It wasn’t until Abigail and Jack arrived that John realized he was well and truly fucked.
He, Arthur, and Sadie had spent the few days beforehand herding their very own flock of sheep back to the ranch. They’d picked them up at a livestock town called Grafton down west across the valley, a nice sized flock of around fifteen sheep. Enough to keep them busy, but few enough that managing them over their first winter at the ranch wouldn’t be an impossible task.
John’d sent Abigail a letter once the house was complete letting her know they were ready for her to arrive at her convenience. By the time they arrived back at the ranch, sheep in hand, Abigail and Jack were there to greet them, already settled into the ranch with the last of the things they’d brought down from Pineridge.
John was happy to see Abigail, greeted her with a spin and a long, slow kiss. Was happy to see Jack too, picked him up immediately, went to show him his room at the ranch, newly furnished and everything. But that same joy at seeing his wife and son, at seeing them finally back together again, faded into dread over the next few days, John unable to get his mind off of that drunk night after they’d finished building the house.
Arthur felt something for John, John was sure of that now. What the hell that something was, of course, John had no idea, because Arthur got near incomprehensible when he was drunk, and John couldn’t remember that many details besides, seeing as he was soaked through himself. And even when John had put his foot in his mouth and made a confession, Arthur seemed to react to the revelation with something akin to despair, which made absolutely no sense to John.
He didn’t know what Arthur wanted. For all the man seemed to claim all he wanted was for other folks to be happy, that night had made it clear that other folks weren’t the entire story. There was something Arthur wanted, something that would make him happy, but he wasn’t willing to talk about it, and John had no idea what that thing was. And not knowing was itching at him near constantly.
Short of nothing else, John was a fucking mess, and it was starting to leech into his behavior, making him short and surly and quick to annoyance. And though knowing that was supposed to be one step into stopping it, John had little self-control at the best of times. At the worst? He was downright destructive. And it was only a matter of time before all of it spilled over, got him into a situation he couldn’t reverse.
One week in early July, when they were still building the outer fences of the sheep pastures and learning how to manage their small flock, Sadie took her leave.
Out of all of them, John had been expecting her to leave next. Even back at Pineridge, she came and went, did bounties whenever there was one available. Sadie wasn’t one to stay in one place long, at least not after all the messy business a year ago. The bounties were an easy sort of excuse to keep moving, keep finding new things to occupy her mind and body that wasn’t a clear reminder of what she had lost.
Though, this time—
They were in the dregs of the afternoon when Sadie approached John, loading up a cartful of fence pieces to bring out to where they were going up. Charles was still out working on assembling the previously brought pieces, Arthur was dealing with some issue with one of Gwydion’s shoes, and Uncle was god-knew-where, so it was John alone.
Sadie, of course, joined John under the pretext of work, because that was the sort of person she was. It wasn’t until they had the cart nearly loaded that finally John, knowing something was coming by the way Sadie was acting, familiar enough with her by now, finally asked, “Something up?”
Sadie glanced at him, and her voice was unusually careful when she said, “Already told Arthur this, but I’m plannin’ to set out day after tomorrow.”
“Bounty huntin’?” John paused after laying the fence rail down in the bed of the cart, turning so he could get a better look at her face.
“No, actually.” And when John shot her a questioning look, Sadie continued, “Gonna head back to New Hanover, see Charlotte.”
“Charlotte?” Charlotte Balfour? Sure, Sadie had been writing to her, but it didn’t seem so much writing that it made sense for them to be visiting each other. “Why?”
Sadie’s eyebrows went low, though it was an exasperated sort of annoyance, likely because she was used to John’s mouth by now. “Ain’t sure it’s any sort of business of yours.”
Fair enough, that was true. John still didn’t really get it, though, not why Sadie was going, not why it was Charlotte. “…You want company or somethin’?”
“No,” Sadie said, her voice sharp. “I am goin’ to see Charlotte. Alone.”
“Okay?” Sadie was normally so direct, so upfront and straight with him. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what was going on.
“And that’s alright with you? Me leavin’?” Sadie took taking a step closer with the words, arms crossed. John immediately wanted to take his own step back, defer the space to her, and why was it that so many relationships in John’s life seemed to always devolve into arguing and power plays?
