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Red Dead Whumptober

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The wire sliced into his skin like a snakebite, its barbs latching on and pulling tight into the flesh of his thigh, his side, his arm, ripping tears into his brand new shirt and all. Dutch’d given him that shirt just last week and he’d be givin’ him an earful for bleeding all over it, too.

Arthur hadn’t seen the barbed wire in the dark of the moonless night, making a hurdling leap over the fence only to find himself tangled half way, yelping as the fence fought back with tooth and nail. He tried to jerk free reflexively, but only succeeded in driving the barbs deeper and twisting himself up even further. He hissed in a breath and let it out slowly, feeling hot lines of blood beginning to run from each wound, his eyes darting in the darkness for signs that he was still being pursued.

He and Hosea had made a clean enough getaway from the storehouse—the old man’d taken the wagon with the goods and Arthur’d run a distraction through the fields, tailed by a handful of trigger happy guards. He was pretty sure he’d lost ‘em, making an erratic loop around the property and crawling his way through the waving lines of crops until he made it to the fence, but he could hear the distant shouts of men and see the wavering glow of lantern light across the farmland. If they caught him like this, stuck like a damn pincushion…

The pain was starting to seep through the adrenaline now, cold and sharp, twinging with every tiny movement. He felt like a rabbit in a trap, twitching itself tighter and tighter in blind panic, and forced himself to stay calm, to carefully follow the trail of wire with a shaky hand and pull the hooks loose, one by one. The sound of footsteps was coming nearer now; the swish of cornstalks being pushed aside as the guards methodically scoured the fields. Blood slicked over his fingers, making them slip, making them sticky—his whole left arm burning with stinging punctures as he finally pulled it free. Jesus, how many times had this fence bitten him?

He risked another pause, another deep breath. He could see the outline of figures in the lantern light, a few hundred paces off—they hadn’t seen him yet, but they were steadily closing in. He had to move faster.

A grunt tore out of him as he grabbed hold of the wire and yanked. Three more bastard hooks; an almighty great tear in the side of his shirt; his ribs wet with sweat and blood. His head reeled and he swayed in the metal spiderweb, grabbing hold of the fence post to stop himself falling back against the barbs he’d just freed himself from. If Dutch was gonna make a fuss about his shirt, Grimshaw was gonna make double the fuss over all the stitches she’d have to put into him when he got back to camp…

He swallowed thickly. Just his leg to go now, and he could tell without even looking that it was the worst of all, the wire twisted tight around the meat of his upper thigh. An involuntary whimper escaped his throat as he tentatively pulled at it, feeling the barbs scrape against the flesh. Six inches higher and he’d have really had something to yell about, though, so… y’know. Small blessings.

Still, he wasn’t out of it yet. And the trampling of the guards was coming ever closer. He peppered his trembling hands with fresh cuts and scratches as he scrabbled desperately at the remaining wire, a deep aching pain running through his thigh as those metal teeth bit deeper and deeper the more he struggled. His breath was coming ragged now—just like his shirt. Maybe this was worse than he’d thought…

He was just about to pull out his knife when a hand came down firm on his shoulder and a familiar voice shushed in his ear. Arthur flinched, barely managing to bite down the cry of pain the movement cost him, and craned his neck sideways to see Hosea frowning down out of the darkness.

“Thought you might’ve come across some sort of mischief… What on earth have you gotten yourself into, Arthur?”

Hosea’s careful fingers skimmed over the line of the fence and his concern deepened as he saw the fast-blossoming bloodstains on Arthur’s leg.

“Hosea,” Arthur whispered hoarsely, his eyes on the crop line, one hand on his holster. “They’re comin’…”

“Yes, yes, they’re going to have to wait,” Hosea murmured, making a few calculations in his head and then resting one foot on the wire just above Arthur’s leg. “And I’m afraid this is going to hurt, my boy.”

“Wait, wha–?”

Hosea pressed his whole weight down on the fence and for a second Arthur thought he was going to pass out from the scything pain that ripped through his thigh. But then Hosea’s hands were deftly untangling the wire and the pressure lifted so suddenly that Arthur’s legs just plain gave out on him, and he tumbled sideways into the ditch below the fence.

Hosea make an approving tick of his tongue and crouched beside him, scooping up a fist-sized rock from the dusty ground and launching it with an easy overarm toss across the field towards a little wooden tool shed. Arthur heard the thunk of the rock hitting its target; the scuffling of feet from within the cornfield; the hushed discussion of the guards as they headed off in the direction of the shed, barely three paces away from discovering Arthur’s sorry ass.

He didn’t dare make a sound, even though his chest was heaving and he couldn’t keep himself from panting as the pain in his leg turned hot, then cold, then started throbbing in time with his heartbeat. He clamped his hands around his thigh and felt the warm pulse of blood between his fingers, a low growl in his throat, teeth clenched tight.

Hosea pulled him up to sitting and gave him a hearty slap on the back that set every tiny cut afire. “Think you can hop your way to the treeline?” he said, nodding to a small wood the other side of the fence. “Wagon’s hidden just inside.”

Arthur nodded grimly, though he suspected what blood was left in his head would rush right out of it the moment he got to his feet. He could feel Hosea’s shrewd eyes on him and he nodded again, forced a grumbling ‘yeah, sure’ out of his mouth.

Hosea didn’t look convinced. And there was an edge of anxiety in his eyes as he cast another glance over Arthur’s leg.

“Trust you to get yourself trussed up like a goddamn Christmas ham…” he muttered, waving Arthur’s hands away and replacing with them his scarf which he tied tight around the wound like a tourniquet. “Always knew you had the same sense as an ox, running into barbed wire… Honestly, Arthur…”

Arthur’s wincing turned to a low chuckle as the old man continued his griping, hauling him up to his feet and wrapping an arm over his shoulder as they made a slow limping beeline for the trees. His head whirled but Hosea kept him upright, one agonising step at a time, chiding at him like a wayward child, even though Arthur was a good foot taller than him these days.

If he didn’t care so much about you, he wouldn’t bother tellin’ you what a damn fool you are, Grimshaw’d once said, when Arthur had dared complain about Hosea’s fussing. And so he took it as a sign of affection as the old man shoved him (as gently as possible) into the back of the wagon.

“Might as well tear that shirt into bandages,” Hosea said as he climbed up into the cab, and Arthur could hear the grin in his voice. “Better to destroy all the evidence than let Dutch see it like that, huh?”

Arthur stuck his bloody fingers through a rip that ran from his elbow to his wrist and yanked the whole sleeve off with one sharp tug. “Yup,” he sighed, smirking a little himself at the thought of Dutch’s outraged expression—and the wide-eyed worry that would come after it as he saw just how much blood’d come out of his boy. “You’re probably right.”

Chapter Text

Although he’d never exactly been a man of many words, John had a loud enough mouth when the mood took him, and it didn’t take all much to set off his temper most days. Especially when someone cheated him at cards. Or knocked over his drink. Or pretty much did anything near him if he was hungover. Kid had a damn death wish when it came to talkin’ himself into trouble, it seemed. And it was usually up to Arthur to drag him out of it.

He wasn’t even sure what had riled John up this time. The way one of the fellas in the corner of the bar had looked at him, maybe. Some muttered comment about his worn out boots and dusty hat. A little too much pride in that stupid head of his. And before you knew it, the insults and fists were flying…

Arthur had done his job—hauled the kid out by the scruff of his neck before things got too heated—but John was still spitting out curses as they traipsed down the rainy street in search for another saloon.

“You really are a loud mouth piece of work...” Arthur muttered, turning his collar up against the weather.

John scowled back at him. “Yeah, well, some people need to be told.”

“Told what, exactly?”

“That they’re assholes.”

Arthur gave a gruff laugh at that. “Well, I certainly appreciate the color of your language, but I don’t think they took it too kindly.”

“They can take it any way they like for all I care.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. Kid was far too young to be such a grouchy old man. He tried a different tack. “What was that last thing you called him? A mongrel… whore…?”

The hint of a smirk lifted the corner of John’s lips. “Son and heir of a mongrel bitch. It’s, uh, from Shakespeare.”

Arthur almost stopped dead in the street. “You shittin’ me? Shakespeare?”

“Dutch was readin’ it the other night,” John shrugged self-consciously, “King… somethin’ or other. There’s a whole load of crazy insults in there.”

It wasn’t often Arthur was impressed with his little brother. “Well, ain’t you a cultured cusser?”

“Not exactly sure that’s the lesson Dutch was tryin’ to teach me, but I can’t help what sticks.”

Arthur let out another laugh, jostling John’s shoulder. “I mean, you and Dutch might have your high falutin’ poetry swears but personally I don’t think there’s nothin’ wrong with a good old-fashioned son of a bi-”

The rest of the word was knocked out of him, along with half his senses, as something came crashing down on the back of his head and Arthur crumpled face-first into the mud.

For a moment, or maybe more than minutes, he lay there, dazed, trying to remember how many limbs he had and how he was supposed to move ‘em. When he finally figured it out, a boot came down on his neck and pinned him in place, followed by a growling voice: “Stay down. This don’t concern you.”

Arthur begged to differ but couldn’t do much about it as he blinked the rain out of his eyes and peered up through the darkness to see John being dragged into an alley by a second figure. The men from the bar. The kid’s loud mouth come back to bite him.

“Ain’t got so much to say now, do ya, boy?” the man holding John snarled, and for a second it seemed like John was… floatin’? Both his feet were off the ground and his hands clawed at the air in front of him before grasping at his own neck, and the reality of the picture hit Arthur like a handful of ice.

The guy from the bar had a rope looped around John’s throat, twisting it tighter and tighter as the kid bucked and struggled, unable to get any sort of purchase on his attacker—or any kind of breath to fight with. His eyes rolled wild and desperate, like an unbroken horse, until they rested on Arthur, still down in the mud, and the look of sheer terror on the kid’s face was unlike anything he’d ever seen.

Arthur was moving before he’d had time to even consider it. His knife was in his hand and then it was buried hilt-deep into the calf of the man holding him down. The moment the pressure released off his neck he scrambled to his feet, a dripping primordial monster emerging from the muck, staggering more than running into the alley and barrelling into the pair of figures there.

The impact knocked them all sprawling and bounced his attacker’s head off the alley wall, but Arthur still laid a couple of extra blows on him for good measure, until the man lay still and harmless and the fire in Arthur’s blood was satisfied.

And for a moment, all was quiet, until John drew in a splintered, wheezing, heave of a breath and all but choked on it.

The kid was on his knees, forehead pressed into the ground, the rope still hanging slack from his neck, his chest punching in and out as his body tried to inhale and cough at the same time. A deep purple welt was already forming around his throat—a matching twin to the scar he already had there—and Arthur felt a horrible heaviness in his stomach as he thought about the fear he’d seen in the kid’s eyes. Because this wasn’t the first time he’d almost had the life strangled out of him. And Arthur reckoned there’s some things you never quite forget. Especially when they happened when you were a kid…

John was still gasping for air, his hands trembling as he pulled the rope off and tossed it into the mud. Arthur crouched at John’s side, unsure whether to give him a slap between the shoulder blades or try to straighten him up or just leave him well alone. He was never any good at the delicate touch. Bein’ a comfort. Hosea would have known what to do, what to say. Dutch would’ve made a joke, or some blusterin’ declaration to get John back on his feet. But all Arthur could see was the scrawny little boy they’d found half-throttled to death fifteen years ago—scared and alone and buck wild, like a rat in a trap. Maybe that’s why he shot his mouth off so much. Never quite believing the whole world didn’t want him dead.

“Hey,” Arthur said quietly, laying a heavy hand on the kid’s arm. “I got you, brother.”

John twitched, almost as if he were about to flinch away, but then stilled, forcing his breathing back more or less under control. When he finally looked up, it was with a furious glare.

“Took your fuckin’ time, didn’t you?” he rasped—his voice was husky enough on a good day but now it was barely there.

Now there’s the John I know…

Arthur scoffed, sitting back on his heels and swatting the kid around the back of the head. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he drawled, “I was a little busy takin’ a beating for your damn mouth. Jesus, you wanna curse me out for saving your worthless life? At least make it Shakespearean, why don'tcha?”

John sat up with a laugh full of gravel. “Alright, you… three-suited, worsted-stocking knave.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Fucked if I know, but it sounds good,” John sighed, letting Arthur pull him all the way up to standing. He wavered for a moment, before his eyes fell on the unconscious body of his strangler and he gave it a couple of parting kicks.

“Super-servicable… finical rogue…”

Kick.

“Brazen faced… varlet…”

Kick.

“Whoreson…” kick “…cullionly…” kick “…barbermonger!”

“Alright, alright, now you’re just makin’ ‘em up,” Arthur said, steering the kid back out of the alley with a firm hand on his shoulder.

From down the darkened street they could hear the squelch of someone crawling through the mud, whimpering in pain, and Arthur was reminded of just how much his head was pounding. John looked questioningly at him and Arthur gave a vicious grin. He might not be one for words but he had his own set of skills.

“Wait here a second. I just gotta go get my knife back…”

Chapter Text

He tried to hide it as he slouched back into camp, keeping his head low and turning his whole body to the side as he skirted the fire. And he almost made it all the way to his tent when Grimshaw’s voice came jarring through the air.

“Jesus Christ, what happened to your face?”

He froze, hunching his shoulders and wincing as she brushed his hair off his forehead and sucked in a hissing breath at the sight of him. His right eye was swollen shut, his cheekbone bruised and puffy, and a jagged cut arced across his eyebrow. But worse than all of it was his pride, except she couldn't see that.

Dutch was at her side in a moment, peering down at the boy with a terrible intensity. “Who did this to you?” he demanded.

Arthur was barely fifteen and had only been with the group for a couple of months, still not at all used to being around people who asked so many questions; always wanting to know where he’s going and what he’s doing and if he’s hungry and feeling alright and what he's thinkin'. It wasn’t as if he disliked it as such, but sometimes it was just… a lot. And now Dutch seemed angry about him getting hurt and he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with that.

“Who did this to you?” Dutch repeated, leaning right into his space now, far too close for comfort, and when Arthur didn’t answer right away the man gave him a little shake.

“Tell me, Arthur!”

Arthur flinched. “No one,” he murmured, unable to meet his eyes.

Dutch sighed, releasing the boy’s arm and forcing his voice into a softer tone. “You don’t have to lie to me, son.”

“I ain’t.”

Arthur scowled, turning his face away from the scrutiny. He didn’t know what all the fuss was about. He’d already told them about his pa, raising him with a belt. And he’d been busted up when they’d found him; had spent a couple of years fighting for scraps on the streets; got in his fair share of bar brawls since. Dutch said he ‘lacked finesse’, whatever that meant, but he knew how to take a hit and give one out too.

Except this was different. This was just… embarrassing.

He cleared his throat. “I.. was trying to…” he started, but trailed off when he glanced up and saw the worry lines deepening on Dutch’s brow. The unwarranted concern made him feel a little sick. Stupid.

“Go on,” Dutch prompted gently.

And the man seemed so sincere that Arther let himself believe that maybe he did care. Really care. All of them. Even if he told the truth.

He took a deep breath and shoved out the words in one go. “Hosea showed me how to fish with a stick. A sharp one. You find a rock to stand on in the shallows and you… kinda stab at ‘em…”

Dutch and Grimshaw exchanged a concerned look, as if they were wondering just how hard he’d gotten his bell rung...

Arthur shrugged hopelessly. “Rock was wet. And… I slipped.”

Dutch barked out an involuntary laugh and had to turn away to stifle it. Grimshaw shot the man a scolding glare and prodded carefully at the boy’s black eye once more. “And you hit your head?" she finished for him. "Good lord, Arthur, you could’ve drowned…”

Arthur jerked away from her ministrations and brushed his hair back over the wound.

“It’s nothin’.”

It wasn’t nothin’. It hurt like a sonuvabitch, as if someone’d taken his whole head off and filled his skull with lead. But worse than that, he just felt like an idiot. It’d bled so much he’d near hyperventilated, eventually finding the sense to wrap his shirt around his head and sit sulking on the bank of the river until the bleeding stopped and the rest of him’d dried off enough to slink back to camp. And if he’d been any smarter he might’ve figured that he was never gonna get away with it. Maybe he should’ve lied. Said he’d gotten into a fight. You should see the other guy…

When Dutch turned back his expression was serious once more but there was still a glint of mirth in his eye.

“Young man. I thought for a minute I was gonna have to deal out some vengeance,” he said slowly, before breaking into a grin, “And now you’re sayin’ I gotta go fight some fish?”

Arthur scowled as Dutch dissolved into laughter and even Grimshaw couldn't help but smirk. And right on cue, Hosea strolled back into camp with a couple of rabbits slung over his shoulder.

“Who’s fighting fish? Did you catch something for dinner, Arthur?”

“Our boy fought a rock,” Dutch explained proudly, eliciting a seething wince from Arthur as he clapped him jovially on the back. “And… lost.”

Chapter Text

“Can’t you run any faster?” Arthur growled, brambles whipping at his face as he scrambled through the darkened woodland.

Karen’s voice came out low and dangerous from behind him: “Got a whole lot more bustle and petticoat to contend with than you do, Arthur…”

He should’ve known ‘just a little shopping trip’ with the woman would’ve ended like this. He rolled his eyes. “Well, pick it up!”

There was a distinctly unladylike grunt, an almighty ripping sound, and Karen caught up with him, the hem of her dress torn off up to her knees. She scowled at him and pushed ahead as the shouts of the posse clamoured behind them.

“Where’s your damn horse anyway?” she snapped.

He gave her a sideways glare. “Tied up outside the sheriff’s office.”

She attempted to glare back but a laugh pushed its way through instead and she shook her head. “Hell of a place to hitch your horse.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t know we’d be runnin’ from the law less’n ten minutes after settin’ foot in the place! Coulda given me a little warning there, darlin’.”

Karen flashed him a winsome grin. “A girl’s gotta follow her heart. It’s called spon-tan-eity, Arthur. And just look at this beauty…”

She hefted her newly-acquired Springfield rifle and angled it so the mother of pearl inlay caught the moonlight, running an admiring hand over the stock. “She was worth it.”

Arthur rolled his eyes at both the girl and the gun. “I could’ve lent you the money, Karen.”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“It just narrows down the gunsmiths I can legitimately patronise, that’s all,” Arthur sighed. “He wasn’t a bad fella, either. Gave me a good deal on a varmint rifle once.”

“A varmint rifle?” she scoffed. “For shootin’ squirrels? Arthur, honey, you’re goin’ soft in your old age.”

Maybe he was. He was certainly feeling his age these days. Far too tired and ornery to be chased half way across the state for some petty thievery that wasn't even his...

“Just shut up and keep runnin’."

 


 

The woodland came to an abrupt stop at a ravine that stretched high over the river. Arthur skidded to a stop at the edge and made a few hurried calculations. He was pretty sure the cliff continued a good few miles in either direction before it started to ease off into the hillside and the posse must've seen ‘em heading into the trees. By the sounds of it, at least some of them had followed, and he suspected there’d be more waiting at the treeline if the outlaws tried to skirt around and head out some other way. The only logical direction from here was down.

Arthur gripped hold of the tree roots jutting out from the crumbling dirt and started feeling for footholds below. The rushing of the river and the shunting of the wind made the sheer drop feel even further but he trusted his own muscles; had clambered down worse with the law on his tail. You just had to be methodical, that’s all—one careful step at a time…

He’d barely gotten about six feet down when he realised Karen wasn’t following.

“What you waitin’ for?” he hissed up at her. “They’re gonna be on top of us any minute.”

But something was wrong. She stood a little ways back from the edge, peering down at him with a sickly expression on her face. Her eyes darted along the length of the clifftop. “Let’s… let’s just go around.”

“You crazy?”

She jerked her chin at the drop. “Are you?”

He stared at the woman he thought was fearless and saw a glimmer of doubt in her eye. He’d seen her take on men his size with nothing but a broken bottle. He’d seen her shoot straight as an arrow while blind drunk. He’d seen her belligerent and feisty and furious and righteous, tempting every fate there was, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen her scared. She might be the bravest woman he knew—and he knew a lot of brave women.

“What’s wrong with you?” he said slowly.

She squeezed her eyes shut for a second and let out a shaky breath. “I don’t… I don’t like heights.”

“Well, how’d you like getting’ shot in the back?” he snapped, nodding behind her at the sounds of the posse hacking their way through the brambles.

She glanced back and forth between the trees and the cliff, clutching the rifle to her chest like a little girl with a doll. “Arthur, please!”

But they were straight out of options. He shook his head sharply. “Aint got time. C’mon. There’s a ledge a little ways down...”

Still, she didn’t move.

Arthur sighed and reached up a hand towards her. “Look. Do you trust me?”

A trembling, half-hysterical laugh burst out of her. “No! Not on this!”

“Goddamn it, Karen...” he muttered under his breath, then hoisted himself higher, just a few feet away now, and made sure to catch her eye and hold it, to speak in the soft way he did when his horse got antsy ‘bout a snake in the grass. “Take my hand. We’ll do it together. You’re gonna be just fine. Trust me.”

His arms were aching from holding onto the roots so long but he didn’t dare shift his position as she shuffled a little closer.

“You promise you won’t let me fall?” she said, in a tiny voice that really didn't suit her.

He nodded firmly. “I promise.”

And, with a string of swear words that would’ve made Arthur blush if he hadn’t been so focused on the fast-approaching posse, she took his hand.

It was slow going, most of it done by feel and luck, but the darkness worked in their favour, hiding the outlaws' descent as the townsfolk continued their fruitless search through the woods. Arthur caged her in with his own body, making sure she got herself secure before finding the next handhold, the next foothold, the next resting place, whispering instructions and encouragement all the way.

He could feel how tense she was—the shivering of her breath nothing to do with the cool evening air—but he held up his end of he promise, and after a few minutes she started making decisions on her own, adjusting her holds and trusting herself as well as him. And soon the ledge was within reach—only a few feet more to go—and he let himself relax just a little bit…

“That’s it, you’re doin’ it,” he murmured, “Now put your foot here–”

But he was so caught up in making sure she found the right foothold that he took his own for granted and the toe of his right boot slipped free of the rockface with a sickening lurch. The sudden movement swung him outward, all his weight pulling on his tired arms, his numb fingers, and then there weren’t a part of him touching the cliff no more—nothing but thin air for a terrible, tumbling, stomach-turning moment—until the world came rushing back into him with an impact that crunched.

He didn’t have time to register it as pain. He was still moving, rolling, bouncing off the ledge, sliding down the ravine until stone gave way to shale and dirt and he finally came to a skidding stop.

His dazed head rang like clear water. He was pretty sure he was lying still but the sky above still seemed to be spinning. And as his senses came crawling back into him he could catalogue every single part that’d hit the rockside on the way down.

The sound of hurried footfalls and heavy breathing was coming his way, along with Karen's gravelly voice—muttering to herself with a mix of fury and worry. “Goddamnit, Arthur, if you’re dead I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you…”

He groaned his existence as Karen fell to her knees at his side, cradling his face in both her hands and turning it towards her.

"Arthur, talk to me. Is it bad?"

He rocked his head back and forth in her grip and managed a strained "m'fine".

It was more or less true. He figured he'd gotten away with cuts and bruises for the most part. Maybe a busted rib or two. The side of his face felt red raw where’d scraped it on the gravel and his right shoulder might've got shoved out of joint when he'd landed on it, but as he looked back up the height of the ravine he figured he'd got off pretty lucky, all things considered.

Nothing they could do about it now, anyhow. He swallowed thickly and tried to sit up, needing the whole strength of Karen hauling on his good arm to do so. He took a long, steadying breath and felt it catch with a stabbing pain in his left side. Yep, that'll be a rib. He let out a grating groan as Karen pulled him up to his feet. 

“Can you walk?”

He shrugged lop sidedly. “Gon’ have to.”

He knew this routine well enough. Been learning it his whole life. Don't let the pain and shock take hold. Keep movin'. Get back to Dutch and the others...Get safe. Then you can fall down again.

Glancing up at the clifftop, he could see a handful of figures gathering there, pointing down at them. Pointing weapons at them.

"C'mon," he nudged, "Gotta go."

A potshot went wide as they stumbled along the riverbank, throwing up a spray of water.

Arthur nodded grimly at his injured shoulder; his arm hanging limp and useless at his side. "If there's shootin' to do, it's gonna have to be you," he told her, then stumbled a little as he looked her up and down. "Where's that rifle of yours?" 

She at least had the decency of looking a little sheepish. "Dropped it," she said. "When I saw you fall."

He couldn't help but smirk. "You left behind your pride and joy for little old me?"

"Yeah, well, don't make me regret it," she said, her usual scowl returning as she pulled his longarm off his back. "Always preferred yours anyways."

Chapter Text

He was just passing by. At least, that’s what he told himself, even though it’d taken him a twenty-mile round trip to do so. Her last letter had said she was ‘longing to see him again’ and that was enough to ride a hundred miles for.

He didn’t know if she’d even be home when he turned up. It didn’t matter. He’d wait. All day if he had to. He had every letter she’d ever sent to him in his satchel and would happily find a tree to sit under and re-read them over and over until she got back.

His stomach gave a little flutter when he crested the next hill and the familiar white house came into view. And there, out on the front porch, a figure that made him straight up stop breathing for a second.

Mary Gillis.

Mary, who longed for him. His Mary. If only her pompous ass of a father would get out of the damn way.

She hadn’t seen him yet, had a book in her lap and must’ve been deep in the story. He wasn’t close enough to see her face but he knew the tense little expression she made when she was reading, as though she were genuinely concerned about the fate of the fictional characters. The purse of her lips. The tilt of her head. A few stands of hair falling loose against her neck…

He suddenly felt hot, his shirt sticking to his back even though the afternoon had a chill to it. He gripped the reins, half wanting to just turn around and ride away before she looked up. Every plan and thought he’d had about turning up unannounced suddenly seemed stupid and foolish and pathetic. He should’ve brought her something pretty. Flowers, maybe. A necklace she’d no doubt guess was stolen. She’d turned down his gifts before. Even when he tried to do something nice he ended making a mess of things. Speaking of which, he probably should’ve cleaned himself up a bit, too. His jacket was still musty and damp from last night’s rainstorm and there were mud splatters all the way up his legs from riding through the waterlogged town. She always told him to smarten up but it wasn’t exactly easy, living out of a tent. He wasn’t like Dutch, with his fancy combs and pomade and brushed velvet waistcoats and there was no use pretending anyways. Maybe it was just better to be honest—present himself as he is, mud ‘n’ all—and hope she’d overlook all the flawed parts.

Lost in his thinking, he’d let his horse amble all the way down the hill towards the house, and it was too late to turn back now. He threw a loose hitch over the fence and approached the porch slowly, hat turned down low, suddenly unsure what the hell he was supposed to do with his hands. Hook ‘em on his gunbelt? In his pockets? Or laced in front of him? He never managed to figure it out because the next moment Mary looked up and gave a little gasp and then she was on her feet, her book tumbling to the deck.

He felt a slow smile creep across his lips and touched a hand to his hat with a nod. “Mary.”

For a long second she didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands either, then leaned forward to grip onto the porch rail, her fingers turning white as she stared at him with a look of… not horror as such, but it certainly wasn’t happy. Certainly not the swooning, longing, moon-eyes he’d imagined in his dreams.

And all his carefully prepared speeches fell to nervous pieces. “I… uh… well, I was just passin’, y’see, and…” he mumbled, but she never even let him finish, rushing down the porch steps before he could take one more step, pushing him backward, her fingers digging into his chest.

“Oh, no, no. No, Arthur, you can’t be here,” she whispered, casting worried looks back at the house as she leaned her whole weight into him.

“Wha–? Why not?” For a moment he stumbled, caught off balance by her insistence, before he remembered she barely came up to his shoulder. He caught her hands in his and fixed his feet in the earth so he was immovable; so all she could do was press against him.

She sighed, exasperated, and let her forehead drop against his chest for a moment. “It’s just… It’s just not a good time.”

“Why?” he said, scowling over her shoulder at the house, “‘Cause your daddy says so?”

That drunken old kook. He wasn’t afraid of anything her father could say or do to him.

But Mary just shook her head and a flare of injured pride made him bold.

“He can’t stop me from callin’ on you,” he said, ducking his head down to look her in the eye. “Can’t stop you talking to me, neither. You’re a grown woman. You can make your own decisions. Even if it’s just takin’ a walk with me. No harm in that.”

“You know I would if I could but–”

“Then why? Didn’t you get my letters?” he asked, feeling a coil of anxiety in his guts. He’d poured his damn heart into ‘em.  

She sank into him a little further. Gave a sad kind of sigh. “Yes, Arthur, I did.”

“Got yours too,” he whispered. The edges had almost worn through from all the unfolding and folding; the reading and re-reading. She’d put a handful of dried lavender into the last envelope and now every time he saw a splash of purple on the plains he’d think of her.

She was so close he could smell the soap on her skin. And beneath that, smell her. Feel the gentle warmth of her breath on his neck. He wondered if she could feel his heart thudding in his chest. Whatever this was, it felt right. And she had to feel that too…

“Maybe if I talked to your daddy again–”

She was just about to say something when there was a clatter of boots and the front door opened wide as two men stepped out onto the porch, all congratulations and shaking of hands.

One of them was Mr Gillis, just as full of himself as usual, but the other man Arthur didn’t recognise.

Mary pulled back sharply and took a few quick steps away, unable to look him in the eye. “Arthur you gotta go…”

“Who’s this then?” Arthur said, loud enough to catch the attention of the men on the porch.

Mary’s father squinted at him for a moment before rolling his eyes. “Not again…”

“Oh no, my apologies, I didn’t realise you had a visitor,” Arthur drawled, tipping his hat towards the stranger. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

The man took the measure of him for a moment before nodding back. “Barry Linton,” he said calmly. “And you are?”

Mr Gillis waved ineffectually in Arthur’s direction and attempted to steer his guest back inside. “Don’t pay him any mind, just a local stray that we can’t seem to get rid of…”

Arthur let out a low, rumbling chuckle and the tension in the air tightened. He’d learned that one from Dutch—to laugh when you felt like tearing someone’s head off. Buy yourself some time. Let them know you’re dangerous. Mr Gillis might be a fool but the other man seemed to get it; was keeping a cautious eye on every move Arthur made.

Arthur ignored him and looked to Mary. “Friend of yours, this Barry Linton?”

“Arthur, please–” she hissed.

“This why I ‘can’t be here’? ‘Cause o’ him? What’s he here for, anyway?”

She turned away from him with a flustered huff and he knew he was being a jerk but he just couldn’t help it.

Mary murmured something he didn’t quite catch, her shoulders hunched up around her ears.

He leaned closer. “What’s that?”

“A suitor,” she snapped, spinning back to glare at him. “Come by to speak with Daddy.”

He reeled for a moment in the force of the word. Because of course she had suitors. ‘Proper’ suitors, doing things the way gentlefolk did things. Upright men like this Linton fella who was still staring at him like he was some fascinating circus sideshow. Because men like Arthur could never be suitors. A stray we can’t seem to get rid of…

He was so full of fiery frustration he didn’t even know where to aim his anger, but Mary was closest, so she got the first wave of it.

“And don’t you get a say?” he snapped back at her. “They get to decide everything about your life over coffee and cigars while you sit outside like a good little lady?”

She recoiled as if he’d spat in her face, looking so forlorn and confused that he felt a terrible shame wash over him. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

Mr Gillis stamped down the porch steps and put himself between them, waving a stumpy finger in Arthur’s face. “I told you not to come by here again. Now you turn around and leave before I–”

“Before you what?” Arthur said quietly, squaring up to his full height so he could look down on the odious man.

“Arthur, stop it!” Mary cried.

“Come now, gentlemen,” Linton cut in, “There’s no need for this.”

Mr Gillis let out a cruel laugh, “Oh, I don’t think we can call Arthur a gentleman…”

“I don’t give two shits what you think,” Arthur said coldly. “I care what she thinks,” he added, a little more gently, nodding at Mary, then back at her father. “You ever ask her what she wants?”

Mr Gillis smiled, slow and satisfied and unafraid. “She’s already made her choice.”

Arthur’s eyes met Mary’s for a terrible second and the truth of it hit him like a blow. Linton was standing right beside her now, the pair of them looking like a perfect portrait of decency. And here he was, threatening her father like some small town drunken brute. She must think him the very worst kind of fool…

And he might’ve just walked away, if Linton hadn’t stepped in and put his hands on him, easing him away from Mr Gillis with a condescending “come on now…”

And Arthur's brutish instincts took over, jolting him out of the man’s grip and throwing a wide-swinging punch with his whole weight behind it.

But just like everything else about the afternoon, it didn’t go at all like he’d planned.

Linton ducked to the side as easily as swatting a fly and returned with his own coiled fist, landing a neat, precise jab right across Arthur’s nose—hard as a hammer strike.

Sparkling lights exploded behind his eyes like fresh pine needles on a fire. Something cracked and blood flooded his sinuses, filled his throat, spattered in his eyes, sending him staggering backward, both hands cupped to his nose. The pain was hot white and too intense to really process so he shoved it aside, spitting out a bloody mouthful and scraping his eyes clear with the back of his sleeve.

Linton stood there, watching him, casual-like—didn’t even have his hands up to defend himself against what was surely coming. That suited Arthur just fine, and he let out a feral roar of rage as he lunged for the man.

But then Mary was there, somehow, in between them, face full of shocked disbelief, hands slapping against his chest, voice hard and commanding. “Arthur, no. No!” Like she was setting a dog to heel.

And he obeyed. Because of course he did. Let his shoulders slump, his head hang. He tried half-heartedly to stem the flow from his nose, but the blood spilled fast and thick, through his fingers and down his sleeve.

“Oh, Arthur,” Mary sighed, gazing at him in the exact same way she’d been looking at her book: brow furrowed in concern, lips pursed tight, head tilted to the side. "Look at you..." She took his arm and led him gently but firmly towards the porch steps. “Come along, let’s get you cleaned up.”

“Oh for goodness' sake, you’re gonna let him bleed all over the house?” Mr Gillis yelled after them, but Mary ignored him, bustling Arthur up the steps, through the parlour, and into the cool dark of the kitchen.

