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you may never stop calling the wind

Chapter Text

“mister mason,” arthur says, “you ain’t gonna last long out here if you can’t stand a bit’ve blood.”

mason’s face is pale even in the flickering light of the fire, turned resolutely away from arthur and the hare he’s gutting. for a man so enamored with nature he seemed to have little enough love for the meaner side of it; arthur wonders, not for the first time, what put it in mason’s head that he could survive away from civilization.

“oh, i’ve no issue with blood,” mason says, peering into the gathering gloom. his voice sounds somehow simultaneously derisive and wavering. “it’s the... the flesh that i’m not fond of. skinning, disemboweling. the dirtier parts of butchery.”

arthur grunts in response but there’s a smile blooming at the corner of his mouth, hidden in the dim light. it made a certain type of sense, an aversion to gore born out of unfamiliarity, but that didn’t stop the flash of amusement at the wince that mason gave when arthur speared the meat on spits. he rocks back on to his heels, then, and watches mason: the way he fiddled with a stray thread on his vest, folded a page corner of the book he held over and over, smoothed a hand over his hair or across his mouth. unless his focus was consumed entirely, the man never seemed to still.

with anyone else, it would have set arthur unbearably on edge.

“well,” he says, and he draws the word out just to watch mason twitch. “there’s always time to learn.”

a frown tugs at mason’s mouth, a moue of distaste pinching his face. “there are other practicals i’d tackle first, i believe.”

arthur tried to imagine what a life mason must have led, to be able to be so blasé about survival. this was a man who never had to catch and kill his own food, who never slept under the stars for anything save pleasure, who had never even had to use a gun. there was hardly a time arthur could remember before he was running with dutch and hosea, and even before his father died they had lived on and off the streets.

mason was lucky; he’d never had to live like that, and it showed. his face was smooth and pale, free from weathering and not browned by the sun, still able to be kind. there were smile lines that spoke of past joy, frequent enough to leave its mark. his hands, too, were soft and uncallused, all his fingers straight and unbroken. mason’s life was comfortable and safe and happy.

arthur almost envied him for it.

but it was hard to hate a man like mason, bumbling and witty and genial to a fault, and arthur wasn’t cruel enough to try. he’d spent most of his life on the run; it was nice to spend time with someone unburdened by that. arthur sighs and wipes away the blood on his hands best he could.

“mister morgan?” mason’s voice is gentle, lilting up in a question.

“hm?”

“are you alright?” he asks, and when arthur looks over mason is staring straight back, expression creased with worry. “only, you looked terribly sad all of a sudden, and i worry i may have offended you in some way.”

“no, no,” arthur waves him off, shaking his head. “don’t worry ‘bout me, i’m fine. just morbin’, is all.”

mason’s expression smooths but he doesn’t look away, something strange and intense in his face as he watches arthur, but then he smiles and it’s gone. “oh, good. that is, not good, but rather good that you’re not unwell, is what i mean to say.”

and arthur smiles back, because mason just had that way about him, nearly endearing. “you’re a strange one, mister mason. anyone ever told you that?”

“a fair few, actually,” mason huffs, but when he rolls his eyes there’s no real spite in it. “and please, call me albert. you’ve saved me enough times that i think we can safely dispense with formalities.”

arthur can’t help but laugh a little, ducking his head, and when he looks back up albert is smiling again, looking almost proud in his grin.

“fine. but you’ve gotta call me arthur, then. no more mister morgan outta you.”

“fair enough, arthur,” albert says, sounding as if he were testing the name on his tongue, and arthur feels near charmed to bursting.

Chapter Text

arthur’s not the fanciful type, not by a long shot, but he wonders what the world would be like if things were different. if he were different.

he’d never had much of a family, before the gang. he’d had his father, of course, but lyle morgan was hardly ever keen enough to look after himself, let alone a child, and beatrice had died almost before arthur’d gotten a chance to remember her. real parents, a real family, those were things that arthur didn’t know a lick about.

dutch and hosea stepped up as parents in their own way, taking in a rough and tumble fifteen-year-old boy angry at the whole world. they’d taught him how to shoot a gun, how to ride a horse, how to rob a man blind; these were the things expected of men like them. but they’d taught him other things, too: hosea patiently listening as arthur stumbled his way through any book or newspaper they could get their hands on, dutch showing him how to drag his pencil across paper to catch the curve of a sparrow’s wing just right.

he loved them, in his own way. it wasn’t like having parents, not really, a mother to drop kisses on his cheeks and a father to show him how to fish, but it was close enough. hosea looked after him when he was hurt, and the look dutch gave him when he said he was proud of him felt warmer than anything in the world.

arthur didn’t bite back when people called him dutch’s boy, not like john did, because he was dutch’s boy. dutch and hosea had been better fathers to him than his actual father could have ever dreamed, and he was neither stupid nor dense enough to pretend otherwise.

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the thing about molly o’shea was that she just wasn’t cut out for a life on the road.

she’d been raised in a moneyed world, a world where she didn’t have to hide from the law or worry about being killed in her sleep. she’d been raised in a world that was comfortable, and safe, and she’d never had to want for anything.

and it had been boring, living like that, asking for something and having it appear in her hand. but a gilded cage was still a cage, and she’d wanted out more than she’d ever wanted anything else in the world.

she had. she and her brother had left for boston on their father’s business, and she’d waited until her brother had fallen asleep to snag enough money for a coach and slip out the window. it had been thrilling, all of it- and everything she had heard said that there was only more adventure out west.

(molly had thought herself like a heroine from one of those dime novels, fiery and daring, but safe, always safe in the end. she looks back on that and feels disgusted with how much of a fool she’d been.)

they’d never talked about the danger, those stories, and she’d figured it out first hand, and—well. she’d survived, and that was what mattered. and dutch had saved her, like some romantic brigand from the stories her sisters used to read. he had been kind to her, almost sweet, and she’d loved him on sight.

the first time he’d kissed her had felt like a dream, and his hands on her skin wiped away any shame she may have felt. and again and again, and she’d thought he’d loved her as well, had fooled herself into it like the naïve little girl she was, and fell all over herself at the offer to leave with him.

it had been the worst decision she’d ever made.

“you don’t even listen to me anymore, dutch,” she said, her voice half accusatory and half pleading. “you’re not listening to me now, either.”

“i’ll listen when you’ve got somethin’ important to say,” he responded, frustration clear in his tone as he runs a hand through his hair and turns away from her. “quit naggin’ me, molly, just this once.”

dutch had never raised a hand against molly, but she thinks now that he may as well have.

she wasn’t stupid, not anymore; she saw how his eye strayed from her more and more and didn’t try to tell herself it was anything different than what it was. she had no solace, either, no comfort, because she was neither blind nor deaf and knew what the other women thought of her. to them she was arrogant and lazy, entitled, but she’d worked, too, and watched her hands blister and bleed, and she’d consoled herself through the pain because no one else would.

molly was made for a different life than this. in another world she’d be married and a mother, dressed in pretty clothes with pretty jewelry and live in a pretty house. she wouldn’t be hungry, or dirty, or afraid; if things went south, she would have had her family to fall back on. in another world she’d love and be loved in return, and she might even be happy.

“i loved you, you god damn bastard!” the words had ripped themselves from her throat, rough and raw, and she’d seen the way dutch’s face had fallen into some cold kind of fury and how his hand slid to the revolver at his belt, and she’d felt some kind of pleasure from it, from knowing it’d be over. “go on, shoot me!”

Chapter Text

albert had come west less as part of a planned venture and more a fit of insanity.

he wasn’t sure what he’d been thinking, exactly, other than that he just needed to escape. he loved the city, even thrived in it; but he’d felt stuck and suffocated in albany, trapped in a profession he dreaded and surrounded on all sides by his family’s disapproval. and so he’d done what he always had when he was unhappy: he ran.

(meine spätzchen, his mother began one of her letters, as sentimental as always, your absence at home pains me terribly and though he is too stubborn to admit it, your father feels it as well. i have cajoled him into forgiveness if only you would return to us.

he hadn’t deigned that letter with a response.)

he had secured himself employment at a studio in saint denis- not luxurious but decent enough, with decent pay and decent equipment- and then let himself fall in love with the world around him. it was so different, once one left the city; instead of brick and plaster he was surrounded by forest and grass, the sound of the wind in the trees the only sound instead of the constant background hum of voices and horses and movement.

wildlife photography had never been something that albert had considered. he’d begun taking photos for fun, of course, but he was a portraitist; that was what paid money, and that he sorely needed. but it wasn’t something that made him happy.

when he has several days free of appointments he rents a grumpy old nag and takes himself out to the heartlands, away from the smelly, crowded streets of saint denis. it was here he felt most alive, most himself, exhilarated with the earth and the sky and the grass, and he knew that he’d never be satisfied just photographing stuffy old women or solemn young couples posing for their wedding photo.

albert isn’t a creature made for the wilds of the world, but he was persistent. he rented rooms in valentine, in strawberry, any inn or hotel that would have him, and when he ran out of money he slept under the stars and ate stale biscuits and jerky until it was time to return home.

“look at all this,” he breathes, hands set loosely on his camera. he’d been attempting to take a shot of the bison that roamed the heartlands; a noble creature, really, and hunted nearly to extinction. it would be an injustice not to capture them in photo before they were all gone. “this alone should be proof of god’s hand, i think.”

morgan’s hat blocks out the sun, sending his face into shadow, but albert can see they way his mouth twists up into a small smile, quiet, the kind he seemed so good at. “i don’t know about all that, mister mason, but it sure is a sight, ain’t it?”

“that it is,” albert agrees, satisfied, but when he glances over he finds that morgan isn’t watching the vista in front of them- the setting sun pinkening the sky and turning the prairie gold- but is rather turned towards him, blue eyes catching the light. albert musters up a smile for him, something strange and nervous fluttering between his ribs.

albert was made for city life, for comfortable living and all it entailed, and he’d never found shame in cutting his losses. but running had taken him here, to the plains and the bison and arthur morgan, and he this that just this once, he was tired of running.

Chapter Text

arthur didn’t think himself much of an artist. he scribbled here and there, littering the pages of his journal with doodles of people or places or animals or plants, anything that caught his eye. sometimes he’d even try his hand at portraits, though he never asked anyone to sit for him and they never turned out quite right.

he’d never had the chance to work with watercolors or pastels, only ever able to get his hands on pencil or charcoal. he’d never regretted it more than he did now.

albert was still asleep when arthur had rolled over, face slack and pressed into the pillow, his mouth slightly open. the morning light that fell through the window across the room painted him a pale gold. perhaps to anyone else he would have looked foolish- albert sprawled in sleep, stretched out, legs tangled in the blanket and his feet hanging off the end of the bed- but something warm wells in arthur’s chest, something tentative and hesitant and content.

this, this image and this moment, isn’t something that arthur could have captured on paper. he half-wished he could, but he supposed that it was the fleetingness and impermanence that made it all the more precious.

arthur reaches out to brush his fingers lightly across albert’s shoulder, as if doing so would break the illusion, and the warm skin beneath his touch is proof that this was more than just a dream. he had never seen something like this for himself, not really; he’d grown up and lived most of his life on the run from the law, and it’d been proven to him time and time again that there was no escaping that life, not really. with mary and eliza, even hosea’s marriage, he’d learned that he’d be a criminal until he was shot or hanged.

he hadn’t thought that he’d get out. he hadn’t thought that he’d survive it.

albert mumbles something unintelligible, rising slowly to wakefulness, and arthur takes his hand and presses a kiss to the inside of his wrist. into the pillow, albert says, “love you.”

