Looking back, through the entire twisted trail of actions and reactions, decisions and consequences, one fact stood out beyond all others: It was all Faraday’s fault.
Red Harvest glanced up at the feathers shoved into his face, face carefully molded into his customary expressionless mask. His knuckles cracked as he unpeeled his fingers from the handle of his hatchet — the crack bit into his skin, promising to one day draw blood in sacrifice for its use — Faraday’s grin only widening in response to his own mortality.
Faraday’s hand shook slightly, the gaps where fingers had once been now hidden behind the rich deep brown stripes of turkey feathers, and Red reached up to take them, running one finger along the soft edge.
“Good yeah?” Faraday asked, grin pulling at the still healing skin on his face, swaying slightly on his feet. The other man was constantly in motion, a fact that had caused him a substantial amount of suffering beneath the iron fist of Adelaide Howe, eventually culminating in his reluctant and limited freedom from her care.
Red nodded, tilting the feathers to inspect the barbs. His quiver had been empty since the battle at Rose Creek, the subsequent weeks filled with rebuilding — back aching beneath the loads placed upon it, terrified that this gratitude would shift into hate while he slept like the dead, exposed and defenceless — with no time to roam the plains that seemed to be calling his name.
“Shot it myself.”
Faraday’s eyes were bright, excitement flowing through him rather than the fever that had gripped him over the past few days.
“Thank you,” Red said softly, flashing a quick grin up at the other man. He shifted to one side, rough bark prickling at the exposed skin of his calves, and jerked his head to the vacated spot: a clear indication for Faraday to sit down, before he fell down.
Red could see the look Faraday threw to Vasquez over the top of his head — excitement and delight rolled up into one — and wordlessly reached up one hand, feathers carefully lying in his lap. The missing space — the wrongness of it — as Faraday placed his hand in Red’s, slowly, carefully lowering himself down made his skin crawl, but Red held firm. He wouldn’t let this reflexive response control him, Faraday was a brave man — annoying and disrespectful — but brave.
“A turkey?” Red asked, sniffing the air. Beneath the woodsmoke, he could smell the meat cooking, hear the crackling sizzle as dripped onto the flames.
Faraday grumbled beneath his breath, the language not one Red understood — guttural and flowing, cards slipping from his grasp as he tried to pull them from his pocket. Red watched him out of the corner of his eye, knowing that Vasquez would be watching the pair from his seat behind them, hoping that the man wouldn’t burn the meat. Red was hungry constantly, a gnawing ache in the pit of his stomach, but the food he was given turned foul in his mouth. He dreamt of food from his tribe, and woke disappointed.
“Should mean more food you’re used to,” Faraday said, Red narrowing his eyes at the other man, scowling in response to Faraday’s grin.
They had stopped because of Faraday. Red had turned back, alerted by Vasquez’s shout, to see Faraday tumble sideways from his horse, saved from crashing to ground by Vasquez’s grip on his arm — Red carefully didn’t notice the greyness of Vasquez’s skin as Faraday regained consciousness; the trembling in his hands that only abated when Faraday swore at him for worrying; the sheer relief in his voice as he swore back at Faraday. They had been riding so close together — Vasquez’s boots knocking against Faraday’s with every other step — and Vasquez still hovered, unwilling to let Faraday out of his sight.
“Yes,” Red answered, idly twirling a feather between two fingers, feeling the softness of the down against the back of his hand. He smiled to himself, relaxing fully for the first time in months. Unseen by him, Faraday mouthed a challenge to Vasquez, the exchange caught by the other’s in their small group; a storm brewing just over Red Harvest’s head.
Vasquez made the next move, an unintentional start, but he was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth — a lifetime on the run had taught him to take whatever was given to him with both hands, and never look back.
“How do you not know what a porcupine looks like, hom-bray ,” Faraday drawled.
Red peered around Horne’s back, hands digging into the soft dirt to stabilise himself, hair swinging free of its confines and blocking his vision for a moment. His hand was cold as he shoved his hair out of the way, biting back a growl, specks of dirt tumbling down to litter his cheeks, the scent clean and comforting.
Vasquez growled in frustration at Faraday, cheeks puffed out like a child caught in the middle of mischief, arms folded across his chest. His hat was resting on one of Billy’s knives, driven into the ground near the fire, colour gently shifting from the waterlogged brown back to normal as it dried.
"Now sit still, and stop squirming," Horne scolded, Sam appearing like a ghost on the other side of him, his normal silent tread ruined by the faint squelch of his boots, the water running down his sodden shirt sleeves.