The pain was beginning to radiate through his cheekbones now, into his forehead, stabbing behind his eyes, throbbing with every pulse of his heart. He felt heavy as an ox. Every step a leaden weight. He wanted to lie down on the tiled floor and curl into a ball. Let the blood dry on his face until it cracked. Pretend he’d never come here, never met no Mary Gillis, never felt any of the things he’d written to her.

But here she was, real and warm and making soft noises of comfort, sitting him down on a stool, fetching wet cloths and handkerchiefs and fussing over his ruined shirt. He didn’t deserve any of it. Didn’t deserve her. He waved her back a moment to catch his breath and prodded cautiously at his swollen, bruised face. The cartilage of his nose felt gristly, and a sore lump had already risen across the bridge. He knew from experience that it was gonna hurt for a long while… Good. Something to remind you of what a fool you are.

When he looked back up, Linton was standing in the doorway, a strangely sorrowful expression on his face.

“Think you broke my nose,” Arthur slurred. It was more an observation more than anything, but the other man winced back at him in sympathy.

“Here, let me take a look,” Linton said, crossing the few steps between them and gesturing for Arthur to lift his face to the light.

Arthur did as he was bid. No point carrying on a fight when you were beat. “You a doctor or something?”

The man smiled mildly. “Used to do a little boxing at university. Seen my fair share of broken noses. Had my own broke once or twice, too.”

Arthur gave a ‘humph’ of appreciation. “Yeah, not my first time, neither.”

Linton inspected the nose in question with a thoughtful frown. “Well, it should set alright. And bleeding’s stopped, at least.”

Mary took the opportunity to dart forward and wipe the remaining blood from Arthur’s chin and he tried not to flinch away, suddenly, horribly aware that it might well be the very last time she ever touched him.

“No hard feelings?” Linton offered, holding out his hand.

Arthur gave a jerky shrug and wiped his own bloody hand on his pants until it was clean enough to shake. “S’ok. I deserved it. And was ugly enough to begin with.”

Linton smiled again, backing away to the door and leaving them to it with a polite nod to Mary. And Arthur thought perhaps he’d been wrong about the whole thing. Maybe she had chosen well enough, after all.

When he looked back at Mary her eyes were brimming with tears. He wanted to lift a hand to her cheek; to pull her into his chest and press kisses into her hair; to tell her he was sorry; that he was a fool; that he didn’t to mean to be such a blunt-headed thug all the time… But he didn’t have no right to hold her. To say anything to her. He was everything her father thought he was.

She must’ve come to the same conclusion because the tears suddenly came spilling out of her with a choking sob. “Oh, Arthur, why’d you have to come round today?”

He swallowed around the lump in his throat. His chest felt like it was caving in—an ache that ran all the way through, deep into his ribcage—and the tender bruising of his nose was nothing compared to his heart.

He pushed himself up off the stool and took a few shambling steps towards the back door. He couldn’t face going out the front, seeing Linton again. Facing Mr Gillis.

“Don’t worry, I won’t bother you no more,” he mumbled, glancing back one last time at her as he pushed the screen door open.

She looked so small sitting there, a pile of bloody handkerchiefs in her lap, eyes red and puffy as she stared after him with an empty kind of look.

“Arthur? Will… will you still write me?” she said, in a voice just as small.

He fought the tightness of his breath to answer, as soft and true as he could manage, even though his own voice was nothing but a husk. “Mary Gillis, you know I’ll do anything you ask me to.”

He didn’t know if it was the right or wrong thing to say—either way, it set her to crying once again, and he was sorely sick of being the cause of that.

He stumbled out into the yard and let the cold afternoon air seep into the soreness of his face. Better to focus on that. Physical pain he could cope with. It was the feelings inside he couldn’t bear.

And, of course, his nose healed, after a time. A little crooked. A little reminder every time he looked in the mirror. Another little flaw for no one to love.

Chapter Text

The boy sits right at the edge of camp, as far as the light from the fire will reach. He’d swiped a bowl of stew and a hunk of bread out of Bessie’s offering hands and slouched back into the shadows, leaving the rest of them exchanging raised eyebrows and doubts over whether they’d rescued a human child or a rabid dog.

Arthur picks at his own dinner, watching the kid out of the corner of his eye. He remembers that flightiness. The fear. The distrust that trumps everything else. Even genuine kindness.

It had been the same with him when they’d found him, all those years ago. It seems a lifetime away now, though he must be around the same age Dutch was when they’d picked him up off the streets and given him a roaming kind of home. The boy can only be all of eleven, though he looks younger, smaller—scrawny from lack of proper caring, proper meals. Bruises like dirt, all over him.

He watches the kid bolt down his food—too fast and too desperate to do him any good. He remembers that hunger well enough, too; so deep it hurt to eat. Made you sick when you did.

Funny how quick you forget how hard things used to be. And it wasn’t like they always ate like kings, but he’s never gone hungry in all the time he’s been with Dutch. Not even close.

How quick he’d gotten used to the kindness, the smiling, the passing touches. The comfort of just sitting beside someone, warm bodies round a hot fire. A hand on his shoulder. Being called ‘son’.

Maybe the boy could get used to it to. Except the one time anyone’d tried to touch him—to take off that noose still hanging from his neck—he’d flinched away like he’d been cut.

Bessie said he’d come around. Said he just needed time and patience. Grimshaw said he needed a good wash and a few dozen hot meals. Dutch said he had spirit, and that was enough. Hosea had kept quiet, saying more with his pitying eyes than any of them. Arthur hadn't known what to think, but it wasn't up to him, and the decision had already been made—the kid was coming back with them.

The campfire pops and spits as Grimshaw adds another log, making them all even more aware of how much colder it must be out there. Hosea nudges Arthur’s shoulder, nodding to the little figure crouched over his bowl on the outskirts.

“Why don’t you go check on him?”

Arthur looks from one hopeful face to the next and sighs. It isn’t like he knows what to do any better than any of ‘em. But they send him anyway, because they think maybe he’ll be less of a threat. Because maybe he knows what the kid might be feelin’.

Except, Arthur doesn’t know what the hell to do with a feral kid, just because he used to be one.

He does what he’s told, nonetheless. Takes up his own bowl and makes his way over to the boy, slow and cautious, like approaching a wild horse. Sits down a few feet away to give him room to run if he wants to.

The kid, John, his name is, is scooping out stew with the curve of his hand. Stuffing his cheeks with the bread without even swallowing half the time.

“You gotta slow down on that food,” Arthur says bluntly. “Gon’ make you puke.”

The boy pauses, mid-chew, to glower at him.

“Ain’t no rush,” Arthur shrugs. “Plenty more in the pot. And it ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I am,” John says—or, rather, growls—his voice husky and strained from the near-hanging.

Arthur nods in understanding. There's no surety that the kid'll wanna stay and that's fine too, he reckons. “Where would you go?” he asks.

The boy has to think about it, and though he doesn't bother to answer, after a moment or two it's clear enough that he has no damn idea.

Arthur looks back at the fire, at the four familiar figures round it. The family he never imagined he deserved. Tries to think back to when he was the one teetering on the edges of wildness. What he would’ve wanted to hear. The truth of it, set out plain.

“They won’t beat ya,” he says quietly. “Well. Grimshaw might give you a thick ear if you don’t wash up before dinner, but never for no reason. And Bessie? The one who talks all soft? She’ll give you extra portions when the others aren’t lookin’. She’s a good cook, too...”

John’s eating slows down as he listens, even though he pretends he isn't, staring off into the darkness of the surrounding woodland.

Arthur picks at his own dinner, half-forgotten now, and watches the silhouettes of his adopted family moving in long-learned synchronicity. “Hosea,” he points out with a nod, “He might seem a little stern at first but he’s kind. Clever, too. He’ll teach to read, if you wanna. Teach you all sortsa things.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he catches the boy looking his way, but he doesn't make a move. Lets it happen. Time and patience, like Bessie said.

“And then there’s Dutch,” he finishes with a sigh. “But I figure maybe you already know what kinda man he is...”

Dutch’d been the one to stop the hanging. Bunch of farmers takin’ the law into their own hands, stringing up a goddamn kid just tryin’ to survive the winter. And all for a stolen chicken. Arthur had never seen Dutch so mad. Riding into the thick of it like he was on a charging warhorse, shooting down the rope and whacking that farmer in the face with the butt of his gun until his own mama couldn’t have recognised him.

It’d been up to Hosea and Arthur to scoop up the kid, retching and gasping and shivering out the shock of it. Bundling him on the back of a horse and leaving Dutch to give his righteous speech. To put the fear of God into ‘em.

It was often that way. Dutch doing the loud parts. The rest of them working the background. Cleaning up the mess. But that's how it worked best. That's what family was: knowing your place.

“Dutch tries to do what’s right,” Arthur tells the boy. “And he’ll do good by ya. So long as you pull your weight. Act respectful. Learn how to be a decent fella. Give him your trust. That’s all he'll ask you for.”

There was something powerful in that kind of trust. Fearing god was all well and good but putting your faith in something—someone—you could see and hear and feel? That was a kind of strength Arthur had never known existed until Dutch showed him.

He risks a look over at the kid, who’s busy mopping up the last of his stew with a dirty finger and making no sign that he’s taken in a word Arthur’s been sayin’.

Arthur sighs again and sets his bowl down within arm’s reach of the boy. “Here,” he says. “Just don’t blame me if you’re sick.”

John hesitates, his dark-rimmed eyes bright and wary, as if he’s expecting it all to be a trick. Then he makes a darting grab for the bowl and scoots another few feet away, right out of the camp light, to devour his spoils.

Arthur leaves him to it, returning to the others with a wide-armed shrug. He’d tried his best. And if the kid's gone in the morning, well, so be it. You can't save everyone that needs saving, no matter what Dutch’s morals said.

 


 

He’s only a little surprised when he hears the kid later that night, puking up his guts in the grass outside camp.

The others are asleep, or pretending to be, so Arthur guesses that means he’s still on babysitting duty.

He crouches beside the boy with a distasteful grunt. “Told you not to eat it all in one go.”

John coughs, spits, and scowls at him, but doesn’t get a chance to reply, his stomach folding him in two once more, and what’s left of his double dinner comes up again.

“Alright, alright, get it all out…”

Arthur doesn’t think—rubbing circles on the kid’s back the way Hosea once did with him when he had a stomach bug; the way Bessie does when he's doing well with his reading; the way Dutch does when he’s giving what he thinks is good advice.

But the boy doesn’t know any of those feelings and he jolts at the contact, skittering sideways like a crab until he trips over his own limbs and ends up in a curled heap.

Arthur stays where he is. Waits until the kid’s panicked breathing starts to slow. Until the sickness takes back over the fear and leaves him groaning once more. He’s too weak to run, anyhow. And it’s a nice cool night—Arthur’s content enough to sit it out. He’s not sure how long it took him to start being comfortable around the others and their easy affectionate touches but he figures it must've been a while before he stopped flinching at every sudden movement, too.

And maybe the patience thing works, because after a long silence, that rasping voice comes out of the dark, small and pitiful. “My throat hurts.”

“Bet it does,” Arthur says. Hanging and puking in one night’s gotta be a pretty shitty combination.

And a thought occurs to him—something else he learned from people being kind for no other reason than to be kind—and gets to his feet. “Wait here,” he tells the boy, though he’s fairly sure there’s no danger of him going anywhere in this state.

A quick rummage in the supply wagon and he’s back within a minute, with a jar and a spoon that emerges glistening with golden honey.

“Here,” he says, holding the spoon out to the boy. “Just a little, mind.”

Grimshaw’d dosed him with the stuff when he’d had a cold a few weeks back. And Hosea said you could put it on wounds, too—to stop them from festering. Maybe he could get the kid to rub some on his neck where the noose had rubbed the skin raw. But maybe that’d be a task for tomorrow. Time. Patience. One step at a time.

The boy sits up a little, lets Arthur spoonfeed him, once, twice. Swallows like it hurts, but it seems to help a little, too. And then, without another word, as if he can no longer muster the energy to fight anything that’s been happening to him, the kid lays down in the grass and closes his eyes.

Arthur sits and watches him for a while, until he’s sure he’s as deep asleep as the terror of the day will allow. He fetches a blanket. And then a second, because it’ll get damn cold out here when the dew comes on. And he figures maybe tomorrow he’ll head into town, get some proper medicine. Some warmer clothes. The biggest bar of soap he can find for Grimshaw to do her worst with the water bucket.

And maybe he’ll find himself a little extra patience, too. Somehow. ‘Cause he’s pretty sure he’s gonna need it.

Chapter Text

Just light the fuse and run.

The instructions had been simple enough—so easy even Arthur can’t fuck it up, Dutch had said—but he’d never used dynamite before, and nothing could have prepared him for what happened afterwards…

 


 

It was just his luck, being the youngest, barely seventeen and still small enough to slip through the gap in the boarded up mine entrance. Dutch had been sure there’d be something worth finding down there, even if it meant Arthur going in alone, with nothing but a lantern.

C’mon, son. You’re the bravest one of us, Dutch had said.

And Arthur was still naive enough want to prove him right.

The track down into the mine went on for miles, it seemed, and all he found for a long while was a whole lotta rats, some rusted old tools, and stagnant, dripping water. And then, as if it was just waiting to be discovered: a blocked-up passageway and a box stuffed full of explosives.

He’d brought it all the way back to the entrance and Dutch’s eyes had lit up like fireworks.

It’s simple. Just light the fuse and run…

 


 

The world fell right out from under his feet. Or perhaps the ceiling came down to crush him. Or both. Either way, one second he’d been running and the next he found himself half-buried in rubble, breathing in rock dust, feeling as if every bone in his body had shattered all at once.

He couldn’t see. Couldn’t hear. Couldn’t move. Only panic.

There was grit in his eyes he couldn’t blink away, and even when he managed to squint them open they wouldn’t focus. Not that there was anything to focus on, anyhow. There was nothing but dark behind his eyelids.

His ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton, as if he were miles underwater, and every sound was more a vibration than a noise, muted and muffled. He tried shouting but his throat was raw from inhaling so much dust, and although he could feel his vocal chords straining, he couldn’t hear the words come out. Dutch! Help!

The effort made him cough, but coughing was all but impossible under the weight of whatever was crushing him. It was as if he’d become part of the very mountain itself, surrounded by stone, feeling every pound of pressure above him. He couldn’t feel his legs, only the ache of his ribcage and the tingling of his fingers, turning colder and more numb by the second…

He was going to die down here. He could already feel the air thinning. Could feel himself starting to hyperventilate. The ancient staleness of the earth filled his nostrils and it smelt like a grave.

He hauled in a deep breath, knowing it was foolish to waste it on a yell but too terrified to give in to the ominous pressing silence. Even if he couldn’t hear, maybe Dutch would. Maybe, if he hadn’t given him up for dead. If he hadn’t already left him here.

Hot tears ran down his face, burning his eyes but doing nothing to clear his vision. His head still pounded with the aftershocks of the explosion, echoing over and over inside his skull. Perhaps it was still going on. Perhaps he was already dead and this was hell and he would spend an eternity here, forever being crushed, forever floating in this sightless, soundless nightmare.

He choked on his next breath, or perhaps it was a sob. He had no idea if he was making any sound at all. 

Dutch, please…

And the pressure was more than he could bear, pushing down on him as if the darkness was a living thing, suffocating and consuming until he was nothing but a tiny black dot in the nothingness.

He squeezed his eyes shut, not that it made any difference. Tried to blink himself out of existence so he wouldn’t have to feel any of it any more. He was so tired. So cold he couldn’t even feel his face any more. And maybe if he gave into it he would just… drift away. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad…

Oh, my boy…

It was too loud. Too rough and too sudden, too painful. A shock of light and sound that felt like a lightning strike. The ground was shaking again, rock tumbling all around him like a landslide. He felt it shift, wondered if he’d get swept along with it, where he’d end up. Deeper into the mine, maybe, where no one would ever find him.

But then a hand grasped onto his numb fingers and squeezed.

A voice he’d begged to hear saying words he couldn’t quite make out. Everything was blurred. A swinging, glowing light. The strange warmth of a palm against his cheek. His own name, repeated over and over again. And suddenly the pressure was lifting. Piece by piece, the weight pinning him down came free as a pair of bloody hands dug him out.

I got you son, I got you… 

 



He didn’t remember how he made it out of the mine—if he walked or if Dutch carried him. The next thing he knew there was a vast, bright sky above him, water washing out his eyes, Dutch’s insistent voice telling him to lay still, ordering him to breathe, to hold on.

His body still felt broken, made up of a thousand bruises, every bone aching, every muscle useless. But he tried to lift his hand and Dutch grasped onto it like a drowning man.

‘m sorry… Arthur murmured, his voice barely a whisper of a breath. Fucked it up.

And this time it was Dutch who couldn’t speak. Just shook his head over and over until tears started dripping down onto Arthur’s chest. He thought it might be the first time he’d ever seen the man speechless. 

And all he had to do was blow himself up.

Simple. 

Chapter Text

He thinks maybe he picked something up in Guarma—some kind of tropical influenza—or maybe it's the lingering after effects of half-drowning after the ship went down. The island had not treated him kindly by any means: sunstroke, shackled to a chain gang, drugged by a blow dart, tied to a chair and beaten to shit, shot at, almost blown up by a goddamn gun ship… And by the time he makes it back to American soil he feels like a shadow of a man, wrung out and battered, with a rattle in his chest that just won’t quit.

But a part of him knows it wasn’t just Guarma. Maybe that’s where it took hold, but he’s had this feeling for a while now—like something’s been chasing him. Running him down like a dog. A shadow inside a shadow. And maybe the time’s comin’ when he finds out exactly what it is.

 


 

It’s raining and he can’t get warm, riding low against the neck of his horse as much for the body heat as the fact that he can barely sit up straight. Everything exhausts him these days, even riding. His bones ache, his head spins, and no matter how deep he breathes he can never seem to get enough air.

Those who're left have made a makeshift camp, huddled together in some abandoned shacks deep in the bayou. It’s damp and humid and heavy with the unspoken losses that weigh on all their shoulders. The absences. The faces he can’t help but look for, even though he knows they’re gone.

He’s brought back a few scrawny wild boar from the marshes for the stew but the hunt took its toll on him. Wading through knee-high mud, breathing in the stench of the bog, full of dead things… it was as if the place had been designed to torture him. It’d taken him twice as long as usual to track the boar because he kept having to stop to hack up all the shit lining his lungs. He could taste the blood in it; copper on his tongue, in his throat. He knows it’s not a good sign. He watched Hosea shrink into a shell of the man he used to be, listened to him fight the convulsions of his own lungs on a cold night, seen the blood on his handkerchiefs. He’s not sure it’s the same but it’s not good, no matter what it is.

The thought of Hosea doesn’t help, neither. It still ain’t real. None of it. Lenny, Hosea, and John locked away in Sisika. Dutch not even seemin' to care. Coming ‘home’ to this shithole. Everyone so pale and drawn. So scared. They don’t need nothin’ else to worry about, so he doesn’t mention any of it: the blood, the cough, the weakness. They’re all of them mourning and he doesn’t want to make a fuss.

“It’s just a cold,” he says, when Abigail gives him one of her looks. She tries to push a second portion of stew on him but he won’t take it. Can’t stomach much anyhow. The coughing makes him nauseous and everything tastes bitter and stale, like his insides are already rotting.

She catches him shivering in his bunk, even though the bayou air is thick and hot, and lays a cool hand on his forehead. He’s too tired to stop her, and after a moment of tight-lipped concern she combs the hair out of his eyes and sits down on the edge of his bed with a sigh. He’s not feverish, just… tired in a way he’s never been before. And he doesn’t want her pity. Reckons she’s got enough to be thinkin’ about as it is, wishing John were here instead.

She has her back to him and he reaches up to rest a palm between her shoulder blades. A hand for a hand in silent acknowledgement. No need for words at all, sometimes. They’ve always had that between them—perhaps ‘cause they both had the same shared love ‘n’ frustration for Marston. The same wonderin’ over what might’ve been if he’d never come back. She leans into the pressure for a moment before she gets up in a quiet swish of skirts, back to her own bunk, to curl up around her little Jack, where she oughtta be.

The shivering stops after a time but he still lies awake for most of the night, muffling his coughs with his blanket, aware of every crackle and wheeze of his breath disturbing the others. And when he does sleep, he dreams of a burning ship; of drowning in black water, pulled down deeper and deeper, until the pressure collapses his lungs and he wakes heaving over the side of the bed, clawing at his own chest.

It’s the last night he spends in the shack. If he is sick with something contagious he can’t be spreading it through the camp. And he can’t bear the way they all look at him. Like he’s some kind of ghost.

He spends more and more time away from camp, even after they move to that cursed Murfree cave. It’s marginally better, being out amongst the trees again, but the place is steeped in death and horror and up on the hills the wind runs through him like knives.

They all figure it out eventually. There’s no hiding his bloodshot eyes and waxy complexion after a while. After he falls right off his horse in the middle of Saint Denis. After the doc tells him what’s festering inside of him, hollowing him out day by day. There’s a kind of poetic justice in it, at least, for what he did to that poor Downes family. And he thinks perhaps it even started long before that.

He always had a wheeze to him, even as a little kid. One of the few memories he has left of his mother is her propping him up against her shoulder while his skinny chest turned concave with the effort of breathing through an infection. He’d get one every time the weather turned, it seemed. His father hated the sickliness of him, always tryin’ to tough him up. But his mama, she was so patient. She’d boil up a pot of water, crush eucalyptus leaves into it and drape a blanket over his head like a tent so he could breathe in the steam. It helped some, but he reckons it was her gentle determination that really saved him, coaching him through each laboured breath. Easy now, baby. Slow and easy.

He doesn’t think there’s any point in medicine now, even though Tilly insists on making him honey tea and Charles brews tinctures from herbs he must’ve ridden for days to gather. Grimshaw comes by his tent one evening clutching a little silver tin—the same stuff she used to make for Hosea when his lungs got bad. Some kind of sharp-smelling paste to rub on his chest at night. The scent of it is so painfully familiar he can’t even take the lid off, but he squeezes her hand in thanks and avoids her sorrowful eyes. Can't stand to look at any of them, by the end.

In a few weeks they’ll all be gone, one way or another. Scattered or lost or dead or damned. He helps some of ‘em get out, and that’s something. What little good he was able to leave behind in this world. But it’s something and they’re free and they’ll carry on without him. Forget about him, eventually. And he knows they’ll be better off without his dead weight. A shadow chasing a shadow, all this time.

He can’t find the heart to be sore about it, even as he crawls his way to the mountain’s edge. Something inside him is inexorably broken and he knows it’s time; knows there’s no saving to be done now. And that’s alright. Because this life is just a circle, after all. A wheel, turning, and slowly coming to rest.

The setting sun bleeds into the sky until fire fills his vision and the warmth spreads across his chest and maybe there is someone looking down on him with benevolence because his last breath comes deep and true—the relief of it, to rest at last, to not have to fight any more—and when he's filled his lungs with that molten gold it slips back out of him easy, like a sigh.

Chapter Text

The kid’s like a bad penny. Or maybe the luckiest son-of-a-bitch alive. Still alive, somehow, even though over the years Arthur’s thought him dead at least five or six times over. It’s never something he’ll get used to, but the first time will always be the worst by far.

John was maybe fifteen, sixteen—that invincible age where he thought he knew everything and could take on the world with nothing but a loud mouth and a revolver. Arthur blamed Dutch for that, feeding the boy delusions of grandeur even grander than the ones he’d tried to feed Arthur. How what they did was righteous, distributing their spoils to orphanages and nunneries. How this land was too wide and too wild to be governed by petty officials in little brick offices. How they would outlive and outlast the new world; outrun the railroad; outshoot anyone who dared come after them.

Pretty words, the way Dutch’s words always were. But wrong, all the same.

Because although they might have been lucky this far, it would only take one bullet to almost end it all.

Dutch hadn’t banked on the bounty hunters being paid enough to chase them across the whole damn state, but whoever bankrolled the posse had clearly been less bothered about the ‘alive’ part of their wanted posters.

There was no warning, no parley, no sign they'd even been followed. They were riding easy alongside the train tracks when six figures appeared from behind a bridge and opened fire without so much as a shout.

Arthur felt a bullet skim his hat and send it spinning off behind him. Another zipped past his shoulder so close he could smell the gunpowder. He whirled his horse in a tight U-turn and the chestnut mare needed no further encouragement to take off across the hillside at full pelt.

He heard Dutch yelling but couldn’t make out the words; caught the flash of the man’s red-lined coat as he thundered away in the opposite direction; saw Hosea ducking into the trees on the far side of the tracks, his yellow scarf trailing behind him. And then there was John, still in the middle of the fucking track, a pistol in each hand, riding straight for the bridge and sending the bounty hunters scattering.

The kid took down two of ‘em, knocked a third into the ditch with the force of his charge, and ducked under the bridge, hollering bloody murder the whole time.

Crazy son-of-a-bitch…

A breathless laugh punched out of Arthur’s throat at the sheer batshit balls of it, but the smile slipped right off his face as an echoing shot rang out and John dropped like a sack of bricks.

Arthur’s heartbeat seemed to stutter as he watched his brother hit the ground and lie still. He didn’t even put out his hands to catch his fall.

Come on. Get up. Move!

But John’s body didn’t so much as twitch.

Arthur’s breath caught in his chest, tight and painful, like someone was squeezing at his throat. The remaining bounty hunters were regrouping, making use of the cover and advantage of their position. It would be easy for them to pick the rest of the outlaws off this way, idiotic to stay out in the open, but there was no chance in hell Arthur was leaving without John.

The fury was all-consuming, heating his blood as if every vein was a fuse, burning down to the tips of his fingers. He yanked his repeater out of the saddle as he made a wide loop around the bridge, letting the reins drop and tightening his thighs around the mustang’s flank as he notched the longarm to his shoulder. The world seemed to shrink down to the width of his sights as he picked off his first target—the one who’d shot down his brother—and the man crumpled to the ground. Four became three.

He cranked the next bullet into the chamber with a sharp jerk and fired again without bothering to blink. Bright blood spurted out of a bounty hunter’s neck. Three became two.

Deep in the mist of his rage, he was vaguely aware of two familiar figures rounding the other side of the bridge on horseback like the sweep of a flood. Dutch leaned out of the saddle, levelling his silver revolver with a deathly grim look in his eye, and turned a posseman’s head into a mess of splintered bone and gore. Hosea took out the other with the butt of his shotgun, swinging it like a bat as he rode past, breaking the man’s jaw with a crack that echoed into a dreadful silence. Two became none.

And then it was just the four of them once more. If they could still be counted as four…

Arthur let his grip on the rifle slacken and hauled back on the reins, sliding off his horse before it’d even come to a stop and staggering towards John’s unmoving body. Hosea wasn’t far behind, but Dutch remained on his mount, his face a fixed white mask. Arthur was on his knees without knowing how he’d got there, turning the kid over with shaking hands, murmuring his name. John’s eyes were shut, his skin pale, his limbs limp and heavy, and when Arthur pulled open his coat, his stomach was slick with dark blood.

“Oh Jesus…” Arthur breathed. He couldn’t even tell where the blood was coming from, there was so much of it. And there was no sign of breath in the kid’s narrow chest.

Arthur felt sick. No, he was going to be sick. His brother’s blood was all over his hands and he wasn’t moving, wasn’t breathing, wasn’t… couldn’t be… Tears stung his eyes like needles as he turned his face up to Dutch, desperate and hollow, looking for an answer. And Dutch, who always wore his emotions on his sleeve like a row of medals, stared back down at him with empty eyes, as if he had simply decided that none of this was happening.

“For God’s sake, put some pressure on the wound,” Hosea snapped, suddenly at Arthur’s side, pushing his hands back down into the bloody mess of John’s stomach and holding them there until he was sure Arthur had processed the order.

Hosea cradled the kid’s head with a gentleness that made Arthur’s chest ache. “Come on now, son,” the old man whispered, “Come back to us. This is not your time…”

Arthur kept his eyes fixed on his brother’s face, waiting for a flicker of eyelids, a groan, a gasping inhale—a sign that didn’t come. Blood soaked John’s shirt, hot and slick, making Arthur’s hands slip as he fought to keep pressing down, to keep what was left inside the boy. He could feel the bullet hole now, low down on the kid’s side; felt bile rise in his own throat. He fumbled off his belt with trembling, clumsy fingers and wrapped it around John’s belly, cinching it tight around the wound.

Goddamnit, boy, just move, breathe, something. Please…

Hosea swallowed hard and moved to the kid’s chest, placed a fist on his breastbone and started pushing down with sharp, firm movements: one, two, three… one, two, three…

“Come on, you stupid, foolhardy bastard,” the old man said through gritted teeth, and Arthur silently counted along with him—one, two, three—as burning tears streamed down his face and into his collar.

One, two, three… one, two three… son-of-a-bitch… don’t you do it… don’t you leave us…

Dutch’s hand twitched on his reins and made a quarter turn away from the sight, head dipped low beneath his hat.

Hosea’s fists stilled, coming to rest on the boy’s chest one last time, meeting Arthur’s eyes with a terrible look of finality.

Arthur looked from one man to the other and back down at his brother, bleeding out into the dirt. John’s face looked peaceful in a way that didn’t suit him. The kid used to frown in his goddamn sleep, for fuck’s sake.

“No,” Arthur growled. “No, this ain’t it.”

He pushed Hosea aside and leaned over the kid, laid a bloody palm against his cheek.

“John, you hear me? This ain’t it.”

He slapped him, hard enough to wake a dead man. The impact snapped the boy’s head to the side, but he didn’t so much as flinch.

“Arthur…” Hosea whispered, hoarse and thin.

But Arthur didn’t want to hear it. Would not, could not let it be. He pounded a fist down onto John’s chest. One. Two. Three.

“Goddamnit, kid!”

He heard his voice catch in his throat; the raggedness of it. He was sobbing now, folding in on himself, over the boy’s body, threading his arms around his chest and hauling upward, as if he could only get him up to standing he would come to life like a puppet with its strings pulled tight.

And maybe that’s what did it. Or maybe it was the sudden movement, ratcheting the pain high enough to wake the kid. Or the squeeze of his chest, kickstarting his heart and setting his lungs to screaming.

“Son?” Dutch turned back around, eyes wet and full of tentative wonder.

John let out a haggard cry, clinging to Arthur’s shoulder with clawed hands, his whole body tensing around his injured side. Arthur held him steady, shushed nonsense into his ear, swaying on his knees. Hosea took up his place on the kid’s other side and the two of them eased him up to his feet, the urgency of moving him running through them all like a wire. He'd already lost so much blood, he couldn't afford to lose much more.

John's legs gave out immediately but they’d prepared for that, half carrying, half dragging him to Arthur’s horse and laying him over the saddle, never so grateful to hear the boy’s foul mouthed cursing.

“There’s a doctor in Brokeridge,” Hosea said, with a clipped nod to the east.

And Arthur didn’t need telling twice, swinging himself up behind John and digging in his heels, not bothering to see if the others were following.

The jolting of the horse tore a harsh yell from the kid, subsiding into a broken whimpering that was almost worse. Arthur laid a heavy hand on his back, patting in rhythm with his own juddering heart.

“Hurts…” John coughed weakly.

“I know,” Arthur said. “But you’re gonna bear it, y’hear? Just a little longer.”

He could feel the thud of twin hoofbeats catching up to flank them, and the four of them together, in more or less one piece, made him feel as invincible as the stupid sixteen-year-old in front of him.

It wouldn’t be the last time he’d thought the kid dead, but maybe there was more than luck to it. As if it were Arthur’s place to make sure the damn fool somehow kept breathing. Kept dodging that cold hand of death.

He didn’t want to question it. He’d just keep doing it, as long as it took.

When he looked back down, John’d passed out again, but this time there was colour in his cheeks and a grimace on his face, the way there ought to be.

Arthur let out a long, shuddering breath. Three miles to Brokeridge. A bad penny that keeps coming back.

“Ain’t your time, kid,” he muttered. “Ain’t your time.”

Chapter Text

Hosea’s getting worse and they all know it. He passes it off as a string of seasonal sicknesses, a weak chest from the last bad winter—reminds them that he has a good ten years on Dutch and twenty on Arthur, and he’s not getting any younger—but eventually he runs out of excuses. He’s getting worse and even Dutch’s expertise in denial can’t ignore it any more.

The summer gives way to two weeks of solid rain and Hosea’s ‘chest cold’ takes such a hold of him that he can barely ride. They bundle him up in the wagon with Swanson and the women but he’s so tired he can barely be mad about it. They’ve had a bad string of luck—bad choices, plans going wrong, like they keep seeming to—and they can’t stay in one place for long. Being on the road isn’t easy on any of them, but it’s hardest on Hosea, every jostle of the wagon eliciting a hissing wince.

“We gotta stop, Dutch,” Arthur says, bringing his bay level with The Count. “He ain’t doin’ so good.”

Dutch looks back at the covered wagon for a moment before fixing his sights on the road ahead; the relentless rain churning up the trail into a muddy mire.

“I know,” he says in that clipped tone that means he’s already three steps ahead, hatching a plan.

Arthur chews on his lip. “You think… maybe he oughtta get someone to look him over?”

“You think that stubborn old bastard’ll go without a fight?” Dutch lets out a dry laugh, but there isn’t much humour in it.

“He’ll listen to you,” Arthur presses. Every time he’s tried to bring it up, Hosea’s waved him away like a bothersome fly, but Dutch has a master key to the old man’s resolve. Admittedly, most of the time he uses it to persuade him to partake in the latest risky job, but perhaps it can be used for Hosea’s benefit, too.

Dutch doesn’t look so sure. It’s a blind spot, Hosea’s illness. Any kind of weakness in others, for that matter. As if Dutch can’t comprehend a world in which they don’t all live forever.

He gives Arthur a sideways glance that’s almost entreating. “Both of us together?”

Arthur nods firmly. Together, they can take on anything. Even Hosea in a foul mood.

 


 

Dutch picks his moment, once they’re stopped for the night and Hosea is settled in his tent with a book and a mug of warmed whiskey. Arthur lingers behind, there for his presence more than his words—that’s Dutch’s art, not his—thumbs tucked loosely into his belt.

