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Blackwater

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The drop of his housecoat acted like a pistol fired into the air. No sooner than when the garment hit the floor and Arthur was bare and exposed in the unforgiving morning light did John surge forward. The door rattled from the impact. They tried to kiss while snorting out chuckles. Too much teeth. Not enough lips. Both smiling too damn much to make anything but a mess of it. Skin still warm from the bed he regretted leaving, Arthur pulled John close until he was practically draped along his body. No objections, rather it spurred him forward, kissing Arthur with such fervor that he was left breathless in every sense of the word. You’d think John was a man deprived—like he wasn’t writhing beneath Arthur less than six hours ago.

“Easy, boy,” Arthur dragged out the words and barely pulled back an inch. Bodies flush, he could already feel John stirring with interest against him.

“You telling me to slow down or making an observation?” John nipped along his neck just below his ear. “If it’s the latter, that’s on you, you handsome fuckin’ bastard.”

“Well ain’t you a charmer.” Arthur tilted his head back. “It was the former but we should probably hold off anyhow. Lots of work to do.”

Not exactly a lie. He wanted to bounce some ideas off of John about getting his hands on Heidi’s diary, scamming their way onto the Serendipity, and the like. But more truth came from his fingers than his mouth, having veered onto the familiar slopes of John’s slender waist. Dangerous territory.

“Who you tryin’ to convince, huh? Me or you?” Not above resorting to underhanded tactics, John wedged his thigh between his legs. The pressure made Arthur inhale sharply. “As your boss, I’m giving you the day off.”

“You ain’t my boss, Marston.” Arthur pushed him back and pointed a finger in his smug face. “You’re just footin’ the bill.” He jerked his thumb back at himself. “I decide how and when I work.”

John knocked the hand aside. “Yeah, but I decide what you work on and I’m the only thing on your to-do list today.”

Arthur’s heavy sigh did nothing to straighten out John’s arched eyebrow. “That was terrible even by your standards.”

That wasn’t the end of it. Not by a long shot. Not with John grinning in that wolfish way of his. His arm shot out to the wall and thwarted Arthur’s escape for all of two seconds. He ducked underneath and skirted past him with a smirk. John heated up faster than a match and that fire was even more fun to play with in the bedroom. He could hear the light padding of bare feet along the hardwood floor. The scratch of a lazy finger skimming idly along the suede fabric of his couch as John stalked behind him.

The hug from behind didn’t take Arthur by surprise but his question did. “Why don’t you have any pictures on your walls? You don’t even have one of yourself.”

Expecting something flirtatious or maybe an off-hand comment with a bite, Arthur stumbled over his response. “Would you pose for a lot of pictures with a mug like this?”

“Absolutely.”

He spoke with such sincerity that Arthur couldn’t scowl nor say anything snarky like he usually did when hit by such a bold-faced compliment. Not like he could thank him neither. No matter how hard he looked, Arthur could never see what John saw in him. He turned around to find a peculiar softness had replaced his red-hot gaze. It made Arthur feel even more naked than he already was.

John cupped his face with those big hands of his and pressed chaste pecks to the corner of his mouth, moving inward slowly, and holding him with such tenderness that Arthur was startled into silence. Wayward thumbs traced Arthur’s cheekbones like he wanted to memorize their shape as their lips softly glided and overlapped one another. Gentle in all the ways John usually wasn’t and drawn out like the lazy Sunday morning they found themselves in, it was disorienting. He could feel himself moving backwards. Back into his bedroom where a tornado had apparently blown through. Streaks of light decorated the clothes strewn everywhere. When his legs bumped into the bed, down he went. John didn’t follow, going to the window to yank the cord of the Venetian blinds. They shot up and sunshine flooded the room.

“You gone blind or somethin’?”

“We’re always foolin’ around in closets, dark offices, and under the covers.” John had the audacity to wink as he kneeled and spread Arthur’s legs. “Wanted to see you for a change.”

“If you don’t quit butterin’ me up I’m gonna have to gag you.”

It was a wonder he didn’t get dizzy from how fast the blood in his head went south when John gripped the nape of his neck. He held Arthur where he wanted him. Kisses bled into nips as he dragged his teeth down the soft skin of his throat, tongue dipping into the hollow of Arthur’s collarbone. Slow-moving fingers were splayed wide to touch as much as possible, trailing up the thick muscles of his thighs to either side of his torso. His own fingertips longed to retrace the shape of John’s back as his weight bared down on him. That would have to wait. For now, they settled upon the wiry muscles of his arms and the delightfully broad shoulders as John descended; mouth latching onto his left nipple. Thumb idly played with the other. His soft, surprised gasp became a hiss when teeth scraped against the sensitive skin.

