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I'd Sacrifice My Beating Heart

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How did we end up here?

That’s what Clayton kept asking himself, kneeling in the dirt of a shitty bandit camp with his hands tied behind his back. He and the others, Arabella, Aloysius, Miriam, and the reverend, were tied up and circled around the campfire as the bandits congratulated themselves. But something was nagging at Clayton. The ringleader looked hauntingly familiar. His eyes kept tracking back to Clayton, eyeing him up, sneering at what he saw, before turning away again. The not knowing was what bothered Clayton. But Clayton would rather his eyes stayed on him. That way, no one would notice that Arabella’s nervous fidgeting was actually her sawing her ropes with Aly’s pocket knife. 

“Pretty ladies!” A wiry bandit cooed, fingers brushing across Miriam’s chin. “Would you like to go for a spin? A roll,” he droned, drawing out the ‘l’. 

Miriam stayed still as he leaned closer, moving like he was going to kiss her, before flinging her head forward, straight into his nose. He went down a blubbering mess, clutching his face as blood leaked between his fingers. 

Clayton couldn’t help but grin as Aly cheered and Matthew congratulated her. 

“‘ucking betch!” The bandit shrieked before fumbling back to his feet and drawing a pistol from his waistband. He pointed it right at Miriam’s head, causing them all to wiggle against their bonds. Before they could gain any traction, Ringleader spoke up. 

“Enough!” His voice was strong and clear, a signal to his men to immediately drop what they were doing and pay attention. They did so now, turning and watching him as he stepped into the light, eyes cold and uninterested in most of what was going on. 

Those eyes swept across them all before landing on Clayton, again. He looked him up and down, the sneer forming again as he settled on Clayton’s bruised face. “So,” he drawled, taking a few steps around the fire. “We meet again, Mr. Coffin.”

He looked so fucking familiar. 

Clayton remained silent. In his experience, the best way to not show your hand was to not show anything. Let them do the talking. They’d, more often than not, reveal everything to make up. 

“Can’t even give me the time of day, huh, Coffin?” He asked, closing the distance between them until he was standing directly in front of Clayton. “Or maybe you just don’t remember me. Probably killed so many poor men that you can’t tell them apart any more.”

He bent down and slowly pulled up his pant leg, drawing a bowie knife from a sheath on his ankle. It glistened in the firelight as he stood up again, the knife clutched in his fist. 

Clayton could see the others moving in his peripheral vision, growing more and more tense. He could see Arabella’s movements grow more frantic as she worked faster. 

“Then again, it wouldn’t be my face you would know, would it, Mr. Coffin. What about my brother's, though? Would you know his face? Or is it lost as well?” The knife rose until it was pressed up under his chin, hard enough to push his head back until he was forced to face the stars. Despite that, he could still feel a sting as something warm and wet began to run into his collar. Ringleader was right beside his ear, close enough to whisper and only Clayton would hear it. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve dreamed of this moment; the moment when I get to kill you.” There was a pause and then the blade was being pulled away from his neck. “And then I find you with ‘friends’.”

Fear like ice water jolted into Clayton’s heart as the man stepped away. His controlled breathing rushed in and out of his chest as he sneered back, eyes dark in the flickering firelight. 

Ringleader was smiling, now, something sick and malicious. “But then the question is who is it that Clayton Sharpe, “The Coffin”, cares about most?” The words came out in a song as he twirled his knife. There was madness in his eyes as Clayton watched him, keeping track of Arabella’s fidgeting beside him. The fidgeting ceased as the bowie knife came to rest on her neck. “Is it the pretty city lady?”

Arabella, whom Clayton felt like a big brother towards. Hell, he’d drawn the gun fire of Wild Bill Fucking Hickok rather than she her shot by him. She used his saddlebags like a library without asking his permission, but he still found that he didn’t mind . . . much. 

Her eyes went wide before hardening as a grin plastered across her lips. She opened her mouth, like she was about to say something, before spitting in his face. 

