John should’ve left already.
Things were quiet now. The gunshots had faded, what Pinkertons left alive following on the heels of Micah or Dutch. He’d seen them ride by—Micah, then, not long after, Dutch—from the rock alcove he’d pressed himself into to wait out the last of the fight. The thick brush that surrounded him sheltered him from their sight, so long as he stayed relatively still. Neither man had been looking, anyway.
The Pinkertons didn’t know he hadn’t run. Hadn’t thought to bring scent hounds. Had thought, maybe, with how many men they brought, that they would at least get someone, that Dutch Van der Linde’s luck couldn’t hold forever.
He willed himself to go. Get up, get moving. Would be so easy to gather his feet under him. He’d bound the wound on his shoulder to ease the bleeding, so that wasn’t the issue. Hell, there was a horse grazing in eyeshot, one of many they’d shot the Pinkerton off the back of. No Old Boy, but still. He could ride down to Copperhead Landing, no fuss. Gather Abigail, Jack, get the hell out of New Hanover.
He couldn’t leave Arthur. The thought settled in his stomach like a weight, tethering him to the ground below him. Couldn’t leave his body up on that mountain to be picked over by birds or wolves, or, somehow worse, gathered up by law and put on display somewhere. An example to those few outlaws left, a lesson about defying the government. No one deserved that, of course, but Arthur least of all.
It was quiet. John got to his feet.
He felt exposed immediately, leaving the bushes, and the mountain itself was worse, all sheer rock and no cover. Still, no shouting, no bullets. He seemed to be alone, the only one left in this corner of the Grizzles. Him and the dead bodies, the Pinkertons he scrambled around, sometimes over, as he made his way up.
Things got messier as he got closer to the summit. Clean shots through the forehead became a spattering of chest shots, became men who clearly gasped and bled and coughed blood before they died. Arthur, losing blood, losing his focus, losing his eye as he went lightheaded. That, or Micah, relishing the suffering of dying men. Micah. John let his brain slide off of Micah. A problem for another day. A bullet with Micah’s name on it.
The right place wasn’t hard to find. On the same ledge he left Arthur, John found the found the blood. A long streak of it, already turning rust-colored as it dried, must’ve been someone bleeding badly while crawling across the stone, or else being dragged. John clenched his jaw, followed.
John was sure, when he rounded the corner and saw him, that Arthur was dead. Arthur was curled inwards on himself, lower torso soaked in red, and so, so still. In the soft, grey light of the morning, his skin looked nearly white, and John couldn’t see any sign of breathing. John’s stomach rolled and his knees went weak. He’d known, of course, what he’d find up here, but seeing the shell of Arthur, silent and frozen, destabilized him.
John forced a breath in through his nose and back out his mouth. He had a job to do. He owed it to Arthur.
And, so, when he turned Arthur’s body onto his back, trying to get make it easier to pick him up with one working shoulder, Arthur’s sharp gasp of air made John flinch backward in surprise.
“You’re alive,” John said, heart fluttering up in his throat. And again, louder this time, “Arthur, you’re alive.”
A low, pained groan was all he got in response, but even that was heartening. Half-dead, maybe, dying, maybe, but not dead yet, not even fully unconscious. There was a noticeable rise and fall in his chest now. John could cling to that with all he was worth.
He pulled Arthur flat on his back, letting his body uncurl away from his stomach while he dug through Arthur’s satchel. He knew what he was looking for, already took care of his shoulder, after all. Catgut, gauze, bandages, whiskey, an assortment of tonics, miracle cures, other patent medicines.
John’s medical knowledge wasn’t exactly great, but he’d picked up what he needed to know, enough to keep himself alive until he could crawl back to camp, to a doctor. Clean a wound, close it, bind it. Leave a bullet where it was for someone who knew what they were doing to dig out. Leave a knife where it was, unless he had a plan to prevent bleeding out. Hosea’d made them carry around basic medical gear for emergencies. John’s luck that Arthur’d never broken that habit.
Bleeding. First priority.
He untucked Arthur’s shirt, unbuttoned most of his union suit. Pulled both, along with Arthur’s jacket, off of Arthur’s right arm, leaving his right side bare. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or not to find that the bullet had punched straight through—entered low on the right of Arthur’s torso, exited just over his hip. On one hand, it meant no bullet. On the other, both openings were still oozing half-clotted blood.