Hosea looks up at them both and it only takes a moment for him to figure something’s up, his shrewd expression turning a notch sharper.

"What's eating you two?"

“Women are worried, Hosea,” Dutch says, as if that’ll pass the buck.

Hosea chooses blinking innocence. “About what?”

“You takin’ up all the blankets in the wagon,” Dutch smirks back at him. 

“Ah…” Hosea nods slowly, “Well, extend my apologies to them and I’ll get back on Silver Dollar tomorrow.”

“Y’ain’t in any state to ride, Hosea,” Arthur blurts, and receives a seething glare for his impudence.

“Can’t ride in the wagon, can’t ride my own damn horse… What exactly would you have me do?” Hosea snaps.

Arthur shrinks back a little but Dutch puts a hand on his shoulder in solidarity, fixing him in place.

“He’s right, old friend,” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t go on like this.”

Hosea looks between the two of them and huffs, thudding his book down beside him. “Leave me behind then!”

“Don’t tempt me,” Dutch shoots back.

“No, go on, cull the herd if I’m slowin’ you down so much.”

“For Christ’s sake, set your pride aside for one damn second…”

“Oh, you want to talk about pride, Mr Van der Linde?”

Arthur sighs. He might've seen this coming. The pair of them turn into squabbling toddlers whenever they go head to head, too evenly matched in wit and bullheadedness to ever meet in the middle.

“You need to see a doctor,” he cuts in, silencing them both.

“That’s... what I was tryin’ to say,” Dutch nods curtly.

Hosea keeps his mouth shut, holding in a cough. The effort of the argument has cost him, and in the lantern light his face looks drawn and sunken.

Arthur crouches down beside him. “Please. Just… a check-up. That’s all.”

The old man holds his eye for a moment and seems to deflate a little, sighing in exaggerated defeat. “If it’ll stop your nagging…”

“There’s that new hospital up at Ainsdale,” Arthur suggests quickly, before he can change his mind.

“Arthur’ll take you,” Dutch declares, slapping him on the back. “First thing in the morning.”

 


 

The medical centre is still being built—a military field hospital slowly turning into something permanent—all brick and glass and whitewashed corridors. Nurses in stiff starched aprons. The stink of tar soap and lye. A stifling quiet that puts Arthur on edge the moment they step through the doors.

Hosea senses it, pats him on the arm. “You don’t have to come in.”

“It’s no bother,” Arthur shrugs. They are continuing the pretence that all of this is just a formality, ‘just a check-up’, a great big fuss over nothing, but the truth is, he doesn’t trust the man to walk more than twenty paces by himself.

The nurse at reception takes Hosea’s fake name and tells them to sit in the waiting room. It’s barely mid-morning but it’s already half-full, and there’s something to be said for the fact that Hosea seems in a far better state than most of the other patients. Squalling, feverish kids. A man with a broken arm, strapped up against his chest. A woman with a jaw so swollen it looks like she’s swallowed a melon whole. Hosea just looks old and tired, a little frayed at the edges, but somehow manages to keep his usual poise. Arthur knows it’s an act but he admires it all the same, always has. Something he never quite managed to inherit from either of his adoptive fathers.

Hosea’s silence is both stoic and petty. He hadn’t argued about getting on the wagon this morning but he’d also refused to engage in any of the passing small talk Arthur had attempted to instigate on the way. A kind of punishment, he figured, for making him go. Arthur wasn’t gonna complain, so long as the old man saw the damn doctor. And he’s never been one for waiting, so if Hosea insists on continuing the silent treatment, he'll take the opportunity to doze the morning away, his hat tilted down over his face.

It might be an hour later when Hosea gets called into a side room and Arthur lifts an acknowledging hand without moving. See how the stubborn son-of-a-bitch likes it.

Hosea grunts in amusement as he gets to his feet, giving Arthur’s leg a little nudge. “Ten bucks says it’s just a cold,” he mutters.

Arthur takes the bet with a snort but realises after the door closes behind Hosea that he doesn’t want to win it.

 


 

Twenty minutes later, Hosea’s back with a bottle of medicine and a forced smile. He doesn’t even wait for Arthur to get up, shuffling past him to the door as if he can’t stand to be in the place a moment longer.

He’s already climbing into the wagon by the time Arthur catches up, setting the brown glass bottle down on the seat between them. The label is covered in spidery ink too small for Arthur to read.

“That gonna fix it?” he says, setting the horse on with a click of his tongue.

Hosea doesn’t nod, his eyes locked on the horizon. “Hmm. Doctor said it’d help a little.”

The lack of a proper answer hangs heavy between them.

“So… I owe you ten dollars then?” Arthur tries, but it’s like Hosea isn’t even there.

The man blinks absently, “What?”

Arthur’s swallowing too hard to answer right away, his fingers tightening on the reins. “Hosea, what did the doctor say?” he says, slow and deliberate, like he’s talking to a child.

Hosea takes a long, scratchy breath and holds it for a second, before the inevitable cough forces its way out again. But when it passes, a strange, faint smile remains on his face.

“Let’s take the long way back,” he says brightly, suddenly back in the world. “Up along the river if you don’t mind, driver.”

Arthur plays along with the scene, tipping his hat with a yessir. He doesn’t understand it, but he’ll play the part of the dutiful chauffeur until Hosea’s ready to say what he has to say.

 


 

The rain’s eased to a drizzle and the sun peeks through the clouds from time to time, teasing at rainbows. The river’s a speckled grey but pretty in its own way, and it’s quiet out here, away from everyone else. Been a while since it was just the two of them, out on a hunt or a job or scouting ahead for their next camp. A long while, now Arthur thinks of it, since Hosea was well enough to take point on anything.

He risks a look sideways at him, but Hosea’s a smiling statue, swaying gently with the rock of the wagon, watching the world go by without so much as a word. Until something seems to flicker across his eyes and he sits up a little stiffer, leaning into Arthur for a second. “Stop just here, where the water opens up.”

The river widens into a lake edged with a gravel beach, coming to an abrupt line where a short rocky waterfall tips down into the valley. It’s peaceful. A natural stopping place where the rest of the world seems to fade away around it.

“Bessie always wanted a house by a lake,” Hosea says, out of nowhere—all casual-like, as if they were mid-conversation, even though he barely mentions Bessie these days.

Arthur doesn’t dare look at him. Doesn’t want to break whatever tentative bridge he’s building. Knows when a man needs to tell a story.

“A quiet place,” Hosea sighs. “Our own little rowboat. Catching fish for supper. A vegetable garden. Maybe a dog. She would have loved your Copper, Arthur. Even if he was a menace…”

Another nudge of his shoulder and a pull on his heart.

“She had a thing for menaces,” Hosea adds with a sly grin.

There’s a peaceable pause and Arthur figures it’s safe to speak, though talking of times gone by gives him a creeping feeling of sorrow he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

“You had your own place, for a time,” he says.

“We did,” Hosea nods, closing his eyes to the memory. “And it was fine enough. But no lake.”

Arthur feels like he’s back in the airless white cube of the waiting room, the walls closing in. Like there’s something they’re forgetting. Something about to come and bite them.

Hosea seems smaller, somehow, since the hospital. Or maybe he’s been shrinking ever since Bessie died. He was in a bad way for a long while, afterwards, trying to reach the bottom of a bottle, as if that ever helped anything. Quieter, too, even though his voice, his words, his playacting was the very soul of him. The only thing that didn't shrink was was his temper. It might've even gotten bigger. Faster to fire and sharper, harsher, more cutting, even with Dutch. Even with Arthur. But that was an act too, because the strength behind it was gone. Like he lacked the spirit to even be angry any more.

And now this. Now here. A lake for a dead woman. An answer to a question Arthur doesn’t want to ask but knows he has to.

“What did the doctor say?” he says again, in barely an undertone.

He knows Hosea hears him from the tightening of his eyes but his reply veers down another road.

“Dutch is… delicate, you know that?”

Arthur shakes his head, tired of all this skirting around the problem. “What’re you talking about?”

“I can say things to you, Arthur,” Hosea says softly. “The truth. Even if it’s difficult to hear.”

Arthur doesn’t know if it’s a question or a statement. He dips his head. “Of course.”

“But Dutch... Maybe John, too... Their hearts are all shut up behind their bluster. They’re fragile. That’s why John ran, after Jack was born. That’s why Dutch won’t listen to reason even when he knows he’s made a poor decision. But you…” And Hosea finally turns to look at him. Reaches out a bony finger and pokes him in the chest. “Your heart is right here. Right on the surface.”

It shouldn’t hurt—it’s barely a prod—but it does. He swallows thickly. “Okay?”

“I need you to help them, Arthur. With the truth.”

“Hosea, I don’t underst–”

“It’s terminal,” Hosea says, looking away again. Two little words, tossed out like pebbles into the water.

“I thought as much,” the old man shrugs, “It’s why I’ve been putting off seeing anybody about it. Making it real… But you and Dutch asked me to go, and… well.”

Arthur stares at him, trying to shape the words into something that makes sense.

Terminal means… the end of the line.

Maybe he misheard. Maybe Hosea misspoke. Except the man never says anything but exactly what he means to say.

Arthur’s eye catches the brown bottle on the seat and he holds it up as if it’s proof of a lie. “But… I don’t… They gave you medicine. We’ll find another doctor. A better one.”

But Hosea is smiling again, as if it’s all some clever ruse. Maybe his best yet. “Oh, it might not be for a long while yet, don’t fret your petticoats.”

Arthur lets the bottle drop to his lap. Can’t read the damn print on it because his eyes are all blurry of a sudden.

Hosea’s hand comes to rest on top of his. “This isn’t something you can fix, Arthur. You or anyone else. And you need to accept that. You all do. The truth of it. Because I don’t think I can bear you all trying to save me.” His voice breaks a little at the end and his next words come out paper thin. “You understand, my dear boy?”

Arthur nods. Even though he doesn’t understand. Because it’s always been the four of them, Dutch, Hosea, John and him, since the beginning, and any less than that just doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t understand it, doesn’t accept it. But he nods because he can’t do anything else.

There’s water dripping down his nose, making tiny thuds as it lands on his shirt, smudging the label of the bottle. And Hosea’s hand pats his in an idle rhythm. Comforting him, when it ought to be the other way around.

“Aren’t you afraid?” is all he can think to say.

The question draws a long sigh out of the man beside him. “I don’t believe there’s anyone looking down on all our good deeds, all our sins,” Hosea shrugs. “Perhaps I’d have been a better man if I did.”

He looks back out at the lake and Arthur does likewise, just as the clouds pull apart and the sun shines silver, turning the water into a mirror.

A quirk of a smile lifts the corner of Hosea’s mouth briefly and is gone again. “But I can still feel my Bessie in the world. And I know she’s waiting for me, wherever she may be. So, no, I’m not afraid.”

Arthur doesn’t trust his voice to speak again. Bows his head. Can’t bear the beauty of the view any more.

Hosea taps the reins and sits up straight. “Well. Let’s head on back. We’ve been gone all morning and Dutch’ll be worrying like an old mother hen. You know how he gets.”

He knows exactly how Dutch gets. Feels a stone of dread lying in his stomach at the thought of going back to camp with this particular truth.

But it's time to get back into character. The nobleman and his trusty wagon driver. That's your cue, boy...

Arthur snaps the reins and turns them back onto the track. He can feel Hosea looking at him.

“He’s going to need you,” the man says quietly. “When I’m gone. They all are.”

Arthur forces himself to meets Hosea's eyes. Reads the rest written there, unsaid.

“I know it,” he nods. A silent promise, to do what needs to be done. And he will.

Chapter Text

It ain't his fault the stupid kid can’t swim.

In fact, the thought that he might not be able to doesn’t even cross his mind. 

Thing is, Arthur grew up on a wagon, and if you wanted to survive you followed the river: water for drinkin', for cookin', for washin'. And in between, for playin'. His mama used to joke that he swam before he walked, as natural to him as a fish, so he just assumed it was something everyone could do. 

Ain't his fault it’s one more thing the kid’s bad at. Little Johnny golden boy who constantly needs Arthur to clear up his latest disaster. Dutch and Hosea think it’s funny, until the kid gets caught doing a little light shoplifting in the general store and ends up getting chased through the town they've spent two weeks casing to rob. So they task Arthur with keeping the boy out of the way for the afternoon, which means he gets to miss out on the job, too. And he can’t even hang around camp because the little demon managed to put three whole live frogs into the coffee pot and he thinks Grimshaw might actually murder his scrawny ass this time. 

So it’s just Arthur and the petulant twelve year old, sitting aimlessly by the river, far away from anyone and everyone, where the only harm he can do is scaring off the ducks. 

They've been there all of two minutes and the kid’s already pestering him for something to eat. As if his satchel is some bottomless receptacle of snacks for a teenager who can somehow put away as much as a draft horse.

He tries to teach the boy something useful. Points out burdock root and sage and milkweed; collects bulrushes for the horses, mushrooms for the stew. Even tries making a fishing line out of some string he finds in his pocket, but the kid is only interested in throwing rocks into the river like he’s trying to hurt it. 

"How long we gotta stay here?" John gripes.

Arthur sighs, thinking just the same thing. "Long as it takes."

The boy scowls in the general direction of the town—where Dutch and Hosea are busy concocting a scheme to empty every safe in every backroom within a single day.

"We should be with 'em, helpin'," John says, sour as a crabapple. 

"Yeah? Because you're so helpful, gettin' yourself into trouble all the damn time?" He shakes his head. "Got a lot to learn before you can ‘help’…"

Arthur flicks a bit of pondweed off his boot. He's aiming for the kid but it goes wide and lands on the pebbles at his feet.

John scowls at him, even so. "When you gonna teach me to shoot? And not with a pistol. I mean with a rifle."

Arthur lets out a throaty laugh. "Oh sure, I can see that plan going just dandy. And besides, you're too small. Knock-back'd throw your shoulder right out of its socket."

"Would not."

"Would too."

"I shot a gun before, you know."

"I know." Arthur rolls his eyes. Flicks another stripe of pondweed at him.

"Shot a man before, too."

"Yeah, yeah, I heard the story a hundred times. Go tell the fish."

He still isn't sure if it's true or not; that John killed a man before he was ten years old. It makes him a little sick to think of, and the boy's so full up with desperate bravado he figures even if it ain't a lie, it likely happened a lot different to the way he tells it. 

A pause. The kid's scowl deepens. "Bet I'm a better shot than you."

Arthur gives him a tolerant smirk. "I’ll tell you what. How 'bout I get you one of them little toy bows and arrows? Then you can show us all your infamous deadly aim. Maybe catch a few squirrels and make yourself useful for a change..."

Kid’s scoots away, up to his feet, kicking stones into the shallows. "Shut up."

"I will, when you stop being a brat."

"Why don’t you stop being such an ass-faced know-it-all?"

A laugh bursts out of him. "Ass-faced? I know I ain't much to look at, but have you seen yourself lately? Filthy as a dog with the mange. I’m surprised Grimshaw ain’t dunked you in the dish bucket yet…"

“She can try,” the kid growls darkly, which makes Arthur laugh even harder, which makes the kid even more furious.

“What you gonna do, bite her?” Arthur snorts. “Though I wouldn’t put it past you. When the hell you gonna join the human world, huh? Or should we set you free to roam the wilds instead?”

He scoops out a particularly slimy bit of pondweed from under a rock and this time his aim is true, sticking to the side of the kid’s face with a satisfying slap.

“Fuck you, Morgan!” John snarls, ripping off the weed and tossing it back at him. It misses, by several feet, so he snatches up a stone instead, aiming for Arthur's head.

He dodges it easily, scrambling to his feet as the boy grabs another. He’s enjoying himself for the first time all day and drops into a defensive stance, ready to teach the little shit a lesson.

“Maybe I’ll do Grimshaw a favour ‘n’ give you a bath right now...” he grins, darting forward and grabbing the boy by the scruff of his collar.

The kid struggles wildly but Arthur’s other arm wraps all the way around him, pinning his arms to his sides. He’s just a bony, skinny thing, still catching up on years of scavenging for scraps, but Dutch says the rough-housing’s good for him. Says it’s what brothers do.

John’s screaming every curse he knows, kicking back at his shins, wriggling like an eel, but Arthur hangs on, taking a few staggering steps towards the river. He was only planning on dumping the boy into the shallows—make him ride home with wet breeches—but he’s forgotten just how dirty the kid fights when’s cornered and suddenly there’s a sharp pressure on his forearm as John sinks his teeth into him.

Arthur gapes at the sight for a second, before the pain of it hits—and the outrage.

Alright, if that’s how you want it…

And with a wide, swinging arc, he tosses the kid right into the river.

Ain’t his fault it’s deeper than it looks.

He thought it’d only be about waist height but the boy plunges into the water with a comical sploosh and the current sweeps him into the middle of the river, where it runs fastest. There’s a brief flail of limbs, a garbled yell, and John goes under. And he doesn’t come back up again. 

Shit. 

Arthur wades out after him, scanning the water, seething in a breath at the shock at how cold it is, the strength of the current just a few feet in. It looked so placid from the bank.

He’s pretty sure the kid is just playing a trick—‘bout to pop back up behind him and leap onto his back, shove a handful of pondweed down his shirt or something. But he’s silently counting in his head and a long ten seconds go by, then twenty, thirty, and he isn’t sure just how long a person can hold their breath for. Even for a prank. 

And then, from way downstream there comes an almighty splashing. A darting glimpse of dark hair above the surface before it’s gone again. 

Shit, shit, shit.

Arthur launches himself into the water, legs kicking hard behind him, arms scything through the surface as he closes the distance, stroke by stroke, trying to keep his eyes on the spot where he last saw the kid. But there’s no sign of him, just the surging rapids and the squall of the water, deafening in his ears.

The panic grips at him but he doesn't have time for it, drawing in the deepest breath he can and jack-knifing into a dive. 

The current is vicious beneath the water, defying the laws of gravity, buffeting him every which way. He can't see a damn thing through the churned up mud. Can barely control his own body. And it’s all he can do to right himself and kick back up to the surface before he runs out of air.

He flounders for a moment. It’s all happening too fast. He didn’t mean for this. Didn’t want this. He'd only meant to give the kid a fright. Teach him a lesson. But not this...

His next breath judders on the way in but he holds it tight and ducks back under.

This time he doesn’t try to fight the force of the flow, letting it take him where it wants, peering through the murky water with a focus so intense it makes his head feel fit to burst. The need to breathe burns in his chest but he can't give up; knows he's running out of time.

And there, maybe ten feet away, a spiralling figure, limbs waving like a rag doll. 

Arthur’s stomach clenches, expelling all the air in his lungs—some in-built reflex to yell for the kid—but all that comes out is bubbles.

He reaches him in a few kicks. Grabs him round the middle and heaves upward, cursing the slowness of moving underwater, every second deadly.

He breaks the surface with a gasping breath but the river’s deep here and now he’s fighting the churning current with a limp body to hold onto. He doesn’t have time to check on the kid—it’s all he can do to keep his legs moving, reaching sideways, one heavy stroke at a time, his other arm clinging around the kid’s skinny chest. And he’s never been so grateful to feel ground under his feet as his boots finally scuff the riverbed.

He drags the boy out by his armpits and lays him out on the bank, collapsing beside him, shivering with adrenaline. For a long, terrible second, the kid lies still and pale, and Arthur can hear the blood pounding in his own ears like the relentless rush of the river, but then water spurts out of John’s mouth and nose and he’s choking more than breathing but he’s alive.

Relief and anger and a hysterical edge of laughter flood Arthur’s chest as he turns the boy on his side, thumping him on the back until he pukes up half the river.

It's a long while before the kid is able to haul in a clean breath and when he does it still comes out coughing. Maybe a bit of sobbing, too, though he tries to hide it, curling in on himself, hair plastered to his face.

Arthur keeps on patting his back, slower and slower as the kid’s convulsions calm to a trembling, until he’s just holding a hand there, not quite wanting to let go yet.

“Scared the shit out of me, kid,” he murmurs, letting out the nervous laugh that’s been bubbling up inside of him.

John rolls over, pulling himself up to sitting on shaky arms, and turns to fix Arthur with a dark-eyed stare, more furious than he’s ever seen him.

The boy shoves him, the flat of his hand slamming into his chest. He does it again, rising up onto his knees to get more force behind it. Arthur tips backwards, catching himself on his hands, leaving himself open to the attack he can see coming, but he doesn’t bother to stop it. Lets it come, the way it needs to.

And then John’s on top of him with a ragged war cry, grabbing fistfuls of Arthur’s shirt and slapping him around the shoulders, the head, the face. And Arthur lets him, until the kid’s hands curl into fists and he lands a staggering blow against his ear, sending the world spinning.

He reckons he deserved it, but there’s a limit.

He snatches the boy’s wrists out of the air and holds them still. “Alright, enough. I’m sorry.”

The rest of John’s body keeps fighting, writhing in his grip, his face screwed up with blind rage. “You son of a bitch…”

“Yeah, I know. I’m an ass-faced bastard.”

Arthur hangs on, lets the kid wear himself out. And he does, a few moments later, sagging boneless and heavy with the weight of his water-logged clothes.

Arthur lets him go—but slowly, just in case he’s got a second wind in him. “I fished you out, didn’t I?” he offers.

John slumps back down onto the bank with a sullen humph. Won’t even look at him. And for a second, Arthur sees both the boy he is and the man he’ll become—how vulnerable and how fierce.

He sits beside him with a long sigh.

“I didn’t know you couldn’t…” he starts, gesturing jerkily at the river. “I mean, I can teach you if you–”

“Shove it up your ass, Arthur.”

“Alright then.”

He shuts his mouth. Maybe he’s been a little hard on the kid, lately. Maybe John's just looking for his place, trying to be one of the men, trying to prove himself. Arthur was a different kind of twelve-year-old—more scared than ferocious—but maybe there are different kinds of showing fear, too. Maybe acting like a rabid raccoon is one of ‘em.

They sit in silence for a couple minutes, synchronising their shivering, watching the tumble of the river go by. He resists the urge to put an arm around the boy. Too soon for that yet, he thinks. But his arm flexes with the thought of it and he frowns in surprise as a bloom of fresh red seeps through his shirtsleeve. It stings and he can’t remember why. And then he does, pulling back the fabric to reveal a neat little curve of toothmarks, deep enough to draw blood.

He stares at it for a second. Hears a little snort of amusement from beside him.

“You bit me,” he says dazedly. “You really are feral.”

When he looks sideways, the kid’s grinning. Arthur gives him a little shunt with his shoulder and John shunts him back in a peaceable kind of way. The way brothers do.

“Least Grimshaw won’t make me take a bath now,” the boy says with a shrug.

Arthur grunts and pokes at his bruised forearm. “Yeah, well. You’re welcome.”

And just when he thinks perhaps they’ve reached a tentative truce, a cold clump of pondweed comes slithering down the back of his collar…

Chapter Text

Arthur can’t remember when things stopped going the way Dutch said they’d go. Maybe they never had. But still, he does what he’s told. Even when there’s no other purpose to a job than murder.

He’s more or less in agreement that the man deserves it, at least. Angelo Bronte. A man who bargained with Jack’s life. Who insulted them all to their faces. Who led them to the trolley station and right into the arms of the Saint Denis law. And Arthur can’t say he wouldn’t be satisfied to see the man suffer a little.

So they follow Dutch on a night of revenge—through the bayou, over the wall of the mansion’s sprawling gardens, shooting their way through a few dozen of Bronte’s men and kicking open the front doors.

Dutch sends him in with John while the others skirt round to the back and they clear the place, room by room, shot by shot, searching for the slimy bastard. They’ve done this before, and not even that long ago—looking for Jack at the Braithwaite manor, full of righteous vengeance—only at least then it had a purpose. This methodical kind of killing just makes him feel like a foot soldier for Dutch’s bruised pride.

Still, they’ve come this far, they might as well finish it. And maybe once it's done, Dutch'll calm down a little.

Arthur and John head upstairs, through plush bedrooms, ornate bathrooms, a book-filled study. A whole entire room for Bronte’s wardrobe. Arthur stops for a moment, staggered by the wealth of it, trying to calculate how much the man’s suits alone must be worth, while John heads into the next room. There’s a gunshot, a scuffle, then silence, and a creeping feeling crawls across Arthur’s shoulder blades.

“John? You found him?”

There’s no answer. Arthur curses under his breath and leads with his shotgun, shouldering the door open and readying for trouble.

But instead, trouble finds him, as it always seems to.

He barely has time to register the sight of John in a heap on the floor when the butt of a rifle smashes into his temple and he’s going down hard, the world tipping sideways, his vision flashing white before darkness swallows him up.

 


 

There’s a dull ache running all the way down the side of his jaw, through his neck and into his back. He tries to move but something’s wrong. His arms are numb. He’s face down on something soft and hard at the same time. For a second he thinks he’s in his bunk but it smells wrong. Some kind of perfumed soap. Cigars and the hint of gunsmoke. The hanging tinge of blood in the air.

When he squints an eye open, a knifing pain flares across his forehead. And as his blurred vision collates on a swirling red carpet it all comes back in a rush.

Bronte.

He struggles to roll onto his side, gritting his teeth against the ache in his head. His arms are tied behind him, lashed tight at the wrists, shoulders straining. There’s blood in his eyes—he can feel it cracking across his eyebrows—and even the lamplight feels too bright, doubling his vision and casting everything in a wavering glow, but gradually his surroundings come into focus.

John's tied to a chair in the middle of the room, head lolling onto his chest, breathing harsh and shallow. There's the signs of a beating on his face, bloodstains on his shirt, one eye swollen shut.

Arthur calls his name and is rewarded with a savage kick in the ribs. He hadn’t even seen the other figures, hidden in the periphery of his concussion. Bronte, in his silk smoking jacket, and two of his lackeys, their knuckles smudged with John’s blood. One of them kicks Arthur a second time and he curls in on himself, unable to take a breath in for several long, gasping seconds.

John’s good eye flickers open and he immediately begins to pull against his bonds, mumbling curses through a fat, split lip.

Bronte walks a slow half-circle around the back of the chair and leans against it, smiling coldly. “Finally, we are all in attendance. We’ve been getting bored waiting for you, Mr Morgan. I hope you don’t mind us amusing ourselves with your little brother here.”

The Italian prods at John’s bruised cheekbone and he flinches away.

“I’m afraid he hasn’t been particularly helpful with our enquiries,” Bronte continues, sneering down at Arthur. “I was hoping you might be a bit more cooperative. What do you say?”

Arthur glares back at him. “You double-crossed us,” he growls. “Dutch’s gonna have your head.”

He’s expecting the next kick and tenses for it, but this time it comes from behind and the lackey’s boot gets him right in the kidney. His back arches reflexively, pulling at his bruised ribs, at his stretched shoulders. He breathes through it, fighting for control. He feels helpless, down here on the floor, but he’s in a better state than John and needs to keep the attention on himself for a while.

Bronte lets out a clipped little laugh. “Ah, yes, Dutch Van der Linde. Precisely the topic of our conversation. You see, I have been approached by some people who are very interested in your illustrious leader…”

Arthur meets John’s eye and a silent question and answer passes between them. Pinkertons.

Bronte sees the exchange. Smiles wider. “And here I am, with two of his favourite protégés. Well... I have to say I’m not terribly impressed. But, by the looks of it, Dutch is content with scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the company he keeps.”

“What do you want, Bronte?” Arthur sighs. “Ain’t got all day.” He’s sick of speeches. From Dutch. From this prick. So many grand words with no one really saying anything.

Bronte’s smile freezes on his face and slips into a grimace. “I want Dutch” he says, slowly, dangerously.

Arthur lets out a dark chuckle. “Just sit tight. He’s comin’ for you.”

“Oho. No, I don’t think so,” Bronte smirks, almost apologetically. “He turned tail and ran, along with the rest of your ‘friends’. Back to whatever hovel you people crawled out of.”

Arthur falters. The pounding of his head is still making it hard to remember clearly but he's pretty sure Dutch and the others had been right behind them. Maybe there were too many of Bronte’s men. Maybe they had to retreat, regroup. But surely Dutch wouldn’t just leave them here…

Bronte seems to read his train of thought, leaning down and resting his hands on his knees as if he were talking to Jack. “No one is coming for you, Mr Morgan. But now you’re both awake perhaps this whole… process can be somewhat more entertaining.”

Quick as a whip, he reaches out and grabs a fistful of John’s hair, yanking his head sideways. “You know, I thought this one would be the weaker of you two, but he’s been remarkably resistant so far.”

John spits out a gravelly ‘fuck you’ and Bronte lets go, shoving him away so hard the whole chair almost tips over.

“Looks like it’s your turn, Mr Morgan.”

He gets his lackeys to do it. Wouldn’t want to dirty his own hands, of course. Leans back against one of his fancy side cabinets and watches as they lay into Arthur with fists and boots and rifle butts.

Arthur’s taken more than a few beatings in his time, except usually he’s on his feet, giving as good as he gets. Here, tied up on the floor, unable to defend himself, it's all he can do to try not to choke on his own stuttered breathing as the blows rain down on him.

A boot catches him across the face and he feels something crack. A tooth, maybe. Or his cheekbone. Blood floods his mouth. His skull feels like it’s splitting open. The whole room is spinning, even though he knows he’s lying still.

He can hear John yelling from far away. Swearing, threatening, then begging them to stop. To leave Arthur alone.

There’s the familiar sound of a fist hitting flesh, a grunt, and John goes quiet.

The lackeys turn back to Arthur but he’s doing poorly enough on his own without any need for their 'assistance'. His ribs are on fire, every breath like broken glass, and he can’t stop coughing. Can’t inhale more than a gasp before it hacks out of him again.

Bronte pauses the assault with a wave of his hand and appraises the man at his feet distastefully.

“Tiring so quickly? I thought you’d be more of a challenge. And now I am going to have to replace this whole carpet…”

“Didn’t… like the… colour… anyway.” Arthur forces the words out, spitting blood across the patterned rug, managing a crooked smile at the way it riles the other man.

Bronte sets one shiny shoe against Arthur’s neck and presses down, forcing his face into the floor.

“Look at it,” Bronte snarls. “Look around you. The kind of finery you will never know. You… peasants. Living out of tents, wagons, in the mud. You farmers and your filthy, fucking…”

He searches wildly for the right English word, stamping down harder on Arthur’s jaw, “…turnips!”

“You mean... mangos,” Arthur corrects, his voice scraping out of him. And then he’s laughing, even though it’s like a stabbing in his ribs, tears of mirth and pain streaming down his cheeks, and though he can’t see anything other than the stupid, swirling carpet in front of him he can hear John laughing too, and it's worth it.

Bronte lifts his foot away, rolling Arthur onto his back with the momentum, and suddenly there’s a blade in the man’s hand—a wicked little thing, more like a folding razor than a knife—but the sight of it, along with the cold glare of Bronte’s eyes, makes the laughter die in Arthur’s throat.

“Enough,” Bronte snaps. “Enough of this timewasting. You are going to tell me where to find Dutch Van der Linde, and you are going to tell me now.”

He waves the knife between them, weighing up his options for a moment, before crouching beside Arthur and grabbing a fistful of his shirt.

“What should I take first?” he asks John. “An ear?”

The blade flicks beneath Arthur’s earlobe and he feels a trickle of blood run down his neck.

“Or maybe a finger…”

The knife hooks behind his pinky finger next, and he swallows hard. Imagines it slicing down to the bone.

“Or how about an eye?”

He flinches as the Bronte holds the tip of the knife a hair’s breadth above his left eye, fighting the urge to cough, though it tugs at his chest, not daring to move an inch. Not even blink.

John is deadly still too; has been watching the performance with a face like stone. “Stop it,” he says quietly.  

“Your choice, Mr Marston,” Bronte smirks. “Or would you like to watch me carve pieces off your ‘brother’ all night?”

John takes a ragged breath and shakes his head. “Dutch’s long gone. He’ll have cleared out, moved on. I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”

“See, I don’t think he’s that smart,” Bronte says thoughtfully. “I think I have made a fool of him and he will stick around a while, to see if he can get his petty revenge. Or perhaps to negotiate for your sorry lives. The way he did with your boy. Playing at gentlemen, running errands like a good dog.”

John’s fists tighten around the chair’s armrests at the mention of Jack. A muscle in his jaw twitches.

“You wanted to march right in here and blow my head off, didn’t you?” Bronte drawls, enjoying the effect his words are having, “Like a real man, protecting his child. But Dutch, he just wants to talk, talk, talk…”

Arthur can see John’s breathing quicken, his eyes locked onto Bronte as though he’s imagining exactly what he’s describing—the man’s brains splattering all over the wall.

But Bronte is on a roll, latching onto John’s weak spot and pushing. “You would have done anything to save your son, and that is admirable, but why protect Dutch? He is not your blood. He is not your family.”

“We’re all family,” Arthur cuts in, as firmly as he can. Before Bronte’s words can seep too deep into John’s mind.

Bronte looks surprised, almost as if he’d forgotten about the man he was threatening with a knife. And then he gives a cruel, taunting smile. “Is that right? One big happy family? I must say, I did think Jack has more your complexion than Mr Marston here. Is that something else you farmers do? Share your wives?”

Arthur feels the room turn a notch colder. He seeks out John’s eye and holds it steady. Be smart. Don’t rise to it.

John doesn’t react. Stares back at Arthur with an emptiness that hurts. Shifts his gaze back to Bronte.

Bronte tuts impatiently, shoving the blade up against Arthur’s throat. “What is this one to you, anyway? Always fighting for Dutch’s approval. For your woman. Why don’t I just… get rid of him for you?”

The knife presses harder. Arthur feels it scrape on his stubble. Draw a stinging line of blood. Bronte leans closer, his eyes boring into John's.

“And then we have a nice little talk about Dutch. And we get you a fine reward. A piece of land. A farm for your family. With mangos.

The spell breaks. John’s eyes narrow. “Get the fuck away from him.”

Bronte rolls his eyes, letting go of Arthur with an exasperated sigh, and with a sudden lunge, he sinks the knife into John’s thigh, right up to the hilt.

A scream tears out of John’s throat, his chest heaving as he pants through the pain. And it’s Arthur’s turn to struggle, somehow dragging himself up to his knees as if he can do a damn thing with his hands still tied behind him. But he tries to throw himself at the man nonetheless, until one of the lackeys steps forward and wraps an arm around his neck, holding him still, and Bronte turns on him with a vicious edge to his voice.

