“I meant what I said earlier.”
John paused from where he was unbuttoning his shirt, looked over at Abigail. She’d talked him into bed rest while Charles was gone, a fight he barely put any effort into seeing as he had been wandering the house all afternoon and was driving the wagon before that. He was exhausted anyway. They’d laid claim to one of the bedrooms with a double bed, the one closest to Arthur’s room.
At his look, Abigail put down the clothing she’d been looking through, came closer and helped John pull the shirt off of his shoulders. “I mean when I said this ain’t your fault.”
John shook his head, started to say, “Abigail, you don’t gotta—” but Abigail sat down on the bed next to him, cut him off.
“I mean it. I know this ain’t easy for you. It ain’t easy for all of us, ‘course, but, but with Arthur, and Dutch doin' what he did, I know—I know it ain’t—”
“Abigail,” John said again, louder, “you don’t gotta talk about this.” God, John just wanted to go to bed, to let time fade until Charles got back, to know if the damn doctor was coming or not.
“No, no, I do, John, listen to me.” Abigail picked his hand up off the bed, held it in both of hers. “I need you to get it in your head that the world isn’t gonna end if Arthur goes.”
“What?” Maybe it had been too much to hope that he’d be able to go the day without snapping at Abigail, to think that, despite the stress, he could tamp down the instinct to bristle.
Abigail, because she was a better woman than he was a man, didn’t rise to the bait, kept her voice low. “Don’t think it’s fair to any of us, least of all Arthur, if your happiness rides on his survival. You oughta find another way to keep goin', if what you’re doing is weighin' this all on him.”
“That’s…” John scraped a hand over his face, feeling the prickle of a few too many days of beard growth. “That’s an easy enough thing to just say.” Because—because he knew it wasn’t fair, and he couldn’t help it, because it was losing Arthur, because it would mean—
Would mean Dutch really did kill him. Would mean the world John had known for fourteen years really was in ruins. Would mean nearly everything John had was dead or irreversibly gone.
It would mean John really was alone with what he was, with what Dutch raised him into, with what he had always been.
Abigail turned his face, made him look her in the eye. “John, dependin' on how bad he gets, we might be the ones what need to decide if it’s time for him to go.”
“Jesus, Abigail,” he hissed, jerking away from her grip before she pulled him back in.
“Listen to me, John. I definitely ain’t saying he’s there now, and I ain’t saying he’s gonna get there, but… but it’s somethin' I want you to be involved in. Makin' that call. Because we owe it to the man to put him outta his pain if he won’t get better.” Her eyes flicked over his face, searching. “Okay?”
John took a breath, shuddering it through his lungs. “Fine. Okay. If it comes to that.”
“Alright,” Abigail said, and stood.
John was almost content to let her go, but found his mouth moving before he could stop it. “Y’say the world won’t end, but it’s pretty damn hard to imagine the world without him in it.”
She turned back to him, said, soft, “I know. Ain’t saying it won’t be a different world we’ll wake up to, but it ain’t over neither. But you got me, and you got Jack, and we ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
John leaned back, looked up at her, gave a half-smile. “You know me, can’t ever settle for what I got.”
“You always were a selfish bastard, John Marston.” But it had no malice in it, and even if it did, John didn’t think he had the energy left for it.
“Old habits, huh?” he said, and Abigail hummed in agreement.
She leaned down, gave him a quick kiss. “Anyway,” she said, “you oughta get some sleep.”
“You’ll wake me if Charles gets back?”
“Or if anythin' changes.” Because she knew who he was, how he was.
“Love you, Abigail.”
“I love you too, you fool.”
That night, John dreamt about Dutch.
It started with a memory. The memory, when it came to Dutch. John, twelve years old, clawing at his throat and unable to breathe. A gunshot rocking the air around him, sending him tumbling to the ground as the makeshift noose snapped.
John on his hands and knees, pulling the rope away from his neck, gasping, lungs aching. More gunfire, a deep voice yelling about cover and need to get the boy and well-worn boots stopping in front of John’s hands, everything covered in the dusty dirt of the homestead John had tried to rob. Dutch—because of course it was Dutch, because John knew it was Dutch, because this all already happened—crouched in front of John, and when John looked up the sun through the clouds seemed to halo his face.
The gunfire had vanished, and Dutch’s voice was loud against John’s ears as he said, “Let me ask you, son, what kind of person tries to hang a child?” John, just like when it was real, couldn’t understand why Dutch was asking him of all people. But Dutch’s hand went to his revolver, and just behind him John could see one of the homesteaders, the one who’d suggested the hanging, with his own pistol pointed at Dutch. John’s eyes went back to Dutch, and he knew what the smile at the corners of Dutch’s lips meant.
But, the dream warped—John looked past Dutch again and it was Arthur now with his revolver pointed at Dutch’s back, all of nineteen years old and Dutch had his own gun in hand, whirling to draw on Arthur and that wasn’t how it happened. John felt himself sinking, falling, the dirt crumbling away under his palms. Arthur’s voice, close, like his chin was on John’s shoulder, saying, “Shoot them before they can shoot you. Nothin’ wrong with in the back. We ain’t duelists, John. ”
And then: Dutch with a rifle in his hands, leveled at a stag, both standing stock still on an open prairie. John next to him, fifteen, watching his finger settled on the trigger, the easy, relaxed way he looked down the sights. “Just as easy as this, John,” Dutch said, like it had been him, not Hosea, who had tried to coach John through hunting. His finger tightened, squeezed.
