John found himself being woken just after dawn by a couple of nudges to his foot. Rolled over in the tangled mess he’d made of the bedrolls to find Arthur hunched over at the mouth of the tent. When John met his eyes, Arthur jerked his head. “C’mon. Got a long day ahead of us.”
It took John a couple more minutes and more rolling over to finally wake up enough to crawl out of the blankets. Pulled a change of clothes out of the saddlebags they’d put in the tent the previous night, something a touch warmer for the colder air that would come as they got higher into the mountains.
Finally crawled out of the tent, and, with a yawn, deposited himself next to Arthur, who was sitting on the ground, eating something out of a can. Inclined his head toward John without looking at him, said, “Horses’re fed and there’s coffee by the fire. Oughta eat somethin’ too. Got a long ride before lunch.”
“No trouble?” John found himself asking, more out of habit than anything else. There hadn’t been anything on his watch, so he wasn’t expecting anything on Arthur’s.
Seemed he was right, because Arthur shook his head, said, “Nah, nothin’. Coupla coyotes sniffin’ around for food scraps, but weren’t much else. Quiet night, all said.”
“Was the same with me,” John said, gestured for what Arthur was eating, which ended up being cold beans. Made a face, and Arthur snickered.
“Listen, if you wanna steal my food, best make sure you can stomach it first.” Arthur passed John over a tin of biscuits instead, which John opened with enthusiasm.
“Don’t understand how you can eat cold goddamn beans. And here I thought bein’ with Abigail gave me a strong constitution.”
“Hey, she’s gotten pretty good at soups and bakin’. It’s anythin’ in a skillet she’s still got trouble with.”
“Says the man who can’t cook anythin’ that isn’t speared on a knife over an open flame,” John muttered through a mouthful of biscuits. Wasn’t like Abigail was here to get after him about it.
“Still edible, ain’t it?” Arthur set the empty can of beans down, picked up his cup of coffee. “Here’s what I figure. We can go up and see Grimshaw this mornin’, like we was plannin’, and then after, in the afternoon, you can go see if you can find wherever Charles put that grave marker.”
John nodded, swallowed the biscuit in his mouth. Asked, “You comin’ with?”
“Nah, figure that ain’t a good idea. Seems like—I dunno, temptin’ fate or somethin’.” Tilted his head towards John. “Was thinkin’ of goin’ to see where I buried Hamish anyway, figure he’d wanna see how Buell is. We can meet up somewhere by O’Creagh’s Run, if that’s okay with you.”
“Sure thing.” Honestly, as much as John liked Arthur’s company almost always, this felt like something he should do alone, see alone. And, like Arthur, it seemed like something close to tempting fate, letting the man look at where he should’ve been buried now two and a half years ago.
Arthur nodded, stretched. Took a deep breath before gathering his feet under him. “Let’s get movin’, then. Got a long day ahead of us and we’re burnin’ daylight.”
John took his offered hand up.
Grimshaw’s grave was nice enough. Still a grave, of course, and in that way hard to stand in front of, but nice, as things went. For all the death John had seen, for all the people he’d known that had passed on, looking at graves still gave him a sour feeling in his chest. It was hard to amalgamate, the idea that someone John’d known, someone that had been family, was nothing left now but bones in the ground.
But Charles and Sadie and Tilly had buried Grimshaw up above a cliff face, somewhere where one could stand and see clear across to Roanoke Ridge. It was, John imagined, something the woman would like, a place where she could look upon the valley like she once had done with the camp. As much as John wished they could’ve gotten her out as well, let her live out the rest of her days happy and healthy, he imagined that this was as close to perfect as they would get even if they asked the woman herself.
John’s conversation with her grave was in many ways similar to with Hosea’s. Grimshaw had always been nosy—which maybe was fair, seeing as she ran a tighter ship around camp if she knew what was going on—and so John thought she might like to know how things were if she couldn’t observe them for herself.
