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but at least the war is over

Chapter Text

That hadn’t gone the way John expected, to say the least. Sure, he didn’t think Arthur would react well to the fact he’d kept information away from him, but he’d thought—thought Arthur would want to kill Micah, thought Arthur would want to stop him hurting folks at the very least.

Turned out he was wrong about that. Underestimated Arthur’s stubbornness, or maybe overestimated his own ability to convince him. And the anger over it, the frustration that things had gone so wrong, festered in his stomach.

It made him shaky, made his grip on Rachel’s reins looser than it should be. Somewhere between wanting to cry and wanting to scream. He’d thought they’d go through this together, like they always had. Would end it, would both watch Micah fall. And, yet, Arthur was just as bad as Abigail when it came to not letting John do the things he needed to, apparently.

He loved them and he hated them both.

He needed a distraction, needed to get his head on the task at hand. He needed to get his wits about him if this was going to go the way he wanted it to. He was going to come back from this alive, to spite Arthur if nothing else.

Ended up asking, “What’s this information of yours, Sadie?” There hadn’t exactly been time to ask between all the yelling.

Sadie had been riding a stride behind him, all of them at a brisk pace that toed the line between not losing valuable time and not running the horses to the ground. Her voice a grounding sort of firm as she said, “Been keepin’ an ear out about any of the gang since I got into the bounties. Heard one of Micah’s boys been seen drinkin’ a few towns over.” And then there was a pause, and John knew what the question was going to be before Sadie asked, “Did you really know Micah was around?”

John huffed a sigh, because of course he couldn’t avoid this, not even from Sadie. “Javier told me. Back when we went to meet him. Was what he set up the whole meetin’ to tell us.”

“Knew too,” Charles said, voice something close to an admission.

“Told him to keep quiet about it,” John added, because he wanted to take the blame, didn’t want to pin all of that on Charles. That wasn’t fair.

Sadie had brought Bob next to John now, and he could feel her eyes on him no matter how much he refused to look back at her. “Christ, y’all are fools. You know he could’ve come down here any old time and killed you, right?”

“I’ve been told that.” Christ, by just about everyone. “Just didn’t—didn’t think Arthur would react well.”

“Well you got that right. Think that whole display back there proved that.”

“I don’t get him. We get the chance to end all this and he wants to throw that opportunity away. We ain’t gonna get another shot like this, and he ain’t even wanna be a part of it.

“Arthur never was one for revenge,” Charles said, voice steady, and John hadn’t realized how much he appreciated that. “Not in all the time I’ve known him, at least. Took that ‘Revenge is a fool’s game’ mantra more seriously than Dutch ever did.”

“But it ain’t revenge. It’s stoppin’ the son of a bitch.”

Sadie shook her head. “I ain’t exactly got a problem with killin’ old friends, John, but it’s somethin’ different when you got a life worth keepin’. Arthur knows what it’s like to lose those you love. Think he don’t wanna become that to anyone else.”

And that stung at John a little, because he knew exactly who put that idea into Arthur’s head, the one that it wasn’t fair to throw himself in front of bullets because of what it’d do to the folks he left behind. But this was different, right? This was Micah. “We both do. Don’t mean he ain’t bein’ selfish, sayin’ that only matters when it comes to Micah.”

“And killin’ Micah for your own wants is just as selfish. Lord knows I want to see him with his brains paintin’ a wall, but I know that’s ‘cause he done wrong to folks I love and he don’t deserve to live another day past this one comin’. We can call it anythin’ we like, John, but revenge is still revenge even with a coat of paint.”

And that made John turn his head away, mutter a curse under his breath. Leave it to all the goddamn people who felt inclined to lecture him to make him see Arthur’s point of view.

Sadie paused, then said, a little firmer, “Arthur made his choice. You’re makin’ yours. Me, Charles, we’ve made ours. Just don’t call it what it ain’t, ‘cause that ain’t fair to anyone.”

“Yeah, yeah I get it.” And then, because all he kept getting told was to be grateful for what he got— “‘ppreciate—‘ppreciate you comin’ with me.”

Charles shrugged. “This is one last favor. All you done for us, you’re owed something back. You and Arthur both. Least we can do is help, if this is the last of it.”

“Think we’re the ones what owe you two,” John muttered, because he knew that they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere close to where they were without Charles and Sadie’s help.