“mm,” arthur hums, but there’s a smile on his face, an answer in all but words. “good mornin’.”

Chapter Text

losing hosea had been like losing a limb, but worse, somehow, more raw, more empty.

dutch knew he’d been slipping for a while. at night he’d dream of that woman he’d shot in blackwater, the terror on her face a split second before her brains splattered the wall behind her; during the day he’d grit his teeth and try not to buckle under the weight of everyone’s hopes on his shoulders.

the two of them had run together for nearly half of dutch’s life. it was hard for him to remember a time when he was on his own; it felt like he’d always been able to look to hosea. they’d been there for each other through all the goods and bads, the best and worst times of dutch’s life, and hosea’d always been his rock.

but hosea was gone. hosea was dead.

and dutch was on his own.

more and more it’d felt like everything was falling apart around him. he’d like to say it had started at blackwater but maybe it had started sooner, hairline fractures turning into widening cracks as soon as they’d started fleeing east. he’d always been on the run but he’d never felt hunted, not really, not until now.

every move had felt like the wrong one. he’d clashed with hosea more and more, with arthur, with john, hemorrhaging their trust with every choice he made. they followed him because of course they did, they were all family, but not a single one of them was happy about it.

and that’d scared him. he’d nearly said as much, one night, said, “am i doing the right thing, hosea?”

hosea’s expression had softened then, and he’d reached over to put his hand on dutch’s knee, a reassurance. dutch had covered hosea’s hand with his own as hosea replied, “you’re doing your best, and that’s all anyone can do.”

it wasn’t an agreement and dutch knew that, he did, but he’d fooled himself into taking it as one. hosea had always said that revenge was a fool’s errand but dutch had barreled on anyway and hosea had followed and now hosea was dead.

Chapter Text

see, the thing was that albert hadn’t expected to see arthur morgan again.

not that he ever did, really, but their last parting had had so much finality to it, had felt so much like a goodbye. a part of that may have been albert’s own frustration, his disappointment and defeat, but there had been so much wistfulness in morgan’s voice that it had felt like an ending.

(in retrospect perhaps morgan knew in some way that he was dying even then, had been tying up loose ends before he passed, and in that consideration albert couldn’t help but find himself feeling honored.)

but he does, he does see him again, and albert isn’t sure if it’s a blessing or a curse. 

it is just before he leaves saint denis for san francisco, determined to begin what work he could in yosemite, the land so loved by muir and johnson, whose work had first inspired albert to wildlife photography in the first place. he comes to collect his photographs from the gallery, folio tucked under his arm, and the showrooms are as silent and still as they nearly always are. the receptionist gives him a smile before turning back to her novel.

and in the front room, inspecting a display on the wall with his thumbs hooked into his belt, is arthur.

“mister morgan,” albert says, surprised but pleasantly so, though something catches in his throat when morgan turns to face him. “i didn’t expect to see you here!”

morgan looks like death warmed over, his skin pale and waxy, color high in his cheeks; his sunken eyes and gaunt face lend him a skeletal appearance. it wasn’t unlikely that he’d lost weight, as well, but it was hard to tell beneath the coat he wore, the broad line of his shoulders slumped and tired. but he smiles anyway, the genuine and nearly bashful smile that albert had always favored most, the one he had received when he gifted morgan a print of the wolves. albert smiles back.

“mister mason,” morgan greets, turning back to the picture framed on the wall. “these turned out mighty fine. you might just have more talent than you say you do.”

albert huffs, somewhere between a sigh and a laugh, and turns as well. they are looking at the photo he had captured of the alligator, the beast half-facing the camera, its maw open to show all of its teeth. it was, albert admitted, an impressive picture, though at the time he’d been less impressed and more breathless with adrenaline. 

“let us hope so,” albert says wryly, shifting the folio he held. “these are new york-bound, and i’d hate to prove my mother right.”

morgan looks at him then, really looks at him, his blue eyes clear and sharp despite his diminished appearance. “you’re goin’ to new york?”

“oh, not quite. not yet, at least. i was planning on spending some time in california, perhaps get some shots of yosemite valley.” albert pauses for a moment. “and... you? saint denis seems rather out of the way from your typical stomping ground, if you’ll excuse the assumption.”

morgan chuckles at that, just a little thing, but it devolves into a coughing fit soon enough, until he is bent at the middle and gasping for each wheezing breath. albert frets at the sight of blood and digs out a handkerchief, but morgan waves him off, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand instead.

hoarse, he answers albert’s earlier question, “nothin’ much, really. was in the area, thought i’d come see the sights.”

“mister morgan, are you quite well? do you need a doctor?”

“ain’t nothin’ a doctor can do for me.” a frown twitches the corner of his mouth as he glances away, and albert notes faintly that there are still flecks of blood in his beard. then morgan sighs, a sad, rattling sort of thing. “i’m real sick, mister mason. just...  tryin’ to make the most’ve things, now.”

“i’m sorry.” the words are hollow, reflexive; his hand is raised in some abortive measure of comfort. albert curls his fingers closed and brings his fist uselessly close to his chest.

they stay like that for a moment, in stifled, heavy silence, looking at the photo of the alligator. it was hard to reconcile the morgan in front of him with the man who’d rescued him from wolves, from alligators, from his own stupidity. who’d chased coyotes and wrangled horses for him. albert had always admired morgan, had enjoyed his kindness and envied his competence, and had hoped and hoped for every one of their unexpected meetings.

and now, it seemed, that this would be the last.

“have you ever seen california, mister morgan?”

morgan’s brows raise in surprise at albert’s blurted question, and albert swallows back a wince. he didn’t want to watch this man die and deteriorate before his eyes but he wanted this, this time, wanted to be greedy and savor it, have it all to himself.

“that is to say, travelling alone is never quite as enjoyable as with a companion, and i’m sure that it’s not yet too late to purchase train tickets. and san francisco has dry seasons, in the summer, which i’ve heard can do wonders for the health.”

morgan studies him for a moment, blue eyes intense, and albert swallows thickly under the attention. “arthur.”

“pardon?”

“may as well call me by my name,” arthur says slowly, “if we’re gonna be settin’ off to california together.”

Chapter Text

sometimes, hosea nearly felt bad for molly.

the thing about dutch was that he was charismatic; he could talk you out of a month’s wages and you’d be the one thanking him. but he was inconstant, ever-shifting and as changeable as the weather, and hosea had learned how to deal with his moods long before he’d learned to love him.

miss o’shea hadn’t had that privilege. 

she had been taken in by dutch just as so many had before. hosea had seen it time and time again: dutch would talk his way into some pretty girl’s bed and string her along until they up and disappeared again, except this time molly had uprooted herself to disappear along with them. oh, hosea was sure that she was a decent enough person, beneath it all, but this wasn’t a life for decent people. she’d stuck out like a sore thumb in camp with her fine clothes and her pretty jewelry and her soft hands, but she’d followed along after dutch anyway, stars in her eyes.

(she couldn’t see past them to see what dutch really was, couldn’t see that he didn’t love her like she wanted him to, and dutch had always been slippery that way; able to say so much without actually saying anything at all.)

the first time they talk- really talk, not just fleeting glances or pleasantries muttered in passing- is after they make camp at horseshoe overlook. they are tired and worn thin, all of them, burdened by running and the cold and the deaths they’d had scarce enough time to mourn. and molly, ever the outsider, sits at the cliff with her knees pulled to her chest, some sad, faraway look on her face.

“what’s going on over here, miss o’shea?” hosea asks her, and she starts, going tense all at once, but she doesn’t climb to her feet; if anything she curls further into herself, watching him with wary, distrustful eyes.

hosea can’t blame her.

“i’m fine,” she says in response to an unasked question, ever polite, but there’s something of steel in her voice. her voice is thick, as if she’d been crying.

“no, you’re not.” perhaps he would have been more subtle on a con but this wasn’t a job, and molly wasn’t some mark to sweet talk. hosea settles himself on the ground next to her- slower and stiffer than he would like to admit- and leans back on his hands.

molly doesn’t respond right away, just turns and looks out over the mountains, the way the sunset caught the mist and turned everything a pale gold. “no,” she agrees eventually, quieter, “i’m not.”

hosea hums, says, “it’s dutch, isn’t it?”

(molly o’shea was not a creature to speak in euphemisms with; she was, he had learned, more than the doll she appeared to be.)

something ugly twists at her mouth and he watches, from the corner of his eye, as she hunches her shoulders and settles her chin on her knees, deep blue skirt spilling across the ground. he doesn’t rush, doesn’t push, knows that all people talk in their own time if they are truly of a mind to be heard- and molly, obviously, had spent too long ignored.

“why do you care?” she asks him, sharp. “you’re his- his best friend, i’m sure that anything i’ve got to say to you will make it back to him, in time.”

“you’re not the first, you know.” he doesn’t say it to be cruel but she flinches nonetheless. “i’ve known dutch for twenty years. i know how he is, what he is, what he does.”

she whispers, “why?”

“dutch won’t ever settle down,” hosea sighs. the sun casts the mountains into deep shadow as it sinks into dusk. “no matter what he says about buying land and making a home. he loves that dream too much to love anything else, but he’s been running too long to give this life up.”

it was a truth that hurt both of them, loving dutch as they both did, but one hosea grasped more than molly. he’d known this for years- he had walked into this life with his eyes open. it was hard to think that he’d ever been as young as molly seemed, as naive.

“i thought he loved me,” she says, and when hosea looks again her eyes are closed, her face pinched into a miserable expression. “he never... he never said it, not like i did, but i thought...”

“he’s good at that,” hosea agrees, “it wasn’t fair of him to let you think he’s something that he’s not, but miss o’shea, life’s not fair, and especially not this life. dutch, he... for all his talk of taking care of people, of love and new starts, dutch ain’t a good man. it’d be good for you to remember that.”

when molly turns to look at him, really look at him, there’s something knowing in her gaze that hosea doesn’t quiet like. “you know, don’t you? what it’s like.”

“i know dutch,” hosea cedes, “probably better than anyone else. of course i know what it’s like.”

Chapter Text

arthur tends to think that his life started when he was fourteen years old, and not a minute before. 

before, before he had been some half-feral thing, dirty and angry at the world, slim through lean eating and growth spurts. his fingers had curled clumsily around the handle of the dull, rusty knife he’d used to try and cut through the strap of hosea’s leather bag.

but hosea had caught his wrist lightning-quick, had looked at him as if arthur were some particularly interesting pet, a quirk about his mouth. a detached sort of amusement. “well, what’ve we got here?”

he’d been younger then, they all had. hosea’s hair was still blond, then, dutch’s features less sharp. and dutch had smiled, too, slow and oozing like oil on water, and arthur had envied him for the rings he wore and the pocket watch chain on his vest. “looks like a rat to me.”

