He feels like dreaming and falling while lying still on the ground. For a moment, Arthur thinks he can still feel the ice cold of the mountain stone leeching into his skin, the burn of his lungs, ready to cough up more blood, mingled with the throb of his injuries and how his body refuses to take one more breath.
Arthur thinks death should be peace and quiet, maybe seeing loved faces again, those he couldn't save, those who died before him, those he misses dearly. Sister Calderon helped him lose his apprehension and he thinks that he should feel ready for it. He's known death was coming for a while now after all.
Instead of peace though, something different than the illness burns in his lungs and squeezes his heart to the point of aching. Regret. Not only for the life he led, but for all the things he couldn't change, for not knowing if this sacrifice is going to be enough. Did he die too early and John couldn't run fast enough? Micah got away, Dutch is alive and well and he doesn't trust either of them. Not with those left he cares about. Not with anything, really.
Arthur doesn't want to die. There is too much he wants to change, too many he wanted and failed to save, people left alive he doesn't know will be okay after this.
So with death already pulling him down, painless and as unstoppably steady as the turning of the world, his consciousness barely on the verge of this pain filled life, his sight catches the tinniest glimpse of the sun about to throw beautiful, golden rays across the mountain top. Arthur does not want to die. He wants to live, not for himself, but for the others.
Something brushes his cheek, so achingly familiar in a way only his own heartbeat and the sensation of his horse's gentle nose on his palm are. It feels like he knows what or who stands behind him and that it's here to guide him somewhere else, far away from here. The touch feels soft and warm, like the gentle morning sun he knows is about to spill across the mountain. He longs to see it, longs to see it as much as he wants to see everyone else, a chocking, burning longing that seems to spread through him, filling everything he is until it feels like it's going to be the only reason his heart might start beating again.
Another chance, he finds himself thinking, begging, really, and he doesn't know who he asks. He never believed in a conventional god, not truly. Maybe he's begging himself, maybe whatever deity is out there after all, maybe time itself or maybe the gentle caress at his cheek, which feels like it has come to collect him. Let me save them, then come for me. Just let me save them.
The touch at his cheek seems to pause and Arthur can't look at the stag he knows stands there, frozen as he is in this moment of time, his eyes on the dark mountainside, trying to hold on just that extra second to see the sun one more time.
One chance, the spirit seems to whisper, satin soft and as light as the air. Arthur can hear sadness and hope in that soundless voice, he can hear tomorrow and yesterday, gentle winds and warm days, sprawling grass lands and lush forests. Make the most of it.
The touch slowly pulls away and Arthur suddenly feels like he's pulled along with it, his body tilting backwards and briefly, he catches a glimpse of the stag, meets a gaze that's both old as time and new, bright in a way all innocent things are. A gaze that's both thoughtful and quietly hopeful, like it's taken a wager on Arthur or maybe, like it knows something he doesn't and waits for what will happen next.
Then it feels like he tilts further back, a mix of a falling where the mountain should have been, his eyes closing of their own volition and the whole world changing its axis into something new. Somewhere behind him, he knows the sun is rising, golden and strong, over a bloodied mountaintop.
Arthur awakens with a rasping gasp, so deep and strong it hurts, scrapes through his throat and aches in his lungs. For a moment, his limbs feel heavy and too uncoordinated and he fights to sit upright and maybe, it feels like he fights his body, his consciousness, out of something else as well.
That dark mountainside is branded into his mind, his hand coming up to clutch at his chest, as he sucks unhindered breaths into his lungs, feels the way they expand without pain, feels the way his heartbeat is steady, feels the strength in his own body, which had left him in larger and larger spades over the last days and weeks of his life.
Staring ahead, unseeing for a moment, he vividly remembers everything else, a last echo of the stag's gaze, a whisper of its soundless voice caught in the back of his mind. One chance. He has one chance.
His gaze snaps up and he stares at Hosea, who has stopped beside his wagon, looking slightly concerned with that calming, half hidden gentleness he always had for him, no matter what Arthur ended up doing, no matter what their life led to, no matter who he became. Hosea has always been there for him, no matter for what. Always the one to keep them safe when Dutch didn't. Arthur sees it now, maybe clearly for the first time in his life. Hosea, unwaveringly loyal and so kind and caring, always watching out for all of them, no matter their deeds.
With a sudden, desperate realization, Arthur thinks that he'd do anything to keep him alive. To see him happy and content, out of this life of running and stealing and murdering in order to survive. To see Hosea settled and with a happy, joyful gleam always present in his eyes instead of a worried gaze that sweeps over the camp regularly like he has to ensure they're all still here and at least relatively fine.
"Are you alright, my boy? You look like you're seeing a ghost," Hosea asks, half jokes, keeping his voice quiet and a part of Arthur notices that it's early in the morning, only a few other people awake at this time, most of them still asleep. After a second, Hosea offers his own coffee, eyes kind and understanding in a way that has Arthur's chest tighten.
He accepts the coffee and realizes his hands are shaking. Briefly, he wants nothing more than to get up and hug Hosea, to feel that he's real. That he's really alive again, that Arthur is experiencing reality as well, that he truly has him back, that he really has this second chance. A strange dream like fog seems to settle in the back of his mind, offering up memories of his death, of coughing up blood, of watching people fall and never getting up again, of Dutch's gaze in the end - he shies away from it.
A second chance, he thinks and feels like laughing, though not out of humor and he grips the tin mug a bit tighter than necessary, trying to breathe through the emotions churning up his inside. Would you look at that.
"I'm alright." He ends up rasping out after taking a deep breath. Hosea gives him a look that lets Arthur know he knows it's a load of horseshit, but Hosea has the kindness not to mention it. He always had that understanding for them, when to ask again and when to drop it.
Instead of prying, Hosea shifts his weight to stand comfortably, like he knows Arthur doesn't want him to go and Arthur, for a brief moment, feels his throat tighten with something that could be the beginning of tears he had never allowed himself to spill. He takes a quick sip of the coffee, ignoring how it scalds his tongue and drags his gaze away from Hosea - alive and well, no gunshot, and dear god, he'll never forget the sight of him falling to the ground, face twisted up in pain - to look at the camp.