“Alright, your turn to talk.”

He yanks the knife out again, ripping another grunt from John, and blood starts flowing from the wound, soaking his pants and the chair beneath it. Bronte ignores his cursing and his thrashing and holds the blade above his other thigh.

“Where next?” he asks Arthur. “Here?”

The same sick game, reversed.

He moves the knife to John’s stomach. “Here?” Then his heart. “Or here?”

Blood drips down the chair legs, seeping into the carpet. John's face is fixed in a grimace, leaning forward as far as his bonds will allow, every muscle straining.

“Let him go,” Arthur barks. “Forget Dutch. Take me in. There’s five thousand on my head alone.”

“Five thousand?" Bronte snorts, "That is nothing to me.”

Arthur sags in the lackey’s grip, his voice cracking, barely a whisper. “Please. Take me, instead. Please, just let him go.”

And Bronte pauses, suddenly alert, like a cat pricking up its ears. Outside, the sound of gunfire splits the air.

Dutch.

A flicker of uncertainty passes across Bronte’s face and he waves the knife at his lackeys. “Go and see what’s going on.”

They spring for the door, the one holding Arthur dropping him abruptly, but he just about manages to stay on his knees. The shots are getting closer. Shouts and footsteps on the stairs. He feels a grim smile spread across his bruised face.

“Told you he was comin’,” he says.

Bronte swears in Italian, fumbles a fancy-looking gun out of his dresser and thrusts it against Arthur’s head, just as the door slams open and Dutch kicks his way in, shotgun raised.

Dutch’s eyes take in the sight, darting from Arthur to John and back again, his gaze resting on the gun at Arthur’s temple. His grip on the shotgun tightens.

“Put it down,” Bronte says flatly, cocking the hammer, jamming the barrel into his blood-matted hair.

Dutch attempts a winning smile, lifting one hand off from the shotgun and holding it up like a prayer. “Now let's be reasonable about this, Bronte. Discuss this like gentlemen …”

"No more talking," comes a gruff voice from behind Bronte and then John is barrelling into him, chair and all, and the three of them go down with a crash and a ringing gunshot.

 


 

Arthur finds himself face down on the floor again, his head reeling, an unbearably high-pitched sound filling his left ear with pressure, a burning line running right the way across his cheek. Gun must’ve gone off right next to his goddamn face. He feels himself groan but can’t hear a thing.

Someone cuts his bonds and his arms fall limp at his sides, numb and full of needle-pricks. He’s pulled up to his feet by firm hands, patting him down for injuries, slapping him gently around the face until he opens his eyes.

Dutch's face fills his view, looking horrified and relieved and more than a little scared.

Lenny’s there too, hauling John up off the floor, bloody and grumbling. And Bill, tossing a senseless Bronte over his shoulder.

“Y’came back,” Arthur mumbles, and his own voice sounds like it’s underwater.

Dutch frowns back at him, his brow pinching in the middle. “Course I did.”

Arthur chokes on a laugh and immediately regrets it, can barely stand up straight with his battered ribs, but Dutch holds him up, wraps an arm around his shoulders and leads the way. The way he always has. The way they'll always follow.

“Come on boys," he grins darkly, "Let's go have us a little talk with Mr Bronte here...”

Chapter Text

He should’ve known better than to listen to one of Uncle’s plans. Even something as simple as robbing a stagecoach had turned into a whole heap of a mess. Because of course the stage belonged to Leviticus Cornwall. And then they end up chased halfway across the state, holing up in some old falling down barn until nightfall, get 'emselves caught up in another gunfight, half smoked to death when the damn barn catches fire, and have to hightail it into the woods in the middle of the night.

By the time it’s over, Arthur’s about fit to throttle the old bastard, who at least has the sense to turn tail and scurry off back to camp. Bill heads after him pretty quick—the fire part was his fault, and Arthur’s feelin' indiscriminate about which idiot he gets to vent his wrath on—which just leaves Charles. Quiet, capable Charles, who always manages to keep a level head, even when he’s surrounded by morons. And Arthur can’t find a reason to be mad at him, so he just huffs his way further into the trees to find his horse.

Charles lets out a laugh under his breath as he follows. “Well, that went about as well as expected.”

Arthur makes a grunting noise, as much in response as because of the growing ache in his left leg. Now that the adrenaline’s wearing off, every scrape and bruise he’s acquired of the evening is clamouring for his attention, but his leg is the worst of it. It's too dark to check and he's too tired to bother. He just wants to get back to his bunk and sleep for a good twelve hours. He whistles for his horse, but she's busy nibbling at a sage bush and pretends not to hear.

Arthur sighs. Why does no one listen to him? Not even his goddamn horse. He limps his way over and leans against the saddle for a moment, gathering the energy to swing himself up.

“Arthur, you’re bleeding.”

Charles is staring at him, a concerned tightness to his features, and Arthur follows his gaze down to a patch of dark red low on his hip, glistening in the moonlight.

He makes a soft ‘huh’ of surprise.

No wonder it hurts.

“Must’ve gotten clipped in the fight,” he mutters, pulling up his jacket to get a better look at the wound. His hand comes back crimson. “Huh,” he says again.

And something about seeing the blood gives the pain free rein to run through him, a hot lancing pressure just above his pelvis, pulsing with his heartbeat.

Charles takes a step closer, his frown deepening. “Not just clipped…”

Arthur can feel his left leg about to give out, suddenly sapped of all strength, and attempts to pull himself up into the saddle, but his arms are conspiring against him too and he half slides, half collapses to the ground.

His horse sidesteps away, skittish at the unexpected behaviour of his rider, and Arthur lets out a growling curse—at his horse and at Uncle and at his traitorous leg and his shitty luck and this whole entire disaster of a night. He tries to push himself back up but Charles is at his side, a hand on his shoulder keeping him down.

Arthur shakes him off. “Nah, gotta get out of here.”

“Not like that, you’re not. Let me see…”

And before Arthur can stop him, Charles is pulling up his shirt and twisting him sideways, checking for an exit wound. The movement tugs a yelp out of him. He can feel the blood now, hot and slippery, soaking his side, his hip, his leg. Too much of it for just a flesh wound. And Charles confirms it:

“Jesus, Arthur. It went right through.”

“Well, that’s something,” he shrugs, gritting his teeth against the nausea threatening to crawl up his throat. Charles is pressing both hands tight against the bullet hole now and it steals the breath right out of his lungs.

He tries to push the man away, gives an ineffectual shove to his shoulder, but Charles doesn’t budge.

“We need to stop the bleeding,” Charles says firmly, letting go with one hand to rummage in his satchel.

Arthur lets his head tip back, trying to focus on his stuttered breathing. The tree canopy spins above him and he squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. “Gotta get... back to camp… just… tie something round it…”

“I can do better than that,” Charles says, biting open something small and metal and tipping the contents into his hand.

Arthur's squints at him. “Is that a bullet?”

“Just sit still.”

“What the hell are you gonna do with it?”

Charles shoots him an odd look. “You’ve never cauterized a wound before?”

“I… never done a what?”

The pain and the blood loss is making him dizzy, and it’s all Arthur can do to watch as Charles makes a careful circle of gunpowder around the bullet wound.

Satisfied, the man sits back on his heels and pulls out a matchbook, fixing Arthur with a steady stare. “Take a deep breath.”

Arthur grimaces back at him. “This is gonna suck, isn’t it?”

Charles gives no reply except to scrape the match head on his boot and touch it to the ring of gunpowder.

It sucks.

Arthur realises too late that he never took that deep breath. Instead, he straight up stops breathing for thirty long seconds while the powder flares and sears a white hot circle into his skin, stabbing deep into the muscle and flesh surrounding the bullet hole. He curls in on himself, his hands clawing into his thighs, and just as he thinks his lungs might burst, his body drags in a long scrape of a breath and lets it out with a grating scream.

The world goes quiet and dark for a while after that. He can hear himself panting, thin and high. And when he opens his eyes again he’s flat on his back amongst the mulchy leaves of the forest floor. A light rain has started up, dappling on his face like a tickling bug but doing nothing to put out the burning of his wound.

Charles holds out a hand and helps him sit up, holding him steady when he wavers. “You good?”

“No. 'M not,” Arthur grouches, wincing as he pokes at the raw, scoured skin on his hip. “Y’set me on fire, Charles.”

Charles gives a wry smile. “Worked though, didn't it?”

He’s not wrong. The wound is sore as shit but it’s not bleeding any more. Gonna leave one helluva mark, though.

“Huh.”

“Think you can ride?”

Arthur sighs. He’d rather just lie in the dirt and feel sorry for himself a while longer but he nods grudgingly and Charles hoists him back to his feet. His leg threatens to give out again but somehow he manages to get onto his horse, who has the decency to stand still this time. He catches his breath for a moment, hunched over the saddle, feeling a little like he’s just had a hot poker shoved through his stomach. But he’s also fairly sure he would never have made it back to camp, bleeding out the way he was. He watches Charles hop up onto Taima’s back: quiet and calm as always, even though his hands are stained with Arthur’s blood.

“Hey, thank you,” Arthur says gruffly.

Charles nods his acknowledgement and silently sets his horse on through the trees.

Arthur lets his own mount follow, a jolt of pain jarring through his hip with every hoofbeat.

It’s gonna be a long ride home.

“Oh, and Charles?” he adds.

“Yeah?”

Never do that to me again.”

Another of those under-his-breath laughs comes rustling through the dark. “Whatever you say, Arthur.”

Chapter Text

The woman drives the wagon like a maniac. It’s all he can do to hold on as they take another corner at full speed, let alone get a clear shot at the riders chasing after them.

“Hold it steady!” he yells, leaning over the backboard and notching his repeater to his shoulder. There’s six of them, maybe more—it’s hard to tell with all the dust they’re throwing up—in the familiar blue uniforms of the Lamoyne Raiders, hollering the usual crap about their rightful land.

Sadie screams a string of insults back at them in that scratchy voice of hers. A world away from that ghost of a woman they brought back from Colter. He wonders if this what she was like before the O’Driscolls ruined her life. Or if this is a new version of Mrs Sadie Adler, reborn from the ashes of her cabin. She’s got a wild edge to her that he recognises as something to both respect and be wary of. The kind of recklessness that could get ugly real quick if you don’t keep an eye on it.

“Get ‘em, Arthur!” she shouts, forcing the horses up and over a bank and cutting across some farmland.

“Maybe if you stopped throwin’ us all over the place for just one second…” he snaps back, peeling off a couple of shots and ducking as the Raiders return fire.

It's a bad situation. It should be terrifying for a woman who barely made away with her life from the last run-in with a gang of bandits. But she’s grinning like a demon, hair flying loose behind her, and he realises he’s never really seen her smile.

He shakes his head. Hell of a time to start havin’ fun.

A bullet thuds into the side of the wagon, sending splinters flying, and he refocuses, tightens up his aim, letting his centre of gravity shift with the vehicle as if he’s breaking a horse. Easy now, easy now…

He picks off one of the riders with a shot to the chest and the man tumbles backwards off his mount into the grass. And another, just clipped in the arm this time but it's enough to knock him down.

Sadie gives a husky ‘ha!’ of victory and Arthur can’t help grin back at her.

Until he notices the fast approaching ditch, that is.

“Sadie…”

“I see it!”

She hauls on the reins and the horses make a valiant effort at turning but the wagon isn’t quite so easily handled, tipping onto two wheels with a terrible lurch that makes his stomach flip. And then the whole world goes sideways, horses screaming, wood splitting, and he hits the dirt with an impact that drives all the breath out of him.

He has just enough time to marvel at the fact that he didn’t break anything when there’s an ominous creak and a dark shadow falls over him, closely followed by what’s left of the wagon.

It happens so fast there’s no pain at first—just a pressure so immense his brain can barely process it. He can’t breathe more than a sliver, can’t expand his lungs, can’t even feel his legs; only the hard line of his spine, grinding into the ground. The side of the wagon landed right across his chest, his shoulder, trapping one arm at his side. A foot higher and it would have smashed his skull to pieces.

The pain is still waiting to hit but the panic swoops in fast, like being pulled underwater. He strains against the impossible weight of the cart but inside he can feel bones scraping together, torn muscles screeching, and he collapses back, even more breathless than before. He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to stave off the fear, to keep hold of the wavering thread of consciousness.

There’s a scrabbling above and a torrent of dirt slides down the side of the ditch and into his face. Then Sadie’s beside him, covered in scrapes and streaked with blood, eyes wide in her dirt-smeared face. “Oh god, oh god, Arthur…”

Her horrified look is all he needs to know things are bad. But within a second she schools her expression, a determined set to her jaw.

“I’m gonna get you out,” she promises, shifting around behind so she’s got a leg either side of him, hooking her hands under his armpits and pulling back with all her strength.

His vision flashes black and red and white. Something in his back makes a crunching noise and the movement shoots lightning through his bones. His hearing blanks out for a moment, and when it bleeds back in, someone far away is screaming in a way that barely sounds human. It’s only when he runs out of breath that he realises it’s him.

His face is slick with cold sweat. Sadie has both her hands pressed to his cheeks, her forehead to his, shushing him like a baby. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

He swallows thickly, his throat raw. “No more… movin’.”

A gunshot jerks her head up, peering through the gaps in the splintered wagon at the field. The sound of hoofbeats thunders through the ground. Sadie snatches up Arthur’s rifle, half-buried in the debris-strewn ditch.

The Raiders.

Some in-build reflex alights in him and he ignores his own words, making a scrabbling attempt to free himself, but all he manages is a noise between a whimper and a grunt, the black clouds on the edges of his vision threatening to close up again.

“Hold tight. I’ll be back,” she whispers, creeping around the edge of the wagon and disappears from view.

He stares after her.

Hold tight? What the hell else is he meant to do?

More gunshots. Shouts. Sadie bellowing the dirtiest swears he's ever heard at the Raiders. And even though he can’t see, he can tell she’s holding her own. Knows the report of his own repeater well enough. Hears the yelps of pain as each man goes down.

His free hand twitches, wishing he at least had his revolver to defend himself. Imagines how easy it would be for one of them to slip past her, step around the wagon and put a bullet in his head. But he thinks perhaps it would be a mercy killing. He can feel himself fading, the numbness taking hold of his entire body now, like he’s floating in a freezing cold lake. He lets it take him, his eyes sliding closed, head falling to the side, inhaling the smell of the coppery earth in tiny, gasping breaths.

“I said, hold tight, cowboy.”

That wild woman’s voice. Her palm, slapping hard and sharp against his cheek.

“Stay with me, Arthur. I’m gonna get you out, I swear.”

By the time he manages to open his eyes she’s gone again. Maybe she was a dream anyhow. No—he can still hear her, the other side of the wagon, cursing and muttering. The clink of tack and the indignant huffing of horses. A thwack of hand against horse-flank. The sound of a rope pulling taut. And the wagon shifts, just a few inches, but the pressure lifts enough for his body to flood with all the sensations that numbness had been hiding. It drags a low groan out of him, jagged and shattered. He can tell something in his back and his legs is very, very wrong. Something bruised, deep inside of him. But for the first time he can take in a half-decent breath and it’s like water in the desert.

Something thuds into the ground next to him as Sadie jams a makeshift lever beneath the wagon. He’s about to tell her there’s no goddamn way she can move the thing on her own but she props the gun on her hip and fires it into the air with a fierce ‘h’yah!’ to the horses and suddenly the wagon is lifting once more, the horses jolting forward, Sadie leaning down with all her weight on the lever.

He knows he won’t get another chance. As soon as there’s enough room to pull his trapped arm free he digs his hands into the dirt and shoves, trying desperately to push with feet he can’t even feel, dragging himself backward, inch by inch, shaking with the effort, half-sobbing with the wracking agony of it. The horses whinny and snort as they strain to pull the wagon up out of the ditch. Sadie grunts as she shoves at the lever. But it’s not enough. The cart is slipping back and the pain is claiming him, flowing through him like ice, and he can’t move… he can’t…

Sadie tosses the lever aside and claws her fingers into his shirt, his chest, hauling him back with a grating roar.

The wagon falls back with an almighty crunch but somehow he’s clear, barely a foot away from the mess of wood and metal, his head laying in Sadie’s lap, her hands patting his shoulders in an absent, dazed kind of way.

And he’d have been content to stay there, drifting in and out of consciousness as she fusses around him, pushing a rolled up jacket underneath his head, squeezing his hands in hers, her warm breath on his face as she leans right over him. That voice. Dusty and rough and twisted with a smile.

“You’re gonna be alright, Arthur. I’m gonna get help. Just hold tight, okay?”

He lets out a cough of a laugh. Hold tight. Like he has any other choice.

"Yes ma'am," he whispers. But she's already gone.

Chapter Text

He’s hunched over the saddle, fingers loose in the horse’s mane, every breath a struggle. He can just make out the path ahead, dim in the moonlight, blurred with pain. No idea where he is; how long he was on the back of an O’Driscoll horse; how long he’s been hanging in that cellar.

All he knows is that he has to get back, has to warn the others. Warn Dutch.  

He leans along the mare’s neck, unable to keep his head up any more. She nickers in curiosity and concern and he runs a soothing hand down her side. His best girl. His Boudicea. No, not Bo. She’s gone. Long time gone. This one’s younger, a little less footsure, but he trusts her just the same. She seems to understand he’s not able to do much more than loop the reins around his wrists and stay in the saddle as best he can. It's all up to her now.

C’mon girl… Get me home…

 


 

The miles drift in and out. The air is cool but his skin is burning hot. Every step jars through his bones, flares in his shoulder, but he knows he can’t stop. Doesn’t even have the strength to pull on the reins. Has to keep going, through this endless purgatory of a night. He can’t remember where he is or why. Can’t remember a time when his world wasn’t made up of all-consuming pain. All he knows is they’re coming for him. For Dutch. For everyone. Even little Jack.

Piecemeal memories sweep over him like waves.

A beach. A string of flowers. Catching fish with Isaac. No, not Isaac. Long gone, just like Bo.

That man, Milton, whose face he’d like to put a bullet through, talking about loyalty.

Dutch, through a rifle scope. Relying on him. With you watching over me I would walk into hell itself.

And maybe that’s where he is now. It’s hot enough to be hell. The relentless thud of hoof beats like a hammer against the base of his skull. He shivers closer into the horse’s back and thinks maybe he should try to pray but he’s forgotten how.

 


 

The scent of sage and oregano. The soft swish of trees above him. A trail so familiar it brings a lump to his throat. They’ve been through so many camps lately he’s not even sure which one it is, but he can see the wagons and smell the fire smoke and hear the soft murmur of conversation and the word home sinks into him like a warm bath.

His horse stops just short. She knows she’s not allowed past the hitch posts and she’s done her part. He whispers his thanks to her, his head swaying on his neck. The camp wavers like a mirage and he can’t raise enough of a voice to shout with. He can see his tent from here—it's not far, just a few dozen steps. He slips sideways out of the saddle and the ground rushes up to meet him.

Stars above him. Earth at his back. Anxious faces looking down at him, calling his name. His eyes won’t focus right, limbs won’t move. But he has something he needs to do, something he needs to say, before he passes out.

“Arthur?”

Dutch. Get back to Dutch. Warn him. Tell him about… about what?

Hosea sitting at the table, barely looking up from his book. “It’s a trap…”

“I told you it was a set-up, Dutch…” he mumbles.

“My boy... My dear boy. What?”

A rifle butt slamming into his face. The barrel of a gun, pressed against his shoulder. An explosion of pain and noise and then darkness.

“They got me… But I… I got away…”

Dutch’s hand on his forehead, cool against the blazing heat of his skin. “Yeah. That you did.”

Colm laughing at him, dangling him like a fish on a hook, poking at him with a spoon. “Sepsis. Ain’t nice…”

“He was gonna set the law on us…”

“Of course he was.” Dutch, always so sure, even when he’s wrong.

They haul him up to sitting and his vision flickers like candlelight. His shoulder feels full of splintered glass.

Voices he knows. Family. Gentle hands. Worried tones.

“Miss Grimshaw, I need help! Reverend Swanson!”

“I’m sorry, Arthur.”

“Let’s get him to bed.”

Dutch, at his side, holding him up, and lying all the while. “You are safe now, Arthur. You’re safe now.”

He falls into his own bunk with a gritty laugh. “That’s pretty, Dutch. That’s real pretty…”

The darkness swamps him, heavier with every heartbeat. He’s drowning in it, a thread of light trailing off into the distance, too far away to reach, too fast to grab onto.

Someone takes hold of his hand, anchoring him back to earth. Miss Grimshaw, her voice softer than usual but still not to be argued with. “You’ll be okay, Mr Morgan. You’re home.”

He wants to believe her. He doesn’t have the strength to fight it anyway.

The light blinks out. He lets go.

 


 

He wouldn't call it sleep but he dreams, nonetheless. Dreams of a silver-eyed wolf. A golden stag. Not quite asleep but unable to claw his way out of the mist.

Everything hurts, right down to the bone. The heat peels off him in waves, leaving him shuddering a moment later. There’s poison in his shoulder, seeping through his blood, through his muscles, like tiny needles.

There’s someone different at his bedside each time he opens his eyes. He calls out for Dutch, tries to sit up, but they press him back down, every touch a bruise on his tender skin.

He dreams of hanging—by his feet, by his neck—swinging in a burning breeze, the world on fire.

When he wakes, he calls for Dutch. Sometimes he’s there. Sometimes not. Sometimes daytime, sometimes night. Once, the reverend, reading words for a dying man. A woman, crying over him. He thinks it might be his mother. Or Mary, maybe. But no… they’re long gone, too, just like all the others. Everyone leaves him in the end.

He dreams of a gunshot ripping through him, over and over. He tries to fight back but they hold him down. Tries to dodge but there's no escape. The bullet slams into him and he wakes gasping.

Someone reopens the wound in his shoulder with a hot knife. Scours it with alcohol. Sews it shut again. They lash him to the bunk, two of them holding his legs, another leaning across his chest. Put a leather strap between his teeth to stifle the screaming.

The pain wins. Sends him back into darkness.

He wakes and calls for Dutch.

A squeeze of his fingers. “I’m here, my boy. I’m right here.”

He dreams of a still lake at the foot of a snowy mountain. Dusk or dawn, he’s not sure which. The sky is pink and full. He’s floating in the ice, numb and weightless. His heart slowing, beat by beat. His breathing shallow, barely a whisper.

And he thinks perhaps he could stay here forever, where the pain can’t find him any more. Where everything just stops. Just… let go.

But there’s something at the back of his mind. Something he still has to do. That golden thread, snaking off into the darkness, urging him to follow.

Dutch. Get back to Dutch.

And he’s never been able to disobey.

 


 

He wakes to a grey sky; the gentle sound of rain on canvas. The clouds filling his head are starting to clear; his senses returning. Birdsong. The gentle lapping of water on the shore. The crackle of fire. A laugh and a barking dog. The turn of a page.

Hosea sits at his side, quiet and still, a book in his lap. His eyes soften when he sees Arthur watching. “There you are.”

“Where’ve I been?” he whispers, paper-thin.

Hosea gives him a faint smile. “You almost strayed too far, Arthur. But you’re back now. We’ve got you. Just rest.”

And this time he believes it. They’re not the same kind of pretty words that come out of Dutch. These ones feel true. The same way Grimshaw says home.

He feels Hosea take his hand. Didn’t even realise his eyes had fallen closed again. And this time he sleeps—really sleeps—deep and dark, without a dream.

Chapter Text

He’s no good at sitting still. Propped up on his bunk like a goddamn invalid, not even able to put his own pants on without help. Stupid useless left arm strapped up to his chest. Dizziness taking him if he takes more than a couple of steps on his own. 

And it’s not like he’s never been shot before, but the fever, the infection, whatever it was, gripped hold of him and refused to let go. Left him weaker than he’s felt in a long time. Four days he was laid out delirious, they tell him, shivering and burning up at the same time, flinching away from the slightest touch. Teetering on the edge of… well. Everyone’s skirting around it, but he can see it in their eyes. Even Dutch’s been waiting on him—or, at least, regaling him with stories, taking advantage of the fact that he has no option but to sit and listen. The rest of them take turns, too, trying to make it easier in their own ways. Hosea and Mary-Beth bring him books. Jack draws him a picture of his horse. Abigail gets him fresh coffee whenever she fills up her own cup. Lenny sits and plays cards for a while, and doesn’t mention it when Arthur falls asleep mid-hand. Even Karen stops by his tent once, with half a bottle of whiskey and a dirty joke.

He appreciates it all. He does. But he’s not used to staying in one place this long. Usually he’s only in camp for a day or two before someone sends him out on an errand, or Pearson needs meat for the pot, or Dutch wants him to scout out a job, or he just decides to ride out for a bit—see what he can see. He’s not used to being…stuck. Bored. Having to rely on someone other than himself. Treated like he’s a goddamn child.

As if to prove his point, John comes by with a bowl of stew. “Here y’go,” he says, passing it over. “Pearson said to tell you he gave you the best cuts. Made sure there ain’t too much gristle in it, neither.”

Arthur dumps the bowl onto the table beside his bunk without even looking at it. “You gonna chew it up for me, too?” he mutters. “Like some little baby bird?”

John snorts a laugh out his nose. “Sucks, doesn’t it? Layin’ there all useless.”

Arthur scowls at him before remembering it was John laid out covered in bandages not that long ago. The scars on his face are still angry and red, pulling tight when he smiles. Arthur can still see the kid covered in blood, hunched up and shivering on that cliffside, looking like he’d been half ripped to pieces… 

He nods. “Guess you’d know somethin’ about that.”

“That I do,” John sighs, poking at Arthur’s uneaten stew with a spoon. 

Arthur gives him a sideways look.“Although, you don’t usually need an excuse to lay around being useless…”

“Yeah well, I’m pulling your weight as well as mine now. So you get back on your feet, alright?”

“I’m tryin’,” Arthur says, shifting himself a little higher, wincing at the way the movement jars through his shoulder. 

John watches him with a kind of understanding; looks back at his own tent with a roll of his eyes. “Hey, at least you don’t have a wife naggin’ at you. Fussin’ over every little noise you make…”

And Arthur can’t help but imagine Mary sitting at his bedside, the way Abigail did with John in Colter, cryin’ half the night away. Thinks maybe there are worse things than to have someone care so much. 

He shakes the idea out of his head. That’s not for him and never has been. Ain’t nobody gonna be weeping over him when he’s gone. 

They sit there a while. The kind of silence earned by years spent together. No need to fill the gaps. John stares down at his hands. Arthur watches the pattern of the leaves on the canvas above. 

And then, so quiet he almost misses it: “Thought you were gone for a while there.”

Arthur meets his eyes. He’s the first one to say it out loud and that’s something. But now that it’s been said, now that it’s real, he can’t stand to see the truth of it on the kid’s face. Like a haunting.

“Ah, take more’n a couple of O’Driscolls to get rid of me,” he says gruffly, waving the insinuation away.

John attempts a smile but it doesn’t stick. “Yeah. Well. Dutch is all fired up about it. Makin’ plans.”

“Of course he is…” Arthur sighs, leaning back against his bunk and closing his eyes. ‘Cause the last one worked out so well.”

 


 

“Mr Morgan, will you quit being such a baby?”

“Ow! Get offa me, woman!”

“You need those dressings changed and a sponge bath while you’re at it. Just because you’re injured doesn’t mean you can sit around in your own filth.”

Grimshaw’s stronger than she looks. Always has been. And while she’s not quite at the point of dragging him over to the water barrel by his ear, she’s not above manhandling him out of his jacket, and he knows struggling is only making it worse but damnit, his shoulder hurts and he’s sick and tired of being poked and prodded and told what he can and can’t do. 

She comes at him with a wet cloth and he snatches it out of her hands, throws it as far as he can out of the tent—the movement yanking on his stitches and bending him double, hissing out a breath of frustration.

“You… ridiculous man,” Grimshaw huffs at him, with a glare so sharp he’s almost scared to look her in the eye. 

A stifled laugh makes both their heads snap up and Tilly’s standing there, arms crossed over her chest, lips pressed tight together in a barely contained smirk.

“Oh, you think this is funny, Miss Jackson? Well why don’t you deal with him, then? Because I am done trying to keep the man alive,” Grimshaw snaps, storming past the girl and out of the tent.

When the dust of her exit settles, Tilly picks up the cloth and shakes it off, eyeing Arthur with a shrewd look. 

“You gonna let me help?”

“Don’t need no help,” he grunts, wrapping his good arm around his throbbing shoulder. 

She ignores him, takes a step closer. “Grimshaw’s right. You do need those bandages changed. Wash that wound out. Otherwise it’s gonna fester.” 

When he doesn’t reply, she drops the cloth into a bowl of water on the table and makes a tentative reach for his arm. “You know, the quicker you heal, the quicker you get out of this bed,” she says carefully, and he knows she’s right but that doesn’t stop him sulking like a little kid.

“Fine,” he sighs. But when she goes to unbutton his shirt he jerks back a little. “Can do it myself. Ain’t completely helpless.”

She nods patiently. Watches as he struggles with the buttons, one-handed. Hides another of those smiles behind her hand when he gets stuck pulling the sleeve off.

Eventually, he gives up with a low growl of frustration, and she darts in to help, carefully extracting him from the offending shirt. He can feel himself getting hot under her stare, feeling like a damn idiot, shivering in the cool of the air.

Still, it’s better than Grimshaw. The woman ain’t exactly got the gentlest touch, but Tilly’s hands are light and deft, making quick work of unwinding the bandages and cleaning the wound, easing off when he tenses up.

His shoulder is a splintered mess of stitches and burned scar tissue. It aches day and night, stabs at him if he tries to lift his arm, stealing away his strength with the relentlessness of it. Just the effort of sitting up has him sweating.

Tilly pauses to rinse out the cloth, lips pursed in concern as he lets out a shaky breath, gathering himself for the next assault.

“You need a minute?” she says. 

He shakes his head. “Just… get it over with.” 

She lays the cloth against his shoulder again but doesn’t move it—just lets the coolness of the water soothe into him. “I’m sorry for hurtin’ you. Be done soon.”

The kindness is a different kind of hurt. Like someone’s squeezing his ribcage too tight. He ducks his head, feeling sorry for acting such a fool. “Had worse, I guess,” he shrugs. “One more scar to add to the pile.”

She smiles at that, casting her eyes over him, nodding at a long, jagged line that runs down the back of his arm. “What’s this one? Knife?”

He nods. “Crazy bandit came at me with a machete. Dutch stitched that one up. S’why it’s so crooked.”

She forgets about his shoulder for a second, cranes her neck around to look at every side of him, discovering one scar after another—the history of his life in the Van der Linde gang, man and boy. 

“Jesus, Arthur, you’re covered in ‘em.”

He tells her the stories of the ones she points to. Bullets and arrows and blades. The time someone hit him with a hot poker. More bar fights than he can recall. 

“Lucky none of ‘em killed you,” she says, shaking her head. 

He sighs out a gravelly breath. “Yeah, well, maybe they should have.”

She shifts round to his back so she can wrap a fresh bandage around his shoulder and stops still for a moment. She doesn’t ask about the scars there. He reckons maybe she knows a little about where they might’ve come from. She runs her fingers over the worst of them—a raised ridge of scar tissue on his shoulder blade—and he closes his eyes to the memory.

He can’t recall exactly what he’d done to upset his father that day. Maybe there hadn’t been a reason. There didn’t always need to be. But he can still see his daddy’s wild eyes as he rained down curses and strikes upon him. Shucking off his belt and using that when his fists weren’t enough. Arthur had curled into a ball, head cradled in his arms, thinking it might never stop—until the belt buckle scythed through flesh and bounced off bone and he could hear himself screaming before the pain even became real.

And then his father’s arms were wrapped around him, pulling him tight against his chest, rocking him like a baby, whispering rasping apologies in his ear, begging for forgiveness, saying, “You’re all I got,” over and over until his voice hitched and broke. Until both their faces were wet with tears. Until Arthur didn’t know what to do but rub circles on his daddy’s arm as if he were the one hurting, and tell him it was all right. 

He doesn’t tell Tilly about that one and she doesn’t ask. Just finishes up with the dressing and rests a hand on the nape of his neck for a second, bringing him out of the past and back into the world. 

He rolls his shoulder carefully, testing out the new bandage and gives her a nod of thanks. “Feels better.”

She dips her head and almost turns to go, but can’t help but reach out one last time to tap the scar on his chin. “Wait. You never told me about this one. Always wondered how you got that.” 

He clears his throat awkwardly. “I… uh. Can’t remember that one. Long time ago.” 

“Oh, come on. What was it? Another fight?”

“Hmmyeah, must’ve been it.”

“Nope,” says a wiry voice from outside the tent. Hosea sticks his head in, an elvish grin on his face. “There’s a better story to that one.” 

Arthur shoots him a warning look. “I don’t think–”

But Hosea is a cat with a mouse. “You don’t remember, Arthur? Dancing on a bar top in Yellow Springs? Six sheets to the wind?”

“Not so much dancing,” Arthur clarifies, “Might’ve been singing a bit. A little merry. We’d just gotten away with a big ol’ bank score if I remember correctly.”

“Yeah, that was it. You always did know how to celebrate,” Hosea smirks, turns to Tilly. “Great buffoon fell and landed on his face. Thought he’d broken his damn jaw but I guess his thick head is made of tougher stuff.” 

Tilly doesn’t even try to hide her laugh this time. “Glad I wasn’t there to mop that one up.”

Arthur glowers at the pair of them, waving them out of the tent with a grunt. “Go on, git. Stop bothering the poor invalid.”

“He needs his beauty sleep,” Hosea whispers conspiratorially. “A whole lot of it.”

Arthur ignores their giggling, slumping back down onto the bunk and planting his hat firmly over his eyes, counting the hours until he can get the hell out of camp and find some proper peace and quiet.

 


 

He’s getting better, slowly but surely. Mostly slowly. Every time he thinks maybe he can do something more than sitting around like a useless sack of shit it knocks him back on his ass. A walk around the camp takes him twenty damn minutes. Filling up the water bucket lays him up for half a day, out of breath, shoulder burning. He’s never felt this weak, this thinly stretched, as though he’s nothing more than a shadow.

