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but at least the war is over

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Once, around a year after John had joined up with the gang, Arthur had been bitten by a snake.

They’d been scouting for Dutch, him and John, poking around the grounds of some manor that housed folks Hosea and Dutch intended to work over. They were to see if they could find some decent escape routes, or anything they could otherwise use to their advantage. Usual fare. John knew, even then, that it was mostly meant to get him out of camp, where his boredom led to him needling at the adults near constantly until even Bessie was sick of him. Arthur had been sent along with to keep an eye on him, a job he’d eventually acquiesced to after no small amount of arguing, seething, and pointed glares at Dutch, Hosea, John, and anyone else to cross his path. It was, in all regards, meant to be an easy job, something safe, just enough to burn off John’s extra energy.

They’d been bickering about something John couldn’t even remember now. It was the same sort of argument they’d always had when John was a kid and Arthur was still mostly a boy trying very hard to act like he was properly grown. Whatever the cause, it had grown loud enough as they trudged through the underbrush, not even on the grounds yet, that they’d missed the initial warning rattles.

Arthur’d finally heard just in time to grab John by the collar of his shirt, to drag him out of the way of the snake’s first strike. The second strike caught Arthur in his leg, sunk deep in the flesh of his calf.

Both of them scrambled away from the snake after that, of course, and John even tried to suck out the poison, something they’d both heard rumors of working, but the damage had been done—by the time they got back to their horses, Arthur was struggling to get a good grip on the reins with numb fingers. They hadn’t brought anything in the way of medicine. It was meant to be an easy task.

John had moved to head into the nearby town, closer than where they set up camp. Though small, there was a doctor, and though they didn’t have much with them in the way of money, John was sure he could leverage something, Arthur’s horse, maybe, to convince the man to start treating Arthur while he rode to get Hosea and Dutch. Instead, Arthur had hauled his mare’s head around, pulling too hard on her mouth, and sent her charging in the direction of camp.

John’d spurred his own horse up to Arthur’s, screamed, “What are you doin'? There’s a doctor in town!”

Arthur shook his head, said loud enough to be heard over the pounding hooves, “Camp. Dutch, Hosea, they’ll help.”

And John clenched his jaw, snarled as harshly as his thirteen-year-old voice could manage, “So would the doctor!”

Arthur’s voice had an edge of desperation. “No, need to go home.”

So John followed.

Not long after, Arthur had leaned as far out of the saddle as he could, emptied the contents of his stomach, and lost his already shaky grip on his mare’s reins. John had snatched them, hoped Arthur’s legs could still keep him in the saddle, and, despite his misgivings, spurred the horses towards their camp.

After they’d gotten back, John’d been left alone as all the grown folk converged on a half-conscious Arthur. They’d laid him up in Dutch’s cot, as, out of the two cots in camp at the time, Dutch’s was more sheltered in his tent than the one Hosea and Bessie shared.

As John washed the vomit from the shoulder of Arthur’s mare, he’d watched as Miss Grimshaw and Bessie helped Hosea get some ginseng concoction down Arthur’s throat, had heard Hosea bark at Dutch, “Quit pacing, we can’t do more than wait now. Go make yourself useful,” and had tried to keep himself from panicking. Long after things had quieted down and Arthur’s horse was next to sparkling, John wandered into Dutch’s tent and perched next to Hosea on one of the stools arranged haphazardly around Arthur’s bedside.

“He’ll be okay,” Hosea said through his cigarette, no doubt seeing the way John paled when looking over a sweating, twitching, incoherent Arthur. “You did good, John, getting him back here.”

“Tried to suck the poison out,” John muttered, though it sounded much less impressive when said out loud.

“Didn’t swallow any, did you?”

John shook his head, watching Arthur’s fingers spasm.

“Good,” Hosea said, taking another drag. “Don’t think Dutch could handle both of you snakebit at once. Stress might drop him dead on the spot.”

“Tried to get him to that doctor in town, bein’ closer ‘n all. Didn’t want to hear it. Said we needed to come back here.”

“Ah,” Hosea said, and John’d looked over at him just to see him watching Arthur. “Well, that does sound like our boy.”

John had waited a second, glanced down at Arthur, then back to Hosea. “Why?”

Hosea laughed softly. “First and foremost, he’s a fool,” he said, unable to keep the affection from his voice and eyes. “Same sort of fool Dutch seems to attract like flies to vinegar.”

Hosea reached out, brushed the hair away from Arthur’s face, felt his forehead. When he leaned back, he must’ve caught the smug edge of John’s smile out of the corner of his eye.