They're still in Horseshoe Overlook. Still at a stage where he can salvage -
A sudden thought jolts him, hard enough that he jumps to his feet, startling Hosea, who still manages to grab his arm and stop Arthur from stumbling either back to his cot or falling face first to the ground. Half the coffee sloshes out of the mug and Arthur feels it burn his fingers as he's kept from going down. His heart is suddenly racing and something like panic slices through his limbs.
"Strauss." He gets out, Hosea's holding on to him, steady and strong, while he looks him over, concern now clearly visible on his features. Confusion mingles into it, before he blinks.
"Oh, yes, Dutch wanted you to speak to him." Hosea says, and after a look, gently pats his arm before slowly letting go. Arthur doesn't miss how he stands a step closer now though, as if he's worried Arthur might trip over his own feet or something. Granted, right now, he does not feel steady, but at hearing Hosea's words his racing heart slows back down, his knees briefly weakening.
He hasn't messed that up yet, hasn't messed himself up yet. Arthur sags a bit in relief and now Hosea looks really, truly concerned, gently taking the mug from him and reaching out with the other hand to inspect Arthur's burned fingers. Arthur just takes a deep breath and focuses on Hosea's gentle hum, allows his hand to be turned this and that way, before Hosea deems it not that bad.
"Are you sure you're alright?" He asks, voice pitched low and Arthur is about to answer when he sees Kieran from the corner of his eye. The kid is walking free, already up and taking care of the horses.
Arthur feels slightly dizzy for a second, as he remembers Kieran in the end, beheaded and tortured - so undeserving of it, damn it, Kieran had saved his life. Arthur remembers his own, unkind comment before the kid disappeared, about how it had been Kieran's fault that little Jack had been kidnapped. All in all, he had been unkind to Kieran most of the time and shit, that was uncalled for, now that he thinks back on it. Kieran had been nothing but kind and helpful - jumpy and nervous too, sure, but that was no surprise.
"Arthur?" Hosea draws his attention back to him and Arthur finds himself reaching out, gently patting his shoulder, maybe gripping it for a moment, trying to ground his racing thoughts into something more manageable. But Hosea is once again kind enough not to say anything.
"I'm, uh, alright. Just remembered something." A whole lot of something. Hosea accepts it with a slightly skeptical nod and Arthur is sure the man's going to keep a bit of an eye on him during the day. Something about that thought feels strangely soothing.
Arthur wants to ask what happened in the last days, ever since they arrived here, since he doesn't know at what point in time he woke up, but he doesn't want to look like a complete lunatic. Hosea steps away after another moment and Arthur gives him a small, parting wave, waiting just a moment longer, before he near dives for his journal.
Flipping quickly through the pages, the sketches he made what feels like years ago, he realizes that everything went like he remembered it until now. Blackwater, the mountains, arriving here, six point cabin, Lenny returning with the news of Micah in jail, hearing Sean is alive, everything.
Micah...Arthur looks up, tucking his journal away again and his gaze falls to Dutch's tent. The man is already awake, smoking a cigar and looking as put together and regal as always. This time though, Arthur thinks he sees something different. Maybe the lack of an untouchable shine, that Dutch had always seemed to carry in the past. Instead, he sees a calculating gaze, not unkind, not yet, but he looks at Dutch and realizes he's searching for something. Searching for the man he followed for over twenty years. Tries to find to see the man who once stole from the rich and kept only what he needed, giving everything else away to those who had less than him, those who had nothing.
He tries to see the man who sat with him for hours, teaching him reading and writing, along with Hosea. Arthur tries to see the man who took in strays and lost ones, the hungry and desperate, the abandoned and hurting. The man they all followed because he showed them a path forged by freedom and how to make something good out of bloodshed.
Arthur wonders where that man went, because all he can see right now, is the man who's going to look at him like he recognizes him in the most abstract of ways. A man who's going to stare down at him on a mountaintop, with a slight frown like he's unsure what to believe, while holding maybe a distant, sad sympathy for Arthur's fate. Someone who will, even then, turn his back on him and leave him there in the dark, on the cold hard ground. Leave him to die alone, breaths stopping and body falling still.
Son, brother, all those things Dutch called him, all the things he asked him to do, asked him to be and nothing of it held any weight in the end. Twenty years. Twenty years of loyalty, twenty years Dutch either didn't see in the end or that didn't matter to him. Most of his life, Arthur devoted to him, to his ideals, to every word and order. For a moment, it feels like those twenty years, all those things that meant everything to him, rise up to choke him. His mind reels and he feels nauseous.
Arthur doesn't know what to make of the mess that is grief, guilt and painful betrayal that makes up his chest when he looks at Dutch, his friend, his mentor, his guide, who turned his back on him and so many others. All it took was for Micah to come along and Arthur was no longer needed unless it suited Dutch. For a long, dizzying second, Arthur feels just as cold and abandoned as he did on that mountaintop, the taste of betrayal just as strong on his tongue as the taste of his blood.
Arthur stares at Dutch, trying to breathe past his racing heart and tight chest and realizes he no longer sees the man who took him in. The man who meant everything to him. And, thinking back, he can now see the moments, the instances, where Dutch slowly, bit by bit, became someone else. Not entirely yet, Arthur is pretty certain that the accident with that trolley plays quite the part in it, but at the same time, Dutch has become too calculating with everything. All of them, not just the world out there, but the camp as well.
He scrubs a hand over his face as he tears his gaze away from Dutch and briefly catches a glimpse of Molly sitting behind the man. Molly. Oh Molly, who died for nothing, who died because she had a broken heart and lied to give a bit of that pain back to a man who should have loved her in return. Arthur remembers their arguments and how she just wanted Dutch to love her like she loved him, to hold her and stay true to her. He remembers catching Dutch flirting with Mary-Beth and his stomach churns anew.
Arthur swallows, his mouth suddenly dry and he starts to feel too nauseous, ears ringing slightly and he nearly sways on his feet. He drags his thoughts away from Dutch and all those deaths, all that damn tragedy and instead takes a deep breath. A second chance. He has one chance and he has the quiet but unshakably certain feeling that he won't get another one. Just this one.
"I don't need more." He mumbles to himself. All he needs is the chance he already got. He's going to fix this, come high or low. First of all...he looks towards Strauss, brows furrowing and thinking heavily. Then he squares his shoulders and marches towards the man, steps large and focused.
"Herr Strauss." Arthur greets the man, probably a bit harsher than he intends to by the way he jumps, but Arthur feels no regret or guilt. He's never liked the man and looking at someone who would ruin so many lives...not this time. And he might know what to do. "You wanted to talk to me?"