Instead of backing down, John held his ground like he knew how, straightened his shoulders and asked, “Is somethin’ wrong? ‘tween you and me? You’re bein’ cagey, Sadie, for you at least.”
Sadie titled her head, squinted one eye in a questioning sort of way. “Arthur seemed to be under the impression you wouldn’t be happy ‘bout it. Thought you might’ve said somethin’ to him.”
Arthur? “’bout you leavin’?” And John scoffed, because, “That ain’t none of his business.”
“So you did say something to him.”
“No—no, not exactly, if he’s talkin’ ‘bout what I think he is. Told him ‘round when we bought this place that I was tired of losin’ folks. Figure that’s what he means.” Not that John telling Arthur meant he had any right to indicate the same to other folks at the ranch, Sadie included.
The admission made Sadie’s face go a bit softer, and she said, slow, “I ain’t gone forever, John.”
“No, I know that, and I ain’t gonna stop you even if you was. Ain’t my right.” God, John knew that tone, and it was pity. He didn’t need pity. He was fine.
“What’d he say to you?” John asked, folded his arms.
“Just to go easy if you didn’t react well.”
John scoffed, walked away from the cart to grab more wood, just enough to have something to do with his hands. “I’m fine. You can do what you want, Sadie, ain’t none of his business.” Honestly, who did Arthur think he was, thinking he knew John better than John did?
Sadie followed John, grabbing the last two fence posts and hoisting them over her shoulders. “You ever gonna talk to him about whatever the hell is happenin’ between you two?”
“Ain’t sure that’s any sort of business of yours,” John said, purposely echoing Sadie’s earlier words. Honestly, why did everyone on this goddamn ranch think they had some say in how John’s life went, just because they’d guessed at some feelings John was having? The embarrassment that Sadie knew was still there, still burning inside him, but mostly it was starting to fade into annoyance.
But maybe that wasn’t fair, because Sadie was just trying to help, indicated well enough when she next said, “Just sayin’, think you’re gonna have an easier time of it the sooner you work things out. All this festering ain’t good for nothin’.”
“I ain’t the one that stews on shit for months. That’s all Arthur.” John tossed the last fence rail into the cart, brushed his hands off on his pants.
Sadie put hers down as well. “And that’s why you gotta be the one to say somethin’. Arthur’s a good man, one of the best I’ve ever known, but he’s far from perfect. Holdin’ shit in is all he ever does.”
“And you think that’s a good idea? Like—” John wanted to wince when it came out of his mouth— “Like confessin’ and shit?”
“I don’t know, John,” Sadie said, hands on her hips, “I ain’t one for that sort of thing, not anymore. All I do know is if you let it sit until it comes out on its own, it ain’t gonna be pretty.”
“Easier said than done,” John muttered, going to grab the reins of the hitched horse, climb into the cart seat, because that had already happened, and even though Arthur didn’t remember it it hadn’t gone well. If anything, it’d made John want to tell Arthur less. “When you gonna be back?”
“Within the month, probably. Wanna pick up a bounty or two while I’m out there if I can, earn somethin’ extra.”
That sounded more like it. “Alright, well, sure I’ll say it again before you go but be safe, Sadie, and say hello to Charlotte for me.”
“That much I can do,” she said, clambering up to sit on one of the wooden walls of the cart. “Hope by the time I get back you two'll have worked somethin’ out.”
“Yeah,” John said, twitching the reins. “Yeah, me too.”
Sadie made good on her promise and left two days following and, despite how much he knew it shouldn’t, her leaving put John in a bad mood. John wanted the ranch to be a stop-in sort of place, somewhere folks could come and go as they pleased, and Sadie seemed inclined to use it as intended. That didn’t mean that it felt nice, having her finally make good on the promise of it, to have her leave for any extended sort of time, because all it made him think was what if she never ended up coming back, or what if Charles was the next to leave?
Or, what if Arthur left too?