And of course John missed Miss Grimshaw as well. It wasn’t the same desperate hurt that Hosea was, but it was missing her all the same. John had never known a mother, not when his own had died in childbirth, and he wouldn’t even call Miss Grimshaw a mother, not when Bessie had filled that roll better when she was alive, but he loved Grimshaw like family. She had raised him just as much as Dutch, Hosea, and Bessie had, and she, even at the end, tried to protect him and Arthur like her own children, attempted to shelter one more piece of her flock under her wings.
John wanted to thank her. Wished, like he wished with so many folks that were gone, that he could talk to her one last time, tell her how grateful he was for everything she did that he didn’t appreciate back when she was alive.
Instead, he settled for telling her what they’d been up to, and what the ranch was like, and how they were keeping themselves clean and well fed, and all the other things she would’ve liked to hear. Told her where everyone was, as well as he could remember, and how they’d gotten as far as they had. Figured he owed her at least that much.
Finally, when it seemed like his voice might just give out, John retreated. Gave Arthur a kiss goodbye, making sure to make it extra sloppy when Arthur rolled his eyes at it, told him he’d be careful on the ride up, and let him have his turn with Grimshaw while John started the long climb towards Arthur’s grave.
John took the ride up the mountains slow. He didn’t want to exhaust Rachel, of course, but that was only part of it.
The land around him was achingly familiar, and John knew why he got that harsh feeling in his stomach when he looked at the texture of the ground, the color of the rock. Tried not to look too hard at the mountains he passed, even though he knew he probably wouldn’t be able to recognize the particular peak Arthur almost died on, not with how foggy his memories of that night were now. It was better to not dwell on things that were faded and gone.
But, even with that, John found himself unsettled the higher into the mountains he got, and he couldn’t even really justify it. It wasn’t like the grave itself had any sort of actual meaning, seeing as the whole thing that been a false front to throw off anyone looking for Arthur, to help sell the idea that he was dead. Still, it seemed like his mood still wanted to set towards melancholy, towards imagining a world where he might’ve done this to visit Arthur’s actual grave, if his life had ended after Beaver Hollow.
The path he took, the one Charles had outlined for him before he left, brought him up over the ridged edge of the eastern Grizzlies. Gave him a decent enough view of the land below, but that wasn’t what John was paying attention to. Instead he was looking, scanning the edge of the cliff, hunting carefully that anything that might’ve been a grave marker, a pile of rocks, some weathered wood.
In retrospect, he didn’t have to look that hard. It was impossible to miss the stag standing over Arthur’s gave.
It was something akin to a full-body flinch when John spotted it. Something involuntary, unintended, a physical reaction to a thing he’d only ever expected to hear about, never see. All the same, standing right in front of him, protecting the grassy patch of cliff edge under it. He knew what it was. There was no question when he saw the wooden cross bracketed between its front legs.
John got off of Rachel in a daze, not even processing how she was shifting and snorting, nor how she shied sideways when he finally released her reins, only stopping when she was a decent distance away. Ears pricked, nostrils flaring. Instead John’s eyes were on the stag, on the way the light of the midday sun seemed to turn almost golden around it. Christ, it was like he couldn’t even get air in his lungs, staring straight at something he hadn’t even expected to dream about.
It was John’s own step forward that brought him back to his senses, pebbles skittering to the side as his boot impacted them. The stag lifted its head higher, snorting, and John was reminded that no matter how goddamn weird a wild animal it was, he was in front of a wild animal all the same.
“Hey, easy, boy,” he murmured, trying to use the same tone Arthur used when calming horses. Slowed his movements forward, but didn’t stop them completely. “Easy, easy, I’m just… Are you…?”
There was no good way to ask the question John wanted to ask. How could John possibly ask an animal if it had been the thing appearing to the man he loved? If it was a ghost, a spirit, or something as real as it looked, breathing in front of him? And why was it here, now? At a gravemarker that didn’t even mean anything.
