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but at least the war is over

Chapter Text

John should’ve left already.

Things were quiet now. The gunshots had faded, what Pinkertons left alive following on the heels of Micah or Dutch. He’d seen them ride by—Micah, then, not long after, Dutch—from the rock alcove he’d pressed himself into to wait out the last of the fight. The thick brush that surrounded him sheltered him from their sight, so long as he stayed relatively still. Neither man had been looking, anyway. 

The Pinkertons didn’t know he hadn’t run. Hadn’t thought to bring scent hounds. Had thought, maybe, with how many men they brought, that they would at least get someone, that Dutch Van der Linde’s luck couldn’t hold forever.

He willed himself to go. Get up, get moving. Would be so easy to gather his feet under him. He’d bound the wound on his shoulder to ease the bleeding, so that wasn’t the issue. Hell, there was a horse grazing in eyeshot, one of many they’d shot the Pinkerton off the back of. No Old Boy, but still. He could ride down to Copperhead Landing, no fuss. Gather Abigail, Jack, get the hell out of New Hanover.

He couldn’t leave Arthur. The thought settled in his stomach like a weight, tethering him to the ground below him. Couldn’t leave his body up on that mountain to be picked over by birds or wolves, or, somehow worse, gathered up by law and put on display somewhere. An example to those few outlaws left, a lesson about defying the government. No one deserved that, of course, but Arthur least of all.

It was quiet. John got to his feet.

He felt exposed immediately, leaving the bushes, and the mountain itself was worse, all sheer rock and no cover. Still, no shouting, no bullets. He seemed to be alone, the only one left in this corner of the Grizzles. Him and the dead bodies, the Pinkertons he scrambled around, sometimes over, as he made his way up.

Things got messier as he got closer to the summit. Clean shots through the forehead became a spattering of chest shots, became men who clearly gasped and bled and coughed blood before they died. Arthur, losing blood, losing his focus, losing his eye as he went lightheaded. That, or Micah, relishing the suffering of dying men. Micah. John let his brain slide off of Micah. A problem for another day. A bullet with Micah’s name on it.

The right place wasn’t hard to find. On the same ledge he left Arthur, John found the found the blood. A long streak of it, already turning rust-colored as it dried, must’ve been someone bleeding badly while crawling across the stone, or else being dragged. John clenched his jaw, followed.

John was sure, when he rounded the corner and saw him, that Arthur was dead. Arthur was curled inwards on himself, lower torso soaked in red, and so, so still. In the soft, grey light of the morning, his skin looked nearly white, and John couldn’t see any sign of breathing. John’s stomach rolled and his knees went weak. He’d known, of course, what he’d find up here, but seeing the shell of Arthur, silent and frozen, destabilized him.

John forced a breath in through his nose and back out his mouth. He had a job to do. He owed it to Arthur.

And, so, when he turned Arthur’s body onto his back, trying to get make it easier to pick him up with one working shoulder, Arthur’s sharp gasp of air made John flinch backward in surprise.

“You’re alive,” John said, heart fluttering up in his throat. And again, louder this time, “Arthur, you’re alive.”

A low, pained groan was all he got in response, but even that was heartening. Half-dead, maybe, dying, maybe, but not dead yet, not even fully unconscious. There was a noticeable rise and fall in his chest now. John could cling to that with all he was worth.

He pulled Arthur flat on his back, letting his body uncurl away from his stomach while he dug through Arthur’s satchel. He knew what he was looking for, already took care of his shoulder, after all. Catgut, gauze, bandages, whiskey, an assortment of tonics, miracle cures, other patent medicines.

John’s medical knowledge wasn’t exactly great, but he’d picked up what he needed to know, enough to keep himself alive until he could crawl back to camp, to a doctor. Clean a wound, close it, bind it. Leave a bullet where it was for someone who knew what they were doing to dig out. Leave a knife where it was, unless he had a plan to prevent bleeding out. Hosea’d made them carry around basic medical gear for emergencies. John’s luck that Arthur’d never broken that habit.

Bleeding. First priority.

He untucked Arthur’s shirt, unbuttoned most of his union suit. Pulled both, along with Arthur’s jacket, off of Arthur’s right arm, leaving his right side bare. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or not to find that the bullet had punched straight through—entered low on the right of Arthur’s torso, exited just over his hip. On one hand, it meant no bullet. On the other, both openings were still oozing half-clotted blood.

There was bruising too across his abdomen, a dark newly-made purple that matched the bruise on Arthur’s jaw, his split lip, but, as far as John could tell, they weren’t dangerous. Not in the same way the bleeding was.

Stitches, then.

Arthur’d made another noise of pain when John had moved his clothing, had scraped one heel against the ground, tried to move, and John didn’t know if he could stitch up a wound on someone fighting him even without an injured shoulder. And, from past experience, Arthur could kick like a horse.

So, John needed to get something into Arthur that would numb the pain. But they didn’t have any morphine, nothing injectable. Arthur needed to be awake to swallow it.

“Arthur, hey,” John said, jostling Arthur’s shoulders, patting his face, lightly, then more firmly. “Arthur, wake up.”

It was slow, slower than was comfortable, Arthur’s breathing hitching, his eyes sliding open. Unfocused, then, slower still, coming to focus on John.

“Good,” John murmured, “yes, Arthur, that’s it. Hey, it’s me, alright? John?”

If John had to guess, he’d say it was annoyance that crept into Arthur’s face, by the way his eyes narrowed, eyebrows tightened, his jaw slid just slightly to the side. “What’re y’doin’?” he asked, and though his voice was hoarse, weak, his speech slurred, he was alive, he was talking.

“Bringin' you with me.”

“Fool,” Arthur said, and John might’ve even laughed if Arthur’s eyes didn’t start to slide shut again.

“Hey, no,” John said, jostling Arthur again. “No, no, don’t fall asleep. Here, need you to drink this. I’ll help you sit up.”

He’d chosen one of the miracle tonics from Arthur’s bag. He didn’t know exactly what was in it, but he knew from past experience with the things that they made everything go loose, bright, numb, and he couldn’t fall asleep for hours after taking one. Seemed close enough to what they needed right now.

Arthur mumbled some protest but John ignored him, propped him up on one of his legs rather than risk hurting Arthur more by dragging him over to the more upright rocks. Proved to be the right decision, because the pained gasp Arthur made when John moved him made John wince.

When he lifted the bottle Arthur eyed it, but drank with little protest. Made a face at either the taste or the press of the glass against his split lip, but seemed to settle back into John once it’d gone down. John tried not to notice how cold Arthur’s skin had gone.

Things went quicker after that, John mostly working from muscle memory. Cleaning, stitching, wrapping. Arthur had gone boneless, unfocused, flinching when something stung but otherwise quiet, his eyes following John’s hands. At least he was awake, though, staying awake. John chose to see that as a good sign, rather than a result of whatever was in the miracle tonics Arthur carried around.

The sun was bright by the time he was done, lighting up the mountain around them. Couldn’t have been more than a half hour since he’d found Arthur, probably not even that, but they’d already lingered longer than was safe.

“Arthur, this ain’t gonna feel nice,” John said after pulling Arthur’s clothes back on him, shifting to kneel while he kept Arthur upright with a hand fisted in his shirt. The only way he could foresee carrying Arthur was over his good shoulder. Anything that required Arthur to support his own weight was out, as was anything that needed John’s shot shoulder to support the same. “Just ‘til we’re down the hill, promise." 

And he pulled Arthur up.

For as long as John was with the gang, Arthur had been bigger than him. Height, sure, John had height on Arthur, a fact he’d been overjoyed to discover the autumn he was seventeen, but Arthur had always had plain brawn. No matter how much food the older folk at camp forced into John when he was growing, he’d always stayed narrow, to a point where Pearson nearly took it as a personal affront.

He didn’t know when Arthur had gotten so thin. When he busted John from Sisika Arthur’s cheekbones had been a little sharper, sure, his shoulders a little leaner, but—

Not like this. Arthur’s jacket shouldn’t be this loose, he shouldn’t be this easy for John to pick up, John shouldn’t have seen the outline of his hip and ribs while stitching the hole in his gut. Gone was the Arthur that could win fistfights with John just by getting him pinned—for the first time, John was the one with more mass.

He tried to position Arthur so John’s shoulder was pressing into the side of his torso opposite the gunshot wound, but, judging by the hiss Arthur made and how his hands fisted in John’s jacket, it didn’t relieve much pain. Arthur was breathing heavily by the time John got down the mountain, shaking by the time John was lifting him on the back of the Pinkerton mare he’d noticed earlier (still grazing in around the same spot, calm as can be). John’s legs were weak, his shoulder aching, and they really were a mess, weren’t they?

“Gonna need to tie you on,” John said as he helped Arthur sit up in the saddle. Arthur’s grumble in reply probably wasn’t meant to be comforting, but was comforting all the same. Awake, alive, well enough to protest being helped. It was something, at least.

He’d considered taking the same horse, setting Arthur up either in front of or behind him as he managed the reins, but he wasn’t confident enough in his ability to keep Arthur mounted with only one arm. Carrying Arthur like a bounty wasn’t an option either, not when it would irritate the wound, risk tearing open the stitches. Better to guarantee Arthur would stay in the saddle, with or without John.

He looped Arthur’s lasso around his waist, down around his hips to avoid the bandages. Fed the rope under the saddle tree, wrapped it down around the stirrup leathers. As he tied the last knot, Arthur grabbed him by the good shoulder. When John looked up at him, his eyes were unfocused with pain, his voice almost desperate as he asked, “Why’re y’doin’ this?” The I told you to go went unspoken, but John wasn’t so much a fool that he couldn’t catch Arthur’s meaning.

John wanted to say because he was scared. Because after all this, the thought of losing more was unbearable. Because he owed it to Arthur. Because he owed it to Jack, to Abigail, to every person who ever cared about Arthur.

“'cause you’re my brother,” he said instead, and it wasn’t enough.

He should’ve said that, after all this, the happiest version of John’s life had Arthur inside it.

 


 

Around Butcher’s Creek, Arthur started fading again. John could feel Arthur’s horse sidestep, snorting, as his weight shifted in her saddle.

They’d gotten lucky, in terms of horses. Seems the mess the Pinkertons had made was big enough that they hadn’t even been able to organize men to collect the mounts yet. And the two John had found either had good temperaments or were well trained, because John had been ponying Arthur’s mare and, despite the frequent diversions into the woods, neither horse had raised any fuss.

When John looked back, Arthur was hunched and lent slightly to the right, curled around his stomach, fingers white where they held the base of the mare’s mane. “Arthur?” John said.

Arthur started, like his mind hadn’t been all there. Rolled his eyes up towards John.

“You good?” John asked, knowing Arthur wasn’t, knowing it wasn’t going to get him more than the bleary glare that Arthur leveled at him. But—

It felt like the world had come down around them, and John was left scrambling to gather what was left. The more he’d pile in his fist, the more would slip through his fingers.

“Stay awake,” he said, grasping for better words that didn’t come.

Arthur turned away from him, jaw working, and John thought that would be the end of it until Arthur said, his voice still hoarse, exhausted, slightly slurred, “Abigail thinks you’re dead.”

And, though unsurprising, it was such an abrupt turn from any train of thought he’d been on that John was left stunned, almost stopped the horses. “What?”

Arthur glanced back up at him. “Told her you was, jus’ before I split with her ‘nd Sadie. Feel badly for makin’ her cry, now.”

“She cried?” And that rocked John differently—Abigail cried for him?

“Course she cried, with you ‘nd Jack off with Tilly ‘nd the whole Pinkerton mess.”

John shut his eyes, tried to puzzle through what Arthur had given him, and found it making absolutely no sense. “Arthur, I have no goddamn clue what you’re talkin' about.”

Arthur actually scoffed, and if he weren’t gutshot John absolutely would’ve hit him.

John sighed. “Can you at least start from the beginnin'? After the train?” At the very least it would keep Arthur awake, and at best he’d get more of a grasp on this whole situation.

“Sure,” Arthur drawled, repositioning how his fingers were knotted in the mare’s mane. “Tilly met us, on the way back. Had Jack with her. Pinkertons’d attacked the camp, took Abigail.”

Took Abigail? “Jesus. You said she—”

“She’s fine, safe ‘nd well. Sadie ‘nd I went after her. Dutch refused to.” John turned his eyes back forward to watch the terrain, but he could hear an edge come into Arthur’s voice. “Thought she was a rat, thought you was a rat. Whole mess of a thing. Milton was usin’ her as bait. Nearly worked, up ‘til Abigail shot him.”

Abigail shot him?” 

“Was ‘bout to shoot me, all’s fair. Jus’ got lucky she got her ties cut quick ‘nough.”

John would need to get a more comprehensive version of the story along with time to think through the last day or so. But, at the very least: “Thank you, Arthur, I mean it. Both you and Sadie. Thank you.”

When he looked back, Arthur was giving him a strange look. Eyes narrowed, jaw tight, still slightly unfocused. When he met John’s eyes, Arthur rolled his shoulders, winced, and sighed. “Thought you was dead, like I said. Weren’t gonna let Jack grow up orphaned is all.”

John knew, in that moment, that there was no way he’d ever be able to fully repay his debt to Arthur.

They crossed the railroad tracks, followed the shoreline south of Van Horn. When John next looked back, Arthur’s eyes were out towards the river, moving rapidly like he could see something John couldn’t.

Hating that it was the only words he could seem to find, John asked again, “You good?”

This time Arthur didn’t bother brushing him off, didn’t even look back at him. “Keep seein' antlers.”

“Hmm?”

“S’nothin'.” Arthur heaved a deep breath, and judging by the way his breath hitched on the way out, even that much hurt. “Strange few weeks.”

“Yeah,” John said, and pushed the horses into a lope.

 


  

Sadie was waiting outside the wrecked shack down at Copperhead Landing. She must’ve called for the others as soon as she had eyes John and Arthur because before they were within they were within twenty yards of the place Abigail was rounding the corner. When she spotted them, spotted him, she hiked up the skirt of her dress and broke in to a sprint.

John was off his horse before he realized what he was doing, pain in his shoulder all but forgotten as he met Abigail, caught her in his arms as she wrapped her own around him.

“My god, John, my god.” Abigail was sobbing, tears falling freely as she moved a fraction back, just enough to grab his face between her palms. “I thought you were dead, you son of a bitch, I can’t believe— Arthur said—”

“He didn’t know, he didn’t know, Dutch lied—” He was crying too, he realized, as he brought one hand up to Abigail’s face, wiping away her tears with a thumb. “Are you okay? You’re not hurt?”

“No, no, not hurt, Jack neither. But you—” her eyes had gone to his shoulder, “—you’re bleedin'—”

“It’s fine, aches, but I’ll be okay. Arthur—” and Abigail’s eyes went up to Arthur, and John could see the way her eyes caught on his torso, clothing still soaked with blood, “—it’s bad, Abigail.” 

Despite how impossible it seemed to John, Arthur had gotten even paler in the space between Van Horn and Copperhead Landing. Whatever pain relief the tonic had afforded, it seemed to be fading, because his body was visibly tight, muscles guarding against the ache of the bullet wound. Still unfocused, still hazy, even as his eyes turned to Sadie, approaching the mare he was tied to, and John could hear him ask in a low murmur, “No trouble?” 

“What happened?” Abigail asked, still watching Arthur, her eyes glassy.

And John reluctantly released her, hand going up to the renewed throb in his shoulder. “Abigail, Dutch—Dutch shot him.”

Dutch?” Abigail’s eyes wide, disbelieving, and John knew exactly how she felt.

“Let me explain more once we get movin'. But…” He gritted his teeth as they both moved over towards Arthur’s horse. “But that life is definitely over, now. Can’t see any way of comin' back from this.”

“Gonna need a hand here,” Sadie said, working a knife through the ties keeping Arthur mounted. As John joined her, she continued, “We got some blankets in the shack we can set him down on ‘til we figure things through. We got a wagon for you and yours,” she said, nodding at John, “but it’s not loaded.”

“Ain't it easier to get him straight to the wagon? Load it up around him.” John asked. 

Sadie gave him a strange look, but whatever she might’ve said was cut off by Abigail. “Jack’s asleep, back in the shack. He’ll likely stay asleep, exhausted as he was, but best we not let him see all this blood if we can.”

“The wagon it is,” John said, and though Sadie was still giving him the same brow-creased look, she acquiesced.

“Alright, then,” she said, pulling the last of the rope away from Arthur. “Help me get this lug over to it.”

“Y’all keep talkin’ ‘bout me like m’not sittin’ here ‘nd m’gonna up ‘nd disappear outta spite,” Arthur murmured, but it had no bite. His eyes were closed, like keeping them shut would ward against the pain.

“Go on and try it, then,” Sadie replied, and pulled Arthur from the saddle. 

John was there to help catch Arthur, bring him down as softly as possible, but, even then, the increase in pain was obvious and immediate. Arthur took a sharp gasp of breath inward, his eyes squeezing shut harder. One hand grasped at Sadie’s jacket, and when John got his other arm, pulled it over his shoulder to support Arthur’s weight, the other fisted in John’s shirt. Arthur was trying to get his feet under him, but they didn’t seem to want to take his weight.

“Easy,” Sadie was saying, “easy, big guy, we’ve got you. Just over to the wagon, not far.”

John could see the wagon, now that he was looking, tucked next to the shack. No horses hitched, but a pair of drafts accompanied Sadie’s Bob in grazing off near the dock. Abigail hurried ahead of them, presumably to gather something for Arthur to lie on that wasn’t the wood of the wagon.

It was slow going, but they got Arthur over to it just as Abigail was exiting the shack, Tilly alongside her. It took a moment for John to remember that Arthur’d mentioned Tilly, that Tilly was the one that came down here with Jack, but the relief at seeing her safe came immediately. He gave her a nod and she returned a smile as she and Abigail laid down bedrolls and blankets across the bed of the wagon.

Getting Arthur into the thing itself involved a fair bit of pulling and lifting, which proved to be wholly unpleasant for all of them, Arthur most of all. By the time they had him in, lying on his side, he seemed half-conscious, breathing hard, his forehead pressed into the blankets. John made himself get out of the wagon, made himself stop fussing, as Abigail pulled one of the blankets up over Arthur’s torso, hiding the blood from sight.

“It’s good to see you,” John said to Tilly as he turned, glancing her over and finding her, thankfully, unharmed.

“John,” Tilly said fondly, and wrapped him in a hug, which John returned with one arm. “They had me thinkin’ you were dead.”

“Seems I fooled a lot of folks into thinkin’ I was,” he said, and pulled away, taking her hand instead. “Thank you for gettin’ Jack out. Can’t tell you how much we owe you.”

She held up her other hand in response. “Weren’t nothin'. Woulda never left him behind, you know that.”

“Still,” John said, and let her hand go. 

Sadie leaned back against the wagon, crossing her arms. “We should figure out what we’re doing here, before we start packin'. If you two are taking Arthur, then…”

“You and Tilly are welcome,” Abigail said immediately, before John could even think through the situation. “After everythin', we’d welcome your company, least until you’re ready to split off.”

“May be best I accompany you, then,” Sadie said. “Even layin' low the roads'll be dangerous, and you got both sharpshooters down for the count—sorry John, but don’t think I don’t remember you’re shot too.”

“I’ll come too,” Tilly followed. “Can’t promise it’ll be forever, but at least until you and Arthur are well.”

“Thank you,” John said, and meant it.

“Right, so, we need a place to rest.” Sadie straightened, rolled her shoulders. “None of us got much rest last night, that much is clear, and it ain’t a good idea to push to exhaustion, if we can help it.”

But, they couldn’t stay here, not in a half-collapsed shack, not when they all needed real rest and Arthur needed a bed, not a pile of blankets in the back of a wagon. “Should we… Should we find an abandoned house, or somethin'?” There hadn’t been much time for John to get to know the landscape around Beaver Hollow, not when he’d been focused on keeping Abigail and Jack safe and fed those last few weeks.

Sadie looked similarly lost. “I guess… I guess I could…”

“Might know a place,” a voice trailed over from the wagon, and the conversation ceased immediately. Arthur was sitting, leaning heavily against the wooden side-panel, watching them through hazy, half-lidded eyes. His breathing had eased somewhat, but was still heavier than usual. “Willard’s Rest. North of Annesburg, up by the falls. There’s a widow there, name of Charlotte Balfour.” Arthur met John’s eyes directly, with that look he knew meant Arthur was willing him to trust what he was saying. “She’ll help.”

“Lie back down, Arthur,” Sadie said, and it wasn’t a request. Arthur’s eyes flicked over to her, but he didn’t comply.

“My horses, s’the other thing. Van Horn stables. I don’t—” and Arthur was interrupted by what must’ve been a pulse of pain, eyes pressing closed, but even before that John caught the desperation in the look Arthur gave him.

“I can—” John started, but Sadie shook her head.

“Let me,” she said. “Once we get you lot settled, I’ll wait for dark and go get ‘em. Just give me the lease papers. You need the rest too, John. And—” Sadie turned, pressed both her palms on the wood of the wagon, looked Arthur directly in the eye. “If you don’t lie back down right this minute, Morgan, so help me I will make you myself.”

Arthur eyed her, but eased himself back down onto the blankets with a long, careful exhale.

“Willard’s Rest it is,” John said, sighing, wiping a hand over his face. His whole body felt heavy, felt exhausted.

As they moved to start packing, Abigail grabbed John’s arm, drew him into the shack with only a murmured, “Jack’ll want to see you.”

And he did. Noticed John as he was rubbing the sleep from his eyes after Abigail roused him and immediately lit up, giving a bright, “You’re back!” as he scrambled to his feet. John barely had time to crouch to Jack’s level before the boy was barreling into him, wrapping his small arms as far as he could get them around John’s stomach.

John was going to start crying again if he wasn’t careful. “Hey, Jack,” he said, blinking rapidly as his eyes burned. Jack, his son. His son.

After a brief moment Jack unlatched himself from John, examined John’s face. “Momma said you wasn’t comin’ back, but I knew you was.” His look caught on what must’ve been John’s red, watery eyes, and Jack asked, “Are you sad?”

“Not sad, Jack, happy,” John said, and he let Jack go back to Abigail, slowly stood back up. Abigail offered him a gentle smile, and John returned it.

“Listen, Jack, Uncle Arthur’s here too,” Abigail said, ushering Jack out towards the wagon. Her voice caught a bit as she continued, “But he ain’t feeling well, okay? So you best let him rest.”

As he exited the shack in turn, intent on helping hitch the horses, Sadie pulled John aside. She gestured for him to follow him over to the horses, which, while he was headed that way anyway, seemed to be more about being somewhere they weren’t easily overheard.

“What’d you need, Sadie?” he murmured, once they were hidden from the others by one of the big belgians.

Sadie turned on her heel, made sure she was looking John directly in the eye. “Wanted to say this, before things get too far to reverse.” She took a deep breath, careful, in a way John wasn’t used to seeing from her. “Just wanted to make sure you know, you don’t have to take him if you don’t want.”

John didn’t have to ask to know she was talking about Arthur, but the statement gave him pause. “What do you mean?”

“I can get him out of here on a horse, find somewhere else to lay low while you all make yourselves scarce. You’re already hurt, you have Jack. I ain’t gonna fault you for wanting to take care of your family first, and Arthur wouldn’t fault you either.”

And John knew what Sadie was saying, knew she was being kind, giving him a way to safety if he needed it, but— “Sadie, Arthur is family. I ain’t leavin' him behind again.”

“Alright,” Sadie said, and the look she gave him was about as soft as John expected Sadie Adler could get. “Well then. Let’s get these big bastards hitched.”

 


 

John probably shouldn’t have been surprised he was made to sit in the back, out of sight where the wagon was covered, but it itched at him all the same. Sadie’d made a good case, of course, that John was probably the most recognizable out of all of them what with his scars, but riding where he couldn’t see any potential danger made him restless.

It wasn’t without its benefits, though. Sometime during John explaining the past few hours to Abigail, Sadie, and Tilly, Arthur had finally, blessedly, fallen asleep. From where he was sitting John could watch Arthur’s chest rise and fall with his breathing, still short, still shallow. His brow was furrowed, like the pain had followed him into whatever dreams he might be having, but otherwise he was quiet.

Abigail had taken seat next to John, after Jack fell back asleep, and her cheek was warm and soft where it rested on his shoulder. He rolled his head to rest on hers, let himself breathe in the smell of her hair, and tried to let himself relax.

Just when he’d nearly settled, nearly drifted into a doze, Abigail asked, “Why’re you wearin’ his hat, anyway?” Her voice was muffled against the sleeve of his coat. John nearly laughed, pulled Arthur’s hat from his head, settled it in his lap. He’d forgotten about the thing entirely.

 


 

They arrived at Willard’s Rest not long after noon, if the pocket watch John had pulled from Arthur’s satchel was to be believed. According to Sadie, driving the wagon, there hadn’t even been Pinkerton patrols out near Annesburg and John wondered, not for the first time, just how much damage they’d caused, and just how much heat was still chasing Dutch down.

Willard’s Rest was quiet, almost painfully peaceful, John noted as he climbed from the back of the wagon. Even the horses—both the hitched belgians as well as Sadie’s stallion and the two former Pinkerton mares, tethered in a rough sort of string to the back—seemed to settle in the atmosphere, started picking at the grass. Sadie’d stopped just at the crest of the small hill that lead up to the little ranch house and barn. Behind both, it looked like there were wildflowers growing in the half-fenced pasture.

John made to walk up to the house, knock on the door, but Sadie cut him off. “Best you let me. A widow ain’t likely to take kindly to a strange feller knockin' on her door, not in a place so isolated as this, ‘specially not one been shot.” She glanced back at the wagon. “Maybe get Arthur. Gonna have to move him anyway, and if she knows him, may help our case.”

So John acquiesced, letting Sadie handle the talking. Was never his strong suit, anyway.

When he came back around the wagon, Tilly was already waiting at the back. Abigail knelt next to Arthur, trying, as far as John could tell, to wake him as gently (and as quietly—Jack still asleep in his own blanket pile) as possible. It was working, albeit slowly—Arthur’s leg straightening, mumbling something incoherent under his breath—and the whole scene lodged something tight and painful in John’s throat, and he almost couldn’t breathe.

Then Abigail was leaning back up, saying, “Gonna move you now, alright?” and Arthur’s barely audible, “Sure,” was enough to break whatever had hold on John. He moved to the base of the wagon, braced himself to take part of Arthur’s weight.

When they brought Arthur around—John under one arm, Tilly under the other, Abigail following close to steady them if they wobbled, Arthur limp, Arthur panting, gasping again—the door was just starting to open. John’d missed Sadie knocking.

John didn’t know exactly what he was expecting, but somehow the woman who pulled the door open still defied them. With how Arthur said her name, John’d built her up in his mind to be something different, something other. Instead, she looked just as normal as the rest of them. Thin, rifle in her hand, black hair pulled back behind her head, loose enough that it fell in curtains on either side of her face. There was something, though, something in the way she looked at Sadie, not with suspicion but with concern.

“Can I help you?”

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but might you be Charlotte Balfour?” Sadie’s voice was low, gentle, attempting to be non-threatening. When the woman, Charlotte, nodded, she continued. “We’re sorry to impose, but there’s been some trouble, and—well, Arthur said you might be able to give us a place to rest for the night.”

She knew Arthur alright, judging by the way her head jerked when Sadie said his name, looking for the first time out at the rest of them. Seeing Arthur. Seeing the blood, drying to rust-colored but still dark, harsh against his shirt.

Her hand went to her mouth. She said something John couldn’t hear, muffled and quiet.

“He’s alive,” Sadie replied. “Shot but still kickin'. We intend to keep him that way, best we can.”

“Please,” Charlotte called, this time her voice intentionally reaching John, Abigail and Tilly, “bring him in. There’s a spare bed, in the second room. If there’s anything I can do, please, I want to help.”

That wasn’t the reaction John was expecting, but he wasn’t about to question it. Instead they dragged Arthur in, into the very nice house with its very quaint decorations, and from there into the very clean and very cozy second bedroom.

When they deposited him on the bed, Arthur seemed, for the first time, to process where they were. His eyes rolled over to Charlotte, hovering anxiously as Abigail adjusted the bedding, and the fond smile Arthur gave her cut through the pain on his face. “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Balfour.” It was a murmur, but clearer than most of what Arthur had said over the past few hours.

“You too, Arthur,” Charlotte gave her own sad smile back. John didn’t know why the whole exchange made him feel uneasy, made something burn in his chest. He pushed it aside.

“We outta change these bandages,” Abigail said, and when John looked over she had pushed back Arthur’s jacket, shirt, pulled open his union suit to show where he was starting to bleed through John’s sloppy job at binding. It was far less than before John’d stitched the wounds, sure, but blood all the same, a bright, harsh red that made John’s stomach turn in a way he thought he’d grown out of. Abigail looked back up at him. “His then yours.”

John stepped forward, ready to help, ready to do something, the red of the blood burning against his vision, but Abigail waved a hand. “Tilly and I can handle it, John. You oughta rest. We can get you when he’s done.” And when her eyes met his, she must’ve seen some hint of desperation in his look, because she said, after a pause, “Could you get Jack? Best he get inside.”

“I—” John started, trying to gather his words, trying to wrap his tongue around the fact that the blood scared him, that he was afraid that if he left, everything would be crumbling when he got back.

“John.” And it was Arthur, Arthur, Arthur with his head titled towards John, blurry but meeting his gaze. “’m fine. Y'can go.”

“You ain’t,” John said back, but something in his chest loosened anyway. He wasn’t sure how much Arthur understood anymore, how coherent he was with both the pain and the blood loss, but: even then, Arthur was trying to comfort him, like he was still a kid brother afraid of those people waiting in the dark.

As he left, he caught the edges of their murmured conversation behind him, something about laudanum, left over from Charlotte’s husband’s death.

His shoulder ached, but in a manageable way. The bleeding had mostly clotted by the time he’d even stitched it, and he didn’t feel that dizzy, cold feeling he knew intimately from former brushes with blood loss. Mostly he just felt exhausted, the kind of tired that tugged at his bones. Maybe Abigail was right.

It was only when he saw her over by the wagon that John realized Sadie had never entered the house. Left them to worry about Arthur, had gotten to work. She gestured back towards the wagon as he approached. “Jack’s still asleep. Figured Abigail wanted to get things settled before she brought him in.”

“Sent me out to do just that. Do you need…?”

Sadie gave him a dry look. “Can’t imagine she asked you to look after your son if what she really wanted was for you to be doing heavy liftin’.”

“Just offerin’ help,” John said, going to cross his arms before his shoulder twinged and he sighed.

Sadie, thankfully, seemed to take pity on him, turned away from the conversation. “Once everything’s unloaded, I’m gonna bring the wagon around back. Bob’ll stick around if I turn him loose in back, but it may be best to put the rest in the barn, ‘specially if someone comes sniffin’ and realizes there're more horses around than there should be people. I’ll get some halters for the mares you rode in on so we can at least string ‘em properly, next we move out, if you’re set on keepin' them.”

“Thank you, Sadie.” And then after a moment, “You should get some rest too.”

She brushed him off, went back to gathering what little they had to unload. “I will, don’t you worry about me.”

Jack grumbled when John woke him, the novelty of John being back now apparently worn from the situation. He let John pick him up, one armed, lift him from the wagon and carry him to the house with only a sleepy, “Where are we?” 

“Place called Willard’s Rest,” John answered, pushing open the door. “A very kind lady named Charlotte is lettin' us stay here for a little while.”

And Jack hummed in acknowledgement, resting his head in the crook of John’s neck. This much was easy. This much John could do with relative confidence. Answering Jack’s questions, carrying him around per Abigail’s instructions, he could do that. It was the other things that were harder.

Charlotte was in the main room when they entered. She gave Jack a smile and gestured towards a couch where John could set him down.

As he laid Jack down, the boy yawned, then, quiet, “Where’s Momma?"

John sat down next to Jack, deliberating for just a moment before patting him on shoulder. “She’ll be out in just a minute. She’s makin’ sure your uncle Arthur gets some rest so he can get better.”

Jack nodded, looked back up towards John, his eyebrows creasing as he did. “Are you okay?”

John followed Jack’s gaze, realized he was looking at the dark stain still soaked into the shoulder of his coat. “I’m fine, Jack. Just a scratch. Go back to sleep, okay? We’re all gonna be alright.”

And Jack nodded, curling deeper into the blankets.

As Jack drifted off, Charlotte approached John, a bundle of clothing held out to him. “Ladies in there gave me the impression you lot don’t have much with you.” As he eyed the clothes, carefully took them from her, she continued, “They were my husband’s. Imagine he’d like they idea they were going to use, rather than sitting away in a dresser somewhere. The pants and union suit may be short on you, but hopefully they’ll hold you over.”

“That’s kind of you,” John said, settling the pile in his lap. “I don’t think we were ever formally introduced. John Marston.”

Charlotte took his outstretched hand. “Charlotte Balfour, though it sounds like you all knew that already. Is the little one yours?”

“Mine and Abigail’s. We call him Jack. Abigail’s the lady—”

Charlotte shook her head, cutting him off. “It’s alright, she and Miss Jackson already introduced themselves.”

“Then the only one you have left to meet is Sadie Adler, the woman you met at the door. Believe she was putting the horses away, last I knew.”

“Ah,” Charlotte said, and straightened. “I best show her where we keep the hay bales, then.”

John wasn’t sure what made him say it—some long ingrained belief that kindness is transactional, maybe, that anyone giving expects something in return—but as Charlotte turned he blurted, “Mrs. Balfour? Why are you doin' this for us?” And when she looked back at him, eyebrows slightly knitted, he panicked, continued, “I mean, you hardly know us. We might as well be strangers, aside from Arthur. Just… seems a lot of kindness for unfamiliar folk.”

The soft, almost pitying expression Charlotte gave him burned in his stomach, a deep, painful, guilty feeling. “Mr. Marston, I owe Arthur my life. If he trusts you, I’d imagine there’s a good reason, and I’d happily lay my trust there too.”

The lingering echoes of her words itched in the back of John’s mind as Charlotte left the house, like some unfamiliar sensation against his skin.

Chapter Text

John found himself waking up near midnight in a panic. The details of the nightmare—antlers circling the corners of his vision, gunmetal against his throat, smoke burning his tongue, the copper smell of blood—started slipping away immediately, leaving only the cold press of fear against his chest, amplified when he looked around and couldn’t place his surroundings. He started to kick away the blankets, started to scramble out of the bed until Abigail made a soft sound beside him, and the events of the last two days seeped slowly back into his brain.

Willard’s Rest. Charlotte Balfour. Train. Beaver Hollow, Pinkertons, Micah, Dutch. Arthur. Arthur.

Along with the clarity came the ache in his shoulder, protesting him moving after letting it sit still so long. He pressed a hand to the wound, letting it ground him as he took in his surroundings, caught his breath.

Charlotte had offered him, Abigail, and Jack her bed. In fact, had more insisted, argued that with John injured, Jack a child, all three of them exhausted, it was better they sleep in a real bed, get some real rest. The only argument they had to push back with was that it was Charlotte’s bed and so she deserved to use it, but Charlotte offering to sit up with Arthur while the rest of them got some rest quelled even that. So, John and his family had been ushered into the bed sometime the previous afternoon, after Abigail had rewrapped John’s shoulder and Charlotte had gotten some food into them.

A bed this big felt unfamiliar, felt strange. John was used to bedrolls or his cot, both small, cramped, more so when he invited Abigail in to share, which had been the norm ever since Shady Belle. John found himself grasping for Abigail with one hand as he let his eyes adjust to the darkness, wanted to make sure she was as real as she sounded.

Jack wasn’t in the bed, he realized. And, from another room, the faint sound of speech was drifting through the house, quiet and rhythmic.

He threw on a shirt and pants before exiting the bedroom, buckled his gun belt around his waist. He wasn’t going to tempt fate to send Pinkertons knocking on Charlotte’s door.

Through the main room, past the vague shapes of Sadie and Tilly lying in bedrolls with no sign of Jack, he followed the voice into the second bedroom. They’d left both bedroom doors open to better allow the heat of the fire to envelop the house, so he didn’t even interrupt the scene he stumbled into.

A kerosene lamp sat on the bedside table, casting warm, yellow light over the room. Charlotte sat in a chair just beside it, book open on her lap tilted towards the light, reading the book aloud. Arthur was still asleep, the rise and fall of his chest moving shadows on the wall. And, seated half in the other chair, half draped over the bed, was none other than Jack. John realized with a start that he had one hand wrapped around Arthur’s fingers, the most his small palm could fit around. He was watching Charlotte with nearly closed eyes as she read the book to him.

Some feeling John couldn’t identify washed over him. If he didn’t know better, he’d call it jealousy, frustration that Jack was more concerned with spending time near Arthur than his own parents. But John was familiar with jealousy, especially in regards to Arthur, and this wasn’t that. The pang in his chest was warmer, something more bittersweet.

He knocked on the doorframe to announce his presence, and Charlotte jumped, turning towards him. He shook his head, gestured for her to continue, and she did, shooting him a soft smile. John ended up sitting on the foot of the bed, careful not to disturb Arthur, letting the words—some dime novel that felt familiar in the way most dime novels made him think of Hosea—wash over him in the same way it was washing over Jack.

After a minute, he reached out, tentatively ran a hand through Jack’s hair in a way he hoped was comforting, paternal or something. It seemed to be the right move, judging by the way the kid leaned back into his touch.

Problem was, John’d never been good at being soft. Affectionate gestures were foreign enough to his childhood that the first time Dutch had reached out to give him a pat on the shoulder, he’d flinched violently away from it. It wasn’t that he didn’t know that folks could show they cared through the way they touched each other—he’d observed enough people when scoping pickpocket targets as a kid to know that when parents hugged their children, patted them on the shoulders, picked them up and let them ride on their shoulders that it usually meant they were happy, that they loved each other. Yet, somehow, he couldn’t imagine those same gestures directed his way.

He’d gotten better about it. He’d learned to enjoy casual gestures, the way Hosea used to slap him lightly on the back after a job well done, how Arthur would knock shoulders with him when they were both on the edge of drunk, and how Abigail would sometimes lay both hands on his shoulders and rub her thumbs at the base of his neck. He rarely fretted about it anymore, rarely even gave it a thought. When he hugged Arthur up on that mountain, when he thought it would be the last time he’d ever see him, that was real and even came easy, like it was natural. But with Jack—

He felt like he was playacting, whenever he was around Jack. Like he didn’t know how show how he felt. Like the love he had for his son vanished somewhere between his brain and his hands and what came out was wooden and fake.

John cursed his birth father for many things, but this maybe most of all.

Charlotte closed the book once she’d finished the chapter, and John took the opportunity to rouse Jack.

“Son,” he said, and he couldn’t tell if it was because it was the wrong word or because of Dutch, but saying it felt odd in his mouth, “You oughta get back to bed if you’re fallin’ asleep sittin’ up.”

Jack rubbed his eyes as he sat up, still half asleep. “Wanted to see Uncle Arthur.”

And there was that warm feeling again, spreading up from John’s chest. “I know, Jack. I’ll let him know you were here when he wakes up.”

Jack narrowed his eyes at John, the effect of such somewhat lost when he blinked, fighting away sleep. “Do you promise?”

“I promise. Go get back in bed. Your momma'll be worried if you ain’t there when she wakes up.”

John watched Jack out of the room, made sure he didn’t need any help before settling into the emptied second chair. Charlotte looked over at him, her face half hidden by the shadows cast off the lamp.

“I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No, no, I was…” He thought briefly of the nightmare, but couldn’t recall anything about it. Not that it mattered. “It was nice, actually. Sure Jack appreciated it. I’m sorry, by the way, if he bothered you.”

“No, of course not.” Charlotte smiled, a soft smile not directed at John, but maybe at the memory of Jack. “I was happy for the company, honestly. He’s sweet.”

“Can’t thank me for that. Gets it from his mother.”

As the room fell silent again, John let his eyes drift over to Arthur, watched again the rise and fall of his chest, looked at the way the lamp light draped over his face. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Changes maybe, anything he could grasp at to tell him how things would shake out. Whether they’d make it out of this.

Abigail’d let him in briefly, the previous afternoon, after he’d practically begged her. He noted again what he’d noted then—there wasn’t much of a damn difference. They’d gotten him into what looked to be long johns, maybe to allow better access to the wound. Someone’d cleaned his split lip, making it just a dark line against the purple bruising that surrounded it. His breathing was still shallow, but slow now, quieter in the depths of sleep.

Infection was still a dark cloud on the horizon, swirling closer and closer. All John wanted to know was whether it would blow over, or if they should prepare for a downpour.

Charlotte had noticed John looking. “He woke up, briefly, a couple hours ago. Managed to get him to drink more water, gave him a dose of laudanum.”

“How’d he seem?”

“Tired, mostly. Knew who I was, knew where he was. Couldn’t get much more before he was drifting off again.”

Tired was okay. Tired they could work with, so long as they found a decent place to hole up, somewhere further than Willard’s Rest. “Thank you, Mrs. Balfour,” John said, and meant it.

“Please, you can call me Charlotte. Same can go to the rest of your folks. Don’t see much sense in keeping formalities now.”

“Much appreciated, then, Charlotte. Happy to have you call me John as well.”

“John, then.” She directed a smile his way, before a realization spread over her face. “Oh! I said I’d tell you, if you woke up. Your friends, Mrs. Ad—Sadie,” she corrected herself, “and Tilly, they had no trouble retrieving Arthur’s horses. They’re all settled into the barn, all except one, a big gold brute? Put up a fuss, so they loosed him in back with Sadie’s horse.”

“That’d be Buell,” John supplied, heaving a sigh. “He’s a bastard but he’ll stick around if there’s good grazin'.” That was good, that was something. Arthur loved his horses, even (or maybe especially?) the mean golden stallion he’d shown up with around a month ago. He’d be happy to hear they were secured, if they could get him awake long enough to let him know.

And, of course, here was Charlotte, accommodating as always, letting them jam all their many horses in her barn, reading to Jack, feeding them, clothing them. Painfully, incomprehensively kind, all over a debt owed to Arthur.

Maybe he shouldn’t’ve asked, but he’d never been accused of having much sense. “What’d you mean yesterday, when you said you owe him your life?”

And Charlotte looked at him, and this time her eyes were sad, and John immediately regretted asking the question.

He backpedaled. “You, you don’t gotta say if you don’t—if it’s painful.”

“No,” Charlotte said, looking back towards Arthur, “No, it’s alright. It is painful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something you should know. My husband, Cal, died just about two months ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Words odd in his mouth.

“It was a bear attack. We came out here to escape city life, but the two of us didn’t know a thing about surviving out here, least of all how to hunt.” She sighed, a trembling sound, and rubbed one arm with her other hand. “Spent the last of our money just getting him bandages and laudanum. Didn’t even have enough to pay a doctor to put them on him.”

John didn’t want to hear this, didn’t want to hear about the slow, painful death of folk just trying to live good lives, but he forced himself to listen.

“Infection ended up doing him in, though I’m sure the lack of food didn’t help. I buried him, resigned myself to starving up here. Was picking flowers to put on his grave when none other than Arthur showed up, said he’d heard my crying. Told him what had happened because, you know, what else did I have left to lose? And he offered to teach me to hunt.”

Charlotte laughed, shaky and breathy, and the lantern light caught in the tears at the corner of her eyes. John’s fingers itched.

“Even then he looked thin. Thought it was rich, some man who looked lightly fed himself, giving me hunting tips. Thing was though, he was right. Good at it, even, good enough to teach me to feed myself. After a couple of his visits, I could shoot myself rabbits.

“Then, one of the last few times he was here, he passed out on my porch. Don’t know if it was hunger or exhaustion, but both seemed just about as likely as the other, seeing how he’d kept getting thinner, always seemed to be running on too little sleep. Got him into this same bed, insisted he take some food when he woke up, but I came back to the house to find him gone and nothing touched. I couldn’t—” Charlotte’s voice cracked, and she paused, took a breath. “I didn’t understand how he could be so focused on my survival when it seemed as if he was coming apart right in front of me.”

And Charlotte looked over him, seeking an explanation maybe, but John was scrambling for words, because he didn’t understand either. Not the thinness, and not the kindness either. They, the gang, had done little saving people in those last few months, no matter what Dutch'd said. And in Beaver Hollow, they’d all been focused on survival, on making it through the whole ordeal with their lives, never mind saving other people. He wracked his brain, trying to remember, trying to think. “I don’t—”

Oh. Wait a minute.

In fact, John knew exactly how Arthur had lost so much weight. How many times had Arthur given John his dinner, back when it was John still thin after Sisika? How many times, after things had started to crumble, after Pearson had stopped cooking in favor of drinking, after the other men in camp stopped contributing provisions, had he seen Arthur passing cans to the girls, to Swanson, to Grimshaw, to Abigail? How many times had he woken up to find similar canned food stacked in the corner of his tent? How many times had he overheard Abigail ask Arthur if he’d eaten, and how many times had Arthur circled around the question without answering it? That bastard.

“I reckon…” he started, and it was almost painful to get his voice around the anger boiling in his chest, “I reckon maybe he thought he weren’t the one that needed to survive.”

That goddamn self-sacrificing bastard, that run-himself-ragged piece of shit. John was going to kill Arthur Morgan himself next time he woke up.

“Anyway,” Charlotte said, when John was silent for a long moment. “That’s why I owe him. Didn’t just feed me, but gave me the key to my own survival. Isn’t the kind of thing I’d soon forget, and isn’t the kind of debt I’d allow be forgiven without some work on my part.”

“Guess you and I best both be grateful he got in the habit of savin’ folk.” John could feel his teeth grinding. How dare him, honestly, how dare Arthur think he could get away with giving every piece of himself away, like it gained him some moral victory. How dare he think he could just tear himself apart without, without even—

Without even what? Talking to someone? When had Arthur ever been one to talk to them?

John dropped his face into his hands, dragged them down so his fingers pulled on his skin, and the seething heat of anger slowly leeched away from his skin, off into the cool house air. His shoulder ached, and he shifted, let his arm rest on the bed to take some pressure off of the wound.

He wanted anger because anger was more familiar than anything else. He wished he could grab Arthur’s wrist, be sure his heart was still beating, to confirm him breathing wasn’t just a trick of the flickering lamplight.

Charlotte had been looking at him, cautious, in the way people holding fragile things were cautious. “Are you alright? How’s your shoulder?”

John smiled, hoped it looked reassuring, told her the truth. “Hurts, but a bit less so than yesterday. I’m fine.”

But she was still eyeing him, still careful, like she was circling around broken glass. The reason why became clear when she said, slowly, “Forgive me for asking, but what happened, John?” The people don’t get gunshot wounds without somebody shooting at them went unsaid, but John knew what lingered behind her words.

He didn’t want to lie to her, John discovered as he opened his mouth to try to find the right words. Didn’t want to keep praying on the hospitality of a still-grieving widow while lying to her face, didn’t want to have to hide. He took a moment to find how to say it correct, Charlotte, as always, painfully patient.

Finally, “Listen, Charlotte, I need you to know we ain’t good people. We may have saved a couple people in our time, sure, but we also hurt a lot of good folks too. What we was, it weren’t pretty.”

“Outlaws?” Charlotte asked, and John’s eyes flicked up to meet hers, only to find them calm, searching.

“Did you know?”

“Not for sure, no, but… not many men are so good with a pistol as Arthur was without being lawmen or outlaws. And he never struck me as a lawman, not with how he seemed. Haunted, maybe.”

John settled back in his chair, moved his arm back to his lap. “Outlaws,” he said, meaning it both a confirmation and an apology.

“Was it law that did it?” Charlotte asked, and when John looked at her she continued, “The gunshots?”

John snorted, a bitter edge to it. “Me, sure. Caught a Pinkerton bullet. Arthur… Arthur, no. Man that shot him was someone we ran with, name of Dutch. He—” John’s voice caught in his throat, and he cleared it uncomfortably.

This was odd, unfamiliar, laying their lives in front of a stranger, but not wholly unpleasant. Maybe John just needed more sleep, maybe he’d regret this in a few hours.

“He practically raised me and Arthur, since we were kids. Woulda laid down my life for him, gladly. If you’d’ve asked me a year ago if Dutch would ever turn a bullet on us, I’d’ve laughed. Guess…” John said, more under his breath, “guess I was wrong about that.”

“That sounds…” Charlotte looked, for the first time that night, like she was lost for words. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she tried again.

“Well,” John said, scraping a heel against the floor, “either way I can tell you it’s over. I ain’t sure what’s we’re gonna do next but I can tell you that part of our lives is done. Just,” he picked at the blankets hanging over the edge of the bed, “just wish it coulda gone without Arthur gutshot.”

A silence settled over the room. John busied himself with examining Arthur again, letting his eyes rest on his hand (curled like Jack was still holding his fingers, knuckles scraped and scabbed, blood under the nails) and his lips (parted slightly as he breathed, split and swollen from whatever’d caused the bruising on his jaw) and his eyes (pressed closed, eyebrows low, a lock of hair draped across his face caught in his eyelashes). Alive, John reminded himself. Alive, alive, alive.

Finally, Charlotte broke the silence. “Can I say something, John?”

“Go ahead.” John wasn’t looking at her, still wishing he could find a way to justify brushing the stray lock of hair off of Arthur’s face.

“I don’t know if I have any right to suggest how you move forward, seeing how my life fell apart not two months ago, but maybe the first step in figuring out what your lives will be is to figure out how you want to be.”

Now that caught John off guard. He swung his head back up towards her. “What d’you mean?”

“Maybe you weren’t good people, maybe you did bad things. But, way I see it, you all still have time to be good, and you seem to want to be better than you were, from what you’ve said to me, at least. Maybe,” she said, catching John’s eyes, “maybe just try to help people, as you go. See what happens.”

Huh. That was easier said than done.

John held her gaze for a moment, then dropped his eyes back onto Arthur. “S’lot to expect out of a bunch of strangers.”

He could hear the smile in Charlotte’s voice as she replied, “Don’t know if we can rightly call each other strangers after tonight, John.”

John found he couldn’t disagree with her.

 


 

In the morning, John found himself once again banned from participating in anything that even slightly resembled work, which, now that he’d gotten more rest, made him nearly mad with boredom. He couldn’t even commiserate with Arthur, who was still out cold. Sadie’d briefly taken pity on him, let him help check the former Pinkerton mares over for any identifying marks that might make keeping them a risk, but after that was done and they’d found none, John was sent back inside to wait.

He’d eventually posted up by Arthur’s bedside, figuring at the very least that if he were next to Arthur, he’d be kept in the loop regarding his care. For all the grief the man had given John about his recovery after the wolf attack, at least camp had been interesting, had had folks to talk to, and so it was easier to stay down and recover then. He nearly wished he were unconscious too, just to make the time with nothing to do go a little faster.

His shoulder didn’t even hurt that much, comparatively. It had stung when Abigail changed the dressing again, and he’d taken an offered shot of whiskey to take the edge off, but the shot that had nicked his leg back in Blackwater had hurt worse. Hell, his back pained him more than the gunshot, something he’d even told Abigail when she’d mentioned he had a terrific bruise covering a good portion of it from where he’d hit the ground after falling from the train. Didn’t convince her to let him do something to help.

When Sadie finally entered the room carrying a map, John was half-tempted to kiss her, the relief was so palpable. He decided against that course of action when Abigail and Tilly filed in behind her.

“We,” Sadie said, pulling the bedside table out from the wall and spreading the map on it, “need to figure out where we’re goin' next.” When John gave her a questioning look, she continued, “Figure if you’re going to continue hidin’ out in here like a kicked dog, we might as well talk in here.”

That turned John away right quick.

“Best to get more distance between here and the heat if we want to give you all any chance of healin' and making it out. Problem is,” Sadie gestured over the map, “the past few months ain't given us much in the way of places to go.”

“North?” John asked, as Abigail handed him a mug of coffee, which he gratefully accepted.

“North,” Sadie confirmed, “'less you’d like to try your luck with what lies over the Lannahechee.”

“Not if laying low is what we want,” Tilly said as John took a sip of coffee, nearly burned his tongue. “Too many folks in too close quarters over that way. I don’t particularly fancy bein’ south again neither.”

“So, our best plan may be to try to circle around the Grizzlies. Find some place to hold out the winter, let the weather freeze away anyone on our tails, and let folks heal as we do. Then,” and Sadie settled back, “we figure where we wanna go from there.”

“There’s a problem, though,” Abigail interjected. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, hand resting on Arthur’s forehead. “I think we oughta be ready for infection. John’s shoulder looked better this mornin' than it was, but certainly not even close to healed yet—” she shot John a look that very clearly indicated he shouldn’t be getting any ideas, “—and Arthur, well…”

That sent a pang through John’s stomach. He’d been kept out of the room that morning when Abigail and Tilly changed Arthur’s bandages again, when they’d woken him up just enough to get rabbit stock, courtesy of Charlotte, in to his stomach. He turned his eyes to Arthur, looking for something, anything new, finding frustratingly little. “Is it—?”

“Can’t say for sure.” She dropped her hand back to the bed. “No fever yet, and the swellin' may just be from the wound itself, but… I think it can’t hurt to be prepared. And I don’t like the ideal of plannin' more than a day or two’s travel, not when things could get worse fast and we can’t even keep him awake for more than a few minutes. And,” her face tilting to the side, then back up again, “and I think we all need rest, after all this.”

Sadie leaned against the wood wall of the room, looking contemplative. “May have an idea, then.” When they turned towards her, she gestured towards the map. “There’s a town called Beacon Brook, up in North Ambarino, no more than a two day ride. Former minin' town, now shifted more towards seasonal huntin' and loggin' with the mine dried up. Means plenty of houses left empty as the winter rolls in.”

“Big enough to hold us?” Abigail asked. “Terms of supplies, I mean.”

“Had a general store and a tavern last time I was in. Post office too. Maybe a doctor, though that I’m not certain on.” At John’s questioning look, she continued, “It’s where Jake and I used to get things we needed when the pass down to Valentine froze over. It ain’t Saint Denis, but it’s got enough.”

Abigail nodded, but Sadie continued, “There is one other thing I wanted to run by you all. I wanna go back to Beaver Hollow one more time before we leave.” John started to open his mouth, but Sadie shook her head cut him off. “Wait, let me get it out first. First of all, I want to see if there’s anythin' left there we might want returned. Imagine it’s been picked over by scavengers at this point, but things like clothes, keepsakes—ain’t valuable to them, but are valuable to us.

“Second,” and Sadie took a breath, let it sigh out, “I think it could be worth settin' up a false grave for Arthur.”

John felt his head, previously turned to take another sip of coffee, snap back up towards Sadie. “What?” He didn’t mean the slight angry edge to his voice, but it came anyway.

Sadie eyed him. “Listen, John, last time anyone after us—Pinkertons, Dutch, Micah—saw Arthur, he was dyin’ of a gut wound. If we can let them think he’s dead, Micah especially, that’s a whole lot of heat off our backs. I think it’s a good idea.”

“I…” John started, trying to find words that weren’t coming. “I, uh, alright? I guess?” The idea of Arthur having a grave was deeply, viscerally unsettling, especially when the man in question still had a hole in his stomach.

“If you don’t want me to—”

“No, no, it’s fine, it’s just…” He breathed in, out. “Just strange, alright?”

And Sadie, eyes about as soft as John thought she could get them, glanced him over. “Alright.” She tapped another hand on the map. “So, I’ll meet you all up near Beacon Brook?”

“I’d like to go with Sadie.” Tilly said suddenly, her voice sharp through the room after being mostly quiet. “If you think, Abigail, that you and John are alright to handle Arthur alone for a day or two, I think I outta go back and bury Miss Grimshaw. Woman could be a witch, sure, but she did love us, would’ve fought for all of us. If we’re already in the process of buryin' people,” Tilly shifted, folded her arms, “I’d like to be part of makin' a grave for her. Plus, Sadie, I know you can handle yourself, but I’d imagine it’ll be safer for two of us to go together.”

Sadie inclined her head towards Abigail, who asked in turn, “How long do you think you’ll all be gone?”

“Imagine we won’t be more than a half-day behind you,” Sadie said. “We’ll move faster than the wagon as well.”

“Alright then,” Abigail said, glancing over at John. “Think we can manage until then.”

They established a tentative plan. Abigail, John, and Jack would head to Beacon Brook with Arthur. Once there and once they’d found a place to hole up, they’d leave a letter under an alias for Sadie and Tilly, so they knew where to find them. Sadie and Tilly would return to Beaver Hollow, gather what was left, and create two graves, one real, one false, before following them north.

The women had been busy. The wagon was already mostly packed—as Abigail put it, the only cargo left was the menfolk and the horses. Maybe because she knew she wouldn’t be able to convince him otherwise, Abigail let John hang around while they moved Arthur to the wagon.

When Abigail woke him, he came up slow, though John thought maybe that was because of the laudanum. They went light on laudanum, back at camp, both to conserve their resources as well as to curb dependence—no one wanted a second Swanson—and so most of John’s past experiences with it were colored by the worst stretches of injury recovery. He mostly remembered feeling an all-over, full body calm that was hard to amalgamate with the lingering pain, almost to a point of being distressing. All that between the overwhelming tiredness.

It wasn’t completely unfamiliar, at the very least, to what played out with Arthur. When his eyes finally came open, he immediately tried to push himself up to sitting, movements slow, uncoordinated.

“No, stay down,” Abigail said, her voice impossibly calm. Arthur’s eyes slid over her, seemed to recognize her, blinked once before settling back down with a sharp exhale.

“Ain’t dead yet?” Arthur’s voice was quiet, pained, but clearer, less slurred than the previous day, which John chose to view as a good thing.

“Not yet,” Abigail replied, with a tone that suggested the conversation was familiar. “Time for us to move. Means we need to move you.”

Arthur heaved a sigh, face twinged like it pained him. After a moment his eyes flicked up, around the room, and settled on John, who hadn’t been able move from his spot at the end of the bed. The look Arthur gave him—straight concern he was unable to hide behind his usual layers of stoic anger—froze John further. “John?”

John swallowed, the saliva thick in his throat. “Yeah, it’s me.”

Arthur glanced him up and down, squinted, muttered, “Y’look terrible.”

John snorted, and that was enough to loosen him, allow his body to untense. “Ain’t such a pretty sight yourself.”

And Arthur’s mouth quirked, and maybe that was satisfactory for now.

Abigail and Tilly took Arthur under his shoulders, helped him up to his feet. Unlike the previous day, Arthur could keep his feet under him, which John also chose to read as a good sign, as something hopeful.

John followed the group outside, where, last he knew, Charlotte was helping Sadie hitch, tack, and string the horses. Around halfway to the wagon, they were interrupted by a nicker, soft, and then again, louder. John glanced up to see the source—Arthur’s big black shire, nostrils flaring and ears pricked, trying his best to pull free from Sadie’s hands on his lead so he could charge over to Arthur.

Most of what John knew of Arthur’s horses came from passing experience. Horses Arthur brought along when they worked jobs together, horses that he brought back to camp while John was around, and, with some, horses the camp gossiped about.

What he knew of the shire was this: Arthur called him Sampson. He mostly brought the stallion along for hunting trips, or other jobs that called for heavy lifting more than speed. Hosea had brought the horse in, originally, and that was likely why Hosea was the only one besides Arthur that could approach the shire during the first few weeks Arthur had him at camp. Even after Arthur had worked him more, the horse’s tolerance for most people was limited to grooming and leading, not riding. Most importantly, maybe, the thing adored Arthur in the same way a large dog might.

With that in mind, John was about to open his mouth before Arthur beat him to it. “Best let him over,” he called to Sadie, voice pained and shaking but firm.

And Sadie did, letting Sampson yank himself over, until he was close enough to bump his nose against Arthur’s chest. The big stallion lipped at the collar of Arthur’s long johns, gentle, not even nibbling like Old Boy had want to do when he’d been hounding John for treats.

“Aw, boy, I got nothin’ for you,” Arthur said, but the shire was undeterred, switching from the fabric to Arthur’s hair. Arthur freed an arm, letting himself lean more heavily on Tilly as he brought a hand up, rubbed his fingers lightly over the soft pink of the stallion’s nose. The horse snorted, brought his head back down enough that Arthur’s hands were in reach of his neck, and settled on sniffing at Arthur’s stomach instead. Arthur, scratching the stallion just behind the halter, directed his gaze towards Sadie. “’ppreciate you gettin’ them.”

“Weren’t all me,” she said, nodding towards Tilly. “Had some help.”

“Thank you, Miss Tilly,” Arthur murmured, and Tilly was already shaking her head.

“It was nothin’. Happy to wrangle some horses anytime you need. Even that nasty gold one you insist on keepin’ around.”

Arthur snorted, muttered, “Aw, Buell ain’t so bad once you know him.”

Finally, when the shire snorted, seemingly satisfied, he allowed Sadie to pull him away. Arthur similarly allowed himself to be helped into the wagon, but not before John caught a smile playing over his face. That settled warm in John’s chest as well.

Once the horses were settled and they were about ready to move out, Charlotte caught John by the arm. They’d all, Charlotte included, decided it was safer for her not to know where they were headed, not until the heat died down. Even then, John found he was sad to see her left behind.

“Been saying this to everyone, but I wanted to make sure you’ll all write, once it’s safe to. Especially if…” Charlotte paused, gestured towards the wagon where Arthur was, “…well, you know.”

John wanted to wince with the sharp jolt of worry that ran through his stomach. “We will, Charlotte, course we will.”

“Thank you.”

John grabbed her hand before she could go, held it in his. When she turned back, John said, his voice low without him really knowing why, “I just wanted to say thank you.” And when she moved like she was going to brush off the thanks, he continued, “No, really and truly. Don’t know if we deserved the chance you gave us, but all the same. Thank you.”

And Charlotte just smiled, patted his hand. “It was the least I could do.”

In his walk back to the wagon, ready to load himself up, Sadie intercepted him, holding the reins of a fully tacked Bob. Tilly was taking one of the Pinkerton mares—a flea-bitten grey that looked to be a quarter horse—which was also tacked and ready to move out.

“Just wanted to say good luck one last time before we go,” Sadie said, patting John once on the shoulder.

“Same goes for you two.”

“Remember, keep a low profile. Trouble of any kind, justified or not, is gonna make it hard for you all to lay low.”

And that itched at John, because the idea of laying low itched at him. “Sadie, do you… do you really think we’ll be able to get past it? Layin' low ain’t ever seemed to work for long, s’the thing.”

The look Sadie gave him was one John was one he was tired of seeing. “Y’know, I ain’t ever really seen you all lay low. Sure, Dutch gave lip service to the idea, but just as soon would be doing something loud and flashy that brought the law right back in. Maybe you all oughta learn what layin' low actually looks like, and then refigure from there.”

She was right, she was right, of course she was right, but—John couldn’t help but remember Hosea at that moment, back at Shady Belle, resigned to a life that would kill him, knowing there was no way out but knowing he didn’t know how to live any other way.

John didn’t say any of that. Instead, he returned her shoulder pat, said, “Be careful, Sadie.”

“Could say the same thing to you.” She shot him a half-smile, then swung into the saddle. “C’mon, we’ll accompany you all out to the road.”

They rolled out, waving goodbye to Charlotte Balfour, and then again to Sadie and Tilly at the end of the road. Then they were off, north towards Beacon Brook.

The next day, Arthur came down hard with fever.

Chapter Text

Once, around a year after John had joined up with the gang, Arthur had been bitten by a snake.

They’d been scouting for Dutch, him and John, poking around the grounds of some manor that housed folks Hosea and Dutch intended to work over. They were to see if they could find some decent escape routes, or anything they could otherwise use to their advantage. Usual fare. John knew, even then, that it was mostly meant to get him out of camp, where his boredom lead to him needling at the adults near constantly until even Bessie was sick of him. Arthur had been sent along with to keep an eye on him, a job he’d eventually acquiesced to after no small amount of arguing, seething, and pointed glares at Dutch, Hosea, John, and anyone else to cross his path. It was, in all regards, meant to be an easy job, something safe, just enough to burn off John’s extra energy.

They’d been bickering about something John couldn’t even remember now. It was the same sort of argument they’d always had when John was a kid and Arthur was still mostly a boy trying very hard to act like he was properly grown. Whatever the cause, it had grown loud enough as they trudged through the underbrush, not even on the grounds yet, that they’d missed the initial warning rattles.

Arthur’d finally heard just in time to grab John by the collar of his shirt, to drag him out of the way of the snake’s first strike. The second strike caught Arthur in his leg, sunk deep in the flesh of his calf.

Both of them scrambled away from the snake after that, of course, and John even tried to suck out the poison, something they’d both heard rumors of working, but the damage had been done—by the time they got back to their horses, Arthur was struggling to get a good grip on the reins with numb fingers. They hadn’t brought anything in the way of medicine. It was meant to be an easy task.

John had moved to head into the nearby town, closer than where they set up camp. Though small, there was a doctor, and though they didn’t have much with them in the way of money, John was sure he could leverage something, Arthur’s horse, maybe, to convince the man to start treating Arthur while he rode to get Hosea and Dutch. Instead, Arthur had hauled his mare’s head around, pulling too hard on her mouth, and sent her charging in the direction of camp.

John’d spurred his own horse up to Arthur’s, screamed, “What are you doin'? There’s a doctor in town!”

Arthur shook his head, said loud enough to be heard over the pounding hooves, “Camp. Dutch, Hosea, they’ll help.”

And John clenched his jaw, snarled as harshly as his thirteen-year-old voice could manage, “So would the doctor!”

Arthur’s voice had an edge of desperation. “No, need to go home.”

So John followed.

Not long after, Arthur had leaned as far out of the saddle as he could, emptied the contents of his stomach, and lost his already shaky grip on his mare’s reins. John had snatched them, hoped Arthur’s legs could still keep him in the saddle, and, despite his misgivings, spurred the horses towards their camp.

After they’d gotten back, John’d been left alone as all the grown folk converged on a half-conscious Arthur. They’d laid him up in Dutch’s cot, as, out of the two cots in camp at the time, Dutch’s was more sheltered in his tent than the one Hosea and Bessie shared.

As John washed the vomit from the shoulder of Arthur’s mare, he’d watched as Miss Grimshaw and Bessie helped Hosea get some ginseng concoction down Arthur’s throat, had heard Hosea bark at Dutch, “Quit pacing, we can’t do more than wait now. Go make yourself useful,” and had tried to keep himself from panicking. Long after things had quieted down and Arthur’s horse was next to sparkling, John wandered into Dutch’s tent and perched next to Hosea on one of the stools arranged haphazardly around Arthur’s bedside.

“He’ll be okay,” Hosea said through his cigarette, no doubt seeing the way John paled when looking over a sweating, twitching, incoherent Arthur. “You did good, John, getting him back here.”

“Tried to suck the poison out,” John muttered, though it sounded much less impressive when said out loud.

“Didn’t swallow any, did you?”

John shook his head, watching Arthur’s fingers spasm.

“Good,” Hosea said, taking another drag. “Don’t think Dutch could handle both of you snakebit at once. Stress might drop him dead on the spot.”

“Tried to get him to that doctor in town, bein’ closer ‘n all. Didn’t want to hear it. Said we needed to come back here.”

“Ah,” Hosea said, and John’d looked over at him just to see him watching Arthur. “Well, that does sound like our boy.”

John had waited a second, glanced down at Arthur, then back to Hosea. “Why?”

Hosea laughed softly. “First and foremost, he’s a fool,” he said, unable to keep the affection from his voice and eyes. “Same sort of fool Dutch seems to attract like flies to vinegar.”

Hosea reached out, brushed the hair away from Arthur’s face, felt his forehead. When he leaned back, he must’ve caught the smug edge of John’s smile out of the corner of his eye.

“Mind you don’t tell Arthur I called him one, lest you forget the man you’re ratting on has the power to assign you to latrine duty for weeks.” Hosea dropped the spent cigarette on the ground, crushing it with his heel as he settled back into his chair. “Here, I’ll put it this way, John. Once, not more’n a month or two after we’d taken Arthur under our wing, he didn’t come back to camp one night. He must’ve been, what, thirteen? Fourteen? We were set up just outside of some little mining town in Ohio called Perkins and Dutch’d sent Arthur in to see if he couldn’t drum up information folks weren’t willing to give to two grown men. When he wasn’t back after sundown, Dutch and I split up, scoured that town looking for him.

“Dutch was the one who found him, tucked into some alley behind the general store. Don’t recall if we ever got the full story out of him, but from what he did tell some older boys had worked him over pretty hard after they’d had an argument Arthur was too proud to back down from. Broke his nose, split his lip, thankfully didn’t break any ribs but came damn close. Weren’t so bad that he couldn’t make the walk back to camp, ‘course, but we think he was afraid. Thought we might throw him out, maybe beat him worse, if he came back bloodied and with nothing to show for it.

“Dutch says all he’d said to Arthur when he found him was that if he were ever hurt, ever in trouble, he should come find us, come back home, and we’d help him. Way Arthur told it to me though, you’d think he were talking about the second coming of the Lord. Dutch showed that boy one scrap of kindness that weren’t conditional on him being useful, and it was like he’d given a feast to a starving man.

“Since then, Arthur’s been like this. Ain’t necessarily a bad thing, seeing as he almost always thinks it through enough to lose the law, or hide out instead if he’s not confident he won’t be tracked back to camp. Also ain’t ever found him at a doctor, though, unless Dutch or I put him there ourselves.”

Arthur made a low, pained noise in the back of his throat, and John started, previously lost in the trance any of Hosea’s stories threw him into. Hosea stood, leaned forward, said something softly to Arthur John couldn’t hear while he smoothed back Arthur’s hair. It took a minute, but Arthur had quieted, falling deeper into the restless half-sleep he’d been slipping in and out of.

“You know, that goes for you too, John,” Hosea had murmured, patting John on the shoulder as he sat back in his chair. “If you’re ever hurt bad, ever think you’re dyin’, come find me or Dutch, so long as it won’t bring men with guns down on the heads of the defenseless folk at camp. We’ll help you. We aren’t the kind of people that’ll dump a kid for getting hurt. Could never be.” Hosea lit another cigarette, sighing as he crossed a leg. “Still, if a doctor is closer, maybe make that your first priority, lest you pass out in your saddle on the way back to camp.” Hosea shook his head, eyes on Arthur again, a fond tone to his voice. “Damn fool of a boy.”

 


 

John hadn’t thought on that conversation in a long, long time, but he knew immediately when Abigail called from the back of wagon, “John, he’s askin’ for Dutch,” that things were bad.

“Stay here,” he told Jack, slowing the horses and looking towards Abigail. “Do you—?”

“You outta go back there,” she said, climbing up into the front seat. “Can’t get him to calm down. Fever’s got him losin' time.”

“And you think I…?”

“You’ve known the man longer than I have, John, it’s at least worth tryin’. Just get him to lie down, and hopefully the laudanum will do the rest.”

“And after?”

Abigail gave him solid, unwavering look. “After that, we best find a place to wait the infection out.”

When he crawled back into the wagon, leaving Abigail to drive the horses, John was greeted with a sweating, panting, shivering Arthur, sitting pressed against the side panel of the wagon.

“Hey,” John murmured, arms out in what he hoped was a placating gesture, “hey, Arthur, it’s alright, it’s me.”

And Arthur’s eyes flicked to John, and they were hazy, unfocused, even more so than when John woke him on the mountain. “John? John, we need… I need…”

John knelt next to Arthur, hands still held in front of him. He didn’t want to get too close when Arthur was confused, knew from past experience that Arthur’s first instinct was always to fight. “Arthur, you’re fine, okay? Just, just calm down.”

But Arthur was shaking his head, “No, no, John, y’don’t—need to find Dutch, somethin’—somethin’s wrong, I…”

John’s chest ached. “Arthur—” his voice catching, “—Arthur, we can’t, Dutch ain’t… Do you remember? Dutch ain’t gonna—”

But of course Arthur didn’t remember, not with the fever tugging away at his brain, muddling his sense of time, and all it accomplished was Arthur glaring up at him. “Dutch will help.” His voice with bite to it this time, despite the shake. Then, less certain, “Dutch ‘nd Hosea, ‘f Hosea weren’t… ‘f Hosea… I can’t…”

And that wasn’t a train of thought John wanted Arthur going down when he was fevered, unanchored. John was familiar enough with the flavor of grief fever dreams without the loss being a real one. He sighed, rubbed a hand on his face, gave in. “Okay, Arthur, okay, we’ll go see Dutch, okay?” He put a hand on Arthur’s knee, hoped it read as comforting, more genuine. He could feel the heat of the fever through the fabric of the long johns. “Just go back to sleep.”

Arthur was staring hard at him. “Back to camp?”

Yes, Arthur.” He doubted Arthur would remember the conversation and, if he did, John could deal with that later. “Lie back down.”

Arthur was still giving him a look, like he was trying to gauge whether what John told him was true. Finally, finally he gave in, shifted enough to use the wagon wall to lower himself back down onto the bedroll. John moved to help, but Arthur waved him off. “Ain’t an invalid,” he muttered, and John decided it wasn’t worth arguing with a fevered man over whether an infected hole in the stomach rightly counted as invalided, though he was sorely tempted. At least Arthur was lying down, and that was all Abigail’d tasked him.

John was about to crawl back into the front of the wagon when Arthur’s voice trailed over to him. “Somethin’s wrong,” he murmured again, barely loud enough for John to hear. When John looked over, Arthur’s eyes were closed.

The worry in John’s stomach had turned to a deep, pulsing hurt. “What d’you mean?”

“Stag’s back.”

“What does that mean?”

Arthur’s eyes rolled open, blinked up at John. “Should’ve left me be.”

They were getting nowhere. “Arthur, I… what?”

But Arthur didn’t answer, eyes sliding closed, drifting back under the pull of either the laudanum or the fever. His breathing was labored, sweat still a shine against his forehead. John pulled the blankets back over Arthur before he leaned against one of the crates, let out a long, shuddering sigh. He suddenly felt exhausted, like his muscles couldn’t hold him up anymore.

 


 

The first few homesteads they tried were no good. The first two were inhabited—John caught grazing animals and chimney smoke through the binoculars before they even got close. The third was quiet enough for John to approach, leaving Abigail with the wagon on the road, only to find that the house’s roof had caved in.

The fourth, however. The fourth was a sizable construction, few miles south of Beacon Brook, sheltered by the surrounding pine and a hill that rose steep behind it. Well back from any road, enough to not draw any attention. The house was spacious, as far as John could tell from the outside, as were the barn and the fully fenced pasture that stretched far around the back of the house. The withered garden and uncleared debris in the yard suggested abandoned, but it took a while for John to figure out why, since the house was relatively untouched when he took a wander through.

However, the barn door was ajar, and when John opened it fully the smell of old decay hit him in a wave. It wasn’t the worst rot he’d smelled, but, maybe because worry already had him on the edge of nausea, the scent made his stomach roll. He pulled his shirt up over his nose, opened the barn door fully to let the sunlight shine in, to see the source of the decay lying in the middle of the dirt floor.

The man—John was guessing by the clothes—had been dead for several months at least. Not long enough to be reduced to bones, but long enough that the majority of the mass of the body was gone. John stepped closer, crouched down.

Thing was, there wasn’t any sign of violence, aside from the dead body of course. No blood trail away from the body, no blood on the clothing, no shattered bones from a bullet. What hair left over was white, worn, old, and not far from the man’s outstretched arm was a pitchfork, almost like it’d been dropped.

If John had to guess, the old man keeled over one day in the middle of his work. Judging by the fact that the homestead was undisturbed, that suggested either a lack of family or none that cared enough to check in. Abigail thought the same when he reported back, with the added stipulation that they best set a watch once Sadie and Tilly got in.

Either way, it seemed their best option to hunker down in, wait out what they could.

 


 

John let Jack down to explore, warning him to stay close, be careful, and don’t go near the barn. He loosed the horse string into the paddock to get them out of the way, narrowly avoiding a bite from Buell while doing so. Then, he and Abigail set about getting Arthur inside the house. Only—

Abigail couldn’t wake Arthur up. Or, maybe more accurately, she couldn’t keep him conscious for more than a few seconds, a couple of mumbled words, before he was slipping back under again. Said as much to John as he stood at the edge of the wagon.

“Ain’t that bad?” John asked. His gut was churning again, and his knuckles were white where he gripped the wood of the wagon.

Abigail looked back at him, and her eyes were firm, grounding. “Ain’t good, sure, but ain’t worth lookin’ at me like the world is ending neither. Just…” Abigail brushed her hands against the skirt of her dress. “Just makes things a bit more complicated, is all.” She looked John over. “How’s your shoulder feelin’?”

“What d’you mean?”

“If we used a blanket, brought him in that way, could you hold up one end?”

His shoulder still ached, still felt sharp when he moved it, but as long as he kept it steady— “I could hold it.”

“It’ll only be a short distance,” Abigail said, laying out a blanket to fold to the right shape and size. “After that, I’m making you rest it again.”

“Didn’t ever doubt that part was comin’,” John said, and the small smile Abigail shot him took the edge off the rolling of his stomach.

 


 

The calm lasted up until they got Arthur into bedroom closest to the door and settled onto the bed. Then Abigail peeled back some of the bandages on Arthur’s torso and the smell of the wound made John gag.

He managed to get out the door before he started heaving, sending the half-digested beans he’d eaten that morning down into the overgrown grass. He stood stooped, braced with an arm against the outside wall of the house, retching and retching until all that came were dry heaves, until he finally forced his thoughts away from Arthur dying, Arthur dead, until his stomach finally calmed. He could handle viscera. He could handle decay. The heavy smell of infection, lodged in the gut of someone he cared about?

He was left panting, weak legged, shaking. He leaned back against the wall, slid down so he was sitting next to his own sick.

John was never good at control, could never force his feelings so far down that they barely showed on his face. He’d never been able to pretend to feel something he wasn’t. Usually that meant anger, meant starting fistfights or dueling someone in the street, meant breaking someone’s nose or someone breaking his.

Now though—now he could feel thick, hot tears running down his face, and knew his only option was to ride them out.

Thing was, John couldn’t even figure out why he was crying—why now, out of all the moments in the past few days? He hadn’t when Dutch left him behind, he hadn’t when Arthur told him to go, he hadn’t when he had stumbled upon Arthur’s body and was sure he was dead. He’d cried when seeing Abigail, of course, but that had been relief, not this. All the hurt, pain, exhaustion of the past four days and some smell was what pushed him over?

It felt like John was drowning.

He trusted Abigail, of course, knew she had spent as much time as she could learning from Swanson, from Hosea, from anyone else in camp with some knowledge or experience with medicine, prepping for the day she might get Jack out. Still, maybe this was too much. Maybe this was out of their control. Maybe, after everything, they were still going to lose Arthur.

His breathing hitched, now coming in sobs, and John couldn’t get enough air, couldn’t let his chest expand enough to be adequate.

And then Abigail was there, wonderful, beautiful, perfect Abigail, kneeling on the grass in front of him, asking if he was okay, if something hurt, if he felt chilled, hands going to his shoulder, his forehead. Because, of course—she probably thought he was sick, that he’d reinjured himself.

Somehow she must’ve worked the truth out of the mumbled and half-thought response he gave her, because Abigail took his face in her hands, directed it towards her own. “You listen to me, John Marston. We have done everythin’ in our power to keep Arthur alive, and we will keep doin’ everythin’ we damn well can. But I need you to know if this don’t turn out the way we hope, that it ain’t your fault, and it ain’t mine, and it ain’t no one else’s fault ‘cept the fool who shot him, and he’s long gone. Beatin’ yourself up, or gettin’ angry, none of that does us any good.” She pulled his head closer, made sure his eyes met hers. “I need you with me, alright?”

Slowly, as his breath came back to him, as he got control back, John choked out, “Alright.”

“Okay,” Abigail said, wiping one of his cheeks with the back of her hand, before standing and offering him a hand up, which he took. Once he was on his feet, she wrapped him in a hug, her arms warm against his back. “Whatever happens, you have me.”

John leaned into her, rested his chin on her head. Things weren’t fixed completely—anxiety still a pit in the well of his stomach—but with everything out, tears and vomit all, they were better, he felt better, than he had in hours, in days, maybe. “Thanks, Abigail,” he murmured against her hair.

She let him go, patted his arm once. “Now,” she said, as John used his shirt to scrub at his face, “if you think you can stomach it, I could use a hand in getting his fever down.”

 


 

Later, while Abigail rode into Beacon Brook to drop off the letter John’d penned for Tilly and Sadie, John found himself wandering the house between frequent check-ins on Arthur. They’d given him some tea—something with feverfew, what little dried Abigail had managed to save from both Blackwater and Beaver Hollow—which was difficult enough to do when they couldn’t get Arthur fully conscious. Now Abigail had him switching out cold cloths on Arthur’s forehead. John couldn’t tell if the whole ordeal was really doing much, but Arthur had settled more, seemed less restless, so maybe that was something.

John, on the other hand.

The nausea had mostly settled, but instead it felt like he itched all over. Clearing out the barn didn’t help. He wrapped the body in a sheet, moved it outside, scraped loose dirt and hay over what was left so that they could move the horses in if they needed, and still his skin prickled. He checked over the horses, picking hooves and currying away mud and looking for travel-related injuries best he knew how, and still. Staring at Arthur was out, because having his eyes on Arthur more than was strictly necessary per Abigail’s instructions now made John’s mood swing wildly between wanting to hit something and wanting to cry again, neither of which seemed productive at the moment.

So, instead, John found himself searching the drawers in the house, desperate for anything to settle his brain on that wasn’t the events of the past four days.

The house was sizable, as homesteads went. Three bedrooms, two with double beds, one, Arthur’s, a single. A main room that included a kitchen area, a wooden table and chairs, and some more plush furniture, though, like the mattresses on the beds, they were slightly mouse-eaten. The well outside still drew water, and there were still cans of food tucked into the cabinets.

As far as he could tell, the previous owner of the house was called Albert Russell, based on the amount of letters he found addressed to the man stashed away in a cabinet drawer. Seemed he’d had family, at one point, and maybe that accounted for the size of the homestead, but all letters were dated from years ago, like no more were coming. John skimmed the letters, pacing back and forth between rooms, trying to get any sort of information he could out of them. Whether the man had been sick, whether he had money that might still be stashed in the house, who might come looking for him or his potential riches.

He’d passed Jack several times in this affair, first picking flowers and tearing up grass outside, then reading one of his books out loud to himself on one of the couches inside, then finally flipping through some other book quietly in one of the chairs at the table. John wasn’t paying close attention to him, was focused on keeping himself from thinking about Arthur.

That is, up until he caught a closer look at what Jack was poring over and realized— “Jack, that ain’t yours.”

It was a gut reaction more than anything else, and John regretted the harsh tone almost as soon as it was out of his mouth, because Jack went wary, pulled Arthur’s journal closer to himself, and said, “Uncle Arthur lets me look at the pictures.”

“Sure,” John said, “but…” John’d tossed Arthur’s satchel on the table when they were unloading the basics from the wagon with some vague plan to sort through it, see what they could use. Seemed Jack was quicker on the draw on that one. “It ain’t polite to look through people’s things.”

