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The Saddle & the Springs

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Wyoming - April, 1891

Mild weather in April seemed impossible, but it had been nothing but beautiful clear skies for days now. Arthur leaned back in the saddle, staring up at the sun for a brief moment. It was a little past noon, maybe one o’clock. He needed a new pocket watch badly. Maybe he’d buy one in town, recent scores had left him with a decent chunk of pocket change. 

Beside him, John was grumbling and adjusting himself in his seat. His brown turkoman horse, Layla, patient with all the fiddling.

Arthur cocked a brow, “The hell you doing, Marston?”

“This damn saddle.” John growled out. “It don’t fit my ass no more.”

Arthur stifled a laugh. “That so? Surprised you can even say you have an ass, skinny as you are.”

“Shut up.” John shot back. “I’m not the kid I was when I got this old thing.”

The older man nodded. “Suppose you’re right. You gone and turned eighteen on us, huh?”

John smiled proudly for a short second. “You’re gonna have to start treating me like an adult and not some little shit kid.”

Arthur laughed. “You’ll always be my little shit brother, Johnny.”

The teenager grumbled again, changing the subject. “How much longer we gonna be staying around here? Thought we was headed for Denver.”

“I have no idea. Hosea and Dutch seem to be up to something. Maybe they think there’s a score in Granger worth getting in the meantime.”

“So, what are we supposed to do?”

“Not draw attention to ourselves.” Arthur shrugged.

John sighed. “Whatever they’re cooking up better be worth it, there ain’t nothing to do around here to pass the time.”

“You should try reading more, kid.”

“Reading is boring.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. He didn’t need to have this argument again with a moody teenager. “Maybe we’ll find a score of our own in town when we get there.” 

“Haven’t robbed a coach in awhile.” John mused.

“What did I just say?”

“You’re no fun.” John groused, but there was humor in his voice.

“They keep telling me that.”

“Where the hell is this next town anyway? Sweetwater, was it?”

“We’re almost there, relax.”

As the sun gradually fell from its peak in the sky, the two of them continued their leisurely walk alongside the train tracks toward town, an inbound train whistling in the distance. Soon enough, they crested a hill, and the little town of Sweetwater was easily visible in the arid landscape of slowly rolling hills and short, hardy shrubs and grasses

“Don’t look like much from here.” John said, pulling his hat off to wipe his brow.

Arthur took the little town in, noting the railroad station. “Probably not much more than a place for travelers to stop and rest up. Still, keep your eyes and ears open. With so many people who pass through, you never know what gems you can pick up in dusty little forgotten holes like this.”

“Guess I’ll check out the saloon.” John said quickly.

Arthur held in a laugh. “Trying to take the easy job, huh?”

“Maybe I just don’t think your hearing is good enough for it, old man.” John teased. “It can get pretty loud and rowdy.”

“Whatever you say, kid.” Arthur shook his head. “I needed to go to the general store anyway.”

“Pick me up a -”

Arthur interrupted him. “Buy your own damn cigarettes, John.”

“I’ll pay you back!”

“I’ve heard that lie too many times now to believe you.”

“Fine.” John conceded. “Maybe I’ll just take a pack off some drunk patron”

Arthur gave him a stern look. “If you do, just try not to get in another brawl. I don’t want to have to save your ass again.”

“I fight fine, Arthur.”

“A blind raccoon could fight better than you.”

John rolled his eyes. “Just come join me when you’re done in the store, alright?”

“Sure. Might check out the station or a few shops ‘fore I come to the saloon. Doesn’t look like there’s much in the town, but you never know.”

The teenager nodded. When they finally made it onto the main drag of town, John split off and headed further down the road, having spotted what was clearly the saloon. A good number of stumbling fools wandered around outside of it, along with a few working girls gauging potential customers.

Arthur took a big swig of his canteen. The weather may have been clear and relatively mild, but it was still bright and hot out in the arid environment. He would need to refill his water while they were in town.

As he looked around, by all accounts Sweetwater wasn’t some beaten down, desperate little place. It was quaint, and well kept. Perhaps being on the railroad line kept it this way. There were a few interesting shops and businesses, a little bookstore, a tailor, a stable, and what appeared to be a leatherworker or saddler.

He hitched his roadster mare, Artemisia, outside the general store. The big horse let out a sigh before drinking heavily from the nearby trough. The heat was getting to her too. Arthur gave her a few pats. “We’ll head back to camp after this, and you’ll be able to rest up a few days.”

She flicked her ear and snorted her response.

Arthur chuckled, giving her one more pat before heading into the general store. It was a quick stop, grabbing some provisions for the road and finding a decent pocket watch to replace his broken one. He could have stolen one. But sometimes he enjoyed truly buying and owning something for himself.

Once back out in the street, Arthur glanced around town, again taking notice of the saddler and stable on the far edge of town. He almost didn’t think much of it, when suddenly an idea crossed his mind. He took one look at John’s horse, Layla, hitched outside the saloon, then he turned and wandered up the road towards the saddler.

-----

He found John at the saloon’s bar maybe an hour later. The kid was standing steadily, nursing a beer bottle. So Arthur imagined he was only a few drinks in, if at all. “John.” He greeted his brother, lowly.

He looked up. “Arthur.” John returned.

Arthur leaned against the bar and took in the place. Most folks seemed to be having a good time, lots of raucous conversation and laughter. 

Arthur dropped a quarter on the counter. “Gimme a beer.” He said to the barkeep. Avoiding his usual drink of whisky for the time being.

“Sure thing.” The barkeep replied, reaching under the counter and handing him a bottle. “Anything else?”

Arthur held up his canteen. “Water for the road would be good.”

“There’s a pump around back you can use.” The barkeep replied. “We’re also right on a river if that doesn’t suit you.”

Arthur nodded. “Thanks.”

After taking a few drinks from the bottle, he nudged John and gestured to an empty table in a dead area of the saloon, John grabbed one more drink and followed. “Heard anything?” Arthur asked quietly when they sat down.

