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i threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell

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When Amos Kinsley was born, his father cradled him between his big palms and blessed him, saying “Lord, shower this child with your grace and keep him from harm” (three years later he cursed him for the first time). His mother cried and held him to her breast, praying for a good life (and he did, but that came later). This is Amos, becoming Clayton, and the years that followed.

 


 

Clayton had always had long, slim, clever fingers (“musician’s hands, Amos" his mama had said with a soft smile; “sissies’ hands,” his father had sneered). When he was a child they fidgeted and spun with nervous energy, always on the move (although they learned to still whenever he heard his fathers footsteps or saw his shadow cross the floor; “there’s wickedness in them hands, boy," a too familiar growl). His mother set them to work, shucking peas and sowing feed for the chickens. These were better ways to keep them occupied, she said, than plucking at the threads of his shirt. His father taught them how to groom horses and fix tack, how to mend fences and hammer nails (he also taught him how to duck, how to avoid heavy hands aiming to hurt, even though Amos never quite succeeded all the way). He swore to toughen Amos up, give him callouses and a sure grip and make his hands strong (and he did, he did, toughened up his heart and his hide and his hands; but still neither his fingers nor his body grew broad like Pa wanted, stayed too slim, too pretty for the tough boy he thought Amos should be. He didn’t have a true notion of toughness, Clayton would later realize).

His teacher in the schoolhouse liked the letters his hands could make, would call him to the board to demonstrate. Other times she would rap his knuckles with the flat end of a knife, leave bruises and welts when he couldn’t sit still (he learned quick to calm his fingers there, too, and sit on his hands when he simply can't). It was at the schoolhouse where he learned how throw a punch, scrawny hands clenched into fists that were put to frequent use (he’d already learned how to take a punch years ago). The other boys were taller, broader, meaner (“You a fish, Amos? Bet you is, you look like one, too dainty to be a real man!” they’d holler, until he hit them in the teeth, blood streaming from his split knuckles). It was years before he gained his height, years of being scrawny Amos Kinsley, years of having other boys sneer at his face, his thin shoulders, his slender hands (and even after he grew taller he stayed damnably slim, sinewy and lean, a mere slip of a man with those thin long fingers).

At church his hands get put to use lighting candles, handing out hymnals, or keeping place in the Bible for when his father needs a particular scripture (and Church is the only place Amos knows for sure he’ll get a heavy palm placed on his shoulder in thanks for his work, instead of fifty-fifty chance it will be a fist swung at his head instead). When their congregation somehow get the funds for a small organ, shipped from out East, the organist catches him playing with the keys and promises to teach him, eyes his long hands with envy (two weeks later he gets accused of murder, and that plan gets quickly abandoned; it’s a small, soft regret he carries, that lands more wistfully than most on his long list; he’d always wanted to make his mama proud with his musician’s hands). It was at church that he grows most comfortable with contradictions, sees them every day in the tough hands of his father, who swings axes and fists easily from his broad frame, then cradles the word of God like some precious crafted thing (he sees it in his father's face too, which smiles kindness for the world but spits curses at home).

(Later, much later, Clayton meets another man of God with a broad frame, big hands, and an easy smile and thinks oh, I know your kind; he tries to break the public façade so like the one his father carried, only to eventually realize that the softness, the kindness, and the toughness of Matthew are some complex whole and hide no trace of evil behind them).

He reads the Bible with his finger to the page, hands gentle on the flowing script, afraid to mar its delicate pages (and of the retribution that would surely follow). Amos doesn’t believe, not anymore, but if his father will use scripture like a sword than so will he (it’s not because he looks so proud to see you read it, he tells himself, it’s not, it’s not). The next time his father reminds him with a growl that the Bible says to “obey your parents in everything, Amos," he snaps back that “the Bible tells fathers to not provoke their children to anger too, but it ain’t like you’re following that.” He's proud  of his own wit, his clever use of scripture (he doesn’t really think it through, too angry and determined to make his father feel one iota of the guilt he heaps upon Amos daily); this only happens once, and then he learns that though the Bible is a weapon, it is not one for him to use. (That is the first night his father uses the belt on him. He is thirteen years old, and never reads the Bible again of his own volition.) (How lucky he is, nearly twenty years later, when he finds a man of the cloth who doesn’t care that Clayton rejects his holy book, knows his anger towards it and loves him anyway.)

He was a teenager when his hands learned how to hold a gun proper, how to caress the trigger in just the right way. It wasn’t the first time, mind, but his Pa had never taught him beyond the basics needed to scare away the coyotes, had never wanted him to waste bullets on practice. But the moment someone offers to teach him, he snaps up the chance to be more than Reverend Kinsley’s boy, more than a farmer, more than whatever meager existence he seems doomed to scrape out. He’s determined too, to show that his hands don’t need the brute strength of his father, that they are dexterous and strong and can wield a weapon just as good as any other man (better, even, but that comes later).

He gets ushered into this group that teaches him how to shoot, provides him with his first pistol (not a group but a gang, his mind supplies; he tries to ignore the thought, even when his mother whispers it in hushed tones when she thinks he can’t hear, or his father shouts it as he follows him to the barn, belt already in hand). His hands are envied, here, for the quickness of his draw and the deftness of his grip (“ain’t fair,” one of his friends gripes, “you take to shootin' like a duck to water"). He’s a part of something, he’s important, he’s got a role bigger than handling dusty books or mucking stalls, here. He has friends. (And then he doesn’t; it all goes to shit, and someone pins the murder on him and his deft aim and his quick shot, and he has never felt more alone in the world.) (Later, much later, when he has a group of people that will kill for him, die for him, love every dark corner he has, Clayton thinks oh, this is what friendship is.)

Amos leaves. He has to, can’t stay and face either his father’s wrath or the hangman’s noose (can’t face his mother’s tears either; of all three, that is still the one that weighs the heaviest). He steals a horse named Dusty, trades her in for an unremarkable filly two towns over before the news has traveled that far, leaning on his family name and father’s reputation for God-fearing honesty to make a good deal (is it really even stealing if she belongs to your family, grew at your side, he wonders; when he finds the first wanted poster with his name on it, “horse thief" listed beside “murderer,” he feels only a hollow grief at knowing that he was right to not ask his father for help). His hands shake all the time, and he’s terrified someone will recognize him, bring him in, string him up.