“Careful, John,” he warned, even as a treacherous shiver ran up his spine and he arched into the heat of his mouth.

Still got a kiss of apology despite the contradiction and Arthur gripped John’s mussed up locks, keeping him there. His cock twitched impatiently between them as John sucked and licked, hardening the bud into a peak, and again when brought over by Arthur to the other side. A too sharp tug John’s hair however made him pull off with a smirk.

“I used to have it long. Like past my chin long.” He rested his forehead against his chest for a moment. “I cut it short a few years back to look respectable.”

“Darlin’, you have no hope in hell of ever lookin’ respectable.”

“Ain’t that what you like about me?”

Truth be told, the list of things Arthur liked about John was getting embarrassingly long. Sure, handsome and full of hellfire were on the list. But so was the way John fit against his body. How they were so alike that sometimes they understood each other without words. How even though he drove him up the wall and right through the ceiling most days, John reignited a spark within him that Arthur was so sure was dead and gone. Wife and child in the ground and scores of innocent men put there by his own hand, Arthur often questioned what right he had to happiness. But not right now. Not with John looking at up him like that.

“Who said I liked you?”

“Call it a hunch.”

When John pinned his wrists to the mattress, Arthur’s brows bent in equal parts excitement and confusion until John began to nuzzle and press kisses into the soft curve of his stomach. Arthur squirmed and swore but the bastard wouldn’t let go. At first, he chalked it up to John being his usual bratty self but he kept at it. A point was being made and John was going to make Arthur listen whether he liked it or not. That despite what he may think of himself, there was no part of him that John would rather be hidden away in the dark.

“Still can’t get over how fine you look.” Subtlety, thy name was not John Marston. “Especially last night. All dolled up like a goddamn movie star. Felt like the belle of the ball when you danced with me.”

“Shut up, would ya?” Arthur rolled his eyes. Mostly at himself for blushing like an idiot. “You made your point.”

“It’s a shame Hosea showed up when he did. I was two seconds from dropping to my knees and—”

“You’re gonna talk yourself straight outta my bed.”

John called his bluff by grabbing his swollen cock and dragging his flattened tongue up the underside towards the tip in a painstakingly slow, I’m-not-going-anywhere sort of way. Arthur swore and did so again when he lapped up what had already leaked out, humming in content. If the flush on his chest hadn’t already swept up to the roots of his hair, it certainly did when he was engulfed by the glorious wet hot heat of John’s mouth. He moaned a sad, lonely sound from deep within; muscles clenching as he tried not to rock forward. Normally John lacked self-restraint, desperate to swallow down what he could. Not this time. John pumped Arthur lazily while swirling his tongue and sucking only at the crown. Toes curling and lifting from the floor, there were no complaints from him.

Then he heard the frantic rummaging in his nightstand drawer.

John wasn’t trying to take things slow. He was attempting to feel around blindly without pulling himself off of Arthur. When he did, it was with an obscene pop. “Where the hell is it?”

Arthur started laughing, especially when he propped himself up on his elbows and saw how frustrated John was. Last night was a haze and not easy to wade through given how distracting the incessant throbbing between his legs was. Arthur felt along the blankets and under the pillows. He remembered John whining at him to hurry up. Even in his haste he doubted he tossed the small glass jar of Vaseline aside with the same carelessness as he tore off his own clothes.

“Try under the bed?”

There was a triumphant cackle. Half-lidded and smile loose with the sunlight painting his bare skin and brown eyes with flecks of gold, Arthur couldn’t help but watch John. He moaned softly while coating his painfully rigid prick, eyes fluttering shut and mouth falling ajar. As John rocked into his fist and his teeth snagged part of his lip, Arthur’s hands clawed at the blanket beneath them. Suddenly John was on him. Tongue in his mouth. Pressing down on him. Arthur clutched at his face, thumbs and lips brushed along the many scars. Wet and sloppy, they breathed in and out hot desperate huffs of breath while their slick cocks rubbed together.

“John, please,” Arthur whispered, hating how desperate he sounded.

