He didn't recognize the voice of the camp lookout that called to him, but that wasn't necessarily a surprise. Dutch picked up new people like lice.
"It's John!" he replied anyway, an inadequate introduction if the feller was new, but maybe John resented having to explain himself.
"I don't know any 'John'!" The lookout yelled back, bringing up the barrel of his repeater.
"John?" Another voice, further away, repeated with an Irish lilt, and then Sean was there, lifting a lantern to shine right into his eyes. John winced away, cursing. "Holy shit, John Marston," Sean shoved the new feller's barrel down and turned him around by the shoulder. "Mac, go find Dutch."
The feller squinted at Sean in suspicion. "Who is this guy?"
Sean shoved at his shoulder. "Just go find Dutch. And Hosea. Tell 'em Marston's back."
John dismounted and grasped Old Boy's reins to follow Sean into the camp. He recognized Bill Williamson at the scout fire, along with another new face. He could hear raucous voices further into the camp drop to whispers, and then to silence, as he came in sight of the main fire. The new kid, Mac, was standing in Dutch's tent, next to the man himself, as Hosea appeared around the side of it at a jog. The women were all clustered 'round the fire, but Uncle and Pearson had gotten to their feat, hands open but eyes wary.
And there was Arthur Morgan, sitting casual as you please, knees akimbo, with Abigail's arm wound through his as she sat next to him at the fire. Jack was on the ground in front of him, seeming oblivious, building something out of sticks. Jack's hair was had darkened since John last saw him, now a dirty blonde similar to Arthur's. The three of them looked a proper family.
"The hell is this, Arthur Morgan?" John demanded, all thought leaving him beyond the roiling in his gut, as he threw down Old Boy's reins to stalk towards the camp. "You're looking awful cozy with my woman and my son."
John had seen Arthur stand in the center of a road with nothing but a pistol and stare down an armed stagecoach. He'd seen him drag a child killer across a field by his hair and string him up on the nearest tree. He'd seen him kill with his bare hands a man who'd held a gun to Hosea's head.
He had never before seen the blank, cold fury that appeared in Arthur's eyes when they met his.
Still, Arthur's face didn't so much as twitch as he slowly reached up and took off his hat, laying it next to him on the log. "Well now, John Marston," he drawled as he stood, Abigail's hand trailing along his arm without letting go, "seems to me like your woman and what you suddenly believe is your son ain't seen your face in a year." He shook off Abigail's hand without a glance, and began rolling up the sleeve of his shirt in slow, deliberate movements.
John's gut turned to ice as his mind caught up with his mouth, and he fully grasped that, in about thirty seconds, Arthur was going to lay him flat.
"Now, the law might call that abandonment," Arthur continued, switching to roll up his other sleeve, expression terrifyingly casual. "But we ain't much for the law, are we? Reckon we might call it something else."
"Arthur—" Abigail begged, grasping at his now-bare forearm, but Arthur just patted at her hand and then gently removed it.
"Why don't you take the boy and head to bed, Abigail," Arthur said, and Abigail only hesitated a moment before snatching up Jack as if they were brandishing guns instead of fists. Arthur and John stared silently, as if the only two people in the clearing, until they heard the sound of a tent flap flipping open, then brushing closed.
"Traitor," Arthur spat, and a brief susurration went through the group around them, even as John threw his shoulders back to stand his ground.
"It weren't like that," He shot back. "I wasn't leaving. I just needed to get my head on straight, that's all."
"Well did you?" Arthur asked, as he cracked his neck to the left, then the right. It was theater, a show for the gang around them. A signal that John Marston was going to get his, and Arthur Morgan was going to give it to him. "Because I gotta tell you, I'm about to knock it clean back off."
John glanced over at Dutch and Hosea, but they were motionless, Dutch's expression thoughtful, a silent sanction. If John were a different man, a smarter man, he might have tried to apologize. To put on an conciliatory tone and make peace.
None of them were those kind of men.
"Is that what you want, brother?" John replied, even as he weighed how badly this was going to go. John was a crack shot, but Arthur was a brawler, easily had thirty pounds on him. "You wanna tussle in the dirt like we's kids? Remind me who's the big man?"
"John—" Hosea said from behind the others, but Dutch held up a hand, his gaze never leaving his proteges.