A crack of rifle fire, loud enough that John wanted to clap his hands over his ears, and, barely audible below it, the buck’s scream of pain, guttural and choked, as the bullet pierced its throat. The stag stumbled, went to its knees, collapsed out of sight into the summer-long purple three-awn.
Dutch waved John forward ahead of him, let him approach the dying deer. John drew his revolver as the buck’s wet gasps grew louder and the grass tugged at his pants, because it’d always been the job of Dutch’s boys to put things out of their misery.
But it wasn’t a stag that Dutch shot. John didn’t know how he could’ve ever thought it a stag. It was Arthur, lying prone and heaving in the tamped-down three-awn, Arthur with a hand clasped against the hole in his own neck, Arthur with eyes wide, desperate, disbelieving as they met John’s gaze. Opening his mouth, to speak maybe, but only letting out a half-strangled wet cough. Blood rolling from the corners of his lips.
John whirled, revolver in hand, ready to scream at Dutch, to yell his throat raw, but the prairie was empty, save John and a dying Arthur. Like Dutch’d never been there, because Dutch wasn’t ever the one who tried to teach John hunting, and Dutch wasn’t ever the one doing his own dirty work. It was the revolver in John’s hand that was hot around the barrel, smoking, the small curl of burnt gunpowder wavering in the light from the sun.
And Arthur still bleeding from the neck, Arthur in a pool of his own blood, choking, gasping, shuddering—
It was Abigail that woke him from it, which was somehow more disorienting than the dream itself jolting him awake. Her hands were on his good shoulder, gently jostling, and when his eyes came up to her, she murmured, “Charles is back. He brought that doctor.”
John blinked, brought a palm to his face, and sat up. The room was just barely lit, the color of the light suggesting that the sun had just peaked the horizon. “Just got in?” he asked.
“Yes.” Abigail was peering at him. “You alright?”
“Yeah, yeah,” John said, twisting and setting his feet on the floor. He could still see the blood, bright, red against his vision. “Just… just a dream.”
Alphonse Renaud was different, but maybe John should’ve expected by now that most people they interacted with would be unusual. He was a black man who’d gotten himself educated as a doctor, which was rare enough, but it was more than that. He drove a big colorful wagon of the type John usually associated with men pushing various tonics and cure-alls, but it was clear from the start that Renaud was far more a doctor than a salesman. He was even-spoken, honest, and seemed to talk to everyone with a surprising amount of compassion, at least compared to previous interactions John’d had with men of the medical profession.
Of course, when Abigail and John lead him to Arthur’s bed and Renaud paused upon seeing Arthur, the look of recognition on his face still made John itch to grab the guns Abigail had made him leave in the other bedroom.
“Mr. Smith called him Arthur—is that correct?” And then, without giving them time to answer, “You all weren’t ever down around Rhodes, were you?”
The gun itch grew stronger. “Why?” John growled, and Abigail shot him a look that very clearly said, Don’t.
“He’s lost some weight, but I think…” Maybe because the grey post-dawn light wasn’t doing much to light up the room, Renaud leaned closer to Arthur and John felt his whole body tense, before, “…I think this is the Arthur Morgan that got me my wagon back.”
“What?” John found himself saying before his brain caught up with his ears. Of all the things to know Arthur for, a retrieved wagon?
Renaud gestured with a finger to Arthur’s chin. “I remember these scars specifically. They looked like they should’ve been stitched but weren’t, healed badly.”
“Arthur helped you get your wagon back.” Also, wasn’t Arthur supposed to be the one to give John hell for giving out his real name to folks?
“From some men who didn’t take kindly to my treating folks while possessing my particular skin color, yes.”
That at least explained some of it. Same as John, Arthur had inherited Dutch and Hosea’s distaste for fools who thought themselves superior to others for what they were born into, whether that was wealth or pale skin. Specifically, Arthur’s intolerance for some people had always been based on who they proved themselves to be rather than how they looked, which maybe was why it’d taken two years and the gang crumbling for Arthur to move past John leaving for a year.
Still, John found himself catching Abigail’s eye when Renaud’s back was next turned, mouthing, How does he know all these people? over at her. All she gave him back was a small shrug.
Renaud was opening the canvas bag he brought with him into the house, searching through it until he pulled out a small, wooden case. He turned back to them. “I’m happy to treat him. I’d be happy to treat him even if we were strangers, but I owe Mr. Morgan in particular a favor. Is it alright if I examine him? I know what Mr. Smith told me, that it’s a bullet wound that looks to be infected, but a full examination would give me more information before we start on treatment.”
“That’s fine,” Abigail said, and then, “Let us know if we can help. John has a hurt shoulder, so he oughta not do much heavy liftin’, but I can call Charles or Sadie for that.”
And now Renaud was peering at John, critically but not unkindly. “I can take a look at that as well, after we settle things with Mr. Morgan.”
“Might make Abigail feel better if you did,” John said, bringing a hand up to grab at the shoulder in question, the ache more familiar than anything else now.
John’d never really seen a doctor work before, not in this capacity. Most of what John knew of medicine was panicked, frantic, trying to keep folks from bleeding out in the dirt. Renaud worked quickly, sure, but methodically, but practiced.