The ache of his shoulder won’t let him sleep properly. He tosses and turns in the daytime, lies awake at night, slipping into half-dreams and jolting awake again, flushing hot and cold, as if the fever is still taunting him. As if his body just won’t let it go. 

He waits until the early hours, when most everyone is curled up in their own bedrolls and bunks, when no one will rush to help him, or fuss him back to bed. He wraps a blanket around himself and shuffles his way to the watch fire, if only to get a break from staring at the canvas of his tent. It’s closer than the main campfire and less chance of anyone being around. But as he reaches the circle of light there’s a figure there, crouched beside the flames. It’s too late to turn around now and he’s not sure he has the energy to make it all the way back to his tent so he slumps down on a log.

Sadie pokes at the embers with a stick. Doesn’t bother to look at him. “Thought you were on bed rest.” 

“Slept enough,” he says shortly.

She nods absently. Sees right through him, apparently. “Bad dreams?”

He shrugs. He’s not sure what they are. Aftershocks, maybe? He doesn’t remember the nightmares but he wakes gasping, all the same. A cold fear gripping at his chest.

She’s quiet for a while. Just the crackle of the fire between them. Then: “I don’t know if it gets any easier,” she says quietly. “People keep telling me it does. But I still see it. Every night.”

He watches the flicker of firelight against the side of her face. He didn’t think about the fact that what happened to him might be close to home for her, too. The same O’Driscolls who killed her husband. Who locked her in a basement and– He doesn’t know what. Doesn’t want to know. 

She looks up just as he’s about to look away—catches his eye and holds it firm. She’s the only person in camp not to pity him, aside from Micah, but that’s different. She’s the only person to understand what it feels to be made helpless. To be hurt for the sake of hurting. And maybe he understand a little of her pain, too. What she lost. 

She’s still staring at him, a resolute set to her jaw. “You’re gonna get em back, right?” she says in a flat voice. “You’re gonna kill ‘em. All of em? For what they did to you. To Dutch. To me.”

He gives the slightest shake of his head. Knows what he’s about to tell her ain’t what she wants to hear. “We’ve been at war with Colm and his boys since… well, since I was kid. The killin’, it never stops. Just goes back and forth.”

“So we end it.”

“Ain’t that simple.”

“Ain’t it?” Her eyes are blazing and he has to look away. 

“We got… other shit to deal with right now. Pinkertons on our tail...”

“Bullshit,” she snaps, tossing the stick into the flames and turning to face him fully. “They beat you. Shot you. Hung you up to die. Don’t you want justice?” 

He should. He should be as angry as her, but he’s just… not. And he knows well enough that revenge is a fool’s game.

“It don’t matter what they did to me,” he says, voice barely a rumble, forcing himself to meet her glare once more. “I reckon you’re owed your own revenge, and that’s fair. But it’ll eat you up if you’re not careful.” 

“I don’t care.” She shakes her head jerkily.

He sighs. “I know you can’t leave it behind but… ain’t it better to try to find a way to… to move on and live your life?”

There’s water in her eyes now but she blinks it away, her voice a harsh whisper. “How can I? They took everything from me.”

She doesn’t let herself cry. She’s done plenty of that already. Burned those feelings away until all that’s left is fury. And that’s a place he knows well enough. 

He swallows hard, his throat tight. “I had… a woman, once,” he says softly. “A child. They were taken from me, too.”

He hears her take a breath and hold it. He hasn’t spoken about this in years. Never even told Hosea and Dutch more than the barest details. Couldn’t bring himself to speak it aloud. And he won’t now, but maybe there’s a part of the story that might stop her ending up the same as him. 

“I went after those that did it. Found ‘em. Killed ‘em. All of ‘em.” He chews on his lip a moment, waiting for his voice to settle again. Shakes his head. “It didn’t help. Not a bit.”

She exhales, finally, and it comes out in a shudder.

He dips his head, trying to catch her eyeline, but she won’t look at him no more. “Believe me. You take yourself to that place… you can’t come back.”

He watches until she gives a ghost of a nod. But a part of him knows what he says doesn’t matter. That nothing could change her mind. And the knowledge is just one more weight hanging around his neck. There have been more and more of them lately, getting heavier all the time. The weight of what’s to come. The feeling that everything’s rolling downhill, gathering speed, heading towards something inevitable he doesn’t want to acknowledge. And it won’t end well. 

 


 

Nearly three weeks later he’s back on his feet. Shoulder’s never quite the same, of course, but he’s got enough old injuries chasing him around that it’s in good company at least. 

He finally found a little peace with all the sitting around, filling up his journal with sketches. Trying to write down some of those thoughts keeping him awake at night. It helps a little. As if he’s keeping some record of it all. In case one day it comes to be judged. At least it’s set down plain.

He’s sitting at the dock, watching the water change colour with the passing of the clouds, when there’s footsteps behind him. 

“I thought I’d be burying you, Mr Morgan,” Swanson says, as if that’s any way to start a conversation.

“Well, not quite yet, Reverend.” Arthur sighs, tucking his journal away and nodding up at him. 

“Good,” the man says, and he seems to mean it. “How you feelin’?”

He rolls his shoulder. “Oh, ‘bout the same as you.”

Swanson gives a wry laugh. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

The reverend’s mostly sober these days but there’s a shadow to him, too. Something pulling down on him. Arthur sometimes wonders if there’s a single person in camp who isn’t carrying around their own invisible weight. 

Swanson pats him on his bad shoulder and he barely feels a twinge. “Well, take care of yourself.”

“You too.’”

He heads back through camp, giving his tent a wide berth. He doesn’t plan on sleeping there for a long while if he can help it.

His horse is waiting, saddled and ready, with bedroll and supplies. The promise of an empty road ahead of him. 

He doesn’t bother with goodbyes. He’ll be back soon enough and he’s pretty sure everyone’s be glad to see the back of him for a time. 

But as he looks back, he can’t help but wonder at Swanson’s words. Wonder which one of them will end up burying him. And how many he’ll have to bury before all this is done. 

Chapter Text

He heard the arrow coming from behind him—a sharp zip through the air and a thunk as it hit true, embedding itself into his back just below his left shoulder blade. The impact was more of a punch, arching his back and yanking a grunt out of him, but he didn’t stop riding, urging his horse on through the woods at a dangerous speed until he was out of shooting distance. There were too many of them—their crazed screaming seeming to come from every direction. Murfrees. Skin streaked with blood and mud and god knows what else. Eyes wide and wild. Hungry.

They’d felled a tree across the path—just one of their many tricks for unsuspecting travellers—and come upon him silently, creeping out of the woodland like creatures crawling out of hell itself.

He knew better than to stand and fight. He’d wheeled his horse around and set off at a gallop; no shame in running when you’re faced with that. He’d seen inside their cave. Seen what they did to people they didn’t kill outright. But their parting gesture hit its mark and already his left arm and side were starting to go numb.

It was a strange feeling. As if something cold were trickling through his veins, spreading out from the wound like a spiderweb. His vision pulsed at the edges, in time with his heart, and a sinking kind of dread came to rest in his stomach. He let the horse slow a little and wrapped the reins double around his left wrist, reaching his other hand up and over to touch his fingers to the wound. They came back bloody, which wasn’t a surprise, but there was an acrid smell to it, too. Sharp and musky. Some kind of poison? Some weird Murfree shit? Was this how they hunted people?

From behind him, an echoing cackle of laughter rang through the trees and he shivered. They were coming.

He nudged his horse on again, fighting to keep his breathing under control, to keep the panic in check. He knew he couldn’t remove the arrow on the move. Had to get somewhere safe, first, out of this cursed, nightmare of a forest. But the way back to camp would take him right through Murfree territory, and in the pit of his stomach he knew it was too far anyway. The numbness reached all the way to his hand now, slithering down his back and across his shoulders. His head was almost too heavy to hold up and his heart thudded against his ribs, fast and stuttering.

A creaking branch jerked his attention to his left and he twisted in the saddle, his pistol wavering in the air, but there was no one there. Only rustling leaves and dark shadows. A million hiding places for the murderous brood. He could hear his own breathing coming harsh and panicked as he swung his aim from side to side, unable to tell if the laughter he heard was in his head or in the trees.

He peeled off a shot anyway, out of paranoia more than anything, and forged on down the track, whispering breathless pleas to his horse: “Get us out of here, girl… don’t stop… not for nothin’…”

He had no idea where he was going, his vision swirling and swimming, the trail splitting off in front of him, his grip on the reins getting weaker and weaker. He wasn’t gonna make it much further. Maybe there was an abandoned shack he could hole up in. Maybe he could just crawl into the undergrowth and… what? Die alone, poisoned and hallucinating?

A rushing noise bled into his hearing and a fading synapse fired in his brain—the river, winding through the hills to his left, up through beaver dams and moose country before curving up to a great waterfall, carved into a sheer cliff. And underneath, nestled into the hillside: a cabin. A friend.

He dug his heels in, easing his horse back on the right track, and after a while she seemed to recognise where they were headed and took over. She knew this trail; knew the woman at the end of it had a soft voice and a handful of chestnuts to feed her.

He kept casting looks behind him, gun rattling against his hip, the sounds of pursuit jangling in his ears, every way he turned. It didn’t make any sense. They couldn’t have followed him this far, as fast as he was going. They were trappers, not hunters. They laid in wait, rarely straying out of their territory. But for some reason they had him marked and they were going to run him down.

A chill ran through him at the thought of leading them right to Charlotte’s place but it was too late now. The track opened up to the flats surrounding the falls and he was greeted by the welcoming sight of a smoking chimney and glowing windows. The cabin on the hill. A figure out on the porch, rifle in hand, watching his approach. Just like he taught her

Good girl. 

Maybe it was the relief of it, or maybe the poison was gaining strength, but before he made it past the fence his grip finally slipped and he slid sideways, tumbling off the horse at a full canter and rolling into the brush.

He felt the arrow shaft crack and splinter as he landed on it; felt the arrowhead drive deeper. He lay paralysed for a moment, a desperate gasping tearing out of his lungs, his face pressed into the dirt. He could hear running footsteps through the dirt—hundreds of them it sounded like. And through the air, the screams of madmen, come to slice him open, pull out his innards and hang him like a trophy. And what worse things would they do to Charlotte? He thought of the poor girl he and Charles had found in that cave, shut up in a cage, half-crazed with terror.

His forced himself to his hands and knees. His gun had flown wide when he fell but he yanked his knife out of his belt and held it out in front of him, trying to focus the swaying of his vision, the sickening spiralling of his head. Dark, shadowy figures poured out of the forest, filling the track, seeming to melt right out of the trees.

He sliced at the air, frantic with fear. He had to fight. Had to stop them. Protect Charlotte.

But his balance tilted and he was falling again, slamming onto his side, his good arm stretched out in front of him, knife rolling out of his hand, and the shadows were swarming over him, suffocating him, blinding him…

“Arthur! Oh my goodness…”

Cold hands on his forehead brought him back and he blinked up at a pale face, hanging above him.

He tried to shake her off, warn her away. “No… get away. Get back… to the house…”

But Charlotte held on, somehow much stronger than he was, holding his head steady, “You’re hurt. Please, don’t move. Let me help you.”

“No… no… They’re comin’!” His eyes darted around wildly, his voice ragged, but Charlotte just frowned down at him with a look of blank confusion.

“Arthur. There’s no one here but us.”

His breath stilted in his chest as he pushed himself up to sitting, staring back down the road he’d just come. It was empty. The trees gently swayed in the breeze. Not a soul to be seen.

He felt her hands on his back, heard her gasp at the sight of the arrow sticking out of him.

“Don’t touch it,” he barked. “S’poisoned...”

Making him see things. Making him as crazy as the Murfree.

“Let’s get you inside,” she said carefully, helping him to his feet and notching herself beneath his good arm, taking as much of his weight as she could as they stumbled their way to the porch.

He didn’t make it much further than the front door, slumping to his knees on the bare floorboards, his dead weight bringing her down with him.

“Gotta… get it out,” he muttered, leaning on his good arm, fist clenched, back hunched.

She took a deep breath and started tearing his shirt around the arrow. Every tiny movement felt like a shard of glass driving into him. He gritted his teeth against the pain.

“Just tell me what to do,” she said. “Believe it or not this is something else I’ve never done before.” And her voice may have been shaky but her hands were steady.

“Need… something to grab it with…”

Each word was an effort and he couldn’t afford the breath to explain much more than the basics; could only hope she had enough common sense to work the rest out.

She left him for a moment, crossing the room to the fireplace and back again, a pair of iron tongs clanging down beside her as she knelt at his side once more.

“Will this do?”

He nodded weakly. Smart woman.

“All right,” she breathed, pushing him down until his forehead met the floor. “You’re going to have to hold very still…”

He couldn’t stop the groaning noise he made when the tongs clamped onto what was left of the broken arrow shaft, feeling the metal head scraping against his shoulder blade.

She didn’t balk. Didn't apologise. Didn’t hesitate. She let out a grunt of her own as she anchored her foot down onto his lower back and yanked on the tongs with all her strength.

The room span and he collapsed forward, blinking stars, a fire igniting in his back and spreading through every part of him. And then her hands were on him again, pushing down onto the open wound.

“Oh my… That’s… That’s a lot of blood.” She sounded like she might throw up and he wanted to tell her she was doing good, that he was sorry for turning up like this, for dumping himself on her doorstep, that the worst was over and she’d already done the hard part, but when he looked sideways at her, the sight turned his stomach, too.

His blood coated her hands, all the way up to her forearms, soaking through the blanket she was using to staunch the flow, dripping onto the floor—and it wasn’t stopping.

Charlotte had turned ashen. “Arthur… what do I do? Tell me what to do.”

But he was struggling to keep his eyes open. Couldn’t feel anything other than the dull ache in his back. A tingling in his fingertips. A wash of heat that rippled over his skin.

His tired brain strained for reason in the senselessness. This wasn’t how it was meant to be. One stupid arrow... It can’t have hit an artery. Can’t have hit anything important. So why was it still bleeding?

Charlotte supplied the answer: “You said it was poisoned,” she snapped, sharp and urgent, and something clicked into place.

“Snake…” he whispered. The only thing he could think of that stopped blood from clotting was a snake bite. How the Murfree had gotten the venom onto an arrow head was beyond him, but who knew what kind of twisted rituals the Murfrees used for their killing?

Not that it mattered. He knew nothing about how to treat it. If it was even possible. And it might already be too late.

Charlotte muttered something to herself he didn’t quite catch, rolling him over until he was lying on his back, his own body weight putting pressure on the wound while she ran to the next room.

He stared up at the ceiling with glazed eyes. He was sorry to die here, on her floor, making such a mess, but at least it would be quick. Quicker than what was festering in his lungs. Quicker than watching the Pinkertons chase down everyone he loved, one by one. Quicker than a hanging.

And maybe she would bury him beside her husband, beneath the thundering waterfall. Grow flowers on his grave. There were worse places to end up. And as the venom slipped through his veins he let himself sink into the floorboards as if they were made of the softest sand.

Something heavy dropped onto his chest, jolting him back into the room. The sound of leaves rustling. No—his eyes flickered open—paper. Charlotte knelt at his side, a thick book spread open on top of him., scanning each page with narrowed eyes and a determined intent.

Ashwagandha,” she said at last, stabbing at the page with a finger. And he thought perhaps she was a witch, casting a spell on him. Remembered finding a steaming cauldron once, way, way up in the Grizzlies, watched over by a gigantic crow. Or maybe it was a dream. Maybe all this was a dream…

“Indian Ginseng,” Charlotte read, her face lighting up with every line. “A small evergreen shrub with flowers like orange lanterns. Its roots smell like a horse. Crush the root to make a paste to treat snake bites…”

Flowers like orange lanterns. He made a paper lantern for little Jack once. Put the stub of a candle in it and sent it floating out onto the lake, glowing like a blood moon.

He blinked again and she was gone. The book had fallen off his chest into the pool of blood on the floor and he watched the redness seep through the pages, blooming into the ink like petals.

Its roots smell like a horse. Sleeping in the stables as a boy, no kind of home of his own, the smell of the animals and the straw, the warmth of their breath, blowing like steam into the winter air.

A clatter of footsteps and crockery. Charlotte’s voice, firm and steady. Something cold on his back. The tightness of bandages, binding around his chest. The heaviness of his own useless body, heart thumping slowly in his ears. A darkness, closing in—sleep or death, he didn’t mind which.

 


 

It was the pain that told him he was still alive. Before he’d even come fully back to consciousness. Aching and stiff, still laid out on the hard floor. Except she’d managed to drag him a little closer to the fire, propped a pillow beneath his head, covered him with a blanket. The room flickered with a warm glow. The scent of somethign cooking. The quietness of deep night.

Charlotte sat in a chair by the hearth making notes in a bloodstained book with a pursed look of concentration. On a table beside her sat a broken arrow, the wood splintered at the end, its head stained rusty with blood.

“You keepin’ that as a trophy?” he asked, his voice croaky and faint.

She looked up at him in surprise, a smile smoothing her face, and picked up the arrow between one delicate finger and thumb.

“More of a memento,” she said, inspecting the deadly instrument from all angles. “Mount it on the mantelpiece, perhaps? To remind me it's possible to learn from one's mistakes…”

She set it down again and lifted the book in her lap. “I bought this, after my husband… After Cal died. An Encyclopedia of Botanical Science. Wild animals and arrows aren’t the only things that can kill you out here…”

She stopped to take a long breath; to gather herself. And he thought of that lonely grave out there, by the falls. The one he thought he’d be buried beside.

“So, I thought I’d educate myself a little,” she continued. “Seeing as I plan on living off the land, I ought to know what plants I can use and which to avoid.” She flicked through the pages, crisp with his blood, and showed him an illustration of a flower that looked like a lantern. Indian Ginseng. “Turns out there are medicinal uses, too.”

He shifted on the floor, testing the soreness of the wound in his back; stretched out his bad arm and felt pinpricks ripple through his fingers, the numbness receding. The hazing of his vision was gone too, replaced by the familiar lightheadedness of plain old blood loss. He felt wrung out. But he was alive. Because of her. Because she didn't want to make the same mistake twice.

“Thank you,” he said softly.

Her smile widened, and he knew it wasn’t just because of his gratitude. She was proud of herself. As she damn well should be.

She snapped the book shut and set it down beside the arrow. “Well, since you’re going to be my guest for a little while longer, I’m afraid you’re going to have to sample my cooking…”

He watched as she hooked a pot off the fire and ladled out two bowls of steaming stew. “A step up from rabbit this time. I took down a doe in the valley the other day,” she told him, giddy with her own cleverness. “Thanks to you, of course.”

He shook his head. “Nothin’ to do with me. You done that—all this—on your own.”

She turned back to the pot, flushed and beaming.

And he figured she was gonna be just fine out here by herself. A real frontierswoman if ever he saw one.

Chapter Text

The sound of baby Jack crying becomes just another background noise in camp, same as Uncle’s complaining and Dutch’s gramophone and Bill losing at cards and Grimshaw ordering everyone about. Except Jack’s cry has hooks in it, tugging on something inside Arthur’s ribcage and setting all his senses on alert. He guesses it’s just one of them things—instincts—'cause they’re all living and sleeping so close together all the time. Like a pack of wolves, looking out for each other. The way John should be, if only he’d stuck around. The way Arthur should’ve done with Isaac.

He wakes whenever Jack does and lies there a while, just listening, waiting to see if there’s anything needed beyond a feed. Sometimes he’ll get up anyway, bring Abigail some water or fresh linens for a diaper change, wander round the perimeter once or twice. He can’t get back to sleep until he knows they’re settled anyways, so he might as well make himself useful.

At first, the kid is just a bundle of blankets. Doesn’t do much more’n drink and sleep—a bit like Uncle—and the practicalities are the main thing. But a couple months in, the smiles come, and then these little hiccupping laughs that pull on those hooks in Arthur’s chest so as he can barely breathe.

And he’s all in.

Not just because it’s family and it’s his job to look after everyone, but because it’s Jack. A whole person, right there in his arms. With his soft head and his dark eyes and his tiny hands and the way he kicks all excited when he sees Arthur’s face. Even his cry is a welcome sound—strong lungs, strong heart—yelling out for everyone to hear: I’m alive! I’m here!

He misses it when he’s out hunting or on a job, sleeping out on the plains alone. He wakes like clockwork, imagines phantom cries in the darkness, worries about whether anyone’s checked on the baby and his mama while he’s gone. Because if anything happened to them… well, he’s not sure what he’d do. 

He doesn’t like to be away too long these days, just in case. The hooks get sharper the further he gets. And after three days up in the hills he rides home a little harder than usual, pushing on instead of stopping for another night, an indecipherable feeling gnawing at him, as if some sixth sense can tell something’s wrong.

He hears the cry before he makes it through the woods into the clearing. It’s different, like none he’s every heard. Thin and wailing and relentless. It threads into Arthur’s nerves and he’s stumbling through the camp to Abigail’s tent before he’s even brought his horse to a full stop.

There are other figures gathered there already, Hosea and Dutch and Grimshaw, faces pinched with worry in the lantern light. Abigail sits rocking the baby, looking like she hasn’t slept in days, her own face red and streaked with tears. Jack writhes in her arms, arching his back and clenching his fists, and the sound of his crying is even worse close-up, twisting at Arthur’s stomach, because someone so small shouldn’t ever be allowed to be in such pain.

Arthur meets Abigail’s eyes and finds them strained and desperate.

He drops to her side, brushing his thumb over the baby’s cheek—it’s hot and clammy and the boy turns his face towards his hand, as if seeking him out.

“What’s wrong with him?”

She shakes her head helplessly. “I don’t know… I just… he won’t stop cryin’… I’ve tried everything… I don’t know…”

“Boy needs a doctor,” Hosea says in an undertone.

Arthur looks from one face to the next. “Why ain’t you fetched one, then?”

Grimshaw shoots Dutch a pointed look and the man sighs, pulling Arthur aside with a hand on his shoulder. “The nearest town is four miles away and, well, we have some… concerns over whether bringing an outsider here might compromise our current precarious position with the law.”

Arthur’s brain takes a moment to translate the doublespeak. “The law? What the hell d’you do while I was away?”

“Bill might’ve held up the mail coach...” Dutch says with a wince. “Had to ride for two hour to shake ‘em off his tail. We need to move camp, and soon. Maybe we can find a doctor the next town over…”

“Dutch, look at him,” Arthur seethes, feeling his guts twist as he glances back at the poor little creature, his wails getting weaker by the minute.

He makes a decision, then and there, pushing past Dutch and kneeling in front of Abigail, hands out in entreaty.

“I’ll take him. Right now. If you’ll let me.”

For a moment she pulls the boy closer to her chest, the conflict flickering across her features. But then Jack gives a piercing cry and she sets her jaw.

“I’m goin’ with you.”  

“She’s been up with him the last two nights,” Grimshaw cuts in, “She ain’t in no state…”

But Abigail drags herself to her feet, only leaning against Arthur’s ready hands for a few brief moments before standing tall, her chin held high. “I am goin’. With him.”

No one dares argue.

She passes the squirming, squalling boy to Arthur and ties him to his chest with her shawl. He can feel the heat of the little body seeping through his shirt. A fever, or infection, or something eating away at the kid. He holds him tight as he swings up in the saddle as carefully as he can, all too aware of the precious cargo he carries. Dutch helps Abigail up behind him with a respectful nod.

“Fast as you can,” Dutch says, as though it was his idea all along. “Get that boy some help.”

Arthur makes sure Abigail’s holding on tight before nudging his horse on at a pace, one hand wrapped around the baby, patting firm and steady on his back.

“Gonna be alright, kiddo,” he murmurs into the downy head, breathing in the reassuring smell of him. “Uncle Arthur’s here. Gonna be alright.”

 



Four miles through the dark with the baby screaming like a fox and Arthur’s heart doesn’t stop thundering the whole way.

They’re all of them exhausted—he and his horse have travelled at least twenty miles the past day alone, and Abigail’s been nursing day and night, probably worried out of her mind. She sags against his back and if it weren’t for her white-knuckled grip on his shirt he wouldn’t be sure she was even still conscious. 

Jack’s cries start to quieten as they pass over the top of a rise and the soft glow of the town comes into view. But the absence of noise isn’t a comfort. The boy’s gone limp in the sling, making a pitiful sort of whimpering that leaves Arthur cold with panic.

He leans low and covers the last half mile at a gallop, Abigail’s fingers digging bruises into his sides. He can feel the same worry running through her. A tension he thinks he might never let go of. Until finally they turn into the thoroughfare and there, between a saloon and an undertaker, sits a doctor’s office. 

She’s off the horse and banging on the door before he can even dismount, and then there’s a dishevelled looking man in the doorway, rumpled with sleep, and Abigail is pushing Arthur forward, her shaky hands trembling at the knotted shawl, pleading, “Help him, please, you gotta help him.”

For a moment the doctor blinks at Arthur, as if he’s the patient, before Jack gives a hiccuping murmur and the man darts into action, ushering them all inside.

 


 

Arthur’s not sure how long they’re there for, only that the sun’s fully risen by the time Jack’s finally sleeping soundly, nestled in his mother’s lap. She’s asleep too, leaned into the crook of Arthur’s shoulder on a bunk in the corner of the doctor’s office. 

He should probably be resting too—its a long ride back and they’ll need to go much slower this time—but he can’t stand down just yet.

He watches the soft rise and fall of Jack’s chest. The fluttering of dreaming eyelids. Dark, like his mama. And no less tough. 

The doc said it was an ear infection. The pressure of it pushing on his ear drum. Arthur knows well enough that pain; had his own experience of it as a kid and would happily trade it for a gunshot. He mentally catalogues everything the doctor told him to treat it: how often to give him the medicine, warm compresses on his ear, layin’ him on the bad side to help it drain. Abigail needs her sleep and it’s still his job to look after everyone. 

“They’re lucky to have you,” the doctor says, looking on the three of them with a kindly smile. “Most days all I see round here is mining accidents and drunken brawlers. If they have families they’ve forgotten all about them. Nice to see a father so dedicated. And such a healthy young boy.”

Arthur opens his mouth to correct him but sighs instead, thinking of John, how it ought to be him sitting here. About how much he’s missing—the good and the bad—and how he’ll never get that back. 

He nods his thanks to the doctor. Pays the man double for his time, to let the three of them stay another few hours. To sleep. To dream they’re a real family for just a little while. 

Chapter Text

He’s never seen a bear this far east. Up here in the Grizzlies it’s mostly cougars he needs to look out for, and you don’t hear them until they’re leaping for your throat. Which is why his brain doesn’t quite comprehend the thunderous growling until it’s too late.

The size of it… A huge, dark lumbering mountain of a beast, crashing through the trees, black eyes fixed upon him, moving faster than seems possible. He can’t blame his horse when it rears with a screech of terror, throwing him off and bolting headlong up the trail. He had a mind to do exactly the same thing, only he's suddenly flat on his back in the dirt, winded, and already at a disadvantage for what's about to come. He fumbles desperately at his belt for a weapon but there’s no time and then the monster is upon him, blocking out the sky above with its bulk, gigantic paws knocking him about the head and shoulders as he tries to curl into a ball.

Every strike is like a hammer blow, rolling him through the dusty earth, scything claw marks through his thick coat as if it were paper. He knows he’s supposed to play dead—at least that’s what Hosea once told him—but every instinct in his body screams to move, crawling and scrabbling to his feet as the bear pauses to roar, rising up to its full height, at least ten feet tall and almost as wide.

Arthur can’t stand up straight, undiscovered wounds making him hunch and strive for breath, but he remembers the other thing Hosea told him about bears. To make himself as large and loud as he can. He spreads his coat open, arms out at his sides, and roars back with everything he’s got, until his throat tears and his eyes water.

The beast considers the counter-offer for a curious moment before knocking him down in one swipe, clean across the face this time, cutting off his yell and sending him thudding into the round, ears ringing, blood sluicing down his cheek. He has a split second to think of John—how they might end up with matching scars—when the bear’s jaws close on his shoulder. It shakes him like a rag doll, lifting him just as easily and tossing him across the path into a tree. Something cracks when he hits it; the tree trunk or his ribs or maybe both. He collapses into a heap at the foot of the tree and it’s easy to play dead this time. He can barely move, his breath coming in short, bubbling gasps.

A paw nudges at his back and he feels the hot breath of hell leaning over his face, all teeth and saliva and a deep, rumbling growl that vibrates right through him. For a blessed, optimistic second he thinks it might back off—leave its pathetic prey to rot—but perhaps his persistence in breathing offends it and it slices triple-clawed tracks across his chest. He screams then, nothing left to lose except what’s left of his godforsaken life, and when the beast lunges for him one final time, jaws stretched wide, he acts without thinking. He jams his left forearm into its mouth, feels the teeth close on muscle and bone, hot blood soaking his sleeve in a matter of seconds. His right hand grips his hunting knife and sinks it into the monster’s throat until his fist hits fur and flesh. Again. And again. And again. Every strike punctated with a haggard grunt of effort. And he doesn’t stop until the black fur is sticky and red, gouts of dark blood raining down on him, coating his chest; until the creature’s jaws slacken and it slumps forward, crushing him into the ground.

He feels the breath leave its body and suddenly all is still and quiet. The whole ordeal over in less than a minute.

He can’t move. He struggles beneath its bulk, his fingers sinking into the mass of black fur, its musty stink filling his nostrils. It must weigh half a tonne and his strength is seeping away into the dirt beneath him along with their mingled blood. Now that the terror is wearing off he can feel every puncture wound, every claw mark, every fracture, every bruise, and with a flush of panic he realises they both lost the fight. Because he’s gonna die here. Suffocate under a goddamn bear.

And then, just as he’s about to let the panic take him:

“Well, fuck me sideways.”

Arthur strains to look past the curve of the grizzly’s back and sees a dirty-white horse. A wooden leg. A smirk on the old man’s face. Hope leaps in his throat.

“Hamish…” he wheezes. “Get this… thing off me.”

The veteran disappears from view and he hears a clink and a thud. A low chuckle. “Could’a told me you were goin’ huntin’, boy. Got yourself a helluva prize there. Or would’ve, if you hadn’t messed up the pelt so bad…”

“Not so bothered… about the damn pelt… right now,” Arthur groans.

Another dry laugh and Hamish reappears with a length of rope, looping it around Arthur’s chest and straightening up to give Buell a smart slap on the hindquarters. The horse gives a snort of inconvenience before taking a few steps forward, pulling the rope taut. And, in his own damn time as always, Hamish’s trusty, ornery mount hauls Arthur out from beneath the bear corpse.

Hamish considers the battered man before him with a scowl. “Lucky for you I just got a brand new batch of fishing twine. Ain’t gonna win no prizes for my stitches but they’ll keep you together, at least.”

Arthur sticks a finger through the rents in his coat and struggles up to sitting with a grunt. “Appreciate it.”

Hamish watches him for a moment, making sure he can actually get to his feet without falling flat on his face again, and gives an approving click of his tongue when Arthur manages to clamber onto his traitorous, runaway horse.

“Might need to dunk you in the lake, too,” Hamish adds, and Arthur looks down in shaky disbelief at his gore-drenched clothes; runs a sticky hand through his matted hair; feels drying blood stretch and crack on his face. The stench of iron is thick and heavy and a bout of light-headed nausea makes him sway in the saddle a little.

Hamish slaps him on the back as he passes. “Ah, you’ll be alright. Just a scratch. Follow Buell and we’ll get you fixed up.”

Arthur nods, and his thoroughbred sets off meekly after the white war horse, without any urging from its rider. All Arthur has to do is hold on, shuddering his way through the shock and pulling his tattered coat around him as best he can.

“And then we’ll head right back up here to get a coupla steaks for our supper, huh?” Hamish grins over his shoulder. “Y’ever had bear meat, Arthur?”

Arthur casts a grimace back at the black hulk of the grizzly. “Can’t say that I have.”

Wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to, either. Thought maybe just walking away with his life was enough.

Chapter Text

He meets some strange people out in the wilds. Most of them are harmless, or just in need of a little help, and when he has the time to spare he tries to do a good deed or two. He once gave a ride to a woman with a twisted ankle. Helped a little boy find his lost dog. Even took down all the wanted posters for an odd couple of escaped convicts. Doin’ his best to shift the balance a little in favour of salvation if his soul ever comes to judgement.

There are the weird ones, too, of course. Those creepy pig farmers. That fancy-lookin’ killer leaving bloody clues and dismembered folk all over the place. But for the most part he likes to think people generally mean well—sometimes they just end up in a bad place. In a bad state of mind. He’s seen it happen to good people. Seen them loose their grip. Hell, he’s been close more than a few times.

But sometimes there’s really no saving some folk. Some folk are just… wrong. And all his well-wishing comes back to bite him.

 


 

He’s riding through Bluewater Marsh which ain’t his favourite place to start with—all full o’ gaters and stinking mud and twisted trees that look like figures in the dark. He’s dirty and he’s hungry and he’s at the end of a long ride all the way down from Annesburg, ready for a bath and a hot meal and passing out face down for the night. But just as the lights of Saint Denis appear in the distance he spots a fella in a worse spot than he is, and he can’t just ride on by.

The man’s wagon must’ve slipped off the wooden walkway, one wheel and the poor donkey pulling it sunk halfway into the marsh. The poor guy wades back and forth, trying to persuade the beast to move and gathering up his spilled cargo—what looks like his earthly possessions, all tumbled into the muck.

“Need a hand there?” Arthur asks him, pulling up alongside and resting his forearms on his pommel.

The man’s eyes flicker with wariness, darting over Arthur’s face, down to his gun. “Don’t wanna be botherin’ you, Sir.”

“Ah, one good turn an’ all that,” Arthur sighs, hopping down off his horse and considering the situation with his hands on his hips. “Got yourself in a real fix here, huh?”

“Yessir. Real fix,” the man echoes, ducking his head nervously.

Arthur’s used to people being scared of him. It’s kind of his job, most of the time. Didn’t used to be though. Was a time when Dutch used to be all about the moral high ground—stealing from the rich and giving to the poor and all that stuff. Helping people. But seems like lately all he’s been interested in is helping himself.