John shrugged. “Not really. Think the most we’d get out of this town is robbing the few rich train passengers that may pass through. Even that’s probably not worth the trouble right now.”

Arthur nodded. John was talking sense for once. He’d been doing that more lately. “Didn’t see much from the various shops around. We could check another town tomorrow after we get back to camp.”

“Maybe.” John paused for longer than he usually would.

It didn’t go unnoticed by Arthur. “Something on your mind?” He pressed. 

“I dunno. You uh . . . you heard of a weird park north of here? Yellow-something or other?”

Arthur stared at him. “Yellowstone?”

“Yeah, yeah that’s it.” John took another moment. “People ‘round here, keep saying shit about rainbow colored pools up there? Holes in the ground that blast out water? Boiling pits of mud?”

Arthur nodded. “I read about Yellowstone park a couple times over the last few years, in some papers and a few other things.”

“So . . . is all that shit true?”

“I dunno, I guess?”

“ . . . Weird.”

“What’s this got to do with anything?”

John shook his head. “Nothing, just the only interesting thing I’ve heard all day.”

“If that’s all you been hearing about, this town really ain’t worth the trouble, is it?”

“Don’t think so.” John sighed. “Shame too, I’m so damn bored.”

“We’ll have some action soon enough.” Arthur stood. “We best head back to camp then, let Hosea and Dutch know there’s nothing out here.”

John downed the rest of his drink, standing as well. “Alright, can we please rob someone on the road on way back?”

“No.”

“God damn it.” The teenager sighed.

“Let’s get a move on. I’d prefer to be back in camp before the sun sets.”’

“Yeah, alright.”

They left the saloon without another word. Arthur found the water pump around the back and refilled his canteen. Then the two of them mounted up on their respective horses and began their journey out of town.

As they passed the stable, John pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “Gimme a match, would ya?” He held his hand out towards Arthur.

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “So you gone and stole a pack of cigarettes, but didn’t have the sense of mind to get matches while you were at it? I ain’t giving you one of mine.”

John dropped his hand. “Shit, Arthur. Maybe I got one on me.” He started patting his pockets, finally finding a small, broken match in his shirt pocket. He held it out proudly, cigarette still dangling between his lips. “Ha! See?”

“Am I supposed to be impressed?”

“You always say to be prepared.”

“That’s not being prepared, that’s being a lucky fool.”

“I’m pretty sure lucky is the last thing you can call any one of us.” John replied, having successfully lit his stolen cigarette.

Arthur snorted. “Maybe so.”

Unlike the relaxed ride into town they had, Arthur insisted they pick up the pace on the way back, cantering and trotting most of the way. John grumbled a few times after they’d passed an extravagant looking coach and they didn’t rob it. But Arthur remained steadfast and kept them moving.

The sun had almost completely disappeared beyond the horizon when they reached camp. It was just south a ways of the little town of Granger, right up next to a small stream. Far enough out that it was hidden by the hills. They followed the stream into camp, two fires glowing in the dimming light.

He heard what sounded like a heated discussion between Dutch and Hosea, muffled by Dutch’s large tent. Unsure if anyone would be on guard duty, Arthur announced their presence as they got close. 

“Arthur and John, coming in.” He called out.

After a small delay, he heard a “Welcome back, boys.” From Bessie, off near the campfire.

“Any news?” Arthur asked as he led his horse to the hitching post.

He heard her approaching him now. “They’re still working on something.” She replied.

“When they get back to camp?”

“About an hour after you two left.”

John laughed. “They been fighting that long, huh?”

Bessie rolled her eyes and sighed heavily. “You know how it is. Dutch thinks he’s right, Hosea knows he’s wrong. They’ll come to an agreement eventually.”

Arthur dismounted and began to remove Artemisia’s tack. “Well whatever they’re hoping to score better be good. Granger sure ain’t a big town, and if it’s anything like this Sweetwater we just went to, there’s not much of value.”

Bessie frowned. “So no luck with you two then?”

John shook his head, leaning on the saddle horn. “Nothing. Not even a funny story in the saloon.”

“Well, I guess you boys better get some food. Susan’s got some stew ready. I’m sure Hosea and Dutch will want to hear about what you found eventually. Even if it’s nothing.”

Arthur nodded. “Thank you, Mrs. Matthews.”

She smiled and gave him a quick shoulder squeeze before heading back to the scout fire.

John dismounted, rubbing his ass when he was down on solid ground. “I’m serious, Arthur. This saddle is killing me. I have half a mind to take one from the next person I see alone on the road.”

Arthur glared at him. “Wait till we’re on the way to Colorado again if you’re really gonna do that. I don’t want to tell you again, no drawing attention to ourselves right now.”

“You ain’t the boss of me.” He groused.

“Like hell I’m not.” Arthur laughed. “Besides, that order comes from Dutch and Hosea, not me.”

John sighed, beginning to take Layla’s tack off. “One of these days, you ain’t gonna be giving me orders no more.”

The older man shrugged. “When I’m dead.”

With their horses finally tack free and brushed down, the two of them grabbed bowls of stew and joined Bessie at the campfire. Arthur looked around between a few bites. “Where’s Ms. Grimshaw?”

Bessie glanced up from her sewing. “She’s doing a quick parameter check. Thought we might have spotted some coyote scat off towards the butte when we went hunting earlier.”

“Coyotes, huh.” John repeated, pushing his food around in his bowl. “You think they’re gonna try and steal some food from us?”

“Who knows.” Bessie replied. “But if they are thinking about it, Susan’ll scare them off with a few shots I’m sure.”

“Almost got bit by a coyote a year back.” John grumbled.

“How?” Arthur asked, raising a brow.

“I dunno!” The teenager threw up a hand. “I was out doing some target practice, and one of them wiley bastards just walks up on me, ain’t afraid or nothing, then it - ” John stopped himself. “You know what, nevermind.”