The wooden case he’d been holding turned out to contain a thermometer, which he tasked Abigail with holding in place under Arthur’s arm, once they’d removed the long john shirt. They’d had a thermometer, once, at camp, one someone had stolen so long before that John couldn’t remember whom or when. It was shattered when they fled from Blackwater, dropped in the chaos of packing. A new one was too expensive to buy, and the opportunity to steal another hadn’t presented itself.
Arthur was still mostly out, or as out as one could be with a high fever and the accompanying dreams. When Renaud cut through the bandages around his torso and peeled them away from the entrance wound, Arthur made a low noise in the back of his throat, scraped a leg across the bed like he was trying to push himself away, took a harsh breath in before stilling again. Fever, laudanum, hunger, just plain weakness, all of them together maybe, dragging Arthur deep into his own body. Renaud prodded at the edges of the wound, the skin red, tight, and swollen, and the resulting ooze between the stitches made John turn his head away, not looking back until Renaud turned his attention to Arthur’s hipbone, stark even amidst the swelling circling the wound.
The bruises across Arthur’s ribs and stomach had started to fade to yellow and green in spots, and John distantly thought that must be a good thing, that something, at least, was getting better. They must’ve been less tender than they were before too, because when Renaud put pressure on different parts of Arthur’s ribcage, what John knew from past experience to be looking for breaks, it earned him less fuss from Arthur than peeling away the bandage had.
The smell bothered John less than it did the previous day, though maybe just because his stomach was more settled rather than any change in the infection. He still couldn’t look at the wound, sure, not when catching a glimpse again when Renaud turned Arthur slightly, just enough to allow access to the exit on his back, made John’s skin crawl. But he wasn’t nauseous, not in the same way he’d been before. Instead, he felt untethered, loose, waiting, anticipating.
Renaud did some things John recognized, like checking Arthur’s ribs, and some he didn’t. He lifted Arthur’s eyelids to peer at his eyes, checked his teeth and inner lip, ran a finger against his tongue and examined the saliva that came back. Anywhere with bruising Renaud checked for breaks, though, as far as John could tell, he wasn’t finding much. Nearer the end of the exam Renaud pulled from his bag some device John recognized but didn’t know the name of—a long, flexible tube with earpieces on one end and a bell on the other. Renaud settled the bell on Arthur’s chest, pulled out a pocket watch, seemed to be listening intently. Moved it, listened again, eyes on the watch.
John’d thought Abigail let him hang about while Renaud worked because he’d finally convinced her he was well enough to at least be in the loop, and maybe that was still part of it, but it seemed he was also around to answer questions of Renaud’s that Abigail couldn’t. Abigail handed it with ease when asked about what medicine she’d given Arthur, what she’d done with the wound itself, when he’d lost the weight, how much they’d gotten him to drink, how much he’d eaten, and a whole host of other things that made John’s head spin.
Whereas John was left to answer questions more like: “Where did the bruising come from?” Fistfight. “Fistfight? Before the gunshot?” No, had to have been after. “Fistfighting with a gun wound?” John wasn’t going to call a dying man a dumbass in front of a near-stranger, but. “Did you witness it? Who would try to beat someone bleeding out?” John had a damn good hunch who.
Renaud took the thermometer back from Abigail, read it, made a humming noise that seemed unsurprised. He settled it back on the table next to the bed, asked, “Has he been lucid, with the fever?”
“He ain’t really been awake since it hit, mostly, but the few times he were he’s been confused,” Abigail answered. “Mostly time loss. Don’t fully remember the past few months, asks for people who are gone, that sort.”
“And that’s normally how he acts with a fever around this high?”
That stumbled Abigail for the first time that morning. “I… weren’t usually the one who sat up with him. Was usually Grimshaw or Hosea or…” She glanced over at John.
Thing was, John wasn’t one to sit up with Arthur either. When he was young the adults tended to shoo him away from anyone sick or injured, and when he was older he tended to be one of the last people picked for any sort of caring role. Wasn’t like Arthur was one to get sick often either. What he did know, though— “Hosea always got worried about keepin’ him in bed, few times I saw him fevered. Don’t know if it was that or just plain stubbornness, though.”
“I only ask,” Renaud said, leaning back, “because his fever isn’t as high as I normally see when patients present significant confusion. It’s only uncommon, though, not impossible, especially if patients have a history of it.” He looked over at John, and when he spoke again, there was a fond edge to his voice. “He’s not one to stay down, though, is he?”
“No, he ain’t,” John replied. Dumb bastard had never known when to quit, not in the fourteen years John’d known him.
“I will say, I do think it’s a good sign that his fever isn’t as high as I thought it could be.” Renaud padded some gauze over Arthur’s wound before pulling the blankets back over him. He turned back to Abigail and John. “It is sepsis, though I’d assume you already knew that. Far from the worst I’ve seen men recover from, though most of those men had more meat on their bones. But, if we can get the infection under control before he goes into septic shock, I believe he will live.
“He got lucky, mind you, that the bullet didn’t pierce his colon or shatter his hipbone, which were my primary concerns when hearing he was wounded where he was. However, even without those additional complications, infections in the abdomen are dangerous, as you may well know already. We can’t amputate if it progresses, like we might a limb. I’ll try my best to treat it, but I cannot make any guarantees at this point.
“I do think, however, that you all have given him the best possible chance at surviving. He’s in much better shape than most patients I see in sepsis, aside from the things like his weight, which seem to have been out of your control.”