And what was Arthur’s goddamn problem, not just getting into John’s business but spilling that to other folks? Sure, John didn’t like people leaving, but he’d told Arthur that reluctantly, and only because he didn’t expect him to then share it with the people in question. It felt like Arthur was still treating him like a kid, trying to get the folks around him to treat him the same, like some fool that needed protecting. This wasn’t fair, none of it, and yet it seemed the further they got from life in the gang, the more and more they fell into the same old patterns.
Then again, it wasn’t like John was one to talk, not when he was the way he was with Jack.
The novelty of the ranch had lasted about a week, and then Jack was right on back to being bored again. They didn’t have enough spare money for new books, not when getting the ranch up and running meant living close to the bone, and there wasn’t anyone Jack’s age around to play with. He had some fun with Lace, Arthur’s puppy, but even she could only do so much to entertain him, especially when she was usually off following Arthur around with whatever he was doing, rather than around the house where Jack stayed.
Jack did have chores now, and those helped, but there was only so much a five year old could do, could be expected to do around a ranch. Most of it was small tasks, things like spreading feed for the chicks that were quickly becoming chickens, fetching laundry for his mother to wash, sweeping dirt off the porch with a broom John’d cut down to size. On most days they only took about an hour combined, and after that he was left to his own devices.
For a five year old, most of those devices were things like demanding attention from the people around him. Jack had been raised in a camp where one never had any privacy and had gotten used to it, had adjusted to and expected people to be around constantly, for there to always be someone that would spend time with him.
And, yet again, John seemed to be the only one struggling with Jack’s constant need for his attention. He was a more frequent target than Charles or Uncle, of course, but Jack turned to Arthur for attention just about as much as John and to Abigail far more, and neither of them seemed phased by it. Sure, they weren’t always able to accommodate him, but something about how they redirected his attention, made promises they always ended up keeping, was a skill that always seemed to be outside of John’s reach.
Things came to a head one hot Saturday in mid-July. John had been in a bad mood already, the heat making him sticky and sweaty and the sheep ornery, so much so that moving them from one paddock to the next took near an hour longer than it should’ve been. It meant they were late to eat, John’s stomach already past the point of growling by the time he was shoving bread down into it, and he was near lightheaded with the hunger.
It was in that state, eating his lunch alone behind the house, that Jack approached him, asking to go down to the river.
They weren’t adjacent to the river that ran through the valley up at the ranch, but they were close enough that they didn’t even need to ride to get there, just a walk of around five minutes or so. It was slow moving near them, shallow and wide, and no one owned the land around it. Meant it was easy enough for them to go down there to cool off, or for a bath if they really didn’t feel like filling up the tub. And it wasn’t so deep that needing to swim was an issue.
But John couldn’t go with Jack. Didn’t want to go, didn’t have time to go, not when so much needed doing and it was so goddamn hot. He swallowed the bit of jerky he’d been chewing at, said “Sorry, Jack, another time.”
Jack’s face had been open, earnest, but it quickly shifted into something almost pouty as he continued to tug at John’s sleeve. “But it’s hot now, Pa, I wanna sit in the water.”
“I’m hot too, but there’s work to do, and it ain’t gonna happen on its own.” He shrugged Jack’s hand off of him, pulling away from the boy.
“But I asked Momma and Uncle Arthur already and they said no ‘cause they was in the middle of things and you ain’t.”
And John shouldn’t have felt jealous that he was the third choice in the boy’s mind, especially when that was mostly his own fault, the way he kept putting any time with Jack to the side. Still, he found himself muttering, “I’m eatin’, that’s what I’m I the middle of. Lay off it. Maybe later.”
Jack’s voice had gone full on whine now. “It ain’t gonna be hot later though, and I read all my books—”
“Jack,” John said, cutting the boy off, “Go back to your mother, I ain’t got time for this.”
It was harsher than John meant it, louder than he meant it, and immediately he regretted it when tears started welling up in Jack’s eyes.
“Goddamn it Jack, don’t—don’t cry, please, just—hey, you’re okay, alright?” God, he couldn’t deal with crying, not when it made his whole chest explode in panic. How the hell did Abigail do this so easily, calm Jack, deal with him like he wasn’t something fragile, something that could be ruined by any second? It wasn’t like Abigail had a childhood any happier than John’s own, and yet her behavior with Jack seemed near innate.