There was bruising too across his abdomen, a dark newly-made purple that matched the bruise on Arthur’s jaw, his split lip, but, as far as John could tell, they weren’t dangerous. Not in the same way the bleeding was.
Arthur’d made another noise of pain when John had moved his clothing, had scraped one heel against the ground, tried to move, and John didn’t know if he could stitch up a wound on someone fighting him even without an injured shoulder. And, from past experience, Arthur could kick like a horse.
So, John needed to get something into Arthur that would numb the pain. But they didn’t have any morphine, nothing injectable. Arthur needed to be awake to swallow it.
“Arthur, hey,” John said, jostling Arthur’s shoulders, patting his face, lightly, then more firmly. “Arthur, wake up.”
It was slow, slower than was comfortable, Arthur’s breathing hitching, his eyes sliding open. Unfocused, then, slower still, coming to focus on John.
“Good,” John murmured, “yes, Arthur, that’s it. Hey, it’s me, alright? John?”
If John had to guess, he’d say it was annoyance that crept into Arthur’s face, by the way his eyes narrowed, eyebrows tightened, his jaw slid just slightly to the side. “What’re y’doin’?” he asked, and though his voice was hoarse, weak, his speech slurred, he was alive, he was talking.
“Bringin' you with me.”
“Fool,” Arthur said, and John might’ve even laughed if Arthur’s eyes didn’t start to slide shut again.
“Hey, no,” John said, jostling Arthur again. “No, no, don’t fall asleep. Here, need you to drink this. I’ll help you sit up.”
He’d chosen one of the miracle tonics from Arthur’s bag. He didn’t know exactly what was in it, but he knew from past experience with the things that they made everything go loose, bright, numb, and he couldn’t fall asleep for hours after taking one. Seemed close enough to what they needed right now.
Arthur mumbled some protest but John ignored him, propped him up on one of his legs rather than risk hurting Arthur more by dragging him over to the more upright rocks. Proved to be the right decision, because the pained gasp Arthur made when John moved him made John wince.
When he lifted the bottle Arthur eyed it, but drank with little protest. Made a face at either the taste or the press of the glass against his split lip, but seemed to settle back into John once it’d gone down. John tried not to notice how cold Arthur’s skin had gone.
Things went quicker after that, John mostly working from muscle memory. Cleaning, stitching, wrapping. Arthur had gone boneless, unfocused, flinching when something stung but otherwise quiet, his eyes following John’s hands. At least he was awake, though, staying awake. John chose to see that as a good sign, rather than a result of whatever was in the miracle tonics Arthur carried around.
The sun was bright by the time he was done, lighting up the mountain around them. Couldn’t have been more than a half hour since he’d found Arthur, probably not even that, but they’d already lingered longer than was safe.
“Arthur, this ain’t gonna feel nice,” John said after pulling Arthur’s clothes back on him, shifting to kneel while he kept Arthur upright with a hand fisted in his shirt. The only way he could foresee carrying Arthur was over his good shoulder. Anything that required Arthur to support his own weight was out, as was anything that needed John’s shot shoulder to support the same. “Just ‘til we’re down the hill, promise."
And he pulled Arthur up.
For as long as John was with the gang, Arthur had been bigger than him. Height, sure, John had height on Arthur, a fact he’d been overjoyed to discover the autumn he was seventeen, but Arthur had always had plain brawn. No matter how much food the older folk at camp forced into John when he was growing, he’d always stayed narrow, to a point where Pearson nearly took it as a personal affront.
He didn’t know when Arthur had gotten so thin. When he busted John from Sisika Arthur’s cheekbones had been a little sharper, sure, his shoulders a little leaner, but—
Not like this. Arthur’s jacket shouldn’t be this loose, he shouldn’t be this easy for John to pick up, John shouldn’t have seen the outline of his hip and ribs while stitching the hole in his gut. Gone was the Arthur that could win fistfights with John just by getting him pinned—for the first time, John was the one with more mass.
He tried to position Arthur so John’s shoulder was pressing into the side of his torso opposite the gunshot wound, but, judging by the hiss Arthur made and how his hands fisted in John’s jacket, it didn’t relieve much pain. Arthur was breathing heavily by the time John got down the mountain, shaking by the time John was lifting him on the back of the Pinkerton mare he’d noticed earlier (still grazing in around the same spot, calm as can be). John’s legs were weak, his shoulder aching, and they really were a mess, weren’t they?
