Things were both different and the same as they ever were.
The next morning, Arthur caught the smirk John threw his way after he’d noticed Arthur was limping more than usual, and before John could even make a smug comment about it he found himself facedown in the mud, Arthur keeping him pinned with a knee as he slathered more grit into John’s hair. John was thoroughly filthy by the time Charles finally convinced Arthur to, “Let him up, he got the message. We’ve got work to do.”
But Arthur was laughing, and John realized he was laughing along with Arthur, spitting mud out of his teeth and laughing, because as different as things got he still knew Arthur, still knew how to get a rise out of him, and they were still alive enough to wrestle in the mud. Because, after everything, Arthur could still win a fight by getting John pinned. And Arthur offered him a hand to his feet, trailed him over to the well, giving half-sincere apologies and promises to help him clean up.
As different as things got, they were still themselves.
Summer slipped into fall, and John and Abigail and Arthur navigated their new arrangement. It was, by most accounts, what John had wanted: Arthur folded into their family fairly seamlessly. It helped that they all knew each other so well, had lived with each other like a family for so long. Eating meals together, taking turns taking Jack down to the river or teaching him the basics of some new skill, taking trips into town. Arthur spending evenings helping Abigail learn to read, something she’d been wanting to do for a while, John never feeling equipped enough to truly help. Arthur drawing with Jack, helping him practice his letters, John jumping in when he needed to. And Arthur tucked up next to John on the porch bench, reading some book in the fading light of evening, shoulders and thighs pressed together in a kind of casual affection, casual closeness.
They were a family. John could say that for sure now.
John still spent the majority of his nights with Abigail, largely because that was what he was used to. But he also found himself in Arthur’s bed a fair bit, and not just on the nights they were bedding each other. He wanted this to feel like a real relationship, like they were family, and so he didn’t want the only time they slept in the same bed to be when they had sex. Besides that, he liked being around Arthur, liked hearing him breathe, liked being reminded of what he’d gained.
And Arthur let him get close to him when they were in the same bed, more so than when they were awake. It wasn’t that Arthur disliked casual contact, just that it was still new between them. It was strange, becoming something different to each other after knowing each other so long. Meant they were still figuring out what sort of contact was appropriate, what kind was normal for what they were. It was easier when they were in bed, because it was easier to pretend this was all they’d ever been.
They did, of course, get up to plenty of more adult activities as well. John had forgotten the unique sort of soreness that came with taking a dick up the ass, and, in some ways, he was grateful that Arthur had bitten that bullet first. It wasn’t unbearable, and certainly not enough to prevent him from repeating the experience, but it took some getting used to.
The fact that both of them were used to both giving and receiving, though, meant that it was easy for either of them to take a rest at either one if they needed it. John had never really understood the idea some men had that a man taking made him a like a woman, and it made things a lot less complicated that Arthur didn’t either, that they could switch things up without it changing their perception of each other. And with Arthur used to going years without and John having Abigail, it wasn’t like they were fucking all that often anyway, not for a new couple.
And no one else on the ranch seemed to mind the change in their relationship. Sure, Uncle had made a sly comment about the kinds of things men like John and Arthur got up to, but it was more ribbing than anything malicious. Charles, as usual, let it be their business and Sadie, once she returned from her visit to Charlotte, only clapped John on the back and congratulated him on finally making his move.
Things had changed, but for the better. They were building something new together, John, Abigail, Arthur.
Life on the ranch went on.
It was October when John and Arthur rode out west to Grafton, the closest livestock town, to see the stock that was going up in the last stock drive before winter hit.
They needed a ram, John had decided, if they wanted to keep this whole endeavor going, to have sheep to sell yearly. Both to help protect the sheep they had from any winter predators, as well as to breed to them, as it was a better investment than paying to have a ram brought in. Arthur had agreed to come along mostly because rams tended to be disagreeable, and Arthur had proved himself, along with Charles, to be one of the best people on the ranch to work with disagreeable animals.
Fall had come fast, work making the time slip by in a blur. The ranch required constant maintenance alongside all the smaller things that still needed to get done for it to truly be complete—fence building, rock clearing, forest thinning. Storing firewood for the winter had been their big push at the moment, seeing as the wood needed time to dry out, and so that had taken most of their days, the work so tiring that it was hard to have time to think about anything else.
They’d passed anniversaries of the past year with little acknowledgement up until the anniversary of the bank robbery. Even then, John didn’t realize the date until Arthur took a seat next to him in front of the fire, said, “Been a year. Since—since Hosea and Lenny.”
It felt like ages, and it felt like it had just happened yesterday. Their lives had become so full since then, full of things they’d lost and things they’d gained. Arthur and John had become different people, and become different to each other. John hoped with all his heart that Hosea would’ve been proud of them.