“Ain’t cryin’,” Jack said, swiping at one of his cheeks, the tears making his voice go wobbly.
John crouched down next to Jack, pulled his little hand away from his face. “Hey, hey, listen, alright? I got a lot of work to do because I gotta get this place up and runnin’, okay? But we’ll go down to the river sometime. Just can’t be right now, ‘cause Uncle Charles is waitin’ for me to refill some water troughs.”
“Soon?” Jack’s eyes were still watery, but they’d stopped actually spilling over, thank god. The sight of it had made John want to tear his hair out.
“Soon. Now go run along to your momma.” And it shouldn’t have felt like a relief when Jack obeyed him, left John alone, but it did all the same.
It was evening when John finally finished his work for the day, the sweat dried tacky to his skin. The day hadn’t gotten any easier and his mood hadn’t improved, not after a long day of dealing with animals that would rather do all they could to not deal with him. This was their life now, day-in and day-out, and John was starting to get exhausted with it.
He heard it before he saw it, Jack’s voice carrying steady across the grass that grew long around the house. Rhythmic, and John knew immediately that he was reading something out loud just by the way his voice moved.
Maybe he should’ve guessed before he rounded the corner who Jack was reading to, but even then it took him by surprise. Arthur and Jack on one of the benches, leaning over one of Jack’s dime novels. Jack pressed up against Arthur’s side, one of Arthur’s arms around Jack’s back, holding the opposite edge of the book open for him. Something parental, fatherly, and the sight gave John a pang of jealousy, and then something not quite grief but akin to it, because it seemed right, Arthur acting a kind of father to Jack, and yet it was something that always made John want to jump to possessiveness.
He expected Arthur to be some shade of happy, the way he always was when spending time with Jack. But when Arthur glanced up and saw John, his brow was low over his own eyes. Not quite annoyed, not there yet, but something close. Disappointed, maybe, or—or maybe warning John? Both?
John opened his mouth to speak, but Arthur shook his head, Jack still wrapped up in his reading beside him, not aware of John standing at the foot of the porch stairs. Instead Arthur jerked his head towards the door, and John got the message well enough. He knew Arthur, knew Abigail, and knew what was waiting for him within the house.
Jack finally looked up when he heard John’s steps cross the porch and his face went bright when he saw John. That much was a warm spot in the center of John’s chest, that at least the boy seemed to have forgiven him for how he was earlier in the day. “Pa,” Jack said, voice light, “you wanna hear a story?”
And for once John did, wanted to sit with Jack and Arthur because that was easy, because that was something he could do well enough. Problem was, he’d already fucked it up. “I gotta talk to your ma first, alright?” John tried to keep his voice light, but the heavy sort of look in Arthur’s eyes made his voice crack over the words.
Abigail was there waiting in their little kitchen like he thought she would be, stirring some sort of soup on the pot on the stove. Her cooking had improved somewhat what with all the cooking lessons from Sadie, seeing as Abigail had always been clever and a quick learner, but it still wasn’t the greatest food John had ever tasted. Still, he loved Abigail, lack of cooking skill and all, something he reminded himself of when she turned and saw him standing in the kitchen doorway and her face immediately dipped into a glare.
“You wanna explain to me why our son came to me in tears this afternoon?”
Alright, well, Jack had been done with crying by the time he left John, so maybe it wasn’t entirely John’s fault. Or maybe he was just trying to deflect the blame again like he always did. “I just—I had work to do, okay, and he wouldn’t drop the damn river thing.”
“And you shouted at him?” Abigail had her arms crossed, her whole body tensed. “He’s five, John, all he wants is his pa to give him some attention.”
“I was workin’.”
“And that gives you a right to yell at him? How hard is it to go down to the river with your damn son?”
That wasn’t fair though, John was trying— “I was goin’ to, Abigail, I goddamn told him—I said we’d go soon, alright?”
“And how many promises have you broken to the boy, John?” Abigail had stepped away from the stove now, was stepping towards John with the spoon still clasped in her left hand. “Why should he believe you were tellin’ him the truth?”