He wiped a hand under his eye, chewing on his lip before drawing the knife away. He tilted it at her again, commenting, “I’m going to enjoy killing you later, but I have some business to attend to for the moment.” He moved down the line, stopping in front of Aly. “Is it the runaway slave?”

Aloysius. Great cook. Great shot. Good drinking partner. Asked a few too many questions about people that Clayton definitely didn’t feel anything towards (“Stop asking, Aly. I will shoot you.”) A man who deserved friends - good friends especially - more than Clayton did. 

Aly just smiled as the knife was placed against his throat. His adam’s apple bobbed dangerously against the blade as he said, “Hey, baby, that's a mighty fine knife. Got one almost just like it. It'll be a shame when one of us kills you with it.” He winked and Ringleader drew the blade away. 

Next was Miriam, smiling as innocently as possible as the edge of the blade was rested against her jaw. “What about you? Are you his type? A good fight or fuck depending on the night?”

By all classical definitions, Miriam was a knockout. Even Clayton knew that. But she was too motherly and Clayton had a feeling that Mr. Freud was full of horseshit. Still, seeing her in danger made him stiffen. She took care of him, even if he didn’t deserve it. 

She cocked her eyebrow and glanced playfully at Clayton. “The answer to that question is that Mr. Sharpe is not my type.” 

Ringleader chuffed and let the knife fall away. “Guess he’s not.” Then, his eyes slid to the reverend before swinging to Clayton. “But the reverend . . .”

It was just for a split second, but he knew he’d played his cards. His breath hitched as the knife glinted in growing proximity to Mason. A slight twitch of his lip with that and he knew he’d cast his lot. Please no . . .

Ringleader smiled before taking a step in the reverend’s direction, doing a slow turn as he said, “Did you hear what he said when we nabbed them, boys?! He called out ‘Matthew’! Now, who in the hell is ‘Matthew’ you may be asking? Why, gentleman, it’s none other than,” he leveled the knife in Matthew’s direction, “Reverend Matthew Mason.” 

Clayton’s heart was beating painfully in his chest and his vision was swimming as he hyperventilated. Arabella’s movements had turned frantic beside him, again, struggling against the ropes. He knew she wasn’t going to make it in time. Not him. Please no . . .

“Your brother,” Clayton called out, drawing the ringleader’s attention. He’d just remembered where he’d seen those eyes. 

5 years ago, El Paso, Texas. He’d been hired to kill a cattle thief. They couldn’t get evidence. The courts had already settled the case. The man whose cattle were being stolen didn’t care, though. He wanted Boone Cassidy dead. That’s where Clayton came in. 

He challenged Boone over something trivial, like a card game or something, to a duel. Then he’d killed him. Lawful like because it was a duel. But Boone was still dead and Clayton was still paid. As he walked away, hat lowered against the harsh dusty wind, he looked back just once as a boy had yelled something at him. A boy with eyes that were exactly the same as the man standing in front of him. 

Looking at him now, he couldn’t be more than 17, but he still had a knife and he was still threatening the people that Clayton cared most about in the whole world. 

“You must be a Cassidy.”

He lifted his chin and frowned. “So you do remember?” When Clayton nodded, he said, “So you remember the money you were paid to kill him? To challenge him to that duel?” With Clayton’s silence, he laughed. “My brother was everything to me. He was the only family I had. And you took him from me for money .”

Clayton couldn’t bring himself to look at his friends. He wasn’t sure they would be his friends after this. They’d “known” who he was before this. Now they really did know what he was. How much blood was on his hands. He wouldn’t blame them if they left him in the dirt after all this was through. It was what he deserved. 

But he still couldn’t let any of them get hurt. Couldn’t let him get hurt. 

Without a knife, getting his ropes loose had been much more painful. He’d had to sacrifice some skin and now the bindings were wet and slipping, but that’s exactly what he needed. Damn the pain. 

“Well,” the younger Cassidy said, gripping the knife in a shaking hand. “It’s my turn. Except, I don’t do this for money. I do this for my brother.” He’d made it a step towards Matthew before Clayton was scrambling in the dirt and running at him. He hadn’t quit managed to get his hands free, but that didn’t matter. He was out of time. 