They’d made a toast to Hosea, to all the things he did for them, all the things he taught them, and a second to Lenny and all the others they’d lost. And John made a promise, to Hosea’s memory just as much as to Arthur, that they would one day, once the ranch was more stable, make that trip down to visit his grave.
But, for now, they needed a ram.
It wasn’t a long trip to Grafton, just one they hadn’t made in a while when most everything they needed was in Northaven, to the east. Which meant it was the first time they’d seen the new ranch that went up just a handful of miles west of them.
Arthur saw it first, pulled Buell to a stop as he crested one of the rolling hills that made up the landscape of the valley. He gestured with a finger to a sizable ranch—wide, muddy paddocks, a house and barn larger than their own. “That weren’t there when we brought the sheep through, was it?”
“Naw, think we passed right through here.” John squinted, trying to see what was in the paddocks. “What is that, cattle?”
“Smells like it. Reckon we got ourselves neighbors now.” Arthur jerked his head towards the ranch. “Let’s go introduce ourselves.”
John paused, leaned forward in his saddle. “Is that a good idea?”
“We’re gonna be more suspicious as the closed-off ranch that don’t ever talk to outsiders than the one that’s friendly with others in the valley.” Wheeled Buell towards the ranch, set him off. “Can’t hurt to have some folks we know if somethin’ goes bad neither.”
“What kinda bad are you expectin’?” John asked, tapping his heels to Rachel’s side to follow.
“Would it be jinxin’ us if I said wolves again? You ain’t got any luck with them.”
“Don’t remind me.”
The house was even bigger up close, something close to the manor houses that were common down in Lemoyne. Not quite the mansions of Saint Denis, but clearly someone with more money to spend than John and Arthur’d had. Bigger barn too, but that might’ve just been to hold the cattle.
Arthur let Buell stand ground tied in front of the house, marched right up to the front door, John trailing him as usual. Knocked, stepped back a bit so they weren’t in the face of whoever answered.
The woman who opened the door was young but well kept, like she’d been a woman with a comfortable living. Still had a comfortable living, maybe, judging by her clothes. Nothing fancy, but too clean, too kept together for the average working class woman.
“Hello, ma’am,” Arthur said, tipping the brown leather hat he’d taken to wearing recently, seeing as he’d passed his own on to John. “I’m Arthur Milton, this here’s my brother, Jim. We own the ranch down the way. Ain’t realized this ranch went up ‘til just now, so we figured we’d swing by, introduce ourselves. Hope that’s alright.”
A soft sort of smile spread over her face, and John immediately knew the type of person this woman was. “Oh, absolutely. Millie Harrison.” She stuck out a hand for Arthur to shake, before offering the same to John. “We ain’t had time yet to see who lives around us.”
“Understandable,” John said, making his voice easy, friendly. “Know firsthand how much work goes into settin’ up a ranch.”
“Let me call my husband,” Millie said, equally friendly. “Sure he’d like to meet you all.”
Trusting, John thought, as Millie called for Teddie, who must’ve been her husband. That was the type these folks were. It wasn’t rare for a ranch wife in the middle of nowhere to answer a door to strange men with a gun in her hand. The fact that this woman had introduced herself, turned her back to them near immediately, meant she was trusting. If they’d wanted to hurt her, they could’ve done it easily.
Then again, they weren’t outlaws anymore. Maybe it was fine to be accepting of trusting folks, to not evaluate how much like a mark they seemed.
The husband didn’t answer when Millie called through the house, which she proposed was because he was off doing work on the ranch. She led them around the side of the house, called again, and a bigger man, thick with a stocky sort of muscle, picked up his head from where he was working with a few other men, made his way over.
“Something up?” he asked, eying Arthur and John.
“Teddie, these folks own a ranch just down the way. Saw we were here when they were passing by, decided to say hello.” Millie still relaxed, and Lord it said something about John’s life that he expected everyone around him to react to strange men with suspicion.
“Theodore Harrison,” the man introduced himself, and shook both John and Arthur’s hands as they introduced themselves back. “Sounds like you’ve already met my wife. We also got two children, my daughter, Helen, and my son, William. Will.”
“Son?” Harrison seemed on the younger side, only a bit older than John and definitely younger than Arthur, so if his son was similarly young— “Could I ask how old?”
“He’ll be six come January, why?”
“Just askin’ ‘cause my boy, Jack, he turned five this year,” John said, scraping a hand over the back of his neck. Arthur’d turned away from them, was instead looking over the ranch, letting John do the talking. John wasn’t sure if he should be annoyed at Arthur for that or not.
“Well then bring him along, next time you stop ‘round. Will’s been missing the friends he had back east, so it’ll be good to have someone around that’s around his age.”