“Because I been better ‘bout that lately, ain’t like back before. It’s just—” Just he didn’t know how to approach the boy, just he didn’t know how to even be a goddamn father, just that everyone else around him was better with Jack than he was— “Just he don’t ever ask at good times.”
“Then you gotta be the one to make an effort. Spend time with him, John. Even if you ain’t used to it, that ain’t gonna change unless you try.”
Why did every goddamn person in John’s life think he wasn’t trying? He was, it just—it was hard, doing shit he wasn’t good at. His voice was starting to rise. “Abigail, I—”
She cut him off, eyes still blazing, voice louder than it should be as well. “I know you love the boy, but you ain’t showin’ it. You can’t just protect him when he’s in danger and expect that to cover the whole goddamn thing. Be a father, or you’re gonna lose him.”
“I am goddamn tryin’.” He was shouting now, the type of arguing that had been all too common between them when they were in the gang, the type of fight they hadn’t had in months. God, he thought they were done with this, but of course as soon as they settled all their old problems worked themselves to the surface again. Abigail expected too much, John got too wrapped up in what was hard.
Of course, Abigail yelled right back. “Are you? ‘cause ever since me and Jack got here you been treatin’ us both like the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. What’s going on with you, John?”
John didn’t want to snap, but his mouth always worked faster than his brain, and he was near screaming, “Goddamn it, I don’t know what else you want from me, woman. I got you out, I got you your goddamn ranch, I got us a life, what d’you want me from me next, to roll over and show you my belly?”
Abigail slapped him. It wasn’t a particularly hard slap, but the sound of it echoed in John’s ears, rang through his head. And he deserved it, but still it made him want to grit his teeth in a kind of snarl.
“Your son needs you, John Marston.” Softer now, more venomous in the way only Abigail could manage.
John, rubbing at his cheek, couldn’t help but spit back, “Yeah, well, maybe he should give up tryin’.”
It was too much, John knew immediately. Knew it by the way Abigail’s face shuttered, disappointment more than anger seeping into her face. And John couldn’t face that disappointment, couldn’t stand knowing that he was the cause, that they were falling into the same old patterns, that he was stuck in what he couldn’t say. And so he did the only thing he knew how to do.
He turned on his heel and left the house.
He let the door slam behind him, was down off the porch and towards the barn before he could even see Arthur’s reaction, let alone Jack’s, intent on getting as far away from the ranch as he could reasonably get. Arthur shouted something behind him, probably something trying to stop him leaving, but John ignored him, didn’t even bother saddling Rachel up, just shoved a bit in her mouth and mounted using one of the fences before driving his heels into her sides.
He left the ranch at a canter, not even entirely sure where he was going. All he knew was that he wasn’t about to stay at the ranch any longer, not with all the folks who kept telling him to try harder when he was giving it so much already.
Eventually Rachel found her way into Northaven and John found his way into the saloon. He managed to get three shots of whiskey into his system and was nursing a forth before someone was grabbing him by the collar and hauling him out the door.
It wasn’t until they were halfway to the river that he realized it was Arthur, and even then he couldn’t stand up straight enough to wrench himself from Arthur’s grip. Instead he was near flung to the ground near the bank of the river, far enough from town that they were shadowed, that they had some privacy.
Arthur was fuming, the kind of mad that John hadn’t seen for a long while when he spat, “The hell is wrong with you?”
“What’s your problem?” John had already scrambled up to his feet, ready for whatever fight was brewing, but Arthur didn’t get any closer, instead paced back and forth a few times, maintaining his distance with John.
“My problem?” Arthur hissed. “I ain’t the one with the goddamn problem. I ain’t the one yellin’ at his goddamn wife ‘cause she wants him to spend some time with his goddamn son. I ain’t the one who went goddamn drinkin’ when he said he’d read with Jack.”
John felt the anger, just barely dulled by the whiskey, come back full force. “That ain’t any of your business.”