Strauss fumbles with his books of debts for a moment and Arthur resists the urge to grab it and throw it into the fire. He has a feeling that he has to play this carefully, especially since he still doesn't know what to do about some of the messes that are going to come their way. All that he knows for sure is that he's going to try as hard as never before.
Arthur barely waits for the man to finish with giving him the names of the debtors, before he turns on his heels and marches away, leaving Strauss mid-sentence - the man was about to talk about how suited Arthur is to the job and just alone hearing the start of it makes his stomach turn and something bitter spreads across his tongue. He doesn't want to be that man, not anymore, not ever again.
Arthur knows who he's going to head for first and shit, he has to be careful most of all. Arthur won't step close to Mr. Downes, as much as it might smart the man but he won't risk getting sick again. Not this time around, not when he doesn't know what the future brings when he starts to change the course of things. When he might need all his strength. Hell, who knows if Arthur is going to survive this second chance at all, after all, he never pleaded for his own life to be saved. But regardless of that, he's going to fight tooth and nail for everyone.
No one stops Arthur on his way to the horses, though he slows down for a moment to watch Jack play with a stick, still unconcerned and unafraid, just a young boy, his mother keeping an eye on him from where she's drinking coffee. Hopefully, Marston gets his head out of his ass sooner this time around. He has a great family and Arthur's going to do his damnest to ensure Jack won't be so scared this time around. That he won't have a reason to be.
Arthur steps to the horses then and exhales heavily when his horse, Storm, greets him quietly, softly nosing at his arm - his horse, his wonderful horse, shot down and he remembers John trying to get him going but Arthur hadn't wanted her to die alone, couldn't let her lie there gasping for air while he ran, he couldn't.
She looks at him, steady and as though she knows something different is going on this time around. Arthur feels his throat going tight and he has to blink, taking a deep breath. He presses a hand against her strong neck and for a moment, he allows himself to remember. Remembers her running as fast as she could during races she won for him, remembers her carrying him through everything, storms and madness, blood and fights. Carrying him until the moment she was forcefully put down and even then she would have gotten up again if she could have.
"Let's go girl." Arthur says, voice raspier than he wants it to be, stopping himself before he slides too far down the memory line. Getting up into the saddle feels like the most natural thing and like he breathes easier. As if a part of him slips properly back into place. As though the world around him feels more real than before.
He rides away from camp, throwing a halfhearted wave Bill's way. Bill...oh, what a damn mess. Arthur remembers the man - along with Javier, who he had always liked - pulling away from them in Beaver Hollow, no longer willing to really listen or talk to him. A part of him feels unsettled and hurt by it and yet, he can't quite blame them either. Javier has always been too loyal to Dutch and he hadn't heard or known everything that was going on. The same goes for Bill, even if it sometimes feels like the man might have seen it coming and yet chose Dutch anyways. Still...Arthur can't help but be watchful now and he knows he won't, can't, put much trust in either Bill or Javier. Not easily at least. Not when he might end up working against Dutch once more.
He's mulling over things all the way to the Downes, still knowing the paths of the Heartlands from his memories, from having been here what feels like a long time ago. He remembers Mrs. Downes in Annesburg. Her grief, the life she led, her pain and how he wished she would just accept his money. To save herself from being dragged down by the misery his hands had spread. Arthur hadn't wanted her forgiveness nor had he wanted to ease her pain with money. He merely wanted her and her son to live and live better, so she could remember her husband and hate him along with it, if she wished to.
Arthur rubs a hand over his face and then slows down as the farm house comes into view. The small field, barely enough for Mr. Downes to take care of or keep his family fed causes an uncomfortable tug at his heart. Hell, how had he not seen that before? Maybe he had and yet, he hadn't been able to do anything but what was asked for him. Blind in his loyalty to Dutch and doing as the man asked. Like an ever faithful dog.
Belatedly, Arthur looks through his bag, checking how much money he has with him. Enough, he hopes and exhales quietly when he realizes that he really does have enough to easily cover the debt himself. He won't take a penny from the family this time around and he won't antagonize Strauss. Not yet anyways.
Arthur sees Mr. Downes briefly look up from his field as he approaches and then quickly look back down, as if that would help him. Arthur thinks that man is a better person than he could ever hope to be. Better in all regards, with how much he tried to make the world a nicer place, even if he could do only a little. It's a small comfort, thinking that he won't kill him this time around. Arthur scoffs softly, sardonically, under his breath. Small comfort. Look at him, happy about deciding not to hurt someone. It should be the obviously right choice and here Arthur is, acting like he's found out some great truth of the world.
Letting the thought slide from his mind, he dismounts and heads straight for the house. From the corner of his eye, he can see Mr. Downes jolting upright, face paling and dropping his pitchfork, but by then Arthur is already knocking.
"Mister -" He hears the farmer call and the door swings open. Mrs. Downes looks better this time around, of course she does. Maybe a bit thin and worried and her face goes gaunt and tense at seeing him, her chin lifting, but there is light in her eyes instead of pain and grief.
"Mrs. Downes. " Arthur politely tips his hat and tries to ignore his suddenly racing heart. Wetting his lips, he shifts in place for a moment, aware of her staring him down like vermin - and damn, she ain't so wrong about that. "I'm here to tell you your debt has been purged."
She stands still for a moment and then frowns, her gaze sharpening and immediately turning suspicious. Her husband, who has stopped a few steps beside the house as well, stares at Arthur with surprise, mouth slightly open.
"Purged?" Mrs. Downes asks and then crosses her arms, her gaze just as cutting as Arthur remembers it and he resists the urge to duck a bit. He still feels guilty and ashamed for what he did, once, in another lifetime. Second chances, he thinks and wonders if maybe, he himself might deserve one too.
"Yes, purged." He takes a step back and to the side as Mr. Downes comes up the steps. Arthur feels only marginally bad at avoiding the man's space like that, but he vividly remembers how ill he got and...just no. If he dies this time around, it better be quick through a bullet, even if he might not deserve that mercy. No more weeks of wheezing himself awake at night, of spitting out blood and losing weight and strength no matter what he does. Of feeling himself dying slowly, more and more with every day. Not this time around, not if he can help it.
"How? Debts don't just disappear like that." Mrs. Downes says and puts a hand on her husband's arm when the man looks like he's about to speak up in Arthur's defense. Or maybe he's just happy to let the debt go unquestioned.