“ain’t no rat,” arthur protests as he tries to yank his arm out of hosea’s too-tight grip, but is his voice cracks in the middle, hoarse and pathetic.

the two of them, dutch and hosea, they share a look and as one their expressions change, softening in some way, losing an edge that arthur couldn’t name; communicating without words. hosea pulls him in by his wrist to sling an arm around his skinny shoulders and dutch looks him over from head to toe, says, “when’s the last time you had a bath, kid?”

and so arthur finds himself taken in. it’s not like a family, not immediately- dutch and hosea had him play up the hungry street kid angle more than once, either to con a few more coins or to distract some well meaning idiot as they slip sticky fingers into unaware pockets- but it gets there, eventually. he’s not sure exactly when, but eventually. 

arthur’d never had a family before, not really. mom died when he was real young, dad may as well have been dead too for all the care he gave his son. arthur went to bed hungry more often then than he ever did looking after himself; getting locked up was the best gift his daddy could have given him.

and this, well. it wasn’t like a normal family, dutch and hosea and arthur, and then everyone they’d picked up later, john and susan and pearson and bill and javier, tilly and karen and mary-beth and abigail. but it was close- it was good, it was as much a family as arthur’d ever known.

Chapter Text

“dutch,” is what hosea starts with, something sharper in his voice than typical exasperation, “you’re gonna get someone killed if you keep on like this.”

hosea had never contradicted dutch. twenty years, and he’d never gone against him or his wishes- not publicly, at least. instead, they balanced each other: dutch had the big ideas, the fire to see them through, and hosea had always tempered his passion and his arrogance in turn. 

it had worked for them; they’d had some bad jobs, a few close scrapes, but nothing catastrophic. nothing like blackwater.

he did not like micah bell. the man was a loose canon, picked up along the way and kept on because he fed dutch’s vanity. he whispered notions in dutch’s ear, fancies that took a hold of him too strongly for hosea to curb, and rarely did any good come from them. always, always they put the whole gang in danger, left them scrambling and on the run.

when he speaks, his voice is low and threatening. “what did you just say to me?”

dutch’s anger, his true anger and not the shouting and gesturing he put on in front of others, had always been a quiet sort of fury. he became focused, sharp as a knife and just as cutting, mean to the point of cruelty. hosea’d only seen it a handful of times before.

“i said,” he repeats, voice rising, “that you’re gonna get someone killed.”

hosea, on the other hand, had always burned hot; when he was angry he was loud about it, impossible to miss or overlook. dutch may’ve wanted to keep this quiet, private, but hosea’d been quiet before and dutch hadn’t listened, not once. quiet was a luxury that he no longer deserved.

“you think,” dutch says, and had always had more more height and sheer presence, and he uses that now to loom over him, “that i’d be so... so careless with these people’s lives to risk them? our family?”

“before? no, not at all.” hosea frowns and crosses his arms like a physical barrier. “but now? i never know what to think’ve you. you’ve changed, dutch, and it ain’t for the better.”

had it just been them, just him and dutch and the boys, perhaps he could have let this all slide. they often threw themselves on the bad end of a gun, willingly and sometimes gleefully. but there were women here, too, unused to the thrill of a firefight, not to mention young jack. hosea refused to have part of tossing a kid to the law.

but dutch just watches him, something surprised and maybe contemplative in his face, overlaid with faint frustration. dutch knew everything about hosea and hosea knew dutch better than anyone else in the world, but his mind had always been like a bag of cats, unpredictable and strange.

“it’s everyone else that’s changed,” dutch says to him, quick to anger but never stay so for long, not with hosea. “i’ve done everything i can to keep everyone safe. we’ve had some hard time, sure, but have some faith, hosea. you’ve never doubted me before.”

“never had micah before,” hosea responds, and though he doesn’t move away when dutch steps toward him, he doesn’t meet him in the middle, either. “he’s like a tumor. we’re all better off with him gone, but you’re not gonna listen to anyone but him.”

dutch seems stunned, and then his brow furrows again, mouth twisting. “he’s not-”

“you’ve gotta cut him out, dutch, or you’re gonna kill the rest of us. i know it.”

Chapter Text

“don’t bother yourself over it,” arthur grumbles, “you’ve got enough to worry about.”

california had treated them well so far, a decent flat in san francisco and a week and a half of rough sleeping in yosemite. albert had initially insisted that arthur stay behind- he could more than handle himself, after all, and san francisco was drier- but arthur was just as bull-headed and stubborn, and so they left san francisco together just days after arriving.

(the valley itself was verdant and full of life and albert had found his eye straying to arthur more and more instead of the subjects he was meant to be photographing, prints upon prints of the man among meadows of wildflowers or dozing against a tree tucked into albert’s copy of walden alongside flower cuttings—)

albert frowns at him, crossing his arms. he and arthur were more or less of a height, though the other man was more broad and impressive, even in his ill and weakened state. albert rather admired him for it, but it also made it rather hard to look stern.

“mister morgan,” albert says, sounding almost offended, “arthur. you are always my priority; you should know this by now.”

you are my priority was easier than saying i’m in love with you. 

arthur tries to star him down, blue eyes hard and resolute, but this was a bad day and he breaks down into a series of coughing mere moments later. albert had stopped fretting over arthur’s fits, but he still was left feeling helpless. he offers his handkerchief and arthur takes it, wheezing slightly as he wipes the blood from his lips and leans back into his chair.

“awful foolish of you,” arthur tells him. “you’ve got better things to do than stick ‘round here’n play nursemaid.”

“never.” albert settles himself in the chair across the table from arthur, even though he’d previously been on his way out the door. he was glad that arthur was here, whether or not arthur had agreed to come with him for his company or the climate.

they’re quiet for a few moments, silent save for arthur’s labored breaths and the creaking floorboards of their upstairs neighbors. and then arthur says, “i ain’t gonna be here forever, albert.”

his tone is carefully blank; anyone else would have called it harsh, unsympathetic. but albert likes to think that he knows arthur, knows him well enough to understand that he only shuttered himself like this when he felt vulnerable.

“isn’t that all the more reason to keep me?” albert asks, stumbling over his words. “photographs, galleries... i’ll have those all my life. but i won’t have you.”

arthur watches him and albert tries not to squirm under the attention. it made him itch, this tension that sometimes flared between them; it made him scared. but then arthur’s mouth curls into a smile, small and lopsided and horribly personal, the kind of smile that albert had come to treasure. 

“run that pitch’ve yours by me once more,” arthur says, though he’s heard albert’s recitations nigh on a hundred times before. but albert recognizes it for what it is, an excuse to stay, and he offers a smile once more. 

Chapter Text

“stop scowling,” hosea scolds. “we’re meant to be lying low, arthur, and you hardly fit that bill on a good day.”

which was not necessarily the truth- arthur knew how to be unremarkable, how to slip beneath the radar, had known how to do that since he was a kid- but hosea wasn’t entirely wrong, either; arthur was a tall man, a big man, and it was hard to miss the dark look on his face. 

“i’ll smile when we’re outta this damn place,” he mutters, hunching his shoulders, and hosea barks out a laugh. arthur hated cities, thought them smelly and crowded and ugly, but hosea took to it like a fish to water, smiling and sweet-talking and slipping his hands into the pockets of unsuspecting passerby. 

they had left their horses behind, coughing up a small fee- that was quickly recouped- to stable them just inside the city; horses were only a hindrance in the narrow streets of saint denis, too noticeable and difficult to handle. it was easier to go on foot and so arthur matches his strides to hosea’s shorter, quicker pace as they make their way about the city.

(they were there on errands of a sort, arthur there to intimidate as hosea, the most nimble-fingered, played the card tables at various bars and saloons and pulled in heft winnings at each. arthur had always admired hosea’s cleverness and quick thinking, his eye for strategy, his sharp sort of charm.)

arthur’s scowl just deepens at hosea’s laugh, and the man himself drives and elbow into arthur ribs. he’s sucking in a quick breath, hosea looking faintly amused with his hands tucked in his pockets, when he hears his name.

“mister morgan!” a familiar voice calls, “mister morgan, what a surprise!”

it’s albert mason, of course, trotting towards them with a pleased sort of look on his face. he’s dressed far different from his outdoor clothes, the green vest and rolled sleeves, instead all prim and proper in dark trousers paired with a pale purple waistcoat, a matching dark jacket draped over his arm. he looks civilized now, a proper city boy, and he doesn’t even seem uncomfortable for it.

“mister mason,” arthur replies, and even though he can feel hosea’s curiosity he can’t deny that he’s unhappy to see albert, either.

“i never knew you ever traveled out here to the city,” albert scolds, and then his eyes flick to hosea at arthur’s side, a friendly smile sliding on to his face as he offers a hand. “a friend, i presume? albert mason.”

hosea smiles, too- less friendly and more sharp, and arthur knows he’ll be grilled for this later- and takes albert’s hand for a shake. he says, “aiden o’malley,” and arthur can’t help but roll his eyes at the alias, one that hosea and dutch trade on and off between each other, “his uncle, actually. it’s a pleasure.”

“a family outing, then,” albert responds, sounding as cheerful as ever, though he casts arthur a curious glance. “you should have told me you had business in saint denis, mister morgan, i would have offered to give you a tour.”

he says this last part with a hint of irony and arthur can’t help but snort, relaxing a little. albert has always had that air about him, genial and disarming, and arthur would have been more wary had albert not demonstrated himself to be completely harmless. he nods towards albert’s coat, “i’d take you up on that, but it seems like you’ve got some business already.”

“oh, yes, yes,” albert frets, and he pulls his coat on right there in the street, knocking his hat- not his typical straw boating hat, instead some fancy townhat- askew. arthur reaches out to straighten it without a thought, and albert favors him with a brilliant smile. “i work in a studio, you see, and i have an appointment with a client that i’m nearly late for—”

“go, then, you fool,” arthur says, and though he’d been aiming for exasperated his tone settles on fond.

“of course, mister morgan.” albert knuckles the brim of his cap and offers a shallow little bow, first to arthur and then to hosea. “mister o’malley. i hope to see you both again soon...?”

“go,” arthur repeats, firmer this time, and albert laughs a little, turning away. he gives a wave before gets lost in the wave of people around them, which arthur returns with a raised hand. hosea makes a noise beside him, an amused hum. “what do you want, old man?”

“nothing,” hosea says mildly, but there’s a gleam in his eye that arthur decides he doesn’t like at all. “just didn’t know you had a friend here, is all.”

“me neither, i guess.”

hosea sounds almost gleeful when he tells him, “you’ve gotta chin up now, arthur. wouldn’t want your friend to see you so down, would you?”

“don’t start,” arthur sighs, because he knows that hosea won’t give up his ribbing until he’s well and ready to. “you gonna tell the others ‘bout this? dutch?”

“oh, of course.” and then hosea’s face softens all at once, something strange and a little wistful twisting at his mouth. “this mister mason, does he know?”

arthur shakes his head, just once.

hosea claps him on the shoulder and gives a little squeeze, reassuring, every inch the fatherly figure arthur’s always seen him as. “i ain’t gonna tell you it’s right or wrong, son, just that you’ve gotta be careful. but i don’t think you need me to tell you that.”

he doesn’t bother arguing, doesn’t try to say that hosea’s got it all wrong or that it isn’t like that. instead he just nods, feeling tired all of a sudden, and says, “i know, hosea. i know.”

Chapter Text

albert plans to go to the grizzlies next, because of course he does, chasing rumors of a white buffalo that treads the mountain snow.

he tells arthur this one night over dinner at smithfield’s, gesturing wildly with his hands, his eyes bright with excitement- and the finger of whiskey he’d thrown back like an old hand at the beginning of the meal, and the two that came after it. arthur gives him a smile, one of those easy, lopsided ones, because albert’s enthusiasm was as infectious as always.