“But Uncle Arthur said I could.”

“Maybe he did before, but…” And here John was, wishing Abigail were here, as usual, because she knew what to say. Because she knew how to be a parent, because she knew how to interact with Jack. Hell, John would take Arthur and his condescending looks, even, because at least Arthur seemed to know kids, because—

Because Arthur wasn’t John. Because losing control always seemed to be on the edges of John’s fingertips.

He took a breath, tried again. Tried to emulate Abigail, Arthur, some mix between the two. “Now, Jack, what would Uncle Arthur say if I told him you looked through it without him knowin’?”

“He’d say it was okay,” Jack said, with all the overemphasized assurance of a child saying something they knew to be untrue.

“Would he?”

“Maybe… maybe not.”

“So maybe you shouldn’t be lookin’.”

Jack’s lower lip trembled, just a bit, before he lifted his chin, met John’s eyes squarely. “But, Pa, all I wanted was to see the picture of Cain.”

John felt his resolve crumble immediately. He hadn’t been there when Cain disappeared, but he had heard the gist—that Arthur was pretty damn sure Micah had killed the camp dog, the dog that Jack adored. One more thing to add to the list of things they lost.

John pulled out a chair, sat down next to Jack. “Tell you what, Jack. You can look at the picture of Cain, but you gotta tell Arthur you were lookin’ next he wakes up.” If, John’s mind supplied, unbidden, if he wakes up. “If you can do that, then you can look through his journal. Okay?”

“I will,” Jack said with exaggerated seriousness.

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

“Alright then.”

Jack snatched the book up from his lap again, flipping rapidly through the pages. And then he, to John’s utmost surprise, held the book out to John, open to what was, indeed, a drawing of a dog. “See,” Jack said, “that’s Cain. You can tell by the spots on his ears.” Jack pointed to what he meant, finger hovering just over the page, not touching.

“I see,” John said, and Jack quickly flipped back a few pages, past words and scribbles and drawings he seemed to deem unimportant until, finally, he settled on a drawing of a poodle, clipped into a continental cut.

He once again held the journal up for John to see. “Uncle Arthur said he saw that dog when we were camped next to the lake. I wanted to go see it, because it looked funny, but Momma said it wasn’t safe.” And before John could get in a word edgewise, Jack was flipping backwards again, showing him dogs and horses and birds and big, two page sketches of a deer and an elk and a wolf and drawings of camp, of folks laughing and dancing and cleaning and sleeping and living and—

It’d been so long since John had seen any of Arthur’s drawings. Used to be when Arthur’d sit by the campfire, trying his hardest to draw from his memory something he’d seen that day, he’d let John sit close enough to watch, to see the way he pulled the pencil across the paper, the way vague lines came together into something recognizable. Arthur’d always said it was because it was the only thing that kept John quiet, to watch him draw. However, John knew it was also one of the few things that kept Dutch and Hosea to lay off the doting parent acts they were both wont to pull whenever Arthur sketched, and Arthur saw that as an added benefit.

Of course, those moments grew fewer and farther between as they got older, as the gang grew, as more people needed more attention, and as private interests became private. John couldn’t remember one time after that year away from the gang that he’d seen Arthur draw anywhere but the privacy of his own tent.

“That’s me and Momma and Uncle Hosea,” Jack was saying, gesturing to a full page drawing—the vague but unmistakable shapes of Hosea and Jack sitting in front of John’s own tent, leaning over what must’ve been a book. The figure just behind them hovering nervously had to be Abigail, just based on the way she held herself, like she was fighting herself to stay out of the process. And then—

“That’s you, Pa,” Jack said as he settled the page in place, held it up for John to see. It was indeed John’s own face, drawn in almost painful detail. It had to’ve been from after John’s bandages came off, after the wolf attack—the stitches still stark against his cheek and nose, and the non-stitched scratches dark against the white of the paper. But that wasn’t all. Arthur’d detailed his eyes, the scar across John’s lips, the hair that fell to the sides of his face. In the drawing John was smiling, despite the fact he couldn’t remember smiling much at all in the first few weeks at Horseshoe.

Beneath the drawing, Arthur had written “Marston’s new mug”, underlined once. On purpose, because Arthur didn’t draw lines to write on like John still did.

John leaned back in the chair, drew breath into his chest slow.

John felt—

He didn’t know how he felt. One second his eyes would burn like he was about to start crying, the next his chest felt next to bursting. He clenched his fist hard in the fabric of his jeans, willed himself to calm down.

Eventually he found himself saying, “Is that it, Jack?” as Jack shut the journal.

And Jack nodded, said, “Those are the good ones. There’s a lot of boring stuff too.”

“Aw,” John said, trying to loosen the tense feeling in his muscles, “your uncle can’t help that. He’s pretty boring himself.”

“That isn’t very nice.” But Jack had the edge of the smile at the corners of his mouth, one that grew wider when John gave him a grin he hoped would indicate he was teasing.

The house fell silent for a moment, longer, and John was half-considering getting up, checking in on Arthur again, when Jack spoke up again.

“Pa?” He was looking at John, eyes level, more serious than John’d ever seen on a four-year-old. “Is Uncle Arthur gonna be okay?”

The weight was back in John’s chest, overbearing, crushing. They’d kept Jack on the front seat of the wagon for most of the trip north. In part because it made them less likely to be flagged down by law or road agents, having a kid visible, but mostly to keep Jack away from the worst of Arthur’s injuries. Still, it had to be obvious, even to a four-year-old, that how Arthur was wasn’t good.

John settled back in his chair, decided, reluctantly, to be honest. Abigail could get after him about it later, if it turned out to be a mistake. “Listen, Jack, we ain’t sure yet if he’s gonna be okay. Your momma, she’s doin’ everything she can, and Uncle Arthur is strong, but—” John felt his voice crack, cleared his throat before continuing. “But we don’t know yet.”

Jack turned back to the journal in his lap and John was certain he’d said the wrong thing, that Jack was going to start crying and John would have no idea how to handle that. Instead, though, Jack huffed a sigh, placing Arthur’s journal up on the table. “I want people to stop goin’ away.”

“Yeah,” John said, heaving a sigh of his own, “yeah, Jack, me too.”

 


 

John had settled in next to Arthur when he heard the thump of hooves in the packed dirt, approaching the house. He’d managed to reach a state of balance, something not quite calm but also not overwhelmed by emotions he couldn’t process. Arthur still hadn’t woken up, but instead seemed to fall back and forth between restless half-sleep and stiller, deeper sleep. Still breathing rapidly, still sweating. Several times John caught names Arthur muttered under his breath—mostly Dutch, Hosea, but sometimes others, gang members old and new, dead and disappeared—but he couldn’t parse anything else out of Arthur’s mouth. Arthur didn’t seem to respond at all to his voice either.

When he heard the horses, John straightened immediately, hand going to his gunbelt as he moved to the window. The hammering of his heart eased when he caught sight of not only Abigail approaching the house, but Tilly, Sadie, and none other than one Charles Smith.

John greeted them just outside the front door, offered to take saddlebags between hugs and was quickly denied the privilege of helping. Maybe he was showing the pain in his shoulder more than he thought he was. Intermittently, as they unloaded the horses, he was fed the story.

Apparently Charles had ridden down to Beaver Hollow after rumor of the final Pinkerton attack had reached the Wapiti—spread fast, through folks fleeing the gunshots, through a few particular Van Der Linde survivors crowing about their own survival. Charles’d gone thinking that those left alive after the attack hadn’t been able to bury the bodies in their own scramble to survive. He’d thought he owed them all that much, especially since one of the rumored dead was Arthur Morgan.

Once in Beaver Hollow, he and Sadie and Tilly had nearly stumbled right over each other while they’d both been scouting the area for Pinkerton patrols. The three of them had searched the remains of camp, tried to gather what personal possessions were left. The area had clearly been scavenged, since most of their medicine or canned food was gone, though it maybe wasn’t law that did it, since Miss Grimshaw’s body was still where it lay, and usually the law collected bodies.

They’d buried her on a hillside, somewhere up, away from the mess of Beaver Hollow, where she could still look out and survey her domain. Tilly promised to mark the place on a map for those who wanted to visit.

Arthur’s grave they made further northwest, on the western edge of the East Grizzlies. It was on the edge of some cliffs, facing west—by all accounts, the type of place Arthur would want to be buried, if he were dead. John had to bite his tongue before he mentioned that they still might need the gravesite.

Sadie, Tilly, and Charles had camped somewhere north of Donner Falls for the night, rode out early that morning. Then, on their way into Beacon Brook, they’d encountered Abigail on her way out, completely by chance. That brought them back to the homestead together.

By this time they’d moved into the house, Jack greeting everyone with enthusiasm. He tugged at Charles’s pant leg, asking questions that Charles obliged with answers.

Charles looked good. Or, at least, better than any of the rest of them, seeing as he was uninjured and marginally well rested. He seemed relieved to see them all too—as much as John could parse Charles’s expressions, subtle as they were in a way John could never relate to. And yet, whenever Charles turned his eyes to John, warm as they were, John felt his stomach drop.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy to see Charles, because he was. Despite only knowing the man for a year and not growing particularly close during that time, he trusted Charles far more than most of the men left alive from the gang. Charles was reliable, firm, had never brandished a gun at John, had never shot

It was guilt, John realized, as the group moved into Arthur’s room, as he watched Charles rest the back of his hand on Arthur’s forehead while Abigail caught the rest up. The feeling lodged in his throat was guilt. Because while John wasn’t particularly close to Charles, Arthur was. In the past few months, Arthur had built a firm camaraderie with Charles, an easy way of working together, to a point where even John knew that they trusted each other to watch each other’s backs.

And as soon as Charles left, John let Arthur get shot. Wasn’t that something.

Abigail was saying something, pulling John from his own thoughts.

“I think we outta find a way to get him seen by a doctor.” Abigail leaned on one of the bedposts, arms crossed. “A real doctor, someone what does it professionally. I think,” Abigail gestured towards Arthur, “I think this is beyond me. And I ain’t about to let him die for my own pride.”

“That bad?” Sadie asked.

“Well, it ain’t like we can amputate. We either wait it out, or we see if a doctor might do somethin' more. Would rather do the second before things get worse.”

It was, to John’s surprise, Charles who spoke up. “May know someone. There’s a man, a doctor, who’s been traveling with the Wapiti the few days before I rode down. If he’s still there, and if Rains Fall can spare him, he may agree to help.”

“Can we trust him?” John found himself saying, more out of habit than anything else. The air in the room was too heavy, was making it hard to focus.

“Renaud is a colored man treating natives for almost no pay in return. I don’t know about trust, but I don’t see him as the type of man to turn us over, so long as we aren’t hurting people.”

“How long to get him here?” Abigail asked.

“The tribe is moving north, same as you all, but slower. If he agrees, I could get him back here in a few hours.”

“You’ve been travelin’ all day, you don’t gotta—” Abigail started, but Charles held up a hand, cut her off.

“I’m alright, I’m more rested than you all. Taima, though, I’m not sure if she can handle another ride without rest.”

That was something John could answer. “We have Arthur’s horses. The arabian, maybe? What’d he call—?”

“Fenella?” Charles asked, because of course he knew the names of Arthur’s horses better than John did. “Sure she can hold me?”

“If she could cart Arthur around she could handle you for a few hours. She’s fast too, ain’t she? Here,” John said, gesturing for Charles to follow him, “let me show you her tack.” John ignored the warning look Abigail shot him. Anything to get out of the suffocating atmosphere of the room.

Outside the house it was easier to breathe. The day was starting to cool as evening set in, as the sun sunk slowly behind the pine surrounding the homestead.

Even with the sounds of the forest creeping into the cleared area around the house, the silence was too much. “How long are you here, Charles?”

“Honestly? As long as you’ll have me. The Wapiti needed the extra manpower, but now that they’re moving, I’m less important. A risk, even, after what happened with Dutch. Seems you all need me more, especially with your shoulder and Arthur how he is.”

“'preciate it.” John meant it more sincerely than it came out, but the sentiment renewed the throb in his shoulder and he had to resist the urge to bring a hand up to it. Of course Charles would’ve been informed John was injured too.

Fenella was a spooky, flighty animal, but quick and surefooted when running. Friendly, too—as soon as John and Charles approached the fence, the little white mare was there to greet them. John pointed out her saddle and bridle to Charles, resting on a fence rail and post respectively, along with the rest of the tack they’d ended up with. John needed to remind someone to move it all into the barn before night fell completely.

John ended up leaning against one of the fence posts as Charles gave Fenella a quick groom and tacked her up. He didn’t want to go back inside, not when Abigail would be giving him looks or making him rest, not when he couldn’t help himself but listen to Arthur breathe. Charles was easier company, even in relative silence.

One of the Pinkerton mares—John needed to just name them, he couldn’t call them the Pinkerton mares forever—had come up to investigate the men in her paddock. She was a big horse, maybe a thoroughbred, probably well over 16 hands, deep seal brown in color. The star on her forehead and socks on her hind legs were common enough that they didn’t make keeping her a worry when John and Sadie had discussed it.

Again, her good nature surprised John when she seemed content to hang around him, let him rub her neck, her shoulder, with one hoof cocked in back. Maybe he was just too used to ill-tempered horses, seeing as so many folks he knew seemed overly fond of horses John would rather avoid.

When John next looked up, Charles had the saddle in place and was tightening the cinches, Fenella grazing as he did. When he noticed John looking, he inclined his head towards him and said, “I actually wanted to ask you something.”

“Go ahead,” John replied, scratching under the mare’s mane.

“Arthur. Sadie said Dutch shot him?”

John’s hand stilled against the mare’s neck. Of course he’d need to talk about this more, but it didn’t make it easier. Finally, he sighed, murmured, “He did.” The look on Charles’s face clearly said he was hoping for more of an explanation, and John shifted, continued, “Saw it happen. Was right next to Arthur when Dutch put a bullet through him.”

“In camp?”

“Yeah. Crawled my way back there after Dutch left me behind on that train job, don’t know if you—?”

“Sadie mentioned it.”

“—so I get there, Arthur is talkin’ about Micah being a traitor, Dutch takes Micah’s side, they’re both screamin' at each other, and then Dutch just, just shot him.” John could feel his voice getting louder, harsher.

Charles’s calm was maddening. “Do you know why?”

John couldn’t help but throw his hand into the air, making the mare flick her ears towards him. “Who knows? Dutch lost his goddamn mind, I can tell you that, and Arthur didn’t help, way he was talkin’. Maybe baitin’ Dutch, maybe just angry because we were all angry. I don’t—I don’t know.”

Charles was looking hard at him. “Are you okay?”

“My shoulder’s fine.”

“Not what I meant.”

“What do you goddamn mean then?” With the volume of his voice, the thoroughbred tossed her head, moved away from him. John didn’t mean to be yelling at Charles, not really, but he couldn’t stop himself, couldn’t help the anger bubbling up through his mouth. Better Charles than Jack or Abigail, anyway.

“I mean you just told me he got shot by Dutch right next to you and now you’re shouting.”

“I—” It still came out too loud. It felt like there was bile rising in John’s throat. “I, I’m—I’m fine, I—I’ll be fine once he wakes up.” That was too much, and John regretted it as soon as it was out of his mouth.

To his credit, Charles, maybe seeing the look on John’s face, gave only a small hum, let the words dissipate as he gathered Fenella’s bridle. It was only after he slipped the bit into her mouth and the leather over her ears, as he was buckling the throatlatch that he spoke again. “Listen, John, you should know, I’m not sure if Arthur’s going to be grateful for all this.”

“What d’you mean?”

“All this effort to keep him alive? Just…” Charles paused, maybe looking for the right words. “Just might be worth thinking about whether all of it is for our sake or his.”

“Of course it’s for his sake.” John could feel the crease between his eyebrows deepen. “After everythin' you don’t think Arthur deserves to, what, live?”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I don’t know if he’s going to see it that way.”

John bit his lip. He was tired, he was sore, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t find anything more than, “I don’t get you.”

That got a genuine snort out of Charles, even as he led Fenella over to the gate. “You don’t have to get me. Just something to think on, alright?” He opened it, let John through before him. “Whatever else happens, we’ll do all we can.”

“Sure,” John said, and then, “Good luck, Charles,” as Charles mounted.

“You too. Rest that shoulder.”

John was getting real sick of that sentiment.

Chapter Text

“I meant what I said earlier.”

John paused from where he was unbuttoning his shirt, looked over at Abigail. She’d talked him into bed rest while Charles was gone, a fight he barely put any effort into seeing as he had been wandering the house all afternoon and was driving the wagon before that. He was exhausted anyway. They’d laid claim to one of the bedrooms with a double bed, the one closest to Arthur’s room.

At his look, Abigail put down the clothing she’d been looking through, came closer and helped John pull the shirt off of his shoulders. “I mean when I said this ain’t your fault.”

John shook his head, started to say, “Abigail, you don’t gotta—” but Abigail sat down on the bed next to him, cut him off.

“I mean it. I know this ain’t easy for you. It ain’t easy for all of us, ‘course, but, but with Arthur, and Dutch doin' what he did, I know—I know it ain’t—”

“Abigail,” John said again, louder, “you don’t gotta talk about this.” God, John just wanted to go to bed, to let time fade until Charles got back, to know if the damn doctor was coming or not.

“No, no, I do, John, listen to me.” Abigail picked his hand up off the bed, held it in both of hers. “I need you to get it in your head that the world isn’t gonna end if Arthur goes.”

What?” Maybe it had been too much to hope that he’d be able to go the day without snapping at Abigail, to think that, despite the stress, he could tamp down the instinct to bristle.

Abigail, because she was a better woman than he was a man, didn’t rise to the bait, kept her voice low. “Don’t think it’s fair to any of us, least of all Arthur, if your happiness rides on his survival. You oughta find another way to keep goin', if what you’re doing is weighin' this all on him.”

“That’s…” John scraped a hand over his face, feeling the prickle of a few too many days of beard growth. “That’s an easy enough thing to just say.” Because—because he knew it wasn’t fair, and he couldn’t help it, because it was losing Arthur, because it would mean—

Would mean Dutch really did kill him. Would mean the world John had known for fourteen years really was in ruins. Would mean nearly everything John had was dead or irreversibly gone.

It would mean John really was alone with what he was, with what Dutch raised him into, with what he had always been.

Abigail turned his face, made him look her in the eye. “John, dependin' on how bad he gets, we might be the ones what need to decide if it’s time for him to go.”

Jesus, Abigail,” he hissed, jerking away from her grip before she pulled him back in.

Listen to me, John. I definitely ain’t saying he’s there now, and I ain’t saying he’s gonna get there, but… but it’s somethin' I want you to be involved in. Makin' that call. Because we owe it to the man to put him outta his pain if he won’t get better.” Her eyes flicked over his face, searching. “Okay?”

John took a breath, shuddering it through his lungs. “Fine. Okay. If it comes to that.”

“Alright,” Abigail said, and stood.

John was almost content to let her go, but found his mouth moving before he could stop it. “Y’say the world won’t end, but it’s pretty damn hard to imagine the world without him in it.”

She turned back to him, said, soft, “I know. Ain’t saying it won’t be a different world we’ll wake up to, but it ain’t over neither. But you got me, and you got Jack, and we ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

John leaned back, looked up at her, gave a half-smile. “You know me, can’t ever settle for what I got.”

“You always were a selfish bastard, John Marston.” But it had no malice in it, and even if it did, John didn’t think he had the energy left for it.

“Old habits, huh?” he said, and Abigail hummed in agreement.

She leaned down, gave him a quick kiss. “Anyway,” she said, “you oughta get some sleep.”

“You’ll wake me if Charles gets back?”

“Or if anythin' changes.” Because she knew who he was, how he was.

“Love you, Abigail.”

“I love you too, you fool.”

 


 

That night, John dreamt about Dutch.

It started with a memory. The memory, when it came to Dutch. John, twelve years old, clawing at his throat and unable to breathe. A gunshot rocking the air around him, sending him tumbling to the ground as the makeshift noose snapped.

John on his hands and knees, pulling the rope away from his neck, gasping, lungs aching. More gunfire, a deep voice yelling about cover and need to get the boy and well-worn boots stopped in front of John’s hands, everything covered in the dusty dirt of the homestead John had tried to rob. Dutch—because of course it was Dutch, because John knew it was Dutch, because this all already happened—crouched in front of John, and when John looked up the sun through the clouds seemed to halo his face.

The gunfire had vanished, and Dutch’s voice was loud against John’s ears as he said, “Let me ask you, son, what kind of person tries to hang a child?” John, just like when it was real, couldn’t understand why Dutch was asking him of all people. But Dutch’s hand went to his revolver, and just behind him John could see one of the homesteaders, the one who’d suggested the hanging, with his own pistol pointed at Dutch. John’s eyes went back to Dutch, and he knew what the smile at the corners of Dutch’s lips meant.

But, the dream warped—John looked past Dutch again and it was Arthur now with his revolver pointed at Dutch’s back, all of nineteen years old and Dutch had his own gun in hand, whirling to draw on Arthur and that wasn’t how it happened. John felt himself sinking, falling, the dirt crumbling away under his palms. Arthur’s voice, close, like his chin was on John’s shoulder, saying, “Shoot them before they can shoot you. Nothin’ wrong with in the back. We ain’t duelists, John. ”

And then: Dutch with a rifle in his hands, leveled at a stag, both standing stock still on an open prairie. John next to him, fifteen, watching his finger settled on the trigger, the easy, relaxed way he looked down the sights. “Just as easy as this, John,” Dutch said, like it had been him, not Hosea, who had tried to coach John through hunting. His finger tightened, squeezed.

A crack of rifle fire, loud enough that John wanted to clap his hands over his ears, and, barely audible below it, the buck’s scream of pain, guttural and choked, as the bullet pierced its throat. The stag stumbled, went to its knees, collapsed out of sight into the summer-long purple three-awn.

Dutch waved John forward ahead of him, let him approach the dying deer. John drew his revolver as the buck’s wet gasps grew louder and the grass tugged at his pants, because it’d always been the job of Dutch’s boys to put things out of their misery.

But it wasn’t a stag that Dutch shot. John didn’t know how he could’ve ever thought it a stag. It was Arthur, lying prone and heaving in the tamped-down three-awn, Arthur with a hand clasped against the hole in his own neck, Arthur with eyes wide, desperate, disbelieving as they met John’s gaze. Opening his mouth, to speak maybe, but only letting out a half-strangled wet cough. Blood rolling from the corners of his lips.

John whirled, revolver in hand, ready to scream at Dutch, to yell his throat raw, but the prairie was empty, save John and a dying Arthur. Like Dutch’d never been there, because Dutch wasn’t ever the one who tried to teach John hunting, and Dutch wasn’t ever the one doing his own dirty work. It was the revolver in John’s hand that was hot around the barrel, smoking, the small curl of burnt gunpowder wavering in the light from the sun.

And Arthur still bleeding from the neck, Arthur in a pool of his own blood, choking, gasping, shuddering—

It was Abigail that woke him from it, which was somehow more disorienting than the dream itself jolting him awake. Her hands were on his good shoulder, gently jostling, and when his eyes came up to her, she murmured, “Charles is back. He brought that doctor.”

John blinked, brought a palm to his face, and sat up. The room was just barely lit, the color of the light suggesting that the sun had just peaked the horizon. “Just got in?” he asked.

“Yes.” Abigail was peering at him. “You alright?”

“Yeah, yeah,” John said, twisting and setting his feet on the floor. He could still see the blood, bright, red against his vision. “Just… just a dream.”

 


 

Alphonse Renaud was different, but maybe John should’ve expected by now that most people they interacted with would be unusual. He was a black man who’d gotten himself educated as a doctor, which was rare enough, but it was more than that. He drove a big colorful wagon of the type John usually associated with men pushing various tonics and cure-alls, but it was clear from the start that Renaud was far more a doctor than a salesman. He was even spoken, honest, and seemed to talk to everyone with a surprising amount of compassion, at least compared to previous interactions John’d had with men of the medical profession.

Of course, when Abigail and John lead him to Arthur’s bed and Renaud paused upon seeing Arthur, the look of recognition on his face still made John itch to grab the guns Abigail had made him leave in the other bedroom.

“Mr. Smith called him Arthur—is that correct?” And then, without giving them time to answer, “You all weren’t ever down around Rhodes, were you?”

The gun itch grew stronger. “Why?” John growled, and Abigail shot him a look that very clearly said, Don’t.

“He’s lost some weight, but I think…” Maybe because the grey post-dawn light wasn’t doing much to light up the room, Renaud leaned closer to Arthur and John felt his whole body tense, before, “…I think this is the Arthur Morgan that got me my wagon back.”

What?” John found himself saying before his brain caught up with his ears. Of all the things to know Arthur for, a retrieved wagon?

Renaud gestured with a finger to Arthur’s chin. “I remember these scars specifically. They looked like they should’ve been stitched but weren’t, healed badly.”

Arthur helped you get your wagon back.” Also, wasn’t Arthur supposed to be the one to give John hell for giving out his real name to folks?

“From some men who didn’t take kindly to my treating folks while possessing my particular skin color, yes.”

That at least explained some of it. Same as John, Arthur had inherited Dutch and Hosea’s distaste for fools who thought themselves superior to others for what they were born into, whether that was wealth or pale skin. Specifically, Arthur’s intolerance for some people had always been based on who they proved themselves to be rather than how they looked, which maybe was why it’d taken two years and the gang crumbling for Arthur to move past John leaving for a year.

Still, John found himself catching Abigail’s eye when Renaud’s back was next turned, mouthing, How does he know all these people? over at her. All she gave him back was a small shrug.

Renaud was opening the canvas bag he brought with him into the house, searching through it until he pulled out a small, wooden case. He turned back to them. “I’m happy to treat him. I’d be happy to treat him even if we were strangers, but I owe Mr. Morgan in particular a favor. Is it alright if I examine him? I know what Mr. Smith told me, that it’s a bullet wound that looks to be infected, but a full examination would give me more information before we start on treatment.”

“That’s fine,” Abigail said, and then, “Let us know if we can help. John has a hurt shoulder, so he oughta not do much heavy liftin’, but I can call Charles or Sadie for that.”

And now Renaud was peering at John, critically but not unkindly. “I can take a look at that as well, after we settle things with Mr. Morgan.”

“Might make Abigail feel better if you did,” John said, bringing a hand up to grab at the shoulder in question, the ache more familiar than anything else now.

John’d never really seen a doctor work before, not in this capacity. Most of what John knew of medicine was panicked, frantic, trying to keep folks from bleeding out in the dirt. Renaud worked quickly, sure, but methodically, but practiced.

The wooden case he’d been holding turned out to contain a thermometer, which he tasked Abigail with holding in place under Arthur’s arm, once they’d removed the long john shirt. They’d had a thermometer, once, at camp, one someone had stolen so long before that John couldn’t remember whom or when. It was shattered when they fled from Blackwater, dropped in the chaos of packing. A new one was too expensive to buy, and the opportunity to steal another hadn’t presented itself.

Arthur was still mostly out, or as out as one could be with a high fever and the accompanying dreams. When Renaud cut through the bandages around his torso and peeled them away from the entrance wound, Arthur made a low noise in the back of his throat, scraped a leg across the bed like he was trying to push himself away, took a harsh breath in before stilling again. Fever, laudanum, hunger, just plain weakness, all of them together maybe, dragging Arthur deep into his own body. Renaud prodded at the edges of the wound, the skin red, tight, and swollen, and the resulting ooze between the stitches made John turn his head away, not looking back until Renaud turned his attention to Arthur’s hipbone, stark even amidst the swelling circling the wound.

The bruises across Arthur’s ribs and stomach had started to fade to yellow and green in spots, and John distantly thought that must be a good thing, that something, at least, was getting better. They must’ve been less tender than they were before too, because when Renaud put pressure on different parts of Arthur’s ribcage, what John knew from past experience to be looking for breaks, it earned him less fuss from Arthur than peeling away the bandage had.

The smell bothered John less than it did the previous day, though maybe just because his stomach was more settled rather than any change in the infection. He still couldn’t look at the wound, sure, not when catching a glimpse again when Renaud turned Arthur slightly, just enough to allow access to the exit on his back, made John’s skin crawl. But he wasn’t nauseous, not in the same way he’d been before. Instead, he felt untethered, loose, waiting, anticipating.

Renaud did some things John recognized, like checking Arthur’s ribs, and some he didn’t. He lifted Arthur’s eyelids to peer at his eyes, checked his teeth and inner lip, ran a finger against his tongue and examined the saliva that came back. Anywhere with bruising Renaud checked for breaks, though, as far as John could tell, he wasn’t finding much. Nearer the end of the exam Renaud pulled from his bag some device John recognized but didn’t know the name of—a long, flexible tube with earpieces on one end and a bell on the other. Renaud settled the bell on Arthur’s chest, pulled out a pocket watch, seemed to be listening intently. Moved it, listened again, eyes on the watch.

John’d thought Abigail let him hang about while Renaud worked because he’d finally convinced her he was well enough to at least be in the loop, and maybe that was still part of it, but it seemed he was also around to answer questions of Renaud’s that Abigail couldn’t. Abigail handed it with ease when asked about what medicine she’d given Arthur, what she’d done with the wound itself, when he’d lost the weight, how much they’d gotten him to drink, how much he’d eaten, and a whole host of other things that made John’s head spin.

Whereas John was left to answer questions more like: “Where did the bruising come from?” Fistfight. “Fistfight? Before the gunshot?” No, had to have been after. “Fistfighting with a gun wound?” John wasn’t going to call a dying man a dumbass in front of a near-stranger, but. “Did you witness it? Who would try to beat someone bleeding out?” John had a damn good hunch who.

Renaud took the thermometer back from Abigail, read it, made a humming noise that seemed unsurprised. He settled it back on the table next to the bed, asked, “Has he been lucid, with the fever?”

“He ain’t really been awake since it hit, mostly, but the few times he were he’s been confused,” Abigail answered. “Mostly time loss. Don’t fully remember the past few months, asks for people who are gone, that sort.”

“And that’s normally how he acts with a fever around this high?”

That stumbled Abigail for the first time that morning. “I… weren’t usually the one who sat up with him. Was usually Grimshaw or Hosea or…” She glanced over at John.

Thing was, John wasn’t one to sit up with Arthur either. When he was young the adults tended to shoo him away from anyone sick or injured, and when he was older he tended to be one of the last people picked for any sort of caring role. Wasn’t like Arthur was one to get sick often either. What he did know, though— “Hosea always got worried about keepin’ him in bed, few times I saw him fevered. Don’t know if it was that or just plain stubbornness, though.”

“I only ask,” Renaud said, leaning back, “because his fever isn’t as high as I normally see when patients present significant confusion. It’s only uncommon, though, not impossible, especially if patients have a history of it.” He looked over at John, and when he spoke again, there was a fond edge to his voice. “He’s not one to stay down, though, is he?”

“No, he ain’t,” John replied. Dumb bastard had never known when to quit, not in the fourteen years John’d known him.

“I will say, I do think it’s a good sign that his fever isn’t as high as I thought it could be.” Renaud padded some gauze over Arthur’s wound before pulling the blankets back over him. He turned back to Abigail and John. “It is sepsis, though I’d assume you already knew that. Far from the worst I’ve seen men recover from, though most of those men had more meat on their bones. But, if we can get the infection under control before he goes into septic shock, I believe he will live.

“He got lucky, mind you, that the bullet didn’t pierce his colon or shatter his hipbone, which were my primary concerns when hearing he was wounded where he was. However, even without those additional complications, infections in the abdomen are dangerous, as you may well know already. We can’t amputate if it progresses, like we might a limb. I’ll try my best to treat it, but I cannot make any guarantees at this point.

“I do think, however, that you all have given him the best possible chance at surviving. He’s in much better shape than most patients I see in sepsis, aside from the things like his weight, which seem to have been out of your control.”

“That’s all Abigail,” John said, and Abigail dipped her head, a slight flush on her cheeks.

“I’m sure he’ll be grateful to you, then,” Renaud said, and the flush grew brighter. “We should try to work quickly from here, before things get worse. First, we’ll need to reopen the stitches. Recent research has shown better results for leaving wounds open until they’ve healed further. From there, it needs to be debrided.” John was getting lost in his words, but Abigail seemed to know what Renaud was indicating. “In particular, I want to reopen the deeper portions and pack it after debriding, which will prevent pockets of infection forming that prevent healing and allow things to fester.

“I’m telling you all this because I will need your help.” That, and maybe Renaud could read on their faces that they were the types to fuss when not provided information. “I can give Mr. Morgan morphine before I begin to dull the pain, but I’m concerned about using any sort of anesthesia—something to make him sleep,” Renaud added, seeing the face John made, “—when I can’t confirm his weight, nor am I as trained as I’d like to administer it without assistance. Instead, I think it better to proceed with what sleep we can get from the morphine, and plan to have people around to hold him, should he come up. As much as I’d like to say there’s a good chance he’ll stay under, the procedure is particularly painful, and I’ll imagine he’ll wake.”

“We can call the others in,” Abigail said.

“Alright. Give me a few minutes to fully sterilize my equipment, and we’ll get started. The sooner we start, the better a chance he’ll have.”

John found himself flagging down Charles, who was on his way in from grooming out the horses, both Fenella and the pair that drove Renaud’s wagon.

Before he could speak, Charles was saying, “Rains Fall sends his regrets he couldn’t come down. He’s needed too much by his people.” At John’s questioning look, Charles continued, “Arthur did a fair amount for them near the end. Rains Fall wanted to pay his respects, or help with treatment, whatever ended up being more appropriate.”

“Kind of him.” More altruism, more things owed. Seemed endless, the web of people with debts to Arthur, people John now felt debted to.

“He did pass these on.” Charles held out a small pouch and a letter for John to see. “Letter is for Arthur, if he wakes.” John did his best to ignore the “if”. “Rest is a treatment the Wapiti use for infection, a mix of herbs, mushrooms. Not a guarantee, from the way Rains Fall described it, but I trust him when he says that folks who take them recover more often than folks that don’t.”

“Worth a shot, right?” John offered a hand out to take the pouch, mumbled something about getting it to Abigail. He’d let Charles hold onto the letter, not wanting to think about the way Arthur’s waking was a still a dubious concept.

Charles started to turn away, and John remembered why he’d been looking for him in the first place.

“Sorry, but one more favor before you rest. Arthur’s gotta be held down for whatever torture the doc’s puttin’ him through to get him well.”

“And I’m the heaviest?”

“Woulda put it ‘strongest’, but sure.”

 


 

It was a good impulse, Renaud had, to gather everyone, because Arthur came up fighting in just the way he always did.

John didn’t understand most of what Renaud had talked about, but he did know what he could see. Renaud had moved Arthur so his wounded side was on the very edge of the bed, with oilcloth beneath him creased in a way to allow any liquid to drain into a waiting bucket on the floor. The blades on the table were for opening the wound, the tube for what Renaud referred to as wound irrigation.

The whole room stank of alcohol, something harsher, sharper than what one might drink, and that was only marginally better than the smell of infection. Renaud and Abigail had scrubbed their arms down with whatever caused the smell, while Charles held Arthur’s legs, Sadie and John his arms. Tilly was the only adult not in the room, having agreed to bring Jack outside, keep him away from the mess of wound care.

It wasn’t cutting through the stitches that woke Arthur, though it was the first hint that John got that this wasn’t going to be easy. Even with the morphine, the exhaustion, the fever, Arthur’s eyes moved under his eyelids when Renaud sliced through the catgut, and John felt the twitch in the muscles of Arthur’s arm as his fingers curled inwards. Still, he stayed down, stayed under until Renaud started cutting deeper.

John would be happy to never again in his life hear the noise Arthur made when he came up. Somewhere between a shout and a scream, like something was dragging hurt and panic and rage all out through his throat. John had never, ever heard Arthur make a noise like it before, not with all the bullets and knives and fists the man had taken—closest John could remember were the sounds Abigail made during childbirth.

With it Arthur’s body heaved, his eyes open but unseeing, trying desperately to throw, to fight, to escape what was causing the pain. All of it entirely on the instinct years of hurt and survival had trained into him.

And he nearly managed it, to fight them off completely, all three of them. Charles got it worst—Arthur ripped one of his legs from Charles’s grip and caught him in the jaw with a heel before Charles could grab at the fabric of the long johns and pin Arthur more fully. But John and Sadie lost him too, his sweat-slick skin making it hard to keep hold of his arms when they were bare. When Arthur swung one hand upwards John was distinctly reminded of the fistfights they’d have when they were both younger, and counted himself lucky that what Arthur did with it was not to punch John but, instead, grasp at whatever fabric he could, try to drag himself somewhere. Where to, John wasn’t sure, but suspected that mattered less to Arthur in his fog than just getting himself away from the more immediate pain.

John managed to get his good arm over Arthur, let his head slide into John’s lap as John held him over the shoulder and around the chest, grabbing the fabric of his own pants to better lock Arthur into place. Sadie lent over Arthur’s chest, pinning his arms to the bed when they tried to come up to rip John’s arm away.

It was loud, enough so that John had trouble identifying which noises came from which people. There was shouting, yes, but multiple voices sounding, and under it a confusing undercurrent of murmuring from other voices that was likely intended to be soothing. John wasn’t even aware he himself was whispering “Arthur pass out” under his breath until, finally—

Arthur went limp. Something—the pain, the drugs, the exhaustion—dropped the man back into unconsciousness, his eyes rolling backwards in his skull as his head lolled back onto John’s lap.

And it was over, as quick as that. They were all left breathless, sweaty, the sound gone from the room just as quickly as it started, aside from the steady drip into the bucket on the floor. “Christ,” John huffed, panting, as he unwound his arm from around Arthur, let his head drop until it was resting on Arthur’s forehead.

“Alive?” Renaud asked, voice calm for the question he was asking, not even pausing from whatever he was doing with the tubing as Abigail handed him bottle of something. John caught Sadie, out of the corner of his eye, rocking back on her heels and grabbing at one of Arthur’s wrists, checking for a pulse.

“Alive,” she confirmed, voice still breathy as she tried to catch air back in her chest, same as both John and Charles.

“Good,” Renaud said. “That should be the worst of it.”

John let his forehead stay pressed to Arthur’s, and he could feel the heat of the fever in his skin where it touched John’s own. It took a minute for him to realize Sadie was asking him something.

He glanced up at her, and she repeated, “You good?”

“Fine, fine. Charles?”

Charles was rubbing his jaw, but he waved his other hand. “Fine, been kicked by worse than him.”

John straightened, clenched and flexed his fingers a few times to work the pain out of them, let Arthur’s head continue to rest against the inside of his bent knee. Sadie was peering at him, and when he turned his head to her more fully, she asked, “Why’re you grinnin’?”

John didn’t realize he had been until Sadie drew attention to it, but he could feel it now on his face. He turned his head back down to Arthur, let his hand rest on Arthur’s throat where he could feel his heart beat hard and fast, still too tired after the whole ordeal to think through the gesture too much.

He was smiling, because—?

Because it had taken all three of them to hold Arthur down, and he still almost managed to fight them off. Because even feats of strength under intense pressure needed the fight to back them up. Because Arthur’s heart was still hammering away in his chest.

Because— “Ain’t done fightin’ yet, is he?”

 


 

Somewhere deep down, John had been hoping that once Arthur’s wound was treated, healing would be immediate, that they would instantly see improvement. Seemed it didn’t work that way.

Arthur was improving, at least according to the two folks who would know better than John did, but it was painfully slow. Renaud had given his approval to use the treatment Rains Fall had sent, which involved grinding the various herbs and mushrooms to a pulp and mixing with cold water for Arthur to drink, but, if that was working, it did so just as sluggishly.

So, around Arthur, life went on.

Not long after he’d finished on Arthur, Renaud gestured John over, sat him down in one of the chairs in the kitchen and took a look at his shoulder. Pronounced him lucky almost immediately, and John had given up on arguing the fact that he never felt all that lucky, particularly when he kept getting shot.

As it were, the bullet in his left shoulder could’ve shattered one of the many bones there, could’ve hit something that made him bleed out in minutes or lost him use of the arm permanently, but did not. Instead it settled in the muscle that joined his arm and shoulder, and not even that deep, according to Renaud. May not even hinder his arm at all, after it healed fully. No sign of infection, but there was dead flesh, which Renaud recommended cleaning out the same as he did Arthur. And that whole process gave John an idea of why Arthur had come up as hard as he did, morphine or no.

Renaud left the bullet lodged in his muscle. Said it wouldn’t affect the movement of his arm, nor was it at risk of causing more damage, and that digging it out risked infection, risked harm to the muscle around it. Still unnerved John, the idea of having some Pinkerton piece trapped in his skin for life. Weren’t justification enough to talk him into pulling it out though.

He slept for nearly a day after that, both the morphine and the general exhaustion of the previous few days contributing. It was a relief, in some ways, to be down that long, because being up again made John turn to the same useless restlessness that plagued him whenever he was kept down.

It wasn’t right to be resentful towards Abigail, that John knew, and yet, still, the restlessness bred the resentment. He found himself snapping at her for trying to keep him in bed, or in the house, or from doing anything that would irritate his shoulder, because it was so frustrating to stay down, especially when staying down meant being alone with his own thoughts.

Angry, scared, exhausted. Seemed like all he could do was vacillate between the three.

Eventually it was Tilly of all people who pulled John away, made him sit outside in the grass with her to have a chat while she stitched together a busted seam in one of Abigail’s dresses.

John was expecting a lecture, maybe hoping for it, because that’s what usually happened when he was pulled away and made to sit with someone, at least with Dutch and Hosea. But maybe he shouldn’t have expected that of Tilly, or maybe he just wouldn’t get out of things that easily, because the first thing she said was, “Do you wanna talk?”

“’bout what?” John said, and it sounded stupid even to his own ears.

“’bout the way you been bitin’ at Abigail.” Or maybe it was a lecture after all.

“I don’t…” he started, dropping his chin to his hand. “Don’t know why she gets like this.” That wasn’t true, wasn’t the right words, but he couldn’t find the right ones.

“Mmmm,” Tilly hummed, the noise making it clear even to John just how much she didn’t buy it, and then, “Have you seen how Arthur’s been?”

John had been called into Arthur’s room once in the three days that had passed since Renaud arrived. As the inflammation seemed to ease and the swelling dropped, Renaud had been cutting down on the morphine, which, in turn, meant Arthur was sleeping less—though less, in this case, meant waking up two or three times a day, rather than not waking up at all. Thing was, he was still fevered, and while in his fevered brain he was mostly willing to do things—eat, drink, go back to sleep—Abigail asked of him, he occasionally got it in his head that there was something he needed to do that involved him getting out of bed at that exact moment.

The problem, as John discovered when he was summoned to see if he could convince Arthur to not try to argue his way out of bed, is that none of them could quite figure out what Arthur wanted, aside from not being in bed. It had an uncanny resemblance how Arthur got when he was drunk in a bad mood—a very self-assured kind of irritable combined with being completely incomprehensible.

That particular occasion, Arthur was convinced he needed to speak with someone who wasn’t in the room. Whoever said person was kept changing—Arthur cycled through Hosea, Dutch, Javier, Davey, Lenny, others before starting in on Hosea again. Like in the wagon, Arthur seemed to have a strong conviction that something was wrong, but he couldn’t identify what, and got progressively more frustrated the more he thought they—Abigail, Tilly, John, Sadie at that point—weren’t listening to him.

Short of nothing else, it was exhausting. It was outlasting Arthur that won, letting him eventually wear himself out enough to drop back into sleep, not any sort of convincing him things were fine. After, John had watched Abigail cross her arms and heave a sigh, the tired blue-purple under her eyes stark against her skin.

“Yeah,” John said, “yeah I know, but…”

“Listen, John,” Tilly said, laying down the sewing and putting a hand on John’s knee, “I know this ain’t been easy for you, losin' what we did, but you can’t take that out on Abigail, because I can guarantee she’s had just as rough a go as you have, if not worse.”

John could feel himself start to bristle again, and he dipped his head down. “Sure, because she was in with Dutch for fourteen years.”

The hand on his knee gripped harder. “John,” Tilly said, and waited until he met her eyes before continuing, “You wasn’t the only one who saw Dutch as a father, and you wasn’t the only one who saw those folks as family. It ain’t fair to the rest of us if you pretend like you was. Besides that, you wasn’t there when Abigail thought you wasn’t comin’ back. You scared the hell outta her, and she’s tryin’ her hardest to make sure she won’t have to worry no more. Okay?”

And John sighed, because he knew it all already, but knowing it was different than being confronted with it outright.

“I know you and Arthur ain’t accustomed to being good patients, but you at least got enough of your brain awake to think through whether you wanna push yourself into hurtin' yourself further.”

“I ain’t built for sittin’ around, is the thing,” John said, and maybe the temptation he was already getting to tear at the grass they were sitting in was proving his point.

“I’m not sayin’ you got to do nothin', but there’s got to be things you can do that ain’t gonna make you worse.”

“If you got ideas, I’m all ears.”

“Alright,” Tilly said, and she picked up the sewing, held it out towards John. “Maybe it’s time you learnt mendin', John Marston.”

So, John stuck to the easier, less labor-intensive jobs. Sorting through what had been recovered from Beaver Hollow, teaching Jack the writing to go along with his reading, and clumsily stitching together ripped patches in clothes Tilly pointed out to him.

Abigail still seemed reluctant to have him take a watch on Arthur for more than an hour or two per day, though maybe that was more for Arthur’s sake than for John’s own. If something were to happen with Arthur while John was on watch, he didn’t think he’d know to do any more than shout for Abigail or Renaud anyway.

It was, out of all people, Sadie and Charles who took sympathy on him, maybe because they could commiserate with the restless feeling of not being able to wander. Between swapped shifts on watch around the homestead, still too close to the Pinkerton threat to fully relax, John managed to convince them both to let him help out with anything that didn’t prove to be too strenuous.

Charles showed him how to put together snares, let John work together the knots or carve branches into the right shape for the triggers. Showed John how to bind arrowheads to arrows, how to fletch feathers to the tails. While Charles, at John’s request, dug the hole to bury the remains of Albert Russell, John carved his name into a cross to head the grave.

Sadie, meanwhile, seemed to work a whole variety of odd jobs around the homestead, moving from each with the relative ease that came with experience. It was mostly her that John ended up trailing, helping with whatever needed doing so long as it wasn’t heavy on the shoulders.

Turned out, the only one in the entire house who could cook worth anything was Sadie Adler, which, considering she was the only one of them with any semblance of a normal life before Dutch Van der Linde, maybe shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. Not only that, but she seemed fairly willing to take on cooking as part of her regular routine, same as she did guard duty and horse care. John might’ve asked her about it, seeing how the whole camp saw how much she fought Pearson back in those first few months she was with the gang, if that didn’t carry a genuine risk of losing any halfway decent cooking entirely.

As it were, after a few days she seemed to finally get tired of the looks he’d give her when she cooked, unintentional as they were. She eventually snapped without much bite to it, “You got a problem, Marston?”

John’d been sitting at the kitchen table, finally going about pulling and sorting the varied debris out of Arthur’s satchel, something he’d determined was safely within the “not too much strain for his shoulder” category. Might’ve been he’d once sit bolt upright at the words, but he was starting to see the places Sadie’s edges softened. He put down the health tonic that had been in his hand, said, “Just thought you didn’t like cooking.”

“Weren’t ever cooking I had a problem with, and weren’t ever really cooking I was asked to do in that camp, neither. More just ‘chop things for Pearson to throw into that mess he called a stew’ and try not to put the knife in him while you’re at it. If it were actual cooking, might’ve been more interested in the whole affair.”

“So long we let you do guard duty along with it.”

“Now you’re gettin’ it.” She put down the spoon she was holding, looked him up and down. “You cook much?”

“I know not to eat raw meat, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at.”

“But can you make things taste good?”

John didn’t say anything, just gave her a look, and Sadie rolled her eyes. “Hey,” he snapped, “ain’t my fault no one ever taught me.” Most he’d ever done around camp was the same chopping Sadie had done, back when he was too young for the dangerous work, and before he was on the streets scrounging for anything he could find, or in the orphanage being fed slop worse than Pearson’s stew, or with his father who forgot to feed him half the time, let alone teach him how to cook.

Sadie had a half-smile on her face now, like he was amusing her. “You wanna learn?”

“Me?”

“Yeah you. Promise I’ll let you do more than just choppin’ vegetables.”

Somehow, John ended up saddled with cooking lessons, and somehow those cooking lesson turned into group cooking lessons just as quickly. It was far from a bad thing, seeing as John felt a lot less stupid about burning goddamn oatmeal when Charles or Tilly or Abigail were being stupid along with him.

It felt almost domestic again, like they could pretend they were always like this, something half-familial. John found himself more than once holding Jack up when Abigail wasn’t looking, careful not to let him touch the hot iron of the stove, so the boy could dump a spoonful of flour into a pot of soup filled with venison Charles had hunted, vegetables Tilly had picked up in town. And the house was warm with the heat, and John felt himself laugh more than he had in ages, and they actually ate decent tasting food for once.

More time passed, more cooking, carving, sewing, writing, sorting. John found he didn’t particularly mind doing what might be called women’s work, really, because it wasn’t like anyone else around the homestead looked down on him for doing it. It was more not being good at any of it that rubbed at him, just like not being good at anything rubbed at John. Couldn’t stitch a seam in the same way he did fire a gun. But, it kept him busy, kept him from thinking too much, which always seemed to lead to the same core anxieties about Arthur, Dutch, himself.

And, Arthur’s fever was dropping. Abigail had told John when he was changing for bed, and the smile on her face, soft and hopeful, had made something warm bloom in his chest. John could stand doing pretty much anything, so long as there was an out on the other end, and as the days passed he could more and more clearly see the sun coming over the horizon.

Nearly a week after arriving at the homestead, John finally thought he’d finished clearing Arthur’s satchel. He’d pulled everything from the thing, all the plants and tonics and ammo and horse treats and dried meats, sorted them into piles, made his best guess at what he thought Arthur would be okay with them using before it spoiled. He left the near-endless stack of papers, letters, and maps untouched, because going through them felt like an invasion of privacy in the same way messing with Arthur’s journal did. That and Arthur’s money, no matter if Arthur had told John to use it when he gave him the satchel, John pushed off to the side. Better to deal with it when Arthur was there.

Even with everything gone from it, every pocket searched and cleared, the satchel still felt too heavy, to the point where he eventually called Tilly over, just to help him figure it out, which she did nearly instantly.

“There’s somethin’ stitched into the lining—see? Here’s where he pulled the thread, redid it.” She pointed at seam, and John was almost proud to say he could see the way the new stitching was just a bit rougher, clumsier.

“Think he’d kill me if I tried to get at it?”

“Probably. It’s Arthur and it’s you doin' it.”

John considered that, picking up and dropping the satchel a couple times, listening to the heavy clunk it made when it hit the table. “Sounds like metal, don’t it?”

Tilly shrugged her shoulders, and John let the satchel rest on the table. Just one more thing to wait on.

 


 

Ten days after Dutch put a bullet through him, Arthur woke up lucid again. And, by nothing but pure luck, John was the one on watch when he did. Or, it seemed like luck, at least at first.

John had been in the process of writing a letter to Charlotte, finally fulfilling that promise he’d made to her. It wasn’t a particularly good letter, especially seeing as he couldn’t think of much more to write beyond Arthur’s not dead, and all that in John’s clumsy attempt at handwriting besides, but it wasn’t nothing. Sadie had said something about sending along a letter of her own to Charlotte, so maybe John could get away without writing much.

It was getting easier, to look at Arthur and not feel the hard ache of worry in the base of his stomach. To see him and see less of a shell, more of the man left over. Weakness had always been a foreign object when stuck to Arthur, one that warped and changed the man John had wanted to be like into something half-unrecognizable. But it was getting better, getting easier, as Renaud reported improvement and as Arthur’s skin grew less flushed, his sleep less troubled.

John still couldn’t think about Dutch, couldn’t let himself dwell in that pit of anger with grief around the edges. He’d be happy to leave that well of hurt completely untouched until he put a bullet through Dutch, or Micah, or both of them at once.

The warm light of the late morning sun glanced off the paper as John wrote, made the whole thing bright, and John had been drumming the pencil against the table when Arthur’s voice cut straight through his thoughts, almost straight through him completely.

“John?” And John jerked his head up, had to blink a couple times to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer areas of the room, his heart pounding hard in his chest as he locked his gaze with Arthur’s own half-open eyes. Tired, his eyebrows pressed low over them in a vague sort of questioning look, but clearer than John’d seen in days.

“Arthur?” he asked right back. And then, more instinct than anything else, because past experiences with Arthur waking had warranted it, “Stay down, okay?”

“Reckon I hurt too much for much else,” Arthur murmured back, voice rough with disuse. And he didn’t seem particularly inclined to try to get up. If it weren’t for his eyes being open, Arthur might’ve passed well as someone sleeping—head just barely titled towards John, chest rising and falling slow.

John scooted the chair closer, pressed the back of his hand to Arthur’s forehead, and the way Arthur turned his head and scrunched his nose just slightly, like he’d knock the hand away if he had the energy to, almost convinced John more than lack of significant heat from Arthur’s skin. “You’re back.”

“Didn’t go anywhere, but sure.” The heavy exhaustion in his voice turned everything into a drawn-out drawl, enough that if it were anyone but Arthur, John wouldn’t have been able to parse it. It was the kind of tired that John associated with long jobs with no rest, the Arthur that couldn’t hide his emotions in the same way he tried when well slept. Even Arthur saying he was hurting was an admission, one that wouldn’t have come if healing hadn’t taken it out of him.

God, but he was back, awake and talking, with sense in what he was saying again. Not well, sure, but getting there. They were on the other side of this. Wherever it went from here, it had to be better.

Arthur turned his eyes back to John. “What are you, playin’ nursemaid?”

“Only when Abigail tells me to.” It felt like there was something caught in his throat, something burning behind his eyes. He wished he could grab Arthur’s hand, tell him every detail of the days he’d been fevered, tell him how much it weighed in his chest to think that he was the last of their family left standing whole and unbroken, to think that John might not ever get to hear his name in Arthur’s voice again. Instead he swallowed, saliva thick in his mouth, and asked, “What, uh, what’s the last thing you remember?”

“Wagon. Leaving Charlotte’s.” Arthur’s eyes were flicking over John’s face, studying him, catching along his jaw before he asked, “How long?”

His beard, John realized, or the half-groomed mess of stubble the past ten days had given him. Abigail had suggested letting it grow, enough to partly cover the scars, make him less likely to be recognized when they started moving again. “Been down a bit over a week now. Had a bad fever, infection, all that. How you feel?”

“Like I got hit by a goddamn train.” And the rough half-smile that edged Arthur’s mouth was hard enough to see, even if it weren’t followed with, “You alright?”

John’s eyes burned, and he blinked a couple times, feeling his eyes start to water. Sniffed, an ugly sound, said, “I’m fine, ‘course I’m fine.” The relief ached in his throat.

Arthur looked up at him, and the way his brow creased almost made the whole ordeal worse. “Ain’t gon’ cry for my sake, are you?”

“Naw, never.” John murmured, rubbed at one of his eyes with a heel of a palm. “Just glad you’re alive, you bastard.”

Something flickered over Arthur’s face then, something John couldn’t identify, and his expression shuttered. He turned his head from John, to the ceiling and then the rest of the room. “Where are we, anyhow?”

John cleared his throat, collected himself. “Some abandoned homestead,” he finally said. “Outside a town called Beacon Brook, up in North Ambarino.”

Apparently the wrong thing to say, because Arthur’s head jerked back towards John. “Only…? Marston, you oughta be states away by now.”

Amazing how quickly Arthur dropped back into telling John what to do, even when he had no idea what the past ten days had been like. “We kinda had other shit to deal with.”

“More important than keepin’ yourselves out of Pinkerton hands?” Amazing, too, how anger was one of the few things that could cut through the exhaustion in Arthur’s voice.

“Arthur, it was a little hard to keep movin' when you were goddamn dyin',” John growled, maybe too loud, unable to keep an annoyed edge out of his voice. He didn’t want to be fighting already, but it seemed like all they ever did eventually led to fighting.

And again, something went over Arthur’s face, and he growled right back, “Y’all shoulda—”

But Arthur cut himself off with a hiss of pain. He’d twisted his torso trying to prop himself up, maybe to better yell at John, and it must’ve been a mistake, must’ve pulled on the hole in his gut. His head dropped back to the pillows, eyes scrunching closed, as his breathing came rough, hitched. Murmured a curse under his breath.

“You good?” John found himself saying, his brain a whole mess of concern, annoyed anger, lingering relief. “I can get the others, let me—”

“No,” Arthur said, and he brought a hand up, slow, gingerly, like even that much was tender, to dig the heel of his palm in to one of his eyes. “No, just—need a minute, okay? I need a minute.”

“Are you good?” John repeated, not quite sure why, something in him needing to hear Arthur say it.

“I’m fine,” Arthur shot back, not removing his hand from over his eyes. And then, softer, maybe not even meant for John to hear, “Ah, Christ, you really did it, didn’t you?”

“I’m glad you’re awake,” John said, unable to stop the indignation or the desperation from creeping into his voice, because this whole thing was frustrating, because Arthur didn’t seem to be getting it, didn’t seem to understand that whatever happened next, it couldn’t possibly be worse than what was behind them.

It took Arthur a moment to open his eyes, look back up at John, but when he did his face seemed something between pained and concerned, eyes red at the edges. Voice rough, untethered, when finally Arthur asked, “What happens next?”

John answered honestly, because there was nothing else left in him to try. “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

Renaud left them two things, before he went.

The first was a cane. He’d explained it to Abigail, John sitting at the same kitchen table as they talked—traumatic injury, tendon damage, bullet wounds rarely let someone heal to the way they were before. The cane was sleek, black, unassuming, and John already knew Arthur would still hate it.

The second was a name. Though Renaud had asked little about who they were, the kinds of things they did, it would be a disservice to the man for John to assume he hadn’t guessed what they were between the gun wounds and the constant watch around the homestead. He knew they were moving soon, and, as he put it, he “didn’t put in all this work for his patients to freeze to death overwinter”. Abraham Hasting, Renaud told them, outside a small town in Augusta, was a former patient, a rancher, one willing to board down-on-their-luck folks in exchange for decent work. He wasn’t the type to ask questions so long as nobody was getting hurt. Renaud would put in a good word.

John had pressed some cash into Renaud’s palms, a good portion of what they had left from their pooled savings, because they weren’t charity cases, nor did they deserve the man’s charity. Furthermore, in the later days, when Arthur no longer needed more constant care, Renaud had been down to Beacon Brook, treating the poorer folk down in town that were just scraping by, the kind that couldn’t pay. As much as John’d like to believe in endless good, the reality was that treating Arthur and him had probably drained Renaud’s resources. It was only right to give enough to refill them, at the very least.

And Renaud had accepted, maybe because he could guess there was no price they wouldn’t pay, that John wouldn’t pay, for Arthur to keep living. Or maybe he understood the how the world worked just as much as John did.

He closed up Arthur’s wound before he went. John’s shoulder had been stitched back together several days earlier, when Renaud had done something with a cotton swab and a glass dish that apparently indicated to him that it was fit for closing. Did the same for Arthur, just before he mentioned that it was about time for him to leave.

The infection seemed to be gone from Arthur, but the hole itself was far from healed. It was clear in the way he moved, in what little moving he was allowed to do—all of it slower than normal, his body tighter than it should be. Even the short walk out to the kitchen table to eat, something Renaud had suggested, something to keep his muscles from shrinking with disuse, left Arthur a shade paler, sometimes sweating. Even with the infection gone, even with the wound stitched, things weren’t better.

And John—Arthur wasn’t talking to John.

They’d had words with each other, sure, but all limited to the realities of living in the same house. The best John was likely to get was a word or two here or there, never without John saying or asking or doing something first, and an annoyed look or being flat-out ignored at worst.

Might’ve been easier to swallow if Arthur was the same to everyone in the house, if it were just the pain making him surly, but that weren’t the case either. John’d been in the room when Charles handed Arthur the letter from Rains Fall, had watched as Arthur sank lower into the pillows propping his torso up as he read, brow furrowed, jaw set. But it wasn’t until John had left the room, called away by Abigail, that he caught the sound of muffled talking through the door, Arthur’s voice the low growl that he got when he was particularly frustrated or angry. Because even then, even angry, at least Arthur deigned to talk to Charles.

Not John though, no, most he ever got were grunts and glares.

A wall had gone back up. Something had closed. Somehow they were back to Marston and Morgan again, and John couldn’t for the life of him figure how or when it had happened. He’d almost rather they go back to fighting, to the barbed comments and even the fists. It’d at least be something John could grasp at.

Maybe that was why, the day after Renaud left, when John pushed open the door to the bedroom and found Arthur on his feet, half-dressed, John decided right then that either he was going to be complicit in whatever Arthur was intending to do or they were going to shout at each other. Neither could be worse than the not talking.

Arthur jerked his head up towards John when he shut the door behind him, and just as quickly jerked his head back away, giving an annoyed scoff. He was leant heavily against the baseboard of the bed, shoving his arms through the sleeves of a shirt.

“What?” John snapped, more out of habit than anything else, because he’d heard the same noise from Arthur countless times and picking a fight was still on the table.

“Y’know,” Arthur growled as he began on the buttons, the shirt still loose on his too thin frame, “you could knock. Weren’t aware bein’ wounded meant forfeitin’ my right to privacy.”

“Naw,” John shot back, “you forfeited that the first time you tried to get out of bed without Abigail’s blessin'.”

That earned him a sharp glare and a turn, Arthur switching to using one arm against the bedspread to keep himself standing. “You got a problem, Marston?”

John crossed his arms, something his shoulder had just recently healed enough to allow again. “Just want to know what you’re plannin’ to pull here.”

“I…” Arthur said, pulling his suspenders up over his shoulders, “…am going out to see my horses.” The tone in his voice turned the statement into a dare, bait for John to try and stop him.

John did not rise to take it, because he had, just in that moment, settled on complicit over shouting. “Y’want some company?”

There was a beat before Arthur asked, “From you?” The satisfaction he got from the slightly incredulous look Arthur gave him was petty, but, hey, here he was choosing something over fighting with the man. That was worth something.

“’less you want me to shout for Abigail.” Abigail was, at that moment, down in town with Tilly and Jack, picking up the usual supplies and looking through the new shipment of books the general store just got in, but it was a safe bet Arthur didn’t know that.

Arthur gave him another glare, but this one softer than the previous one. “Believe that’s what’s called blackmail.”

“Learnt it from the best, didn’t I?”

“Havin’ trouble figurin’ why you’re trying to blackmail yourself into spending time with an invalid.” Arthur shrugged on a coat, one of the thickly furred numbers he’d taken to wearing once they moved north, more so even than the blue one he’d had for ages. Less weight to keep him warm, John realized belatedly.

Arthur was waiting for an answer, and John scrambled to find something that wasn’t about how he was desperate to keep Arthur talking to him. After maybe too long a pause, he said, “Listen, if you hurt yourself tryin’ to go it alone, she’s gonna come for my head. I’m protectin' my own skin here.”

The way Arthur’s eyebrows rose clearly indicated he didn’t believe John, but seemed he also had the decency not to question it. Instead he murmured a quiet, “Sure,” under his breath, snatched the cane John offered towards him with only the obligatory amount of disgust.

John didn’t really understand how a bullet low through the back could make a man walk with a limp, but Renaud seemed to know what he was talking about in all things, this included. Arthur had indeed bristled at the idea of using the cane, but seemed to have moved into a grudging acceptance of it seeing how it let him move more on his own.

Still, John hovered close behind Arthur as the man limped his way out into the yard, ready to duck under an arm, catch him by a sleeve or collar if his step faltered. But Arthur stayed sturdy, even if the whole ordeal went slow, even if John could hear the way his breathing got louder, harsher the longer he was on his feet.

By the time Arthur leaned heavily against the top rail of the paddock fence, he could easily be considered panting. The flush in his cheeks was from the walk though, or from the November air, not from the fever, and that was something. John joined him against the fence, lit a cigarette as he watched Arthur out of the corner of his eye, let him catch his breath.

“Got a pretty little herd, don’t we?” Arthur finally said, gesturing for John to pass over a cigarette without looking at him. John gave him the one he’d already lit, struck another match and lit a second.

“Ain’t even the lot of them.” With Taima, they were up to ten horses. Arthur’s four—Buell, Fenella, Sampson, and the Tennessee Walker Arthur’d had since Colter, the one he called Gwydion—along with the brown thoroughbred, Bob, and Taima. The two cart Belgians were doing their job down with Abigail in town, as was the fleabitten grey quarter horse Tilly had grown fond of. “Nearly half of them are yours, anyhow.”

“Weren’t saying it was a bad thing.” Maybe it was the smell of the cigarettes, but they were starting to be noticed, Fenella, grazing the closest, picking up her head, ears pricked towards the sound of Arthur’s voice. Arthur clucked over at her, made a few noises that sounded enough like kisses to make John laugh under his breath as Fenella tossed her head, strutted over towards them.

“You’re a bleedin' heart, Morgan.”

“If I whistle, they’re all gonna run over at once and someone’s gonna get bit.” Fenella’s nostrils flared as she got closer, getting the smell of the two men, and her pace picked up until she was shoving her nose into Arthur’s chest.

“Meant the fact you somehow got four horses you refuse to part with.” And, apparently, horses that refused to part with him. That was the second horse that had greeted Arthur like an old friend.

Arthur fished something out of one of his pockets, because of course he somehow had some sort of horse treat squirreled away in them, and offered it to Fenella. “Folk kept givin’ me horses,” he said as she took it delicately from his palm. “Ain’t my fault.”

“Don’t gotta keep everything you’ve given.”

“What, and let some farmer run ‘em into the ground?”

“Provin’ my point,” John muttered under his breath.

So that was one way to get Arthur Morgan talking to him again, asking about his horses. Maybe John should’ve guessed, the way he’d always been around them. Boadicea, the horse Arthur’d had for years and lost in the Blackwater mess trying to lead heat away from the wagons, had been rivaled in his affection only by his dog, Copper, who’d passed just about a year ago. Certainly loved both creatures more than he ever did John, though maybe after his year away from the gang that wasn’t saying much.

A few of the other horses had spotted Fenella over by the fence, had started to make their way over at their own varying paces. Taima stopped in briefly, hunting for treats and moving on once she got her share. Bob was much the same, both horses amiable enough but not particularly interested in hanging around with folks that weren’t their respective people. Arthur’s big shire pushed his way through, once again only settling once he’d fully examined Arthur and received a peppermint for his trouble, and bringing along with him Gwydion and the thoroughbred.

“Yours?” Arthur asked, holding a hand out for the thoroughbred to sniff.

“Sorta.” John watched as Arthur dug around in his pocket, pulled out yet another treat from his seemingly endless supply. “One of the two that got us down to Copperhead.” Course he didn’t remember, how out of it with pain and blood loss he’d been.

“Didn’t realize we kept them.” Arthur’s voice was stilted, guarded, like they were circling around something, and John had absolutely no clue what it was they were circling.

“Sure,” John said as the thoroughbred turned her attention to him, and he obliged her with a pat on the neck. “Been thinkin’ of callin’ her Rachel.”

There’d been some sort of tension building, but, apparently, that was enough to break it apart, because beside him Arthur snorted. “Rachel?”

“Alright,” John said, dropping his spent cigarette into the grass and grinding it out with a heel, “you ain’t got no right to give me shit over what I name my horses. Fenella? Gwydion? Boadicea?”

“Least I got some goddamn creativity.”

“Least folks can pronounce what names my horses get.”

“Yeah, ‘cause half the women they’ve bedded got the same name.”

“It’s in the Bible, Morgan.”

“Oh, excuse me, didn’t know it were in the Bible.” Slightly muffled as Arthur brought his own cigarette back to his lips.

They were bickering, sure, but it felt easy, light, like something that might’ve happened in camp over the fire after a long day. Like before John left, even, when competing for Dutch’s attention was the lot of the rift between them. A nostalgia familiar enough to grasp at, but too far to seize in his fist.

Arthur glanced the mare over again, leaning a little harder on the fence as he craned his neck over it, and John could tell his eyes were appraising this time, looking at how she held herself, the shape of her neck, shoulders, the alignment of her legs. “Nice enough horse. She replacing Old Boy, that it?”

“Don’t know if I got any other choice.” It was hard to even think of it as a replacement. John’d had Old Boy not even half a year, and nearly a month of that he’d been in Sisika. He was a smart, sturdy horse, and John liked him well enough, but it felt like he was still learning who the stallion was by the time he was killed.

And yet, the same could be said of all of Arthur’s horses, and he still had an incomprehensible attachment to the lot of them. John’d never understood that, the way the man could be so reserved in most things but care so immediately about a few horses. Hell, Buell’d only been around a month and Arthur refused to hear any negative talk about him, even though the horse was a mean piece of work.

Speaking of which: “Buell ain’t comin’ over.”

Arthur looked up, followed John’s gaze up to where the stallion was grazing, facing away from them in a way that had to be pointed, ignoring them on purpose.

“Buell,” Arthur started, gesturing over at the horse, “is moody.” Like that explained the whole goddamn thing.

“Don’t know if moody is the right word for tryin’ to bite me every time I get near him.”

“Maybe he just don’t like you much. Can’t say I blame him.”

John made a face, muttered, “Ain’t only me he’s tryin’ to bite,” but Arthur wasn’t looking over at him, was instead looking over at the stallion, brow furrowed.

“Listen, Buell’s the kinda horse what could move a mountain in a good mood, but in a bad mood might toss you just to watch the way you hit the ground. You mount up when he’s in a bad mood, best be confident in your ability to stick a few bucks. Right now,” Arthur pointed out towards the stallion, “he’s in a bad mood. Got his ears this way, so he knows we’re here, but he’s swung himself away. Go near him now and he’s liable to offer a kick at best.”

John found himself watching Arthur as he spoke, rather than Buell. This was more words than the sum of what Arthur’d said to him in days, maybe even in weeks. Certainly the first time in a long while they’d talked anything inconsequential. Here Arthur was loose, relaxed, lent up against the fence like there wasn’t a partly-healed hole through his gut. Only the yellow-brown ghost of some bruising lingered against his jawbone, barely visible through the stubble. Still too thin, but his eyes brighter than they’d been in ages, than they’d ever been at Beaver Hollow. Didn’t have his hat on, even though John’d left it on the room’s dresser. Arthur hadn’t touched the thing since he put it on John’s head back on the mountain.

Finally, after a few moments of silence, Arthur looked back over at John, noticed his gaze. “What?”

Right, Buell. “Don’t know if he’s worth the effort you seem to want to put into him.”

“Ain’t really my choice, all things told. Owe the feller what owned him.”

“To take his horse?”

“After he died, sure.”

There, like with Renaud and Charlotte, was the nagging sense Arthur’d had a whole life John’d had no clue existed. More people John’d never even heard of, all owed things to or from Arthur. Apparently willed a goddamn golden stallion, and never even said a word of it to anyone at camp. Made John’s head spin.

“Anyway, Buell lost Hamish, I shove him in a stable after barely a few weeks havin’ him, then some strange folk cart him up a state and leave him out to pasture. Think he’s earned a bit of bad mood, so much as a horse can.”

Same as the rest of them, maybe. “So how the hell you get him in a good mood?”

Arthur sighed, shifted against the fence. “Still figurin’ that. Likes to eat, but I ain’t got much beyond it. Thought if I made it out alive I’d work with him properly then.”

“‘If’, huh?” It was out of John’s mouth before he could stop it, laced with a whole bitter tone he couldn’t prevent either, and the easy atmosphere they’d built shattered. John regretted it immediately, but it was done, because he could never let things sit. Because he was exhausted with if, because after all this talk of if the fever dropped, if the infection passed, if Arthur lived to see another morning, Arthur was using the same damn language.

A beat, before Arthur said, slowly, “Don’t.” It was low, a warning as he dropped his cigarette to the dirt, pressed the ball of his foot down over it.

“Don’t what?” More than Arthur’d said to him in days, and here John was, fucking it up.

Don’t.” And somehow that made it worse, that Arthur had to know why John was angry, had to know the threat of loss still hung in the air, and still refused to say a thing about it.

“Don’t what, Arthur? Talk about the fact you don’t seem particularly happy to be awake?”

Arthur met John’s gaze, eyes hard, brow low, voice still quiet in that dangerous way. “You ain’t got a goddamn clue what you’re talkin' about, Marston.”

“And that’s the goddamn problem, you ain’t tellin' me shit.” Too loud, always too loud. “Maybe if you’d tell me what the hell I don’t know, I’d have a better goddamn clue.”

“Fine, John, fine.” And Arthur turned his body to face John, knuckles white where his hand still gripped the fence keeping him upright, and he was swelling up like a dog with its hackles raised, even as John noticed he was several shades paler now than he’d been when they left the house. Refusing to back away from a brewing fight even as his legs threatened to give out on him because, of course, Arthur was the attack dog, the intimidator, the one to finish fights other folks started, body breaking apart and all. And Arthur was saying, “You shoulda left me on that mountain.”

John wanted to take a step back, wanted to rock back from this entire mess. His heart was beating loud in his ears, made it hard to hear his own voice as he choked out, “You can’t be serious.”

But the look on Arthur’s face, guarded but his eyes like a cornered animal, all but confirmed he was. And then—

“Y’boys okay?”

Sadie, looking like she’d just rounded the corner of the house, peered at them, head titled. She had her gun belt on, rifle slung over her shoulder, because of course she’d been on watch, and of course she’d been able to hear John, how he was yelling.

Arthur made some disagreeable noise between a scoff and a growl, grabbed the cane and pushed himself away from the fence. Was through the door to the house without another word to either Sadie or John.

Sadie watched him go, watched the door a bit longer, then turned slowly back to John. “Weren’t aware fightin’ was on the doctor’s approved activities list.”

And John made his own disagreeable noise and turned back towards the fence, let his arms drape over the top rail. After a moment, Sadie leaned her back up against the fence next to him. That much John was grateful for, that she didn’t expect him to look at her but that she wasn’t leaving either.

After a few moments letting things sit, Sadie said, “Neither of you know when to leave things be, do you?”

John sighed, considered lighting a cigarette just to have something to do with his hands. “I don’t understand what’s goin’ on with him.” Sure, Charles had said Arthur might not be grateful for what they did, but there was a difference between not being grateful and saying John should’ve left him on the damn mountain. John didn’t get it, couldn’t even wrap his head around it.

Beside him, he could hear Sadie shift against the fence, but he kept his face out towards the horses. “Listen, John, I ain’t much one for talkin’, and I definitely ain't presumin' to know what the two of you are goin’ through with this Dutch thing, but I don’t think yellin’ is gonna help things.”

“It’s the only way I can get him to talk to me.” This time he did start fumbling the cigarettes out of his pocket, offering one over to Sadie before he brought the matches out.

“Imagine you need to give it time,” Sadie said as she took it, and he heard her light her own match beside him. “Least time enough for the both of you to have workin’ bodies before pickin' fights.”

“Don’t think we try and pick ‘em. Just end up in fights anyway.” Most of the time, at least. He couldn’t deny that he’d picked fights just to be ornery in the past, but mostly fights with Arthur seemed to just unfold all on their own like some inevitable conclusion.

“Could try backin' down for once.”

“Rich, comin’ from you.” John hadn’t ridden much with Sadie between all that’d happened in the past few months, but he knew enough to know she would fight any man who so much as looked at her wrong, and with a vengeance at that.

“Lord knows it ain’t easy to do, but sounds to me you ain’t got much choice. It’s that or let him kill himself runnin’ up against you.”

“Temptin',” John said, though it wasn’t.

 


 

A few days before December hit, they started north towards Abraham Hasting’s farm.

All said, Abigail would’ve preferred a few more days rest, way she said it, but their hand was forced. On the regular run down to Beacon Brook to pick up necessities, her and Tilly had spotted a few men in suits who, while they didn’t identify themselves as Pinkertons, spooked the working class folks in town enough to make it clear who they were. They weren’t in direct danger, not yet, seeing as the Pinkertons didn’t even look twice at Abigail or Tilly when they passed them on the street, but it was clear that they were still looking for Van der Linde survivors, and that search was now widening.

So, they left Albert Russell’s homestead early on a grey morning. By wagon, because, though they’d talked through the possibility of heading up to Augusta by train, there was too much risk in being cornered with rail travel. They were still conspicuous, for all manner of things but maybe especially the fact that Arthur was still visibly hurting. Even if they weren’t stopped on the train, there were too many people, too much chance someone would remember them enough to report a description back to law later down the line.

Back when they rode out from Willard’s Rest they’d taken a risk, having John occasionally drive the wagon, one made necessary by the condition Arthur was in. Now, though, with Pinkertons seen in Beacon Brook and enough people in their little group to allow for it, they needed to be more careful. The wagon setup was an old trick, one John had learned within months of being picked up, from whenever they’d needed to leave towns covertly to escape whatever trouble the gang had stirred up. Pack everything in crates and chests. Line either side of the wagon with crates and spread a board across them, creating a crawlspace. Stack the crates over the boards, so the crawlspace couldn’t be seen by anyone peering over the sides.

Of course, John had never ridden in the crawlspace before, because it had always been Dutch or Hosea who’d been the more recognizable faces, the ones who needed to hide. John had always ridden in front, where he could easily pass for a homesteader’s son, accompanying his mother or sisters or whatever else whoever else was with him wanted to pretend they were, traveling to meet his father in whichever direction they happened to be traveling. By the time John was grown, participating in jobs on the regular, they’d grown too large, too unwieldy to do much beyond try to move out before they got heat, or instead fast enough that it was no use hiding. However, when law didn’t do more than glance in the back of a wagon, it was a fairly reliable trick.

It was also, John quickly discovered, a miserable way to travel.

They left a gap in the crates near the front of the wagon, enough for Arthur or John to sit up in, talk to the folks up front, or for Jack to sit back with them if he got bored. But most of their time was spent under the luggage. The crawlspace itself was filled with blankets and pillows and all very cushy in the way John knew had to have been because of his and Arthur’s respective injuries. Even then, though, it was tight, claustrophobic, not much wider than what space he and Arthur took up lying shoulder-to-shoulder, and not much taller than the width of Arthur’s shoulders. Despite the wealth of cushioning, every significant bump the wagon’s wheels hit jarred John, and that combined with the smell of him and Arthur in an enclosed space—neither of them’d had more than a sponge bath in weeks, and they smelt like it—meant John spent the ride dipping in and out of vague nausea.

He couldn’t even imagine how bad it might be in the summer with the heat. At least the chill in the air kept the space from getting too warm. Dutch and Hosea had ridden for days in the summer and fully sealed in their crawlspaces too, not even with the gap for light and air. John had no idea how they could’ve stomached it.

Arthur, of course, spent at least half the ride sleeping like nothing was different, because the bastard could fall asleep anywhere. Lying on his left side, keeping the pressure off the wound. Between the sleeping he was mostly quiet, reading or writing in the light that filtered back to them, all in the crawlspace likely due to the difficulty of hauling his body out to sit up. Otherwise he talked some to whoever was rotating through sitting up front, some to Jack when he was bored enough to join them, and very little to John, despite them being trapped in an enclosed space together.

Maybe it should’ve been a blessing, seeing as John wasn’t fully confident he could keep his tongue in check if they were to get into a longer conversation. Even what little they’d said—mostly negotiating space, Arthur telling him to move the hell over, John telling Arthur to watch his head as John hauled himself out into the open—was sharp, clipped, avoiding anything beyond what was active and present.

It wasn’t even that Arthur was acting like nothing had happened, because he sure wasn’t. John wasn’t sure if he regretted the admission he’d made to John or if he was angry at John for pushing in the first place, but, either way, his disposition was decidedly surly and withdrawn for the most part. All in all, not too different from what John had grown used to the past two years, except that he’d thought Arthur had finally moved past that, and that they could go back to being normal.

Maybe John didn’t know what normal was, though, not with Arthur. Felt like so much of what they were before was defined around Dutch, what Dutch said they were and what loving Dutch made them into. Sure, he’d called Arthur a brother up on the mountain, and that didn’t exactly feel wrong, but also didn’t feel like enough. Arthur was the only one left who knew what it was like, being raised like they were, being what they were, and the idea of losing that ached at John’s stomach. And here Arthur was, saying John should’ve left him, like that was ever an option.

Things were going to come to a head eventually, John figured, because as content as Arthur often was to let things stew until he was at risk of taking them to his grave, John could never do the same. Where Arthur was the stoic enforcer, willing to play any roles Dutch gave him, John was, after all, the wayward son. As much as he hated when Arthur said it, there was truth to him calling John the golden boy, seeing as he’d always been able to push at Dutch in a way Arthur had refused to. Maybe that was why he’d never learned how to keep his thoughts to himself.

Still, starting shit while they were trapped daily in something not much better than a coffin was a bad idea. Even John knew that. Wouldn’t deny that leaving things to fester itched at him, though.

 


 

As miserable as the crawlspace was, it was necessary. Even if John had doubted it, it would’ve been proved to him when they made their way up to Greenridge Pass.

They’d been on the road a few days then. With only two cart horses, their pace wasn’t nearly as quick as it might be if they had a spare team to switch out, but they were on pace well enough to get up to get up past the eastern edge of the Grizzlies before the snow really set in. There’d been a few scattered flurries, but nothing that stuck with the heat of the ground. All said, they’d likely be up to the farm a few miles outside of Leighton well before any dangerous weather.

If there were any area most at risk to them in their journey, though, it was Greenridge Pass. With the mountains of Ambarino and North Ambarino, there were only so many ways one could choose to travel north, unless they were willing to climb a mountain. If the Pinkertons were figuring Van der Linde survivors went north—and their presence in Beacon Brook implied they did—there were only a few ways to get there, especially before winter sealed things off. If they sent agents out to anywhere in the wilderness, the pass was a decent bet.

John’s focus on the pass itself was why it was surprising to him when, still a good mile or two out, Abigail hissed, “John, Arthur,” the warning clear in her voice. John had been in a half-daze, somewhere not quite dozing but also not fully awake, and so there was barely time enough for him to shunt crates into the gap to the crawlspace, closing him and Arthur in, before unfamiliar voices sounded outside the wagon.

When he glanced back over at Arthur, the man hadn’t moved from where he’d been sleeping previously, but his eyes were open, blinking into the new dark of the space. He met John’s eyes briefly, then let his gaze drift, brow furrowed. Listening intently, because that was all they could do. John settled onto his back, careful to do so noiselessly, and listened the same.

The men outside were Pinkertons. Even before they introduced themselves as agents, the way they talked gave it away. An edge of smugness, of condescension to their voice, like they thought they were better than the folk around them. Though John was now lukewarm at best on Dutch’s philosophy, he didn’t think he’d ever warm to Pinkertons, not after what Milton had done to Hosea, had tried to do to Abigail and Arthur.

“Agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency,” one of the men was saying. “Mind if we ask where you folks are headed?”