Arthur fumbles for words for a moment and then waves a hand, feeling unexpectedly awkward and out of his comfort zone. "Someone has volunteered to pay it for you."
Hopefully, Strauss won't care as long as the money ends up being paid back, no matter by whom. Arthur could always say he found a kindhearted person who wanted to take on the debt or something. Dubious, but, he thinks, more believable than Arthur paying it himself. Huh, he really was a right bastard the last time around.
"Pay it for us?" Mrs. Downes echoes, sounding even more suspicious than before, but this time her husband gently touches her arm and Arthur can see her calming down and softening. She really loves him and he catches the glance they share.
"People can be kind." Mr. Downes tells his wife softly and then smiles at Arthur. "Thank you." His gaze is too knowing for Arthur's comfort. "Tell that person, we are very grateful. That is a kind thing to do."
"Yeah, sure." Arthur takes a step back, tipping his hat and letting his hands fall to his belt - only one gun so far and really, Micah can keep that second holster and choke on it, Arthur would be all too willing to help shove it down his throat. Hell, Micah...that's a problem he has avoided thinking about so far. "Good day."
"Take care, sir." Mr. Downes calls after him. "And thank you!"
Arthur waves him off over his shoulder and then gets back in the saddle. His horse is already turning around at the barest nudge of his heel and then trots off with large strides, definitely sensing that he wants to get away as quickly as possible. As glad as Arthur is to not be the reason for the misery of the Downes family, he's also relieved to get away. Hopefully, he won't see them again. And hopefully, this time, Mr. Downes won't die. Or at least live longer without Arthur being there to...well, beat him to an early grave.
He swallows at the memory and takes a deep breath, savoring the scent of the grass and dust, the way Storm moves under him, strong and swift like always, unerring in her steadfast loyalty and sure steps. Looking up, he stares at the blue sky and feels the sun on his face. All things he thought lost forever not so long ago.
Storm rumbles quietly at him and he glances down to realize she has slowed down and tilted her head to look at him. Arthur leans forward and gently touches the side of her neck. To feel her alive and chase away the memory of that dark, terrible night, of her going down with that horrible sound and him getting thrown out of the saddle. That night is going to haunt him for the rest of his life, he's sure.
"I won't let you die." He vows quietly, though he thinks he should know better than to make a promise like that. "This time, I'll fight for you too."
Just like she had fought for him. She snorts and looks ahead again. Arthur finds himself smiling and straightens back up, giving her a small nudge to get her into a comfortable canter. He still doesn't know what to do about Micah, about Dutch, the Pinkertons, about all the things that await them. He still has all those memories misting in the back of his head, Kieran's death, Sean on the floor, face covered in his own blood, of Hosea shot in the chest and Lenny falling on the roof, of being a second too late to save him. Of Molly and Miss Grimshaw dead, unable to save anyone and even with John he doesn't know if he made it back to his family. If his family made it too.
He still has all his mistakes and faults in the back of his head, real in a way he can near taste it all on his tongue, can feel it in his body like the echo of something he won't dare to forget. There is still so much to figure out, but for now, Arthur allows himself to revel, just for a brief moment, in the first thing he did right. One of those that really matter.
It's late in the evening, nearly night with how dark it's getting, when Arthur returns, bringing some game with him. It's a bit strange, really, to see all those places from his memories again, to find them just as he remembers them. To ride past Valentine and save a father and his sons from an attack so they can finish building their home.
To stop at a ledge and stare at the country spreading ahead of him, with the Grizzlies at his back, the setting sun casting a brilliant golden glow over it all, and for the briefest of moments, making him feel free of all his faults. It's a breathtaking view, always will be.
Now, he's back, after spending the day riding through the area, going to people he remembers and catching a few other people along the way, picking up requests for collecting cigarette cards and bones - dinosaur or whatever, he's still on the fence about those ones and maybe, this time around, he might actually find all of them, if he can afford the extra time to be away.
Pearson is all too happy about the food Arthur brings back and Strauss looks just a tad nervous when Arthur tells him the debt is paid and settled, his voice going gruff and hard. The man accepts it with a quick, bobbing nod, scribbling down something in his book. He doesn't even question it and for a second, Arthur feels strange that the man doesn't even ask. Or maybe that he doesn't have to use one of the carefully crafted excuses. Well, he might always need one later.
Then again, Strauss hadn't ever asked before either, only told him to put the money into the moneybox of the camp. It makes Arthur feel a bit darker, thinking that of course Strauss never had reason to doubt him. How often had he gone to collect the debt after all? How often had he returned with busted knuckles or left crying or desperate people behind?
He shies from the thought, stomach once again churning. Those are people he can't help anymore, no matter how much he loathes having done those things in the first place. Arthur puts money in the box, frowning down at it a moment longer. This is wrong. Debt is wrong and he wishes he could ask Dutch to stop with it. But the man wouldn't listen or would question why Arthur is against it now.
Then he looks up and takes in all the people he can see. Sean is still gone, for now, but his heart eases at seeing Karen laugh about something with Tilly. Lenny sits by the fire with Hosea, who is telling one of his stories. Arthur hears Uncle start playing his music, hears Karen clap and start to sing. He hasn't heard that in so long. Beaver Hollow was a nightmare in so many ways. Arthur exhales in a rush and just listens for a moment. Listens to the camp being alive, of people being mostly alright if not even a bit jovial. Then he straightens back up.
Stepping around Dutch's tent, he stares at the closed flaps in thought and realizes that avoiding the illness from Mr. Downes has been the easy part. Laughably easy even, compared to how he wants everything else to change. Arthur knows that an illness won't be needed to kill him in the end, if everything takes the same course as the last time, if he fails to do what he wants to do.
He hears soft, muffled giggles from inside the tent, from Molly and a low, rumbling laugh from Dutch and Arthur walks away with large steps, something in his chest feeling cold, churning and unsettled. Can he save Dutch? Should he even attempt it? Or would it have always ended in them crashing and burning and Micah had only caused them to fall far sooner? Are they just a doomed lot? No, they can be saved. Arthur doubts the stag would have allowed him this chance if it all just repeated itself one way or another.