“No, please continue.” Arthur pressed. “Why ain’t you ever told us this?”

“ . . . Well I just rushed off towards Layla and ran away. That’s all that happened.”

After a moment’s pause, Arthur replied. “Alright so that’s why you never told us.”

He could see his little brother turning red, even in the dim light. “Shut up.”

“No, no. It’s okay. Coyotes are real frightening.”

“Well the ones I’ve met have been!”

“Why didn’t you shoot at it?”

“I’d just shot all my bullets at the targets, I didn’t have time to reload!”

Arthur started laughing, and Bessie reached over to smack him. “Don’t tease him, Arthur. You know better.”

“Fine, fine.” Arthur said. “I won’t tease him about being scared of a little coyote. Least it weren’t a wolf, or a cougar . . . or a bear!”

As John went to bite back, a few shots of a repeater rang out nearby, followed by the unmistakable yowls of coyotes.

The conversation stopped, until finally Bessie spoke up. “Ha, guess Susan found them.”

“Good.” John said. “Like to wake up and not have the camp ransacked by thieves.”

“Hope she brings one back, that’ll be breakfast.” Arthur mused.

There was a grunt of agreement from John, despite the fact that he’d barely eaten.

The night continued as they finished with their stew, John at a much slower pace. The stars were beginning to shine above, uninhibited by any clouds. A nice, pleasant breeze, further cooling down the arid climate.

Another half hour or so of idle chatter later, and Susan rode up on her little paint horse, a single coyote strapped to its back. “Well, I chased them off.” She said simply when she joined them at last.

“And got us breakfast.” Arthur added.

Susan gave a small laugh. “I guess so.” She sat down next to Bessie. “Good to see you boys back in once piece.”

“Just a quick look in the next town over, weren’t nothing to be worried over.” Arthur said.

Susan snorted. “Oh please. You two are a nightmare of a mixed bag. You boys either work like a well-oiled machine, or a set of mismatched gears. Either way it’s worth worrying over.”

Arthur shrugged. “Well, we’re fine. And we didn’t rob anyone while we were out, despite John’s protests.”

He could feel the death glare from John without even looking at him.

“Good.” Susan said simply.

It wasn’t long before Arthur started nodding off, staring blankly into the campfire. Suddenly he felt John’s body slump towards him, the kid had passed out, and was leaned up against him, cheek planted firmly on Arthur’s shoulder. He gave a small sigh, deciding whether or not to wake the kid up. 

He looked up to see Bessie grinning at the sight of them. Arthur only rolled his eyes, finally nudging John awake. “Come on, Marston. Time for bed.”

John jolted upwards. “Huh? Oh, uh. Yeah.” He wiped the drool from his face, getting to his feet.

Arthur stood too, giving a nod to Bessie and Susan. “Goodnight, Mrs. Matthews, Ms. Grimshaw.”

“Goodnight, pumpkin.” Bessie returned with another cheeky grin.

“Night, boys.” Replied Susan.

John gave them a little wave before turning and trudging towards their tent. Arthur ducked in after John, sitting down on his cot and taking his boots off. Then removing his jacket, gunbelt, and hat. John had done the same, already crawling under the blankets on his cot.

Finally alone with his thoughts, he pulled his journal from his satchel, opening up to the next empty page. Arthur wasn’t feeling up to writing, but a drawing did come to mind. He found the idea of John running for his life from a coyote so amusing, he did his best to get it down on paper. After 20 minutes of working, he was satisfied with the quick gesture drawing he’d made. With one final line, he put his journal away and finally turned in for the night.

 

-»»»•«««-

 

John’s eyes blinked open slowly. Peaking over his shoulder he could see dim light filtering in through the tent flap, it must have been early morning. A quick look to the opposite side of the small space and he could see that Arthur was still there, fast asleep.

After fruitlessly trying to fall back asleep for a few minutes, John gave up. He shook his head and wiped the sleep from his eyes. Finally stretching and freeing himself from his blankets. He got changed quickly and quietly, Arthur was a light sleeper, and could be an enormous grump when woken up too early. So John took great care not to disturb him.

Once outside, camp was quiet. He half expected to still hear Hosea and Dutch arguing. But he was apparently the first one up. The sun was just rising when he looked towards the eastern horizon. It was almost funny to him that he was first awake, usually Susan or Arthur were the first ones up.

By all accounts he should have started the coffee, that’s what he was supposed to do as first up. But looking towards the horses he had another thought.

He silently walked towards Layla, whispering her name as he got closer to hopefully not startle her.

The big brown horse looked up, ears pointed forward as John approached. She turned and walked to him, greeting him with a nudge and a gentle snort.

“Morning, Layla.” John said, giving her a pat. “Let’s get that saddle on you and get out of here, quick. ‘Fore anyone wakes up.”

As if she got what he meant, she remained deathly silent as John began saddling her up, giving him no trouble as he tightened the straps. Usually she would puff her belly out a bit to keep the saddle from being too tight, but she didn’t today.

Satisfied, John went to mount up, then realized in his hurry how unprepared he was for his plan. He sighed, rushing quietly back to the tent. 

John peeked in, Arthur was still sleeping, so he crept inside. Fast as he could without making noise, John gathered up a few things he thought he’d need from under his cot. Then wrote a small note, leaving the paper on the blankets.

When he made it back to his horse, there was still no sign of anybody else awake. John smiled to himself, excited to be getting out on his own for awhile. But as he put his foot in a stirrup to swing himself onto his horse, he heard a familiar voice.

“The hell are you doing, Marston?” Arthur demanded.

John let the saddle go and turned quickly. Surprised by how close Arthur was already. “Nothing!” He replied, far too fast.

He saw those cold blue eyes narrow at him. John knew that look, he was absolutely busted. “Where you heading off to, kid?” Arthur asked, holding up the note John had just left.