Sounded young enough, so new, maybe? They’d certainly killed enough Pinkertons create a need for hires. That was a good thing—wouldn’t know any of their faces. The law had photographs of John and Arthur—John from his time in Sisika, Arthur from before—but Tilly, Charles, and Sadie had never been arrested, and Abigail never for the things they photographed for. Meant the most they might be going on were sketches and verbal descriptions. With Sadie dressed in a skirt and her hair down and the rest dressed inconspicuously, they were easily overlooked as just women, just black folk, easy enough to fade into the background.

“Headed up towards Flatrock.” And that was Abigail, sitting on the front bench with Jack and Tilly, taking charge. “Why, is there a problem?”

“No problem, ma’am, just reports of outlaws in the area. We have reason to believe they might be heading north.”

Abigail had always been a good thief in part because she’d always been a good liar. There was a reason that she’d always leant more Hosea’s way that Dutch’s, and a reason Hosea asked her along on his cons whenever she was willing. And she went right to work. Playing up her concern for Jack, for their own safety—did the Pinkertons know who these outlaws were? Was there any information they should know to keep themselves, members of the innocent public, safe?

They’d established a cover story, because all of them had been taught well. John and Arthur hadn’t been included, of course, but they were involved in the discussion. Abigail and Sadie were married to brothers, ones that bred and trained horses. They were headed north to meet them on their new ranch, up in a town miles away from their actual destination. Tilly was a nursemaid for Jack, Charles a ranch hand who doubled as a guard during travel. Better explained why black and white folk were traveling together, seeing as many people still turned their nose at that whole concept.

“These horses yours?” one of the Pinkertons asked. There were two of them, at least when they introduced themselves to Abigail, but one spoke more than the other.

“My husband’s. He took most of his stock north already, but we have the last of them.”

“Mind if we take a look in the back of your wagon? Just a precaution, you know?”

John could feel himself stiffen almost unconsciously, but Abigail took it in stride. “Sure thing, though there ain’t much besides luggage and tack back there. Watch the gold horse, he bites.”

John found himself reaching for his revolver, the one he’d tucked out of the way between two crates. It was more a habit than anything else, wanting to feel the metal against his palm, the weight like a kind of safety. But, before he could get it, there was a hand around his wrist, and he followed the hand up to the arm, to shoulder to neck to face to meet Arthur’s eyes.

Strong, piercing, even in the dim light, like they were cutting right through John. Hair splayed out around his head. Didn’t let up on John’s wrist as he lifted a finger to his lips, slow and careful.

Silence. Needed silence. Of course John knew they needed to be quiet, and he hoped there was enough light in the space for Arthur to see that he rolled his eyes back at him. Arthur still kept a hold on him.

Someone dismounted. Footsteps circled the wagon, came around back. Had to pass around two horse strings tethered in back, no doubt moved into groups with the wagon not moving. Stopped somewhere too close sounding, and the few dots of light that filtered into the crawlspace between the gaps flickered as something blocked the light. John frozen, heart pounding, Arthur’s hand hot against his skin as they waited.

And then there was a squeal and a stomp of a hoof, and the Pinkerton said, “Christ,” before the footsteps scrambled away, and then, “Easy boy,” from further away as a horse continued to snort and stamp its feet.

Up front, Jack started into a half-muffled giggle fit and beside the wagon, maybe where she was mounted, Sadie said, “She did tell you he bites.” Ah. Buell.

“I am sorry about him,” Abigail said, and then, quieter, “Ain’t nice to laugh, Jack.”

A throat clearing, someone dusting off their clothing, probably the Pinkerton again. Arthur, still gripping John’s wrist, still looking over at him, eyes bright, mouthed, Fool, and John almost forgot to be annoyed with him. The Pinkerton, voice now closer to where he started, said, “Right, well, uh, sorry to bother you folks.”

“It was no trouble,” Abigail called from the front, voice still bright. “Hope you find whoever you’re looking for.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Hope you get some control of that horse.” There was the sound of someone swinging into a saddle.

“If it were my choice we woulda pawned him off on the nearest fool to be suckered by his color. Husband says he’s got good bloodlines though, so we’re stuck with him ‘til his breedin’ days are done.”

“Ah, well. Good luck, ma’am, and be safe.”

And then the wagon was rolling again, as simple as that.

It wasn’t until they were well away and the Pinkertons must’ve been out of sight that Abigail called back, “How you boys doin’?” and John finally let out the breath he’d been holding, and Arthur finally let go of his wrist.

“Fine, Abigail,” Arthur said, knocking a few fingers on the board stretching over them as John shoved the crates back out of the way and got some air. “Suppose we got Buell to thank for that.”

“He nearly bit that man.” Jack, leaning over the back of the front bench, had a gleeful tone to his voice.

“If he weren’t good for bitin’ bad men don’t know why else I’d keep him around.”

John wanted to say something biting, to point out the fact that Arthur was still telling him what to do, still treating him like the idiot kid he hadn’t been for years. Instead he found himself murmuring, “Think that horse might have a better future as a guard dog,” as he slid his way back into place.

Arthur glanced over at him, and if he noticed it was first decent thing John’d offered his way since they got in the wagon, he didn’t point it out. “Might not ever need to figure his good mood, that were the plan for him.”

“Might be safer for the rest of us if you kept on the ridin’ horse thing.” John settled back into his blankets, tried not to rub at his wrist where Arthur’d grabbed it, where it felt like the outline of his fingers were still embedded in his skin. Things were going to come to a head sooner or later. Least John could do was be civil until they did.

Chapter Text

Halfway through the second week of December, they arrived at Abraham Hasting’s ranch.

There was snow on the ground by then. Not deep, closer to a dusting, but snow all the same. John had crawled out of his tent two days previously to find himself kneeling in it, like some kind of nasty surprise. From the way his breath caught in the air and the frozen grass crunched under his boots, it seemed winter had finally come.

John wasn’t particularly fond of winter. He hadn’t been fond of it since he was young, when winter meant shivering every other night depending on whether or not his father had money for fuel for a fire. Since the flight from Blackwater, though, since the wolf attack, in the aftermath of which he’d had to face the very real possibility of freezing to death, John and winter weren’t friends.

It was on that same morning of the first decent snowfall that he stumbled, still half-asleep, over to the fire to find himself in the middle of an argument between Arthur and Charles.

He didn’t know it was an argument at first, because arguments between Charles and Arthur looked different than they did between Arthur and John himself. Rather than snippy comments or full-on yelling fights with each other, arguments between Arthur and Charles tended to be like low growls, angry but subdued, and in that way usually seemed to be resolved pretty damn quickly. Made them harder to recognize though, and John was still waking up at that.

But Arthur muttered a sarcastic, “Oh, good, Marston’s here,” and by the sigh Charles gave him back as John crouched and poured himself a cup of coffee and the tension in the air, John got what was happening quickly enough.

“I interrupt somethin'?” John asked, and the glare Arthur directed at him as he straightened that made it was clear he had.

Charles looked over at John, eyes edged just a touch with exasperation. “Arthur wants to ride today.”

“A horse?”

John had discovered that there were good days and bad days when it came to Arthur, both in healing and in his mood, though the two often fell hand in hand. Some days Arthur seemed to walk almost normal again, didn’t seem hampered by lingering pain, could help groom down horses and tend the fire, and those same days tended to be the ones where he was less likely to be surly, to snap at the rest of them. Other days though, Arthur would need help just to get from the wagon to his tent, and the frustration he couldn’t even find the energy to hide only compounded on top of the irritability the pain caused.

In part because of the unpredictable nature of healing, Arthur had stayed riding in the wagon even when they were far enough north that they no longer needed to use the crawlspace. John had been riding, switching between Rachel and Arthur’s Gwydion, as the Tennessee walker was, in Arthur’s words, stupid but sturdy, the type of horse more likely to eat something he shouldn’t than spook. John’s shoulder wasn’t completely healed of course, but he had motion back in it, and even then he only really needed one hand on the reins. Arthur, though, had had less healing time with the infection slowing things down, and torso injuries were always more movement restricting than arms.

Seemed that day Arthur wasn’t hurting too badly, seeing as he was standing on his own, but apparently this disagreement had killed any sort of good mood he might’ve been in. He eyed John, taking a sip of his own coffee before saying, in something between a spit and a growl, “Yes, a horse, Marston, ‘less you got an elephant around.”

“Y’ain’t ridin’ a horse, Arthur,” John said, and could see Charles give Arthur a look that very much seemed to say, ‘I told you so’.

But Arthur wasn’t done, and neither was the bite to his voice. “If y’all make me sit in that wagon one more goddamn day, I’m gonna start eatin’ folks, starting with whoever I have the best chances with in a fistfight. If history is to be believed, that’d be you, Marston.”

“State you’re in and you think you’d win?”

“Watch me,” Arthur said, and John half-believed the man might with force of will alone.

He switched tactics. “Arthur, if you get tossed—”

“I,” Arthur interrupted, voice slow and firm, “am gonna ride Sampson. That horse wouldn’t throw me even if the sky started fallin' down around him. He don’t spook often, and he don’t spook hard. I ain’t gonna end up on the ground.”

John opened his mouth, couldn’t figure out what to say. From beside him Charles murmured, “He’s harder to disagree with when he’s thought things out,” and John was starting to realize that him and Arthur must’ve been through all this before, especially seeing the smug smile that was starting to edge Arthur’s mouth.

Finally John found his last possible argument, said, “Abigail ain’t gonna let you, no matter whether you convince us to.”

“Abigail,” Arthur started, and the tone to his voice said he knew he’d won, “don’t gotta know until I’m already on the horse.”

So Arthur rode for the first time since Copperhead Landing. John had to give him a leg up, seeing as the big black shire was hard enough to mount from the ground even without being wounded, but when Arthur settled back into the saddle he’d been unable to keep the satisfaction from his face. Whether it was at winning an argument or finally riding again, John couldn’t say.

And though that first day Arthur got paler, hunched more as the travel went on and had to switch back to the wagon when they stopped to water the horses around midday, the whole thing felt like a victory for him and the rest of them alike, despite any initial grumbling. Arthur seemed worn out from the riding, sure, but his happiness had to count for something.

That was why, when they rolled up on the farm outside of Leighton, Arthur was mounted along with John, Charles, and Sadie.

The farm was sizable. One large farmhouse, two smaller houses back behind, and off to the side a large barn. John couldn’t quite see how many pastures they had, nor what they kept, but the fencing stretched out from the barn and away. Some rows of pine further out that looked like windbreaks, way they’d been left to grow. Abigail pulled the wagon up to the side of the road, not far from the path up to the house, snow packed down by footprints.

John dismounted, passed Rachel’s reins over to Abigail after she hopped down from the front of the wagon. They hadn’t exactly talked this part over, how they’d go about introducing themselves, but John figured, seeing as it seemed to be his fault they were all still here together, he might as well take responsibility and do the talking.

Arthur had dismounted as well, and he let Sampson ground-tie because of course he’d trained his horses to ground-tie. One step stumbled back was all that betrayed Arthur was still injured, though whether that was because the pain was better or Arthur was hiding it well, John couldn’t say.

“Comin’ with?” John had confirmed that Arthur did not know Abraham Hasting (nearly unusual by now with what had happened with Renaud and Charlotte) and so Arthur didn’t necessarily need to approach the house with John. He wouldn’t turn down some backup, though.

“Want us to look like some pathetic souls what need shelter, think I’m your best bet.” Arthur pulled the cane from Sampson’s saddle as he spoke, and, though he was exaggerating, the limp combined with not being back up to his normal weight yet meant that he cut a far less intimidating figure than he had in the past.

Sadie, who had passed Bob’s reins over to Charles, stepped up as well. “I’ll come too.” At John’s glance, she continued, “Man balks at a woman wearin’ pants and we’re bound for a rough time convincin' him to let me cover the men’s work while you two heal. You boys know what you’re doin’, right?”

Arthur glanced over at John, who answered, “Got an idea, sure.” He wasn’t sure if the other two were going to like it, but it was an idea.

And up to the front door they went. They weren’t even to the porch yet when it opened, and out stepped a man that John guessed, just by his presence, to be Abraham Hasting.

John was acutely aware of how they looked. No weapons, sure, sidearms left back on the horses, but rough, bedraggled. He and Arthur now had several weeks of beard growth, and not particularly groomed ones at that. Sadie looked a little more put together, but even she shared the messy, bedraggled look of their clothing, of the heavy furred coats that had seen better days, the mouse-eaten scarves and worn gloves. John didn’t even know how she got a coat, come to think of it, seeing as she’d lost all she had in the fire, from what he heard. It being from one of the other camp women might’ve explained how beaten up the coat looked.

Short of nothing else, they were worn-out and looked it in comparison to the man in front of them. He walked with a limp, a strange sort of gait that seemed to be sourced from his lower left leg, though through the heavy pants and boot, John couldn’t see what caused it. He was tall, white, middle-aged, with a full but closely tended beard, black with streaks of grey through it. His hair was much the same, cropped close to his skin. A revolver was holstered on his belt. For show or because it normally stayed there, John didn’t know.

“Abraham Hasting?” John asked, not stepping any closer than the base of the steps, hands at his sides, not wanting to seem threatening.

“Yes,” the man, Abraham, said. His eyes were steady, appraising, looking them over with a careful eye. And then, “Who’s it to?”

“I’m John,” and, gesturing back, “this is Arthur, and Mrs. Sadie Adler. And then three more and a kid over by the wagon.” This was the risk, John knew, telling the truth, but the consequences of being caught out lying—turned out in the middle of winter, maybe even woken up with Pinkerton guns at their chests—were worse than being turned away now. John was tired of lying anyway, tired of preying on innocent folk who didn’t know any better. “A Dr. Alphonse Renaud sent us your way, said he was sending a letter too. Said you might be able to provide us shelter for the winter in exchange for work.”

Abraham turned his gaze out to the wagon, and then back to John. “You got a last name, John?”

“Might be safer for you if you don’t know it.” Unlike Sadie, whom the Pinkertons likely didn’t think important enough to keep close tabs on until the very end of the gang and likely didn’t have a federal bounty because of it, there was a large chance that John and Arthur were known well enough by their full names that knowingly harboring them could put someone at risk.

Abraham took another step forward, stopping on the edge of the porch. “Not planning to hurt anyone, are you?”

John wanted to take a step back, but stood firm. “No, sir. We were that kind of folk once, but ain’t no more. Just want to live decent lives, make up for the harm we caused.”

John’s words hung in air along with the cloud of his breath, all of them still and silent, before Abraham sighed, shifted his hand to his belt, near enough his gun that John wanted to flinch. “Well, Dr. Renaud vouches for you, and I trust his judgment, much as I’d like not to. Just know that if any of you cause trouble, I won’t hesitate to shoot the offender myself. We live honest lives here, understood?”

“Understood,” John said, and he imagined there were nods behind him by the way Abraham’s face flicked over to Sadie and to Arthur.

“Alright then. Misters Smith, Mrs. Adler, welcome to Pineridge Farm. You can call me Abe.”

 


 

The first thing Abe did was show them around the farm. It folded into them putting the horses away—the farm didn’t have spare stalls for them, but the paddocks they used for the ranch horses had a large lean-to off to one side, and blankets were one of the things Sadie’d picked up for the horses back when she retrieved Arthur’s from Van Horn. If the weather got bad enough, Abe explained, they usually let the horses loose in the barn to keep them out of the worst of it.

As they lead the horses back, Arthur got close enough to whisper a hissed, “Coulda warned us that was how you was gonna play it.” Despite his tone, he didn’t seem particularly mad about the way things worked out, which, based on how he often reacted to John’s plans, seemed like a victory.

Abe kept sheep, a good-sized flock of Hampshires. They were easily managed enough over the winter, out in one of the paddocks closer to the barn with a run-in to retreat to, but more farmhands always made things easier. They’d be joining two long-term farmhands, an older man named Robert and a younger called Nicolás, though he went by Nic. Along with them were Abe’s wife, May, and son Walter. May was Chinese, daughter of railroad workers by the sound of it, and maybe that was why Abe was willing to overlook their potential chequered history and motley composition, seeing as most of society didn’t look kindly to those who didn’t keep strict race relation lines. One more thing most of society thought that’d never mattered around camp. John could almost hear one of Dutch’s “woes of civilization” speeches echoing in the back of his head.

The smaller houses turned out to be bunkhouses for the hands, and they were given the unoccupied one to move into. The air inside was stale and cold, but there was a wood-burning stove, a small kitchen, a few rooms with bunks. Better than Colter, at the very least.

Abe gave them the first day to get settled, to move things in, to find their way around the ranch. Jack took it in stride maybe most of all, peering into the barn and introducing himself enthusiastically to everyone he met. John spent most of the day following him around, trying to keep him out of trouble or, when Jack discovered Abe also had two border collies, from bugging the dogs too much.

It was almost unnerving, how normal this felt, wandering around a ranch. Not being hunted, not needing to watch over his shoulders every other step. No Pinkertons for miles, and no reason for them to look here if there was. No guns strapped to his side, no Dutch, no gang. Only the remnants of one, struggling to survive and starting to come out on top. Now if only John could figure out why it felt like his skin was crawling, why it felt like he couldn’t breathe.

By the time Jack had worn himself out and John had gotten a lay of the land enough to return to the bunkhouse, the whole thing had warmed up and Tilly had prepared them a meal. Abe had said they were welcome to eat up at the main house if they wanted, but that it wasn’t expected unless they said they would ahead of time. Mostly they were in charge of feeding themselves, though they were allowed access to the farm’s stores within reason.

Arthur looked half-asleep, stumbling up to the table that was too small to accommodate all of them but they crowded around anyway. Looked like he should’ve been asleep while the rest of them settled in. Weeks since the initial wounding now and Arthur still seemed exhausted half the time, some sort of combination of hard healing and refusing to let himself stay down long, maybe with some lingering effects of running himself ragged the past few months. They had time now to accommodate the rest, especially now that they were at the ranch, back somewhere with real beds, and without the threat of death hanging over their heads quite so close. No Dutch to demand every waking hour be spent making money, and some hours supposed to be spent sleeping, at that. The question was more if Arthur would let himself rest—though, so far, Dutch seemed to be winning.

Not for the first time, John wondered where Dutch was. Wondered if he was laying low, or out hurting more people in the name of survival. Wondered if Micah was still whispering in his ear, if Bill and Javier were still clinging to his boots. Wondered if he ever thought about John, thought about that desperate flight from Beaver Hollow, about who got out alive and who didn’t. Wondered if he felt guilt, felt pain, knowing he put a bullet through Arthur, knowing he had it in him to turn a gun on a man he called his son. Wondered if he believed Arthur was dead.

John must’ve gotten a look on his face, because somewhere between wondering if Dutch had enough humanity left in him to mourn Arthur and wondering how hard it might be to find Dutch and put a bullet through him instead, Arthur kicked John under the table. When John looked up at him, Arthur muttered, “Y’look sour.”

“Just thinkin’,” John murmured back. Arthur’d chosen a moment when the others were involved in their own conversation, not paying attention to them, and that much was a kindness.

“Gonna wear yourself out there, do much more of that.” A familiar jab, something safe, the same thing traded back at Arthur plenty of times back at camp, but still.

“What, like you? Look half dead on your feet.” It was an automatic reaction, John already edgy from having Dutch on the brain, wanting to bite at someone, and it was the wrong thing to say. Arthur’s eyes hardened, and John regretted it in the same way he regretted nearly everything that came out of his mouth as Arthur settled back in his chair, turned away from John.

John knew in that moment there was absolutely no way he was going to tell Arthur he was thinking about Dutch. Things were too raw, too fragile, too steeped in hurt and blood. It was the same as Arthur and the bit about leaving him on the mountain. Somehow it seemed they weren’t ready for it yet, whatever it was.

They didn’t talk the rest of the night. Starting the next morning it was working, learning how to live a normal, average life.

 


 

In John’s defense, he wasn’t the one who started the fight for once.

It happened about a week after they’d arrived at the farm. Three weeks into December meant they were nearing Christmas and New Years and all the mess of winter. Meant things were busy enough, prepping the farm and its animals for deeper snows that seemed not far away on the horizon.

They’d adjusted into the rhythm of how things went at Pineridge. There were the daily chores, things like breaking the ice on and refilling water troughs, spreading hay bales, mucking the ranch horses’ stalls, checking on the flock of sheep, checking on their own horses. Inside too, preparing food, tending fires, cooking, doing dishes and laundry and other cleaning. Plenty of work to do, plenty for them to earn their keep.

Sadie and Charles more often than not worked the outdoor jobs, the ones Abe directed the ranch hands towards. Mostly sheep care, though sometimes other things needed doing. Charles had been talking about a hunting trip, something quick, mostly just enough to help refill the farm’s stores before they got more snow, seeing as they weren’t stocked on food for six and a half extra people.

Abigail and Tilly, on the other hand, tended to work within the main house or occasionally the bunkhouse, as more of the inside work matched what they were used to doing in camp, and it let Abigail keep an eye on Jack as she worked. May seemed delighted to have child around, as her own son was pushing twenty if John had to guess, and if they weren’t careful Jack would end up spoiled with how much she fawned over him. More than once John had caught her pressing a sweet into Jack’s palm, and all John could really do is make sure Jack knew to say thank you any time May did something for him.

John found himself switching between the two sorts of work. His shoulder was nearly painless now, but he found it ached if he tried to do too much heavy lifting, and, as usual, it was hard to hide that from Abigail, who was still taking her role as doctor very seriously. The benefit of having so many people meant it was possible for John to stick to the jobs that didn’t require heavy use of his shoulder. Meant a fair amount of tasks were off limits, though, both outside and inside, and so it made sense for John to pick up all of the sorts he could do.

As things went, John cared less and less about the distinctions between what was so called “women’s work” and what wasn’t. In the camp everyone needed to pull their weight, and, because the women were less likely to participate in the violent jobs, they were often doing things like cleaning and mending. But that wasn’t always the case—Karen did guard duty, Tilly could handle a gun, Abigail herself was a stellar thief back before Jack made her less likely to take the risk, and Sadie, of course, was who she was. Idea that John would turn his nose from work that needed doing because it was considered women’s work seemed more and more ridiculous.

Robert and Nic gave him some looks, sure, when they came in and found him helping May hang laundry by the fire, but Abe didn’t say anything, and more often than not helped May in things like washing up after dinner or cooking, as did Walt. As far as things went, John was more concerned with the concerns of the ranch owner than his hands.

Abe rarely rode, John found. More often than not he was directing them from the ground, or otherwise would use a border collie (one, since the other was apparently pregnant) to bring the flock closer to the barn so he didn’t need to tramp through the snow. John still didn’t know what caused the limp or why Abe tended to lean more weight on his right leg, but maybe that was part of why he was less likely to ride.

As for Arthur, he seemed to be in a similar place to where John was, back at the abandoned homestead. Couldn’t do much lifting, or much bending at that, all of it using muscles along his abdomen and back that had been pierced by the bullet. Did a lot of the same work, too, mending clothing or cleaning tack, anything that required the use of hands and not much else. But, of course, John was out long enough most days enough that he wasn’t paying particular attention to how Arthur was acting about the whole situation.

John had forgotten there were good days and bad days when it came to Arthur. Both in body and mood. John had been allowed back into manual labor while Arthur was stuck with menial tasks. John should’ve known it would rankle at Arthur.

If he’d paid more attention, he might’ve seen it coming. If he’d remembered his own failure to stay down, he might’ve seen it coming. Between Arthur’s constant need to wear himself down for other people and the exhaustion he seemed to be fighting tooth and nail, there was no way Arthur wasn’t just short of boiling. John should’ve been prepared for something to erupt.

Still, when he entered the bunkhouse to switch out his scarf, wet with the moisture from his breath where he wrapped it around his face during morning chores, the noise of Arthur slamming a knife into the table made him jump.

Arthur’d been cubing meat by the looks of it, something Abigail or Tilly must’ve set him on. Now though, he was glaring hard at John, knife tip buried in the wood of the table, and John found himself still stunned enough that all he could offer was, “Gonna dent the knife.”

“Why am I still here?” Arthur’s voice was hard, a demanding sort of growl. The knife thing was for show, John knew that, enough to grab John’s attention and put him on the defensive, because Arthur wasn’t out of his own control. John would know if he were, and they were both raised by showmen, as much as Arthur pretended he lacked any sort of theatricality. Maybe Sadie was more right than John gave her credit for when she said they picked fights with each other.

Still, it did put John on the defensive. “What d’you mean?”

Why am I still here, Marston?” Louder, now, harsher, and John found himself glad Jack was up at the house with Abigail.

“I, I don’t—”

“Can’t manage the sheep, can’t muck a stall, not even allowed to ride a fuckin’ horse anymore without it being a whole goddamn ordeal. Stuck cuttin’ pieces of meat because I can’t do anything else, and here you are, still too goddamn close to the whole goddamn mess, insisting on draggin’ me with you. Why the hell am I still here?”

“Arthur, we wasn’t gonna—”

“I’m fine now,” Arthur said, and John tried to argue because that sure wasn’t true, but it was lost under Arthur’s voice when he continued, “I’m good, we coulda split back down south, coulda sent me away with my horses, gotten yourselves up to Canada before the winter. No goddamn Pinkertons there. Or, better yet, coulda left me behind like I told you to in the first goddamn—”

Something clicked in John’s head, and suddenly he was saying, also loud, “This is about leavin’ you on the goddamn mountain again, ain’t it?”

And by the way Arthur turned his head away, jaw working, John knew he’d hit the nail on the head.

Fuck this. Who was Arthur to tell John he couldn’t talk about it, to shut down any sort of conversation about the fact that Arthur wanted John to leave him behind, just for Arthur to then bring it back up when he decreed it an arguing point?

John put his hands on the opposite end of the table, leaned over it. He could hear his pulse loud in his ears. “You’re a goddamn son of a bitch, you know that?”

Arthur jerked his head back towards John. “I’m the son of a bitch?”

“How the hell are you angry we didn’t leave you to die?”

Arthur slammed a palm on the table, gestured at John with a finger. “You, Marston, that’s on you, you’re the one who dragged me back down.”

John pressed his fingers further into the table, could feel the grain of the wood against them. “Arthur, I saved your goddamn life, can’t you take it as a kindness for once?”

“Kindness?” Arthur’s eyes were sharp, burning. “You forced me back into a world with no goddamn place for me in it and you thought that would be a kindness?”

The pulse against his ears got louder. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Tell me, what the hell am I supposed to do when I can’t fire a goddamn gun? When there’s no one for me to shoot, no one for me to rob?” There was a desperate edge to Arthur’s voice now, one that made John’s chest ache. “This is what Dutch did to me, John, I don’t know no other life.”

“And you think I’m any different? Think I somehow got raised different from you? You think you didn’t do the exact same thing to me, sendin’ me away? Ain’t for no place for me either but here I am, forced into it by you.”

“You got a family, John, there’s your place.”

“And you ain’t family?”

Arthur scoffed, leaned back in his chair. “Ain’t the kind of family I mean, Marston.”

“The hell it ain’t. Were you gonna make me explain to Abigail that I left you behind, to Jack? You think I wanted to be the one to tell them you died for their sake? Because let me tell you, that’s shitty feelin’ to be saddled with.”

Arthur was still glaring hard at John, his hands in fists on the table, like if he could manage to get up to start a fight he would. His voice was sharp as he snapped, “What right do you have to force me into a world that don’t want me?”

“I care about you, Arthur, that’s what right I have. Can’t say if the world wants you here but I sure as hell do. I—” The words caught in John’s throat, because he did want Arthur there, because without him the world seemed lessened, dulled, like a bit of color had gone out of it. John cleared his throat, made sure he held Arthur’s gaze as he said, “After everything, everything else I’ve lost, were you gonna make me lose you too?”

The words made Arthur do something akin to a flinch, and his head drifted away from John, blinking.

If he had the physical ability to, John was pretty sure Arthur would’ve run. He’d have disguised it, of course, stormed out of the room like he was too angry to control himself, or turned the whole thing into a fistfight so that he didn’t have to talk anymore, or, if it were Dutch here arguing instead of John, shut down and complied and pushed all dissent deep within himself. He liked to pretend it wasn’t the case, but Arthur Morgan was good at running. Good at avoiding the things that needed to be confronted.

But, here they were. Arthur had nowhere to run to, even if his body would let him. And it gave him a look like a cornered animal, terrified but fighting because there weren’t any other options.

John still pressed further, because Arthur needed to understand what he meant. “Fourteen years with Dutch, Arthur, and he leaves me behind, nearly kills you, destroys what we had. You’re the only goddamn person in this world who knows what that’s like, knows what bein’ raised to be what we were turned us into. Why do you think you’re the only one goin’ through this? Why do you think you gotta do it alone?”

“Why do you think I got any sorta answers?”

“Don’t matter when you’re all I’ve got.”

And Arthur’s knuckles were white against the table, his voice quiet when it next came. “This is goddamn torture. Death woulda been kinder than what you brought me into.”

John found his feet moving before his brain fully processed it, dragging the chair next to Arthur out from the table, sitting down in it.

“Listen, Arthur. Death mighta been kinder for you, but not for Jack, not for Abigail, Sadie, Charles, Tilly, not for me. There are people in this world who care ‘bout you and your responsibility to them don’t end at keepin’ them alive.”

“Then what the hell am I supposed to do?” There was anger still in Arthur’s voice, still some hard edge to it, but under—under it almost sounded pleading. “Sayin’ I gotta live for their sake is pretty enough, but I—I don’t know how to be anythin’ but what Dutch made me.”

“Fine. Fine! Then you know what?” John was grasping at a memory, at that night sitting up with Charlotte. “We’ll figure it out, you and me. Find new ways to be. We’ll be new people. We’ll—we’ll get better, we’ll help people, we’ll live peaceful lives.” John could feel his own fingers digging into his thighs. “But you don’t get to up and die because that’s easier for you. There are people in this life that will hurt without you and you don’t get to leave that behind because it’s more convenient. That ain’t fair.”

Arthur blinked rapidly, his eyes red around the edges, even as his jaw clenched hard. John was struck by the realization that this might be the closest he’d ever seen Arthur come to crying. Arthur didn’t cry, or, at least, didn’t cry around John. Hell, John didn’t know if he could even remember a time where he saw Arthur upset in a way that would lead to crying. Angry, frustrated, annoyed, exasperated, even happy, even worried, even pained. John thought he knew Arthur so well that it hurt sometimes, and yet, whatever this was, this was unfamiliar.

There was a long pause, Arthur swallowing harshly a couple times. It sounded like a last ditch effort at persuasion when he muttered, “I told you not to look back.”

“Yeah, well, you also told me to be loyal to what matters.” And then when Arthur rolled his head over to meet John’s eyes, eyebrows low, John said, because he needed Arthur to know, “You know you matter, right?”

“Christ, John.” And Arthur went to lean forward, drop his head into his hands, and John instead found himself stumbling off his own chair, intercepting Arthur in an embrace.

It was awkward, Arthur still sitting and John half kneeling to be at the right height and only remembering at the very last minute to avoid Arthur’s lower right side. Arthur seemed almost too stunned to engage at first, only after a few seconds bringing an arm up to wrap around John’s back. But with his chin on Arthur’s shoulder John could smell leather and tobacco and horse and all the other things inseparable from Arthur, could feel him warm and alive, and even though Arthur only partially relaxed into him, only partially accepted whatever was happening, John couldn’t shake the feeling that something about it was right, the way they slotted together.

After what felt like not long enough, John pulled back, but kept a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. This was new, all of it, being vulnerable, being soft, when things with him and Arthur had always been rough, hard and edged, because that’s all they knew to be, because that was all Dutch had expected them to be for all his preaching about love. John wasn’t sure if he liked it, the softness, but it was worth it, whatever awkwardness or strangeness that came if it kept Arthur alive, kept Arthur with him. He’d try anything if it led to that end.

Arthur wasn’t looking him in the eyes, but John started anyway. “I don’t know what happens next just as much as you. But this ain’t the camp where you can lock everythin’ away and expect us to just let you do it, and I ain’t Dutch.” And, again, because John needed to hear himself say it again, “I ain’t Dutch.”

“No,” Arthur said, an edge of pained humor to his voice as he turned his head, meeting John’s gaze with red eyes, “you ain’t.”

“Me and you, Arthur. Think that’s the only way we’re gettin’ through this.”

Arthur cleared his throat, sniffed once. “Fine.”

John leaned back into his chair, let things sit a moment or several, let the snow-muffled sound from outside seep back into the bunkhouse. Wondered, distantly, if anyone had heard them yelling. Hadn’t come in to check on them, so probably not. Probably too far away in the paddocks or up at the main house.

The stove needed to be fed, and John found himself getting up, wandering over to gather some wood, stacking it over the still red embers lining the bottom, just as something to do. It felt like the air was lighter than it had been that morning, like some tension had gone out of it when the words had spilled. This wasn’t everything they needed to talk about, wasn’t everything they needed to say or do, but it was a hell of a lot better than they’d been.

When he came back to the table, Arthur was rubbing at his eyes with one hand, the other pressed to his side, to where the still-stitched entrance wound was.

“How’s it feel?” John’s voice was quieter, hoarser than he expected it to be.

Arthur sighed, laid his palm flat on the table. “Fuckin’ hurts, John, what else would it be doin’?”

“Gettin’ worse?” Wasn’t that a sign of infection, pain getting worse? If they went this long and the hole ended up reinfected, John was going to need to have a talk with whatever god or whoever presided over luck.

But Arthur shook his head. “Naw, just incessant.”

“Alright, you’re goin’ to bed.” Like they were younger again and he was stuck arguing with a drunk Arthur trying to get him back in his tent.

“Won’t do no goddamn good if I can’t sleep.”

“Ain’t been sleepin’?” Hadn’t John seen Arthur sleeping often enough, though? Space was tight in the bunkhouse, all of them spread between two rooms with beds. He and Abigail were in the same room as Arthur since that’d made sense at the time, Arthur still healing, Abigail the ever-tending doctor. Hadn’t John seen Arthur sleeping then, and before that, on the wagon?

Arthur must’ve noticed the confusion on his face, said, “Ain’t as observant as you think you are.”

“What, the pain?”

Arthur looked at him moment, maybe considering how much to tell John. “Some, just—too much thinkin’ and…” He waved a hand in a gesture that was probably meant to be dismissive, might’ve been if it were anyone else, “…nightmares on top of it.”

“You wanna talk ‘bout them?”

“Reckon we done enough talkin’ today.”

And John wasn’t going to push on that, because he was pretty sure Arthur’d exhausted his ability to be vulnerable for the next month at least.

He did have an idea though. “Alright, well,” and he tapped a hand on the table, stood again, “you go get in bed, and I’ll be right back.”

Arthur eyed him suspiciously, and that was almost a relief, something closer to normal. “What’re you doin’?”

“Gonna ask Abe and May for some work I can do in here, and I’m gonna sit with you.”

The suspicion shifted into something half-annoyed, half-exasperated. “Don’t know why you think you starin’ at me is gonna help me sleep.”

John didn’t really know either, but it would make John himself feel better at the very least, knowing Arthur knew he was there, was safe, wasn’t going anywhere. “Worth a shot, right?”

And Arthur sighed, and that was enough for now, that he wasn’t fighting it.

John gathered up his coat, which he hadn’t even had a chance to hang up before Arthur had pushed the fight, shrugged it over his shoulders. He was almost through the door before he paused, turned back to Arthur, who had managed to work himself to his feet, leaning heavily against the table.

“Arthur?”

Arthur stilled, gave John only a grunt in response.

“Ain’t gonna apologize for keepin’ you alive. Done a lotta shit I regret now but that ain’t ever gonna be one of them.”

Arthur didn’t look at him, just waved a hand in acknowledgement that he’d heard. And John nodded, even though he knew Arthur couldn’t see him, hesitated just one more moment, then left out the door.

Chapter Text

Christmas hit with snow in the morning, coating everything in several inches of powder. Meant there was little time to relax, making sure the sheep were fine huddled into their run-in, that the snow wasn’t clumping into the wool on their bellies, along with all the normal morning chores. Abe had given them the afternoon off, though, with an invitation to Christmas dinner up at the main house.

“It’s a tradition,” Abe had told John the previous day. “I ain’t ever been particularly religious, and May’s parents weren’t Christian, course, but most of our hands are in some way or another. Seems a decent way to gather everyone before the dark of winter, anyhow.”

John had murmured back something about not being particularly religious himself.

They’d never done much in camp on Christmas, mainly because most of them were bad Christians at best, and the rest weren’t even Christian at all. They had Swanson there, and he was sometimes inclined to lead some sort of Christmas Eve service, but John could only remember a handful and during most Swanson was drunk or drugged or the like. But Dutch liked the services, liked them because he liked the idea of celebrating almost more than the celebration itself—so, of course, the rest of them, Hosea, Arthur, and John included, humored him. That was all you could ever really do with Dutch, pretend until it either became true or he lost interest in the thing entirely, whether that were Christmas celebrations or anything else.

Mostly Christmas just reminded John of those two or some odd years he’d been in the orphanage. The whole thing had been run by the church, and so most of what John remembered was being forced to wait through long masses where anything but sitting quietly had been grounds for punishment, and the preaching itself often condemned things John knew inside to be true of himself. Christmas was much the same, and it wasn’t like they even got anything for the ordeal.

Even when he was in the gang and Christmas involved gift giving and a meal with all of them together, the whole thing felt like an elaborate setup for what they did every other single day, what with the eating together, laughing together, acting like a family. Even with it supposed to be a holiday and all, it never felt particularly like one, especially when it served as just another reason for them all to get drunk.

Maybe John had never appreciated it like he should’ve. Sure missed it now.

In the afternoon, John had been one of several of them to bathe in the Hastings’ porcelain bathtub. It was only recently that his shoulder had healed enough to allow a soak of that area and he was still getting used to the feeling of having scrubbed clean skin again. Felt like his face was half about to blister off.

Arthur, too, was finally allowed a bath, his for the first time since being wounded, and it was one long thing in an ever-growing list that seemed to signal a return to normal-type living. When he passed John on his way back to the bunkhouse his hair was slicked back and wet against his neck, and the unfamiliarity of it made John want to stare.

John didn’t shave, largely since it still probably wasn’t an entirely good idea to go barefaced, but he did at least clean up the beard a bit. Less like a mountain man, more like an average farm worker getting dressed up for Christmas which, to be fair, was all he was now. Certainly nothing close to how a civilized man might look, not with the length of his hair, but no longer a complete mess. Considered pulling his hair back like he’d always seen Javier do, since he’d trusted Javier’s judgment on anything involving fashion, but it seemed a bit much, especially since the closest thing John had to Sunday best wasn’t much of a step up from his usual clothing.

Arthur, of course, showed him up like he always did. Man rarely got dressed up and would wear clothes until they fell off him, but somehow still managed to look better than John at every single turn. Dressed in a white shirt, vest that matched his eyes, black pants. Hair not pomaded but swept back to make it look neater, on the long side now too after not visiting a barber for at least a month and a half. Beard trimmed and cleaned up as well, and somehow neater at that than John had managed.

When John saw him he’d wanted to snap something about how it was only Christmas dinner they were attending. Then again, as he looked Arthur over, noticed he wasn’t leaning on the cane quite so heavily, that he was starting to fill out his clothing again, that the dark circles under his eyes were fading, maybe it was a good thing, Arthur looking good. Meant they were getting closer to better, to recovered.

Arthur was sleeping better, as far as John could tell. He had no idea if it was just that they’d talked or the sitting up with him or even just that with more healing the pain was getting better. Maybe it didn’t matter what did it.

 


 

“How’d you get them scars, anyhow?”

When John met his eyes, Robert was gesturing to his cheek. Way the dinner table was arranged, John had ended up over near Abe and the two long-term farmhands. They’d talked some over the few weeks of work, but nothing particularly substantial, especially seeing as John had been in and out of the house. Robert, an older black man, was the more talkative of the two farmhands. Nic, a Mexican man probably a few years younger than John himself, was more reserved, though far from unkind, just like everyone else at the ranch.

Probably no surprise he’d be asked about the scars. More likely to be looked at in a dinner setting, especially with no need for scarves, and the beard trim probably drew attention to what of the scars crept out from under it.

“Fell down in church,” John offered back, and earned himself a chuckle from Robert.

All things said, John didn’t particularly mind the scars. It wasn’t like he was particularly good looking in the first place, and the gashes across his face at least made him look rougher, more weathered. Felt like he was treated like a kid so long by the other folks around the camp that having some proof of rough experiences made him feel older, like folks might take him more seriously. Whether that actually worked was more a manner of who you talked to.

“Wolves,” Arthur murmured from beside John. He’d been mostly quiet, same way Arthur usually was at parties. More content to sit to the side, listen to other folks talk. Probably didn’t help he’d only recently been well enough to get to know the people around the ranch in any real capacity.

“Wolves?” Abe asked, looking up from his dinner, slight disbelief in his voice.

“He was the one who shot the damn things,” John clarified. Truth was he didn’t remember much about the rescue, the ride down. Mostly pain, cold. He’d been out long enough that the infection must’ve started setting into the bites by then. Luck more than anything else that the bullet wound never got infected. Remembered being draped over Arthur’s shoulder like he weighed nothing, remembered his face pressed to the back of Javier’s poncho. Gunshots and howling and he was sure he talked some, but he couldn’t remember for the life of him what he might’ve said.

But, of course, no way Arthur or anyone else would let him forget who actually did the killing of the wolves.

“I was bid to, all’s fair,” Arthur said with a sigh.

“Just surprised you survived, if they were close enough to scar you.” Abe said.

“Arthur always says I’m lucky,” John said, and took mouthful of scotch. Swallowed, said, “Weren’t pleasant though, can tell you that.”

It wasn’t a particularly fancy dinner, all things told, but it really didn’t need to be. A turkey from another local farmer, a variety of vegetables. Abe had opened a few bottles of harder alcohol that John was happy to partake in, enough so that he was feeling the warmth in the ends of his fingers.

“Wolves are a nightmare, this kind of work,” Abe was saying. “Once a pack thinks it can get at your flock, not much’ll stop them beyond outright killing them.”

“But you ain’t had issue?” Arthur seemed more interested now, way John could see him leaning forward out of the corner of his eye.

“No, not so far. Turns out there’s far more risk with horses than with wolves most days of the week.”

That implied a story, and the look on John’s face must’ve been enough to suggest he wanted to hear it even as he stabbed his fork into a piece of turkey, because Abe asked, “Assume Dr. Renaud never told you what he treated me for?” John shook his head, mouth full, and Abe continued, “Five or six years ago, feller sold me a mare he assured me was a fine thing, good bloodlines and a good personality to boot. And by the look of things at the time, he was right. Had papers for her, and she was docile enough there when I checked her over.

“Lasted about as long as it took to get her back home. Then the mare was wild, untouchable, tried to take the head off whoever got near her. Turns out, papers were forged and the feller had drugged the horse with something, enough to calm her down.”

John couldn’t count how many times he’d watched Hosea pull a similar con. Papers were easy enough to forge, so long as the mark didn’t think enough to have them verified. Make some money, and most of the time didn’t harm anyone. Drugging though, now that was new. “What happened?” he found himself asking.

“Went in her stall, trying to get her out to a paddock at least to run the energy off, and she kicked me in the shin.”

John couldn’t help the wince, tried to hide it by leaning back in his chair, but by the nod Abe gave him it didn’t do much good.

“Shattered the bone, enough so—well, wasn’t pretty. Got infected, but even without that doubt it could’ve been saved. My luck Dr. Renaud was around this area.”

“He took the leg off,” Arthur said, quietly, a question said more like a statement. Rather than speaking a response, Abe pulled up the leg of his pants, enough that John and Arthur could both see the wood of a prosthetic in place of his lower left leg.

So that explained the odd gait, the way Abe was more often directing than he was out riding, the fact he was easy on Renaud’s patients. Still, John didn’t think he’d ever seen a man with a missing leg move so easy, even if the movement itself looked strange. John found his eyes catching on the grain of the wood, the stain and the shiny finish. Lucky, his brain reminded him.

Wasn’t he lucky? Been shot at for years, only caught bullets in places that would heal. Fell off of trains, horses, stagecoaches. Been too close to dynamite when it went off, been tangled in barbed wire, been caught in snowstorms, been held with a knife to his throat. Been kicked by plenty of horses, never lost a leg to it.

Killed plenty of people, wounded and maimed plenty more. Honest lives, Abe had said that day they arrived, his hand on his belt. The gang had tried their best once, not to hurt working class folk, to take money only from those with too much of it, to redistribute the wealth to those who needed it. That past year though, seemed all they’d been doing was running and killing and getting money for themselves. A bunch of killers, Hosea’d said.

John’s brain was a mess.

“Abe, what’re you doing at dinner table?” May called over, and it was enough to snap John out of his own thoughts.

Abe let the fabric drop, grinning back at his wife. “Telling stories,” he called back, and she gave him a headshake.

Abe settled back, grabbing his glass from the table, still with half a smile on his face. “Don’t blame the horse, all things told. Had a man who knew horses take a look in the back of her mouth, once we could calm her. She had a tooth that had chipped, caused her pain where it cut into her cheek. Managed to grind it down, and it was like we got a different horse back. Still got her, in fact, one of our best horses now she’s trained, bloodlines or no bloodlines. Don’t bring my leg back though.”

After a moment, Arthur spoke up again. “Knew a man with a missin’ leg and an ill-tempered horse.” Of course Arthur did. “Opposite side, though, and the horse didn’t take his leg that case. Or, uh,” he shrugged, “not the first time at least.”

“We oughta talk about all these folks you know,” John muttered, shifting in his chair.

Arthur glanced over at him. “Told you about Hamish already. Owned Buell?” Looked back to Abe. “Horse had a habit of tossin’ him and runnin’ off with his wood leg.”

“Ain’t that the name of the golden horse y’all got with you?” Robert asked.

“The same. Hamish was a hunter, and a boar got the best of him. Gave me Buell to take care of after he passed.”

“Horse tried to bite me last time I put hay bales out there.” Nic, speaking up for one of the first times that night.

“That’s his thing, ‘pparently,” John said. “You get good at dodgin’.”

“Ain’t had enough time to work with him. Only had him a few weeks before…” Arthur sighed, rolled his shoulders again, “Well, ‘fore I got hurt.”

“Sounds like now you’re the one with the bum leg and the ill-tempered horse.” Abe’s voice was amused, but not in an unkind way.

Arthur considered it a moment. “Ain’t technically the leg that’s the problem, but suppose so. Both set to improve, all goes well.” And then he paused again, and John knew by the way he started chewing slightly, the furrow of his brow, that he was considering something over. Finally, “I oughta thank you, actually. For lettin’ us stay, despite me bein’—well, y’know.”

Abe sighed, tilted his head slightly. “Think if I refused to host someone just because they were on the mend from something, it would make me more than a bit two-faced, wouldn’t it? We don’t kick folks out for being hurt here.”

By the way Arthur’s jaw went firm, it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, and that wasn’t something John wanted to even think through on fucking Christmas. When Arthur spoke again, it was quieter. “Ain’t a fan of not pullin’ my weight. Promise you, I’ll find a way to pay it back.”

“Sure you will,” Abe said, and drained his glass of whiskey.

 


 

John drank maybe too much. Not enough to be drunk, more sort of floating, but definitely more than Christmas seemed to warrant for most folks. It was somewhat of a relief to be able to relax again. This wasn’t the gang, was far from it, but in a way, that was comforting. There was a life outside of the gang, one that they could still find happiness in. The world hadn’t ended when John’s life crashed down around him.

He had decided he liked Abe well enough. Despite his initial reservations towards a group of unknown folks, the man was doing a hell of a lot of to protect them. Every time their conversation circled who they were, where they came from, Abe just directed it away again, like he was sweeping dust out the door. It seemed a lot of work for people Abe couldn’t even trust, for people he didn’t even know the backgrounds of, people who, for all he knew, could be waiting to rob him once they were all well again.

John was very quickly discovering that maybe the whole concept of kind strangers unnerved him. The world wasn’t kind, and yet.

There was no gift giving, at least not from the Van der Linde survivors with none of them prepared for the thing, but there was eating, talking, drinking. John drank enough to feel floating and the night very quickly turned into a series of moments.

Near the end of dinner he caught Arthur slipping pieces of turkey to Abe’s pregnant border collie, lying at Arthur’s feet under the table. When John eyed him, Arthur gave him one of the most genuine grins John’d seen on his face in weeks, in months even, as the dog thumped her tail against the floorboards.

Later, when he carried a half-asleep Jack out to the bunkhouse to lay him down, he passed Tilly, sitting with Abe’s son, Walt, out on the front porch. On one of the benches, heads close together, and as he was walking away John could hear the sound of Tilly’s laughter carrying through the chilled winter air.

And later than that, on his way back, Abigail cornered John in the hallway. The house was full of tight spaces, cramped rooms and narrow halls. The type of space where everything was made for utility, and the rest was condensed to make easier to heat. Meant she could press him back out of sight when she kissed him.

They hadn’t really had time for intimacy, how things were going. John hurt, or either of them too busy, or not enough privacy. But John missed Abigail, missed the intimacy for both the sex but also just the closeness, lying skin-to-skin next to her, knowing she was one thing he hadn’t managed to lose yet. John missed Abigail in his bones, and he found even after she broke off the kiss he was wrapping his arms around her, cheek against her hair, swaying slightly and hugging her just to hold her.

And, nearly midnight, John found himself sitting on the front steps of the porch with Charles and Sadie, smoke curling up from the cigarette between his fingers.

“Think I’m gonna start taking bounties,” Sadie was saying. “Whenever we get a bit of clear weather. Startin’ to feel antsy.”

“What, after three weeks?” John asked.

“Ain’t cut out for farm life anymore. Did that enough. Brings back,” Sadie waved a hand, “bad memories.”

“Arthur should be able to work more soon,” Charles murmured through his cigarette. “Means Abe’ll probably be able to spare you.”

“You leavin’ too?” John didn’t hate the idea of Sadie and Charles leaving, and he definitely didn’t want to keep them there if they didn’t want to be, but he also found he didn’t particularly want them to leave. He liked Charles and Sadie, trusted them, and their constant, steadfast presence had become a comfort in the past weeks when so much was unstable, when Arthur was dying.

But Charles shook his head. “I’m tired of being alone. Was why I started running with Dutch in the first place. I’ll be around at least until we leave here.”

“And I ain’t leavin’, per say,” Sadie said. “Just won’t be here all the time.”

“You’ll come back?” John asked.

“I’ll come back. I do like you folk, ornery as you can be.”

John hummed in agreement, inhaling another puff of smoke. Despite the cold, John felt warm at the core of his chest, like something bright and burning.

“Seems this is the first chance we’ve gotten to breathe,” he ended up saying. “First time we’ve stopped runnin’ in—in months, really.”

“Can’t stay here forever, though,” Sadie said, like John didn’t know that already. “Know what you’re doin’ next?”

“Abigail keeps talkin’ about getting a ranch ourselves, livin’ like ranchers. So, figurin’ how to make that a reality, I guess.”

“Is that what you want to do?” Charles asked, and the question left John at a pause.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do, that was the thing. It wasn’t that he disliked the ranch idea, more that he couldn’t picture it. Being like normal people, being domestic. Even working here at the ranch working for Abe felt like he was in someone else’s skin, like it was a con Hosea had set him on. The gang had been the only place John ever felt like he belonged, like folks loved him. Anything that wasn’t it felt artificial.

This was why Arthur liked Charles, John decided. Though the man chose his words carefully, those words were well chosen. Felt like they cut to the core of John, made him consider what lay there, waiting.

“I think,” John started, trying to choose his words just as carefully, “I think I want her to be happy. Her, and Jack, and—” He wanted to say and Arthur too, but— “and all the rest of you folk. If it’s a ranch that does it, so be it, I guess.”

“What, all of us livin’ on one big ranch?” Sadie had an amused tone to her voice.

“I mean, that was always the plan—” The word stumbled out of his mouth before he could stop it, before he could stop the thought of Dutch making him sick. John had to stop, reconsider his words. “It ain’t, ain’t a bad idea, is it? Place where folk can stay if they need to, wander with a place to come back to?” Not leave, his mind supplied.

He was thinking of Arthur again, of the thought of losing him, and the thought of being alone. He loved Abigail, he did, but—but she wasn’t enough, maybe. She couldn’t hold the weight of losing the rest of his friends, his family, watching them die or scatter or turn on him. If he tried to put that all on her, they’d crumble to pieces. And here he was sitting with two folks who had always been closer to Arthur than John, who cared for Arthur, who had ridden with Arthur over Dutch, who maybe knew Arthur better than John did, these days.

He was maybe drunk at this point, enough that he couldn’t help asking, “You reckon all of us would still be together, weren’t for Arthur?”

“What’d you mean?” Sadie asked.

“If it weren’t for Arthur being—being shot, but alive, needin’ the help, would we—would we all still be together? Or be scattered, the way the rest of everyone is?”

It took a moment for them to answer, Sadie looking like she was considering the question fully. Finally, “No,” Charles said, simple as always. “No, I wouldn’t have been here. I would’ve buried Arthur, if it were needed, then gone back to the Wapiti.”

“Don’t think I woulda been either,” Sadie said, and she looked almost guilty to John’s eyes. “Think I woulda made sure you and Abigail had what you needed, then gone separately.”

“Arthur wanted me to leave him, was mad I went back for him, but—but I think, think without him woulda been a bigger mess than it already were. Ain’t perfect, sure, but better, better than it was. And it was because you two was here, and Tilly, and Dr. Renaud, and Charlotte.” John was rambling now. Definitely drunk. “And that wouldn’t have happened, not without him. Arthur’s the glue, I reckon. What keeps us together. Don’t… Don’t think he realizes how much he’s needed.”

As John let himself trail off, he looked over at the other two to see Sadie was peering at him closely, the kind of gaze that made him want to shrink away from it. Charles wasn’t even looking at him, had tilted his head upwards, towards where the clouds were clearing away from the stars.

“What?” John could hear a bit of nervousness in his own voice.

Sadie just shook her head, shot Charles a glance before turning to back to John. “Nothin’. You thinkin’ Arthur will go for the ranch idea?”

John sighed. “Don’t really know what he wants. Don’t know much ‘bout him, these days. I mean—I mean he don’t hafta stay if he don’t want.”

“But you want him to stay?” Sadie had something akin to pity in her eyes as she continued to look at him, and John couldn’t for the life of him figure out why.

Between Arthur lost and upset at being saved, and both of them needing to be new people, and John wanting and not even knowing what it was he wanted: “Kinda worried what might happen if he don’t.”

 


 

By most metrics, New Year’s was actually more subdued than Christmas. Rather than gathering over in the main house, the remnants of the Van der Linde gang ended up around the small table in the bunkhouse, waiting for the new century. Quiet enough, playing cards, Jack rotating between various people’s laps.

There wasn’t much talking, not at first. Some discussion of the past few days of work, of how they liked Abe and the others (general consensus being the same as John, tentatively but suspiciously liked them all), and, eventually, Arthur throwing down his poker cards and accusing John of cheating (which he hadn’t been, for once). Nothing much of substance.

John suspected it was because New Year’s, and New Year’s was the time for stories, a recounting of the past year, what had gone. There was too much pain there, too much that had changed for the worse for all of them. John himself certainly didn’t want to think about how on past New Years’, Dutch would always make some speech about how far they’d come, how close they were to finally being free of civilization, to retreating into the savage wilderness he’d always pictured. The whole memory made John ache in the chest and want to scramble for his guns in equal parts.

Eventually, though, someone got on the topic on what they were planning to do next. Because wasn’t that also a part of New Year’s, discussing the year to come? And John let himself lean back out of that conversation, because he hadn’t gotten any further than he had in the conversation with Sadie and Charles.

What came next? John had no idea.

Somewhere between Abigail discussing the ranch plan and Tilly mentioning how she liked the ranch life more than she thought she would, John noticed Arthur slip out the door. He gave it a few minutes before following, because it didn’t even seem to be a question he should follow. Gave Abigail a pat on the shoulder before he ducked outside.

The air was a biting sort of cold, the kind of winter night wool blankets barely cut it for, but the moon was bright, so much so it was easy to see. It took John a moment or two to locate Arthur, as the man had wandered a fair ways over towards the barn. Found him sitting on a few crates stacked against the building, recent enough that they were clear of snow.

Arthur didn’t say anything as John sat down next to him, even though there wasn’t enough room on the crate for both of them to really sit comfortably and so John’s shoulder and leg were pressed up against Arthur’s. John didn’t say anything either, just watched his breath circle out into the winter air.

Finally Arthur cleared his throat, and when John looked over at him he was looking up at the sky, head tilted back against the wood of the barn. “Bet they’re launchin’ fireworks down in Saint Denis,” Arthur said, voice quiet.

“Fireworks?” John followed his gaze up to the sky. The stars were bright, no clouds in the sharp cold.

“Ain’t that the craze now? Fireworks for everythin’.”

“Is that it? Last time I saw them was when we was down around Shelborne and those crazy folk nearly blew themselves up.” He’d almost lost a couple fingers in that whole ordeal.

“Had ‘em at that party the mayor threw back in August, so I’d imagine it wouldn’t take much else to make those folks wanna fire fire ‘em off.”

“Party I weren’t invited to?”

Arthur raised his eyebrows. “Reckon you mighta gone for Bronte’s throat if you saw him.”

“Fair ‘nough.”

There was a moment of silence before Arthur murmured, “Still thought we’d make it, back then.”

So that was the mood for the night, melancholy. John sighed, let the white of his breath drift away before he spoke. “New century, huh?”

“Didn’t think—didn’t ever think I’d see it.” Arthur said it like acknowledging making it this long was an admission, like surviving were something he ought to be ashamed of.

John considered what he should say for at least five seconds before saying, “Y’know, you don’t gotta feel guilty ‘bout bein’ alive.”

“Sure.”

“I mean it, Arthur. We all got enough bad shit left over from how things shook out. You don’t gotta add guilt about survivin’ on top of all of it.”

“Lotta folk deserved to see it that didn’t. Sean, Lenny, Hosea, Grimshaw—hell, Molly. Woulda traded any of them for me, chance to let them see the rest of their lives.”

John was getting tired of this, this idea that Arthur’s life wasn’t a valuable thing. “Yeah, well, you’re here and they ain’t. That ain’t somethin’ we’re gonna change, so you might as well get used to the idea of livin’ into 1900.”

“Still got time to do somethin’ stupid before the clock ticks over.”

John knew it was meant to be a joke, but he couldn’t help himself snapping, “You’re a sad bastard, you know that?”

And it was a testament to the mood of the evening that Arthur didn’t hit him, just huffed a small, humorless laugh and settled more fully against the barn, with it leaning a little heavier into John.

They were quiet again, quiet enough that a nicker from one of the horses cut over to them, and John bet Arthur could tell what horse did it from sound recognition alone.

After a minute, John found his eyes drifting over to Arthur, really looking at him close for the first time in a few weeks. Over a month of being forced into eating well had done him good, his face less sharp, more rounded again. John’d noticed during Christmas how Arthur was starting to fill his clothing a bit more, but even his color was better, his skin warmer even with the lack of sun in the winter. Loose, feet stuck out in front of him, cane next to him, lent against the barn. Was getting close to not even needing it, these days, way he was walking. Wound nearly healed enough to have the stitches pulled from it. Back in the blue coat, worn fur pressed up against his face where he’d upturned the collar, edges of it not far from brushing against his lips. Soft, warm flannel peering out from where the coat clasped. Hair longer than he usually kept it, pushed to the sides to keep it out of his face, a stray strand or two hanging over his forehead. No scarf, and—

“Why ain’t you been wearin' the hat?” And then, somewhat stupidly, because of course Arthur knew what hat he was talking about and yet John still scrambled for something to say when Arthur turned his eyes on him, “The black one?”

Arthur looked at him a moment longer, chin tilted upwards and eyes slightly narrowed, before he rolled his head to face forward again. “Dunno.”

And though Arthur wasn’t even looking at John, John couldn’t help but make a face. “Ain’t an answer.”

Arthur shrugged. “Listen, I gave it to you. Far as I’m concerned it’s yours now. If anyone should wear it, oughta be you.”

“You wore that thing for years, got angry with me for even touchin’ it, and now you’re just givin’ it to me?”

Arthur shrugged again, and John had to resist the urge to hit him. After a second, maybe sensing John’s frustration, Arthur sighed, said, “I really don’t know, John. Hat were my father’s, and he died. Started wearin’ it after that ‘cause out on the streets it was the only thing I had left that were mine. Later I wore it ‘cause he was the worst man I’d ever known and I didn’t wanna forget the worst I might be. Suppose it didn’t quite work, seein’ as I reckon my daddy never killed so many people as I did. Now…” and Arthur trailed off, like he was thinking something over, and John let him think. “Now if I put it back on, think it would be like crawlin’ back to that old life. Like anythin’ between then and now was meaningless, like I’m back to the same as what I was. Don’t know… don’t know what I am now, but I reckon I ain’t what I was.”

“So you want me to wear it?” Wasn’t all John got out of the conversation, but it seemed the easiest reply.

“Sure. Gave it to you for a reason, didn’t I?”

John scraped a heel through the snow coating the ground, because he didn’t really want to think about that. He could still remember how it felt on that mountain in Ambarino when Arthur placed the hat on his head. The leather still warm, and John was half-ready to cry just from that, the memory of the warm leather sitting on his head. And he could remember the blood, the smell of it as Arthur hugged him, metallic and sharp, and the feel of it soaking into his clothing.

Arthur told him to run, and he did, for a moment. Then he came back, and Arthur was dying.

He needed to know. “Arthur, what happened? Up on that mountain?”

Arthur sighed, fished a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. Handed one to John, took one himself, struck a match and lit them both. John let him take his time, because he knew Dutch had been up there, had watched him ride away.

Finally, Arthur took one long inhale, said, quiet, “After I told you to go, Micah ambushed me.”

John had guessed at that too, seeing as Micah had always been drawn to blood like starving wolf in the winter, and he wasn’t one to just let Arthur go once he felt like he finally had the upper hand on him. Still, what bubbled up in his chest was nothing but rage, because that meant the goddamn rat was indeed the one that caused all the bruising.

Arthur was still talking. “Fool was more interested in gettin’ some licks in than shootin’ me outright, which was as stupid as it sounds. Ended up losin’ us both our guns, so it went to fists. Dirty fight, from both of us. Don’t play honorable in a fistfight anyway, but I was bleedin’ out besides. And the goddamn snake could barely take me, even then. Resorted to tryin’ to get his fingers…” Arthur gestured to his stomach, where the bullet hole was, fingers curved like they were ready to dig into something.

The idea made John shudder near involuntarily and he almost lost his grip on the cigarette. If the rat had gotten his filthy fingers anywhere near the wound, it was maybe no wonder Arthur’d come down with infection. John was going to kill Micah, first chance he got, the piece of human waste.

“He’d nearly gotten me, was nearly done. Then…” Arthur paused, breathed out slowly. “…and then Dutch showed up.”

John glanced over, wanted to see Arthur’s face, was expecting anger, or bitterness, or even sadness. What he wasn’t expecting, what he got, was some sort of vague confusion.

“I reckon… reckon right at the end, he knew. Knew Micah was the rat, what he’d done. At least, he told Micah to get out. I couldn’t move at that point, was too far gone, and I thought he was gonna leave me like all those times before. Suppose he did, eventually, but…”

John waited a moment, something still churning inside him until he couldn’t wait anymore, until he prompted, “But what?”

“He… he sat with me, at the end. Stayed until I went under, far as I can remember. Think he felt—felt guilty, or somethin’. Don’t…” and then, quieter, “Don’t know why.”

The boiling feeling in John’s chest wasn’t going away, was growing, even. “Does it matter? He shot you, Arthur.”

Arthur shook his head. “He was panickin’, and I knew that. Kinda pushed him into it.”

“That’s not an excuse.”

“Yeah, well, better me than you or, or Grimshaw, I guess, but that went sideways. Thought, thought maybe if I could get a bullet through Micah after he did it, you and her…” Arthur trailed off in a sigh. “Didn’t work, whatever it were.”

For all those dime novels liked to romanticize about jumping in front of a bullet for another person, the truth was that guns shot too fast. John’d seen men try to leap in front of gun barrels, and most of the time the bullet was already piercing whoever they’d wanted to protect before they’d even started moving. It was a useless gesture, only employed by men who didn’t know enough of guns. That didn’t mean it was impossible to take a bullet in place of someone else, though. The trick was keeping the barrel pointed at yourself over the person you intended to protect.

But with Micah’s gun leveled at his head, Dutch’s at his chest, Arthur had to have known the bullet would likely kill him, that there was little to no chance he’d get out of Beaver Hollow alive. Had to have known that what he was doing, goading Dutch into shooting him, could only end with him alive through dumb luck, or else some fool equally dumb enough to go back and save him. And Arthur had never had John’s luck, and had tried his hardest to make sure every fool he knew was already out. Because Arthur—

It was like a leaden weight dropping into John’s stomach. “Arthur, did you want to die?”

And John knew what the answer was, knew what Arthur’d say just by the way he paused, like he was turning the question over in his head.

Finally Arthur dropped his cigarette on the ground, ground it out into the snow with the heel of his boot. When he spoke, he didn’t answer the question. “When we started this whole thing, when it was me, Hosea, and Dutch, we were doin’ it in the name of helpin’ folk. Maybe that was just somethin’ Dutch told me, somethin’ to keep me with him, but—but I really believed it, back then. Thought we only took things from folk what don’t need it, from folk what kept what they had because they thought they was better than all the little folk around them. We was good, back then, so good as a bunch of outlaws could be.

“Later…” Arthur trailed off, looking down at the snow in front of them like he wasn’t really seeing it. Took a deep breath, almost shuddering. “I hurt a lot of people, John. Killed folk just doin’ their jobs, maimed folk just happened to be in the wrong place, beat folk for not havin’ enough to pay off a goddamn debt. And I thought that ‘cause Dutch said it was right, I was doin’ what I was meant to.

“When we were in Guarma, Dutch killed an old woman. Told me it was ‘cause she was gonna betray us, but he was lyin’, and I knew he was lyin’. I knew, before, that somethin’ was wrong, but that… that, I reckon, was when I knew we weren’t ever gonna get back to what we were. That what we had was over.” Arthur paused, gave one humorless chuckle. “Y’know, asked him then if he was gonna strangle me too. Weren’t stranglin’, sure, but…”

“Jesus, Arthur,” John muttered, because it was all he could force out of his mouth.

“Dutch weren’t who I thought he was. Maybe he never was, maybe he just lost it as the years went on. Maybe everythin’ he told us was some pretty lie, made up to get us to follow him, or maybe he really believed it. But… but I thought—if I could get who I could out, save who I could, then… well, guess you already know.”

“Then die?”

“Weren’t like I was goin’ seekin' it out then, not ‘til Dutch, Dutch, y’know—but, but so many goddamn people, John, folk what deserve to see 1900 and I’m here, the reason they ain’t.”

“And you think dyin’ would fix that?”

“Certainly wouldn’t harm things.”

Arthur.”

“I gave all I had to that life. Don’t—don’t think it made sense for me to live past the end of it, not when so many other folk didn’t.”

“Think you’re a goddamned coward.” It wasn’t exactly what John meant, and it came out harsher because of it, because of course this was what always happened, John’s dumb fucking mouth. Beside him he felt Arthur immediately stiffen, and he scrambled to find the correct words. “That’s not—I mean, I mean in what world does dyin’ solve anythin’?”

“Best explain what you mean right now, Marston.” The words a low growl, and John didn’t even want to look at the glare Arthur had to be pointing his way, and goddamn it they’d been doing so well.

John was kind of angry, though, that was the thing. “No, Arthur, I mean—you think dyin’ somehow makes up for whatever harm you caused, whatever, whatever harm we caused? Dyin’ don’t fix nothin’, it just—just lets you off the hook.”

“You don’t think all those folks whose fathers I killed wouldn’t be happy to hear I bit it?”

“And then what? They get one moment of satisfaction seein’ the papers and then keep livin' their shitty lives and all that’s changed is you’re dead. How does that help? If you really wanna make up for whatever shit you done then live and fuckin’ help folk.”

Arthur was still tensed next to John, but John really didn’t want to look at him, because history suggested what happened next was them fistfighting. John wanted to say his piece before then, wanted to get it out even if it felt like spilling his own insides out his mouth, because, after everything, he’d say anything to keep Arthur with him.

“You don’t know what it was like, thinkin’ you were gonna die and there weren’t nothin’ we could do about it. It was goddamn terrifyin’, idea that we—that I, Arthur, that I weren’t ever gonna see you again. How the hell does that make the world better? The boy sat up with you, Abigail kept near a vigil over your goddamn bed, I—” John’s voice cracked, and he had to swallow, heavy. When he got his voice out again, it was quieter, rougher. “I will have this conversation as many times as you goddamn need, but you gotta understand you can’t help no one when you’re dead. You’re alive, and that’s what it is. Find some other goddamn way.”

In the silence that followed, John was sure the next thing that was going to happen was his face hitting the snow, him and Arthur brawling it out now that he could, like they always had when things got too much to deal with in any other way. Instead what happened was Arthur deflating, letting out a breath like something had punctured his chest. John finally chanced a glance over and found Arthur with his face in his hands, heel of his palms pressed into his eyes. Without looking up at John, he muttered, “I got no goddamn clue what I’m gonna do.”

“What, to help folk?”

“All of it.” And Arthur raised his head, blinking away the pressure from his palms. “What comes next, mostly.”

“Not dyin’ is a start.”

“Ain’t like I’m plannin’ to, not after everythin’.” Arthur could’ve said that before John went and spilled his guts, but, still, it felt like something uncurled in his stomach out of relief, even as Arthur continued, “Don’t mean I got any sort of idea how to live normal.” And he sighed, said with not enough bite to make it genuine, “I really goddamn hate you, John.”

“You mean you never once thought ‘bout life outside the gang?” Hell, even John had at one time or another, gone a whole year of seeing that reality, and he’d always thought he’d rather die than leave what he had.

“Course I did, but—but figured out a long time ago that I was never gonna get that sorta life. After that it just became a matter of… makin’ sure other folks got the chance.”

“What did you want?”

“I—I don’t know.” John was pretty sure that was Arthur lying, or wasn’t telling the whole truth or something like it. “Think I knew once, but that’s gone. Now I’m starin’ out at a big lot of nothin’. So thanks for that, I guess.”

John half-considered telling Arthur he was the same, that he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next either. But he wasn’t sure that would work, wasn’t sure it would get him more than a lecture about being with his family. Instead he said, “Maybe you oughta figure it out. You got the time now.”

“Abigail’s got the ranch plan, don’t she?”

“Abigail’s always got some sort of life planned out.”

“Oughta be grateful for that, seein’ as you don’t.”

John ought to have argued, seeing as he knew when Arthur was trying to get a rise out of him, and that was what Arthur was doing. Instead, he found himself saying what’d been on his mind since Christmas. “If, if you don’t know what to do, I—I want you to come with us. On the ranch. Charles and Sadie and Tilly too, of course, if they want, but—but I think we should build whatever this is together.”

Arthur snorted. “What, so I can play accessory to your happy life?”

“Plenty of brothers own farms together.”

“And we’re brothers?”

“Ain’t we?”

“Ain’t sayin’ we ain’t, just.” Arthur paused a moment, thinking something over. “Just, we was brothers because we was sons of Dutch. Without Dutch…?”

Now that was an interesting thought. Weren’t they brothers? Dutch’d always wanted them to be, wanted the gang to be like family. It was what defined them, what made them different from degenerates like the O’Driscolls. And he and Arthur sure fought like John had imagined brothers might, near constant, light or bitter depending on the day. Cared for each other like brothers might, Arthur always there to get John out of trouble. But, in the end, brother was just another one of Dutch’s words, wasn’t it? What were they to each other without Dutch?

It didn’t matter. “We’re still family, Arthur, with or without him. Look, you could—could train horses, right? And me, I could keep a herd of cattle, or, or even sheep, I mean we’re gettin’ good practice here on them. And then—you remember what I said? ‘bout us tryin’ to be better together? We could do that, ranchin’ but also helpin’ folk what need it. And you’d have a place to go.”

“Don’t need your charity, John.”

John sighed, stubbing out his cigarette, which had burnt down to the base without him taking more than a couple pulls. “Kinda annoyed you think what I’m sayin’ means nothin’.”

“Now when the hell did I say that?”

“I’m sayin’ I want you to come with me, with us, when we work out whatever happens with this ranch thing. You ain’t gotta if you don’t want, but this ain’t me fulfilling some kinda obligation. This is an invitation. I ain’t even sayin’ you gotta be grateful for it, because frankly I ain’t sure if you even know how to take anythin’ you’re given without makin’ a fuss about it, but maybe just, just some understandin’ ‘bout the fact that I’d like someone else around who knows what this whole mess is like would be nice. For once.”

Arthur eyed him, face just between suspicion and something else unreadable. “Why you so focused on me, anyhow? Sadie, Charles, Tilly, they know what this is like. Hell, Abigail even, she was a thief once. Why’s it gotta be me?”

“None of them were with Dutch like we was.” It wasn’t true, not exactly, but it sounded right, maybe believable if John did a good enough job selling it.

Because John didn’t know, because—Why was he so focused on Arthur? Because what were they to each other without Dutch?

“Sure,” Arthur muttered, like he didn’t believe John, though whether that was John’s half-lie or Arthur’s own incomprehensible hang-ups, John wasn’t sure.

“You are the most frustratin’ goddamn person, ain’t you?”

“And here you are, wantin’ to be stuck with me.” But there was a smile edging the corner of Arthur’s mouth, and, “I’ll think ‘bout it. The ranch thing.”

“You better.”

The cold was starting to seep into John’s coat now, despite the warmth that radiated hot from where his arm and leg came into contact with Arthur’s. He’d no idea how much time had passed, didn’t think to slip a pocket watch into his coat when he left the bunkhouse. Still, if one of the others hadn’t come looking for them yet, they probably hadn’t wasted too much time to risk missing the new year.

Still, it was damn freezing. “Reckon we oughta get inside,” John said, leaning forward. “Abigail might kill me if I ain’t inside when the clock turns over, and imagine she might come for your hide about sittin’ in the cold. ‘less you wanna stay out here and think some more.”

“Naw,” Arthur said. “Done too much of that tonight, and I ain’t ‘bout to anger Abigail over nothin’. I’ll come.”

John rocked up to his feet, dusted himself off, and offered Arthur his hand. When Arthur took it, the warmth was like something burning.

Why was he so focused on Arthur?

For years, years, John would’ve given anything to be like Arthur, to be strong and brave and unwavering in the face of absolutely everything thrown his way. To be almost mythic, to be able to take whatever he was asked like it came easy, to handle a gun and a horse the same, like they were extensions of his own body. John wanted to be Arthur, to inspire awe, to have folks look at him the same way.

But John grew up. And he made mistakes, and he watched Arthur make mistakes, and he realized Arthur wasn’t a myth. He was a human, same as the rest of them, and he bled the same as the rest of them. And he watched Arthur fumble, and he watched Arthur shoulder more weight, and he watched Arthur be tossed from horses, seen him caught out and disarmed. And John left for a year because he found fatherhood, the commitment to it, overwhelming, and when he came back Arthur was bitter, mean, had all but disowned John.

And then Dutch showed his true colors, and Hosea died and Arthur almost followed him. What were they when everything they knew was gone? When the man that called them son had turned his own revolver on them?

Here they were, bright and alive and warm, Arthur still with a heart beating in his chest and John with a goddamn mess in his head and 1900 coming on fast.

Why was he so focused on Arthur?

Because—because when he pulled Arthur to his feet and the man stumbled, just a little, John steadied him with a hand on the shoulder and they were so close together and Arthur’s eyes catching the moon and the stars and his hair just slightly mussed and breath streaming in white clouds from between his lips and the smell of smoke and horse and leather and John could’ve leant forward, could’ve closed the gap just a bit more and could’ve bent in soft and pressed his—

John dropped his hand from Arthur’s shoulder maybe too quick, stepped back definitely too quick and it turned into a half-stumble. Arthur gave him a questioning look, but John shook his head, waved Arthur forward. And Arthur gave John one last glance, one last look like he wanted to say something, but turned away without opening his mouth.

John watched his back for a moment, couldn’t do more than watch his back, broad and straight and strong as it felt like John’s legs were about to give out from under him.

Oh hell.

He was in love with Arthur.

Chapter Text

John knew from the moment he figured what sex was that he looked at men the same way he did women. He knew that it was a sin, unnatural, knew that from the sermons the orphanage had made him sit through, knew that from the men he saw hanged for it. If he ran with anyone other than Dutch, it might’ve been a problem.

He was fifteen when he finally said it to anyone besides himself, and it was, like all things, predicated by a fight.

They’d been further west then, working in some small town John couldn’t remember the name of. He couldn’t remember the con they were working either, nor what he, Arthur, and Dutch were doing at the time, but he could remember the look on the farm boy’s face when he and John realized simultaneously that John had been eyeing the skin that showed where his shirt was unbuttoned much too long to be proper. Burned in his brain was the tone of the boy’s voice as he hissed, “What d’you think you’re lookin’ at, invert?” and John was on him near instantly.

All things considered, it was a pretty uneven fight. Sure, the farm boy was older and bigger than John, but John had caught him off guard and the boy obviously didn’t have as much experience as John did brawling it out with someone who wanted to kill him.

Arthur’d been the one to pull them apart, to yank John back by his collar because, even at fifteen, John was still gangly enough to be manhandled. And Dutch didn’t say anything at first, let the other boy run when Arthur gave him a threatening look, just eyed John up and down and said, slowly, in an almost pleased tone, “…Well.” It was the kind of thing that indicated there was a talk coming, and Dutch loved to talk above all else.

Later, back at camp, he’d been called over to Dutch’s tent, confronted with both Dutch and Hosea standing at the entrance, waiting for him. That too, John could remember clearly, Dutch with his hands on his hips, Hosea with his arms folded, and the cold fear in the pit of John’s stomach. The fear that, after everything, after every part of his past life he’d confessed to them, that wanting a man in bed would be the thing that made them throw him out. Whether he believed they would really do it was irrelevant. It was the idea that they could that scared him.

Dutch’s voice had been firm, close to scolding when he’d said, “You wanna explain to me and Hosea what happened in town today?”

And John had bitten his lip, but looked up at Dutch all the same. “Kid called me inverted.”

“And why, pray tell, did that make you upset enough to risk blowing our cover? I know you’ve been called worse, John, hell, I think Arthur called you worse just this morning.”

And John, the threat of being kicked out still hanging over his head, had stuck out his chin defiantly, the way he’d always done to protect himself, said, “He weren’t wrong.”

“Like men, do you?”

And there’d been no point in not being honest, despite the tremble in his voice. “Same as women.”

“Well, son,” Dutch had said, his eyes glimmering, “have I ever told you my thoughts on inverts?”

Dutch had then broken into some long, winding speech, one that started directed at John, but eventually became towards the whole camp because that was Dutch’s way. John didn’t remember most of it now, mostly because he hadn’t understood the majority of what Dutch was saying at the time. Something about ancient peoples and native peoples and love above all else and, as always, the scourge that was civilization. Normal Dutch stuff.

Whole thing left John feeling winded and exhausted, but he at least got the point: that Dutch thought society’s views on sex were just as antiquated as their views on near everything else and John wasn’t going to be kicked out for bedding a willing partner, no matter if that partner was a man or a woman, nor if that partner had white skin or black (though, of course, John’d later learned as the camp grew that not being kicked out didn’t mean other camp members, ones that joined later, weren’t allowed to show their distaste with the whole idea). It somehow was both a relief and not at all comforting in the slightest, because that too was Dutch’s way.

And just as Dutch approached everything with a speech on the morals of the situation, Hosea was one to give John the actual, practical advice. When he called John out of camp to fish with him, a thin veil over an incoming conversation, John was never afraid about what was going to happen. Out of everyone in camp, he trusted Hosea maybe the most not to turn him out or hurt him for whom he wanted to sleep with. Hosea was tough, the one to come after anyone not pulling their weight, but he was fair. If he had even half a mind to turn John out, it would’ve happened back when he was called over to Dutch’s tent in the first place. That said, it didn’t mean he particularly wanted to have a conversation with Hosea of all folks about fucking and being fucked, and he’d agreed only under extreme protest.

Luckily for him, the conversation ended up being more Hosea talking at him, rather than John being expected to respond. His tone was stern, but seemingly more to get John to listen close than anything else. First, Hosea had explained, wait to fool around until he was older and, if he really had to, find boys his own age. Any grown man that looked at a teenage boy that way was either desperate or messed in the head, and either meant he was more likely to try to hurt John and that wasn’t worth the risk. And, no matter how desperate he got, stay away from children, because that was one thing Dutch and Hosea both would never abide.

Next, expect any man trying to get him out behind a bar or alone in a hotel room was planning to kill him. If he didn’t, fine, it would be a pleasant surprise, but expect him to try, no matter if he was using the language of inverts to rob or beat John or if he did genuinely want get John alone to fuck first. Be especially wary of men who wanted to get off first or to take John rather than be taken. Keep his guns on him until the last possible second, and keep a knife in reach at all times.

Lastly, he was responsible for any trouble his lack of discretion might cause, just like he might be any other kind of trouble. He ever got arrested for it, sure, Hosea would come for him, break him out of wherever, just like they would for any other gang member. But if he went for the wrong man, caused some sort of uproar, and it compromised whatever job the gang was working on at the time, that was on John, same as it’d be if he’d shot the wrong man or even went for the wrong lady, and he’d be expected to face any consequences for the loss.

And, in the meantime, John ought to control where his eyes wandered.

John waited to fool around with other boys until he was sixteen, and then he was near desperate for it. And he had then, of course, ended up beaten several times by boys he’d misjudged, largely because he couldn’t figure out how the hell one went about actually indicating his inclinations in a way that was subtle. It wasn’t easy, learning the ropes of anything illegal, but something as intimate as bedding on top of it? John’d ended up paying for what he didn’t know with fists.

John hadn’t known, at the time, that Arthur’s thoughts ran the same as his did, that Arthur liked men just as well as he liked women, but maybe he should’ve guessed. There were signs—the way Dutch and Hosea already seemed practiced in talking about unnatural inclinations, or the way Arthur had seemed entirely disinterested back when Dutch gave his speech to John, like he’d heard the whole thing before—but not enough to make the connection until Arthur himself had provided more information.

It seemed John earned Arthur’s pity well enough once he’d been worked over for the third time that Arthur decided to extend him a hand—or, maybe more likely, had been talked into it by Hosea. John had been sitting at the fire in camp nursing a blacked eye and a blacker mood when Arthur took a seat next to him, unceremoniously deposited a book in John’s lap, and said, impromptu of nothing, “Whitman.”

John had eyed the front cover of the book, then looked up at Arthur and spat, “What?”

“Gotta find a better way to go about this, Marston.” Arthur tapped the cover. “Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.”

“I don’t know why the hell you expect me to—”

Whitman,” Arthur interrupted, “is a poet, and ain’t a particularly interestin' one at that. But he’s a friend to folks like us. If you wanna stop showin' up here beat to shit, oughta familiarize yourself with his work. And keep a goddamn knife on you.”