Arthur gave no warning, didn't even square up, just swung with his left, catching John on the temple, setting his ears ringing. John managed to pull his hands up to block the next blow from the right, as the other gang members began cheering and yelling like the reprobates they all were. He swung for Arthur's unguarded ribs, getting in two quick jabs, but Arthur barely even grunted, just cracked him with another left, bringing his elbow down on the back of John's shoulder when folded in on himself. The elbow drove him down into Arthur's knee, hitting him just below the ribs and knocking the wind clean out of him, leaving John gasping.
John fell to his hands and knees, but made a valiant try at getting Arthur down with him, aiming a kick at the back of his knee. It only succeeded in getting the other knee in the small of his back, shoving him down, Arthur pinning his face into the churned-up mud around the campfire with a hand fisted in his hair. Not even to hurt him—to humiliate him. He could hear Bill's laughter and Sean's taunts, Karen's cheers and Miss Grimshaw's admonishments, as Arthur ground his face into the dirt, just as John had taunted him to do. One knee was in his back and the other moved to pin down his flailing hand. John's one free hand scrambled for purchase against Arthur's trousers, but there was nothing to grab—this late at night, Arthur's gunbelt was tucked away in his caravan.
"All right, enough," Dutch said, voice carrying over the jeers, when it was clear John was well and truly pinned. "Arthur, my boy, I think that young Mr. Marston has grasped your feelings on the situation."
"How do we know that he ain't sold us out, Dutch?" Arthur growled, not even out of breath. "He could be trailing law right behind him."
John saw Dutch's preternaturally clean boots appear beside his face. "Come now, Arthur, we know John better than that." There was a soft sound—Dutch patting Arthur on the shoulder, probably, as he often did—and then Arthur shoved John's face down one more time with a noise of disgust, and stood.
"He better stay out of my way," Arthur said darkly, and then his footsteps moved away from the fire.
Dutch's intervention had ended the raucousness. When John pushed himself up onto his hands and looked around, Bill was sneering silently, Sean was frowning after Arthur, and the two new kids—Mac and the other one—were staring at him with wide eyes.
Then Hosea was on his other side, helping Dutch lever him out of the mud like he was an invalid. All in all, it had taken maybe a minute. John shook off their hands as soon as he was on his feet, glaring at the men around them.
"What?" He snapped at Bill, ready to fight again if it would cure the itching under his skin.
Bill's sneer morphed into a mean grin. "Just thinking how pretty you looked with your face in the mud, Marston. Suits you."
Dutch grabbed John's shoulder when he went to lunge. "Miss Grimshaw!" He called, as he turned John away from the fire, a friendly arm around his shoulder. "See if you can find some accommodations for our prodigal son." He turned over his shoulder to speak to Hosea, eyes sparkling. "We'll save slaughtering the fatted calf for the morning."
"Don't know how Arthur will feel about that," Hosea said dryly, but he slapped John on the shoulder as he returned to his own tent, his expression fond.
John had a dark purple bruise from his hairline to his cheekbone on the right side of his face in the morning, and what felt like another at the top of his left shoulder blade, but other than that, he was mostly just muddy. Miss Grimshaw clucked over his ruined travel clothes, then sent him to wash up in the pond.
One of the new kids was down there, the one whose name John didn't know, neck-deep in the water. John acknowledged him with a nod before he dunked his head, didn't notice the kid staring until he'd finished scrubbing out the dried mud.
"Just ask what you want to know," John snapped, annoyed, and the kid jumped, head bobbing under the water before he came back up, spluttering.
"Sorry, I— Dutch said we shouldn't bother you. That you needed to 'settle in'."
John rolled his eyes. "Kid, if I was made of glass, I woulda shattered already."
The kid nodded, wide-eyed. "No kidding. Mr. Morgan really walloped you."
John snorted. 'Mr. Morgan.' Christ, they were old. "He has his reasons." What those reasons were, John actually couldn't quite say. Arthur seemed to have done just fine in his absence, taken over the things that John had abandoned. Abigail even slept in his caravan now, the tent that had been hers strung up to give Arthur's lean-to the illusion of privacy.
"I've never seen Mr. Morgan brawl with someone from the camp before," the kid continued, apparently having already forgotten Dutch's instructions. "He must really hate you."