Rubbing a hand over his face, Arthur's gaze falls over to the side of the camp and with a small start he notices a figure curled up against a large stone. Kieran, he realizes and his steps falter for a second. Wait, where does Kieran sleep anyways? He doesn't know. Arthur feels his mouth dry at the realization, at noticing that he never even took a moment to care if the kid would even have a bedroll, if he would be safe in some of the downpours they experienced. Hell, it was a miracle Kieran wasn't the one who got deathly ill.
"Shit." He murmurs under his breath and hesitates a moment, before turning and heading to one of the wagons. A bit of quiet rummaging later, he finds what he's looking for. A spare bedroll, smelling a bit musty and it needs to be shaken out properly, but it's still in good working condition. It certainly should keep Kieran warm in the cold nights of the Heartlands.
With the bedroll under one arm, Arthur turns back to where Kieran has tucked himself against the fringes of the camp. Arthur refuses to think too much about how bad he is at being nice or reassuring and instead focuses on how he treated the kid in the past and that he doesn't want to repeat it this time around.
Kieran certainly hears him coming, considering how his head snaps up and he scrambles to his feet. Arthur can't help the small, inward wince when he sees how Kieran's shoulders round and his hands come up slightly, like he thinks he has to prepare himself for something and yet knows that he couldn't fight back even if something happened. Aw, shit.
"Here." Arthur throws him the bedroll, watching as Kieran fumbles for a second and manages to catch it properly in the end. His eyes are wide as he stares over and Arthur can't resist shifting slightly on his feet. He really is bad at this. "It gets cold at night."
"Th-Thank you." Kieran quickly says, clutching the bedroll close like it might be taken from him again in a moment. Briefly, Arthur wonders who would be so shitty and then remembers Colm. Alright, the man would do stuff like that, give a person something only to take it away from them again. If there is one bastard ready to commit a cruelty, it's sure as shit Colm.
Colm...he's another problem that has to go if Kieran is ever going to be safe. Though, maybe, if they just wait it out, he would get caught by the law again and if they ensured his boys wouldn't free him, Colm would die too. Arthur rubs a hand over his chin, feeling and hearing the rasp of his beard. Shit, there is so much to consider and keep in mind, he might have to write it all down to get an idea of what to do.
"Don't mention it." Arthur tries to wave Kieran off and takes a step back. "Good night."
"G-Good night!" Kieran calls after him, sounding achingly hopeful and Arthur lifts a hand in a wave as he walks away, exhaling and feeling his shoulders relax a bit. Alright, okay, he might not fuck things up with Kieran this time around. Hopefully.
"Arthur!" Karen calls when he walks past the fire and he pauses to look at her. A happier her, eyes a bit brighter, not yet carrying the unacknowledged grief that appeared after Sean's death. She's happier, now that they know Sean is still alive. Damn, right, he has to go get the kid soon. "Come sit with us."
Lenny looks up with an inviting smile and Hosea, sitting relaxed with his feet stretched towards the fire, pats the log beside him. The man also subtly gives him a bit of a once-over, most likely checking if he's doing better than this morning. Arthur joins them, tipping his hat to hide the way his lips dare to twitch into a small smile. He can't not sit with them. Not after seeing Hosea and Lenny die, not after watching Karen drink like she tried to kill herself and not after she disappeared, no one knowing where she went. With Uncle going god knows where, along with Pearson and Mary-Beth. Not when he's come back to try his best to save them all. When that's all he really wants.
Arthur rubs a hand over his face and near startles at Hosea placing a hand between his shoulder blades. It's steady and reassuring and before he knows it, he ends up leaning a bit into the touch. Hosea then shifts to give his shoulder a pat, moving on before anyone can comment on it and make Arthur uncomfortable. Though then again, Uncle is playing quite enthusiastically and Karen and Lenny started up a song, so they didn't notice it anyways.
It hurts, in a way, to realize how much he missed and nearly forgot just how much Hosea used to help, always knowing him so well too. How much it hurt, after Guarma, to want to turn to the man for advice only to know that he was no longer there. Arthur isn't one to seek comfort, has been too hardened by all the things he had to do and had to be, but that illness...that knocked some of that hardness loose, or maybe softened him back up to acknowledge the existence of his heart again. Now, for the first time in, in years really, he feels like maybe, if they all make it out of this alive, he can allow a bit of softness back in his life.
For now, he just sits and joins in the songs, listens to Hosea tell stories and Uncle regarding them with wild tales that Arthur doesn't quite believe.
Arthur only realizes that he's starting to fall asleep where he sits when he leans sideways, jolting upright after bumping against Hosea. The man gives him a kind smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling and he gently pats his knee.
"Go to sleep." Hosea says and then makes a small shooing motion. "We need you fresh and ready tomorrow."
Considering that no one would let him live it down if he'd fall asleep and face-plant to the ground or something of the sort, Arthur gets up, briefly patting Hosea's shoulder in parting. On his way to his wagon, he casts a checking glance around. He can partly see Kieran, in his bedroll now, he can see Tilly and Mary-Beth already lying down, Pearson and Strauss asleep as well. Dutch's tent is dark, but who knows what that may mean, not that Arthur wants to know.
Miss Grimshaw and Reverent Swanson are sitting at the table together, though it looks like she's getting ready to urge him to get some sleep. Bill and John are most likely on lookout tonight. Arthur briefly takes two extra steps to the side to peek over to the tent where Abigail, Jack and Sadie sleep. The flaps are down and he hopes they have a good night's rest. Sadie...oh no one will know how to handle her when she fully unfurls her bloodlust, her pain driven fury and takes up arms.
A part of him hurts for the pain she carries and yet, Arthur looks forward to having her with them. She's so strong, one of the fiercest people he knows and yet, she always kept some kindness about herself as well. A clearness in her gaze that so many others lacked. She too, is so much of a better person than him and he remembers how she kept the gang together after that disaster in Saint Denis. Sadie, one of the few who had his back and made him feel like he might be worthy of the trust she put in him.
Stepping back, seeing how everyone seems to be alright and accounted for, Arthur sits down on his cot and stares at his hands for a moment. Rough, callused. They look large and looking at his scarred knuckles, the gun calluses, he thinks in a way, his hands might look a bit mean as well. Rubbing a hand over his eyes, he decides to call it a day. If he's already starting to think like that, it's high time he gets some rest. There is enough he has to worry about without also wallowing in strange, wayward thoughts.