His shoulder connected with Cassidy’s stomach and they both went sprawling backwards into the dirt. They wrestled incoherently for a moment as Clayton struggled to pull his wrists free, but Cassidy seemed to recover faster. Something flashed in the firelight and pain sparked in Clayton’s abdomen. He didn’t stop, though. There was fire in his belly. 

Images of him kept flashing through his mind. In the morning when they were gathered for planning whatever Mr. Swerengin was sending them on next; late at night when they were laughing at a joke cracked by Miriam or when Clayton was being woken up for the next watch. In all the memories, he was there, passing Clayton a cup of coffee or gripping his shoulder as he struggled not to fall over from laughing. His hands on Clayton as he shook him gently awake. 

Clayton had been to a church more in the last few months than he had been probably in his whole life. He wouldn't let that go without a fight.

With ropes trailing from his wrists, he brought his fist up and smashed it down into Cassidy’s nose. Again and again. Blood coated his knuckles before hands were dragging him away. 

They gripped his arms and twisted them behind his back. He cried out and threw his head back, catching someone in the nose. He stomped on someone’s foot and was rewarded with a cry of pain. 

“That’s it!” Cassidy yelled, picking himself up out of the dirt, hand gripping his blood stained bowie knife. He stalked forwards, the knife glinting before he was right in Clayton’s face again and there was more pain, more intense, stealing his breath away. He couldn’t look down from the proximity of Cassidy and the fingers knotted in his hair, pulling his head back. The strength drained from his arms and knees and he sagged in the hands holding him. Cassidy smiled in his face, blood stained teeth glinting and eyes bright. “This time, you die.”

. . .

Reverend Matthew Mason knew the others were moving. He could feel the rope around his wrists being cut, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t Please, God, no. 

One moment, the man (Mr. Sharpe had called him Cassidy?) had been moving towards him, knife drawn, intent written in his eyes. Then, Clayton had gone flying across his vision. He watched them wrestle for a few seconds as Clayton freed his hands and then the knife had been in Clayton’s gut. That’s when he’d registered Arabella moving, but his eyes had been locked on Clayton. His shirt was red as the knife had pulled out and he straddled Cassidy, punching the man viciously. There was more movement beside him, his ropes were being cut, and Clayton was being dragged off. There was so much blood. 

“That’s it!” Cassidy had yelled, but Clayton was still fighting. The broken nose that Miriam had caused earlier must have shattered when Clayton hit it again. Then he’d stomped ruthlessly on someone’s foot. 

Miriam, Aly, and Arabella were gathering their guns when Matthew’s heart seized in his chest. The same moment when Cassidy reached Clayton. The same moment when Cassidy buried his knife in Clayton. And Clayton went limp in the hands of the men holding him up. The words, “This time, you die,” crossed the space to Matthew, still kneeling on the ground. He knew that as long as he lived, they would echo in his nightmares. 

“That’s enough!” Miriam yelled, rifle pointed at the huddle of men. They’d been stupid enough to all gather in one spot, turning their backs as they’d focused on Clayton. “Put him down.” She probably should have thought out her words more carefully as they dropped Clayton unceremoniously to the ground. “Back away.”

They each took a few steps before they were reaching for their guns. It wasn’t difficult for Aly, Arabella, and Miriam to shoot them before they could be drawn. Cassidy was rewarded with several rounds to his face, finishing what Clayton had started. Within seconds, there were 7 bodies on the ground. 

8 bodies, Matthew thought to himself. There are 8 bodies. 

Throughout everything, Clayton had remained unresponsive on the ground. He was curled, almost contorted, in a position that Matthew knew couldn’t be comfortable. His hair ruffled gently in the breeze, the light from the campfire casting flickering shadows over him. 

Matthew didn’t know when he’d crossed the space to him, when he’d dropped down on his knees and rolled Clayton over, pulling the man’s upper body into his lap. He pulled his gloves off and brushed his thumb over Clayton’s cheeks, the other hand clamping down on the bleeding cut under his jaw. 

