“Marston, if you don’t leave that thing alone you’re gonna have a goddamn crater in the side o’ your face”
John reached up yet again, dragging his dirty fingernails roughly down the length of the still-raw scars cut into his cheek, nails catching on the jagged stitches poking through the wounds. The itching was driving him insane; it felt like it was deep under his skin, swarming and burning and crawling. Being cut and bruised and hurt was nothing new to him, sort of came with the territory when you lived in fields and country and robbed and killed for your livelihood, but nothing had ever come close to the searing pain he’d endured in the weeks of recovery up in those dreadful mountains.
The wounds stung and flared as he scritched at them insistently, narrowing his eyes at the larger man sat across the campfire from him, smirking face buried again in his small leather journal.
“Oh yeah? I’ll be scratching someone else’s face off if I don’t so how about you mind your own business.” John spat venomously, lip curling as he picked up the flint arrowhead he was carving and set upon it indignantly with his hunting knife.
Arthur smirked again, shaking his head as he scribbled a small unflattering doodle of a skinny scar-faced man, pouting and bitching. The kid had still barely gotten out of his bratty teenage mindset, despite now being closer to 30 than his teens. He peered over the top of the pages at the smaller man, watching him furiously scrape at the flint so hard there were small sparks flying from the knife. His eyebrows were knitted together in frustration and his face twitched in annoyance. Arthur sighed softly; the boy had been through a lot.
John had never been one for talking about things, it was like pulling teeth getting him to open up or confide. Though his hot temperament and guarded personality usually made him come across as dense and sullen, there was a vulnerability to him that had always struck a chord in Arthur, no matter how he annoyed and infuriated him.
John reached for his cheek for the eighth time in ten minutes and Arthur threw down his journal, launching his pencil and lurching forwards to slap his hand away; resulting in a pseudo wrestling match which John quite spectacularly lost, fingers bent back and squawking hoarsely.
“LEAVE IT ALONE!”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The snow was absolutely not stopping.
Thick, glistening sheets lay unmarred and picturesque against the sweeping backdrop of the mountains; breathtaking if not for the fact they were stuck and freezing to death. Arthur gazed through the small smeared window of his cabin room, his bones almost creaking from the cold as he shifted and rose from his bed, his huge furred overcoat tucked tightly around him. He was wearing every item of clothing he could possibly squeeze onto himself, four pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves and still the cold bit right through him. Shivering, he put on his scuffed gambler hat; pulled it low and left for outside.
As he passed through the adjoining room, Dutch looked up from his seat at the weakly-burning fireplace, face wrapped in a chequered necktie and hands held out desperately to the feeble flames.
“Oh, you’re awake Arthur,” he exclaimed, his musical voice somewhat shaky and his eyes tired, “or did you actually get any sleep?”
“A little, I guess.” Arthur shivered again, pulling his gloves tighter, “at least it’s quiet up here.”
Dutch’s eyes creased at the sides. “Ahh, you were always a strong one, my boy. This place is Hell; Hell on earth and I cannot wait to be back where there is some life. Life and warmth, preferably”
“Not gonna argue with that, Dutch.” said Arthur shortly. As much as he hated civilization and all it stood for, anything was better than dying a cold, dismal death in this frozen wasteland. It was almost a blur how they had even ended up here with the panic and the frantic escape from Blackwater; it seemed like they’d been running for years and yet also only days. Time passed strangely in the mountains; hours could be minutes or, more commonly, minutes could be hours.
He still didn’t fully understand what had even happened at Blackwater; only that the worst possible outcome had apparently happened and good people had been killed. People he respected and valued. He hadn’t been able to shake the bad feeling he’d had about that job from the beginning; like an omen or a warning lingering in the back of his mind. He rarely felt real fear, but running from that place was one of the most terrifying experiences he’d ever faced.
Hordes of men; murderous and merciless tearing after them like creatures possessed. The deafening noise of hooves, screams, curses, gunshots. How they hadn’t lost anyone else was a miracle; how any of them were still alive even now was a miracle.
As Arthur turned to leave, Dutch turned in his seat towards him.
“Oh, Arthur, I believe Abigail wanted to speak to you. She seemed troubled, was wringing her hands something fierce. She must be worried sick, the poor woman.”
“No doubt.” said Arthur, shaking his head. Leaving Dutch to his thoughts, he exited the cabin and trudged heavily through the thick snow carpeting the small abandoned settlement of Colter, patting his tired, fatigued horse as he approached the cabin where the women and Jack were holed up. He knocked lightly before poking his head halfway round the heavy door.
“Mornin’ ladies, uhh, is everyone decent?” he asked reticently, edging the door open a little more as he spoke.
“Hah, that’s a laugh, as if anyone’s gonna be gallivantin’ naked in this weather. You’re funny, Arthur.” Tilly’s voice called back, scoffing. Arthur squeezed through the opening and shut the door quickly behind him. Karen and Mary-Beth sat huddled under furs in the corner and Tilly shifted under blankets piled on the bed. Abigail looked up from the storybook she held with Jack perched on her knee, closing it abruptly and shooing Jack so she could rise.
“Oh, oh you’re awake, I, uhh, I need to ask you... another favour.” She approached as she spoke, uncertainly. Arthur’s eyebrow rose in some sort of amusement.
“Oh don’t tell me he’s gone traipsing about on another mountaintop, I’ve had enough of lugging that fool around in the snow; I don’t think he’s cut out for grand expeditions.” exclaimed Arthur sarcastically, rolling his eyes dramatically.