Lying down, he can't help but keep his back to the wagon, facing the rest of the camp while lying on his side. He's tired and yet, now that he's going to sleep, a part of him remembers the sensation of falling out of life and waking up just this morning. Of lying there in this frozen moment on the mountaintop, with the spirit ready to take him along.
Arthur closes his eyes and instead forces himself to think about being out on horseback. He thinks back on some of his best memories before Blackwater, on some of the good memories made here in his past life. He thinks about brushing out his horse's mane and watching the snow smelt to make space for spring, to feel the sun on his face and the joy of a beautiful sunset. He thinks of standing on a cliff and looking out over seemingly endless lands, feeling as free as the soaring eagles and wild herds.
He falls asleep, remembering better times and listening to Uncle play, Karen sounding a bit hoarse as she sings louder and Lenny laughing, joining in with her.
Getting Sean back is a nightmare and a half, despite Arthur mostly remembering how it goes. He nearly gets brained in the head by a bounty hunter sneaking up on him, shooting the man in the last second. Then he sees the other bounty hunters and for a second, how one of them, realizing they're losing, is turning around, aiming right for Sean. Arthur's heart lurches because no, no, when Charles takes the guy out with a single shot and Arthur barely takes the time to wait until the rest of the guys are down as well, before he takes large strides towards Sean.
And maybe he's gripping Sean a bit too tightly when he finally gets him down from the tree and cuts the ropes around his ankles. Sean certainly doesn't seem to mind, if anything, he blabbers right on. Arthur once again realizes how much he missed the damn kid. His annoying little brother, so stupidly brave and cocksure, always grinning like the devil himself couldn't touch a hair on his head. Always talking their ears off and so eager to both prove himself and be his own man.
"Take him back." He tells Javier, or Charles, he isn't too sure, mind still half hazy with seeing that bounty hunter turn towards Sean, the man rather shooting the kid than letting them succeed by taking him back. Arthur can taste something foul in his mouth and his heart is racing in his chest, as he forces himself to let go of Sean after helping him up.
"You okay?" Charles steps up to him, voice lowered while Javier helps Sean hoist himself up onto Boaz. Arthur takes a deep breath and gives him a curt nod, looking up at him.
Charles, hair still as he remembers it, not changed to the style he adapted after Saint Denis - if Arthur never sees that city again, he'd be a happy, well, happier, man - brown eyes looking at him without judgment. If anything Charles looks ready to guard him and give him a moment to catch himself. Broad shoulders angled in a way that would make it near impossible for Sean or Javier to get a proper look at Arthur.
It feels like once again, Arthur realizes what a damn gift Charles Smith is. To him, to all of them. He remembers Charles, back when everything went to hell and his illness ate him up from the inside. Remembers him being a pillar of strength, one of the few people he could always count on, for anything. Charles, who believed that he still had a good heart, who called him out on it and had his back till the very end.
"Yeah, don't worry. I'll take a look around." He briefly pats Charles' arm and the man seems entirely okay with it, making Arthur relax a bit. He nods and takes a step back, ready to leave. For a second, Arthur wonders if he should ask him to stay, for no other reason than having Charles around makes him feel better and also to maybe build up their friendship again. On the other hand, they'll have plenty of opportunities for that later, if he remembers correctly.
So Arthur says nothing and with a curt nod to Javier turns to the bodies. Jaiver who he can't quite look at right now, the memory of all that happened in Beaver Hollow still too strong and fresh and too much in the forefront of his mind. How he stuck with Dutch over him and John, while Dutch believed Micah. Micah, who managed to play them all so, so well.
Looting the dead has honestly never bothered him all that much. Sure, he feels bad for some of the dead he encounters when he's out and about, for some poor folks who got dealt a cruel hand in fate. But bounty hunters? Members of a gang? He has no qualms patting down their pockets and taking things he can sell elsewhere.
Besides, Arthur realizes he's maybe going to need the money more than ever before. All the money he can get his hands on. If he wants to get everyone at camp out of future catastrophes alive, he's going to need it. And maybe, to get them a new beginning somewhere else afterwards. He's still very unsure if Tahiti is a real option, he'd rather stay in this country and head out to the far, wild west, but if need be, he'd take everyone he can and put them on a boat to get somewhere safe.
Storm walks after him, unbothered by the dead as well and when he sees her head snap up from the corner of his eye, ears pricked and trained in the direction she stares at, he swiftly gets back up in the saddle. His horse is incredibly good at hearing people approach and that particular talent has saved him a couple of times already. Besides, he'd be a fool to ignore her like that.
Arthur manages to get away from the camp unnoticed by the skin of his teeth, exhaling with relief when he's a good distance away, pockets a bit heavier than before. He leaves the reins slack, letting Storm carry him down the road, as he mulls over the money problem. Because if he wants this whole thing to get a better ending, he needs to plan for the future as well. A future they might now have. For a place for them to go to. Wandering around like people who long since lost their way, robbing and stealing, that's only keeping them on the path to being killed.
Hell, he might go down the straight and narrow road and still end up dead. But by changing their ways, at least with leaving a life of blood behind at one point, they're reducing the number of folks out for their necks. Besides, there are plenty of jobs they can take that still allow them to fight. Bounty hunting, hired guards or mercenaries. As long as they keep the jobs government approved, they would be okay on that front.
Though, truth be told, Arthur right now has no hell of a clue how to go about it or how to even break that idea to the people at camp at one point in the future. Dutch wouldn't be onboard, or at least not the way Arthur wants to do it. Molly, Javier, Miss Grimshaw and Bill would say no just alone on their loyalty to Dutch. Karen, Uncle and Sean are a toss-up at this point, he can't tell who they'd go with. Pearson might stay too.
Charles might go with him, John too if he can convince him and Abigail and Jack would follow. Mary-Beth might come with them as well, if Arthur can offer it to her right and ensures she knows that she won't betray anyone by choosing a different life. Tilly, oh smart and brave Tilly, he can't quite tell about her either, but she's the loyal type too and might be more loyal to Dutch than to him, no matter how well they get along. But maybe, he could convince her too, if given enough time?
Lenny, well, Lenny might come along if Arthur finds the right words and the right deal - which, if he's honest with himself, he might not. He's a lot of things but eloquent or charismatic like Dutch is not one of them. Maybe in his journal, but it's always easier to put his thoughts into words when he's writing than when he's talking. Sadie might come with him, at this point in time she might not really care much either way, but since Abigail mostly looks after her, she might come along by association. And Hosea...shit, Hosea might actually stay with Dutch, as much as that thought hurts. Hosea stayed through it all so far, stayed loyal and on Dutch's side, no matter the bloodshed, no matter what. He might even feel responsible for his oldest friend.