“Hosea told me that already,” John had snapped, unable to keep the frustrated whine out of his voice.

John didn’t have any clue what Arthur meant with the book and he couldn’t even get through a few lines of poetry before wanting to chuck it across the campsite (which he did, several times). Then, one day a few months later, he’d met a boy his age who gave the same long looks to men and hadn’t learnt yet to quell them, who had a soft face and nice hands, and who, after talking with John for a bit, brought up the subject of poetry. John mentioned Whitman on a whim, and not long later he and the boy were having relations in a barn.

That was how John realized it was a code. Folks like us, Arthur’d said.

Dutch the philosophy, Hosea the practicality, Arthur the method.

John had already known, at that point, that he liked looking at Arthur. Of course he had—by both John’s own judgment and the way women reacted to Arthur, Arthur was nice to look at. And this was when Arthur was still twenty-three and seemed near invincible, and it was only logical that John’s admiration of Arthur would fall both with his skills and also his looks.

Plus, there was no harm in looking at Arthur, far as John could tell, because the man didn’t notice and, even if he did, most he’d probably do was just cuff John on the back of the head. When looking too much could get him killed with any men outside of camp, paying particular attention when Arthur took his shirt off was safe in comparison.

But something about knowing it was safer than he’d even thought before, that Arthur knew how it was to like men, pushed it into something more than looking, turned it into wanting. That summer he was sixteen John no longer knew if he followed Arthur around because he idolized him or because he was young and dumb and horny and wanted desperately to touch boys or girls who might touch him back, didn’t know if he wanted to be like Arthur or if he wanted to be with him.

He’d try to find excuses to follow Arthur into town, on hunting trips, and especially down to the river to bathe. Anything to spend more time around the man, and it was likely only the fact that John’d always followed Arthur around near as much as Copper did that saved John, kept Arthur from noticing something was going on. Of course, to the more observant members of the camp it had been painfully obvious—this time it was both Dutch and Hosea who’d sat him down over fishing and that whole ordeal was something John’d never wanted to repeat.

Thing was, it never lead to anything. Of course it wasn’t ever going to, Arthur seven years older than him and John just a kid. Even if John’d managed to confess it, Arthur wouldn’t believe him, and even if Arthur believed him he wouldn’t agree to it, not when John was still sixteen and Arthur treated him even younger than that, and even if John wasn’t sixteen and was instead twenty-three like Arthur, he still doubted the man would give him the time of day.

But still, for about a year, John wanted.

It wasn’t any sort of event that made him drop the wanting, just time. Eventually, once it went on long enough and John was finding other folks that would actually return his affection, he’d stopped thinking so much about Arthur.

And for ages John had thought it was just that, something quick and bright, something based in discovering someone he knew was like him, and something that faded just as quick. It wasn’t like Arthur was the only one he’d seen his affections grow and fade for as the years went on—there was a very pretty waitress when he was seventeen that John had near mourned when the gang had moved on to the next town, and a striking farrier’s apprentice when he was eighteen that John had almost talked back to camp to be a more permanent horse caretaker. Both he’d wanted around because he liked bedding them, and maybe that was the problem, that as a teenager love still felt like a foreign idea.

And then he was older, busier, grew out of some habits and some thoughts, and conversely thought less about sex all together and more about pulling his own weight, and any previous attraction to Arthur slipped to the back of his mind completely. And then Abigail came along and all John had on his mind was her, all of her, and then everything became a mess by John’s own fault and he’d mostly forgotten the rough sort of attraction that had felt so pressing as a teenager.

He never talked to Arthur about it. Ended being embarrassing more than anything else, idea that he had anything beyond familial feelings for the man he referred to as his brother. Even thinking back on it made him mortified, made him want to stick his head in the nearest water barrel.

Apparently, though, that burn of embarrassment hadn’t taught him any sort of lesson, because here he’d ended up, in a situation similar but different. John was a fool, and he kept making the same sort of mistakes, just transposed enough that they were different enough to be called new.

When John’d wanted Arthur when he was young, it was about something physical, about looking, about wanting to touch because he hadn’t ever really touched a man. It was far from romantic, because honestly John’d thought back then that any sort of romantic love was mostly exaggerated for the sappy romance novels shops sold to young girls. It wasn’t until Abigail that he’d started to feel differently, and, even then, he’d slept with her first.

John did know that romantic love existed now. He’d thought he might love Abigail first when he wanted to lie next to her whether or not they had sex. He’d just wanted to be with her, to feel the way his body fit next to her, to hear her breathe and know she’d chosen to stay with him out of all the other men in camp.

John knew he loved her when the sight of her started making him weak-kneed, when even thinking about her made him giddy, when he wanted to make her smile or get exasperated and hit him or laugh. It was puppy love, sure, the kind of love that didn’t last, that hadn’t lasted long past Jack, but John delighted in it all the same.

And then, later, after the mess and after the year away, he knew he loved Abigail in that true sort of way because despite how much they argued, despite the screaming matches and the long stretches apart and how she’d hated him despite loving him after he’d come back, he felt like a piece of him was missing when she wasn’t with him. And he both despised and treasured that love.

Whatever this was with Arthur, it wasn’t that. Whatever he felt for Arthur, it terrified John.

With Arthur it was desperate, like the world would come crashing down if Arthur left it. It was what Abigail warned him about back when Arthur was dying, though John doubted she’d thought it was ever this bad. It was wanting again, but not even having a definable way of wanting the way he had when he was a teenager and the only thing on his mind was bedding folks.

No, it was wanting to hear Arthur laugh and wanting to press him back into a kiss and to see the way his eyes got soft when he looked at Jack and to thread his fingers through his hair and to share cigarettes and to get into half-serious wrestling matches again and to trace a thumb over the scarring hole where the bullet punched through him and to mourn well and true the things and the people they’d lost and to live new lives together and to become better people together and to figure out what the hell their life would be like without Dutch in it.

It was strange and messy and all of those things and none of them. It was love, but it wasn’t. It was knowing what he almost lost and not wanting it taken away again. It wasn’t healthy.

John was a goddamn mess.

 


 

He told no one. Not Arthur, in that hour before 1899 became 1900, and not anyone else as the hours turned into days and days into weeks. Not anyone as winter set in full and the snow got deeper and life on the farm became near suffocating.

Of course John couldn’t talk to Arthur, for all the obvious reasons and just that talking with Arthur in any real capacity was still new and awkward and fragile. But Abigail was also out. Though she’d guessed pretty quick at what John was back when they were first fooling around and had done no more at the time than make some joke about finally finding something they had in common beyond picking pockets, there was a difference between knowing the man you were with had fooled around with men in the past and the same man wanting one now. And, though he and Abigail hadn’t been strictly exclusive at all times in their past, he couldn’t imagine her image of a cozy little family living simple on a ranch included her husband with some sort of second relationship.

If that was something John even wanted, which he sure as hell couldn’t say.

Tilly, Sadie, Charles—though John knew Tilly didn’t care about things like John’s particular flavor of unnatural inclinations and he suspected Sadie or Charles wouldn’t either, there was no room to discuss any of it. They lived nearly on top of each other on Pineridge, and though John had been used to living in a camp with absolutely no privacy for years, something about the snow and the walls and the lack of anything beyond farm work to do made John restless, uneasy. Even if he wanted to tell one of them, the risk of it turning into a bigger mess than it already was was too much to bear. And John didn’t want to tell them, because the idea of something changing, of even one of them looking at him with pity for the mess he was in, felt unbearable.

So, John did what he did with every other problem in his life and elected to ignore it as long as he could.

Life on the ranch went on. Abigail pulled the stitches out of John’s shoulder, then Arthur’s stomach. Arthur eased into farm work and more snow fell and the nights were cold and dark and John tried not to think about anything involving love or the future or Arthur, because if he didn’t think it then it wouldn’t come spilling out of his mouth. With everything that needed doing, it was easy enough.

 


 

Sometime in February, everyone on the farm was woken around five in the morning by an almighty crack. Not long after, as John was still stumbling around the bedroom trying to get his bearings, a pounding came on the door of the bunkhouse. By the time John’s feet managed to get him out into the main room, Charles had already opened the door to Abe’s son, Walt, standing on the doorstep, frantic.

“Tree came down on the fence and the flock got spooked.” The words were breathless, Walt like he’d gotten to them as fast as the snowy ground let him. “Need everyone we can to bring them back in. Pa says best bring rifles.”

There wasn’t time for much beyond dressing and grabbing what they needed. “Thought pines weren’t supposed to come down with the snow,” John said into the bedroom as he tugged on his boots, and was summarily ignored by both Arthur and Abigail, the former dressing rapidly for the cold weather, the latter calming a fussy Jack.

John grabbed his gun belt along with his rifle on his way out the door.

It had been snowing all the previous day. Now, John discovered, the skies were clear but the storm had turned to wind. Made John glad for the heavy knit hats May had lent all of them when she’d realized they were woefully underprepared for long-term cold weather. As much as John wanted to wear Arthur’s hat now he’d okayed it, the leather was made for sun, not cold.

It wasn’t until John was halfway over to the barn where the horses were that the cold had cut through the fog in his mind—almost as good as coffee in that regard—and it was only then that he realized that just how deep the snow was. Up to his knees, a haul to push through, and he automatically found his eyes drifting over to Arthur who was, like John maybe should’ve expected, walking like nothing was different. A lingering limp, sure, even after he’d abandoned the cane, but otherwise walking like there wasn’t two feet of snow on the ground, no more fazed than Charles and Sadie were, a few paces ahead of him and John.

Still, John couldn’t help the concern bubbling up in his stomach, and he half-wondered if this was what the rest of their lives would be like, if seeing Arthur so close to death had broken something inside of him. Arthur wasn’t back to how he was before Dutch shot him, maybe never would be, but after three months of healing he was fine enough for work, fine enough to track down some sheep that had gotten loose from their pens. And yet here John was, worrying after him once again.

Even with the hat, by the time they’d reached the barn John had already yanked his scarf up over his face. The cold made his face tight, made the scars pull against his skin. It was the kind of biting chill that made him think back on the wolf attack, on the first time he and Arthur’d ended up on a mountain with one of them dying. Back when Arthur saved him, because Arthur’d always been the one to pull him out of trouble by the collar of his shirt. John didn’t know when he’d gotten so goddamn sentimental.

They’d brought the horses in when the snow first started falling the previous morning. Though the barn didn’t have enough space to stall all of them, the herd was adjusted enough at this point that they’d left most of them loose in the barn, stalling only the more troublesome individuals—Buell, of course, announced his displeasure by kicking the wood wall as soon as he heard the barn door roll open.

“Sorry boy, not yet,” Arthur murmured over to the horse, and John had to fight hard against rolling his eyes as he gathered Rachel’s saddle. Arthur claimed to be making progress with the stallion, but so far the most of what that looked like was a hell of a lot of coddling from Arthur, and very little visible improvement to John’s eyes.

This time, though, maybe Buell had a right to be restless. John didn’t know if it was the noise of the tree falling or the ongoing wind, but even Rachel, calm and easy almost to a fault, gave a snort as John approached her, tossed her head as he heaved the saddle over her back. It was almost unnerving, like a portent that something wasn’t right.

Abe met them just outside the barn, one of the ranch’s horses in hand. Robert, Nic, and Walt had joined them in tacking, and so, as they mounted up, they were a total of eight riders.

“Thank you all, for waking this early,” Abe said as they rode out towards the break in the fence. “I promise you, once we find my sheep, there’s going to be one hell of a breakfast waiting when we get back.”

As they got closer, John got a better view of the tree that came down. It was, indeed, a pine, one of the many that formed a half-natural, half-shaped windbreak that sheltered the farm from the gusts that came off the plains. Must’ve been the same wind that snapped it, and, because the fence was partially barbed wire, a good portion beyond the tree tore down when it fell.

“We’re missing around half the flock, as far as my estimate.” They were almost upon where the fence was down, and Abe gestured out towards the paddock. “Got the rest secured in the run-in. My worry is, the sheep usually like to stick together. If they split…” He paused, glanced back at the rest of them. “If the flock split, either they were spooked enough by the tree falling, or—you all brought rifles? Winter makes some animals desperate.”

They were at the torn-down fence now, where trampled down snow indicated where the sheep had crossed the fence. Not enough wind cut through the windbreak to completely hide the tracks but, it became clear as they followed them out to the edge of the trees, that wasn’t the case on the more open plains. Any trace of tamped snow had disappeared near completely.

“Alright,” Abe said, wheeling his horse to the side so he could look at them. The wind was louder out here, but not quite to the voice-drowning level. “I’m going to split us up, better chance of finding them. Robert, you and Sadie head down towards the south end of the creek where we graze them. Nic, bring Charles up towards Split Jaw. John, Arthur, head straight out from here. I know you aren’t as familiar with the land, but you should be fine heading straight. If on the off-chance not, fire a shot up and one of us can come find you. Walt and I are going to head along the tree line and then up towards the ridge, see if they ducked back into the trees. Anyone finds the flock, make some noise so the rest of us can come to you. Can’t bring the dogs out when the snow’s this high, so we’re going to need multiple riders to herd them, especially if they’re spooked. You don’t find them within a half hour or so, turn back and we’ll try again when it’s light. Ain’t worth killing ourselves or the horses over. Okay?” At their nods, Abe nodded his head once. “Okay. Good luck.”

The snow was still soft, no crust on it yet, and that was a good and a bad thing. On one hand, less risk to the horses, not having to punch through a hard crust and risk scrapes and scratches to their legs. On the other, the wind had caused drifts, meaning they were plowing through unpredictable amounts of snow with no real trail to follow. Rachel was lifting her legs high on each step, trying to cut through the powder, and Gwydion over with Arthur was having a similar experience.

With the clear sky and a nearly full moon, they did at least have decent visibility when the wind didn’t kick up too much snow. Only one lantern between them, the one Arthur held low, trying to catch shadows where the wind might not have completely blown over any tracks. As far as John could tell, he wasn’t having much luck.

And it was freezing. John’d dressed warm, sure, but even then he could feel the wind cutting through the thinnest layers of his clothing, catching at his skin. He and Arthur kept the horses close together, both good-natured enough not to mind, and that blocked the wind some, but not enough. This was the coldest time of night, an hour or two before dawn, and it felt it.

Finally, when the hiss of the windblown snow and the muffled thumps of the horses’ hooves became too much, John took an opportunity when the wind wasn’t drowning everything to say to Arthur, loud over how the scarf muffled his voice, “Think we’re gonna find them?”

Arthur sighed loud enough that John could hear it, yanked down the scarf over his face. “John, you thought we should help folks. Don’t know how much closer you’re gonna get than trackin’ down some sheep after a blizzard before the sun’s even up.”

“What, are you complainin’? Thought you were about makin’ up charity to folks now.”

Me? I ain’t the one what wants to go back home after bein’ out five whole minutes.”

“Ain’t sayin’ I wanna go back, just sayin’…” John waved a hand, hoped that communicated what he meant. Seemed a fool’s errand trying to find sheep in the snow after their tracks got blown over. Also didn’t help that the sheep grew white wool, though at least they were dark-faced.

Arthur shook his head. “Ain’t a cold weather creature, are you?”

“Think I got a right after nearly bleedin’ to death in the snow.”

“Fair ‘nough.” Arthur shifted in his saddle, straightened up a touch to see over the next snowdrift.

John did the same, seeing, unsurprisingly, nothing. Settled back in his saddle, ran a hand over Rachel’s neck. There was snow stuck in her mane where the wind whipped it up, and he took a minute to knock what he could free. Glanced back at Arthur. “Your back okay?”

“Back” had become shorthand for the place the bullet had gone through Arthur, as, even though it was more than just his back that suffered lingering damage, it was easier to say in casual conversation than something like “torso” or “abdomen”. The question was half actual curiosity, half bait for an argument, as an argument would at least keep them warm. But Arthur didn’t take it, just shrugged. “Fine. More stiff than anythin’ else.”

“Don’t hurt?”

“Naw. Rollin’ outta bed to come out here ain’t done me any favors, but—ah.” Arthur lifted the lantern higher. “Well look here, Marston. Seems your luck held out.”

John followed Arthur’s gaze out to a dip in the ground, where, looking ruffled but alive, huddled Abe’s missing flock. Snow covering the curls of their wool where the wind had kicked it up, but the amount of steaming breath rising up around them at least confirmed they hadn’t frozen to death. “Seems it has,” John said, tapping his heels to Rachel’s side. “Can’t have even been ten minutes, that.”

But something was off. It became clear as they pushed the horses closer, close enough to get a good look at the ewes. They shied away as he and Arthur pulled up next to them, a couple snorting heavily, rolling eyes catching the light of the lantern. John wasn’t particularly familiar with sheep behavior, no more than what a few months at Pineridge had taught him, but he knew enough. Something had scared them.

“Why’re they spooked?” John asked, and, to the herd, “What’s got you spooked, ladies?” Even if the initial scare had been from the tree falling, it didn’t seem like they should still be this worked up.

Arthur didn’t answer him. When John looked back over at him, the man wasn’t looking at the flock. Instead his head was turned away, scanning over the lines of snowdrifts. Lantern held off to the side, eyes distant, searching.

And, suddenly, Arthur flinched violently, snapping his eyes away from the landscape, spinning towards the sheep.

“Arthur?” John asked, and he could hear concern creep into his own voice.

“Somethin’s wrong.” It was closer to a growl, and Arthur urged Gwydion forward, starting forward around the flock.

“What do you mean somethin’s wrong?” John jerked his eyes to where Arthur’s had been, scanning, seeing nothing. “What did you see?”

“Ain’t important, gotta see…” Arthur dipped the lantern down, looking more closely as he circled the herd, John following close behind.

“The hell you mean it ain’t important?”

“It ain’t important, John, what’s important—” The sound died in Arthur’s throat as the light swung over one of the sheep. He leaned further out of the saddle, pushed the lantern closer. “That’s blood.”

“Blood?” And John dismounted almost without thinking, leaned in close with Rachel’s reins in his hands. The ewe sidestepped away from him, shying further into the flock, but even then John could see the dark red splotches left in the snow, the shine against the black fur of her leg. “She’s hurt.”

“Can you see how bad?” Arthur asked, holding the lantern out to John.

John didn’t take it. “What’s out there?” He found his voice voice harder, more demanding. “Arthur, what did you see?”

“Goddamn nothin’, John, I just—just got a bad feelin’, just—how bad?”

John snatched the lantern from Arthur, passed him Rachel’s reins, and, despite how much he wanted to do otherwise, let it go. The ewe had stilled again, and John shushed her a few times as he knelt down in the snow, slowly grabbed her leg. When he brushed his gloved hand over the bloodied area she flinched, and it was the only sign of pain she’d betrayed to this point. John vaguely remembered Abe saying something about sheep not showing pain, but this was the first he’d seen it.

He gripped the leg in one hand, held the lantern over it with the other. With his thumb, John pushed the fur away from what looked like puncture wounds. He looked back at Arthur. “Think it’s a bite. Looks fresh, like the blood ain’t frozen yet.”

“Shit,” Arthur murmured as John straightened, grabbed Rachel’s reins from him. Arthur’s eyes had gone back out to the half-lit snow surrounding them.

“What’re you thinkin’?”

“Don’t think there’s much’ll go after a sheep in this kinda weather, ‘cept—” And suddenly Arthur froze, and this time when John followed his gaze out over the snow, he saw what Arthur was seeing—dark shapes, indistinct and blurry in the half-light of the moon off the snow.

Arthur gestured for the lantern, hefted it up when John passed it over to him. And something flickered in the darkness, the light of the lantern bouncing back against several sets of white-yellow eyes.

“John, get back on the horse,” Arthur said slowly, and John already had his foot in Rachel’s stirrup.

It was always goddamn wolves.

In some ways, this was better than back after Blackwater. John wasn’t shot through the leg, for one thing, and he wasn’t riding a horse as underfed and exhausted as he himself had been. He was warmer, better dressed, had a rifle on his back that was well maintained and loaded along with the gun on his belt. He wasn’t lost, had folks that would come looking if they heard gunshots, and Arthur was there.

In some ways it was worse, because Arthur was there.

By the time John had swung into the saddle, Arthur had his rifle up and the wolves had closed the distance. When the shot ran out the sheep spooked, and it was nothing but luck that they spooked in the right direction, off towards the ranch and away from the threat. There was a yelp and one of the wolves fell, but the rest kept on them, closed the gap. That was desperate behavior, the type you saw from starving animals, the dangerous kind.

And then John had his rifle in his hands and was firing too, only managing one shot before he had to wheel Rachel around, send her running too. He heard a noise like he might’ve hit his target, but there wasn’t even time to spare a glance to confirm.

John gave Rachel her head, had no choice but to, and couldn’t even turn to see what Arthur was doing, could just hear the gunfire from next to him. It was all John could do to stay mounted as he twisted in his saddle, fired, didn’t wait for the yelp before he fired again, and again, and the wolves were closer, closer, closer, on them—

When Rachel shied hard sideways, John didn’t blame her. Still, he thought he might’ve stuck in the saddle if the spook weren’t followed by a jump and a kick back at the wolves. Instead John felt himself tumbling, falling, scrabbling for the reins, the saddle horn, her mane, anything as a shout came from Arthur, as Rachel disappeared under him.

And then John hit the powder and all he could see was snow.

Chapter Text

Falling off a horse was disorienting. Falling into the snow was worse.

For one long, horrible moment, John’s entire world was grey. Not even white, not with the little light afforded by the moon and stars. Grey, suffocating, with the snow on his face and down his jacket and up the cuffs of his pants. Freezing, and even with the cushion of the snow to catch his fall the wind had been knocked out of him.

But John knew he had to find his feet, had to find his gun, because the wolves were going to go for the easiest target and if there was a human on the ground, that was easier than even some fleeing sheep. And so he was scrambling, pawing through the snow, trying to get his feet under him when suddenly there was a tug on the collar of his jacket and he was dragged up until his knees were under him and he could shake the snow from his face.

Arthur. It was always Arthur. Arthur outlined in the light of the moon and the stars, Arthur who’d always dragged John out of trouble by the collar of his shirt, Arthur the fool who had, judging by the fact he was on his feet, jumped off of Gwydion the moment he saw John come unseated.

When they got out of this, John was going to fucking kill him.

Wolves. Three of them circling, and that at least meant some of their previous shots had hit home. And John had dropped his rifle, and Arthur was hefting his own like he wasn’t going to shoot it, like it was out of bullets, like he didn’t bring his goddamn gun belt—

“Your revolver,” Arthur said, impossibly calm, like Arthur’d always been when facing down barrels of guns both metaphorical and real, and John already had his hand on it.

One of the wolves charged. And Arthur stepped in front of John to intercept it, because he’d always put his body on the line to keep the people he cared about safe. They were back to the same old shit again.

Arthur slammed the butt of the rifle into the wolf’s face and the thing yelped, falling back to the ground. But it wasn’t enough, couldn’t be enough, and it snarled, not even stunned enough to delay it a moment before it leapt back towards Arthur, latching around his outstretched arm. The force of it made Arthur stumble, then, unable to regain his balance, tumble back into the snow. Wolf’s jaw still around his arm.

But John was turning away, fighting against every fiber of his being telling him to do otherwise and to protect Arthur, and instead was firing on the wolf to the side of them, the wolf behind them. Would be infinitely worse if one of them went for John while his back was turned, with Arthur already occupied.

Still, the less rational half of John’s brain was screaming at him by the time the other two wolves were dead and he was pointing the gun back on the wolf on top of Arthur. Time crawled by much too slow, giving time too much space to think, for John to know he was terrified and furious. Because here they were with wolves on top of them and Arthur had once again offered himself up as a sacrifice.

And John pulled the trigger and the wolf went limp, its teeth still caught in the sleeve of Arthur’s coat.

It wasn’t until it was over, when it was nothing but him and Arthur and a couple dead wolves, that John realized just how hard he was breathing. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than half a minute, from John coming off of Rachel to shooting the last wolf, and yet it felt like a lifetime. He felt winded, like he wasn’t getting enough air, and his chest ached with it. Rocked back so he was sitting on his heels, didn’t even try to get up.

Beside him, Arthur shoved the wolf off from on top of him, hauled himself to his feet. Whistled a horse call as he brushed the snow from his clothes. Mechanical, rote, like he fought wolves every damn day. Scanned the snow around them, looked back down at John. “Y’ain’t very lucky with wolves, huh?” Offered John a hand. “C’mon, we oughta figure out where the horses went.”

John didn’t move, just spat, “The hell is wrong with you?”

“’scuse me?”

“Out for the first time in months and the first thing you goddamn do is throw yourself in front of a wolf.”

Arthur sighed, retracted the hand, ran it over his face. “We doin’ this again?”

“I’m sick of this self-sacrifice bullshit.”

“I’m tryin’ to do what you goddamn told me to do. Ain’t gonna let some wolves eat the sheep of the man what sheltered us for months.”

“That don’t gotta mean gettin’ yourself eaten instead.”

“Ain’t I got a right to say the same thing to you? I weren’t the one with my face in the goddamn snow.”

“I didn’t intend to get thrown.”

“Y’did anyway. Think I wanna be the one to tell Abigail I let the wolves finish the job this time?”

John gave an angry sigh, finally worked his feet under him. With the rush of energy from the wolf attack fading, he was realizing kneeling in the snow was pretty damn cold. He glanced around as he shook the snow from as many of the gaps in his clothing it’d wormed down as he could. Rachel was gone, and John honestly thought if she were smart she’d already be back at the ranch by now. He hadn’t taught her to respond to a whistle call yet, hadn’t needed to, and even if he had he doubted she’d come after nearly being eaten. He really couldn’t blame her.

Arthur, maybe guessing at his thoughts, glanced off toward the horizon, whistled again, muttered, “Goddamn it, Gwyd.” Looked back at John. “Ain’t actually mad about this, are you?”

“Course I’m mad. Mad about everythin’ these days.” How could he tell Arthur that he was terrified of loss in a way that actually got it through his thick skull?

The thing was, it wasn’t like Arthur didn’t have a point. There was always going to be risk in the world, risk in even helping other folks. They couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t ever be in danger, that danger wouldn’t always follow them. This whole mess was a prime example of danger showing its head in a situation where it wasn’t expected. John just wished Arthur’s first reaction wasn’t to put his own body on the line, that he’d make more of an effort to avoid danger.

Wished he’d understand what it did to the folks that cared about him.

John’d gone silent long enough that Arthur had turned away from him, was crouching down over the body of one of the wolves and examining it, running a hand through the fur on its side.

“What’re you doin’?” John finally asked when curiosity got the better of him.

Arthur gave another sigh, straightened. “Can feel its ribs. Poor bastards were starvin’, that’s why they went for the sheep, and for us when they thought we might prevent them a meal. Think we wiped out most of a pack in one go.”

John absolutely was not going to show pity to wolves that had attacked them, no matter how desperate starvation made them. “Starvin’ don’t give them a right to try to eat us.”

Arthur eyed him. “You’re real ornery today, ain’t you?”

“Ain’t a fan of goddamn wolves.” Nor the snow, nor the cold, nor being woken before the sun was even up, nor watching Arthur risk dying again, nor the fact that he was still in goddamn love with him.

Just to keep himself from wanting to yell again, John kicked at snow where he’d fallen, looking for the rifle he’d dropped. Was at it a second before he remembered, “How’s your arm?”

“Fine.”

“Actually fine?” John’s foot hit something solid, and he crouched down to root at it with a gloved hand.

“I’m fine, John, mostly didn’t even get through the coat.”

John yanked the rifle from the snow, glanced back up at Arthur. “Sure.” Made sure to lace disbelief into his voice. “’cause you got a history of tellin’ the truth.”

“Even if it were bad, and it ain’t, you really think we’re gonna do anything about it out here in the snow?”

John just sighed. “Listen, we gotta get on the same page on how this helpin’ folks things actually works, way this is goin’. In the meantime, quit throwin’ yourself in front of gun barrels. You’re gonna kill me with that shit.”

“What, not myself?”

He had to resist the urge to go for Arthur’s throat. “That ain’t funny.”

“We’ll talk ‘bout it, alright? Meantime we oughta focus on getting back to the ranch before we freeze.” Arthur looked like he was about to whistle again when a nicker came from somewhere close by and Gwydion plowed through a snowdrift looking absolutely unharmed, the lantern swinging from his saddle. “Goddamn finally. Where’d you go, boy? Where’s Rachel?”

“Probably back at the farm, if she’s smart,” John answered on behalf of the horse who couldn’t actually talk back to Arthur.

Arthur gave him a look. “Gonna worry Abigail if that’s the case.”

Ah, damn it. John hadn’t even thought about that. If anyone had noticed Rachel returning riderless, Abigail would be beside herself. “We better hurry.”

“We’re still under obligation to find those sheep,” Arthur said, and then, after a moment’s thought, added, “Again.” After a moment of checking over Gwydion’s saddle, making sure it was still in place, Arthur swung up into it. “Looks like we have tracks to follow this time, at least.”

John hadn’t even noticed the wind had died down, distracted as he was. “I’m ridin’ with you?”

“’less you wanna walk it,” Arthur said, offering him an arm.

John realized, once he was up and sitting on Gwydion’s hindquarters, that he had no idea where to put his hands. This had never been a problem before, not back when he was still a child and rode with Arthur because he didn’t have a horse of his own, nor the few times when a scrambled escape from gunfire or some other mess had warranted it. John’d been more likely then to grab at whatever fabric he could to keep himself upright, not caring about the fact he’d almost torn Arthur’s shirt more than once.

Somehow this was more intimate. In part because gloved hands meant he couldn’t just grab the back of Arthur’s coat or the cantle of the saddle and expect a secure grip, in part because last time he’d done this his feelings were a lot less complicated. He settled for an arm around Arthur’s waist, just enough to keep him mounted with Gwydion’s high-stepping gait through the snow. Avoiding the area where the bullet wound had been was almost a given at this point, even though he knew the skin there was as knitted as it was going to get.

They found the ewes only a couple hundred feet from where they’d been originally, once again huddled in the space between the snowdrifts. Arthur brought Gwydion around the flock once, both moving the sheep closer together and allowing both him and John to check them over, to make sure they were still alright. Just as he’d finished a voice was calling, “Arthur! John?”

Sadie, riding up with Robert. Both of them looked cold but unharmed, which was more than could be said for John, Arthur, and the sheep. “We heard the gunfire, was it—?”

“Wolves,” John confirmed, leaning further back, away from Arthur so his face could catch the lantern light.

Sadie glanced him over, and when she pulled down her scarf there was a half grin on her face. “Last I remember y’all were on separate horses.”

John sighed. “Rachel threw me and Arthur was kind enough not to leave me in the snow.”

“But you’re both alright?” There was genuine concern in Sadie’s voice under the amusement.

“Fine,” Arthur answered, almost predictably at this point.

“Arthur got bit,” John said, and was elbowed in the ribs without hesitation for his trouble.

“Not badly,” Arthur said, the annoyance clear in his voice, “more a scratch than anythin’. One of the sheep was bleedin’, though, may wanna check them all over once they’re back.”

Robert looked back up towards them from where he’d been scanning over the sheep. “Listen, me and Sadie can handle them until the others get here. Thinkin’ you two oughta get inside. Hard enough to herd in the snow normally, let alone with two men on a horse, and you look a mess besides. Head on straight that way,” he gestured with a hand, “and you should see the lights pretty quickly.”

For once, Arthur didn’t argue.

 


 

The ride back was cold, the kind of cold that set deep in the bones. Even the warmth of Gwydion’s skin under John’s legs wasn’t cutting it. It felt like all the energy had drained out of him, and what was left was just empty space for the chill to creep back in. He’d be happy to never experience a kind of winter this cold for the rest of his days.

Eventually, as the lights of the farm drifted into view, John took a risk, let his forehead fall against the back of Arthur’s shoulder. It was maybe too much affection, maybe too much wanting to touch, but he was also too exhausted to think it through properly, almost too exhausted to care about it. And Arthur’s shoulder was sturdy, warm.

“Y’alright?” Arthur asked, because of course he did.

“Fine,” John murmured, half muffled against Arthur’s coat. “Thinkin’ about what Abigail’s gonna do to me when we get back.” It was a lie, but it got what he wanted, a rumbling laugh from Arthur he could feel against his skin.

“Reckon she’ll either kiss you or slap you.”

Now that he was thinking about it, though, “Weren’t even my fault this time. Not like I woke up thinkin’ I’d need to stare down a wolf again.”

“You’ve been blessed with a wife that keeps comin’ back to you no matter how many times you try to convince her otherwise. Reckon she deserves some worry.”

That itched at John, and he said, still muffled by the coat, “How come you’re all understandin’ when Abigail gets worried after me but I do the same to you and suddenly you’re all surly?”

Arthur paused before answering, and that was near satisfying enough. Then he started “’cause…” and had to pause again, and John was almost giddy with the idea that Arthur Morgan didn’t have a snappy comeback for him. Finally, after much too long a pause, Arthur growled, “…‘cause Abigail ain’t a fool—or, or ain’t anymore a fool that it takes to be married to one.”

John’s smile tugged on his cold skin. “Ain’t an answer, Arthur. Can’t just call me a fool and think that wins you anythin’.”

Another pause, and then, “…Y’know what, John? Shut it.”

And this time it was John’s turn to laugh, right into the fabric of Arthur’s coat.

John thought that was the end of it, thought the rest of the ride would be quiet against the cold landscape. But Arthur cleared his throat, and John glanced back up again, saw the lights of the ranch coming into sight.

“Yknow,” Arthur said, and it was quiet, careful. “I thought about the ranch thing.”

“Did you?” John said, equally as careful.

“Think—think I wanna give it a try. Reckon it couldn’t hurt to do that much.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

And even if John wanted to reply, they were riding past the outer edges of the ranch fences. But the bright feeling spreading across his chest was warming all the same.

 


 

Abigail kissed him, though John figured if she thought he had any idea before he rode out that what he was getting into would be a wolf attack she would’ve slapped him. And she and Tilly insisted on helping John and Arthur untack and brush down the horses—Rachel had, indeed, thought to go home to the ranch, and gave John a head bob when she saw him that seemed almost apologetic—and then the both of them were bundled into the main house to warm up. By that time dawn was breaking, the vague pinks and blues cutting across the sky, bouncing up and off the snow.

John hadn’t realized quite how cold it was until he hit the warm air of the house. It almost burned, and feeling came back to his skin in tingling waves. Abigail helped him take off his coat and before then he hadn’t even noticed that his fingers had gone stiff and numb.

And then he and Arthur were shuffled over to seats in front of the fire, and May was passing them each their own cup of coffee—better brewed and thus better tasting than anything they’d ever had at camp. It was like they’d come back from some long journey, way they were being fussed over, not about an hour tracking down some lost sheep. Honestly it was almost a more heartfelt reception than John had gotten the first time he’d come out the other end of encountering wolves in the snow, and he wondered if this was just what life was like when you lived every day normal and not getting shot at.

Not long later, Abigail convinced Arthur to put down his coffee and peeled back the sleeve of his shirt, revealing the spot on his left forearm where the wolf had grabbed him. It was more than a scratch, but also not anything serious, which almost annoyed John, since it meant it would be harder to convince Arthur not to do it again. The only broken skin was where the hinge of the wolf’s jaw had pinched hard enough to split it, and it looked like, for the most part, the teeth hadn’t punctured the hide of the jacket. Instead there was bruising where the wolf had clamped down, blooms of red and purple that would probably only get darker as the day wore on.

Still, the bright red of Arthur’s blood brought back bad memories, and John could feel his stomach churning until Abigail wrapped a woven bandage around the bite.

Jack was fully awake, unlike when they’d ridden out, and he’d posted up on the floor next to them while John and Arthur warmed up. The idea of them encountering wolves again fascinated and scared the boy in equal parts, and he insisted they recount every detail of the morning to him, almost like it was a story from one of his books.

John was only half-listening, answering what questions Jack directed his way while Arthur took most of the burden of telling the story, since Arthur was always better at talking with Jack. It should’ve made John jealous, certainly did in the past, but somehow, after everything, sometimes it was a relief to not have to try at something he wasn’t any good at.

Still, when Arthur got to John falling off the horse and Jack’s eyes got wide and he asked Arthur, “What’d you do?” John found himself joining in.

“Y’know,” he said, interrupting whatever Arthur was starting to say, “if your Uncle Arthur were smart, he woulda left me in the snow where I fell. But you got an uncle even stupider than he is brave, and he came back even when he shoulda run.”

Arthur ignored John’s pointed look as he took a sip of coffee, swallowed, said, “I ain’t the only one comin’ back when they shoulda gone. Lucky you got your momma, Jacky, because she’s the only one outta all us with any sense.”

Us, Arthur’d said. It was like John’s brain was a gramophone trying to play a scratched record that caused it to jump its track, so caught up in the word that he almost missed entirely the way Arthur’d traded the jab back at him. Us, us, us. It wasn’t what Arthur’d meant but John longed for it, for that world where Arthur was just as much a part of him as Abigail, where Arthur figured into Jack’s life just as much as the rest of them. A family, all of them together.

With Jack, John could see shades of the man he’d once thought Arthur was. Some sort of dime novel hero, someone larger than life. It was clear as Arthur continued the retelling, told Jack about the wolves surrounding them, about the bite, and all of it with Jack watching him with his head tilted, leaning forward, hanging on every word. It was the Arthur that could walk into gunfire without flinching, who could stand in front of a moving train and expect it to slow, who could face down an entire pack of wolves and come out on top. And Jack looked at him like he knew it.

Maybe Jack had looked at John the same way, once. If he did, John had certainly ruined that at some point or another, way he’d treated him. He loved Jack, he did, but the potential of messing something up was always too heavy on his mind. Easier to just ignore it until he couldn’t anymore, or stick to interactions he knew he could handle, knew he could handle. He’d lay his life on the line for the boy, do anything to keep him safe, and yet when it came to something as simple as telling a story, John got lost again. If Jack had ever looked at John with awe, John was confident that was long gone.

Arthur had always been a better hero, trying to die at the end of the story and all.

They were, eventually, interrupted by May, calling them over to the dining room table to grab a bite of the breakfast she’d prepared now that they were sufficiently warm. And then the others started to trail into the house, apparently with no issue herding the sheep back to the run-in, and that meant recounting the story all over again. And by that time the sun was fully risen, sunlight pouring into the house through the windows.

It wasn’t until that second retelling that John recalled Arthur before the wolves showed up, staring off across the snowdrifts, seeing something John didn’t. But by that time it was too late, too late to clarify, to late to understand what with everyone else there and wanting a story that was real, was tangible. Just one more thing John didn’t understand about Arthur to be filed away.

Abe was the last one inside, and, after he’d done his turn warming himself by the fire, he only took a few bites of the porridge May’d put in front of him before standing, gesturing for Arthur and John to follow him into the living room. John exchanged a look with Arthur, who shrugged, then with Sadie and Charles, who gave him an eyebrow raise and another shrug respectively. So John resisted the urge to sigh, followed Abe into the more closed-off room, Arthur just behind him.

With them had followed Tippet, the pregnant border collie. Now heavily pregnant, in fact, like she might pop any damn day. Following Arthur more than John, in fact. “Think she’s taken a shine to you,” Abe said as he sat heavily in one of the armchairs, watching the dog take her own seat on the floor next to Arthur, her tail thumping against the floorboards.

“S’only ‘cause she thinks she can get things outta me,” Arthur said, scratching the dog behind her ears all the same as he settled onto the couch. In the dog’s defense, John thought, she probably wasn’t wrong.

“Ain’t that the way,” Abe murmured. He nodded at the border collie. “The sire is owned by a rancher a couple miles east. With Trixie getting older, was about time I got a third dog to train up. Made a deal that if his dog would sire a litter with Tippet, he’d get second pick out the litter. Think I might’ve bitten off more than I can chew, though, how big her belly is getting.”

“Nothin’ wrong with a few more dogs in the world,” Arthur said, his hand moving to scratch at Tippet’s chest. “Could always sell the rest of them, if they got good parentage.”

“Sure, but I gotta feed them up ‘til then.”

“Could be you just end up with two very large pups. Seen it happen.”

John could see Arthur getting ready to launch into a story about Copper, because the damn dog was still one of the few things Arthur would talk freely about without being prompted, and quickly blurted out, “Suppose you called us away for a reason.”

“I did,” Abe said, placing his coffee mug on the low table between them. “Two things, boys. First, I ought to thank you for keeping the flock safe. By my count, we’ve only lost one ewe, which is much less than we might’ve lost if you two hadn’t shown up when you did. Not many men would’ve faced down a pack of wolves even if I asked them, let alone without hesitation. For that, I owe you my livelihood.”

“Least we could do,” Arthur murmured, and in many ways John knew it meant, Told you I was gonna repay you. Bastard.

“Second,” Abe said, and took a breath before continuing, “I think, given what happened, it’s about time you lot introduced yourselves properly, John Marston, Arthur Morgan.”

Beside John, Arthur stilled, and John could feel his own heart start to hammer in his chest. They’d still been going by the last name Smith, on the farm. Most of them, in fact, all but Sadie, seeing as she was the only one without a significant enough criminal history for it to matter, and Tilly, who hadn’t run more than distraction jobs in her time with Dutch, and had never been this far north with the gang she used to run with. The rest of them, though, hadn’t told anyone on the ranch their real names.

“You know?” John finally managed to force out.

In lieu of an answer, Abe got up, limped over to a cabinet, slid open a drawer. Pulled out a newspaper, which he flipped to a page around midway through before spreading it open on the coffee table.

He tapped the headline of the article. “Picked that up last time we were up in town. You look a little different now, but after two months here, still recognized you pretty quick.”

It wasn’t front-page news, which was something. Still, the headline, “PINKERTONS SEEK INFORMATION ON VAN DER LINDE ESCAPEES”, stood stark against the grey pulp paper. John scanned over the article. They’d only included gang members that had photographs, not bounty poster sketches, which was likely why Abe had called him and Arthur away specifically. They’d used the intake photo of John from after the bank job, which meant his scars stood stark against the page, and while Arthur’s photo was older, it was still recognizable if you knew what to look for. Dutch’s photo was there, as were pictures of Bill, Micah. Meant none of them had been taken in by law yet, that they were still out there, and that was almost more worrying than the fact that papers were going around with his and Arthur’s faces.

Down at the bottom, it listed a significant monetary reward for information leading to capture. From next to John, Arthur sighed, a defeated sort of sound. “Suppose you’ll be wantin’ the money?”

Abe was shaking his head. “Now, listen. I ain’t about to turn you all in to the law, and I ain’t even about to turn you loose in the cold. If that were my plan, I would’ve done that back when you all arrived, seeing as you weren’t particularly trying to hide that you all had a history. I ain’t got no love for Pinkertons. Lost a brother in the Homestead massacre, and, even if I didn’t, nothing they’ve done to folk like my family makes me inclined to trust them. However, I think it’s about time we’re on the same page. About who you all are, and what you’re planning.”

John looked to Arthur, but his eyes were still locked on the paper, scanning over the lines of text. The flush from the cold that morning had gone, and whether it was that or the article that left him a shade paler, John couldn’t say. After a moment, when it became clear Arthur wasn’t going to explain, John took over. “I’m John Marston, he’s Arthur Morgan, like you said. Those are our real names, or as real as we know.” John gave the paper another once over, looking for the names it listed. “Charles Smith, here,” he pointed, “is our Charles, and his family name is actually Smith, this time. Sadie Adler,” her name listed under suspected members, “is our Sadie. Tilly Jackson, Abigail Roberts.” John pointed each of them out.

Abe was following John’s gesturing, coffee cup in hand, his face almost frustratingly neutral.

“We ran with this man here, Dutch Van der Linde. Charles and Sadie only a few months, the rest of us longer. Tilly around four years, Abigail five. Me and Arthur…” John paused, swallowed. “We was somethin’ like sons, to Dutch. Tilly too, I guess, his daughter, but she wasn’t there nearly as long. Some street rats he picked up, could train into what he wanted. Seemed a kindness at the time. Maybe it was intended to be. Used to be he had an idea in his head we’d help workin’ folk, fight back against civilization. Had a sayin’, ‘shoot fellers as need shootin’, save fellers as need savin’, and feed 'em as need feedin’’. At the end, mostly just ended up being us hurtin’ folk that didn’t need hurtin’.”

This was maybe the first time John’d said it out of his own mouth. He knew, of course, that at the end they were hurting people, knew it from the moment Hosea’d accused them of turning into a bunch of killers. But there was something different about admitting it himself, like there was a weight that settled on his shoulders. For all he’d tried to convince Arthur otherwise, maybe, at their core, they couldn’t ever fully make up for what they became.

“Me, he saved me from a hangin’ when I was twelve. Was with him near fifteen years, time things started to crumble. Arthur…” John trailed off, not sure if he should answer for the other man.

“Twenty years,” Arthur murmured, titling his face up to meet Abe’s eyes. “Twenty years, for me.”

Abe looked at him steady, put down his coffee cup before saying, “Lot of men out there say a man who’s been what he was for that long can’t change.”

“I know,” Arthur said, ducking his head again. “For a long time I were one of them. And a longer time than that thought the only way a man could make up for the things he did was dyin’ for them. Now—” It was a momentary glance at John, but a glance all the same— “Now some fool’s gone and convinced me the best way I can make up for what I done is helpin’ folks in turn.”

“Sounds like I ought to be glad the fool did,” said Abe, mouth in a soft sort of smile. “Or my sheep should be, at the very least.”

Arthur inclined his head at Abe, and it seemed at least some color had crept back into his face.

Abe, in turn, leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “So, that answers the question of who you were. Believe I also asked what you all were planning.”

John opened his mouth, but Arthur beat him to it. “What John told you when we first got here is true. We hurt a lot of folks, and we ain’t been tryin’ to hide that, but we also ain’t tryin’ to get back to that life. John, Abigail, Jack—they deserve a chance at a normal life, livin’ on a ranch somewhere. As much as we done, that boy ain’t had a part in none of it, none so more than whatever luck it took to be born. Livin’ normal lives. Makin’ up for what we done. Think that’s all any of us are plannin’.”

Not for the first time, John was struck with just how much Arthur’d thought this through. Unlike John, who seemed to end up in almost every situation with only a vague understanding of how he’d gotten there, Arthur thought almost too much, churned everything inside of himself until finally prompted to spill it. Arthur had a plan, some idea for how to move forward. Seemed strange, especially considering how much of this planning involved John’s life and family, rather than Arthur’s own.

Abe, in turn, took a sip of his coffee, letting Arthur’s words sit a minute before speaking. “Listen, boys, I don’t know what I believe about whether people can be redeemed from what they were. But you got some good folks here, and as far as I can tell, you ain’t done nothing that leads me to believe you’re lying to me. I’ve been a worse person than I am today, and I’d like to believe folks can change, even if they may not be redeemed. And, all that said, I owe you for this morning. If you’re serious about this, I may be able to give you a few leads in the way of land.”

“We’re serious,” John said, and even he was surprised by how firm his voice was. “Even if we wanted to go back, that door’s been closed hard. And neither—none of us, even, want to go back. I ain’t sure of a lot of things, but I do know that much. We—we wanna be honest. And make up for what we’ve done.” And though they were still mostly Arthur’s words, John found himself believing them more and more the more often he repeated them. He had no idea what to do next beyond what Abigail had said she wanted and beyond what Arthur said he wanted, but he did know that whatever happened next, crawling back to the old life wasn’t an option, because it would be the same as crawling back to Dutch.

Abe looked long and hard at John, and for a minute John was reminded vaguely of Hosea, how piercing the look was. Finally, “Alright. Alright, I believe you.” He folded the newspaper back up, passed it to John. “My brother, the one left living, works with land sale. I’d like you all to stick around at least until shearing season, since we’ll need the extra hands, but, if you’d like, I can send your names down to him. Believe he mentioned something about a farmer selling off some of his land, last time he wrote. If you’d like, I can probably spare you sometime in a few weeks for long enough to go down and look.”

“S’kind of you,” Arthur murmured, and he didn’t need to say it for John to know Arthur was thinking the same thing he did, which was that they likely didn’t deserve it.

“Well,” Abe said, getting to his feet, “isn’t enough kindness in the world as is. We might as well be part of it, especially when one of you is the father to a young boy. But…” And he paused with a hand on the chair, looked down at them. “Don’t make me regret it, alright? You want to live a better life, stick with it.”

 


 

Most of the rest of the morning was spent checking over the sheep more thoroughly for injuries. Aside from the one ewe that had been bitten, another had a swollen ankle, likely from twisting it in some hole hidden in the snow, and several were suffering mild aftereffects of the cold. After that was done, everyone was set on normal chores aside from John and Arthur, who, after the ordeal that morning, were let go early to get some rest. For once, neither of them protested—though Arthur’s injury was mild and John had only gotten a little colder than the rest of them with the snow down his coat, the wolf attack had been exhausting in just the energy rush and subsequent drain.

In the bunkhouse, Arthur built up the fire in the wood stove while John reread over the newspaper article. Abe hadn’t asked for it back, which John took to mean it was fine that he held onto it. Considered burning it very briefly but, honestly, it was information they might need in the future, even as bare as it was.

“Says you’re presumed dead,” he called over as Arthur shut the door to the stove, stood up again, stretched, and John found himself turning away before his eyes caught too long on how it made Arthur’s shirt tight against his torso.

Arthur joined John at the table, leant over the article. “Yeah, I noticed. Suppose it ain’t too far a stretch, way I was bleedin’, ‘specially if they thought to send anyone up to check for my body after all of us went up and I was the only one what didn’t come down.”

“Yeah, that and the grave.” At that Arthur threw him a questioning look and John realized, “We ain’t never told you ‘bout that, did we?”

“Got no clue what you mean, so ‘pparently not.”

“Back when Sadie and Tilly went back to—” he didn’t want to say bury Miss Grimshaw, not when Arthur seemed to think himself responsible for her death, “—to get what they could from Beaver Hollow, they, ‘long with Charles, ‘cause he’d come down then, they set up a false grave for you.”

“Huh.” Arthur rocked back on his heels, tapped a knuckle against the table as his eyes drifted back down towards the paper. “Well that—that’s a strange feelin’.”

“Bein’ all but dead?”

“And knowin’ there’s a grave with my name on it, to boot.”

John looked over at him steady. Couldn’t bite his tongue. “Nearly became reality.”

Arthur sighed. “I know.”

“Do you? ‘cause the same thing happened again this mornin’.”

“Listen, John.” Arthur pulled his up to meet John’s. “I’m tryin’, alright? I know—know it don’t look like much, but I am tryin’. But I reckon we ain’t gonna get anywhere tryin’ to hash this out right now when we both need sleep.”

John sighed, turned his eyes back to the paper. Wanted to tell Arthur to try harder. Wanted to tell him they couldn’t keep leaving things for later. Wanted to tell him he loved him. Decided, reluctantly, to drop it. “If you wanna know where the grave is, Charles can show you. Heard he picked it out. Told me where, but reckon I had too much else on the mind at the time to recall it.” That had been back when John didn’t even want to think about the grave, seeing as Arthur still had one foot in it.

“May be something worth rememberin’, where they buried your brother.” Arthur said it with a half smile on his face, but he had a point. If they wanted to keep up the charade, especially with Dutch and Micah still out there, couldn’t hurt to keep the location somewhere in his head.

John smoothed a hand over the paper on the table. Speaking of his head, there was something itching at the back of it. “Do you… do you understand one word of what went on in there? With Abe this mornin’?”

When he turned his head back up, Arthur was peering over at him. “What d’you mean?”

“I thought—thought folks weren’t supposed to be kind.” Kind wasn’t even the right word, more just the fact that Abe had given them the benefit of the doubt. “Weren’t that always what Dutch told us? World was cold and unkind and America was always gonna make people apathetic. Don’t know what that was, but it sure weren’t apathy.”

“What, you thinkin’ it’s a trap or somethin’? Don’t think anyone would host us for near three months just to trap us.”

“Naw,” John said, shaking his head, “just… Listen, think he was genuine, but, but this don’t seem like the thing that oughta happen to folks like us. Right? Seems like it ain’t fair, or somethin’. Like we should be waitin’ for the catch.”

Arthur’d turned his body fully to face John, crossed his arms. But he didn’t say anything, just looked at John with his eyes narrowed, head just slightly tilted.

“What?” John asked, because he didn’t have enough energy to wait Arthur out.

“Just kinda surprised you’re fallin’ back on Dutch when you ain’t wanted to hear nothin’ good ‘bout him since it went bad.”

“That ain’t—” Was he? Was he falling back on Dutch? “I mean, it ain’t like he was wrong, right? You and me seen plenty enough to know the world out there ain’t nice. And people ain’t kind, not without a reason.”

But Arthur just shrugged. “Lotta things he told us turned out wrong. Don’t particularly think the world is good, seein’ as I seen a lot of bad, but maybe… I dunno, maybe it weren’t quite as bad as we thought it was. Or…” He paused, eyes drifting away from John, eyebrows pressed low over his eyes. “Or maybe there’s just better people in it than we figured. Sure was a lotta folks in camp that were good to the core of them, even with those we had that weren’t.”

John opened his mouth, found he couldn’t find anything to say. Because if he thought about it—Tilly, Mary-Beth, Lenny, more, hell, even Abigail, even Charles. Folk that genuinely cared about other people, for whom helping folks came easy. “Huh.” Paused another moment, and then: “You really believe that?”

“Don’t rightly know what I believe, and ‘specially not after I’ve been out fightin’ wolves. Nothin’ makes goddamn sense anymore.” And with that Arthur took a step forward, patted John on the shoulder, the contact like a brand against his skin even through the shirt. “Goin’ to bed.”

John ended up following, half because he was exhausted, half just because he didn’t have anything better to do. It’d been a long day, and already the details were starting to slip from his mind, starting to feel like they were from months ago. The pounding at the door, the feel of the wind, Arthur’s face as he scanned over the snowdrifts. Arthur seeing something, something he wouldn’t even admit seeing to John.

It still felt like there was too much, too much unsaid, too much space left between them. And maybe John didn’t even have a right to complain, seeing as he was still holding the biggest of the unsaid things deep inside of his chest. Nearly two months since he realized he loved Arthur and they still were no closer to resolving it. At this rate, would never be.

They were getting better at talking. An impressive feat, even, seeing as they’d never solved any of their issues through talking in all of their years in the gang. They were raised to be unrefined, violent, to leave the talking to Dutch and Hosea. And so the fact they’d gone months now without their arguments devolving into fistfights was hopeful, maybe. But it was still rough, fragile, and he knew nothing about Arthur’s own feelings. And John would keep anything inside if it meant not losing what little they’d regained.

It took him a long time to fall asleep, lying there and listening to Arthur breathe across the room. In those first few weeks, after Dutch shot Arthur, the breathing was enough. John was realizing that was no longer true. He wanted to touch, wanted to lace his fingers with Arthur’s, to press their foreheads together, to know what it felt like when their bare skin intersected.

When sleep finally came it was rough, messy, his dreams all wolves and antlered deer and his arms around Arthur’s waist.

Chapter Text

Around mid March, John and Arthur took a trip down to Northaven, a little town in Absaroka, west of the Grizzlies and north of New Austin.

They’d had a talk, the whole group of Van der Linde survivors, about their next course of action. Though Abe had specifically called John and Arthur away to ask them about their Van der Linde associations, this wasn’t the gang where there was any sort of firm command structure. They were a group, a family even, and it only felt right that they got equal input.

The decision to send John and Arthur down to look at land ended up being practical more than anything else. John with his family, Arthur with his horses, all of it meant that, out of all of them, they were the most likely to actually want to purchase property. Charles, Sadie, Tilly—John knew they all were starting to form their own plans for after winter, but, so far, it didn’t seem to involve land of their own. Not yet, at least, and John was almost guilty over how much of a relief that was. Meant they were still a long way from vanishing from his life completely.

Up until then, life at the ranch had been fairly quiet. They were coming to the end of lambing season, with just one ewe left to drop her babies. As far as it seemed, most of the pregnant ewes had been in the half of the flock that stuck around when the tree came down, and the few that had faced down the wolves were lucky enough to have no lingering consequences from their ordeal. Aside from monitoring the health of the lambs alongside the rest of the flock, mostly the work around the ranch remained the same.

Sadie had moved more fully into bounty hunting, a profession she, by all accounts, enjoyed. There weren’t many bounties, not as far north as they were, but the few that had shown their faces were apparently fairly easy to find as the snow meant they were more likely to go to ground rather than move. There was still a vengeance to Sadie, one that seemed unfocused with the O’Driscolls razed, and bounty hunting at least was a temporary fix. John didn’t understand it, didn’t really know if he was supposed to understand it, seeing as his own thoughts of revenge always ended up directed at certain people. Might not ever know how it felt for that to be unfocused towards a concept.

Charles planned out a hunting trip in the first weeks of March, something Arthur agreed to join him on near instantly upon being asked. Charles, too, was something of an enigma to John. Farm life still felt stifling, like they were playacting at something they weren’t, but Charles took it in stride like he did anything else. Willing to play any sort of role if he were asked, if it meant not being alone, maybe, because wasn’t that what Charles had said over Christmas? That he was tired of running alone. And that bit John understood, it was more the way Charles handled any sort of change like it didn’t faze him in the slightest that felt strange to John. But then Charles’d gone hunting with Arthur, so maybe things weren’t all that different.

John and Abigail finally got a moment or two to themselves. They hadn’t fought in ages, which was unusual. With John’s propensity for foolishness and Abigail always expecting him to be a better man than he was, they were naturally inclined to trend towards fighting, much the same way that John was with Arthur. But, for once, John actually hadn’t managed to fuck things up for a while, was actually working towards the kind of life Abigail had always wanted for them. Meant the few times they were alone, they actually managed to get up to something more enjoyable than fighting. And John managed to only one of those times get so caught up in guilt about the Arthur thing that he couldn’t enjoy himself.

Tippet, Abe’s border collie, had finally had her puppies, five of them, and though they were still young, too young to do more than toddle around the house, they delighted multiple folks around the ranch all the same. John had never been overly fond of dogs, not in the same way Arthur was, but that apathy towards them apparently hadn’t been passed on to Jack, who adored the puppies. First time the boy had ever seen them—or likely any baby creature—and John had more than once almost tripped over him lying on the floor, playing games with them. John was counting down the days until Jack—or Arthur, honestly, who seemed almost equally enchanted, even though he tried to hide it—was asking to keep one of them.

John didn’t see much of Tilly, not when she spent most of her time up at the main house, but he did notice her more than once slipping off with Walt, Abe and May’s son. John could never claim to be the most observant when it came to the affectionate habits of other people, but even he was able to pick up that there was something happening there. Tilly’d never shown much interest in the men at camp but, then again, most of the men in camp tended to be either rowdy or like brothers to her. Walt was soft-spoken, smart, and spent his free time in books, planning to go into law. Whether anything would pan out there, John couldn’t say.

And Arthur seemed to finally be making progress with Buell. Or, at least, the horse was more likely to just pin his ears at John whenever he went to deliver hay bales out to the horses, rather than actually come after him with teeth. He wasn’t sure if the stallion would ever truly be even tempered, but at the very least John thought Arthur might be able to reform the horse into something more useful than not, judging by the change over the past few weeks.

In general, Arthur seemed to finally be settling in to life around the ranch. He almost took it in stride more than John did—or, at least, to John’s eyes he did. Less surly, less withdrawn, more likely to smile than he was. Still pushy when it came to work or the possibility of being kept away from it, but it wasn’t like they could really argue now that Arthur seemed about as healed as he was going to get. The limp looked to be permanent, way it was lingering, but it didn’t seem to hamper him. And he and John had worked out an easy sort of truce. Unspoken, of course, but the idea seemed to be if they didn’t talk about anything that hurt until they were ready to, then everything else that had come up could sit and they could be pleasant in the meantime.

It was Jack, actually, who seemed to be the least settled as the winter months wore on. There wasn’t much to do around the farm for a nearly five year old, and even the puppies, who were quickly exhausted, could only keep him occupied for so long. He’d read through all his books sometime around mid-January, and was starting to get sick of rereading them. And while Jack liked the snow (another thing he hadn’t inherited from his father) there was only so much a kid could do in the snow without someone else to play with him.

It meant Jack tried to demand more time of the adults around him. And while there were suitable targets for that attention demand—Abigail knew how to handle it and others, May, Tilly, Walt, Robert, Arthur, tended to indulge Jack more often than they likely should’ve felt obligated to—John more often than not found Jack seeking him out. And John still didn’t know how to handle that.

It should’ve been easy. Jack was his son, and Abigail seemed to know almost innately whether a particular situation called for redirecting Jack’s attention or spending time with him, so it seemed like something John should’ve picked up on after nearly five years—or maybe four was more accurate, seeing as John had already run once. He felt like he was brushing Jack off near constantly, but also had no idea how to strike any sort of balance between the work that needed to get done and the kid who wanted his attention. He was bad at parenting, and that was frustrating, just like not being good at anything was intensely frustrating.

So, in some ways, it was almost a relief to get away from the ranch for a few days. Maybe that was running again, maybe it was just the kind of break normal people needed. Hell if John knew.

The day before they left, John got Abigail to cut his hair. Most of it, in fact, cropped it down close to his skull. In many ways it was practical, one more way he could change his appearance so that folks might look at him and not remember a face on a bounty poster they’d seen. In another way, though, it felt like moving on. His hair hadn’t been short since he was a boy, when it’d been so matted and tangled upon his introduction to the gang that Miss Grimshaw had had no choice but to shear it off. He imagined he’d let it grow out again someday, seeing as longer hair always had felt right on his head, but, for the moment, cutting it seemed one more way to mark himself as different from how he was.

Still, maybe he should’ve warned others in the group before she did, because upon seeing him for the first time since the haircut Arthur’s hand went to his hip so fast that John was sure if Arthur still carried pistols around that John very well might’ve been shot. After a beat Arthur had recognized him, had laughed and made some joke about the same shearing by Grimshaw, but John knew, for a moment, he’d looked different enough to be thought a stranger. The possibility was mostly unnerving, but John couldn’t help circling and recircling the moment in his brain, something about it catching in his thoughts.

Arthur and John left the ranch in late afternoon. The nearest train station was one town over, and it’d been easier to plan to take the overnight train down, get cheap bunks on the sleeper car. John on Rachel, Arthur on Sampson, as they weren’t sure how long they’d actually be staying and the big shire could hold heavy saddlebags with ease. If the property wasn’t right for them, they could be back within two days. If it was what they wanted, if they actually wanted to buy it, it could be longer what with monetary negotiations.

Which was another thing: money. Between what John and Abigail had saved before the gang collapsed and what Arthur had insisted was theirs even though he’d only given it to them when he thought he was going to die, they had a decent bit of cash. But John didn’t know how much things like land went for, had never needed to know, and for once that was one bit of ignorance he shared with Arthur. Dutch had always been the one worrying about how much money was enough for whatever grand plan they had, and so now, when it mattered, both John and Arthur were riding into this mostly blind.

If all else failed, Abe had suggested getting a bank loan, and John really didn’t want to do that. He’d almost rather just rob a bank instead, even as everything in his head told him that was a very bad idea.

For the first time since the mountain, John had settled Arthur’s hat on his own head. It was warmer now, on the ranch, spring finally starting to set in, and by all accounts where they were headed would be warmer still. Meant he could get away with wearing it without ending up freezing.

The fit was strange. It wasn’t that it was too big—though he’d certainly thought enough times when he was younger that Arthur’s head was inflated enough that a physical reflection of it might’ve been a given. It was more that it was so worn, so weathered, that it had settled into the shape of Arthur’s head, had become a part of him so fully that it would never sit the same one anyone else.

But, even then, it didn’t feel wrong, wearing it. Like a lineage, like, in time, it would settle into John as well. Different, but a part of him.

Still, within the first half hour of the ride John got enough side-eyes from Arthur that he eventually snapped, “What?”

“Keep getting the urge to knock it off your head.” Arthur gestured with a thumb to indicate what he meant.

John shot him a half-serious scowl. “You said I could wear it.”

“Turns out some habits are hard to break.” Maybe seeing that the scowl didn’t fade, Arthur continued, “Honestly, it’s fine. It looks good, Marston. Suits you.”

John ducked his head, willed the flush creeping up his neck to go away because goddamnit he was not going to spend the whole trip like this. “Shut up,” he muttered, even though Arthur sounded genuine. Even if he was, he doubted Arthur meant it in the way John wanted him to. And the laugh Arthur gave him back all but confirmed that notion.

He was still no closer to resolving the Arthur problem, still was trying his very hardest to avoid even thinking about it. In some ways it was almost worse that Arthur’d agreed to go into this ranch deal together, because it meant there was no escape from whatever this was, that he was stuck next to Arthur in a conundrum of his own making. Wasn’t quite bad enough that John no longer wanted Arthur to stay, of course, but he wasn’t about to deny it was frustrating.

 


 

The ride down was uneventful. Seemed for all the hell they’d caused involving trains, they weren’t due for some back. Or, at least, not that particular ride. Absaroka was warmer than Augusta had been, and that was a good sign off the bat. John didn’t know if he could spend his life weathering a winter like that, no matter how cheap a property might be.

That was a strange thought, the rest of his life.

The train station was in some town called Plainfield. Northaven, a few miles west, was apparently small enough to only have coach service. Seemed a good thing, for the most part. Last time they were through Absaroka was on that long trip south to West Elizabeth, back before the Blackwater mess, and then it’d only been passing through. Before that, they hadn’t been there in at least five years. Meant it was as good a place as any to settle, no more a risk than any other place in the United States could be.

The horses were restless after being cooped up in the horse car all night, and so John let Rachel fall into an easy lope for a good few minutes on the ride over to Northaven. Just enough to let her burn away the extra energy, enough for John to get a decent look at the land around him.

Absaroka was a lot like the southern end of West Elizabeth, if John was honest. Their camp back before Blackwater had been on the edges of Tall Trees, and in many ways this area reminded him of that. Big pine trees that gave way to scrubby, grass-covered plains. Not much different from much of America, really, trees and rocks and dirt and grass.

And Northaven was a town not unlike so many other towns they’d been through. A mill town nestled up against a river, big enough for a stable and inn but not so big that a train line ran through it. Big enough for a sheriff’s office, not so big that the office might regularly host state marshals. Safe, as much as anything could be safe.

They pulled the horses to a stop in front of the inn, Arthur fishing a pocket watch from his coat. “Still got a half hour before we’re supposed to meet Simon. I can go see about gettin’ space in the stable if you wanna get us rooms?”

“Sure,” John murmured, dismounting and passing Rachel’s reins to Arthur. “Gimme your saddlebags, I’ll bring them in.”

He didn’t know why he felt so unsteady, so restless. It felt suffocating, almost, the idea that he was facing actually settling down somewhere. They’d been traveling so long, seen so many places. John didn’t know if it was possible for him to grow roots.

“Need two rooms for tonight,” John said to the innkeeper before he’d even turned to face John. Remembered he ought to be nicer, added, “If you can spare them.”

The innkeeper was a short man, white with greying hair. The kind of man to give a man like John a side eye, which he did, almost immediately. “’fraid we only got the one room open tonight.”

John resisted the urge to sigh. “Suppose it’s only got the one bed too.”

“’fraid so, sir.”

They hadn’t brought bedrolls, not when they’d assumed they’d have an inn to sleep in. John did sigh this time, rubbed a hand over his face. His mood was getting worse. “Alright, well, guess we got no other choice. Any chance you can send some extra blankets up?” Though he could’ve checked the saloon in town to see if they rented rooms overnight, sleep didn’t come easy over a loud bar, even in a small town like this. They’d probably fair better sharing a room, all things told. And it wasn’t like he or Arthur had never spent a night on the floor, though it also wasn’t something John was particularly looking forward to when he’d actually gotten used to sleeping in a bed.

When the innkeeper just gave him a look, he fished some cash out of his pocket, dropped it on the counter. Only once he’d looked it over and found it to be more than the price of the room itself, the innkeeper said, “One of the maids will bring those blankets right up for you, sir.”

John left the saddlebags up in the room, locked the door behind him. Left the inn to no sign of Arthur on the main road. Paced back and forth across the porch of the inn a few times, lit a cigarette and then almost immediately tossed it.

Arthur was taking too long, and that shouldn’t have been something that bothered John, because there were all sorts of things that might’ve delayed him. John didn’t know what the fuck was wrong with him, why his mood was so bad. This was supposed to be an escape from the ranch—or, or it wasn’t, was just supposed to be a trip to look at some land, but it could be an escape, or—

When Arthur finally reappeared, John’s voice was harsher than he meant it to be. “Where were you?”

“Calm down, was just gettin’ information.” At John’s questioning look, Arthur clarified, “Not small enough a town to not have a few poor folk.”

The kind of people willing to trade whatever information they had for the appropriate amount of coin. They both had learned that long ago—was, in fact, one of the few exchanges John had been on both sides of, both information and coin—but it was something Hosea usually covered long before Arthur or John got the chance to. Then again, wasn’t like Hosea was here to do it. “And?”

Arthur shrugged. “For all intents it’s quiet. Some local drama but no more than cattle rustlin’.”

“Gangs?”

“Nah, reckon it’s just local ne’er-do-wells, way it sounds. Last I knew the Ford boys ran in this area, but they got caught up or killed years ago. All in all, seems nice enough place for Jack and Abigail.”

And of course that’s what Arthur was thinking about, John’s family. Permanence. “The horses?”

“Down at the stable. Figured it were better to give ‘em rest ‘fore we head out. You eaten?”

They stopped in at the general store, picked up food enough to last a couple meals. Arthur had an uncanny ability to eat nearly anything without caring, and John was near convinced the man had dulled his taste buds years ago. John himself was more discerning, and made sure he at least grabbed something he could get down his gullet.

Eating didn’t necessarily make John feel better, but sitting out on the porch of the storefront at least settled him, somewhat. Meant when Arthur pointed a finger towards the saloon and said, “Think that’s our man,” that John at least had it together enough to brush himself free of dirt when he stood.

Simon Hasting looked a great deal like his brother in some ways, and not at all like him in others. Same hair color, but closely tended and pomaded back. Similar face shape, but much less weathered. Similar frame, but with more softness to it. Dressed neatly, but not a full-out dressed up sort of look.

John was lucky Arthur had his shit together, because as soon as they approached Simon anything they’d discussed about aliases went immediately out of John’s head. “Simon Hasting?” Arthur asked, then, at the man’s nod, introduced himself, “Arthur Milton. This is my brother, Jim Milton. Abe’s been correspondin’ on behalf of us.”

They’d settled on the aliases back before Abe had sent the first letter down to his brother. It was a kind of group brainstorming session, as thinking up names was never easy and especially not when they were something that might last them the rest of their lives, seeing as they might be signing a bill of sale with them.

“Milton” as a last name had come to John’s mind unbidden, just a name with the same first letter as his own, one easy enough to remember. But Arthur had laughed, had said that there was something fitting about stealing the name of the man who had tried to kill them. The man had just as well as killed them, all things fair, seeing how divorced they were from that life now.

“Jim” wasn’t a particularly clever first name, but it was easy. Arthur’d opted to keep his first name, which had seemed and still did seem stupid to John. The point Arthur was made was that it was easier for him to keep an alias consistent if he could still go by Arthur most of the time, and that they’d need names they could be comfortable with if they were going to use them long term. Seemed to John like the sort of thing that, on top of risking someone recognizing him by face with first name, would lead into Arthur telling someone his real name without thinking though. Then again, John was the kind of person to do the same without even realizing it, whether he had the same first name or not.

Truth was, in the end, they both were garbage at the whole hiding behind false names thing. It was why Hosea had been so delighted to bring Abigail under his wing. Arthur was sour on the whole idea of playacting even before John came into the fold, and John himself could only play the sort of roles where his mouth couldn’t get him in trouble—which, of course, were few and far between. He and Arthur couldn’t play a character consistently, and they couldn’t remember names or identities. Abigail was good at all that sort of thing. Always a good thief, and her experience as a prostitute never hurt her acting, the way she told it. Both John and Arthur didn’t have that spark.

John really, really wished Hosea were there. Even if he’d just call them fools and tell them how it’d be and maybe even give them a smack upside the head. Things were better when Hosea was there. Things made sense when he was there. Hosea had always been the calm, unshakeable presence that weighed down Dutch’s passion. He was practical. He would’ve known what to do, how to disguise themselves fully, how to disappear completely.

Then again, Hosea had never been able to stay out of the life either.

“Ah, yes,” Simon said, shaking first Arthur’s hand, then John’s. “My brother wrote that he owed you two?”

“Happened to be the right place at the right time when some wolves went for his sheep,” Arthur said, tone like it was the kind of thing that happened every day. “You’re in the land business?”

“And you’re in the business of buying, from what I’ve heard.”

“Sure, if the land is right.” Arthur’d crossed his arms. John didn’t know if he was doing it intentionally, but he was settling right back into the tough brick wall that he’d played for years. It wasn’t an unkind sort of tough this time, not like Dutch would ask of him, but a role all the same. John corrected himself—Arthur could playact when it was what he was trained into, and he could do that well.

“Well, I don’t know about right, but if you aren’t looking to grow crops you might find what you’re looking for. Not sure how much Abe told you, but a New Yorker who thought he’d make it as a farmer bought up all this land and, now that he’s found it isn’t ever going to grow crops, wants to sell it again. There are plots all up and down the river valley that could be decent homesteads. Ranches, even, believe that’s what Abe said you were after. And you want to see them in person?”

“If you don’t mind.”

“No, not at all. I’d appreciate the ride, don’t do enough of it these days.”

They set out west of Northaven, out further into the valley west of the Grizzlies.

 


 

Time passed in a blur to John. All rocks and grass and the sound of the wind through the pines. Rachel kept a steady pace behind Sampson, kept John’s head on his shoulders.

Simon did a lot of talking, most of it flying over John’s head. Talking about the property boundaries, the history of the land, who owned bordering plots, all sorts. And between the talking, the long stretch of the land, and John and Arthur inside of it.

John couldn’t stop himself from thinking about Dutch. He didn’t want to, didn’t want to have Dutch on the brain until it came time to finally kill him. But he came, unbidden, because the west was what Dutch always wanted, was what he drove so hard into their brains. In so many ways inseparable from him.

The problem was this: the west was just another one of Dutch’s ideas. It wasn’t real, had maybe never been real. Even when there was talk about the gang buying property, deals that inevitably fell through, it was abstract, unfocused. Dutch was a man full of ideas, and one particularly adept at talking through those ideas until they seemed all encompassing, like they were the only things that made sense.

John didn’t know if this was the west Dutch had been searching for. It certainly looked like it could’ve been. They weren’t so far west as California, sure, but they were closer than they’d been in ages. And the land was near empty, miles and miles of forest and scrubland and prairie. It wasn’t untouched, not if some farmer was selling it off, but it was still rough, unpolished. Not unchanged by civilization, but firm against it. If there was any land left that looked like what Dutch had wanted, this was it.

But it was plain, and normal, and the grass was scrubby and the land was rocky and it was real. It was permanent. And things dug from it were permanent, and things built on it were permanent, and things that lived on it were permanent.

Arthur kept eyeing him. And John knew it was his fault, that he was being surly and withdrawn and moody. There was no reason to be. This should be something they were celebrating, enjoying, the thing every person in his life had told him he should want. And yet he felt like he couldn’t get enough air in his chest, thinking about spending the rest of his days on a ranch in Absaroka.

It wasn’t that the land felt wrong. It was that it felt unremarkable.

Somewhere around the third parcel of land, it started to rain, and John found himself grateful that Arthur’s hat had been waxed down so that the water slicked off it. Still, he didn’t have the benefit of a coat that did the same, and the rain was the cold sort that came in very early spring even this far south. Meant it was more than unpleasant when it soaked through to his skin. By the time they got to the fourth property, John was beyond miserable.

This one was just like the others. Long stretch of rocky grassland, scrubby bushes breaking into pines as the land got further from the river. A small shack nestled into where the hills dipped, apparently where the first few settlers had lived when the land was newly claimed, though it wasn’t fit for any sort of living in now.

But Arthur scanned the land, dropped his eyes down to where the scrub grass grew rough and brown against the rocks, and his eyes caught on something. When John looked, all he could see were a few weeds, a patch of flowers, but whatever it was made Arthur straighten, examine the land around them with renewed interest, rain and all. And John wished hard, not for the first time, to know what was going on in his head.

At the end of the ride, as they were just getting back into town, Simon and Arthur discussed numbers. John should’ve been part of it, but he was cold and sour and damp and hungry and despite the fact that it should’ve been his land, his decision, Arthur was taking charge once again because John couldn’t bring himself to.

They couldn’t afford the number Simon gave them for the land Arthur seemed to be gunning for, the one with the shack, even with how reduced the price was. Not with the additional cost of building a house and buying livestock and all that came with buying land. John knew that as soon as he heard it, and yet Arthur was nodding, was turning Sampson away towards the stables, was saying, “Give us a day or two to discuss it, if you could?” And if he could see John’s glower, he didn’t react to it.

Did the land even matter? Did any of it? They weren’t what they were, could never be what they were. Wasn’t this something John was supposed to want?

John handed Rachel over to a stable hand, couldn’t even bring himself to give her a pat before he was turning back towards the inn. He knew Arthur was trailing behind him, knew in his bones that the man was giving him that look, all disapproval and condescension and John goddamn hated Arthur and he loved him too.

As they entered the inn, Arthur started to say, “We oughta get somethin’ to—hey!” as John continued to walk, continued to march up the stairs without even looking back.

He unlocked the hotel room clumsily, not particularly wanting to see the expression on Arthur’s face and the ensuing haste making his fingers slip. But he got the door unlocked, left it open as he stepped inside.

John could hear when Arthur entered the room behind him, could hear him shut the door. He was expecting yelling, expecting Arthur to be angry, almost wanted it because at least when they yelled they got to conclusions. Instead Arthur just sighed, said, “You’re in a mood, huh?”

John stripped off his coat, soaked through and heavy, hung it up next to the small stove huddled against one wall of the room. Even under it his shirt was soaked through. More goddamn fucking cold. Every part of him damp save his newly short hair that had mostly been protected by Arthur’s hat, which John hung on a bedpost.

He could hear Arthur put his satchel on the desk in the corner of the room, could hear him start to pull off his own coat, at the while saying nothing. Arthur was waiting him out, that son of a bitch, because he could go ages without talking and he knew John would boil over.

John took a deep breath, let it out slow. Started on the buttons on his shirt, knew he’d just get sick if he didn’t get dry clothes on. Finally, when he hadn’t completely gathered his thoughts but couldn’t wait any longer, John said, “What’re we even doin’ here?”

“Gettin’ some land so y’all can be ranchers.” The tone Arthur used was the one he’d learned from Hosea, the one that called the recipient stupid without ever using the word outright.

“And then what? We live the rest of our lives on some shitty little land in the middle of nowhere until we die?” John yanked down his suspenders, pulled the shirt off of his shoulders. Even his goddamn union suit was damp.

Arthur’s voice was frustratingly calm when he said, “That’s the plan, sure.”

John felt himself still bristling at the mention of a plan, of one of Dutch’s words in Arthur’s mouth. He finally turned to meet Arthur’s eyes. “And you’re alright with that?”

Arthur had his eyebrows pressed low over his eyes as he went to cross his arms. His shirt was just as wet as John’s, clinging tight to his shoulders. “Are you tryin’ to tell me you ain’t? Ain’t this what you’ve been talkin’ ‘bout? Livin’ like normal folks?”

“That ain’t—”

“Ain’t what? You got an opportunity to make a life here, don’t know why you’re bein’ so goddamn sour. Thought that was what you wanted, bein’ away from all of it.” And then Arthur paused, caught John’s eyes. “That is what you wanted?”

John couldn’t help the sudden moment of panic crossing through his body, and he knew it showed on his face by the way Arthur’s eyebrows rose. He did want the ranch, but only so much as how it would make Abigail happy, would give Jack a place to grow. Beyond that, he had no fucking clue. “It’s not that, it’s—”

“No, no,” Arthur interrupted, shaking his head, “what do you want, Marston?”

John wanted—

He wanted—

John changed tactics. They were getting dangerously close to those things he wasn’t ready to talk about with the talking about what John wanted, Arthur in his wet goddamn shirt. “It ain’t like we even got the money, Arthur, what Abigail and I got is barely enough to buy the land and then what? Abigail and Jack sleep in that shack? We keep one sheep ‘cause we can’t afford no more? I don’t know what the hell we’re even thinkin’, ain’t like we’d ever be able to do it. Why go through the goddamn effort?”

John was lying again, and it was beyond frustrating that all he could ever do was lie to Arthur, to not tell Arthur the full truth. Money was a problem, sure, but it was far from what was itching at him. It was the permanence that was the problem, the idea that John was committing to one little parcel of land for the rest of his life, that everything that’d ever made him what he was was dead and gone.

Arthur sighed, grabbed for his satchel, and John couldn’t help the wary feeling that crept up from his chest as Arthur said, “Well, Marston, if it’s money, I got a solution for you, and I got another problem. Gimme your knife.”

John eyed him. “Why?”

“Just give it, stop goddamn whinin’.”

John did, crossed the room to do so, and watched as Arthur slid the tip of the blade carefully under the thread binding the satchel together. The same thread that Tilly had pointed out months ago, the place where the lining had been restitched together, the thread John had all but forgotten about.

What Arthur pulled from the lining of the satchel was the first thing to pull John out of his own dour thoughts since they left Pineridge. A goddamn gold bar, heavy in Arthur’s palm, its shiny metal surface catching the dim evening light that filtered in through the windows.

John’s brain stuttered, skipped and stumbled. It felt like all the air had gone out of his chest, like his skin had gone numb. “Holy shit,” he murmured, because it was all that kept repeating through his mind.

“Here’s the problem,” Arthur said, laying the bar flat on the desk like it was just a plain old rock, like it wasn’t the sort of thing they only ever saw on the biggest jobs they used to run. “We don’t know a fence ‘round these parts.”

John had to reach out, steady himself on one of the bedposts. “Arthur, how long have you had that?”

“Some fool sold me a treasure map back in May, does it matter?”

“And it was real?” He couldn’t even bring himself to care about the way his voice cracked around the word.

Arthur’d put the satchel back on the desk as well, had gone back to crossing his arms. “It don’t really matter if I got ‘em if we don’t got a fence to sell ‘em.”

“You got more than one?” If it weren’t for the fact that Arthur looked nearly sheepish with the revelation, John would be convinced he’d been thrown from Rachel out on the ride, that all of this was a head injury induced hallucination. But none of the versions of Arthur that showed up in John’s dreams ever bit their lip like that, ever curled their shoulders inward like Arthur was doing now.

“Wasn’t like I was gonna give ‘em to Dutch after things was gettin’ bad. Figured…” Arthur gestured over at the satchel. “Well, guess you already know what I figured.”

Because it was John, not Dutch, that had ended up with Arthur’s satchel that night on the mountain. John sat down hard on the edge of the bed, not even caring that his pants were still damp. “I can’t fuckin’ believe you.”

