who had built it, and grabbed the top bucket.
The cool evening breeze was starting to roll through, ruffling Carter’s hair gently. He made his way along the crumbling gravel path over to a water pump with chipping blue paint and rust at a few of its edges.
He set the bucket under the faucet and stepped around the other side of the pump. Carter grabbed the lever with both hands and started working it, pulling it up and down as water started to sputter out.
It didn’t take long for the water to reach the first ring of the bucket. Carter lowered the lever of the pump to a neutral stance and walked back around to collect the bucket.
Hauling water was never a particularly enjoyable job, but at least it kept him focused on not spilling the water all over the floor. Or himself. Or any of the horses that happened to be inside one of the stalls he was refilling the water of.
Bazzoli had a hose that Carter could have easily used, except that Bazzoli kept it locked in his private tool shed and Carter was too afraid to ask to use it. Besides, the work kept him in good shape. It wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.
On his third round, Carter was bringing water to Villa’s stall. The small, black mare tossed her head she had stuck out of the open hatch on the front of her stall and snuffed in excitement. He smiled at he weakly through the bars, lifting the bucket in response to show it wasn’t, in fact, treats.
Villa nickered enthusiastically in response, bouncing her head again as if spotting something she liked. It was the kind of gesture she sometimes made on the rare occasion she was happy to see Carter or Shiloh.
As Carter tilted his head in her direction, something cold suddenly pressed against his throat just as an unfamiliar, silvery voice said, “Don’t move.”
Carter yelped in surprise, doing exactly the opposite and whirled around. In a moment of no self-awareness, Carter completely forgot the bucket. The water leapt straight out of it and drenched everything in its vicinity.
Scrambling backwards, Carter barely avoided tripping. He did, however, crash back into the wall of Villa’s stall, heart racing in his chest enough that he thought it would burst from his chest.
Standing only a few feet away from him was a man, a little shorter than Carter if he had been standing up straight, who had a fuzz of auburn hair and was completely drenched in water. He was scowling, and in his left hand, gripping a knife.
There was a horrible dizziness that ran through Carter in that moment. His pulse beat in his ears like drums that were being played too loud and he squeezed his eyes shut.
He was expecting something overly dramatic, like some rendition of his life playing at the back of eyelids right before his death, but all he could think about was what if he hurts the horses? and Bazzoli’s going to be pissed and I wish I had gotten to tell Shiloh I loved her.
“What are you doing?”
Carter opened his eyes in surprise and blinked up at the stranger, who was exactly where Carter had left him when he shut his eyes. He was still gripping the curved, nightmarish dagger, but at least he hadn’t advanced towards Carter yet.
“Um-“ Carter glanced around the room, searching for somebody else the stranger must have been talking to. The only other noise was Villa nickering behind him. “Um- I- um. Aren’t-aren’t you going to, um…” Carter looked down at the knife, feeling a sudden wave of nausea roll through him. His knees wobbled, and he nearly collapsed to the ground. Would have, had he not been leaning against the wall.
The stranger looked at the knife in question. His scowled turned into something that might have been a confused frown. Carter hoped it was that, and he hadn’t just made the stranger angrier.
“I leave you alone for two minutes flat and you’re already terrorising the locals.” Carter swallowed back another yelp as his head jerked to the left.
Coming from what must have been the front of the stable – another how? Carter hadn’t heard anyone come in – was a tall blonde woman who looked considerably less…scowly then the stranger.
She peered over at Carter and offered him a sweet smile. Something about her smile scared Carter more than the scowly stranger’s knife. “Gideon.” the blonde turned to- well, Gideon, presumably. “What’d you do? Poor kid looks like he’s seen a ghost. And put the knife away.”
On a whim, Carter reached in his pocket and grabbed the note, gripping it like a vice. He tried to imagine Shiloh beside him, holding his hand and running her fingers through his hair, murmuring in a soothing voice.
The scowly stranger – Gideon? – looked back at Carter with a frown. In one of the stalls nearby, Reese whinnied loudly and Carter’s heart leapt into his throat. He wondered if he could make it to her stall if he moved fast enough. He’d much rather die with her next to him then all alone out here.