“Gonna need to tie you on,” John said as he helped Arthur sit up in the saddle. Arthur’s grumble in reply probably wasn’t meant to be comforting, but was comforting all the same. Awake, alive, well enough to protest being helped. It was something, at least.
He’d considered taking the same horse, setting Arthur up either in front of or behind him as he managed the reins, but he wasn’t confident enough in his ability to keep Arthur mounted with only one arm. Carrying Arthur like a bounty wasn’t an option either, not when it would irritate the wound, risk tearing open the stitches. Better to guarantee Arthur would stay in the saddle, with or without John.
He looped Arthur’s lasso around his waist, down around his hips to avoid the bandages. Fed the rope under the saddle tree, wrapped it down around the stirrup leathers. As he tied the last knot, Arthur grabbed him by the good shoulder. When John looked up at him, his eyes were unfocused with pain, his voice almost desperate as he asked, “Why’re y’doin’ this?” The I told you to go went unspoken, but John wasn’t so much a fool that he couldn’t catch Arthur’s meaning.
John wanted to say because he was scared. Because after all this, the thought of losing more was unbearable. Because he owed it to Arthur. Because he owed it to Jack, to Abigail, to every person who ever cared about Arthur.
“'cause you’re my brother,” he said instead, and it wasn’t enough.
He should’ve said that, after all this, the happiest version of John’s life had Arthur inside it.
Around Butcher’s Creek, Arthur started fading again. John could feel Arthur’s horse sidestep, snorting, as his weight shifted in her saddle.
They’d gotten lucky, in terms of horses. Seems the mess the Pinkertons had made was big enough that they hadn’t even been able to organize men to collect the mounts yet. And the two John had found either had good temperaments or were well trained, because John had been ponying Arthur’s mare and, despite the frequent diversions into the woods, neither horse had raised any fuss.
When John looked back, Arthur was hunched and lent slightly to the right, curled around his stomach, fingers white where they held the base of the mare’s mane. “Arthur?” John said.
Arthur started, like his mind hadn’t been all there. Rolled his eyes up towards John.
“You good?” John asked, knowing Arthur wasn’t, knowing it wasn’t going to get him more than the bleary glare that Arthur leveled at him. But—
It felt like the world had come down around them, and John was left scrambling to gather what was left. The more he’d pile in his fist, the more would slip through his fingers.
“Stay awake,” he said, grasping for better words that didn’t come.
Arthur turned away from him, jaw working, and John thought that would be the end of it until Arthur said, his voice still hoarse, exhausted, slightly slurred, “Abigail thinks you’re dead.”
And, though unsurprising, it was such an abrupt turn from any train of thought he’d been on that John was left stunned, almost stopped the horses. “What?”
Arthur glanced back up at him. “Told her you was, jus’ before I split with her ‘nd Sadie. Feel badly for makin’ her cry, now.”
“She cried?” And that rocked John differently—Abigail cried for him?
“Course she cried, with you ‘nd Jack off with Tilly ‘nd the whole Pinkerton mess.”
John shut his eyes, tried to puzzle through what Arthur had given him, and found it making absolutely no sense. “Arthur, I have no goddamn clue what you’re talkin' about.”
Arthur actually scoffed, and if he weren’t gutshot John absolutely would’ve hit him.
John sighed. “Can you at least start from the beginnin'? After the train?” At the very least it would keep Arthur awake, and at best he’d get more of a grasp on this whole situation.
“Sure,” Arthur drawled, repositioning how his fingers were knotted in the mare’s mane. “Tilly met us, on the way back. Had Jack with her. Pinkertons’d attacked the camp, took Abigail.”
Took Abigail? “Jesus. You said she—”
“She’s fine, safe ‘nd well. Sadie ‘nd I went after her. Dutch refused to.” John turned his eyes back forward to watch the terrain, but he could hear an edge come into Arthur’s voice. “Thought she was a rat, thought you was a rat. Whole mess of a thing. Milton was usin’ her as bait. Nearly worked, up ‘til Abigail shot him.”
“Abigail shot him?”
“Was ‘bout to shoot me, all’s fair. Jus’ got lucky she got her ties cut quick ‘nough.”
John would need to get a more comprehensive version of the story along with time to think through the last day or so. But, at the very least: “Thank you, Arthur, I mean it. Both you and Sadie. Thank you.”