“I . . . uh.” John stumbled over words in his brain. Finally spitting something out. “I just. I wanted to see that Yellowstone place.” He mumbled.

He saw Arthur’s face soften, and then his brother let out an enormous sigh. “Christ, John. You shouldn’t go up there alone.”

“And why not?” He shot back. “I’m old enough to do stuff on my own. Dutch and Hosea told me you used to go off on your own a lot when you were my age.”

“John.” Arthur stopped him. “I’ve read enough about that park to know how dangerous it can be. And I think you may just be dumb enough to fall in a geyser and die.”

John went to argue back then had to stop. “ . . . . a ‘geyser?’”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “See, this is exactly what I’m talking about.”

The teenager grumbled, looking down at the ground. “I just want to do something. I’m so bored, Arthur.”

He heard Arthur sigh again, then a long pause followed. “Alright.” He spoke up at last. “You can go.”

John’s head shot up quickly, the sudden smile on his face betraying the cool demeanor he was trying keep. “Wait, are you serious?” He said.

“Well you didn’t let me finish.” Arthur replied. “You can go, but I’m going with you.”

John’s smile faded and he groaned. “God damn it, really? I thought you hated ‘babysitting’ me anyway.”

Arthur crossed his arms and stood tall. “I think I may hate you turning up dead even more. It would be my ass on the line if that happened. Either I go with you, or you don’t go at all.”

John folded his arms too, kicking at a rock on the ground. After muttering for awhile, he finally spoke up. “Shit, alright. Fine. We both go.”

The teenager looked up in time to see that stupid grin on his older brother’s face. “Alright, we’ll leave in twenty minutes.”

“I’ll wait here for - ”

John didn’t get a chance to say much else before Arthur grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back towards camp. He tried to fight it for a few seconds, but it really was hopeless. Arthur was too strong. “Okay, okay !” John spat out. “I get it, I’ll come with you.” 

Arthur let him go. “You know I’m not that dumb.”

“Worth a shot.” John grumbled.

“We need to tell Hosea where we’re going.”

“What if he doesn’t let us go?”

“Don’t see why he wouldn’t.” Arthur shrugged.

As they approached Hosea and Bessie’s tent, the flap opened and the man they were looking for stepped out. “I thought I was hearing you two argue. What is going on?”

Arthur nudged him. “Well, tell him, kid.”

Hosea looked at John expectantly.

“Uh, we’re gonna go up to that Yellowstone park north of here.”

Hosea’s eyebrows shot up for a moment before he resumed his usual collected expression. “Did you hear about a potential score there?”

Arthur answered for him. “Naw, the kid’s bored. And there’s nothing in Sweetwater. So we got jack shit to do unless you and Dutch need us for your scheme.”

Hosea smiled but shook his head. “The way things are going, don’t imagine we’ll be making much progress on that for a week or so. If you two really want to go, be my guest.”

“Alright.” Arthur nodded. “Probably be gone a couple weeks, I’ve read before the trails aren’t the best to get there.”

“We’ll be here.” Hosea replied. “You two have fun.”

Arthur pushed John forward. “Keep an eye on him while I get ready, would you?”

Hosea laughed. “Sure, I won’t let him sneak off without you.”

“Thanks.” Arthur replied, heading off towards their tent

With him gone, Hosea looked over to John. “You grab enough food for this little escapade?”

John sucked in a breath, realizing he’d grabbed nothing from the chuck wagon for the journey. “Uh . . .” Was all he could muster.

Hosea sighed. “Let’s grab you something now then.”

A few minutes later and John was loaded up with a sack full of dried goods and some canned food. “Try not to eat that all at once.” Hosea told him. “Be sure to hunt fresh game when you can. This food is more for emergencies, understand?”

“Of course I do, I’m not some dumb twelve-year-old.”

“Could’ve fooled me.” Hosea grinned.

John frowned. “Now that ain’t fair.”

“Life ain’t ever been fair, John.” Hosea replied, still smiling. “But considering you forgot to grab food, I feel I am justified.”

The teenager could only grumble his response.

Hosea kept an eye on him as he went and loaded Layla’s saddlebags with the new supplies. “Now come here and make the coffee like you were supposed to.” Hosea called out as quiet as he could.

John sighed with his whole body, completely at a loss for how his plan got so out of his control.

He trudged back to the main campfire, seeing that Hosea had already done him the kindness of bringing the fire back to life with new kindling and logs. He refilled the coffee pot with water and added more ground beans, setting it by the fire to warm up.

About ten minutes later and Arthur was almost ready to go, he was dressed and putting the tack on his horse. At last joining them by the fire and pouring a cup of coffee. He drank it down after letting it cool a moment. “This got enough grit to be sand.” He said.

“Maybe time to clean the pot.” Hosea shrugged.

“Probably.” He looked to John. “You ready?”

“I was ready twenty minutes ago.” He replied.

Arthur snorted. “Well aren’t you prepared for once.”

“Of course I am.”

“Let’s get going then, kid.”

Hosea stood up. “You two stay safe, we don’t see you by the end of the month, we’ll come looking.”

Arthur nodded. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”

“See you soon, Hosea.” John waved.

With that, the two of them mounted up, riding out of camp, the pink sunrise lighting their way. 

-----

A quick stop for directions in Granger had them riding the same road as they did the previous day, through Sweetwater, then the next town after by the name of ‘Marston.’ Which Arthur got a kick out of, but John found appalling.

From there they took the road north, following the Green River as far as the road would take them.

They remained on that same path for several days, stopping rarely. Arthur managed to catch them some animal almost every night for dinner. The night he brought in a coyote, John could tell he was making fun of him.

They chatted idly about the usual things as they went, or bickered about nonsense. But mostly they remained quiet as they trotted, cantered, and galloped through the ever changing landscape.

Over the course of a few days, the mountains in the distance became larger and larger, the arid environment becoming more green and forested. Until they were right up against the base of mountains themselves.