John just scrubbed the rest of the mud off his skin and left without responding, because what was there to say to that?
Dutch treated John like he'd never left, and after a few weeks, Sean and Bill did as well. The new kids—Mac and the other one, who was apparently Davey—had no grudge to hold against him, so they followed Dutch. Hosea seemed … not upset, but uncertain. He treated John with kid gloves, tried to talk to him about why he left, what he did, why he came back. John knew that was just how Hosea was—he and Dutch both had the gift of gab, but Dutch leaned towards inspirational speeches and Hosea was more about understanding the human condition.
Pearson, Swanson, Uncle: they'd never shed blood with John, and that visceral bond wasn't there—whatever betrayal they might have felt was on behalf of others, and though Pearson treated him coolly, Swanson and Uncle didn't much seem to care that he'd been gone, or that now he was back.
The women were different, more like Hosea. Karen asked him if he was 'okay' at least once a day. Miss Grimshaw constantly nagged him like the mother he barely remembered. Mary-Beth mostly wanted to hear what he'd been doing, still starry-eyed about tales of outlaws, seeming more impressed than anything that he had been on his own for a year.
Abigail was … well, he deserved what he got from her. Three months in, she was still sleeping in Arthur's caravan, the entry pulled closed at night, and John had set his own new lean-to as far away from it as possible. He didn't want to see her braiding her hair in there each morning, didn't want to hear if there were soft, sleep noises or other things at night. She was unfailingly, icily cordial to him. Petty as fuck, though, and even though John knew she was doing all of it—winding her arm through Arthur's any time he was in camp, fussing over Arthur with food and liquor, stroking hands across Arthur's shoulders when they sat at the fire at night—to rile him, that didn't mean it didn't work. It was just as well that Arthur spent most of his time away from the camp, these days.
He suspected that Dutch had talked to Arthur, since there were no more fistfights around the campfire, and no hissing venom flung at him. Just icy fury that rivaled Abigail's, if not surpassed it, silence that spoke more loudly than any accusation. Arthur had been an older brother to him and filled the role perfectly, always insulting and poking at him. The new silence seemed to settle on John's skin like a layer of trail dust he could never wash off. John had never thought he would miss Arthur calling him a useless sack of shit, but here they were.
All that being as it was, It was a flat shock to John when, when Dutch called him over to his tent, Arthur was waiting there with him.
For a horrible, terrifying moment, John thought that Dutch had gone Hosea on them, that he was going to make John and Arthur sit and talk to one another, and all things being equal, John would rather Arthur just hit him again over that.
"No need to look so worried, my boy," Dutch said expansively as he waved John to an empty stool. "This is business talk. Mr. Morgan here has a job that needs another gun."
Arthur was sitting on a canvas stool and leaning back against one of the tent posts, his hat shadowing his eyes, a cigarette dangling carelessly from his lips. He looked like a snake, his casual, sprawled laziness belying the coiling tension to strike.
"Does Mr. Morgan need a recruiter too?" John replied, ignoring the invitation to sit, instead planting his feet and crossing his arms over his chest. "Seems to me he knew where to find me."
"That so?" Arthur drawled, tilting his head up, looking at John through half-closed eyes. "Findin' you is hardly a guarantee these days, is it?"
"Well I suppose findin' you is easy," John snapped back, "Just need to look to where Abigail is simpering like a damn fool."
A smile slowly sped across Arthur's face at that, and John cursed himself for showing his hand. Arthur folded his hands behind his head, a picture of contentment, and darted his eyes out of the tent, to where Abigail was crouched doing laundry. "Abigail is a fine woman."
John hadn't realized he was lunging towards Arthur until he felt Dutch's hand in the middle of his chest. "This is exactly the problem, boys. I can't have my two best men at each other's throats."
Arthur snorted. "I ain't been near Marston's neck since I wrung it."
"Arthur," Dutch said, in the tone of a disappointed parent. For reasons John had never understood, Arthur had always been vulnerable to this tone—even now it made him scowl and drop his gaze, chastised. "I've known both of you since you were children, and your problem has always been that you're too damn similar for your own good."
John could see Arthur's jaw jut out, wanting to argue, but he stayed quiet.