And maybe that’s why Arthur’s been doing all this Good Samaritan shit. ‘Cause it feels good to have people look at you with gratitude instead of fear. Sometimes it’s not even about that. Just… doin’ something worth doin’. Not for any reward or favour or money. Just because it’s the right thing to do.

He flashes his best, non-intimidating smile at the man. “Well, you get them boxes and lemme see what I can do about your wagon.”

The man nods again, like a bouncing puppet, and gets to work retrieving his belongings while Arthur attempts to dig out the wheel and motivate the donkey with sugar cubes and a few choice swear words. But it soon becomes evident that the wagon is well and truly stuck, and the stubborn animal seems to have accepted its fate as a creature of the mud and refuses to move. After half an hour of this and some irritable muttering, Arthur ends up hitching his horse to the wagon and hauling the whole lot out, donkey and all.

When they’re all back on the track there’s just one huge trunk left in the marsh, and it takes both men to lift it into the flat bed of the wagon. Sweating and mud-caked, they share a grin of relief to finally be finished, and Arthur feels that little glow in his belly at having done a Good Thing.

The man seems to have warmed up to him, too, thanking him over and over and shaking his hand in both of his.

“Can’t tell you how glad I am you stopped, Mister.”

“Well, maybe someone’ll help me out next time I’m stuck in the mud,” Arthur shrugs, wiping his grimy hands on his pants. “You all set?”  

“Just about. But, uh, before you go… Reckon you can find a way to tie that trunk down so it don’t move again?” the man says, a cringe of entreaty on his weathered face. “Think it was the weight of it tipped us over.”

Seems like a smart plan. Arthur nods back at him. “Sure.”

The man waves at the trunk, busying himself with stacking up a bunch of smaller boxes. “Should be some rope in there.”

Arthur lifts the lid and props it open with one arm, squinting into the dark interior. It’s a heavy-duty thing, lined with metal panels; a line of tiny holes bored along the bottom edge. The base of it is wooden but patchy—stained with something dark, like some sort of spilled liquid. A familiar copper smell. And right at the bottom, a coil of thick hemp rope.

He doesn’t get to ask whatever questions are brimming into his brain. Doesn’t get to act on the tingling feeling of doubt crawling up his spine. Something hard comes down on the back of his head—a sharp, practiced movement—and then he’s tumbling face first into the box like a dead weight and the lid slams down above him.

 


 

He wakes in stifling darkness, the air already hot and echoing with his own panicked breath. His muscles scream with cramps, contorted into the unforgiving space, hogtied at the wrists and ankles, his back and his knees and his elbows all pushed up against the reinforced walls of the trunk. His chin is forced into his chest by the curving of his spine, and the base of his skull thrums like a thousand horses are thundering inside it.

From here, he can see the wavering line of air holes punched into the sides—glimpses of a flickering light outside the trunk. And the heavy, pressing, overwhelming reality hits him:

He’s in a goddamn box.

He’s never thought of himself as claustrophobic, though to be fair, he’s never really been in a situation to find out, but this is a new kind of horrifying. He can barely move, shuffling from side to side to try to get some kind of leverage, the rough rope cutting into his skin. And now he knows exactly what the stains were in the bottom of the trunk: the stench of dried blood is pungent and choking in the recycled air, and it ratchets up the fear bubbling inside of him, speeding up his heart and his breathing until he’s panting, thrashing against his bounds, bruising himself against the walls of the cursed box, yelling incoherent vowels of pure panic.

An eye appears at one of the holes. It blinks at him and he jerks back as far as he’s able, knocking the back of his head and sending a wave of dizziness through him.

“Hey. You shush in there,” the man from the swamp says, as if he’s disciplining a dog.

Arthur takes a moment to school his breathing and his voice comes out low and raspy. "Let me out of here. Right now. I’m gonna wring your goddamn neck."

"Now why would I do that?"

"I helped you!"

"No," the man says, a sly smile in his voice, "You just took the bait."

The eye disappears and gooseflesh prickles across Arthur's skin. He can hear the man clattering about with something in the room beyond.

"Look, what do you want?" Arthur tries next, casting about for an angle. "There's money in my satchel. I'm guessing you already found that."

The man gives a little laugh. "Oh, I don’t need money. I’m just a simple man with simple needs. But I do get hungry..."

The creeping feeling turns into a shudder. Arthur strains against the ropes, craning his neck until he can peer through one of the air holes. It's too small to see much more than bare floorboards and mere snatches of details: an oil lantern on a low stool; some sort of patterned rug or picture on the wall; and the man, standing at a table with his back to the trunk, cast in shadow.

But he doesn't need to see what he’s doing to recognise the sound the man is making. The sharpening of a knife, slow and deadly, grinding against a whetstone.

Arthur's chest starts heaving again and he doubles his efforts at escape, pulling against the rope until he can feel blood trickling down his arms. It's useless. The man knows what he's doing. Has him trussed up good and proper. And there's not enough space to manoeuvre anyway, just the aching of his joints and the pounding of his head and the inevitability of oncoming pain, gnawing at his stomach. 

There's a brief shuffling sound and the lid flies open, but the sight that greets him is not the same cowed man he found in the marsh. The figure standing above him is draped in alligator skins, rippling in the lantern light. In his hand he holds a cruel-looking curved knife, and on his head sits a gigantic gator skull, still rusty with blood and dried gore.

The man leans over the trunk and Arthur shrinks away involuntarily.

“Now, now. Where to start first?” the man muses. “Got some good meat on ya. Keep me and my babies fed for a long while. Piece by piece…”

And before Arthur can process the horror of half of what the man said, the knife tears a gaping hole in the side of his pants and slices into his thigh.

He chokes on a scream, bucking and squirming, but there’s no way to go; no escape. Just the hard confines of the box. 

The gator man tuts at him, brings the hilt of the blade down smartly on his temple, sending him reeling.

”Quit your wrigglin’. Gotta be done while you’re awake or it don’t taste the same.” 

His bony hand grips hold of Arthur’s leg and the blade returns, burning lines into his flesh.

”Wait!” Arthur gasps. “Wait. You can’t. I’m sick. You eat me, you’ll get what I got.”

The man considers him for a moment before giving a slow shake of his head. “No. No, that’s where you’re wrong. I eat the flesh, it makes me strong. Like the king gator.”

He holds out his arms, showing off the pelts covering him, half a dozen of them, poorly sewn together. His eyes flare in the flickering light.  “I eat the prey, I grow armour on my skin. I see in the dark. I live for a hundred years.”

“You been out here alone a long time, huh?” Arthur mutters. He knows this kind of crazy. Knows there’s no reasoning with it. So you might as well make it crazier.

“You know I shot that thing,” he says slowly. “The king gator. Just last week.”

The man’s eyes narrow. “What?”

“Sure. That great big albino monster, right?”

The man nods jerkily, his suspicion turning to uncertainty.

Arthur smiles. “Yeah, that’s the one. I tracked it and I shot it and I skinned the fucker and then I sold its pelt to a trapper in Saint Denis. He’s got it stretched out above his stall. You should go see it. That’s where your king is.”

He knows he’s reaching breaking point. The man’s fist has turned white around the handle of the blade.

”I kept a tooth though,” he adds, one last push over the edge. “As a little memento. It’s in my satchel too. You can have it if you like.”

“You…” the man breathes, his entire face twisted into a mask of hatred. 

Arthur’s ready for it. He was banking on the man acting out of anger instead of precision—knew there was a good chance he’d get cut in the process, and he does, as the gator man lunges at him, stabbing down into the meat of his bicep with a scream of rage. 

But the movement brings him close enough for Arthur to headbutt him, right across the bridge of his nose, and the man lets out a yelp and slumps to the floor, the knife clattering into the box.

He didn’t knock him out. He can hear the man groaning and rolling about, but he doesn’t have time to waste—his hand closes on the knife handle and he starts slicing blindly at his bonds, clumsy and desperate, carving cuts into his forearms and calves.

For a second there’s a silence he can feel, and then the man leaps into the trunk on top of him, his hands latching around Arthur’s throat and squeezing, hissing into his face in a horribly realistic imitation of a gator. 

Arthur’s vision is blacking out, fuzzy at the edges. His head feels like it’s going to explode and his jaw works helplessly, desperate for a breath.

“You did me a favour,” the man snarls at him, blood-smeared face cracked in a psychotic grin. “It’s my time now. I’ll become the new king. The king is dead! Long live the king!”

His shout dies and he’s silent once more. Eyes suddenly blank and staring. And there’s a knife buried in the man’s chest, right up to the hilt. Arthur’s fist gripped around the hilt.

”Long live the king,” Arthur echoes, in a hoarse whisper, and the light in the man’s eyes goes out.

He has just enough strength left to shove the corpse out of the box and he lies there for a minute, in what might have been his coffin, dragging breath after stinking breath into his aching lungs.

When he finally climbs out he’s a mass of cuts and cramped muscles, staggering across the darkened shack and shakily recovering his satchel and his weapons from a pile in the corner. The gator man's blood spreads across the floor, his eyes still open in a look of mild surprise. And he looks much more like the nervous, hunched man stuck in the mud now—dressed up in rags and skins, his skull headdress askew. The rest of the shack is just as grim: more gator pelts nailed up like wallpaper; a blood-stained chopping block in one corner; what looks like bones scattered under a filthy cot.

Arthur holds down the bile threatening to rise up his throat and pushes his way out the door, grateful for the familiar misty air of the bayou for once. His horse is still hitched to the wagon and he whispers shaky reassurances as he frees both horse and donkey—or maybe the reassurances are for him—all his goodwill for strangers sinking away into the mud. ’Cause some people don’t deserve saving.

And before he does, he makes sure to toss a fire bottle through the window and watch the whole thing burn.

 



When he makes it back to camp the sight and stink of him gets a horrified look from Miss Grimshaw, but perhaps the harrowed look on his face prevents her from suggesting a wash.

“Where the hell you been?” she says instead. And then, because she can’t help it: “You look like stewed shit.”

”Bayou,” is all he can say, his throat still bruised and sore.

“Ugh,” she grimaced. “I hate the swamp.”

”You and me both,” he sighs, falling face first into his bunk with the aim of staying there for a good twenty-four hours. 

Chapter Text

All Arthur can think is: he’s wearing his favourite red waistcoat—the one with the silver buttons and the swirl-patterned satin on the back. And Dutch loves that waistcoat because Annabelle loved it. And he’s gonna be pissed about the state it’s in when he… if he…

He tries to focus on the buttons, pressing down firm enough to staunch the blood flow, even though he knows it must hurt like a sonuvabitch. Tries not to look at the way it’s soaking right through the fabric, a stain that’ll never come out, the darkness spreading across Dutch’s chest, between Arthur’s fingers.

There’s more than one stab wound and he can’t cover all of them, can’t see properly in the darkened alleyway—Dutch slumped against the outer wall of the saloon, Arthur kneeling in the mud. He doesn’t even know how it happened. One minute Dutch was sat at the blackjack table, the next he was being hauled outside by his collar amidst a whole lot of shouting, and by the time Arthur followed after it was too late. Didn’t even see who did it. Only the sillhouette of Dutch sliding down the wall and collapsing to the ground. The red of his palms when he turned the man over.

Dutch’s eyes are wide and white in the dim light, staring past Arthur’s shoulder, intently focused on the brickwork opposite. His mouth hangs open, taking in short, sharp breaths that hitch at the top, his abdomen twitching beneath Arthur’s hands with each inhale.

Arthur doesn’t know how to be in charge. It’s always been Dutch he’s looked to. Always waited for his word, his rich voice, so sure and easy, giving the order. But his shocked silence is more terrifying than if he’d been screaming.

He tries to think what Dutch would do if their positions were switched; tries to channel some of the man’s spirit, as though the blood covering his hands might seep into his own bloodstream and make him less of a panicked fool.

Dutch would talk. That's what he does. Talk until it all makes sense. Until he gets his own way.

And what Arthur wants right now is for none of this to be happening.

“Hey, Dutch? You hang on, okay? Hosea’ll be back in a minute,” he mumbles, stumbling on the false assurances. “Be back in just a minute, I promise. Gone to fetch a doctor. Don’t you worry ‘bout it, okay, Dutch? Don’t you worry.”

Maybe hearing his name pulls him back, or maybe the words don’t even matter, but Dutch blinks, once, twice, and his eyes shift hazily to Arthur’s face, a faint smile lifting the corner of his mouth.

“Oh, I’m not worried, Arthur. Not at all.”

His voice is thinner than usual, and it cracks a little, but it's the uncanny calmness of it that sends a prickle down Arthur’s spine.

“Well, good,” Arthur nods decisively, maintaining the pretense. “Then you might as well help a little, 'stead of sittin’ there like a lazy ass.”

He’s angry, he’s decided. Furious to have to try to hold all of Dutch’s blood from leaking out by himself. It ain’t fair to do this to him. And there ain’t no way he’s gonna watch the bastard die right in front of him.

He grabs Dutch’s left wrist and pushes his hand down onto the highest wound. “Hold here. Tight as you can.”

Dutch’s next breath cuts off with a wheeze of pain but Arthur ignores it, taking the man’s other hand and placing it on top of the other for good measure. Squeezing it into the blood-sodden fabric.

“Hold tight,” Arthur says firmly, and this time it’s an order of Dutch’s calibre. “I don’t care if it hurts. I see you losing pressure, there’s gonna be trouble.”

Dutch laughs, low down in his throat, his eyes glistening in the dark. “There. See? Why should I be worried when I’ve got you lookin’ out for me? Even if you are a bossy son-of-a-bitch.”

“Yeah, well, learned from the best,” Arthur mutters, concentrating on putting pressure on the remaining wounds. He thinks maybe the bleeding is starting to abate a bit but it’s impossible to tell, what with the sheer quantity of the stuff and that stupid damn red waistcoat hiding the worst of it.

Dutch glances down at his torso and for a second his demeanour falters, what’s left of the colour in his face draining away, his eyes threatening to roll up into his head.

“Hey,” Arthur snaps, pushing down harder than he needs to, dragging a strained groan out of the man. “I said don’t worry about that. Ain’t nothin’. Just some extra laundry that'll need doin' when we get back to camp.”

But Dutch is losing his grip, one hand trailing down the line of silver buttons. “Annabelle… always liked me in red…”

Arthur takes in an unsteady breath, looking desperately up and down the alley for a glimpse of Hosea or a doctor or someone, anyone, who could help. But there’s only the blue-tinged night and the lonely call of the wind, sending a shiver right through him.

Dutch rests his hand on the side of Arthur’s head, turning him back to face him, blood-sticky fingers catching in his hair.

“My boy,” he sighs, as if the whole thing is a mere inconvenience, “You… worry too much.”

Arthur chokes on a laugh of his own, caught on the lump in his throat. “Sure, Dutch. That’s my job.”

Dutch’s blinks get slower, longer, until he can barely keep his eyelids open, that half-smile still on his lips. And as the sound of running footsteps round the corner of the alley his hand slips from Arthur’s cheek.

Chapter Text

“Mr Morgan, we need you.”

Miss Grimshaw shook him awake and he almost fell right out of his bunk, still half inside a dream.

“What is it?” he grunted, attempting to extricate himself from her grip, but she held onto his arm, fingers digging into his bicep, her mouth tight, voice hushed. “Please, just come with me.”

And she looked so worried he didn't question it; allowed himself to be pulled along, past the yawning maw of the Murfree cave and down the steep bank to the river, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

A handful of figures stood by the bank—Mary-Beth and Tilly, gathered tightly together, Karen off to one side—and right in the middle of the water, up to his waist, stood Reverend Swanson, muttering vehemently to himself.

He felt his heart sink. The man had been doing so well, but the events of the past few weeks were enough to send anyone over the edge and Swanson wasn’t the only one to lose his grip.

Grimshaw leaned on him as they made their way down to the others. “He won’t let anyone help him. He’s going to do something… stupid.”

Now they were close enough to hear the fevered ranting of the reverend, Arthur could see just how bad a state the man was in. Swanson staggered in the swirling water, his toupee askew, shirt unbuttoned, eyes wide and bloodshot. In one hand he gripped his bible but in the other he held a gun, waving it wildly at anyone who came near.

The sight stopped Arthur dead. He didn’t think he’d ever seen the man carrying a weapon, let alone point one at someone. Grimshaw gave his arm a tighter squeeze. “Please, Arthur…”

She'd always had a soft spot for the man. As did Arthur, if he was honest. He’d pulled him off a damn train track, hadn’t he? And they’d all watched him crawl his way in and out of a bottle, fall under the spell of whatever that shit he injected into himself was, always hoping that one day he’d leave it all behind. But the world was cruel enough and Arthur wasn’t about to judge anyone for trying to make it less painful.

He’d been doing so well. And now this. On top of everything else going on at Beaver Hollow, after the bank job, after Guarma... Everyone at each other’s throats all the time. Everyone so hopeless. Arthur felt like a hole was being carved right through his chest whenever he was in camp. But he wasn’t prepared to lose anyone else.

He took deep a breath and waded out into the cold water, hands up, palms open, nice and slow, no surprises...

“What’re you doin’ there, Reverend?”

Swanson whirled, shaking both bible and revolver at him. Arthur flinched involuntarily but it wasn’t exactly the first time he’d had a gun aimed at him and he held onto some foolish faith that the reverend didn't really want to shoot him. He kept moving forward, one step at a time, keeping eye contact with the man, even as he started up a new bout of ranting.

“You… Mr Morgan… damned like the rest of them,” Swanson slurred. “I see you, coming back to camp covered in blood. Whose blood, huh? Whose is it? What price did you pay for it? What will we all pay for it?”

Arthur didn’t reply—pretty sure the questions were rhetorical—and took another step. The river pushed at him the deeper he waded and he wasn’t quite close enough to grab the gun, but he wasn’t about to make any sudden moves just yet. Let the man talk. Get it out of his system. He hadn’t seen Swanson like this for a long while. He always thought the booze was bad enough but this was like something had taken a hold of him. Something monstrous.

Swanson narrowed his eyes at him, swaying in the current, struggling to stay upright. The gun swung from side to side with his movements and Arthur couldn't help but wince each time it swept past.

“You have done…bad things, Mr Morgan,” the reverend spat at him. “Terrible things.”

Arthur swallowed. Felt the words like an blow. But it was the truth and he nodded. “Yes I have. And I’m sorry for ‘em.”

Swanson shook his head violently. “It doesn’t matter. There’s no forgiveness. I have begged for forgiveness but there’s no answer, no answer at all…” His eyes unfocused for a moment, arms slackening to his sides. “I… have done bad things, too.”

“I don’t believe that, Mr Swanson,” Arthur tried gently. Another slow step. One more and he could reach out and grab the man’s wrist…

The reverend didn’t even seem to notice him there any more, staring blankly at the surface of the water. “I am being punished. Right here on earth. Or maybe we’re already in hell…”

“You’re all right, Reverend, no one’s gonna hurt you…”

Arthur stretched his arm forward, eyes fixed on the gun dangling from Swanson’s loose grip, when suddenly it whipped up once more, the barrel pressing into his forehead.

“That is a lie,” Swanson snarled. “This world is full of hurt. Full to the brim with it.”

Arthur froze; heard the women gasp behind him; watched as the reverend’s eyes flickered and faltered, turning from furious to helplessly sad in an instant.

“They’ve hurt you, too,” Swanson said softly, “Look at what they’ve done to you.”

Arthur almost forgot about the gun at his head, drawn in by the man’s mournful tone, the intensity of his stare. As if he could see every moment of pain, every seed of doubt, every heartache Arthur had ever felt.

And then the man blinked, shaking his head confusedly, as though he’d forgotten what he was saying, the gun slipping, scraping along Arthur’s temple and landing on his shoulder. Arthur tried not to think about what it felt like to be shot at point blank range. Stayed stock still. Let the man get to wherever his tattered mind was taking him.

Swanson’s eyes shifted past Arthur, up to the camp at the top of the hill. “There is evil inside that cave.”

“Well, you may be right about that,” Arthur admitted, “But we cleared it out. Me and Charles. It’s safe now.”

“No, no, not safe. Never.” The reverend backed away, clutching the bible and the gun to his chest as if they might protect him. “There is a demon inside of him…”

Against his better judgement, Arthur followed, not wanting to let him get too far away again. “Inside who?”

Swanson looked up at the ridge again and gave a little shudder. Arthur followed his eyeline to see Dutch and Micah standing at the top of the hill, looking down on the scene.

“Which one–” he began, but he never got his answer.

Swanson gave a choking sob. “There is a demon inside me, too. And you. In all of us…” He waved the gun at the women on the bank and Arthur stepped purposefully in the way, putting both hands on the reverend’s shoulders and holding him still.

“We must cast it out, Mr Morgan,” the man said, in a small, broken voice, pushing the bible into Arthur’s chest and letting his head hang forward, tears flowing from his reddened eyes. “Please… You have to help me… cast it out…”

Arthur took the bible from him, knowing before he opened it what he’d find inside. He wondered how long it had taken the man to hollow out the book—the book he’d committed his life to—only to fill it with poison. He emptied it into the water: an empty syringe, a tourniquet and a bottle of liquid oblivion, and watched them all float downstream.

He held his hand out for the gun and Swanson gave him that too, crying freely now, gripping onto Arthur’s shirt with both hands.

“It’s alright,” Arthur murmured, patting the man on the back, holding them both up in the shunting current. “You're alright.”

He could feel eyes on him; turned to see the women all staring sorrowful, the figures up on the edge of camp just staring. He fixed his gaze on Dutch and Micah for a moment before they turned as one and disappeared from view.

“Alright, that's enough now,” he called to the spectators on the bank. “Everyone get back to… whatever you were doin’. Ain’t a damn sideshow.”

Swanson let go of him and slumped down to his knees, the water up to his chest, and turned his face to the sky, his eyes squeezed shut. “I have strayed… I have strayed so far…”

Arthur sighed, the ache in his chest getting deeper with every breath. “Ain’t we all,” he said, more to himself than the reverend. “Though maybe some of us weren’t on the path to begin with.”

He didn’t know if he had the strength to haul the man back up to his feet. Considered joining him, even. Let the water take ‘em both. Wash 'em right away...

But then a hand came to rest on his shoulder and Grimshaw was beside him, looking down on Swanson with a knowing kind of sympathy. “C’mon now, reverend,” she said, “Let’s get you warm and dry. You just need some sleep, that’s all. Be right as rain in the mornin’…”

And together, they took hold of the fallen man and pulled him gently out of the river, up the bank and back to camp.

The reverend shivered and sweated his way through that night, working the poison out of his bloodstream, and the next day he was drawn and sick and mightily ashamed, but he was alive, at least.

Arthur checked on him a couple of times. Got an apology for his ‘talking nonsense’ and ‘acting a damn fool’. But as he watched the tent by the cave—the figures of Dutch and Micah hunched together, talking in whispers—he wasn’t sure the reverend didn’t have it right all along.

Chapter Text

It’s John’s idea from start to finish which pretty much explains why it all goes to shit. Kid’s in his cocky phase, going on nineteen and full of swagger, thinking he’s one of the men now when he’s still got a whole lot left to learn about not being a damn fool. And maybe Arthur’s a little hard on him, a little jealous of the way Dutch and Hosea indulge him, but it’s a full-time job trying to keep everyone alive these days—every job gets a little bit bigger, a little bit grander, a little bit riskier, and he can’t help but think sooner or later their luck’s gonna run out.

They’re down south, taking a ‘scenic route’ on their way west to avoid a few of their past mistakes, when Marston overhears some plan to rob the payroll from a local mine. Group of bandits who’re so drunk they lay out the whole operation right there in the bar—time and place, how many guards, all of it.

So John brings the idea back to camp and at first it sounds like a solid lead—grabbing the payroll before the bandits do—but there’s a smirk on Marston’s face and maybe that should’ve been Arthur’s first clue it was all gonna end up a mess.

"I don't mean grab it first," John says, shaking his head, "Why don’t we let them do all the hard work instead? Wait ‘til they steal it, follow ‘em, and take it right out of their hands. And any law that comes after…? Well, it won’t be us they’re lookin’ for, will it?”

Of course Dutch loves it—robbing the robbers—just the kind of thing he thinks is hilarious. Says the plan’s ‘got guts’.

“Sounds like double the risk to me,” Arthur says, looking to Hosea, but he’s no help either.

“Hey, it’s about time the boy showed a little ingenuity,” Hosea shrugs. “Why not let him take the lead on this one?”

And just like that, Arthur’s outvoted. Not that he gets a say most days anyhow. But oh, doesn’t John just gloat about it. Talks the whole thing up like it’s the con of the year, when by the sound of it these bandits couldn’t empty a boot full of water if there was instructions on the heel.

It’ll be easy, he says. Only a few of ‘em, he says.

But maybe the kid can’t count because actually there’s six of them and they take out the payroll guard in a matter of seconds, grab the reins of the poor terrified mule carrying the money in two heavy saddlebags, and they’re gone—headed off up the trail as fast as their stolen mount will follow.

Arthur and the others watch it all from a distance, follow behind at a slightly slower pace, not wanting to lose ‘em but not wanting to be seen either. It all happens in a flash and Arthur’s not sure if John’s looking nervous or if that’s just the expression he makes when he actually takes the time to think something through.

“Alright, what now, genius?” Arthur asks him. “We gonna see if they stash it somewhere? Wait until they camp and take it while they’re asleep?”

John’s frown deepens. “Why wait? Let’s get ahead, take ‘em on the road.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Marston snaps, “Why you always gotta be doubtin’ me, Morgan?”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Because you are so very often wrong.”

“Shut up. I’m in charge. Which means you gotta do what I say.” And there’s that maddening smirk again, and Arthur is tempted to smack it right off his face as they ride.

Dutch is laughing quietly to himself; Hosea pretending he’s not hearing any of it. And Arthur restrains himself, settling for a scowl instead, and follows along like a good little outlaw as John leads them all on his grand fuckin’ plan.

They take a side trail that loops around a canyon and eventually get ahead, hiding up behind a bluff where the main track bottlenecks. Arthur doesn’t want to admit it, but as ambush points go, it ain’t bad.

“So what’s the plan?” he hisses, as the bandits appear in the distance.

John gives a confident shrug. “We deal with ‘em, take the money and go.”

“Just like that, huh?” Arthur snorts. “And what the hell does ‘deal with them’ mean?”

They still have a code of sorts. No going in cold-blooded without good reason. Sure, they’ll ‘kill those that need killing’, like Dutch always says,  but that means self-defence, not starting a stupid fight when you could do things clever instead.

But Dutch don’t seem too bothered about that right now. Seems more amused by John’s cockiness than anything. And Hosea’s keeping his mouth shut, watching it all play out, like he always does.

John squints at the approaching bandits and elbows Arthur in the side. “All right, here’s your plan. You grab the money off that mule and we’ll keep the rest of ‘em busy. Whistle when you got it and we’ll lose ‘em in the canyon.”

Arthur’s about to point out that this 'plan' ain't much more detailed than the previous iteration but there’s no more time—the bandits are nearing the bottleneck and Dutch is elbowing him in his other side, saying, “Well, you heard the man, get to it.”

And before he can object any further the bandits are right where they want ‘em and John is charging down the bluff and leaping onto the leader’s horse, sending both rider and his idiot self crashing into the dirt. Hosea and Dutch aren’t far behind, taking pot shots at the startled bandits and kicking up a load of chaotic dust as they ride circles around the canyon mouth.

Arthur does his job, heads for the payroll mule, who’s so exhausted by the whole ordeal it just stands there amidst the madness with a long-suffering look that Arthur feels deeply akin with. It’s the work of a few moments to haul the saddlebags onto his own horse and he gives a sharp whistle that cuts through all the shouting and gunfire, heading into the canyon at a clip.

He glances back over his shoulder to see Dutch and Hosea close behind, but as the dust cloud settles there’s no fourth rider. No John.

Just a cry of pain and the distinct sound of someone getting a kicking.

“Goddamnit, Marston.”

Arthur wheels his horse around and thunders back up the track to find the kid being hauled to his feet by the bandit leader, his left arm clutched to his chest and his face pasty pale. Even from here, Arthur can see there’s something seriously wrong with Marston’s forearm—swollen and out of place, most likely broken considering all the grimacing and swearing the kid’s doing.

The rest of the bandits are regrouping, a couple of them looking worse for wear—thrown from their horses or nursing flesh wounds or just a little shellshocked at the sudden onslaught. One of them is propped up against the canyon wall, bent double over a gunshot wound in his thigh. But they still outnumber the gang, especially with John so helpfully getting himself caught.

The leader grabs the kid by the scruff of his neck and shoves him forward, jamming a gun against his head as Arthur slows to a stop ten feet away.

“That was our take,” the bandit growls, nodding to the saddlebags slung over Arthur’s horse.

“Well maybe you should’ve kept your mouth shut about it then,” Arthur snaps back.

Dutch nods his agreement, “Can’t blame us for taking the same opportunity you were so generous to share at the saloon last night."

“So really, you have to respect our initiative,” finishes Hosea.

“Don’t gotta respect nothin’,” the bandit snarls, eyeing the three of them warily.

He shoves the barrel of his gun harder against John’s temple and the jostling motion makes the boy grunt, trying to keep his busted arm still. “You want this one breathin’? Throw down the money.”

Arthur gives a tired sigh. “What if we don’t want him back? Call it a deal: we get the money, you get a loudmouth little dirtbag.”

“Shut up, Arthur, you piece of shit.” John glowers at him through the pain.

The bandit falters for a second at the unexpected exchange, looking between them like they're crazy, and Dutch steps in with his lazy, golden voice, “Listen, fellas. It’s hot, we’re all a little grouchy, and the law’s gonna be comin’ after that payroll any minute now. So what say you set our boy free and we talk about this? Like gentlemen.”

Marston gets another shove; makes a grating noise through his teeth.

“Nothing to talk about,” barks the bandit. “Money’s ours. Now do you want this ‘little dirtbag’ dead or not?”

“Careful with those threats now,” Dutch says, an edge to his words this time, and nods meaningfully to Arthur. “You don’t wanna see how fast my boy here can draw...”

Arthur can’t help feel a little rush of pride at the compliment, but his practical brain is still weighing up the risks. “Half and half,” he offers, slapping one of the saddlebags. “Don’t need to shed no more blood.”

And John all but rips himself free of the bandit’s grip, “What the hell you talking about? We’re not givin’ them half.”

The bandit yanks him backward, eliciting another hiss of pain. “You want half your boy back? Which half?”

“You can keep his dumbass brain,” Arthur mutters.

Hosea lets out a low chuckle. “Does that mean we get the dumb ass half?”

“I reckon more shit comes out of his mouth,” Arthur shrugs, earning a loud ‘ha!’ from Dutch.

The bandit just stares, baffled. “What is wrong with you?”

“Yeah,” Marston echoes, “What the hell?”

“I’m just sayin’, I was against this whole thing from the start,” Arthur tells the bandit, starting to enjoy getting it all off his chest, and jerks his chin at John. “It was his idea.”

The bandit narrows his eyes at the kid and Arthur only feels a little bad when John gets a smack round the head.

Still doesn’t shut the little fucker up, though.

“It worked, didn’t it?”

Arthur scoffs. “Yeah, until you tried leaping through the air like a damn flying squirrel.”

Even the bandits laugh at that.

“Seriously, you just wanna keep him?”

A flush of bruised pride colours the kid’s face. “Oh, ‘cause your idea was so much better?” he spits, and turns to the bandit holding him like a spoiled little kid ratting on his brother, “He was gonna wait until y’all camped for the night. Probably would’ve slit your throats…”

Arthur throws up his hands. “I was the one who said we didn’t need to do it bloody! And my idea was to lift the money before these fine folk even got near it—no offence—but I rekcon it’d’ve been a whole lot less of a pain in the ass if we had.”

“Ah, go easy, he’s still learning,” Hosea says, ever reasonable. “We all make mistakes.”

“I broke my damn arm!” John shrieks.

Dutch nods sagely. “Well, this is a valuable lesson, son.”

“And you?” Arthur rounds on Dutch, “You encouraged him.”

“Oh please. I am simply letting him spread his wings…”

“Everybody shut up!” the bandit yells, jamming the gun beneath Marston’s chin so hard it sends him up onto his toes. “Money. Now. Or I teach the kid the last lesson he’s ever gonna learn.”

The air shifts. As if the wind is holding its breath.

“Easy now. No one’s gotta die.” Arthur keeps his voice low, his hands up, gesturing over to the bandit with the gunshot wound. “Your friend there needs to get his leg looked at. Our boy needs his arm set. So let’s just look to our own and–”

But the bandit is past talking. “Now!” he roars, bringing the butt of his revolver down on the kid’s bad arm, once, twice, until John’s bent over and keening in pain.

And the moment the boy’s out of the firing line Arthur takes his shot, firing from the hip and sending a bullet straight through the bandit’s skull. Because no one hurts his brother beyond what's reasonable.

The momentum of the bullet knocks the man backward, dropping John face-first into the dirt. And a split second later everyone except the kid has a weapon locked and loaded in a hair-trigger stand-off.

There’s an unearthly stillness, cut through with the faint moaning of Marston on the ground.

Arthur’s the first to holster his gun, keeping his hands slow and open as he reaches behind his saddle and grabs one of the saddlebags, tossing it down onto the trail.

“Half and half,” he says again. “That’s a fair deal. I suggest you take it.”

Nobody moves for a second, but then one by one the bandits lower their weapons. Someone scurries forward to scoop up the bag and they make a hurried retreat, throwing their injured man onto the back of a horse.

Arthur can hear the pumping of his own heart in his ears, even though he’s holding his breath, and he doesn’t exhale until the last bandit disappears out of the canyon, leaving the corpse of their leader in the dust.

He walks his horse over to John, who’s just about managed to get to his feet, a face on him like he’s about to puke.

“Lookin ‘a little green there, kid.”

Marston sways on his feet, squinting up at him. “I hate you, you know that?”

“Yeah, I know.”

The boy looks terrible. Caked in blood and canyon sand; the break in his arm sickeningly obvious from this close; cold sweat and bruising standing out on his face. Arthur could almost feel sorry for him if it wasn’t his own damn fault.

He holds an arm out to him all the same, pulling him up onto the back of his saddle. “No idea where your horse got to—probably on her way to Mexico now. C’mon.”