One finger was fine. Two had him sling a forearm over his eyes. John worked him open slowly though. He may snap and scowl and try to rush him through this part, but John had the opposite attitude when it was Arthur under his hands. Despite how the tug-of-war they engaged in when it was the other way around was fun as sin, truthfully Arthur never minded handing the reins over. An insatiable devil and with the self-control of a beast who had broken free of its chains, John’s eagerness was dizzying but Arthur loved it. Loved how it pulled him out of his head that got far too loud at times. Loved the way it made him feel. Cared for. Desirable even.

What he didn’t love was when the bastard teased him too much. Three fingers in him and his hand a blur on his cock, Arthur was uttering nonsensical things while his hips writhed uncontrollably.

Both hands froze. “I’m not distracting you from work, am I?” John asked straight-faced. “We can hold off until later if you need to—”

“Marston!” Arthur grabbed John’s hair harder than he should. “Quit wastin’ my time.”

“Well, well! Now who’s impatient?”

Arthur had given himself before to John but the breath he was holding still came out with a hitch when the tip breached him. Propped up on his elbows, John tilted his head to press rough kisses of apology along his jaw and chin. Arthur shook his head, the tenderness of it too sweet for the likes of him, and John stopped. He kept his movements gentle, rolling his hips like steady waves in a calm sea. As his cock slowly pushed in deeper and deeper, Arthur found wanted more. He wanted the stretch and the fullness. Arthur wrapped his legs around those narrow hips and dug his heels into John’s ass.

“C’mon darlin’,” Arthur growled. “Like you mean it.”

“I always mean it.”

He got his wish. John almost pulled out only to sink right back in, all the way to the hilt. Arthur’s head rolled back and an embarrassing whine came out. Huffs of laughter felt cool on his neck as John wasted no time and began to fuck him in earnest. Arthur rocked along with him, gripping John’s biceps hard as he met his thrusts. Somehow John still was hungry for more and chased after his lips like he was starved without their taste. Arthur let himself be caught. With John pumping into him fast and rough, that their feverish skin wasn’t dripping off their bones like candle wax everywhere their bodies touched was nothing short of a miracle.

“John, John—”

He bared down on him, grunting out his name over the crude slap of skin upon skin. Arthur’s spine arched as John drew guttural sounds from him. He couldn’t smother them; hands too busy clawing at John’s sweat-slicked back. When John brought them even closer, slipping his arms under his back and grasping onto his shoulders for leverage, Arthur felt trapped in the best way possible. His aching cock was heavy and caught between them. Each thrust slammed into him knocked the air out of his lungs. Arthur couldn’t seem to catch his breath. Teetering so close to the edge, Arthur was writhing and whining and didn’t care how depraved he sounded. Whenever John took him like this, rutting into him fast and hard like a damned animal, he never lasted long.

“You’re so good, Arthur,” John buried his face hard in the crook of his neck. “So good to me.”

These words sent him over. Arthur barely had enough time to stuff his fingers into his mouth. Quick and blinding as lightning, the white-hot rolling heat behind the clenched muscles of his abdomen consumed him. John continued to pump into him, albeit erratically, as Arthur spilled onto their stomachs and chests. He didn’t last much longer, muffling his hoarse cry with the palm of his hand as he pulled out. John tugged at himself roughly, release coming out in thick spurts, adding to the mess on Arthur’s skin.

Still breathing hard and not fully with it, Arthur barely noticed when John sagged down beside him. His body clenched around nothing and he felt horribly empty and exhausted and sated all at once. Arthur gazed up at the ceiling, waiting for his heart and lungs to settle. John lay still, muttering one thing or another, but it wasn’t registering. It wasn’t until he dragged a finger across Arthur’s stomach that he came back into himself. John licked it off in such a lewd manner that he could only be trying to get a reaction out of him.

“Ready for round two?”

“You—You tryin’ to put me,” Arthur panted, “in an early grave?”

“We can switch.” He continued to stare at John incredulously which, of course, only spurred him on. “I can’t think of a better way to go. Imagine your epitaph. Here lies Arthur Morgan. Died doing what he loved: John Marston.”

He wheezed with laughter right up until the point Arthur shoved him off the bed.

--

Sunday mornings were the only time Blackwater took a deep breath. Closed stores and packed churches meant few cars and fewer souls in sight. A disbeliever and sinner to boot, Arthur relished this part of the week. That’s why Arthur didn’t think too hard on the spaces between his conversation with John, when the whole world was too quiet for its own good. Even if it did remind him of the creeping sort of hush found in a graveyard that grew the further you waded among the dead. It seemed to unnerve John however, standing closer to Arthur than usual before The Blackwater Hotel. It looked as sleepy as the surrounding streets. Hell, even the doorman was leaning against its brick exterior, cap tilted low for a snooze. John was not impressed.