“That’s all Abigail,” John said, and Abigail dipped her head, a slight flush on her cheeks.
“I’m sure he’ll be grateful to you, then,” Renaud said, and the flush grew brighter. “We should try to work quickly from here, before things get worse. First, we’ll need to reopen the stitches. Recent research has shown better results for leaving wounds open until they’ve healed further. From there, it needs to be debrided.” John was getting lost in his words, but Abigail seemed to know what Renaud was indicating. “In particular, I want to reopen the deeper portions and pack it after debriding, which will prevent pockets of infection forming that prevent healing and allow things to fester.
“I’m telling you all this because I will need your help.” That, and maybe Renaud could read on their faces that they were the types to fuss when not provided information. “I can give Mr. Morgan morphine before I begin to dull the pain, but I’m concerned about using any sort of anesthesia—something to make him sleep,” Renaud added, seeing the face John made, “—when I can’t confirm his weight, nor am I as trained as I’d like to administer it without assistance. Instead, I think it better to proceed with what sleep we can get from the morphine, and plan to have people around to hold him, should he come up. As much as I’d like to say there’s a good chance he’ll stay under, the procedure is particularly painful, and I’ll imagine he’ll wake.”
“We can call the others in,” Abigail said.
“Alright. Give me a few minutes to fully sterilize my equipment, and we’ll get started. The sooner we start, the better a chance he’ll have.”
John found himself flagging down Charles, who was on his way in from grooming out the horses, both Fenella and the pair that drove Renaud’s wagon.
Before he could speak, Charles was saying, “Rains Fall sends his regrets he couldn’t come down. He’s needed too much by his people.” At John’s questioning look, Charles continued, “Arthur did a fair amount for them near the end. Rains Fall wanted to pay his respects, or help with treatment, whatever ended up being more appropriate.”
“Kind of him.” More altruism, more things owed. Seemed endless, the web of people with debts to Arthur, people John now felt debted to.
“He did pass these on.” Charles held out a small pouch and a letter for John to see. “Letter is for Arthur, if he wakes.” John did his best to ignore the “if”. “Rest is a treatment the Wapiti use for infection, a mix of herbs, mushrooms. Not a guarantee, from the way Rains Fall described it, but I trust him when he says that folks who take them recover more often than folks that don’t.”
“Worth a shot, right?” John offered a hand out to take the pouch, mumbled something about getting it to Abigail. He’d let Charles hold onto the letter, not wanting to think about the way Arthur’s waking was a still a dubious concept.
Charles started to turn away, and John remembered why he’d been looking for him in the first place.
“Sorry, but one more favor before you rest. Arthur’s gotta be held down for whatever torture the doc’s puttin’ him through to get him well.”
“And I’m the heaviest?”
“Woulda put it ‘strongest’, but sure.”
It was a good impulse, Renaud had, to gather everyone, because Arthur came up fighting in just the way he always did.
John didn’t understand most of what Renaud had talked about, but he did know what he could see. Renaud had moved Arthur so his wounded side was on the very edge of the bed, with oilcloth beneath him creased in a way to allow any liquid to drain into a waiting bucket on the floor. The blades on the table were for opening the wound, the tube for what Renaud referred to as wound irrigation.
The whole room stank of alcohol, something harsher, sharper than what one might drink, and that was only marginally better than the smell of infection. Renaud and Abigail had scrubbed their arms down with whatever caused the smell, while Charles held Arthur’s legs, Sadie and John his arms. Tilly was the only adult not in the room, having agreed to bring Jack outside, keep him away from the mess of wound care.
It wasn’t cutting through the stitches that woke Arthur, though it was the first hint that John got that this wasn’t going to be easy. Even with the morphine, the exhaustion, the fever, Arthur’s eyes moved under his eyelids when Renaud sliced through the catgut, and John felt the twitch in the muscles of Arthur’s arm as his fingers curled inwards. Still, he stayed down, stayed under until Renaud started cutting deeper.
John would be happy to never again in his life hear the noise Arthur made when he came up. Somewhere between a shout and a scream, like something was dragging hurt and panic and rage all out through his throat. John had never, ever heard Arthur make a noise like it before, not with all the bullets and knives and fists the man had taken—closest John could remember were the sounds Abigail made during childbirth.
With it Arthur’s body heaved, his eyes open but unseeing, trying desperately to throw, to fight, to escape what was causing the pain. All of it entirely on the instinct years of hurt and survival had trained into him.
And he nearly managed it, to fight them off completely, all three of them. Charles got it worst—Arthur ripped one of his legs from Charles’s grip and caught him in the jaw with a heel before Charles could grab at the fabric of the long johns and pin Arthur more fully. But John and Sadie lost him too, his sweat-slick skin making it hard to keep hold of his arms when they were bare. When Arthur swung one hand upwards John was distinctly reminded of the fistfights they’d have when they were both younger, and counted himself lucky that what Arthur did with it was not to punch John but, instead, grasp at whatever fabric he could, try to drag himself somewhere. Where to, John wasn’t sure, but suspected that mattered less to Arthur in his fog than just getting himself away from the more immediate pain.
John managed to get his good arm over Arthur, let his head slide into John’s lap as John held him over the shoulder and around the chest, grabbing the fabric of his own pants to better lock Arthur into place. Sadie lent over Arthur’s chest, pinning his arms to the bed when they tried to come up to rip John’s arm away.