(and the fact that albert always made him feel welcome, that he didn’t feel heavy and leaden after leaving the man, that he stirred up a whole host of things that mary never had-- )

the grizzlies were a dangerous place. arthur told him this but albert just waved him off with a smile, leaning into his hands with his elbows on the table, some comment about how good fortune hadn’t let him perish quiet yet.

“never been called that before,” arthur says and raises his beer bottle to his mouth.

albert casts him a quizzical look that’s only a little bit off center, but arthur counts that as a win. “called what?”

“good fortune.”

the photographer laughs at that, delighted in turns, and arthur can’t quite beat back the warm swell of pleasure at the sound. albert had no right going about and making him feel such things as he did, but the man never seemed to heed the demand that arthur never put to words, and arthur found himself drawn in like a moth to flame.

or a drunken fool, he thinks to himself wryly.

“oh, mister morgan,” albert sighs, and arthur’s attention snaps back into focus, “arthur. you’re a bit of a knight in shining armor, aren’t you? my own guardian angel sent to keep me from an embarrassing end in a wolf’s belly or alligator’s maw.”

“ain’t no angel, albert,” he says, more amused than anything, allowing himself just this one chance to roll the man’s name around on his tongue. he finds that he rather likes it, finds that it feels like it belongs there behind his teeth.

perhaps it is the alcohol that makes him bold- though he’s nowhere near as sauced as albert- but arthur lets his fingertips drag lightly over albert’s knuckles where the man’s hand rests on the table. he hears the quiet intake of breath and pretends it was nothing.

albert protests, “oh, but you are!”

“wouldn’t be much’ve an angel if i let you got eaten up by some bear,” arthur says, “and there ain’t no one up in the grizzlies to help. it’ll be cold, and lonely, and you’re gonna end up a bear’s dinner.”

the mirth leaves albert’s face and he’s left staring wide-eyed, color high in his cheeks. “oh, dear.”

but,” arthur continues, putting emphasis on the word. “i’ll go with you, so don’t you worry yourself over all that. i’ve been through those mountains a few times, so you won’t even get lost, neither.”

albert is still watching him, some unidentifiable look on his face as he moves to cover arthur’s hand with his own. arthur keeps expecting him to look away, to glance off with some nervous laugh, but he doesn’t; instead he just watches, and arthur doesn’t quite like not knowing what’s going on up in his head.

“arthur morgan,” albert starts as if he were beginning some grand pronouncement, but then he pauses and blanches, his face going white and his eyes going round. “i quite think i’m about to be sick.”

Chapter Text

“you ever miss it, miss o’shea,” sean asks, “ol’ dublin?”

it was late enough- or early enough, depending upon your persuasion- that no one else was about. sean was supposed to be standing sentry, but the woods were still and quiet, and it wouldn’t hurt to skive a bit, though he’d surely be flayed if found out. and molly, well, molly was often restless, standing on the cliff and looking out over the valley in the early dawn, shawl wrapped tight ‘round her shoulders; she cast a dark silhouette in the pale, misty light.

“sometimes,” molly answers after a long moment, favoring him with a searching, cautious look. “it was better in some ways, worse in others.”

it’s a deliberately vague response, obviously meant to be noncommittal enough to ward him off, but sean was hardly so easy to dissuade. molly was all prim and hoity-toity, as if she were better than the rest’ve ‘em, but she was a dub and sean knew there was some fight in her, somewhere down deep.

“home’s got a fond place in your heart, but no place in the present,” sean says as he nods sagely, and when molly blinks at him with some owlish sort of surprise, he gives a lopsided grin and adjusts the strap of the rifle on his shoulder.

“that was almost poetic,” she tells him, and she sounds warmer now, more human and less pretty doll.

“i’m from rebel stock, miss o’shea,” he points out, “loving ireland’s in my blood; bein’ happy there ain’t.”

there’s a hint of a smile on her face, and though the watery light makes her look paler than she is, she’s still lovely. when sean saw her she was usually all sour-faced, pinched and pursed in some sort of displeasure, beautiful but desperately, horribly unhappy. if only she’d smile a little more, he thought, then she’d have even dutch wrapped ‘round her little finger.

“my brother ran with people like that,” she tells him, and she holds herself looser now, the line of her shoulders softening; more at ease with this shared thread of commonality. “my father would’a called you trouble.”

“ain’t i, though?” sean asks her with an exaggerated wink, and molly laughs sweetly, ducking her head and covering her mouth with a dainty hand. he grins at her, then, rocking back on his heels.

“oh, i’m sure,” molly says with a hint of teasing, “that you’ll prove yourself a pain soon enough, mister macguire.”

Chapter Text

in later years they will not dwell overmuch on those few, dragging months spent together in saint denis, the weeks where arthur was still too sick and weak to do much more than sleep and slouch around albert’s tiny apartment, let alone hop on a train to california. this was the time where they left so much unsaid, like the fact that arthur slept in the bed while albert too the too-short couch, or the way that albert’s face would pinch whenever he opened an envelope from his mother and produced a check alongside a letter.

(he will never admit just how cash-strapped he had been to write to his parents, though he wouldn’t be surprised if arthur knew regardless, clever and observant man he was.)

eventually albert goes back to work with some strained sort of gratefulness, taking up his place in the studio as if he’d never left, and he’s not sure whether to be glad for it or not. he hated the studio, hated being so stationary and photographing the same uninspiring things over and over and over, but money was money and that was something they sorely needed right now.

he is not there every day, which is a blessing, but he’s there often enough to know when a face is new to the neighborhood. the woman that walks into the studio itself is pretty enough, with soft features and her shiny dark hair stylishly pinned, a broach at her throat. but there was something skittish about her, too, like a deer, something flighty and ill-at-ease.

“ma’am,” albert greets with that pleasant voice reserved for customers, polite but distant, “is there something i can help you with today?”

“yes,” the woman says, tearing her gaze away from one of the sets, and her eyes are dark, too, “i’m here to pick up a print. under the name gillis?”

he pauses only a moment, something familiar about the name, but shakes it off. “of course, miss gillis; i’ll only be a moment.”

“linton,” she says, and then stops as if the outburst were accidental. “missus linton.”

“missus linton, then.” she gives him a thin sort of smile in response as he ducks into the darkroom. linton, linton.

a few times, in the deepest throes of his illness, arthur had been delirious and senseless; he’d cursed and cried out, begged forgiveness from some and threatened others. albert didn’t know any of the people arthur had called out to- he knew so very little about the man, really- but there was one name he repeated over and over and over, heartbroken and angry in turns: mary, mary, mary.

who is she? albert had asked once, after the fever had broken and arthur had regained his sense. mary?

and arthur had paused and not looked at him and had been quiet for so long that albert had thought that he wouldn’t answer. missus linton. she... i loved her, once. i think.

arthur hadn’t spoken of her again and albert hadn’t asked any more.

albert tucks the requested print into a folder- the woman posted with a young man, nothing unique or spectacular- and comes back to the counter. as he hands it over, however, he can’t help bus ask, “forgive me for being nosy, but do you know a mister arthur morgan?”

the woman- linton, missus linton, it was really her- stills all at once, and she looks at him with those wide, dark eyes, lips slightly parted in surprised. she looks away quickly, though, and holds the folder to her chest.

“he’s an old friend.” and then, “how do you know him?”

he saved my life, albert wants to say, but he doesn’t. he was dying and he cried for you.

“i’ve been helping him get back on his feet,” is what he says instead, mildly. “he’s been very ill, you see.”

her face creases in concern and albert can’t help but feel just the slightest bit uncharitable towards her, because he’d never seen arthur so wretched and vulnerable as when he talked about her, even if it had only been for a few short moments. he doesn’t know what happened- will probably never know what happened, because arthur had his secrets and albert would never try to pry them from him- but it was obvious that she’d broken that man’s heart in some terrible, lasting way.

and albert, well. maybe albert was just the slightest bit protective.

she sounds alarmed when she asks, “will he be alright? it’s nothing too serious, is it?”

“tuberculosis,” albert says, still in that same pleasant, polite voice, just to watch missus linton’s eyes go wide and her face pale. “he’ll recover, but he’s still very weak.”

“i see.” she hovers a moment, biting her lip as if she were thinking. “will you... give him my best wishes? tell him that he’s in my thoughts?”

maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. if arthur were doing well maybe he’d slip it in slyly, a missus linton came to the studio today, but if it was a bad day, well. arthur wouldn’t hear a peep about it from him. 

“of course,” albert tells her, and she smiles at him, just a little, before stepping out into the street.

Chapter Text

sometimes albert felt as though he lived in a dream. 

in the morning he would afford himself a few lazy moments after waking, luxuriating in the warmth of the blankets and the quiet and the drowsy weight of arthur’s arm slung over him in sleep.

it’s more than albert had ever expected to have. romance, intimacy; in the past it had always been a farce, something to pretend at for a night only to abandon in the thin light of dawn. love wasn’t something that was meant for men like him.

so every morning that he woke to arthur beside him was a wonder, a blessing that he couldn’t quite count. it was a novelty, to go to sleep with someone and to still have them there in the morning, something warm and sweet and tender enough to make something in albert’s chest seize up and tears spring to his eyes.

arthur murmurs something and tightens his arm around albert’s middle, pressing soft, sleepy kisses to the nape of his neck. the scrape of his stubble tickles and albert huffs a laugh and tries to squirm away, feels how arthur’s mouth curls into a smile against his shoulder. it’s comfortable, what they have. it’s good, the best.

love, albert thinks, and there’s still laughter on his face as he struggles to sit up, this is what love is.

arthur tugs at him so he is sitting with his back to the other man’s chest, arthur’s broad, callused palm spread just below his sternum. he takes a deep breath and nuzzles into albert’s hair, brushes the barest hint of a kiss across the shell of his ear.

“i love you,” albert says, and though he’s said it many times before it still feels weighty, important. “you know that, don’t you? i’ve never been able to say that, with anyone else.”

arthur hums, his breath warm on albert’s skin, and idly combs his fingers through the spattering of dark curls on albert’s chest. “i know,” he says, and the words are quiet as if they could be stolen, spoken on a breath that makes albert shiver. “i know.”

Chapter Text

albert had never had any illusions about who or what he was. oh, he’d tried denying it for a while, turning away sharply when he found himself lingering over another man’s hands, biting his lip at the slightest brush of a shoulder. and perhaps it was pathetic but he’d tried so hard to be any other way, to look at a woman and see her as anything more than objectively beautiful, but he’d fallen short every time.

it was something unspoken, between himself and his parents, another brick shoved into the wall of disappointment that had been built between them.

he had stopped trying, after a while, had become exhausted with the farce and simply indulged in his strange passions. it was easy in the city, where word-of-mouth spread like wildfire, to find like-minded individuals; the sex was always decent enough and he’d long since ceased to feel any sort of remorse afterwards, had learned not to feel so sentimental over the lovers that he could never actually love.

but that shame comes roaring back with every small smile he gleans from arthur, every brief brush of fingers or vaguely suggestive word. he thinks that maybe he could love arthur if given half the chance, and he has to stop himself because those are dangerous thoughts. he valued arthur’s friendship enough to mourn him if it were lost.

and that was the most horrible part of it all, wasn’t it? albert would look at arthur and take him his weathered face and his crooked smile, the way his big hands were always so infinitely gentle in whatever task he put them to, and he would begin to ache somewhere deep inside. it was like a hemorrhaging wound: he all but bled affection and found himself unable to stop it.

so albert does little things, things that he could get away with, things that were like slapping a bandage on an open artery. he scolded arthur for the bad way that he talked about himself; compliments rolled off his tongue every other word; he gifted prints of his photos to arthur and hoped that he would think of him fondly.

it was all he could do, really.

because arthur was a good man. he had his quirks and his secrets- albert knew so little about it him but it was plain to see that he’d been running his whole life, living rough, hunted like some wild animal- but he was ultimately a good man, and good men weren’t like albert, didn’t look at other men the way that albert did.

but he could still pretend, sometimes.