“You sure about this?” John eyed the buzzing, blinking sign at the corner of Main and Tallulah like it was liable to come crashing down on his head. “What if Micah comes back?”

“With the amount of heat on him, he’d be a fool to be within five miles of Blackwater.”

“If Micah skipped town, wouldn’t he bring the diary with him?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Don’t hurt to look.” Still basking in the afterglow of their morning, Arthur was in too good a mood to argue or tease John about his sudden case of nerves. “You let me do the detective work, darlin’, and don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take you home when I’m done here.”

Arthur would place all his chips on the diary still being out there. Those ripped pages found in Dutch’s hotel room screamed that the diary was meant to be a weapon to frame others. He wanted to read Heidi’s on thoughts on Micah and Dutch and potentially use her own words as proof she was anything but suicidal at the time of her death.

John scowled. “If I finish up at Beecher’s and you’re still not out, I’m coming after you.”

Geometric shapes, marble, and gold trimmings, the Blackwater Hotel was the same as before, though the umbrella tree wasn’t on fire this time. Same elevator operator, the elderly man with a slightly curved spine gave Arthur a courteous nod before going back to cleaning the frosted window of the door before the gate. Same clerk too. The young, thin man’s bored expression was absent this time however. You would’ve thought he had sprouted a second head with the look he garnered.

“Good mornin’, I know—”

“Check-ins begin at noon, sir.” The clerk tapped the sign on the desk for good measure.

“I can read, thank you. I know it’s early but—”

“I’ll have to ask you to leave, sir. We’re all booked up anyways.”

His brows furrowed. “The parking lot ain’t full.”

“I, uh, right you are, sir.” He reached for the telephone. “Let me just check with my colleague to see what rooms we have available.”

Arthur was about to point out the reservation book was literally right under his nose but instead he watched the dial plate rotate under the clerk’s finger. Four digits into calling the police, Arthur grabbed his wrist. “You’re gonna hang up, keep your voice low, and tell me what the problem is.”

The clerk swallowed audibly, nearly dropping the receiver. “I don’t want any trouble, mister!” he whispered harshly, staring at the back of his colleague’s head like he could will him to turn around.

“I don’t either. I just wanna know what’s got you so spooked.”

“Don’t play dumb. You and that friend of yours have been repeatedly harassing a guest here. I’ve been instructed to phone the police if either of you came here again.”

Lip curling, Arthur let go of him. “Mr. Kilgore tell you that? Did he also tell you his real name is Micah Bell?” All color drained from the clerk’s face. The swirling motion of the elevator operator’s hand upon the glass had slowed enough that Arthur knew he was eavesdropping. “Yes, that Micah Bell. Don’t believe me? Pick up a newspaper, kid. He’s right on the front page along with some other gentlemen you’ve probably seen ‘round here.”

The operator gave up his charade and flat out asked, “You some kind of detective?”

“Most days.” No point in lying now. “I’m investigating a murder that he’s a suspect in. You can call up the police and ask. They’ll vouch for me. But I hope you won’t ‘til I look around his room first.”

Fortunately, the clerk wasn’t wise enough to ask for a warrant. He decided to personally escort him to Room 712, giving him only ten minutes to snoop before he would be calling the police. Fair enough. They found the room unlocked. Still barren, but a bit more lived in. A couple of books, including Leaves of Grass, lay open on the floor. Drawers had been ripped out from the vanity and desk, all emptied on the bed. Nothing stood out. Mostly coins, socks, cigarettes, that sort of thing. No forgotten wallet on the dresser this time. Most of his clothes was still here including his tuxedo, which meant he did return at least briefly last night. This was why Arthur wasn’t too surprised when he didn’t come across the diary.

“What am I supposed to say to the police?” the clerk sighed as the elevator began to descend to the ground floor. “Hello, a dangerous criminal was staying here for a couple of months. Maybe come take a peek?”

“The police will interview the whole staff,” the operator pointed out. “All we can do is tell them what we remember about him, things we saw, and anything that might be helpful.”

“Sure didn’t look like the room of a killer.”

“Oh?” Arthur snorted. “Were you expecting a pile of bodies stashed in the closet?”

“What’d it look like?”

When the clerk shrugged, Arthur spoke up, “Like Mr. Bell had misplaced something and was in a hurry to find it.”