When he looked back, Arthur was giving him a strange look. Eyes narrowed, jaw tight, still slightly unfocused. When he met John’s eyes, Arthur rolled his shoulders, winced, and sighed. “Thought you was dead, like I said. Weren’t gonna let Jack grow up orphaned is all.”
John knew, in that moment, that there was no way he’d ever be able to fully repay his debt to Arthur.
They crossed the railroad tracks, followed the shoreline south of Van Horn. When John next looked back, Arthur’s eyes were out towards the river, moving rapidly like he could see something John couldn’t.
Hating that it was the only words he could seem to find, John asked again, “You good?”
This time Arthur didn’t bother brushing him off, didn’t even look back at him. “Keep seein' antlers.”
“S’nothin'.” Arthur heaved a deep breath, and judging by the way his breath hitched on the way out, even that much hurt. “Strange few weeks.”
“Yeah,” John said, and pushed the horses into a lope.
Sadie was waiting outside the wrecked shack down at Copperhead Landing. She must’ve called for the others as soon as she had eyes John and Arthur because before they were within they were within twenty yards of the place Abigail was rounding the corner. When she spotted them, spotted him, she hiked up the skirt of her dress and broke in to a sprint.
John was off his horse before he realized what he was doing, pain in his shoulder all but forgotten as he met Abigail, caught her in his arms as she wrapped her own around him.
“My god, John, my god.” Abigail was sobbing, tears falling freely as she moved a fraction back, just enough to grab his face between her palms. “I thought you were dead, you son of a bitch, I can’t believe— Arthur said—”
“He didn’t know, he didn’t know, Dutch lied—” He was crying too, he realized, as he brought one hand up to Abigail’s face, wiping away her tears with a thumb. “Are you okay? You’re not hurt?”
“No, no, not hurt, Jack neither. But you—” her eyes had gone to his shoulder, “—you’re bleedin'—”
“It’s fine, aches, but I’ll be okay. Arthur—” and Abigail’s eyes went up to Arthur, and John could see the way her eyes caught on his torso, clothing still soaked with blood, “—it’s bad, Abigail.”
Despite how impossible it seemed to John, Arthur had gotten even paler in the space between Van Horn and Copperhead Landing. Whatever pain relief the tonic had afforded, it seemed to be fading, because his body was visibly tight, muscles guarding against the ache of the bullet wound. Still unfocused, still hazy, even as his eyes turned to Sadie, approaching the mare he was tied to, and John could hear him ask in a low murmur, “No trouble?”
“What happened?” Abigail asked, still watching Arthur, her eyes glassy.
And John reluctantly released her, hand going up to the renewed throb in his shoulder. “Abigail, Dutch—Dutch shot him.”
“Dutch?” Abigail’s eyes wide, disbelieving, and John knew exactly how she felt.
“Let me explain more once we get movin'. But…” He gritted his teeth as they both moved over towards Arthur’s horse. “But that life is definitely over, now. Can’t see any way of comin' back from this.”
“Gonna need a hand here,” Sadie said, working a knife through the ties keeping Arthur mounted. As John joined her, she continued, “We got some blankets in the shack we can set him down on ‘til we figure things through. We got a wagon for you and yours,” she said, nodding at John, “but it’s not loaded.”
“Ain't it easier to get him straight to the wagon? Load it up around him.” John asked.
Sadie gave him a strange look, but whatever she might’ve said was cut off by Abigail. “Jack’s asleep, back in the shack. He’ll likely stay asleep, exhausted as he was, but best we not let him see all this blood if we can.”
“The wagon it is,” John said, and though Sadie was still giving him the same brow-creased look, she acquiesced.
“Alright, then,” she said, pulling the last of the rope away from Arthur. “Help me get this lug over to it.”
“Y’all keep talkin’ ‘bout me like m’not sittin’ here ‘nd m’gonna up ‘nd disappear outta spite,” Arthur murmured, but it had no bite. His eyes were closed, like keeping them shut would ward against the pain.
“Go on and try it, then,” Sadie replied, and pulled Arthur from the saddle.
John was there to help catch Arthur, bring him down as softly as possible, but, even then, the increase in pain was obvious and immediate. Arthur took a sharp gasp of breath inward, his eyes squeezing shut harder. One hand grasped at Sadie’s jacket, and when John got his other arm, pulled it over his shoulder to support Arthur’s weight, the other fisted in John’s shirt. Arthur was trying to get his feet under him, but they didn’t seem to want to take his weight.
“Easy,” Sadie was saying, “easy, big guy, we’ve got you. Just over to the wagon, not far.”