Miriam dropped down across from him and Arabella crouched down beside her, already unbuttoning Clayton’s vest. Aly stood watch over them, eyes flicking between them and the surrounding area as his gun rested for the moment. 

“Mr. Sharpe?” Miriam called, grasping his hands and leaning over him. “Mr. Sharpe, can you hear us?”

“Oh God,” Arabella breathed when she’d finished unbuttoning his shirt. There were two long, thin stab wounds in his abdomen, sitting side by side. As they watched, blood slowly dribbled and stained the sand beneath them. 

Matthew had to look away. There was too much blood pooling out of the man in his arms. The religious man in him was screaming “Last rights. This man doesn’t have much time. He needs last rights before he dies.” The other side of Matthew Mason - the side of him that he liked to pretend didn’t exist - socked the religious Mason in the mouth and turned to Miriam. “What do we do?”

All eyes turned to Arabella. Her hands were already covered in blood, resting over Clayton’s abdomen, doing whatever she could to stem the bleeding. She stammered with the increased attention, her hands slipping against his skin. “We - We need to stitch the wound.”

“We need to get him to a doctor,” Aly piped up.

“We’re going to need to ride,” Miriam commented. “Stitches won’t last long on a horse.”

The reverend sighed and closed his eyes. When he reopened them, there were grey ones already searching for his. Or, at least, that’s what the scared part of him was hoping. The part of him that didn’t want to think about losing Clayton Sharpe. “Clayton? Can you hear me?”

Clayton winced, his eyebrows tightening over a long blink. 

Matthew rubbed his neck comfortingly, fingers massaging the tense muscle where his shoulder connected. “No no no. C’mon, Clay. Don’t do this.”

“What did you just call me?” Clayton asked, eyes slowly blinking back open and latching onto Matthew’s again. 

Even though his pupils weren’t even and his breath was raspy and weak and he was currently lying in Matthew’s lap, Matthew couldn’t help but be slightly intimidated by Clayton Sharpe. He cleared his throat. “Clay.” 

Clayton laid still for a moment, eyes pensive before they closed and he smiled. “I like it.”

Miriam looked between her two boys, curled around each other, and quickly said, “He’s losing too much blood. We need to act.”

“We need to cauterize the wound.” It was Aly that said it, grim and quiet and already handing over his bowie knife. 

Arabella took it in a shaking, blood-stained hand and looked at her reflection in the blade, then over at the fire. Miriam and Matthew nodded at her as she stood and shoved the blade into the base of the flame, where the fire was hottest. 

“We’re going to need to hold him,” Aly said, handing his rifle off to Miriam as he crouched at Clayton’s feet. “This is going to hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.”

“Do we have anything we could numb the pain with?” Matthew asked, hoping the others weren’t noticing the way he was already gripping Clayton tighter. Or the way Mr. Sharpe’s fingers were snagging at his coat, tangling in the fabric in his half-awake state. 

Miriam pulled out one of her flasks and passed it to him. Over the next few minutes, while Arabella heated the blade, he got some of the whiskey into Clayton with a mixture of orders and pleas. He passed the flask back as Arabella stood up, gripping the end of the bowie knife. 

Aly practically sat on Clayton’s feet, straddling his ankles and reaching forward to place his hands flat against the man’s knees. “Reverend. You’re going to have to hold him down.”

It was a sin to lie. Especially to yourself. The idea of having Clayton beneath him wasn’t totally foreign to his mind. It had just been under far different circumstances. 

Still, he lifted the man out of his lap and laid him on the ground. Crouching down beside him, he looped one of his arms over the top of Clayton’s chest, pressing him flat to the ground. Miriam picked up one of Clayton’s bloodied hands and gripped it tightly. As one, they all nodded at Arabella. 

Matthew looked away, focusing on Clayton’s face. He could tell when it started. He paled even further, eyes flying open as panic swept his expression, then he was fighting. He bucked against Aly’s hold on his feet and tried to fight against Matthew’s grip on his chest. They held strong. After a few seconds, he quieted, sweat soaked and shaking. Whatever whiskey Matthew had gotten into him hadn’t been enough. On top of that, the pain must have sharpened his mind, as he turned more focused eyes on Matthew. 

