If any reinforcements from Micah’s side were coming, they took too long. John had time treat wounds, make sure neither Sadie nor Charles would bleed out before they got to a doctor. Even had time to look over the horses kept at the camp, pick two to pull a wagon, seeing as there wasn’t much chance anyone but John could sit on a horse for as long was needed to get back home.
The rest of the horses, save one, John turned loose. It wasn’t like the horses were to blame for the transgressions of the men who rode them, and John didn’t really find the thought of leaving horses to starve in their stalls or paddocks particularly appealing, let alone after how long he’d spent around Arthur. They’d find their way to civilization eventually if loosed, find some other folks to take care of them. That, or be folded into a wild herd somewhere. Either way, probably a better life than what they’d had, forced into the use of bad men.
The exception was the only horse of the lot that John recognized. The stable was small, only able to hold a few horses, and of course John should’ve assumed Micah’s horse was one of the few privileged enough to get his own space. Still, when he stepped up to the stall and found Baylock’s white face staring back at him, the surprise was enough that he couldn’t help flinching back a step.
In the gang, they often sold the horses of gang members when they died. As much as it often felt cruel to do so, it wasn’t realistic to hold on to horses that they couldn’t afford to feed. Unless someone else in the gang needed a horse, selling was the most practical option. And they were usually nice enough horses, and so the stables they sold them to would always find good places for them. Honestly, it was probably safer, for the most part, for the horses, living their lives out on a farm where they wouldn’t be shot at. So John was used to parting with horses that he knew.
But Baylock pricked his ears at John when he saw him, showed what might be recognition, and John reminded himself that it wasn’t the horse’s fault that he’d been owned by such a prick. By all accounts, Baylock was a fine horse. Tolerant enough to put up with Micah’s bullshit day in and day out, not one to spook at anything, not as dulled to gunfire as the horse was. And as John reached out a hand, stroked it gentle against the soft, pink skin of Baylock’s nose, he knew he didn’t have it in him to turn the horse free.
So they tied Baylock to the wagon before they left. Let their own horses loose to follow behind them, knowing they knew to not wander off. Charles sitting in the front with John, Sadie, the one in worst shape out of all of them, laid up in back.
Sadie and Charles were treated about as well as John could get them. He had at least thought to buy medical supplies on their ride north, and so they had enough to do a shoddy patch job. John tried not to think about how the last time he stitched someone up by his own hand, that same someone had come down with an infection that had almost killed him. It wasn’t the time for thoughts like that, not when they were finally going back home again.
The trip back took longer than the trip out. Moving by wagon was slower than horses on a good day, and they had injured with them regardless.
It had been over a day by the time they finally passed Plainfield, and nearly the whole time John spent it awake, watching their back. Nothing happened, of course, because there were few people left in the world that cared that Micah Bell was dead, but John was vigilant all the same, because he had folks in his care that couldn’t afford his attention slipping.
They stopped in Northaven briefly, just long enough to get Sadie and Charles both looked over, a safer place to do so than somewhere closer to where Micah’s camp had been, especially if anyone thought to ask around after finding an abandoned town full of dead bodies. At John’s companions’ insistence the doctor also took a look at him too, and ended up stitching closed the skin where Micah’s bullet had grazed his ribs. It wasn’t like John exactly had a leg to stand on if he protested, seeing as the wound was still bleeding sluggishly if he moved it too much.
And then they were going home. Home.
It was Arthur John saw first, sitting out on the porch. But he must’ve shouted for the others as soon as he first laid eyes on them riding in, because before John even drew the wagon to a stop in front of the house, Abigail was running out of it, skirts hitched up. He barely had time to step down from the wagon before she was throwing her arms around him.
“John,” she said, a soft noise, and he wrapped his arms around her, uncaring about the twinge his side made.
“It’s over, Abigail. It’s all over.”
And then Abigail was kissing him, something desperate, wanting, and John knew her well enough to know it was all relief and fear and love wrapped up in one. And she broke the kiss, dropped her chin to his shoulder, whispered, “I was so goddamn worried, you fool.”