“mister mason,” arthur says, and his voice is rough as it always was, but warm, and albert quite likes the way that he says his name. “you’ve got an awful funny way’ve talkin’ about yourself.”

“oh, well,” albert blusters, “it’s not like it all isn’t true.”

and arthur’s eyes are very blue as he stares albert down, very patient. albert has never been very good at reading people and he has never regretted that more than he does now; he’d give just about anything in the world to know what was going through arthur’s mind in that moment. did he only humor him, and agree that he was a fool? or was he earnest? was the softness in his face real and not feigned?

albert couldn’t decide which he would have preferred.

“now, see,” arthur begins, and he settles himself back against the tree he’d been leaning on, but this time his chin doesn’t dip down to his chest as it had earlier, in sleep. “you’re a smart man, with a good head on your shoulders. and you’ve got ambition- a goal, more’n most men can say.”

“that doesn’t mean-” albert starts.

“i weren’t finished,” arthur interrupts, and there’s a gentle sort of firmness in his voice that makes albert’s breath catch. he prays that the burn he feels in his face doesn’t reflect on his skin. “you care, mister mason. you care when you don’t gotta care, and havin’ a heart’s often more important than havin’ a brain. so even if you weren’t smart, it wouldn’t matter, ‘cause you’re kind. see what i’m sayin’?”

there’s a part of albert that feels mutinous at this turn of conversation. in the past their talk had always been superficial, albert talking about his work or some quip about his mother, arthur speaking vaguely about the places he’d been and the people he’d seen. it was easy and uncomplicated; no sort of vulnerability needed.

albert had always known that arthur was more than the image of big, dumb oaf that he’d always put forward, and that arthur war clear here and now as he pried albert open piece by piece. 

“oh, but i always run into things half-cocked,” albert sighs, and it’s not exactly a rebuttal but more a half-hearted resistance, “i’ve rarely got a plan, mister morgan, and even when i do i always seem to fall in over my head regardless.”

arthur barks out a laugh at that, brief, and leans forward to clap his hand companionably on albert’s shoulder. albert does his very best to stay still, to not lean into the contact even a little bit. “ain’t that always how it goes, though?”

and albert laughs, too, just a bit nervously; arthur watches him and lets his hand linger just a beat too long before pulling away.

“it seems to be,” albert says, meeting arthur’s eyes. suddenly the air feels a bit heavier, thicker with something more than just a jibe at his own lack of forethought. “it sure seems to be.”

Chapter Text

there was this sort of veneer of indestructibility that dutch put up for the world, an illusion that he was more than just a man, unstoppable in every way that mattered. and people believed it because it was easier than acknowledging that dutch was fallible, that he was just as flawed and uncertain and human as the rest of them.

hosea had always been able to see through all of that. 

he had known dutch for too long not to. they’d been there together through thick and thin, successes and failures and nightmares and celebrations. dutch had been the one that supported him after bessie died, no matter how much he’d wanted to be left alone in his drunken sort of grief, and hosea had been there to hold him after they’d found annabelle.

it’s for this reason, this familiarity, that hosea feels confident in herding dutch back to bed, a furtive look shared with susan before hosea pulls the canvas flaps of dutch’s tent closed. they’d been planning to hit a caravan of supplies headed to some tiny no-name army camp down southwest, two or three wagons unloaded from trains carrying guns and food and ammunition. it would be just the two of them and arthur, maybe john or javier, and it would be a good haul, a good job. 

but dutch had been vague and distant since that morning, hazy-eyed and absent, and as they day had wore on color had risen high in his cheeks and hosea had watched as he’d leaned on chairs or nearby tables or tent poles to keep from swaying where he stood. normally dutch tried to hide it when he was sick or feeling off, spurred by some sense of machismo or responsibility or both; it must have been bad, then, if he couldn’t even hide these little things.

“get some rest,” hosea tells him, hushed, as dutch all but slumps down on his cot. “you’ll work yourself to death if you keep on like this.”

“the job,” dutch starts, and his voice is rougher than usual, thick with illness. hosea kneels by his side and begins to work on divesting him of his coat and vest, popping buttons and carefully removing rings from his fingers, and dutch doesn’t even protest it. “what about--”

“damn the job,” hosea says firmly, steely, and dutch huffs what might have been a laugh before he dissolves into ugly, wet-sounding coughs. hosea lays his hand across the other man’s forehead, frowning at the warmth he feels before even touching skin. “if we went like this you’d end up getting yourself or someone else killed.”

“we need the money, hosea.”

hosea runs his fingers through dutch’s hair, just once, and meets his eyes without hesitation. he’d never contradicted dutch, not really, had never openly opposed him, but he had always acted as a conscience of sort. a cool voice of reason to temper dutch’s reckless passion.

“there’ll be other money,” he says. “there always is. we’ll survive just fine.”

and dutch catches his hand, brushes his mouth against the inside of hosea’s wrist in the barest hint of a kiss before letting him go. he says, “promise.”

hosea rolls his eyes and nudges dutch over on to his side, clearing himself enough space to perch on the edge of the cot. he settles his hand over dutch’s, tangles their fingers together and squeezes. “i promise. we always turn out alright in the end, dutch.”

Chapter Text

albert mason had always struck arthur as a strange sort of man.

it wasn’t just that he was from albany- though it was a contributor, no doubt, as new yorkers and their speedy words and brisk manner had always felt out of place and nearly foreign to arthur- but rather a whole host of little tics and habits. the man was always moving, twisting his hands or straightening his vest or fiddling with his camera; he laughed when he was nervous, loud and abrupt; he had a stubborn persistence that bordered on madness.

more than any of that, though, was the way that he was always watching. 

at first arthur had thought he’d been mistaken; every time he’d felt eyes on him and glanced back, albert was busy with some other task, seemingly absorbed. but it kept happening, over and over and over, and arthur wasn’t stupid. albert wasn’t particularly subtle, either.

and maybe it was just the way that he looked so dismayed every time arthur caught him glancing away, so dissatisfied and disheartened, but arthur found that he didn’t like it one bit.

he never said anything about it, though, because he liked albert, liked spending time with him, liked the pleased sort of surprise that flickered across the man’s face whenever arthur offered to do something for him, as if no one else in the world had ever done such.  there was just something about the man that made arthur always want to come back ‘round and see him again.

so arthur watched albert pretending not to watch him. and then he started noticing things, like how nice albert’s laugh was or how graceful his hands were, long-fingered and elegant, if hands could be called such things. arthur had never been much of a poet- had never had the interest or understanding- but albert brought to mind all sorts of purple, flowery language that arthur had only ever felt even slightly inclined to as a far younger, more infatuated man.

even if you weren’t smart, it wouldn’t matter, arthur says and albert flusters, trying to brush away the compliment, the thought that someone may have some positive thought about him. it wouldn’t matter, ‘cause you’re kind.

they part because they always do, no matter how much arthur wants to linger; but he had jobs to do and people to take care of, people that depend on him, and albert’s muses are always roaming and moving. they met again, as always, only half by accident

“i’ve got somethin’ for you,” arthur says without preamble, because he still keeps that print of the wolves tucked into his journal, the edges now soft and tatty from how many times he’s pulled it out to look at it. he’s never shown anyone his art before, not willingly, not since he’d been sixteen and scribbling under dutch’s watchful eye. “here”

it’s just a piece of paper, torn out of his journal with smudged thumbprints on the edges, but sketched across the surface is captured the way that arthur always sees albert when called to mind: smiling and in profile, his hands resting loosely on his camera, some vague, breathless awe in his face as he looks out of the landscape. it’s not the best piece of art, arthur knows that, and he’s never been quite as good at drawing people as he was at drawing places or plants or animals, but he’d worked with it until his hands had cramped and them just a little bit more.

it had to be as perfect as he could make it, if he was going to part with it.

albert just stares for a long moment, the page held in his hands like something delicate and fragile, and anxiety crawls its way up arthur’s spine with each heartbeat that drags on. finally, he allows, “you don’t gotta say nothin’.”

“oh, no, i,” albert starts, and then seems to shake himself, lifting his gaze from the picture to arthur’s face. his expression is open, all wide-eyed and stunned. “arthur, did you draw this?”

and arthur ducks his head, pulls his hat down just a bit so the brim shadows his face from view. “it ain’t museum-worthy, but i figured i oughta return the favor. for the- the wolves, y’know.”

there’s a stretch of quiet and arthur can’t make himself look, doesn’t wan’t to look, but then albert is right there, knocking his hat away and pressing his hand to his cheek, his mouth soft and warm pressed against arthur’s. and, oh, arthur breathes in sharp through his nose, startled and freezes- because what else was he meant to do? he hadn’t let himself have this, it had never worked well in the past; men like him, bad men, weren’t the type to be cared for- but when albert begins to pull away he catches the other man and pulls him back, his hands cupping his jaw, kisses him properly.

it’s good, how albert seems to melt against him with a sigh, parting his lips just a little. it’s sweet and unhurried, pleasant, and entirely different than kissing a woman; albert’s beard rubs against arthur’s skin and he’s taller, of course, feels differently in arthur’s hands, but they fit all the same.

“you are full of surprises, arthur morgan,” albert tells him between kisses, soft, closed-mouth things that he peppers across arthur’s face, his cheeks and his chin and the bridge of his nose, along his jaw and across his mouth and pressed at the corners of his lips. “always managing to send me head over heels like a fool.”

“you ain’t so foolish,” arthur says, leaning back just enough to pluck the drawing from where it was being crumpled in albert’s hand, folding it in neat creases and handing it back. albert huffs and tucks it into his breast pocket, but there’s a smile on his face, the same sort he gets after arthur helps him to wrangle this or that animal. “just a bit obvious, is all.”

and albert pauses, several things flashing across his face as his cheeks flush, expression settling on resigned. “and here i had thought i was being sneaky.”

Chapter Text

as they ride, albert tallies up the losses in his head: his equipment, the two changes of clothes he’d brought, his camera, his horse. 

it was that last that stung the most, though the camera may have been a close second. he’d grown fond of that horse, a grumpy old nag that he’d bought for a few dollars not long after his train had first rolled into saint denis. he’d not even had a chance to say goodbye; as soon as the shooting had started, arthur had been on his horse and was pulling albert up behind him.

now, it would have been ideal if not for all the danger. he had his arms wrapped tight ‘round arthur’s middle, his cheek pressed against arthur’s back; he could feel the shift of his muscles, his heartbeat, could feel the faintest rattle when he breathed in deep. it was like something straight out of albert’s dreams.

but they had been shot at, and albert was making himself as small as possible to avoid being lashed by any stray branches as arthur’s sturdy ardennes shot like a bullet through the undergrowth. he’d had a breath as they raced through the countryside near rhodes, the gently rolling hills and red dirt less dense than the swamp, but as they approached the shores of flat iron lake arthur had pulled them back into the trees.

someone shouts, at a distance but near enough to be heard, and albert’s heart stutters in his chest for a moment, convinced that they’d be in the thick of it again; but arthur hollers back, and albert would have sworn his voice rumbled down to his bones. “it’s arthur, you dumbass!”

arthur tugs the reigns and they low to a trot as the trees open up into a clearing filled with tents, looking out on to the lake. albert spares a moment to feel sorry for the poor horse as it snorts and heaves before arthur loops the reigns loosely over a hitch and slides to the ground, easy, and not nearly as stiff as albert was sure to be.