John believed Arthur when he described what he saw, but believing and seeing were two different things entirely. He’d seen the stag sketched, but the actual living object could never compare, not even with how much John loved Arthur’s sketches. It was something magnificent. Bigger than any whitetail John had ever seen, nearly meeting the bottom of John’s ribs at the shoulder. Fur almost golden, wrapped in the sunlight streaming from overhead, and not a speck of dirt on it. Antlers still covered with soft velvet, not yet stretching up to their full height this early in the year, but on track to be impressive, already splitting into a multitude of points.
Eyes calm, even as they gazed straight at John.
Slowly, tentatively, John took another step forward, close enough now that the stag might be in reach if he stretched. Murmured another “Easy” under his breath, inched closer still. Tried to school his breathing, make it something calm, like he would riding a nervous horse. Held out a hand.
And the stag swiveled its ears towards John, stepped forward, and bumped its cold, wet nose into John’s palm.
For all the deer John had hunted in his life, all the camp dinners he’d helped supply, he couldn’t ever recall touching the nose of one. Sure, he must’ve at one point between skinning and transporting, but it was never like this, the living flesh of a deer unafraid of him.
Its breath was warm. That was all John could focus on as he slipped his hand up the stag’s face, over the white fur ringing its nose, up to the soft, golden fuzz around the base of its antlers. All he could think as he brushed past the thick fur of its ears, tracing the shape of its jaw and stroking down its thick neck. It was real, living and breathing. Warm. A stag watching over Arthur’s grave, a grave he wasn’t even in, one exactly like the stag that only Arthur could see. A stag standing along on a cliff edge when John arrived, waiting, waiting for—?
Something ached in John’s chest. Something like relief and grief in equal measures.
“Thank you,” he said, soft, because there were no other words he could pull into his brain.
And with that, it was like a spell had been broken. The stag snorted, shook its head, John forced into a step back just to avoid accidentally catching an antler to the eye. And then the stag was leaping away, crossing the grassy mountainside in great, graceful bounds.
“Thank you,” John repeated under his breath, even as the stag crested a ridge and went out of sight.
He didn’t linger long at Arthur’s grave after that. Mostly he just wanted to commit it to memory—the grave, the land. The flowers blooming orange and red, sharp against the green of their stems and leaves. The ground dropping off quick not far past, turning into air, an ocean of land that stretched endlessly.
And then the marker itself, the cross, the circle framing it. ARTHUR MORGAN emblazoned across the middle cross frame and then, maybe what John wanted to remember most, BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO HUNGER AND THIRST FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS encircling it, almost an anthem.
A hell of a thing, wasn’t it?
John rode down from the mountains maybe faster than was safe. But he didn’t care, not really, just wanted to be back with Arthur. Sure, he didn’t really think if he tarried that Arthur might disappear from the world completely, but fear wasn’t always rational.
For a second there, he’d seen the shape of a world where Arthur died, where Dutch’s bullet had bled him dry. Where he’d come to Arthur’s grave to mourn for a man he called a brother felled by a man who’d called himself their father. A life where he wouldn’t even know the depths of what he lost, what Arthur really was to him.
He found Arthur sitting on a dock stretching out into O’Creagh’s Run, one out in front of an old cabin that looked to be in a state of disrepair. John’d nearly ridden right past it, only saved by spotting Buell in the pen behind the house. Even then, his reaction was almost to charge in, guns drawn, ready to figure out who had stolen Arthur’s horse, before a scan of the surrounding area brought the dock to his attention.
John left Rachel in the pen next to Buell, let her have some time without the weight of a saddle on her back. Nearly started towards Arthur before something sparked in the back of his mind, and he searched through one of his saddlebags, pulled out a small cloth pouch he’d been carrying around for a while now.
Arthur was writing in his journal when John approached, but he turned his head when John stepped onto the wood of the dock, snapped the journal closed. Murmured a greeting to John as John took a seat next to him, and, even though it hadn’t been more than a handful of hours they were apart, John found that something in him settled immediately on seeing Arthur.
“Weren’t exactly where I expected to find you when you said O’Creagh’s Run,” he ended up saying, rather than get into what was actually kicking around his brain.