"I will squirm if I want to," Vasquez argued, settling further into his sulk, a small pout twisting his lips.
"Now that porcupine reminded me of someone," Goodnight murmured to Billy, voice pitched low enough to not be overheard by Vasquez or the still giggling Faraday, but Red heard, half turning to watch the duo out of the corner of his eye.
Billy was lying back against the thick trunk of a tree, dappled sunlight creating shifting patterns on his skin, leg stretched out and propped up against one of the packs. His cigarette was loosely held between two fingers, smoke coiling out through his teeth as he stared at Goodnight, eyebrow raised in silent question. The other man, unaware of the danger at his back or, rather, deliberately ignoring it, plucked the cigarette from Billy, drawing his own lungful of the sweet smelling smoke, tipping his head back to blow rings towards the sky.
"My daddy always used to say—"
Red couldn't understand what words Billy muttered into Goodnight's ear, tone too low for him to make out, but he saw the understanding flicker across Goodnight's face, temptation close on its heels. Most men would think twice about continuing down the path Goodnight was determined to tread — walking the line as if he had been born to, uplifted by Billy’s constant presence at his side.
Goodnight grinned, a slow, languid grin that passed over his face like a cloud passing over the sun, rolling the words across his tongue as if savouring their flavour. He reached backwards, hooking an easy hand around the back of Billy's neck, tugging the other man closer to murmur into his ear.
His yelp, as Billy bit the exposed jut of his collarbone, was drowned out by Vasquez's yowl, Red's head snapping back around, hand flying to his dagger.
"Everything's fine," Horne said, somehow knowing Red's actions without looking at him. Red sat back on his heels, carefully studying the back of Horne's head, passing his eyes along the soft hair at the base of his neck.
The women at Rose Creek often said that they had eyes in the back of their head, normally towards their children, so it wasn't impossible that Horne also had that gift. He did have children — a small picture kept in a locket tucked into his chest pocket, just above his heart.
"Vasquez is just going to have to learn not to pick a fight with a porcupine," Horne continued, carefully pulling another quill from the Mexican's face, the man's feet drumming against the ground in silent agony.
"That was not el puercoespín," Vasquez hissed, flinching back from Horne's hands before returning to his usual position.
"Then what is it?" Faraday asked, match flaring into life with a hiss of excitement. He dropped it mere moments later, fingers slipping on the slim wood, boot heel grinding out the sputtering flame.
"Porcupines climb trees, they're—" Vasquez stopped, mouth twisting as he searched for a word just out of his reach.
"Amarillo?" he asked Sam, turning slightly to face him, yelping once again as Horne took the opportunity to pluck another quill from his face.
"Yellow," Sam replied, unsuccessfully hiding his grin behind one hand.
Red reached forward, carefully keeping an eye on Horne, and plucked a quill from the pile. They were unbroken — a stroke of good luck given Vasquez's actions after being shot: his tumble down a hill and subsequent swim in the river — and, for a moment, Red could almost feel the beat of drums in his veins, hear the quills knock together as the men danced, shadows long in the firelight.
"—not whatever that awful bastardo was."
"That was a porcupine," Faraday replied.
Vasquez's reply was cut off as Horne pulled him closer by his ankles, hands suddenly scrabbling at the soft dirt.
"Warn a man," Vasquez said, voice sharp.
"I will, apologies as the Lord says, do not let the sun go down on your anger. "
Vasquez accepted the apology with a sharp nod, gaze landing on Red.
"Ay, Rojo. You can have the quills if you want."
Red didn't answer for a moment, weighing up his options, but the want, the need, deep in the pit of his chest proved to be too strong.
"Yes. Thank you."
He grinned at Vasquez, the other man returning it, something close to surprise on his face.
"Come on then Horne," Vasquez sighed, crossing his legs, wrapping his hands around his ankles with a tight enough grip to cause the leather to squelch, "Get these quills out of me for Red."
"I feel like our young friend would be a good companion for this trip," Goodnight said, buckles clinking faintly as his horse shifted beneath him, eager to head down to the town lying out in front of them.
"Why not Billy?" Faraday called, voice muffled by the cigarette clamped between his teeth, face resting against Jack's neck. The greyness of his skin was not from sickness, or from his previous injuries, but rather from the drinking contest he had endeavoured to win last night with Billy and Vasquez.
Billy looked proud, a grin pulling at the corners of his lips, a grin that only increased when Goodnight turned around to cast him a fond look over his shoulder. He was sitting straight and tall, the only sign of his night of extended drinking, a slight sway to his step when he walked.
