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but at least the war is over

Chapter Text

May 1902

Lemoyne was just as much a slice of hell as John remembered it.

He hadn’t been this goddamn sticky in months. Absaroka was a lot of things, not all of them good, but constantly humid wasn’t one of them. Even on the hottest days at the ranch, at least they could let the sweat dry off of them, or even wade in the river if they needed to.

Not so much the case in Lemoyne. Almost immediately after stepping off the train in Rhodes, John’s shirt was soaked through with sweat and, unlike in any sort of dry heat, the air was just as damp as John’s clothing. It wasn’t like he could even jump in the river here either, because the river was filled with goddamn alligators that would love to put new scars on his face. That, and the Kamassa got deep fast around the Bayou Nwa, and John didn’t particularly fancy drowning.

Still, as miserable as John was, Arthur was worse still.

John may not have liked the swamp, but Arthur hated it. Wasn’t particularly fond of Rhodes either, but John knew the swamp was infinitely worse in Arthur’s general regard. It was like a great convergence of things Arthur didn’t like—alligators, mud, bugs, snakes, and, above all, the sweltering mass of Saint Denis. That, combined with the bad memories they both had of the area—all of it meant that Arthur’s scowl got more and more firmly set the closer they got to the river.

Finally, John couldn’t stand it anymore. Arthur’s bad moods were always contagious, and he wasn’t putting up with this for the whole trip. Said, light, “C’mon sunshine, what’s Hosea gonna say if you show up with that sour face?”

Arthur gave him a look. “He’s gonna ask me why I still put up with you.”

“I’m gonna tell him you said that. ‘sides, you put up with me ‘cause you love me.”

That was enough to get the edge of some amusement out of Arthur, even as he rolled his eyes. “’pparently I need to reevaluate my judgment on that particular count.”

“Y’know, you’re the one who had the idea to come down in the first place.”

“Reckon I forgot just how much I hated Lemoyne. Don’t know why anyone would choose to live here, let alone build a goddamn city on top of it. Weren’t for Hosea, don’t think I’d ever come back.”

“C’mon, then. Faster we get there, faster we can get north.”

Luckily, it wasn’t like they were going through Saint Denis. It was safer to take the train into Rhodes, only getting as close to the city as it took to get to Hosea’s grave. As much as it would be nice to stop in with Tilly and Walt, it was bringing risk to them that wasn’t worth it, what with how John and Arthur might be recognized in the city. Much safer for Tilly to come visit them, like she and Walt had briefly the previous fall.

It was beyond time for them to pay a visit to Hosea. It’d been something on Arthur’s mind, at least, for over two years, since the first time they went down to Northaven to look at property. And John agreed. Now that things were settled, it was time to pay respects to the man who had always wanted them to get this far. It was the least they could do.

The ride was quiet, mostly. Occasionally Arthur would point out landmarks, places he’d been around the swamp, all from stories he’d told John before. And John had long stopped being surprised by how much Arthur had seen in just the short time they’d been in the area. He’d accepted that Arthur had seen unbelievable things because he was an unbelievable man, and John was content with that. At least he was John’s, and John’s alone.

Finally, just north of the farms that ringed the north end of Saint Denis, they came across a large, towering tree. “Right here,” Arthur said, and stopped Buell, dismounted.

It took John a minute to spot the graves. They were tucked out of the way, probably to keep them out of the view of the road. But he dismounted, got a bit closer, and then he could see them standing tall, two stark grey fixtures against the green, lush landscape.

Unlike the surrounding land, the grass didn’t grow wild but instead was trimmed away from the headstones and flowers grew patchy around both gravesites. Tilly, if John had to guess, since she was the only one in the area, taking care of what the rest of them couldn’t. John couldn’t even say how grateful he was for that.

Behind him, Arthur said, “You—you wanna go first?” And when John turned to look at him, he nodded towards the graves.

“We ain’t goin’ together?”

Arthur brought a hand up to the back of his neck, not looking at John. “We could, I guess, but—I, I dunno. Maybe—maybe better if we got some privacy?”

“What, you gonna tell him secrets ‘bout me?” John asked, unable to help the smile that crept onto his face.

But the joke didn’t seem to land. “Christ, I dunno, Marston. Just—just go first, alright? You’re the one that ain’t seen his grave before. I’ll cool the horses down.”