“What?” It was asked like Arthur genuinely didn’t understand why this whole situation was so unbelievable.

“Is this the sorta shit you were doin’ all those months? Goddamn—goddamn rescuin’ doctors and feedin’ widows and followin’ treasure maps?”

“What’d you think I did when I left camp?”

Huntin’, like the kind normal folks do when they’re out a few days. Or—or robbin’ folks or somethin’.”

Arthur rolled his shoulders. “I mean I did that too.”

Arthur.” John was about to lose his goddamn mind. He swept his eyes around the room, looking for something to ground him, settling on the gold bar. “We gotta find a fence,” he said, pointing at it.

“I know, s’what I’ve been saying.”

“Where the hell do we find a fence?”

“I don’t know, John.” And Arthur sighed, scraped a hand over his face. “’less you got any ideas, don’t think it’s gonna happen tonight. Think maybe tomorrow we head back over to Plainfield, see what we can find there?”

“Sure,” John said. He was exhausted. Arthur was exhausting, what with how it felt like he found out new information nearly every time they had a decent conversation. He gestured at the bar again, where it still rested on the desk. “Better hide that.”

“Was plannin’ to,” Arthur said, already gathering up the satchel again.

If John was grateful for anything, it was that the gold bar had knocked him completely out of whatever his mood had been before. He couldn’t really say he appreciated not knowing they’d been carrying around something of that much value in a goddamn satchel, but at least he was less caught up on the land, now. Less worried about throwing all their money into something that made him uneasy. And they’d even managed to talk around the wanting thing, which never would’ve ended well. Maybe he was getting better at holding his tongue.

Still, when Arthur grabbed the gold bar again John caught a soft half-smile crossing his face, and he couldn’t help himself asking, “What?”

Arthur glanced over at him, his eyes a soft sort of surprised. Turned his eyes back to the gold bar, said, “Naw, just…” Paused, swallowed. “Just thinkin’ ‘bout Hosea. He were here and we’d already have the thing sold and at twice its value, at that.”

“We ain’t never been good con men.”

“Despite his best efforts.” Arthur wasn’t looking at John, instead was turning the bar over in his hands. He paused a moment, then said, “Y’remember the last time we were down around Absaroka? More’n just passin' through, I mean.”

“Obviously not what you’re ‘bout to tell me.” John did remember that they hadn’t caused any particularly large messes in Absaroka, which was why it was a good choice to stay, but no specifics. Most places tended to blur in his mind unless something had gone particularly well or particularly wrong.

Arthur shook his head. “Naw, you’ll remember. After Bessie died, when Hosea was still a mess? Dutch was runnin’ himself ragged because we didn’t have so many folks back then and Hosea was too drunk most the time to sniff out jobs. Got word of some store in town that was runnin’ money out the back and you begged me to let you come.”

Oh. John remembered. He’d been trying to impress Abigail by doing some job nearly on his own, seeing as she’d just started showing him interest. “Yeah, only ‘cause you was talkin’ how easy it’d be.”

“Weren’t like I figured the sheriff would pick that moment to pick up his weekly pack of smokes.”

“Weren’t like you were particularly fond of legwork neither.”

“More fool you for goin’ along with me.” But there was a smile on Arthur’s face. “You and me, sittin’ in that jail cell, thinkin’ the man might just make good on the hangin’ thing, and the first thing we hear is that goddamn ‘hello fellers’. And we look up and it’s Hosea and Abigail and a bottle of whiskey.”

That John also remembered. He’d been sitting on the cell floor because Arthur was annoyed and had refused him the bed because of it. Hosea had been sober for the first time in ages—that much John had known by the spark in his eyes as he raked them over the cell. It’d been the first time, too, that John had ever seen Abigail and Hosea interact in any sort of real capacity, seeing as she’d only been around a few months at the time.

The both of them had gotten the deputies watching the cells drunk, Hosea somehow managing to abstain from the whiskey himself while at it, convinced them to drop the charges, and John and Arthur had walked out of those cells like nothing had ever happened. Even got all their guns back and everything.

“Got us back to camp and the first thing he did was chew us out for bein’ fools, for not doing our groundwork before the job, said he thought he taught us better, and then,” Arthur tapped the bar against his own fingers, “then he dragged us out to go fishin’ with him. Said we owed the camp a few meals.”

It’d been the first time since Bessie died that Hosea had seemed like himself again, was pulling a con and then wanting them both to act better than they were. There was a long portion of that drunk year that it’d seemed they’d never get Hosea back, or that what they’d get back wouldn’t be the same. And, in the end, what had done it had been his foolish boys getting in over their heads.

“Miss him.” The words were out of John’s mouth before he could stop them, because he missed Hosea desperately. Dutch had been John’s father in all but name, had been the one that called them sons, but Hosea had always been the practical voice that balanced out Dutch’s dreams. Hosea would know what to do, if he were there. He’d tell them how it would be.

“Yeah,” Arthur said, his breath coming out of him in a sigh, “yeah, me too.” He slipped the gold bar back into the satchel, flipped it closed. Paused for a moment, like he was considering how much to say because it was Arthur. Finally said, “Never really got the chance to mourn him, not with the mess that happened and Guarma and everythin’. Dutch didn’t want to hear it, not on that boat, not after. And then with everythin’ else goin’ on…” Arthur leaned his head to the side. “Just really… really goddamn miss him.”

John leaned back, cleared his throat to try to rid it of the thick feeling talking about Hosea caused. “I ain’t even seen where they buried him.”

When Arthur turned his eyes back towards John, his eyebrows were low. “No?”

John shook his head. “Too close to Saint Denis, too hot after Sisika. Couldn’t take the risk, not with Abigail and Jack.”

The look on Arthur’s face made it clear he hadn’t even considered that a possibility. Took a moment to clear his own throat. “It’s a—under a tree, little north of the farms and everythin’. Ain’t—ain’t the mountains, not like he mighta liked, but he’s next to Lenny, so he can still talk the ear off of someone, and they always liked each other besides. Women did the best they could, all things considered, ‘specially gettin’ them both back from the law. I…” Arthur trailed off, his brow creased, not looking at John. Thought a moment, started again, “When, when this is all over and we get settled, let’s—let’s you and me go visit him.” Turned his eyes up to meet John’s. “Alright?”

It was a small gesture, barely anything, and yet John could feel the warmth spreading up through his chest. He blinked a couple times, could feel the barest prickle of tears at the corner of his eyes. It was the idea that they were planning for the future, that there was a future to plan for, one where they’d be together. After so long just trying to survive, now they were getting the chance to be concrete about what was ahead. “Okay,” he finally said, and it was a small kind of noise in his throat.

But Arthur wasn’t done, judging by the fact that he opened his mouth, shut it, lay the satchel back on the desk, started up again. “Think—” Arthur’s voice careful, halting— “think he’d be proud, y’know. This, this is what he wanted, for all of us. Chance to live without the law on our backs, without shooting folks. Somewhere outta the life. He couldn’t ever get out, but us? Just—just, I know—know it ain’t easy, the change and, and bein’ different. Swear I know that better than most any other people. But—“ And Arthur once again caught John’s eyes and John had to resist the urge to duck his head— “but you oughta at least use the opportunity you stumbled into.”

John sighed, scraped a hand over his face. “I know.”

Arthur straightened, and it was like all previous indecision over what to say melted away. Suddenly the Arthur in the room was the confident, self-assured one, even as he started on the buttons on his still visibly damp shirt. “Now you and I are gonna put on dry clothes, and we’re gonna eat somethin’, then we’re both gonna get some sleep, then in the mornin’ we’re gonna figure out how the hell to fence that gold bar. Alright?”

“Fine, okay, fine.” John huffed another breath out, stood, caught Arthur’s eyes. “You and me.”

“Me and you, Jim Milton.”

Chapter Text

John and Arthur ate dinner on the floor of the hotel room in their underwear, sitting in front of the stove. Though they’d both put on dry union suits (and John was eternally grateful Abigail’d had the sense to tell him to pack extra) it wasn’t worth completely redressing when all they’d probably do was head over to the saloon a few doors over to get something to eat. John wasn’t particularly interested in drinking in a strange town when they had things to do in the morning, and even a hot meal wasn’t enough to draw him back out of the room when it was still drizzling.

Seemed Arthur was on a similar page. He certainly looked content to be cross-legged on the hardwood, fishing peach slices out of a can with his fingers. Too-long hair drying messy against his neck, even as John kept running fingers through his own hair, always expecting it to be longer than it was.

They spent the time talking about meaningless things, old stories of how things used to be, and in some way that was comforting. Like talking about Hosea had been breaking down a sort of barrier, somehow acknowledging that, though it had ended a mess, there were plenty of good times in the life they’d had. Plenty of people they’d loved.

John still found himself circling around any of memory of Dutch, and Arthur seemed to be happy to let him. No matter how many months had passed, how many years would pass, John wasn’t sure if he could bring himself to look back on Dutch with any sort of fondness, even in the memories that had once been warm. All of it hurt too much now.

John hadn’t exactly thought about the fact that there was only one bed. He’d assumed he’d take the floor, seeing as, while Arthur was about as healed now as he was going to get, he still had seniority on John, and, all things told, John figured he ought to keep Arthur happy with him. Would’ve been easier if they could get two rooms, sure, but John could stand sleeping on the wood floor a night or two. He’d done worse.

Still, when they finally finished off a decent amount of food and Arthur got to his feet—slow, like the scar had gone stiff with the rain—to light one of the lamps in the now dark room and John did the same, John found a look thrown his way when he went to spread out the extra blankets into a bedroll-type shape on the floor.

“What?” John asked the shadows playing off Arthur’s face as he stepped away from the lamp.

Arthur’s eyebrows were pinched together in an exasperated kind of look. “You don’t gotta sleep on the floor.”

John paused, blanket still gripped in his fingers. “Don’t mind.”

But Arthur shook his head, went to grab the blanket from John’s hands. “We been out all day in the freezin’ rain and you was already miserable to be ‘round ‘fore you got cold. If I kick you outta the bed, reckon I’m gonna get my head bitten off in the mornin’.”

John was cold, sitting by the stove only doing so much, but he yanked the blanket away, said, “Arthur, I ain’t gonna make you sleep on the floor when standin’ up the wrong way makes you limp worse. Ain’t that cold.” Besides, he was twenty-six years old. He was sure he could act nicer if he really tried at it.

“Didn’t say I’d be sleepin’ on the floor.” And when John titled his head at Arthur, knew the confusion showed on his face, Arthur sighed, said, “…We can share the damn bed, John. We was in that tiny little tent for years and a bed is where you draw the line?”

“Oh.” John hadn’t even considered that a possibility, not with the fact that being too close to Arthur still made him antsy, but it wasn’t like Arthur knew that whole mess existed. Sharing the bed would seem the practical thing for him—probably was the practical thing, even with John’s stupid brain. “Didn’t think of that.”

“Course you didn’t.” Arthur finally freed the blanket from John’s grip, tossed it unfolded onto the chest at the foot of the bed next to the rest.

John eyed the bed. It was a double, sure, but not a particularly roomy one. Chances were, if he and Arthur lay shoulder to shoulder, they’d rub up against each other, and even the thought of it made John’s face go warm. It wasn’t like he minded sharing a bed with Arthur, far from it. If anything, what he was worried about was waking up to find his body had betrayed him in some way, that he’d wake up with his arms around Arthur or worse. “You sure?” he asked, even though he knew what Arthur’s answer would be.

Arthur had already moved around to the other side of the bed, gave John another look, this time closer to annoyed. “Yes, I’m sure. Gonna be warmer with both of us in it. ’sides,” he continued as he pulled back the blankets, “reckon Abigail might disown me if the one time I got responsibility of you you end up sick.”

Of course Arthur was thinking of Abigail, because Arthur always seemed to give more consideration to Abigail than John did himself. Maybe that was a bad thing, but hell if John knew.

After John snuffed the lamp, finally slid into bed next to Arthur who was lying on his side, Arthur murmured, “Why’s everythin’ such a goddamn ordeal with you?”

John couldn’t help the smile that spread over his face, titled his head up after he settled with his back to Arthur’s. “Like you’re one to talk.”

“Mmm,” Arthur hummed in an unconvinced sort of tone, then, “If you take the blankets I’m kickin’ you out again.”

“Was one time, grouser.”

Arthur kicked a leg back, hitting John in the calf with a heel, and John couldn’t help the snort he made into the pillow. Even after this long, he knew exactly how to push Arthur’s buttons. “Go to sleep, Marston,” Arthur said in a half-hearted rumble, and John wasn’t sure if he was imagining the thread of affection laced into the words.

 


 

John barely slept.

It was hard enough for him to fall asleep in an unfamiliar place, even when exhausted, and there was too much on his mind besides. Even when Arthur’s breathing had settled into a soft, steady rhythm, John found himself blinking up at a dark ceiling. The bed was too cold, then too warm, and John couldn’t get comfortable, kept turning over, kept himself from getting too close to Arthur. And when sleep did come, it was restless, uneven, interrupted, and if he dreamed John remembered none of it.

When he woke to grey light streaming in the windows, John was disoriented, still exhausted, and he’d forgotten Arthur was lying next to him until he rolled over and found himself face to face with him.

It was a rare thing, John waking before Arthur. Consistent with all things, Arthur tended to be up and working before most other folks had even started stirring, John included. Maybe it was some combination of John being up half the night and Arthur being able to fall asleep anywhere, no matter how strange, or maybe it was just chance. And exactly when Arthur had turned during the night, John didn’t know. But he was lying facing John, eyes closed, one arm curled out in front of him, hair splayed out around his head in a half circle. Blankets slipping down from his upturned shoulder, leaving a good portion of the worn union suit bared to the sleep-heavy air of the room.

And before John could think it through he found himself twisting, propping his body up on his right elbow, leaning himself over Arthur’s sleeping form.

Arthur breathed slow, steady, breath moving one or two longer hairs on his beard. Quiet, because Arthur only ever snored when he was shitfaced-drunk and near dead to the world because of it. A slight whistle through his nose on the inhale, but otherwise silent. Eyes twitching under his eyelids.

Both of them with beards just a bit too unkempt, Arthur’s hair longer than it should be, John’s hair shorter. Trying to signal difference, to not be immediately recognized. Transposed versions of who they were, who they were going to be, something stuck between lives, between people. Arthur’s face weathered, scarred, and John knew his own was much the same. They were older, more run down and, at least with John, none the wiser for it. Trying to find a new way to live, trying to finally be different people.

Arthur’d never stopped being nice to look at, not even after so many years. If John let his mind drift, he could imagine this differently. Both of them in a bed on a ranch, their ranch, safe and happy and away from all the trouble. Lying in the same bed not out of practicality but out of choice. Neither of them with a reason to not sleep through the night, bodies sore and tired not through stretching themselves too thin, but instead through all the ways they could be with each other.

John wanted. Wanted to lower his lips down to Arthur’s, wanted to know the warmth of his skin under them. Wanted to bury his face in the crook of Arthur’s neck and feel Arthur wrap his arms around him. Wanted to feel Arthur’s hands all over him. Wanted to touch and bite and suck. Wanted to have Arthur and be had by Arthur. Wanted to know what it felt like when their bodies intersected so much it hurt.

John was hard in his union suit, and the guilt of it made a flush creep up his neck. This wasn’t fair, this wanting, not when he had Abigail, had Jack, had the sort of life folks like him weren’t supposed to have, knew he was supposed to settle with it because it was more than he deserved.

Arthur had told him, back nearly a year ago now, to stop trying to be two people at once. The problem was, all of him still felt like John Marston. The John Marston that loved Abigail was inseparable from the John Marston that loved Arthur. It was just that John Marston had eyes too big for his stomach, that John Marston could never be satisfied with what he had. He’d left the only family he had because he couldn’t handle the family he started, and he came crawling back because he couldn’t stand the resulting loneliness.

He didn’t even know if Arthur even wanted to love a man. In fact, he wasn’t even sure if Arthur’d want to love another person of any kind after Mary, seeing as that was the only sort of ongoing relationship John’d ever seen Arthur in. But even beyond that, it was asking those feelings of a man on top.

John knew well enough that bedding men could be just another way to work out pent up energy. He’d known that, no matter what, if he were to go out back of a tavern or into an unfamiliar bedroom with a strange man, he’d come out fucked, bloodied, or both. And some nights John’d wanted the fight just as much as he wanted to get off, and either were enough to satisfy him. And maybe that’s all it had been to Arthur too.

The few times he’d ever noticed Arthur disappear with men, all back when they both were younger and that was something Arthur’d do, they’d been quick, rough little affairs as far as John could tell. Nothing long enough to involve any sort of feelings, if they’d even have potential to exist. Maybe the tenderness wasn’t something Arthur would want, not then, or maybe not after everything.

And then, of course, it would be stupid little Johnny Marston asking for those feelings on top of it all.

It was impulse, more than anything, when John dipped his head and pressed a kiss to Arthur’s forehead, John’s sleep-muddled brain wanting so much to touch and only at the last moment choosing the forehead over the mouth. He was grateful for the short hair now, meant there were no greasy locks to brush against Arthur’s face, just John’s own lips, warm and near aching where they touched Arthur’s skin.

And at the contact Arthur made an incomprehensible murmur in his sleep and John was out of the bed near instantly.

Arthur didn’t wake, just shifted a touch, mumbled something else before his breathing fell back into the deep, slow pattern of sleep, left John gasping to catch his own breath. His heart was pounding and he didn’t even have a good enough justification why. All of this was his own doing, too much in his own head and wanting what he didn’t deserve.

John dressed rapidly, yanking on whatever he had that was clean and dry. He needed some air, needed to stop looking. Grabbed Arthur’s hat on his way out the door.

There was a chill to the early morning on the main street of Northaven. Even this far south, the weather wasn’t about to let John forget it was still March. His coat, dried out overnight, mostly cut out the cold now that it wasn’t raining, but there was still a nip that made John want to tuck his chin as far into his chest as he could get it. Half considered heading over to the bar and scrounging up some coffee, but ultimately figured that he ought to be easily findable for when Arthur woke up.

Instead, John settled into one of the benches out front of the inn, lit a cigarette and watched the town start to wake up around him.

He’d never been one for watching. Looking, sure, John would look, but watching was different. All his life John’d been impulsive, driven by his feelings more than his thoughts. Any sort of waiting made him antsy, and watching nearly always involved waiting. It was something that had always frustrated Hosea but delighted Dutch when it worked out to his benefit. When John’s instincts were good, good things happened. And, seeing as Dutch trained those instincts into John, usually those same things were what Dutch was looking for.

But, John decided, he was trying something new, trying to be someone new. Or, not new, but adjacent to how he was. John Marston revised. If Arthur could do it, it was at least worth some effort on John’s part. And it wasn’t like he had anything else to do, not beyond thinking about Arthur and he did too much of that already.

All things told, Northaven was a standard little town. Sawmill at the end of town already churning though it couldn’t have been more than an hour past dawn. A general store, a post office, a doctor’s office, the last of which would be a relief to Abigail. A saloon with a few horses still hitched in front, either those staying overnight in whatever rooms the building might offer or else the last few drunks left over from the night before. Down on the side of town opposite the river was the stable, and from his spot on the porch John could see the horses that were let out into the muddy paddock. He thought briefly of Rachel tucked away in her rented stall, how dismissive he’d been of her the previous day, and the slight pang of guilt at it must’ve been because Arthur was rubbing off on him. She was a horse, for Christ’s sake.

John was watching one particularly hungover man try to mount his horse without opening his eyes when Arthur’s voice sounded to the side of him, “Was wonderin’ were you got to.”

Arthur looked the same as he always did. Sturdy, unshaken, like none of this fazed him. That was the problem, really: John knew that Arthur was adjusting to this new life too, knew that from the conversations they’d had, but, if that transition was hard, he didn’t show it. Maybe that was one more thing to blame on Dutch, the fact that Arthur buried hard any sort of struggle, that only the worst of the worst bubbled to the surface.

John sighed, said, “Figured you might throw a fit if I disappeared off somewhere.”

“Mmm, probably,” Arthur replied, gesturing for John to pass over his half-smoked cigarette. And John did, because he liked looking at Arthur when he smoked and it was John’s second of the day anyway. “C’mon, I’ll buy you coffee or somethin’.”

If anything it should’ve been John covering food, seeing what Arthur was planning to contribute to purchasing land for John and his family, but it wasn’t worth the argument. John got to his feet, noting with some displeasure that his shoulder had gone stiff in the early morning cold. It didn’t bother him near so much as the scars still sometimes did, maybe because it had healed so cleanly, but it still twinged sometimes. His body was getting less forgiving.

Arthur didn’t look to see if John was following him as he trotted down the wooden steps, down to the packed brown dirt of the street. Still, John trailed behind him same as he always did as Arthur started, “So, reckon we start over the west side of Plainfield. Some rougher housin’ over that way.”

Arthur kept talking, something about trying some methods he’d heard Hosea talk about when trying to find the less scrupulous parts of society (vague, of course, in case anyone was eavesdropping), and John let his mind drift. He trusted Arthur, trusted him maybe more himself to work things out. Neither of them could claim to have Dutch or Hosea’s brains for a plan, but Arthur had always been good at fixing on the fly, on recalculating actions when plans inevitably went wrong. Seeing as they only had a few days to find a fence so that they had money to buy the land, this sort of thing was very much in Arthur’s wheelhouse. They’d figure it out.

Still, maybe it was a mistake, not listening, because less than a minute later Arthur was saying, “Jim. Jim.”

It took John a moment to remember the alias, realize that Arthur was talking to him. “Hmm?”

Arthur had his eyes narrowed. “Y’ain’t heard a word I’ve been goddamn sayin’, have you?”

John looked away, because of course he hadn’t been. “No, I have, just—just head over into Plainfield, right? Talk to folks?”

When he next looked up, Arthur was watching him out of the corner of his eyes. “What?” John snapped.

Arthur tilted his head even as he turned his eyes away from John. “You’ve been so goddamn weird lately.”

And that wasn’t something John wanted to get into, because if Arthur was noticing he was acting off, he was really doing a bad job of hiding it. John stuttered around the cold nervousness in the pit of his stomach, “Think—think me not listenin’ to you is normal, Arthur.” Because that wasn’t wrong, just was far from the lot of it.

“Mmnn. Sure.” Arthur didn’t sound one bit convinced. He dropped the cigarette he’d gotten off of John, crushed it, and slowed so he could face John more fully. “Y’know, you ain’t ever answered me yesterday.”

“What d’you mean?” John had been avoiding so many conversations that he couldn’t really keep track of them.

“’bout what you want.”

John sighed, averted his eyes, because he’d not wanted to say for a reason. Because John wanted too much all at once, because he didn’t know, not beyond not losing what he had, not beyond Arthur, beyond Abigail. “It’s—it’s fine, Arthur, I’m good.”

Seemed it wasn’t enough for Arthur, though, because he pulled John to a stop just in front of the steps up to the saloon. When John tried to jerk his arm away because he hated that Arthur still felt like he could drag him around, Arthur hissed, “Hey, hey, listen to me a minute. We’re doin’ this for you. ‘cause Abigail, Jack, they deserve a peaceful life. If you ain’t willin’ to put in work, you ain’t gonna get very far. You gotta want it.”

“I do want it,” John hissed back. Because John did, because if a ranch was what it took to keep the people he loved around, then he would do anything to have one, no matter how suffocating it felt.

“Then make an effort.” Arthur’s eyes firm, unyielding.

“You think this ain’t an effort?” John bit out. “I’m tryin’, Arthur, wouldn’t have come all the way down here if I wasn’t. Don’t know why you think I ain’t.”

“That’s not…” And Arthur paused, scraped a hand over his face for a moment. “I’m—I’m just tryin’ to say that sometimes you just gotta keep doin’ shit ‘cause it makes other folks happy.”

“Is that what you’re doin’?” And that John didn’t particularly like either, because it was back to the same old thing again, Arthur focusing his life around other people. Around John’s life, more like, and that was a good and bad thing.

“Ain’t not what I’m doin’.” Arthur folded his arms, ignored the quiet snort John made at the answer, said, “Listen, I ain’t got any answers, but I do know you got a life that you oughta be grateful for. Can’t—can’t walk away from that again. That ain’t fair.”

“I ain’t—ain’t tryin’ to run, not again. Just…” And it was an admission when it spilled out of his mouth, maybe showing too much of his hand, but John couldn’t help saying, “Just wanna stop losin’ folk. That’s it.”

Arthur looked at him slow, careful, and repeated the same, “Stop losin’ folk.”

“Yeah.”

Arthur’s eyes slid to the side, eyebrows lowered, expression frustratingly unreadable. Finally, after a long pause he turned his eyes back to John, murmured, “Alright. So we get the land, and then we figure it out from there. But we gotta do this together, ‘til then. Okay, Jim Milton?”

“Yeah, alright,” John said, hating how the name still made him bristle. “Just—it’s hard, right? You know it’s hard.”

And Arthur reached out, grabbed John by the shoulder, a little too abrupt to be comforting though John figured Arthur probably meant it to be. “I know. But we’re gonna make—”

Next to them, the saloon door swung closed and a too-familiar voice rang out, cutting clear through the air, “John? John Marston!”

John’s head snapped to the side near involuntarily and his voice mixed in with Arthur’s as they both said, “Uncle?”

And, sure enough, the grey-haired man on the porch of the saloon, listing to the side slightly with either drink or the back troubles he was prone to gripe about, was none other than the former camp drunk. And at their turned heads a grin broke over Uncle’s face, and he said, again too loud, “Hell, and Arthur Mor—”

Arthur was quicker on the draw than John was, already lunging forward to grab Uncle by the collar of his shirt while John was still standing in stunned silence. Arthur dragged the older man down the steps, around the corner and into the alley out of sight of the road, and it was a moment before John could collect himself enough to follow.

Uncle went loudly, of course, and even as Arthur shoved him up against a wall, arm still keeping him pinned, he was saying, “Hey, hey, easy, Arthur, I got—got a disease, you can’t be shovin’ me around like this.”

“Like a bad penny, ain’t you,” Arthur snapped, voice low.

“Cockroach, more like.” John muttered over Arthur’s shoulder, the utter disbelief just starting to ease enough for him to get his thoughts together.

Uncle’s eyes flicked over to him, and the way they lit up spelled trouble. “Hey, hey, tell him, John, tell him it ain’t right to manhandle an old man like—”

“First of all,” Arthur interrupted, and it was in that kind of growl Arthur used when he wanted to put fear into someone, “this man here ain’t called John. His name is Jim Milton, and I’d thank you to call him by it.”

“Yeah, alright, Jim Milton,” Uncle said, holding his hands out in front of him, “now let me—”

“Second,” Arthur said, not letting go of his grip on Uncle’s shirt, “what the hell do you think you’re doin’, shoutin’ ‘bout us on the street? Knew children with more sense than that.”

“Listen, I thought—thought you all was dead, you can’t begrudge me lackin’, lackin’ a little discretion, not when I find out my dear friend Arthur…” Uncle trailed off, looking for a name.

“Arthur Milton, and we ain’t friends.”

“My dear friend Arthur Milton was still alive, now can you? I thought you was dead, boy, that was what the papers was sayin’.” It was far from heartfelt, more surprise than anything else, but that Uncle cared enough to notice was maybe worth something.

Arthur didn’t let go, kept his eyes boring into Uncle’s face. “Now tell me, Uncle, why we shouldn’t just leave you here to rot. Seems you’re the only one around here that knows us.” Turned his head just slightly towards John. “Would make our load a lot easier if we could guarantee we wasn’t gonna be made, now wouldn’t it, Jim?”

“Aw, now, now you wouldn’t do that to me, Arthur. I know, deep in that cold—” Uncle squeaked as Arthur pressed his elbow a little harder in to his chest— “cold, dead heart of yours that you hold some affection, at least, for ol’ Uncle?”

“That really what you wanna bet yourself on? Our kindness?”

John was starting to get a nagging suspicion that Arthur was actually having fun with this. For all the vitriol Arthur’d had with near half the camp, he wasn’t the kind of person to kill a former camp member for recognizing him even before all the talk about being a better person. There was truth to the fact they couldn’t have Uncle spreading their real names all over Northaven, sure, but the way that Arthur was dragging it out, playing up the threatening angle, was too much if he weren’t doing it on purpose.

Still, it was maybe harder to see through Arthur when one was on the other side of his fist. Uncle swallowed loudly, said, “Now listen, Arthur, Jim, I got connections, okay, folks I know ‘round here. Whatever sorta job you’re runnin’, I—I could help you, right?”

Arthur opened his mouth, probably to shoot Uncle down again, but an idea was sparking in the back of John’s head, because, for as useless as Uncle could be, the way the man kept himself alive was through his connections to other people, parasitic though they were. John interrupted, “You know a fence?”

And Uncle’s eyes went bright again, and it was almost more unnerving this time the way he flicked them over to John, said, “A fence? S’at all you need? Boy, I got that easy.”

“Arthur, let him down,” John finally said, because as content as Arthur was threaten an old man all day, there was a point where it just got to be bullying. Besides, loath as John was to admit it, there was some piece of him deep down that was somewhat relieved to see Uncle. Even if the man was just about the most annoying person John had known, he had been family, back in the gang, so much as everyone else was. In some ways, seeing that Uncle had made it, even if the man was near a cockroach in his ability to survive things, gave hope towards the fates of the other gang members that had disappeared to the winds.

Arthur gave a long sigh, finally let go of Uncle’s shirt and took a step backwards, falling in line with John. “Was kinda enjoyin’ that,” he murmured over at John, folded his arms.

Uncle brushed down the front of his shirt, which didn’t exactly do much good, seeing as the material was rumpled and stained even before Arthur got to it. “Well, glad to see you’re just as ill tempered as ever, Arthur. Least Jim over here’s got sense left in him enough not to beat up an old man. And to think, I was happy to see you boys.”

“That makes one of us,” Arthur said, then titled his head. “Weren’t gonna actually do nothin’, Uncle, you know that.”

Threaten, then, least Jim don’t threaten an old man with terminal lumbago.”

Arthur gave a head tilt with an eyebrow raise that seemed to say fair enough. “Where’s this fence of yours, Uncle?” John asked, mostly because he wasn’t about to listen to Arthur and Uncle snipe at each other until Arthur eventually decided to strangle the other man.

“Plainfield. You boys got horses?”

 


 

The nearest person Uncle knew that would fence goods was indeed over in Plainfield. After picking up Rachel and Sampson from the stables, Arthur and John were introduced to Nell III, her previous incarnation apparently stolen off of Uncle outside a bar down in Tumbleweed. How Uncle had gotten over to Tumbleweed and then all the way up to Northaven, John had no idea. Bad penny indeed.

They were around halfway to Plainfield when Uncle finally asked, “So, what’re you boys runnin’? Seems a small town to do much.”

John, apparently obligated to ride next to Uncle after his brief show of kindness, said, “Nothin’, we gone straight.”

“Straight? In what world are you two capable of that?”

“In the world where Dutch shot Arthur.” No matter how removed they got from that night in Beaver Hollow, John didn’t know if he could ever say it without bitterness. But it was the truth, and it wasn’t like there was anyone around to overhear it and make it a risk to say.

“Huh,” Uncle said, and how even, how unsurprised the reaction was made John nearly wish Arthur had followed through on his threats. Uncle called up to Arthur, “Is that why you gone lame?”

It figured Uncle had noticed the limp. Riding a half-length ahead of them, Arthur twisted in his saddle to look back at Uncle. “Shut it, I ain’t the one cryin’ ‘bout his lumbago.”

“It’s a serious illness, Arthur, have some pity.” Uncle looked back over at John. “And here I’d thought some pain of his own would make him a little more understandin’.”

“I don’t know how you got it in your head that I’m gonna back you up.” John was starting to regret bringing Uncle along. It couldn’t have been that hard to find a fence on their own.

Uncle scoffed. “Y’all got no respect. Here I am, offering up my resources to you boys, and all I get back is this nonsense.”

“Shoulda shot him when we had the chance,” Arthur called back.

Uncle sighed, muttered something under his breath that John suspected was about them being ungrateful. Finally he peered over at John, asked, “So if y’all have ‘gone straight’, the hell you doin’ here? Ain’t much work ‘round these parts.”

No harm in telling him, John decided. “We’re buyin’ land. Gonna be ranchers.”

The guffaw was near instant from Uncle’s mouth, and John couldn’t help snapping, “What?”

“Ranchers?”

“Yeah.” Couldn't help the indignant tone to his voice either.

“You boys really think you can be ranchers?”

“And what the hell would you know about it? We spent the past few months up on a ranch in Augusta, s’where Abigail and Jack are. We got the experience.”

“And you think a few months is enough? Knew you boys was dense, but I ain’t been thinkin’ it was this hopeless. You ain’t got a hope runnin’ a ranch without a wise man at the tiller, and neither of you fit that particular description.”

In front of them, Arthur wheeled Sampson to a stop, forcing Rachel and Nell III to stop too. He looked about as indignant as John was when he snapped, “You think you’d do any better?”

And it was clear immediately the mistake John and Arthur had both walked themselves into as Uncle said, “Now, Arthur, I ain’t good for much on account of my disease, but I reckon, if you need someone to be the brains of the job…”

Arthur narrowed his eyes, pointed an accusatory finger at Uncle. “No.”

“Now, now listen to me a minute. You ain’t even been able to find a fence on your own, and now you gotta contend with things like finance managin’ and property taxes. In fact, I’d wager you boys ain’t even know where to buy wood to build this house you want. I’m just sayin’, a little bit of help from ol’ Uncle—”

“In exchange for livin’ off our hard-earned food and drink, huh?” John said, backing Arthur up mostly out of habit. Thing was, Uncle had a point. It wasn’t like John and Arthur knew how to do any of this sort of thing, and, while Uncle’s history was murky at best, they needed any help they could get.

“Well, I’d reckon that was only fair, don’t you? After all the help I’m gonna provide you?” Uncle leaned forward in his saddle. “Besides, if you boys are leavin’ to go back and gather Abigail and Jack, you’re gonna need someone to keep an eye on the place, ain’t you? And you got a willin’ watchdog right here.”

Arthur was gripping the horn of his saddle hard, voice low and firm when he said, finger still pointed at Uncle, “Absolutely not. I ain’t about to let the camp parasite become our pet parasite. We’re gonna see this fence, and then I’ll thank you to be on your way.”

 


 

Uncle was staying. He waved them off from their newly purchased land as John and Arthur made the trek back to the train station early the next morning.

There’d been no issues fencing the bar. The fence, a woman who fixed pocket watches, was strange in the way most fences were strange, but didn’t seem dangerous. And, aside from John learning that the gold bar was from the goddamn Jack Hall riches of all places, there were no surprises.

That same evening they’d met with Simon over dinner and finally signed a bill of sale under the names Jim and Arthur Milton. Afterwards Arthur had clapped John on the back, said, “Look at you, a land owner!” and the genuine pride on Arthur’s face was enough to make John’s face go flush.

They’d slept in the hotel room again overnight, John managing to keep to himself this time, while Uncle disappeared off to wherever it was he went. And then in the morning they’d ridden out to the property and Uncle had promptly moved himself into the shack near the middle of the land.

John and Arthur took the midday train back up to Augusta. The car was near empty when they got on and only emptied further as the train rolled north—meant they were free to spread out more rather than cram onto one bench. As much as John might’ve liked the first half hour of that, it would’ve gotten uncomfortable once they got into the stretch of it, what with John’s shoulders and Arthur’s everything being broad.

He ended up in the seat behind Arthur and, when looking out window proved less interesting than needed to keep his attention, instead crossed his arms over the back of Arthur’s bench seat and watched Arthur’s pencil move over the pages of his journal. Arthur’d sketched out the layout of the land on a clean pair of pages, the shack and the tree line and the few landmarks Simon had pointed out as they rode it the first time. As John watched he drew out the tentative shapes of fences, of buildings to be constructed.

And he knew John was watching, had given him a glance as he leant over the back of the seat, but didn’t say anything until John pointed a finger at a couple of rough square shapes, asked, “What are these?”

“Main house,” Arthur indicated with the tip of the pencil, wrote in a label. “That’s where you and Abigail and Jack’ll be. Then over here…” he pointed out another square to the side, “that’ll be a hand house. Me, Uncle, whoever is around dependin’ on the season.”

“You’re gonna be in the main house, Arthur.” And when Arthur opened his mouth to argue, John interrupted, “You’re the one what got us this far and you think I’m gonna let you sleep one wall over from Uncle? Not like it’s hard to put one more room in a house.”

“You’re gonna regret that when it’s been a long day and you’re sick of seein’ my ugly mug.”

Honestly, John didn’t think he ever would be sick of seeing Arthur's face.

Arthur was outlining shapes for the horse paddocks when John finally thought to ask, “Why’d you go for that piece, anyhow? Ain’t like we can use that shack.”

For a second, John thought Arthur wasn’t going to answer him. The man dipped his head a moment, thought it over before turning his head to John. “Y’know—y’know those flowers what grow out west?” And then Arthur flipped a page backwards in the journal, gestured to a near full page drawing, said, “These ones.”

John recognized them immediately, and just “flowers that grow out west” didn’t exactly feel like an apt description. They were the same kind of flowers that Arthur’d kept in the little glass jar next to his bed. He’d talked to John about them once, something about his mother, but that was years ago, back when they shared a tent, and most of the details had slipped John’s mind now.

“Last ones I had got lost, burned maybe back in Beaver Hollow. Always thought they was a good luck charm or somethin’, so maybe that’s apt. Turns out, we’re out on the eastern edge of their range, out in Absaroka, and we got a couple comin’ up out on our very own property.”

“So it ain’t just rocks.” They were the proud owners of rocks, grass, trees, and now some good luck charms to complete the package.

“Ain’t just rocks.” Arthur confirmed, flipped back to the overhead map of the land. “Now, you wanna give some actual input here?”

As the ride wore on, John didn’t remember falling asleep, still leaning against the back of Arthur’s chair, his head pillowed in his own arms. All he knew were the sounds of pencil against paper, the rattle of the train car, and Arthur’s voice a low rumble through his chest.

Chapter Text

They’d begun shearing in the last few weeks of March, when the snow had mostly melted and the weather was starting to go mild during the day. The handful of ewes with lambs had been crutched back a bit before they gave birth, something that was supposed to help the lambs nurse and the like, but the rest of their wool still needed to come off, as did the winter wool of the rest of the flock. It was an all-hands sort of job, one that took the better part of a week between the shearing itself and the resulting skirting of the wool.

Abe himself didn’t participate in the actual shearing, likely one of the few things that his leg prohibited him from and why he’d wanted the extra help during shearing season. But he worked with the dogs moving the sheep through, checked each ewe after it was shorn and cleaned potential shear nicks, sorted and skirted fleeces, and, most significantly to John, taught him, Arthur, Charles, and Sadie how to actually go about shearing sheep.

Some of them took quickly to shearing. John was miserable at it.

The problem was that John didn’t have the personality nor the patience for sheep shearing. It wasn’t like skinning an animal, like he was good at, because a hunted animal didn’t squirm in his arms. He couldn’t soothe a ewe to the same degree Arthur could, nor could he wait them out like Charles could. He got impatient and frustrated and the sheep caught his feelings and only struggled further.

In some ways it felt like Abe was pitying him, the way he kept John on shearing even after John’d left a couple ewes with nicks from the shears. Abe knew what the plan for the ranch was, and so he knew that if John was going to keep sheep (all and all the farm animal he’d had the most experience with so the one it took the most sense to keep) he’d need to learn how to shear them. But it was difficult, and took practice, and though John had always learned quickly, it wasn’t quickly enough for his liking.

Skirting the fleeces for market was easier, just tedious. Mostly just took a good eye to look for mats, debris, all that. The wool of the Hampshires was coarser than some smaller breeds, but still workable enough to make the farm extra money between livestock and meat sales. They had company for the skirting, at least—Tippet’s puppies, nearly old enough to wean, were left to their own devices around the farm, which usually meant playing games with the discarded bits of wool collecting around the skirting table.

Arthur had grown particularly fond of one of the border collies, a female pup that was the smallest of the bunch. And she him—though the puppies were friendly enough with all the folks around the farm, they were old enough now that they were starting to identify the humans they could get attention out of, and Arthur was a frequent target.

Near the end of the week, after watching Arthur tease the puppy with a piece of wool as they all ate lunch, John asked Abe over cigarettes in a way meant to be casual but probably wasn’t, “So, you plannin’ to sell the pups, or…?”

Abe looked over to the dogs. “Well, this one over here,” he indicated with a finger towards one of the larger puppies, “we’re keeping her. Always liked females for herding over males and I like her size and the way she focuses. The big male is going to the man that owns his sire. As for the other three, been talking to some folks in town about buying them off of me.” He looked back over at John. “Why, you looking to buy? Couldn’t hurt to have a dog if you’re set on keeping sheep.”

Sure, but that wasn’t why John was asking. “How much you thinkin’ for one?”

It was inevitable, Abe following his gaze over to where the little pup was now tugging on the hem of Arthur’s pants. “I’ll tell you what, John. You all’ve done a fair bit of work for me over the past months. You want her, you can have her.”

John looked over at him. “You sure?”

“Most folks are going to go for the bigger two over her, so I probably wouldn’t end up with as much for her anyway. But it isn’t like she’s unhealthy or anything like that, and, like I said, you’ll probably be wanting a herding dog soon enough. Besides,” Abe said, gesturing over at Arthur, “it’s not like I’m heartless.”

 


 

The unspoken plan seemed to be that, once shearing came to a close, John and Arthur would prepare to leave Pineridge, to go back down to Absaroka to build a proper house. As the days went on, that plan became more defined. Abigail and Jack would stay at Pineridge until the house was built and John would send for them, as the ranch still had work that needed doing and it was safer and more cost effective than staying in an inn in Northaven. Charles and Sadie agreed to help with construction, though whether they’d stay for longer was still up in the air. The idea John had was that the ranch could act as a stop-in point, a place where folks could stay and work if they were in the area, leave if they wanted, but who knew if that would work the way he thought it.

Tilly, however.

Tilly approached John after dinner one evening, drew him away to walk and talk with her, arm linked with his. Her voice was soft when she said, “You offered me a place on your ranch. Seein’ as it’s about time for y’all to leave, I figured it was about time to tell you I’m plannin’ to stay here, at Pineridge.”

“Oh.” It was a stupid sort of noise, especially since John had seen this coming, but it still sent a pang down his chest. He couldn’t expect everyone not to leave, but he sure wanted them to stay. “That’s—that, uh… Thanks for lettin’ me know.”

Tilly was looking up at him, mouth quirked at side. “Well you don’t have to look so sour.”

John winced, because of course he was already letting his own thoughts get in the way. “No—no, honestly, Tilly I’m happy for you, it’s just—you know me, nothin’ good ever comes out of my mouth.”

“I know, we known each other long enough for that.” An affectionate pat on his arm. “Wouldn’t change it even if I could.”

They were in front of the horse paddocks now, the night cool but not cold. A few of the horses closer to the fence picked up their heads, flicked ears over at them, went back to grazing. “It’s Walt, huh?” John said, trying to make his voice soft, because he did like Abe’s son well enough.

“Partly. I mean—he’s a good man, John, a really good man, and right now he’s talkin’ about goin’ down to Saint Denis, learnin’ to be a lawyer and I want to go with him, but more than that, I think…” and Tilly caught John’s eye and held it, “I think it’s time for me to live my own life. I love you all, I do, you’re my family, but—but I think it’s time for me to grow up. To live somethin’ honest.”

It’d been near five years since Dutch brought Tilly home to camp. At fifteen years old she’d been soft faced, doe eyed, and that was what Dutch had seen in her—another of his projects, a kid he could raise to his own specifications. A girl with a gentle face was a girl who could run cons. Back then John had seen it as a privilege, all of them lucky to have been picked up by Dutch, and a privilege to be treated like one of his children, cons and all. But Tilly had already seen the worst of the world before she joined up and, unlike John, it had turned her away from the harder jobs, the violent jobs, not made her thrive off of them.

Tilly was already growing away from that life, and John wasn’t about to stop her at the last few steps. “Yeah—yeah, Tilly, of course. Whatever—whatever you want, you should have it.”

“Think I see what Abigail sees in you now. You can be real sweet when you try.” And Tilly stopped him, released his arm and turned towards him. “You know this ain’t goodbye, right?”

“Yeah, of course.” Sure felt like it though.

“I mean it. We got time now, to build lives we want, and that includes visitin’ each other. We’re gonna see each other again. You, Arthur, you’re like my brothers, and I ain’t about to let that disappear.”

“Course, Tilly, of course—we’d never, I—I’d never.” For all John had done wrong in his life, he wasn’t about to lose one of the few relationships he’d managed to do right.

“Good,” Tilly said, and for a moment it looked like she was about to head back up to the house. John was already turning away, adjusting his clothing so he looked presentable again when he realized she’d paused, turned back to him.

“Yeah?”

When she asked it was slow, careful. “What’s goin’ on with you and Arthur, John?”

It was like being plunged into a bath of cold water. She knew. That was clear to John immediately, and the question made his skin go cold, numb, his stomach churning. He was caught. Tilly knew.

The words were halting, stumbling, an obvious lie when he finally forced out, “I—I dunno what—what you mean.”

Tilly titled her head. “Don’t you lie to me, John Marston, not when we ain’t about to see each other for months.”

“I—I don’t—Jesus, Tilly, don’t make me say it.” He couldn’t say it out loud, couldn’t put the words in his mouth, because ‘I think I’m in love with him’ would make it too real. As much as he trusted Tilly, as much as he knew her, the chill across his body choked up in his throat when he tried to confirm it. Instead he scraped a hand over his face, said, “How—how’d you…?”

Tilly took one of his hands in hers, a fond tone to her voice when she said, “You’re a lot of things, John, but subtle isn’t one of them. You ain’t been hidin’ as many looks as you’ve been tryin’ to.”

“Christ,” he said, stomach dropping impossibly further as he realized, “Does, does that—who else knows?”

“Sadie. Or, at least, she’s the only one who’s said so much.” Jesus, that made John’s face flush, the idea that they’d talked about it. “Charles, I ain’t sure. I ain’t ever tried to talk to him about anythin’ like that and he ain’t offerin’. None of the ranch folks neither.”

John hated this, hated how it felt like his skin was crawling. “Does—does Arthur?”

“John, you know I love him but that man is oblivious to anythin’ like folks havin’ nice feelins towards him. He ain’t even noticed Mary-Beth was over the moon ‘bout him for near two years before Kieran came along. Think he ain’t gonna know ‘til you tell him outright.”

A sigh worked its way out of John’s throat. That made things a little easier, though there was still: “Abigail?”

Tilly shook her head. “She ain’t said anythin’ to me, and I don’t think she’s noticed, not with Jack to occupy her time. But—” Tilly caught John’s eye, made sure he looked at her as she said, “But you gotta tell her, John. It ain’t fair to string her along, not with how she loves you and not with Jack. If this—if this thing with Arthur is that serious, then you need to tell her the truth.”

“I’m ain’t—Tilly, you gotta understand, I ain’t stringin’ her along. I love Abigail.” And that was easy to say, because John knew that to be true in the core of himself. It was just— “Do you… do you think it’s possible to love two people at once?”

Tilly looked at him long, slow, and the edge of pity in her eyes made him want to curl inside himself. But when she spoke, it wasn’t pity, just a firm, even voice. “John, we been a lot of things in our lives that society ain’t want us to be. I don’t—I don’t think it’s my place to say what is and isn’t possible. Maybe it is, maybe you all can figure this out, and my blessin’ is yours if you do. But you gotta talk to her, if this is ever gonna work out. You know that, right?”

John couldn’t help bringing a hand to his face to rub at one of his eyes. “I know. I’m—I’m still figurin’ that part out.”

“They both care about you, John. It may not be a pleasant talk, but I doubt it’s gonna ruin things. It’s worth a try.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay.”

Tilly patted him on the shoulder, even as they turned to walk back towards the house. “You better write me. I wanna know what happens.”

“Not above camp gossip?”

“Never claimed to be. But you oughta keep in touch besides.”

“Course, you know I will. And you’ll visit? Once the ranch is built?”

“Of course.” They were nearly to the house now, and Tilly turned once again to face John. “Listen, you hear about anyone from the old life, where they ended up, you let me know, alright? And I’ll do the same.”

“Well, I did tell you about Uncle.”

“You know he ain’t the folks I’m talkin’ ‘about.”

John could feel a smile, a genuine smile, breaking over his face. “I’m gonna miss you, Tilly Jackson.”

And Tilly leaned in, gave him an affectionate kiss on the cheek. “Told you already, John, this ain’t goodbye.”

 


 

It was April when John, Arthur, Charles, and Sadie finally left Pineridge permanently.

With them were Taima, Bob, and Rachel, of course. Arthur’d chosen Buell and Sampson to bring along, Sampson because, though he wasn’t trained to drive, he was big and sturdy enough to be used as a packhorse for everything they’d need in Absaroka. Buell, on the other hand, Arthur brought because he was still prone to moodiness, something Arthur said he didn’t want to subject Abigail to when she brought everything else down once the ranch was complete. Though Arthur hadn’t said as much outright, John also suspected that Arthur was reluctant to leave the horse for any long period of time after the ordeal of the gunshot wound where Buell’d been completely untouched for days at a time.

They’d left Abigail Gwydion, Fenella, and the two cart Belgians they were planning to sell once things were settled. Though Fenella was spooky she was fine enough in a string, and Gwydion was near dynamite-proof in his unshakeability. Also left behind was Tilly’s quarter horse, Sue, so called after Susan Grimshaw because, in Tilly’s words, she would’ve claimed she hated it, but still made sure everyone knew she was a namesake.

Also accompanying them was Arthur’s new puppy. Though John had been the one to first talk to Abe about the dog, it was clear whom the dog belonged to. Arthur and Charles had rigged up some sort of crate for the dog to travel in on the train, as Arthur’d figured it would be more comfortable for her, but on the ride down she’d been carried in a sort of leather pouch creation Arthur’d fixed to the horn of Buell’s saddle. It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but a puppy couldn’t walk the distance it took to get even a town over, and it wasn’t like she’d know to follow the horses besides. The dog seemed content enough, maybe just the new sights and sounds enough to wear her out, keep her happy where she was.

As of yet, she was unnamed, and John figured that could go one of two ways. Arthur’s horse names had always been unusual at best and unpronounceable at worst, but his coonhound, Copper, was named for his color and that alone. Either Arthur’d settle on a string of barely comprehensible Welsh letters or would call the dog something like “Whitey” or “Blackie”, and neither option was particularly palatable to John.

They took an early morning train down towards Absaroka. The hope was that they’d get in before it got dark, would have enough time to set up some sort of camp on the land that they could live in while they got the building situation sorted.

John shouldn’t have forgotten they were due for a little hell regarding trains.

 


 

“The thing Uncle was sayin’ is that they sell precut houses, now,” John said, once again leaning on the back of Arthur’s seat. “We just gotta put it together.”

The route southwest took them down through the upper ranges of the Grizzlies. The tracks wove through the mountains, often passing through long, tunneled spaces as the path took them under or over the landscape.

They were spread out over a couple seats, the train fuller than it had been on their previous trip north but not packed, enough that they could have some room in their car. John behind Arthur again, Charles and Sadie across the aisle. And things had been quiet for the past hour or so, few stations to stop at through the thick mess of mountains.

“We oughta get money sorted first,” Arthur said, tapping his closed journal against his fingers. He was turned sideways on the seat, facing where Sadie was across the aisle. “Don’t want to build a house then not have enough to get some sheep or whatever’ll actually make it back for us. Even with what I got, we can’t use too much at once.” Meaning: fence too much at once and it got to be dangerous. That, and the fence probably wouldn’t have that enough cash on hand.

“Y’all ever thought of a good old fashioned bank loan?” Sadie asked. “That is how normal folks deal with this sort of thing.”

John opened his mouth but had to pause a moment as a pair of men walked down the aisle, between him and Sadie. After they passed, he said, “Would rather not deal with banks if we can help it.” They weren’t exactly owed good karma back when it came to them.

Arthur scratched at cheek, his eyes on where the men had disappeared into the next train car. “Ain’t even sure if we could get one, to be honest. They got a whole process for that now, and we got nobody down there that’ll be a reference.” And Arthur wasn’t wrong there—gone were the days where Hosea or Dutch could walk into a bank and take out a loan and run with it.

“You’ll need some sorta idea for the winter,” Sadie said, which, seeing as she was the only one of them with experience actually running a farm, John trusted. “Any livestock you got ain’t gonna make you anythin’ ‘til spring at the earliest.”

“Might be worth logging these wooded stretches,” Arthur said, holding the map he’d drawn of the property out to Sadie and Charles. “Just enough to thin them. Wood for the winters, fences, then any excess we could sell to the sawmill in town if it’s decent quality. Give us extra when we’re gettin’ our feet. Just need a—”

And Arthur had to jerk the journal back as the same men from earlier shoved by again, heading towards the back of the train. This time John’s eyes caught on one man’s gun belt, the bright metal of the revolvers well cared for, well used. Seemed too much for casual train travel, especially when very few folks wore gun belts around in the first place.

And John turned his head back to Arthur, ready to ask about it, and found Arthur’s eyes already trained on the back of their car where the men had walked out of sight. “Ain’t much beyond this car, is there?” Arthur asked.

“Just one more passenger car, then luggage,” Sadie answered, her eyes curious.

Arthur wasn’t looking back at the rest of them, his eyes still focused on the back exit of the train car, the landscape sliding by around them. When Arthur spoke, it was quiet. “Somethin’ don’t feel right.”

“What’re you thinking?” Charles asked, his voice also low.

Arthur himself wasn’t answering, his jaw still working as he thought something over, so John voiced his own thoughts. “Ain’t many folks bring guns like that for nothin’.” None of them were wearing their own gun belts, seeing as that wasn’t exactly a thing normal folks did. Usually men that did either did it for show or needed quick access to their revolvers, making them law or outlaw. And the men weren’t dressed like law, hadn’t carried themselves like law.

“Sure, that and…” But Arthur trailed off, like the breath had gone completely from his lungs, and slowly cocked his head to the side. When John followed his eyes, nothing had changed, yet Arthur had gone still, eyes like they were caught on something. And for a half second John was certain, deep in the gut, that Arthur had seen something again, like back with the sheep and the wolves, something only he could see.

“Somethin’ bad’s comin’,” John murmured, and by the way Arthur’s eyes swung over to him, some vague recognition at the depths of them, he’d hit the nail on the head.

The windows went dark around them as the train rushed into a tunnel, the change in the air making John’s ears pop. The lamps on the walls flickered, moving shadows across Sadie’s face when she asked, “What is it?”

And John was about to say he wasn’t sure, that they needed more information when the brakes on the train kicked on, the sparks lighting up the tunnel walls around them, a lurch and a hissing noise as the train slowed rapidly to a halt, and he knew.

Quiet, enough so that the other folks in the car, the ones that were starting to clamor in confusion, couldn’t hear, Arthur confirmed, “Believe we’re gettin’ robbed.”

Chapter Text

John would say, save the time he was shot off of one, he was pretty good at robbing trains.

His first train job had been when he was seventeen, when he finally was allowed to come along. The gang had hit several before then, of course, but he’d been too young before then to be anything but a lookout. He still amounted mostly to a lookout during that first job, but he’d learned, and learned quickly. Trains were easy. He knew trains.

This—they’d never done a train robbery quite like this.

John had to admit, there was some elegance to the plan. They were out in the middle of nowhere, which meant the passengers were less likely to run and get the law. The dark of the tunnel around them would make folks less likely to want to face what might lurk in the dark, and would hide the amount of people they had. Riding the train to where the robbery was to take place meant that they didn’t have to worry about getting set up too early or too late, nor did they need to worry about the logistics of stopping a train from the ground.

However, the closed off nature of the tunnel was both a boon and a risk. For all the passengers might be penned in by the dark, it also meant it was easier for someone to get the drop on those doing the robbing. And if one of the robbers got shot, it was a long way to any sort of doctor, or even a decent place for slap-dash medical treatment. And, just beyond that, this would never be Dutch’s style. Maybe close to what John and Arthur would’ve done on their own, but Dutch wanted the chance to grandstand, to be flashy, showy, to be impressive. Needed to be seen for all that.

Still, the fact that they’d stopped it without anything that sounded remotely like gunshots was unnerving. Meant they’d gotten up to the engineer, through the standard train guards without firing a gun. Either they had hostages beyond the passengers or they were using knives, and both weren’t particularly palatable.

When John turned his gaze back to Arthur, the man’s eyebrows were pressed low over his eyes, gaze distant, like he was working through some sort of plan, and John knew immediately, “You wanna stop them.”

John’s voice was still hushed, all of them wanting to keep the other few people in the front of their car from hearing, but his tone was more accusatory than he meant it to be, mostly because it would be dangerous. It wasn’t fair to be fussy, John knew that, because of course Arthur would want to stop them. This was the exact sort of thing he’d been championing the past half year, helping folks that needed the help.

But when Arthur’s answer came, it wasn’t exactly what John was expecting. “Well, I ain’t sure we got any other choice ‘sides hidin’ ourselves ‘til it’s over, and I ain’t inclined to do that. We stay, they take our money and we got nothin’ for the house. We hide and they end up killin’ innocent folk and we’re complicit. And they probably take the horses no matter what we do, ‘cause horses can always earn some money, papers or not. Think we got no other choice but to stop ‘em.”

And he was right, was the thing. It wasn’t just senseless heroism this time because they had actual skin already in the game already. John scraped a palm over his face, muttered a soft, “Shit.” Didn’t mean he had to like the idea of facing losing people again, Arthur especially.

Arthur, maybe knowing what John was thinking, said, “Ain’t tryin’ to take unnecessary risks here, John. We can do it careful, but I think we ain’t gettin’ out of it.”

“Right, I know,” John said. “You got a plan?” Because while Arthur wasn’t the one to do the preplanning, he could always come up with something on the fly, whether that was buying land or getting caught up in a train robbery.

“Be quick,” Charles murmured. He was leant forward, probably trying to catch a glimpse down the train into the other cars. They’d been slowed on a curve, and whether that was intentional to break any potential line of sight John wasn’t sure.

“They’re gonna have men up front dealin’ with the engineer, men on passenger control, and men in back clearin’ the luggage,” Arthur said, his eyes distant as he thought. “We ain’t heard any gunfire, which means we’re probably on our own. So that means we oughta send some of us forward, some back. For the passenger cars, we’ll wanna catch them where they ain’t gonna have folks to hurt. Means waitin’ between cars, I reckon, surprisin’ ‘em. Charles…? Think you’re the best at that sort of thing.”

“Sure,” Charles affirmed.

“And then I reckon we oughta go in pairs, watch each other’s backs. So Charles and Sadie, me and John?” At their nods, Arthur continued, “Be quiet, be careful. We ain’t got guns, but even if you get one off of one of them, firin’ it’ll make everythin’ go to hell.”

“We’re runnin’ out of time here, Arthur,” Sadie said, her eyes firm.

Arthur nodded. “One last thing. Oughta avoid killing folk if we can help it. If you got no other choice to keep your neck, sure, but… but if you got a choice, alright?”

John opened his mouth, wanted to argue on that point because these were bad men, just the same as the Van der Lindes’d been bad men back when they robbed trains, when they’d been asking for a bullet through the chest, but the time constraint made him snap his jaw back closed, nod along with the others. They could discuss it later.

Arthur met their eyes, nodded. “Guess we’re stoppin’ this robbery. Good luck.”

John wasn’t exactly sure why Arthur’d grouped them together. He knew why he hadn’t been sent up front, of course, and that was because he had no patience, not even to wait out a couple of men standing folks up on a train. If he had to take a guess, it was likely some combination of Charles and Sadie having experience working together while John hadn’t done many jobs with them as well as Arthur trying to keep an eye on him for Abigail’s sake. But, on the other hand, it gave John the opportunity to keep an eye on Arthur too, so maybe he shouldn’t be complaining.

John followed Arthur in to the last passenger car, moving quickly and quietly. There were only a couple of people there, all dressed in the clothing of middle or working class folk. All of the rich people would be in the front few cars where the benches were cushioned and the tickets cost more. Meant that was where the train robbers would start their focus.

One woman around halfway back stopped Arthur, asked, “What’s going on?” and John found himself surprised how much they were fitting into normal society now, to the point where someone was asking them for help rather than assuming they were part of the problem. Like unarmed farmworkers, like men who’d never had a sordid past.

“We ain’t sure, ma’am. Hopin’ to find out. You stay where you are.” Arthur’s voice calm, reassuring, nearly the tone he used on horses.

“Men that walked through here just a bit ago, you see where they went?” John asked. The least they could do was get some more information to work with.

“The ones with guns? Just through the door.” The women gestured towards the first of the luggage cars. “Why, do you know them?”

“No, just… just thought they might got a better clue ‘bout all this,” John said, and it wasn’t a great answer but it at least would keep things calm.

It was darker in the luggage areas, just a few scattered lamps fixed to the walls, leaving patches of shadow. John wasn’t particularly good at stealth, had never had the patience to wait for the right moment and all that, but at least the dark made it easier to attempt to be unseen. And he could be quiet enough.

Arthur, to his credit, moved near silently, impressive with just how broad he was. John had always known in his head that Arthur worked so many jobs because he was versatile, because he could do so much and do it well, but it felt like every time they slipped back into work like this that it just reemphasized it in John’s mind. Arthur learned to cover roles because it was what was asked of him, to be the sort of person who was relied on, who was needed.

Maybe it was no wonder he got so hung up on needing to be useful.

What happened to the train guards became clear as soon as they came across the first body. The man was lying in the back of the first train car, body leant up against a wall likely not out of respect, but rather to keep it out of the way. His throat had been cut, blood soaking down the front of his uniform.

Arthur crouched down in front of the man, titled his head back to let the lantern light play off it, to get a better look at the wound. Even from where he was John could see the cut was ragged, sloppy. That suggested either someone new to this whole ordeal, or someone who hadn’t cared enough to be clean. Both were dangerous.

When Arthur glanced back over at John he mouthed, Careful, even as his eyes said something more like, Poor bastard.

They didn’t have long to wait before they found the first potential culprit and, this time at least, they got lucky.

It was just one train car down, the second of four luggage cars. Maybe because the gang—because it had to be a gang, official or not, to try to rob a train, and the men had to be outlaws—had gotten complacent, what with all the guards cleared out, the man clearly wasn’t expecting anyone hostile to come up behind him. He was holding his own lantern as he looted chests and crates, all sorts of various storage, casting shifting shadows all over the wall of the train car.

Meant he didn’t see John’s arm signal to Arthur that he had it covered, nor John’s feet carrying him up behind him, nor John’s hand before it caught in the outlaw’s hair and slammed his head into the wooden wall of the train car.

It wasn’t enough to knock him out, just enough to daze him, but even that much was enough, enough for John to bring him to the ground with a knee on the small of his back, to stuff a gag in the man’s mouth while Arthur crept up next to him and made quick work of disarming him.

John was hogtying the outlaw, using a bit of rope from Arthur’s satchel—a shoddy replacement for the lasso that had been cut through after John tied Arthur to the saddle for the ride down to Copperhead Landing—that he thought to ask, “So, since when did you get soft about killin’ bad men?” Voice low, enough that just Arthur, right next to him, might hear it.

Arthur’s voice was equally low when he answered, “Ain’t that, John.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Later. We don’t know who heard that.” Likely meaning the thump of the man’s head hitting the wall, though it hadn’t seemed loud enough to raise suspicion, not to John at least.

This was an odd new sticking point of Arthur’s. For all intents, these men seemed like something akin to O’Driscolls, violent men used to violent ways. Goodhearted outlaws were few and far between, to the point where even the Van der Linde gang members were limited in how many of them could be considered good people. These men had already killed folks on the train, would probably continue to kill if left alive. There was nothing wrong with seeing them meet their end.

Whatever. So long as it didn’t become a problem John could humor Arthur. They left the man hogtied and gagged, split his gun and knife between them, moved on.

The fact that they got through the next few cars without seeing anyone unnerved John. They still weren’t sure how many men were working this job. Sure, back in the day they could pull a train job with just three people, but they’d known what they were doing. Less skilled gangs tended to overwhelm folks with numbers, and, though they likely couldn’t fit too many gang members on a train without drawing suspicion, there was a chance there’d been more men waiting where they’d pulled the train to a stop.

The last luggage car was where they’d managed to talk a conductor into letting them put the border collie puppy. She was still too young to sit quiet in the passenger car, and Arthur’d been worried (probably rightly) that there was too much risk of the crate getting kicked if they’d put her in one of the livestock cars. Unusual, sure, but it got the dog down to Absaroka without getting them kicked off the train.

It also probably saved John’s life.

When the dog saw them through the slats of the crate, recognized them, her tail started wagging, her whole body wiggling with it. Enough that the crate started moving, shaking against the walls of the car, making a soft rattling noise. John moved forward to grab it, pull it away from the wall, because the car seemed to be clear and it was noise they didn’t need.

And the dog looked over John’s shoulder, tail wagging harder, and barked once, something she’d never done at Arthur.

John whirled, arm coming up just in time to intercept the knife that had previously been on course to plunge into his back. Instead it bit into the flesh of his left forearm, and John had just gotten his right hand around the handle, had just looked in to the bright and burning eyes of the outlaw who’d hidden himself in the train car, when one of Arthur’s arms wrapped around the man’s throat.

It wasn’t particularly graceful, bringing the man to the ground, not with one of his arms caught by John and the other by Arthur and Arthur’s arm firm around his neck, but it was silent, and that was the important thing. Arthur got some sort of fabric into his mouth to gag him and then, knee pressed into the small of his back, went to work on the man’s hands, tossing any weapons to the side. John busied himself with tying the man’s legs together, breathing maybe a touch too hard.

It was close. Closer than John would’ve liked. He was out of practice what with near half a year off from running jobs. Sure, he was never one for stealth, but he did tend to trust his instincts because they kept him alive, and they hadn’t cut it here. That rocked him just a bit.

John was cinching the knot together when a voice not far outside the train spoke, “God, would someone shut that dog up?” Arthur paused as he looked up at John, pressed his knee harder into the man under him who was already struggling to breathe. Held a hand up. Wait.

“Leave it,” another voice said, more distant. “Folks pay good money for purebreds.”

“And you think that thing is purebred?” Voices moving away now, further from the car they were in.

“You think I know shit ‘bout dogs? Just sayin’ it ain’t worth gettin’ rid of anythin’ ‘til we know. We got horses to deal with.”

Finally, when the voices had faded to low murmurs, Arthur moved off the man, letting air gasp back into his lungs. Glanced John over, mouthed, Arm?

Fine, John shot back. It was bleeding, sure, but nothing serious. They could take care of it after everything was over, when they had a chance to breathe. It was a stupid injury, one he really shouldn’t have gotten, and he could ignore it. Until then, there were still the men those two voices had belonged to.

Arthur nodded, gave the puppy a quick scratch through the crate slats, just enough to pacify her, before jerking his head towards the door.

Moving from the train car out into the open was nerve-wracking. The train tunnel was dark, of course, even darker than the train itself, but it still felt more open, more exposed than being tucked between luggage. And the gravel over the stone floor meant slower, more careful movement.

It was easy enough to see where the talking men had ended up. Just a car down was the first horse car, a big wooden boxcar with a sliding door on the side. Said door was bolted and padlocked shut for the ride, which seemed to be the current problem the outlaws were dealing with. One man held a lantern up to the lock while another looked to be fiddling with a lock pick with how his hands were moving.

Arthur crept closer, John following, both of them deep in the shadows the lantern made. John’s heart drumming away in his chest, the sharp beat of doing a job both familiar and painful.

“Should just get a hammer,” the man with the lantern said, shifting his stance, and Arthur paused, John with him.

“Don’t want to make that much noise,” the lock-picking man said back. Not particularly adept at lock-picking, if John had to guess. Dutch would’ve killed them if fiddling with a lock ever took this long.

“Ain’t like anyone’s alive to hear it.”

“You want to spook these horses? I ain’t keen on getting trampled today.”

There was a hand on John’s arm, and though he knew it was Arthur it made him flinch anyway. It was hard to see Arthur’s face, but John was familiar enough with Arthur to know that the nod he made towards the men meant that they should go together. John inclined his own head towards the man with the lantern, the one on the left, to stake his claim.

Blood was now running down John’s left arm from the broken skin, dripping onto the dusty gravel and rock of the train tunnel. Not bleeding out, not even close, but bleeding all the same. Stung, but not enough for John not to push it to the back of his mind as he approached the man with the lantern.

When John took the hilt of the knife, the one he’d taken off the man who attacked him with it, to the man’s head, the lantern dropped to the stone of the train tunnel with a clatter. Threatened to fall. Stayed upright. But the man rocked, just dazed enough that John could bring him down, get him down on his stomach and straddle his legs. Gripped the outlaw’s arms behind him with his left hand as he scrabbled for his weapons with the other, tossed them into the darkness with a clatter. He couldn’t see Arthur from this angle, didn’t know what he was doing, but he knew that Arthur was fine, that he had handled it, because he had nothing else if not faith in Arthur to execute a task.

But John was still bleeding, the blood making his fingers slick and wet, and that was a mistake he didn’t realize until his hand slipped against the man’s arms. It wasn’t much, just a little bit looser a grip, but it was enough. John twisted, tried to get his other hand on the man’s forearm, but with the lantern behind them and the slickness of the blood and John muttering curses and the outlaw swearing loud under him, John didn’t realize the man had freed one of his arms until the elbow swung up fast towards his face.

The blow connected with John’s jaw and almost knocked him out cold.

For a moment everything was dark, spinning, the light of the lantern playing shadows off what John slowly realized was the roof of the tunnel. He’d ended up sprawled on his back, boneless, because the pounding pain starting to leak back into his head made it hard to breathe, let along get his feet under him. Sounds came to him like though a filter of water. Something like the clatter of metal against rocks, a heavy thump like something hard connecting with a body, voices, scrabbling. Someone saying his name.

It took too long for him to roll to his stomach, to heave himself to his knees. It’d been ages since someone had gotten John with a good punch, and swirling in his head with all the other mess was embarrassment, the fact that it wasn’t even a punch, just a good angle with an elbow that had probably gotten him concussed. But even with the best of punches, John was too damn stubborn to stay down.

And then he was on his feet, unsteady but up, and his eyes swept over the tunnel. The one squirming figure askew to the side was the man Arthur’d taken down, trying to free himself from the hogtie. The other vague shape—the other shape was Arthur and the other outlaw, the one who had knocked John silly, grappling on the ground. Arthur with his back to the gravel, the other man kneeling above him, both of them shifting and vague in the light from the lantern. Arthur trying to get a knee up into the outlaw’s belly, trying to kick, trying to pry himself free, because—

John’s heart dropped into his stomach when he realized the man’s hands, still smeared with John’s blood, were around Arthur’s throat.

By the time John even realized what he was doing his boot was connecting with the outlaw’s ribs, knocking his hands free and sending him sprawling across the ground. But before the man could roll to his knees, John already had his left hand fisted in his shirt, dragging just enough to lay him straight when John’s right fist connected with his face.

It was blinding, the rage. John felt more than saw his fist impacting again and again, dragging wells of blood out of the split skin on the man’s face, splintering the bone of his nose, driving bruises into his face. Even when the weight of the man going limp dragged John down to his knees, to sitting on the man’s hips, even when he felt the skin on his own knuckles break, he kept at it, over and over and over, because all John could see was Dutch’s bullet punching red through Arthur’s stomach, because his head was spinning with memory and sensation all at once, because how dare some inexperienced criminal try to take anything of John’s away, because John was sick with the loss.

And suddenly his fist was caught up and Arthur’s face was in front of his and his voice like a pressure against John’s ears, saying, “Stop, John. Enough.”

It was a fog, Arthur’s hands on him, one keeping his fist still, the other on John’s face, directing his eyes towards Arthur’s, swimming in front of him like something from a dream. Arthur repeated, a desperate edge to his voice, “John, stop. Now.”

And John let go of the man below him, let his fist drop. Rocked back to sit on his heels. Felt the world come back to him slowly, the ache in his head, the sting of the split skin on his knuckles, man moaning low and pained under him.

In front of him, Arthur sat back heavy, his voice hoarse, almost painful to hear when he said, “Christ, John.” Coughed once, twice, and then, again, “Jesus Christ.”

The noise of it pounded against John’s head. “Are you okay?” he asked, his own voice distant through the roaring in his ears.

“I’m fine.” It might’ve been spat at John if Arthur’s voice could handle that. Without even looking at John, Arthur took a shuddering breath in, a hitch on the exhale. Gestured at John with a hand. “Move.”

John did, moved off the man and to the side, his limbs not feeling like his own. Arthur took his place, flipped the man and started hogtying him, actions mechanical. No gag, because it wasn’t much use trying to be quiet now, and the man was out cold besides. John’s head hurt something fierce, but not enough to stop him forcing out, “What’s your problem?”

Arthur didn’t look up at him, just growled, voice like gravel, “What’s your problem? I ain’t the one what nearly beat a man to death.”

“He was gonna kill you.” Did Arthur seriously think John was just going to sit there and let him get strangled?

Arthur shook his head, half suppressed a cough. “I ain’t so delicate as that. Been choked out before.”

“That ain’t a good thing.”

Arthur jerked his head up at John, his eyes burning in the glare of the lantern. “Neither’s beatin’ people bloody but here we are anyway.”

Despite the angry edge to it, Arthur’s face looked tired, the light only emphasizing the lines on his face. Nose bleeding, probably from whatever scuffle had taken place when John was still on the ground. A cut up towards his temple that was starting to ooze. Red specks spattering across one cheek, and whether they were blood on or instead under the skin, John didn’t know. Skin of his throat red, irritated, and already starting to show bruising.

In more impulse than anything else John reached out with a hand to Arthur’s face, tried to brush away with a thumb the blood still running from Arthur’s nose, because he couldn’t stand seeing it anymore, didn’t even think through the fact he’d never be able to get it out of Arthur’s beard. Arthur near immediately knocked John’s hand away though, went back to the rope, and, though it made John bristle, it was probably a good thing seeing as he didn’t know if he could’ve stopped himself from kissing Arthur otherwise.

Arthur’d nearly died again. And now he was mad at John. They kept going around in circles.

It felt like he was vacillating back and forth between wanting to kiss Arthur and overwhelming annoyance. “I don’t get this sudden problem you got with killin’ bad men,” John said, his voice louder than it had been, because he didn’t understand Arthur, and this hang-up about killing had nearly gotten Arthur killed. “These ain’t innocent folk, Arthur, and ain’t trying to get better neither. Could’ve avoided all this.”

Arthur didn’t answer John verbally, just finished a knot before pointing over to the side, at the second outlaw, the one John had honestly forgotten about completely. Said outlaw was staring at John wide eyed, which probably had something to do both with John’s bloodied knuckles and the way he was talking. No gag, likely because Arthur hadn’t gotten time, but scared into silence.

John sighed, because he got Arthur’s point even as Arthur said, “Later.” Whatever Arthur wanted to say he’d rather wait until they weren’t eavesdropped on. And John watched as Arthur rocked to his feet, unsteady but not tipping over, checked the bindings on both hogtied men before stepping over to John. “Oughta see how the others are gettin’ on,” he said, offering John a hand up.

When Arthur hauled John to his feet they rocked under him, and it was only grabbing at the front of Arthur’s shirt with his bloodied left hand that kept him from pitching back over. The pounding in his head had ratcheted up as soon as he moved, and he ended up with his face pressed against Arthur’s shoulder, trying to get it to stop spinning.

“Y’alright?” Arthur asked, the surprised sort of concern cutting through the hoarseness in his voice. God but John could feel the vibrations of Arthur’s voice through his chest where John’s face pressed up against it and that made the spinning worse.

“Think I’m concussed,” John murmured. He’d had his brain knocked ‘round more than once now, so he knew the feeling. Still wasn’t pleasant.

“Might be in the same boat there,” Arthur said, and judging by the warm pressure on John’s back Arthur was patting him on it. “Reckon you got knocked harder than me, though. Can you walk?”

“Give me a minute.” Both to let his head adjust to being standing and also to calm down enough to take the warmth out of his cheeks. He was still annoyed with Arthur, of course, about the way he kept coming up against new moral walls, but, also, Arthur’s shoulder was nice.

Still, he was acutely aware that they still had an audience, and giving any criminal sort indications of weakness wasn’t the best decision. Finally, once his feet felt a little steadier under him, John pulled away, hoped the limited light in the tunnel hid the way his whole neck flushed when Arthur kept one hand on his shoulder to steady him. “Let’s get movin’.”

Chapter Text

Sadie and Charles didn’t look quite as bad as Arthur and John did, but they certainly weren’t unruffled either. Sadie had a shallow cut across one palm that came from trying to grab a knife, and Charles had a line of blood running down one cheek from where a punch had split the skin over his cheekbone. But they were all alive, and apparently the other two had followed Arthur’s request about leaving folks alive without managing to beat someone half to death.

The train guards were dead, and the engineer had a head wound nasty enough that he wouldn’t be driving the train. Spared, however, had been the assistant engineer, who Sadie had nearly frightened to death when she pulled him out of his hiding place in a cabinet, as were most of the train staff that had been in the passenger cars at the time. Meant they had someone to get them into a train station and folks to calm the passengers back into a reasonable state for travel. Which was a good thing, because that was something John suspected they were all severely underequipped to handle. If he had to listen to one more stuck-up rich person complain about the fact the robbery inconvenienced them, he was going to find a revolver and hold them up himself, damn what Arthur’d say about it.

And though they were thanked profusely for taking the men down, to the point where the train staff offered any sort of service they needed or wanted, mostly John just felt exhausted. The fact that they’d been on the other side of the moral line this time didn’t mean that a job wasn’t a job, and John was feeling the subsequent drain. Once they freed up one of the horse cars and padlocked the gang members—apparently part of some gang that John’d never heard of and forgot the name of near immediately—into it, John ended up sitting back in one of the luggage cars, tucked up against one of the walls as the train started up again, finally pulled its way out of the tunnel. It wasn’t like someone was going to tell him otherwise, not after what they’d done, and it took him away from the light and the noise that proved to irritate the ache in his head.

This time it was Arthur that sought him out, for once. Two mugs in hand, the real porcelain kind that John had only seen in the houses of folks who could afford to replace them when they broke. Seemed they were trusted enough by the train staff now to be upgraded from the beat up metal cups they’d used in camp.

Arthur passed him one and the smell quickly let John determine it was coffee. Probably rich folk coffee at that. Arthur put his own mug on one of the shorter crates, slowly lowered himself to the floor opposite John. Achy, probably, because John was too and they had every right to be.

“You alright?” Arthur’s voice was near painfully hoarse, and the sound made John want to wince. Arthur’d cleaned the blood from his face, nose long stopped bleeding, but the flecks of red on his cheek—and, now that John looked, spattered in places across his eyelids, brow, temples, probably under the beard too—remained, like little starbursts under his skin.

“Fine,” John said, cupping the mug in his hands, still smeared with dried blood, the same blood that was caught up in the front of Arthur’s shirt from where John’d grabbed it to keep himself upright. “Head hurts but ain’t gettin’ worse. You?”

“Alright. Charles’s got me drinking some tea for the…” and in lieu of continuing Arthur just gestured vaguely at his own throat. “Can’t even tell if it’s helpin’.”

“Don’t sound no better,” John said, and Arthur shrugged in response. John took a swallow of coffee, trying to consider the best way to say it. Ended up just going blunt, stated, “We gotta talk, you know.”

Arthur sighed. “I know. Got the same from Sadie.” And John ducked his head so Arthur couldn’t see him flush at that, because John was still acutely aware that Sadie knew and had talked to Tilly about John’s Arthur mess.

Luckily, Arthur was distracted enough not to notice, or maybe just thought it was John’s normal reaction to other folks being in his business. Glanced John over, eyes landing on his left arm, asked, “You cleaned that up yet?” At John’s head shake, he continued, “Lemme see it. Might as well do somethin’ useful while we’re at it.”

John let him, let Arthur push up the sleeve of his shirt to expose the knife wound, partly because the contact was nice but mostly because he needed time to figure out what he wanted to say.

There was too much, was the problem. Felt like every time he and Arthur talked that something new got dredged from the depths. Like knowing Arthur for near fifteen years meant nothing in the face of everything, because so much had changed. Both who they were and the world they lived in.

This new thing about not killing anyone at all itched at John. Started out as a weird feeling and now, after Arthur’d nearly gotten killed over it, it was a full on itch. He didn’t know where Arthur got off, painting himself as some great paragon of what was good and right. Drawing lines, just expecting the rest of them to follow them without question, to wait indefinitely for potential explanations. Thinking he had the right answer to everything, that he knew the best thing to do in every single situation.

But maybe that wasn’t fair, maybe it was biting just to bite. Because it wasn’t like Arthur was anything like Dutch, not at his core. Because John was stiff and his head hurt and above all he was exhausted, because Arthur was so fucking good now that it wore John out to be around. And trying to measure up to the goodness, trying to be normal was worse. And Arthur’s hands were gentle even when he laid them to either side of where the knife split the skin, trying to gauge the deepness, and when was the last time John’d seen Arthur be gentle to him?

And John was trying. Really goddamn trying. Trying to be better and to be good and to build a life and to make Abigail happy and to give Jack a childhood and, maybe, to be the kind of person Arthur might love back. However vague and unknown that was.

They were talking, and that was good. They could talk, so long as John could figure out what to say. Two things, he decided. The killing thing, and whatever the fuck Arthur kept seeing. That much was enough.

Finally, because Arthur loved telling him what to do, John settled on beginning with asking, “So why’re you mad? What’d I do wrong?”

Arthur’d rested John’s palm on one of his knees, keeping John’s arm still while he cleaned the cut. His eyes flicked only briefly up to John’s and down again before he asked, “’sides beatin’ a man unconscious?”

And though John knew that was what the problem was, still, “I don’t get why you’re mad at me over that. They ain’t good men, Arthur.”

Arthur sighed, reached for the suture kit that had apparently been tucked away in some first-class medicine cabinet. Silk thread, like Renaud had used, rather than the catgut they’d always used back at camp, because rich folks always wanted the best. Arthur waited until he had the needle between his fingers to say, “First of all, I ain’t mad at you.”

“No?” Felt like John’s skin was trying to twitch away from the needle when Arthur pressed the first stitch into his flesh. Wasn’t like it hurt, not really, not against the pain already radiating from the cut, but his skin still didn’t like it. Arthur’d sure seemed mad at him, way he snapped back when it’d all happened.

“Nah. Think you’re a fool, but we knew that already.” Pulled the thread through, looped it around. Drew John’s skin back together. “Wish you’d listen to things the first time I say them and not lose your mind, sure, but I ain’t mad.”

“Got a better chance of listenin’ when you actually say what you mean.”

Arthur didn’t even look up at him, just kept with the needle, quick, efficient little stitches. John had no idea where he’d learned that from. “Sure, ‘cause we had all the time in the world when men with guns were comin’ our way.”