But Charles glanced back up at him “There wasn’t a pleasant end staring back at us after the end of the gang, not with how much heat was on us. Seeing the life you built, John, it’s—it’s enviable.”

But it wasn’t John that built it. It was a whole host of other forces coming together, and John the unwitting participant. Charles, Sadie, Tilly, Uncle, Arthur, Abigail, even Jack, in his way. John couldn’t claim credit for the life he had. Just had a hand in protecting what other folks had gotten him.

“Believe you might’ve given Mr. Smith the family bug,” Sadie said, smile evident in her voice.

“Not just that,” Charles replied. “If we can end this, all of us will be better for it.”

“So we’re in this together. What comes after we can figure out. But me and Charles, we owe you the chance to find out.”

“So,” John said, quiet, “let’s end it then.”

 


 

John didn’t think anyone who hung friendly around Micah Bell kept any sort of humanity for long. Something about being around a snake inevitably led to you growing scales, starting to crawl around on your belly. Dutch was proof enough of that—whether Dutch had ever had any sort of humanity like Arthur seemed to believe, he’d dispensed with that whole idea by the time Micah’s foothold in the gang took a solid hold.

So John wasn’t sure what to think about the way Cleet was begging at their feet.

They’d caught the man not far from where Sadie said he was, drinking himself half to death. Wasn’t much of a chase, not when the man was so soaked he could barely stand up straight. John managed to drag him to somewhere secluded just outside of town with little trouble, throw him down in front of Charles and Sadie.

And that led them here.

“Where’s Micah?” Sadie demanded, her gun vaguely pointed towards Cleet’s head.

The man was shaking, unarmed, slowly and unsuccessfully trying to push himself away from their feet. “Listen, I—I can’t—do you know what he—?”

“Trust me, we’re plenty familiar with Micah Bell can do.” John tapped at one of Cleet’s legs with one foot, not hard enough to bruise but enough to sting.

There was an air of panic in the man’s eyes, “I, I left, he’ll—if he knows what I said, do you know what he’ll do to me?”

“Yeah, guessin’ it’s about the same as what we’re gonna do to you if we don’t find out where Micah is,” Sadie said. “Talk, Cleet.”

Cleet glanced between “He’s up north. Baldface Basin. Got the whole gang holed up in a town there, plannin’ his next move. That’s it, I swear it. I—I’m done with him. With all of it. He—he killed a little girl. I ain’t—I, I can’t—I saw—”

Sadie hadn’t lowered the gun, instead was training it on Cleet’s chest. “We ain’t here for pleadin’. Shoulda thought about that before you joined up with Micah Bell.”

“Look, it weren’t—I, I ain’t like that anymore, I—I can’t—”

“Save your breath, boy. Ain’t us you’re gonna need to be convincin’ ‘bout your regret.” And Sadie pulled the hammer of the revolver back with a click.

The pleading turned to something blubbering, Cleet’s words slurred with drink and emotion. And, as much as Cleet was tainted with Micah, as much as John could barely look at his face without remembering that last night in Beaver Hollow, watching him near tears itched at John. He’d interrogated plenty of men in his time, seen them killed at the end of it nearly as often. And yet something was churning in his stomach, some new sensation that prickled on his skin. It was like the words were bubbling out of his mouth when he finally blurted, “Christ, Sadie, don’t kill him.”

Sadie eyed him, didn’t lower the revolver. “What, you got a problem killin’ bad men now?”

The phrase stung something in the back of John’s head, a distant reminder of words in his own voice. Christ, maybe he was destined to go around in circles, to keep hearing things he’d told Arthur reflected back towards him.

“Sadie, it ain’t—” And John eyed Cleet, hands still held in front of himself in a placating gesture— “ain’t something we can hash out here. You,” and John turned his voice hard, hauled Cleet to his feet, “you get out of here. Don’t ever want to see your face again, you hear? And we hear you’re killin’ folk, we’re comin’ for you, same as we are Micah.”

“Right. Right, okay.” Took a stumbled step forward but paused, swung his head to look back at John. “Look, John, I… I’m—”

John didn’t want to hear it, just shoved Cleet roughly away. “Go on, get.”

It was only when Cleet was well out of range that Sadie turned to John, snapped, “The hell was that?”

John rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Sadie, I can’t—it ain’t not killin’ bad men, just—” Just he was in love with a man that wanted to be better, wanted John to be better— “Christ, think Arthur’s gotten in my head.” Because that was it, wasn’t it? As much grief as John had given Arthur about letting bad men go when they were better off dead, it seemed the man was still echoing around in his brain. He didn’t want to kill a man who was begging forgiveness, begging the chance to get better. It was the sort of thing that made his stomach churn.

Maybe he’d gone soft.

There was still an edge to Sadie’s voice as she spoke, but not one quite as angry as before. “Listen, John. Last time I held my fire, someone I loved the most in this world met his end. I got more folks I love now, and I ain’t about to let my not actin’ be the reason they get shot. You, Arthur, I know you want folks to get a second chance at bein’ good. Fine. But you gotta be smart about it, right? Don’t let folks go that might come for you in your sleep.”

Maybe that was as far as he was going to get with Sadie. As much as she’d softened over the year and a half since they left the gang, as much as she seemed to come back from these frequent trips to Willard’s Rest brighter, like she was carrying herself differently, like whatever Charlotte had been through with her husband gave the two some sort of connection, she still wasn’t like Arthur. Wasn’t done with the violence, the life of guns and needing to watch your back.

Maybe it made sense, then, that she thought it better to kill men who might later try to kill her. Still, John couldn’t stop Arthur’s words bouncing around his head, ones about loved ones of dead men coming back to seek revenge. That was the curse of love, as far as John was concerned, the words and the desperation.

Did Cleet have loved ones? Back at Beaver Hollow, John might’ve said no, but now he found he wasn’t sure.

John kept his eyes firm as he met Sadie’s. “I know, Sadie, but you gotta trust me, alright? I ain’t doin’ this with no thought behind it.”

Sadie looked at him hard. “Why else you think I let him run? You’re a fool, Marston, but a fool I trust.”

Maybe John should’ve known that already, seeing as Sadie was willing to ride into Micah’s camp with nothing but John and Charles by her side, but the statement still made him blink. “I—uh, sure. Thanks Sadie. Trust you too.”

“If you two are done, we need to get moving,” Charles said, and John was grateful for his intervention, to give him something to do beyond stumbling over his own words.

“North,” John confirmed, and whistled for Rachel.

 


 

Things went badly. Of course they went badly, because Arthur had been right when he’d said that going after a whole gang wouldn’t end well.

Micah was holed up in an old skeleton of a town that reminded John enough of Colter that it gave him chills down his spine. He didn’t remember much of Colter, of course, seeing as he spent most of that time in the clutches of fever, but what he did remember was loose, dream-like, something made up of shapes and feelings more than anything solid. Not a pleasant memory by any means.

This town wasn’t Colter, but it felt like it. Clearly abandoned a long while, though what it was used for before the abandonment, John wasn’t sure. Maybe mining, just judging by the way it stretched up the rise into the low-lying mountains that ringed the valley. Not in the valley, not really, but close enough to be unsettling. John was itching to see Micah dead, for all the other reasons but also, like he’d known, because he didn’t fancy having his throat potentially slit in the middle of the night.

John didn’t think Micah was tipped to them coming, but he must’ve had jumpy guards, judging by the bullet that snapped right through Charles’s thigh before they’d even breached a hundred feet of the compound.

Taima reared, and John had just enough time to throw himself from Rachel’s saddle before another bullet whipped past where his head had been just a moment before. And then he was to Charles, the man sliding off of Taima’s back, and half dragging him behind cover.

John was getting tired of seeing blood out of the folks he cared about. Didn’t like how it leaked through Charles’s fingers as he pressed his palms down to the hole in this pants. The wound wasn’t serious, not bleeding in the way that John had seen kill men in mere minutes, but it was enough. They were down a man.

John and Sadie left Charles there at the man’s request. He could protect himself well enough, lay down covering fire for as long as they were in his sight, sheltered as he was. And so they worked their way through the town, picking off the gang members that shot at them.

John felt only a twinge of guilt, watching the men fall. If he had to guess, the men that joined up with Micah were something like O’Driscolls, men who fell in with a violent gang member for either protection or to allow an avenue for their own violent tendencies. Still, how removed were they really from what Dutch’s boys had been? How could they really claim to be different?