“Rev’nd?”

“Easy, Cl-Mr. Sharpe. We had to cauterize your wounds.”

“We still need to do the other,” Arabella interrupted. She looked pale in the firelight, but she also had a mission. Without looking at Clayton, she got up and headed back over to the fire. 

The poker face that Clayton normally wore disintegrated. Between the stress, the pain, and the blood loss, he wasn’t able to hide the fear. “It’s fine,” he tried, even going so far as trying to sit up. “I’ll be fine. I’ve had worse. Let go of me.”

“You’ll bleed out before we can get halfway back to Deadwood,” Miriam stated. She’d never let go of his hand and he hadn’t tried to remove it. 

“So what if I do?”

Matthew was pretty sure he hadn’t meant to say the words out loud as his eyes went wide and his body went rigid. All the same, the fact that those words had even passed through his mind made something in Matthew’s chest feel a little bit tighter. 

Miriam was breathing evenly, even if it was clearly forced. “That’s a topic for another day, Mr. Sharpe. For now, we’re going to save your life.”

Matthew could tell that Clayton wanted to say something back before he looked up at him and something changed in his eyes. Then, he nodded weakly before letting his head drop down to the dirt. Or, at least it would have had Matthew not wound his other arm around the back of Clayton’s neck at some point. 

“Reverend?” Clayton said, again, not looking at him.  

“Yes, Clay?” 

Clayton opened his mouth, clamped it shut again, then opened it to say, “I’m sorry for getting you mixed up in all this.” Looking at Miriam and Aly and Arabella, he said, “I’m sorry for getting all of you mixed up in this.”

“It’s not your fault, Mr. Coffin,” Aly said, smiling at him from where he was still sitting on Clayton’s feet. “We all got shit in our pasts.”

“Round 2,” Arabella interrupted as she approached with the knife again. 

“Wait.” Aly reached down and unlooped his belt before passing it over to Miriam. “He might want to bite down on that.”

“Thank you, Mr. Fogg,” Miriam answered before holding the belt out to Clayton. 

Clayton eyed it before nodding. Miriam slid it between his teeth and Matthew pulled his arm out from under him, letting Clayton lay his head flat on the ground. Placing a hand gently on his forehead, Matthew nodded at him, meeting those wide, gray eyes, before glancing up at Arabella. With the last signal, she lowered the knife. 

Like before, Matthew looked away. 

Clayton clenched his teeth and eyes, suppressing a scream behind the belt. Veins in his neck popped out as he strained, although Matthew could feel him holding back now that he was semi-coherent. It only took a few seconds, but, by the end, Clayton’s eyes were hazy and fluttering again. Matthew was carding his fingers through his hair and whispering affirmations. 

When she’d finished, Arabella pulled back the knife and let it fall from her fingers to the ground. Rising, unsteadily, to her feet, she staggered away, followed by Miriam. When Matthew glanced at them, he saw Arabella bent over, back shaking as Miriam held back her hair. 

Matthew pulled the belt out from between Clayton’s lax lips and began to resituate the man’s clothes, buttoning them with one hand while he held him up with the other. Aly had gone back to holding his gun and looking around, clearly not comfortable with leaving them vulnerable for any length of time. 

The reverend had just finished when he heard Aly start, somewhat falteringly, “He’ll - He’ll be okay, reverend. We’re going to make sure he is.”

When Matthew looked up, Aly was looking at him, more understanding in his eyes than the reverend was comfortable with. Still, he pursed his lips and nodded slightly. “Thank you, Mr. Fogg. I do appreciate it.”

“Feelin’ alright, Bella?” Aly asked as she and Miriam approached. Miriam had an arm looped around her back and was practically leading her back to where they were. 

She nodded, still looking pale. “Better now.”