“Mind you don’t tell Arthur I called him one, lest you forget the man you’re ratting on has the power to assign you to latrine duty for weeks.” Hosea dropped the spent cigarette on the ground, crushing it with his heel as he settled back into his chair. “Here, I’ll put it this way, John. Once, not more’n a month or two after we’d taken Arthur under our wing, he didn’t come back to camp one night. He must’ve been, what, thirteen? Fourteen? We were set up just outside of some little mining town in Ohio called Perkins and Dutch’d sent Arthur in to see if he couldn’t drum up information folks weren’t willing to give to two grown men. When he wasn’t back after sundown, Dutch and I split up, scoured that town looking for him.

“Dutch was the one who found him, tucked into some alley behind the general store. Don’t recall if we ever got the full story out of him, but from what he did tell some older boys had worked him over pretty hard after they’d had an argument Arthur was too proud to back down from. Broke his nose, split his lip, thankfully didn’t break any ribs but came damn close. Weren’t so bad that he couldn’t make the walk back to camp, ‘course, but we think he was afraid. Thought we might throw him out, maybe beat him worse, if he came back bloodied and with nothing to show for it.

“Dutch says all he’d said to Arthur when he found him was that if he were ever hurt, ever in trouble, he should come find us, come back home, and we’d help him. Way Arthur told it to me though, you’d think he were talking about the second coming of the Lord. Dutch showed that boy one scrap of kindness that weren’t conditional on him being useful, and it was like he’d given a feast to a starving man.

“Since then, Arthur’s been like this. Ain’t necessarily a bad thing, seeing as he almost always thinks it through enough to lose the law, or hide out instead if he’s not confident he won’t be tracked back to camp. Also ain’t ever found him at a doctor, though, unless Dutch or I put him there ourselves.”

Arthur made a low, pained noise in the back of his throat, and John started, previously lost in the trance any of Hosea’s stories threw him into. Hosea stood, leaned forward, said something softly to Arthur John couldn’t hear while he smoothed back Arthur’s hair. It took a minute, but Arthur had quieted, falling deeper into the restless half-sleep he’d been slipping in and out of.

“You know, that goes for you too, John,” Hosea had murmured, patting John on the shoulder as he sat back in his chair. “If you’re ever hurt bad, ever think you’re dyin’, come find me or Dutch, so long as it won’t bring men with guns down on the heads of the defenseless folk at camp. We’ll help you. We aren’t the kind of people that’ll dump a kid for getting hurt. Could never be.” Hosea lit another cigarette, sighing as he crossed a leg. “Still, if a doctor is closer, maybe make that your first priority, lest you pass out in your saddle on the way back to camp.” Hosea shook his head, eyes on Arthur again, a fond tone to his voice. “Damn fool of a boy.”

 


 

John hadn’t thought on that conversation in a long, long time, but he knew immediately when Abigail called from the back of wagon, “John, he’s askin’ for Dutch,” that things were bad.

“Stay here,” he told Jack, slowing the horses and looking towards Abigail. “Do you—?”

“You oughta go back there,” she said, climbing up into the front seat. “Can’t get him to calm down. Fever’s got him losin' time.”

“And you think I…?”

“You’ve known the man longer than I have, John, it’s at least worth tryin’. Just get him to lie down, and hopefully the laudanum will do the rest.”

“And after?”

Abigail gave him solid, unwavering look. “After that, we best find a place to wait the infection out.”

When he crawled back into the wagon, leaving Abigail to drive the horses, John was greeted with a sweating, panting, shivering Arthur, sitting pressed against the side panel of the wagon.

“Hey,” John murmured, arms out in what he hoped was a placating gesture, “hey, Arthur, it’s alright, it’s me.”

And Arthur’s eyes flicked to John, and they were hazy, unfocused, even more so than when John woke him on the mountain. “John? John, we need… I need…”

John knelt next to Arthur, hands still held in front of him. He didn’t want to get too close when Arthur was confused, knew from past experience that Arthur’s first instinct was always to fight. “Arthur, you’re fine, okay? Just, just calm down.”

But Arthur was shaking his head, “No, no, John, y’don’t—need to find Dutch, somethin’—somethin’s wrong, I…”

John’s chest ached. “Arthur—” his voice catching, “—Arthur, we can’t, Dutch ain’t… Do you remember? Dutch ain’t gonna—”

But of course Arthur didn’t remember, not with the fever tugging away at his brain, muddling his sense of time, and all it accomplished was Arthur glaring up at him. “Dutch will help.” His voice with bite to it this time, despite the shake. Then, less certain, “Dutch ‘nd Hosea, ‘f Hosea weren’t… ‘f Hosea… I can’t…”

And that wasn’t a train of thought John wanted Arthur going down when he was fevered, unanchored. John was familiar enough with the flavor of grief fever dreams without the loss being a real one. He sighed, rubbed a hand on his face, gave in. “Okay, Arthur, okay, we’ll go see Dutch, okay?” He put a hand on Arthur’s knee, hoped it read as comforting, more genuine. He could feel the heat of the fever through the fabric of the long johns. “Just go back to sleep.”