"I love both you boys," Dutch continued, "and it pains me to see you two circling around each other like trashyard dogs. So you are going to ride out together, do this job, and come back alive, talking to one another, and with pockets full of money. You understand me?"
John eyed Arthur suspiciously until the older man shoved himself to his feet. "I guess you're with me then, Marston," he growled, the cigarette that had been dangling from his lips now clenched between his teeth. "Pack up, we're leaving in the morning."
John followed after him with a bounce in his step—something about seeing Arthur, the favored son, dressed down by Dutch and brought to heel made his day infinitely more pleasant. "Where we goin' then, boss?" He asked brightly, grinning in response to Arthur's scowl.
"Firnass," Arthur answered, reluctantly, "so pack warm. God know there ain't enough meat on your skinny ass to keep you from freezing."
Firnass was a mountain town the gang had passed by on the way to their current camp site in Finnegan's Pass. John hadn't been with them then, but Karen was happy to tell him that there was nothing there but snow, timber, and wolves.
"It was so cold they didn't even want to fuck," she lamented. "I got my tits out in the saloon for nuthin'."
"No coal?" John pressed. "No gold?"
"Just trees and ice, as I recall," Karen told him, "but Arthur wouldn't be going if there weren't something."
Because of course, Arthur couldn't be wrong. If Arthur thought there was something worth riding two days up into the mountains for, of course it was true.
"Karen was wrong," is what Arthur told him as they were saddling up in the morning, "there is gold."
Arthur came off as a dumb man with a keen eye, and he'd be the first to tell you that was true, but he was deceptively clever about some things. The saloon in Karston, at the bottom of the mountain, had stuck him as being a little too raucous for a town that didn't even have a mine. The number of lumberjacks buying rounds with crisp dollar bills, the number of young, pretty, well-dressed whores doing a tidy business, the upstairs rooms letting for premium—it all smacked of wealth and, in particular, new, unpracticed wealth.
"So after a few more whiskeys, feller tells me that he's down from Firnass on three days leave. I ask him how the lumber business is up there, and he tells me he wouldn't know, he's paid to guard the forest, not cut it. Then he fuckin' shushes me," Arthur held a finger up in front of his lips in illustration, "and tells me its a secret." He peered at John out of the corner of his eye, smirking. "Well, you know how I feel about secrets."
Apparently, to quote Mark Twain, there was gold in them thar hills.
The rub was that the lumber company didn't own the land, just the trees. The gold in the ground and streams belonged to the state of Montana and the town of Firnass, and as it happened, the company didn't want to give the state their new windfall.
"They're squirreling it away up there somewhere," Arthur said, relaxed in the saddle despite the blistering cold, "but the number of guns they've hired? One feller ain't gonna bust in and take it."
"Where do you think they're keeping it?" John asked.
Arthur made a thoughtful noise. "Foreman's office would be the most obvious, but I doubt its there. More likely they stuck it up in a cave somewhere. Somewhere no one's likely to stumble upon."
"So we grab the foreman and have him take us." John suggested. "Get rid of him when we're done and anyone will probably think he took it."
Arthur repeated his thoughtful hum. "Reckon they must know folks'll be after it. Not sure it'll be that easy."
The gold wasn't hidden in some distant cave. It was right smack dab in the middle of Firnass, in the basement of the town saloon. A saloon that was also the town's only restaurant, and was full, day and night, with armed, drunk roughnecks just looking for a reason to fight. The saloon owner was an old widow who'd seemed deeply unimpressed with them, scowling as she served them their drinks, and asking pointedly if they had any experience with lumber.
Arthur had given her an extra dollar and told her that he had experience with a lot of things. He had a soft spot for old women, and John knew that he would never agree to use her to get the gold.
The foreman was an unexpectedly young rat-faced dandy who went everywhere with an armed bodyguard. He was the obvious weak link, but he rarely left the safety of the town, and didn't socialize with the workers. If he walked into the saloon without his guard and with two strange men … well, there was no way it wouldn't be noticed.
"We'll end up killing half the town if we go in guns blazing," Arthur muttered as he sipped his overpriced whiskey, "but there ain't no back way into the cellar."
"We need a distraction," John said. "We wait until everyone's eyes are somewhere else and we can walk right in."