“c’mon, now,” arthur says, and he’s as gruff as ever, but there’s a crease of worry between his brows that albert prides himself on reading. “lets get you looked at, mister mason.”

arthur’s hands are warm and albert chooses to focus on that rather than the bright, lancing pain that blooms from the dull ache in his ribs, but something that’s half-gasp and half-whimper rises to his mouth regardless. he’s not as good at hiding it as he’d hoped, because he can feel arthur’s grip on him tighten for just a moment before loosening again.

“i must say, mister morgan,” albert says, voice shaking as he’s led… somewhere. he’s not quite sure where arthur’s taken him, to be honest, but he’s settled to sit on a cot and even though the jostling makes the pain flare up again, it’s good not to be standing. “i don’t believe i’ve ever been shot before.”

“and let’s hope it don’t happen again,” arthur huffs. he lingers a moment, his hands just hovering awkwardly, before he turns to the woman that had bustled after them nearly as soon as arthur had pulled him from the horse. “bullet went clean through, did the best i could to patch it up ‘til we got here. miss grimshaw, your stitches’ve always been cleaner’n mine. could you…?”

“and you didn’t think to go to a doctor?” the woman- miss grimshaw, then- scoffs and waves him off with a stern look, but she’s already appraising albert with a critical eye by the time she says, “go get me some water, hot if you can, and a needle and thread.”

and then she tells albert, “you’ll need that shirt off if you’re expectin’ me to sew you up.”

albert hesitates, just for a moment, but it’s long enough for miss grimshaw to roll her eyes and give a long suffering sigh, pushing at his shoulder so he lies back on the cot, perching beside him as she works deftly first at the buttons on his vest, then on his shirt. not that it matters, because he was very sure that he couldn’t move his right arm without pain anyway, but the embarrassment is there regardless.

“here we are,” comes arthur’s voice, and albert glances over as he sets a bowl down on the table nearby, and then hands over what looks to be a needle but may also be a bent fish hook. “warm water’s best i could do, but i’ve got pearson watchin’ the kettle right now.”

up until then albert had done a very good job of ignoring the blood, had tried his best not to look at the hand that had been covered in it from a lousy attempt at staunching the wound. see, the thing was that he’d never been good at handling blood, let alone his own, and the thought of that needle threading through his skin made him feel simultaneously queasy and light-headed.

“drink this, mister mason,” arthur says, helping albert to lean up on one elbow and lifting a bottle to his mouth. “it’ll help with the pain.”

it’s whiskey because of course it is, and albert sputters at first, as taken back by the initial burn as he always is; but he manages to swallow a few mouthfuls with little more than a grimace and a hiss as he lowers himself back down, and arthur seems almost impressed. the thought makes albert feel warm down deep in the pit of his stomach, but maybe that was just the alcohol.

and then arthur offers up a belt from somewhere, which albert takes with only a little trepidation and holds between his teeth.

“clean it out, arthur,” miss grimshaw commands as she holds the needle over flame, and arthur rolls his eyes but reaches for the flannel he’d brought and wrings it out over the bowl. his touch is gentle, infinitely so, as he dabs lightly along albert’s side, around the wound tucked between his hip and the bottom of his ribs. 

and then he pours the whiskey over it, and logically albert knows that this was a sound practice, sterilizing to prevent infection, but it burns, hurts perhaps more than being shot in the first place had. he bites down hard on the belt, digs his teeth into the leather, and manages to choke back the shout that had risen in his throat down to a whimper. once the worst of his has passed he pulls the belt away to draw in a deep breath, just for a moment.

“i may faint,” albert warns in a wavering and breaking voice, half serious, as miss grimshaw rounds on him with the needle, threaded with catgut. the woman herself scowls, hardly in good humor, but arthur snorts as albert wedges the leather back in his mouth.

the anticipation was always the worst, he thinks, and he squeezes his eyes shut, measures the thick breaths he drags in through his nose and listens as miss grimshaw draws near with the needle. he does, in the end, indeed faint, maybe even before the first stitch is finished. 


 

it couldn’t have too long after when albert blinks his eyes open, but it’s dark even though they’d arrived no later than midday, if not a little later. he was still in the same cot he’d been laid in earlier, a scratchy blanket pulled up to his chin; the darkness, he found, was owed to the sheets of canvas that had been rolled down to offer some sense of privacy.

the pain is still there, though when albert peels back the blanket he finds gauze bandages wrapped neatly around his middle, holding a wad of cotton to the wound. it hurts to sit up, but albert hauls himself up, legs stretched out in front of him. someone had removed his boots, too, and set them neatly beside the cot.

the light that pooled past the canvas was the gold of evening, and albert looks around; it was clearly someone’s living space, littered with personal effects. he peers at the photo pinned to the wagon that served as a wall: a dog, a mugshot, and then a portrait of three men posed together.

he didn’t know who the two other men were but one was plainly arthur, younger and leaner, clean-shaven though he was. albert can’t help but be charmed; this arthur posed with the cockiness that came natural to young men, leaning forward in his chair, a cigarette dangling from his fingers as he stared straight into the camera.

a smile twitches at his mouth. the arthur that albert knew may not have the same arrogant pride, but he was certainly just as bold.

“…your mister mason,” a voice outside the tent says, an unmistakable derisive lilt to the words. “he’s a liability, arthur. he’s gonna put us all in danger. your mary girl didn’t bring the law down on us back then, but we ain’t gonna be so lucky twice.”

the crunching of footsteps on grass pause, coming to a stop nearby, and albert holds his breath. arthur’s voice responds, frustrated, “he ain’t like that, he’s good people.”

there’s a beat of silence, a moment that feels like it stretches on forever, before arthur continues, quieter, more intense. “i trust him, dutch, trust me on that.”

albert can’t see their faces to gauge their expressions but albert can nearly feel the contemplative silence, the thoughtful look he may have been favoring arthur with, the way arthur’d stand stubborn in his resolve.

“for now,” is all the man, dutch, says before albert can hear his footsteps walking away.

arthur sighs and twitches open the tent flap, slipping inside and freezing when he sees albert sitting up. the surprise is only there for half a second though before it’s overtaken by that gruff concern, a tightening at the corners of his mouth in a way that made albert desperately want to wipe away the worry lines from his face.

“you’re up,” is the first thing arthur says to him, belated.

“i’m up,” albert agrees, and then he hesitates. “i won’t… i won’t turn you in, you know. any of you. i don’t even know anyone here besides you, mister morgan.”

“i know,” arthur says, “that’s what i told dutch.”

they lapse into silence then, awkward, and albert is keenly aware of several things: that his shirt was gone and someone had cleaned away all the blood, that the bed he was in must have been arthur’s, and that he desperately wanted a drink. he was tired, and he was in pain, and there was an uncomfortable twist in his gut that he tried desperately to beat back.

“it’d be bad form, regardless,” albert continues, looking away and picking at the blanket. “if nothing else my mother taught me good manners, and repaying the kindness you’ve all shown me would be terribly impolite and outright ungrateful, and i’ve never been that type of man, you know…”

“mister mason,” arthur says abruptly, and when albert glances up he finds that arthur’s straightened from his uncomfortable sort of slouch and though the worry is still there in his face it’s sharper, colored darker with some other emotion. “mister mason, you just about died. you got shot.”

and albert blinks at him, a bit taken aback. he was used to being interrupted and talked over, but he wasn’t sure quite where arthur was going with this. “yes, well. i gather from the speed that your miss grimshaw responded that that’s not exactly an uncommon occurrence around here.”

it’s arthur that looks away this time, working his jaw as if he were chewing over his words. “you go wanderin’ out there in the wild just for the love’ve it, leavin’ yourself at the mercy of anyone’n everyone, and you don’t even know how to shoot a gun.”

“yes?”

“i think you’re just about the biggest fool i’ve ever met.”

albert doesn’t recoil, not exactly, but it’s a close thing. the hurt is sharp and cutting and he tells himself that he doesn’t know why, doesn’t know why such a mild rebuke hurts so much, why it feels almost like a betrayal. the arthur that he knew was kind, if a bit rough around the edges, slyly humorous and quietly indulgent, not this creature before him, tightly constrained and controlled, nearly angry.

“that’s an awfully bold accusation, you know.”

“it’s true,” arthur insists, “you ain’t got no care for your own life, like it wouldn’t matter one way or ‘nother if you got eaten by a gator or robbed by some bastards like those lemoyne raiders out there.”

“well, it wouldn’t.” albert wasn’t wholly sure of why arthur was so worked up about this; he himself must have been shot any number of times, and in far more dire straits. “i’m not anything special, mister morgan. it would be unfortunate, of course, and i’ve no particular death wish, but that’s a risk i’ve chosen to take.”

“you really think some pictures are worth dyin’ for?”

gently, gently, albert says, “we’ve all got our causes, arthur. that’s mine, and it’s my choice.”

“you got,” arthur says, then breaks off with a frustrated sigh. “you got a family, don’tcha? people that care for you? parents, brothers, sisters- hell, a wife, maybe, i dunno. someone else can go out and get those pictures. it don’t have to be you.”

“you really don’t know me at all, do you?” albert’s smile is humorless; he thinks that maybe he would have been better off if arthur had just dragged his sorry self to rhodes and dumped him on the doctor’s doorstep. “no, it doesn’t have to be me, but i want it to be.”

arthur makes an exasperated noise and looks like he wants to throw his hands in the air, like he wants to turn around and storm away. “i ain’t always gonna be there to save your skin, y’know.”

“i never asked you to be,” albert fires back immediately. his hands are curled tightly in the blanket; his choices weren’t arthur’s to define or control, no matter how good of friends they may have been. “why do you care so much, mister morgan, if all i seem to do is inconvenience you?”

he doesn’t like to think of himself like that, as a burden, but it looked as if that was how arthur viewed him. and it stung to know that, to know that while he had believed arthur his friend and had enjoyed his company, arthur had only ever stuck around to keep him from getting himself killed. 

albert was no child to need watching over. he could take care of himself. 

arthur’s expression is tight, though, conflicted, like he has things to say but doesn’t quite know how to say them. he rubs his hands over his face then settles one on his hip, dragging the other through his hair. albert takes pity on him and pats the edge of the cot; arthur eyes him critically for a moment before taking the spot, carefully, carefully leaving an inch or two between them.

it’s a long time before he talks.

“i ain’t a good man, mister mason,” he says eventually, slowly, almost sad; his shoulders are curled inwards and he does not look at albert. “i don’t know how i’m gonna die, or when or where, but i know i ain’t long for this world; there’s just no place for folks like me, not anymore. but you… mister mason, albert, you got a whole life your there for you.”

he pauses, and albert holds his breath. his voice is quieter, this time. 