“Jack too. I swear, you’d think he were an adult, how serious he gets. Ain’t really had other kids around for him.”
“You been around here long?”
“Nah, just a few months.” They had, at least, cooked up a decent enough backstory. “Me and my wife, Abigail, we had some trouble at the ranch we used to work on up north. Some sickness in the town, worried about it spreading to the ranch. We had some decent savings pooled and decided to try it on our own. Arthur lost his wife years back, decided to help us out with what he had.” They’d decided to call themselves half-brothers, their mutual father remarried after Arthur’s mother died in childbirth, but that probably wasn’t worth getting into unless someone asked. “We keep sheep, and Arthur’s got some horses too.”
“That gold one yours?” Harrison asked, gesturing to where Buell was, standing half asleep next to Rachel, one hoof cocked in back.
“Arthur’s, technically, he—what’s wrong?” John asked, because Arthur wasn’t looking at them, instead had his eyebrows pressed low over his eyes.
“Do he know how to handle that horse?” Arthur asked, not looking back at them.
Arthur’d gotten distracted, of course, by a horse. Or, maybe in this case it was more apt to say Arthur got distracted by the man that had been riding her, seeing as said man hit the ground as soon as John followed Arthur’s gaze over to him.
The horse that threw him was a mare, and, by the looks of it, not one the man had been equipped to handle. A buckskin, bucking and snorting and nearly trampling the hand she’d thrown, hooves churning up the dirt, before, with one last buck, she took off.
Next to him, Arthur whistled for Buell, and, before John could even turn around, was pulling himself quick onto his back.
John had seen Arthur on a horse more times than he could possibly count. Seeing him ride the best he knew how was a relative rarity, though, and so was a horse Arthur could push to its limit.
Buell, apparently, was one of those horses.
John barely caught the “Go, go, go,” out of Arthur’s mouth before Buell was shooting past them, instantly awake despite dozing before. Fast, in a flat out gallop almost instantly, Arthur seemingly not worried about the rock and the uneven surface of the ground below them. Trusting Buell, maybe, to find his footing, to keep them upright. Rode hard after the mare as she took to the winds.
Arthur didn’t have a lasso. Had rope, sure, but nothing fashioned to the right shape, the right knot. Hadn’t gotten a new one after Copperhead when his old one had been cut to ribbons after John’d used it to tie him down.
John only remembered that when, rather than loop a lasso over the mare’s neck, Arthur brought Buell alongside the mare, charging up the slope of the nearest hill, and leapt from Buell’s saddle to the mare’s. The distance the mare had gained and the dust kicked up made it hard to see, but John could at least make out Arthur hitting the saddle on his stomach, before swinging his leg over the mare’s back so he was sitting firm on the seat.
And then he and both horses were over the crest of the hill and out of sight.
“Fool,” John muttered under his breath, because though they’d jumped from horse saddles more times than he could count, he hadn’t seen Arthur do anything like that since he’d been shot. There was no guarantee his body would be able to do the same things he used to be able to. And, yet, Arthur did so without hesitation, throwing his whole body into something. John wished he could say he was surprised.
“Hope your brother knows what he’s doing,” Harrison said, arms crossed. Didn’t look mad or even nervous, just curious more than anything.
“If there’s one thing Arthur knows, it’s horses. He’ll be back over once he gets her calm enough to lead.” That part John had seen so many times that he could picture it without seeing it, could almost hear Arthur’s voice in his head. It was Arthur that had taught John to gentle wild horses, to talk them into trusting him. He wasn’t particularly good at it, largely because it required, like most things John wasn’t great at, patience, but he’d learned the tone well enough, the soft, slow, relaxed voice.
If anyone could bring the horse back, it would be Arthur. However, John might as well pass the time getting some information, what with not having anything else to do. He asked, “You have trouble with that one?
“You could say that. Had the mare I’d had for years bred, since she was even tempered and had good bloodlines as Dutch Warmbloods go. The filly—same one your brother’s after, call her Harlow—ended up out to pasture for a few years, though, while we returned to Vermont to help care for my mother. Didn’t handle her enough when she was young, I think, because now she’s barely broke and even getting her that far took too long. Davis thought he had her in a good place, but clearly that’s out the window now.” And the man heaved a sigh, brought a hand up to the back of his neck. “Honestly starting to wonder if she’s more trouble than she’s worth.”
“If anyone can get her, it’s Arthur,” John murmured. More goddamn disagreeable horses. John said a quick thank you in his head to Rachel, the least disagreeable horse John had ever known. He didn’t deserve her, same as so many other things in his life.
Arthur took longer than John expected to get back, and it became clear pretty quickly why—he’d pulled the mare’s bridle off completely, had instead fashioned a rough hackamore out of rope. Was directing Harlow largely using his legs, though, barely any pressure on the reins where they knotted up near her mouth. Buell following close behind, ears pricked in Arthur’s direction, both horses puffing but unharmed.