Tipping his head forward, Arthur rubs a hand over his eyes and wonders if they have to split up at all. If he can convince Dutch...yeah, if he can reach Dutch somehow, if they can leave Micah behind at one point, before it's too late, then they won't have to break up. They won't have to question their loyalty, won't have to choose sides. If. If he manages that and honestly, remembering how everything went before, it feels like an impossible task. Like wrangling a mountain to its knees and asking it to bow down.
Still, just in case, Arthur is going to save up money. He feels a bit bad at the thought of not putting as much into the camp's box, but he'll hunt more to ensure they stay fed and hell, maybe Uncle's going to contribute a bit more aside from singing in the evenings and lumbering around, giving partly useless advice to anyone around when he feels like saying something. Lumbago, his ass.
On the subject of money...Arthur remembers some hidden gold and a few other spots, abandoned places, that have a bit of valuable stuff stashed away. He'll go out for it soon, for now, he knows that a party is going to be held in honor of Sean making it back to them in one piece and he doesn't want to miss it. It's possible one of the best memories he has of their time since Blackwater. Everyone is there and everyone is happy. For that one night, people were laughing, drinking, singing and dancing.
And for just one night, he wants that back again, wants to set his worries aside to be picked up with the next sunrise. For just one night, Arthur wants to be around the people he so achingly missed and see them happy and as whole as they are at this point in time.
The party has already started up when Arthur returns, bringing some extra food along. Pearson is all too happy to get to work right away and since Abigail looks his way, Arthur holds up a pack of candy and then tilts his head questioningly towards Jack. She looks surprised, a bit more surprised than he thought she would be, before she smiles and nods.
"Jack." He calls out to the boy who looks up, already appearing a bit sleepy with the darkening sky. Arthur steps towards him and offers the sweets. "Candy, if you want it."
"Thank you, uncle Arthur!" The boy brightens up so much, Arthur wonders why he never brought him anything before, aside from that book. It's not like candy is hard to come by and he silently vows to get him more - as long as Abigail lets him, he won't cross her - and to look for more books for him as well. There were a few around, if he remembers correctly.
"You're welcome." Arthur lightly pats his shoulder and the boy gives him such a bright and innocent grin, that he can't help but smile back. Then Jack hurries off, already prying the pack of sweets open, half holding them up to show them to his mother. And knowing the boy, offering to share them with her.
"Didn't know you had a soft spot for the kid." Pearson comments and Arthur ignores it. Everyone likes Jack. Well, Micah might not, but then again, Arthur doubts that Micah likes any of them. He might like Dutch, but that's about it.
Picking up a bottle of beer along the way, Arthur starts to wander through camp. He stops a few times to sing with people, checks up on others and is all too willing to dance with Mary-Beth until her cheeks are flushed and she's happy, smiling and thanking him for the dance. It makes Arthur feel lighter in return and it's all too easy to hum and smile as he walks towards the others by the fire, Karen sitting in Sean's lap. Charles gestures for him to take a seat beside him, Javier playing his guitar with a smile on his face, when Arthur pauses as he remembers someone.
Gesturing for Charles to wait a moment, he glances around until he sees Kieran, who seems to have taken a bottle as well and carefully sticks to the fringes of the camp with near painful caution.
"Kieran." Arthur calls as he walks towards the kid and hell, if anyone asks why he talks to the former O'Driscoll, he can pretend to have drank more than he thought. "Come here."
He waves and ignores the way Kieran jumps and looks around nervously as he follows him back to the fire. Arthur also ignores how Kieran near flinches as he puts a hand on his shoulder and gets him to sit down with gentle pressure, before sitting beside him and Charles. Hosea, who is on Kieran's other side - and yeah, Arthur did that on purpose - merely nods at the kid and then joins the singing again.
The others don't seem to care much, Sean most likely doesn't yet know who Kieran is and Karen looks both too drunk and too happy to pay attention to anything else than swaying slightly in Sean's secure grip around her waist. Uncle gives Arthur a look, both eyebrows raised and Arthur ignores him too. Charles' questioning glance though, he gives a small shrug and the man accepts it in the next moment, greeting Kieran, who quickly stutters out an answer.
Arthur leans back a bit then, listening to people sing and he smiles against the rim of his bottle after taking a sip, when he hears Kieran slowly starting a tentative conversation with Hosea and exchanging a few words with Charles as well. Both men are most likely aware of what Arthur tries to do with bringing Kieran over and while Arthur can tell they're a bit puzzled about it, Hosea trusts him and Charles seems to be on the way to, so they accept Kieran easily enough.
Bit by bit, Kieran loses some of his jumpiness and Arthur even sees him smile once, hears him sing quietly under his breath, joining in the next song carefully, doing his best to be unobtrusive, elbows tucked close and knees pulled to his chest.
"You're in a good mood." Charles says beside him and Arthur glances at him, the man giving him a small smile, illuminated by the crackling flames. Something about Charles seems softer and happier as well tonight, like he's relaxing along with all of them. "That's good, you deserve it."
Arthur barely bites back a scoff at that. They're all in too high spirits and he himself doesn't want to dull his mood back down by thinking about what or what not he's deserving off. So he merely shrugs. Karen and Sean are sneaking off, he notices, giggling and laughing, hands entwined and Arthur knows exactly where they're going to end up.
Arthur stays where he is, enjoying the company and the warmth of the fire. Kieran excuses himself a minute later though and while Arthur can't tell if he's really tired or worried he might overstay his welcome, he just nods at the kid. He tries to not look as much like a sour bastard, but he's not entirely sure he succeeds.
"It's nice, what you do for him." Hosea comments as soon as Kieran has quietly meandered away. He stretches a bit, rolling his shoulders afterwards. "You think he's really no longer an O'Driscoll?"
"Can it be that easy?" Charles asks, leaning a bit closer as he joins the conversation.
"Kid saved my life, that counts for something, and honestly, look at him." Arthur waves a vague hand in the direction of Kieran's bedroll. "He's the kind of guy Colm throws to the wolves first and doesn't give a rat's ass about. I believe him, when he says he's been with Colm for only a couple of months. And he helped us back with the cabin, he might even be helpful about getting Colm in the future."