“i help you out ‘cause it’s somethin’ i can do that ain’t killin’ or robbin’ or beatin’ a man half-dead for a few dollars. i ain’t done much good in my life, but with you… with you, i feel like i could.”

the arthur that albert knows was already a good man. reticent and secretive and gruff, maybe, but good, overwhelmingly so. albert often teased and called him a gentleman because arthur was the antithesis of the prim and proper, outwardly-chivalrous city-dweller, but he was kind in his own way, and honorable, and albert had always looked forward to when they might meet again. 

“oh, arthur,” albert says, the anger and irritation gone from his tone. he hesitates only for a moment before laying a hand over arthur’s shoulder. the rest of his thoughts stick in his throat when arthur covers his hand with his own.

“you make me wanna be better, mister mason.” the words sound like pulling teeth for all the difficulty arthur has getting them out. “if i can pay that back by keepin’ you safe, then i’ll do it.”

“arthur,” albert says again, a touch louder. “you are the kindest, most thoughtful, accommodating, thick-headed, oblivious-”

“hey now,” arthur protests as he glances back over his shoulder, fingers tightening over albert’s.

“-stubborn man i have ever had the blessing to meet, and i would very much like to kiss you right now.”

it’s a daring thing to say and it hangs in the air between them like that, heavy and unexpected, and arthur turns to face him for fully. his expression is very serious and albert’s heart kicks up a staccato rhythm between his ribs; there’s a fear, there, that he had crossed some uncrossable line, that he had asked for too much.

but arthur just looks at him and his eyes are very, very blue. he says, “is that so?”

as a child albert’s parents had once taken he and his sister to go see a circus. there had been all sort of magnificent acts, fire-breathers and lion-tamers and sharpshooters, but he thinks now of the tightrope walkers, carefully, perilously balancing one foot in front of the other lest a single wrong move end it all. 

he says, “it is.”

it is arthur that moves first, leaning in slowly, slowly, until albert grabs at his collar and pulls him in. the kiss itself is closed-mouthed and clumsy; arthur doesn’t quite seem to know where to put his hands but albert near melts when the outlaw settles his palm flat against his chest, fingertips lightly stroking the dark curls of hair there. they find a rhythm eventually, slow and sweet, but when albert tries to push for more arthur stops him with a firm hand against his sternum.

“you got shot,” arthur says, close enough still that albert can feel his lips moving as he speaks.

“i’m better now,” he insists, and arthur huffs out a quiet laugh and kisses him again.

Chapter Text

“how did you do it?”

hosea glances up from his paper; lenny was leaning against the table beside him, a frown on his face. “do what?”

“you taught arthur how to read, right?” the young man sounds frustrated, but when he looks to hosea his expression is earnest, searching. “he told me. john, too. how’d you do it?” 

hosea had made it a rule of thumb to be suspicious of anyone that dutch brought on, at least for a little while. the man himself hadn’t always shown himself to be the best judge of character; they’d gotten burned more than a few times by people dutch had insisted he’d seen promise in. and when he’d brought lenny to camp- seventeen years old and nervous, all hunched shoulders and quick, distrustful yes- hosea’d been skeptical. but he wasn’t fool enough to bow to his pride, not refuse to admit that he was wrong, and he had been wrong, with lenny at least. the boy was smart, clever, willing to learn, and most of all he was able to keep a cool head. hosea respected that.

“well, it takes time, mostly,” hosea says, and he draws it out on a long sigh as he folds the paper, leans back in his chair, “it wasn’t easy, with those two- stubborn as mules and not half as patient. but i’ve heard you arguing evelyn miller with dutch, mister summers. why’re you asking?”

“oh, it’s not for me, i,” lenny starts, then stops, his expression just a touch embarrassed. he slouches a little and glances away, rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “sean asked me to teach him. he wanted to learn.”

no wonder the boy was struggling, then. sean macguire was possibly just about the most restless man hosea’d ever met; if it weren’t fighting or drinking or some other rowdy pursuit, he’d not be caught sitting still for more than five minutes. he was worse than jack, really, and jack was four years old.

“you’ve gotta make it interesting, first,” is what hosea tells him, and lenny soaks the information up like a sponge, eager for the direction. “change it from something necessary to something enjoyable. our mister macguire’s the type that won’t do something if it’s boring, or a chore. what’ve you been using to teach him?”

“newspapers, mostly,” lenny responds with a shrug. “it don’t got much else. he’s good at recognizing letters, but not always the sounds they make in a word. better than i would have thought, though. sean’s... well, you know.”

“if he was stupid, he’d be dead,” hosea reminds. “but yes, i know. listen, i got john and arthur started on these mystery novels i used to read, i think i still got them in a box somewhere. not sure if that’s something that he’d like, but they’re a fair sight better than newspapers.”

and lenny’s face brightens, a smile tugging at his mouth, eyes crinkling at the corners. he looks young, terribly so, and for a brief, brief moment hosea feels a flash of guilt; this life, the sort that they lived, it wasn’t a life for children.

“you’d let me use those? really?”

he waves a hand, dismissive, but hosea can feel a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, as well. looking at lenny was almost like looking back in time: he had the same sort of energy arthur’d had when he was younger, quick-thinking and clever and good-hearted. maybe not as rough around the edges, or as hot-headed, but those could only count in his favor.

“oh i’ll dig them up later,” hosea tells him. “there’s only a few, but i haven’t read them in years. you’ll have more use for them than me, mister summers, i’m sure.”

Chapter Text

he was, god, what, fifteen? sixteen? all he remembered was that he’d been young, the first time he’d killed a man. his fingers had felt like jelly, limp, and his arms had been shaking so hard it was a miracle he’d hit anything at all.

the gun had felt slippery in his sweaty hands, and he’d pulled the trigger.

there had been a loud noise- bang!- like a thunderclap, and arthur’d squeezed his eyes shut at the sound; when he opened his eyes he smelled gunpowder and there, on the ground, was the man that’d been staggering towards him with a knife, now still and unmoving. there was a commotion inside the saloon, too, shouting and alarm, and arthur had fumbled to slide the gun back into the holster strapped at his belt and ran.

(there’d been a detour before he’d reached his horse, had stumbled behind a tree and emptied his stomach ‘til he was coughing up nothing but bile, burning his throat, insides twisting nauseously.)

he’d not been able to sleep much that night; every time he closed his eyes he’d just see it all again, the man on the ground, the blood seeping into the dirt, the smell of gunpowder. he hadn’t said anything about it at all, but hosea looked at him like he knew, and dutch kept giving him these expectant, almost pitying looks. he’d not sleep well again for weeks. 

on the nights where the nightmares woke him and made it unbearable to lay still, to stay in his own bed, he’d wander out to the fire in the middle of their small camp, sometimes blazing and sometimes little more than smoldering embers. and sometimes, too, dutch would be there, and he’d wave arthur over to sit beside him.

“c’mere, son,” he’d say, and then he’d gesture towards the fire with a pencil in his hand, “want some coffee?”

“you ain’t my dad,” arthur would grumble, but every time he’d scoot forward to pour himself a cup.

and one night, dutch says to him, “you ever think about learnin’ to draw, arthur?”

arthur slants him a suspicious look, hunched over he coffee but not drinking it, not yet, the warm tin cup cradled in his hands like something precious. “nah. when d’you think i’d ever have the time for that?”

see, the thing was that he’d learned that dutch just had this way about him, oozed charm in spades. for a while arthur’d looked at dutch as something to aspire to: he was handsome, in his way, and clever, and educated. for a while arthur thought he’d been wasting his time as an outlaw until he saw just how good dutch was at it.

“it helps, some nights.” it was the most honest arthur’d ever seen him, open, the flickering fire casting strange shadows across his face. he wasn’t looking at arthur at all. “to get your thoughts out there on paper, instead of in your head.”

dutch opens his sketch pad and tilts it so arthur could see, and arthur drinks in the sight, every curve of every line pressed into the paper by dutch’s pencil. it was hosea, rendered in graphite, ankle crossed over one knee and hat pulled down over his face as he dozed against a tree. he’d seen those street artists that do quick caricatures for a few pennies, or heard of great and famous painters with their canvases hung in galleries, but art had never been something done for pleasure, not to him. arthur looks up at dutch, sharp, determined.

“teach me,” he demands, and dutch grins.

Chapter Text

it happened faster than you could blink.

arthur doesn’t understand albert’s fascination with the wild hogs down through strawberry fields, because really they were just pigs, but he indulges him because the joy that lights albert’s face when he captures the perfect shot is warm and gratifying and something precious. and arthur enjoyed it too, lending a hand and helping out, welcomed these moments when he wasn’t off running jobs that seemed more and more pointless every time.

“you takin’ pictures for bacon advertisements now?” arthur asks, striking a match on the sole of his boot and lighting the cigarette he holds between his teeth. “before an’ after?”

albert scoffs as he fiddles with his camera, tightening something on the tripod and straightening the lens, not bothering to even look up at arthur. “my dear mister morgan,” he says, intentionally insufferable, “you’re insulting me if you think that’s what my work should be used for.”

arthur laughs, low and warm, and albert favors him with a sunny smile.

it’s this idle chatter, this distraction, that draws his attention away from the bushes. the long grass rustles and arthur’s laugh cuts abruptly, his head snapping towards the sound, but it’s too late and to boar is already charging. later on he will try not to think too much on how his first instinct wasn’t to ready the rifle he’d been holding loosely, but rather to keep albert safe.

he lunges forward, driving his shoulder into the other man’s gut and propelling them both backwards, out of the boar’s path, the creature grunting and snuffling as it readies another charge. he turns over quick, still on the ground but with his gun held more securely, and fires in succession- one, two, three shells, right into the boar’s skull in a spray of red, red blood. it collapses easily, dead.

in reality it only lasts a few seconds, but those sparse moments had stretched far longer. arthur sits up and presses a hand to his chest, feels his heart beating fast, breathless; he’d skinned his elbows as he skidded over the dirt, but he’d suffered worse. it could have been worse, too, he knows.

and albert, he’s still on the ground flat on his back, his hat knocked away, sucking in deep, shaky breaths. arthur crouches by him and puts a hand on his shoulder, shakes a little- albert’s eyes spring open, wide and alarmed. his gaze focuses on arthur, but he winces when he tries to sit up too fast, and instead settles himself on his back.

“what- did that,” he wheezes, and arthur gives his shoulder a pat and rocks back to sit on his heels. “hog?”

“sure was,” arthur drawls, but his eyes are keen as he looks albert over. there was no blood, nothing major, but he’d gotten the breath knocked out of him and probably thumped his head when he hit the ground. “you alright?”

“ow,” albert groans. the outlaw snorts and drops himself to the ground, groping around his pockets for another cigarette only to come up empty-handed. albert breathes in deep, slower, and after a moment, says, “why is it, mister morgan, that only with you do beasts seem to think me a fine target?”

“aw, mister mason.” a smile twitches at arthur’s mouth. “it ain’t nothin’ you’re doin’. i just make a better meal, is all.”

and it’s albert’s turn to laugh then, breathless, though it tapers into a pained grunt. “well, that’s one way to put it, i suppose.”