“Y’wanna warn me next time ‘fore you go chargin’ off after a horse?” John asked before Arthur was even to them, because while he wasn’t really surprised he still had to keep up appearances regarding Arthur’s safety.
“Had it covered. Buell’s in a good mood.” And while John tried to puzzle through what that meant, Arthur was turning to Harrison, holding the mare’s bridle up. “You got the wrong bit in here. You’re hurtin’ her mouth.”
“Davis said that was the only one he could get her under control with,” Harrison said, though his voice was more thoughtful than anything else.
“Then your issue is trainin’, not your bit. Hardenin’ her mouth ain’t gonna fix your problem, and tearin’ it up is only gonna make it worse.” Arthur ran a hand down Harlow’s neck, shiny with sweat from the sprint away from the house. She looked nearly calm under him, still tossing her head and stamping when she didn’t like the way John or Harrison moved, but otherwise standing quiet.
Harrison nodded towards the mare. “Jim was saying you were good with horses. Guess I should’ve believed him.”
“Fear he loves his horses more than his own brother, sometimes,” John said, shooting Arthur a less than serious look.
“Lord, what would Father say if he knew his son grew into such a grouser?” Arthur dismounted, pulled the reins over the mare’s head. Cooed at her a bit when she tossed her head and got fussy about him leading her, and the tone quickly settled her. He held the bridle out to Harrison, showed where blood had dried against the metal. “Her mouth was bleedin’. Your man yankin’ on it when it was already painful is what made her toss him. She ain’t tryin’ to be bad, not so far as I can tell, just didn’t have much choice when she was hurtin’.”
Harrison was peering at Arthur closely, even as Arthur handed the reins over to him. “You train horses?”
“Hmm?” Arthur ran his hand over Harlow’s neck one last time before stepping back towards John.
“Just—I know your brother keeps sheep, but he didn’t really say what you do. Horses?”
“Nah—just, just gentled a few. Used to be a decent enough way to make a livin’ when we didn’t have much.”
“Was thinking if you did, you might like to train her. Could pay you for it. What I seen today more’n enough proves you know what you’re doing.”
Arthur dropped his head down, rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Aw, oughta hire a professional for that. I ain’t much, just spent a lot of time in the saddle.”
Arthur was selling himself short, was the thing. Sure, he wasn’t a professional, but there were few men John knew that were better with horses than Arthur. Arthur could take some of the nastiest horses John’d met and make them rideable. The change in Buell was proof enough, seeing as he was now content to stand calm next to them, one ear lazily swiveled towards Arthur, sticking around even without him holding Buell’s reins. Compared to the horse that would try to bite near everyone when John first met him, that was all John needed to say Arthur was good with horses. Could reliably train them.
At least Harrison seemed to agree with John. “I haven’t seen Harlow stand this calm near men in ages. That isn’t nothing. ‘sides, you really think I’m going to find a professional out here in Crestone valley?”
“Guess… guess I could work with her every once and a while. If we’re already gonna be here bringin’ Jack over.” And Arthur shot John a look for confirmation, and it really said something about how nervous Arthur was about this whole endeavor if he was deferring to John. John inclined his head, and Arthur nodded his own head back.
“Then it’s settled.” Harrison held out a hand for Arthur to shake, then offered the same to John. “Glad to meet you, Arthur, Jim.”
Harrison offered to let them stay for lunch, but they really did need to get going, get down to Grafton before all the best livestock got claimed, buy them a ram. They set off from the ranch, Buell and Rachel setting a brisk pace after their rest.
They were well out of sight when John asked, because he couldn’t help his need to needle at Arthur, “So you’re a horse trainer now?”
“Didn’t really get much choice in the matter. Very insistent sort of man.”
“’cept when you rode off after the mare in the first place.”
“Mmm,” Arthur hummed, which wasn’t really an apology. John wasn’t even sure if he should be mad, seeing as Arthur had known what he was doing, and it was sort of in line with their whole helping people thing. After John was silent for a moment, Arthur said, “Interesting guy, huh?”
“What d’you mean?”
“Was thinkin’ he’d make a good mark, trustin’ strangers so easily,” Arthur said, voice sheepish. Rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Guess old habits die hard, huh?”
John hummed in agreement, because he’d been thinking the same thing. “We’re gonna have to figure out how to get Jack not to tell folks his father and uncle sometimes sleep in the same bed.”
“Believe that’s your purview, as his parent and all.”
John couldn’t help looking over at Arthur. “Thought we were callin’ him your kid too, seein’ as we’re together.”