“We need to get back to town,” Miriam said, looking around the group. They all looked worn out and beaten, sporting various bruises and scratches. Her eyes turned soft at the sight of Matthew holding Clayton close to his chest. She couldn’t see Clayton’s face as it was currently tucked into the reverend’s coat. 

Matthew also looked around the group, at how drawn they looked. He knew they would all willingly ride all day and night to get Clayton to safety just as he knew that Clayton would do the same for any of them. In the months that they’d known each other, they’d formed some kind of family. They’d gotten closer and then had just . . . stopped getting any closer. He could feel them standing on a precipice. They were either going to get closer again, or they would all go their separate ways. 

Unconsciously, his hand tightened around Clayton’s shoulder. He really didn’t want them all to wander apart. 

“Should we rest for the night?” He asked. “Set off at dawn?”

“It’ll mean losing a few hours,” Arabella commented hoarsely, “but it’s probably safer to do it that way.”

“I agree,” Aly said. Smiling half-heartedly, he asked, “Y’all hungry? I could see about whipping up something.”

Arabella shook her head. “I don’t think I could eat.”

Matthew smiled tenuously. “As much as I love your cooking, Aly, I have to agree with Mrs. Whitlock.” 

Miriam agreed. “I don’t think I could eat anything right now.”

Aly looked relieved. “I’m glad to hear that. I don’t think I have the energy to cook anything. The thought of food’s also making me feel a little sick.”

“Why don’t you get some rest. I’ll take first watch,” Matthew told him. 

“You get some rest too, darlin’.” Miriam said to Arabella, pushing her in the direction of their horses and bed rolls. “I’ll stay up a little bit with the reverend.”

Oh no. 

Silently, they set up a small camp and renewed the fire in the center. Matthew handed Clayton off to Arabella for a few minutes and helped Aloysius drag the bodies away into the brush. Based upon the noises that came from that direction, their hospitable hosts found a true calling as dinner for some hungry animals. As Matthew accepted Clayton back from Arabella and tucked the man safely against his chest again, he couldn’t find it in himself to feel guilty. 

Soon, too soon, it was just him and Miriam, sitting beside the fire, watching over their sleeping teammates. Clayton roused briefly, eyes blinking open just long enough to look up at Matthew, clench a fist briefly around his lapel, before he went limp again. 

“Reverend,” Miriam began cautiously. “May I ask you . . . a personal question?”

Pulling Clayton closer to his chest, if that was possible at this point, he answered, “I can probably guess the question you’re about to ask. But feel free to ask it anyways.”

She opened her mouth and he prepared himself. But, then, she closed it again. Her eyes turned thoughtful as she looked down at Clayton lying in his lap and at the way that the reverend’s hand had returned to gently carding through the man’s hair. The movement seemed to bring peace to the gunslinger as his sleep had turned placid. 

Finally, she asked, “Do you consider Mr. Sharpe a friend, reverend?”

The answer came before he had considered the question. “I do.”

“Knowing all the things he’s done?” She was playing devil’s advocate and he knew it. 

Matthew chuckled and smiled. “The Lord doesn’t care about what we have done, but rather what we are doing.  In my book, Mr. Sharpe is a man trying to help people.”

“Even if it’s for money?” She pressed.

“The Lord knows that we have to provide for ourselves in this imperfect world.” He looked down, his fingers momentarily pausing. “He’s my friend, Miriam. He probably saved my life tonight.”

“He doesn’t think his life is worth anything,” she said, her voice melancholic.

Matthew nodded, remembering the words well. “So what if I do?” Matthew knew what he meant. So what if I die? The thought of Clayton dying, the thought that he could still lose the man sleeping in his lap was . . . He didn’t want to think about it. 

He’d been doing a good job of shoving all those emotions down for the past couple of months; ignoring them or just straight up denying them had been the most successful. But, now, with everything that had happened, the way that Clayton had called out to him when they’d been ambushed, the way that he had leapt up when Matthew had been threatened, the way he had said he liked it when Matthew called him Clay or the way his hands had clutched him when half-asleep. All those things made it very hard for him to shove his feelings back down into the dark box that Reverend Mason pretended didn’t exist. 