So John listened, because any longer needling at Arthur and it just became a means of putting off confronting, again, the fact that Hosea was dead. Turned from Arthur, walked slow over to where Hosea and Lenny rested in the ground.

They were simple graves, as things went. Somehow the folks that had buried them, those left in Lemoyne after the disaster of a bank heist, managed to get their hands on real rock for the headstones, and so the graves still looked nearly new. Grass had grown where the earth had been dug, though the area still was mounded, so John knew exactly the place where Hosea’s bones rested.

John took a deep breath before starting, “Uh—hi, Hosea. Been a—been a long time. And—and Lenny. Hope you guys been—been well?” That wasn’t right. Wasn’t like they could be well, being bones in the ground. John sat down heavy in front of Hosea’s grave, not caring that the ground under him was damp like so much of the swamp was. Ended up saying, “Listen, this—this feels real goddamn weird.” Because it was, because how often did John sit at graves and talk to dead folks? “So I hope you’ll forgive me if this don’t sound particularly pretty.

“I ain’t used to talkin’ to folks that can’t talk back, and that’s if you’re even there at all. But Abigail thinks you are listenin’, if I sit here and do this, and I—I really goddamn miss you, Hosea. And I know if you are there, you’re gonna appreciate the company, no matter how goddamn stupid I feel. So here—here goes. And, and Lenny? If you’re listenin’, I miss you too, but you might not be interested in all the rest of this. Imagine this is gonna—gonna be more information than you wanted to hear ‘bout what me and Arthur been up to.

“First, I’m sorry for not comin’ earlier. Don’t know how much you know, where you are, but things—things got bad, after you died. And after Arthur busted me from prison, Saint Denis was too hot, and then we had to go north when the gang broke up, and that… that was bad. So I couldn’t come, but—but I wanted to. Real bad.

“But I wanted to come now, now that I could, because, because we did it, Hosea. We really did it this time. Got a ranch and everythin’, just like you was hopin’ we would. Me, and Abigail and Jack, and Arthur too, even. All of us together, up on a ranch to the west of here. Keep sheep, which is somethin’ I ain’t ever thought would happen. Reason we’re so late in comin’ is ‘cause there was so much we had to get set before we could leave. Turns out, it’s a lot of work keepin’ sheep, ‘specially if you want to make some money off of it, ‘tween the shearin’ and the herdin’ and the lambin’.

“So that delayed us, had to make sure they were all sheared before we planned a trip, and then Arthur had a thing with Harlow’s little filly—‘cause that’s more what he’s doin’, stuff with horses, now, like he’s always been good at. Been trainin’ a few for folks around the valley along with buyin’ some or catchin’ some wild and trainin’ ‘em himself, though those he mostly’s just been givin’ to folks we know. But he’s also started gettin’ into breedin’ them too. Another rancher we know had this papered Dutch Warmblood mare, and turns out Buell, big gold stallion Arthur’s got with him, he’s papered too, so he thinks he could get a decent enough foal out of them. So they worked somethin’ out early last summer, and this spring the mare had a filly, just as gold as Buell. Arthur thinks she’s actually a bit different of a color, but I can’t for the life of me remember what he called them. Somethin’ Italian, I think.”

He was getting off track. That was the thing, this talking to Hosea business, that it felt a lot like talking to himself. Easy to get distracted with no one there to rein him in. Still, John couldn’t deny that it didn’t feel good, getting everything off his chest, no matter if Hosea could hear it or not.

“Anyway, Abigail’s been helpin’ too. Gotten real good at spinnin’ wool off of the sheep, so that’s one more way we been makin’ money. And she wanted to come down to see you, Hosea. Really goddamn wanted to. But she thinks it’s better to wait ‘til Jack’s older, when both of them can come down together. Also, she ain’t—ain’t wantin’ to confirm anythin’ yet, but we’re thinkin’ of havin’ another kid. Now that things are settled.

“And it would make things easier with Arthur, which—which, that is a whole thing, but I’ll get to that. But it would make us all feel like a family, if we could introduce him like another parent from the beginnin’. But she didn’t think it was a good idea for her to come down while that all was developin’. And, and she said—what’d she want me to say—?”

John pawed through the front pocket of his shirt, tugged out the folded scrap of paper he’d had since they’d left the ranch. He’d written it down, knew Abigail would hold it against him if he forgot part, no matter if John wasn’t actually sure about how true it was that Hosea could hear him. Abigail trusted him, and that was what mattered. “Right, she said to say thank you. That she’s gonna make it down as soon as she could, but in the meantime, I should say that she owes you a lot. For givin’ her hope for a future, for both her and Jack. And that she misses you, and she wishes you coulda… coulda given her away, ‘cause you were the closest thing she had to a father.