So Amos changes his name, smears dirt on his face to hide the snake bite scars on his cheek, and tries on the name Jacob, then Samuel, then Thomas, each one an ill-fitting glove, uncomfortable and unwieldy. It takes time to become familiar with the idea of changing names and changing identities. One time, just once, he gets caught off guard and can’t recall what he’d chosen, so he reaches and in his panic blurts out his father’s given name; later that night he dry heaves at the idea of becoming anything like that man. (Many years and many names later, he will be Clayton Sharpe, an identity that fits with ease, someone he’s becoming proud to be; but for now he’s too caught up in the loss of Amos to feel alright with becoming Jacob, or Samuel, or Thomas.) He has to train his hands to not give him away when he’s lying (and every new name is a lie, right now), to stop the fidgeting and twisting that they still like to do, now that there’s no teacher or father looming over him (although he learns that fear of the noose is just as effective a teacher as a fear of being hit).

(Later, much later, despite all the time he spends working to undo the habit, his hands will still instinctively fidget and tug and touch when he doesn’t remember to stop them; the first time he notices Miriam watching him twist a bit of rope between his fingers repeatedly he drops it, can’t stop his shoulders from curling in protectively or the stuttered “sorry” that follows.

“Oh sugar, why are you apologizing? I’m merely admirin', you have beautiful hands” she says with a laugh, something too knowing and sad in the tightness around her eyes.)

 


 

With time and with many miles between him and home, his hands steady, his nerves calm, and he becomes used to wearing new names. He settles on Joshua, for a time, becomes a wisecracking sharp-shooting boy who always has a dirty face and the makings of a scraggly beard. For the first time since running he is fiercely glad to have cast off his father’s name, made something new of himself, gone so defiantly against everything his father ever wanted him to be (he shies away from the hopes his mother had for him; they have no place in his heart, now). His hands learn to gamble, to roll cigarettes and hold tumblers of whiskey, and he becomes one of the hard-drinking fast-shooting men his father always preached against. He makes money from wagers on shooting contests, sometimes, and steals when he can’t. Its exciting, being this new person, this man of the world, and for a while he forgets his troubles.

His good luck holds, until it doesn’t; until this new persona draws more attention than it should, and he gets in one too many fistfights over his cocky smile. Then a fresh batch of wanted posters come in, and someone catches him in just the right light and goes “hey, ain’t you that Kinsley fellow?” and draws on him. It’s his first duel, and he waits until the other man aims then shoots for his heart; he walks away with his first bullet wound in his arm and an unnamable sorrow. (“I've not shot a man that wasn’t trying to shoot me first,” he tells Miriam years down the road, and it’s the truth; although he fells many more men in duels, he never shoots a man who didn’t first threaten his life. If he can’t hold to the sixth commandment, he’ll at least stick to his own code.)

Being out on his own gets him used to other things, too. He gets used to sleeping in a hotel bed when he can afford it, and under the stars when he can’t. After a while the excitement of being on his own fades, and his new reality settles in (round about the first time he kills a man, and the second time out of many that he has to flee and remake himself). He gets used to being alone, really and truly alone, for the first time in his life (he’s felt alone for such a long time that it comes as a surprise to him, that he could need to get used to this new sort of lonesome. He’s used to being lonely while in the presence of others; it’s been that way his whole damn life. But being alone in the world with no place to call your own and no one who really knows you is new; and then with time, as with all things, it’s normal too).

So he spends his time alone, and seeks company when the loneliness is simply too much. The first time a woman asks if he’s good with his hands, a heavy smirk on her painted face, he follows her into bed, desperate to prove he’s finally a man and cast off his father’s teachings about pre-marital dalliance, even if he isn’t sure women are to his taste (and desperate for the kind touch of another human being. He can’t remember the last time it happened). The first time a man asks, flirtation heavy in the air, he stammers no and ducks away as fast as he can, still followed by his schoolmates taunts (“ain’t no fish,” he growls, desperate to hide the flutter of uncertainty, the flutter of what if). The next time a man asks quietly with a sly look he says yes, and learns that he quite likes the touch of men (it only takes one beating when he misunderstands the wrong man to learn to keep his gun and knife close on such occasions, to get better at reading the signs for like-minded fellows).

The first time a man offers him money for his hands (“or your mouth, got a damn pretty mouth, boy"), he can’t say no, too desperate, half-starved and nearly feral after his latest string of bad luck and near misses with the law; so he says yes, and learns that he can be good at this, too (he figures he likes men so what will it hurt? He’s already going to hell for so many reasons, may as well add one more). It’s not something he does often, but it’s a fallback for when he’s too poor and too hungry to wait for anything else. Over time he needs it less and less, as his other skills get honed and he gets better about tucking away some extra cash just in case. Still, knowing that he's got an option if all else fails gives him a sense of safety that he’d never thought he would need. (He’s never ashamed, later; work is work, no matter what his mama and papa would have said, and it kept him alive many a time. And if his companions wonder why Clayton is so fiercely protective of the women and men working in brothels and saloons, they never bring it up.)

 


 

(Sometimes when he’s alone in the quiet of night, questions burn through his mind; “Why didn’t he love me?” “Why wasn’t I good enough?” “Why didn’t she protect me?” “Did he turn on her once I left?”; They’re too secret, too painful to voice so he shoves them down, tries to purge them from his soul.) (Who would listen, anyway?)

 


 

He lets his hands try honest work, for a while – being a cowhand, or dish-washing at a saloon; his hands learn how to crack a whip, how to brand cattle, how to scrub pots until his knuckles bleed. They learn softer things too, like how to pet the barn cat *just right* so she won’t scratch him to hell and back, or how to slip a quarter from his pay to the girl who does the laundry who's so much *skinnier* than he is (and that he knows has siblings at home, mouths to feed; he’s just got himself, and he’s gone hungry before). It doesn’t last long; once he gets bored and tired of scrubbing dishes for pennies, and another time the Sheriff comes around and starts eyeing him too closely and he knows it’s time to leave. (Once, he leaves when he catches the man who hired him beating his son; the panic that churns his gut quickly morphs into a blinding rage. He nearly kills the man, catches him by surprise with a fist to the jaw and beats him right there in the barn. The man is still conscious when he leans in close, growls out that if he lays a hand on his son again that he’ll find him and finish what he started here today. The man whimpers and tries to nod, and Amos leaves him lying on the floor, goes to the son and whispers a soft “sorry, but he ain’t right to hit you,” saddles a horse and leaves before he does something worse. That is the closest he ever comes to killing a man who was no threat to him.)

There is a time, after that, when Charlie (for that is his name now, even if it takes him a second too long to respond to it, even if he still calls himself Amos in his head) let’s his fear turn to anger, and his anger turn to rage. It doesn’t last long; the first (and only) time he makes a woman cower from his rage he stumbles out of the saloon, throws up in the alley despite having drunk no liquor, and vows to never let it happen again. He takes himself and his horse out into the wilderness, spends a month looking at the stars and listening to the wind, raging at his father and God and the universe. And when he gets back his overwhelming rage is gone; his anger remains, as does his fear, but he’s hammered it into cold efficiency instead of blustering heat, shaped it into snarky words and sarcastic comments, honed it into something usable (things that help you are only good if they don’t make you a monster, he reckons). (This thought will return to him years later when he meets the Dealer for the first time, and again when he sees a friend turn cold and emotionless mere hours before a gun is leveled at his head.)