Arthur was staring hard at him. “Back to camp?”

Yes, Arthur.” He doubted Arthur would remember the conversation and, if he did, John could deal with that later. “Lie back down.”

Arthur was still giving him a look, like he was trying to gauge whether what John told him was true. Finally, finally he gave in, shifted enough to use the wagon wall to lower himself back down onto the bedroll. John moved to help, but Arthur waved him off. “Ain’t an invalid,” he muttered, and John decided it wasn’t worth arguing with a fevered man over whether an infected hole in the stomach rightly counted as invalided, though he was sorely tempted. At least Arthur was lying down, and that was all Abigail’d tasked him.

John was about to crawl back into the front of the wagon when Arthur’s voice trailed over to him. “Somethin’s wrong,” he murmured again, barely loud enough for John to hear. When John looked over, Arthur’s eyes were closed.

The worry in John’s stomach had turned to a deep, pulsing hurt. “What d’you mean?”

“Stag’s back.”

“What does that mean?”

Arthur’s eyes rolled open, blinked up at John. “Should’ve left me be.”

They were getting nowhere. “Arthur, I… what?”

But Arthur didn’t answer, eyes sliding closed, drifting back under the pull of either the laudanum or the fever. His breathing was labored, sweat still a shine against his forehead. John pulled the blankets back over Arthur before he leaned against one of the crates, let out a long, shuddering sigh. He suddenly felt exhausted, like his muscles couldn’t hold him up anymore.

 


 

The first few homesteads they tried were no good. The first two were inhabited—John caught grazing animals and chimney smoke through the binoculars before they even got close. The third was quiet enough for John to approach, leaving Abigail with the wagon on the road, only to find that the house’s roof had caved in.

The fourth, however. The fourth was a sizable construction, few miles south of Beacon Brook, sheltered by the surrounding pine and a hill that rose steep behind it. Well back from any road, enough to not draw any attention. The house was spacious, as far as John could tell from the outside, as were the barn and the fully fenced pasture that stretched far around the back of the house. The withered garden and uncleared debris in the yard suggested abandoned, but it took a while for John to figure out why, since the house was relatively untouched when he took a wander through.

However, the barn door was ajar, and when John opened it fully the smell of old decay hit him in a wave. It wasn’t the worst rot he’d smelled, but, maybe because worry already had him on the edge of nausea, the scent made his stomach roll. He pulled his shirt up over his nose, opened the barn door fully to let the sunlight shine in, to see the source of the decay lying in the middle of the dirt floor.

The man—John was guessing by the clothes—had been dead for several months at least. Not long enough to be reduced to bones, but long enough that the majority of the mass of the body was gone. John stepped closer, crouched down.

Thing was, there wasn’t any sign of violence, aside from the dead body of course. No blood trail away from the body, no blood on the clothing, no shattered bones from a bullet. What hair left over was white, worn, old, and not far from the man’s outstretched arm was a pitchfork, almost like it’d been dropped.

If John had to guess, the old man keeled over one day in the middle of his work. Judging by the fact that the homestead was undisturbed, that suggested either a lack of family or none that cared enough to check in. Abigail thought the same when he reported back, with the added stipulation that they best set a watch once Sadie and Tilly got in.

Either way, it seemed their best option to hunker down in, wait out what they could.

 


 

John let Jack down to explore, warning him to stay close, be careful, and don’t go near the barn. He loosed the horse string into the paddock to get them out of the way, narrowly avoiding a bite from Buell while doing so. Then, he and Abigail set about getting Arthur inside the house. Only—

Abigail couldn’t wake Arthur up. Or, maybe more accurately, she couldn’t keep him conscious for more than a few seconds, a couple of mumbled words, before he was slipping back under again. Said as much to John as he stood at the edge of the wagon.

“Ain’t that bad?” John asked. His gut was churning again, and his knuckles were white where he gripped the wood of the wagon.

Abigail looked back at him, and her eyes were firm, grounding. “Ain’t good, sure, but ain’t worth lookin’ at me like the world is ending neither. Just…” Abigail brushed her hands against the skirt of her dress. “Just makes things a bit more complicated, is all.” She looked John over. “How’s your shoulder feelin’?”

“What d’you mean?”

“If we used a blanket, brought him in that way, could you hold up one end?”

His shoulder still ached, still felt sharp when he moved it, but as long as he kept it steady— “I could hold it.”