“I know,” Matthew finally answered. “It’s up to us to show him - to prove to him - that he’s wrong.” Grimacing in the firelight, he sighed. “That may be easier said than done, though. Mr. Sharpe is a stubborn man.”

“Which is why he has us,” Miriam added, eyes set. “We’re just as stubborn and we’re not going to give up on him.”

Looking down at Clayton wrapped in his arms, Matthew brushed a stray strand of hair off of his sweat soaked forehead before mumbling, mainly to himself, “No. We won’t.”

. . .

Clayton scrunched his eyes tighter against the early morning rays streaming across his face. Raising a hand, he frowned at how heavy it felt and, instead of blocking the sun with it, he ended up dropping it on his face. Dragging it down from over his eyes, he peeled one open and took in his surroundings. 

It was a room he recognized. He’d seen it the mornings he’d been sent to collect the reverend and one that had wandered into his thoughts more often than he was comfortable admitting, even to himself. 

Pushing himself up on shaky limbs, he managed, on the second attempt, to sit up on the edge of Reverend Mason’s bed as he was in Reverend Mason’s room. He took in his surroundings as he swayed, trying to ease the spinning of the room and the ragged breaths rushing in and out of his chest. Something was burning around his middle, but it was hardly the worst pain he’d ever experienced so he left it to be investigated later. 

The room was sparsely decorated. There was a nightstand by the bed, leaning slightly in his direction due to a broken foot, a dresser littered with different bottles, rolls of clean bandages, and a wash basin, and, beside the bed, a simple chair. After catching sight of the coat, shirt, and gunbelt draped across the back, he became aware of the fact that his shirt and vest were gone. 

Looking down, his fingers reached up to trace the bandages wrapped around his midsection. They were clean, freshly changed. His eyes caught on similar wrappings around his wrists. Around the edges, he could see bruises and mottled skin. Now, with his senses sharpening, he could taste tea on his tongue and his eyes were able to pick out several different leaves and herbs on the top of the dresser among the bottles. No doubt, evidence of Arabella. 

Looking around, again, he caught sight of other things that he hadn’t seen before. Also across the back of the chair, underneath his coat, was a shawl, one he was pretty sure he’d seen Miriam wearing at some point. Propped up in the corner behind the door was a rifle, one that he knew to be Aloysius’. 

That was all he needed to see before he was moving, reaching for the shirt on the back of the chair. He felt unused muscles stretch in his back and he groaned, leaning heavily against the chair for a few seconds before he began to move again. The shirt was new, but his size. He didn’t know where his old one went, but he didn’t much care. Someone in his line of work couldn’t afford to be concerned about where a set of clothes came from. It only mattered that he had some. 

He’d gotten one sleeve on and was straining to get the other when he heard the door creak. The gun that had been in its holster hanging over the back of the chair was in his hand and pointed at the door before it had opened halfway. 

Matthew poked his head through, eyes going wide at the gun pointed at him, but he didn’t back away. A smile broke across his face as he stepped through further like a man caught by a current. “You’re awake,” he breathed. 

Clayton instantly lowered the gun, something inside aching at the fact that he had even pointed it at the reverend in the first place. He didn’t know how to respond as he slid it back in its holster, settling on, “I am.” Stupid stupid stupid. 

“How are you feeling?” Matthew asked. He couldn’t stop his eyes from trailing down Clayton, taking in the bruises and old scars. They were extensive, turning the skin of his chest and back blue and black. They even wound around his arms where the bandits had grabbed him. Clayton was a strong man, as evidenced by the muscles that the reverend could see flexing as he once again started to work on getting his shirt on, but he had seemed so small, so fragile tucked against Matthew’s chest as they’d ridden back to Deadwood. 

Clayton chuffed and winced. “I’m alive.”

“You almost weren’t.”

From the look on Matthew’s face, Clayton got the impression that the reverend hadn’t actually meant to say that. The mood darkened between the two of them, growing somber and slightly fearful. “How long?” Clayton eventually asked, buttoning his shirt. 