The floor indicator landed on the number one. When the elevator operator pulled aside the inner iron gate, the door was ripped open from the other side. Micah was there with a pair of degenerates. Bandanas over their mouths. Guns with suppressors. He didn’t have time to draw his revolver. Two muffled shots rang out; fired into the heads of the clerk and operator. Blood sprayed out the backs of their skulls, splattering onto the walls of the elevator and onto Arthur who stumbled backwards as their bodies slumped to the floor.

“Hey cowpoke.” Micah pulled down his crimson bandana. His smile very much met his eyes. “The boss wants a quick word.”

All three seized him. Ripped out of the elevator and gun stolen, he was kept at gunpoint by the far wall. Bill and Javier were working to make the hotel appear closed for the day. Drawn curtains. Open sign was flipped around. Lights out one-by-one. The front doors along with those for the stairs, office, and restaurant were locked and had chairs shoved under their knobs for good measure. Another corpse lay face-down, blood pooling around him on the marble floor. The doorman. Heart heavy with self-loathing, Arthur didn’t fight back when until the dark-haired brute with a face heavily lined from a harsh life and deep sunken eyes bound his wrists behind his back with rope. Too many hands grabbed at him. Poking and prodding. Fingers digging into his skin and clothes like they wanted to bruise him as they searched for something that clearly wasn’t there. Never had he been happier that his journal was safe in his car.

“Where the hell is it?” Micah snapped.

“Good question.”

His cheek cost him just that. A blunt object collided with his face, skin searing with pain as it was torn open. The man next to Micah, little more than a scrawny twig with a bad comb over and pronounced Adam’s apple, tittered with laughter.

“Ay! What the hell was that for?” Javier and Bill grabbed his biceps, pulling Arthur away from Micah. “Dutch said not to hurt him.”

Arthur clenched his teeth. “That all you got?”

“Look at him! He’s fine. I was simply reminding him who’s in charge here.” Micah wiped the blood on the edge of his suppressor off on Arthur’s shirt. “When’d you turn into such a killjoy, Greaser?”

“You tend to bring out that side of me.”

“Now ain’t the time nor place,” Bill interrupted. “Dutch is waiting.”

“Right you are, Marion.” Micah flicked his chin at the bodies in the elevator. “Cleet. Joe. Take care of things here and keep an eye out.”

A burlap sack bag came down over his head. Arthur was led this way and that through winding alleyways, further and further from the noise that had returned to the city streets. Hard to guess what direction they were going with the sun overhead like a hot spotlight following his every move. Sweat stung his fresh wound, still dripping down his cheek and soaking into the fabric. When they stopped, Arthur took a good whiff and regretted it. Rot clung to his nose. Broken glass crunched under his shoes.

“What did you do to my boy?” Dutch ripped the bloodied sack off and Arthur flinched at the sunlight. The bow of his upper lip retracted in muted horror and he grabbed Arthur’s chin, inspecting the wound.

“Don’t worry,” Micah replied, voice skin-crawlingly smooth. “Most of it ain’t his blood.”

It was a mistake to remove the bag. They were in a secluded lot behind what he suspected were a couple of condemned tenements not too far from the hotel. If he escaped, Arthur could easily find his way to the police. Dead vermin, old garbage, and glass shards littered the ground. It wasn’t the sort of place you’d expect to find Dutch van der Linde in. But there he was. Disheveled like the others and missing his golden rings. Gone were the sleek pinstripe suits and shining shoes. He and his men must’ve robbed a flophouse; clothes ill-fitting, mismatched, and heavily worn.

“So this is what it’s come down to?” Arthur jerked his chin free. “Disguising yourselves as common thieves and sneaking ‘round like rats to hide from the law so you can shake down folks?”

Face drawn, hair unkempt, and eyes bruised from a lack of sleep, Dutch had a particularly dangerous look about him. He stood tall though. Even more so after Arthur finished talking. There was always a certain amount of pride in his stance no matter how low he sunk.

“Son, don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

Arthur tried hard to sound calm. “Dutch, you know I had nothin’ to do with what happened last night.”

“Well, color me surprised! You figured out why we’re here without any clues. Guess you ain’t such a useless gumshoe after all.” Micah got right up into Arthur’s face. “Find anything interesting in my room?”

“Not this time, no.” Arthur looked past him. “Dutch, I don’t know what you expected to happen when you kept going after Hosea. ‘Course he was gonna push back.”

“What I expected,” Dutch said slowly, rolling the words over his tongue, “was for my son not to betray me.”

Micah shoved him into the brick wall. “When did you take the map, Morgan?”