“That’s the other thing I meant to say, we’re—we’re gettin’ married. Me and Abigail. Know we was already pretty much married before, but we’re gonna do an actual ceremony now, with a ring and a dress and that whole mess. I—I proposed to her, all proper and everythin’. Arthur helped me figure it out, of course, and kept Jack busy, but it was my idea. A whole nice thing, with a picture show, and a—and a boat. Wanted to show her that I cared, that this was forever. Thought—thought you might like that.

“And, and Arthur—I been tryin’ to figure how to ask him too. He don’t know nothin’ ‘bout it, not yet, but—but that’s the thing, Hosea. Me and him, we’re… we’re somethin’, now. Don’t know how to word it, ‘cause—‘cause lovers sounds too sappy, but I can’t rightly call him my husband either, not yet. But we’re, we’re together, strange as that might sound, seein’ as you’re probably rememberin’ when he hated my guts. And we’re somethin’ good together. Don’t know if that’s what you wanted for us, but it’s sure what we are. No goin’ back now.

“And I… I really love him, Hosea. And Abigail too. Don’t know how I got this lucky, but here I am, luckiest son of a bitch walkin’. Got two folks that somehow keep comin’ back no matter how much I drive them away. And I been tryin’ with Jack, like you kept tellin’ me to, and that’s goin’ better. He’s seven now, if you can believe it. Gonna be a writer, I think, by how much he likes stories, though Abigail wants him to be a lawyer.

“But that—that’s just us. We ain’t been able to find everyone else, but we know where most of them are. Uncle’s up with us, and he’s permanent. But Charles and Javier, they come and go, and they’re helpin’ Abigail with the ranch right now, while we’re away. Think Charles is considerin’ goin’ up to Canada for the winters when we don’t need the help, and then Javier’s got wind that things might be changin’ in Mexico, so he wants to go down and see if his mother and sister’re still alive, if that turns to be true.

“Tilly, she’s close by, as is Sadie. Tilly is in Saint Denis, so I guess you see her every once and a while. Assume she’s the one who’s been bringin’ flowers, at least. And Sadie’s just up north a ways. Been staying with Charlotte, this lady Arthur knew. Think we’re gonna meet them for dinner, either tomorrow night or the next. And then Tilly’s been talkin’ to Mary-Beth in letters, and turns out she’s a writer now, under a pen name. Sent us one of her books and I ain’t had a chance to read it, but Arthur read parts of it to Abigail and they was laughin’ over it. Guess it’s bad, but Mary-Beth knows it’s bad, ‘cause that’s what sells.

“And then supposedly she and Tilly are both tryin’ to find Karen, ‘cause we don’t know where she went, and she weren’t good before she left. Don’t know about Pearson or Swanson or Trelawny neither. Hope they ain’t dead, but I guess we might not ever know. Strauss is dead, and so is—so is Micah. That—” John stopped, swallowed— “that was me, actually. I killed him. I know that might not be—might not be what you wanted for me, but I feel better all the same, knowin’ he can’t hurt anyone else. We read the papers afterwards, and I guess some former Pinkerton took credit for his death and gettin’ the Blackwater money, and, honestly? Let 'im. Just… just glad that’s over. He was the rat, y’know? Only we couldn’t ever convince Dutch of that ‘til it was too late.

“And then—and then Dutch. Ain’t sure how much you see where you are, if you’re anywhere at all, but he—he shot Arthur. Nearly killed him. But then he also saved my life with the Micah thing, so I ain’t—ain’t sure what to think no more. Arthur says he thinks folks can be good and bad both, and maybe he’s right. Just… just hope Dutch ain’t hurtin’ no one anymore, where—wherever he is.

“But—but despite all that, despite how it all ended, we’re happy, Hosea. Me, Abigail, Arthur, Jack. Real happy. And I wish you coulda seen it.”

John’d talked long enough, especially since he wasn’t even sure if he was even talking to anyone. His throat had gone dry, and he cleared it before saying, “Anyway, I oughta give Arthur his chance, elsewise he’s gonna throw a fit. But—but I miss you, Hosea, like nothin’ else. Hope… hope wherever you are now, you’re—you’re able to see what we done, what you helped us do, ‘cause, ‘cause I think you’d be real proud. I—I hope you’d be real proud.”