 


 

When honest work fails him, for any variety of reasons, he tries dishonest work, and finds it suits him just fine. He lies, cheats, and steals, and does any number of unsavory things to gain some gold (might as well prove pa right, a small voice whispers. Always were good for nothin'). His hands, dexterous as always, find shuffling cards to be as easy as wielding a gun, and from there it’s a small step to learning how to cheat. He gets good, too, makes a name for himself around town as the sort willing to do most anything, and then he gets invited in on a robbery and things just accumulate from there. He thinks about horse thieving, once or twice (real horse thieving too, not just some scared kid riding off on a horse that was his in spirit but not in name), but the thought of leaving some family that depends on it without a means of travel turns his stomach (its not like he’s never ridden off on a horse that’s not his; sometimes needs must, and he’s had to leave places too quickly too many times for it to never happen. But he tries to be very careful about who he steals from, these days. He understands too well what it means to go hungry, and tries to take from those who have excess).

He dabbles in bank thieving in Colorado, then flees to Kansas where he falls in with a cattle rustler for a time. A soft faced but hard-hearted woman named Jessie with a sizeable ranch takes him under her wing, sees something worth teaching in his lean face and fast hands. His skills in a saddle don’t hurt either. He learns which ranches to avoid when rustling, how to pick out weaned calves, how to fudge up a brand, and how to wield a lasso with ease. He stays for a year before his spine gets itchy and he knows it’s time to move on. She tells him to avoid Missouri, if he’s to stay in this business, and to watch out for the big cattle company agents; “keep your nose clean, kid,” she says. “Just like you?” he answers, with a smirk that she returns before shooing him out the gate. (She’s not a mother figure, not like Miriam will later grow to be; but she’s steady, and human, and likes him for his quiet, and for a time she’s as close to a friend as he’s got.) (The fact that she’s easier to work for than any man, and too short to ever loom over him, is something he cleanly tucks away to examine later.)

He never goes into a church, not if he can help it, and that suits the few companions he travels with just fine. It’s not like they have any desire to make amends with the God that scorned them, either. This, he reckons, is one of the upsides of illegal work; when he was a cowhand he often drew more attention than was healthy for his refusal to attend church or listen to the prayers of the foreman. (It also makes it easier to ignore the churning in his gut and the way his nails bite into his palms whenever he sees a man in vestments or hears the Word of God pouring out of someone’s mouth; there’s no need to hide from what he simply doesn’t see.)

He always avoids home, by a good 100 miles or so. He does write, though; only a handful of times, and always when he’s leaving town. He only ever signs it “your son,” although he’s sure he’s been disowned by now. He addresses it to his mother, and always hopes she’s still the one that picks up their post from Barton’s store, that his father won’t find it and give her hell. But he can’t stand the idea of not having her know that he’s at least alive, somewhere; it feels a worthy risk. (Later, once he’s been in Deadwood for a few years, he asks Matthew to come with him on a trip. They ride down to Denver, hats pulled low over their faces to avoid recognition, and stop at first place they find that will send post. Matthew waits him out, doesn’t push for an explanation. When they’re half-way home, curled around each other in the cover of darkness, Clayton will press his face against Matthew’s chest and mumble that it was a letter to his Ma; “wanted to tell her that I’m married, Matty.” Matthew will smile into his hair and pull him up for a kiss.)

 


 

Through all his traveling, his hands become better, faster, stronger. They never settle, still prone to fidgeting whenever he doesn’t set his mind to keeping them still. But what once was lean delicacy (oh so long ago) is now hard sinew and tough callouses, scars from fistfights and busted knuckles. He’s good with a knife, now, branching outside of guns for when the occasion calls (it only takes one knife fight for him to realize it would be a useful skill). He hoards knowledge about weapons like other men hoard gold, eagerly seeking anything new, anything better that will one day give him the advantage. He loves his guns like they’re an extension of himself, a tangible threat that lends weight to everything he does. The Colts are his favourite, reliable and so quick on the draw. For a while he carries a Sharps, likes the power and accuracy of the rifle for when his Colts just won’t do. It’s not often he has to fire a distance, but having the option is always nice (and it makes him feel safer, knowing that he can shoot a man before he’s in range for a handgun, if he as to. Until one day he has to leave it behind during a quick escape out of town, and he feels the loss of the weight across his back for months. He always thinks about replacing it, but never does).

The guns and knives aren’t the only thing that keeps him safe. He learns how to hide better, learns how to adopt new mannerisms and new voices to fit his name. Traveling thousands of miles across different states, meeting all sorts of different folks, gives him a wide array of accents and dialects to choose from, and he gets good at blending into new places. He shies away from the flashy personas; it only takes one hard lesson to learn that a bright smile and loud laughter will draw attention quicker than quiet frowns and few words. He gets good at threatening with more than his words, at using his body language and sharp angles to his advantage (which often comes in handy when he’s still leaner than most men, doesn’t have the bulk to back him up). He’s scrappy and determined, and finds within himself a ruthlessness that lends itself well to the persona of a man who is willing to do (almost) anything to survive (it also hides the softness he still carries, the weak spots, the traces of Amos that he just can’t seem to exorcise). (In time it becomes less and less a persona, and more and more him, and he’s still not sure if this is good or bad.)

He has so many close calls that he stops keeping track. Some are humorous, after the fact, while some still rattle his bones if he thinks on them too closely. He gets new scars, too many to count. It would be impossible not to, the kind of life he leads; violence is common in his world, and he rises to the challenge it presents. And he’s been learning his whole life how to take a hit, and so this is nothing new; he’s known how to stitch himself together for years. (The first time Arabella finds him stitching one of his own wounds, she bats his hands out of the way and takes over with a horrified expression; then she notices the neatness of the stitches and looks impressed despite herself. Later, after she figures out why, her face will pinch whenever she seems him reach for the needle and gut; she never lets him stitch himself back together if she’s around.)

The years don’t all pass easy; he finds signs of his father’s legacy stamped all over his life, affecting his mannerisms, his disposition. Some of it seems to have lent itself well to the outlaw lifestyle; he’s more aware, sharper, highly attuned to anything out of place. “That one’s got a keen eye for danger,” one of the men he ran with would always say. (At least he tries to remember the way it makes him sharper, instead of the way it makes his nerves rise at the wrong tone, or makes him freeze when he sees a minister, or makes his chest ache when he sees a father giving his child any sort of affection.)