That got Arthur to dip his head, tilt it away from John so he couldn’t see Arthur’s face. It wasn’t like John had been, shirking his role as parent because he didn’t feel up to the responsibility, felt tied down by permanence. As much as Arthur had been welcomed into John and Abigail’s life, as much as he was just more solidly in a role he had always sort of played in Jack’s life, an additional paternal figure, it was still hard for Arthur to accept that, to really accept the parental role he wanted.
John rolled it back to the previous topic, figured he’d let Arthur work through what was going on in his own head on his own. “Don’t gotta figure what to say right away. Got a week or so to figure it out. ‘sides, imagine Abigail will have some ideas.”
“That woman is a saint for puttin’ up with us.”
John couldn’t find it in him to disagree.
Before John knew it, it was November, and they had officially made it a year on their own.
He’d started thinking of his life in befores and afters. Before Blackwater, before Beaver Hollow, before Dutch’s bullet. After the infection, after New Year’s, after the kiss. John’s life how it had been, how it now was, how it would be. Life before Arthur, life after him.
They were settling into the little ranch in the Crestone valley, building the sort of lives that always seemed like an impossible dream. And as the days went on, it felt more and more normal, like this was something John could do for the rest of his days. It wasn’t like he didn’t long for the life sometimes, didn’t feel stifled in the ranch, but he had Arthur, he had Abigail, he had Jack. Sadie came and went, Charles was in and out on various hunting trips, and the work was hard enough that he didn’t have time to think most days, not about Dutch, and not about Micah. So he made it through, made his life.
The anniversary of the night it ended, John ended up out on the porch with Abigail, Jack, and Arthur. Just earlier that day, he and Abigail had presented Jack with three new books, something they’d decided they could afford after Sadie helped them sort through their finances and what they’d need for the coming winter. Jack had one such book tucked into his lap, reading out loud to the three adults that loved him most in this world.
Abigail and John were with him on the bench, seated to either side of him. Arthur, instead, had chosen to sit on the wooden floor of the porch, which John might’ve suspected was just to make things difficult if it wasn’t for the fact that Jack was there, and Arthur wouldn’t ever try to make things difficult when Jack was around. Instead, maybe, Arthur sat on the floor so he could lean his head against John’s legs, journal cradled on his lap as he sketched, kept his hands busy as he listened to Jack. Lace curled next to him, head resting on one of Arthur’s legs.
Abigail was leaning in close to Jack so she could see the words he read, still trying hard to at least pick up a little bit of reading, enough to get by in a pinch, enough to allow her to read her own mail, rather than having to ask John or Arthur to read aloud a letter that Tilly or someone else might’ve sent her. After a bit her arm went up to pull John closer as well, their heads resting together over Jack, warm against the growing chill in the air. Her arm wrapped around John’s shoulders, playing absentmindedly with the collar of his shirt. And after longer Arthur’s head grew heavier against John’s leg, his breathing steady and slow, and John knew he’d fallen asleep, safe and relaxed with the rest of them there. Jack’s voice carrying steady, strong.
A family. That was all John could ask.
Arthur wasn’t far off base when he called Teddie Harrison a good mark. Sometime around mid-December, John and Arthur brought Jack around the Harrison ranch to play with Will and check in with how the Harrisons were weathering the beginnings of winter. Arthur’d apparently been serious when he proposed they gain some friends in the valley, and they had something between an acquaintanceship and a friendship going with the Harrison family. For Jack, it was just plain friendship, and John honestly thought it was good for the boy to have a friend around his own age.
That particular day, though, they arrived to find the ranch in a state of chaos. To fairly experienced thieves, like John and Arthur had been, it was clear what had happened immediately, even before John let Jack off his saddle to go find Will to play with. The Harrisons had been rustled.
Arthur had been planning to spend more time working with Harlow, who was starting to come around, but instead they ended up roped into a conversation with Harrison about what exactly had happened.
It wasn’t a very graceful rustling, at least by John’s experience. The men who’d gone after the cattle hadn’t even taken the most valuable heads, instead focusing on the flashiest cows. And they hadn’t managed to take a whole herd from one paddock either, instead panicked when a couple of farm hands heard the commotion and had come out to check. Ended up making off with only ten or so head, a fraction of what the ranch kept.
Still, any sort of rustling wasn’t nothing, especially when the ranch was nothing industrial. It was enough of a loss that John felt obligated to say, as they looked over the half empty paddock, “If you ever need some meat over the winter to help hold you over, we got plenty of hunters in our number. We’re happy to share any excess.”
“Appreciate the offer, but we’ve got a fair bit in our food stores,” Harrison said, though his voice was still grim. “If it gets any worse, we’ll let you know.”