This would be the last time John ever did something that involved so much death if he had any choice in the matter. He knew that for sure. It wasn’t that he couldn’t stomach it, couldn’t pull the trigger, but more that it had started feeling like a waste. Killing men whose lives didn’t amount to anything but pain, like a shadow of what he’d been once in his life, making the whole endeavor of living worthless. If he were still back in the gang, Bill would’ve said John’d gone soft, just like he’d once accused Arthur of. But John was just damn tired of the waste after so long building what he had out of nothing.

They’d nearly cleared the place out, nearly were up to the building that all the men seemed to be protecting, when John lost Sadie to a knife in the side.

It was an unlucky blind spot, a bottleneck between two buildings, and both of them ended up tackled to the ground. John made it back up to his feet quick enough, but not before the other man had buried the knife to the hilt in Sadie’s body. John shot him, then found himself stumbling over to her, falling to his knees by her side.

Sadie’s hands went to the knife hilt, and John grabbed them, held them away. “Don’t pull it out, alright? Not until we can stop the bleedin’.” Because that was one thing Hosea had drilled into his mind, to leave a knife where it was until you could make sure you didn’t bleed out.

“I’m fine, John, I—” But pain cut Sadie’s words off, rippled across her face as John helped her sit up against a nearby building. A place where she could see anyone coming, could defend herself. Because John still had a job to do.

“Y’ain’t fine.” Christ, how many folks would John have to say that to before this whole thing was done? “You stay here, alright?” Because, just like with Charles, it wasn’t safe to spend time stitching a wound when men with guns were surrounding them, itching to kill them.

“I can—just, just give me a minute.” But Sadie’s voice was breaking over the words, and John found himself just praying that the knife hadn’t hit anything important.

“I’ll come back for you, okay? You and Charles both. Just—just stay alive ‘til then.” Just one more thing to add to his list of wrongs, dragging both Charles and Sadie here and getting them both hurt.

But Sadie gave him a smile, forced over the pain on her face. “Just kill that rat. I ain’t dyin’, John Marston, not here.”

John hoped to God Sadie was right, despite the blood soaking her coat around the hilt of the knife. He pressed on.

Killed a few more men. Tried not pay attention to the smell of burnt gunpowder on the air, the blood that spattered around them. Got shouted at by Joe, who John only barely remembered from Beaver Hollow, and put a bullet through his skull too.

Eventually found himself standing at the top of the slope the town was built into, a few yards in front of a building that had seemed to be the head of the camp, what the gang had been protecting. “Micah!” John yelled, his voice sounding hoarse even to his own ears. “I know you’re in there you son of a bitch! Come out!”

It was less a building, more a shack, John realized, one that sat just askew to the mouth of a mine. It was a mining town, John knew for sure now, a mining town that had been abandoned when the mine dried up. Micah was a rat, of course. No wonder he liked caves.

But John didn’t think he was down in the mine. It was spring, after all, still cold in the nights, and Micah thought too highly of himself to hole up in a cold, damp cave. The shack was small, but it was in better shape, less rotted through than the other buildings in town. If John knew Micah, he’d have claimed it for himself, would put himself up in the most luxurious accommodations available to him. He’d think he deserved it.

And he was proved right when the door to the shack swung open, and John laid eyes on Micah Bell for the first time in over a year and a half.

He didn’t look good. If Javier had looked rough, run down, Micah looked worse than that. His mustache was overgrown but patchy, like a dog in the earliest stages of mange. Skinny, too, even with the layers of coat he had on, a far cry from the Micah that had always had the sort of belly that, combined with his personality, suggested he got that way from taking from other people. His clothing ragged, with even the white hat still jammed on his head dirty, patchy.

For all Micah had wanted power, wanted his own gang, apparently he hadn’t realized just how much that wears on a man. How paranoid it makes one. But his voice was clear as he swung his arms wide and said, “Hello, scarface. Didya miss me?”

The normal bluster was there, the smarminess, but something burned behind his eyes, some cold, hard hatred. Micah didn’t seem particularly surprised to see him, but John didn’t think that was because he’d been tipped off. If he had been, they wouldn’t have managed to kill most of his camp. Instead, John figured, Micah was expecting something like this for a long time. Expected to be approached by some old gang member trying to kill him, maybe especially if he’d really gone for the Blackwater money.