He prefers working with women, when he can, the rough and tumble ones like Jessie who ride the range better than any man. They never seem to set him off the same way, even though he knows they’re plenty dangerous. (When he meets Miriam and Arabella for the first time he’s skeptical that these soft looking, well mannered women are cut out for the work they’ve been tasked with; the first time he sees Miriam work her charm he knows she’s more dangerous than any of the cowgirls he’s known).

He runs with a few groups of other outlaws for a time, always leaving before he grows comfortable (he knows what happens when you trust others to watch your back, has a scar on his shoulder to prove it). The last one he joins in the years before Deadwood with isn’t a bad lot; they’re the kind of men who you don’t trust with your life, but you do trust enough to not stab you in your sleep. Then a new man joins them, a big man named Travers who likes to quote the Bible, who takes one look at the man who will be Clayton (but right now is still Amos, at heart) and decides that his slim frame and fidgeting fingers must mean he’s easy pickings, a way to climb the ranks in their haphazard group. He’s big, and loud, and uses his size and his anger and his righteousness to intimidate well. It’s not a new song and dance, and a week later the Amos leaves them, with one more successful duel under his belt and a vow to stay on his lonesome for a time.

(Here is what happens: after a week of steeling his spine and shoving his hands in his pockets to hide their trembling, of wavering between jumpiness and a dull fog he can’t seem to shake, of hardly eating because of the now always present nausea, of stopping his fidgeting because that’s how you get noticed, Amos, he realizes that he’s losing time. Small pieces, here and there, when Travers is especially threatening. Something must happen, during one of these periods of blankness, that changes things. Because when a sharp prick of pain in his neck makes the world sharpen back to too-present-clarity (as it does), Travers is being held back by two men, more furious than before, a knife being twisted out his hand; and then he’s spitting out a challenge, the men around him are scattering, he’s reaching for his pistol and then he’s not moving at all. Another man tells Amos that he’s bleeding, helps him stitch up a wicked cut that curves behind his right ear and down his neck; he doesn’t properly feel the pain for hours. He rides out that night, under the cover of darkness. It’s weeks (months) before the man who will be Clayton starts to feel settled in his skin again, and years before he will allow himself to join another group. He grows his hair long, after that. The scar that remains – and reminds him to be careful, lest his weaknesses get him killed – is too recognizable to leave uncovered.)

He grows older, finds his beard comes in thicker, and one day catches a glimpse of his face in a mirror and can hardly recognize himself. He wracks his brain and realizes it’s been years of running, hiding, being someone else. Maybe it’s time to settle, stop wishing for Amos, he thinks, so he shaves his beard into a mustache and picks the name Clayton Sharpe; Clayton because a man once tells him it means ‘mortal’ and he knows he needs a reminder every now and then, and Sharpe after the rifle he loved so well; if it serves as a subtle threat for those who know, all the better (“did you pick Sharpe because you’re a sharp-shooter? Bit obvious, don’t you think?” Arabella will ask him, once. He barks out a laugh. “No, but that would’ve made sense too”).

 


 

He’s been Clayton Sharpe for a few years now, a gun for hire of few words and fewer scruples. It’s the deepest identity he’s had since Amos Kinsley, the only one that feels like it’s settled into his skin, that feels like it’s him. Clayton Sharpe grows in infamy as he works his way through the Mid-West and back into the Dakotas, and gains the moniker The Coffin somewhere along the way. He’s in Sioux Falls when he learns that someone somewhere recognized him, that Clayton Sharpe has been connected with Amos Kinsley, and that there’s a bounty hunter in the area with a bullet that his name on it. He doesn’t stay to find out if that part is true; he’s heard tell of a gold-mining camp some 400 miles West called Deadwood, that’s rumoured to be a lawless town, the perfect place to avoid your past. Clayton leaves that night, catches a stagecoach to Rapid City and hopes to hell he’s lost his tail.

Deadwood both is and isn’t what he expected; rough and tumble, fights breaking out every day, no law to speak of despite a man who claims to be the Sherriff. He’s not sure what to think about the tall preacher who resides in the burnt-out husk of a church, but has no interest in getting acquainted. Then he’s being asked into Al Swearengen’s office, a man he’d hoped to avoid; he goes out of curiosity, and a growing lightness in his pockets. There’s a strange crew assembled – two women, a man who looks just as weary as he feels, and the tall preacher himself. Introductions are being made, and he’s trying not to betray how his entire body is on edge around the big man beside him in preachers’ garb when Mrs. Whitlock calls out his silence. And then Swearengen is offering them $500 in gold, and he can’t say no, so he says yes and hopes that this is over quickly.

 


 

He only lets the Reverend call him son once, then puts a not-so-gentle stop to it. “With all due respect Reverend, I ain’t one of your flock and I sure as hell ain’t your son. The name's Sharpe. Clayton’s just fine too.” There isn’t any way in hell he’ll call another man father, not in this lifetime.

“Ah. My apologies Mister Sharpe, it was merely a figure of speech. I’ll do my best to remember.”

He’s surprised when it’s not the Reverend who asks about beliefs, but instead Arabella, when he insists that the powers they’ve displayed aren’t divine. “Ain’t got much use for God,” he'll say, hands clenching like they always do when he strays on the subject. “Not anymore.” (He doesn’t tell Matthew about the way he misses certain hymns and the safe feeling a Church brings, just as he doesn’t tell him about the flood of anxiety that still comes when he sees a preacher man, or that he really bought him that coat to hide the too-familiar sight of his preachers garb and quell the despised tangle of fear hiding deep in his own chest.)

 


 

He’s seen strange shit before, unnatural things, especially in recent years. But nothing like this, these snake creatures that burn up men from the inside or these corpses that fire a gun as well as any living man. He wonders if this is his purpose, to be a force against such evil. He quickly rejects the notion – he hasn’t had a purpose since he was 17 years old beyond staying alive (liar, his mind supplies, you haven’t had a purpose beyond survival since you were a child). But if his guns and grit can earn him some gold, and he does some good in the meantime, well that’s just a bonus (he tries to ignore the part of him that still desperately hopes he can be a good man, even though he knows it’s not possible; he’s too far gone).

When he first hears Matthew talk about rebirth, he can’t help the bubble of hysteria that lodges in his throat (don’t you know, he wants to say, I’ve been reborn so many times I’ve lost count, it doesn’t make it go away - ) but he knows that’s not what Matthew wants (needs) to hear so he says nothing. He knows this preacher has a bounty on his head too, and will let him believe whatever he needs to. Not a half hour later a gun is being leveled at his head, and despite the sinking in his gut (I thought I’d have more time) he also feels the sick curl of satisfaction at this proof that he was right, and that everything catches up eventually.

 “Amos Kinsley, let’s take it outside.”