“It’ll only be a short distance,” Abigail said, laying out a blanket to fold to the right shape and size. “After that, I’m making you rest it again.”

“Didn’t ever doubt that part was comin’,” John said, and the small smile Abigail shot him took the edge off the rolling of his stomach.

 


 

The calm lasted up until they got Arthur into bedroom closest to the door and settled onto the bed. Then Abigail peeled back some of the bandages on Arthur’s torso and the smell of the wound made John gag.

He managed to get out the door before he started heaving, sending the half-digested beans he’d eaten that morning down into the overgrown grass. He stood stooped, braced with an arm against the outside wall of the house, retching and retching until all that came were dry heaves, until he finally forced his thoughts away from Arthur dying, Arthur dead, until his stomach finally calmed. He could handle viscera. He could handle decay. The heavy smell of infection, lodged in the gut of someone he cared about?

He was left panting, weak legged, shaking. He leaned back against the wall, slid down so he was sitting next to his own sick.

John was never good at control, could never force his feelings so far down that they barely showed on his face. He’d never been able to pretend to feel something he wasn’t. Usually that meant anger, meant starting fistfights or dueling someone in the street, meant breaking someone’s nose or someone breaking his.

Now though—now he could feel thick, hot tears running down his face, and knew his only option was to ride them out.

Thing was, John couldn’t even figure out why he was crying—why now, out of all the moments in the past few days? He hadn’t when Dutch left him behind, he hadn’t when Arthur told him to go, he hadn’t when he had stumbled upon Arthur’s body and was sure he was dead. He’d cried when seeing Abigail, of course, but that had been relief, not this. All the hurt, pain, exhaustion of the past four days and some smell was what pushed him over?

It felt like John was drowning.

He trusted Abigail, of course, knew she had spent as much time as she could learning from Swanson, from Hosea, from anyone else in camp with some knowledge or experience with medicine, prepping for the day she might get Jack out. Still, maybe this was too much. Maybe this was out of their control. Maybe, after everything, they were still going to lose Arthur.

His breathing hitched, now coming in sobs, and John couldn’t get enough air, couldn’t let his chest expand enough to be adequate.

And then Abigail was there, wonderful, beautiful, perfect Abigail, kneeling on the grass in front of him, asking if he was okay, if something hurt, if he felt chilled, hands going to his shoulder, his forehead. Because, of course—she probably thought he was sick, that he’d reinjured himself.

Somehow she must’ve worked the truth out of the mumbled and half-thought response he gave her, because Abigail took his face in her hands, directed it towards her own. “You listen to me, John Marston. We have done everythin’ in our power to keep Arthur alive, and we will keep doin’ everythin’ we damn well can. But I need you to know if this don’t turn out the way we hope, that it ain’t your fault, and it ain’t mine, and it ain’t no one else’s fault ‘cept the fool who shot him, and he’s long gone. Beatin’ yourself up, or gettin’ angry, none of that does us any good.” She pulled his head closer, made sure his eyes met hers. “I need you with me, alright?”

Slowly, as his breath came back to him, as he got control back, John choked out, “Alright.”

“Okay,” Abigail said, wiping one of his cheeks with the back of her hand, before standing and offering him a hand up, which he took. Once he was on his feet, she wrapped him in a hug, her arms warm against his back. “Whatever happens, you have me.”

John leaned into her, rested his chin on her head. Things weren’t fixed completely—anxiety still a pit in the well of his stomach—but with everything out, tears and vomit all, they were better, he felt better, than he had in hours, in days, maybe. “Thanks, Abigail,” he murmured against her hair.

She let him go, patted his arm once. “Now,” she said, as John used his shirt to scrub at his face, “if you think you can stomach it, I could use a hand in getting his fever down.”

 


 

Later, while Abigail rode into Beacon Brook to drop off the letter John’d penned for Tilly and Sadie, John found himself wandering the house between frequent check-ins on Arthur. They’d given him some tea—something with feverfew, what little dried Abigail had managed to save from both Blackwater and Beaver Hollow—which was difficult enough to do when they couldn’t get Arthur fully conscious. Now Abigail had him switching out cold cloths on Arthur’s forehead. John couldn’t tell if the whole ordeal was really doing much, but Arthur had settled more, seemed less restless, so maybe that was something.

John, on the other hand.

The nausea had mostly settled, but instead it felt like he itched all over. Clearing out the barn didn’t help. He wrapped the body in a sheet, moved it outside, scraped loose dirt and hay over what was left so that they could move the horses in if they needed, and still his skin prickled. He checked over the horses, picking hooves and currying away mud and looking for travel-related injuries best he knew how, and still. Staring at Arthur was out, because having his eyes on Arthur more than was strictly necessary per Abigail’s instructions now made John’s mood swing wildly between wanting to hit something and wanting to cry again, neither of which seemed productive at the moment.