“The hell you talkin’ about? What map?” Eight eyes glared. Although Arthur could suddenly sympathize with a fly caught in a web, he refused to get tangled up in whatever lie Micah had spun. “If one of you could enlighten me on what it is that you’re accusing me of, I’d appreciate it.”

“The only way Hosea could have known where my distilleries were would be through the map Mr. Bell had in his possession, which is conveniently missing.”

Arthur squinted at him. “How could I take a map that I didn’t know existed ‘til now?”

Well, that explained what Micah had been looking for in his bedroom. Or maybe what he wanted others to think he had been looking for. Micah was working with Milton and Ross. Maybe they were trying to take Dutch down using the only man strong enough to do it. Arthur wished he had told Dutch earlier about Micah’s treachery. If he said anything now, Dutch wouldn’t believe him.

It didn’t explain what Micah had been searching for on his person though.

“Sounds to me like you have a rat, Dutch. If anything, I’d be lookin’ at the person who had it last.”

“He’s lying,” Micah sneered. “We all know how much he enjoys sniffing around hotel rooms. Even yours, Dutch.”

Shit. “I didn’t take the goddamn map!”

“I did raise you to be a good thief, Arthur.”

“C’mon, Dutch. You know me. You know how I feel ‘bout you and Hosea fighting. Why would I try to make the situation worse?”

“What I know is that every single time Hosea and I fight, you always take his side.”

“Now let’s get one thing straight, I ain’t on nobody’s side.” Arthur let that hang in air for a moment. “I wouldn’t do this, Dutch. I wouldn’t go behind your back and—”

“Don’t lie to me.” His words were little more than a hiss by the end. He grabbed his face, forcing Arthur to look him in the eye. “You’ve been going behind my back this whole time trying to find out if I or Mr. Bell here murdered Miss McCourt. How am I supposed to trust you?”

Some sort of commotion down the alleyway from which they came cut Arthur off. Cleet and Joe rounded the corner, laughing and nudging John forward with their guns. Wrists also bound and a sack over his head, John was at the mercy of his captors and could do nothing when the taller one whacked him across the back of his skull with his gun. Stunned by the blow, John stumbled and fell before Dutch’s feet. In the distance, sirens began to wail.

“John!” Arthur took a step forward. Bill and Javier’s grip kept him from taking two. “Let him go!”

“Joe found him trying to pick the lock to get into the hotel,” the rat-faced one supplied.

“He has nothin’ to do with any of this!”

“Settle down, Morgan,” he taunted, blue eyes alight with unmistakable glee. “I can’t kill you but I can certainly kill him.”

“Jesus,” John scoffed. “You still tryin’ to act tough? Drop the charade. You can’t do shit to me or Dutch’ll lose his leverage over Arthur.”

Dutch ripped the bag off his head. “You sure do like to run your mouth, don’t you, boy?”

Eyes wide and wild like a cornered animal, John still rose on unsteady legs to meet Dutch’s glare. Dark eyes blazing with open hatred. Shoulders squared. Chests puffed like a pair of roosters trying to intimidate the other; heaving slightly from their poorly concealed rage. Fists clenched and ready to strike—even though John couldn’t swing his. It was like looking in a mirror. A slightly distorted one but a reflection all the same.

“No more than you do.”

Dutch grasped his face. “You overestimate your value. My son has—”

“You ain’t fit to be callin’ anyone son with the way you treat him! What kind of father manipulates his son and threatens to kill those he cares about?”

Arthur wanted to scream at John to shut up but the sirens were growing, not fading, and being manhandled hadn’t robbed him of the razor-sharp gleam in his eye.

John had called the police. He was just trying to waste time in the hopes they’d get caught.

“I swear you’re dumber than a sack of potatoes. Why you here, Dutch? Why ain’t you hiding? It’s like you want the cops to nab you.”

“Shut your mouth.” Each word was punched out as he squeezed his cheeks to make John’s lips jut out. “I am the sort of father that will use a heavy hand to remind my son where his loyalties should lie.” Dutch forced John back onto his knees and shoved his face aside hard. John fell back over. “Don’t test me, because I can assure you, boy, it won’t end well for you.”

“You have to go.” Javier didn’t bother to hide his alarm as he tugged at Dutch’s arm. “We all do. Don’t you hear that? The cops are at the hotel!”