And he slipped back from her grasp, kept his hands on her arms. Looked her in the eyes as he said, “It’s done. I promise you that.”
The cold tone to Arthur’s voice nearly made John flinch as he pulled his eyes up to where Arthur was standing, arms folded.
He was wearing his gunbelt slung low over his hips, and the image made a chill run through John’s stomach. Because Arthur hadn’t worn his gunbelt in over a year now, and John knew it was on now because he’d been preparing for the worst. For Micah to come riding into the ranch, to raze all they had to the ground. Arthur had been prepared to defend everything here with his life, to give whatever he had left to give, to the point where he’d cleaned and reholstered the guns he hadn’t even wanted to touch for months. Sure, Arthur didn’t like violence anymore, but he was willing to entrench himself back in that world if it meant Abigail and Jack could continue to live safely.
The thought made John’s eyes burn, and he had to blink them a couple times as he looked Arthur square in the eye. “Yeah. Yeah, he’s dead.”
One more long moment, Arthur looking hard at John, before, finally, he nodded, stepped off the porch to help Sadie off the wagon.
John couldn’t sleep.
They’d laid Charles and Sadie up in their respective beds. It wasn’t so bad as when Arthur had been hurt, where they needed a constant watch, but Abigail still planned to check on them throughout the night.
John had spent the last few hours of daylight sorting through the horses, untacking and feeding and grooming. Put Baylock up in one of their empty stalls since they didn’t yet know how well he would do with the rest of the herd. And then there were the last few evening chores for the sheep, though John was at least helped in that by Javier and, surprisingly, Uncle, the latter likely spurred into helping by having a good portion of their normal helping hands laid up in bed. Where Arthur had been through all of this, John didn’t know.
After John’d been exhausted enough to crawl into bed, try to grab some rest that refused to come. Days now with only patchy sleep and yet here he was, back next to Abigail and safe, and he couldn’t goddamn sleep. Kept seeing Dutch in his head, lowering a smoking revolver. Could still feel the kickback of his own gun as he sent a bullet through Micah’s head. And through all of it, Arthur asking, voice cold, if Micah was dead.
Finally, after what must’ve been dozens of times rolling over in bed, Abigail grabbed John’s arm, and the contact nearly made him flinch. He rolled to face her, and she murmured, low, “You should go see him.”
John didn’t need to ask who she was talking about. “Don’t think he wants to see my face right now.”
“You know that ain’t true. He’s angry, John, and he got a right to be, but that don’t mean he don’t wanna see you. I’m—I’m fine, John. You’re back, so I’m fine. But Arthur—he weren’t—weren’t himself, with you gone. Neither of us were, but—but this was your fight, both of you, more than mine. You should go talk to him.”
Abigail was a better person than John deserved. He sat up, started to work his legs free of the blankets. Said, “Don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Something stupid, probably.”
John leaned over, kissed her lightly on the forehead before standing. “Might be back. Gonna need you to hide me if he starts throwin’ things.”
Abigail let out a soft chuckle. “Goodnight, John.”
John let himself into Arthur’s room quietly. In all honest, he wasn’t even sure Arthur would be there, seeing as he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the man since just after John’d helped him and Abigail get Charles and Sadie into bed. Most of that was likely due to the fact John had been trying to make up for the ranch chores he’d missed while he was gone while Arthur, meanwhile, had been helping Abigail with the injured parties, but even after they were settled he hadn’t seen the man.
But Arthur was in his bed, an unmistakable lump under the blankets. Back facing the door, like he knew John was coming, wanted to make it clear what sort of mood he was in. Lace, lying in her normal spot, picked up her head when John entered the room. Huffed a sigh and got off the bed when John approached, used enough to this routine that she knew John usually made her sleep on the floor. It wouldn’t stop her from jumping back on the bed and curling up by their feet once they’d both fallen asleep, of course. The dog was spoiled.
Arthur was awake, John knew. Wasn’t even trying to school his breathing into something mimicking sleep as John pulled back the blankets and slipped under them, just made an annoyed sort of grumble, turned his back more firmly to John. And that was something, at least, that at least Arthur wasn’t trying to ignore John entirely.