Arthur shrugged. “Better’n sittin’ on the ground.”
“You ain’t—ain’t afraid someone’s gonna get upset you’re usin’ their pen?”
Arthur followed John’s gaze back to the house, seemed to see what he meant. Shook his head, said, “Nah, that was Hamish’s house. Judgin’ by the state of it, don’t think no one’s come to claim it. He ain’t had a family, far as I know, and I was the one to bury him. Don’t think anyone ‘round here’s gonna mind.”
John hummed his understanding, let his boot sole skim the surface of the water, high with spring rains. Tried to puzzle through the thrumming in his thoughts, tried to figure out something to say. Knew he should probably ask Arthur how it was, seeing Hamish’s grave, knew that was the polite thing to do, but he didn’t—he couldn’t—
Arthur was peering at him. “Somethin’ wrong? You look…” And Arthur gestured to his own face, like that would explain the whole thing.
John could imagine what he looked like if it was anything like he’d felt. It was like an abundance inside him, too much conflicting in his head, a tangle of emotions and memories. Finally, he said, “No, no, I’m fine, just…” Bit his lip, couldn’t stop himself asking, “It—it was a stag you was seein’, right?”
And that got Arthur to pause, straighten. His face gone narrower, maybe a touch of concern when he asked, “…Why?”
“Think—think I…” And John shut his mouth, thought again over what he wanted to say. Because he didn’t want to say that he’d seen Arthur’s goddamn death omen or whatever the hell it was standing up by Arthur’s grave. He didn’t want Arthur to think that they were in danger, that it was another warning, because—because it hadn’t seemed like a warning. Because why would the stag be trying to warn John when it had seemed so much like it had been saying goodbye?
And there was something else drumming on the back of John’s mind.
He opened his mouth, said, low, “Think there’s somethin’ I oughta ask you. Been—been meanin’ to ask you a while now, and I ain’t… ain’t found the right time. But—but I don’t wanna put it off no more. Wanna know.”
“John,” Arthur said, low, almost a question in the tone he said it in. “John, what’s this about?” And John didn’t look up at Arthur’s face but knew it was likely creased, concerned, and John didn’t blame him because the words weren’t coming out as he intended them, because his head was a mess.
He shook his head, said, “Just give me—give me a minute, okay? These past two years, they ain’t been easy, but they been good. I ain’t never thought I’d be happy, livin’ like we’re doin’ on a ranch, but I am. Against all goddamn odds.
“And, and part of that is you, Arthur, ‘cause you’re one of the best things that ever happened to me. You always have been, since you was pullin’ me outta trouble when we was both still kids, but now—now what we got is like nothin’ else. And for a second, up there on that ridge, I saw… saw what things mighta been like, if you was gone. If I ain’t ever realized what we got here. And I don’t wanna let that ever be somethin’ that might come to be.
“You, me, Abigail, Jack, we’re already a family, right? So, so shouldn’t we make it what it already is?” And John fished the small cloth pouch from his pocket.
John had proposed to Abigail not two weeks previously. It had been a whole grand affair, a trip to Plainfield, one where they had dinner, went to a picture show, and even took a boat out onto the river. When he’d pulled the ring out, asked her if she wanted to make what they’d already been more solid, more tangible, she’d agreed, and John thought it might’ve been one of the happiest moments of his life. And he’d only managed it because of Arthur.
Arthur, being Arthur, had been happy to help when John told him he was planning to propose. He’d been the one to help John brainstorm and, in turn, nix some of his more ridiculous ideas. When John and Abigail took the wagon into town, it was Arthur who stayed with Jack, kept him entertained. And, maybe most importantly, the ring John proposed with, the one he’d slipped onto Abigail’s finger, had been the ring that Arthur had bought for Mary Linton, back when she had been Mary Gillis.
Arthur’d given the ring to John with some vague explanation of having moved on, wanting to give the object some better memories than it had, but John liked the ring even more for the history it had, how much a part of it Arthur still was, and how it entwined their family together even further. To him, it wasn’t that they were taking a ring with bad memories and giving it good ones, but instead putting the ring in the place it was intended to be from the start.