"They will remember my face from the last time," Billy answered, nudging his horse forward a few steps, bringing him next to Goodnight.
Red Harvest watched as Billy stretched out a hand to Goodnight, hidden between the bulk of their bodies. Their fingers intertwined, tapping out a message in the secret language the two shared, parting with Goodnight's palm pressed flat to Billy's for a brief moment.
"The hell did you do last time? Sorry Horne," Faraday asked, waving a hand at Horne who only sighed and cast his eyes skyward, a prayer already on his lips.
"Killed the Sheriff," Billy answered simply.
"Killed the Sheriff," Sam repeated flatly, sitting up to stare at Goodnight, eyebrow raised, who only shrugged in response.
"He should have been faster."
Billy's grin was as sharp as one of his knives, a deadly fire flickering in his eyes.
"What do you think, Red?"
Red started, guilt coiling in the pit of his stomach, a flush springing to his cheeks. He hadn't been listening, raised up onto his nose, neck craned, to study the beadwork lying in the road, mat unattended and covered in dust.
He shrugged, a careful roll of his shoulders, highlighting the build of his arms and shoulders in a way he knew made him seem dangerous.
"Quite right," Goodnight grinned, fake and closer to a snarl, baring his single golden tooth, as he turned back on the shopkeeper, his face suddenly turning paler, all colour slowly leeching from it.
"Ten bucks would be mighty generous of you, sir," the man gritted out through an uncooperative throat and clenched jaw, eyes darting between Goodnight and Red, the scent of his fear almost sour on the air.
"And that work there?" Goodnight pointed with a dismissive flick of his wrist, his voice almost bored.
Red curled his hands into fists at his side, nails digging into the soft flesh until he thought it had broken in perfect half moon indents, waiting for the man's words.
Goodnight and Red turned as one, Red's hand firm on his hatchet, Goodnight's hand curling around the knife Billy had tucked into his belt before they had left, hands pressing together in that strange palm to palm gesture again.
The woman stood tall despite her emaciated frame, hair loose around her gaunt face, but her eyes were lively, darting between the two.
"Are you being kept prisoner?" she asked Red, mouth carefully forming the words, hesitant as if she had forgotten her mother tongue. Red shook his head, seeing Goodnight signal reflexively out of the corner of his eye — his smallest finger tracing down the back of his ear, as if Billy was here, a question that Red thought meant 'Do you know them?'.
"Different tribe," Red told Goodnight.
The other man nodded, but couldn't keep his surprise fully from his face — mouth slackening, questions bubbling up in his throat. Shaking his head slightly, eyes slipping closed as he reorientated himself, Goodnight pulled the notes from his pocket, slapping them down on the counter and turning his back on the shopkeeper, a clear dismissal.
"How much for your work?" Goodnight asked her, tilting his head towards the discarded mat.
Her answering smile was wide, transforming her face, as she tilted her head to look up at them, carefully picking her way back to her mat, Goodnight following her at a respectful distance, hands tucked into his pockets.
"Why?" Red muttered, eyes darting around the empty street, nerves suddenly alight.
"I saw you looking at them, thought you might like them," Goodnight answered easily, voice low to match Red's.
"I don't need payment," Red snapped, shifting his stance in discomfort, quills on his jacket knocking together softly.
"Not payment. A gift between friends." Goodnight spread his hands in apology, a soft smile pulling at his lips, a familiar enough expression to Red as he had seen Goodnight misstep with Billy and Sam countless times, despite their long friendship together.
"You don't have to." Red felt lost, helpless in a way he didn't like, cast adrift in a foreign world, witness to practices he didn't fully understand.
"But I want to. You helped Billy and me after Rose Creek a thousand times over, and I would like to do something nice for you as well. It doesn't lessen the debt we both owe you, but I want to get this. For you."
"Helps me as well, little one," the woman interjected, brushing the worst of the dust from her items, "Take the white man's gift for me at least."
A laugh bubbled out of Red's throat, a short bark, and he could almost feel the ground steady beneath his feet. Gifts and debts, he knew. Friendship was something else entirely, but it fit what they all had, moving from uneasy alliance to brothers in arms.
"Thank you," Red said, unable to keep the smile from his face as he crouched next to the mat, tracing careful fingers over the intricate beadwork. He couldn't see the wide grin on Goodnight's face, but he could almost feel the satisfaction radiating out from the other man.
The rain fell from the sky in unbroken sheets, drenching everything and everyone in its path.