And John let that hang a moment, let his words sit in the muggy Lemoyne air. Christ, he felt exhausted, and all he’d been doing was talking. Took a deep breath, slowly got to his feet. Put a hand on Hosea’s gravestone, said, “Goodbye, Hosea,” before walking away, a quick muttered goodbye and wave to Lenny’s stone as well.

Arthur was already headed over before John made it back to the horses, but he didn’t say anything. Just put a hand on John’s shoulder as he passed, and John was more grateful for that than he could express.

He turned his back on Arthur when he got to the horses, let him have his privacy. Gave Rachel an oatcake, and a second to Buell when the horse pricked his ears at him, figuring it might earn him some goodwill with the stallion for a few days. And after he sprawled on the grass, not caring that it wasn’t particularly soft, and closed his eyes. Listened to the horses grazing nearby, snorting and flicking their tails, the distant calls of birds, the breeze that had started through the branches of the tree that sheltered Hosea and Lenny’s graves.

He was starting to doze by the time Arthur came back over, kicked the sole of one of John’s boots lightly to get his attention. When John blinked his eyes open, Arthur was leaning over him, arms folded. Asked, “You good?”

“Yeah,” John said, his voice softer than he expected it to be. “Yeah, I reckon I am.”

 


 

That night, John crawled into the tent and, after a brief negotiation on positioning—Arthur insisting he was fine, John patiently reminding him that the last time they’d had sex with a long ride in the morning and hadn’t thought about positioning, the old scar tissue from the bullet wound had been sore enough that Arthur hadn’t been able to straighten his back for a week—John climbed on top of Arthur and rode him.

They’d managed to get above the state line before nightfall, set up camp somewhere west of the Elysian Pool. The tent wasn’t really for utility, not with how temperate the night was, but for privacy, keeping them away from any prying eyes out in the world.

And then the sex was less about getting off, more about the closeness. John knew he would be sore in the saddle in the morning between his ass and his thighs, but it was worth it to feel Arthur under him, inside him, with him. Because Lemoyne, New Hanover, they were entrenched in memory, and most of it far from good. Seeing Hosea had been proof enough of that, of what John had lost in that last year of the gang, what John didn’t want to lose anymore. And Ambarino would be worse, if John could convince Arthur of what he’d had kicking around in his brain since when they first started planning this trip.

So John sat heavy on Arthur’s hips, kissing him all over, mouthing bruises into Arthur’s skin that he would be able to see in the morning when Arthur let his shirt collar hang open in the heat of the day. Unable to let go of any part of Arthur, because, above all, John didn’t want to forget what he had gained. And, turned out, that was pretty hard to forget when he was bedding one of the major pieces of his life over the past three years.

Later, after they both were spent, lying on their backs sweating and breathing heavy next to each other on the bedrolls, John couldn’t help saying, “Y’know, this woulda been easier if we’d just stayed up with Charlotte and Sadie. Coulda had a bed then, or, hell, a wall.” They’d figured out by now what positions tended to make their various old wounds sore—because, though the old scar just above Arthur’s hip was the most severe of them, John apparently couldn’t escape occasional soreness from his shoulder now that he was getting older—and a bed or a wall at least gave them a little more to work with than just the plain old ground.

But Arthur let out a long-suffering sort of sigh, said, “If we’d stayed up with Charlotte and Sadie, we wouldn’t’a fucked in the first place.”

John snorted, propped himself up on his elbows. “You don’t mean that. C’mon, you think they don’t know what we get up to?”

“I do mean it, ‘cause I got other things on my mind than sex, Marston. I ain’t gonna get off in the same bed I was laid up in goddamn twice, and ‘specially not when we got nothin’ but a thin wood wall separatin’ us and them.”

“Huh.” John hadn’t thought of that, the fact they’d probably be given the same bedroom that Arthur was in after he’d been shot. Though, honestly, he wasn’t sure if that wouldn’t make him want to fuck Arthur any less, seeing as it would just drag up the same desperate feelings that seeing Hosea’s grave had, the same fear of forgetting what he’d gained that had been aching in John’s chest.

Maybe sensing John had dropped the conversation, Arthur brought a hand up, tapped his knuckles against John’s shoulder, said, “One of us oughta go take watch. This was Murfree territory, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of them are still kickin’. ‘sides, ain’t a good look in these parts if someone else comes pokin’ around, two men sleepin’ naked together.”