And John knew that too, but it didn’t mean he didn’t have a right to be annoyed over it. “Yeah, well, we got time now.”

Arthur tied off the last stitch, cut the thread close to John’s skin. Took a mouthful of tea before saying, “Let me put it this way. Say it was us, robbin’ the train, and some folks got it in their heads to stop us, protect the folks here, and by whatever strange miracle, they do. Turn us all in to the law alive, let the law decide to hang us. Now, what do you think Dutch would do, word got back to him?”

“Break us out?” Kinda irked John that Arthur was back to treating him like a kid, like some fool still learning the basics of what they did. Because he’d always be a kid in Arthur’s eyes, always be in over his head. Because he’d never be anything more than the fool younger brother that needed to be told what to do.

“Sure, probably. Wouldn’t give a second thought to the men what turned us in for the bounty.” Arthur’d switched over to bandages now, enough to catch what little blood leaked through the stitches before it clotted. “Now say instead they end up killin’ one, maybe a couple of us. And Dutch, he knows what folks did it, ‘cause the passengers on that train been laudin’ them like heroes, and he manages to get wind of where they came from, where they live, who their family are. What d’you think he’d do then? ‘cause me, I reckon even with all that pretty talk about not wantin’ revenge, Dutch would make sure all those folks with hero complexes learn not to take his family away from him.”

Sure, but it weren’t like they were some average folks that wanted to play hero. “Can handle a few men with guns, Arthur.”

And that got Arthur’s face to snap up at John, his voice to go as sharp as the hoarseness would let it. “I ain’t done. See Dutch, as things go, weren’t the worst of it. Say a man like Colm O’Driscoll finds out his men had been killed. He don’t care about the men themselves, more the idea of bein’ disrespected. He finds out where you live, John, and he finds out you got a wife and child. What do you think a man like that might do?”

And that caused sickness to ripple across John’s stomach, because he knew the aftermath of what Colm did for revenge. Annabelle was before his time, but even then, he knew the details, knew the way Dutch went angry when talking about it, how it colored everything after. “Christ, Arthur—”

Arthur’s eyes unyielding as he continued, “Whole goddamn world runs on revenge, John, been on the bad side of enough ambushes to know that. Most men who’d rob a train are men like Colm was. You wanna gamble Abigail and Jack on that?”

John wanted to yank his arm away from where Arthur was holding it, paused halfway through wrapping the bandage, wanted to curl into himself. “No—no, I don’t, I—Arthur, I get your point, but—but, so, what, we let all those bad folks live? Let them keep hurtin’ people? Ain’t that just as bad?”

After a moment, maybe enough for Arthur to decide he was satisfied with John’s answer, Arthur’s eyes dropped back down and he resumed wrapping the bandage. “I ain’t sayin’ there ain’t a time and a place for a bad man meetin’ his end, and I ain’t even sayin’ that we’ll never need to be the ones doin’ it, if need be. But sometimes y’gotta at least use the brain you got in your head, elsewise it’s gonna dry up completely.”

And John thought that would be the end of it. Arthur tucked the end of the bandage over itself, secured it with a bit of tape. John took his arm back, rolled his sleeve back down, said, “Yeah, yeah okay. Use my brain. Think it through.” He could do that much, right, thinking through something before he did it?

But Arthur sighed, looked John straight in the eye and said, “Y’lost control back there, John.” Nodded towards John’s busted knuckles to make clear what he meant.

John’s brain went stuttery. Because no—

No, he’d just—

All he’d wanted—

Shit, hadn’t he?

“Why does that matter?” And John knew immediately that it was the wrong thing to say, that of course losing his head was a bad thing, because that—that was what Dutch’d kept doing, wasn’t it?

“Why does it matter?” Arthur’s eyes gone hard, cold, the train car jittering beneath them. “What happens, John, the next time some fool gets it in his head to hold you up? Hell, next time you’re in a bar fight? You beat a man’s face in because he looked at you funny? We gotta be better than that, or this thing we’re doin’, it ain’t gonna get very far.”

“C’mon, like you don’t know what it’s like.” Sure, Arthur’d gotten better about it, but it wasn’t like he was some paragon of self-control either. John’d lost count of how many times he’d watched Arthur lose it on someone, seeing as he’d been the recipient of such on more than one occasion.

“I do, and I’m workin’ on it, ‘cause you can’t stop it without a goddamn effort.” Still staring John down like a hunting dog, and why the hell did he think John wasn’t making an effort?

“I’m tryin’, I’m—” Of course he hadn’t meant to lose it, but Arthur—Arthur’d been on the ground— “It ain’t—it ain’t like I had a goddamn choice, alright?”

Arthur scoffed, head turning away, and the noise sent a prickle through John’s skin. “We always got a choice.”

Dismissive, even now, like John was some fool with as little self control as Micah Bell, like there wasn’t a reason he’d gotten caught up in in himself. “He had his hands on your goddamn throat. He coulda killed you, Arthur, you think I got a choice there? Think I was gonna sit back and watch you die again?”

“That ain’t the problem—”

“No, the problem is that I ain’t allowed to get mad ‘bout how you mighta been strangled by some two-bit outlaw while I was knocked out on the goddamn ground.”

“John.” He’d turned away, but at Arthur’s voice John pulled his head back to face Arthur. And Arthur’d gone softer, his head just slightly turned, eyebrows low, and John couldn’t for the life of him figure why until Arthur said, slow, “John, that weren’t your fault.”

“I—what?” John felt the confusion creep onto his own face, because—because was he…?

“It weren’t your fault, man got me on my back.” Arthur’s eyes were now searching John’s face, though what he was looking for, John didn’t know. Arthur’s voice low, near hard to understand with the noise of the train as he asked, “Is that—is that what this is about? Lettin’ him up?”

Was—was he guilty? John hadn’t considered it, but— “No—no, it ain’t—” But it didn’t even sound convincing to John himself, and from the way Arthur continued, he didn’t buy it either.

“John, we ain’t done anythin’ like that in near half a year. We’re gonna make mistakes. So he got away from you, so what?”

It was John’s turn to scoff. “Sure, easy for you to say. Ain’t like you were the one fuckin’ things up.”

Arthur sighed at that, turned his head to the side. Thought a moment between the hum of the train over the tracks before turning back, said, “You know why he got me down?” And John opened his mouth to say because the man had slipped out of John’s blood-slicked grip, but Arthur shook his head before he could. “Ain’t all your doin’, as much as you still like to think everythin’ starts and stops with you. I got—got distracted. I wasn’t thinkin’ and paid for it.”

“Distracted by what?” John asked, because he always got caught on the less important details.

Arthur had his arms resting on his bent knees, and it wasn’t until he shifted, brought a hand to the back of his neck, that John realized Arthur’d been worrying at the one shirt sleeve, opening and closing the button repeatedly. “Don’t really matter now. Listen, you didn’t see a guy that was hidin’, I got distracted. I got choked out, you got concussed. We’re even. That’s why we got each other, John, so we can get out hurt but not dead. Ain’t so you can beat men to death when they’ve already given up.”

“I thought…” John nearly bit his tongue, nearly let it trail off there. But—but it needed to be said, he needed Arthur to know— “Thought you were dyin’ again. Can’t—can’t live with the thought of that.”

If John didn’t know better, he’d say Arthur was the one looking guilty now, way he was biting his cheek. Arthur’s voice even softer, buzzing with gravel when he said, “I know—know you don’t wanna lose folks, John.” Funny how it was always folks when it was Arthur saying it, like he wasn’t any more important than anyone else. “But losin’ yourself to it ain’t good neither. We can’t be that sort of folk, not any more. ‘cause you don’t wanna be Dutch, and neither do I.”

“I know, I—I get it.” Christ, and here John was the one who’d wanted to have this conversation.

“‘sides, I’m made of sturdier stuff than that.” Arthur’d grabbed the mug of tea again, let it rest in one palm as he said, “Let’s make a deal, okay? We’ll compromise, make Hosea proud that somethin’ he taught us finally got through our thick skulls. You don’t want me to throw myself in front of bullets? Fine, I can do that. But my condition is you use more than half your brain and keep your mind in your head. Fair?”

John considered it for a handful of seconds, couldn’t find any fault in it. “Fair enough.” One more thing for John to work on. Felt near overwhelming at this point, being a different person, but it wasn’t like he wasn’t asking the same thing of Arthur.

“Deal, then.” Arthur held out his hand to shake, and John took it, forgetting completely the busted knuckles. Arthur, to his credit, let go immediately when John winced with a quick, “Sorry,” and then, while John shook his hand out in a fruitless attempt to ease the pain, said, “Can look at that too, if you want.”

“Nah,” John said, scraping his left thumb over one of the splits. “Ain’t that bad, I can handle it.” As much as he liked the contact with Arthur, he thought he might about explode if there was much more of it, for multiple reasons he could only half identify.

“Sure?” Arthur asked, scooting back so he was leaning against the wall opposite John again anyway. “Station ain’t for another half hour at least, least from what whatever his name said. Need somethin’ to do.”

And John had a solution to that, for once. “There was another thing, actually.”

“Sure.”

“Back on the train, even before with the wolves, you—you saw somethin’, right?”

He asked it careful, but even then the change in Arthur was near immediate. His face, previously a light sort of curious, immediately closed off, falling into something partly wary, partly annoyed, but mostly just downright exhausted. He sighed, tilted his head back to rest against the wall of the train car. Murmured, “John, I…”

The angle gave John a better view of the darkening bruises against his neck, the fingerprint bruises and the two streaks where webbing between the man’s thumb and forefinger had cut into Arthur’s windpipe. The way John’s stomach rolled at the sight only made him want to press further. “I mean it, Arthur. We can’t keep avoidin’ shit like this.”

“Ain’t tryin’ to avoid it, just… just trying to figure out how to word it.” Arthur took another sip from the mug, winced. John might’ve felt guiltier about making Arthur continue to talk through a sore throat if this talk wasn’t so far overdue. “Listen, John, you either ain’t gonna believe me or you’re gonna think I’m crazy, and I ain’t particularly inclined towards either.”

“We thrive on unbelievable shit, Arthur, just try me.”

“You’ll believe me.” It was a command more than a question.

“Yeah, sure. Ain’t sure I can deny somethin’ only you’re seein’.” God, this was cagey, even for Arthur.

“I…”Arthur paused again, eyebrows pressed low, before finally murmuring, low, quiet, “I been—been seein’ a stag.”

A stag? “What d’you mean?” And at Arthur’s look, John said, “Hey, ain’t—ain’t me doubtin’ you or nothin’, just—like a deer?”

“A goddamn deer,” Arthur confirmed, voice like it was a painful thing to admit.

“I…” John trailed off, because that—that didn’t make sense, right? A deer? Sure, out when they were chasing down the sheep, but, “Like just a deer in—in the train?”

In lieu of an answer, Arthur instead reached for his satchel, still lying open from what little they’d needed from it when wrapping John’s arm, and pulled out his journal. Flipped through it before landing on a page, turned it around to face John. Said, “This is it.”

It was, indeed, a stag. A normal enough stag, at least as far as John knew. Long legs, tapered snout, big ears and tail. Sharp, sloping antlers, split into so many points that they faded into one another in the flat grey lines across the paper. Eyes—eyes like they were looking through John, and John had no idea how Arthur’d managed that with just a pencil.

Arthur lay the journal on the floor between them, smoothed the paper out so it stayed open. “Started with dreams. Earliest was after the mess with Colm, far as I can recall. Then in Guarma, and a couple more times after. Then…” Arthur heaved a sigh, one deep enough that it seemed like it rattled through his bruised throat. “Then it started showin’ up when I was awake too.”

“What d’you mean?”

“What it sounds like. Goddamn stag shows up in places it got no right bein’. First happened in Saint Denis. I—uh. Hm.” Arthur paused before leaning back, sucking air in through his teeth in a displeased sort of way.

“What?”

“Just realized I ain’t never told you ‘bout this. Y’ain’t gonna like it.”

And that could mean one of only a few things. “What’d you do, Arthur?”

Arthur scraped a boot heel against the wooden floor of the train car before saying, almost gingerly, “Passed out in the saddle in the middle of Saint Denis.”

Arthur.”

“Was just off the boat from Guarma, hadn’t slept in days ‘sides a few hours in Lakay ‘fore goddamn Milton showed up with that gattlin’ gun and ruined that. Supposed to be meetin’ Sadie and just—just went dizzy and—alright,” Arthur said, because he’d finally turned his eyes back on John and caught the look John was giving him, and John hoped it conveyed every little bit of frustration he felt, “alright, listen, I said you weren’t gonna like it, and it ain’t like we can change the past, okay? ‘sides, only reason I was there in the first place was ‘cause you were in Sisika and Dutch weren’t doin’ nothin’ to fix that and we wasn’t sure when they was gonna hang you, so get mad at Dutch, not me.”

John was mad at Dutch, a constant rolling anger bubbling just below the surface, but that wasn’t what was important here. “Can’t believe you fainted in the street and still didn’t think you should stop runnin’ ragged.” Goddamn right, John didn’t like it.

“Had a lot of other shit on my mind.” But Arthur didn’t seem entirely convinced by his own words, and maybe that was one victory for the past few months, that Arthur could see it now.

John sighed, rubbed the side of his face with a palm. Got them back on topic, because they could argue about this all day if they really got into it and John’s head still hurt. “You saw it then?”

Arthur shook his head. “Later, after I fell off the horse and some fool dragged me to the doctor. Man gave me somethin’ was supposed to wake me up enough to get home, only I got back out and there was a buck standing clear in the middle of the street, just—just lookin’ at me.”

“That’s it?”

“Don’t know how much more you want than a deer in the middle of Saint Denis.”

“No, I mean—didn’t do nothin’?”

“Nah,” Arthur said, rolling his shoulders, “just looked a minute, then turned a corner and was gone. Don’t think the other folks could see it neither, seein’ as city folk make noise about that sort of thing.”

John traced his eyes over the drawing, trying to imagine it. A stag on a Saint Denis street, hooves splayed on the cobblestone, antlers stretching up against the brick and iron. Like something from one of Jack’s books, and equally hard to picture. “And that—that happened again?”

Arthur hummed a little affirmative noise. He seemed resigned to it now, to telling it fully, and John wasn’t so much a fool that he couldn’t be grateful they wouldn’t have to fight through it. “Thought—thought maybe I was seein’ things, what with the drugs, only it kept on showin’ up. ‘fore the Cornwall mess with Dutch, then again in the oil fields. Night it went bad it was there more’n once, though reckon I started actually seein’ things near the end there.”

Wait—that meant that the morning with the wolves wasn’t the first time Arthur’d seen it with John right with him. The thought made him unnerved, though he couldn’t really place why. “And you ain’t never said nothin’?”

Arthur shrugged. “Weren’t like I was particularly excited to tell folks I was seein’ things no one else was. ‘sides, thought it was gone up until that mornin’ with the sheep.”

That explained why Arthur had reacted as harshly as he did, if he thought they were suddenly in danger again. “And then just now.”

Arthur only nodded, once again lifting the tea up to his lips.

John tried to push past the ache in his head, think through what information he’d been given. A deer. A buck that only Arthur could see, one that showed up and disappeared at random. Started in dreams, eventually showed in the waking world. “So—so what, you’re, you’re haunted?”

“Think what I am is crazy,” Arthur said with an eyebrow raise, pulling the journal back towards him.

But that didn’t sound right, because it seemed—seemed too consistent, almost, like there was a logic to it. After Arthur’d passed out, before Dutch shot Cornwall. On the night Dutch nearly killed Arthur, on the morning of the wolves— “Back with the sheep, you said somethin’ was wrong, right? When you saw it?”

Arthur wasn’t looking at him, had his eyes down on the journal in his hand. “So far as I can tell, thing only seems to show up when somethin’ bad’s gonna happen or—or is already goin’ wrong.”

“So… so it’s protectin’ you?” And when Arthur’s eyes drifted up to him, John continued, “Like… a warnin’?”

“Y’seem awfully quick to believe this thing’s real.” Arthur’s voice quiet again, hard to hear under the noise of the train.

“Why wouldn’t it be? We seen all sorts of crazy shit and this is the one that ain’t?”

You ain’t exactly the one seein’ it, John.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy, Arthur.” And when Arthur scoffed under his breath, John insisted, “I don’t. Think you’re a lot of things, a goddamn annoyin’ closed-off bastard chief among them, but crazy ain’t one. Not for some stag that only seems interested in warnin’ you.”

“So glad I got your endorsement.” A flat deadpan, which meant Arthur didn’t believe him.

“Listen, Arthur, way I see it, there’s two things, right? Either it’s like—like some sort of ghost or whatever and all it seems to want to do is let you when shit’s goin’ south, or it’s—it’s you knowin’ somethin’s wrong, okay, but the stag—it’s like you can see your instincts, right? Neither—neither of those seem like a bad thing to me.”

“That makes one of us.”

“You ain’t crazy, Arthur. No more’n the rest of us, not ‘cause you see some deer sometimes.”

“Sure.” But it seemed like a bit of the tension had gone out of Arthur’s shoulders as he snapped the journal shut.

“You’ll tell me if you see it again?” If this thing was really a spirit of some kind that had fixated on Arthur, if it knew when things were about to go wrong, that was valuable, like a forewarning system.

“Sure, I guess,” Arthur said, lifting one hand in a dismissive sort of gesture. “Don’t really think you’re gonna let me say no.”

“You promise?”

“Christ, yes, John, are we five year olds?” And Arthur sighed, rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Your head still okay?”

“Fine,” John said, finally starting on cleaning his right hand. The pain had faded some, maybe a combination of the coffee and not doing anything to irritate it.

“Right, be right back then.”

“Where’re you going?” John asked, watching Arthur pull himself to his feet. Stiff, sore, because they’d both been out of practice with the whole train robbery thing.

“Goin’ to get us some company.”

As ominous as that sounded, John didn’t look up when he heard Arthur reenter the boxcar. As such, he jumped near out of his skin when Arthur deposited the border collie puppy in his lap.

Arthur snorted, and John shot him a glare as the puppy immediately made herself busy tugging on the bandages John was trying to wrap around his hand. “Was kinda in the middle of somethin’ here.”

“Don’t be like that, she saved your life today,” Arthur said, this time sitting himself next to John, leaning up against the wall with him in the space between two crates.

“Don’t mean I gotta like her eatin’ the goddamn—give it,” John said, wresting the cloth from the puppy’s mouth. “Why don’t any of your dogs got manners?”

Arthur, just watching the spectacle, did nothing to help. “Listen, just ‘cause you still got that stupid grudge against Copper don’t mean you gotta take that out on her.”

The dog was now scaling John’s chest as he tried to tie off the bandage in time to pull her off. “Nah, it’s your fault you let that goddamn dog run wild. He ate my goddamn boot, Arthur.”

“He ate everyone’s boots, don’t go thinkin’ you’re special.”

“’cause you ain’t never had single ounce of control over him your entire—hey,” John said, as the dog had chosen that very moment to decide that all she wanted was stick the cold wet of her nose right where John’s neck met his collarbone. But the noise seemed to only serve to draw her attention because suddenly the puppy was licking him. All over the few parts of his face and neck that weren’t covered by the beard, on his ears and cheeks and lips, a sensation that made John squirm.

And John would’ve pushed her away if not for the fact that Arthur was laughing. A bright, near uncontrollable noise, and the warmth that spread up from John’s chest made his skin tingle. Real, genuine laughter, and even when the laughter broke into coughing, Arthur’s bruised throat not ready for the strain, the coughing was rippled with half-stifled giggles.

And John ducked his head, because he knew the smile that had broken across his face was incredibly fond, too goofy and ridiculous to seem like a normal reaction to Arthur laughing at him being harassed by a puppy.

Finally the hacking eased and Arthur got enough air back in his lungs to mutter, “Ah, Christ,” an amused tone to his voice even as he coughed one last time, brought a hand up to rub at his throat.

“You alright?” John asked, though it was mostly for consistency at this point.

“Fine, fine,” Arthur waved his concern away, waggled his fingers to get the puppy’s attention, eventually scooping her off of John when she seemed hell bent on getting her nose as far under the collar of John’s shirt as she could. “Listen, alright, we’re alive, John. And we got land, and we got folks here with us, and we got us goddamn puppy. All that other shit, we can figure that out. But we’re gonna be okay.”

“We’re gonna be okay,” John confirmed. We. Because for all the fighting, the concussion and the choking, the bleeding and the screaming and the stag, they were together. They were together, and they were going to stay that way, and they were going to be okay.

The rest of the ride slipped by in a hazy sort of blur. By the time the train pulled into the station, the dog was sleeping soundly in the space between their outstretched legs.

Chapter Text

It took them a few days total to get down to Absaroka. The train couldn’t exactly continue as it was with so many of its staff killed, and so the whole thing was unloaded when they reached Imalone, the first station past the tunnel where the robbery took place.

It was lucky, in a way, that they didn’t have much stuff to manage, since it made it easier to camp out just outside of town rather than have to fight all the other folks on the train over beds at the saloon or hotel. They actually had tents and bedrolls this time, since they’d need them for when they were building the house, and so, though it wasn’t ideal, it also wasn’t a terrible arrangement as things went.

They left Sadie to take the men in to the local sheriff to see what sort of bounty she could get on them. It helped further establish her as a bounty hunter in the area, something she needed as a woman doing a job most folks still considered to be a man’s, and it kept the rest of them out of the eyes of the law. In that realm, it was good in some ways that they came out of the encounter roughed up, since it lead credence to the idea that they were just a bunch of wannabe heroes that got lucky. Sadie did insist that they split the bounties evenly; seeing as the men were still small time though, it didn’t amount to much.

It did leave them enough to cover a visit to the doctor, which ended up taking the better part of a few hours. Word had spread quickly enough about the robbery that they didn’t need to explain themselves to said doctor, which was a luxury John wasn’t used to. His concussion was deemed mild enough to be fine with rest, and his hand and arm only needed the bandages changed out. There was still the risk of infection, but even that was unlikely as long as things were kept clean.

Seemed things were similar for the others, or, at least, they didn’t report any differently. They retired early that evening, bedrolls around a fire, horses left to graze within easy eyesight, the puppy tethered on a lead. One of the few good things about having Buell around was that anyone trying to steal their horses while he was loose wouldn’t get very far.

In the morning, rather than try to crowd on a train with all the other folks waiting, they rode down to the town where they’d need to change over train lines. It took the better part of a day, which wasn’t particularly pleasant on John’s lingering headache, but it also meant that there was less chance of the other people who were on the robbed train would know where they might be going. Safer for them to fade back into anonymity again. A stay overnight at the saloon near the train junction, and then in the morning they were off towards Absaroka again.

This time the train ride was much less eventful, some talk about the ranch and building, but mostly quiet. John ended up with his head tucked up against the window, watching the landscape slide by.

It still felt strange, knowing that this was it, that they were going home, to where they’d settle into the rest of their lives. It still didn’t sit right with John, still gave him a boiling feeling in his stomach when he thought about it, but that was starting to get easier. This was what Abigail wanted, to live normal, easy lives on their own ranch, and John would try everything he could to make her happy.

Arthur, though. John wasn’t sure what he wanted. Everything he’d offered up John’s way had been about John’s life, not the life Arthur wanted for himself. Sure, the man seemed happy enough to buy the land, to build something on it, but it was all short term, all focused around the happiness of other people, of Jack and Abigail. Maybe it was just because John was a person so driven by impulse and wanting, but it didn’t sit right, the idea that Arthur didn’t have any sort of idea what he wanted.

John wanted Arthur to be happy too, just as much as Abigail. He just had no idea how to make that a reality, beyond not fucking up what they already had.

 


 

Charles and Sadie’s reactions to the land were less than ideal. They’d ended up riding up around sunset, which came early with the mountains tucking them in to their little valley. Charles was more stoic, of course, but Sadie immediately paused Bob at the edge of the land, said, “This is it?”

“What?” John asked, pulling Rachel to a stop next to her. They’d ended up out in front, Charles and Arthur bringing up the back.

Her eyes were scanning over the landscape, a critical edge to her face as she said, “Thinkin’ we should’ve sent someone else down with you boys, made sure you weren’t throwin’ your money at the first bit of rock someone presents you with.”

John tilted his head over at her. “Ain’t that bad, is it? Not like we’re growin’ crops or nothin’, just some sheep.”

“Sure, but even sheep need somethin’ to eat, and you gotta be able to break ground if you want a well. Y’all had me thinkin’ we were gonna build this house and things would be all set,” Sadie said, scanning the ground again. “Reckon this is gonna take a little more work.”

“What’s the problem?” Arthur asked, bringing Buell and Sampson up alongside them, the big gold horse tossing his head at the interruption in their forward movement. The horses had all been restless with the change, Buell especially so. While it hadn’t been a particularly arduous journey down to Absaroka for the horses, the biggest challenge being the horse car, it still was different enough to make them fussy. Hopefully one more thing that would start to normalize as they settled in, made a home here.

“Think you boys got no idea what you’re doing,” Sadie said, finally bringing her eyes off the land, up to Arthur.

Arthur gave her that easy sort of smile that made John’s stomach go light and his whole body boneless. “And that’s why we brought you along, Mrs. Adler, so we could defer to your expertise.” His voice had mostly recovered now with a few days rest.

Sadie leveled a glare over his way. “Don’t try to butter me up Morgan, I know you know better.”

“Ain’t butterin’,” Arthur said, light, relaxed, “just tryin’ to let you know how much we appreciate your company. Now, what do you recommend we do, ‘sides gettin’ up to Uncle and settin’ a camp before nightfall?” To emphasize the last point, Arthur tapped his heels to Buell’s sides, got them moving forward.

“Clear as many rocks as you can, for a start.” Sadie pushed Bob forward too, sending them forward again. It wasn’t like they were following any sort of road now they were on the property, seeing as wearing away a drive to the road was one more thing that needed to be done before they had a proper ranch, so they rode abreast of each other. “You don’t want a sheep gettin’ hurt over a rock and gettin’ an infection ‘cause of it. Had a cow that went that way the first winter we was on our own in the Grizzlies.”

“All of them?” John asked, because that seemed a daunting task.

But Sadie shook her head. “Nah, just enough to make it more grass than rock. Still, don’t know why I expected you boys to know anythin’ about property when all you’ve ever known is robbin’ and stealin’.”

“And yet we still manage to disappoint you, Mrs. Adler.” The tone of Arthur’s voice was fond, teasing, and by the way Sadie laughed, she knew it just as well.

“You’re lucky I like you all, or else I’d be gone long before now.”

“Don’t doubt it,” Arthur said.

“Ain’t sure if I’m ever gonna be able to leave, to be honest. Someone’s gotta keep y’all alive, and I can’t leave that all on Abigail.”

“We ain’t completely helpless,” John said.

“Nah, you just got no life skills for anythin’ half like a honest day’s work.”

“Here we are,” Arthur said, pulling Buell to a stop before slipping from his saddle.

It really wasn’t much to look at, that was true. In the early evening light the shack looked somehow worse than it had the previous time they were here, the sag in one of the walls more apparent, the roof rusted to holes in places. And the land was rocky, the scrub brush and grass growing despite the rocks, rather than with them. Even the pine that reached up as the valley curved towards the mountains was rooted in rocky ground, more gravel than dirt at times.

But it was theirs, and, somehow, that was enough.

Of course, along with the shack came their resident cockroach. By the time they were all dismounted, Uncle was stumbling out of the shack, welcoming them forward with arms stretched open. “Welcome, everyone, to my humble abode. Now, it might look like trash, but, I assure you, it is worse than it looks.”

“Uncle, always a pleasure,” Arthur said. He’d already let the border collie puppy down to wander and had moved to start unloading the camp supplies.

“Sadie, Charles, it is nice to see you.” The grunts they gave back to Uncle indicated the feelings weren’t reciprocated to near the same degree. “They didn’t tell me you was around too.”

“For the time being,” Charles said, and then to Arthur, “Bedrolls over here?”

The spot he indicated was a bit back from the shack, tucked just under the crest of a hill that would likely protect them from the worst of the elements.

Arthur nodded. “Wherever you want, really, but seems as good a place as any.”

Uncle, true to form, trailed along beside them while they unpacked rather than actually partaking in any of the work, instead choosing to spend his time making various comments about what they were or weren’t doing wrong. It was only once he’d critiqued John’s tent staking method for the third time that John finally snapped, “You need somethin’?”

“Yes, actually,” Uncle said, and then gestured up to the shack. “John, it is my professional opinion that we oughta tear this entire thing down.”

John was about to tell Uncle to knock it off and that they could deal with that later, but Arthur perked up his head, asked, “How d’you figure?”

“Spend more than enough nights with rain comin’ through while I was waitin’ on you all. Ain’t worth fixin’ up neither, seeing as I reckon it’s gonna take more to fix it than it might to just build a new one.”

And while John was still trying to figure through the fact that Uncle seemed to actually be giving them sound advice, Arthur had stepped over to the shack and was peering at it. He turned back to them after a moment. “Think we can get it down with the horses? Ain’t too badly rotted through so it might save us some firewood, seein’ as the wood’s dry.”

“You’re the one with the shire,” John said, since the question seemed vaguely directed at him. It was his land as well, to be fair, but John still felt like his first reaction was always to defer to Arthur.

“Fair enough,” Arthur said, looking back towards the horses. “Here, help me unload him.”

They ended up tearing down the shack that very night. By all accounts it didn’t really need to be done until they had the materials for the house, seeing as where the shack stood seemed the best place for the house to eventually be, but Arthur seemed dead set on it coming down. Maybe it was for the firewood he talked about, or maybe it was just something like a firm gesture towards starting over.

Either way, they got Sampson, Rachel, and Bob hooked up to the shack. It might’ve been overkill, that many horses, but Arthur was in charge here and John reckoned he might kill the rest of them if Sampson got hurt. None of them were pulling trained either, so it took some wrangling to convince the horses to go ahead and pull when it was time to do so. And when the shack came down, it was with a crash like a thunder crack.

Once the dust settled, Arthur gave a low whistle, stepped carefully around the remains. When John joined him, Arthur clapped him on the back, said, “Still pretty good at destroyin’ things, aint we?”

“Now we just gotta see how good we are at buildin’ them back up,” John said back, and by the grin on Arthur’s face, they were going to be alright.

 


 

Building the house took the better part of two months.

Uncle had been right about those precut houses, and the nearest place that sold them was back in Plainfield. Arthur and John rode out themselves to pick one out, then accompanied the wagons back to their land.

The valley was called Crestone, and, now that they were there for good, John was trying to learn the lay of the land. Not many other ranches out their direction, but there was one that kept cattle over on the other side of the valley. Much bigger in scale than their own, but not so big that it was its own town, like Emerald Ranch had once been. Meant a lot of the land was open and bare. In some ways private, in others isolating. Safe, maybe, though only time would prove that.

The trip went quickly and smoothly, as did unloading the wagons and sending them on their way. To everyone they’d met so far they were who they claimed they were, some ranchers looking for a new start. And maybe they were, now, just some men and a woman with ignored pasts, with a life now peaceful, now new.

All they needed was the house to go along with it.

The building ended up being mostly Uncle directing, the rest of them spending their days moving wood and driving a whole lot of nails. John hated to admit it but there was some benefit to the man’s directorial approach. It wasn’t that none of the rest of them couldn’t understand the blueprints, but it lead to less back and forth with Uncle shouting at them what to do. John wouldn’t deny it was damn annoying, though.

It was quick enough work with all of them helping, and it kept them busy during the days. Hard work, sure, what with how much needed to be lifted and held in place, but having the lot of them there made things more pleasant. Sometimes they’d rotate out if whatever needed doing only required a couple hands, other folks working on clearing rocks or setting up fences.

The evenings were mostly spent resting, either talking and eating around the fire or playing card games before they all retired early. It was easy to get exhausted, easy to sleep through the night, but the reward each day of seeing his work come together before his eyes was enough to keep John going.

In that evening downtime, John also wrote more letters than he’d maybe ever written in his life.

That was the thing, with life in the gang—he’d never really had anyone to write to. For the most part he’d only written letters when separated from other gang members by jobs that had shaken out badly, or else if they needed to be away from each other for a week or two for a job. He’d wanted to write back during the year away, but he’d thought then that his only course of action was to abandon his family completely up until, of course, he ended up not being able to take that anymore.

But now, he had people that he could send letters to, that expected letters, even. Though John didn’t write to Charlotte nearly as much as Arthur and, for whatever reason, Sadie, wrote to her, he still found time to send her a letter updating her on their life and how Arthur was doing—honestly, because he doubted Arthur was being honest about his own wellbeing. Tilly, as promised, also got two letters over the course of the house building, and John wrote another to Abe and the rest of the folks at Pineridge, largely to express his thanks.

He wrote to Abigail frequently of course, told her everything he could about the house and the land, about how the building was going and how they were settling. Twice he caught Arthur looking over his shoulder when he wrote, and both times Arthur passed him a drawing to include with the letter without a word. The first was a map of the land, similar to the one Arthur had in his journal, and the second was a sketch of the partially built house. Exactly why Arthur didn’t just write a letter of his own and include the drawings there, John wasn’t sure.

Arthur did write letters, to people John knew and then more folks John didn’t, all that seemed to be of the same sort of type that Charlotte and Renaud had been. Some down on their luck soul or someone that had needed help while Arthur was there at the right time—a photographer in New York, a nun in Mexico. And the house building gave them time to talk, and, finally, Arthur was starting to talk about the kind of things he did when he disappeared for days on end.

John wasn’t sure how much of it he believed. On one hand, Arthur had never been one to lie about things. Sure, he’d keep things hidden, not share information until it was strictly necessary, but not lie outright, not to people he wasn’t trying to rob. On the other, the experiences Arthur told stories about were fucking unbelievable.

A man he’d met as a man who he later saw as a child, a house full of corpses bathed with a green light from a disc in the sky, a lion that Arthur’d shot dead in the middle of Emerald Ranch. John might’ve called bullshit on the last one seeing as he’d read about that in the papers and Arthur could just’ve taken the story from them, up until he remembered pulling the damn paw from Arthur’s satchel back when he was sorting through it.

Sure, John knew that Arthur spent a lot of time on his own, that he lived a varied sort of life, but he’d never seen it quite so clearly until now. It was unbelievable and, yet, completely believable because it was Arthur, and there were few other people in the world that John trusted to be genuine when they were finally forthcoming about what they felt or experienced. And the fact that he was so matter of fact about the whole thing, like there was nothing unusual about it, made John feel like a little kid again, in awe of a man larger than life.

May came and went with little fanfare. All of the anniversaries wrapped up in the month—Blackwater, Jake Adler’s death, the wolves—felt like too much like remembering an end for any of them to address them when things were supposed to be beginning. And if Sadie spent one particular evening more withdrawn than usual, almost fragile, none of them mentioned it, not beyond wrapping her into a game of pinochle so competitive that it was hard to keep anything else on the brain. John missed Abigail a fair bit of the time, but in May maybe most of all, for both who she was to John and who she was to everyone else.

When the days stretched into late May and early June, it started getting warm. John finally shaved his beard, which Arthur matched and took a step further by getting the barber in Northaven to cut his hair. Charles still wore most of his hair up in a braid, but he’d been letting the shaved sides of his head grow out now that he wasn’t with the Wapiti anymore. Sadie had taken to wearing her hair up in a bun just as often as a braid, just to keep the hair off of her neck while working in the heat.

All of them save Sadie also stripped down to their bare chests in the summer sun, and John found himself swinging between looking at Arthur’s body because it gave him that warm feeling in his navel and looking at Arthur’s body because that was where the scars from Dutch’s bullet were.

He hadn’t seen the scars fully healed. Though they’d slept and lived out of the same room at Pineridge, John was apt to allow Arthur some privacy in the way of changing, meaning the last time he’d seen the wound was when Abigail had cut Renaud’s silk stitches from Arthur’s flesh. Though the infection had been gone by then and the skin knitted back together, it had still been pink, newly healed.

Now the scars had faded from his stomach and back, had become just another taut twist in Arthur’s skin to match all the rest. Bullets and knives and bites and scrapes and all the other ways the world had forced blood from Arthur.

The scar on Arthur’s shoulder stood out as well. Though it didn’t give John that same gut-wrenching fear when he looked at it, he still felt a pang of guilt at the sight. John should have known, back when Dutch didn’t even bother to look for Arthur when he went missing after an encounter with Colm, when Dutch didn’t even tell the rest of them that Arthur even was missing, that something was wrong. If John could do it all again, he’d've gotten after Dutch about that, pressed him until he finally admitted he’d been wrong. He’d've sat up with Hosea and Grimshaw by Arthur’s side, made sure he kept breathing through the worst of the infection. He’d've apologized to Arthur for every stupid thing he’d ever done or said, because it would’ve meant they’d have had more time to just be friendly with each other.

If he’d noticed the way Arthur was trying so hard to keep them safe that he was running himself into the ground, maybe things would be different. Maybe John wouldn’t have lost so much.

It was a warm week in mid June when the house finally came together. John was the one to put the last nail into place, securing the last of the shingles up on the roof. When he climbed down the ladder, he was greeted by Uncle, arms outstretched, saying, “John Marston, you have a home.” With him were Sadie and Charles, and John had no idea where Arthur’d gotten to.

“Arthur too,” John said, because he didn’t want that to be forgotten. “All of you, actually, Uncle, Sadie, Charles, there’s a place for you if you want it.”

“I know,” Uncle said, because John knew already that he wasn’t planning to leave. But Charles and Sadie murmured thanks as well, and maybe that indicated there was still some time before they were gone as well. Or maybe they wouldn’t go at all, something John would welcome, but ought not to hope for.

Arthur, it turned out, was around the corner, standing back by the fire where, John was guessing based on where his gaze was directed, he could catch a full view of the house. He didn’t look at John as he approached, instead just scanned over the front facing wall, eyes careful, searching.

Rather than say anything, John took his place next to Arthur, and when Arthur offered an arm to drape around John’s back, bringing them side to side, John leaned into it willingly, brought his own arm to hang around Arthur’s shoulders. It was a warm sort of contact, the affectionate kind of touching that used to be near common when they were younger, before John had left.

And John followed Arthur’s gaze up to the house.

It was a nice house, at least as far as John knew, the rich brown color of newly cut wood. Not like those old manor homes in Lemoyne, nor like the sprawling mansions of Saint Denis, but it was enough. It was what they needed. One story with an attic, along with a cellar they’d dug when they put in the foundation. A kitchen, a bathroom, a living space. Three bedrooms, because John had continued to insist Arthur have a space in the main house, his own room with plenty of windows. A porch that wrapped around most of the house, where they could sit out in the cool of the evenings after long days of doing nothing but ranch work.

Arthur’s voice was quiet when he said, “You really did it, Marston. This is yours.”

“Ours,” John corrected, more out of habit than anything else. Arthur still wasn’t looking at him, but John didn’t begrudge him that, not when he could see the wet edge his eyes had taken on.

“Ours,” Arthur agreed, and John elected to ignore the heavy burr in his voice and all the emotions that might’ve caused it. Arthur cleared his throat, said, more brightly, “Now, I propose we celebrate.”

“Uncle’s already ahead of you,” John said, nodding to where Uncle was busy rifling through a crate and pulling out bottles. The man had been talking about playing his part in the house building process, and apparently that part was providing a near unbelievable amount of whiskey and beer to the post-building party.

“Man and his liquor.” Arthur clapped John on the back, let him go. “C’mon, can’t let the fun start without us.”

 


 

They got maybe irresponsibly inebriated. Sure, it wasn’t like there were many other people in the valley and none close enough to complain about any sort of public drunkenness, but it still was probably more drunk than they should be. The problem was that none of them save Uncle had done decent drinking of any kind in months, and so, at least for John, it felt like his tolerance for alcohol was completely soaked through.

And all of them ended up drinking. Even Charles, who normally was reserved at camp parties, was coaxed into participating by an already tipsy Arthur. Sadie too John hadn’t ever seen more than buzzed, but even she ended up on the south side of tipsy.

Uncle’d produced a banjo from god knew where, seeing as this was the first time John had seen him with one since Shady Belle, and played periodically throughout the night. Arthur and John taught Sadie and Charles all the various dance patterns they’d been roped into learning over the years (with plenty of drunken arguing about how the steps actually went), and Sadie and Charles each contributed a few back, Arthur’s puppy, who he’d settled on calling Lace, getting under their feet.

It was fun, the sort of easy and light atmosphere that had been so sorely missing for months. Even when they argued it was good-natured, more mixed with laughing than anything else. And they told stories, and they danced some more, and they were finally, finally home.

John was coming back from taking a piss when Arthur stopped him around side the house with a “Mr. Marston”, caught him by a shirtsleeve and pulled John towards him. And that was a little strange, sure, but it wasn’t until Arthur grabbed his face with both hands that John realized just how drunk Arthur was.

Arthur’s palms were warm where they touched John’s cheeks, and his breath absolutely stank with whiskey. His voice was bright, heartfelt when he said, “Wanted—wanted to let you know I don’t hate you no more.”

John snorted, tried to pry Arthur’s hands from his face, found them too tightly stuck. “Don’t think you ever hated me, Arthur.”

Arthur took a moment to consider it, not taking his hands from where they gripped John. “No,” he said, and then, after a pause, “no I definitely did.”

“Ain’t very nice thing to say,” John said, though he was too far gone himself to really care about it. If Arthur had hated him, so what? They were long past that point now. They owned a goddamn house together.

“But,” Arthur said, and his face was flushed, the loose sort of smile Arthur always got when he was drunk in a good mood creeping into the edges of his expression, “but I don’t hate you no more, right?”

“Right, Arthur, I got that the first—” John couldn’t stifle a laugh as Arthur tugged his face closer, because goddamn Arthur was soaked if he was this out of it— “got that the first time. Jesus, let me go.”

“No, no you ain’t—” A hint of urgency in Arthur’s voice, insisting, like there was something John wasn’t understanding about the gesture. “Ain’t, ain’t gettin’ it, John, I don’t hate you. Not anymore.”

“I don’t get what you’re sayin’, you fool.”

“I—I,” Arthur muttered, and his brow had creased, working something hard through his booze-muddled brain, not enough of him left to piece it together. “I, I think…”

“Yeah?”

“Think I’m gonna puke.”

It took a moment for the words to register in John’s brain, and he barely had enough time to jerk back hard from Arthur’s grip before Arthur was emptying his stomach into the churned dirt that surrounded the house foundation. Arthur couldn’t keep himself up on his own, instead scrabbled at the side of John’s belt for stability and nearly sent the both of them sprawling into the dirt before John grabbed a windowsill and managed to keep his balance.

It wasn’t completely sobering, watching Arthur sway and wipe at his own mouth once the vomiting trailed off, but it did allow John to gather his thoughts about him enough to tell him, “Reckon you oughta go to bed.”

“’m fine,” Arthur said before retching again, nothing left in his stomach to come back up.

“Nah,” John said, “y’ain’t. C’mere.” He pulled at the back of Arthur’s shirt, eventually working Arthur’s arm over his shoulder, John’s arm around his back.

“Ain’t the boss ‘f me, Marston.” Despite the words, Arthur was leaning heavily into him, only one hand coming up to pry at John’s fingers where they wrapped around his torso.

“Gonna call Charles if you keep goddamn fightin’ me, Morgan.” John couldn’t even say where Charles was at the moment, but he figured if he yelled loud enough, someone would come.

The trek back to their bedrolls was slow and stumbling, Arthur slowly loosing his ability to keep himself upright the closer they got. By the time they were at Arthur’s bedroll the man was probably only a few minutes to passing out, judging by how low his eyelids were starting to droop.

Despite all the various times John had seen Arthur drunk in the past fifteen years, had been coaxed or bribed into helping move him to a bedroll, those weren’t the memories that crept into John’s mind. Instead what came was that day after Beaver Hollow, Arthur bleeding heavily from a bullet through his gut, unable to walk on his own because of it. John under his arm, ready to drag him for miles if it meant not being separated from him.

The thought was distracting enough that, when they were at Arthur’s bedroll, John was unable to stop himself being dragged down to the ground along with Arthur when the man finally went completely boneless. Arthur ended up catching most of John’s weight with a pained grunt and though John was still a shade of drunk himself the fall still stung, and John rolled off of Arthur to sprawl next to him in the dirt.

For a moment, it was quiet, John trying to catch the breath that had been knocked out of him, looking up at the sea of stars that swam over their newly built home.

Then, from next to him, Arthur muttered, “Heavier than you used to be, y’know.”

“Mmm?” John hummed, not looking over at Arthur.

“Yeah,” Arthur said, his voice sounding half asleep. “Remember when you was so little, thought the world was out to get you. Could pick you up with one arm. Thought you weren’t never gonna grow any bigger.”

“Reckon you and I remember that very different.” It was strange, thinking back on that period of their lives now, how much things had changed. Arthur had seemed so far away, so unreachable, an unshakable pillar. Maybe it was only right that John had fallen for him only when he seemed the most genuinely human, the most real.

Arthur chuckled, said, “Grew into a fine man, John Marston. Fine man. Different ‘n you were.”

“Different good?”

“Mmnn. Wouldn’t even recognize you ‘f I didn’t know. A good man, John.”

John snorted, rolled his head over so he was looking at Arthur. Since when had drink made Arthur so sappy? “Gonna regret bein’ so nice to me when you wake up in the mornin’.”

Arthur’s eyelids were barely open, but even then he was watching John out of the corner of his eye. “Naw, mean it this time. Really—really did something good here. Got yourself a home, and not even Hosea could do that. Got me here, fightin’ you an’ all. Abigail’s lucky to have you. Real lucky.”

“Thanks, Arthur.” This was confusing, even more so with the drink making John’s head spin. Arthur wasn’t usually one for sentiment or sap, and so him being so openly nice to John felt weird, like something he wasn’t supposed to have.

“Mmm,” Arthur hummed as a reply. Paused a second, eyes closed, before saying, “Ever—you ever think, if things were different—you and I…?”

That got John’s attention, and he twisted so he was propped up on one elbow facing Arthur. “Me and you what?”

Arthur blinked open his eyes, rolled them back up at John. “Jus’… Jus’ if we’d made it up sooner, right?”

John blinked, tried to puzzle through it. “Weren’t my choice we didn’t.”

“I know.” Arthur’s voice a low, almost sad drawl. “Was—was so caught up with Dutch, tryin’ to be golden again. Didn’t matter, none of it. Shoulda seen what I had ‘fore then. Shoulda been better. Don’t—don’t matter now neither.”

But it did matter, or, at least, to John it did. “Ain’t like we can change what’s done. But we got each other now, right?”

“Sure,” Arthur said, “but that ain’t the problem.”

“I don’t know what that means.” Jesus, talking with a drunk Arthur was talking in absolute circles.

“Reckon ‘m losin’ my mind. Wantin’ things I ain’t allowed to have.”

Wait. Wait. “What—what things?”

Arthur looked at him slow, eyes half-lidded, chest rising and falling in long beats. Took a breath, said, “We coulda been somethin’. You and me.”

This didn’t—

Why did it sound like Arthur—?

“Arthur, are you…?”

And Arthur brought one hand up to John’s face, scraped one thumb against the scars, and John couldn’t help the shudder that ran through his body. “I’m a fool, s’what I am.”

John shouldn’t have said it. But, before he could stop himself, his mouth was open, his drunk fucking tongue was saying, “I love you.”

And it was so large and all encompassing in his brain that John expected it to feel large in his mouth, expected it to drop heavy into the air, for Arthur to understand immediately what he meant.

But instead, Arthur huffed a single laugh, dropped his hand back to his side. “Now who’s bein’ a sap, huh?” Because of course he didn’t get it, because Tilly’d said it, Arthur was apt to assume the folks around him held the lowest possible respect for him when it came to love.

John was stumbling over his own tongue. “No, you—I want you to be happy, Arthur, I—Arthur, I love you. Love.”

And that did it. The smile that had been on Arthur’s face slowly dropped away as confusion spread over his face, as his eyebrows pressed low over his eyes. “John.” His voice low, heavy, like he needed a confirmation, like something was hurting deep in his chest.

“I mean it.” John’s voice cracked over it, because his own chest ached with the weight of the confession.

John wasn’t sure what he was expecting, mostly because he wasn’t even thinking enough to anticipate anything. If he were to think back on the occasion while sober, his best guess would be a fight. Or rejection, or some sort of resolution at the very least.

What he wasn’t expecting was for Arthur to tilt his head back, bring his hands up to his face, and say, “Oh, that ain’t fair, John.” His voice pained, the alcohol and exhaustion dragging at it.

“What does that mean?” John could hardly even think, Arthur’s reaction not matching up with any sort of behavior that made sense to him.

“Ain’t fair, ain’t… Gonna…” And then Arthur was heaving himself onto his side and retching again, and John suddenly knew for certain they weren’t going to get anywhere tonight.

Goddamnit.

“Stay here,” John said, though it didn’t look like Arthur was going anywhere, his body still trying to force up anything left in his stomach.

He fetched some water from the well, walked back past the fire Lace was sleeping soundly in front of. Crouched next to Arthur where he’d collapsed back onto his bedroll, nearly tipping over and dropping the water when his whole body swayed. He was unpleasantly drunk now, that sort of unsteady rolling at his core.

John tapped Arthur with the cup. “Here, drink this.”

It took a second, Arthur peeling his eyes back open, propping himself up on one elbow, taking the cup from John’s palm. Drained it in one long pull, went boneless back into the bedroll. Seemed to be the end of it, and John was just heaving himself to his feet when Arthur muttered, quiet enough that John almost missed it, “You’re gonna be the death of me, John Marston.”

John paused, bit his lower lip. “I know.”

 


 

John woke up in the morning with a splitting headache and dread in the pit of his stomach. He’d fucked up. He knew that sure to his bones, he’d gotten drunk and said some shit he shouldn’t have, and it endangered everything he’d worked towards in terms of his amiable relationship with Arthur. He had no idea how the other man would react now that he was sober.

He’d woken up before Arthur, and busied himself making a pot of coffee as a sort of peace offering. Let the coffee steep while he paced, then poured two cups before wandering his way back to the collection of bedrolls.

Arthur was awake when he got there, which John could only tell by the way he had both arms crooked over his face, presumably trying to block out as much of the light as he could. John greeted him by tapping his foot against Arthur’s, still booted from the night before, saying, “Hey.”

Arthur pulled his arms away from his face, presumably to try to peer at John, but the bright light of morning immediately made him groan, press his forearms back over his face.

“Brought you coffee,” John said, the way his heart was thrumming along in his chest not helping the ache in his own head.

Arthur groaned again, but slowly pushed himself into a sitting position, letting his head drop down between his bent knees. Held a hand outstretched for the coffee, which John gave to him. Took a sip before squinting up at John, said, quiet, “Mornin’.”

“…Mornin’,” John echoed. No yelling so far, though maybe that was just because neither of their heads could handle it.

Arthur turned his head back to his coffee, and John slowly took a seat next to him, seeing as his head wasn’t going to cooperate with standing for much longer. Arthur sat for a minute before muttering, “Reckon I remember why I ain’t supposed to do this sort of thing no more.”

“Do what?” Be nice to John? Try to make things up? Seemed John always ended fucking those things up. He’d fucking confessed, Jesus Christ.

But Arthur didn’t mention any of those, just said, “Get soaked this bad. Feel just about as bad as you look.”

It took a minute for John to work through what Arthur was saying, to figure that he wasn’t even talking about anything said the previous night, and his skin prickled with confusion. And then it took even longer, too long for him to find a jab to trade back, but he said all the same, “Maybe you oughta just lay back down down and die, then.”

“Tried that already and you fools wouldn’t damn let me,” Arthur said, took a mouthful of coffee.

“That ain’t funny.”

“S’a little funny.” Squinted over at John. “What’d we do, anyhow?”

The realization was like something moving under John’s skin. “You… you don’t remember?”

Arthur shook his head, looked like he immediately regretted it. “Nah, not much after Uncle broke out the rum.”

That had been only midway or so through the night. John said it again, more sure this time. “You don’t remember.”

“Jesus, John, you’re lookin’ at me like I shot you. Weren’t that bad, was it?”

“No, just—” Arthur didn’t remember, and that filled John with equal parts relief and dread— “just nearly vomited on me, s’all.”

“Okay,” Arthur said, looking at John wary, “sure. You sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m good, just—just hungover, y’know.” John’s stomach was churning, his head aching, and he was a goddamn mess.

“Alright,” Arthur said, voice still tentative, low, like speaking too loud might shatter him, “well, ain’t gotta start on the barn today if we don’t want. Got some time.”

“Right.”

After a long moment, Arthur gathered his feet under himself slowly, worked himself into a standing position. Patted John once on the shoulder, said, “Gonna go check the horses,” before leaving John sitting alone by himself.

He didn’t remember. John was going to vomit.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until Abigail and Jack arrived that John realized he was well and truly fucked.

He, Arthur, and Sadie had spent the few days beforehand herding their very own flock of sheep back to the ranch. They’d picked them up at a livestock town called Grafton down west across the valley, a nice sized flock of around fifteen sheep. Enough to keep them busy, but few enough that managing them over their first winter at the ranch wouldn’t be an impossible task.

John’d sent Abigail a letter once the house was complete letting her know they were ready for her to arrive at her convenience. By the time they arrived back at the ranch, sheep in hand, Abigail and Jack were there to greet them, already settled into the ranch with the last of the things they’d brought down from Pineridge.

John was happy to see Abigail, greeted her with a spin and a long, slow kiss. Was happy to see Jack too, picked him up immediately, went to show him his room at the ranch, newly furnished and everything. But that same joy at seeing his wife and son, at seeing them finally back together again, faded into dread over the next few days, John unable to get his mind off of that drunk night after they’d finished building the house.

Arthur felt something for John, John was sure of that now. What the hell that something was, of course, John had no idea, because Arthur got near incomprehensible when he was drunk, and John couldn’t remember that many details besides, seeing as he was soaked through himself. And even when John had put his foot in his mouth and made a confession, Arthur seemed to react to the revelation with something akin to despair, which made absolutely no sense to John.

He didn’t know what Arthur wanted. For all the man seemed to claim all he wanted was for other folks to be happy, that night had made it clear that other folks weren’t the entire story. There was something Arthur wanted, something that would make him happy, but he wasn’t willing to talk about it, and John had no idea what that thing was. And not knowing was itching at him near constantly.

Short of nothing else, John was a fucking mess, and it was starting to leech into his behavior, making him short and surly and quick to annoyance. And though knowing that was supposed to be one step into stopping it, John had little self-control at the best of times. At the worst? He was downright destructive. And it was only a matter of time before all of it spilled over, got him into a situation he couldn’t reverse.

 


 

One week in early July, when they were still building the outer fences of the sheep pastures and learning how to manage their small flock, Sadie took her leave.

Out of all of them, John had been expecting her to leave next. Even back at Pineridge, she came and went, did bounties whenever there was one available. Sadie wasn’t one to stay in one place long, at least not after all the messy business a year ago. The bounties were an easy sort of excuse to keep moving, keep finding new things to occupy her mind and body that wasn’t a clear reminder of what she had lost.

Though, this time—

They were in the dregs of the afternoon when Sadie approached John, loading up a cartful of fence pieces to bring out to where they were going up. Charles was still out working on assembling the previously brought pieces, Arthur was dealing with some issue with one of Gwydion’s shoes, and Uncle was god-knew-where, so it was John alone.

Sadie, of course, joined John under the pretext of work, because that was the sort of person she was. It wasn’t until they had the cart nearly loaded that finally John, knowing something was coming by the way Sadie was acting, familiar enough with her by now, finally asked, “Something up?”

Sadie glanced at him, and her voice was unusually careful when she said, “Already told Arthur this, but I’m plannin’ to set out day after tomorrow.”

“Bounty huntin’?” John paused after laying the fence rail down in the bed of the cart, turning so he could get a better look at her face.

“No, actually.” And when John shot her a questioning look, Sadie continued, “Gonna head back to New Hanover, see Charlotte.”

“Charlotte?” Charlotte Balfour? Sure, Sadie had been writing to her, but it didn’t seem so much writing that it made sense for them to be visiting each other. “Why?”

Sadie’s eyebrows went low, though it was an exasperated sort of annoyance, likely because she was used to John’s mouth by now. “Ain’t sure it’s any sort of business of yours.”

Fair enough, that was true. John still didn’t really get it, though, not why Sadie was going, not why it was Charlotte. “…You want company or somethin’?”

“No,” Sadie said, her voice sharp. “I am goin’ to see Charlotte. Alone.”

“Okay?” Sadie was normally so direct, so upfront and straight with him. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what was going on.

“And that’s alright with you? Me leavin’?” Sadie took taking a step closer with the words, arms crossed. John immediately wanted to take his own step back, defer the space to her, and why was it that so many relationships in John’s life seemed to always devolve into arguing and power plays?

Instead of backing down, John held his ground like he knew how, straightened his shoulders and asked, “Is somethin’ wrong? ‘tween you and me? You’re bein’ cagey, Sadie, for you at least.”

Sadie titled her head, squinted one eye in a questioning sort of way. “Arthur seemed to be under the impression you wouldn’t be happy ‘bout it. Thought you might’ve said somethin’ to him.”

Arthur? “’bout you leavin’?” And John scoffed, because, “That ain’t none of his business.”

“So you did say something to him.”

“No—no, not exactly, if he’s talkin’ ‘bout what I think he is. Told him ‘round when we bought this place that I was tired of losin’ folks. Figure that’s what he means.” Not that John telling Arthur meant he had any right to indicate the same to other folks at the ranch, Sadie included.

The admission made Sadie’s face go a bit softer, and she said, slow, “I ain’t gone forever, John.”

“No, I know that, and I ain’t gonna stop you even if you was. Ain’t my right.” God, John knew that tone, and it was pity. He didn’t need pity. He was fine.

“Alright.”

“What’d he say to you?” John asked, folded his arms.

“Just to go easy if you didn’t react well.”

John scoffed, walked away from the cart to grab more wood, just enough to have something to do with his hands. “I’m fine. You can do what you want, Sadie, ain’t none of his business.” Honestly, who did Arthur think he was, thinking he knew John better than John did?

Sadie followed John, grabbing the last two fence posts and hoisting them over her shoulders. “You ever gonna talk to him about whatever the hell is happenin’ between you two?”

“Ain’t sure that’s any sort of business of yours,” John said, purposely echoing Sadie’s earlier words. Honestly, why did everyone on this goddamn ranch think they had some say in how John’s life went, just because they’d guessed at some feelings John was having? The embarrassment that Sadie knew was still there, still burning inside him, but mostly it was starting to fade into annoyance.

But maybe that wasn’t fair, because Sadie was just trying to help, indicated well enough when she next said, “Just sayin’, think you’re gonna have an easier time of it the sooner you work things out. All this festering ain’t good for nothin’.”

“I ain’t the one that stews on shit for months. That’s all Arthur.” John tossed the last fence rail into the cart, brushed his hands off on his pants.

Sadie put hers down as well. “And that’s why you gotta be the one to say somethin’. Arthur’s a good man, one of the best I’ve ever known, but he’s far from perfect. Holdin’ shit in is all he ever does.”

“And you think that’s a good idea? Like—” John wanted to wince when it came out of his mouth— “Like confessin’ and shit?”

“I don’t know, John,” Sadie said, hands on her hips, “I ain’t one for that sort of thing, not anymore. All I do know is if you let it sit until it comes out on its own, it ain’t gonna be pretty.”

“Easier said than done,” John muttered, going to grab the reins of the hitched horse, climb into the cart seat, because that had already happened, and even though Arthur didn’t remember it it hadn’t gone well. If anything, it’d made John want to tell Arthur less. “When you gonna be back?”

“Within the month, probably. Wanna pick up a bounty or two while I’m out there if I can, earn somethin’ extra.”

That sounded more like it. “Alright, well, sure I’ll say it again before you go but be safe, Sadie, and say hello to Charlotte for me.”

“That much I can do,” she said, clambering up to sit on one of the wooden walls of the cart. “Hope by the time I get back you two'll have worked somethin’ out.”

“Yeah,” John said, twitching the reins. “Yeah, me too.”

 


 

Sadie made good on her promise and left two days following and, despite how much he knew it shouldn’t, her leaving put John in a bad mood. John wanted the ranch to be a stop-in sort of place, somewhere folks could come and go as they pleased, and Sadie seemed inclined to use it as intended. That didn’t mean that it felt nice, having her finally make good on the promise of it, to have her leave for any extended sort of time, because all it made him think was what if she never ended up coming back, or what if Charles was the next to leave?

Or, what if Arthur left too?

And what was Arthur’s goddamn problem, not just getting into John’s business but spilling that to other folks? Sure, John didn’t like people leaving, but he’d told Arthur that reluctantly, and only because he didn’t expect him to then share it with the people in question. It felt like Arthur was still treating him like a kid, trying to get the folks around him to treat him the same, like some fool that needed protecting. This wasn’t fair, none of it, and yet it seemed the further they got from life in the gang, the more and more they fell into the same old patterns.

Then again, it wasn’t like John was one to talk, not when he was the way he was with Jack.

The novelty of the ranch had lasted about a week, and then Jack was right on back to being bored again. They didn’t have enough spare money for new books, not when getting the ranch up and running meant living close to the bone, and there wasn’t anyone Jack’s age around to play with. He had some fun with Lace, Arthur’s puppy, but even she could only do so much to entertain him, especially when she was usually off following Arthur around with whatever he was doing, rather than around the house where Jack stayed.

Jack did have chores now, and those helped, but there was only so much a five year old could do, could be expected to do around a ranch. Most of it was small tasks, things like spreading feed for the chicks that were quickly becoming chickens, fetching laundry for his mother to wash, sweeping dirt off the porch with a broom John’d cut down to size. On most days they only took about an hour combined, and after that he was left to his own devices.

For a five year old, most of those devices were things like demanding attention from the people around him. Jack had been raised in a camp where one never had any privacy and had gotten used to it, had adjusted to and expected people to be around constantly, for there to always be someone that would spend time with him.

And, yet again, John seemed to be the only one struggling with Jack’s constant need for his attention. He was a more frequent target than Charles or Uncle, of course, but Jack turned to Arthur for attention just about as much as John and to Abigail far more, and neither of them seemed phased by it. Sure, they weren’t always able to accommodate him, but something about how they redirected his attention, made promises they always ended up keeping, was a skill that always seemed to be outside of John’s reach.

Things came to a head one hot Saturday in mid-July. John had been in a bad mood already, the heat making him sticky and sweaty and the sheep ornery, so much so that moving them from one paddock to the next took near an hour longer than it should’ve been. It meant they were late to eat, John’s stomach already past the point of growling by the time he was shoving bread down into it, and he was near lightheaded with the hunger.

It was in that state, eating his lunch alone behind the house, that Jack approached him, asking to go down to the river.

They weren’t adjacent to the river that ran through the valley up at the ranch, but they were close enough that they didn’t even need to ride to get there, just a walk of around five minutes or so. It was slow moving near them, shallow and wide, and no one owned the land around it. Meant it was easy enough for them to go down there to cool off, or for a bath if they really didn’t feel like filling up the tub. And it wasn’t so deep that needing to swim was an issue.

But John couldn’t go with Jack. Didn’t want to go, didn’t have time to go, not when so much needed doing and it was so goddamn hot. He swallowed the bit of jerky he’d been chewing at, said “Sorry, Jack, another time.”

Jack’s face had been open, earnest, but it quickly shifted into something almost pouty as he continued to tug at John’s sleeve. “But it’s hot now, Pa, I wanna sit in the water.”

“I’m hot too, but there’s work to do, and it ain’t gonna happen on its own.” He shrugged Jack’s hand off of him, pulling away from the boy.

“But I asked Momma and Uncle Arthur already and they said no ‘cause they was in the middle of things and you ain’t.”

And John shouldn’t have felt jealous that he was the third choice in the boy’s mind, especially when that was mostly his own fault, the way he kept putting any time with Jack to the side. Still, he found himself muttering, “I’m eatin’, that’s what I’m I the middle of. Lay off it. Maybe later.”

Jack’s voice had gone full on whine now. “It ain’t gonna be hot later though, and I read all my books—”

Jack,” John said, cutting the boy off, “Go back to your mother, I ain’t got time for this.”

“Pa—”

“Jack, now.”

It was harsher than John meant it, louder than he meant it, and immediately he regretted it when tears started welling up in Jack’s eyes.

“Goddamn it Jack, don’t—don’t cry, please, just—hey, you’re okay, alright?” God, he couldn’t deal with crying, not when it made his whole chest explode in panic. How the hell did Abigail do this so easily, calm Jack, deal with him like he wasn’t something fragile, something that could be ruined by any second? It wasn’t like Abigail had a childhood any happier than John’s own, and yet her behavior with Jack seemed near innate.

“Ain’t cryin’,” Jack said, swiping at one of his cheeks, the tears making his voice go wobbly.

John crouched down next to Jack, pulled his little hand away from his face. “Hey, hey, listen, alright? I got a lot of work to do because I gotta get this place up and runnin’, okay? But we’ll go down to the river sometime. Just can’t be right now, ‘cause Uncle Charles is waitin’ for me to refill some water troughs.”

“Soon?” Jack’s eyes were still watery, but they’d stopped actually spilling over, thank god. The sight of it had made John want to tear his hair out.

“Soon. Now go run along to your momma.” And it shouldn’t have felt like a relief when Jack obeyed him, left John alone, but it did all the same.

 


 

It was evening when John finally finished his work for the day, the sweat dried tacky to his skin. The day hadn’t gotten any easier and his mood hadn’t improved, not after a long day of dealing with animals that would rather do all they could to not deal with him. This was their life now, day-in and day-out, and John was starting to get exhausted with it.

He heard it before he saw it, Jack’s voice carrying steady across the grass that grew long around the house. Rhythmic, and John knew immediately that he was reading something out loud just by the way his voice moved.

Maybe he should’ve guessed before he rounded the corner who Jack was reading to, but even then it took him by surprise. Arthur and Jack on one of the benches, leaning over one of Jack’s dime novels. Jack pressed up against Arthur’s side, one of Arthur’s arms around Jack’s back, holding the opposite edge of the book open for him. Something parental, fatherly, and the sight gave John a pang of jealousy, and then something not quite grief but akin to it, because it seemed right, Arthur acting a kind of father to Jack, and yet it was something that always made John want to jump to possessiveness.

He expected Arthur to be some shade of happy, the way he always was when spending time with Jack. But when Arthur glanced up and saw John, his brow was low over his own eyes. Not quite annoyed, not there yet, but something close. Disappointed, maybe, or—or maybe warning John? Both?

John opened his mouth to speak, but Arthur shook his head, Jack still wrapped up in his reading beside him, not aware of John standing at the foot of the porch stairs. Instead Arthur jerked his head towards the door, and John got the message well enough. He knew Arthur, knew Abigail, and knew what was waiting for him within the house.

Jack finally looked up when he heard John’s steps cross the porch and his face went bright when he saw John. That much was a warm spot in the center of John’s chest, that at least the boy seemed to have forgiven him for how he was earlier in the day. “Pa,” Jack said, voice light, “you wanna hear a story?”

And for once John did, wanted to sit with Jack and Arthur because that was easy, because that was something he could do well enough. Problem was, he’d already fucked it up. “I gotta talk to your ma first, alright?” John tried to keep his voice light, but the heavy sort of look in Arthur’s eyes made his voice crack over the words.

Abigail was there waiting in their little kitchen like he thought she would be, stirring some sort of soup on the pot on the stove. Her cooking had improved somewhat what with all the cooking lessons from Sadie, seeing as Abigail had always been clever and a quick learner, but it still wasn’t the greatest food John had ever tasted. Still, he loved Abigail, lack of cooking skill and all, something he reminded himself of when she turned and saw him standing in the kitchen doorway and her face immediately dipped into a glare.

“Listen, Abigail—”

“You wanna explain to me why our son came to me in tears this afternoon?”

Alright, well, Jack had been done with crying by the time he left John, so maybe it wasn’t entirely John’s fault. Or maybe he was just trying to deflect the blame again like he always did. “I just—I had work to do, okay, and he wouldn’t drop the damn river thing.”

“And you shouted at him?” Abigail had her arms crossed, her whole body tensed. “He’s five, John, all he wants is his pa to give him some attention.”

“I was workin’.”

“And that gives you a right to yell at him? How hard is it to go down to the river with your damn son?”

That wasn’t fair though, John was trying— “I was goin’ to, Abigail, I goddamn told him—I said we’d go soon, alright?”

“And how many promises have you broken to the boy, John?” Abigail had stepped away from the stove now, was stepping towards John with the spoon still clasped in her left hand. “Why should he believe you were tellin’ him the truth?”

“Because I been better ‘bout that lately, ain’t like back before. It’s just—” Just he didn’t know how to approach the boy, just he didn’t know how to even be a goddamn father, just that everyone else around him was better with Jack than he was— “Just he don’t ever ask at good times.”

“Then you gotta be the one to make an effort. Spend time with him, John. Even if you ain’t used to it, that ain’t gonna change unless you try.”

Why did every goddamn person in John’s life think he wasn’t trying? He was, it just—it was hard, doing shit he wasn’t good at. His voice was starting to rise. “Abigail, I—”

She cut him off, eyes still blazing, voice louder than it should be as well. “I know you love the boy, but you ain’t showin’ it. You can’t just protect him when he’s in danger and expect that to cover the whole goddamn thing. Be a father, or you’re gonna lose him.”

“I am goddamn tryin’.” He was shouting now, the type of arguing that had been all too common between them when they were in the gang, the type of fight they hadn’t had in months. God, he thought they were done with this, but of course as soon as they settled all their old problems worked themselves to the surface again. Abigail expected too much, John got too wrapped up in what was hard.

Of course, Abigail yelled right back. “Are you? ‘cause ever since me and Jack got here you been treatin’ us both like the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. What’s going on with you, John?”

John didn’t want to snap, but his mouth always worked faster than his brain, and he was near screaming, “Goddamn it, I don’t know what else you want from me, woman. I got you out, I got you your goddamn ranch, I got us a life, what d’you want me from me next, to roll over and show you my belly?”

Abigail slapped him. It wasn’t a particularly hard slap, but the sound of it echoed in John’s ears, rang through his head. And he deserved it, but still it made him want to grit his teeth in a kind of snarl.

“Your son needs you, John Marston.” Softer now, more venomous in the way only Abigail could manage.

John, rubbing at his cheek, couldn’t help but spit back, “Yeah, well, maybe he should give up tryin’.”

It was too much, John knew immediately. Knew it by the way Abigail’s face shuttered, disappointment more than anger seeping into her face. And John couldn’t face that disappointment, couldn’t stand knowing that he was the cause, that they were falling into the same old patterns, that he was stuck in what he couldn’t say. And so he did the only thing he knew how to do.

He turned on his heel and left the house.

He let the door slam behind him, was down off the porch and towards the barn before he could even see Arthur’s reaction, let alone Jack’s, intent on getting as far away from the ranch as he could reasonably get. Arthur shouted something behind him, probably something trying to stop him leaving, but John ignored him, didn’t even bother saddling Rachel up, just shoved a bit in her mouth and mounted using one of the fences before driving his heels into her sides.

He left the ranch at a canter, not even entirely sure where he was going. All he knew was that he wasn’t about to stay at the ranch any longer, not with all the folks who kept telling him to try harder when he was giving it so much already.

Eventually Rachel found her way into Northaven and John found his way into the saloon. He managed to get three shots of whiskey into his system and was nursing a forth before someone was grabbing him by the collar and hauling him out the door.

It wasn’t until they were halfway to the river that he realized it was Arthur, and even then he couldn’t stand up straight enough to wrench himself from Arthur’s grip. Instead he was near flung to the ground near the bank of the river, far enough from town that they were shadowed, that they had some privacy.

Arthur was fuming, the kind of mad that John hadn’t seen for a long while when he spat, “The hell is wrong with you?”

“What’s your problem?” John had already scrambled up to his feet, ready for whatever fight was brewing, but Arthur didn’t get any closer, instead paced back and forth a few times, maintaining his distance with John.

“My problem?” Arthur hissed. “I ain’t the one with the goddamn problem. I ain’t the one yellin’ at his goddamn wife ‘cause she wants him to spend some time with his goddamn son. I ain’t the one who went goddamn drinkin’ when he said he’d read with Jack.”

John felt the anger, just barely dulled by the whiskey, come back full force. “That ain’t any of your business.”

Arthur paused in his pacing, half squared now for a physical fight, though one wasn’t guaranteed quite yet as far as John could tell. “It is when you’ve dragged me into the same goddamn house as it. It is when I’m the one with your goddamn son havin’ to explain why his daddy ran out on him twice in one day.”

“I didn’t mean to, Arthur, I just—” He just got mad like he always did, reacted the way he always did. It was a goddamn mistake. “What, I ain’t allowed to mess up now? Gotta be perfect like you every goddamn minute of every day?”

And that seemed to claw at Arthur, because he scoffed, folded his arms, hissed, “Quit runnin’ away, Marston. My problem ain’t that you messed up with Jack. My problem is you ain’t willin’ to stick it out when things get tough and your son is the one what suffers for it.”

And of course Arthur was circling back to John running, because that was always what they returned to. “Why do you care, huh? Ain’t like you’re the one what made him.”

“’cause he deserves a good life, ‘cause he deserves a father, one what cares about him.” Arthur growling, Arthur snapping, because Arthur was always so interested in John’s goddamn life.

John was shouting now. “I do care about him, Arthur.”

“Funny way of showin’ it.”

He was trying, goddamn it. “Oh, fuck off—”

“No, Marston, no, you listen to me, alright? You got used to doin’ shit that came easy to you. Turns out, the rest of us? We gotta work at that shit. Takes practice.”

John scoffed, snapped, “Easy enough for you to just say. Where do you get off tellin’ me what to do when you got no goddamn clue what it’s like bein’ a father?”

And though John had meant the words to hurt Arthur, had meant them to carry weight, pain, he wasn’t prepared for just how still Arthur went, how he turned his eyes up to John slow, dangerous. John knew immediately that he’d fucked up, gone too far, even before Arthur opened his mouth, said, “I had a son.”

The words were like a slap to the face. “What?”

“I had a son, Marston.”

It was like something not catching in John’s brain, some sort of block. Because that—that didn’t make sense, right? Arthur couldn’t have—wouldn’t John have known, if Arthur had a kid? He could hear the disbelief in his own voice when he whispered, “What are you talkin’ about, Arthur?”

Arthur shook his head, took a deep, shuddering breath. Gestured at the ground. “Sit down.”

And John sat immediately, not even thinking it through completely, because his mind kept repeating the word “son” over and over again. It didn’t make sense, didn’t process in his brain, because Arthur was nineteen when John had met him, because how had he had a son?

Arthur settled onto the riverbank next to him, close enough that John could grip him by the shoulder if he reached out. Didn’t, but sorely wanted to, especially when Arthur gave a long, shaky sigh, scraped a hand over his mouth.

When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “Met this waitress in a little town we were workin’ a job in. Long time ago now. Was eighteen and stupid, managed to get her knocked up after only the one go ‘round. Didn’t even know until she sent me a letter ‘bout it. Name was Eliza, her son—our, our son, he was called Isaac.”

John knew by the look on Arthur’s face more than any sort of common sense that this was not a story with a happy ending. Not in the world they lived in. His voice soft when he murmured, “Arthur,” hoping it conveyed the comfort that John intended in it.

“I offered to let her come with us. Didn’t even ask Dutch, seein’ as he had no right to talk draggin’ his women all over camp. But Eliza didn’t want that, didn’t think travelin’ like we did was good for a kid. Me goin’ with them wasn’t an option. Didn’t want to leave then, not when Dutch ‘n Hosea were the only family I’d ever been happy with since my mom died. So I—so I visited when I could, sent money when I couldn’t.”

John remembered, vaguely, Arthur disappearing for weeklong journeys when John was young, new to the gang, but they hadn’t seemed like anything out of the ordinary at the time. Things were looser then, when they were still something fledging, and Arthur had always been one to go and return as he liked. “But somethin’ happened.”

The breath Arthur let out was heavy as he hummed, “Mm-hm. Eliza ain’t wrote in a while, but I showed up same as always. Found two crosses in the yard. Neighbor told me they was robbed, shot. Law rounded up the man what did it, hanged him, but it don’t make a lick of difference. Ain’t had more than ten dollars on ‘em.”

“Jesus, Arthur.”

“Spent the normal week gettin’ soaked, crawled back when I thought if I didn’t I might just drink myself to death. Sure you ‘least remember that, s’when I…” Arthur gestured to his face.

“The tent,” John said, suddenly, because he remembered now. A night when Arthur had returned to the camp near blind drunk and out of control with anger. Arthur’d been prone to bouts of anger when he was young, but, even then, it was a particularly bad go of it.

He and John had gotten into an argument, John fifteen and too mouthy for his own good, complaining about having to share a tent with someone that stank so bad of whiskey. And, like so many of their arguments back then, words had quickly turned into fists.

John had gotten Arthur in the chin with a decent punch. Arthur had pinned John to the ground and broken his nose. It took both Dutch and Hosea to pull Arthur off of him, and by that time John’s face was covered in his own blood, running hot down his neck.

They’d pulled Arthur into Dutch’s tent to have a talk while Grimshaw tried her best to straighten out John’s nose. Arthur hadn’t slept in the tent that night, and the next morning, Hosea’d scrounged up some material to make Arthur a lean-to against one of the wagons, moving him out of a tent with John permanently. And Arthur had been cold for near a month afterward, closed off and reserved.

But it had faded, and they’d gone back to normal, and John hadn’t thought about that in a long time. They’d been in so many fights over the years, he’d seen Arthur in so many moods, that it seemed so insignificant in the span of fifteen years.

Maybe he should’ve paid more attention.

“Why you ain’t never told me?” John finally asked, because this was big, Arthur keeping this from him, like a whole life he’d hidden away.

Arthur shrugged. “You was young, Hosea weren’t sure for a long time whether we was gonna keep you around or find you a life somewhere. Didn’t really care to have you in my business anyway. And—and after…”

“Right,” John said, because he understood why Arthur couldn’t talk about it after, and he wasn’t about to make Arthur say it. “And that—that’s why, me and Jack?”

Arthur hadn’t been looking at John for most of the story, but now he turned his head back towards John, caught his eye. Eyes glassy, somewhere between grief and resignation. “Learned back then I weren’t ever gonna get what I want. Figured I oughta at least make sure you got that chance.”

“You want a family.” John’s voice was quiet when he said it, but it carried well enough. It was like a wash of realization, that this was what made Arthur push so hard for Jack’s wellbeing. A family. Because of course he’d treated Jack like his own son, because of course he wanted John to value what he had, because it was the same thing Arthur had been denied by random violence.

“Be grateful for what you got, John.” Arthur’s voice heavy, pained, so much it ached in John’s chest.

But—but if Arthur wanted a family— “Arthur, Arthur you got, got a family already, you got—you got Jack, Arthur, you got me.” John was leaning forward now, closer to Arthur.

Arthur scoffed, turned his head away, a pang of hurt flitting over his face. “Do you listen when anyone goddamn talks? That ain’t the kinda family I mean.”

“Yes it is.” Because the family Arthur meant was someone to love, to grow old with, to build a life with. He meant a kid he could raise, and goddamn if Arthur wasn’t already a better goddamn father to Jack than John had ever been, if Jack didn’t love Arthur like a father.

But Arthur was shaking his head. “You ain’t goddamn gettin’ it—”

John closer now, on his knees, nearly in Arthur’s face, because he needed Arthur to know— “No, Arthur, you got a goddamn family—”

“John, y’ain’t listening to—”

And then John’s mouth was on Arthur’s.

It smelt like rain on the air, some summer storm starting to creep in while Arthur and John had been arguing, and in a few weeks when John was finally able to look back on that moment fondly, that’s what he would remember. The smell of rain, and how that mixed up with all the smells of Arthur.

It wasn’t a particularly good kiss. John had misjudged the angle, too caught up in his own head to think it through enough, meaning his nose mashed up with Arthur’s and there were all together too many teeth. But after a moment of stiff surprise Arthur relaxed into it, softened and tilted his head and let John lean into him, let John’s hand come to the back of his head, let the kiss become something good.

It was John who broke it, and, for a moment, when he pulled away, Arthur was the most attractive person John’d ever seen in his life. Eyes half lidded, face flushed and warm, and if John wasn’t already in love with him the look of it would be enough to make him fall all over again.

But then realization crept over Arthur’s face, and it was near devastating in how it carved his expression from something soft into anger. John found himself being shoved back, Arthur face almost hurt, almost betrayed as he hissed, “John, no.”

“Arthur—” John started, because he needed to explain himself, needed to make Arthur understand what the past six months had been like, but Arthur cut him off.

“I can’t goddamn believe you. I can’t—the hell is wrong with you, Marston?” Arthur’s voice breaking over the words, even as he pushed himself back from John, to his feet, tried to put as much distance between them as he could. Angry, sure, but mixed with the ruin John’d caused.

“What, ‘cause it’s unnatural?” John snapped, following Arthur up, and he knew that wasn’t the issue, knew Arthur was far from caring about that, but it was the better of the two options he had in his head.

Arthur gave him a look, and it was amazing how that look, the one that called John stupid without so many words, could cut straight through even grief. “You know goddamn well that ain’t the problem, John Marston. I know you ain’t so dense to think I give a shit about what society thinks of inverts.”

But that left— “So, what, it’s me?”

The annoyed noise Arthur made in the back of his throat made John want to disappear inside himself, because even now it was clear Arthur still thought he didn’t have a brain in his head. “The problem is Abigail. Or, or ain’t Abigail, just—I ain’t your goddamn mistress, alright? You got a wife already who would move the whole goddamn world for you and you’re tryin’ to toss that all away for a roll in the hay with me?”

John protested, took a step forward, “Ain’t just a roll in the hay—”

“Then what the hell do you think you’re playin’ at?” Despite the anger in his voice, Arthur took a step backwards when John got closer, maintaining distance. Defensive. “I’ve given all I goddamn had to make sure you and Abigail and the boy got a happy endin’, and now you’re tryin’ to destroy it again?”

“Arthur, I just—” John’s voice catching in his throat— “just want you to be happy too.”

“And you thought this would make me happy? Goin’ behind Abigail’s goddamn back? The hell is wrong with you, John?”

“What do you want me to say, Arthur? That I’m selfish? That I’m a fool? ‘cause I know that already and it don’t change a goddamn thing. I goddamn love you both, Arthur.”

And that caught Arthur off guard, judging by the way he went suddenly still. His voice low when he said, “You don’t mean that.”

“I mean it.” John could hear the way his own voice went wavery. “You and Abigail both.”

Arthur turned his head away, chewing on a lower lip, folding his arms over his chest. Nearly inaudible when he muttered, “Can’t do this to me, John. Ain’t fair.”

There was a name for the look Arthur gave him when he looked back up, and that was betrayal. And John couldn’t say he didn’t deserve it, because hadn’t he fucked up? If what Arthur wanted was a family, if what Arthur wanted was John, then he’d given the man hope and torn it all back down again in the same breath.

