Stranger sits beside John.
John looks up -- man's got some vibrant scars, a low slung hat, a bit of a beard growing in. And in his hand is a fiddle, bow tucked against its neck.
John makes some room.
"Afternoon," stranger says. His voice is rough, quiet. Familiar, somehow. John knows its eerily familiar but he can't place how. He's got a lot to think about anyway.
"Afternoon," he says.
Abigail laughs, chasing after the toddling Jack - and both their heads snap up.
When John looks, just a glance, the man's eyes are soft. Tender.
"That your wife?" the stranger says, the words oddly tight.
"Uh," John says. Still vibrant on his cheek is the feeling of Abigail's fist, how she screamed at him for the year he was missing. He could argue away about five months of it, when he was sick and recovering and repaying debts, but the rest of that year was just cowardice. Plain and simple. "Suppose so."
"She's real beautiful," the stranger says. Quiet.
There's this kind of quiet, still tension, like he's going to say more - but he doesn't. Just kind of nods, eyes following Abigail as she scoops Jack into her embrace.
"That your son?" stranger says, but it's almost not a question.
"Yeah. I-" John stutters. "Least, I think so."
He trusts Abigail. She'd told him that Jack was his. She'd told him she wasn't doing anything with anyone that could get a girl pregnant. She told him she'd stopped visiting others. She had smiled, in the moments after Jack's birth, and wept a little about the eyes that were John's through and through.
But sometimes something curdles inside him -- not possessiveness, per se, not jealousy, but something more visceral. Watching the way Arthur can pick up Jack, hold him close and sing awkward songs to him, the way Jack relaxes in a way he fundamentally can't and doesn't with John - knowing that as much and as tenderly as he loves Arthur, as much and as overwhelmingly as he loves Abigail - if it was just Abigail and Arthur, everything would be better.
That he was irrelevant. That he could disappear and not be missed.
"That's your son." The stranger says, firm. "That's your wife."
He turns, slow, eyes lingering on the stranger. The stranger stares back at him with deep brown eyes.
"How would you-"
But John finds the words don't come past that. This stranger -- knows.
The stranger stands. Looks out on Arthur plucking Jack out of Abby's arms, the way Arthur cheats his body back towards John, the way Arthur's smile falls when his eyes alight on the stranger-
And then the stranger's tucked that fiddle -- that dark fiddle, near-black, with a length of blue ribbon tied up at the tuning pegs -- under his chin, and plays something slow and mournful.
Nearly a drone. And then a voice that is roughshod as an old country road, singing like if he sang clear enough his words could reach some merciful god. A shiver goes down John's spine -- he can feel Arthur and Abigail and Jack all staring at the two of them --
And as that shiver goes down John's spine --
He knows this song. He's never heard it before. But he knows this song, deep in his bones. And together, he and that stranger sing.
"Let em' roll and I'm gone. Take me down, down below. You won't get to heaven with blood on your trail -- I have tried and I have failed."
Singing like his breath could carry across a canyon -- without strain, just with force. If his voice catches along the wear of his throat, in that warble that Abigail had fallen in love with and Arthur teased him gentle about, then it was alright. This was not singing to sound good. This was something else.
The song ends. John breathes deeply. The stranger smiles, soft and quiet, tips his hat. "That was good singing, brother."
Arthur and Abigail stare up at the two of them -- Arthur looks on the edge of words -- Abigail's cheeks are flushed. Arthur- looks like he's going to tell them off-
Jack looks up and says, clear as day, looking at the two of them, "Papa."
The three of them stare down at Jack. It wasn't like Jack was a quiet kid -- he'd already said his first words in the year John was gone, but it was the first time he'd looked at John and called him his father.
Jack reaches his little hand, grasping like he was saying hello to John and the stranger.
John reaches out his hand, dipping along the railing of the porch, and Jack grasps it easy.
When they look back, the stranger is gone. Leaving nothing behind but the words to a song John doesn't know - but will.