It was loud, enough so that John had trouble identifying which noises came from which people. There was shouting, yes, but multiple voices sounding, and under it a confusing undercurrent of murmuring from other voices that was likely intended to be soothing. John wasn’t even aware he himself was whispering, “Arthur, pass out, goddammit,” under his breath until, finally—
Arthur went limp. Something—the pain, the drugs, the exhaustion—dropped the man back into unconsciousness, his eyes rolling backwards in his skull as his head lolled back onto John’s lap.
And it was over, as quick as that. They were all left breathless, sweaty, the sound gone from the room just as quickly as it started, aside from the steady drip into the bucket on the floor. “Christ,” John huffed, panting, as he unwound his arm from around Arthur, let his head drop until it was resting on Arthur’s forehead.
“Alive?” Renaud asked, voice calm for the question he was asking, not even pausing from whatever he was doing with the tubing as Abigail handed him bottle of something. John caught Sadie, out of the corner of his eye, rocking back on her heels and grabbing at one of Arthur’s wrists, checking for a pulse.
“Alive,” she confirmed, voice still breathy as she tried to catch air back in her chest, same as both John and Charles.
“Good,” Renaud said. “That should be the worst of it.”
John let his forehead stay pressed to Arthur’s, and he could feel the heat of the fever in his skin where it touched John’s own. It took a minute for him to realize Sadie was asking him something.
He glanced up at her, and she repeated, “You good?”
“Fine, fine. Charles?”
Charles was rubbing his jaw, but he waved his other hand. “Fine, been kicked by worse than him.”
John straightened, clenched and flexed his fingers a few times to work the pain out of them, let Arthur’s head continue to rest against the inside of his bent knee. Sadie was peering at him, and when he turned his head to her more fully, she asked, “Why’re you grinnin’?”
John didn’t realize he had been until Sadie drew attention to it, but he could feel it now on his face. He turned his head back down to Arthur, let his hand rest on Arthur’s throat where he could feel his heart beat hard and fast, still too tired after the whole ordeal to think through the gesture too much.
He was smiling, because—?
Because it had taken all three of them to hold Arthur down, and he still almost managed to fight them off. Because even feats of strength under intense pressure needed the fight to back them up. Because Arthur’s heart was still hammering away in his chest.
Because— “Ain’t done fightin’ yet, is he?”
Somewhere deep down, John had been hoping that once Arthur’s wound was treated, healing would be immediate, that they would instantly see improvement. Seemed it didn’t work that way.
Arthur was improving, at least according to the two folks who would know better than John did, but it was painfully slow. Renaud had given his approval to use the treatment Rains Fall had sent, which involved grinding the various herbs and mushrooms to a pulp and mixing with cold water for Arthur to drink, but, if that was working, it did so just as sluggishly.
So, around Arthur, life went on.
Not long after he’d finished on Arthur, Renaud gestured John over, sat him down in one of the chairs in the kitchen and took a look at his shoulder. Pronounced him lucky almost immediately, and John had given up on arguing the fact that he never felt all that lucky, particularly when he kept getting shot.
As it were, the bullet in his left shoulder could’ve shattered one of the many bones there, could’ve hit something that made him bleed out in minutes or lost him use of the arm permanently, but did not. Instead it settled in the muscle that joined his arm and shoulder, and not even that deep, according to Renaud. May not even hinder his arm at all, after it healed fully. No sign of infection, but there was dead flesh, which Renaud recommended cleaning out the same as he did Arthur. And that whole process gave John an idea of why Arthur had come up as hard as he did, morphine or no.
Renaud left the bullet lodged in his muscle. Said it wouldn’t affect the movement of his arm, nor was it at risk of causing more damage, and that digging it out risked infection, risked harm to the muscle around it. Still unnerved John, the idea of having some Pinkerton piece trapped in his skin for life. Weren’t justification enough to talk him into pulling it out though.
He slept for nearly a day after that, both the morphine and the general exhaustion of the previous few days contributing. It was a relief, in some ways, to be down that long, because being up again made John turn to the same useless restlessness that plagued him whenever he was kept down.
It wasn’t right to be resentful towards Abigail, that John knew, and yet, still, the restlessness bred the resentment. He found himself snapping at her for trying to keep him in bed, or in the house, or from doing anything that would irritate his shoulder, because it was so frustrating to stay down, especially when staying down meant being alone with his own thoughts.
Angry, scared, exhausted. Seemed like all he could do was vacillate between the three.
Eventually it was Tilly of all people who pulled John away, made him sit outside in the grass with her to have a chat while she stitched together a busted seam in one of Abigail’s dresses.
John was expecting a lecture, maybe hoping for it, because that’s what usually happened when he was pulled away and made to sit with someone, at least with Dutch and Hosea. But maybe he shouldn’t have expected that of Tilly, or maybe he just wouldn’t get out of things that easily, because the first thing she said was, “Do you wanna talk?”
“’bout what?” John said, and it sounded stupid even to his own ears.
“’bout the way you been bitin’ at Abigail.” Or maybe it was a lecture after all.
“I don’t…” he started, dropping his chin to his hand. “Don’t know why she gets like this.” That wasn’t true, wasn’t the right words, but he couldn’t find the right ones.
“Mmmm,” Tilly hummed, the noise making it clear even to John just how much she didn’t buy it, and then, “Have you seen how Arthur’s been?”