“Not much,” John replied, and could feel the venom in his own voice.

“Been a while.” And when John took a step forward, Micah stepped back, circled around. Kept his distance. “Always figured you managed to keep breathin’ when you ran with your tail between your legs. Course, can’t say the same about dear old Arthur, now can we?”

And that sent a prickle over John’s skin, Arthur’s name in Micah’s mouth. “Don’t you talk ‘bout him, you rat.”

Something changed in Micah’s face, and his expression got sharper, like a cat that spotted a mouse. He took a step forward, and John was the one to find himself taking a step back, maintaining distance. “I watched him die, you know,” Micah said, the sneer on his face echoed in the tone of this voice. “You know what Morgan did, bleedin’ out on that piece of rock? He begged me to save him. Said he’d give you up, worship the ground at my feet, lick my goddamn boots if only I didn’t shoot him. The look on his face when I put another bullet through him, I reckon he actually believed I would. Didn’t know just how soft Morgan got at the end.”

John was caught somewhere between wanting to laugh and wanting to shoot Micah for suggesting Arthur was anything near soft. Arthur wasn’t soft. He was kind, and good, and wonderful, and all those things were different from soft. And even if Arthur had gone soft, John would goddamn love him anyway, would give his life for him, because Arthur deserved the goddamn world. But Arthur wasn’t soft, never the type of man to shy away from making hard decisions, no matter if it was in the gang or on the ranch. And Arthur gave all he could to the people he cared for.

And, yet, Micah was trying to throw doubt on that. If Arthur had died that night, if John had scrambled up that mountain to find his dead body, would John have believed Micah? Thought Arthur might’ve offered John up in exchange for his own life, that Arthur might’ve begged at Micah’s feet?

No, John decided, and it was an easy decision. No, he wouldn’t have. Because, after everything, he knew the type of man Arthur was, had known, even then. And loyalty had been one of the most important things to Arthur, still was, so long as that loyalty was to the right things, to what mattered. “You really think I’m gonna believe that? Thought you was a better liar than that.”

“Don’t matter if you believe me or not, when it happened either way.” But clearly not getting whatever reaction he wanted, Micah switched tactics. “What about that, uh, whore of yours, hmm? She miss me?”

“Didn’t reckon I should waste my time killin’ you. Me, I felt differently.”

“Sure, scarface, that’s why you’re here. Nothin’ to do with the money, not at all. You think I don’t know that’s why you picked now of all times to come crawlin’ back?”

So Micah did have the Blackwater money. Javier had been right about that. No wonder his men had been so paranoid, ready to shoot immediately at any approaching riders. “Whatever you say,” John said, because he wasn’t going to argue with whatever Micah’s paranoia was telling him. Sure, the money was a bonus, but it wasn’t the real goal. The goal was to put a bullet through Micah Bell.

The itch to do so grew as Micah said, voice slimy, “Maybe after we’re done I’ll bring it along with me when I go pay Abigail a call. Her and the boy.”

And that prickled harder over John’s skin, the threat inherent in the words. It was what Arthur had warned him about, saying he better kill Micah if he went after him. But—but Micah was trying to provoke him, wasn’t he? He was provoking John into shooting first, and John didn’t know why. And that was goddamn dangerous when it came to men like Micah.

John opened his mouth. Was planning to say something scathing but neutral, something that didn’t rise to the provocation but that wouldn’t show his hand too much either. And then something next to him exploded and he was knocked into a nearby crate.

John knew the smell of dynamite intimately. It was one of their more common tools in the gang, what they used to blow open safes, doors, train tracks, all manner of things. How Micah’d set it off, John wasn’t sure, and he guessed it didn’t really matter now. Paranoid bastard probably had it wired as soon as they moved in.

Micah hadn’t been provoking him. He’d been stalling, stalling and trying to force John into the right position, and because the man was so goddamn antagonistic, John had assumed he’d been trying to provoke him.

He wasn’t hurt, he knew. Bruised, maybe, but nothing broken, nothing bleeding. If Micah had been trying to kill him, he hadn’t gotten John near close enough to the explosion. But he had been stunned, just for a moment, trying to find his footing again, and that was enough for Micah to tackle him to the ground.