The road and river came to a stop, and they were forced to navigate themselves. That night at the campfire, Arthur studied the map of Wyoming he’d bought in Granger.

John looked over his shoulder, staring at all the different geography, lines, and tiny words.

Arthur pointed to a spot on the map on the western half, directly below a large range of mountains that stretched to the north. “We should be about here.” He said.

“How much further to Yellowstone then?” John cocked his head and looked closer.

“Few more days I’d say.” He pointed down the map a ways. “Here’s Granger, camp is just a few minutes south of it.” Then he pointed up towards the Northwestern corner of the state. “And here’s Yellowstone. We’re a little over the halfway point between the two it looks like.”

John sighed and sat back down on the opposite side of the fire. “Dunno why I thought it would be closer.”

Arthur snorted. “Maybe because you didn’t bother to check a map before you came up with this idea.”

“Can you really blame me for wanting to get away for a while? You do it all the time. Be gone for a month and come back.”

There was a strange heaviness to Arthur’s voice when he spoke. “I probably won’t be doing that anymore, John.”

The weight of his voice took John by surprise, and he wished greatly in that moment that he could see Arthur’s face, but he was hidden behind the map. “Oh . . . alright.” Was all John could seem to say.

Arthur exhaled. “We better get some rest, kid. I think I see a decent way up to the park. We’ll take this valley as far as it lets us, then we’ll have to traverse our way through a couple mountains, but that should take us directly into the park.”

John nodded. “Thanks . . . uh . . . for navigating I mean.”

Arthur folded the map forward, one brow raised as he stared at John. “Starting to sound like you’re glad I’m here.” He teased, a grin growing on his face.

The teenager scowled. “No - I . . . Shut up.”

Arthur laughed as he stood and folded the map up, putting it away in his satchel. “We’ll be leaving early in the morning. Good night, kid.”

John got to his feet too. He sighed. “Night, Arthur.”

-----

Arthur hadn’t been kidding about getting up early. John was awoken the next morning to Arthur kicking him. Not a hard kick, but enough to make John jolt upright.

Camp was packed up quickly, and they were back on the road again. The way was less obvious to John as they continued their journey the following couple days. But Arthur seemed confident. He always had a knack for navigation, almost like he had a map and compass in his head.

They found themselves in a beautiful green valley by the name of Jackson’s Hole with huge mountains on either side. The Teton range to their west according to Arthur. In his short life, John had traveled a vast amount of the country with the gang. But he couldn’t help but take in the beauty of this valley.

It was a long stretch of land, taking about a day and a half to run the length of, but Arthur told them once they passed Jackson’s Lake, they’d be within spitting distance of the park.

By midday, the lake was behind them, and they began riding through the mountains. John felt full of anticipation. If Arthur was correct, they were nearly there. They stopped rarely, once so Arthur could pick up the deer he’d spotted and quickly dispatched for their dinner that night.

As the day continued, John was a little disappointed when Arthur stopped them to make camp at sundown. He found them a nice flat area up against a plateau near a river to set up. “Thinking we’re in the park now.” His brother said simply.

“So we’re not gonna look around?” John asked.

Arthur cocked a brow and stared at him. “How we gonna look around when we can’t see shit, John?”

“I dunno, we just come all this way, and we’re here, and we gotta stop?”

He sighed. “I understand, kid. You’re excited. But you’ll get more out of it when it’s daylight and we can see everything.”

John hated that he was right. As usual. “Fine.” He said, then after a pause. “Are you going to cook up that deer?”

“Why else you think I shot it?” Arthur laughed.

“I was just asking!”

“Yeah, I’ll get it cooking. You set up the tent.”

“You sure you want me to do that? You complained about it almost falling down last time.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “I can’t do everything, boy. Put up the tent, just drive the stakes in deeper this time.”

He complained the whole time, but soon enough, the tent was up, John very sarcastically hammering the stakes even after they were well into the ground. In annoyance, Arthur threw a slab of half cooked venison at him. Eventually though, they settled down and ate their dinner, talking for awhile before finally turning in for the night. 

John fell asleep hoping this whole trip would actually be worth it.

 

-»»»•«««-

 

Arthur decided he should let John sleep in when he woke up early that morning. He’d been pushing them pretty hard to get to the park in a fairly short amount of time. The kid needed as much rest as he could get, considering he barely ate any food. 

In the meantime, he built the fire back up and cooked up some more meat from the deer he’d caught. He left a few pieces for John, then got coffee going in the kettle. With that taken care of, he stood and stretched deeply, looking off a ways towards where they’d left the horses.

He saw Artemisia and Layla exactly where they were supposed to be, saddles off and grazing lazily. Arthur greeted them softly as he approached, both of them perking up and coming to him. He gave them a few pats before brushing them down one at a time. 

He couldn’t help but talk sweetly to them as he went. “You two both did such a good job.” He whispered to Artemisia, brushing the dust from her dapple buckskin coat. “Bringing us all the way up here in such good time.”

Then he looked to Layla. “And you did great bringing John all this way, despite how much he must squirm in that saddle he hates.”

She snorted her response.

Arthur grinned. “Alright, come on you two, let’s get to the river for a drink.” He led them down towards the river not far from this plateau they’d ended up at. He refilled his canteen and let the horses drink their fill.

Glancing around, Arthur saw very little signs of human life. There were animals, yes. But if there were any other people in this park, he sure as shit wasn’t seeing them.

When they returned to camp, John was finally up. He was warming himself by the fire and yawning heavily. “Morning, Arthur.” John greeted in that rough voice he’d developed.

“Morning, John.” Arthur returned. “You eat yet?”

“No.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. He should have figured. “Well eat some of that meat I prepared and drink some coffee, we should tear down camp soon.”

“Yeah, alright.” John spoke as he yawned again.

Arthur poured himself some coffee then went and got the horses saddled. John wasn’t exaggerating much when it came to his saddle. It was pretty worn down. A lot of that could be attributed to John’s own personal neglect, but not all. He did need a new one.