Arthur had no clue, of course, that John was planning to propose to him as well. Because John knew Arthur, and knew he’d always framed himself as something secondary to John’s relationship with Abigail. That, and Arthur had gone too many years of thinking himself not good enough for someone to love, let alone get married. That was, in part, why John still couldn’t forgive Mary, no matter how long it had been since either Arthur or him had seen the woman. She wasn’t the only reason Arthur equivocated his worth with how much work he did, but she hadn’t helped.
John had thought, of course, that he’d do something similar with Arthur as to what he’d done with Abigail. He’d gotten the ring weeks ago now, back when both proposals were just ideas kicking around in his brain, and he’d imagined, then, that both proposals would be equal events. Have equal meaning.
The problem was, Arthur had never been one for show, for being the object of attention, and so John couldn’t for the hell of him figure out how to do the damn thing. All the things that Abigail enjoyed were things that Arthur would meet with immediate suspicion, and that would kill the moment. If John was to propose in a moment that was meaningful, that they’d remember fondly, it wasn’t going to be on a boat, or at a nice dinner, or all those other sorts of things that John had in his head.
If John was going to make it meaningful…?
He shook the ring out of the pouch, held it between his fingers so it caught the light down from the sky and the light bouncing off the water in equal measures. It was a simple little ring, a gold band polished until it shined. John hadn’t thought Arthur would want anything flashy.
“John,” Arthur said, something halting, and John still didn’t look over at him, instead took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I know—know it can’t ever be somethin’ the state recognizes or nothin’, but—but I thought—if me and Abigail are doin’ it, all things equal, then… then me and you, right?”
Paused one more time.
Asked, “So—so, you wanna get married?”
There were few times in John’s life that he’d seen Arthur Morgan look absolutely stunned. But now, as John finally turned his gaze back on Arthur, there were few other ways to describe the look on his face. Eyes just a fraction wider than usual, eyebrows raised as he looked at the ring held in John’s fingers. Mouth slightly parted, face slack. Impossibly still, the only movement the rise and fall of his chest.
Finally, after a long moment when neither of them spoke, John couldn’t stand it, said, “Say somethin’.”
Arthur blinked, and his eyes flicked from the ring to John’s face. “What’s… what’s that for?”
That was not the response John had been expecting. “The… the hell do you think its for, Arthur? I’m goddamn askin’ you to marry me.”
Arthur’s eyebrows creased. “No, I mean—who’s gonna wear it?”
“Hadn’t thought of that.” Next to him Arthur snorted, the surprise falling quick into amusement, and John snapped, “Hey, alright, in my defense, I had a lot of other shit—Arthur, c’mon—” Because the snort had now broken into something closer to half-stifled laughter— “I had other shit on my mind, okay?”
“Christ, John,” Arthur said, and John could hear in his voice Arthur trying to school back the laughter into a normal tone. “Can’t believe you went and got a ring and it ain’t even crossed your mind we’re both men.” He gestured for the ring, apparently freed from the hold shock had over him. “Give it here.”
And John did, because he still couldn’t say no to Arthur, no matter how annoyingly demanding the man could get. Watched Arthur hold it up in front of his face, couldn’t help muttering, “Was gonna—gonna do a whole thing, like with Abigail, but—I dunno, this seemed like the right time.” Because he didn’t want Arthur to think he hadn’t put any thought at all into it, because he had. It was just that a handful of details had apparently slipped his mind.
Arthur was turning the ring over, the light playing off its surface. Didn’t respond to John, just asked, “Now where did you get this little thing, Marston?”
John could feel his own eyebrows lower almost involuntarily. “I ain’t stole it, if that’s what you’re after.”