Hosea hums softly and Charles looks contemplative. Arthur can't help but think that Kieran probably wouldn't have survived long in Colm's gang. Fellas there either turn as nasty as him or they die pretty quickly. He honestly can't see Kieran turning into a bastard like Colm, guy has too kind and soft a heart, if he remembers correctly. Good with horses, though.
"Alright." Hosea gets up and briefly dusts off his pants, before giving them a smile. "That's enough for me. I'll leave the partying to you young ones. Good night."
"Night." Arthur calls after him and then shifts, noticing that his butt is turning pretty numb. The party is dying down bit by bit around them too. He can hear the music from Dutch's tent and, well, he still doesn't know what to do about the man or what to think, can't really bring himself to look at him either. The memories are sharp and fresh in the back of his mind and a part of him still feels so deeply betrayed.
"I'll head off too." Arthur tells Charles and the man gets up along with him.
"Me too." He says and they step away from the fire together. They wish each other a good night and as Arthur lies down, Sean and Karen join the party again, singing once more and cuddled together. He falls asleep with a small smile, music both form the campfire and Dutch's tent filling the air. He can hear laughter and people walking about, before he drifts off.
Arthur stares at the gold he managed to find, the one bar in Limpany, the three bars up in that weird cave with the even stranger statues and the two bars from that crashed train - a nightmare to get into, but he managed it after nearly slipping and getting close to breaking his neck. There is also some cash and a gold nugget along with some jewelry and watches he found in a couple of cabins along the way. It's a great haul. A really great haul. Dutch would be happy beyond words if Arthur would present him with his find. Only, that he won't.
Rubbing a hand over his face, Arthur feels a dull headache in the back of his head, beating a near lazy drumming rhythm and slowly tightening the muscles in his neck until it's tense and hard.
Just thinking about how to get the gang out of all of this safely is a nightmare. Arthur still has no hell of a clue how to reach Dutch, no matter how much he thinks about it. Hosea is already unsuccessful and Hosea's opinion holds the greatest weight out of all of them. If anyone could convince Dutch, it's his oldest friend, and he's been unable to do so more and more often lately. Blackwater alone is a great example of Dutch rather listening to Micah than Hosea.
Arthur allows himself a moment to wonder why that is. Why Micah is held in such high regard. Sure the man saved Dutch's life, apparently, but others have too. Hell, Arthur has done so countless times before, so what is it about Micah that is so damn special?
Arthur remembers the last weeks and days up in Beaver Hollow, Micah always hanging around Dutch and talking to him, as though he was some kind of royal spymaster and held all the secrets to his court. For some reason, Arthur can't help but think of that one strange story he once read years ago with the help of Hosea - right, The Emperor's New Clothes. Had Micah taken Dutch in so much, Dutch would rather believe every word he said than trust John and Arthur?
Micah had them all blinded, if he's honest, and even Arthur hadn't suspected him for a while. But now, looking back, it's clear as day. How the Pinkertons kept finding them, always when Micah was around camp. If he left the guy in Strawberry...no, who knew if he wouldn't be freed after all and return anyways and then Arthur would only get in trouble with Dutch. And really, if he's never going to hear that disappointed and at times exasperated, later on even slightly angry tone of voice ever again, he'll be only too happy.
Hell, at this point, Arthur is going to start hating the words 'plan' and 'faith' if he's going to hear them in higher frequency from Dutch again. Still, as much as Arthur doesn't know what to do yet or how to feel about Dutch and some of the things that happened - doesn't quite know what to think about Javier and Bill too, especially the former and the friendship, the trust, he thought they had had before everything came crashing down - he can't help but take a page out of Dutch's book. He needs a plan.
More than one, preferably, but one would be a start.
Looking back down at the gold, money and valuables, Arthur pulls out some cloth and wraps the treasure up securely, the bars even individually so they won't make any noise when clacking against each other. He'll need to hide it. But where? There are a few spots he can think of and it should still be reachable if he needs to get to it. The camp itself could be safe-ish. People leave his stuff alone, but that's mostly because aside from his journal, Arthur doesn't have anything to hide. Hell, after Blackwater, he has so few personal things left, it's all on display anyways.
Packing everything away, he rises and whistles for his horse. She comes storming his way a moment later, neighing and then snorting in his face when she reaches him. Arthur finds himself chuckling softly, petting her nose and feeding her a carrot for her patience and carrying him to all of these abstruse places.
"I'll figure it out." He tells her quietly and she gives him a look. Arthur can't really tell if she believes him or thinks he's going to need a lot of help, before she rubs her head on his arm. "Yeah, I know. C'mon girl. Let's go."
On the way along the mountains, Arthur can't ignore the weight of his treasure, nor the uneasiness that has slithered into his mind. He doesn't know what to do to make Dutch see reason and in all truth, he doesn't know if he even owes it to the man. After everything that happened since Hosea died...Arthur still remembers getting tackled down in that factory and seeing Dutch's boots through the steam, the man turning around and leaving him for dead. Arthur would have been dead if it hadn't been for Eagle Flies.
Those guys in the reservation deserve help too. They have been good to him, the natives up in Wapiti and Arthur remembers the troubles they're facing. Remembers the chief's kindness and his grief.
"Since when do I try to save everyone?" He murmurs to himself, brows pulled together, before he sighs heavily. He already knows that he's going to try at least. They saved him too, it's only fair he returns the favor. Maybe, the can save the chief's son too. Maybe, this time around, things can take a bit of a better turn for these people, even if it just means that fewer of them end up dead.
Arthur already knows he's no sort of hero. Even this, helping these people, doesn't make him one. He's merely repaying a debt, giving back something he couldn't the last time around. This is a second chance and maybe, maybe he can give enough, can do enough, to earn his redemption by the end of it.
Arthur ends up hiding the treasure under the floorboards of an old, abandoned house in the woods that looks fit to caving in during a stronger storm. It's hidden as well as anything can be in these times though.
As he returns to the road, he catches sight of the sign 'Strawberry' a bit further down the path, and it feels like it's near pointing him to where to go next.
Micah. His chest tightens and something both fury hot and deathly cold seems to churn in his chest and stomach, his grip briefly tightening on the reins. After a moment of hesitation that feels like it hangs precariously in place, like a held breath, he squares his shoulders and gently turns his mare towards the sign. Alright then.