They packed up camp, and mounted up. Arthur could see John trying to hide the smile on his face. Arthur had to hold in a laugh, he really was a teenager.

“Which way we going?” John asked as they started off.

“Thought maybe we’d go see Yellowstone lake, which on this map is about the middle of the park, then go from there.”

“Sounds fine to me.”

The scenery was beautiful as they traveled. Vast green hills and plateaus, mountains all around them, pine trees spread about, rivers and streams snaked their way through the landscape. There were deer everywhere, pronghorn and elk too. Arthur wondered about potential herds of bison as well. 

After riding for awhile, John spoke up again. “Sure ain’t seen no ‘rainbow colored pools’ yet.” There was noticeable disappointment in his voice

“I’m sure we’ll find them eventually, we just started looking.”

“I dunno.” He replied. “Kinda just looks like any other part of the region. Can’t see what’s so special abou-”

As if on cue, John was interrupted by a sudden fountain of water bursting from the Earth. An enormous stream, growing rapidly to at least 50 feet high. 

Arthur pulled back on his reins, stopping Artemisia as she startled, trying to keep her in place. John appeared to be doing the same with Layla, the generally calm horse whinnying loudly and rearing up.

“What in the god damn hell is that!” John yowled.

As Arthur got his mare under control he laughed. “That, is a geyser, John.”

“Holy shit . . .” He said in awe. He fumbled for words, finally just ending up on one. “How?”

Arthur shrugged, the fountain of steaming water still shooting into the sky. “I have no idea. I ain’t smart enough to know.”

With their horses calmed, they watched the eruption in amazement as it lasted upwards of fifteen minutes. Something about seeing the wonder in John’s expression made Arthur happy. It seemed impossible to get the kid excited about anything other than robbing.

When it finally died down, John tore his eyes away and looked at Arthur. “We gotta get a closer look at that hole it came from.”

“John, no. This is exactly what I meant when I said you’d get yourself killed up here.”

But it seemed John had made up his mind, ignoring what Arthur said and riding Layla out towards the protruding mound in the earth.

“John!” Arthur shouted. Annoyed, he followed after the fool.

John had dismounted and was cautiously touching the mound, before peering inside. “It don’t look like nothing special. Kinda like a giant anthill almost.”

Arthur rode up next to him. “Get away from there you idiot, the water that comes out of there is boiling hot.”

“Hold on, Arthur.” He said, finding a nearby stick and tossing it in. Apparently disappointed when nothing happened, he threw a few more things in.

“Cut that out, you shouldn’t do that.”

“Why not?” John asked. “Maybe it’ll go off again if I do.”

“We don’t want it to go off again if you’re right next to it. Anyway I don’t think that’s how it works. Now come on.”

John grumbled but finally listened, getting back on Layla and following after him. When they were back up the hill a ways, John looked around. “Are there more of those geyser things around here?”

“I’ve read there’s more than a hundred.”

John’s eyes lit up “We gotta find them all.”

“I don’t think we have time for that, we only have a few days before we start heading back.”

The kid sighed. “Alright, well. Let’s keep moving then.”

Arthur nodded.

They continued along what seemed to be a human made trail of some kind, traveling through a forest of beautiful pine trees. After awhile a foul smell hit them, growing stronger and stronger as they moved along. 

John looked around for a source, finally settling on Arthur. “You didn’t fart, did you?”

Arthur glared at him. “Was gonna ask you the same thing.”

“That sure as shit ain’t me. Must have been you.”

“How the hell is it me?”

“I smelled your farts before, this is the same thing, like rotten eggs.”

“I may be a foul, mean bastard but not even I’m capable of making a stink this bad.”

“You sure about that?”

“John you say it’s me one more time and I will come over there and rip you off that horse.”

John threw his hands in the air. “Christ, okay.”

The smell continued to grow as they kept going. Until they started seeing fog or steam of some kind rising from the ground.

John perked up as he noticed it. “That another one of them water fountain things?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Geyser?” He corrected.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“I dunno, John. Keep your distance until we find out.”

Once again, Arthur should have known better as John ignored what he said and took off towards the source without him. 

“God damn it.” The exasperated older brother muttered as he followed after.

He caught up to John fairly quickly. Artemisia being a faster horse than Layla. The ever-present smell of rotten eggs only grew stronger as they got closer to the rising steam, until finally they broke through the trees and it was revealed to them. A huge stretch of water, of all sorts of colors. Red, orange, yellow, turquoise, blue, creating a beautiful prismatic ring around what could only be a massive hot spring in the earth.

With their horses at a stop. John stared out at the water. “I guess we found the rainbow pool.” He said, awed once more.

“And the source of that smell.” Arthur added.

John tore his eyes away to look at Arthur with confusion written all over his face. “The smell? How could something so beautiful smell so god awful?”

Arthur laughed and shook his head. “Nature is weird, kid.”

John dismounted and got closer to the edge of the water, crouching down next to the shore.

Arthur sat up straight. “Don’t touch that!” He snapped.

John looked over his shoulder at him, one brow raised. “It’s just water Arthur, what’s it gonna do?”

“Burn the shit out of you, can’t you feel that heat? It’s a hot spring.”

“You said the same bullshit about the geyser and it didn’t burn me either.”

“John.” Arthur warned.

But it fell on deaf ears, as John reached a hand out towards the water. An inevitable yowl followed as the teenager leaped to his feet, shaking his scalded hand. “Holy shit that hurts!”

“What did I just say you god damn moron.” Arthur said, irritation rising in his voice.

John opened his mouth to talk back, but it was clear he had no defense, quickly clamping it shut again.

“Get away from there. At this rate you’re gonna fall in.”

Finally, John listened, moving away from the edge and mounting back up on Layla. Once in the saddle, he went back to holding his burned hand, shaking it occasionally.

“Least I don’t gotta worry about your dumb ass jumping in the water and trying to swim in there.”