John let his head rest on the pillow, on his side facing Arthur’s back. Could smell Arthur when he breathed deep, and that was more comforting than he’d ever imagined. Christ, he didn’t want to lose this, and here Arthur was, mad at him.
“I—” he started, and then stopped, because he had no idea what to say.
That was the problem with Arthur. John knew what to say when it came to Abigail, knew how their fights would go and how they would end. They’d fought so often that fighting was more familiar than anything else. And usually their fights were quick, harsh things that resolved fast enough when the issue was resolved. It was why Abigail was fine now that John was back, because she, at least, knew that he wasn’t going anywhere now that Micah was dead.
He had no idea what to say to Arthur, because talking to each other was only a recent development, at least compared to how long they’d known each other. And Arthur wasn’t Abigail, who was willing to forgive nearly everything. Arthur sat on things until they festered, until they were the only thing left in his mind. And, as much as things had changed at the ranch, John doubted Arthur’s ability to hold a grudge was one of them.
Here Arthur was, angry, and John couldn’t exactly figure out why, why he was so mad about something that had, by all accounts, gone well. Sure, Sadie and Charles were hurt, but everyone from their side was alive, and Micah Bell was dead. What else was going to happen? What else was left?
“Arthur, I—” John started, deciding the best course of action would be to apologize, because wasn’t that what you were supposed to do? Apologize when someone was mad at you?
But Arthur scoffed, muttered, “Save it.”
“Arthur, I’m sorry.” And John reached out to touch Arthur’s arm, ended up shrugged away. Arthur still not looking at him.
“No, you ain’t.” Then, quieter, probably not entirely meant for John’s ears, “Keep doin’ the same goddamn shit all over again.”
Him leaving. That was what Arthur was talking about. John leaving, and the violence, and the killing bad men, and all the things Arthur wanted John to stop doing. And that was goddamn frustrating, because that wasn’t John’s intention, going like he did. Because he left to kill Micah, and in doing so end one of the greatest threats against them, to guarantee they wouldn’t have their throats slit in the night. “What other choice did I have?”
But Arthur’d voice was louder now as he snapped, “Don’t wanna hear it, Marston.”
How was he supposed to fix things if Arthur wasn’t willing to listen? “Y’ain’t even lettin’ me—”
John had half a mind to leave, to report back to Abigail that this had been a mistake, that for all her good intentions telling him to go talk to Arthur, it wasn’t any use because John knew the man would be as stubborn as a mule. So why not let Arthur sleep in a bed alone, stew in his own anger?
But he knew Arthur, and there was something itching under Arthur’s voice, a tremor that might’ve been well hidden if he was talking to anyone but John. And John knew how quick Arthur was to jump to anger even when there was something else under the surface. And—and there’d been a reason he’d come to Arthur, right? Something he couldn’t talk about with Abigail because she couldn’t understand? Because— “Dutch was there.”
And that got Arthur’s attention, just like John knew it would. Arthur rolled onto his back, titled his head in John’s direction, and John hated the tone his voice took on when he said, “…Dutch?”
“Yeah,” John said, and his voice was shakier than he thought it’d be. He couldn’t see many details of Arthur’s face in the dark, but he could see the shape of his eyes, the set of his eyebrows, and all of it was almost heart-wrenchingly childlike. “Was after I lost Charles and Sadie. Just me and Micah. And then Dutch.”
Arthur’s eyebrows furrowed harder. “Why—why’d he…?”
“I don’t know. Just showed up when Micah—Micah and I—” Probably wasn’t the best idea to tell Arthur how he’d ended up with a gun at his chest, and that wasn’t what was sticking in John’s mind about the encounter anyway. “He—he asked where you was buried.”
John knew what Arthur was asking without him finishing. “No, no, never.” There was no way John would ever tell Dutch that Arthur was alive, not unless Arthur himself told him to, and, even then, maybe not. “Just told him where Charles and Sadie put that grave marker.”