"Could set a fire," Arthur said, thoughtfully. "Lumber pile goes up, they'd probably all run to help."
"The old woman wouldn't, though," John pointed out, and Arthur seemed to mull over that a moment, before shrugging.
"Reckon we'll have to risk it."
Arthur sent him to start the fire. That was as expected, Arthur always preferred to be the gunner. He didn't have Hosea or Dutch's skill at improvisation and, large as he was, he wasn't especially skilled at sneaking, either. He was better off being the muscle instead of the brain. John knew that Dutch had picked up Arthur when he was around thirteen, and it occasionally passed through his mind that Dutch had conditioned Arthur to be so. After all, Dutch and Hosea hadn't needed another silver tongue, they'd needed a workhorse. Maybe they'd made themselves one.
John always felt slightly disloyal for these thoughts, but ultimately, Dutch and Hosea were a different breed to him and Arthur. He and Arthur, and even Bill and Sean, they were gunmen. They killed and robbed without a great deal of finesse. Dutch and Hosea? They were con-men, and con-men always had an angle.
Arthur had been right—the saloon cleared out the moment someone yelled 'fire', leaving only a few whores and the widow. Arthur had managed to slip into the cellar without a single eye on him. The safe held nearly ten pounds of gold ore. It went perfectly: they left Firnass with no pursuers and enough gold to keep the gang comfortable for a year or more.
It wasn't until the next night, camped on the mountain, that it went to shit.
They had apparently underestimated the the rat-faced foreman's tenacity. Arthur counted at least two dozen gunslingers with him, and possibly more spread out searching for them. They wouldn't be hard to find—they hadn't lit a fire, but the heavy snow made their horse's tracks fairly obvious. Arthur and John were in the only patch of tree cover for miles, they would definitely be spotted leaving it, and with that many guns it seemed unlikely they would all miss.
"We'll have to run for it," John said, passing the binoculars back to Arthur, "before they get any closer."
"We'd be shot before we got fifteen feet," Arthur replied. He tucked his binoculars away and then stood, walking over and pulling the saddlebag off his horse. "Reckon I can stall 'em. Get off this mountain, get the gang and come back for me."
John sprang to his feet. "What? No!"
Arthur slung his saddlebag onto John's horse. "Don't argue, Marston. They ain't gonna kill me—they want their gold."
"I'm not running off like a coward while you play hero, Morgan!"
Arthur pulled himself up onto his horse, as if this were already decided. "Running off is what you're good at, John. Play to your strengths," and then he spurred his horse, bursting into the open, snowy field.
John cursed and ducked back behind the treeline. The cold, open air allowed the voices to carry perfectly, and he heard Arthur's casual drawl as he came up on the foreman. "Evening, fellas. Quite the company you've got here."
One of the gunman yanked him down off his horse, leading him at gunpoint to the foreman, who was leaning down over the neck of his stallion.
"I believe you have something of mine," he said, and his voice was exactly what John would have guessed—educated, oily and smug.
"Way I hear it, it belongs to the state of Montana," Arthur replied, utterly casual despite he raised hands. "Maybe we should ask 'em."
"You took my gold, you and that other one—where is he, by the way?"
"Shot him," Arthur said easily. "Didn't feel like sharing. Surprised you didn't stumble over him on the way."
The foreman whispered something to the men beside him, and two of them broke off to ride back the way they had come. Two others dismounted to grab Arthur by both arms, shoving him over next to the foreman's horse. The man reached down to grab Arthur by the hair, tilting his face up.
"This doesn't have to be unpleasant," the man said. "Give me my gold, and you walk away. Neither of us want the law involved in this."
Obviously the man didn't know Arthur from Adam, so he couldn't have known that threats like that were nothing that would move him overmuch. The pistol the man pulled was also underwhelming. It wasn't until one of the hired guns put the muzzle of his shotgun against Arthur's kneecap that John, and presumably Arthur, realized that this was going to get messy.
"… if you decide to be obstinate," the man continued, "I don't know that you'll be doing any walking at all."
John launched himself onto his horse and pulled his repeater from the saddle. Fuck Arthur Morgan and his need to be the fucking hero. John might not be his biggest fan these days, but he wasn't going to sit and watch him get his ass shot and while John rabbited.