John had been called into Arthur’s room once in the three days that had passed since Renaud arrived. As the inflammation seemed to ease and the swelling dropped, Renaud had been cutting down on the morphine, which, in turn, meant Arthur was sleeping less—though less, in this case, meant waking up two or three times a day, rather than not waking up at all. Thing was, he was still fevered, and while in his fevered brain he was mostly willing to do things—eat, drink, go back to sleep—Abigail asked of him, he occasionally got it in his head that there was something he needed to do that involved him getting out of bed at that exact moment.
The problem, as John discovered when he was summoned to see if he could convince Arthur to not try to argue his way out of bed, is that none of them could quite figure out what Arthur wanted, aside from not being in bed. It had an uncanny resemblance how Arthur got when he was drunk in a bad mood—a very self-assured kind of irritable combined with being completely incomprehensible.
That particular occasion, Arthur was convinced he needed to speak with someone who wasn’t in the room. Whoever said person was kept changing—Arthur cycled through Hosea, Dutch, Javier, Davey, Lenny, others before starting in on Hosea again. Like in the wagon, Arthur seemed to have a strong conviction that something was wrong, but he couldn’t identify what, and got progressively more frustrated the more he thought they—Abigail, Tilly, John, Sadie at that point—weren’t listening to him.
Short of nothing else, it was exhausting. It was outlasting Arthur that won, letting him eventually wear himself out enough to drop back into sleep, not any sort of convincing him things were fine. After, John had watched Abigail cross her arms and heave a sigh, the tired blue-purple under her eyes stark against her skin.
“Yeah,” John said, “yeah I know, but…”
“Listen, John,” Tilly said, laying down the sewing and putting a hand on John’s knee, “I know this ain’t been easy for you, losin' what we did, but you can’t take that out on Abigail, because I can guarantee she’s had just as rough a go as you have, if not worse.”
John could feel himself start to bristle again, and he dipped his head down. “Sure, because she was in with Dutch for fourteen years.”
The hand on his knee gripped harder. “John,” Tilly said, and waited until he met her eyes before continuing, “You wasn’t the only one who saw Dutch as a father, and you wasn’t the only one who saw those folks as family. It ain’t fair to the rest of us if you pretend like you was. Besides that, you wasn’t there when Abigail thought you wasn’t comin’ back. You scared the hell outta her, and she’s tryin’ her hardest to make sure she won’t have to worry no more. Okay?”
And John sighed, because he knew it all already, but knowing it was different than being confronted with it outright.
“I know you and Arthur ain’t accustomed to being good patients, but you at least got enough of your brain awake to think through whether you wanna push yourself into hurtin' yourself further.”
“I ain’t built for sittin’ around, is the thing,” John said, and maybe the temptation he was already getting to tear at the grass they were sitting in was proving his point.
“I’m not sayin’ you got to do nothin', but there’s got to be things you can do that ain’t gonna make you worse.”
“If you got ideas, I’m all ears.”
“Alright,” Tilly said, and she picked up the sewing, held it out towards John. “Maybe it’s time you learnt mendin', John Marston.”
So, John stuck to the easier, less labor-intensive jobs. Sorting through what had been recovered from Beaver Hollow, teaching Jack the writing to go along with his reading, and clumsily stitching together ripped patches in clothes Tilly pointed out to him.
Abigail still seemed reluctant to have him take a watch on Arthur for more than an hour or two per day, though maybe that was more for Arthur’s sake than for John’s own. If something were to happen with Arthur while John was on watch, he didn’t think he’d know to do any more than shout for Abigail or Renaud anyway.
It was, out of all people, Sadie and Charles who took sympathy on him, maybe because they could commiserate with the restless feeling of not being able to wander. Between swapped shifts on watch around the homestead, still too close to the Pinkerton threat to fully relax, John managed to convince them both to let him help out with anything that didn’t prove to be too strenuous.
Charles showed him how to put together snares, let John work together the knots or carve branches into the right shape for the triggers. Showed John how to bind arrowheads to arrows, how to fletch feathers to the tails. While Charles, at John’s request, dug the hole to bury the remains of Albert Russell, John carved his name into a cross to head the grave.
Sadie, meanwhile, seemed to work a whole variety of odd jobs around the homestead, moving from each with the relative ease that came with experience. It was mostly her that John ended up trailing, helping with whatever needed doing so long as it wasn’t heavy on the shoulders.
Turned out, the only one in the entire house who could cook worth anything was Sadie Adler, which, considering she was the only one of them with any semblance of a normal life before Dutch Van der Linde, maybe shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. Not only that, but she seemed fairly willing to take on cooking as part of her regular routine, same as she did guard duty and horse care. John might’ve asked her about it, seeing how the whole camp saw how much she fought Pearson back in those first few months she was with the gang, if that didn’t carry a genuine risk of losing any halfway decent cooking entirely.
As it were, after a few days she seemed to finally get tired of the looks he’d give her when she cooked, unintentional as they were. She eventually snapped without much bite to it, “You got a problem, Marston?”
John’d been sitting at the kitchen table, finally going about pulling and sorting the varied debris out of Arthur’s satchel, something he’d determined was safely within the “not too much strain for his shoulder” category. Might’ve been he’d once sit bolt upright at the words, but he was starting to see the places Sadie’s edges softened. He put down the health tonic that had been in his hand, said, “Just thought you didn’t like cooking.”