"I'm going to die," Faraday groaned from somewhere to Red's left, barely more than a huddled shadow amidst the driving grey wall between them.
"You will die because I will drown you guero," Vasquez snarled.
A solid thunk echoed above the driving rain, Vasquez spitting out curses at Faraday as the man cackled in delight. Both noises cut off suddenly as Sam cleared his throat, the noise reverberating through Red Harvest, rattling his very bones.
"Get some sleep," he called, voice pitched loud enough to carry to the two other huddled pairs, canvas stretched above their heads, fabric bowing beneath the weight, "We got a long day tomorrow."
Billy and Goodnight had been silent, and Red leant forward just enough to peer in their direction — rain parting just enough to see their boots, so intertwined that they could not be distinguished for each other — and he sat back, feeling his cheeks flame.
Horne yawned, the noise setting Red into a yawn as well, so wide he felt his jaw crack with the effort. Sleep had eluded him for the past few hours, content on watching the rain grow heavier and heavier until it threatened to wash away everything, the night air biting cold against the exposed skin on his face, spattering him with stray rain drops.
"I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made," Horne murmured, more to himself to Sam or Red, one hand slipped inside his coat pocket, and Red knew he was holding the locket with his family's pictures in.
"You comfortable there Red?" Sam asked, shifting as far to the side as he dared, giving Red a much needed breath of fresh air, the heat of the two men on either side of him appreciated during the bitter chill of late night, but it was almost stifling in the close confines.
"I've slept in worse," Red replied, settling back and staring up at the darkening canvas, sleep beginning to pull at his mind, limbs heavy and unwieldy.
"Not bad," Sam yawned, smothering it behind one hand, fabric rustling as he settled back as well, "Hopefully this rain lets up before morning."
Red felt a stab of grief in his chest, frozen to the ground, unable to move. There was a faint whistling in his ears, his heart lay silent in his chest.
His hand shook as he reached out, hoping without hope that what he was seeing wasn't real and yet knowing it was. The mud was freezing, giving way easily to his touch with a sickening squelch, grit scraping at his skin, and Red drew his hand back.
Amidst the deep brown of the fresh mud, streaks of red and black ran through it, a swirling twisting path tracing it's way from Red's bag, knocked on its side by the sheer force of last night’s rain.
The ties had slipped open, exposing the small pouches inside to the horror of the elements. Red knelt down, uncaring of the mud that covered his knees, a chill radiating up his spine, and pulled his bag closer to him. His fingers slipped on the ties, leather rain slick and fighting back against him, the inside damp with a pool of water greeting him at the bottom of the small bag.
He knew the others were picking their own way through the mud, but they seemed so far away, voices muffled beneath the howl building in his chest. Red Harvest knew they were just paints, but they had been a final gift from his mother. He could feel her fingers, feather light as they moved down his cheeks, black pain in their wake. On the eve of the battle, he had tried to emulate her strokes, but he couldn't stop the tears from falling, sorrow choking him until he gave up, black paint diluted to grey.
Sam's voice was soft, his hands warm on Red's shoulders, burning against his frigid skin, and Red was helpless to do anything but follow him, fresh waves of despair threatening to drown with his every step, with every beat of his heart. The mud clung to his boots, threatening to pull them from his feet, birds fluttered from tree to tree, their song mingling with the remnants of the rain.
"I was keeping hold of these," Sam said, Red's gaze slowly rising from the toes of his boots to the other man. Sam carefully pressed a set of pouches into Red's unresistant hands — their weight just familiar to cause him to pause, head quirking to one side as he glanced up at Sam between furrowed brows.
"Hope I got the right ones," Sam said, a soft smile on his face, patting Red on the shoulder as he picked his way past, the noises of the outside world slowly filtering back into Red's hearing.
Goodnight's voice was sharp, spitting words that Red didn't recognise at Faraday — French, Red realised, having heard Goodnight and Billy swap words during late night's on watch, although Billy could fumble his way through Goodnight's drawl better than his partner could speak Korean, Billy stifling laughter at his every attempt.
"And?" Faraday yelled back, raised voice startling the birds in the nearby trees, their wings exploding into movement in a susurrus of sound.
Red slipped loose one of the ties, and inspected the vibrant colour, grin pulling at the corners of his mouth, weight slipping loose around his chest.
Glancing behind, he caught Sam’s eye and nodded his head in silent thanks, ducking his head to inspect the other bags before he saw the fond look on Sam’s face.