John’s revolver went skittering out of his hand, clattering out of reach as Micah got a hand on John’s collar, straddling his thighs in an attempt to pin him to the ground. Where Micah’s own guns had gone to, John wasn’t sure, and there wasn’t exactly time to think it over as Micah brought his fist towards John’s face.

The fight was mostly a desperate sort of scramble. Micah didn’t get many hits in on John, largely because the man wasn’t a particularly skilled fistfighter to begin with. Hadn’t even been able to kill a dying man, according to Arthur. But Micah had John pinned, a worse position, and that meant John wasn’t exactly getting many hits in either. Sure, he bruised him good and probably broke a few of his ribs, but it wasn’t enough, not enough to let John free, not enough to keep Micah’s hands from slipping down and wrapping around his throat. And John knew for sure he wasn’t about to let himself be choked out by Micah goddamn Bell.

It was luck more than anything that let John get a leg up between them, kneeing Micah in the stomach, then using the momentary distraction to kick Micah hard away from him. Whether it was good luck or bad, John wasn’t sure, because he hadn’t exactly noticed one of Micah’s guns, dropped God knows when, had been lying exactly where he kicked Micah to. Sure noticed it when Micah closed his palm around its handle.

John tried to scramble back and to the side, tried to get close enough to where his own gun lay askew, grab it in his hand. In it took his eyes off of Micah for just a second too long before the click of a hammer being pulled back brought them back up again.

And John froze, because the barrel of Micah’s gun was pointed straight at his chest. And he couldn’t get his gun before Micah pulled the trigger, he knew that.

He was done.

There were many times in John’s recent memory where he was certain he was going to die. Hanging from a noose in the middle of a homestead when he was twelve, choking and swinging. Getting caught out by O’Driscolls when he was nineteen, a gun pressed up under his ribs. Starving and cold one night during that long year away, not sure if he’d wake up the next morning. Bleeding out on top of a mountain, fever already creeping into his core. Falling from a train, bullet in his shoulder, and thinking he wouldn’t even get the chance to truly betray Dutch and flee the gang.

Still, he didn’t think he’d ever been this scared at the prospect of facing down death. Didn’t think he ever had this much to lose with dying. So much he’d lost the past two years, sure, but so much he’d gained too. A life outside the gang, a life he’d learned to be happy with. Two folks he loved more than anything in the world, and a son that was his, that he would give anything for.

And Micah sneered, and all John could think was how much he hoped Arthur and Abigail didn’t cry over him when they learned he failed. He closed his eyes, tried to keep their faces like photographs in his head.

A bang, and then another overlapping it, and a line of white-hot pain rippled across the side of John’s ribs as a bullet tore into his skin.

But he knew what being clipped felt like, what with all the ways he’d bled over the years, and he knew the bullet hadn’t more than winged him. And there was a noise of pain from Micah, along with a metallic clattering somewhere off to John’s left. Confused, John blinked his eyes open.

The scene was something John hadn’t been expecting. The clattering John had heard was Micah’s gun, landing in the dirt a good few yards from him. And Micah’s right hand was bloody, almost mangled—the gun shot out of his hand? Micah looking somewhere over John’s right shoulder, chest heaving as he cradled his bloodied hand against it, a look of stunned disbelief on his face.

But, it got even more strange when Micah opened his mouth, said, something stunned, “Dutch?”

There was another bang, and a bullet ripped into Micah’s chest. His mouth gaped open in a silent gasp, falling heavy to the ground.

And John looked over his shoulder, laid eyes on Dutch van der Linde for the first time in eighteen months.

There were a lot of things John was expecting to feel upon seeing Dutch again. After all, as much as Micah had been the rat, the rock in the cogs that caused everything to come crashing down, Dutch had been the one to let it happen, the one who led them into ruin. The one who was supposed to keep them safe. The one who shot Arthur.

But all those things John expected to feel—rage, fear, even grief—were buried quickly under plain old shock. Something unstable, surprise running sharp through his body.

He wasn’t sure he ever really expected a world where he would see Dutch again.

Dutch looked different. Most notably a full beard, his hair greying at the temples. Too long, not slicked with the weight of too much pomade. Coat rough, well worn. Less polished than John had ever seen Dutch, except in those rare moments, most in John’s memory not long after he joined the gang, that Dutch had let himself be vulnerable, rough. Those that had almost entirely fallen away by the time the gang got big.