So, instead, John found himself searching the drawers in the house, desperate for anything to settle his brain on that wasn’t the events of the past four days.

The house was sizable, as homesteads went. Three bedrooms, two with double beds, one, Arthur’s, a single. A main room that included a kitchen area, a wooden table and chairs, and some more plush furniture, though, like the mattresses on the beds, they were slightly mouse-eaten. The well outside still drew water, and there were still cans of food tucked into the cabinets.

As far as he could tell, the previous owner of the house was called Albert Russell, based on the amount of letters he found addressed to the man stashed away in a cabinet drawer. Seemed he’d had family, at one point, and maybe that accounted for the size of the homestead, but all letters were dated from years ago, like no more were coming. John skimmed the letters, pacing back and forth between rooms, trying to get any sort of information he could out of them. Whether the man had been sick, whether he had money that might still be stashed in the house, who might come looking for him or his potential riches.

He’d passed Jack several times in this affair, first picking flowers and tearing up grass outside, then reading one of his books out loud to himself on one of the couches inside, then finally flipping through some other book quietly in one of the chairs at the table. John wasn’t paying close attention to him, was focused on keeping himself from thinking about Arthur.

That is, up until he caught a closer look at what Jack was poring over and realized— “Jack, that ain’t yours.”

It was a gut reaction more than anything else, and John regretted the harsh tone almost as soon as it was out of his mouth, because Jack went wary, pulled Arthur’s journal closer to himself, and said, “Uncle Arthur lets me look at the pictures.”

“Sure,” John said, “but…” John’d tossed Arthur’s satchel on the table when they were unloading the basics from the wagon with some vague plan to sort through it, see what they could use. Seemed Jack was quicker on the draw on that one. “It ain’t polite to look through people’s things.”

“But Uncle Arthur said I could.”

“Maybe he did before, but…” And here John was, wishing Abigail were here, as usual, because she knew what to say. Because she knew how to be a parent, because she knew how to interact with Jack. Hell, John would take Arthur and his condescending looks, even, because at least Arthur seemed to know kids, because—

Because Arthur wasn’t John. Because losing control always seemed to be on the edges of John’s fingertips.

He took a breath, tried again. Tried to emulate Abigail, Arthur, some mix between the two. “Now, Jack, what would Uncle Arthur say if I told him you looked through it without him knowin’?”

“He’d say it was okay,” Jack said, with all the overemphasized assurance of a child saying something they knew to be untrue.

“Would he?”

“Maybe… maybe not.”

“So maybe you shouldn’t be lookin’.”

Jack’s lower lip trembled, just a bit, before he lifted his chin, met John’s eyes squarely. “But, Pa, all I wanted was to see the picture of Cain.”

John felt his resolve crumble immediately. He hadn’t been there when Cain disappeared, but he had heard the gist—that Arthur was pretty damn sure Micah had killed the camp dog, the dog that Jack adored. One more thing to add to the list of things they lost.

John pulled out a chair, sat down next to Jack. “Tell you what, Jack. You can look at the picture of Cain, but you gotta tell Arthur you were lookin’ next he wakes up.” If, John’s mind supplied, unbidden, if he wakes up. “If you can do that, then you can look through his journal. Okay?”

“I will,” Jack said with exaggerated seriousness.

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

“Alright then.”

Jack snatched the book up from his lap again, flipping rapidly through the pages. And then he, to John’s utmost surprise, held the book out to John, open to what was, indeed, a drawing of a dog. “See,” Jack said, “that’s Cain. You can tell by the spots on his ears.” Jack pointed to what he meant, finger hovering just over the page, not touching.

“I see,” John said, and Jack quickly flipped back a few pages, past words and scribbles and drawings he seemed to deem unimportant until, finally, he settled on a drawing of a poodle, clipped into a continental cut.

He once again held the journal up for John to see. “Uncle Arthur said he saw that dog when we was camped next to the lake. I wanted to go see it, because it looked funny, but Momma said it wasn’t safe.” And before John could get in a word edgewise, Jack was flipping backwards again, showing him dogs and horses and birds and big, two page sketches of a deer and an elk and a wolf and drawings of camp, of folks laughing and dancing and cleaning and sleeping and living and—

It’d been so long since John had seen any of Arthur’s drawings. Used to be when Arthur’d sit by the campfire, trying his hardest to draw from his memory something he’d seen that day, he’d let John sit close enough to watch, to see the way he pulled the pencil across the paper, the way vague lines came together into something recognizable. Arthur’d always said it was because it was the only thing that kept John quiet, to watch him draw. However, John knew it was also one of the few things that kept Dutch and Hosea to lay off the doting parent acts they were both wont to pull whenever Arthur sketched, and Arthur saw that as an added benefit.