“Weren’t ever cooking I had a problem with, and weren’t ever really cooking I was asked to do in that camp, neither. More just ‘chop things for Pearson to throw into that mess he called a stew’ and try not to put the knife in him while you’re at it. If it were actual cooking, might’ve been more interested in the whole affair.”
“So long we let you do guard duty along with it.”
“Now you’re gettin’ it.” She put down the spoon she was holding, looked him up and down. “You cook much?”
“I know not to eat raw meat, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at.”
“But can you make things taste good?”
John didn’t say anything, just gave her a look, and Sadie rolled her eyes. “Hey,” he snapped, “ain’t my fault no one ever taught me.” Most he’d ever done around camp was the same chopping Sadie had done, back when he was too young for the dangerous work, and before he was on the streets scrounging for anything he could find, or in the orphanage being fed slop worse than Pearson’s stew, or with his father who forgot to feed him half the time, let alone teach him how to cook.
Sadie had a half-smile on her face now, like he was amusing her. “You wanna learn?”
“Yeah you. Promise I’ll let you do more than just choppin’ vegetables.”
Somehow, John ended up saddled with cooking lessons, and somehow those cooking lesson turned into group cooking lessons just as quickly. It was far from a bad thing, seeing as John felt a lot less stupid about burning goddamn oatmeal when Charles or Tilly or Abigail were being stupid along with him.
It felt almost domestic again, like they could pretend they were always like this, something half-familial. John found himself more than once holding Jack up when Abigail wasn’t looking, careful not to let him touch the hot iron of the stove, so the boy could dump a spoonful of flour into a pot of soup filled with venison Charles had hunted, vegetables Tilly had picked up in town. And the house was warm with the heat, and John felt himself laugh more than he had in ages, and they actually ate decent tasting food for once.
More time passed, more cooking, carving, sewing, writing, sorting. John found he didn’t particularly mind doing what might be called women’s work, really, because it wasn’t like anyone else around the homestead looked down on him for doing it. It was more not being good at any of it that rubbed at him, just like not being good at anything rubbed at John. Couldn’t stitch a seam in the same way he did fire a gun. But, it kept him busy, kept him from thinking too much, which always seemed to lead to the same core anxieties about Arthur, Dutch, himself.
And, Arthur’s fever was dropping. Abigail had told John when he was changing for bed, and the smile on her face, soft and hopeful, had made something warm bloom in his chest. John could stand doing pretty much anything, so long as there was an out on the other end, and as the days passed he could more and more clearly see the sun coming over the horizon.
Nearly a week after arriving at the homestead, John finally thought he’d finished clearing Arthur’s satchel. He’d pulled everything from the thing, all the plants and tonics and ammo and horse treats and dried meats, sorted them into piles, made his best guess at what he thought Arthur would be okay with them using before it spoiled. He left the near-endless stack of papers, letters, and maps untouched, because going through them felt like an invasion of privacy in the same way messing with Arthur’s journal did. That and Arthur’s money, no matter if Arthur had told John to use it when he gave him the satchel, John pushed off to the side. Better to deal with it when Arthur was there.
Even with everything gone from it, every pocket searched and cleared, the satchel still felt too heavy, to the point where he eventually called Tilly over, just to help him figure it out, which she did nearly instantly.
“There’s somethin’ stitched into the lining—see? Here’s where he pulled the thread, redid it.” She pointed at seam, and John was almost proud to say he could see the way the new stitching was just a bit rougher, clumsier.
“Think he’d kill me if I tried to get at it?”
“Probably. It’s Arthur and it’s you doin' it.”
John considered that, picking up and dropping the satchel a couple times, listening to the heavy clunk it made when it hit the table. “Sounds like metal, don’t it?”
Tilly shrugged her shoulders, and John let the satchel rest on the table. Just one more thing to wait on.
Ten days after Dutch put a bullet through him, Arthur woke up lucid again. And, by nothing but pure luck, John was the one on watch when he did. Or, it seemed like luck, at least at first.
John had been in the process of writing a letter to Charlotte, finally fulfilling that promise he’d made to her. It wasn’t a particularly good letter, especially seeing as he couldn’t think of much more to write beyond Arthur’s not dead, and all that in John’s clumsy attempt at handwriting besides, but it wasn’t nothing. Sadie had said something about sending along a letter of her own to Charlotte, so maybe John could get away without writing much.
It was getting easier, to look at Arthur and not feel the hard ache of worry in the base of his stomach. To see him and see less of a shell, more of the man left over. Weakness had always been a foreign object when stuck to Arthur, one that warped and changed the man John had wanted to be like into something half-unrecognizable. But it was getting better, getting easier, as Renaud reported improvement and as Arthur’s skin grew less flushed, his sleep less troubled.
John still couldn’t think about Dutch, couldn’t let himself dwell in that pit of anger with grief around the edges. He’d be happy to leave that well of hurt completely untouched until he put a bullet through Dutch, or Micah, or both of them at once.
The warm light of the late morning sun glanced off the paper as John wrote, made the whole thing bright, and John had been drumming the pencil against the table when Arthur’s voice cut straight through his thoughts, almost straight through him completely.
“John?” And John jerked his head up, had to blink a couple times to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer areas of the room, his heart pounding hard in his chest as he locked his gaze with Arthur’s own half-open eyes. Tired, his eyebrows pressed low over them in a vague sort of questioning look, but clearer than John’d seen in days.