But his voice was achingly familiar when he opened his mouth, said, “Hello son. Been a while.”

And John’s own voice was quieter, more disbelieving than he wanted it to be when he said, “…Dutch?”

In his head, John had always thought he’d put a bullet through Dutch the next time he saw the man. Kill him for what he’d done, how he’d ruined John’s life, how he’d nearly killed Arthur.

And he tried, scrambled to his feet and snatched his gun, tried to lift his arm to point the barrel of his revolver at Dutch’s chest. But it wouldn’t move. Instead, the only thing that John could manage to do was say, “What’re you doin’ here, Dutch?”

“Same as you, I suppose.” And Dutch nodded towards Micah, where he lay on the ground squirming as he bled out.

But that didn’t sit right in John’s stomach, because—because the Dutch he’d known hadn’t been like that, wouldn’t come somewhere to kill someone all by himself with no reward for it. Not when he could just sit safe somewhere. “Sure, ‘cause I believe you don’t care one bit ‘bout the money.” The money they’d risked their lives for, that had gotten three folks John had cared about killed. The money Dutch had been near obsessed with, to the point where he listened to no one about how the job didn’t feel right.

But maybe this wasn’t the Dutch John had known, not anymore, because all John got was a low, humorless chuckle. “You can have it, son. Already got what I needed. Get out of here and disappear.” And it was a command more than anything else, a clear dismissal of the conversation, only emphasized by the way Dutch turned to walk away, feet crunching on the graveled ground.

John couldn’t stand it. “You’re just gonna leave? After all that? That ain’t—Dutch, just—” And Dutch wasn’t saying anything, just walking away— “Dutch, goddamn say somethin’.” Something with substance, something that acknowledged the year and a half that had changed John, that had made him into something different than the man he'd been under Dutch's thumb. Something that acknowledged Arthur, that showed regret, or even satisfaction, or anything but the indifference of a turned back.

“Ain’t got much to say no more.” And Dutch was still walking away from him.

“I—Dutch, you—” And because he didn’t know what else to do, John swung the gun up to point at Dutch’s back.

Dutch paused, back still turned, and looked at John over his shoulder. “You don’t want to do that, John.”

“What, and just let you leave? You—after all you done?”

“I let you run, boy.” And there was an edge to Dutch’s voice now. “Don’t make me kill another one of my sons.”

John kept the gun on Dutch’s back another few seconds, tried his damnedest to pull the trigger. But Arthur’s voice was in his head, that night near a year ago now, saying, I don’t hate Dutch. And John could remember Arthur’s words, back when 1899 became 1900, that Dutch had sat with him at the end, had enough humanity left in him to not let Arthur die alone.

Did Dutch regret what he’d done? Did he mourn Arthur? And had Dutch really let John run? Let him build the life he wanted to build, find something happy?

John swore, dropped his arm to his side. Turned away from Dutch, scraped a hand over his mouth. Muttered a soft, “Fine,” under his breath.

He’d thought Dutch had left, but Dutch spoke quiet behind him, asked, “Where’s he buried?”

And John didn’t have to ask to know he was asking about Arthur. “Up by Donner’s Falls. Go up towards the East Grizzlies. It’s a cliff facing west. You’ll see it.” And then, “This don’t change nothin’. If I see you again, I’m gonna kill you.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Dutch said, waving a hand.

And he walked away, and John watched him go.

Arthur’s hat had fallen off of John’s head in the scuffle, and he scooped it up, jammed it back on his head. Dragged a crate over to the dying form of Micah Bell, sat heavy on it. Tried to resist pressing a hand to the line of fire that raked over his ribs. It wasn’t bad, not really, more that John just felt exhausted, like all the fight he’d had had gone along with Dutch when he left.

Micah looked bad, but he wasn’t dead yet. Sure, blood flowed heavy from the right side of his chest where Dutch’s bullet punched through him, but his eyes still caught on John as he settled on the crate. Still aware, even as blood trickled from the corner of his mouth from what had to be a punctured lung, even as he didn’t seem able to even push himself up to grab a gun.

John sighed, because there was still one last thing he wanted to do. Said, low, “Micah.”

And Micah cracked a grin, teeth bloody, and said, a creaking tone to his voice, “What, you gonna talk me to death now?”

John wanted to laugh, wanted to make a bitter noise just to fill the air. He was goddamn exhausted. “Arthur’s alive.”