Dutch and Hosea don’t comment as they head off, just exchange one of their most annoying looks as the boys pass by. And Arthur knows they’ll get some speech later about ‘working together’ and ‘playing to their strengths’ and all them valuable fuckin’ lessons they learned today.

But right now he needs to get the kid back to camp, or maybe to a doctor, so they can splint that arm and listen to him moan some more. And guess who's got the joy of riding with him all the way?

“Can’t believe you gave ‘em half,” Marston mutters sorely, before they’re even out of the canyon.  

“Well, considering you showed yourself to have only half a brain, I’d say it’s fair.”

He can hear the sulky pout on the boy’s face, even though he can't see it. And a minute or so later, in a quiet voice: “You gotta admit it half worked though.”

Arthur sighs. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

Another pause. Then, even quieter: “You wasn’t really gonna let ‘em kill me.”

It’s not exactly a question but there’s uncertainty in it, and it leaves a little twist in Arthur's chest.

“Not for half a payroll off a damn mule...” He elbows the kid; smirks a little at the yelp he makes. “But you come up with some more 'big ideas' and we’ll see.”

Chapter Text

They’re gonna hang him this time, he knows it. There’s no getting out of it. He’s gonna die just like his pa in some two-bit mountain town and Dutch ain’t comin’ for him. No one’s comin’ for him.

They didn’t even bother untying him before putting him in the cell. He’s lying on the bare floorboards, wrists bound behind him, rope around his arms and chest, cutting into the flesh and making it hard to breathe. They’d pulled him off his horse that way—some horseman who must’ve been a cattle-driver before he was a bounty hunter, snapping a lasso right over his head and yanking him backward into the dirt.

The impact had knocked all the breath out of his lungs and bounced his head off the ground, which was probably a blessing, because he was only half-conscious as he was dragged another twenty feet along the rocky path.

Dutch had only looked back once and kept on riding.

Arthur ain’t gonna cry about it. He knows now he's been stupid to trust in the odd couple all the past year. They're conmen, after all. Make a big song and dance about how Arthur is 'one of them now', how he's family, but they're just like everyone else—using him for their schemes and dumping him when it suits them.

They aren’t family. The only family he had is in the ground, and while his pa hadn’t exactly been kind, he’d never left him behind.

He blinks away hot tears, furious at the tightness of his throat and the creeping panic that threatens to take over. Dutch ain't coming and that's that. He's on his own and he doesn't need nobody and it's up to him to get out of this.

He shuffles his way to the corner of the cell and uses the wall to drag himself up to sitting. The jail basement must've been dug right out of the mountainside and the wall is made of rough stone, still sharp from pickaxe strikes in places. Sharp enough to wear down a rope, maybe…

He shifts around until the bindings on his wrists catch on a jagged edge and starts scraping back and forth, keeping one eye on the stairs all the while. The sheriff said they’d be hanging him at sundown and there's still a shred of orange light peeking through the barred window high on the wall.

His breathing quickens at the thought of it—the scratchy noose tightening around his throat, the lever dropping him down through the hatch with a jolt… Would it break his neck or would he dangle there, kicking at the air, slowly suffocating on his own weight?

He lets out a shuddering breath and keeps sawing at the rope, haphazard and desperate, not even noticing that he's scratching his forearms on the sharp-edged stone until the blood starts dripping off his fingers. It don't matter. Cuts and bruises heal, but there's no coming back from a hanging.

He has no idea how he's going to get past the locked door of the cell, even if he does manage to get free, but he’ll deal with that when he comes to it. “One challenge at a time,” as Dutch likes to say. “Let the future come at you, and face it when it does.”

He's full of ‘wise’ words, that man. And no matter what happens, however wrong things go, he somehow makes it sound like it's all part of the plan.

Not this time, though. Arthur hadn’t even wanted to rob the place. Hadn’t wanted to step foot in the town. But it was his own dumb fault for opening his mouth and getting Dutch all riled up about ‘justice’ and ‘not letting people treat you like dirt’ and getting his morals mixed up with pettiness.

It was just the two of them, riding back to camp. Arthur had recognised the name of the town as they’d passed a signpost—even if he still couldn’t read all that well yet—and made the mistake of telling Dutch about the time he was living on the streets, drifting from place to place, looking for a pocket to pick or scraps to scavenge or a dry place to sleep for the night. He’d been walking all day and hadn’t even bothered with the first two—just crawled underneath the deck of the hotel and curled up in a pile of mulchy autumn leaves to sleep. Wasn’t like he was doing any harm, but the hotel owner “didn’t want no urchins on his property” and woke him with a bucket of ice-cold water.

They’d run him out of town, shivering and hungry and half-dead on his feet. And it wasn’t long after that he’d come across Dutch and Hosea and they were the first people to show him any kindness in a long time.

So when Dutch heard about the way the townspeople had treated him he said maybe it was time they learned some goddamn humanity. He’d insisted on it. Ridden on right into town and held up the hotel in broad daylight. Dragged the hotel owner out and dunked him in the horse trough in front of the whole town—half drowned the man in fact—leaving him spluttering and vomiting in the street.

Arthur wasn’t sure it was justice he'd felt, exactly—a strange sort of fearful gratitude, maybe?—but most of all he just wanted to hide away. Crawl back under the deck and disappear. All those eyes on them. The spectacle of it. Dutch’s booming voice and grand proclamations. It all attracted far too much attention and made Arthur’s stomach twist. And somewhere along the way, someone realised Dutch was the same moustachioed man on the wanted posters in the sheriff’s office and sent bounty hunters after them and now here he is, taking the fall for Dutch’s misguided sense of honour, ripping his arms to shreds on the rocky wall and barely making a dent in his bindings.

There are tears on his face now, though he doesn’t make a sound—just stares blankly at the cell bars and keeps on working at the ropes as the sun dips below the window and fades into darkness.

And he knows even before he hears the footsteps on the stairs that he’s run out of time.

The sheriff comes to fetch him and grimaces distastefully at his bloody sleeves. “What the hell've you done to yourself, boy?”

Arthur doesn’t even acknowledge him. Lets himself get hauled up the steps by his collar and stumbles all the way through the one-street town to the gallows—not even a proper gallows—just the post the town sign hangs from, a rope looped over the top of it.

A crowd is already waiting there, flanked by the same bounty hunters that’d brought him in, looking so smug and self-important as if they’d captured some master criminal instead of a teenage boy.

He looks up at the noose and feels a coldness wash through his chest. He’d watched his daddy hang. Watched until the last twitching convulsions ceased. Still dreams about it, sometimes, waking with his own hands clutched around his neck, straining for breath. He reckons it has to be one of the very worst ways to die.

And the sting of his arms reminds him that he’s supposed to be saving himself. He doesn’t need no Dutch or no one. He survived for years on his own, after his pa died. And years before that, under the terror of his father’s moods. And he isn’t gonna go the same way.

He ducks his head and barrels into the sheriff, knocking him sideways, the pair of them tumbling into the mud. There isn’t much he can do with his arms still bound but he manages to get a knee into the man’s stomach, scrambling to his feet and making it two whole steps before someone takes him down again. The crowd is closing in around him, holding him down, pressing his face into the muck of the thoroughfare, yanking at the ropes holding him and almost pulling his arms right out of their sockets, and he can hear himself yelling, hoarse and desperate, like a dying animal.

The sheriff steps in eventually, shoving him back towards the gallows with a weary sigh. “Come on, son. Don’t make this harder than it ought to be.”

“Ain’t your son,” Arthur spits. The man doesn’t get to call him that. He isn’t even sure if he likes Dutch calling him that. Not that Dutch has any right to call him anything anymore.

The sheriff’s expression hardens. “You brought this on yourself. You and your ‘associate’ have been causing trouble round these parts for months now. And we gotta make an example.”

Arthur doesn’t bother to argue. He’s got nothing left to fight with. He looks from one face to the next and finds only anger and disapproval and hatred. And as the noose slips over his head he closes his eyes to it all, not wanting to spend a moment longer in this world that thinks so little of him.

He hears the rope hissing over the post, feels it pulling taut, bringing him up to his tiptoes as rough hands manhandle him up onto a stool.

“Any last words?” the sheriff asks.

Arthur shakes his head. Swallows hard. Takes what might be his last breath. And waits for the stool to be kicked out from under him.

And then a sound he told himself he never wanted to hear again. Dutch’s voice, yelling for nobody to move, to leave the boy alone. His eyes fly open as twin gunshots knock the bounty hunters off their horses and the crowd starts screaming, herded into a terrified huddle by the approaching outlaws: Dutch and Hosea, armed and grim faced and furious.

The sheriff goes for his gun but Hosea shoots it right out of his hand without so much as a second glance.

Dutch is already off his horse, tearing the noose off Arthur's neck and turning smoothly to sock the sheriff right in the face.

The man’s still reeling when Dutch threads the noose over the sheriff’s head instead, tugging on the rope until he’s standing to attention, eyes bulging.

I’m the one you want, sheriff,” Dutch sneers at him, “But you’re too pathetic to come after a grown man—gotta take it out on a kid instead? What the hell did he ever do to you?”

Hosea waves Arthur over and leans down with a knife to cut his bonds, frowning at the scrapes on his arms and setting a solid, grounding hand on his shoulder.

Dutch turns his speech to the townspeople, eyes afire with the attention of a proper audience, still holding onto the hanging rope like a puppetmaster.

“Is this what you call justice in this town? You chase this poor boy away and now you try to hang him for another man’s crimes? What happened to giving shelter to the homeless? Food to the hungry? Charity to the poor?”

The crowd shuffles uncertainly and Dutch throws out an arm towards Arthur, who shrinks into himself, shivering with the shock of still being alive.

“We took this boy in when you would not. We showed more compassion than any of you 'civilized folk'. And in return you hunt us down like dogs. You string up a child.

Some of the townspeople have the decency to look ashamed but Arthur doesn’t want their sympathy. Doesn't want a grand speech. Doesn’t want any of this. Never wanted to come here in the first place goddamnit.

But Dutch is in full flow, buoyed up by the power of his words, and he fixes his gaze on Arthur like a lightning bolt, holding out the hanging rope to him.

“You have the right to justice, my boy…”

Arthur looks at the sheriff, their positions switched in an instant. The man’s pissed his pants and is murmuring prayers to whatever idle god may or may not give a shit.

And it doesn’t look much like justice. It looks like revenge. It looks like plain old killing. And he doesn’t want any of it.

He gives a jerky shake of his head and looks back to Dutch with pleading eyes. “I just wanna go,” he says in a small voice. “Let’s just go. Please.”

Dutch stares at him, his expression turning unreadable. And for a moment Arthur thinks he might haul on the rope anyway, for his own ‘justice’. But then he tosses it aside and shoves the sheriff down into the mud with a scowl.

“Alright then,” he nods, swinging himself back up into the saddle and holding a hand out to the boy to climb up behind him. “Let’s go.”

No one tries to stop them. No one even makes a sound. The town is steeped in shocked silence as they ride on out, Arthur gripping tight around Dutch’s waist, smearing bloodstains onto his shirt.

“No one would’ve judged you for it,” Dutch says over his shoulder, when they’re a good couple of miles clear. “Giving that sheriff a taste of his own medicine.”

Arthur shakes his head again, unable to even begin to try to explain all the things he’s feeling.

Instead he hears his own voice, quiet and cracked and just a little lost. “Thought you weren’t comin’ back for me.”

Dutch is silent for ten good seconds before reaching behind him and gripping hold of one of Arthur’s hands. “Of course I came back,” he says, somehow gentle and fierce at the same time. “I will never let anything happen to you. You should know that by now, son.”

And Arthur wants so much to believe it he doesn’t have the strength to be angry any more. Lets him call him ‘son’. Lets himself sink into the exhaustion weighing down on him.

Dutch gives his hand a squeeze, sending a searing ache through arm, but he squeezes back all the same.

Chapter Text

He should’ve known better than to fall for something like this, but the sight of the hanging man stops him short, twitching back on the reins with a soft ‘woah, boy’. People warned against travelling through the bayou at night, but Arthur just assumed they were talking about bumping into people like him. Outlaws and bandits and ne’er-do-wells and the like. He never believed in the ghost stories. The gators are bad enough on their own. But there’s something mightily unsettling about coming across a hanged man in the middle of the swamp.

His next mistake—after stopping in the first place—is to cut the man down. There’s a note pinned to his chest. A confession, it sounds like. Or the ramblings of a madman, talking about the ‘night folk’ haunting him, even while he was awake. And Arthur doesn’t spook easy but when the figures start coming out of the mist, silent and staring, he thinks maybe he should’ve heeded those warnings...

His horse bolts before he can even get a foot back in the stirrup, and he doesn’t exactly blame him. The night folk look like the living dead, faces streaked with ash and blood, eyes shining white in the darkness, hardly seeming to blink at all.

And they’re everywhere.

In the half a minute it’d taken him to stop and check the body, they surrounded him without a sound, closing in with their blank faces and tattered clothes—like rotted skin hanging from bones.

A machete slices down his forearm and back across his chest before he even has time to cry out. Didn’t even see the man coming until the blood is pulsing out of him, quickened by his panicked heart. He fires his sawn-off from the hip, knocking the man back into the marsh, but another two figures take his place in an instant and this is not the kind of fight to make a stand.

He spins on the spot, firing blindly, indiscriminately, trying to push them back and clear a path to escape, but there are too many of them. Another blade catches him on the shoulder and he almost stumbles down to one knee, ducking by some streak of luck as the next strike whips past his throat. He throws out his arm and hears a crack as his gun makes contact with something human—if they can even be called that—but when he turns to look it’s as if his assailant has melted into the mist.

To hell with this. 

He runs. Runs like he’s pursued by the devil himself. Twisting and jerking away from grabbing hands and slashing knives. Knee-deep and wading in the mud. His breath ratcheting in his chest. Terror thrumming in his veins.

He can hear them behind him, all around him—arrows zipping past in the dark, flaming torches casting eerie shadows in the distance. Cold sweat drenches his chest and back, mingling with the hot blood from his wounds, and he has no idea what direction he’s headed, no way of seeing what’s ahead or if he’s running in circles. A gator hisses at him as he staggers over a mudbank and back into the swamp, up to his thighs now, and he’s not sure which would be worse: getting dragged down beneath the murky water by one of those great snapping reptiles, or being hacked to death by his relentless pursuers.

He shoves his sawn-off back into its holster with shaking hands. If he’s going to get out of this, he needs to be smart. Silent. He can’t give away his position with a gunshot; can’t keep running blind like a panicked deer. He slips his own knife out of his belt and forces his breathing to quieten, letting his eyes adjust to the low light and tuning his hearing to the familiar sounds of the swamp. The creaking of the frogs. The slow trudging of snapping turtles. The grumbling of the gators. The whispering of the twisted branches above. And beyond all of it: the faintest sound of human breath, low and controlled, heading his way.

He resists the urge to keep running and instead sinks deeper into the water, barely making a splash as he carves a smooth channel towards the next bank, the way the gators do. And perhaps that’s why they leave him alone—just another night creature minding his own business—and he makes it to what counts as dry land in one piece.

He doesn’t stop to check behind him. He catches sight of the crescent moon dipping below the cypress trees and his internal compass turns him south, towards what he vaguely remembers as the curving track that makes its way out of this hell-hole towards the city.

He stays low and treads cautious, slipping through the trees as noiselessly as he can, though he’s sure the hammering of his heartbeat can he heard for miles.

But he’s not been this way before, and after a while the unfamiliar trail splits to surround a tiny island circled with trees, each one of them dotted with white star orchids, all but glowing in the gloom. It’s a bizarre kind of beauty in amongst all the horror, and for a moment he just stares, his fevered mind plucking out an ancient memory of Annabelle teasing him about fairy circles. The kinds of places fae folk lure you in to steal your soul. And maybe that’s another story he ought to have listened to more closely.

He stops to catch his breath, to try to orient himself again, but something sets his skin crawling—something he can’t see or hear—and he knows in the pit of his guts he’s still being hunted. By man or beast, it barely matters now. He didn’t realised how freely the knife wounds were bleeding until he stopped moving, but in the dim light of the moon his shirt is more red than white and his head swims with lightheadedness. He knows he won’t make it much longer like this but there’s nowhere to hide; nowhere to run to except more of the same.

Until suddenly, there is. Because when he looks back up at the island there’s something he didn’t see before. Or perhaps it simply just appeared out of nowhere. He wouldn’t put anything past these haunted marshes no more. And there, in the middle of the mossy hillock sits a rickety old shack on stilts, looking like it’s just one gust of wind from collapsing entirely.

He doesn’t stop to rationalise. He heads straight for it; the only shelter for miles and a chance to make a stand if they follow him there. The place only has one door and if this is where he meets his end, at least they won’t be able to swarm him.

He staggers up the steps and shoulders the door open, swaying on his feet at the uncanny sight within. From outside, the place looked dark and deserted. But inside, the shack is alight with flickering candles. It’s larger than it looks, too—filled with canvas paintings in various degrees of completion: on the walls, on the floor, on an easel at the back of the room.

And it’s as if time and the chase are paused for a moment. Only the painting matters, drawing him forward like a memory he’d forgotten. He can’t quite make out the image on it—it’s barely a smudge of dark paint, as if someone painted it with their bare hands—but as he steps nearer to peer at it, a movement beside the easel makes him freeze. A long mirror stands propped in the corner and in it he sees his own ragged reflection: pale skinned and blood-soaked and wide-eyed with confusion and fear. 

But that’s not all. Because behind him, in the shadows, there’s another figure. A tall man, dressed all in black, topped with a smokestack hat. There’s something wrong with his face, as if it’s almost see-through, but he’s grinning, nonetheless.

Arthur spins around, fumbling for his gun belt, but the shack is empty. Nothing but the puttering candle stubs and the heaving of his own breath.

To hell with all of this.

He bursts right back out the door. Night folk and gators and whatever the fuck that just was be damned.

And he no longer cares about the noise he’s making as he tears through the swamp. He just needs to be out of here and he’ll swim back to camp if he has to. 

Clumsy luck saves him from that fate, at least. As he follows the shoreline around he trips on something wooden and goes sprawling in the sludge, but the obstacle saves his life. It’s a canoe, half buried in the bank, and the most perfect thing he’s ever seen. He digs it out with his bare hands, shoving it into the water just as the night folk’s torch flames appear through the trees. And he doesn’t stop paddling until the swamp widens out and meets the Kamassa River, until the smoggy fumes of Saint Denis mingle with the clouds to the south, and he’s never been so glad to see the stinking city in all his days.

He’s shaking, the oars sticky with his own blood, but he’s alive and free. He lies down in the footwell of the narrow craft, tight as a coffin, and lets the river take him downstream—out towards the river mouth where there’s nothing and no one for a hundred feet either side of him—and he waits for the dawn to break the nightmare. 

Chapter Text

“See, this is what happens when we do things your way,” John muttered. “Good old Arthur ‘let’s-be-cautious’ Morgan. Goin’ home empty handed with goddamn hypothermia…”

Arthur didn’t even dignify him with a response. He’d had to listen to John griping about the cold and the rain and the long ride back all afternoon—and all because he’d had the audacity to suggest that the two of them taking on a heavily guarded stagecoach just half a mile out from a town that had their wanted posters plastered over every wall might not be the greatest idea.

It had been another of John’s ‘fool-proof’ leads, but in Arthur’s opinion the kid didn’t quite comprehend the depth of his own foolery, and this time he put his foot down. He was tired of the recklessness; tired of hauling his brother's ass out of trouble; tired of having to listen to Dutch excuse the stupidity of it all as something courageous.

But even though he knew he’d made the right decision, he couldn’t help feel the same twinge of shame that they were heading back to camp with nothing. And it didn’t help that John wouldn’t shut up about the take they’d missed out on. About how it was Arthur’s fault they’d be eating nothing but bean stew for another week. About how ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ and other empty phrases he’d cribbed from Dutch’s speeches…

Still, there had to be easier pickings. Like… Well, like the big old boarded-up house over yonder.

“What about that?” he said, nodding at the darkened house up on the hill. They’d ridden past it on the way out and Arthur had mentioned how it looked just like the haunted house from one of Hosea’s campfire stories when they were young. John had scowled at the reference—that particular tale had always scared the shit out of him, and Arthur had taken full advantage of every chance he got to freak the kid out.

So in a way it felt like the perfect payback for John’s constant bitching: the prospect of discovering a few hidden treasures locked inside the abandoned house and the prospect of making John piss his pants with a decade-old horror story.

“Could be somethin’ valuable left in there, waitin’ to be repossessed,” he said with a sniff. “Or maybe it’s just… possessed.”

John shot him a look and hunched further into his collar. “Shut up. Probably just full of dust and rats.”

“Worth a look though, huh? ‘Specially since you’re so antsy about goin’ home ’empty handed’…”

And Arthur didn’t wait for the argument—he nudged his horse off the track and up the hill, leaving John no option but to follow.

 


 

Whoever had boarded up the place had certainly been thorough. The place was a fortress, every window and door covered with sturdy timber and nailed shut.

“Guess they really wanna keep people from gettin’ in,” Arthur mused, trying and failing to pry one of the boards free. “Or,” he added with a sly grin, “Maybe they’re trying to keep something from getting’ out…

John made a visible effort to keep his expression vaguely unimpressed. “You still on about that stupid ghost story?”

“You still lookin’ over your shoulder when you take a piss at night?”

“Jesus, I was twelve-years-old… And it didn’t help you kept makin’ those breathing noises and scratching on the wagon.”

Arthur gave a dry chuckle and imitated Hosea’s voice, “…and on a moonless night you could hear the scratching through the floorboards…

John rolled his eyes and aimed a half-hearted kick at the barricaded door. “Come on, we ain’t getting in here. Waste of time.”

But Arthur was enjoying being the ‘reckless’ one for a change and jabbed him in the side. “Ah, where’s your sense of adventure? Could be a payload in there.”

He started walking a slow perimeter around the house, looking for an in, with John reluctantly trailing after—and Arthur swore he caught the kid give an uneasy little glance behind him as they went.

The rest of the house was pretty much the same, boarded up to within an inch of its life, but round the back there was a protruding room that looked as if it had been added on as an afterthought. The roof was made of tin and the rain pinged off it like pebbles. Arthur braced himself with his back against the wall and made a stirrup with his hands for John to step up into. “Here, climb up there, looks like that roof might break easy.”

John snorted. “Yeah. Prob’ly break my neck, too.”

“C’mon, you’re lighter than me, skin ‘n’ bones.”

“Let’s just go…” John shook his head, looking every bit the sullen twelve-year-old from all those years ago. He’d always been a skittish little thing, ever since they took him in. But the kid had loved those fireside stories, even though they gave him nightmares. Used to beg Hosea for 'just one more', sitting there all wide-eyed and unblinking as the man wove a taie through the darkness, reeling the boy in and making him jump when he was least expecting it. And of course Arthur had done what any big brother would do—taken those story seeds and turned them into pranks to tease the kid with at every given opportunity. But he’d also let the little critter crawl in his bed when he was too scared to sleep, so he figured it evened itself out.

He hadn’t genuinely thought the kid was still afraid, though. He shook his head at John's defiant frown. “Fine. You hold the lantern and I’ll do it.”

John did as he was told with a huff as Arthur dragged an old barrel over to the wall and used it to clamber up onto the roof, being careful to spread his weight across the joists. And, as he’d predicted, one hard stamp was all it took to send the metal panels clattering down inside.

He smirked down at John. “See? Now come on, I’m gonna need that light.”

Once again, he didn’t wait around for a refusal, heading into the dark interior and chuckling as he heard a deep gravelly sigh from behind him.

 


 

Inside, the house was in surprisingly good condition but completely empty of furniture or anything that might have contained something valuable. Place had been cleaned out long ago. There were patches of unfaded wallpaper where pictures had once hung, and marks on the floor where a dresser or wardrobe too heavy to lift had been dragged out.

“Look, scratches…” Arthur pointed. “There’s that ghost again.”

“Goddamnit, Arthur.”

“How’d the story go? A strange smell, like rottin’ meat… And a dripping sound. Drip, drip drip…”

“Will you stop?”

“On account of that poor woman drownin’ in the well, wasn’t it? Come back to haunt whoever lived in the house, lookin’ for her beau who pushed her in. A pale figure, soakin’ wet, eyes all black…

John threw his hands up, casting swaying shadows on the wall as the lantern swung wildly. “Alright, that’s it. You have fun. I’m waitin’ outside.”

Arthur barked out a laugh. “You really are scared, ain’t ya?”

“There’s nothin’ here, Arthur. Just dust ‘n’ rats, like I said.”

“Well… what about that?” Arthur said, catching sight of a trapdoor at the far end of the room. “Must be a cellar or somethin’.”

John stared at the hatch and swallowed hard. “I am not goin’ down there.”

“’Cause you’re scared,” Arthur nodded sagely.

“’Cause it’s gonna be empty, just like the rest of the place!” John gave an exasperated sigh. “And I’m saddle sore and soakin’ wet and freezin’ my ass off and I just… I just wanna go back to camp.”

And as enjoyable as poking at the grumpy son-of-a-bitch was, Arthur found he felt just a little bad at the miserable expression on the kid’s face.

“Fine. G’on then,” he nodded, and John couldn’t have gotten out of there faster, only pausing to thrust the lantern into Arthur’s hands.

Alone in the empty shell of a house, he kinda lost his enthusiasm for snooping around, but he also didn’t want to go back outside without something to shove in John’s face, so he made a cursory attempt at heaving the trapdoor open. It was jammed tight, warped with age or weather or maybe the lock had rusted it shut.

He set down the lantern and tried jimmying at the latch with his knife but only managed in cutting his thumb, releasing a stream of swear words into the dusty air. He gave the hatch a couple of hard smacks with his fist for good measure and almost fell over backwards when a scratching noise answered his knock.

A prickling crept up his back, sending all the tiny hairs on his skin standing to attention. The scratching came again, harder this time. As if something was trying to get out.

He decided maybe he didn’t need to see what was in the cellar after all, getting carefully to his feet, but the wind chose that precise moment to batter against the busted tin roof, making him startle even more, and as he stepped back and put his whole weight on the trapdoor it gave way, plummeting him down ten feet into the darkness.

He felt his ankle turn ninety degrees with a shuddering crack before the rest of his body followed, collapsing into a heap with a grunt.

Cold white pain ran up his leg like a steel bar, stealing away his breath for what felt like a whole minute. And when his body finally remembered to inhale it did so with a series of ragged gasps as he folded in half, his hands hovering over his ankle, afraid to even touch it.

Shit. Fuck. Ow.

Either broken or a serious sprain. A lurch of nausea rolled through him at the thought of trying to bear weight on it. He could barely consider trying to move it. He panted through the next wave of pain and tried to make some sort of rational assessment of his situation without giving in to the panic.

The dark of the basement surrounded him completely, the glow of the lantern up beside the hatch barely illuminating a soft circle of the ceiling. He tried not to think about the scratching he’d heard. The pain was more than enough to distract him, and he really didn’t need anything else to worry about right now. But he did need help.

“John?” he yelled. “You there?”

Silence.

And then a scrabbling noise from somewhere in the cellar.

His breathing quickened.

“Shit. John?!”

A whole lot of nothing from up above. But there was definitely something down here with him. Breathing harsh and shallow. A clicking of claws, scritching over the dirt...

“JOHN!”

He’d never been so glad to see the idiot’s face, his hair falling into his eyes as he leaned over the open hatch.

“Where the hell were you?”

John lowered the lantern through the hatch and peered down at him. “Oh, you know, just hanging out with a ghost. What you doin' down there?"

“I fell, idiot,” Arthur said through gritted teeth.

John smirked. “Oh really. And, who’s the idiot here?”

“Shut up and help me. Think I broke my ankle.”

“Shit, you serious?”

He nodded. It felt like someone had hit it with a sledge hammer.

He didn’t mention the ghost, or whatever it was. The presence of John suddenly made his fears in the darkness seem ridiculous. Adrenaline-fuelled panic, that’s all. Nothing down here but rats and dust…

“Ain’t there stairs or something?” John asked, leaning down as far as he could with the lantern. The light fell on a splintered length of wood, long since rotten and eaten through by termites.

“Ladder must’ve fallen down,” Arthur sighed. “Not worth much now anyway.”

“Well fuck.” John nodded decisively. “Hang on, lemme get some rope…”

And as he turned to go and the prospect of being alone in the dark swept over him, Arthur found himself straining towards the square of light above, a desperate edge creeping into his voice, “Hey, uh, John? Throw down some matches or something will ya?”

John paused, turning back slowly with a shit eating grin on his face. “Why? You scared down there, Arthur?”

Arthur glared up at him. “Even with one good leg I will kick your ass, Marston…”

“Not if I leave you down there,” John laughed, and disappeared, taking the lantern with him, leaving Arthur in a darkness so thick he could reach out and touch it.

Shit, shit, fuck, shit, bastard.

Arthur channelled all his focus into the wrongness of his ankle. The pain was intensely real: hot and cold at the same time; lancing up his shin bone and down through his foot; rising and falling with every beat of his pulse; carving out little sobbing gasps with every breath.

And so long as he thought about just how much it fucking hurt he didn’t have to think about the scrabbling that was getting louder all around. The sharp, rasping breaths getting nearer and nearer. The sound like fingernails, scraping through the dirt.

The only thing missing from the story was the drip, drip, drip of the drowned ghost, but his mind filled that part in for him, and it didn’t matter whether he squeezed his eyes shut or not, he could see it there—a pale figure emerging from the black, reaching out for him with its clawed hands; staring at him with its hollow eyes and—

The glow of John’s lantern returned and an unearthly screeching noise split the night, sending Arthur scrambling backwards, dragging his busted ankle behind him.

The lanternlight swayed as John threw himself flat on his belly to try to see what was happening, illuminating a pair of shining eyes, and then another, and another, and another, all of them rushing towards Arthur.

He was pretty sure both of them screamed just as loud as one another.

And as silence echoed around the cool dark of the cellar, John’s panicked voice came crackling through.

“Arthur? Arthur! Holy shit… Arthur, are you ok?”

Arthur lay on his back on the rocky soil, chest heaving, half-choking on the laugh that fell out of him. He lifted his right hand to the light and watched a few drops of blood drip off the ends of his fingers.

“Drip, drip, drip…”

And now he really was laughing, right down to his belly—even though the convulsions jarred his ankle something awful—and he couldn’t stop if he wanted to.

“Arthur, what the fuck?”

“Bunch of opossums. Fuckin’ bit me.”

He heard an unsteady sigh from up above. The sound of John cursing his name in a variety of colourful ways. And then a looped rope descended from the hatch, landing in the dirt beside him.

 


 

“Thought you were gettin’ torn apart down there,” John said as he pulled Arthur the last few feet up and out of the hatch, the rope wrapped tight around his chest.

“I almost was,” Arthur laughed drily, holding up his bloody hand.

John scoffed. “Yeah well, you better not get rabies.”

Arthur let out an involuntary yelp as he hauled himself over the edge of the trapdoor, every movement an insult to his ankle, flopping down onto the floorboards, breathing hard. He could feel the cold sweat beading on his face.

John leaned over him, a tentative frown of worry on his face, but Arthur waved him away.

“Be fine n'a'minute.”

“That looks bad,” John said, casting an eye over his ankle.

Arthur hadn’t looked at it in the light yet. Didn’t really want to. All he could do was hum through the next wash of pain and grunt his way up to sitting.

John’s frown deepened. “Reckon you can ride?”

Arthur shrugged. “Why? You wanna camp here for the night?”

“Hell no,” John said, a little too quickly, then grinned as he nodded to the black square of the trapdoor. “Shit’s haunted. The ghosts of opossums past.”

Arthur let out a groaning laugh as John pulled him to his feet—or, rather, foot—and they made their slow limping way back to the horses.

“C’mon big guy," John said, slapping him on the back. "You can ride side-saddle.”

“You’re gonna tell everyone about this, ain’t you?’ Arthur sighed.

Jon gave a look of pure innocence. “What? ‘Bout the way you screamed when an opossum pup bit your pinky?”

“Goddamnit, Marston.”

“I told you: this is what happens when we do things your way...”

Chapter Text

He always liked the stillness of the snow. The expanse of it. The feeling that you could just keep riding off the edge of the world.

And the quiet. No one asking anything of him, or pokin’ at him, or sneaking looks at him with that sad, anxious expression everyone seemed to have on their faces these days.

He was sick of being asked if he was alright when it was clear as day that he wasn’t, and sometimes he just had to get away—get out into the wide open and breathe

It didn’t much matter where he went—the plains, the river, the forest—but up here in the mountains was his favourite. Nothing but vast, endless white and crisp blue sky and no other soul for miles and miles…

…aside from the strange fellow with a camera and no sense of self-preservation.

Arthur squinted through the snow at the familiar figure, hardly believing his eyes. The man was talking to himself as usual, tinkering with his tripod and measuring invisible angles on the horizon with the flat of his hand.

“Mr Mason?”

Albert startled, looking for all the world like a puffed up owl in his fur-lined coat, and spun to face him, a smile of recognition smoothing his expression as he caught sight of the approaching rider.

“Well, well. Mr Morgan, sir. I must say I didn’t expect to see you all the way out here.”

“Likewise,” Arthur nodded, his brow furrowing as he looked over Mason’s photography equipment. “Thought you’d finished your project ‘n’ gone on home.”

The last time he’d seen the man, he’d almost fallen off a damn cliff trying to take pictures of eagles. He could only imagine how poorly prepared the fool was for the unforgiving climate of the Grizzlies.

“Ah, yes, well. I was on my way home. Or, at least, I’d bought my train ticket. But then I got talking with a trapper fellow at the market in Saint Denis who told me about a magnificent creature up in Ambarino…”

Arthur shook his head ruefully, getting down from his horse and sneaking a curious look at the camera.  “You tryin’ to get yourself eaten by a bear this time?”

“No, no,” Albert laughed, “No more predators, I promise. It’s another wild horse. Only this one is utterly unique. A snow-white Arabian.”

Arthur gave a slow chuckle. “Yup. I know the one you mean. Tried to catch her myself a couple times. With not much luck, I might add.”