The man with the shotgun and the two men holding Arthur's arms went down in quick succession as John galloped down the hill, Arthur falling under their dead weight, tangled with the bodies. The foreman's horse, clearly unused to gun play, reared, the man frantically clutching at the stallion's neck to stay in the saddle. Arthur grabbed for the man's legs when he stumbled to his feet, dragging him from the saddle and wrapping an arm around his neck, putting him between Arthur and the gunmen.
"Goddamn it Marston, I had a plan!" He yelled without turning around.
"Your plan was about as dumb as you are!" John yelled back, reining his horse in behind Arthur. The foreman was clawing at Arthur's arm, spitting profanity, but he was skinny rat, and no match for Arthur's strength.
"For God's sake," the weaselly bastard snarled, "shoot them!"
"I wouldn't do that," Arthur replied, prodding at the side of the foreman's head with his revolver. "Don't get much pay from a dead man."
"You won't get any pay if they make off with my gold!" The man yelled in reply, right before his head exploded in a shower of gore.
"Jesus!" Arthur spat, shoving the body away as the rest of the gunslingers began opening fire.
John was already reaching down as Arthur ran for the horse, yanking the larger man up behind him, both of them firing blind as they ducked close to the horse. "Get us the hell out of here, Marston!" Arthur yelled right up against his ear, and John turned them around and spurred hard while Arthur continued to fire. Only about eight men ended up in pursuit, the others either injured or horseless. It was, John thought, a manageable number, crazy as that was. Arthur must have thought so as well, because he pressed his mouth up next to John's ear and told him to find a defensible spot.
"No way we're outrunning them with two men on the horse," he reasoned. "We shoot 'em we can get away clean."
It was, needless to say, a bloodbath, but in the end, very little of the blood was theirs.
It was once their pursuers were dead, as Arthur was gathering what he could from the bodies, that John finally exploded.
"What the fuck kind of plan was that, Morgan?" He demands. "I thought we was supposed to be working together on this! You don't get to go stick your fool neck out for me like I'm some damsel that needs protecting!"
"I ain't gonna apologize for tryin' to send you home to your son, boy." Arthur replied calmly, utterly unfazed, not even looking up from the corpse he was turning over.
"Don't pretend this was about that," John snapped back, "when Jack and Abigail spend more time with you than me."
Arthur huffed out a sigh and stood, tilting his head back and starring up a the sky for a long moment, thoughtful, before turning to face John.
"You know I ain't sleeping with Abigail," he said, matter-of-fact-like, so plainly honest and out of the blue that John stopped dead, mouth hanging open like a fool.
"I ain't sleeping with Abigail." Arthur repeated, slower. "She put her things in with me because she didn't want to sleep on her own after you left, and I sure as hell wasn't letting her bunk in with the fellers." He shrugged, tucking his thumbs into his gunbelt, his expression rueful. "You was right, what you said when you came back. She's your woman. Your wife. I wouldn't do that."
John would have thought this revelation would make him happy, but instead all he feels is gobsmacked. "But if she's not—"
"The fact that I'm not fucking her doesn't change the fact that she thinks you're a worthless piece of shit, John." Arthur cut him off. "Don't get it in your head that Abigail was saving herself for you or somethin'."
"So all that stuff at camp—it really was just to rile me?" John demanded, and Arthur shrugged again.
"You hurt her, so she hurt you back. Ain't the healthiest thing in the world, but I can't say as I blame her."
John felt like his head was spinning. "But you, you were doing it too—'Abigail is a fine woman', you said."
"And not one word a lie," Arthur replied easily. "What, you think Abigail is the only one you hurt?"
And there it was, finally laid out plainly. Of course John knew that Arthur was angry, that he felt betrayed by John's abandonment and resented that he'd been welcomed back, but hurt. That was something different, ;something men like them didn't admit to; dirty things like feelings and emotions were only to be talked about when women pried them out of you. Arthur was the very picture of still waters running deep, but John had never fancied that those depths would show up anywhere but on the pages of Arthur's close-guarded journal.
"I didn't leave to hurt you. Any of you," John said softly, looking down, and he almost didn't see the way Arthur's face briefly twisted in some complex emotion, before smoothing out again.
"And if that mattered, maybe things would be better," Arthur responded, "but it don't and they ain't."
It was a long ride back to camp.