John’s head turned quickly, expression going from hurt to offended. “You making fun of the fact that I can’t swim now too?”

Arthur smiled, doing his best to make light of the situation. “Any opportunity I can, Marston.”

“I’ve heard of people swimming in hot springs though.” John said.

Arthur shrugged. “Some are hotter than others I guess, I’m pretty sure the majority of the ones around here are hot enough to kill you if you try that.”

John looked at his hand. “Found that out . . .” He muttered.

“Why you think I didn’t want you coming up here by yourself?”

“I would’ve been fine.” John replied, defiant.

“Sure kid, sure.” Arthur grinned. “We should keep our distance, but keep looking around the area for more of these springs. Probably some geysers around here too.”

Staying well away from the edge of the basin, they wandered for hours, finding more prismatic springs deep into the earth with intense steam rising from each of them. The smell never truly faded, almost impossible to go nose blind to, it was so powerful. Several dead trees dotted the area, bright green moss growing on the withered branches. There were few animals in the area, likely sensing how deadly the hot springs could be.

Eventually, they left the area, off to find more oddities in the park. Seeing a few more geysers along the way, although only one went off while they were near it. It took less convincing now to keep John at bay after being scalded, but there was still that wonderment and mischievous gleam in his eye that kept Arthur just a tad worried.

Once the sun began setting, Arthur set out on the mission of finding a decent campsite. Seeing a nice ridge near another stream they could potentially camp up against. 

However, this was quickly thwarted when John spotted a bull moose. They kept their distance and watched it graze for awhile, wondering if it would move on. Then it escalated even further when Arthur noticed a large grizzly bear walking steadily towards the enormous creature.

“Should we . . . stay and watch this?” John asked, wide-eyed.

“I’m not . . . I’m not entirely sure.” He answered honestly.

“I kinda want to see what happens.”

“ . . . Me too.” Arthur admitted. “Let’s back up under some tree cover for now I guess.”

John nodded.

Once they were in a slightly more hidden position, they watched in fascination as the bull moose finally noticed the approaching bear. Apparently unfazed. He just kept his head up and focused on the grizzly. But as the bear got closer, the moose lowered his head, that massive rack of horns ready to charge, making a warning sound. The bear let out a roar and charged him.

It was a surprisingly short lived fight, as the bear got gored and knocked around a few too many times, the moose entirely unharmed.  The grizzly whimpered and let out several pathetic sounds as it cowered and ran away. The moose immediately went back to grazing, blood and bear fur clung to his large antlers.

“That was unexpected.” John whispered.

“Bear must have been a juvenile to pull something that dumb.” Arthur added.

“I don’t think I want to camp near that moose.”

Arthur held in a laugh. “Me neither, let’s find somewhere else.”

The sun was much lower by the time they found a new spot far from the encounter with the moose and bear. But it was a decent, well-hidden clearing within a grove of pine trees.

They ate the remaining venison Arthur had prepared that morning. As they settled down to sleep for the night, in the distance they could hear the howls of wolves. Their songs echoed amongst the mountains. He had to assume they’d be safe from them, plenty of their natural prey in the park to choose from, there was no reason to come after a couple humans.

By the light of their one lantern, Arthur pulled his journal out. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, then he began to write.

 

Little Johnny’s gone and turned eighteen on us. Seems like just yesterday we saved his scrawny ass from being hanged. So much has changed, and yet so much has stayed the same. He’s still a scrawny little shit, but he does actually talk some sense every once and awhile now.

But he is a dumb teenager. He tried to sneak off to see that strange park, Yellowstone, up in Northern Wyoming. I’d read about it a few times before. Enough to know he shouldn’t go there alone. So now here I am playing babysitter as usual. I really shouldn’t pretend I’m not enjoying myself. This place is so strange and fascinating. Wish I were smarter so I knew what was going on here.

Much as I like to tease him, I really do care about John. After losing Isaac and his mother. I know now more than ever I have to be there for the people I care about and love. I want to make them happy, and this little trip sure seems to have made the kid happy.

 

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John was awoken by the sound of several voices, for a moment he thought he was back in camp with Hosea, Bessie, Susan, and Dutch. But soon the fog of sleep left him, and he knew where he was.

Quickly poking his head out from the tent, he spotted Arthur talking to a couple men in military uniforms it looked like. John went wide-eyed, this didn’t seem like it could be a good thing, he’d always been weary of police officers or army men.

“What’s going on?” He asked.

Arthur looked over his shoulder. “Oh, John, you’re awake.”

One of the men glanced his way. “Just talking to your brother about what you two are doing up here.”

“Ain’t we allowed to be here?” John questioned.

“It’s not that.” The man said. “We found a camp nearby with a lot of dead animals. Poachers, most like. We’re trying to track them down.”

Arthur gave John a nod. “They thought we might be them at first.”

The second man spoke. “Don’t see how you two boys could have done that, so you’re fine. But if you do see anything suspicious, please find one of us, or find the army base up by mammoth springs and let us know.”

A few more pleasantries were exchanged before the men got back up on their horses and left.

John saw Arthur let out a noticeable sigh of relief once they were finally gone.

“Army? Up here?” John asked.

Arthur shrugged. “Guess they’re the ones overseeing the park right now. Sounds like poaching became such a problem they had to be put in charge.”

John couldn’t help but let out a stress laugh. “I’ll be honest, that scared the shit out of me.”

“You and me both.”

Their sudden, stressful encounter behind them, the two of them had a quick breakfast and coffee, then packed camp once more. Setting out again for the day. There were a lot more hot springs, animals, and geysers along the way. After wandering further north, they eventually came across what could only be described as a large, boiling pit of mud, a similar foul smell to the hot springs from the previous day.

John stared in disbelief. “What . . .”

“You gotta stop asking me. I have no idea.” Arthur replied, blank look on his face.

After a long pause of simply staring at it, John spoke. “ . . . I wanna throw sticks in it.”