“Huh.” Arthur rolled his head up to face the ceiling again. “And what’d he say?”
That was a good question, and John didn’t have a helpful answer. “Nothin’, just—just walked away.”
Arthur glanced back over at him. “Why didn’t you kill him?” And the tone of Arthur’s voice said clear enough that he was wondering because it was what John talked about doing, rather than because it was anything Arthur’d wanted to happen.
“He, uh—” And John swallowed hard, glanced away from Arthur’s face. “He saved my life. Shot Micah when he had, uh—had his gun at my chest.”
Arthur was quiet a moment, and John knew without looking that Arthur’s eyes were searching out what little information he could glean from John’s face in the faint light that the moon threw into the windows.
But Arthur’s voice was still rougher, quieter, than John thought it would be when he asked, “You hurt?”
“I’m fine,” John answered without even thinking, because he was fine. Sure, he’d gotten grazed by a bullet, gotten a few fists to the stomach, but compared to Charles, compared to Sadie? He’d made it out fine. He was good.
But clearly Arthur didn’t believe him, because the noise he made might’ve been dismissive if it wasn’t so shaky, and then Arthur’s hands were inside John’s union suit, running over his chest, sides, searching. Looking for where he was hurt, John realized, and rather than let Arthur find it himself, John grabbed his hand, brought it up to where Micah’s bullet had raked across his ribs.
“Here, it’s—got grazed, okay? But it’s nothin’, just—just a scratch.” Arthur was leaning over John now, one arm braced next to his head, and John could feel his fingers tracing feather light over the stitches, not hard enough to sting. And John murmured, “That’s it, I promise. I—I swear it.”
And then something wet dripped onto John’s neck, then again on his collarbone, and it wasn’t until he brought a hand up and swiped it over one of Arthur’s cheeks and found it wet that he realized what was happening. Arthur was crying.
John had never seen Arthur cry before. A whole range of other emotions, sure, but never tears. He’d never been entirely sure why, because it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen every other part of the beast that was Arthur Morgan. Even more so now, because now that they were what they were to each other—and John still wasn’t sure how to describe that—he’d seen more of Arthur than maybe any other person still living. But he’d never seen Arthur cry.
Maybe, John thought, it had been to protect John himself. After all, hadn’t he always seen Arthur as some sort of mythical hero, something larger than life? And part of that had always been the limited access he’d had to what Arthur was really feeling, really thinking. If he didn’t act like a human being with human emotions, it was easier to see him as a myth. But this—this was a barrier that had been let down. One last way they were closer to each other than they had ever been before. One more thing Arthur was entrusting to John, to see, feel him come apart completely.
Still, John hated the fact that he had somehow caused it.
“Hey, hey, easy, Arthur, easy. Easy. I’m okay, I’m—that was it, alright? I’m okay.” And he slipped his hand behind Arthur’s head, drew him down so that their foreheads were pressed together, because he had no idea what else to do.
And Arthur’s thumb was still scraping over the stitches, and the tears were now dripping onto John’s face. The words choked when Arthur forced out, “Thought—thought I was gonna lose you.”
Ah. A lot of things were making sense.
Arthur’s first reaction had always been anger, because anger was easy. John knew that from personal experience, knew it was easier to jump to anger when any sort of bad emotions flooded his system, rather than show something that might make someone else perceive him as weak. Even in the safety of the gang, there were folks that would take advantage of that. It becoming an automatic reaction to skip to anger was a matter of self-preservation.
Arthur had been scared. And didn’t that make sense? So many things the man had lost, and John had been straight on track to becoming just one more of them. They’d been about as safe as they could get, living life on the ranch, and yet John had thrown himself back into the lion’s den. Had put himself back in the life of an outlaw. Of course Arthur had been scared, thinking that he was destined to mourn one more person he loved.
“Arthur—Arthur, hey, look—” John grabbed at Arthur’s hand, moved it to lie flat over his chest. “I’m here, okay? I’m here, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Coached his voice to sound low, soothing, as he brought a thumb over one of Arthur’s cheeks again, brushed away the tears, murmured, “Easy, alright? Easy.”