John tried one last approach, one last-ditch effort. “Can’t—can’t we work somethin’ out here? Listen, what if—what if I talk to Abigail, okay? Ain’t like we’ve ever been normal, not me and her, and not you and me. If we—if anyone were to work it out, it would be us. And there’s folks out west who do that shit, right?” Sure, they usually were men with two wives, but— “Just—just give me a chance, Arthur, please. If you’re willin’ and she’s willin’—ain’t we allowed to try it?”

For a long moment, John was sure Arthur would say no. That he’d irreparably ruined his relationship with Arthur, that all the things he’d dreaded when he first realized he loved Arthur were coming true. That he’d lose Arthur forever, that he should’ve just kept his fucking tongue in his mouth, his lips to himself.

But Arthur’s eyebrows were low, his jaw working as he thought hard over something, until finally he dipped his head, muttered, “Fine.” And John got only one brief moment of relief before the panic came rushing back in when Arthur jerked his head back up, looked John square as he said, “You got a week.” Arthur whistled for whatever horse he’d rode in on. “After that I talk to her myself.”

John watched Arthur turn on his heel, no more word said, watched him swing onto Buell’s back, watched him ride out into the storm clouds weighing heavy in the sky. Then he dropped to his ass in the mud of the riverbank, put his face in his own hands.

He was a goddamned fool.

Chapter Text

John spent the first three days trying to spend as much time with Jack as possible.

It was both a calculated move and something John actually wanted. If Abigail, if Arthur saw that John was making an effort, was trying to actually build a relationship with the boy, they were going to be more amenable to any conversations to follow. Something like forward progress, bargaining in good faith and all that.

But John also wanted to spend time with the boy, because it wasn’t like he didn’t want a good relationship with Jack. It was just that he had no idea how to make it good. Every single parent or parental figure in his life, save maybe Hosea in his later years, wasn’t exactly the prime example of what a parent should be. His father neglectful, Dutch manipulative, even Hosea when John was younger had been a touch distant, more apt to let Dutch take on the majority of the teaching save things like hunting and the like. Even when Hosea had gotten older and become more like a father or grandfather figure to John, it was more life advice sort of stuff, which didn’t exactly translate to a five year old.

But John was trying to make an effort. Trying not to be afraid of making mistakes, because they’d be inevitable. Trying to learn, rather than hoping it all came easy, because as much as he hated feeling like he wasn’t good at something, Abigail and Arthur were right when they said that Jack was worth the effort.

So he took Jack down to the river the next day, when the sun was at its peak. Let him wade around in the shallows in his underwear, even joined him for a while. Ended up getting into a splash fight, soaking them through enough that John’s clothes were still damp when they got back to the house. And he helped Jack with his writing, and he let the boy read to him, and he even told him a couple stories as he tucked him into bed.

And he liked it, was the thing. If spending time with Jack only meant what it did at face value, John might’ve always liked it. Jack was a good kid. Sweet, honestly, in a way that John didn’t think Jack got from him, and a quick learner. More apt to have a book in his lap than something more practical, but there was time for that. He was just a kid.

The problem had always been that John couldn’t think about Jack without dragging all the other bad shit to the surface. John’s own failure to commit, Abigail’s high expectations. Doubt that Jack was his son, though John was starting to realize that line of thinking had largely been an excuse he made, a reason he didn’t have to try. All of it came rushing in whenever he was around Jack, and that made it harder to be a proper father.

But that was starting to ease now. John was learning how to be around the boy, how to interact with him. And whenever it started to get hard, he tried to remember what Arthur said, to stick it out when it got tough. To not respond with anger, not like his father might’ve done, but to work things through. Act like Arthur, act like Hosea. Act like Abigail.

Spent most of his free time with Jack and, in the rest, John ran over potential ways the conversation with Abigail could go.

The problem was, John didn’t know how to start the conversation, because how the hell do you say something like that? At best, Abigail would deny him what he wanted, a relationship with both her and Arthur. At worst, it could drive her away entirely, the thought that he could love someone else, that he wasn’t committed to only her for life. And it wasn’t like he thought that of Abigail, not when they’d been through so much and she stuck with him despite it, but it still was a worry in the back of his mind.

But if he didn’t talk to her at all, he was at risk of losing both Arthur and Abigail permanently, seeing as that was the threat inherent in Arthur talking to Abigail himself. Arthur would leave, and John would still be faced with the same consequence of Abigail knowing he loved Arthur. So he needed to find a way.

 


 

On the fourth day, John found himself taking a break around midmorning and sharing a cigarette with Charles. He’d formed an easy sort of relationship with the man, even more so than he’d had back in the gang. Charles was reliable, steadfast, tended to be content to work quietly just as much as have a conversation, which was a relief when there was so much that John couldn’t bear to talk about. It wasn’t like Arthur’s relationship with Charles, not that close, but it was something valuable all the same.

And it was a strong enough relationship now that John finally worked up the courage to say, pulling the cigarette from his mouth, “Can I ask you somethin’?”

“Go ahead,” Charles said, breathing a stream of smoke out into the sunlight.

John nearly bit it back, but he was already in it now, and he’d asked Charles of all people for a reason. “You ever heard of a man in a relationship with a man and woman both?”

Charles gave him a steady look. “This about you and Arthur?”

It shouldn’t have surprised John at this point that Charles knew, because it seemed everyone knew their business at this point, but it still made his stomach turn. “Yeah, it’s—it’s me and Arthur.” Seemed that was all it ever was these days. “So you know.”

And Charles only inclined his head, settled back further against the fence he was leaning against. “Even if I didn’t, this past week would’ve made it clear.”

That was probably fair. He and Arthur were now avoiding each other, and they hadn’t exactly been subtle about it, Arthur spending all of his days with the horses or up clearing parts of the wooded portion of their ranch, while John tended the sheep and most other miscellaneous things. And John had definitely not been subtle up to that point. “He said anythin’ to you?”

“No. Sure you know already, but Arthur isn’t exactly one to share much unless he’s asked.”

“And you ain’t asked.” John tapped his cigarette a couple times, knocking free the ashes just to have something to do with his hands.

The corners of Charles’s mouth curled up as he looked over at John. “Forgive me if I’m not so much a gossip as others in camp were. Whatever’s going on with you and him is your business.”

“Fair enough.” In some ways that was a shame, though, since Arthur was probably the most forthcoming with Charles out of all of them, as far as John knew. If he could get any sort of handle on what Arthur was thinking, it would be through Charles.

“To answer your question,” Charles said, breathing out another lungful of smoke, “not the traditional sort of marriage, no, not between two men and a women. But my mother’s tribe, from what I remember, didn’t see an issue with things like inversion, not when they had something like four genders.”

Four?” John honestly thought he might lose his mind with four, seeing as he was close enough with attraction to just two genders to deal with.

“Mmm. And in the Wapiti, several men have more than one wife, and several women more than one husband. So, sure, seen marriage similar to that.”

John hadn’t exactly meant marriage, not when he couldn’t even process that far ahead, but that was helpful all the same. If the native tribes could do it, maybe it was possible to work something out between the three of them. And it was nice to confirm Charles didn’t have an issue with what John and Arthur were. “Think Abigail will go for that sorta thing?”

“Is that your plan?”

“Only plan I got. Arthur seemed amenable, or at least he didn’t tell me to fuck off when I asked if I could try to work somethin’ out with her.”

“Then it sounds like you got no other choice than hope she does.” Charles dropped his spent cigarette to the ground. “C’mon, we should get back to work.”

 


 

John sprung the question on the fifth day, which, he honestly thought, was pretty good for how he tended to be, not waiting until the last possible second and all.

It was after dinner, John helping Abigail scour dishes and pots left over from the meal. Arthur hadn’t been eating with them recently, was more apt to pry open a can of something off by himself, and John hoped that was one more thing that would change if they managed to work something out. He liked eating with everyone, with Arthur, Abigail, Jack, Charles, hell, even Uncle. Arthur eating with them more permanently, a family meal, would give them a greater excuse to fold the others into the meals as well.

John had just fished a bowl from the hot water, passed it to Abigail to rinse and dry, when he said—or, forced out, more like, since even his body seemed to reject the idea of having the conversation, “Abigail, can I say somethin’?”

“Don’t believe I’ve ever been able to stop you from sayin’ anythin’,” Abigail said, though the smile on her face meant she mostly meant it as teasing.

The tension from a few days previous had mostly gone from between them, because they were always quick to fight and quick to settle. But, still, John needed to say, “Wanted—wanted to apologize. For what I said the other night.” Seeing the look Abigail gave him, John couldn’t help asking, “What?”

Abigail laughed under her breath, set the dish off to the side. “Think the world might be endin’, you apologizin’ to me. Did Arthur talk to you?”

“No—well, yeah, but that ain’t—ain’t why I’m apologizin’.” John brought a hand up to the back of his neck, rubbed at it. His hair was starting to grow out again, long enough to run fingers through. “Not really. Or he ain’t told me to, at least.”

Abigail’s head had gone titled, and John figured that was probably fair, seeing as he was acting strange. “Did somethin’ happen ‘tween you two? Ain’t seen you like this since before we got out.”

John sucked in air through his teeth, decided he couldn’t avoid it any longer. Grabbed at Abigail’s hand, held it between both of his. “You know I love you, right? Like I ain’t nothin’ without you?”

“John…” Abigail said, slowly, wary. “John, what’s this about?” The concern in her eyes ached at John, made it hard to breathe.

A breath in, a breath out. Breath in, deep enough to hurt his chest.

“Think… think I love Arthur too.” And then, seeing some sort of realization cross Abigail’s face, something surprised, something that could be hurt, John immediately started to panic, started to blurt, “Can you—can you hear me out first? Abigail, I don’t wanna lose you, ‘cause you’re one of the best things that ever happened to me. But—but Arthur, I love him too. Like—like I wanna be with you both. Maybe that makes me selfish. I don’t know. But I’d do anythin’ for you, and I want the same for Arthur. I’m—I’m sorry I can’t be happy with what I got. But I love you both, alright?”

John let his words hang in the air, peering at her with his head tilted. And she wasn’t looking at him, just was looking into space. Thinking, processing.

He broke the silence. “Abigail, say somethin’.”

“Need to sit down,” Abigail murmured, pulling her hand from John’s.

He trailed her over into the living room, following her down when she sat heavily in the couch. Waited for her to speak, because he owed her that.

Finally, “How long?”

John sighed. “Since—since New Year’s.”

And a flash of hurt crossed her eyes. “Six months you two been…?”

“Been…?” Been what? Been—oh. “Oh, oh God no, Abigail we ain’t been—you really think Arthur would allow any of that behind your back? No, I mean—I mean New Year’s is when I realized I loved him.”

It was like a rush of air came out of her lungs, a wash of relief, a smile breaking over her face. “Christ, you had me thinkin’ you was beddin’ him behind my back.”

John felt his face flush. “No, no I—I kissed him, couple nights ago, s’what caused the—the problems, but we ain’t—ain’t nothin’ like that.”

“Kissed him?”

Ah, shit, maybe that was the wrong thing to say. “I wasn’t—wasn’t thinkin’, Abigail, was upset and—and I’m sorry, ‘bout that.”

But Abigail didn’t look angry, still had the smile on her face. Said, quiet, “You are a fool, ain’t you?”

“You’re the one what keeps me ‘round, woman.”

“Not many men would love a man for six months just to ruin it with a kiss.”

And that made John’s skin crawl. “It ain’t—ain’t ruined, is it? I thought—Arthur let me ask you, is the thing. If we can work somethin’ out here. It’s a things folk do, over in the Wapiti, love two people at once, so—so can’t we?”

His words hung in the air. There was silence for a moment before Abigail cleared her throat, said, quiet, “Listen, John. This ain’t—ain’t somethin’ new to me.”

“Me… me and Arthur?”

“No, no, though I thought—thought somethin’ might be up, past few months. You ain’t exactly subtle about that sort of thing, havin’ somethin’ on your mind. Ain’t thought it was quite so serious as it was, but—but I didn’t want to think too much on it, anyway. No, I mean when I was turnin’ tricks, lotta the men what hired me were married men. Men what felt trapped in what they had, thought one of the only ways they could get out was to have some sidepiece. And it ain’t never ended well. Sure, sometimes it carried on a long time, but folks always found out. Secrets never make for anythin’ healthy.”

“I ain’t sure what you’re gettin’ at,” John muttered.

“I’m tryin’ to say, I’m glad you’re askin’. That means a lot. And that I ain’t a stranger to unusual relationships.” And then Abigail inhaled, exhaled slow. “That said, if it were anyone but Arthur, you know what my answer would be.”

“But it’s Arthur,” John said, slow and gentle, because his world would be over if he lost Abigail.

“He’s good for you, John. You’re a better man when he’s around. And he’s good with Jack, and I love him. Not like you, but he’s my family. And all he’s done for us—he’s keepin’ you out, don’t think I don’t see that. Keepin’ you away from that life, ‘cause you’re workin’ through it together. That ain’t nothin’.” Abigail was ringing her skirts in her hands, not looking at John. “If we all spent the rest of our lives together, I don’t—I can’t see that as a bad thing.”

“So you…?”

Abigail tilted her head up, looked John in the eye. “I think… I think we can try it. If it don’t—if it don’t work, it don’t work, right?”

And then John was kissing her. Long and slow, and though it took her by surprise she quickly found her rhythm, hard and fierce like she’d always been. She had her hands in his hair by the time he pulled back, whispered, breathless, “You’re the greatest woman I ever known, Abigail.”

She smiled, something John could feel against his lips more than see. “And you’re a fool, John, but God help me, I love you anyway.”

 


 

And then Arthur and John didn’t talk at all for another few days.

Arthur knew John had talked to Abigail, probably knew what the answer was judging by his behavior, which included taking meals in the house with the rest of them again, but he wasn’t offering to talk. Wasn’t giving John a clear opening, probably for the same reason John kept feeling reluctant to bring it up.

The problem was, they had fenced themselves into one of the most awkward situations John could imagine, because he’d never started any sort of relationship by talking about the damn thing. Usually it was more hands in each other’s pants than talking, at least the way John played it.

But this required nuance, required negotiation, and John wasn’t particularly good at either. And it also required sitting down and doing it, which made John’s stomach roll to think about, no matter the potential outcomes.

It was Abigail that finally provided the opportunity, because Abigail had always had a better head on her shoulders than the both of them and John didn’t deserve her. It was three days after she and John talked over dishes that she approached him and very pointedly told him about a trip she was taking into Plainfield with Jack to pick up some things she couldn’t get in Northaven, as well as to buy him new clothes. Though the town was well within a few hours’ ride, she was planning to stay overnight in the town. And though Abigail claimed it was to make sure they weren’t hurried, the look she shot him was pretty telling.

He had until she got back to work something out with Arthur, if he wanted to do it in any sort of privacy.

Evening, over dinner, John decided.

Arthur was miserable at cooking, something John had been delighted to discover after moving into the ranch and working on splitting daily chores more evenly. Why cooking in particular was what escaped Arthur, John wasn’t sure, but after Arthur’d managed to make potatoes inedible for the third time, John had laughed so hard that Arthur’d eventually snapped, “Alright, you got cookin’ and cheatin’ at poker, Marston, that’s two things.”

And John did have cooking well enough in hand. Sure, he wasn’t some amazing chef, but at least he could make things that tasted good now, which was more than could be said for Arthur, who ate for utility above all else. So the evening Abigail was gone, John cooked, because at least if he could cajole Arthur into eating together, that might get the conversation rolling.

John heard Arthur before he saw him, shutting the front door of the house. And Lace, the puppy, inclined to follow him everywhere, was with him, came skittering into the kitchen when she smelled the food cooking. John even tossed her a hunk of the venison he’d been cooking, because he figured it couldn’t hurt to get on the dog’s good side, especially not when he heard Arthur’s boots enter the room behind him.

John’d made a kind of stew, largely because it was the meal he felt he had the best grasp on when it came to cooking. They’d made some bread earlier in the week, him and Abigail, and so that and the stew made for a decent enough meal, though maybe one not quite suited for one of the hottest evenings of July so far.

He didn’t look over at Arthur until he had two bowls of stew in hand, turning to set them down on the table. Arthur hadn’t moved, was standing in the doorway with his arms crossed.

John jerked his head at the table. “You gonna eat or what?”

Arthur continued to stand in place, expression more than a little suspicious. “So, you’re cookin’ now?”

“Abigail’s in Plainfield.”

“She said.”

“So who else would cook?” Besides, it wasn’t like John hadn’t cooked at all in the days up until then. He rotated out fairly regularly with Abigail, seeing as they both had their own skills or lack-there-of when it came to cooking.

“Mmnn.” Arthur finally came unstuck from the doorway, sat heavily in one of the chairs and stuck his feet out in front of him. Lace still following John around, hoping he’d give her more meat. “Seems a little domestic when your wife ain’t home.”

“If you’re still mad at me you can just say that,” John said, yanking the opposite chair out from the table but not sitting down.

Arthur scoffed. “Ain’t mad.”

“You keep sayin’ that when everythin’ you’re doin’ suggests otherwise.” The train and now this, Arthur acting surly without, apparently, being mad.

Arthur, stirring his spoon around the bowl of stew, didn’t answer, just gave John an annoyed sort of look before he dropped his eyes back down.

After a moment of silence, John decided to just bite the bullet. “Abigail said—said whatever’s goin’ on with us, we got her permission to try it.”

“Generous of her.” Didn’t look up at John.

“So what’s goin’ on with us?” John leaned forward on the table, unable to help the feeling of familiarity that crept up his skin. Wasn’t long ago that they were back at Pineridge, shouting at each other over a table about Arthur’s life. Not shouting yet this time, but John couldn’t say that was out of the realm of possibility.

Arthur, again, unwilling to talk to John much unless they were arguing. “Think you got more of an answer than I do.”

“Y’ain’t exactly givin’ me much here, Arthur.”

Arthur dropped his spoon down into his bowl with a clatter, snapped, “Christ, John, I don’t wanna do this.”

“Do what?”

“Sit here and talk about it. That ain’t—” Arthur rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, “ain’t how I’m used to doin’ these things.”

“I don’t either, but I ain’t exactly the one what forced us into this.” Arthur’s decision to ask Abigail, Arthur setting them up to have no option but to talk about it.

Arthur sighed, leaned back on the chair. “How long?”

“How long what?” Christ, it was like drawing information out of a rock.

“How long have you—y’know?”

This time John sighed. No getting around it. “Since New Year’s.”

“That long?” Eyebrows creased as he looked at John.

“You can see why I ain’t wanted to mention it.”

Another pause, Arthur scraping a heel at the hardwood floor, arms folded. If it weren’t for the situation John would want to laugh, because it was more than a little like how Jack got when he was in a disagreeable situation. “And you want us to, what, be sweet on each other?”

“More be a family, I guess. Depends on what you want.” And John paused, tapped a hand on the table. Asked, because he still didn’t really know, “What—what do you want, Arthur? ‘tween us.”

Arthur glanced up at John, looked away, eyebrows low. Jaw chewing slightly before he let out a big breath of air. “I don’t know.”

“Ain’t an answer.” If there was one thing John had gotten better at over the past few months, it was waiting Arthur out.

Arthur shrugged. “Best I got. I ain’t sure what’s goin’ on in my own head half the time, let alone ‘bout—‘bout all this. Ain’t even considered any of it until after we got done buildin’ the house.”

The party…? “Thought you didn’t remember that?”

“…Remember what?”

“Durin’ the party, told you I loved you?”

Arthur blinked at him. “That was real?”

John couldn’t help the confusion that crept into his face, because, “Think I’d say that as a joke?”

“No, just—just thought—” Arthur titled his head, continued, quieter, “Thought I dreamed that.”

“You—” John crossed his arms, “you thought you dreamed me tellin’ you I loved you?” Christ, Arthur.

“Made more sense than the other option.” Waved his hand in a dismissive sort of gesture. “Wasn’t more’n bits and pieces, anyway.”

He didn’t understand how Arthur could be so goddamn smart in some ways and so dense in others. Every other person in John’s life was aware John was in love with Arthur, and Arthur thought he dreamt it. John asked again, “So—so you want…?”

“I don’t know, John, I ain’t—this ain’t…” Arthur sighed, scraped a hand over his face, worrying at the scraps of stubble there. “This is a hell of a lot to dump on me at once.”

“You had a week.”

“Oh, sure, a week.”

“And I been waitin’ a whole lot longer than that.”

Arthur made an annoyed sort of groaning noise, leaned back in his chair again. “Can’t believe you, Marston. Gotta be the most selfish son of a bitch I know. Got a wife, got a kid, still ain’t satisfied.”

And that frustrated John just a bit, because this wasn’t him being selfish, not entirely, because Arthur deserved that choice at a family too, because, “Arthur, I just want you to be happy.”

“I was happy.” Voice sharp, but not angry. “I coulda been fine, just livin’ like this on the ranch. Now you gone and made everythin’ complicated.”

“Then we don’t gotta do this if you don’t—I don’t gotta—” John stumbling now— “We can just go back to—”

Arthur spared him the struggle. “John.”

“Yeah?”

“I ain’t sayin’ that.” And even as John opened his mouth to ask what the hell that meant, Arthur continued, ”Listen, let me put it this way, alright? I gone my whole goddamn life resentin’ you. First for bein’ Dutch’s golden boy, next for leavin’. For keepin’ me alive too, after Beaver Hollow, but that was different. You got every damn thing in the world handed to you, and you never seemed grateful for any of it, like you thought you deserved it. And meanwhile I kept losin’ what I got, and so I resented you and that was just the way it was, alright?”

“Alright,” John answered, knowing it was mostly just so Arthur could confirm he was still listening. He knew most of this already, of course, but it was different hearing it come out of Arthur’s mouth. Felt more real.

“For a long time I didn’t want to feel anythin’ but resentment, ‘cause I thought you deserved it. Did deserve it for leavin’ like you did. But after, after you came back, after Blackwater, Beaver Hollow, it was more—I, I couldn’t let myself feel nothin’ but resentment, ‘cause—‘cause I didn’t know how to exist without it, didn’t know what we was without it, and I was goddamn terrified to find out what was left if I stop.”

“’fraid there was nothin’ or there was somethin’?” John’s own voice quiet. Still standing leaning against the table, just a step or two from Arthur.

“Both. Was pretty scared of both.” Arthur paused a second, looking at his hands. Opened his mouth, said, careful, “Think I can rule one out for you now, though.”

John gave it a moment before asking, just to confirm, “…Which one?”

It came out more earnest than he’d meant it to, because he did want to know, and even if everything up to that point might’ve suggested John already knew the answer, he needed to hear it in Arthur’s voice.

Too earnest, maybe, when things had been so tense up until that point, because Arthur let out a snort of laughter, something that made his face go brighter, softer, the kind of Arthur John loved, his mouth quirking up at the edges, even as he said, “John, that might be the densest goddamn thing you’ve—”

And then John’s hands were fisted in Arthur’s shirt and his lips on Arthur’s, because that was confirmation enough.

Arthur knocked the chair over in his haste to get to his feet, a loud clatter that made all three of them, John, Arthur, and the dog, jump. But it wasn’t enough to interrupt John—Christ, the sky could be falling and he could still want this, to be wrapped up with Arthur. And not Arthur either, apparently, because his mouth never left John’s, not even as another rumble of laughter bubbled up from his throat.

“Shut up, Morgan,” John hissed as he jerked his head back, bodied Arthur up against the nearest wall.

“Ain’t said anythin’,” Arthur murmured, letting John move them. “Lace, down.”

The puppy was very excited by the new development in the room, any sort of movement still fascinating for the young dog, trying to jump up on Arthur as John pressed him back against the wood.

John couldn’t help the snort he made as Lace continued to prance around them. “Dog still don’t listen to you.”

“’pparently a lot of things in my life don’t,” Arthur said, voice indisputably fond.

And John was kissing him again and anything else Arthur might’ve said was lost.

It wasn’t fighting, not really anything close, but it had shades of that. Trying to outdo each other in some ways, working with each other in others. John grinding his hips up against Arthur’s, Arthur’s hands coming down to grip John’s ass. John sliding a thigh up between Arthur’s legs, Arthur leaning heavier against the wall to accommodate it.

Strange, sure, different, but John knew for certain now that, no matter what happened, they were going to be okay. That it still felt like Arthur against him, that John still felt like himself. Like trying to be together wasn’t going to irrevocably change who they were. And that was a fear John didn’t even know he had until he had Arthur up against a wall.

It felt like John couldn’t get enough of Arthur. Like just touching him was intoxicating, like tingling through his limbs. He’d wanted this for so long that actually doing it didn’t feel real.

John was nipping at the skin at Arthur’s collarbone, Arthur’s head tilted to rest against the wood behind him, when Arthur said, breathy, “My room?”

“Mmm.” John didn’t think Abigail would ever forgive him if they used the bed she and John shared. “So you do wanna do this?”

“Ain’t thought we got this far just to ask you to tuck me into bed.” Arthur pushed John off of him, jerked his head. “C’mon.”

Even moving, John couldn’t keep his hands off of Arthur, ended up being half dragged at because he kept stopping to kiss him. Trailed Arthur to the bedroom like that. Made sure as he was pulling the door shut that he trapped Lace on the other side, as he was not having a goddamn dog staring at them when they got up to… whatever they were going to get up to.

Arthur backed up until he reached the bed, then pulled John down on top of him as he collapsed onto it. A sort of messy scramble as both of them moved up the sheets, Arthur shunting himself with his feet, John in a crawl trying to keep with him. Neither of them wanting to forgo contact for too long, eventually settling with Arthur on his back, John straddling him.

Still caught up in the euphoria of having Arthur’s mouth on his, it took a couple of moments for John to realize Arthur’s fingers were caught up in the buttons of his shirt, slowly working them open. And then longer still to realize what that meant, that they were actually doing it, and a groan worked its way out of his throat as his own hands went down to the waist of Arthur’s pants, unclasping his suspenders and yanking his shirt free from its tucked position. And then Arthur’s mouth was on John’s throat and it became very hard to think.

Soon enough they’d tossed the shirts to the side, Arthur sitting up only long enough to slide his own out from under him before sinking back to the sheets, let John climb on top of him again. John’s hands were on the buttons to Arthur’s pants when the man broke his lips away from John’s, asked, “How you wanna do this?”

Truth was, John had learnt not to be picky when it came to having sex with men. He’d taken just about as much as he gave, because he learned pretty quick that he enjoyed either and some men were very much set in their ways, thought taking meant they were something akin to a woman, and were either disgusted or excited by that thought. It was easier, got him off more often, not to be too particular about how it happened.

If Arthur was offering though? “Can I…?”

Arthur snorted, lay his head back against the pillow. “Reckon I can take what you got, sure.”

And John should’ve reacted to that with some sort of snippy comment, but he’d just undone the clasp on Arthur’s jeans and the thought that they were really doing this gave him enough pause that next he knew Arthur was pulling him down so he could suck a bruise into the crook of his neck.

It wasn’t until he’d worked the pants past Arthur’s ankles, a few helpful kicks from the man to help with the ordeal of freeing them completely, that John thought to ask, “Y’got—y’know?”

Arthur jerked his head towards the table to the side of the bed, and John crawled over to it in a half-scramble, one that shook a low chuckle from Arthur. “Don’t look too uninterested there.”

“Six months, Arthur,” John snapped, rooting through the drawer until he found what he was looking for—a jar of petroleum jelly stashed towards the back.

“You’re just lucky some of us got a little bit more preplannin’ skills.” Arthur had gone to work on the buttons on his own union suit, and maybe that was a good thing because if John was the one to try the buttons, he wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t just pop them all off in his haste. “Too old for just spit no more.”

John rolled off the bed, took the jar in his hands. When he unscrewed the metal lid, John was surprised to find the vaseline had already been dipped into, enough to make a dent.

For as much as John had wanted to fuck Arthur for as long as he had, he’d always had trouble associating the man with sex. Sure, he knew what Arthur got up to in his free time when he was younger, but it was hard for John to picture that without actually seeing it—and there was no way he’d ever see it when he was young, not when Arthur always did his business away from camp.

It was odd, thinking of Arthur touching himself in any sort of way. Not wrong, more like something John shouldn’t be a part of. And that was strange, the fact that they were about to fuck, and yet thinking of Arthur in any sort of sexual position felt like an invasion of privacy.

Arthur, maybe seeing the look on John’s face, muttered, “Don’t give me that, I ain’t exactly a saint.”

He thought John had some issue with the fact he’d been using the jelly. “Nah, that ain’t it.” Arthur’d said something about preplanning, had earlier said he’d been considering John since the party. He squinted up at Arthur’s face. “…You been thinkin’ about me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Marston,” Arthur muttered, but there was a flush to his cheeks that John swore wasn’t there before. Arthur gestured at John’s still clothed lower body. “Get those off.”

John put the jar on the bed, shucked his clothing off as quickly as possible. Probably busted a seam or two and definitely popped a button off of his union suit. Would have to find something to tell Abigail that wasn’t about how eager he was to fuck Arthur, seeing as that likely wouldn’t go over well for a variety of reasons. Maybe just fix it himself? It’d look clumsy, but he knew enough about mending now to make a decent attempt. Would delay the awkward questions at the very least.

When John tugged the union suit down over his hips, shook it off his legs, his skin prickled with the feel of air over it, even with how warm the July evening was. He was already painfully hard, had been since they’d started kissing, but if anything the air made it worse, made John ache with the wanting. Over on the bed Arthur made a soft sort of noise, and when John looked back over it was like the air had been punched from his chest.

He’d been so preoccupied with the vaseline and then undressing himself that John hadn’t noticed Arthur had already tossed his union suit to the side. And though he’d seen Arthur naked countless times before, they’d all been in significantly different contexts.

Nothing like this. Cock already half hard, and that was distracting enough, but Arthur was looking at John with half-lidded eyes, arms folded against his chest, one leg crooked up, giving John room to crawl up in between them. And Christ, John’s own cock fucking twitched at the sight.

John wanted. Wanted so hard it was going to goddamn kill him.

He found himself between Arthur’s legs almost without thinking about it, the air hot and heavy and humid with the July heat. And Arthur spread his legs wider to accommodate him, and John couldn’t help but dip his head down, press kisses and nips to Arthur’s lip and jaw and neck until he worked a pleased sort of rumble from the man. Grasped for the petroleum jelly without even looking at it, pulled his head back from Arthur’s so he could properly slick up his fingers.

John’s cock was pressed up against Arthur’s in this position, and he couldn’t help but roll his hips as he leant to one side, dipped his fingers in the jar. And it felt so goddamn good even without any sort of slick that he almost missed the hiss Arthur made when he did it. The fact that he could now feel Arthur hard against his stomach meant that it was a good sort of hiss, and he couldn’t help the smile creeping over his face as he drew his greased fingers out of the jar, rocked back so he was kneeling between Arthur’s legs. And it only grew larger when Arthur bent one leg up, tilted it to the side, gave John better access.

“Jesus, Arthur,” John muttered as he pressed his middle finger into the other man, because Arthur was goddamn tight. Had to go back for more jelly, slowly worked himself into Arthur.

And Arthur exhaled hard when John finally pushed past the ring of muscle, shifted to widen his hips more. “Ain’t done this in near three years, John, don’t know what you expect.”

“What, taken it up the ass?”

“Any of it.”

John looked up at Arthur’s face, but Arthur wasn’t looking at him, was instead looking up at the ceiling, face scrunched. Trying to get used to the sensation of John’s finger in his ass, if John had to take a wild guess. “Ain’t fucked in three years?”

“Naw, got to be too much work to be worth it.” And Arthur’s tone took on an amused edge as he said, “So best make this a good one.”

“No pressure or anythin’,” John muttered.

He pushed a second finger in. Put his other hand on Arthur’s right hip to steady him and found his thumb brushing up at the scar from where the bullet punched through Arthur. Something like nine months of healing had done the spot good, made it look less like a bullet hole, more like just any old scar.

But the skin was still taught, shiny, and the shudder that ran through John’s body at touching it made Arthur glance down the bed at him.

“Alright?”

“Fine.” More than fine, fucking ecstatic. Fucking overwhelmed, having Arthur under him, warm and sweat-slicked and alive. Wanting this, wanting in the same way that John did.

He could’ve lost it all that night, lost this all to Dutch’s bullet. John had to be the luckiest son of a bitch walking the Earth to get this far.

When he slipped a third finger in, Arthur let out a groan, one that sent ripples down John’s abdomen, and John very quickly decided it was time to just get on with it, or else he was going to come just from seeing Arthur like this. After a few more pumps to be sure, seeing as he absolutely did not want to hurt Arthur, he pulled his fingers out, rocked back on his heels, went to work greasing his own cock.

Seeing what he was doing, Arthur propped himself up on one elbow, held out a hand, “C’mere, I can—”

He was offering to slick John up, and as much as John would like that— “Arthur, if you put your hand on my dick right now we ain’t gonna get to puttin’ it inside you.”

Arthur gave a breathy laugh, let his shoulders fall back to the bed. “Fair enough. You want me on my stomach?”

“Nah, wanna see your face.” He screwed the lid back on the jar, reached over Arthur to put it on the table next to the bed.

“Aw, that’s sweet,” Arthur said, and John couldn’t tell if the slight tremor his voice had taken on was nervousness or anticipation. Both, maybe, and, Christ, Arthur Morgan could look down a gun barrel without flinching and this was what made him nervous?

“Shut it,” John couldn’t help snapping back, because he was nervous too, real goddamn nervous. Nervous this would change things in a way he would end up regretting, nervous it wouldn’t go well, nervous he was making a mistake, no matter how much he’d wanted it, how long he’d wanted it.

In lieu of voicing any of it, John settled back into place. Let Arthur adjust his own legs, not wanting to yank at something when Arthur already had periodic residual soreness from the bullet wound.

Finally, when Arthur murmured a quick confirmation, John lined himself up, pushed into Arthur.

Despite all the work opening Arthur up, the first push only just got John inside of him. Even then, Arthur let out a rough exhale of air, grabbed at one of John’s hips, and John couldn’t help the moan that the contact worked out of him as he pulled out, pushed in again.

And again, and again, until finally he found himself bottoming out, skin flush against Arthur’s. And Arthur was breathing in short, breathy little noises, head tilted back against the pillow.

“Okay?” John asked, because that reaction could be pain just as much as any sort of good feeling.

“Mmnn,” Arthur hummed, which wasn’t an answer, and tapped fingers against John’s forearm. “Get movin’.”

John did as he was told.

And it was good, was the thing. John hadn’t done this in years, not since his year away, and he’d forgotten what it felt like. Different from the feel of being with a woman, seeing as the vaseline made a unique sort of sensation, but just as good. And it was Arthur on top of all that.

The feel of it was so intoxicating, hot and sweaty and good that he found himself getting lost in it, moving faster and faster, only feeling, not thinking. A pace that had to be punishing on Arthur, and John was so caught up in it that he didn’t notice Arthur saying anything until the third time he repeated, “John,” until his hands were on John’s face to try to pull his attention back.

“Yeah?”

“Slow down.” And when John complied near immediately, Arthur muttered, “Gonna start pullin’ hair next ‘f you don’t stay with me here.”

So that was something, couldn’t go too fast or even Arthur would kick up a fuss. Instead John shifted, trying to find the right angle, muttered back, “Christ, can’t believe you’re this bossy even in bed.”

Arthur scoffed. “’scuse me for tryin’ to have a good—”

But John had found the angle he was looking for when he next thrust up into Arthur, and the words Arthur’d been about to say were choked out into a low, throaty noise that made John’s knees go weak for a moment, made his stomach clench. Christ, John’d do near anything if it meant forcing that noise from Arthur again.

Still, he couldn’t help being smug, couldn’t himself asking, “Feel good now?” as he rocked in again, pressed up against that spot deep within Arthur that John knew from personal experience felt good like nothing else did.

Arthur tried his very best to kick at one of John’s legs, mostly only managing to tap a heel on his calf, hissed, “God, shut it, Marston.” His voice breathy, nearly a whine as he said John’s name.

And John wanted to do more than laugh, wanted to say something snippy back, but already it felt like words were escaping him again as he continued moving, his breath coming in short, heavy moans. He was near whining too, keening with the feel of it.

God but it didn’t feel real, not as he dropped his head down to lip at the place Arthur’s neck met his shoulder, not as Arthur put both hands on either side of John’s face, one thumb over the scars, and pulled him up and into a kiss. Too soft and intimate, too sweaty and real. Like a dream that had leaked into the real world, like something neither of them deserved.

John’s hand snaked down, wrapped around Arthur’s cock. The touch made Arthur moan into John’s skin, and John had to try very hard not to come undone right then and there. He did not want to come before Arthur, not when Arthur hadn’t fucked someone in something like three years. He’d never live down the horny teenager jokes.

But maybe he shouldn’t have worried, because as he thumbed over the tip where Arthur’s cock was already leaking, let it ease the movement of his hand, Arthur let out a choked, “Christ, John.”

John was speeding up again, unable to keep to the slower pace, but Arthur didn’t seem to mind now, not when John had the angle right, judging by the way his eyes had fallen closed, his back arching on the bed. And John wanted to acknowledge that he’d heard Arthur, was listening now, but the only thing that slipped through was a breathy, “Arthur.”

And that was enough. With another snap of his hips, another pump of his hand, Arthur came, a deep noise wrung from his throat, body arching and twitching as John worked him through it.

And with Arthur’s head tilting back on the pillow, the flush up his face, the way his eyes slipped open in the aftershocks, looking half-lidded at John, John wasn’t far behind him. It was Arthur grabbing John by the back of the head and pulling him down into a kiss that did it, the contact and the warmth and the thought that even when John was likely pushing Arthur into overstimulation, he still wanted to kiss him.

John drove his hips into Arthur, came shaky deep inside of him.

In the aftermath, John collapsed on top of Arthur, his arms and legs no longer able to hold him up. And Arthur grunted at the sudden pressure, but let John lie there, Arthur’s spend drying cool between them.

John was panting, suddenly too warm and too overwhelmed. It still felt simultaneously unreal and too real, the idea that he’d finally been with Arthur, that they had a home, were building a life together, could do this over and over in all kinds of different ways.

Arthur was breathing heavily too, probably not helped by John lying on top of him, but eventually his hand came up to pat at John’s back and he asked, “You good?”

John nodded, face still buried in Arthur’s collarbone, because he was more than good. Voice muffled when he said, “Yeah, you?”

And Arthur nodded too, which John felt more than saw. Said, “Get me a towel.”

John gathered his arms under him, propped himself up so he could look at Arthur’s face. “Why?”

Arthur gave him a look. “I ain’t about to make Abigail clean your goddamn seed from my goddamn sheets. Reckon that risks expendin’ even her patience with this whole situation.”

“Can’t get it yourself?” John wasn’t particularly inclined to be getting out of bed now if he could help it.

Arthur sighed, a resigned sort of noise. His voice reluctant when he said, slow, “Ain’t entirely sure I can move just about now.”

And John snorting at it, at the fact that he’d fucked Arthur out enough that he couldn’t move, probably earned Arthur a towel fetched by John. He pulled his now flaccid cock out of Arthur, rolled out of the bed. Snagged his own union suit for Arthur to put under his hips while he waited, figured he could wash it himself later. Had to fix the button anyway.

It wasn’t until he was padding through the house, barefoot and naked as a jaybird, that John realized just what a gift Abigail had given him by going away for the night. He was sure, if this kept up, that he and Arthur would end up fucking plenty while she was in the other bedroom, just as he’d already done the inverse with her, but it meant that any potential awkwardness would be eased just a bit. Also meant John didn’t have to worry about Abigail (or, God forbid, Jack) seeing him with Arthur’s spend smeared across his belly.

He passed the uneaten stew bowls crossing the room to the sink, pawed through the dishtowels Abigail kept under it and found a couple to suit his purposes. Pumped the faucet until it spilled water, wet one towel, wiped himself down. Dampened another, brought everything back to the bedroom.

John tossed the damp towel at Arthur when he reentered the room, feeling maybe a touch more satisfied than he should have when it smacked him directly in the face. And Arthur cursed, gave John a glare after he pawed it from his face. “An absolute child you are,” he muttered, moving to clean himself up.

“Ain’t the one with a stick up his ass all the damn time,” John said, tossing the dry towels over too. And then, “Don’t,” because he could see Arthur open his mouth and he knew exactly what joke the man was going to make. Instead stepped across the room to throw open the windows.

The room had gone hot and stuffy, probably no wonder when they’d been getting up to what they were. Even if they were too wrapped up before to think of opening them, John was glad they didn’t, seeing as he did not want Charles and Uncle, over in the hand house, to have possibly heard them having sex. Even just thinking about it made John absolutely mortified, and Christ he’d come a long way from the man who was happy to have Abigail near anywhere in camp.

Lace, who’d entered the room when John opened the door, had settled next to Arthur on the bed, and John had to shoo her away when he crawled under the sheets. Arthur gave him an annoyed sort of look, and John, though he knew it was teasing, still snapped, “You know normal folks make their dogs sleep outside.”

“S’what Copper used to do. Ain’t gonna treat her different just ‘cause we got a house now.”

“Still a bleedin’ heart, Morgan. C’mere.”

It took some negotiating of leg space and John knew it wouldn’t last the night, not when it was that hot, but they eventually settled into a position wrapped up with each other. John pressed up against Arthur’s side, head tucked under his chin, Arthur’s arm around him and legs intertwined. Like that, John had his ear on Arthur’s chest, could hear his heart beat if he held his breath, and that was more comforting than he ever thought it would be.

And yet, John’s brain couldn’t settle.

“Feels strange,” John murmured, and he could hear the pull of air through Arthur’s lungs as he took a deep breath in.

“Know what you mean.” Arthur’s hand was rubbing small circles into John’s back. “Probably gonna for a while. We been a lot of things, John, and most of them ain’t been anythin’ like this.”

“Ain’t even in a bad way, just don’t feel real. Like I’m liable to wake up and be back at camp, like all this’s been some dream.”

Arthur’s voice had a careful air as he asked, “Would you want that?”

John thought hard about the question, because he wasn’t sure what the answer was. The life here was what Arthur and Abigail wanted, was what Jack deserved, but— “Maybe… maybe back when we was happy, when folks hadn’t died. If it was me and you still, and Abigail and Jack, and no mess with us. But then, Dutch—Dutch ain’t who we thought he was, so… so I don’t know.”

Arthur took another breath, said slow, “I don’t hate him.”

That got John to pick up his head, look up at Arthur. “No?”

Arthur wasn’t looking at him, was looking up at the ceiling. “Nah. Mad at him, sure, but ain’t hate.”

John scoffed. “He shot you, think that deserves more than mad.”

“And I don’t forgive him for that, but—but he kept me around for twenty years, despite my best efforts to end up dead. Can’t pretend that was nothin’.”

“Yeah and he also tried to kill you, left me for goddamn dead. Pretty sure there ain’t comin’ back from that, no matter what came before.”

Arthur’s eyes flicked down to John. “But there was a before.”

Arthur.”

“You can’t pick and choose the past, John.”

“Ain’t that what you’re doin’? I ain’t the one who keeps sayin’ that life is over.”

“It is over, just—just don’t mean it didn’t happen. Any of it. Reckon—” Arthur paused, swallowed. “Reckon sometimes folk can be good and bad both. Don’t think Dutch ever meant to hurt us, not ‘til the end, but I don’t think he particularly cared who got trampled so long as the gang stayed strong. Stayed with him.”

And, in the end, that had been John. Had been Arthur. John tucked his chin back against Arthur’s chest, cheek warm. “I hate him. Hate him with everythin’ I got, Arthur.”

“Do what you’d like, John. Just don’t—don’t think I got that in me anymore.”

Of course, because Arthur was good now, too good for hate. “Can we stop talkin’ ‘bout Dutch?”

Arthur sighed, trailed his fingers up and down John’s spine. “Sure. Sure, we can stop.”

This was exactly what John meant by strange. Not too long ago his dick had been in Arthur’s ass, and now Arthur was talking to him in the same tone Abigail used when Jack had a nightmare.

Maybe he was right. Maybe John was a child.

But Arthur tilted his head down, pressed a kiss to John’s hair, apparently undeterred by the grease and sweat of a day’s work. Murmured, “Focus on the life you got, hmm? You got Abigail, you got Jack, you got me now. Can’t get caught up in what was, not when all you seem to got is bad feelings. You’re gonna lose what you have.”

“I know.” And then, again, softer, “I know.”

“Go to sleep, Marston.”

John shifted his head so it was on a softer part of Arthur’s chest, let his eyes fall closed. There were still loose ends. Dutch, Micah. John had no idea where either of them were, whether they were still together. Whether they’d gone to ground, or if they were still out there ruining lives, leaving destruction in their wake.

If he ever got the chance, John was going to kill them. Going to put bullets through them, make them regret hurting the people he loved. Hurting him.

But Arthur was right, John had a life here now. He couldn’t go chasing ghosts, not when he didn’t know where to look. Unless a chance happened to fall into his lap, he was here to stay.

For now, they were good. More than good, even. They were alive, alive and happy, alive and thriving. No matter what Dutch had done to them, they made it through, they made a life. John could hold to that thought as hard as he could.

With or without Dutch, they were thriving.

Chapter Text

Things were both different and the same as they ever were.

The next morning, Arthur caught the smirk John threw his way after he’d noticed Arthur was limping more than usual, and before John could even make a smug comment about it he found himself facedown in the mud, Arthur keeping him pinned with a knee as he slathered more grit into John’s hair. John was thoroughly filthy by the time Charles finally convinced Arthur to, “Let him up, he got the message. We’ve got work to do.”

But Arthur was laughing, and John realized he was laughing along with Arthur, spitting mud out of his teeth and laughing, because as different as things got he still knew Arthur, still knew how to get a rise out of him, and they were still alive enough to wrestle in the mud. Because, after everything, Arthur could still win a fight by getting John pinned. And Arthur offered him a hand to his feet, trailed him over to the well, giving half-sincere apologies and promises to help him clean up.

As different as things got, they were still themselves.

Summer slipped into fall, and John and Abigail and Arthur navigated their new arrangement. It was, by most accounts, what John had wanted: Arthur folded into their family fairly seamlessly. It helped that they all knew each other so well, had lived with each other like a family for so long. Eating meals together, taking turns taking Jack down to the river or teaching him the basics of some new skill, taking trips into town. Arthur spending evenings helping Abigail learn to read, something she’d been wanting to do for a while, John never feeling equipped enough to truly help. Arthur drawing with Jack, helping him practice his letters, John jumping in when he needed to. And Arthur tucked up next to John on the porch bench, reading some book in the fading light of evening, shoulders and thighs pressed together in a kind of casual affection, casual closeness.

They were a family. John could say that for sure now.

John still spent the majority of his nights with Abigail, largely because that was what he was used to. But he also found himself in Arthur’s bed a fair bit, and not just on the nights they were bedding each other. He wanted this to feel like a real relationship, like they were family, and so he didn’t want the only time they slept in the same bed to be when they had sex. Besides that, he liked being around Arthur, liked hearing him breathe, liked being reminded of what he’d gained.

And Arthur let him get close to him when they were in the same bed, more so than when they were awake. It wasn’t that Arthur disliked casual contact, just that it was still new between them. It was strange, becoming something different to each other after knowing each other so long. Meant they were still figuring out what sort of contact was appropriate, what kind was normal for what they were. It was easier when they were in bed, because it was easier to pretend this was all they’d ever been.

They did, of course, get up to plenty of more adult activities as well. John had forgotten the unique sort of soreness that came with taking a dick up the ass, and, in some ways, he was grateful that Arthur had bitten that bullet first. It wasn’t unbearable, and certainly not enough to prevent him from repeating the experience, but it took some getting used to.

The fact that both of them were used to both giving and receiving, though, meant that it was easy for either of them to take a rest at either one if they needed it. John had never really understood the idea some men had that a man taking made him a like a woman, and it made things a lot less complicated that Arthur didn’t either, that they could switch things up without it changing their perception of each other. And with Arthur used to going years without and John having Abigail, it wasn’t like they were fucking all that often anyway, not for a new couple.

And no one else on the ranch seemed to mind the change in their relationship. Sure, Uncle had made a sly comment about the kinds of things men like John and Arthur got up to, but it was more ribbing than anything malicious. Charles, as usual, let it be their business and Sadie, once she returned from her visit to Charlotte, only clapped John on the back and congratulated him on finally making his move.

Things had changed, but for the better. They were building something new together, John, Abigail, Arthur.

Life on the ranch went on.

 


 

It was October when John and Arthur rode out west to Grafton, the closest livestock town, to see the stock that was going up in the last stock drive before winter hit.

They needed a ram, John had decided, if they wanted to keep this whole endeavor going, to have sheep to sell yearly. Both to help protect the sheep they had from any winter predators, as well as to breed to them, as it was a better investment than paying to have a ram brought in. Arthur had agreed to come along mostly because rams tended to be disagreeable, and Arthur had proved himself, along with Charles, to be one of the best people on the ranch to work with disagreeable animals.

Fall had come fast, work making the time slip by in a blur. The ranch required constant maintenance alongside all the smaller things that still needed to get done for it to truly be complete—fence building, rock clearing, forest thinning. Storing firewood for the winter had been their big push at the moment, seeing as the wood needed time to dry out, and so that had taken most of their days, the work so tiring that it was hard to have time to think about anything else.

They’d passed anniversaries of the past year with little acknowledgement up until the anniversary of the bank robbery. Even then, John didn’t realize the date until Arthur took a seat next to him in front of the fire, said, “Been a year. Since—since Hosea and Lenny.”

It felt like ages, and it felt like it had just happened yesterday. Their lives had become so full since then, full of things they’d lost and things they’d gained. Arthur and John had become different people, and become different to each other. John hoped with all his heart that Hosea would’ve been proud of them.

They’d made a toast to Hosea, to all the things he did for them, all the things he taught them, and a second to Lenny and all the others they’d lost. And John made a promise, to Hosea’s memory just as much as to Arthur, that they would one day, once the ranch was more stable, make that trip down to visit his grave.

But, for now, they needed a ram.

It wasn’t a long trip to Grafton, just one they hadn’t made in a while when most everything they needed was in Northaven, to the east. Which meant it was the first time they’d seen the new ranch that went up just a handful of miles west of them.

Arthur saw it first, pulled Buell to a stop as he crested one of the rolling hills that made up the landscape of the valley. He gestured with a finger to a sizable ranch—wide, muddy paddocks, a house and barn larger than their own. “That weren’t there when we brought the sheep through, was it?”

“Naw, think we passed right through here.” John squinted, trying to see what was in the paddocks. “What is that, cattle?”

“Smells like it. Reckon we got ourselves neighbors now.” Arthur jerked his head towards the ranch. “Let’s go introduce ourselves.”

John paused, leaned forward in his saddle. “Is that a good idea?”

“We’re gonna be more suspicious as the closed-off ranch that don’t ever talk to outsiders than the one that’s friendly with others in the valley.” Wheeled Buell towards the ranch, set him off. “Can’t hurt to have some folks we know if somethin’ goes bad neither.”

“What kinda bad are you expectin’?” John asked, tapping his heels to Rachel’s side to follow.

“Would it be jinxin’ us if I said wolves again? You ain’t got any luck with them.”

“Don’t remind me.”

The house was even bigger up close, something close to the manor houses that were common down in Lemoyne. Not quite the mansions of Saint Denis, but clearly someone with more money to spend than John and Arthur’d had. Bigger barn too, but that might’ve just been to hold the cattle.

Arthur let Buell stand ground tied in front of the house, marched right up to the front door, John trailing him as usual. Knocked, stepped back a bit so they weren’t in the face of whoever answered.

The woman who opened the door was young but well kept, like she’d been a woman with a comfortable living. Still had a comfortable living, maybe, judging by her clothes. Nothing fancy, but too clean, too kept together for the average working class woman.

“Hello, ma’am,” Arthur said, tipping the brown leather hat he’d taken to wearing recently, seeing as he’d passed his own on to John. “I’m Arthur Milton, this here’s my brother, Jim. We own the ranch down the way. Ain’t realized this ranch went up ‘til just now, so we figured we’d swing by, introduce ourselves. Hope that’s alright.”

A soft sort of smile spread over her face, and John immediately knew the type of person this woman was. “Oh, absolutely. Millie Harrison.” She stuck out a hand for Arthur to shake, before offering the same to John. “We ain’t had time yet to see who lives around us.”

“Understandable,” John said, making his voice easy, friendly. “Know firsthand how much work goes into settin’ up a ranch.”

“Let me call my husband,” Millie said, equally friendly. “Sure he’d like to meet you all.”

Trusting, John thought, as Millie called for Teddie, who must’ve been her husband. That was the type these folks were. It wasn’t rare for a ranch wife in the middle of nowhere to answer a door to strange men with a gun in her hand. The fact that this woman had introduced herself, turned her back to them near immediately, meant she was trusting. If they’d wanted to hurt her, they could’ve done it easily.

Then again, they weren’t outlaws anymore. Maybe it was fine to be accepting of trusting folks, to not evaluate how much like a mark they seemed.

The husband didn’t answer when Millie called through the house, which she proposed was because he was off doing work on the ranch. She led them around the side of the house, called again, and a bigger man, thick with a stocky sort of muscle, picked up his head from where he was working with a few other men, made his way over.

“Something up?” he asked, eying Arthur and John.

“Teddie, these folks own a ranch just down the way. Saw we were here when they were passing by, decided to say hello.” Millie still relaxed, and Lord it said something about John’s life that he expected everyone around him to react to strange men with suspicion.

“Theodore Harrison,” the man introduced himself, and shook both John and Arthur’s hands as they introduced themselves back. “Sounds like you’ve already met my wife. We also got two children, my daughter, Helen, and my son, William. Will.”

“Son?” Harrison seemed on the younger side, only a bit older than John and definitely younger than Arthur, so if his son was similarly young— “Could I ask how old?”

“He’ll be six come January, why?”

“Just askin’ ‘cause my boy, Jack, he turned five this year,” John said, scraping a hand over the back of his neck. Arthur’d turned away from them, was instead looking over the ranch, letting John do the talking. John wasn’t sure if he should be annoyed at Arthur for that or not.

“Well then bring him along, next time you stop ‘round. Will’s been missing the friends he had back east, so it’ll be good to have someone around that’s around his age.”

“Jack too. I swear, you’d think he were an adult, how serious he gets. Ain’t really had other kids around for him.”

“You been around here long?”

“Nah, just a few months.” They had, at least, cooked up a decent enough backstory. “Me and my wife, Abigail, we had some trouble at the ranch we used to work on up north. Some sickness in the town, worried about it spreading to the ranch. We had some decent savings pooled and decided to try it on our own. Arthur lost his wife years back, decided to help us out with what he had.” They’d decided to call themselves half-brothers, their mutual father remarried after Arthur’s mother died in childbirth, but that probably wasn’t worth getting into unless someone asked. “We keep sheep, and Arthur’s got some horses too.”

“That gold one yours?” Harrison asked, gesturing to where Buell was, standing half asleep next to Rachel, one hoof cocked in back.

“Arthur’s, technically, he—what’s wrong?” John asked, because Arthur wasn’t looking at them, instead had his eyebrows pressed low over his eyes.

“Do he know how to handle that horse?” Arthur asked, not looking back at them.

Arthur’d gotten distracted, of course, by a horse. Or, maybe in this case it was more apt to say Arthur got distracted by the man that had been riding her, seeing as said man hit the ground as soon as John followed Arthur’s gaze over to him.

The horse that threw him was a mare, and, by the looks of it, not one the man had been equipped to handle. A buckskin, bucking and snorting and nearly trampling the hand she’d thrown, hooves churning up the dirt, before, with one last buck, she took off.

Next to him, Arthur whistled for Buell, and, before John could even turn around, was pulling himself quick onto his back.

John had seen Arthur on a horse more times than he could possibly count. Seeing him ride the best he knew how was a relative rarity, though, and so was a horse Arthur could push to its limit.

Buell, apparently, was one of those horses.

John barely caught the “Go, go, go,” out of Arthur’s mouth before Buell was shooting past them, instantly awake despite dozing before. Fast, in a flat out gallop almost instantly, Arthur seemingly not worried about the rock and the uneven surface of the ground below them. Trusting Buell, maybe, to find his footing, to keep them upright. Rode hard after the mare as she took to the winds.

Arthur didn’t have a lasso. Had rope, sure, but nothing fashioned to the right shape, the right knot. Hadn’t gotten a new one after Copperhead when his old one had been cut to ribbons after John’d used it to tie him down.

John only remembered that when, rather than loop a lasso over the mare’s neck, Arthur brought Buell alongside the mare, charging up the slope of the nearest hill, and leapt from Buell’s saddle to the mare’s. The distance the mare had gained and the dust kicked up made it hard to see, but John could at least make out Arthur hitting the saddle on his stomach, before swinging his leg over the mare’s back so he was sitting firm on the seat.

And then he and both horses were over the crest of the hill and out of sight.

“Fool,” John muttered under his breath, because though they’d jumped from horse saddles more times than he could count, he hadn’t seen Arthur do anything like that since he’d been shot. There was no guarantee his body would be able to do the same things he used to be able to. And, yet, Arthur did so without hesitation, throwing his whole body into something. John wished he could say he was surprised.

“Hope your brother knows what he’s doing,” Harrison said, arms crossed. Didn’t look mad or even nervous, just curious more than anything.

“If there’s one thing Arthur knows, it’s horses. He’ll be back over once he gets her calm enough to lead.” That part John had seen so many times that he could picture it without seeing it, could almost hear Arthur’s voice in his head. It was Arthur that had taught John to gentle wild horses, to talk them into trusting him. He wasn’t particularly good at it, largely because it required, like most things John wasn’t great at, patience, but he’d learned the tone well enough, the soft, slow, relaxed voice.

If anyone could bring the horse back, it would be Arthur. However, John might as well pass the time getting some information, what with not having anything else to do. He asked, “You have trouble with that one?

“You could say that. Had the mare I’d had for years bred, since she was even tempered and had good bloodlines as Dutch Warmbloods go. The filly—same one your brother’s after, call her Harlow—ended up out to pasture for a few years, though, while we returned to Vermont to help care for my mother. Didn’t handle her enough when she was young, I think, because now she’s barely broke and even getting her that far took too long. Davis thought he had her in a good place, but clearly that’s out the window now.” And the man heaved a sigh, brought a hand up to the back of his neck. “Honestly starting to wonder if she’s more trouble than she’s worth.”

“If anyone can get her, it’s Arthur,” John murmured. More goddamn disagreeable horses. John said a quick thank you in his head to Rachel, the least disagreeable horse John had ever known. He didn’t deserve her, same as so many other things in his life.

Arthur took longer than John expected to get back, and it became clear pretty quickly why—he’d pulled the mare’s bridle off completely, had instead fashioned a rough hackamore out of rope. Was directing Harlow largely using his legs, though, barely any pressure on the reins where they knotted up near her mouth. Buell following close behind, ears pricked in Arthur’s direction, both horses puffing but unharmed.

“Y’wanna warn me next time ‘fore you go chargin’ off after a horse?” John asked before Arthur was even to them, because while he wasn’t really surprised he still had to keep up appearances regarding Arthur’s safety.

“Had it covered. Buell’s in a good mood.” And while John tried to puzzle through what that meant, Arthur was turning to Harrison, holding the mare’s bridle up. “You got the wrong bit in here. You’re hurtin’ her mouth.”

“Davis said that was the only one he could get her under control with,” Harrison said, though his voice was more thoughtful than anything else.

“Then your issue is trainin’, not your bit. Hardenin’ her mouth ain’t gonna fix your problem, and tearin’ it up is only gonna make it worse.” Arthur ran a hand down Harlow’s neck, shiny with sweat from the sprint away from the house. She looked nearly calm under him, still tossing her head and stamping when she didn’t like the way John or Harrison moved, but otherwise standing quiet.

Harrison nodded towards the mare. “Jim was saying you were good with horses. Guess I should’ve believed him.”

“Fear he loves his horses more than his own brother, sometimes,” John said, shooting Arthur a less than serious look.

“Lord, what would Father say if he knew his son grew into such a grouser?” Arthur dismounted, pulled the reins over the mare’s head. Cooed at her a bit when she tossed her head and got fussy about him leading her, and the tone quickly settled her. He held the bridle out to Harrison, showed where blood had dried against the metal. “Her mouth was bleedin’. Your man yankin’ on it when it was already painful is what made her toss him. She ain’t tryin’ to be bad, not so far as I can tell, just didn’t have much choice when she was hurtin’.”

Harrison was peering at Arthur closely, even as Arthur handed the reins over to him. “You train horses?”

“Hmm?” Arthur ran his hand over Harlow’s neck one last time before stepping back towards John.

“Just—I know your brother keeps sheep, but he didn’t really say what you do. Horses?”

“Nah—just, just gentled a few. Used to be a decent enough way to make a livin’ when we didn’t have much.”

“Was thinking if you did, you might like to train her. Could pay you for it. What I seen today more’n enough proves you know what you’re doing.”

Arthur dropped his head down, rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Aw, oughta hire a professional for that. I ain’t much, just spent a lot of time in the saddle.”

Arthur was selling himself short, was the thing. Sure, he wasn’t a professional, but there were few men John knew that were better with horses than Arthur. Arthur could take some of the nastiest horses John’d met and make them rideable. The change in Buell was proof enough, seeing as he was now content to stand calm next to them, one ear lazily swiveled towards Arthur, sticking around even without him holding Buell’s reins. Compared to the horse that would try to bite near everyone when John first met him, that was all John needed to say Arthur was good with horses. Could reliably train them.

At least Harrison seemed to agree with John. “I haven’t seen Harlow stand this calm near men in ages. That isn’t nothing. ‘sides, you really think I’m going to find a professional out here in Crestone valley?”

“Guess… guess I could work with her every once and a while. If we’re already gonna be here bringin’ Jack over.” And Arthur shot John a look for confirmation, and it really said something about how nervous Arthur was about this whole endeavor if he was deferring to John. John inclined his head, and Arthur nodded his own head back.

“Then it’s settled.” Harrison held out a hand for Arthur to shake, then offered the same to John. “Glad to meet you, Arthur, Jim.”

Harrison offered to let them stay for lunch, but they really did need to get going, get down to Grafton before all the best livestock got claimed, buy them a ram. They set off from the ranch, Buell and Rachel setting a brisk pace after their rest.

They were well out of sight when John asked, because he couldn’t help his need to needle at Arthur, “So you’re a horse trainer now?”

“Didn’t really get much choice in the matter. Very insistent sort of man.”

“’cept when you rode off after the mare in the first place.”

“Mmm,” Arthur hummed, which wasn’t really an apology. John wasn’t even sure if he should be mad, seeing as Arthur had known what he was doing, and it was sort of in line with their whole helping people thing. After John was silent for a moment, Arthur said, “Interesting guy, huh?”

“What d’you mean?”

“Was thinkin’ he’d make a good mark, trustin’ strangers so easily,” Arthur said, voice sheepish. Rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Guess old habits die hard, huh?”

John hummed in agreement, because he’d been thinking the same thing. “We’re gonna have to figure out how to get Jack not to tell folks his father and uncle sometimes sleep in the same bed.”

“Believe that’s your purview, as his parent and all.”

John couldn’t help looking over at Arthur. “Thought we were callin’ him your kid too, seein’ as we’re together.”

That got Arthur to dip his head, tilt it away from John so he couldn’t see Arthur’s face. It wasn’t like John had been, shirking his role as parent because he didn’t feel up to the responsibility, felt tied down by permanence. As much as Arthur had been welcomed into John and Abigail’s life, as much as he was just more solidly in a role he had always sort of played in Jack’s life, an additional paternal figure, it was still hard for Arthur to accept that, to really accept the parental role he wanted.

John rolled it back to the previous topic, figured he’d let Arthur work through what was going on in his own head on his own. “Don’t gotta figure what to say right away. Got a week or so to figure it out. ‘sides, imagine Abigail will have some ideas.”

“That woman is a saint for puttin’ up with us.”

John couldn’t find it in him to disagree.

 


 

Before John knew it, it was November, and they had officially made it a year on their own.

He’d started thinking of his life in befores and afters. Before Blackwater, before Beaver Hollow, before Dutch’s bullet. After the infection, after New Year’s, after the kiss. John’s life how it had been, how it now was, how it would be. Life before Arthur, life after him.

They were settling into the little ranch in the Crestone valley, building the sort of lives that always seemed like an impossible dream. And as the days went on, it felt more and more normal, like this was something John could do for the rest of his days. It wasn’t like he didn’t long for the life sometimes, didn’t feel stifled in the ranch, but he had Arthur, he had Abigail, he had Jack. Sadie came and went, Charles was in and out on various hunting trips, and the work was hard enough that he didn’t have time to think most days, not about Dutch, and not about Micah. So he made it through, made his life.

The anniversary of the night it ended, John ended up out on the porch with Abigail, Jack, and Arthur. Just earlier that day, he and Abigail had presented Jack with three new books, something they’d decided they could afford after Sadie helped them sort through their finances and what they’d need for the coming winter. Jack had one such book tucked into his lap, reading out loud to the three adults that loved him most in this world.

Abigail and John were with him on the bench, seated to either side of him. Arthur, instead, had chosen to sit on the wooden floor of the porch, which John might’ve suspected was just to make things difficult if it wasn’t for the fact that Jack was there, and Arthur wouldn’t ever try to make things difficult when Jack was around. Instead, maybe, Arthur sat on the floor so he could lean his head against John’s legs, journal cradled on his lap as he sketched, kept his hands busy as he listened to Jack. Lace curled next to him, head resting on one of Arthur’s legs.

Abigail was leaning in close to Jack so she could see the words he read, still trying hard to at least pick up a little bit of reading, enough to get by in a pinch, enough to allow her to read her own mail, rather than having to ask John or Arthur to read aloud a letter that Tilly or someone else might’ve sent her. After a bit her arm went up to pull John closer as well, their heads resting together over Jack, warm against the growing chill in the air. Her arm wrapped around John’s shoulders, playing absentmindedly with the collar of his shirt. And after longer Arthur’s head grew heavier against John’s leg, his breathing steady and slow, and John knew he’d fallen asleep, safe and relaxed with the rest of them there. Jack’s voice carrying steady, strong.

A family. That was all John could ask.

 


 

Arthur wasn’t far off base when he called Teddie Harrison a good mark. Sometime around mid-December, John and Arthur brought Jack around the Harrison ranch to play with Will and check in with how the Harrisons were weathering the beginnings of winter. Arthur’d apparently been serious when he proposed they gain some friends in the valley, and they had something between an acquaintanceship and a friendship going with the Harrison family. For Jack, it was just plain friendship, and John honestly thought it was good for the boy to have a friend around his own age.

That particular day, though, they arrived to find the ranch in a state of chaos. To fairly experienced thieves, like John and Arthur had been, it was clear what had happened immediately, even before John let Jack off his saddle to go find Will to play with. The Harrisons had been rustled.

Arthur had been planning to spend more time working with Harlow, who was starting to come around, but instead they ended up roped into a conversation with Harrison about what exactly had happened.

It wasn’t a very graceful rustling, at least by John’s experience. The men who’d gone after the cattle hadn’t even taken the most valuable heads, instead focusing on the flashiest cows. And they hadn’t managed to take a whole herd from one paddock either, instead panicked when a couple of farm hands heard the commotion and had come out to check. Ended up making off with only ten or so head, a fraction of what the ranch kept.

Still, any sort of rustling wasn’t nothing, especially when the ranch was nothing industrial. It was enough of a loss that John felt obligated to say, as they looked over the half empty paddock, “If you ever need some meat over the winter to help hold you over, we got plenty of hunters in our number. We’re happy to share any excess.”

“Appreciate the offer, but we’ve got a fair bit in our food stores,” Harrison said, though his voice was still grim. “If it gets any worse, we’ll let you know.”

“In the meantime, recommend you hire a couple of guns,” Arthur said, not looking over. “From my experience with rustlers, most of ‘em are cowards, goin’ for the easiest targets. Make yourself more trouble than it’s worth, and a lot of them drop away. Get some men that can handle a good day’s work and a gun both, and you’re gonna save yourself a lot of trouble.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” And Harrison sighed, scraped the back of a hand over his mouth. “Things were definitely different back east, I’ll tell you that.”

“Should keep our eyes peeled,” Arthur later muttered to John on the ride back, Jack worn out enough that he was starting to doze, sitting in front of John in Rachel’s saddle. “They ain’t the only ranch in the area. Oughta not get complacent, no matter how sloppy that was done.”

Once again, he wasn’t wrong.

 


 

It was Arthur that woke John up somewhere around midnight, the feel of him scrambling into a sitting position.

One of the many benefits of having two partners, as far as John was concerned, was being guaranteed a warm body next to him in the winter. This particular night he’d been pressed up against Arthur’s back, nose tucked at the nape of his neck to keep it from the chill of the night. Meant he was left blinking up at the man when Arthur sat bolt upright in bed.

“What is it?” John said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, still trying to get his bearings.

“Shhh,” Arthur hissed back, head tilted to the side. Listening intently, and the reason became clear a half second later when John heard what had to be what woke Arthur up: the squeal of a horse out in the fenced pasture.

“Buell,” Arthur said, heaving himself out of bed, John scrambling to follow, brain still catching up with the situation.

“Buell? Why would he…?”

“Nothin’ good.”

Arthur didn’t even take the time to pull on pants, just yanked boots over his union suit, John following his lead at a touch slower pace, Lace watching them both sleepily from the foot of the bed. Both of them out into the hall, John stopping briefly in his and Abigail’s room to wake her, tell her that something was up but they’d be careful, before joining Arthur in pulling on his heavy coat, grabbing a rifle, and leaving out the door. No matter what Abigail might say when she was awake enough to think through it, John wasn’t about to let Arthur face down any sort of danger alone.

Of course, the tension of the situation dissipated near instantly when John’s feet got him out to the pasture and the sight he was greeted with nearly made him laugh out loud.

Unless there were multiple groups of sloppy rustlers out there, they’d been targeted by the same men that went after the Harrison ranch. The fools had gone for the horses. Buell hadn’t liked having strange men in his pasture.

Two men. One Buell’d kicked, judging by the way he was cradling an arm around his ribs and backing towards what must’ve been one of the horses they rode in on, seeing as John didn’t recognize it. The other Buell had by an arm, teeth clamped hard into his flesh. Even from the distance John came running up from, he could see the way Buell’s teeth sank into the fabric over the man’s arm. John’d heard stories of horse bites breaking bones, taking off fingers. A horse like Buell, he figured, was the type to try it.

Arthur was ahead of John, and he was already calling, “Bit off more than you can chew there, boys? Oh, no, reckon it’s my horse what’s done that.”

Predictably, the man that had the mobility to do so was clambering onto his horse, trying to get away nearly the instant Arthur spoke. Unarmed, as was the other rustler, and likely panicking over the fact that two armed men—or, scratch that, three, because Charles had apparently woken from the commotion as well, was crossing the paddock towards them—had caught him in the act.

And Arthur sighed as John got alongside him, called, “That ain’t gonna end well for you.”

The man, of course, didn’t listen, instead drove the spurs he was wearing into the horse’s side and took off. Didn’t even bother trying to grab one of the horses, even though that seemed to be their original goal. Christ, they really had them panicked.

Arthur, because it was Arthur, seemed unfazed, just turned towards Charles, who had now reached them. “Charles, could you take care of this feller? Jim and I’ll get his friend.”

“On it,” Charles murmured, and Arthur was already swinging himself up on to Fenella, the mare having sidled up to him as soon as they entered the paddock, even as John was still whistling for Rachel.

It was a milder winter they had to weather in Absaroka than Augusta, but still nowhere near warm. The ground hard, dusted with half-melted snow. John wove his fingers into Rachel’s mane as he urged her forward after Fenella, gripped her warm sides hard with his legs. Prayed he still could ride a horse like he used to, well enough that he wasn’t going to come off at a gallop just because he didn’t have a saddle.

And Fenella was fast. As little as the mare was, she could cover ground like few other horses, even carting around someone of Arthur’s weight. Rachel was nowhere near slow, thoroughbred and all, but she was nothing compared to the little Arabian. In a race, Fenella would have her beat every time.

Luckily, they didn’t need to go quite that long. Before they’d hit the far end of the pasture, Arthur was pulling his lasso from his coat. John’d given it to him for Christmas, seeing as horse training now seemed a firm part of Arthur’s future. Now, he felt an odd and unexpected sense of pride bubbling up when Arthur swung the lasso, landed it around the man’s shoulders on his first throw. It was the idea that he’d done something useful, the same sort of pride he used to get whenever Dutch praised him.

Fenella, used enough to Arthur that he could stop her reinless, immediately slowed as soon as the lasso pulled tight, and the rustler was yanked out of his saddle, hitting the ground hard. John’s feet were on the ground near as quick, and he made his way over to the man as Arthur stayed on Fenella, held the rope taut so the rustler couldn’t loosen the lasso. Easy, practiced, because they’d done this what must’ve been hundreds of times now.

“Woulda made things easier if you just listened to him,” John said, nudging with a toe at the rustler’s hip. “We ain’t inclined to torture a man.”

The fall had knocked the wind out of the rustler, probably made worse by the ribs Buell had bruised or broken, judging by the way he was gasping for air. Still, he managed to spit a “Fuck you,” at John as John turned him over, started hogtying him, which John honestly thought was pretty ballsy from a rustler who had just been running away from them in a panic.

John hoisted the man over Rachel’s back, vaulted up in front of him. Let Arthur handle the man’s horse, stamping and sidestepping until Arthur got a hand on its reins, and instead headed back to where they’d left Charles.

Sometime while they were gone, Charles had managed to convince Buell to let the other man go, the stallion now grazing along with the rest of the horses like nothing had ever happened. He’d hogtied the rustler, and John dumped his matching compatriot next to him on the ground, let Rachel rejoin the other horses.

Arthur wasn’t far behind, not even looking at John and Charles as he took a few large strides forward, crouched in front of the two men. All business, shades of Dutch’s enforcer again. And John couldn’t even be mad, because this time it was employed for Arthur’s sake as well as their own, to protect what they’d built here together.

Arthur didn’t speak for a moment, just looked the rustlers over. Sighed, asked, “How old are you two, anyway?”

“Arthur,” John said, not quite a warning but close to it. They were young men, that John could see now, light of the moon making their faces clear. Definitely no older than John, though he suspected they were barely older than teenagers. It wasn’t that John was against showing the men compassion, not when there wasn’t enough in the world as is, just that they should be careful how compassionate they were willing to get.

Arthur waved a hand at John in acknowledgement, said, “Let me guess, couldn’t make money any other way, turned to rustling.”

That got one of the rustlers, the one Buell’d bitten, to hiss, “Why does it matter? You gonna kill us anyway.”

Arthur sighed, elbows resting on his legs. “Now, listen to me, gentlemen. I ain’t particularly inclined to kill you, not when you ain’t hurt no one here, and I ain’t particularly inclined to turn you in to the law neither, not when you’re young and stupid and don’t necessarily deserve a hangin’ for it. But—” And Arthur tapped a hand on the boot of the man who’d spoken, making him flinch— “But you ought to choose your targets a bit more carefully next time. We ain’t got much here, and what little we got we need, meanin’ we’re gonna fight for it. Ain’t right goin’ for folks livin’ close to the bone. Folks like that—folks like me and my brother here—what we got ain’t worth the hell we’re gonna give you back. Got it?”

A beat, and then the men nodded, though John thought they probably had no other choice but to agree, seeing as the other option was being turned in to the law.

“Good.” And Arthur glanced up at John, looking for confirmation.

“Fine with me,” John said, because Arthur was right. The men had been unarmed, just trying to get some horses they couldn’t even pull off the robbery of. They’d scared them away from the ranch likely permanently, seeing as they’d thoroughly proved they could protect what they had.

“Alright,” Arthur said, pulling a pocket knife from his coat, “we’re gonna let you two go. Just don’t let us see your faces around here again unless it’s for an honest day’s work, or my brother, my friend here? They won’t hesitate to shoot you. Now,” he said, sawing away the bindings, “take your horses and go.”

The men scrambled away near instantly, likely the sight of John and Charles standing behind Arthur like guards flanking some dignitary, rifles still hanging from their backs, preventing any sort of retaliation. Fled to their horses and took off.

“Well, that went well,” Arthur said once they’d disappeared out of sight, pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his coat.

“Not sure that was a good idea, Arthur,” Charles murmured, taking the cigarette Arthur shook out of the pack.

“What, lettin’ them go?” John asked, pack of matches already in hand as Arthur offered the next to him. Lit Arthur’s cigarette, then Charles’s, then, seeing as the match had burned down, gestured Arthur in, lit his own cigarette off of Arthur’s.

“Encouraging them to go after rich folks. That isn’t going to end well, not as sloppy as they were.”

Arthur breathed out a puff of smoke, said, “Either they’re smart enough to know they can’t hope to take on any sort of guards rich folks have, or they get themselves killed runnin’ up against them. Whatever way it goes, they stop targetin’ folks that can’t take it, least if they listen.”

“Or they join up with bigger and stronger men.” Charles didn’t seem particularly disapproving, more just offering his own view. That was the benefit, John thought, of this arrangement they had going. A partnership rather than any sort of firm command structure. They worked together, rather than one of them dictating how things would go. Nothing like Dutch.

“Coulda done that anyway without our intervention,” Arthur shrugged. “Just glad Buell let us know somethin’ was up.”

“Did say he’d make a good guard dog,” John murmured.

“I miss somethin’?”

The voice came from behind them, and John knew who it was even before he was turning, shooting back at him, “Uncle, so nice of you to finally emerge from whatever hole you were cowerin’ in.”

Uncle looked immediately put out. “Hey, I ain’t exactly a light sleeper in my old age, and by the time I got out here it looked like you had it covered.”

“We’d never want to impose on your rest, Uncle, not when we’re lettin’ you stay here for free and all,” Arthur muttered through his cigarette.

“You look warm,” John said, eyeing Uncle’s thick coat, heavy scarf. “That why you took your time?”

“Christ, I never get a moment’s peace with you two, do I? Next time I oughta just stay inside, let you all sort things out.”

“Wouldn’t make much of a difference if you did.” Charles this time, more familiar with Uncle’s particular brand of personality now, more used to dealing with it.

“Lord, and here I was gettin’ up at one in the morning for you ungrateful lot. Goodnight boys.” Uncle waved a hand, started making his way back to the bunkhouse, footsteps crunching against the frozen earth.

“Get your beauty sleep, Uncle,” Arthur called after him, turned to Charles and John. “One of us oughta go follow them, make sure they left.” Gestured to where the rustlers disappeared to indicate what he meant.

“Let me,” Charles offered. “Better dressed for it than the both of you.” And that much was true, Charles at least thinking to put on proper pants before running out the door.

“Any trouble, you shout for us,” John said, though he wasn’t expecting any. The rustlers were cowards, same as most rustlers were. They wouldn’t be sticking around, and checking to make sure they left was mostly a precaution out of habit.

“Will do,” Charles said, waving them off before pulling himself onto Taima’s back.

Arthur jerked his head back towards the house. “Best tell Abigail everythin’s fine.”

“And get warm,” John said, because even with the cigarette he was starting to get cold. Was always cold, more like, and was starting to feel it on his legs.

Even like this, trekking back to the house at one in the morning, John loved Arthur. Even in the cold winter air, even dressed a mess in their union suits, hair still sleep mussed, tired and stiff with waking too early after a long day’s work. He loved Arthur for all he’d been, all he was, all they built together.

There was something amazing about it, the fact that Arthur was still an unshakable pillar. That they’d weathered a year without the gang, without most of the folks they’d known their whole lives, and Arthur came out of it stronger than ever, a man who could chase down horse thieves and let them go in the same hour. Soft in some ways, but in ways that made him a better person, made him the sort of man that John loved.

He was lucky to have Arthur, and he wanted to tell the man that, tell him how much he meant to John, that all the people who had abandoned Arthur in all their various ways over the years didn’t deserve him, that John barely deserved him. That he was a better man than he knew, that he was one of the greatest people John had met in his entire life.

But, instead, what ended up coming out was, “Kinda wanna suck your dick now.”

Arthur gave a sigh, a long suffering kind of noise. “Christ, John.”

“What?”

“The hell are you like this? I know it ain’t the way you was raised, ‘cause Dutch and Hosea at least had a little tact.”

“I’m serious, seein’ you gettin’ all tough with other folks, knowin’ they ain’t the ones what get to bed you, watch you be all nice.” Nice wasn’t even the right word, more that Arthur let himself be vulnerable in front of John now. There was still a give and take to their relationship, a lingering competitive streak, and Arthur was still inclined to tell John what to do, but things felt more even now. Balanced, like all the arguing and talking of the past year had leveled out.

Didn’t mean John wasn’t sometimes inclined to push Arthur into annoyance, though. Arthur had a growl to his voice when he said, “You’re talkin’ your way further from any dick suckin’ as we speak.”

John couldn’t help the grin spreading across his own face. “I mean it, I could suck you off, you could return the favor—”

“John.”

“Mmm?”

And John suddenly found Arthur’s hand fisted in his shirt, and he was hauled against Arthur for a kiss. A good kiss, hard and slow, and by the time Arthur let him go, John could feel the flush on his own face, hard against the chill of the winter air. Arthur’s voice low when he said, “Shut up.”

John couldn’t help the bark of laughter that breached his throat, and the noise followed them into the house, into assuring Abigail that they were fine, that everything had been fine, that they had been careful, done everything they could to focus attention away from the ranch.

He did end up on his knees at two in the morning with Arthur’s cock in his mouth, but afterwards he was hot and bothered enough that Arthur let John fuck him, so it all evened out in the end.

 


 

It wasn’t until spring that John received the letter.

Chapter Text

“Maybe the dog just weren’t meant to herd.”

“Well, Arthur, you had a coonhound that couldn’t tree a raccoon to save his life, so what’s a sheepdog that can’t herd a sheep if she’s standin’ right in front of it?”

The first few days that could really be called spring in the valley were damp. They’d gotten a few blizzards over the course of the winter, but most of the water came from snow melting up the mountains, turning the river thick and fast and the ground muddy. Even the ranch, tucked a bit uphill, wasn’t spared the mud, John now used to needing to clean his boots after a long day managing the ranch.

They’d faired the winter alright. Close to the bone, but that was what they were expecting. The good news about being former outlaws was that they were used to living within close means, used to scraping by. Charles had led hunting trips out when the fall first started to come to a close, and they had a decent enough store of dried and canned food for the winter. The trees they’d cut and dried out at the end of summer left them with plenty to last the colder months, especially when it was far from the coldest they’d weathered.

Arthur was continuing to train Harlow over at the Harrison ranch, the mare coming along well by John’s estimation. The mare was smart, just green and used to harsh training methods, and Arthur seemed happy working with her, having another project under his care. Though Arthur still claimed to not have any particular skill with horses, his work proved otherwise. The trick was just convincing him to see that was the case.