He saw Arthur turn his head and glare for a second before he raised his brow and thought about it. “Yeah, okay.” He shrugged.

They spent the next half hour throwing rocks and sticks in the boiling mud like a couple of little kids. Laughing as they watched them sink or float. The mud making extremely satisfying sounds as the objects hit. But, eventually they got bored and moved on.

Wandering westward, they came across a big, open field with a river cutting through it, the large Yellowstone lake to their south, it was another beautiful piece of land. But what really caught their eyes was the massive herd of bison doting the hills in the distance. There had to be several thousand of them.

“Damn.” He heard Arthur mutter.

John glanced over. “What is it?”

Arthur seemed to snap back to his senses. “Oh, uh. Well I just ain’t ever seen a herd of bison that big before. I heard there used to be groups that enormous all over the country. Now they’re nearly extinct.”

John frowned. “Guess it’s good they’re trying to prevent poaching here then, huh?”

Arthur nodded. “Yeah. Seems to be the only worthwhile thing I’ve ever seen the army do.” He paused. “Though I wouldn’t put it past the army to have been among the people hunting them to near extinction in the first place.”

They dared creep closer to the big animals, while still keeping a respectful distance. John was almost amused by how enthralled Arthur seemed to be. Leaned forward in his saddle, watching the big goofy animals as they rolled around on their backs, butted heads, and grazed. There appeared to be a few calves amongst the herd, their coats a bright, light tan color, compared to their parents of a deep brown.

As they sat there, John lit up a cigarette with the fresh pack of matches he’d brought from camp. He was bored of watching the bison, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to bug Arthur to leave, like he normally would have. It was almost like in that moment John knew more about his brother than he had before. The way he was so enthralled with nature and the wild.

Try as he might to hide it, Arthur did eventually pick up on John’s boredom, and he led them away to explore more, heading further north this time.

They spent a few days like this. Wandering all over the park, seeing the strange hot springs, geysers, a few more boiling pits of mud, all kinds of animals, and even at one point petrified trees. Yet another thing Arthur couldn’t explain to John.

Along the way they passed a carriage full of a few curious visitors. The only human contact other than the army they’d seen. Soon after seeing the carriage, they saw the army encampment the men had mentioned a few days prior.

But a ways beyond the encampment was one of the most incredible springs they’d seen yet. It was almost like a waterfall of stone. With the water trickling down countless beautiful yellow, orange, and white limestone steps. This was Mammoth Hot Springs.

It was one of the last places they visited before Arthur reluctantly told John it was time for them to leave and head back for camp.

John could have spent another week there, it was nice and peaceful. Other than a bit of teasing, and Arthur trying to keep John from getting himself killed, for once he felt he wasn’t constantly butting heads with his older brother. They were simply out there enjoying the strange and beautiful nature, awed by things they’d never seen or believed existed. He almost didn’t even notice how much his saddle bothered him the whole time, simply too amazed to think about it.

The return home seemed quicker, probably because Arthur knew the way now more than he did before. By the time they reached Sweetwater again, John was out of cigarettes. He considered going back into the saloon and seeing if he could nab a pack off the same drunken idiot as last time.

This thought process was interrupted by Arthur. “Hey, John. I ordered something at the leatherworker by the stable last time we was in town. I think it should be done by now.”

“Yeah?” John replied.

“You mind going in and getting it?”

John sighed. “Why I gotta do it?”

Arthur snorted. “Just go do it.”

After nearly three weeks of non-stop riding, John was at this point just too tired to fight. So he rolled his eyes and said “Fine.”

He grinned. “Thanks, kid. It’ll be under your name.”

John looked at him confused for a moment, but didn’t question it. He hitched Layla outside the stable while Arthur waited on Artemisia. The smell of leather and hide was the first thing that hit John when he walked inside. Which shouldn’t have been surprising. 

An older man up front greeted him. “Hey there son, what can I do ya for?”

“My brother sent me in here to pick something up that he ordered a couple weeks back? It’s under my name apparently.”

The man nodded. “Alright, and your name?”

“Oh, uh. John Marston.”

“Oh, yes.” His face lit up. “Your brother spent some good money on this one, but I’m very proud of how it came out. Some of my better work.” He turned towards the back room. “I’ll be right out with it.”

John waited a couple minutes before the man returned holding a gorgeous new saddle, with intricate floral decals and shining brass star grommets. John stared in awe as it was set down on the counter. Almost annoyed that Arthur had gone and gotten himself a new saddle. But as he looked it over he quickly noticed one more detail. The initials “J.M” were monogramed into the leather.

The saddle was for him. 

After thanking the shopkeep, he carried it outside, along with the matching bridle it came with. Arthur smiled widely when he saw him. “So, kid. What do you think?”

“It’s . . .” John did his best to contain his emotions. Trying to stay cool and collected. “It’s real nice, Arthur.”

But Arthur must have seen how hard he was trying to keep himself bottled up. “Happy Birthday, John. Was about time you got yourself a new saddle. Hey, and this way, you’ll never forget how to spell your name!”

John glared at Arthur through the mist in his eyes for half a second, before turning away and carefully setting the new saddle on the ground. Already going and taking his old, beaten down one off Layla. Once the new saddle was properly on her back, he traced his fingers over the initials. “Thank you, Arthur. I mean it.” He said. “For the saddle . . . and for going with me.”

As John turned around to look at him, he saw that rare, genuine warm smile. Something he hadn’t seen on Arthur in a long, long time. “It’s no problem, kid. I was happy to.”

John smiled back, before turning around. He took the old saddle into the leatherworker’s shop. Selling it for a measly twenty-five cents. Once back outside, he gleefully mounted up onto the new saddle. Far more comfortable, and much more fitting for the adult he was trying to be.

With the sun setting, they set out for camp once more. It had certainly been a couple of weeks John would never forget. They had plenty of stories to tell the gang when they got back. And he was looking forward to it.