But then Gideon slid the awful dagger into a sheathe and settled his arms across his chest, still soaking, instead. Carter noticed he was wearing arm bands around both biceps, and couldn’t help but wonder how comfortable that was.
“Who are you?” Gideon demanded, his eyes darting around to any movement Carter made. Which wasn’t many, Carter wasn’t sure he could move even if the scary man asked him to.
“N-nobody!” Carter said quickly, eyes darting between Gideon and the slightly less scary blonde. “I’m- I’m, um, nobody. I-I don’t know where, um, where any r-riches are,” he added for good measure. Although he figured it was pointless- bandits weren’t going to believe him.
They’d probably take him for ransom if they didn’t kill him. But there was nobody to pay it. Bazzoli would just find a new stablehand and Shiloh wouldn’t have the money and the new stablehand would be mean to the horses and Whisper wouldn’t have anyone to work with Achille and she’d have to sell him and-
“We’re not here to rob anyone,” the woman said, cutting out Carter’s train of thought. Her brow wrinkled in his direction. “Hey, kid, you okay?”
Carter’s breath hitched in his throat and he felt like somebody was pressing an anvil on his chest. His legs did buckle out from him now, and Carter slowly slid down to the icy stone floor when his vision started to spin.
He could vaguely see both bandits – that’s what they had to be, right? – standing nearby, watching helplessly as Carter struggled for air.
There was a sudden and loud bang from just behind Carter that made him nearly jump out of his own skin. Then a warm breath rushed over his head and something nipped at his hair. Carter squawked in indignation and reached up to swat the velvety nose sniffing at his hair.
“Villa!” he scolded through a gasp, sucking in a breath without quite realising the world was once again in better focus.
The mare nickered at him and nibbled at his fingers playfully, chuffing hot air over his hands and face.
He looked back up at the strangers, ducking his head into his shoulders as if he were a turtle trying to retreat into its shell. Gideon looked slightly less scowly, but still drenched with water and crossing his arms. The blonde was watching more passively, although there was a spark of curiosity in her eyes.
It was then that Carter realised what the blonde had said before and his brow wrinkled. Was he okay? Why would a bandit ask that? If they were just going to-
“You’re-you’re not going to…um…kill me?” he asked weakly, his voice hardly more than a whisper. Villa’s nose stilled above him, and Carter brought his laps down to rest in his lap, his heart remembering how to pace itself again.
The blonde raised one of her eyebrows. “You know, I wish I could say that’s the first time somebody was that intimidated by him, but I’d be lying,” she said, her lip curling to the side. “No, we’re not here to hurt anyone. Least of all you. Shame to waste such a pretty boy.”
“Isha,” Gideon hissed, his jaw set together firmly. He had a strong jawline, Carter observed.
“Relax,” the blonde – Isha? – cut in before Gideon could continue, “You’re still a pretty boy too.” She threw a wink in Carter’s direction and he blinked a few times, trying to decipher its meaning.
Carter folded his arms around his torso when it hit him how cold the stone floor was. It might have even been nice if it was warmer, but now that the evening air started to settle, it just made goosebumps run up Carter’s arms.
It didn’t help that Gideon was watching him with such a sharp gaze. Carter was almost sure that he could breathe and Gideon could see the breath curling out of his mouth.
“We’re looking for someone,” Gideon said after a pause, his shoulders relaxing slightly.
“And we aren’t going to hurt her either,” Isha added pointedly.
A rustling noise drew Carter’s gaze up to see Villa raising her head, stretching out her neck. He wondered if she believed that if she reached far enough, she would be able to sniff Gideon or Isha.
Rubbing his arms, Carter’s gaze rested on Gideon. Just looking at him was making Carter colder than he already was. Should he offer him a towel? What was one supposed to do in this situation?
There were towels in the supply room, Carter could easily get up to retrieve one. Carter’s stomach gnawed at itself guiltity. He hadn’t meant to get Gideon soaking wet.
He rubbed his arms again. His tongue felt too heavy and dry to form the words to respond, so he just nodded at the two.
Gideon hesitated a moment before his brow knitted into some more like consternation than anger. “We’re looking for a woman named Shiloh.”
A pit opened in Carter’s stomach, and the note drooped heavier in his pocket.
word count: 2,175