“Ain’t a goddamn horse,” Arthur muttered, but his breathing was starting to even out again, sounding less like something drowning. And John kissed him then, when he was sure he wouldn’t suffocate Arthur with it, on the lips and on the chin and the cheeks and the nose and the forehead and anywhere else he could reach, because goddamnit he would do anything to keep Arthur from crying for his stupid hide.
It got a genuine chuckle from Arthur, something close to what John wanted, and with it John wrapped his arms around Arthur’s neck, pulling him down into one long, slow kiss, and by the soft noise Arthur made against his mouth, the way he pressed into it, John knew that they were okay.
Still ended up breaking the kiss and murmuring, “I’m here, Arthur.”
And Arthur sighed, rubbing his thumb over John’s collarbone. “Christ, I know.”
“And you’re here too.”
Finally Arthur extracted himself from John’s grip and tipped to the side, ending up sprawled on his back next to John. Cleared his throat, and his tone was almost normal when he muttered, “Jesus, and to think we was outlaws.”
John looked over at him, not able to help the smile on his face. “Ain’t we still outlaws?”
Even in the low light, the half-joking grin was evident on Arthur’s face. “Nah, we pay goddamn taxes. What outlaw pays taxes?”
“We still got significant numbers on our heads.”
“Just means we’re former criminals. ‘Outlaws’ is different.” And Arthur huffed a sigh, turned his head back towards John. Paused a second before asking, “What happened?”
John didn’t have to ask to know Arthur was talking about how things had gone down, which, seeing as Arthur had been stand-offish since they got back— “Oh, so now you’re willin’ to hear it?”
Arthur snorted, turned his head away. “Ah, stuff it.”
“So, what, I just gotta get you to cry and then you’ll actually wanna listen to me for once?”
“Marston.” A half-serious warning, but a warning all the same.
“Fine, fine,” John said. Had to remind himself that sometimes it wasn’t the right time to needle at Arthur, as much as he still enjoyed provoking a reaction sometimes. Instead dropped his head back on the pillow, looked up at the ceiling. Started, “I, um—” and then took a second to figure out where to start.
Arthur already knew what had happened up until John left Sadie behind, knife in her gut. That had been told to everyone in pieces as they were getting both Charles and Sadie settled in proper beds. Sure, it had been in patchy details and he wasn’t sure how much Arthur had actually listened to, since he’d been pointedly giving John the cold shoulder, but Arthur should’ve known at least enough of it for John not to need to repeat it.
“Micah nearly blew me up,” John finally started, which maybe wasn’t the best thing to say to Arthur, but he’d committed to telling it straight. “Paranoid bastard had somethin’ rigged with dynamite. Reckon he was expectin’ someone to come after the money and I just happened to be the first to show up. But it was enough for him to get me on the ground, and that was Dutch showed his face. Shot Micah in the chest.”
Arthur had turned onto his side, facing John, and was now looking at John steady, eyebrows furrowed like he was thinking. “You know why?”
“Said it was for the same reason I was there, but I don’t—that don’t—I dunno. He didn’t seem like the Dutch we knew. Didn’t wanna talk at all, and Dutch goddamn loved to talk. But he shot Micah, so I didn’t—didn’t want to push it. So I let him walk away.”
“And that was it?”
“Nah, Micah—Micah weren’t dead. And I wasn’t—wasn’t about to walk out of there without knowin’ he weren’t breathin’ no more, ‘cause I reckon me and you both know that sometimes folks don’t die from bullets that shoulda killed them.”
And that got a soft snort out of Arthur. “Doubt there’s a fool willin’ to drag Micah Bell down a mountain, though.”
“Told him you was alive.” John didn’t mean the guilty tone that crept through his voice but it came anyway. “Wanted to see his face when I said it. Wanted him to know that for all he did, he didn’t manage to get you killed. Then I—then I put a bullet through his head.”
Arthur didn’t say anything, and John didn’t look at him, kept his eyes on the dark ceiling above him.