Arthur paused in his pacing, half squared now for a physical fight, though one wasn’t guaranteed quite yet as far as John could tell. “It is when you’ve dragged me into the same goddamn house as it. It is when I’m the one with your goddamn son havin’ to explain why his daddy ran out on him twice in one day.”
“I didn’t mean to, Arthur, I just—” He just got mad like he always did, reacted the way he always did. It was a goddamn mistake. “What, I ain’t allowed to mess up now? Gotta be perfect like you every goddamn minute of every day?”
And that seemed to claw at Arthur, because he scoffed, folded his arms, hissed, “Quit runnin’ away, Marston. My problem ain’t that you messed up with Jack. My problem is you ain’t willin’ to stick it out when things get tough and your son is the one what suffers for it.”
And of course Arthur was circling back to John running, because that was always what they returned to. “Why do you care, huh? Ain’t like you’re the one what made him.”
“’cause he deserves a good life, ‘cause he deserves a father, one what cares about him.” Arthur growling, Arthur snapping, because Arthur was always so interested in John’s goddamn life.
John was shouting now. “I do care about him, Arthur.”
“Funny way of showin’ it.”
He was trying, goddamn it. “Oh, fuck off—”
“No, Marston, no, you listen to me, alright? You got used to doin’ shit that came easy to you. Turns out, the rest of us? We gotta work at that shit. Takes practice.”
John scoffed, snapped, “Easy enough for you to just say. Where do you get off tellin’ me what to do when you got no goddamn clue what it’s like bein’ a father?”
And though John had meant the words to hurt Arthur, had meant them to carry weight, pain, he wasn’t prepared for just how still Arthur went, how he turned his eyes up to John slow, dangerous. John knew immediately that he’d fucked up, gone too far, even before Arthur opened his mouth, said, “I had a son.”
The words were like a slap to the face. “What?”
“I had a son, Marston.”
It was like something not catching in John’s brain, some sort of block. Because that—that didn’t make sense, right? Arthur couldn’t have—wouldn’t John have known, if Arthur had a kid? He could hear the disbelief in his own voice when he whispered, “What are you talkin’ about, Arthur?”
Arthur shook his head, took a deep, shuddering breath. Gestured at the ground. “Sit down.”
And John sat immediately, not even thinking it through completely, because his mind kept repeating the word “son” over and over again. It didn’t make sense, didn’t process in his brain, because Arthur was nineteen when John had met him, because how had he had a son?
Arthur settled onto the riverbank next to him, close enough that John could grip him by the shoulder if he reached out. Didn’t, but sorely wanted to, especially when Arthur gave a long, shaky sigh, scraped a hand over his mouth.
When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “Met this waitress in a little town we were workin’ a job in. Long time ago now. Was eighteen and stupid, managed to get her knocked up after only the one go ‘round. Didn’t even know until she sent me a letter ‘bout it. Name was Eliza, her son—our, our son, he was called Isaac.”
John knew by the look on Arthur’s face more than any sort of common sense that this was not a story with a happy ending. Not in the world they lived in. His voice soft when he murmured, “Arthur,” hoping it conveyed the comfort that John intended in it.
“I offered to let her come with us. Didn’t even ask Dutch, seein’ as he had no right to talk draggin’ his women all over camp. But Eliza didn’t want that, didn’t think travelin’ like we did was good for a kid. Me goin’ with them wasn’t an option. Didn’t want to leave then, not when Dutch ‘n Hosea were the only family I’d ever been happy with since my mom died. So I—so I visited when I could, sent money when I couldn’t.”
John remembered, vaguely, Arthur disappearing for weeklong journeys when John was young, new to the gang, but they hadn’t seemed like anything out of the ordinary at the time. Things were looser then, when they were still something fledging, and Arthur had always been one to go and return as he liked. “But somethin’ happened.”
The breath Arthur let out was heavy as he hummed, “Mm-hm. Eliza ain’t wrote in a while, but I showed up same as always. Found two crosses in the yard. Neighbor told me they was robbed, shot. Law rounded up the man what did it, hanged him, but it don’t make a lick of difference. Ain’t had more than ten dollars on ‘em.”
“Spent the normal week gettin’ soaked, crawled back when I thought if I didn’t I might just drink myself to death. Sure you ‘least remember that, s’when I…” Arthur gestured to his face.