“Hey, I weren’t sayin’ that, alright—”
“You were thinkin’ it, Arthur. I know you.” But John sighed, knew this wasn’t an argument he wanted to get into. “For your information, I bought it, and at a real jeweler, not even through the fence. Put aside some of the extra money we got from the stock drive last year and sellin’ the wool at the beginnin’ of April. Thought it was gonna take longer, but then you offered me the other ring for Abigail and so I only had to buy one of them.” He nodded at the ring, still in Arthur’s hand. “Ain’t got no jewels or nothin’, but only ‘cause I thought you might throw a fit if I went and spent our savings on somethin’ like that.”
“Probably right,” Arthur said, a shade of a smile on his face, but it was quieter this time. Didn’t look at John, just bit his lower lip as his eyebrows furrowed.
“You still ain’t answered the question.” And John didn’t need to clarify which question, because there was only one question that mattered.
Arthur let out a long sigh, letting the ring sit in the palm of his hand, cupped like it was something more precious than a little gold ring. And he turned his eyes to John, slow, said, “You really sure you wanna throw in your lot with an ugly old bastard like me?”
The question tore something in John’s chest. Because, after all this, Arthur was still questioning if he was good enough. When John couldn’t imagine a world without him, couldn’t imagine a life as happy, as colorful without him. All those folks who had convinced Arthur he wasn’t worth anything, and they hadn’t even deserved him in the first place.
If there was one thing John knew, it was that there were few people in the world worth as much as Arthur Morgan.
“Arthur, I don’t care what Mary, or Dutch, or all those other folks ever told you that made you think you wasn’t worth nothin’. You—you’re goddamn everythin’ to me. You’re kind and you’re good, and you’re real nice to look at, and you ain’t nothin’ like an ugly old bastard, and even if you was I wouldn’t goddamn care. I love you, okay? So stop thinkin’ you ain’t worthy of that. This—” And John plucked the ring from Arthur’s palm, held it up between them— “this is a promise between you and me, right? That no matter what happens, how much we bicker and how much we both get on each others nerves, that I ain’t ever gonna stop thinkin’ the world of you.
“I wanna be with you ‘til you’re really an ugly old bastard, Arthur, and I’m one too, and I still goddamn love you despite it, or because of it, because you’re you, and I can’t imagine any other goddamn world than that. So, again, Arthur Morgan, will you marry me?”
“I—” Arthur started, and his voice broke over it, and John wanted to flinch at the noise. But he kept his mouth shut, let Arthur figure over what to say, because God damn him if he couldn’t be patient enough to allow Arthur this.
Finally, Arthur bit his lip, said, slow, halting, “Listen, I ain’t, I ain’t so good at bein’ grateful, takin’ things I’m given. You know that. But—but someone a while ago now told me that I oughta take a chance that love exists. And that… that meant somethin’ a lot different back then than it does now. But now—with what we got, I don’t ever, ever wanna lose it. Reckon—reckon I can’t see any other sort of life I want. This one we got? This is the happiest I ever been.”
And Arthur turned his eyes up to John, and there was something bright in them, despite the exasperation at the edge of his smile. “I really goddamn love you, John. So yeah, course I’ll marry you. I’ll even wear your damn ring too, how’s that?”
It was impulse, more than anything, when John grabbed the front of Arthur’s shirt, hauled him to him, and kissed him hard. Only just remembered to close his fingers over the ring to prevent it dropping into the lake under them. Didn’t even care if anyone might be riding by, if anyone might see them, because he’d shoot anybody for this, because he didn’t want to spend another damn second without Arthur’s lips against his.
And there was a low rumble of a chuckle from Arthur’s throat even as he relaxed into the kiss. And John could feel Arthur’s stubble against his skin in the places they overlapped, and Arthur so goddamn warm against him, hearts still beating hard in both of their chests. And one of Arthur’s palms on John’s jaw, fingers in his hair, thumb pressed up against where the scars raked across his skin. Alive, alive, alive.
It was perfect. It was more than John could ever hope for.
It wasn’t long enough a kiss. Would never be long enough. But when Arthur broke it, laughed and said something about leaving before Sadie and Charlotte started to eat dinner without them, John didn’t mind. Because they could do this again, over and over and over for the rest of their days.