 


 

Clayton dies. Or at least, he thinks he does. Aloysius is aiming for his heart, but Clayton’s hands are steady and he knows he can’t kill this man, not if he wants to retain whatever shred of goodness he still has inside himself. So he aims for the hand and then something slams into his chest and – oh, this is what dyin' feels like, he thinks as he collapses to the ground (there were many times, as a child, when he thought he was dying; how wrong I was, he thinks, before he can’t think at all). His heart is stuttering in his chest and his fingers are twitching, and he has one last moment to smile at the irony of it all (that of all the shit he’s done, the one he didn’t do is what finally got him killed; and that he finally died for being a bad man after doing one last good thing and saving these people, this whole goddamn town; that this thing that’s called justice only takes place after he finally outlived his usefulness) and then he can’t feel his hands at all and he’s dying –

(Here is what Amos could have been – a young man who followed in his father’s footsteps, and became a man of the cloth; a man who never marries, but is loved by his county and known for his gentleness, and whose music brings folks from miles around; a man who never learns how to fire a gun, beyond what he needs to scare off the coyotes. But that is not the hand that fate dealt him, and so Clayton lies in the dirt, shot by one of the only people who has the chance of becoming a friend -)

 

His heart stops.

 

( - and if he had had more time, he might have sent one last letter to his mother, or gone home to see her, and whispered his apologies and love, but he does not have more time and he is gone -)

 

(- but not forever.)

 

His heart tears back to life inside of his chest as energy courses through his body. He wakes to Arabella's hands pressed to his chest, Miriam sobbing at her side. “I ain’t burying anyone else, not today,” Arabella says fiercely, hysterically. He gasps for air and tries to pat her hand, but his arms are so heavy -  the sound of scuffling reaches his ears, and he lolls his head to the side and catches sight of Matthew wrestling the gun out of Aloysius' hold, punching him across the face – black spots burst across his vision as Arabella presses against his chest, “Miriam, go help Matthew so we can move him to the Doc’s office –"  

(Matthew asks, more than a year after this day, if he would like to try and go home, see his mother once more. He blinks back tears and says “no, that ain’t a good idea, she wouldn’t want to see what I’ve become,” knowing that her rejection would be so much worse. Matthew kisses the top of his head, whispers that he’s a good man no matter what she would think, and that is that.)

(“You’d make any mother proud, sugar,” Miriam whispers into his ear from where she’s pulled him down into a tight hug, then squeezes him tight like she never wants to let go.)

They run Aly out of town, bundle Clayton into the doctor’s office and see to his wounds (a small bleeding hole and two broken ribs the only thing that remains; he’s had so much worse, how is this all that’s left from something that should’ve killed him?).

He tells them, huddled in a blanket, chest wracked with pain, about the false murder charge and his flee from home so many years ago. “Is that when you lost your faith?” Matthew asks him quietly; “yes,” he answers. (It’s not until months after he starts sharing Matthew’s bed that he will admit in a hushed tone that he'd lost his faith years before, when his father gave a sermon about love and forgiveness on a Sunday then beat him Monday morning for spilling a bucket of milk in the barn.

“How old were you?” Matthew asks, just as quietly.

“Eleven.” He whispers back, and Matthew gathers him into his arms.)

 


 

Thirteen days later, Aloysius returns. Clayton is at the Gem waiting for the others when he sees his familiar silhouette darken the door and ducks out the back, heart pounding in his throat, kicking himself for not leaving town when he’d had the chance. He’d put too much stock in Matthew’s firm declaration that they’d keep him safe, had grown complacent when Aly hadn’t immediately returned to finish the job (he tucks away the growing grief at having to run, (always running)). The false sense of security had lulled him; he knew fate would catch up to him again, but that doesn’t mean he’s gotta make it so easy. (He just didn’t think it would be so soon, he thought he’d have more time).

He runs for the Church, but Matthew isn’t there. He’s fast, but not fast enough, and that’s where Aly catches him, corners him on Matthew’s stairs with his hands held out in supplication.

“Amos. Clayton. Please, I gotta know.” His voice cracks. “What did you mean, about the law being wrong?”

The look on Aly’s face gives him pause, so he rests one hand on his gun but doesn’t draw. He tells Aly everything, how he was framed and the ill-fated escape that sealed his guilt in the eyes of the law; and Aly listens, face drained and full of sorrow. “I’m sorry,” he says when Clayton is done. “I know,” Clayton replies. (There is more to be said, of course; how Aly’s emotions had fled him, then rushed back six days later; how the guilt that followed has kept him up many nights; how Clayton forgives him, doesn’t hold him accountable for doing what he thought was right; how they can move on, after all of it.)

Clayton leads Aly into the Church, leaves him there while he collects the others and explains the situation. All his platitudes mean nothing in the face of Miriam’s wrath, and he has to hold her back in a tight hug lest she break her fist on Aly’s face. “It’s okay,” he’ll say, and mean it. “Let bygones be bygones.” (He means it, he truly does, but it still takes weeks for the tremor that takes over his hands when Aly holds a gun to fade, and months before he feels something like trust trickling back in. He means it, even if his body and heart haven’t caught up to his mind just yet.)

 


 

It’s not real, he tells himself. Everything ends, everything fades. Best leave before they turn on you. (He never does, and they never do either, not after that one time; he’s not sure what to do with the newfound spark of love and hope that’s been kindled in his chest at their presence.)

 


 

Time goes on, and he doesn’t leave. He stays, with this motley crew who’ve quickly added him into their fold, and makes a place for himself. The others do, too; Miriam builds a small house, where they congregate for dinners when not at the Gem; Matthew fixes up the church, makes it live-able and worthy of the Lord again; Arabella takes up office in the old Doc’s place, and becomes the medical expert in town; Aly often leaves on jobs, but always comes back. Swearengen continues to request their aid for different jobs, some weird and supernatural, some not. At first Clayton won’t accept his offers (even though he inevitably joins the others, not wanting to leave them to face danger without him), not trusting that he won’t sell Clayton out again. It’s not until Swearengen calls him into his office and offers to pass on any posters that come his way for Clayton to agree to lend him his guns and his grit (he makes sure to negotiate for Matthew’s posters, too; he’ll be damned if he lets one of his new companions burn).

Before he knows it, he’s calling them his friends, spending all his time with them, and dropping his guard. He’s smiling more too, finds that he enjoys their company. It’s hard not to trust them, not to want to be loved by them (and he does, he wants desperately to be worthy of their love, even though he pretends it’s not something he needs, and knows it’s not something he deserves. It’s just been so long since he’s had someone that cared for him, since someone knew the wreckage that was Clayton Sharpe and thought he was worth loving anyway. Maybe, he thinks, maybe they don’t know how awful I am, what a mess I’ve become. An even smaller voice emerges; maybe they know, and they like me anyway.)