Of course, those moments grew fewer and farther between as they got older, as the gang grew, as more people needed more attention, and as private interests became private. John couldn’t remember one time after that year away from the gang that he’d seen Arthur draw anywhere but the privacy of his own tent.

“That’s me and Momma and Uncle Hosea,” Jack was saying, gesturing to a full page drawing—the vague but unmistakable shapes of Hosea and Jack sitting in front of John’s own tent, leaning over what must’ve been a book. The figure just behind them hovering nervously had to be Abigail, just based on the way she held herself, like she was fighting herself to stay out of the process. And then—

“That’s you, Pa,” Jack said as he settled the page in place, held it up for John to see. It was indeed John’s own face, drawn in almost painful detail. It had to’ve been from after John’s bandages came off, after the wolf attack—the stitches still stark against his cheek and nose, and the non-stitched scratches dark against the white of the paper. But that wasn’t all. Arthur’d detailed his eyes, the scar across John’s lips, the hair that fell to the sides of his face. In the drawing John was smiling, despite the fact he couldn’t remember smiling much at all in the first few weeks at Horseshoe.

Beneath the drawing, Arthur had written “Marston’s new mug”, underlined once. On purpose, because Arthur didn’t draw lines to write on like John still did.

John leaned back in the chair, drew breath into his chest slow.

John felt—

He didn’t know how he felt. One second his eyes would burn like he was about to start crying, the next his chest felt next to bursting. He clenched his fist hard in the fabric of his jeans, willed himself to calm down.

Eventually he found himself saying, “Is that it, Jack?” as Jack shut the journal.

And Jack nodded, said, “Those are the good ones. There’s a lot of boring stuff too.”

“Aw,” John said, trying to loosen the tense feeling in his muscles, “your uncle can’t help that. He’s pretty boring himself.”

“That isn’t very nice.” But Jack had the edge of the smile at the corners of his mouth, one that grew wider when John gave him a grin he hoped would indicate he was teasing.

The house fell silent for a moment, longer, and John was half-considering getting up, checking in on Arthur again, when Jack spoke up again.

“Pa?” He was looking at John, eyes level, more serious than John’d ever seen on a four-year-old. “Is Uncle Arthur gonna be okay?”

The weight was back in John’s chest, overbearing, crushing. They’d kept Jack on the front seat of the wagon for most of the trip north. In part because it made them less likely to be flagged down by law or road agents, having a kid visible, but mostly to keep Jack away from the worst of Arthur’s injuries. Still, it had to be obvious, even to a four-year-old, that how Arthur was wasn’t good.

John settled back in his chair, decided, reluctantly, to be honest. Abigail could get after him about it later, if it turned out to be a mistake. “Listen, Jack, we ain’t sure yet if he’s gonna be okay. Your momma, she’s doin’ everything she can, and Uncle Arthur is strong, but—” John felt his voice crack, cleared his throat before continuing. “But we don’t know yet.”

Jack turned back to the journal in his lap and John was certain he’d said the wrong thing, that Jack was going to start crying and John would have no idea how to handle that. Instead, though, Jack huffed a sigh, placing Arthur’s journal up on the table. “I want people to stop goin’ away.”

“Yeah,” John said, heaving a sigh of his own, “yeah, Jack, me too.”

 


 

John had settled in next to Arthur when he heard the thump of hooves in the packed dirt, approaching the house. He’d managed to reach a state of balance, something not quite calm but also not overwhelmed by emotions he couldn’t process. Arthur still hadn’t woken up, but instead seemed to fall back and forth between restless half-sleep and stiller, deeper sleep. Still breathing rapidly, still sweating. Several times John caught names Arthur muttered under his breath—mostly Dutch, Hosea, but sometimes others, gang members old and new, dead and disappeared—but he couldn’t parse anything else out of Arthur’s mouth. Arthur didn’t seem to respond at all to his voice either.

When he heard the horses, John straightened immediately, hand going to his gunbelt as he moved to the window. The hammering of his heart eased when he caught sight of not only Abigail approaching the house, but Tilly, Sadie, and none other than one Charles Smith.

John greeted them just outside the front door, offered to take saddlebags between hugs and was quickly denied the privilege of helping. Maybe he was showing the pain in his shoulder more than he thought he was. Intermittently, as they unloaded the horses, he was fed the story.