“Arthur?” he asked right back. And then, more instinct than anything else, because past experiences with Arthur waking had warranted it, “Stay down, okay?”
“Reckon I hurt too much for much else,” Arthur murmured back, voice rough with disuse. And he didn’t seem particularly inclined to try to get up. If it weren’t for his eyes being open, Arthur might’ve passed well as someone sleeping—head just barely titled towards John, chest rising and falling slow.
John scooted the chair closer, pressed the back of his hand to Arthur’s forehead, and the way Arthur turned his head and scrunched his nose just slightly, like he’d knock the hand away if he had the energy to, almost convinced John more than lack of significant heat from Arthur’s skin. “You’re back.”
“Didn’t go anywhere, but sure.” The heavy exhaustion in his voice turned everything into a drawn-out drawl, enough that if it were anyone but Arthur, John wouldn’t have been able to parse it. It was the kind of tired that John associated with long jobs with no rest, the Arthur that couldn’t hide his emotions in the same way he tried when well slept. Even Arthur saying he was hurting was an admission, one that wouldn’t have come if healing hadn’t taken it out of him.
God, but he was back, awake and talking, with sense in what he was saying again. Not well, sure, but getting there. They were on the other side of this. Wherever it went from here, it had to be better.
Arthur turned his eyes back to John. “What are you, playin’ nursemaid?”
“Only when Abigail tells me to.” It felt like there was something caught in his throat, something burning behind his eyes. He wished he could grab Arthur’s hand, tell him every detail of the days he’d been fevered, tell him how much it weighed in his chest to think that he was the last of their family left standing whole and unbroken, to think that John might not ever get to hear his name in Arthur’s voice again. Instead he swallowed, saliva thick in his mouth, and asked, “What, uh, what’s the last thing you remember?”
“Wagon. Leaving Charlotte’s.” Arthur’s eyes were flicking over John’s face, studying him, catching along his jaw before he asked, “How long?”
His beard, John realized, or the half-groomed mess of stubble the past ten days had given him. Abigail had suggested letting it grow, enough to partly cover the scars, make him less likely to be recognized when they started moving again. “Been down a bit over a week now. Had a bad fever, infection, all that. How you feel?”
“Like I got hit by a goddamn train.” And the rough half-smile that edged Arthur’s mouth was hard enough to see, even if it weren’t followed with, “You alright?”
John’s eyes burned, and he blinked a couple times, feeling his eyes start to water. Sniffed, an ugly sound, said, “I’m fine, ‘course I’m fine.” The relief ached in his throat.
Arthur looked up at him, and the way his brow creased almost made the whole ordeal worse. “Ain’t gon’ cry for my sake, are you?”
“Naw, never.” John murmured, rubbed at one of his eyes with a heel of a palm. “Just glad you’re alive, you bastard.”
Something flickered over Arthur’s face then, something John couldn’t identify, and his expression shuttered. He turned his head from John, to the ceiling and then the rest of the room. “Where are we, anyhow?”
John cleared his throat, collected himself. “Some abandoned homestead,” he finally said. “Outside a town called Beacon Brook, up in North Ambarino.”
Apparently the wrong thing to say, because Arthur’s head jerked back towards John. “Only…? Marston, you oughta be states away by now.”
Amazing how quickly Arthur dropped back into telling John what to do, even when he had no idea what the past ten days had been like. “We kinda had other shit to deal with.”
“More important than keepin’ yourselves out of Pinkerton hands?” Amazing, too, how anger was one of the few things that could cut through the exhaustion in Arthur’s voice.
“Arthur, it was a little hard to keep movin' when you were goddamn dyin',” John growled, maybe too loud, unable to keep an annoyed edge out of his voice. He didn’t want to be fighting already, but it seemed like all they ever did eventually led to fighting.
And again, something went over Arthur’s face, and he growled right back, “Y’all shoulda—”
But Arthur cut himself off with a hiss of pain. He’d twisted his torso trying to prop himself up, maybe to better yell at John, and it must’ve been a mistake, must’ve pulled on the hole in his gut. His head dropped back to the pillows, eyes scrunching closed, as his breathing came rough, hitched. Murmured a curse under his breath.
“You good?” John found himself saying, his brain a whole mess of concern, annoyed anger, lingering relief. “I can get the others, let me—”
“No,” Arthur said, and he brought a hand up, slow, gingerly, like even that much was tender, to dig the heel of his palm in to one of his eyes. “No, just—need a minute, okay? I need a minute.”
“Are you good?” John repeated, not quite sure why, something in him needing to hear Arthur say it.
“I’m fine,” Arthur shot back, not removing his hand from over his eyes. And then, softer, maybe not even meant for John to hear, “Ah, Christ, you really did it, didn’t you?”
“I’m glad you’re awake,” John said, unable to stop the indignation or the desperation from creeping into his voice, because this whole thing was frustrating, because Arthur didn’t seem to be getting it, didn’t seem to understand that whatever happened next, it couldn’t possibly be worse than what was behind them.
It took Arthur a moment to open his eyes, look back up at John, but when he did his face seemed something between pained and concerned, eyes red at the edges. Voice rough, untethered, when finally Arthur asked, “What happens next?”
John answered honestly, because there was nothing else left in him to try. “I don’t know.”