Matthew rubbed a toe of his boot across the floor as he said, “Three days. We were starting to worry. You were . . . still the first two. You started to rouse yesterday.”

Clayton nodded and finished tucking in his shirt before reaching for his gun belt. The weight was familiar, calming him as it settled around his hips. “I’m much obliged to everything y’all have done for me. I won’t impinge on your hospitality any longer. As soon as I’m packed, I’ll get out of your way.”

“What? Clayton, what are you talking about?”

He paused as he straightened his vest, but he didn’t look at the reverend. He knew that if he looked at him, if he saw the look in his eyes, the hurt on his lips that Clayton could hear in his words, he may not be able to leave. Ever. 

No. He needed to stay resolute. 

“I’ve put y’all through enough already. You don’t deserve anymore of the trouble that my presence brings.”

“Clayton, if this is about-.”

“What else would it fuckin’ be about, reverend?” Clayton spat, back still turned. Make him hate you. If he hates you, it will be better for him. He won’t be in danger. “I don’t need your charity.”

“It’s not charity, Mr. Sharpe. Not when someone’s a friend.”

Clayton forced a chuckle past the constricting of his throat. His coat slid over his shoulders as he answered, “Is that what we are, reverend? Friends? I don’t think so. I don’t count people I just do business with as friends.”

“Then why did you save my life?”

The question hung in the air between them like a weight. Clayton could almost feel its physical presence as his mind raced for an answer. Because I couldn’t let you get hurt. Because you’re important to me. Because, for the first time in my life, I have people I need to protect. Because-. All the answers failed him. 

He heard the floor creak as Matthew came closer, crossing the space between them. His gunfighter instinct had him turning around before he could stop himself. The second he looked at the reverend, he knew he was doomed. 

Matthew didn’t look hurt or confused, he looked scared. His russet eyes locked with the steel grey of Clayton’s as he asked, again, “If we’re not friends, then why did you save my life?”

It’s not that Clayton didn’t have an answer, it’s that he couldn’t say it. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Because to say it would be to possibly lose this man with kind eyes in front of him and he was finding out, rather quickly, that that wasn’t an option. 

“We all know who you are,” Matthew said delicately. “We all know that there are things in your past. But we also have things in our pasts. I have things in my past. And if helping you when yours comes back means that you’ll be on my side when mine comes knocking, then I’ll take it. Because I know who you are, Clayton Sharpe, and I still . . .” The reverend’s voice trailed off and Clayton realized that, at some point, his hands had reached out and were grasping Clayton’s shoulders. “Please don’t leave.”

Clayton felt like he was on the side of a cliff. He could turn and walk away, or he could jump over the side, fling himself over into whatever waited. But as he stood there in the middle of the reverend’s room with the reverend’s hands on his shoulders, he realized that there was a third option. He could stay on the precipice. He could enjoy it for a little bit longer before everything would be forced to change, one way or the other. He could live with that. 

Clayton nodded. “Alright, reverend. Alright. I’ll stay.”

Matthew breathed a sigh of relief and the smile returned to his face as his hands slowly dropped off of Clayton’s arms. “I’m glad to hear that and I’m sure the others will be as well. They’re waiting over at Swerengin’s. He wanted to talk to all of us, but we insisted that we wait for you.”

“You were that sure I was going to make it?” Clayton asked, tone playful despite the seriousness of the topic. 

Matthew winked. “I had faith. Oh!” He turned away just in time to save Clayton from further embarrassment over the color rising in his neck and cheeks. “We found this!” From somewhere by the dresser, Matthew produced a worn black hat, slightly worse for wear, but a welcome sight nonetheless.

Clayton accepted it when Matthew offered, amazement on his face. “I’m much obliged. Again, it seems. You’ve saved me from having to break in a new one.”

“You should thank Miriam. She’s the one that spotted it. Now, c’mon. The others will want to see you.” Matthew grasped his shoulder and squeezed it one more time before crossing back to the door and holding it open. Clayton smiled gingerly before he stepped through it.