Chapter Text

albert had never thought he’d end up here.

he’d never put much thought into how he’d spend his life beyond the immediate, beyond the next week, month, year. he’d never allowed himself the pleasure of planning for the long-term. a part of him had almost always believed that eventually he’d set aside his camera and his adventuring and return to albany; at thirty-something years old he’d take a job in his father’s business, marry some poor woman, and live his life in a loveless marriage with little enough joy.

but instead he was here, up up up in the grizzlies where only a handful of people scraped out meager livings, and he was happy for it.

these thoughts come to him one evening, swaying with charlotte after dinner to whatever tune the gramophone rattles out. they’re barefoot the both of them, he in shirtsleeves with his suspenders hanging loose and she with her hair half-unpinned, arthur watching them from the table with an air of amusement about him.

most importantly, albert was happy. 

“left, right, forward, twirl,” charlotte murmurs the steps to herself, little more than a whisper, and as albert spins her she laughs, loud and warm as the track ends and the spindle jumps, leaving the two of them bright-eyed and breathing hard, grins on their faces, her left hand clasped in his right.

and when albert glances over at arthur, close enough to reach out and touch in the small main room of charlotte’s- of their cabin, there is something soft and heartbreakingly tender in his expression and albert aches with it. he squeezes charlotte’s fingers and holds his free hand out to arthur.

“come here, mister morgan,” he says.

arthur huffs and rolls their eyes because really, there was no place for formalities here, even if it’s become more an endearment than anything. but he takes albert’s hand regardless and pulls himself up, the three of them standing there together silent for a bare moment.

“if you’re lookin’ to dance,” arthur tells him dryly, “you ain’t gonna find a good time in me.”

a smile steals across charlotte’s face, quick and mischievous, he pale eyes catching the dim light. she takes arthur’s other hand, pulling the circle of their arms closed. once he may have felt out of place among them, city folk as they were, but here, now, in a quiet little cabin in the mountains, arthur can’t think of a place he’d rather be.

Chapter Text

arthur found it hard to be around jack, sometimes.

it was nothing to do with the boy himself, of course; jack was sweet-natured and easy to manage, more than one could ask for in a little boy. he smiled brightly and kept his manners and always seemed pleased when arthur came ‘round, chiming out a delighted uncle arthur! and clamoring for the candies that arthur would always inevitably buy for him.

it hurt, sometimes worse than a knife between the ribs.

it’d come and go, striking at unexpected times. he’d be fine one moment, breathing easy, and then he’d glance up and catch sight of the boy and he’d be struck with a furious storm of guilt and regret and anger and a deep, deep sadness that he had no right to feel.

“you’d be a good daddy, arthur,” abigail says to him once, watching him with jack tucked against him, asleep. her expression was soft, affectionate, but there was bitterness there, too.

arthur huffs something that he thinks was supposed to be a laugh, humorless. he holds jack closer. “wasn’t much’ve one when i’d had the chance.”

to abigail’s credit she doesn’t look away; she meets his eyes steady and unflinching, something of an apology about her face. “i’m sorry, arthur.”

and maybe that was why he was so angry at john all the time, why it never went away, because john had what arthur’d lost and he seemed to be doing the best to throw it all away. a son and a woman who loved him, a family, and every sneer and unkind word just made arthur angrier.

he did his best with jack, even when the pain gnawed at him, and he tried not to see isaac every time he looked at the boy. awkward though he was he spoke gently to him, and told him stories and brought back candies and chocolate, and when jack came to him, bright-faced and joyful with a flower clutched in his dirty hand, arthur would take the gift gingerly and carefully press the petals in between pages in his journal.

“you’re a good boy, jackie,” arthur tells him, watching as he made daisy chains from where he leaned against a tree. “you keep your nose clean and promise to look after your mamma, hear me?”

jack wrinkles his nose but he laughs and tries to squirm away when arthur reaches for him and drags him closer, fingers tickling at his ribs. sprawled in the grass, afterwards, just out of reach and with a grin still on his face, he says, “i promise, uncle arthur.”

Chapter Text

he was eleven years old when his mother had bundled him up one night and on to a ship without so much as a by-your-leave.

he’d learnt later that it was all ‘cause his da were running from the noose, the law hounding his steps for being just a bit too much the rebel, just a bit too much in love with the idea of an ireland that stood on her own. so they’d smuggled themselves out of the country to save his skin, all these grand, unfulfilled plans to return home in some months, once things had quieted down and all.

neither of his parents would ever live to see it again, and sean found he weren’t nearly as torn up about it as he should have been.

at some point his ma had started sewing his skirts into trousers because it was more valuable in new york to have a son than to have a daughter, a boy who could get work doing all sorts of odd jobs for just a bit of money, and it was money that they sorely needed. they’d come to america with nothing more than a few changes of clothing; there’d been no time or thought spared to collect what little jewelry his mother kept, or the money his father had squirreled away. they’d escaped with their lives, all of them, and that was enough.

but darragh macguire never could quite keep himself out of trouble, and so he took all of that angry, restless, fighting energy and fell in with the whyos and was hanged in, oh, ‘88, when sean’d been little more than thirteen years old. his ma, dear maggie, died sick and festering a little over a year or two later and sean, all of fifteen and still acting the boy, threw himself into five points before cutting it west.

those were strange, nebulous years, stuck somewhere between boy and girl, man and woman. he cut his hair short and wore trousers and drank and cursed and spat with the best of the boys, but his monthlies still came without fail and in his dreams he could still feel his mother’s fingers combing through his long hair, her voice calling him her sweet girl.

it was hard, reconciling the before and after, but he did it. he did it because he knew he’d never be happy with himself if he didn’t; that was then and this was now, and they were both him, even if they were different people.

sean macguire wasn’t a little girl, and it’d be impossible to think him one. he wouldn’t make a pretty woman: he’d gotten scars from knife fights, his hands calloused, knuckles swollen from brawling. he let his hair grow out a little; he was a roaring type of drunk, and his nose was a bit crooked from when he’d not been able to set it right after a fight, and his clothes were always in disarray. he made a poor sort of woman, but a very typical scoundrel. if he was careful, no one’d ever find out.

and he was very, very careful.

but, eventually, that little girl that’d been hurried on to a ship in the dead of night stopped existing. everyone that’d known him before was either dead or forgotten, and the only person who what he’d once been was sean himself, and that was exactly how he wanted to keep it.

Chapter Text

“that’s my horse.”

it comes out more incredulous than he’d intended, reedy and colored by disbelief, rather than the authoritative tone he’d meant to take. still, the gun in his hand and the unwavering way that he holds it is something that people rarely question.

the young man pauses regardless of hosea’s less-than-desirable confrontation, one foot in the stirrup and poised to swing himself up into the saddle. it’s dark, dark enough that hosea can scarcely make out his features, but enough to know that he was tall. hosea’s horse (a mustang that, in truth, he’d stolen and had intended to sell, but grew rather fond of) snorts and whickers and shifts nervously.

“so it is,” the stranger says slowly, cautiously standing straight and putting his hands up. the light seeping between the shutters of the saloon catches his face, casting shadows.

he wasn’t particularly handsome, this man, but even from a glance there was something striking about him nonetheless,  though hosea couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly it was. still, he lowers his gun slightly when its obvious the man wasn’t making to grab at the pistol he himself had holstered on his belt.

“you are trying to steal my horse,” hosea says, and there’s still that vague sense of disbelief. oh, he’d been robbed before, of course; as little more than a boy when he’d first tried striking out on his own, held at knifepoint for a few cents. but it hadn’t happened for a long while.

“yes,” the man says, and his voice is calm and even, perhaps even pleasant. amiable. “would you believe me if i said i was just borrowing it?”

of course not; he’d be a fool to do so, and they both knew it. 

hosea’s mouth twitches, just slightly, like he wanted to smile. the man sounded young, his tone cheeky even with a gun pointed at him, and that at least was almost admirable. he says, “tell my why i shouldn’t just shoot you dead right here, or worse, bring the law down on your poor head.”

“what?”

“convince me.”

the stranger just watches him for a moment, perhaps surprised, before his posture loosens into something more casual, more relaxed. a mistake maybe, but hosea holsters his pistol and moves to take the horse’s reigns.

“well,” the man begins, tucking his hands into his pockets. his expression is mild but he watches every move hosea makes like a hawk. “you’re not so cold-hearted as to shoot a kid, mister, even though you look a bit shifty yourself.”

kid. the man had to be at least twenty, and a good half-foot taller than hosea’s five-feet-eight-inches to boot. still though, he was mostly correct, even if hosea’d never admit it. he was a conman, a huckster even, but he’d never had it in him to be cruel.

“i could kill you and not even bat an eye,” hosea says amiably, swinging himself up into the saddle. the horse huffs and shifts under him. “i’ve done more for less.”

despite the threat the young man looks pleased in the dim light. there’s drunken shouting from inside the saloon and then raucous laughter, but neither of them flinch. sizing each other up, now that was something familiar; assessing a potential threat, and the man was as keen-eyed and cautious as any criminal hosea’d worth his salt.

hosea asks, “what’s your name, kid?”

“dutch,” he says, but only after a pause, the barest hint of hesitation telling hosea more than what was said. a fake name, then. “dutch van der linde.”

it was unwieldy, seeming more a title than a name, but who was hosea to judge? men came west for fame or money or to disappear, and he was no different. it wasn’t his place to pass an opinion on what this stranger called himself.

“well, dutch van der linde,” hosea says, rolling the words around his mouth. “when’s the last time you had a hot meal?”

Chapter Text

despite his clumsiness, his flightiness, albert was no fool.

he knew that’s what some thought of him. they saw his passion as a reckless, thoughtless thing, saw eagerness as stupidity. he had dealt with people like that his whole life; his father thought him ridiculous, and his mother called it naivety.

and as he was no fool, albert never missed the way that arthur looked at him now, when he thought that albert wasn’t looking.

oh, arthur had always had a surliness about him, an almost charming sort of reticence when the object of kindness. but he’d smiled, too, at least sometimes. and he’d been beautiful with it, or he was in albert’s eyes, the way his nose crinkled and the way he got all squinty-eyed. often he’d duck his head and pull his hat down to hide it; it just made albert want all the more to kiss him.

but now, well. now, arthur looked at him like he was something he’d lost.  

albert knew he’d been sick. he’d not missed the way arthur had looked more and more sallow each time they’d seen each other, hadn’t missed his coughing or his breathlessness. only a blind man would be unable to see that arthur was ill, and maybe not even then.

“i can hear you thinkin’,” arthur murmurs from behind him, his face pressed to albert’s shoulder blades. they are curled in the too-small bed in albert’s too-small apartment, pressed back-to-front.

albert covers the hand arthur has splayed across his stomach, squeezing briefly. they were so different, the two of them- that could be seen in their hands, arthur’s rough and callused and sun-browned, and albert’s slim and soft and pale from a life of easy-living. he says, “just daydreaming, is all.”

arthur hums, still stuck in that dreamy, indistinct place between sleeping and wakefulness. “’bout what?”

“oh,” albert says, turning in arthur’s arms to watch the way the watery morning sunlight spills through the window to catch on the gold in arthur’s hair, the lovely blue of his eyes when he squints one open. but his face was still hollowed and casting his cheekbones into stark relief, his eyes sunken as if in a skull rather than flesh- as if he were already dead.

“a happy future,” albert settles on, and arthur knows, then, presses his face to albert’s neck with a shaky breath. “a happy future, and the road that will bring us there.”