Abigail frowned. “'Course not, you think he’s in any state to traipse around anywhere right now!? I’m scared he’s gonna die, Arthur. He won’t speak to me, won’t speak to Jack or even look at us. I’m scared we’re gonna bury him out in this wretchedness and I can’t bear… I just can’t…” she trailed off, a small tear forming in her eye.
Arthur gazed pityingly at her sorrowful expression, an old jealousy tugging in his chest at her concern for that idiot boy, and how desperately besotted she was with him. He’d never fully understood what it was with those two, how such wildly different people were so hopelessly trapped together; a beautiful woman with everything to live for and a scrawny good-for-nothing with a temper like an injured polecat. She’d even given him a son; a good kid who just wanted a father he wasn’t prepared to be. Anyone in their right mind would have ditched him long ago; but Abigail was never in her right mind when it came to John.
“If you could just…I mean, would you try…” Abigail fumbled her words, looking dejectedly at the floor as Jack looked over inquisitively from the corner he’d snuggled into. Arthur sighed.
“Suuuure okay, I’ll go check in on him, but I dunno if he’ll be any more willing to talk t’ me. There ain’t much more I can do for him, Abigail.”
Abigail nodded, wiping at her eye with the sleeve of her thick knitted shawl. “Thank you, Arthur. I……thank you.”
She turned away hastily and went to her son, winding him tightly in her arms as she sat. Arthur sighed once more, nodded in the other ladies’ direction and took his leave.
Approaching the nearby cabin where John lay recovering, Arthur rubbed awkwardly at the back of his neck and tried to think of what the hell he was going to say. He couldn’t deny he was worried too; the state John had been in when he and Javier finally found him on that lonely mountain had been far worse than he’d expected; frozen, starving and a face full of blood and gore. If it hadn’t been for the man’s desperate cries as they called out for him, he would have thought he was a goner as soon as he lay eyes upon him, slumped brokenly on the ledge in the bloody snow.
They barely even made it back to Colter with him, thrown haphazardly over Arthur’s shoulder as his old friends prowled onto the horizon, hungry to finish their work. Riding desperately through the snow flurry, flinching at the echoing snarls and howls surrounding them as Arthur and Javier fired shots almost blindly; running yet again.
John had been near death, that was certain. For once they’d had the snow to thank for leading them to him; any longer and he’d have been a cold corpse. Even with the care and attention of Susan and the girls it looked uncertain he’d see the week out. Cold had eaten into him, the beginnings of frostbite had set into his extremities and his face was an absolute mess of deep claw gouges and ugly wounds. John had never been considered the most handsome of the bunch, and the twisted scars he would definitely be left with were not going to help.
So here he lay now in his makeshift hospital room as Arthur shouldered the door open gently, looking over to see if the man was awake. John was still as a plank, laid on his back with the right side of his face swathed in bloody gauze and cloth. He turned his head slowly at the sound of movement and squinted with his unbandaged eye.
“Hullo John.” said Arthur plainly, sitting heavily in the chair by the bedside. John said nothing but huffed a little as he faced back to the wall. Always the moody lil’ bitch, Arthur thought. He shifted in his seat. “I won’t ask how you’re doin’ I guess. Don’t need an answer to that, you look like shit.”
John’s face twitched into a smirk; then a grimace as his shredded flesh shifted under the wounds. “Nothing new there, right.” he croaked. His voice was hoarse and sand-papery, more so than usual from lack of speech, and the new cut on his lip glistened red as it split.
“They really got you. Still, ‘least they left some scraps of you behind, maybe you taste s'bad as you look.” Arthur said whimsically, still not being able to resist teasing him.
“Har har.” John barked bluntly.
They sat in silence as minutes ticked by, neither of them moving or knowing what to say. Arthur suspected John’s pride had probably been hit hard by the whole situation; Mr. Strong and Independent being treated as an invalid, being fawned and fussed over. Arthur was considering just up and leaving when John finally broke the silence.
Arthur looked up questioningly.
“They got my eye.”
Arthur stared at him blankly. John stared back.
“I can barely see you. The wolves got my eye. Didn’t even notice 'til I woke up after you got me back.” John’s lips tightened into a line. “I’m gonna be useless.”
Arthur frowned a little, leaning in to inspect. He pulled up the man’s eyelid with his finger, narrowing his eyes. It looked fine to him. Except a small, small mark, like a tiny tear in the steel coloured iris. Arthur cocked his head to the side and sat back down.
“Don’t look like much to me, maybe it won’t be permanent. You got quite a whoopin’ up there.”
John looked defeated. “What if it don’t? I’m gonna be a sideshow anyway. What good am I gonna be if I can’t even see straight?”
Arthur chuckled low in his throat. “You’ll shoot better with one eye anyway. Hmm, Scar-Face or Dead-Eye; can’t decide which I like better.”
John stared at him gone-out for a second before surrendering to painful laughter, he and Arthur sharing the moment in comfort, a weight lifting from the room and a brief contentment settling in.
After a little time, Arthur stood, smiling amiably as he turned to leave.
“…thanks, Arthur.” said John in a small voice, “For…y'know. …thanks.”
Arthur understood. He mumbled something as he left, maybe to himself, but John heard regardless.
“Get strong, little brother.”
John thought a lot about that in the hours that followed.