“In the meantime, recommend you hire a couple of guns,” Arthur said, not looking over. “From my experience with rustlers, most of ‘em are cowards, goin’ for the easiest targets. Make yourself more trouble than it’s worth, and a lot of them drop away. Get some men that can handle a good day’s work and a gun both, and you’re gonna save yourself a lot of trouble.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” And Harrison sighed, scraped the back of a hand over his mouth. “Things were definitely different back east, I’ll tell you that.”
“Should keep our eyes peeled,” Arthur later muttered to John on the ride back, Jack worn out enough that he was starting to doze, sitting in front of John in Rachel’s saddle. “They ain’t the only ranch in the area. Oughta not get complacent, no matter how sloppy that was done.”
Once again, he wasn’t wrong.
It was Arthur that woke John up somewhere around midnight, the feel of him scrambling into a sitting position.
One of the many benefits of having two partners, as far as John was concerned, was being guaranteed a warm body next to him in the winter. This particular night he’d been pressed up against Arthur’s back, nose tucked at the nape of his neck to keep it from the chill of the night. Meant he was left blinking up at the man when Arthur sat bolt upright in bed.
“What is it?” John said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, still trying to get his bearings.
“Shhh,” Arthur hissed back, head tilted to the side. Listening intently, and the reason became clear a half second later when John heard what had to be what woke Arthur up: the squeal of a horse out in the fenced pasture.
“Buell,” Arthur said, heaving himself out of bed, John scrambling to follow, brain still catching up with the situation.
“Buell? Why would he…?”
Arthur didn’t even take the time to pull on pants, just yanked boots over his union suit, John following his lead at a touch slower pace, Lace watching them both sleepily from the foot of the bed. Both of them out into the hall, John stopping briefly in his and Abigail’s room to wake her, tell her that something was up but they’d be careful, before joining Arthur in pulling on his heavy coat, grabbing a rifle, and leaving out the door. No matter what Abigail might say when she was awake enough to think through it, John wasn’t about to let Arthur face down any sort of danger alone.
Of course, the tension of the situation dissipated near instantly when John’s feet got him out to the pasture and the sight he was greeted with nearly made him laugh out loud.
Unless there were multiple groups of sloppy rustlers out there, they’d been targeted by the same men that went after the Harrison ranch. The fools had gone for the horses. Buell hadn’t liked having strange men in his pasture.
Two men. One Buell’d kicked, judging by the way he was cradling an arm around his ribs and backing towards what must’ve been one of the horses they rode in on, seeing as John didn’t recognize it. The other Buell had by an arm, teeth clamped hard into his flesh. Even from the distance John came running up from, he could see the way Buell’s teeth sank into the fabric over the man’s arm. John’d heard stories of horse bites breaking bones, taking off fingers. A horse like Buell, he figured, was the type to try it.
Arthur was ahead of John, and he was already calling, “Bit off more than you can chew there, boys? Oh, no, reckon it’s my horse what’s done that.”
Predictably, the man that had the mobility to do so was clambering onto his horse, trying to get away nearly the instant Arthur spoke. Unarmed, as was the other rustler, and likely panicking over the fact that two armed men—or, scratch that, three, because Charles had apparently woken from the commotion as well, was crossing the paddock towards them—had caught him in the act.
And Arthur sighed as John got alongside him, called, “That ain’t gonna end well for you.”
The man, of course, didn’t listen, instead drove the spurs he was wearing into the horse’s side and took off. Didn’t even bother trying to grab one of the horses, even though that seemed to be their original goal. Christ, they really had them panicked.
Arthur, because it was Arthur, seemed unfazed, just turned towards Charles, who had now reached them. “Charles, could you take care of this feller? Jim and I’ll get his friend.”
“On it,” Charles murmured, and Arthur was already swinging himself up on to Fenella, the mare having sidled up to him as soon as they entered the paddock, even as John was still whistling for Rachel.
It was a milder winter they had to weather in Absaroka than Augusta, but still nowhere near warm. The ground hard, dusted with half-melted snow. John wove his fingers into Rachel’s mane as he urged her forward after Fenella, gripped her warm sides hard with his legs. Prayed he still could ride a horse like he used to, well enough that he wasn’t going to come off at a gallop just because he didn’t have a saddle.
And Fenella was fast. As little as the mare was, she could cover ground like few other horses, even carting around someone of Arthur’s weight. Rachel was nowhere near slow, thoroughbred and all, but she was nothing compared to the little Arabian. In a race, Fenella would have her beat every time.
Luckily, they didn’t need to go quite that long. Before they’d hit the far end of the pasture, Arthur was pulling his lasso from his coat. John’d given it to him for Christmas, seeing as horse training now seemed a firm part of Arthur’s future. Now, he felt an odd and unexpected sense of pride bubbling up when Arthur swung the lasso, landed it around the man’s shoulders on his first throw. It was the idea that he’d done something useful, the same sort of pride he used to get whenever Dutch praised him.