John could see the wagon, now that he was looking, tucked next to the shack. No horses hitched, but a pair of drafts accompanied Sadie’s Bob in grazing off near the dock. Abigail hurried ahead of them, presumably to gather something for Arthur to lie on that wasn’t the wood of the wagon.
It was slow going, but they got Arthur over to it just as Abigail was exiting the shack, Tilly alongside her. It took a moment for John to remember that Arthur’d mentioned Tilly, that Tilly was the one that came down here with Jack, but the relief at seeing her safe came immediately. He gave her a nod and she returned a smile as she and Abigail laid down bedrolls and blankets across the bed of the wagon.
Getting Arthur into the thing itself involved a fair bit of pulling and lifting, which proved to be wholly unpleasant for all of them, Arthur most of all. By the time they had him in, lying on his side, he seemed half-conscious, breathing hard, his forehead pressed into the blankets. John made himself get out of the wagon, made himself stop fussing, as Abigail pulled one of the blankets up over Arthur’s torso, hiding the blood from sight.
“It’s good to see you,” John said to Tilly as he turned, glancing her over and finding her, thankfully, unharmed.
“John,” Tilly said fondly, and wrapped him in a hug, which John returned with one arm. “They had me thinkin’ you were dead.”
“Seems I fooled a lot of folks into thinkin’ I was,” he said, and pulled away, taking her hand instead. “Thank you for gettin’ Jack out. Can’t tell you how much we owe you.”
She held up her other hand in response. “Weren’t nothin'. Woulda never left him behind, you know that.”
“Still,” John said, and let her hand go.
Sadie leaned back against the wagon, crossing her arms. “We should figure out what we’re doing here, before we start packin'. If you two are taking Arthur, then…”
“You and Tilly are welcome,” Abigail said immediately, before John could even think through the situation. “After everythin', we’d welcome your company, least until you’re ready to split off.”
“May be best I accompany you, then,” Sadie said. “Even layin' low the roads'll be dangerous, and you got both sharpshooters down for the count—sorry John, but don’t think I don’t remember you’re shot too.”
“I’ll come too,” Tilly followed. “Can’t promise it’ll be forever, but at least until you and Arthur are well.”
“Thank you,” John said, and meant it.
“Right, so, we need a place to rest.” Sadie straightened, rolled her shoulders. “None of us got much rest last night, that much is clear, and it ain’t a good idea to push to exhaustion, if we can help it.”
But, they couldn’t stay here, not in a half-collapsed shack, not when they all needed real rest and Arthur needed a bed, not a pile of blankets in the back of a wagon. “Should we… Should we find an abandoned house, or somethin'?” There hadn’t been much time for John to get to know the landscape around Beaver Hollow, not when he’d been focused on keeping Abigail and Jack safe and fed those last few weeks.
Sadie looked similarly lost. “I guess… I guess I could…”
“Might know a place,” a voice trailed over from the wagon, and the conversation ceased immediately. Arthur was sitting, leaning heavily against the wooden side-panel, watching them through hazy, half-lidded eyes. His breathing had eased somewhat, but was still heavier than usual. “Willard’s Rest. North of Annesburg, up by the falls. There’s a widow there, name of Charlotte Balfour.” Arthur met John’s eyes directly, with that look he knew meant Arthur was willing him to trust what he was saying. “She’ll help.”
“Lie back down, Arthur,” Sadie said, and it wasn’t a request. Arthur’s eyes flicked over to her, but he didn’t comply.
“My horses, s’the other thing. Van Horn stables. I don’t—” and Arthur was interrupted by what must’ve been a pulse of pain, eyes pressing closed, but even before that John caught the desperation in the look Arthur gave him.
“I can—” John started, but Sadie shook her head.
“Let me,” she said. “Once we get you lot settled, I’ll wait for dark and go get ‘em. Just give me the lease papers. You need the rest too, John. And—” Sadie turned, pressed both her palms on the wood of the wagon, looked Arthur directly in the eye. “If you don’t lie back down right this minute, Morgan, so help me I will make you myself.”
Arthur eyed her, but eased himself back down onto the blankets with a long, careful exhale.
“Willard’s Rest it is,” John said, sighing, wiping a hand over his face. His whole body felt heavy, felt exhausted.
As they moved to start packing, Abigail grabbed John’s arm, drew him into the shack with only a murmured, “Jack’ll want to see you.”