Apparently Charles had ridden down to Beaver Hollow after rumor of the final Pinkerton attack had reached the Wapiti—spread fast, through folks fleeing the gunshots, through a few particular Van Der Linde survivors crowing about their own survival. Charles’d gone thinking that those left alive after the attack hadn’t been able to bury the bodies in their own scramble to survive. He’d thought he owed them all that much, especially since one of the rumored dead was Arthur Morgan.

Once in Beaver Hollow, he and Sadie and Tilly had nearly stumbled right over each other while they’d both been scouting the area for Pinkerton patrols. The three of them had searched the remains of camp, tried to gather what personal possessions were left. The area had clearly been scavenged, since most of their medicine or canned food was gone, though it maybe wasn’t law that did it, since Miss Grimshaw’s body was still where it lay, and usually the law collected bodies.

They’d buried her on a hillside, somewhere up, away from the mess of Beaver Hollow, where she could still look out and survey her domain. Tilly promised to mark the place on a map for those who wanted to visit.

Arthur’s grave they made further northwest, on the western edge of the East Grizzlies. It was on the edge of some cliffs, facing west—by all accounts, the type of place Arthur would want to be buried, if he were dead. John had to bite his tongue before he mentioned that they still might need the gravesite.

Sadie, Tilly, and Charles had camped somewhere north of Donner Falls for the night, rode out early that morning. Then, on their way into Beacon Brook, they’d encountered Abigail on her way out, completely by chance. That brought them back to the homestead together.

By this time they’d moved into the house, Jack greeting everyone with enthusiasm. He tugged at Charles’s pant leg, asking questions that Charles obliged with answers.

Charles looked good. Or, at least, better than any of the rest of them, seeing as he was uninjured and marginally well rested. He seemed relieved to see them all too—as much as John could parse Charles’s expressions, subtle as they were in a way John could never relate to. And yet, whenever Charles turned his eyes to John, warm as they were, John felt his stomach drop.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy to see Charles, because he was. Despite only knowing the man for a year and not growing particularly close during that time, he trusted Charles far more than most of the men left alive from the gang. Charles was reliable, firm, had never brandished a gun at John, had never shot

It was guilt, John realized, as the group moved into Arthur’s room, as he watched Charles rest the back of his hand on Arthur’s forehead while Abigail caught the rest up. The feeling lodged in his throat was guilt. Because while John wasn’t particularly close to Charles, Arthur was. In the past few months, Arthur had built a firm camaraderie with Charles, an easy way of working together, to a point where even John knew that they trusted each other to watch each other’s backs.

And as soon as Charles left, John let Arthur get shot. Wasn’t that something.

Abigail was saying something, pulling John from his own thoughts.

“I think we outta find a way to get him seen by a doctor.” Abigail leaned on one of the bedposts, arms crossed. “A real doctor, someone what does it professionally. I think,” Abigail gestured towards Arthur, “I think this is beyond me. And I ain’t about to let him die for my own pride.”

“That bad?” Sadie asked.

“Well, it ain’t like we can amputate. We either wait it out, or we see if a doctor might do somethin' more. Would rather do the second before things get worse.”

It was, to John’s surprise, Charles who spoke up. “May know someone. There’s a man, a doctor, who’s been traveling with the Wapiti the few days before I rode down. If he’s still there, and if Rains Fall can spare him, he may agree to help.”

“Can we trust him?” John found himself saying, more out of habit than anything else. The air in the room was too heavy, was making it hard to focus.

“Renaud is a colored man treating natives for almost no pay in return. I don’t know about trust, but I don’t see him as the type of man to turn us over, so long as we aren’t hurting people.”

“How long to get him here?” Abigail asked.

“The tribe is moving north, same as you all, but slower. If he agrees, I could get him back here in a few hours.”

“You’ve been travelin’ all day, you don’t gotta—” Abigail started, but Charles held up a hand, cut her off.

“I’m alright, I’m more rested than you all. Taima, though, I’m not sure if she can handle another ride without rest.”

That was something John could answer. “We have Arthur’s horses. The arabian, maybe? What’d he call—?”

“Fenella?” Charles asked, because of course he knew the names of Arthur’s horses better than John did. “Sure she can hold me?”

“If she could cart Arthur around she could handle you for a few hours. She’s fast too, ain’t she? Here,” John said, gesturing for Charles to follow him, “let me show you her tack.” John ignored the warning look Abigail shot him. Anything to get out of the suffocating atmosphere of the room.

Outside the house it was easier to breathe. The day was starting to cool as evening set in, as the sun sunk slowly behind the pine surrounding the homestead.

Even with the sounds of the forest creeping into the cleared area around the house, the silence was too much. “How long are you here, Charles?”