Fenella, used enough to Arthur that he could stop her reinless, immediately slowed as soon as the lasso pulled tight, and the rustler was yanked out of his saddle, hitting the ground hard. John’s feet were on the ground near as quick, and he made his way over to the man as Arthur stayed on Fenella, held the rope taut so the rustler couldn’t loosen the lasso. Easy, practiced, because they’d done this what must’ve been hundreds of times now.
“Woulda made things easier if you just listened to him,” John said, nudging with a toe at the rustler’s hip. “We ain’t inclined to torture a man.”
The fall had knocked the wind out of the rustler, probably made worse by the ribs Buell had bruised or broken, judging by the way he was gasping for air. Still, he managed to spit a “Fuck you,” at John as John turned him over, started hogtying him, which John honestly thought was pretty ballsy from a rustler who had just been running away from them in a panic.
John hoisted the man over Rachel’s back, vaulted up in front of him. Let Arthur handle the man’s horse, stamping and sidestepping until Arthur got a hand on its reins, and instead headed back to where they’d left Charles.
Sometime while they were gone, Charles had managed to convince Buell to let the other man go, the stallion now grazing along with the rest of the horses like nothing had ever happened. He’d hogtied the rustler, and John dumped his matching compatriot next to him on the ground, let Rachel rejoin the other horses.
Arthur wasn’t far behind, not even looking at John and Charles as he took a few large strides forward, crouched in front of the two men. All business, shades of Dutch’s enforcer again. And John couldn’t even be mad, because this time it was employed for Arthur’s sake as well as their own, to protect what they’d built here together.
Arthur didn’t speak for a moment, just looked the rustlers over. Sighed, asked, “How old are you two, anyway?”
“Arthur,” John said, not quite a warning but close to it. They were young men, that John could see now, light of the moon making their faces clear. Definitely no older than John, though he suspected they were barely older than teenagers. It wasn’t that John was against showing the men compassion, not when there wasn’t enough in the world as is, just that they should be careful how compassionate they were willing to get.
Arthur waved a hand at John in acknowledgement, said, “Let me guess, couldn’t make money any other way, turned to rustling.”
That got one of the rustlers, the one Buell’d bitten, to hiss, “Why does it matter? You gonna kill us anyway.”
Arthur sighed, elbows resting on his legs. “Now, listen to me, gentlemen. I ain’t particularly inclined to kill you, not when you ain’t hurt no one here, and I ain’t particularly inclined to turn you in to the law neither, not when you’re young and stupid and don’t necessarily deserve a hangin’ for it. But—” And Arthur tapped a hand on the boot of the man who’d spoken, making him flinch— “But you ought to choose your targets a bit more carefully next time. We ain’t got much here, and what little we got we need, meanin’ we’re gonna fight for it. Ain’t right goin’ for folks livin’ close to the bone. Folks like that—folks like me and my brother here—what we got ain’t worth the hell we’re gonna give you back. Got it?”
A beat, and then the men nodded, though John thought they probably had no other choice but to agree, seeing as the other option was being turned in to the law.
“Good.” And Arthur glanced up at John, looking for confirmation.
“Fine with me,” John said, because Arthur was right. The men had been unarmed, just trying to get some horses they couldn’t even pull off the robbery of. They’d scared them away from the ranch likely permanently, seeing as they’d thoroughly proved they could protect what they had.
“Alright,” Arthur said, pulling a pocket knife from his coat, “we’re gonna let you two go. Just don’t let us see your faces around here again unless it’s for an honest day’s work, or my brother, my friend here? They won’t hesitate to shoot you. Now,” he said, sawing away the bindings, “take your horses and go.”
The men scrambled away near instantly, likely the sight of John and Charles standing behind Arthur like guards flanking some dignitary, rifles still hanging from their backs, preventing any sort of retaliation. Fled to their horses and took off.
“Well, that went well,” Arthur said once they’d disappeared out of sight, pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his coat.
“Not sure that was a good idea, Arthur,” Charles murmured, taking the cigarette Arthur shook out of the pack.
“What, lettin’ them go?” John asked, pack of matches already in hand as Arthur offered the next to him. Lit Arthur’s cigarette, then Charles’s, then, seeing as the match had burned down, gestured Arthur in, lit his own cigarette off of Arthur’s.
“Encouraging them to go after rich folks. That isn’t going to end well, not as sloppy as they were.”
Arthur breathed out a puff of smoke, said, “Either they’re smart enough to know they can’t hope to take on any sort of guards rich folks have, or they get themselves killed runnin’ up against them. Whatever way it goes, they stop targetin’ folks that can’t take it, least if they listen.”