(He breaks, much later, and tells Matthew that he doesn’t deserve him, doesn’t deserve any of them, don’t they know what a horrible person he is? Matthew looks at him with such hearbreak that he can’t bear to stay in the room. But Matthew catches him before he can leave, holds him tight and presses a kiss to his forehead; “sweetheart, love isn’t something you have to earn. But you deserve the stars in the sky, you’re so much better than you think you are.”)

He’s not the only one who changes, either; Arabella smiles more, and Miriam drinks less. The guilt that hangs around Aly fades, and Matthew stops looking so haunted. Being together does them all good, he realizes one day. He’s still worried that someone else will find him, connect the threads and track him down, destroy this newly built haven in Deadwood. Then he looks to the others, sees their strength, and remembers that he’s not quite so alone, anymore; he has people who will fight to keep him. So maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t need to run in fear that his past will catch up (it already has, after all, and he’s still standing here).

 


 

It’s few months after they meet, sitting around a campfire in the Black Hills after a long day’s travel, that the group gets on the topic of a man back in camp who beats his children. “Ain’t right,” Aly mutters, as Matthew and Miriam talk about the limited options they have. Clayton sits until he can’t, hands shoved under his thighs, then stalks away, mutters something about tending the horses. He finds Ingrid and buries his fingers into her mane, stays there as she lips at his shoulder until he can breathe without wanting to hurl. (He misses Miriam’s quiet suggestion that they table this for another day and is too stuck in his own mind to see the contemplative look on her face when he returns).

 Two days later Miriam settles at his side when he’s washing dishes in the creek, says soft and quiet “your papa hurt you, didn’t he.” He stills, hands frozen, but she continues. “Don’t need to say nothin’, sugar. But if you ever need to talk about it, I got a good ear.” Then she leans over and bumps her shoulder against his, settling her weight there until he starts breathing again. He leans back, just enough for her to feel it, then his hands start scrubbing again. She starts talking about a bird she saw on their ride, and that’s that (he’s never been so grateful for her ability to let her chatter fill his quiet until that day).

A few weeks later when they’re in Deadwood and a drunkard at the saloon talks too loudly about beating his wife and child, Matthew and Aly hustle him out back before Clayton can do much more than clench his fists. Miriam instructing him to stay put and calls for another bottle of whiskey, pouring shot after shot until his shoulders settle. Aly returns a few hours later, no preacher in tow. “He got held up,” he says with a smile, then orders a shot, and they don’t speak of it again.

(The next time Clayton sees the same man he’s got a broken nose and is whining about how his wife and children left for Detroit and cursing the new preacher to hell and back. Clayton can only smile in giddy relief.)

 


 

“You sure you aren’t a religious man?” Matthew asks, eyebrow cocked in surprise, when he catches Clayton humming a hymn absent-mindedly. Clayton shuts up and shuts down and turns on his heel to walk away, and Matthew doesn’t ask again. (“Oh, I ain’t a Christian boy,” he had told Arabella; it’s not necessarily a lie, not anymore. But it sure as hell ain’t the whole truth either.)

But sometimes, just sometimes, he’ll sit outside the church on Sundays and listens to the music, the swell of voices rising in harmony, the crescendo that makes his heart sing and ache in equal measures. (He regrets it, his loss of faith, in the quiet way one can regret that which could have been beautiful, but has since fallen to dust; but he knows that for him there was no way to pick and choose, and once he’d started picking the whole thing had come crumbling down around him.) He never goes in, content to lean his head back against the wall and breathe in the familiar notes, always leaving when he hears Matthew’s deep voice start into his sermon. Most days he doesn’t go at all, knows by the grind of his teeth and the pinpricks down his spine that today is not a day to wrestle with his ghosts.

(Matthew has heard tell of his gun slinging friend who sits outside of the Church but won’t enter; “what a strange fellow,” they laugh. He never asks Clayton in, sure that this will scare him away. Matthew trusts instead that he knows he’s welcome, that the doors are always open, even if he insists he isn’t part of the flock. And if Matthew’s heart swells at the idea of their reticent friend finding peace through his church, in any shape or form, well. That’s his to hold and cherish.)

 


 

It’s after a fight gone bad that they first see the scars; it's going just fine until Clayton gets shoved backwards through a window and ends up with a back full of glass (what a day to dress down, he muses later). The pain is blinding, and someone is holding his hands still as someone else cuts away at his shirt and – it takes him a moment to figure out why they stopped, to remember the lines all up and down his back. And then he’s trying to get free, cursing up a storm, twisting so they can’t see (even after all this time he’s ashamed). It’s only when Matthew envelopes his head in big palms, draws him into his chest and presses his chin against the top of Clayton's head that he calms, breathes, clenches fists in Matthew’s shirt while Arabella starts picking out glass piece by piece. His hands shake for the next week, and he knows it’s not only because of the wounds.

(Matthew asks, once, why he’s so good at getting up and walking off a hard fall from a horse, or shaking off a hit like it was nothing. “God must’ve given you a hell of a constitution, my friend,” he says with a grin, clapping Clayton on the shoulder. “God ain’t got anything to do with it,” Clayton mutters, shrugging him off and walking away, trying to hide the sudden trembling in his hands. Matthew stops commenting, after that first time he sees.)

When he’s changing his bandages for him, Matthew will ask, voice so tentative it makes Clayton want to squirm out of his skin (he’d hoped the questions wouldn’t come, but realized with a sinking heart that it was impossible – although it will be some time before he will fully understand that this is because if you love someone, you don’t ignore their wounds, no matter how old they may be). Clayton thinks about hands on his face, and being sheltered in Matthew’s grasp, and braves cracking open his ribcage to bare his most despised weakness. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of the child, but the rod of discipline shall drive it from him,” he quoted, hands picking and picking at the thread of his pants. The look Matthew gives him when he shifts into view is so stricken at the misuse of his beloved word of God that Clayton almost smiles. “That was Reverend Kinsley’s favourite scripture,” he finishes, and Matthew’s gaze shifts like something just clicked. He twines his fingers into Claytons, squeezes tightly, murmurs that he’s sorry, and then returns to his bandaging.

(Later, after Clayton no longer flinches from Matthew’s open palms pressed against his back and shoulders, Matthew will lay him bare against their bed and smooth kisses down his scars, murmuring how beautiful he is, how brave, and how loved; and Clayton will tremble, press back against his mouth and let him chip away at the shame until it can shatter into something new, something better. Is this what healing is, he wonders.)

 


 

“How did you do it?” Miriam asks him one evening on her porch, sharing a bottle of whiskey between them, her grief and anger palpable in the warm summer air. “How did you forgive God for letting those things happen?”