Micah didn’t hear him or didn’t care, too busy testing out the strength of another piece of rope. Before anyone had time to react, he brought it over John’s head. Wrapped and crossed it tight around his neck then pulled in opposite directions. A strangled cry came not from John, but from Arthur who couldn’t breathe as John’s whole body jerked violently. He made wretched gasps for air that couldn’t reach his lungs; shoes scrambling for purchase against the ground.

“He took the map!” Micah hissed, halting Dutch and Javier’s protests. “Think about it! Who has the most to gain? With you gone, he’d no longer have to worry about you coming for him or his family!”

Bill stared incredulously at the others before storming forward. “We don’t have time for this!”

Cleet and Joe were forced to grab hold of Arthur. Before he could shout, Joe tried to stuff his bandana into his mouth. He bit down hard into his fingers, tasting blood as the man howled in pain before backhanding him.

Face twisted with hate and teeth clenched, Micah’s arms were shaking from how hard he was pulling. “Or he got Arthur to do it! Which is it, Johnny?”

His eyes bulged and so did the veins along his neck from the strain. John tried to curl his right leg underneath him, tied hands reaching towards where he kept a switchblade in his sock garter, but he couldn’t reach it. His body lurched in the air. Held up only by that rope choking the life out of him, John’s weight worked against him, pulling him down hard. Horrid gasps gurgled from his gaping mouth.

“I took it! I stole the map! John had nothing to do with it!”

Dutch looked at Arthur. “That’s enough!” He pulled Micah off of John. “Go! Get out of here! All of you!”

John hit the ground. Wheezing and gasping for air like his throat had been torn out. Raw and ragged, it sounded like every breath pained him and that he still couldn’t get anything down. His nails continued to dig into his palms and he bleeds while coughing and gagging like he might retch. The instant his arms were free, Arthur dropped down by John’s side, voice breaking as he tried to tell him he was going to be alright and how sorry he was. The others splintered off into varying directions. Only Cleet paused when Dutch held out his hand, handing over Arthur’s revolver reluctantly.

Dutch didn’t run. Not yet. Carding his fingers through his own hair, his breaths were heavy, crackling with nervous energy as he stared at the gun in his hand. Waiting for the click of the hammer, Arthur closed his eyes. Instead his Colt clattered against the ground.

“You always were a terrible liar,” Dutch muttered, bending down and slicing through Arthur’s binds with a knife.

He immediately tore at the binds around John’s own wrists. Once freed, Arthur carefully pulled him into his arms. His breaths were still sharp and painfully hitched, sucked in loudly over his teeth. Too upset to speak, Arthur pressed his lips to John’s forehead, refusing to look at Dutch even though he could feel the weight of his stare and shadow upon his back.

“I have a favor to ask.”

Arthur glared at him over his shoulder. He had to be kidding, right?

“Colm O’Driscoll has taken something of mine. Again.” Arthur grimaced at the emphasis. As if he could forget the first time. He was the one who had found Annabelle slain. “I know he has no intention of returning two of my men, Leopold Strauss and Orville Swanson, even if I gave into his demands. Instead you two are going to steal them right out under his nose and return them to me. Alive.”

“Or what?” Arthur spat. “You’ll send that madman to finish what he started?”

Whatever Dutch was thinking, he didn’t share it. His expression lingered on the two of them, slowly growing darker and darker like a cloud moving in on the sun.

Then he left.

--

The main house on the Matthews Estate was beautiful in a lonely sort of way. A country manor built for grand parties from the bygone century. No matter how much elegant furniture, unique paintings, family photos, or bounds of flowers the late Bessie Matthews stuffed into its walls, it still felt empty. Arthur bothered the large bandage on his cheek absentmindedly. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to talk about what transpired, and especially didn’t want to entertain the idea of going to New Austin. He just wanted to take John home. Sure, Abigail would throw the fit of the century, but she had every right. John insisted though upon seeing Hosea, thinking that he would know what to do. Arthur couldn’t bring himself to say no.

“It’s a fool’s mission.” Hosea reached for yet another cigarette from the tray on the coffee table between them. Lenny tried to use his foot to nudge it away but a stern look made him reconsider. “Even if you two managed to find where they’re being held, they’re already dead.”

“How do you know?” Lenny asked.

“The only thing Colm could want is for Dutch to relinquish his territory along the Dakota. They’ve been fighting over that river for years. It’s the quickest way to transport product. Colm knows Dutch would die before giving it up. He will be expecting Dutch to try some sort of rescue mission.”

“Then why ask?” John spoke in a strained voice, shifting uncomfortably on the couch as he brought the ice bundled inside a cloth to the other side of his ravaged neck. “Why not just kill me?”