John grumbled at that, seeing as that was another benefit they could’ve had at Charlotte’s, not having to set a watch, but sat up all the way anyway. “Guess I can take first.” And then, because he couldn’t help it, “Need to let you get your beauty sleep anyway, old man.”

“Christ, shut it.” Arthur muttered, closing his eyes. “Still a goddamn brat.”

John went to gather his feet under him before pausing, remembering, “Actually, there’s somethin’ I wanted to ask you.” This was as good a time as any, when Arthur would probably be most receptive to John proposing what he wanted to do.

Arthur didn’t open his eyes, just asked, voice something between annoyed and resigned, “Am I not gonna like it?”

“I—I don’t know, actually. I wanna see your grave.”

And that got Arthur to blink his eyes open, squint up at John. “My…? Why?”

John didn’t know, honestly. There were a lot of reasons he could think of, ones that would probably work well enough as justification to Arthur. That he should know what it looks like, if they were to keep up the ruse that Arthur was dead; that it was a good show, should anyone be keeping an eye Arthur’s grave, to have John show up; that John could even do so for Arthur’s sake, give him a description of the site and the grave, let him decide how well Charles might’ve captured what Arthur would want for his grave when he actually had kicked it.

But they weren’t the truth, or, at least, weren’t more than partially true. The truth was, “I—I ain’t sure.”

“You ain’t sure,” Arthur repeated, voice flat.

“I dunno, it just feels like—like somethin’ I should see, right? Your grave?”

“But I ain’t in it.”

“I know you ain’t in it. Course I know that.”

Arthur’s eyebrows dropped lower. “Then why do you wanna see an empty grave?”

“I don’t know, Arthur, Christ’s sake. But we’re in the area, and I thought—thought it was a good time.”

“Okay?” The tone in Arthur’s voice somewhere between bewildered and indignant.

John sighed, because he didn’t understand what they were even disagreeing about. “Alright, so what’s your problem then?”

“Listen, I ain’t sayin’ no, John, you can do what you want, but—but you know you ain’t exactly makin’ any sense, right?”

John gave him a look. “’m gonna go back to Hosea and tell him you was bullyin’ me.”

“Hey, there’s no need for that,” Arthur said, and, though it was mostly a joke, John didn’t think he was imagining the tinge of fear that crept into Arthur’s voice at the proposal of John running to Hosea. “It’s just—just strange, y’know?”

“I know.” God, did John know that all of this was strange. “But—but it feels like somethin’ I oughta do.”

“Alright,” Arthur said, and then again, “Alright, John. If you say so. Now, you gonna go on watch or what?”

“Christ, you never let up, do you?” John scrabbled at the pile of clothing they’d left on the floor, ended up grabbing the soft flannel shirt Arthur had slipped on when the cooler night air hit. Though ranch work had broadened John, built muscles that he hadn’t had the opportunity to develop before, he still didn’t have the frame to let him get as broad as Arthur, no matter how many muscles he put on it. Meant that clothes that were well fitted on Arthur tended to hang a touch loose on John everywhere that wasn’t the shoulders. And it was satisfying, in some ways, the fact that he could take Arthur’s clothes but Arthur couldn’t take his without busting a seam, only because John knew it annoyed Arthur to no end.

So he left it at that, just a loose-hanging shirt and his boots, couldn’t be assed to hunt through any of his own clothes to wear when he’d sweated so much over the course of the day, and was about to exit the tent when Arthur kicked him, hissed, “Hey, put some goddamn real clothes on.”

“I got real clothes on. Or you sayin’ this ain’t real clothes? It’s yours.” John pinched at the shirt to emphasize his point.

“You know what I goddamn mean.” And, of course, John did, but that didn’t matter when it came to bickering with Arthur. It was the principle of the thing, all the more illustrated by Arthur’s tone when he snapped, “You’re supposed to be scarin’ folks off, sittin’ watch, not makin’ ‘em wanna rob you.”

“And it wouldn’t scare you off, seein’ a man half naked?” John gestured to his own lower body to make it clear what he meant.

“Tell me you wouldn’t’a jumped on the chance to hold up a man with no pants on. You’d think it was the funniest thing you’d done in a month."

“S’at me that got no pants or the man I’m holdin’ up, that scenario?”

Arthur kicked him again, harder this time.