“I, uh—I didn’t feel nothin’. When I shot him. Thought—thought I’d be happy, seein’ Micah fall. But—but I weren’t. Just felt cold, and—and wanted to go home. After, after all that, it wasn’t—” Tilted his head in Arthur’s direction— “Wasn’t how I thought it would go.”
Arthur’s eyes were steady on him, something a far cry from the wavering feeling in John’s chest. Finally, after a long moment, Arthur shrugged, said, “You know why I said revenge don’t solve nothin’? ‘cause that’s the thing, John, it don’t make you feel any better. Sure, it’s a pretty thought, killin’ Micah so that folks will be safer, but it weren’t ever gonna make you feel good. Killed enough bad men to know that.”
“But he nearly got you killed,” John said, and his voice was quieter than he expected it to be.
“And Colm had me tortured, killed folks I cared about. Don’t mean I felt any satisfaction seein’ him swing. Sure, sometimes bad men gotta die. But that don’t mean it feels how you’d like it to feel to see ‘em dead.”
“Least he’s gone now. Can’t hurt no one.”
It was quiet a moment, and John almost knew what Arthur was going to say just by the look on his face when he opened his mouth, said, “Listen, ’m—‘m sorry, John.” Halting, like apologizing to John was unfamiliar. “For not comin’ with you. ‘nd for everythin’—everythin’ with it.”
John shook his head, said, “I’m sorry I even went.”
“Nah, y’ain’t.” And then, an almost wince, like it had come out wrong. “That ain’t—what I mean is, reckon—reckon this needed to happen. And I ain’t sayin’ I don’t think the world ain’t safer with Micah Bell out of it.”
“’m sorry I lied, though.” Because John was, because he was tired of lying to folks he loved. “Don’t—don’t wanna be that sorta person anymore. Y’know—y’know I, I meant it. When I said we should be better people if it was what would make you happy. That weren’t a lie, not ever. I just—just needed to finish this, Arthur. Couldn’t leave it without knowin’. But that—that weren’t a lie, not when I said it, and not now.”
“I know,” Arthur said, quiet, and then, “God help me, I believe you, John,” and that was enough for John to break.
“I didn’t take the money.” And now John’s voice was the one cracking, a burning sensation starting at the corners of his eyes. Because he hadn’t—he’d shut the chest, walked away from the most money he’d ever hope to see again. “I didn’t—kept, kept thinkin’ ‘bout what you goddamn said, and the money was right goddamn there and—and I don’t—Arthur, I don’t wanna go back. I goddamn saw Dutch and I didn’t—didn’t want that life no more. I didn’t wanna go.” Eyes watering, overflowing— “And he told me to take the money ‘cause he didn’t goddamn need it, and I ain’t followin’ his orders no more. I didn’t take it, ‘cause—‘cause I want this life.”
“We don’t need it,” Arthur said, and he reached out a hand, rubbed a thumb over John’s scars, where the tears were running hot down his face. “We got this far without it, and we’ll get through what’s comin’. With how many folks died ‘cause of that money? We don’t need it, John, and we don’t need Dutch. Right?”
“I know. I—I want what we got, Arthur.” And the truth of it was aching in the pit of John’s stomach, maybe the truest thing to ever spill out of his mouth. “Took me too long to figure it out, but—but you, and Abigail, and Jack, and this goddamn farm, and the sheep, and the horses, and the dog, and even goddamn Otis and Buell. I want this. Don’t want nothin’ else, not in my whole goddamn life.”
A soft, rumbling of a laugh from Arthur, and John knew it was something affectionate, something far from poking any fun at his words. “Can’t believe it took us fifteen goddamn years to finally agree on somethin’,” Arthur said, the fondness clear in his voice even when he continued, “We’re a pair of fools, ain’t we?”
“I love you,” John said, and there was a desperate tinge he couldn’t keep out of his voice.
Arthur paused, leaned forward, and laid a kiss gently on John’s forehead. And when John took the opportunity to wrap his arms around Arthur, tuck his head under Arthur’s chin, all Arthur did was murmur into John’s hair, “I love you too, John Marston.”