Hosea took a much needed drag. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

“From what I know about him,” Charles began, shifting his weight against the wall he was leaning against. Extra guards were on duty today in case of any retaliation. Sadie flashed by the open window, patrolling out on the veranda with her favorite rifle. “Dutch always wants to be in control. Over situations, people, everything. When he wants you dead, it’ll be on his terms.”

Lenny picked up the blasted map that had caused all this trouble off the table. The need for it was obvious. All four former bootlegging operations looked like a job and a half to reach, well-hidden and remote. “If neither of you sent this, then who did?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. It came from an anonymous source around the time Kieran was murdered along with a note telling me to ‘Do with this what you will.’” Hosea blew out a long wisp of smoke. “What are we going to do with you, Mr. Marston?”

“What do you mean?”

“Dutch knows Arthur is crazy about you. That’s how he’s able to manipulate him.” Arthur blushed hard even though Lenny, Charles, and Sadie—who was absolutely eavesdropping—didn’t react. “However, if you’re removed from the equation—”

“I’m not going anywhere.” He grabbed Arthur’s hand with both of his and all of the ice cubes came tumbling out of the cloth. Wincing his idiocy, John bent down to pick them up off the floor.

“We can have someone take care of your business while you and your family are somewhere safe.” Hosea waved his hand through the smoke to look at him directly. “You’re endangering their lives by staying.”

John was having none of it, glaring up at everyone from the floor. “Even if I was gone, Dutch will just threaten someone else that Arthur cares about. He’s not going to stop. As long as he’s alive, Dutch will never leave you or Arthur alone.”

The truth of that statement weighed over them like a low-lying cloud, heavy and oppressive, and sucked all the air out of the room. Only Sadie was unaffected. “Isn’t it in your best interest, Hosea, to make sure Colm don’t get a stronger foothold in New Austin now that you mostly cleared Dutch outta there?”

“Yes.”

Arthur didn’t like where this was going. “Now ain’t the time to start shit with the O’Driscolls. You don’t need a two-front war.”

“Exactly. We can’t let Colm know we’re undermining his efforts so what if we pretended to be working for Dutch? Think about it. The O’Driscolls down south ain’t ever seen us before. They’re not gonna know better if we throw Dutch’s name around while trying to track down their hideouts.”

John perked up. “So when Colm starts asking questions, that’s what’ll get back to him.”

Arthur frowned and it only worsened when he saw Hosea rubbing his jaw, cigarette dangling loosely from his lips. Christ alive! Was he was actually considering it? “That’ll work, Mrs. Adler, until Colm gets a description of myself, you, or Charles. He knows who we are.”

“He wouldn’t suspect Hosea to send you though,” Charles pointed out. “He’d think you were legitimately helping out Dutch.”

Sadie gestured towards John. “Colm don’t know who he is. Probably figure him to be a recent hire by Dutch. With you two asking the questions, we could pull this off.”

“Strauss is Dutch’s accountant,” Hosea mused, clearly sold on the idea. “If he’s alive, I’d like to look into his finances and see where cash is still flowing in. Then cut it off.”

John squeezed Arthur’s hand. “Wouldn’t it be helpful for our case to see what Dutch has been spending money on?”

Maybe. Probably. Not to mention, if they were alive it could be another opportunity to learn more about Dutch and Micah’s relationship. That was a big if though. One that Arthur didn’t want to gamble John on. God, this gang war was like quicksand. Every move he made, every time he tried to get out, he just sunk deeper and deeper. He didn’t want to pull down John with him too.

“You’re not going, Marston.”

“That ain’t your choice.” Sadie entered the room through the window with the same nonchalance as she would a door. “John looks like a man who can handle himself. He’ll be fine even if you don’t come.”

“I like her.” John slapped Arthur’s arm with the back of his hand casually. “Why didn’t you introduce us earlier?”

She held out her hand. “Sadie Adler.”

John shook it readily. “John Marston.”

Charles’s knowing gaze flickered between the two before settling on Arthur. “I’ll go too.”

Although he was a hard man to read, Arthur knew Charles only ever had the best intentions in mind. However, if that was supposed to make him feel better or give him an out, it didn’t. While Lenny volunteered to stay with Hosea to keep an eye on things here, Arthur grabbed the crystal decanter full of whiskey and let the indecent amount sloshed into his glass do all the talking. He was going alright and not happy about it in the slightest. This was going to be a goddamn nightmare.