And he did. Noticed John as he was rubbing the sleep from his eyes after Abigail roused him and immediately lit up, giving a bright, “You’re back!” as he scrambled to his feet. John barely had time to crouch to Jack’s level before the boy was barreling into him, wrapping his small arms as far as he could get them around John’s stomach.
John was going to start crying again if he wasn’t careful. “Hey, Jack,” he said, blinking rapidly as his eyes burned. Jack, his son. His son.
After a brief moment Jack unlatched himself from John, examined John’s face. “Momma said you wasn’t comin’ back, but I knew you was.” His look caught on what must’ve been John’s red, watery eyes, and Jack asked, “Are you sad?”
“Not sad, Jack, happy,” John said, and he let Jack go back to Abigail, slowly stood back up. Abigail offered him a gentle smile, and John returned it.
“Listen, Jack, Uncle Arthur’s here too,” Abigail said, ushering Jack out towards the wagon. Her voice caught a bit as she continued, “But he ain’t feeling well, okay? So you best let him rest.”
As he exited the shack in turn, intent on helping hitch the horses, Sadie pulled John aside. She gestured for him to follow him over to the horses, which, while he was headed that way anyway, seemed to be more about being somewhere they weren’t easily overheard.
“What’d you need, Sadie?” he murmured, once they were hidden from the others by one of the big belgians.
Sadie turned on her heel, made sure she was looking John directly in the eye. “Wanted to say this, before things get too far to reverse.” She took a deep breath, careful, in a way John wasn’t used to seeing from her. “Just wanted to make sure you know, you don’t have to take him if you don’t want.”
John didn’t have to ask to know she was talking about Arthur, but the statement gave him pause. “What do you mean?”
“I can get him out of here on a horse, find somewhere else to lay low while you all make yourselves scarce. You’re already hurt, you have Jack. I ain’t gonna fault you for wanting to take care of your family first, and Arthur wouldn’t fault you either.”
And John knew what Sadie was saying, knew she was being kind, giving him a way to safety if he needed it, but— “Sadie, Arthur is family. I ain’t leavin' him behind again.”
“Alright,” Sadie said, and the look she gave him was about as soft as John expected Sadie Adler could get. “Well then. Let’s get these big bastards hitched.”
John probably shouldn’t have been surprised he was made to sit in the back, out of sight where the wagon was covered, but it itched at him all the same. Sadie’d made a good case, of course, that John was probably the most recognizable out of all of them what with his scars, but riding where he couldn’t see any potential danger made him restless.
It wasn’t without its benefits, though. Sometime during John explaining the past few hours to Abigail, Sadie, and Tilly, Arthur had finally, blessedly, fallen asleep. From where he was sitting John could watch Arthur’s chest rise and fall with his breathing, still short, still shallow. His brow was furrowed, like the pain had followed him into whatever dreams he might be having, but otherwise he was quiet.
Abigail had taken a seat next to John, after Jack fell back asleep, and her cheek was warm and soft where it rested on his shoulder. He rolled his head to rest on hers, let himself breathe in the smell of her hair, and tried to let himself relax.
Just when he’d nearly settled, nearly drifted into a doze, Abigail asked, “Why’re you wearin’ his hat, anyway?” Her voice was muffled against the sleeve of his coat. John nearly laughed, pulled Arthur’s hat from his head, settled it in his lap. He’d forgotten about the thing entirely.
They arrived at Willard’s Rest not long after noon, if the pocket watch John had pulled from Arthur’s satchel was to be believed. According to Sadie, driving the wagon, there hadn’t even been Pinkerton patrols out near Annesburg and John wondered, not for the first time, just how much damage they’d caused, and just how much heat was still chasing Dutch down.
Willard’s Rest was quiet, almost painfully peaceful, John noted as he climbed from the back of the wagon. Even the horses—both the hitched belgians as well as Sadie’s stallion and the two former Pinkerton mares, tethered in a rough sort of string to the back—seemed to settle in the atmosphere, started picking at the grass. Sadie’d stopped just at the crest of the small hill that lead up to the little ranch house and barn. Behind both, it looked like there were wildflowers growing in the half-fenced pasture.
John made to walk up to the house, knock on the door, but Sadie cut him off. “Best you let me. A widow ain’t likely to take kindly to a strange feller knockin' on her door, not in a place so isolated as this, ‘specially not one been shot.” She glanced back at the wagon. “Maybe get Arthur. Gonna have to move him anyway, and if she knows him, may help our case.”