He thinks of her husband, and his father, and all the loss over the years. He takes another draw, then passes the bottle back. “Not sure I ever did.”

 


 

Their little group grows tighter and tighter, and before he knows it they’re a family. He'd always wanted siblings, when he was just wee Amos Kinsley, wanted someone to tag along behind him or whisper secrets to in the barn. When he gets older he’s glad that there was no one there to experience the same things he did, no one else who had to learn to duck fists and hide bruises and stop their fidgeting (although he does always wonder if it would’ve made it easier, would’ve given him an ally) (because as much as his mother loved him, she turned a blind eye, and some small part of him saw her as complicit, even though he understands that she was just as stuck as he was). Then one day Arabella and Aly are teasing him good naturedly, and he’s snarking back, and it hits him that somehow he’s acquired a sister and a brother without even realizing. (And a mother, but he’s known that one a while. He can’t quite place Matthew’s role in their strange little family until Matthew pins him to the wall one day and kisses him breathless, and everything slots into place.)

He falls into Matthew’s bed, and Matthew falls into his heart. It just happens, as these things do, and for once in his life he’s not scared about the outcome of baring his soul to another person (Matthew has already seen so much of his darkness, and he hasn’t left yet, has only kissed Clayton deeper and held him tighter).

(Matthew’s not his first partner, but he is his first one that really matters. The short-term trysts and winter shack-ups so he had a warm bed when the cold hit were fine, but never quite satisfied the need for belonging, for care, for love. But he’s never had someone that he can be soft with before, and he finds that he quite likes the feeling.)

Before he knows it, he’s wholly and deeply in love, and he’s moving into Matthew’s rooms above the Church and making plans to build a house together. The permanency of sharing a home both thrills and terrifies him. He knows by now that Matthew will never betray him, but it still takes a level of trust that he’s not sure he’s ever placed in another human before. (He’s also terrified that he’ll be the one to fuck it up, to take something good and poison it. He panics when he’s packing up the hotel room he hasn’t properly slept in for weeks and says as much to Miriam; “Oh honey, don’t give yourself so much credit. If things crash and burn you can be damn sure it’ll be on both of your foolish asses.” She smiles at the exasperated look on his face, then draws him in for a hug. “But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen two people fit together as well as you and Matthew, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”)

And they do fit together, better than Clayton thought was possible. Their rough edges soften around each other, making space where it’s needed. They make each other smile, and Clayton finds that he knows just the right way to make Matthew laugh in that booming way that echoes around the room. And Matthew – well, Matthew is the first person who tells Clayton that he loves his fidgeting hands, loves the wicked fingers that his daddy was so quick to hate. He curls up on their sofa, legs tucked up or dangling off the edge to make his frame fit, settles his head in Clayton’s lap and makes puppy-dog eyes until Clayton settles his hands in his hair and scratches his scalp. “The Lord gave you the best hands,” he mumbles, eyes closing in bliss. Other times he’ll catch Clayton’s hands, press soft kisses to his palms, murmuring how much he loves him. When Clayton can’t keep his hands still, Matthew lets him slip their hands together, grips his hand tight, smiles when he runs his thumb up and down Matthew’s and wonders at the simple feeling of his skin. (Matthew also loves his hands when they wander up and down his body, wringing praises from his lips that he could never utter in church. “Wicked fingers" takes on a whole new and delightful meaning, in bed with Matthew.) He loves Clayton’s hands for more than what they can do, more than their productivity or the hurt they can cause, loves them simply because they are a part of him (and he loves Clayton more wholly than Clayton had thought was possible, loves every hidden aspect of his being).

 


 

“Do you ever wish I didn’t have faith?” Matthew asks him, quietly. “I know it bothers you sometimes, reminds you of him, and I don’t want to hurt you -"

Clayton shushes him with a kiss. “Oh, no, darlin'. Your faith is part of what makes you so bright. You ain’t him, and I wouldn’t want you any other way.”

 


 

Things don’t always go easy. They go bad, sometimes, and they have to pick up the pieces afterwards. Because despite the friendships, the belonging and love that he’s found, the ghost of his father’s transgressions still thrums to life in his bones, impossible to ignore.

(He tells himself platitudes to make it easier, although they never really seem to help; things like it weren’t so bad; it made me stronger, maybe that’s a good thing; I made him angry, maybe it was my fault; there are worse things in life than fathers who beat their sons; and he clothed and fed me, ain’t that enough? They leave ash in his mouth and a ball of tar in his stomach. Once, many months after meeting his new family, he ventures to voice the thoughts, spill the ash from his tongue. “At least I had a father, better than a lot of folks I suppose.”

“Forgive my frankness, but it seems like it would’ve been better if he had been gone," comes Miriam’s dry response. He can’t deny it, has often thought the same himself, but never trusted that the thought held merit. “He didn’t make you stronger, you became strong in spite of him,” Matthew says on another occasion when the thoughts can’t help but spill over. He has no refute, and with each reminder that “it wasn’t your fault, Clayton,” the tar in his gut grows a little smaller.)

It’s a day like any other, out on a job for Swearengen and fresh out of a fight when Matthew rounds on him, furious and terrified at the carelessness (bravery?) that left Clayton with two stab wounds and a broken nose; he’s never seen Matthew that angry before, and the looming, shouting figure in vestments trips something in his brain and then Clayton is gone – when awareness trickles back in some time later he’s wrapped tight in Matthew’s arms while Arabella tends to the wounds. The world stays distant, viewed through two thick panes of glass, and he can barely focus on the muttered words of endearment coming from his partner. Matthew assumes it’s because of the blood loss, and Clayton lets him.

(Months later, when Matthew snaps at him in just the right tone after a long day when they’re both snippy as hell and the same thing happens, well. That’s harder to hide. He comes to with Matthew kneeling a few feet away, peering in at where he’s crouched in the corner, shoulders pressed tight against the walls, blood dripping down his hands from where his nails have cut circles into his palms; “where’d you go, sweetheart?” Clayton has no answers for him. This has only happened a few times before, see, and he hasn’t lost time in years. Matthew rarely gets angry with him, and it’s not often that he’s been faced with this particular combination of tall, broad, and holy since leaving home.)