And that wiped the grin right off of Micah’s face. “What?”

“He’s alive. Healed up fine from that bullet, like it ain’t ever went through him.”

And, Christ, there was something so pleasing about the way Micah’s eyebrows pinched together, the realization that something he had believed for a long time was never even true to begin with. “Don’t you lie to me, scarface.”

“Ain’t a lie, Micah, not this time. When you get to whatever goddamn pit you’re gonna burn in, you ask about Arthur Morgan. See what they say. He’s goddamn alive, and he’s gonna stay alive as long as I can goddamn keep him that way. Alive and well and goddamn happy.”

There was something sparking in the back of Micah’s eyes, and John figured out what he realized just before Micah opened his mouth, said, “Oh, so that’s what you two are, then? Always knew there was somethin’—” A choked noise, some convulsion of pain, but Micah didn’t stop— “somethin’ funny about the pair of you. Inverts, huh?”

John had a strange urge to laugh. A secret they kept close to their home, a secret that could get them hanged in greater society, and here he was, having spilled it to Micah Bell. And John could laugh about it because Micah couldn’t goddamn touch them, couldn’t do anything but bleed out on the ground.

And yet Micah went right on trying to make John angry, maybe the only option left to him. “Never figured it was cocksuckin’ you liked, boy, but goes to show you never know where you inverts turn up. Ah, Johnny, does he stick his dick in you? Treat you like one of the girls? How sweet.”

But Micah was eyeing John’s face, and he clearly wasn’t getting what he wanted, judging by the look he had on his face. Why would he? John was long beyond caring what folks thought of the way men had sex, not when it didn’t at all matter around the ranch, and he wasn’t about to let Micah goddamn Bell get a reaction out of him even if he did.

Micah, of course, took it another way. “No, wait, you’re the one fuckin’ him, huh?” And the laugh Micah made was interrupted by coughing, a spray of blood misting into the air. Apparently couldn’t stop him talking, because he choked out, “Morgan shoulda let me know he wanted a cock up his ass. Woulda done him a favor before Dutch shot him.”

John did not want to even think about what Micah had in mind, no matter if the bastard was only saying it to get one last rise out of him. Kept his face schooled, asked, “Y’done?”

“Ah, you got just as much a stick up your ass as you used to, scarface.” But Micah’s voice was heavier, more pained, and John knew he was running out of time.

He wasn’t cruel, and he wasn’t stupid. He stood, took a step so he was standing over Micah, gun leveled at the dying man’s head. There was no way he wasn’t going to finish the job he started.

And Micah Bell had the audacity to chuckle, a wheezing noise as more blood trickled out of his mouth. Hissed, “Shoulda known this was how it was gonna end.”

Goddamn, John wasn’t sure how the man was even still talking, lung filled with blood and all, let alone being cocky to the end. “Ain’t you gonna beg? Ain’t that what you claimed Arthur did?”

“Reckon me and you both know that ain’t gonna do no good. You want revenge so bad, scarface? Take it.”

“This ain’t about that.” Not anymore. “This ain’t for me, ain’t for Dutch, ain’t even for Arthur. This is so you can’t ever hurt no one ever again.” Because this was bigger than all of them. This was about putting a monster in the ground. John’s voice spitting each word as he forced out, “You are done here.”

“Christ, just get it—”

John pulled the trigger and the bullet slammed through Micah’s skull and into the ground below him. The sound of the gunshot echoed against the shack walls, down the rock walls of the mineshaft.

John expected to feel something upon seeing Micah Bell dead, blood seeping from the hole in his head. Satisfaction, maybe, or relief, or, hell, even just some sort of finality. But when John looked down inside of himself, all he found waiting for him was a deep, crushing loneliness.

He missed Abigail. He missed Arthur. He wanted to go home.

It took a while for John to step away from Micah’s body, holster the gun in his belt. Longer than he should be taking, seeing as there was always the chance Micah had reinforcements on the way. But the numbness in his chest was paralyzing.

Eventually pulled himself together enough to remember the shack, remember what Micah had tried so hard to protect. Pushed open the door, crossed the room to the only chest big enough to hold all that they’d taken from the ferry in Blackwater so long ago.

When John opened the chest, even in the low light of the shack, the reflection of the light off the gold was almost blinding.