So John acquiesced, letting Sadie handle the talking. Was never his strong suit, anyway.
When he came back around the wagon, Tilly was already waiting at the back. Abigail knelt next to Arthur, trying, as far as John could tell, to wake him as gently (and as quietly—Jack still asleep in his own blanket pile) as possible. It was working, albeit slowly—Arthur’s leg straightening, mumbling something incoherent under his breath—and the whole scene lodged something tight and painful in John’s throat, and he almost couldn’t breathe.
Then Abigail was leaning back up, saying, “Gonna move you now, alright?” and Arthur’s barely audible, “Sure,” was enough to break whatever had hold on John. He moved to the base of the wagon, braced himself to take part of Arthur’s weight.
When they brought Arthur around—John under one arm, Tilly under the other, Abigail following close to steady them if they wobbled, Arthur limp, Arthur panting, gasping again—the door was just starting to open. John’d missed Sadie knocking.
John didn’t know exactly what his expectations were, but somehow the woman who pulled the door open still defied them. With how Arthur said her name, John’d built her up in his mind to be something different, something other. Instead, she looked just as normal as the rest of them. Thin, rifle in her hand, black hair pulled back behind her head, loose enough that it fell in curtains on either side of her face. There was something, though, something in the way she looked at Sadie, not with suspicion but with concern.
“Can I help you?”
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but might you be Charlotte Balfour?” Sadie’s voice was low, gentle, attempting to be non-threatening. When the woman, Charlotte, nodded, she continued. “We’re sorry to impose, but there’s been some trouble, and—well, Arthur said you might be able to give us a place to rest for the night.”
She knew Arthur alright, judging by the way her head jerked when Sadie said his name, looking for the first time out at the rest of them. Seeing Arthur. Seeing the blood, drying to rust-colored but still dark, harsh against his shirt.
Her hand went to her mouth. She said something John couldn’t hear, muffled and quiet.
“He’s alive,” Sadie replied. “Shot but still kickin'. We intend to keep him that way, best we can.”
“Please,” Charlotte called, this time her voice intentionally reaching John, Abigail and Tilly, “bring him in. There’s a spare bed, in the second room. If there’s anything I can do, please, I want to help.”
That wasn’t the reaction John was expecting, but he wasn’t about to question it. Instead they dragged Arthur in, into the very nice house with its very quaint decorations, and from there into the very clean and very cozy second bedroom.
When they deposited him on the bed, Arthur seemed, for the first time, to process where they were. His eyes rolled over to Charlotte, hovering anxiously as Abigail adjusted the bedding, and the fond smile Arthur gave her cut through the pain on his face. “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Balfour.” It was a murmur, but clearer than most of what Arthur had said over the past few hours.
“You too, Arthur,” Charlotte gave her own sad smile back. John didn’t know why the whole exchange made him feel uneasy, made something burn in his chest. He pushed it aside.
“We oughta change these bandages,” Abigail said, and when John looked over she had pushed back Arthur’s jacket, shirt, pulled open his union suit to show where he was starting to bleed through John’s sloppy job at binding. It was far less than before John’d stitched the wounds, sure, but blood all the same, a bright, harsh red that made John’s stomach turn in a way he thought he’d grown out of. Abigail looked back up at him. “His then yours.”
John stepped forward, ready to help, ready to do something, the red of the blood burning against his vision, but Abigail waved a hand. “Tilly and I can handle it, John. You oughta rest. We can get you when he’s done.” And when her eyes met his, she must’ve seen some hint of desperation in his look, because she said, after a pause, “Could you get Jack? Best he get inside.”
“I—” John started, trying to gather his words, trying to wrap his tongue around the fact that the blood scared him, that he was afraid that if he left, everything would be crumbling when he got back.
“John.” And it was Arthur, Arthur, Arthur with his head titled towards John, blurry but meeting his gaze. “’m fine. Y'can go.”
“You ain’t,” John said back, but something in his chest loosened anyway. He wasn’t sure how much Arthur understood anymore, how coherent he was with both the pain and the blood loss, but: even then, Arthur was trying to comfort him, like he was still a kid brother afraid of those people waiting in the dark.
As he left, he caught the edges of their murmured conversation behind him, something about laudanum, left over from Charlotte’s husband’s death.