Red chewed on the jagged edge of a nail, pain radiating through to his very bones, but he welcomed it. The pain kept his mind sharp as he slipped through the trees, branches letting him past without a sound, the faint whisper of the wind through the leaves encouraging him onwards. The pawprints were laid out in front of him, as clear as a map, and he drifted between them, marvelling at the difference between his own foot and the bear's — claws digging grooves into the ground as the animal moved through the forest.
It was injured, or it was dying.
And it had likely never been more dangerous.
A twig snapped behind him, the noise as loud as a gunshot. Red's hatchet was in his hand, back pressed against a tree, bark broken by powerful claws and rough against his spine as he turned.
Horne tapped his forehead, head bowing in silent apology as he caught up to Red, his own axe drawn and held in one large hand. Red glared at the man, a frown spilling across his face as Horne moved next to him, silent for such a tall man.
"I couldn't let you go alone," Horne murmured, bending down far enough that Red could stare into his face, nose to nose in the dim afternoon sunlight.
"Thank you," Red said finally, knowing that Horne was right but it still pricked at his injured pride.
"Lead the way," Horne encouraged taking a single step back, and Red breathed out slowly, turning his eyes back to the forest ahead, mind slipping into the battle-ready calm that was needed, and began to walk once more.
Sometimes it was easy to forget Red wasn't with his tribe. The line between past and present blurred the further beneath the trees they descended — Red glancing to one side where his brother should be, heart fluttering in his chest at the empty space that greeted him; turning to check behind him and reflexive fear burning down his spine at the sight of Horne, something instinctual in him crying out for him to run.
Movement ahead caused Red to fear, the world around him slowing down to a trickle, hand flying up to signal to Horne, to signal to his memories, to stop. Red crouched, muscles ready to run, and slowly crept forward, every movement deliberated and careful, barely breathing as he moved.
The bear was almost dead, blood matting it's fur, collecting in pools on the ground as it breathed, every noise punctuated with a deep groan. It was a wall of fur, skin battle scarred and tongue lolling out between sharp teeth.
Red Harvest drew out an arrow, silent and sure, wood creaking faintly as he knocked his bow and aimed. Glancing behind him, his gaze met Horne's. The other man was tucked behind a tree, shadows dappled across his face, but he nodded reassuringly, every muscle tense. Red drew in a deep breath, steadying his trembling hands, and fired.
Red hid his grin behind his hands as the colour slowly turned to Faraday's face, gasping for breath and hands trembling as he lowered his guns. Vasquez cursed, pinned beneath Faraday, language growing more descriptive and colourful the longer the other man took to calm down.
"You do love making a dramatic entrance my friend," Goodnight laughed, waving away the smoke as he inspected the dead bear, Red's arrow still protruding from it's head.
"It was the boy's kill," Horne said, voice wavering as he dropped the body, eyes turned towards the sky and never fully settling, "He deserved something from it."
Goodnight chuckled, a wide grin on his face and carefully walked back to Billy's side, the other man's grip tight on one of his knife handles, not fully relaxing until Goodnight settled back down at his side.
"Thank you," Red said softly, tucking himself next to Horne's side.
"You're welcome," the man replied softly, patting Red on the shoulder hesitantly, as if he would shrug the gesture off. Red knew Horne's past, and carefully patted the large hand on his shoulder, the motion feeling strange and yet the right thing to do. From the wide grin on Horne's face, Red thought that instinct had been right.
Red shifted from his crouch as Billy dropped down next to him. The other man moved silently, slipping through the world like a vengeful ghost made real by Goodnight, and yet Red never felt any fear for him, comfortable with the other man's silence.
Billy leant forward, a lock of hair swinging loose from it's tie only to be tucked back behind his ear in the same movement. The scent of flowers, faint but persistent, seemed to cling to his skin. His daggers knocked together as he placed the wrapped package down the leaves. There was no sound, the package almost seeming to float on the dry leaves that fell to pieces underfoot.
Sparks spat from the fire as Red shifted the coals one final time, glowing orange like eyes staring out into the dark, and pulled the twine free.
The feathers within were a luxurious, glorious blue — a single green eye staring at him from the impossibly long feather amidst the sea of deep blue.
Red grinned, bumping Billy's shoulder with his own in thanks.
"How does Billy always win!" Faraday complained from the other side of the fire, jaw clicking closed as Billy stood, danger projected from every movement.
"He's my friend," Red answered for the both of them, catching the lightning quick grin that flashed across Billy's face, his fingers lightly tapping his thanks on Red's scalp, freshly shaven by Billy the night before.
Faraday groaned, collapsing back onto his bedroll, and Red laughed, content once more with his chosen family.