“The tent,” John said, suddenly, because he remembered now. A night when Arthur had returned to the camp near blind drunk and out of control with anger. Arthur’d been prone to bouts of anger when he was young, but, even then, it was a particularly bad go of it.
He and John had gotten into an argument, John fifteen and too mouthy for his own good, complaining about having to share a tent with someone that stank so bad of whiskey. And, like so many of their arguments back then, words had quickly turned into fists.
John had gotten Arthur in the chin with a decent punch. Arthur had pinned John to the ground and broken his nose. It took both Dutch and Hosea to pull Arthur off of him, and by that time John’s face was covered in his own blood, running hot down his neck.
They’d pulled Arthur into Dutch’s tent to have a talk while Grimshaw tried her best to straighten out John’s nose. Arthur hadn’t slept in the tent that night, and the next morning, Hosea’d scrounged up some material to make Arthur a lean-to against one of the wagons, moving him out of a tent with John permanently. And Arthur had been cold for near a month afterward, closed off and reserved.
But it had faded, and they’d gone back to normal, and John hadn’t thought about that in a long time. They’d been in so many fights over the years, he’d seen Arthur in so many moods, that it seemed so insignificant in the span of fifteen years.
Maybe he should’ve paid more attention.
“Why you ain’t never told me?” John finally asked, because this was big, Arthur keeping this from him, like a whole life he’d hidden away.
Arthur shrugged. “You was young, Hosea weren’t sure for a long time whether we was gonna keep you around or find you a life somewhere. Didn’t really care to have you in my business anyway. And—and after…”
“Right,” John said, because he understood why Arthur couldn’t talk about it after, and he wasn’t about to make Arthur say it. “And that—that’s why, me and Jack?”
Arthur hadn’t been looking at John for most of the story, but now he turned his head back towards John, caught his eye. Eyes glassy, somewhere between grief and resignation. “Learned back then I weren’t ever gonna get what I want. Figured I oughta at least make sure you got that chance.”
“You want a family.” John’s voice was quiet when he said it, but it carried well enough. It was like a wash of realization, that this was what made Arthur push so hard for Jack’s wellbeing. A family. Because of course he’d treated Jack like his own son, because of course he wanted John to value what he had, because it was the same thing Arthur had been denied by random violence.
“Be grateful for what you got, John.” Arthur’s voice heavy, pained, so much it ached in John’s chest.
But—but if Arthur wanted a family— “Arthur, Arthur you got, got a family already, you got—you got Jack, Arthur, you got me.” John was leaning forward now, closer to Arthur.
Arthur scoffed, turned his head away, a pang of hurt flitting over his face. “Do you listen when anyone goddamn talks? That ain’t the kinda family I mean.”
“Yes it is.” Because the family Arthur meant was someone to love, to grow old with, to build a life with. He meant a kid he could raise, and goddamn if Arthur wasn’t already a better goddamn father to Jack than John had ever been, if Jack didn’t love Arthur like a father.
But Arthur was shaking his head. “You ain’t goddamn gettin’ it—”
John closer now, on his knees, nearly in Arthur’s face, because he needed Arthur to know— “No, Arthur, you got a goddamn family—”
“John, y’ain’t listening to—”
And then John’s mouth was on Arthur’s.
It smelt like rain on the air, some summer storm starting to creep in while Arthur and John had been arguing, and in a few weeks when John was finally able to look back on that moment fondly, that’s what he would remember. The smell of rain, and how that mixed up with all the smells of Arthur.
It wasn’t a particularly good kiss. John had misjudged the angle, too caught up in his own head to think it through enough, meaning his nose mashed up with Arthur’s and there were all together too many teeth. But after a moment of stiff surprise Arthur relaxed into it, softened and tilted his head and let John lean into him, let John’s hand come to the back of his head, let the kiss become something good.
It was John who broke it, and, for a moment, when he pulled away, Arthur was the most attractive person John’d ever seen in his life. Eyes half lidded, face flushed and warm, and if John wasn’t already in love with him the look of it would be enough to make him fall all over again.