“Or they join up with bigger and stronger men.” Charles didn’t seem particularly disapproving, more just offering his own view. That was the benefit, John thought, of this arrangement they had going. A partnership rather than any sort of firm command structure. They worked together, rather than one of them dictating how things would go. Nothing like Dutch.
“Coulda done that anyway without our intervention,” Arthur shrugged. “Just glad Buell let us know somethin’ was up.”
“Did say he’d make a good guard dog,” John murmured.
“I miss somethin’?”
The voice came from behind them, and John knew who it was even before he was turning, shooting back at him, “Uncle, so nice of you to finally emerge from whatever hole you were cowerin’ in.”
Uncle looked immediately put out. “Hey, I ain’t exactly a light sleeper in my old age, and by the time I got out here it looked like you had it covered.”
“We’d never want to impose on your rest, Uncle, not when we’re lettin’ you stay here for free and all,” Arthur muttered through his cigarette.
“You look warm,” John said, eyeing Uncle’s thick coat, heavy scarf. “That why you took your time?”
“Christ, I never get a moment’s peace with you two, do I? Next time I oughta just stay inside, let you all sort things out.”
“Wouldn’t make much of a difference if you did.” Charles this time, more familiar with Uncle’s particular brand of personality now, more used to dealing with it.
“Lord, and here I was gettin’ up at one in the morning for you ungrateful lot. Goodnight boys.” Uncle waved a hand, started making his way back to the bunkhouse, footsteps crunching against the frozen earth.
“Get your beauty sleep, Uncle,” Arthur called after him, turned to Charles and John. “One of us oughta go follow them, make sure they left.” Gestured to where the rustlers disappeared to indicate what he meant.
“Let me,” Charles offered. “Better dressed for it than the both of you.” And that much was true, Charles at least thinking to put on proper pants before running out the door.
“Any trouble, you shout for us,” John said, though he wasn’t expecting any. The rustlers were cowards, same as most rustlers were. They wouldn’t be sticking around, and checking to make sure they left was mostly a precaution out of habit.
“Will do,” Charles said, waving them off before pulling himself onto Taima’s back.
Arthur jerked his head back towards the house. “Best tell Abigail everythin’s fine.”
“And get warm,” John said, because even with the cigarette he was starting to get cold. Was always cold, more like, and was starting to feel it on his legs.
Even like this, trekking back to the house at one in the morning, John loved Arthur. Even in the cold winter air, even dressed a mess in their union suits, hair still sleep mussed, tired and stiff with waking too early after a long day’s work. He loved Arthur for all he’d been, all he was, all they built together.
There was something amazing about it, the fact that Arthur was still an unshakable pillar. That they’d weathered a year without the gang, without most of the folks they’d known their whole lives, and Arthur came out of it stronger than ever, a man who could chase down horse thieves and let them go in the same hour. Soft in some ways, but in ways that made him a better person, made him the sort of man that John loved.
He was lucky to have Arthur, and he wanted to tell the man that, tell him how much he meant to John, that all the people who had abandoned Arthur in all their various ways over the years didn’t deserve him, that John barely deserved him. That he was a better man than he knew, that he was one of the greatest people John had met in his entire life.
But, instead, what ended up coming out was, “Kinda wanna suck your dick now.”
Arthur gave a sigh, a long suffering kind of noise. “Christ, John.”
“The hell are you like this? I know it ain’t the way you was raised, ‘cause Dutch and Hosea at least had a little tact.”
“I’m serious, seein’ you gettin’ all tough with other folks, knowin’ they ain’t the ones what get to bed you, watch you be all nice.” Nice wasn’t even the right word, more that Arthur let himself be vulnerable in front of John now. There was still a give and take to their relationship, a lingering competitive streak, and Arthur was still inclined to tell John what to do, but things felt more even now. Balanced, like all the arguing and talking of the past year had leveled out.
Didn’t mean John wasn’t sometimes inclined to push Arthur into annoyance, though. Arthur had a growl to his voice when he said, “You’re talkin’ your way further from any dick suckin’ as we speak.”
John couldn’t help the grin spreading across his own face. “I mean it, I could suck you off, you could return the favor—”
And John suddenly found Arthur’s hand fisted in his shirt, and he was hauled against Arthur for a kiss. A good kiss, hard and slow, and by the time Arthur let him go, John could feel the flush on his own face, hard against the chill of the winter air. Arthur’s voice low when he said, “Shut up.”
John couldn’t help the bark of laughter that breached his throat, and the noise followed them into the house, into assuring Abigail that they were fine, that everything had been fine, that they had been careful, done everything they could to focus attention away from the ranch.
He did end up on his knees at two in the morning with Arthur’s cock in his mouth, but afterwards he was hot and bothered enough that Arthur let John fuck him, so it all evened out in the end.
It wasn’t until spring that John received the letter.