Albert’s eyes lit up. “So you’ve seen her? Are we in the right place? The man said Lake Victoria which I believe is over there, but everything looks the same to me.”

“That’s right,” Arthur pointed to the placid body of water to the east. He’d found himself up this way more often than he’d expected, following the compass north whenever he needed a little distance, a little clarity, and he knew the area pretty well. He’d also been bucked off that feisty little Arabian more than once trying to tame her.

“Well, I hope we’re lucky enough to see her,” Albert whispered breathily, staring out at the landscape. “They say she’s like an apparition in the snow…”

Arthur smiled. Always so full of wonder, that man. As if he was seeing the world for the very first time.

“That she is.”

It was the truth, too. The few times he’d caught sight of the Arabian she’d taken his breath away—half camouflaged against the white as if she was made of ice herself. Like a ghost.

“I… uh, I know I don’t need protecting from a horse,” Albert said awkwardly, “But I’d be glad of the company if you wanted to wait a while with me. You being more of an expert horseman than I am, of course.”

Arthur gave a polite tip of his hat. He’d always enjoyed wasting a little time with Mr Albert Mason and his photographic al follies. “I’d be honoured. And besides, there’s wolves and grizzlies up here as well as horses you might need protectin’ from. You even own a gun, Mr Mason?”

The man looked so scandalised Arthur had to stifle a laugh.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t—I couldn’t ever kill a living creature,” Albert said, nervously fidgeting with the settings on his camera.

And Arthur couldn’t help thinking of something Dutch had once said, on the subject of the morality of the business of killin’. “Nature’s a pretty brutal thing, though. And us bein’ animals, too—maybe we’re just part of the cycle.”

Mason stopped his tinkering and looked him straight in the eye. “Do you really believe that?”

“Well… I don’t know. Just something someone once told me,” Arthur shrugged, uncomfortable at the sudden attention.

But the man’s stare was unblinking. “You think killing is the natural order of things?”

Arthur sighed. It would be easy to believe that. To rewrite the world the way Dutch did to justify the weighing of his soul. Wash clean all his sins; all the things he’s done. But as his own judgement day grew nearer he found he no longer had the energy to lie to himself. And while he might be as much of an animal as any dumb beast, he knew nature didn’t hold much stock in good or bad or morals or justice. It was about survival, sure, but it was also a balance. Life and death were gifts on both sides, and everything in the middle was just… neutral.

“No,” he said quietly. “No, I don’t.”

Albert still didn’t look away, but his expression softened into a sad sort of smile, as though he were only just now noticing Arthur’s bloodshot eyes and pale skin and drawn cheeks.

“Well, good,” the man said, just as softly, and for a while they stood in silence, looking out at the picture-perfect lake, waiting for their ‘apparition’.

 


 

She appeared at dusk, so quiet and so soft-footed that neither of them saw her approach until she was right down by the lake—her ice-white coat shimmering in the pink sunset.

“Good heavens…” Albert whispered, fumbling for his camera without daring to take his eyes off the creature.

Arthur gave a huff of a laugh. “There she is.” It was as if the horse knew it was being framed for a photo and had chosen the most picturesque spot to pose in.

Albert glanced up at him with a look of sheer childish glee. “Do you think we could get a little closer? Or lure her nearer to us?”

Arthur scraped a hand across his stubble. “Well, I ain’t gonna try breakin’ her again. Last time I tried she damn near threw me in the lake. But maybe a gentler touch’d do it…”

He dug in his satchel for some treats and immediately got a nudge in the shoulder from his own horse. “Alright, alright,” he said, giving the boy a couple of mushrooms, “Now be nice and share a little, okay?”

He got a tolerant snort in reply, and started off down the bank towards the lake in a slow, cautious crouch with a handful of sugar cubes, oatcakes and herbs.

The Arabian lifted her head as he crossed some invisible threshold, ears set a’twitching, and he froze still. She likely recognised him from their previous meetings and would be doubly wary, only he hadn’t thought to tempt her with food before and he could already see her snuffling at the scent of the treats.

“That’s right,” he murmured, “You hungry, girl? Come on over and see.”

She stamped a little, tossing her mane and watching him closely for any sudden movements but he stayed put, content to wait for her to get over fears and let her stomach lead the way.

He could hear Mason’s gasp from behind him as the white horse took a tentative step, and then another, before stopping to perform her distrustful little dance once more.

“I know, I know, we’ve had our differences,” Arthur placated, in the same calm low tone, “But this time I promise there’s no catch. Bet you ain’t never had sugar cubes, neither…”  

She turned her head to gaze at him with one dark long-lashed eye, as if she could read his damn mind, and with a final decisive nod she trotted right up to him and started eating right out of his hand.

He hardly dared to breathe, knowing how skittish the creature was, but he risked a glance over his shoulder and gave Albert the tiniest nod of beckoning. The man talked a lot of theory about the glory of nature but he only ever saw it all through a lens. It was about time he experienced something real. That’s what he was out here for, after all, wasn’t it? 

“C’mon,” Arthur whispered as the photographer cautiously joined him, “You can pet her, it’s okay.”

Albert let out a gasping laugh as he ran his hand down the Arabian’s silky neck. She barely flicked an ear, so invested in the steady supply of food from Arthur’s satchel.

“That’s a good girl,” Arthur told her, “You ain’t no enigma. You’re just a greedy little thing, huh?”

He shot a grin at Mason and got a mirror image in return, the pair of them lavishing strokes and scritches on the beautiful filly, the camera well and truly forgotten, left behind in the snow. Wild nature right there before them, breathing plumes of steam into the dusk.

A moment worth a thousand photographs. But even perfect moments have to end.

Arthur laughed, and maybe it was the cold air, or the altitude, or just the slow accumulation of the hateful tar in his lungs, but something caught in his chest and he couldn’t keep it in. A cough came bursting out of him, harsh and sudden, and the Arabian startled, jerking back with a warning snort. Arthur thudded a fist against his solar plexus, trying to stop the incoming attack, but it was already too late. He could feel the wave of convulsions taking over his breathing, hacking out cough after cough as his body desperately tried and failed to breathe in properly.

Albert stared at him in horror and he tried to wave him back, tried to gather the breath to speak, but it was no use. It was happening more and more lately, this lack of control—like a monstrous shadow trying to crawl its way out of his lungs.

He wheezed and heaved, slapping a hand against his knee to try to ground himself, but the sudden movement was the last straw for the Arabian. She gave a frightened whinny and reared, ears flat against her head, trying to defend against this strange barking creature in front of her. And Arthur had just enough time to shove Albert sideways before a hoof caught him in the shoulder, knocking him back into the snow like a hammer blow.

The impact seemed to double the coughing, curling him into a ball, every inhale a slicing of glass in his lungs; every exhale tinged with blood, melting into the snow.

He heard the thudding of retreating hooves; the shuffling of Albert’s boots; his concerned voice: “Arthur? My goodness, what should I do?”

Arthur shook his head vehemently, sick to death of pity and sympathy and pointless offers of help. He pressed his face into the icy ground for a moment before forcing himself up onto his hands and knees, swaying there as he focused all his strength on tamping down every spring-trapped breath.

“Ain’t nothin’…” he snapped, the husk of his voice betraying his words. He spat out a wad of bloody mucus and Albert flinched a little.

He knew he should rest a minute but he staggered up to his feet, fuelled by anger and embarrassment, batting away the helping hands of the photographer.

”’m fine.”

”I really don’t think you are-“

“I’m fine, I… I just…”

He lurched, his vision clouding black and a rushing noise filling his head like a flood as the mountains tipped sideways and the snow enveloped him once more. 

 


 

He was back at the beginning, waking shivering in a rickety bed in Colter, running from the mess in Blackwater, leaving a trail of graves behind them…

But that was a long time ago. There wasn’t this tightness in his chest back then; this ever-present companion haunting his days and nights, waiting for the day it gets to hollow him out entirely. Back then he had no idea what was coming for him. What was chasing him…

He blinked at the ceiling of the shack, slowly piecing together how he’d gotten here. A white horse. Mason. Collapsing again. This was the fourth time in as many weeks. First in the damn street in Saint Denis when he’d ended up in the doctor’s office, then that family of Germans had found him unconscious out on the trail, then again at Charlotte’s place, when she was just trying to be hospitable and he’d passed out right there on her floor…

It was humiliating and terrifying and utterly out of his control. He was getting worse. He was wearing thin. His bones ached and every breath felt like a death rattle. 

He squeezed his eyes shut again as he heard the creak of a door, and a few moments later he felt the presence of Albert sitting beside him. He wanted to pretend he was still asleep—didn’t think he could take any more kindness from strangers—but the man had managed to drag him all the way up here from the lake and he owed him for that at least.

He cracked opened his eyes and Albert half-leapt out of his chair in relief, the words pouring out of him:

”Oh, thank goodness. You’re awake. You’re okay. I… I did my best. Managed to light a fire at least. Between us we have a little food. And I wanted to make sure you were conscious before I went to fetch a doctor-“

Arthur rocked his head from side to side. “No point,” he said hoarsely. “Only tell me what I already know.”

The implication landed heavily and Mason’s entire demeanour seemed to shrink. 

“Oh.”

There’s that pity again…

But Albert didn’t say he was sorry. Didn’t mumble sympathies and platitudes. He just sat there with his hands folded in his lap, eyes downturned, as though he were saying a silent prayer.

Then, quietly: “I had a sister.”

And Arthur knew the rest of the story from just those words. Had a sister. Lost a sister. Watched her fade away, just like him. 

“She and I weren’t always close but the one thing we always had was our love of nature.”

Albert’s gaze was far away now, somewhere in the middle distance.

“This project was our dream. We planned it together. It was meant to be the two of us, out here, capturing the wilderness in our magical picture box…” 

He gave a short, empty laugh.

“It must all seem so frivolous to you, Mr Morgan.”

Arthur shook his head again. “Not at all. I saw your photographs. Your exhibition.”

Albert looked sideways at him. “You went?”

”’Course I did.”

”Well, you were one of very few, I imagine. To be honest I doubt anyone noticed them amongst all those nude paintings…”

Arthur barked a rough laugh at the memory of Charles Châtenay. “That crazy Frenchman? Yeah, he was something… But I saw your pictures. They were something too.”

He was never much good with words, especially when it came to critiquing art but he’d stared a long time at those photographs. Thinking. Fixed in place. 

He’d always thought you saw more through your eyes than a little glass lens but Mason had worked some kind of magic in his pictures. There was movement in them. Depth and life and grace and power and soul. 

And him. Alongside all that beauty, all that nature, Albert had put up a picture of Arthur. 

He didn’t know if that made him an animal or just another part of the landscape but it made him feel… real. Like someone might remember him after he’s gone, and not just for his crimes. Just a man caught in a moment. Not dying, not doing anything, just… there.

And he reckoned maybe he understood why Albert was so insistent on capturing all those images—gathering up snapshots of the world before it became unrecognisable. Before it faded away.

He thought of the photos in his own satchel; the ones pinned up by his bunk. His mother, young and hopeful. His father’s mugshot, before he was hanged. Mary, back when they was just a couple of fools thinking they could make things work. Hosea and Dutch and him, posing after their first bank job: invincible, unbreakable, unshaken.

Lost moments and better times, preserved forever, no matter what came after. 

And he thought maybe it was a kind of magic. But he didn’t have the words or breath to explain all of that, so he just sighed and let his eyes slip closed once more. Let himself slide back beneath that snowy blanket of unconsciousness where time stood still for a while. 

“Yeah, they were really somethin’…”

Chapter Text

By the end, the shadows even find him in his sleep.

He dreams of Colter in the snow, lost in the blizzard. John, calling out for help; the snarling of wolves. He never gets there in time and the blood freezes in the ice—a permanent reminder of his failure. Sometimes he walks through the snowstorm forever; no direction, no time, no day, no night. Only the endless white, ploughing footsteps through the drift, searching for his lost brother, and he wakes shivering.

 


 

He dreams of a grand house, consumed by fire. A woman made of flame, pointing at him, blaming him. He’s looking for something. Someone. But the house is already a charred skeleton, burned down to its bones, and the smell sticks to him like tar, filling his nostrils with the stench of charred flesh. He hears the crying of a child and he remembers too late what he was looking for, digging through the still-hot ashes with his bare hands, and he wakes sobbing.

 


 

He dreams of drowning, pulled under black water by a sinking ship. A lifeboat, rising and falling on the horizon; his people, rowing away without looking back. He goes under again, claws his way back to the surface, but there’s not enough time to shout, barely enough to drag in half a breath before he’s dragged down once more, the current bludgeoning at him until eventually he stops fighting, his lungs about to burst, and he wakes gasping.

 


 

He dreams of a cave, tunnelling deep down into the earth, its rough stone walls dripping with blood. Screams echo up out of the darkness. Eyes stare out of the gloom. Decaying hands clutch at him, raking their fingernails into his skin. Rasping voices laugh at him as he runs ever deeper, knowing he ought to be going the other way, back up to the light, but he can’t seem to turn around. The blackness consumes him, burying him in dirt and rock and bones, and he wakes aching.

 


 

He dreams of those who’re gone; days past and years back. His mother, his first memories of kindness torn away before he was old enough to remember them. His father, dangling from a rope, eyes bulging, still glaring at him even in death. Bessie and Annabelle, and the grief that followed—watching his new family fall apart around him. Eliza and Isaac, and two graves he never should’ve had to dig. All the rest since. Mac and Davey and Jenny. Sean and Hosea and Lenny. That poor girl on the ferry where it all went wrong. In his dreams they follow him, cling to him, asking why he let it happen, asking why he didn’t stop it, why he couldn’t save them, and he wakes with empty apologies in his mouth.

 


 

He dreams of those not yet gone, but watches them die all the same. John, hanging from the walls of Sisika. Abigail, tied to a chair, Milton circling like a shark. Sadie, being dragged away by O’Driscolls. A Gatling gun, tearing through camp with a noise like the sky falling, bodies dropping all around him. And all he can do is stand and scream, wishing they’d taken him instead, and he wakes begging.

 


 

He dreams of his own death. Over and over. Hanging like his father. Shot and bleeding out. Tortured by Pinkertons until he does what they ask. And then it’s Dutch doing the hurting—the betrayal on his face far worse than the pain—calling him a rat. Micah, smiling as he drives a knife into his back, and he wakes clawing at the air. 


 

He dreams of a stag and a wolf. A sunset and a mountain. A cliffside covered in red flowers.

He dreams of riding away and never looking back. 

He dreams and he dreams but he never seems to get any rest.

And he wakes coughing.

Chapter Text

“Still alive there, Black Lung?”

Arthur doesn’t bother to acknowledge Micah’s morning ‘greeting’. He's too busy trying to control the coughing that wracks his chest and leaves him bent double over the edge of his bunk.

Fall is slipping into winter and it's cold up here in Roanoke, camped outside that godforsaken Murfree cave. The damp creeps into his lungs and wakes him with wheezing.

He spits on the ground, kicks some dirt over the bloody mess, and pushes himself to his feet.

He’s still alive. Just about. Even though recently every day feels more like a nightmare than living. Every day the gang seems to get thinner, more bitter, divided. But as long as there are still people relying on him he can’t give in to the darkness gnawing away inside of him, even though he’s more exhausted than he’s ever been in his life. And he knows he doesn’t have much time left, but if he stops now he might not get up again.

He takes a deep rasping breath and lets it out slow and careful, ignoring the smirk on Micah’s face. The others pretend like they don’t see how bad Arthur’s gotten but Micah doesn’t look away—as though he enjoys watching his gradual falling apart.

“Got a job for you, cowpoke.”

“Ask someone else,” Arthur grunts. He's barely slept—chased by a string of tortured dreams that left him wrung out and aching. Besides, he’s already got plenty to do. Always someone wanting something from him, the way it’s always been. And he only has so much energy to spare these days.

Micah’s voice turns a touch sharper. “Ain’t askin’. Orders from Dutch.”

“What does he want?” Arthur can’t hold back his sigh, even though he knows it’ll only fuel Micah’s goading.

“Oh, come on now,” Micah drawls. “Let’s have a little more enthusiasm from his favourite errand boy.”

Arthur casts a look past him to the tent by the cave. It’s shut up tight, the way it often is lately. Unusual for Dutch—the man is always on show, his doors always open—and all this hiding away doesn’t bode well. Though even when he’s not around somehow he still manages to give orders. And Arthur’s been following them orders for twenty years.

Maybe it’s all he’s good for anyhow. An errand boy, like Micah says. Everyone seems to treat him that way. Arthur, fetch this, find that, go there, get food, bring in money, ride a hundred miles and back on a whim.

It’s not even like he resents it. There’s nothing he cares more about than these people and he would do anything for them; has done terrible things to keep them alive and fed. Except, it’s getting harder by the day. Every step, every breath weighs on him. But he can’t let up—not even for a minute—because there's people that still need him. Abigail, relying on him to get John out of Sisika. Grimshaw, worried about Karen’s drinking. Pearson, barely able to scratch up a stew with what little Arthur brings back these days. Sadie, planning on taking on a whole ranch full of O’Driscolls by herself. Rains Fall, begging him to save his son…

What's he supposed to do? They're his people. And they're looking to him these days, not Dutch.

So he can’t stop. Can’t let them know. Gotta keep going until he drops. Keep breathing from sheer stubbornness if nothing else. And that he can do.

The tiredness feels like a yoke around his neck but he forces himself to stand up straight and look Micah in the eye. Show him he’ll do what’s asked of him. Show the little shit what loyalty really looks like.

 


 

They ride out halfway across the Heartlands at a gruelling pace, off to retrieve some secret stash of supplies for Dutch’s next big plan. Must be a thousand pounds of dynamite, all stacked up in crates in some abandoned barn, waiting to be loaded onto a wagon.

“Get to it, then,” Micah says, with a flick of his hand, settling down on a haybale for a smoke.

Arthur shoots him a look. “Y’ain’t gonna lift a damn finger, huh?”

“Why d’you think I brought you?” Micah grins, “Good little pack horse.”

Arthur chooses to pretend the man isn’t there. Just get the job done. Fetch and carry. Haul and stack. One box at a time, until it's done.

Half way through he shucks off his jacket, sweating through his shirt, his balance wavering for a second.

“You done yet?” Micah’s half-asleep in the corner, his hat over his face, and Arthur’s tempted to punch right through it but he settles for kicking the man’s boots as he passes.

“Be a lot quicker if you got off your ass.”

“You really need to understand your place, Morgan. See, I’m the brains. You’re just the meat.”

Arthur scoffs. “What brains d’you need to go get a wagon?”

Micah tips his hat back to shoot him an infuriating look of condescension. “There’s a whole lot going on right now that you would simply fail to comprehend, cowpoke. See, this is why Dutch doesn’t bother to tell you nothin’. You just don’t have the cranial capacity for it.”

“You don’t half talk a whole lot of shit.” Arthur shakes his head and distracts himself with the next load, refusing to let Micah’s words weasel into his head. ‘Cause it’s not as if he ever thought of himself as some kind of genius but Dutch has always been straight with him up til now. Always confides in him. Asks his opinion—even if he doesn't always take it. But now Micah’s in his ear and Arthur can’t help but feel petty for being jealous about it.

He sets the next crate down a little harder than he means to, pausing to catch his breath only to find it hitching in his chest. Another coughing fit is on its way and he knows there’s no point trying to stop it. He braces against the wagon and waits for it to pass as it rips all the air out of his lungs, each breath laced with gravel. He’s shaking a little by the time it’s over, a sheen of sweat clamming up his skin, and he lets his head drop between his arms for a moment.

“Come on, Black Lung, we’re on a schedule here.”

Arthur doesn’t even have the breath to reply. And what would be the point? Anything he said or did would just get twisted and sold to Dutch as a sign of Arthur’s distrustfulness.

He pushes himself up and hauls another crate. And another, and another, slowing steadily as the afternoon drags on. It’s pathetic, really, how much strength he’s lost. How easily he tires these days. He’s breathing heavy by the time he’s done, the muscles of his back on fire with cramps, neck stiff, head full of cotton.

Micah gives a sniff of acknowledgement at the hours of work, striding past the wagon to his horse without so much as a second look. “’Bout time. Well, let’s go, we ain’t got all day.”

Arthur glares after him. “Where to now, Mr Brains?”

Micah’s laugh cracks like a gunshot. “Don’t you do yourself an injury tryin’ to think too hard now, just follow me.”

And like a good little mule, he does.

 


 

The rain’s coming down hard and it’s rough work driving the wagon through the muddy tracks—even more so when Micah leads them off road and over the hills of the eastern Grizzlies. Arthur half wonders if he’s doing it on purpose, choosing the worst possible route just to fuck with him, but they finally arrive at an abandoned mine and the shit-eating grin on Micah’s face confirms a worse trick.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Start unloading.”

It’s a test, he realises. Whether contrived by Dutch or just one of Micah’s sick inventions it doesn’t really matter. But a test nonetheless. And if he gives up now, if he refuses, if he shows that he’s lost all faith in whatever the hell is going on inside that closed up tent… well, then it’s over.

He keeps his eyes on Micah as he gets down from the wagon. Doesn’t let him see how much it makes his muscles scream to do the whole job all over again. And the man watches him like a vulture, sheltering under the eaves of the entryway while Arthur treks back and forth out into the rain. Back and forth, each crate heavier than the last, each step thudding the aches right through him.

The cold seeps into his bones and leaves his teeth clattering, wheedles into his lungs and sets him to coughing every few paces. He’s barely a third of the way through the stack when he has to stop to lean against the wall, choking on his own breath. His vision swims with little black dots and his skin flushes hot despite the chill of the air.

Micah makes a disgusted tutting noise. “You need whippin’ to go faster? Come on, you lazy son of a bitch!”

Arthur's fury cuts through the faintness and lifts his head, fixing the other man with a deadly look. “You wanna try me, Micah? Go ahead.”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll get my chance. But right now, you got a job to do, so get to it.” And there’s that smirk again, and Arthur reckons he’ll get his chance too—the chance to wipe it right off his face for good.

He drags himself back to the wagon. Hauls another crate. Disconnects the part of his brain that feels the pain and the cold and the aching of his chest. One foot in front of the other. Lift the weight. Stack the boxes. Fetch and carry without complaint, the way he’s always done.

Another coughing fit. Blood this time. He wipes it on his sleeve. Keeps moving. Pushes on towards the wavering wagon. And then he’s in the mud, blinking the rain out of his eyes, head reeling even though he’s lying still.

And from a distance he can hear laughter. Cruel and thin.

He tries to get up but he can’t figure out how to make his limbs move in the right order. Can barely keep his eyes open against the pressing heaviness in his head.

“Why don’t you just stay down…?”

Footsteps pass him by. The creak of wagon wheels. The clink of horse tack.

He has to get up. Has to finish the job. For Dutch. Like he promised.

He blinks and it’s night. The rain’s stopped but the temperature’s dropped like a stone and he’s shuddering uncontrollably. He curls tighter, watches his breath cloud in the cold air.

He has to get up. Keep fighting.

And when he closes his eyes he can see it—a different night, a different lonely hillside—feel the blows driving into him, hear Micah’s voice, snarling at him: “Why won’t you just die?”

He sees himself lying alone, just like this—another cold night, another cold mountain—breath stuttering in his broken ribcage. Footsteps passing him by. Footsteps walking away.

It won’t be long now.

But he still has work to do.

He has to get up. And finish this.

Chapter Text

He’s dug enough graves for these people already. It was something he could do—even if he hadn’t known any of them all that long—something to help ease the passing for the rest of them. Because he knows how hard it is to do for someone you love.

Two after Blackwater, Davey and Jenny, up in the snow. The ground had been frozen hard but he’d lit a fire and dug into the ashes. A day’s work with his injured hand, but he’d done it because he could see that no one else was in any state to do so. And then Arthur had come back with John all covered in blood and he’d wondered if he ought to start on a third.

But they were strong, this group, this family. It’s why he’d joined them. Not because of the grandeur of Dutch’s words, or the cleverness in Hosea’s eye, but because he could tell they cared about one another the way he’d rarely seen outside of his mother's tribe. They’d taken in the widow without a second thought. Buried her husband for her, too, on Dutch’s request—which is what makes Charles realise he chose the right people. And they might not be good people in the eyes of society but they had their own goodness—to each other, for each other—and maybe he was tired of being alone and wanted a part of that for himself.

And caring for someone means doing what you can to ease their pain, be that a kind word or digging a grave.

Next, it’s Sean. He can’t say he liked or disliked the man but no one deserves to die mid-sentence and it will never cease to terrify him how quickly a life can be snuffed out. Like a finger-snap.

Rhodes is littered with bodies that day and sometimes he wonders who buried them and where. Too many to fit in the graveyard. The utter senselessness of it—all because of some family grudge.

They build a cairn for the Irishman looking over Flat Iron lake. Karen is drunk before he’s in the ground but the reverend stays sober, stands tall, and says words that should feel empty but are spoken with a truth only family can feel.

And they might not be good people but they’re surrounded by worse. Pinkertons. Bronte. O’Driscolls...

He buries Kieran in a meadow where wild horses graze. He didn’t deserve what happened to him, either. And there’s no time for funerals these days—always running, fleeing, chasing—but he makes sure the grave is marked, at least. Plants herbs so it’ll bloom purple and white in the spring.

Something is starting to shift—like a scale, tilting too far—but revenge always seems to go that way, drawing you deeper into the mire.

And after a while all he can do is watch it splinter.

They are broken after the bank job. Lenny and Hosea gone. John taken. Dutch and the others disappeared. Sadie and Susan take the lead, holding everyone together, and Charles does what he can. He’s known them long enough and close enough now to feel the depth of the grief that runs through them all. Through his own heart. And so, when Susan asks for help laying Lenny and Hosea’s bodies to rest, there’s not a second’s hesitation.

He and Sadie steal a wagon and raid the morgue, riding as far north of Saint Denis as they can before sunrise. Two graves beneath a shady tree, side by side. The earth is soft here in the marshland, and it doesn’t take long, but by the time they’re done they’re covered in mud and too exhausted to do much more than sit in the muck and watch the sky turn pink over the ocean.

They come back to set headstones later, with the others, to speak the proper words, but it's not enough. Charles had seen a real future for Lenny—so clever, so bright, with a goodness that ran right to the bone. And Hosea, who’d known his future was short, but never let it embitter him. Always kind, to the end. The other side of Dutch’s scale, keeping them in balance. And perhaps that’s where it all starts to tip over.

He tries his best. Tries to help those that need helping. But when the road forks he knows which way he has to go. And trusts that Arthur will help the rest.

He misses the worst of it, and by the time he makes it back to Beaver Hollow it’s all over. He finds Susan by the cave, wraps her in the wagon canvas and rides a while, numb and empty and alone, to find a place that feels right. He chooses a ridge high above Elysian pool, by a crooked tree. He’s not sure why. Somewhere she can look out over the rest of them—always trying to look out for her flock, trying to keep everyone together.

He reads about the shootout in the paper. Reads the list of the dead. Those who escaped, those who fell. He climbs the mountain, follows the scuffed tracks, the scattered bullet shells, the blood.

He’s dug enough graves for these people but this one is the worst.

Arthur looks so peaceful he considers leaving him there—covering him with stone and shale until he becomes a monument—but then he remembers what the man once said, about facing west, and he knows just the place.

It’s quiet up here. Out of the way. So high in the Grizzlies it feels as if he’s overlooking half the country. He’s careful to disturb as little of the land as possible so the wildflowers can creep back over the grave and cover it with red blossoms. Sets a stone so there's no forgetting for those who knew his name. Because those who knew him, knew what he did.

Up here it’s pure sky and the sunset spreads wide and full, like some golden bird spreading its wings, like it might be the last time the light ever touches the earth. And he lets himself crumble, finally, into the fresh-dug dirt. Because even though he’s known it was all coming to an end for a while now, he wasn’t prepared for the ending. Wasn’t prepared to say goodbye.

And he’s dug more than enough graves but this is the one he leaves tears on.

Chapter Text

The night is grey and blue and he doesn’t know whose horse he’s riding, only that the sound of shouts and gunshots is fading behind him, echoing down the mountainside, and he can’t stop until he gets to Copperhead Landing.

He owes Arthur that much. Owes the man more than he can ever quantify.

 

“Get the hell out of here and be a goddamn man!”

 

He always thought being a man meant standing and fighting but maybe it’s just the opposite.

Maybe a real man knows when to run. To protects what matters. Even if it feels like cowardice. Even though the thought of what he’s leaving behind him knots in his stomach. Even though there was so much more he needed to say.

 

“There ain’t no more time for talk. Go.”

“Arthur…”

“Go to your family.”

“Arthur!”

 

You’re my family, is what he wanted to say. Right from the beginning. Because his life only really started the day they saved him from that noose and brought him back to camp. He’s forgotten a lot of it—his own brain trying to protect him from those memories, perhaps—but he remembers Arthur, clear as day, looking down at him like he just knew. Like he’d been right there in his worn-through shoes; every bruise and every flinch and every sullen silence. Like he understood.

And he’d always remember that, even though they’d ended up fighting most of the time—squabbling and bickering and bitching and moaning about each other’s very existence—but only because they knew, underneath it all, they were the same. Two lost boys in a world that never wanted them. The two of them against it all.

 

“You’re my brother…”

“I know... I know…”

 

And then he was gone. And John can’t let himself think of what happened after. Can’t let himself think of anything more than pushing the horse on through the night. To his family.

 

“I want you to not look back…”

 

And he doesn’t.

 


 

The night is quiet and empty, as if it's holding its breath, and he doesn't see a soul all the way along the coast to Copperhead Landing. Maybe it's a sign. Or maybe it's just a dream and he's been bleeding out beside the train tracks all this time, imagining all of it. 

He shouldn’t be this lucky, but isn’t that the joke? Hasn’t that always been the joke? The way he always seems to slip the net, always seems to come through, no matter what—almost hanged, shot a dozen times, mauled by wolves… Except now he thinks maybe it wasn’t luck at all. Maybe it was just because he had Arthur looking out for him.

He shouldn’t be this lucky and the knot in his guts twists tighter the nearer he gets to the barren spit of land, because maybe this is the point all his luck runs out and he doesn’t know if he can cope with losing anyone else.

He slows his horse as he crosses the trail into Copperhead. The same godforsaken place as always, nothing but twisted branches growing out of the wasteland. And for a moment he thinks he’s too late, they’ve already gone, or maybe they never even made it here, maybe he'll never know, but then a cluster of figures emerge from the mist. Sadie and Tilly and Abigail. And little Jack, clamped tight to his mother’s side.

All the way here it felt as though his chest was turning to stone but now it’s melting, caving in, and he curls in on himself because it hurts seeing them there, safe. And the relief isn’t just for him, it’s for Arthur too, just like he promised—and as the reality of that comes pouring into him he finds can’t straighten up, can’t move, because he’s afraid if he gets any closer it’ll be nothing but a trick of shadows.

But it's real. They're real. Sadie steps forward, rifle raised, and barks, “Declare yourself!” and breaks the spell.

He can’t even speak, can’t breathe in around the tightness of his throat, and he thinks how ridiculous it would be if she just shot him right here and now, but then Abigail’s voice comes wavering and uncertain through the mist:

“Arthur?”

And now he’s laughing and crying at the same time because they’re gonna be so disappointed it’s him and not Arthur, but then she’s pushing past Sadie and calling his name and he doesn’t even know how he got off the horse but suddenly his family is in his arms, safe and warm and alive, and he knows that real men cry like babies when they’ve lost and found their whole world in the space of a single night.

 


 

There’s a boat and a long, slow journey through the night. Jack’s asleep in Tilly’s lap. Sadie’s rowing. Abigail’s fussing over his arm. And in stilted murmurs, they match up all the missing pieces of the story; all the in-betweens that led them here.

He remembers getting shot, spiralling off the train and knocking himself half-senseless. Remembers seeing Dutch and Micah circling back but pulling up short when they saw a patrol coming the other way. Watched them turn and go—didn't even try to get to him—just cut off away from the tracks and into the trees and left him there. Left him to die. And he would be dead, just like they said, if he hadn’t managed to roll into the undergrowth before the patrol saw him.

Abigail’s fingers tighten on his arm and it sends a lancing ache through him but he doesn’t stop her. He’s too numb to feel much at all and the pain is an anchor. He stutters through the rest, hardly believing it even as the words come out of his mouth. Limping back to Beaver Hollow. Dutch, pointing a gun at him. Talking about betrayal. Susan, shot, screaming. Pinkertons, the cave, the mountainside…

And then he can’t speak any more and they don’t ask him to.

They tell him their side of it. The tears don't seem to stop. He grips onto Tilly and Sadie’s hands and thanks them for all they’ve done. For saving Abigail from the Pinkertons. For keeping Jack safe. And he realises he knows less than half of all that Arthur did for them. Can't comprehend how the hell he did it when he was all but dead on his feet; when he knew it was the end. Because he knew—even if John didn’t want to believe it. Couldn’t believe it. Even as he watched the man wheezing and struggling up that mountain. Because Arthur was... indestructible. Arthur never stopped; he didn't just lay down and die; he didn't give up, ever.

 

“I’m gonna get you out of this bullshit if it’s the last goddamn thing I do.”

 

And he did.

And John can’t help thinking it should be Arthur here instead of him.

He grips the side of the boat like he might just jump right into the water, his voice a harsh whisper. “I should’ve gone back. I should’ve… gone after him.”

They tell him no. They tell him he did the right thing. They tell him there was no other choice, but he knows he’s going to carry it with him until the day he dies.

Abigail’s hand trails up to his face, traces over his scars, and hovers at the brim of his hat—not his, Arthur’s—and that’s what breaks him.

 

"It would mean a lot to me..."

 

And he sees Arthur there, holding onto his shoulder, setting the hat onto his head, firm and true, and it’s as if he’s twelve years old again, and he wants to tell that kid not to waste a single second of it—to listen to every word the man says, don’t answer back, stop acting like a little shit for just one minute and look at what you’ve got right in front of you.

A family.

A brother.

His eyes are full of water but finally he sees it—what Arthur’s been trying to tell him all these years—what he’s taken for granted. Because it’s up to him now.

Time for him to be a goddamn man.

And he has a hell of a lot to live up to.