His shoulder ached, but in a manageable way. The bleeding had mostly clotted by the time he’d even stitched it, and he didn’t feel that dizzy, cold feeling he knew intimately from former brushes with blood loss. Mostly he just felt exhausted, the kind of tired that tugged at his bones. Maybe Abigail was right.
It was only when he saw her over by the wagon that John realized Sadie had never entered the house. Left them to worry about Arthur, had gotten to work. She gestured back towards the wagon as he approached. “Jack’s still asleep. Figured Abigail wanted to get things settled before she brought him in.”
“Sent me out to do just that. Do you need…?”
Sadie gave him a dry look. “Can’t imagine she asked you to look after your son if what she really wanted was for you to be doing heavy liftin’.”
“Just offerin’ help,” John said, going to cross his arms before his shoulder twinged and he sighed.
Sadie, thankfully, seemed to take pity on him, turned away from the conversation. “Once everything’s unloaded, I’m gonna bring the wagon around back. Bob’ll stick around if I turn him loose in back, but it may be best to put the rest in the barn, ‘specially if someone comes sniffin’ and realizes there're more horses around than there should be people. I’ll get some halters for the mares you rode in on so we can at least string ‘em properly, next we move out, if you’re set on keepin' them.”
“Thank you, Sadie.” And then after a moment, “You should get some rest too.”
She brushed him off, went back to gathering what little they had to unload. “I will, don’t you worry about me.”
Jack grumbled when John woke him, the novelty of John being back now apparently worn from the situation. He let John pick him up, one armed, lift him from the wagon and carry him to the house with only a sleepy, “Where are we?”
“Place called Willard’s Rest,” John answered, pushing open the door. “A very kind lady named Charlotte is lettin' us stay here for a little while.”
And Jack hummed in acknowledgement, resting his head in the crook of John’s neck. This much was easy. This much John could do with relative confidence. Answering Jack’s questions, carrying him around per Abigail’s instructions, he could do that. It was the other things that were harder.
Charlotte was in the main room when they entered. She gave Jack a smile and gestured towards a couch where John could set him down.
As he laid Jack down, the boy yawned, then, quiet, “Where’s Momma?"
John sat down next to Jack, deliberating for just a moment before patting him on shoulder. “She’ll be out in just a minute. She’s makin’ sure your uncle Arthur gets some rest so he can get better.”
Jack nodded, looked back up towards John, his eyebrows creasing as he did. “Are you okay?”
John followed Jack’s gaze, realized he was looking at the dark stain still soaked into the shoulder of his coat. “I’m fine, Jack. Just a scratch. Go back to sleep, okay? We’re all gonna be alright.”
And Jack nodded, curling deeper into the blankets.
As Jack drifted off, Charlotte approached John, a bundle of clothing held out to him. “Ladies in there gave me the impression you lot don’t have much with you.” As he eyed the clothes, carefully took them from her, she continued, “They were my husband’s. Imagine he’d like they idea they were going to use, rather than sitting away in a dresser somewhere. The pants and union suit may be short on you, but hopefully they’ll hold you over.”
“That’s kind of you,” John said, settling the pile in his lap. “I don’t think we were ever formally introduced. John Marston.”
Charlotte took his outstretched hand. “Charlotte Balfour, though it sounds like you all knew that already. Is the little one yours?”
“Mine and Abigail’s. We call him Jack. Abigail’s the lady—”
Charlotte shook her head, cutting him off. “It’s alright, she and Miss Jackson already introduced themselves.”
“Then the only one you have left to meet is Sadie Adler, the woman you met at the door. Believe she was putting the horses away, last I knew.”
“Ah,” Charlotte said, and straightened. “I best show her where we keep the hay bales, then.”
John wasn’t sure what made him say it—some long ingrained belief that kindness is transactional, maybe, that anyone giving expects something in return—but as Charlotte turned he blurted, “Mrs. Balfour? Why are you doin' this for us?” And when she looked back at him, eyebrows slightly knitted, he panicked, continued, “I mean, you hardly know us. We might as well be strangers, aside from Arthur. Just… seems a lot of kindness for unfamiliar folk.”
The soft, almost pitying expression Charlotte gave him burned in his stomach, a deep, painful, guilty feeling. “Mr. Marston, I owe Arthur my life. If he trusts you, I’d imagine there’s a good reason, and I’d happily lay my trust there too.”
The lingering echoes of her words itched in the back of John’s mind as Charlotte left the house, like some unfamiliar sensation against his skin.