“Honestly? As long as you’ll have me. The Wapiti needed the extra manpower, but now that they’re moving, I’m less important. A risk, even, after what happened with Dutch. Seems you all need me more, especially with your shoulder and Arthur how he is.”

“'preciate it.” John meant it more sincerely than it came out, but the sentiment renewed the throb in his shoulder and he had to resist the urge to bring a hand up to it. Of course Charles would’ve been informed John was injured too.

Fenella was a spooky, flighty animal, but quick and surefooted when running. Friendly, too—as soon as John and Charles approached the fence, the little white mare was there to greet them. John pointed out her saddle and bridle to Charles, resting on a fence rail and post respectively, along with the rest of the tack they’d ended up with. John needed to remind someone to move it all into the barn before night fell completely.

John ended up leaning against one of the fence posts as Charles gave Fenella a quick groom and tacked her up. He didn’t want to go back inside, not when Abigail would be giving him looks or making him rest, not when he couldn’t help himself but listen to Arthur breathe. Charles was easier company, even in relative silence.

One of the Pinkerton mares—John needed to just name them, he couldn’t call them the Pinkerton mares forever—had come up to investigate the men in her paddock. She was a big horse, maybe a thoroughbred, probably well over 16 hands, deep seal brown in color. The star on her forehead and socks on her hind legs were common enough that they didn’t make keeping her a worry when John and Sadie had discussed it.

Again, her good nature surprised John when she seemed content to hang around him, let him rub her neck, her shoulder, with one hoof cocked in back. Maybe he was just too used to ill-tempered horses, seeing as so many folks he knew seemed overly fond of horses John would rather avoid.

When John next looked up, Charles had the saddle in place and was tightening the cinches, Fenella grazing as he did. When he noticed John looking, he inclined his head towards him and said, “I actually wanted to ask you something.”

“Go ahead,” John replied, scratching under the mare’s mane.

“Arthur. Sadie said Dutch shot him?”

John’s hand stilled against the mare’s neck. Of course he’d need to talk about this more, but it didn’t make it easier. Finally, he sighed, murmured, “He did.” The look on Charles’s face clearly said he was hoping for more of an explanation, and John shifted, continued, “Saw it happen. Was right next to Arthur when Dutch put a bullet through him.”

“In camp?”

“Yeah. Crawled my way back there after Dutch left me behind on that train job, don’t know if you—?”

“Sadie mentioned it.”

“—so I get there, Arthur is talkin’ about Micah being a traitor, Dutch takes Micah’s side, they’re both screamin' at each other, and then Dutch just, just shot him.” John could feel his voice getting louder, harsher.

Charles’s calm was maddening. “Do you know why?”

John couldn’t help but throw his hand into the air, making the mare flick her ears towards him. “Who knows? Dutch lost his goddamn mind, I can tell you that, and Arthur didn’t help, way he was talkin’. Maybe baitin’ Dutch, maybe just angry because we were all angry. I don’t—I don’t know.”

Charles was looking hard at him. “Are you okay?”

“My shoulder’s fine.”

“Not what I meant.”

“What do you goddamn mean then?” With the volume of his voice, the thoroughbred tossed her head, moved away from him. John didn’t mean to be yelling at Charles, not really, but he couldn’t stop himself, couldn’t help the anger bubbling up through his mouth. Better Charles than Jack or Abigail, anyway.

“I mean you just told me he got shot by Dutch right next to you and now you’re shouting.”

“I—” It still came out too loud. It felt like there was bile rising in John’s throat. “I, I’m—I’m fine, I—I’ll be fine once he wakes up.” That was too much, and John regretted it as soon as it was out of his mouth.

To his credit, Charles, maybe seeing the look on John’s face, gave only a small hum, let the words dissipate as he gathered Fenella’s bridle. It was only after he slipped the bit into her mouth and the leather over her ears, as he was buckling the throatlatch that he spoke again. “Listen, John, you should know, I’m not sure if Arthur’s going to be grateful for all this.”

“What d’you mean?”

“All this effort to keep him alive? Just…” Charles paused, maybe looking for the right words. “Just might be worth thinking about whether all of it is for our sake or his.”

“Of course it’s for his sake.” John could feel the crease between his eyebrows deepen. “After everythin' you don’t think Arthur deserves to, what, live?”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I don’t know if he’s going to see it that way.”

John bit his lip. He was tired, he was sore, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t find anything more than, “I don’t get you.”

That got a genuine snort out of Charles, even as he led Fenella over to the gate. “You don’t have to get me. Just something to think on, alright?” He opened it, let John through before him. “Whatever else happens, we’ll do all we can.”

“Sure,” John said, and then, “Good luck, Charles,” as Charles mounted.

“You too. Rest that shoulder.”

John was getting real sick of that sentiment.