And the winter left John time to spend time with Jack. To get into snowball fights, to build snowmen, to read next to the fire. Sometimes with Abigail, sometimes with Arthur, once or twice even with Charles or Sadie or Uncle. But, not only did Jack have his family, but he had a friend now too. And trips over to the Harrison ranch always left them warm, left Jack worn out in a good way. And John still made mistakes, still was too harsh with Jack sometimes, still wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, but it was getting easier, not to get too caught up in his mistakes.

Things were easy between the three of them, John, Abigail, and Arthur. As much grief as it had caused before they worked things out, John having a relationship with both Abigail and Arthur had settled surprisingly well. If anything, John was the one most likely to regret the decision, if only for the fact that Abigail and Arthur got along so damn well that they often used it against him. He’d more than once entered a room to find the two of them laughing over something, and more than once he suspected that the thing they were laughing over was him.

They knew each other too well. That was both a blessing and a curse. Abigail could parse John’s moods almost more than John himself could, and Arthur always seemed to know when John was getting restless with the ranch life, was quick to propose a trip down to the bar, going out hunting. That, and help people that needed help, that winter in the valley. There was no shortage of people stuck out in the cold, folks that could use a hand here or there.

For the most part, though, John was happy. There were still moments where he missed the life they’d had, missed being an outlaw. Maybe part of John always would miss it, always would’ve wondered what he might’ve been if he’d stayed in the life. But he had Arthur, had Abigail, had Jack. Needed to start being satisfied with that, to value what he’d gained.

There’d been little word about the folks they used to know in the gang. Tilly’d been writing, had apparently been in touch with Mary-Beth, but even she was far away now, up near New York, trying to be a writer. And that was good to hear, that she was living her own life, a good life after being in the gang. But there was nothing from anyone else. John wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

The sheep had all had their lambs in February, birthing earlier than on Pineridge now that they were down where the winters were warmer, and, now that they had some sheep they knew well enough to work with, Arthur was trying, fruitlessly, to teach Lace how to herd.

Problem was, she just wasn’t all that interested in them in the first place. Add that to the fact that Arthur was too soft with his dogs and didn’t even know how to train a herding dog in the first place, and Lace was more likely to try to dig in the mud of a paddock than herd a sheep.

Still, Arthur didn’t stand any negative talk towards any of his animals, and he shot John a lightly annoyed look as they both lent on the paddock fence, ostensibly watching the dog herd sheep. “Hey, Copper did exactly what I asked him to do.”

“What, wakin’ us up at all hours of the night howlin’?”

Protectin’ the camp.”

John snorted, snubbed the cigarette he’d been smoking out against the fence. “Think you loved that dog more’n you’ve ever loved me.” And when Arthur said nothing, just laughed under his breath, John shoved at Arthur’s shoulder, said, “Ain’t even denyin’ it, goddamn prick.”

Arthur’s voice bubbled with laughter he was trying to suppress as he said, “He was a good dog, John, ain’t sure what else you want—”

“John?” Abigail called from somewhere behind them, and both he and Arthur turned to face her, John at least trying very hard to pretend he wasn’t just about to get into a shoving contest with Arthur.

“Back already?” Abigail had been down in town, picking through the supplies that were starting to come into the general store now that the mountain passes around the valley were melting.

“Mmm. Didn’t need to get much. Had some mail, though, wanted to run it out to you while I was thinkin’ of it and while you wasn’t busy.” Held a couple letters out to John, almost too casual about it, trying not to make a show of it.

Part of it, John knew, was Abigail taking pride in the fact she could now recognize “Jim Milton” on a letter. There was no reason she couldn’t wait until he got inside to give him his mail, but she delighted in the fact that she knew which letters to give to him, which to give Arthur. Still, he wasn’t going to argue that. He appreciated it, honestly, was proud of her, was grateful to Arthur for helping her learn. Appreciated that she brought him out his mail.

John thanked Abigail, promised they’d be up to the house for lunch shortly, let her take her leave as he sifted through his letters.

The first two letters John recognized immediately by the handwriting, having deciphered both often enough that he barely needed to glance at the return address to know they were from Abe and Tilly respectively, Tilly now writing from down in Saint Denis. The third, though—the third was plucked from John’s hands before he even got a chance to think through whether he recognized the handwriting.

“Arthur, c’mon—” John growled, making a grab to take the letter back, but Arthur shifted easily out of his grip, turned so his back was to John.

“Easy, Marston, just curious who’d be writin’ to you that I don’t know. No return address or nothin’.” And as Arthur ripped open the envelope, tugged out the paper, John reached under his arm to snatch at it, only ended up with the envelope, not the letter itself.

“Arthur, give it.” As much as things changed, the more they stayed the same. Arthur being a goddamn prick just because he could, just with the added caveat that they kissed sometimes. It wasn’t like he was actually worried about Arthur reading the letter, seeing as John had no idea what the letter was, but it was the principle of the thing.

“Naw,” Arthur said, grinning. “What, got some long lost sweetheart you don’t want us to know about or somethin’?”

“Sure,” John said, making another lunge over Arthur’s arm for the letter, “he’s waitin’ for me to come home from war. And he’s much bigger and stronger than you, and fucks nicer too.”

A rumbling laugh from Arthur, even as he held the letter out, away from John, John trying to maneuver around Arthur’s hip. “And knows to address his envelopes to Jim Milton, ‘pparently.”

“You know that ain’t legal, right? Readin’ other folks’ mail?” Made another attempt to grab it, Arthur twisting out of his grip, taking a few steps away from John.

“Aw, might as well turn myself in then, let ‘em know we’re sodomites while I’m at it. Could manage to get us hanged and everythin’.”

“Think you’re real goddamn funny, don’t you?” John muttered, even as Arthur walked backwards away from him, eyes scanning over the paper for the first time.

“Just a right barrel of laughs,” Arthur said, but his smile was starting to fade, dropping concerningly fast as his eyes lit on the end of the letter.

“What?” And then, when Arthur didn’t answer him, John started towards him, spurred by the look on Arthur’s face, a bright spot of worry blooming in his stomach. “What, Arthur?”

And Arthur didn’t say anything, just held out the letter for John to read.

It wasn’t a long letter, just a couple lines, but enough to send a chill of panic through John’s chest.

Jim Milton,

Think we might know each other. Would like to talk. North end of the Wissota oxbow on the second Monday of March at noon, if you’re willing.

J.E.

John glanced up at Arthur, his own furrowed brow, tense shoulders matching Arthur’s. Couldn’t get more out beyond, “Well, shit.”

 


 

It was luck more than anything that Sadie and Charles were around, and John called a meeting with the adult population of the ranch sans Uncle to figure out their next move.

John had spread the letter out on the coffee table, let everyone read it. John himself sitting on the couch, Abigail next to him, Sadie in an adjacent chair, Charles standing, Arthur pacing.

“Javier?” Charles asked, leaning back from the paper, though it was less a question, more a confirmation.

“’less you know any other J.E.s, ain’t sure who else it could be,” John answered, his voice sounding distant in his own ears. It still felt unbelievable, the idea that they’d been touched after so long. He’d gotten lax, gotten complacent.

“Could be a trap,” Sadie said, and that wasn’t wrong.

“Could be all manner of things,” Arthur murmured, folding his arms crossed. They’d left the meeting until Jack was already in bed, not wanting him to hear any of this, not when the boy still didn’t really understand what had happened at the end of the gang, not when he still sometimes asked when he’d see Uncle Dutch again.

John breathed out, decided to state it plainly. “Problem we have is we don’t know if he’s still runnin’ with Dutch and Micah or not.”

“Would that matter?” Sadie again, which, seeing as Sadie had only been with the gang six months, was a valid enough question. The Javier John had known was one of his closest companions, one who’d come for him when he was bleeding out on a mountain, and had been one of first folks to treat him normal after his year away. Sadie had mostly seen the Javier that was near stupidly loyal, not willing to hear any criticism of Dutch, let alone turn from him himself. That Javier might’ve shot John and Arthur on sight, leaving the way they did.

But—but if Javier wasn’t with Dutch—

“Outta all the folks we left behind still with Dutch, reckon—reckon Javier was the best of ‘em,” John said. “Least likely to hurt folks just ‘cause he could. So if he ain’t with Dutch, he might just wanna talk. But—but Javier was also loyal, maybe the most loyal Dutch had. So I dunno.”

Arthur sighed, stepped a little closer. “Thing is, even that night, he ain’t ever put his gun on us.”

“He didn’t?” John tried to pull his memories back to Beaver Hollow, but most of what he found was a well of hurt and panic he didn’t like sorting through, especially when the image burned into his brain was Dutch pulling the trigger on a man he’d called his son.

But Arthur had been watching the guns, trying to keep them all on him, so of course he knew. And Arthur said, quiet, “Bill, Micah, Dutch, sure, but Javier, no. Didn’t want to leave Dutch when I asked, but that don’t mean he wanted to hurt us neither.”

“But Dutch is smart enough to know that, right? Know Javier is the one person we might not shoot on sight?”

“That you might not shoot on sight. Some of us got a little more discretion than that.”

“Speak for yourself, Arthur,” Sadie muttered. “I still got a bullet with Micah’s name on it.”

Arthur gave her a look, and even John knew it was the you’re-not-helping look. “Micah ain’t exactly who I mean. And this ain’t Micah’s style, neither. Either it’s Dutch playin’ one of his games, or it’s genuinely Javier. I just ain’t got a clue which one.”

“Did he even know how to write?” John asked, because he couldn’t for the life of him remember Javier ever writing much down. None of them did, not unless they had folks to write to or a job required it, aside from the few folks with journals.

“Could read,” Arthur replied. “Used to complain about the way we spelled things. But writin’, I don’t remember. Coulda gotten someone to transcribe it, anyway, so I don’t think that’s a clear enough indication.”

“I don’t think we’re going to know for sure whether it’s him or not until we show up there ourselves,” Charles said, voice low, firm, because they were getting caught up in the unimportant bits.

“But what’s the plan, then?” Sadie said. “We go in expecting a fight or not?”

Abigail’s voice from next to John almost startled him, because he’d nearly forgotten she was there. “Why do you all sound so certain you’re gonna meet him?” The fact that they were the first words she’d said since John read the letter to her immediately quieted the room, quieted John. “I mean—I mean he went with Dutch, right? That night at Beaver Hollow?”

“But he didn’t ever shoot at us,” John murmured. Because that was the thing, John was starting to realize—even when Arthur and Dutch were screaming at each other, even when Dutch and Micah had their guns on Arthur, like Arthur said, Javier kept his gun on the sky. And hadn’t Javier looked surprised, almost shaken when Dutch shot Arthur? Hadn’t they been friends, him and John and Arthur? That wasn’t nothing, no matter how it broke.

“But does that matter?” Abigail’s voice gone that half pitch higher she got into when she was worried. John was worrying her. “He was with Dutch when things went bad, so why would we assume he’s not with Dutch now? What’s the best that’s gonna happen, you all get into a shootout? I don’t—don’t see what good comes of puttin’ yourself at risk again, John.”

And John was trying to figure out what to say, because they couldn’t let this go, couldn’t just pretend it hadn’t happened, but couldn’t find the words to express to Abigail why, when it was Arthur, of all people, who took pity on him.

“Listen, Abigail.” Arthur finally stopped his pacing, crouched so he was on her level. “We ain’t plannin’ to do nothin’ that would put our lives here in jeopardy. Problem is, whoever wrote this letter knows who John is, knows enough to know that a letter from Javier Escuella would get his attention. If we ignore this, all it’s gonna do is lead them back to the ranch. Think our best plan is to play it careful, but play it all the same. We ain’t tryin’ to throw this life away.” And Arthur shot John a look, said, “Right?”

“Right,” John confirmed, though maybe not as confidently as he should’ve. He didn’t want to lose what he had here, true, but if this letter was a trap, something Dutch or Micah set up, there was a chance there, a chance he’d be able to finish what he’d wanted to finish for a year and a half.

Arthur didn’t quit with the look, piercing, critical, like he could see through John, but his eyes slid back to Abigail after a half second. Voice nearly gentle when he said, “So we’ll take care of it. But you gotta let us do that.”

“Alright.” And, again, quieter, “Alright, Arthur.” And the trust in her voice made John’s chest ache, because he doubted that Abigail had ever given him that sort of blind trust. It was Arthur, always Arthur.

Arthur stood, cleared his throat, addressed the room again. “So me, John, Sadie, Charles, ride out there and see what’s goin' on?”

It was Charles who spoke this time. “Don’t think that’s a good idea, actually.”

“What d’you mean?” Arthur shifting back to fold his arms, look at Charles, but not angry about the objection, more curious. Arthur wasn’t Dutch, after all.

“Leaving the ranch unguarded, for one, but as far as we know, most folks out there think you’re dead, Arthur. If he’s still with Dutch and Micah and they find out you’re still alive, then things get much more dangerous for us here.”

“They’ll think we have more secrets to keep,” John muttered, because he got Charles’s point well enough, and it seemed Arthur did too, way he heaved out a sigh.

“He’s asking for John,” Charles continued, “so John should go, seeing as they already know who he is. Arthur should stay here, keep an eye on the ranch in case they’re trying to lure us away. Alright?” The question more directed towards Arthur than anyone else, because that was a big ask, Arthur staying behind.

But Arthur just slid his jaw to the side, brow furrowed for a half second before he looked back at Charles. “Don’t like it, but you’re right, ain’t got much of a choice. You should go with John. Sadie stays here.” And at the look Sadie gave him, Arthur shot over at her, voice firmer, “You ain’t known Javier as long as Charles has, and I ain’t sendin’ two trigger-happy folk to somethin’ that’s supposed to be a talk. ‘sides, I need you with me in case they’re tryin’ to lure our guns out, like Charles said.”

“Fine,” Sadie said, straightening. “So long as you keep in mind which one of us has actually shot a pistol in the past few months.”

“There are few other folks in the world I would trust to watch my back, Sadie. That’s why you’re here with me.”

Sadie peered at him, though there was a barely concealed smile on her face. “Think you just want someone to share your misery ‘bout bein’ left behind.”

“Ah, probably that too,” Arthur said, inclining his head.

“So,” John started, though he was loathe to break the easy atmosphere that had sprung up, not when the alternative was so bleak, but seeing no other choice, “if this really is just Javier, what do we think he wants?”

The resulting silence echoed the static in John’s own brain. Because that’s why they’d been so focused on it being Dutch behind the whole thing, because he couldn’t come up with a single reason that Javier Escuella wanted to get in touch with him. Nothing good, at least.

Finally, when no one said anything for a good long time, Arthur sighed, folded his arms. “Think we just need to wait to find out.”

 


 

The following Monday, John buckled his gun belt around his waist for the first time in a year and prepared to ride out of the ranch with Charles.

He was tacking Rachel up, tucking a repeater into her saddle, when Arthur cleared his throat from somewhere behind John. And John turned his head, just enough so he could see Arthur out of the corner of his eye, but kept on the tacking. Kept his voice light when he said, “Here to kiss me goodbye?”

Arthur sighed, stepped over to John. Picked up Rachel’s bridle, what John knew was an excuse for something to do, slid the bit into her mouth, the leather over her ears. Said, quiet, “Be careful, alright?”

“You know me,” John muttered, checking his saddlebags again, making sure the bullets were easy to grab if he needed them.

Arthur gave an annoyed sort of huff even as he ran a hand over the star on Rachel’s face. “Exactly, and that’s what I’m worried about. Listen, if it’s a trap, if Dutch and Micah are there, don’t—just, just play it safe, okay?”

John couldn’t help the snort that came out of his mouth. “Like you’re one to talk.” Arthur wasn’t one John had ever known to play things safe.

But it wasn’t what Arthur wanted to hear, apparently, because he took a step closer to John, said, “You don’t got me there to watch your back, alright?”

“If Dutch and Micah are there I’m gonna kill ‘em, Arthur.” Wasn’t worth lying about it, not when he was about to go out and do the damn thing. He wasn’t a child. “Don’t need you trying to protect me for that.”

“If Dutch and Micah are there, you do whatever you can to get back here safe with Jack and Abigail. And if you ain’t back by tonight, I’m comin’ after you, damn what Charles says.”

John wanted to reemphasize that he would be coming home to Arthur too, that Arthur was just as important to him as Jack, as Abigail, but couldn’t word it right. Ended up just saying, “My knight in shinin’ armor.”

The look Arthur was giving him was starting to shift from vaguely annoyed to actually half angry. “Can you try to take this at least a bit more seriously? We ain’t seen Javier in near a year and a half, John, and last time we saw we wasn’t exactly on his good side. Even if Micah ain’t there, if Dutch ain’t there, there ain’t no guarantee he won’t still try to kill you.”

And John, finally fed up with the whole thing, twisted around, grabbed Arthur by an arm. “I’ll be fine, Arthur.”

“I know, I know.” Rubbed a hand over his face, didn’t shake John’s hand away. Heaved a sigh, said, quiet, “I—I like this thing we got goin’. Don’t—” Quieter, careful like an admission— “don’t wanna lose you.”

John made his voice firm, tried to make Arthur believe him when he said, “You won’t. Know it ain’t easy for you to not be there, Morgan, but we’ll be fine.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

And John took the opportunity to pull Arthur into a kiss, something short and soft, just enough to feel Arthur warm against him.

For all Arthur pretended to be cold, uncaring, to put up a front of brutish indifference, he loved with all his heart. He’d put his life on the line to protect those he cared about, had done it countless times before. And John knew the reason Arthur was pushing, the reason he was so restless about being left behind, is because John now fell under the list of people Arthur cared about. Maybe always had, just in different ways.

It may have frustrated John to no end, having Arthur hound him about being careful, about not focusing on killing Micah, killing Dutch, but John couldn’t say he didn’t know the feeling, not after watching Arthur fevered, Arthur so close to death they were talking about the kindest thing being helping him along. John was riding into something unknown without Arthur at his side. If the situations were reversed, John would be beside himself too, seeing Arthur do the same thing they’d always done.

Arthur loved their life. Wanted to protect it because that was what Arthur did with the things he loved. It was clear in the way he kept his forehead pressed to John’s when he broke the kiss, scraping one finger over the stubble on John’s jaw. Arthur Morgan may not have been soft by near anyone’s estimation, but he had heart.

 


 

The Wissota oxbow was a lake on the west side of the valley. Not quite so far as Grafton, but a few hours’ ride past the Harrison Ranch. The land was muddy, wet, not quite a swamp but something close, something marshy. It was, in part, why the land wasn’t settled yet, the only structure close to the lake an attempted stonewall pen that had quickly crumbled into loose stone.

It was in this pen that John laid his eyes Javier Escuella again for the first time a year and a half.

Rachel was restless. Had been for most of the ride, probably because she was picking up on John’s own nervousness, the thrumming of his heart in his chest. He still couldn’t decide if he wanted this to be a trap or not. In some ways, a trap was a known quantity, something he’d dealt with before and could deal with again. Would give him an opportunity to finish all sorts of business that had been left hanging in the flight from Beaver Hollow. But Javier asking to talk was not a known quantity by any means. Any sort of animosity with Javier was not a known quantity. Even the tension between them in those last few weeks in Beaver Hollow had felt jarring, uncomfortable, wrong in a way that clawed at John. And he hadn’t even had it as bad as Arthur, seeing as Arthur was the one who pulled him from Sisika in the first place, the first real act of rebellion against Dutch. John had just been the unwitting participant.

But Javier didn’t know Arthur was alive, from the way things seemed. And Javier had been a friend. And Javier Escuella was standing in front of John now as John stopped Rachel on the far side of the abandoned pen, dismounting next to Charles, a good twenty feet of space between them and him.

It was surreal, being face to face with Javier again. The pen was empty save a horse that had to be Boaz—though last John had seen the pony his fur hadn’t been thick with a winter coat—and the land surrounding them was clear of activity. He could see out of the corner of his eye Charles scanning the world around them. Wondering if it was a trap. Still could be a trap.

His voice didn’t sound real to his own ears when John opened his mouth, said, “Javier.”

“John.” Javier’s voice the sort of raspy that came with disuse. Slid his eyes over to Charles, greeted the same, “Charles. Thought you were still with the natives.”

“Things change,” Charles said, simply. “Other folks needed my help.”

Javier nodded, looked back to John. “Was waiting long enough I was starting to think I had it wrong.”

“Sorry to have kept you,” John said, equally low, took a step forward.

“You look good, cabrón.” Javier’s head just slightly titled, eyes appraising in a way that wasn’t mean, just critical. John knew he’d changed since his time in the gang, physically just as much as mentally, but it must’ve been a stark difference to Javier. The muscles that came with farm work, the thicker edge that a richer, more varied diet had given him. John was still far from Arthur’s broadness and miles away from Charles’s, but he was at least more proportional now. Better groomed, too, seeing as the ranch gave John the opportunity to actually try to look good for the people he wanted to look good for. He couldn’t exactly say it was a bad thing.

But, “Wish I could say the same to you.” It was less meant to be an insult, more a reality. Javier looked ragged around the edges, like the world hadn’t been kind to him. Javier used to be one that kept careful attention to his appearance, set on establishing an easy sort of good looks. Something that looked effortless, that didn’t betray the time he put into grooming, maintaining his clothing.

Now, though, Javer had shorn off a good portion of his hair, and what was left wasn’t even long enough to tie back. His clothing was worn, patched, the poncho John recognized starting to unravel at the corners. Underfed, and Javier had never had much extra mass to begin with. He shook his head, said, “Running will do that to a man. I hear you’re a rancher now.”

And that was close enough to a threat, Javier mentioning the life John had built, that he snapped, “What do you want, Javier? How’d you find us?”

“Was down around this way, trying to put some distance between me and the law. Heard that a rancher was lookin’ for some hired guns over east of here. By the time I got over there, man had hired what he liked, didn’t want to take on anyone else. Recommended I talk with a rancher down the valley. Told me he had a scarred face, went by Jim Milton, didn’t mind hiring or living with colored folk.” Javier shrugged. “Had a hunch.”

Harrison, John knew immediately, and silently cursed Arthur in his head. It wasn’t entirely fair to lay the blame at Arthur’s feet, especially when this was one bad thing compared to the multitude of good that had come out of their relationship with the Harrison ranch, but it was a pretty significant bad, if they’d been found.

Then again, it wasn’t like they could’ve foreseen that getting to know a fellow rancher and then recommending he hire some guns when his cattle got rustled would get them found by a former gang-mate. And if Javier had spoken to Harrison, he likely knew where their ranch was, since it wasn’t like Harrison would see any issue directing him to the location. And, yet, Javier hadn’t approached them directly. Decided to send a letter, of all things. If he’d wanted to kill them, if he was with Dutch and Dutch wanted to kill them, he could’ve just staked out the ranch, struck while they were asleep.

So, John asked again, “What do you want, then?”

This felt strange. For all the time that had passed since he last saw the man, John would still say he knew Javier pretty well. Knew enough to tell when he was relaxed, when he was tense. Javier had never been an actor, per say, not beyond acting the servant or guard that most of society still expected Mexicans to be, but he could be showy, liked a performance. It just remained Javier at the core of his performance, unlike Hosea who could become a completely different person.

This didn’t feel like a performance. It didn’t even feel like a trap, or, at least, not like any trap John had been on the unfortunate end of before. More like Javier was trying hard to act like his old self, easy, self-assured, but that was a veneer over something else—something nervous, something that almost felt desperate.

Javier shifted, hands coming down to rest on his belt. Not armed, like Javier trusted them not to shoot on sight. To be fair to him, they hadn’t. Cleared his throat before saying, “I got information for you, John.”

“Alright. What’s your price?” Because that was the world they’d lived in, money for information.

But Javier shook his head, and the veneer slipped further. “Not selling it. A warning. Micah Bell is around. Not so close he’s in the valley, not from what I heard, but he’s running nearby.”

“And you’re with him.”

No.” The word was sharp, venomous, enough to make John straighten his back. It wasn’t like Javier had ever been particularly friendly with Micah, but Javier had been willing to overlook Micah with his loyalty to Dutch. The venom suggested that Javier’s tolerance of Micah had changed.

“So, what, he split with Dutch?” Because the idea of Javier splitting with Dutch instead was near unbelievable to John.

But, it seemed things had changed in a year and a half. “I don’t know. I’m not—I’m on my own.” Javier crossed his arms, folding back into himself. “So where Dutch is, I don’t know. But from the sound of it Micah pushed up into the Grizzlies after Beaver Hollow, and word is he’s been working his way west, over this way.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure. Need to keep tabs on him to keep my own head, so I try to keep track.”

Micah wanted Javier dead? “Split with him was that bad?”

And Javier just rolled his shoulders, said, “He was a rat.”

“Wasn’t what you used to think.”

“Things change.” Something hurting towards the back of Javier’s voice. “The one time I saw him after Beaver Hollow he pulled a gun on me. And I’m not the only one he used to run with that he’d rather see dead.”

So it was a warning. Javier had got in touch to warn John. Because as much as John wanted to kill Micah, of course Micah would love to do the same to him. If Micah wanted to build himself up as his own outlaw, his own gang leader, an ambition he always seemed to be gunning for, it didn’t do him well to have folks out there who knew his history, knew he’d ratted. Beyond that, he’d never gotten to finish the job on John, never gotten to be the last of the sons of Dutch left standing.

John closed his eyes for a half second, thought it over. Javier wasn’t with Dutch, wasn’t with Micah. Split with Dutch for an unknown reason, but now believed Arthur that Micah was the rat. Found out where John and his family ended up, decided to give them a warning, knowing there was a chance Micah might find them, knowing what Micah might do if he knew where they were. And now, standing in front of John, trying desperately to hide something, something that made him want to offer John information for nothing in return. He opened his eyes, said, “So, what else?”

And the look Javier gave him slipped into something like a cornered animal, something wary, almost scared, and John knew he had hit on the right track.

He pressed harder. “That can’t be all, Javier. You find out where we’re holed up and you tell me where Micah is? This is a lotta effort to do me a favor.”

“I—I just—just thought you should know.” Javier wasn’t looking at him, shoulders curling in on himself. Defensive.

“Why’d you split with Dutch, Javier?” John made his voice firmer, more insistent.

A long pause, and Javier muttered some curse in Spanish under his breath. John folded his arms, waited. Tried to mimic Arthur for once.

“Think,” Javier finally began, the faintest hint of a tremble at the corners of his voice, “think maybe Arthur had it right. Maybe Dutch wasn’t who we thought he was.” And he wiped his mouth with a sleeve, the admission seeming to rattle him.

“Yeah,” John said slowly. Gestured to himself and Charles when he said, “Yeah, we think so too.” And then, even slower, “Javier, come with us?”

Javier scrubbed at his face with the same sleeve, then crossed his arms. He was shaking, John noticed, just a touch, as he considered the proposition. Beside John, Charles shifted, and John couldn’t help but wish he could turn and see Charles’s face, as unreadable as John found him. Because he was already second guessing the decision he’d made, already thinking he should’ve consulted someone else first.

But Javier was still someone John had cared about, someone he’d trusted, thought of like a brother, and he was alone, hurting. The idea of that felt unbearable.

Finally, after too long a pause, enough to let the sounds of the world around them creep back in—bird calls, wind through the trees, the ripple of the snow-swollen river a couple hundred feet away—in a soft voice, like something breaking, Javier murmured, “Okay.”

Chapter Text

John gestured Charles in close as Javier went to gather Boaz, throw his saddle back on the horse. Said, low, “Think you should ride ahead. Let them know how it went down, just so they’re ready.”

“Arthur?” Charles asked, so quiet that even John wouldn’t be able to decipher it if he hadn’t been waiting for the question, let alone anything loud enough that Javier might hear.

“Let him make his own decision,” John replied, because he knew what Charles meant. Though John personally thought Javier seemed genuine, seemed too haunted to be lying to them, it still could be that those still left at the ranch thought it was a better idea to hide Arthur away, let Javier think Arthur really was dead until they were sure they could trust him.

John, though, thought that was an option Arthur would never go for. Arthur may have changed over the year and a half they were out of the gang, may have changed even before then, but he was still prideful. Hiding was never the sort of thing he’d go for. Giving him the option was more a point of politeness rather than anything John actually thought Arthur would do.

Still, he couldn’t help asking, still low, “Think this is a good idea?” Because he still had trouble reading Charles sometimes, and he’d made the decision to ask Javier without even consulting the man by his side. He didn’t want to be the sort of person who handed down orders.

“Not really my decision,” Charles said back, not looking over at John.

“Sure, but I—I ‘ppreciate your thoughts.”

Charles shrugged. “You’ve known him longer than I have, but he seems genuine to me. Inviting him to stay might be jumping the gun, but…” And Charles turned his eyes out to where Javier was checking Boaz’s tack over before glancing back at John. “But I don’t think this is a trap.”

“Alright,” John said, “then, then tell ‘em the same, when you get back. Else I think he’s gonna come ridin’ out to get me himself.” And then, John suddenly remembering, “Wait, don’t—don’t mention the Micah thing, okay?"

“…Okay,” Charles said, slow, looking at John carefully. “You think that’s safe?”

Safe, no, not if Micah was still gunning for them, but John was remembering what Arthur said to him before they rode out, and he doubted Arthur would go for the plan that was starting to spark in the back of his head. “Just until I figure out what to do. I need—need time, and he ain’t gonna take it well.” Not that Micah was still in the area, not that John wanted to kill him.

“Okay,” Charles said again, still giving him a critical sort of look. “So long as you know what you’re doing.”

“I do, Charles.” Sure, he was mostly making it up as he went along, but he did know what he was making up. He patted Charles on the shoulder, hoped it read as the end of the conversation. “Good luck.”

“Don’t take too long,” Charles said, swinging up into Taima’s saddle. “You got folks who are going to worry if you do.”

“I know.” And John waved a hand as Charles turned Taima, set her off at a trot.

By that time, Javier had Boaz tacked, was leading him over to where John stood with Rachel, checking to make sure her tack was still in place, that she hadn’t picked up any rocks in her hooves on the ride over. Javier watched Charles’s retreating form, asked, without looking at John, “He going somewhere?”

“Ridin’ ahead, making sure we got things ready for you. Abigail’s gonna wanna set up a bed, have a meal started.” If she didn’t balk at the whole proposal, at least, seeing as John didn’t really give her many reasons to trust his judgment. At least Arthur was there, could talk her through it if, of course, he didn’t think John was being a fool as well.

The look Javier gave John was wary—not quite to the point of cutting and running, but not entirely happy either. And John didn’t quite blame him, seeing as there was no clear indication on John and Charles’s part that they weren’t the ones leaving Javier into a trap, rather than the other way around. But Javier was either desperate or willing to give John a little more trust than that, because when John swung up into Rachel’s saddle, Javier was quick to mount Boaz, to follow close behind him as they made their way back to the ranch.

It was a warmer day than it had been in ages, the valley slowly coming unstuck from the hold of winter, but there was still a chill in the air. John was a warm weather creature, a man of summer at his core, and he hiked the scarf he’d donned over his face as they set off. It wasn’t like Arthur was there to poke fun at him over it, and, seeing as Javier had always been more inclined to the temperate weather that Mexico brought, he didn’t think Javier would say anything either.

It felt strange, having Javier at his side again. Strange like everything was strange these days, like John felt unstable every time he tried to amalgamate the man he’d been and the man he was now. The people he’d known then, how they’d changed. And the river ran thick next to them, its normal burble something more like a rush with the snowmelt swelling it, the sound of it soaking into John’s brain. He pictured Charles riding into the ranch alone, tried to picture Arthur’s reaction to it, Abigail’s reaction. Wondered what they would think, John inviting Javier back. Wondered if he made the right decision.

After a while of riding in silence, the air between John and Javier dropping to something awkward, tense, John decided to at least attempt to lighten the mood. Eyed Javier, settled Arthur’s hat back on his head so it wasn’t falling over his eyes, said, “So, Mr. Escuella, what do you know about sheep?”

“Is that what you’re doing?” Javier seemed grateful for the extended hand, settled his body language into something lighter. “John Marston, shepherd. Not sure I can picture it.”

Fair enough, John thought. He’d come a long way from the outlaw he was, the one Javier’d known him as. “Sheep ain’t the only thing we got. A milk cow, a couple of chickens, some horses. A dog, a border collie, but she don’t listen—” Don’t mention Arthur, John reminded himself— “She don’t herd. But a whole, real ranch. House to go along with it.”

“Abigail must be happy. Know that was what she kept talking about.” Not a veiled threat, a genuine warmness to Javier’s voice. He and Abigail had gotten along, as far as John knew.

“Very happy. Jack too. We’re—we’re good, Javier. Ain’t got much, but it’s a decent life. Got enough to keep us goin’. Made it through the winter, just now got lambs that we’re raisin’ up to sell come the fall. Got somethin’ good started.”

“You sound happy too, cabrón.” Javier not looking at John, eyes scanning over the horizon.

And that was enough to give John pause, because had he? He hadn’t intended it by any means, but he was happy. Had Arthur, had Abigail. Had Jack. It wasn’t like he didn’t still miss the life he’d had, being an outlaw, but being with his family made it easier, made it feel like he hadn’t lost quite so much.

He cleared his throat, decided to change the subject. “What did—what did Harrison tell you? The rancher you talked about, we know him.”

“Just the name, Jim Milton. Said you lived there with family, might be looking for workers as the spring came around. Told me where the ranch was but—but thought coming around wasn’t a good idea.”

“Well, it is me, my family,” not technically a lie seeing as Arthur was now John’s family, “along with Uncle, and then Sadie and Charles come and go.”

“Uncle?” A soft sort of disbelief in Javier’s voice, like the situation might be amusing if things weren’t tense between them already.

“He’s a cockroach,” John said with a shrug. “Don’t cause no harm, though. We don’t—we don’t do that no more, Javier. Hurt people. Just tryin’ to live peaceful lives, make up for any harm we caused.”

When he looked over at Javier, the man was looking back at him, something between suspicion and sadness. His voice careful when he asked, “That’s Arthur’s hat, isn’t it?”

John rolled his shoulders, wanted to let his eyes fall closed. Knew what Javier was thinking without asking it. That John had Arthur’s words in his mouth, that he was doing the same as Arthur was doing before the end in Beaver Hollow. And a Javier that now doubted Dutch, that was desperate enough to offer John information just to see him again, might look more kindly on an endeavor like that. But John didn’t ask, not yet. Instead asked, “Why’d you split with Dutch, Javier?”

There was a long moment of silence, and John let it sit. Let himself get soaked in the sound of Rachel’s hooves against the ground, the packed earth of the road firm under them. Tried not to get caught up in that pit of anger and despair that always came when he thought about that last confrontation, Dutch with his gun on Arthur.

Finally, Javier took a deep breath, said, “That night, Bill and me got split from Dutch when things got bad. Think most of the heat went after—after you, and—and Arthur. And Dutch and Micah, since they were—” Another breath, this one shuddering— “Well, guess you know. We circled back around it, met up with Dutch somewhere north of the mountains. Asked what had happened, and he said Arthur was dead, you and Micah were gone. And when I tried to get more than that, he—he didn’t seem right, John, like—like something had gone from him.”

John still wondered, sometimes, what Dutch was doing. Whether he regretted what he’d done. To the gang, to John, to Arthur. If he missed when they were a family, when they would do anything for each other. If Dutch seemed different after the mess of Beaver Hollow, seemed broken, John hoped he was suffering. Hoped he was mourning, that putting a bullet through Arthur had changed his outlook just as much as John’s.

But Javier had been there after, knew what Dutch had been like, and John tried to pull his thoughts back, listen to the man riding next to him. Said, “Was it that bad?” Because it must’ve been pretty damn bad to shake Javier’s faith.

Javier inclined his head. “It wasn’t Dutch, you know? Started—started thinking about what Arthur said, about what we had being done. You know, because we used to stand for something. I never had a problem with the killing, not when it was people who needed killing, but we used to do it for the people out there who needed the help, who the government was fucking over. Dutch had a vision for the world. But we weren’t that anymore. Couldn’t figure out what we were after when I thought about it.

“And Dutch, all he kept talking about was what had been. Kept telling us we’d get back what was, that those who left were fools that didn’t have enough faith, but then he didn’t do nothing, just would give these speeches and none of them would make any sense. Used to be when he talked he could hold up the whole sky, right? But it didn’t—didn’t feel right anymore.

“And he—he shot Arthur, when all Arthur wanted was to let people leave. And if I could finally go back home, wanted to leave, would he shoot me too? And maybe if—if I’d gone with Arthur then, if I hadn’t taken Dutch’s side, he wouldn’t have…” Javier trailed off, shrugged his shoulders. “So I left.”

“Just like that,” John murmured under his breath, running his fingers through Rachel’s mane.

“Wasn’t exactly an easy decision,” Javier snapped back, and the edge of annoyance in his voice was almost comforting, something closer to the sort of bickering that happened in camp. It wasn’t like John was upset Javier had left Dutch, far from it. He just wished it had come sooner, because Javier was right, with him on their side Dutch might not have shot Arthur. That wasn’t blame he could lay entirely at Javier’s feet, but the truth was, the blind faith in Dutch he’d refused to lose had hurt them in the end. Wished Javier had seen what was true more quickly than he did.

But, it wasn’t the time for that. “For the record, Javier, I think you made the right choice.”

“Sure, but you didn’t have to live it.” And before John could ask what the hell that meant, Javier continued, “Forgot how hard it was, on my own. One asshole in a bar, sure, I can take them, but when it’s ten assholes in every bar? Seems everywhere I go I’m getting called a greaser. Them, Micah, the Del Lobos down in New Austin on top of all that… it, uh, it’s different without the gang. Wears on you.”

“Del Lobos?”

“Don’t exactly make many friends with Mexican criminals when you work as a bounty hunter, no matter if we ended up on the wrong side of the same government.”

“Fair enough.”

“And then Micah was my own fault. Shouldn’t’ve told him I believed he was a rat. Put a target on my back, especially with the Blackwater money.”

John paused, hand still on Rachel’s mane. “The Blackwater money?” That was something John hadn’t heard about in over a year now.

Javier nodded. “That’s the rumor, though I don’t know how true it is. Supposedly Dutch told him where he hid it. Micah was going back to find it.”

Huh. And that itched at John a little bit, no matter how much he’d soured on Dutch. Dutch had told Micah where he’d hid the Blackwater money, something he’d refused to even Arthur. He filed the information away to think on later. “You said he pulled a gun on you?”

“Ran into him not long after I left Dutch. He tried to act like we should be all friendly, and I couldn’t stand that. Just barely managed to get away without getting shot.”

“And now you’re on your own.” That explained a lot, though. John couldn’t claim to be particularly attuned to the wants and needs of others, no matter how much he might’ve learned over the past year and a half, but he knew for sure now why Javier had sent the letter. He’d been lonely, out on his own. And John knew the feeling, knew it from the year away when he’d ached with how much he missed his family. Things were different when you didn’t have anyone to watch your back. Things were different when you were used to the things you had.

And loneliness could do things to a man. Hell, the threat of loneliness, of losing what he had, losing Arthur, had plagued John for months after Beaver Hollow. The words were out of John’s mouth before he could stop them, before he considered that he should probably consult the others before making offers. “Listen, Javier, if you ain’t gonna bring attention down on us, you got a place on the ranch too. Sadie’s been bounty huntin’, so it ain’t like we don’t got folks still in those sort of professions. But we want to stay out of the eyes of the law. So if that’s your aim, stayin’ out, we could work somethin' out.”

Javier’s voice was quiet when he said, “Let me see this place first before you go making any decisions for me.”

And John inclined his head at that, because that was fair enough. Didn’t stop him from saying, “Even for a few days, we got beds.”

“Alright, alright, I get it.” Javier not looking at John, but a smile edging his face all the same. A pause before he said, glancing up at John, “But, John? Thank you.”

“Helpin’ folks that need it,” John said by way of explanation.

“Don’t patronize me, cabrón,” Javier muttered, but there was no bite to it.

They talked for most of the rest of the ride, John telling Javier about the valley, the nearby towns, and vaguely circling the life they’d built here for themselves. Trying to toe the line between too much information and not seeming suspicious. It was less that he didn’t think he could tell Javier, seeing as he was pretty damn sure the man wasn’t lying, but some things weren’t his to tell.

And then they were at the edge of the property, the fence he and Arthur and Charles had constructed in the last few days of summer, and John spread an arm, said, “This is it. Isn’t much, but it’s ours.”

Javier said nothing back, but his face was something nearly soft when scanning over the property, the long grass out by the edges, the dips and curves of the hills. Eyebrows pinched together, and John couldn’t tell if it was concern or something sadder.

John didn’t need to point Rachel in the right direction. She knew her way well enough by now. “C’mon, house is this way.”

“All this yours?” Javier asked, eyeing the house and the barn and the pastures as they came into view, as they rounded the crest of the hill.

“Had some help gettin’ this far, but sure.”

“Help?”

“Sadie, Charles, some folks we met along the way. And,” John said, squinting towards the house, “and Arthur, of course, it’s his too.”

“Arthur?”

“Arthur,” John repeated, because he was starting to make out the porch, the figures sitting on it, waiting for them to ride in, and he knew Arthur’s shape by heart, had for years. There was some vindication in it, John knowing he had it right from the beginning, that Arthur would never want to hide, that he’d want to face what was coming head on. “That’s the other thing. Arthur’s alive.”

Javier’s flat, “What?” was lost under the sounds of Rachel’s hooves as John pushed her into a canter, something blooming up into his chest. They were home. He’d brought one more piece of the puzzle back together.

Arthur was leaning on the railing of the porch when John dismounted, threw the end of Rachel’s reins over the hitching post. Tried not to feel too much like a retriever bringing back a downed bird as he trotted up the steps, took his normal place at Arthur’s side. Sadie and Charles were there as well, as was Abigail—wearing a wary expression but not angry, not outright scared, which meant she and the others must’ve reacted decently enough to the news Charles had brought back.

But it was Arthur John was interested in, Arthur who’d known Javier just as long as John had, who’d been a brother in arms just like John had, Arthur who said, loud, “Javier Escuella,” a pleased tone to his voice as he spread his arms, a large gesture to the ranch around them. “Welcome to the Milton ranch.”

Javier had gone very still. A shade paler, nearly like he’d seen a ghost. In all fairness, John supposed technically, in his mind, he had. Quietly he asked, “Arthur?”

“Nah, Otis Miller,” Arthur said, but his voice was warm.

Javier was dismounting, climbing the steps, looking nearly dazed. “Mierda,” he whispered, brought a hand up, tentative even to John’s eyes, brushed just the tips of his fingers across one of Arthur’s shoulders before withdrawing. Testing to see if Arthur was real, maybe, and John knew that feeling. “Thought you were dead, hermano. Dutch—Dutch said you were dead.”

Arthur shrugged, said, “Nearly was. He probably thought I was. But turns out some folks don’t have the good sense to let a dyin’ man die.” Nodded in John’s direction.

“Thought you were dead,” Javier said again, a harsher tone creeping into his voice, and this time the hand that came up shoved at Arthur’s shoulder a bit—not hard, but enough that it knocked Arthur back just a touch. And then Javier was turning to John, eyes blazing, hissing, “You let me think he was dead, pendejo.”

“Hey,” John said, hands raised as he backed up, “in my defense, I wasn’t sure if we were gonna pretend he was.”

“Thought—thought he was dead,” Javier repeated for a third time, but the anger was slipping into something else, something shakier. Destabilized by the idea that Arthur was alive, and Christ John knew the feeling of the world he knew coming apart completely.

He was already taking a step towards Javier when Arthur cleared his throat, caught Javier’s attention before.“Lotta folks think I am now. We’d like to keep it that way, so don’t blame John for that. Now,” Arthur said, laying a hand on Javier’s shoulder, “how ‘bout we get to this meal Abigail’s been cookin’ up, and we can catch up?”

There was a pause, probably no more than a fraction of a second. And then Javier was taking a step forward and wrapping his arms around Arthur. And Arthur froze for a second before relaxing, bringing one arm around Javier before gesturing John into the embrace too.

“Can’t believe you assholes,” Javier muttered, muffled by Arthur’s shirt as Arthur pulled John into the hug, brought his arm around John’s back. “Really thought you were gone.”

“You smell like horseshit,” John muttered, because he couldn’t help the urge he always had to needle at the folks he called family. And he’d missed Javier, missed the easy sort of friendship he’d once had with the man, and needling brought him closer to what they’d been.

But it seemed to be the right move, because all Javier did was elbow him in the gut, making John cough and stumble back out of the hug, Arthur snickering as Javier said, “Sure, cabrón, because I’ll take that from the man so afraid of the water he’d rather turn brown.”

“We got a bathtub too, if you’d like,” Arthur said, taking a step backwards. “In the meantime,” he inclined his head towards Abigail, and John realized all at once that he’d forgotten completely they had an audience for that whole display, “some of us spent all day workin’, and I ain’t about to eat a cold meal.”

It was for show, John realized, as Arthur paused a moment before following the others through the door, gave John’s shoulder a squeeze. Because, knowing Arthur, if he’d spent the time John was gone working, it was only to keep his mind off the fact that John was gone. Arthur had been presenting a front to Javier, to the rest of them, but not in the bad way that his cold brute front had been. And it wasn’t even the charismatic leader show that Dutch had played so often, instead something lighter, something meant to defuse the wariness that inevitably came with the way things ended.

And it wasn’t for nothing. The tension had gone from the situation completely, John noted, sitting down for dinner after untacking Rachel and showing Javier where he could put Boaz. Though Abigail and Sadie had each said nothing through the whole ordeal on the porch, they were lighter now, Abigail already starting in on Javier to at least wash his hands before sitting down for dinner. And Sadie was turning to John, chewing him out in an easy sort of way about leaving her with Arthur all day, which told John everything he needed to know about how much Arthur was playacting this relaxed state. And Jack had joined them now that Abigail had deemed it safe enough to call him out of his room, the joy on the boy’s face at seeing one of his lost uncles unmarred by the way things had ended.

And Arthur just leaned back in his chair, feeding scraps of bread to the dog like he hadn’t done anything, like he wasn’t the reason all of them could sit easy with a man who they’d last seen on the wrong side of a conflict that had nearly killed Arthur. If Arthur acted like it was okay, then it was okay. Never mind that Arthur could walk into a hail of bullets without flinching.

Dinner was loud, and warm. Most of the talk was meaningless chatter, just enough to fill the air. Javier mostly quiet, jammed into a space at the table between Arthur and Charles. John didn’t begrudge him that, not when he hadn’t been part of a space like this for a year and a half. There were things to learn after being apart from a group for a long time. John would know.

Uncle joined them some time into the meal, not as interested in the food itself but instead on the alcohol they’d broken into, and John was starting to suspect the man could subsist on whiskey alone. Squeezed himself into a seat and the limited space at their dining table, only really meant to fit four people on a good day, got even smaller. Took him a minute, but eventually turned to Javier and asked, “You wasn’t here a second ago, was you?”

And it was Uncle’s half-serious bluster as usual, or at least John was pretty sure it was, but it was an excuse for laughter all the same.

And despite the fire starting to die down in the stove the kitchen was warm, and John couldn’t help thinking that maybe, for once, they’d managed to right something wrong.

Eventually, they moved to the living room, John stoking up a fire in the stone fireplace. There weren’t near enough soft spaces for people to sit, so instead John ended up sitting on the floor in front of the fire, letting the heat creep across his back. Abigail in a chair not far away, close enough that he could reach out and hold her hand if he wanted to. Arthur too was within grabbing distance, sitting on the floor as well, legs stretched out in front of him as he leaned back against the side of Abigail’s chair, talking with Charles. It reminded John so much of the camp for one moment—sitting in scattered, makeshift seating, warmed by the heat of a fire, all of them a family not by blood but by the world they had survived—that he needed to shake his head to clear it. A lot of things John regretted in his life, but what he had now wasn’t one of them.

It was after Abigail had ushered Jack into bed that John found himself on the pleasant side of tipsy, now drinking whiskey straight from a bottle he was passing between himself, Arthur, and Charles. Not enough to be anything close to drunk, not when there wasn’t any sort of guarantee they were safe from Micah and Dutch, not even when John was pretty sure Javier was telling them the truth, but tipsy all the same.

And it was then, when Abigail was still putting Jack to bed and Javier had slid off his chair to sit on the floor that Javier leaned forward, asked, tentatively, “Could I—who, who’s still alive, then? This all that made it out with you?”

It was a question John had nearly expected, seeing as Javier had been in the dark about all that, but it still wasn’t particularly pleasant to think about, the fact that they still didn’t know where most of the gang that had been their family ended up. “Tilly is all that came out with us, but she’s been writin’ to Mary-Beth,” he ended up saying. “Other than that, we don’t know where anyone else is.”

“Bill got out alive, but I haven’t seen him since—since I left Dutch. He was just as bad as he always was, so I wasn’t particularly interested in trying to get him to come with me.”

“Imagine he’s only gotten worse, knowin’ Bill,” Arthur said, voice something low. Not quite melancholy, not when none of them had been particularly fond of who Bill was, but not exactly happy either. Bill had been a temperamental jackass at best, but it wasn’t a good feeling knowing a former brother-in-arms would just as soon shoot them. Bill had always been stupid, but stupid in a loyal sort of way. But, in the end, there was no question about where Bill’s gun was pointed that night.

“And then Dutch has gone to ground, as far as I know. Isn’t stirring up trouble, even. Just gone, at least from what word I can drum up. And Micah, well…” Javier nodded towards John in a sort of ‘you already know’ gesture. Arthur shot John a similar sort of questioning look, and John knew without asking that he’d be interrogated about what Javier actually said to him after the man left the room.

“Anyone else?” John ended up asking, trying to get the conversation away from Micah.

Regretted it immediately if only for Arthur’s reaction when Javier said, “You hear about Strauss? Got himself caught by Pinkertons. Didn’t make it.”

“He’s dead?” And Arthur’s voice was so soft, so stunned that it made John’s stomach drop. When he glanced over at Arthur, Arthur’s shoulders were curled inward, something nearly fragile, and the look was so much like the worst of the days after Beaver Hollow that John immediately knew he’d do anything to fix it.

Javier shrugged his shoulders. “From the sound of it they put him through the normal outlaw interrogation, and Strauss wasn’t exactly the sturdiest. Didn’t tell them anything, though, or at least that’s what I heard.”

“Shit,” Arthur murmured under his breath, and, if anything, the tone of it was even more worn down than before.

“He wasn’t a good man,” Charles said, eyes on Arthur. Thinking much the same as John, if John had to guess.

“None of us were. Still didn’t deserve that.”

John couldn’t help it. He slid himself over to Arthur, intending it to be more graceful a movement than the sort of crabwalk it ended up being. Sat down so his shoulder was bumping Arthur’s, so their legs were flushed together. “Hey,” he murmured, voice low, “hey, that weren’t your fault, alright?” Because he knew why Arthur was upset. He hadn’t been there when Arthur’d thrown Strauss out, had been out working, but he’d known the aftermath, and known the reason Arthur’d done it, consequences be damned, was because he was done being the pawn of a man so willing to ruin lives, no matter if that man was Dutch or Strauss.

But, of course, that didn’t mean Arthur wouldn’t blame himself for the man’s death, not when Arthur was so good at blaming himself for everything that went wrong around them. And John was going to make for damn sure he was there to make sure Arthur didn’t drown in his own guilt.

The breath Arthur took was shuddering, but the next one was smoother, and the next almost normal. Didn’t say anything back to John, but leaned a touch heavier into him all the same.

“That’s Karen, Pearson, Swanson, and Trelawny left completely unaccounted for,” Charles murmured, and John was grateful for the distraction, knew it was probably on purpose.

“As far as I know,” Javier said, and when John looked up he was looking at him and Arthur curiously, and John suddenly realized that Javier knew nothing about the way his and Arthur’s relationship had changed over the past few months. He had a sudden urge to laugh.

“And as far as we know too,” John said, rather than confront the elephant skittering at the edges of the conversation. There was time for that. They had time for most everything now.

“More than I thought we’d get,” Arthur muttered from beside him, voice clearer, more normal than it had been, and that was something.

“You all really spent all this time just being ranchers?” Javier asked. And that could’ve been a question that just meant what it was at face value, but the way Javier was looking at John and Arthur sitting together suggested that it was implying something more than that.

“Not all of it,” John said, deciding to go with the straight answer. “Decent bit was just tryin’ to keep ourselves alive. Arthur nearly died, ‘n so we had to lie low while he healed.”

“Think I’m still officially dead.” Arthur scraping a heel across the floorboards, not looking up at them.

Javier tilted his head, asked, “Is that why John’s got your hat?”

“Ain’t my hat no more.” Arthur apparently not wanting to offer any information about their relationship up to Javier either.

“Things have changed since last I saw you, hermano.” Again, Javier asking a question without actually asking it. And John was exhausted, didn’t particularly want to get into the specifics of his relationship with Arthur right now. He didn’t think Javier was the type to react with disgust, not based on past experiences with the man, but it was still too much after all that had happened that day.

Instead, John settled on saying, “You should get some sleep. Lots of things are different around here. We can get you acquainted in the mornin’.”

Arthur hummed his agreement, tapped a hand on Javier’s calf, the only thing he could reach from across the floor. “Give me a minute and I can show you where we put you up. Got a whole bunkhouse and everythin’.”

“Let me,” Abigail said, and John wasn’t even aware she’d reentered the room. “I’m the one who got it all set up and everythin’, and I’m already on my feet. Sadie?”

“Sure,” Sadie said, pulling herself to her feet. She’d been mostly quiet through the conversation, likely due to how new she’d been. Spent longer on the ranch than she’d ever did with the gang. “Don’t want the menfolk to strain themselves.”

“Aw, shut it,” Arthur muttered, but it was lighter than he had been just a few seconds earlier, and something a far cry from the Arthur who used to work himself to the bone rather than be called useless in any way.

Charles stood as well, brushing his pants off. “I should turn in too. Going to be an early morning tomorrow, all the work we got to catch up on.”

“Always more work,” John muttered, though it was half-hearted. The work was fine enough most days, at least when he had the right folks around him.

“Thank you, Charles.” Arthur said, voice soft. “‘ppreciate your help today.”

“It’s no trouble. Turned out better than I thought it would, all told.” Charles held a hand out for the whiskey bottle, offering to put it away.

Probably a good call. John passed it to him. “Agreed. Goodnight Charles.”

“Night, John, Arthur.”

Arthur only waved a hand in acknowledgement, not making any effort to move from the floor.

Only once Charles was gone and it was only Arthur and John in the room Arthur let out a long, harsh sigh. Leaned his head back so it was resting on the padded seat of the chair behind him.

His eyes were closed. John waited a beat before saying, “Arthur.”

“John.” A resigned tone to Arthur’s voice, like he knew what was coming.

“Arthur, it ain’t your fault.”

Arthur’s eyes slid open just barely, looking at John through slits, not moving his head. “I know.”

“Do you?” Because John knew as well as anyone that Arthur was willing to blame himself for near anything, and he didn’t for a minute buy that that wasn’t the case with Strauss, no matter how much they both abhorred the idea of moneylending.

Another breath of air, and Arthur murmured, “Just—just can’t help thinkin’ maybe I—I made the wrong call. Got angry after—after all those folks and…” Arthur made a vague gesture with a hand, “…and shouldn’t’a thrown him out.”

“And then what? He stayed until the Pinkertons shot him? He left when Pearson and Uncle did and the same goddamn thing happened?” John knocked his knee into Arthur’s, just so he’d know John was still there, still here for him. “He was a bad man, Arthur, he ruined lives.”

“And I was the one goddamn workin’ for him, so what does that make me?”

Someone just as manipulated by Dutch as the rest of them. Someone conned by a madman who thought the only way to have any worth was to be a mindless brute. “A better man than him, seein’ as you’re tryin’ to make up for what you done. Strauss did what he did ‘cause he couldn’t survive in our world no other way. He wasn’t about to give that up unless you made him.”

Arthur finally tilted his head back up, looked at John straight. “I don’t like havin’ blood on my hands, John, not no more.”

“And I’m sayin’ it ain’t your goddamn fault. You can’t take credit for every bad man meetin’ his end. That ain’t even close to fair. Strauss knew the world he lived in. It catchin’ up to him ain’t your doin’.”

And that seemed to finally appease Arthur, because his eyes slipped away from John, looked over at where Javier had been sitting. Bit his lip before asking, “What’d he say ‘bout where Micah was?” And then, when John blinked at the change in topic, Arthur clarified, “Javier?”

John cursed himself in his own head for forgetting Arthur would ask about that. “Said he pulled a gun on him not long after Beaver Hollow and hasn’t seen him since. Heard some rumors, but nothin' substantial.” A small lie, but one edged in enough truth it was easy to make.

Arthur looked back at him, but his gaze was steady. Didn’t catch the lie, John was sure of it. “So we keep our guard up?”

“As always.” It wasn’t like they’d do anything different if John told the truth, and he needed some sort of plan before going after Micah, or else Arthur would never agree to it. “But we oughta get to bed too.”

Arthur grumbled at that, and John couldn’t help the chuckle that worked its way out of his throat as he got to his feet, offered Arthur a hand up.

“C’mon old man. Up you get.”

Arthur shot him a glare, but grabbed John’s hand all the same, let himself be hauled up. Said, once he was on his feet, “I don’t wanna hear that from the man who rode out thinkin’ he might get into a gunfight. Do you know how goddamn exhaustin’ it is worryin’ ‘bout your hide?”

“’bout as exhaustin' as it is worrin’ ‘bout yours, I’d guess.”

The crooked grin Arthur gave him back said well enough without words that he thought them both fools.

John tucked himself in behind Abigail that night, wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his forehead to her shoulder. She was warm, a ward against the chill that still crept into the darkness of spring in the Crestone Valley, and he settled against her almost with desperation.

Javier had brought back old memories, old feelings, and John welcomed them. Micah Bell had taken nearly everything from him, had nearly ripped the possibility of this life from him entirely. If it was the last thing John did, he’d take away the chance of that ever happening again.

John began to plan.

Chapter Text

Sometimes Arthur woke up with nightmares.

It was a reality more than anything else. It came with the territory, with being a former outlaw and seeing so many folks die. John got them too, nightmares where Arthur actually died, where Abigail was gone, where he’d ride up to the ranch to find the house in flames. Almost worse were the ones where he was reliving the worst moments of his life—seeing Hosea shot dead in front of him, being abandoned by Dutch—because the waking world didn’t offer any comfort from those. He woke into the same world he left.

John only knew about the worst of Arthur’s nightmares, the ones that got bad enough that he couldn’t hide them. Even then, he wasn’t privy to any details, not when prying any information out of Arthur was akin to pulling teeth. Mostly John just ended up waking Arthur up, drawing him up into his arms, and on the worst nights, Arthur wouldn’t even protest. John couldn’t ever claim to be particularly good at comforting folks, but he’d learned enough to know to rest Arthur’s head in the crook of his neck, let him feel the beating of his heart.

A few nights after Javier arrived, Arthur got a particularly bad one. Bad enough that it woke John up, jolted him from a dreamless sleep. Arthur didn’t scream when he got nightmares, not any more, but the alternative was almost worse sometimes. Certainly was that particular night.

John slept light, something years as an outlaw had taught him, and so when his eyes came open that night, he figured it couldn’t have been long after the talking started. But, still, when he found himself blinking awake, it took him a second to figure out why. It wasn’t until he heard Arthur mutter a quiet, nearly inaudible, “No,” from next to him that John realized Arthur was talking in his sleep.

It wasn’t the talking that was the issue, because Arthur’s voice was the kind of thing that could lull John to sleep if the mood was right. It was the tone of it that caused John to wake, and it was the tone he caught in one word slipped out of Arthur’s mouth that caused John to roll over to face the other man, his heart pounding in his chest even though there was no danger.

Still, he didn’t decide to wake Arthur, hadn’t been entirely sure of what he’d heard, until it came again. This time almost worse, Arthur louder, saying, “No, no, Dutch, please. Please, please—”

Or, not saying, but pleading, and that was the worst of it, the sort of begging that sounded foreign to Arthur’s voice. A hurt that ached through John, because he knew exactly the cause of it, knew intimately how it felt.

It was the second “Dutch” that finally spurred John into action. His hands were on Arthur’s shoulders before he could even think through it, just desperate to kill the way Arthur’s voice broke over Dutch’s name, because he couldn’t stand to hear it.

And when Arthur woke it was with such a jerk that his head nearly collided with John’s. His hands flew up to grab at John’s wrists, and John found himself hissing, “Hey, hey, Arthur, hey, it’s me, okay? It’s John,” before Arthur got it in his head to break one of John’s wrists thinking he was some stranger, someone trying to attack him in the night.

Finally, after a long moment of Arthur’s breath coming in sharp, heaving motions of his chest, he blinked, his eyes focusing up on John’s face. And then he huffed a harsh sigh, titled his head away, muttered, “Christ, John.”

“Nightmare,” John said by way of explanation as he leaned back, released Arthur’s shoulders. “Sayin’ Dutch’s name.”

“Ah, Christ,” Arthur said again, folding an arm up over his face, and the way his breath caught on the exhale sounded unstable enough that it made John’s stomach drop.

“Hey, hey, you’re okay,” he said, tugging on the fabric of Arthur’s union suit, trying to pull Arthur towards him. “I’m here, Abigail and Jack are just in the other rooms, alright? We’re good, you did it. You got us out. We’re safe.”

Arthur’s voice was still sleep muddled, like he was still in a state more asleep than not when he muttered, “Don’t be so goddamn condescendin’.” Even then, he gave in to John’s pulling, shifted over the mattress towards him.

“I’m tryin’ to comfort you, prick.” John settled back onto the bed, dropped his head back against the pillows. Asked, “Was it a bad one?”

Arthur just huffed out a sigh in lieu of a reply, settled himself draped half over John, and John had a stray thought that maybe Arthur was trying to keep him pinned with his weight, trying to make sure he wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t like he hadn’t done the same thing to Arthur on more than one occasion, though John wasn’t nearly as heavy.

Still, John couldn’t deny that he liked it anyway, Arthur’s weight settled on him. Made him feel more real when his forehead was tucked up against John’s shoulder, his breathing warm against John’s skin. Some days what they had still felt like a dream John was bound to wake up from any minute, but he’d never had a dream that felt quite this real, quite this firm.

His eyes slipped closed, and he’d nearly drifted off again when Arthur asked in a sleep-muddled sort of slur, “There’s somethin’, ain’t there?”

John, previously carding a hand absentmindedly through Arthur’s hair, paused, asked, “What?”

“Somethin’ you ain’t tellin’ me.” The drawl in Arthur’s voice only got worse the more tired he got, and now it was on the edge of escaping even John’s understanding. The sort of tired where John wasn’t even sure Arthur would remember what he was saying in the morning. Though, that wasn’t exactly a comfort, didn’t do much to quell the cold feeling of dread creeping down John’s spine.

Since Javier had gotten to the ranch, he hadn’t talked any more about the Micah business. Thought about it plenty, sure, but didn’t talk about it. Knew that wasn’t going to end well when they couldn’t even act on the information. But Arthur had picked up on something. And here John thought he was being subtle.

The debate on whether to tell Arthur was brief. It wasn’t like they’d be able to work anything out at whatever odd hour of the morning Arthur’d woken him up at. So, instead of telling him, John just said, “Got no idea what you’re talkin’ ‘bout, Arthur,” and hoped Arthur was asleep enough that he wouldn’t catch the lie in John’s voice.

“There’s somethin’. S’always somethin’,” Arthur muttered, not moving his forehead from John’s shoulder, voice muffled by the fabric.

“Just go to sleep, okay?”

The hum Arthur gave him in reply was quiet enough that John might’ve not even heard it at all if he couldn’t feel the vibration of it through where Arthur’s throat rested against John’s body.

John shut his eyes and prayed Arthur couldn’t hear the way his heart was beating.

 


 

It wasn’t like there was all that much John was keeping from Arthur anyway. The problem with planning to kill Micah was that it was a lot more difficult to do so when he didn’t really know where the man was. “In the area” wasn’t much help, not really. So all John could really do was keep his sidearms in good condition and easy reach. Keep his ear to the ground.

It’d been a handful of weeks since Javier reappeared, and things had been quiet around the ranch. They’d done a full shear on the sheep for the first time as the weather got warmer, and John was pleased to find that he had an easier time of it this go around. Maybe it was the fact that he knew these sheep better, knew which ones were particularly fussy and better left to Arthur, which ones were calm enough that he could manage, or maybe he’d just gotten more patient than he was. Either way, with the few sheep they had they got through it in less than a week, which John was happy enough with. They finally felt like a real ranch, doing the sort of thing that would keep them paid and fed.

Javier was a subdued presence around the ranch, and John wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad. In some ways it was like Javier was still walking on eggshells, careful not to risk the place they’d opened for him. Doing chores when asked, learning quick how to herd or shear a sheep, sitting quiet around the fire with the rest of them at night. Sure, it was a good thing the man wasn’t off robbing people and bringing that heat back to them, but it was something like what Javier had been like when Dutch had first brought him into the gang—half starved, barely spoke English, with scars he wasn’t willing or able to explain.

The ranch was something like a place of rest from the world outside, from Dutch. For Javier, for the rest of them. John wasn’t sure how he felt about that whole idea. In some ways it felt like ages since they’d left, since things had changed, and in other ways it felt like he was going to wake up back in camp. He didn’t blame Javier, not really, but he wished sometimes they’d found him a little sooner. That he’d broken from Dutch before it all went bad.

The guitar was actually Abigail’s idea. She’d taken it as a half-serious sort of personal affront that Javier didn’t seem particularly happy around the ranch. Sure, he didn’t seem unhappy either, but it seemed more going through the motions than anything else. And they had a bit of extra money now, once the sheep wool had been sold or else worked into yarn by Abigail and sold the same. So there wasn’t exactly a downside.

It was a task and a half to find one, but the fence in Plainfield was able to point them in the right direction through some of her more legitimate contacts, and a woodworker she knew put them in touch with a luthier further south, one that could ship a guitar up to them.

Whatever had happened to Javier’s old guitar, John wasn’t sure. It likely wasn’t a good story, either abandoned in the mess at Beaver Hollow or later on, Javier trying to move fast, stay under the radar. But the look on Javier’s face when they presented the guitar to him, a bow wrapped gently around the neck and everything, the stunned eyes he turned on John and the subsequent bloom into brightness, did a lot in confirming his suspicions.

He played for a long time that night as they all sat around the fire. Not quite a party, but with a similar sort of atmosphere. Old songs, ones they all knew the words to, and ones John hadn’t heard in a long time, if at all. Javier getting to know the guitar, tuning it to the way he liked it.

John even invited Abigail to dance at one point, once Javier had shifted to a slower, more waltz-like beat. Took her hand and swept her into his arms, something familiar and comforting. Like being back in the camp in the early days of their fooling around, when he was trying his hardest to impress her. Oh and John had missed this, being able to celebrate with no strings attached, just for the fun of it. Missed the music, the atmosphere, the camaraderie. Missed Javier because he had been family.

Dancing with Arthur went a little differently.

It was after John had finally released Abigail, let her deposit herself in one of the chairs they had carried over to the fire, that Arthur got to his feet, gestured John in and said, in a tone unsettlingly like a challenge, “You and me, Marston, come on.”

“…Alright,” John agreed, slow, because, “Who’s—who’s gonna lead?”

Arthur considered it for no more than half a second before he rolled his shoulders, said, amiably, “You can lead.”

“You know how to follow?” Because, sure, they’d both been taught how to dance by Dutch and Hosea, one of the many required lessons in the Van der Linde finishing school, but, aside from the line and square dances they’d done for fun in camp, all they’d been taught was how to dance with ladies at parties Dutch or Hosea had talked their ways into. That meant learning how to lead a partner, rather than to be led.

“Can’t be that hard,” Arthur said with a smile, and, though John had been expecting that, it still made him heave out a reluctant sigh. Didn’t stop him taking Arthur’s outstretched hand, resting the other on Arthur’s waist.

John never claimed to be a particularly good dancer, but it was an even harder endeavor when both partners had only a rough clue of what they were doing. To Arthur’s credit, he did try to follow, only would inevitably end up losing focus on it and either tripping over John or tripping John up. It was far from graceful, and John was sure they were putting up an entertaining enough show for the others around the fire.

Javier had worked out what John and Arthur were by now, and, like John thought, he didn’t seem to have any sort of issue with it. Not with the idea of it, not with more public displays like this one. It seemed to be more strange to him than anything else, seeing John and Arthur go from constant fighting to whatever they were now, which John personally related to. Things were strange, but they were also good. And John would do a lot to keep things that way.

John was pretty sure as Arthur and he did their clumsy attempt at a waltz Javier was intentionally switching up the rhythm too, with how he could hear barely stifled laughter from over where Javier and Abigail were sitting. And John refused to even look over at them, knowing it was what they wanted him to do, to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation.

He and Arthur made a decent go at dancing. Could hardly be called dancing, sure, but they tried. Even then, it wasn’t long until Abigail was in near tears from laughter and Javier’s guitar petered out as he struggled to keep it together himself. And Arthur tripped and nearly tipped over backwards again and John had to grab him under the shoulders just to keep him on his feet, and when Arthur came up again he was laughing so hard he didn’t seem able to do much beyond drop his forehead to John’s shoulder.

“Reckon we ain’t so good at this,” John said, and that only made everyone around him laugh harder.

They were fools, him and Arthur both, but goddamn if John didn’t love Arthur with all his heart.

 


 

It was only a week later that John fucked everything up again.

John knew something was wrong as soon as Sadie came riding up to the ranch. He’d spent a good portion of the morning trying to corral their ram into a pasture after he’d managed to get free when a fence rail split, a task John wasn’t particularly pleased with doing. The animal was a Merino ram to match the sheep they kept, and they’d let Jack name him. The boy had gone with Otis, after the outlaw featured in his favorite dime novel series, and John honestly thought they’d tempted fate with that particular allowance.

Otis wasn’t a particularly pleasant creature, to say the least. The one good thing about him was the way he protected the ewes from the various predators that occasionally took a pass at the farm. Maybe John would put the wool he produced in that column too if it wasn’t so much of a task getting it off of him. The ram was mean, inclined to bite and kick and squirm when he got it in his head that something wasn’t going his way. The spiral horns on his head were interesting enough, but less so when he was threating to headbutt John with them.

Usually John relied on Arthur or Charles to help him out when it came to anything regarding Otis, but he had no such luck this particular morning. Arthur’d woken on the late side, up late the previous night dealing with a colicking Gwydion after the horse had eaten something he shouldn’t’ve. The episode had passed, a mild colic as all things went, but Arthur had spent a good few hours walking the horse around in the dark to keep him from rolling. John hadn’t wanted to wake him after that, not with how exhausted he’d looked.

Now, of course, John was regretting that decision, because he’d looked up a few minutes earlier to see Arthur sitting on the porch with Abigail, drinking what John assumed to be coffee and watching with what looked to be interest in John’s disagreement with the ram, occasionally leaning in to each other and making comments John couldn’t hear. Like John was putting on some sort of show for them. Bastards, the both of them. If John didn’t love them, he’d have some worse words to call them.

“Listen to me, Otis,” John said, because he was at his wits end with any other ideas. “You see those two folks up on the porch? If I don’t get you back in that barn, I ain’t gonna hear the end of it for weeks, ‘cause both of them ain’t inclined to let things like that go. So, I’m gonna put this rope around your neck, and you and me are gonna walk nice and pretty over to the barn. I’ll even give you a peppermint, alright? So just…” he took a step closer, “…stay still.”

He nearly slipped the rope over Otis’s head. Then hoof beats coming into the ranch at a canter pounded behind John, and Otis spooked sideways, leaving John behind in a cloud of dust.

John turned, was about to chew whoever just made his life harder, but the sight of Sadie Adler made him pause, more so when he saw the look on her face. Ended up asking, “Sadie?” as she dismounted next to him.

Sadie’s eyes were bright, shining when she said, “I found him, John. Goddamn Micah Bell.”

Micah?” The word was like a heavy weight settling into John’s stomach. Something between excitement and anticipation. He’d been patient. It had paid off.

“John?” And that was Abigail, up on the porch, already getting to her feet, maybe seeing the look on John’s face. Arthur too, quick on her heels, the coffee left forgotten on one of the tables. “John, what’s goin’ on?”

John barely glanced at her, turned his focus instead on Arthur, who was standing at the edge of the porch, arms crossed. Couldn’t help the thrill creeping into his voice when he said, “Sadie found him, Arthur, found Micah.”

Sadie was shouting for Charles next to him, saying that they needed to move quickly, that the lead she had would only last so long, and John was so focused on the rest of the ranch starting to emerge around him, everyone from Javier to Uncle, that he almost missed Abigail saying, “No. You ain’t goin’, John.”

John threw her a glance, immediately annoyed. He should’ve known she wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t see how much he needed to finish things. “That ain’t your decision, Abigail. Sadie, I’ll ride with you.”

“Like hell it ain’t.” Abigail’s voice cracking over the words, and John knew immediately she was getting close to tears. “Your business is here. Micah—Micah ain’t worth riskin’ all this. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”

But Abigail didn’t get it. “One last job, Abigail, one last chance for us be free of that goddamn scum. You think I want to leave him runnin’ around? Sadie’s got a lead now. We ain’t gonna get a chance like this again.”

“So let Sadie take care of it.” And she grabbed his arm, flinching when she brushed him off. “I’m beggin’ you, John, please.” A pleading glance up towards the porch when she said, “Arthur—”

But John was already turning away from her, knew he wasn’t going to bother arguing with her, not when he’d been longing for this moment for over a year and a half. “Uncle, take this,” he said, holding out the lasso, “go catch Otis.”

Uncle, who’d been standing on the edge of the conversation, looked around. “Me?”

“Who the hell else? I know you ain’t comin’. You’re in charge of the ranch while me and Arthur go kill this son of a bitch, so go catch my goddamn ram.”

Uncle opened his mouth to say something else, but Arthur’s voice sounding behind John beat him to it. “Give it to me,” he said, and it was the first words John had heard him say all morning. Held out his hand for the lasso.

John paused. “Why?”

And Arthur snatched the lasso from his hand. “’cause I ain’t comin’, Marston.”

For a second, it was like a sheet of ice had fallen over John’s brain. Because that didn’t make sense, because— “The hell you mean you ain’t? Course you’re comin’.”

Arthur took a step forward, arms folded. His voice with a tinge of frustration to it when he said, “I ain’t goin’, John.”

“And you shouldn’t either.” Abigail again, and John had to bite his lip to stop himself snapping at her.

Kept his eyes on Arthur. “He nearly took all this from us, nearly killed you, Arthur. I don’t know what the hell—”

Arthur’s eyebrows low over his eyes, frustratingly calm, as he asked, “How long you known?”

The ice crept down into John’s chest. Of course the charade was over, but this was far from how John wanted to broach the subject. “What’re you talkin’ ‘bout?”

Arthur sighed, and the noise of it made John want to grit his teeth. Arthur’s voice low when he said, “I ain’t stupid. You’re awfully unsurprised ‘bout the fact Micah goddamn Bell is runnin’ near enough for Sadie to find him.”

John’s voice sounded hollow to his own ears as he scrambled for something to say that wasn’t confessing the whole secret keeping. “I don’t—I don’t know—”

It didn’t work, of course, because Arthur just took the opportunity to press harder, to say, “John, you been keepin’ your gunbelt in the goddamn barn. You really think I wouldn’t notice? So, tell me, how long you been plannin’ this?”

Of course Arthur had noticed, because the man was too goddamn observant for his own good. Because John was shit at lying about anything, had never been able to play those sorts of games. Because Arthur knew him, had always known when John was hiding something, had from all the way back when John was twelve.

But, thing was, there was a reason John had been trying so hard to keep all this under wraps. Because, sure, Arthur might not have reacted well if he heard Micah was near the valley and couldn’t actually do anything about it, but that had changed. Because they could kill Micah now. They had a lead.

And, yet, Arthur didn’t want to go. John couldn’t understand it. “So what? What’s the goddamn problem? Thought you’d like Micah dead, and now we got our chance and you want to goddamn leave him be?”

“What I want,” Arthur’s voice sharp, frustrated, “is for us to live the life we made here. You’re chasin’ ghosts, Marston.”

“He ain’t a goddamn ghost if he’s still out there with a gun. I’m protectin’ this life.” After all, it wasn’t like Micah wouldn’t relish the opportunity to take away what John had gained. That, and John longed to see Micah bleeding out like Arthur had. “After all he’s done, you don’t think Micah deserves a bullet through the gut?”

“And what, you get yourself killed doin’ it?” Arthur’s voice louder now, and John was acutely aware the rest of the ranch sans Jack, still asleep, were watching them, silent spectators to the performance the argument was becoming. Abigail near tears now, and John tried very hard not to look at her, to face what he’d done. Arthur continued, “Why is it that every time you got something good goin’ for you you try to toss it away the first opportunity you get? Revenge don’t goddamn solve anythin’.”

“It ain’t revenge—ain’t, ain’t just revenge.” Sure, for John it was mostly revenge, wanting to destroy Micah in the same way Micah had destroyed the life he’d had, but that wasn’t the only use in having Micah Bell dead. “He’s hurtin’ folks, Arthur. If he’s out there, with a gang, that’s what he’s doin’, no doubt. Thought that was what you were supposed to be about now, stoppin’ folks sufferin’. Or is that just some pretty idea that don’t apply with Micah?”

“The difference is walkin’ into Micah’s camp is goddamn suicide. You really think you can take on a whole gang on your own?”

“That’s why I’m goddamn askin’ you.” Because, at his core, Arthur was still unbreakable, something larger than life. Sure, John couldn’t take on a whole gang by himself, but with Arthur at his side? Arthur, who had cleared whole hideouts of men that last year with only Sadie, Charles, or Lenny along with him? They could do almost anything together. They could kill Micah Bell.

But Arthur jerked his head away. “I ain’t goin’,” he repeated again, a snarl now to his voice.

John didn’t understand. “Why the hell not? What’s your goddamn problem?”

“John, I—” And Arthur’s voice cracked, and the sound of it sent a shiver down John’s spine. “I got a life here now. I’m goddamn happy. As much as I don’t deserve that, it’s the truth. Thought—thought you were happy too.”

Arthur had moved on, John realized. He’d left it behind. He wasn’t going back, had managed something John had never been able to do, to settle completely into life away. Arthur, who had always been so goddamn hung up on the goddamn past, had let it go. When the fuck had that happened? And John was scrambling to defend himself, to explain, started, “I am happy—”

Arthur cut him off, and the tone of his voice made it clear he didn’t want to hear it. “Thought we didn’t have to go through all this bullshit again. Y’know, when—when you gave me that speech ‘bout bein’ new people, I believed you. Trusted we could really be different. Guess—guess I’m just as much a fool as I’ve always been.”

Something ached in John’s chest, rending between his breastbone and heart. “That—that ain’t fair.”

“Neither’s not listening to them as love you, but here we are.”

“Arthur, I want this life, I do but—but he nearly took goddamn everythin’ from me, from—from us. And he can’t get away with that. All Micah knows how to do is kill folk. How is it fair we ignore him? We could stop him. ”

“I ain’t out for revenge. That life’s over and done. Whatever Micah had, we’re done with it. Let him run himself into the ground. He ain’t long for this world anyway.”

And just let Micah keep living in the meantime? What the hell had happened to Arthur, thinking he could walk away from this, from Micah? John could feel the frustration in his own voice when he said, “You’re a selfish son of a bitch, Morgan. Selfish and a goddamn coward.”

“And revenge ain’t selfish? Selfish goddamn world we live in. Jack deserves his father, Marston. Not some corpse in the ground.”

It wasn’t like he was planning to die. “Jack deserves not be killed in his goddamn sleep. That’s what’s comin’ with Micah. Javier found us, so what’s to stop him?” And, a memory sparking in the back of his mind, one last thing he could try— “He’s got the Blackwater money, Arthur. You know how much we could use that kind of money?”

And mentioning that was a mistake, something that drove him even further from what he wanted. Arthur took a step forward, drawing up taller, and with the added height of the porch it was something impressive. His eyes now burning with something close to fury when he said, “And you think Micah Bell could get his hands on that sort of money with the law being none the wiser? Christ, John, you really think you can walk up to a whole gang hideout or whatever Micah’s got goin’ for him, take all that money and just walk away? Not bring all that hell back on to the ranch? Thought you were goddamn smarter than this. Thought—”

It was a momentary hesitation, just a brief glance at something over John’s shoulder, but John knew the look that flickered across Arthur’s face, knew what it looked like when Arthur saw things that weren’t there.

And, sure, maybe that had been something to be kept quiet between them, maybe John shouldn’t be dragging that out in public, but they were already having it out in front of everyone anyway. And John was beyond frustrated, nearly angry, and it slipping out of his mouth, sharp, was, “The stag’s back, ain’t it?”

And Arthur said nothing back, just bit his lower lip and slid his eyes away from John, and that was confirmation enough.

Some bright anger blooming in his stomach. “And you’re accusin’ me of lyin’? You ain’t ever told me anythin’ in your goddamn life. How the hell are you standin’ there, tellin’ me what I should or shouldn’t tell you? You ain’t even wanna come.”

Arthur opened his mouth, started, “John—”

But John didn’t want to hear it, not any more. Something bad was coming, right? That was what Arthur had said the stag meant. And John was going to get out ahead of it, was going to the source. “No, listen to me. I can’t live with myself if I let him go. Not after what he done. I’m goin’, Arthur. And you either come with me, or stay here. But I’m goin’.”

Arthur opened his mouth, closed it. Seemed to settle on something, judging by the way his eyes hardened. When his words came, they were a soft, “Then go.” And Arthur’s voice cracked over the last word, and it felt like John’s chest was cracking apart with it. “Go get yourself killed.”

In lieu of the crying John wanted to do, the begging on his knees for Arthur to come with him, he spat on the dirt in front of him. Ignored Abigail’s, “John, please,” as he turned on his heel, went to gather Rachel, gather his gun belt, his revolvers.

He tried his best to shut out the conversations going on behind him, but it was impossible. Heard Arthur say, “Charles? You know—you know I wouldn’t ask if I thought I had any other goddamn choice. Keep that fool alive.”

And Charles, replying back, “Always. Javier?”

And Javier, quiet, almost as cowed as he had been upon arriving at the ranch, “I—I can’t. Not after all these months running.”

“We understand.”

When John next looked up, leading Rachel, Arthur had folded Abigail into his arms, and he knew by the way her shoulders were heaving that she was sobbing. The guilt that encircled his throat was suffocating, but he mounted up all the same. Joined by Sadie, Charles. Always more Arthur’s friends than his, but accompanying him all the same.

John almost missed Arthur’s parting words. Didn’t look back at him, just tilted his head to indicate he heard when Arthur said, voice almost fragile, “Best kill him, John. If you don’t that’s the end of all of this.”

“C’mon,” John said, still not looking back, “let’s go kill this son of a bitch then.” Jammed Arthur’s hat onto his head and drove his heels into Rachel’s side. He could feel Arthur’s eyes on his back long after they crested the hill and went out of sight.

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.

Chapter Text

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.”

“He dead?”

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.”

“G’night, Abigail.”

 


 

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—”

Save it.”

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.”

“You didn’t—?”

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.”

“Mmn.”

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.”

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Righteousness.

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 ev