But then realization crept over Arthur’s face, and it was near devastating in how it carved his expression from something soft into anger. John found himself being shoved back, Arthur face almost hurt, almost betrayed as he hissed, “John, no.”
“Arthur—” John started, because he needed to explain himself, needed to make Arthur understand what the past six months had been like, but Arthur cut him off.
“I can’t goddamn believe you. I can’t—the hell is wrong with you, Marston?” Arthur’s voice breaking over the words, even as he pushed himself back from John, to his feet, tried to put as much distance between them as he could. Angry, sure, but mixed with the ruin John’d caused.
“What, ‘cause it’s unnatural?” John snapped, following Arthur up, and he knew that wasn’t the issue, knew Arthur was far from caring about that, but it was the better of the two options he had in his head.
Arthur gave him a look, and it was amazing how that look, the one that called John stupid without so many words, could cut straight through even grief. “You know goddamn well that ain’t the problem, John Marston. I know you ain’t so dense to think I give a shit about what society thinks of inverts.”
But that left— “So, what, it’s me?”
The annoyed noise Arthur made in the back of his throat made John want to disappear inside himself, because even now it was clear Arthur still thought he didn’t have a brain in his head. “The problem is Abigail. Or, or ain’t Abigail, just—I ain’t your goddamn mistress, alright? You got a wife already who would move the whole goddamn world for you and you’re tryin’ to toss that all away for a roll in the hay with me?”
John protested, took a step forward, “Ain’t just a roll in the hay—”
“Then what the hell do you think you’re playin’ at?” Despite the anger in his voice, Arthur took a step backwards when John got closer, maintaining distance. Defensive. “I’ve given all I goddamn had to make sure you and Abigail and the boy got a happy endin’, and now you’re tryin’ to destroy it again?”
“Arthur, I just—” John’s voice catching in his throat— “just want you to be happy too.”
“And you thought this would make me happy? Goin’ behind Abigail’s goddamn back? The hell is wrong with you, John?”
“What do you want me to say, Arthur? That I’m selfish? That I’m a fool? ‘cause I know that already and it don’t change a goddamn thing. I goddamn love you both, Arthur.”
And that caught Arthur off guard, judging by the way he went suddenly still. His voice low when he said, “You don’t mean that.”
“I mean it.” John could hear the way his own voice went wavery. “You and Abigail both.”
Arthur turned his head away, chewing on a lower lip, folding his arms over his chest. Nearly inaudible when he muttered, “Can’t do this to me, John. Ain’t fair.”
There was a name for the look Arthur gave him when he looked back up, and that was betrayal. And John couldn’t say he didn’t deserve it, because hadn’t he fucked up? If what Arthur wanted was a family, if what Arthur wanted was John, then he’d given the man hope and torn it all back down again in the same breath.
John tried one last approach, one last-ditch effort. “Can’t—can’t we work somethin’ out here? Listen, what if—what if I talk to Abigail, okay? Ain’t like we’ve ever been normal, not me and her, and not you and me. If we—if anyone were to work it out, it would be us. And there’s folks out west who do that shit, right?” Sure, they usually were men with two wives, but— “Just—just give me a chance, Arthur, please. If you’re willin’ and she’s willin’—ain’t we allowed to try it?”
For a long moment, John was sure Arthur would say no. That he’d irreparably ruined his relationship with Arthur, that all the things he’d dreaded when he first realized he loved Arthur were coming true. That he’d lose Arthur forever, that he should’ve just kept his fucking tongue in his mouth, his lips to himself.
But Arthur’s eyebrows were low, his jaw working as he thought hard over something, until finally he dipped his head, muttered, “Fine.” And John got only one brief moment of relief before the panic came rushing back in when Arthur jerked his head back up, looked John square as he said, “You got a week.” Arthur whistled for whatever horse he’d rode in on. “After that I talk to her myself.”
John watched Arthur turn on his heel, no more word said, watched him swing onto Buell’s back, watched him ride out into the storm clouds weighing heavy in the sky. Then he dropped to his ass in the mud of the riverbank, put his face in his own hands.
He was a goddamned fool.