To Matthew’s credit, he never treats Clayton like he’s fragile, like he’s something that might shatter apart at the lightest touch. He’s more aware, sure, more careful of how he pries at the cracks that Clayton knows must be showing, but he never shies away from contact altogether (not unless Clayton asks him to). (Never isn’t totally accurate; there’s one week, after the first time he notices Clayton duck out of an triggering conversation and finds him shaking afterwards, where his care transcends into caution, where it feels like he places bumper pads around conversations until Clayton wheels on him and tells him that Clayton’s been damn well managing just fine before he came along, so will he please kindly fuck off with his chivalry? Matthew laughs and does exactly that, and although there are bumps along the way, they never land there again.) He’s not afraid to touch, not afraid to speak, not afraid to tell Clayton his mind. Having someone who cares for him when he’s shaking apart is new, too; he’s so used to toughing it out, pushing it down, hiding it away that having someone who will wrap him up in a hug, get him some tea or a shot of whiskey, hell even just give him a smile or a kiss on the forehead takes getting used to.

(And this is the one thing that Matthew will not leave alone, no matter how many times Clayton bares his fangs – he pushes to remind Clayton that although he may manage just fine on his own, he doesn’t have to, that it’s not a weakness to lean on others. That he deserves to be cared for. It’s a lesson that is sticking slowly, but they’re getting there. There are days, of course, where Clayton can’t take the tenderness, too wound up to accept Matthew’s gentling, but in time they figure that out too. At first, Clayton feels like it’s just him, like he’s the only broken one in their pair; until one day when Matthew is quiet and withdrawn, and later whispers into his hair that the guilt is too much, today; or another day when Matthew’s smiles are too bright, brassy and fake around the edges, and then Clayton finds him crying in the kitchen; sometimes, he realizes, Matthew needs to care for him because it soothes his own ragged wounds. So he learns the days when he needs to put up with a little extra coddling, and how to give comfort in return.)

They fall into a routine of care, of knowing when to keep each other close and when to give each other space. It’s not perfect, but it’s close.

 


 

The Bella Union gets a piano. He’s not sure exactly when it happened (or how it happened, it must’ve taken a miracle to get it through the hills); they’re still more likely to drink at the Gem or at home than at the Bella, but he likes to stop in every now and then to make sure the ladies are okay. And there it is, sitting in all its glory. No one else is around, Miriam has gone upstairs to catch up with Joanie and Katie at the bar has ducked into the back for something, and he finds himself cautiously wandering over, running a reverent hand over the keys.  

“Do you play, Mister Sharpe?”

Clayton startles, jerks his hands away like he’s been burned, and Miss Katie smirks from where she’d snuck up beside his elbow.

“No, I… no. I don’t play.”

Something in his tone must give her more of an answer than he intended, and her smirk shifts to something thoughtful.

“Do you want to learn how?”

He thinks back to the organ at church, so many years ago, and the longing for music that’s no longer his. He hesitates a moment too long, and Katie pushes him down on the bench and sits beside him.

“C’mon, I’ll teach you. I’m not the most accomplished player, but I know the basics, and we can tag in Tess if we need to.”

She takes his hands and sets them on the keys, shows him where to place them, starts running him through a basic warm-up. He’s a quick study, and it’s not long before his hands can follow her lead.

“Well done, Mister Sharpe. It’s a pity you weren’t taught earlier, your hands were meant for a piano.”

He clears his throat. “Someone was supposed to teach me, once. Long time ago. Never quite got the chance though.”

She smiles and bumps their elbows together. “Well, lucky me, that means I get to be the one to teach you. Then maybe you can play for that Reverend of yours.”

(He does, but not until later, and never in the Church. Matthew is delighted, listens with a rapturous expression on his face, and starts musing about buying a piano for their home immediately. “We have so much gold, Clayton, might as well put it to good use,” he says, when Clayton protests. Six months later there’s a beautiful little piano in their sitting room, and Clayton feels some long-forgotten sorrow dissipate into joy.)

 


 

They get married in the spring. Miriam and Arabella insist that it’s the most romantic season for a wedding, and Clayton and Matthew go along mainly because winter is “too damn cold for a wedding” and they don’t want to wait any longer than they have to. And the flowers are lovely, he’ll give them that. It’s a simple ceremony, presided over by Miriam and attended by their small family. Joanie’s there too, and some of the other women from the Bella Union that they now call friends. It’s short, and sweet, and everything Clayton never thought he would have. Matthew dips him for a kiss, then sweeps him up to carry him laughing over the threshold into their home; neither of them can stop smiling for days.  

 


 

It’s Miriam who drops a ball of yarn and knitting needles on his lap one day, out of the blue (and maybe she’d seen him clench his hands so hard his nails drew blood, or settle his hands under his thighs when no one was watching, or crack his knuckles for something to do, or any other number of things to keep his hands from drawing too much attention with their fidgeting; he never asks, and she never tells).

“Here honey, thought you’d be good at this, clever hands like yours.” She teaches him to knit and purl right there on her front porch, guides him through a swatch and doesn’t comment when he tucks the soft piece of fabric into his pocket. (It becomes his new favorite thing to fidget with, when he’s alone and can be sure no one is watching).

“I knew you’d pick it up quickly,” she beams at him. He’s surprised to find himself grinning back, pleased at finding something new to occupy his hands (his mama would be so proud). That winter he gives hats and mittens and socks to everyone in their small family, squirms at the praise and thanks they give him.

“Ain’t nothing, just thought y’all could use somethin’ warm.”

Matthew loops him in to press a kiss to his hair and his hands still, not in fear but in contentment.

 


 

He’s not sure when it happens, but sometime over the months and years that follow things shift in his head and his heart; some of the beliefs that have weighed him down lighten, change, start to dissipate. He no longer believes he’s undeserving, unworthy, bound for an early grave (those thoughts might never be totally gone, he reckons, like weeds buried deep that keep popping up no matter how many times you think you’ve yanked out the root. But they’re fewer and farther between than before, and there’s so much room for new growth.)

He still has bad days, days when his head fills with static and ghosts, and the sight of Matthew’s tall broad shadow makes him shudder, days when he escapes to the warm cinnamon scent of Miriam’s home or the forested hills on the horse he now owns; Matthew understands, just as Clayton understands when Matthew has days where he has to bury himself in the Bible and read all he can about redemption and grace, days where Matthew works himself to the bone to try and distract from the blood and guilt that stain his hands. They both have things (demons ghosts burdens) that they’re working through, but for the first time in their lives they have someone they trust to slow them down, hold them close, and remind them that they are worthy, that they are good, that they deserve so much. (It helps that it’s not just them, either; they hear it in different words every day from Miriam, from Arabella, from Aly.) And the bad days are getting less and less, as time goes on. There’s just so much good in his life, now, and eventually the good starts to crowd out any bad that remains.  

Then one day he realizes that he’s no longer worried about needing to run (hasn’t been for years, at this point). Sure, the awareness of danger is always there; his hands are just as quick to the draw as they’ve always been. But it’s been years since he’s worried about the bounty, years since he’s settled and found a place for himself, years since he was terrified of losing it all. He looks at Matthew, at the life they’ve built together and the family they have around them, and he knows; I’m home.