After a year, Abigail accepts that John isn’t coming back.
He’d been standoffish for a while after Jack was born, and he’d been angry too. But he’d been angry before, and he’d never run away from her. Not for more than a few days, anyway.
But a year is a long time, and her heart is broken, and she has to listen to it. There’s goodness in having hope in this world, but there’s also goodness in accepting when things aren’t worth hoping for, and she thinks seeing John again is one of those things that aren’t.
She hopes he’s okay out there, and she still has love for him, but there’s hate inside her too. Hate that’s been there since he went and left her, but it sinks in deeper now that she knows he’s gone for good.
It’s been a while since she wasn’t someone’s girl. She was a camp girl once, but then she was John’s girl, and there was a world of difference between those two things. When John’s been gone a while, she can see them looking at her sometimes. The younger men, like Bill and Javier and even Dutch – though at least he has the decency to pretend he isn’t – they say kind and leading things to her, and she can hear unasked questions in their tones. They’re wondering when she’s going to get back up to her old tricks.
She does what she can around camp, healing and thieving from passing men and assisting Pearson so that no one will start thinking of her as just John’s abandoned girl, with John’s abandoned son toddling around the campfire, taking up rations. She’ll get back to that life if she has to, because Abigail Roberts is a survivor first and foremost, but she wants to prove that she’s more than what her body can do. To all of them, sure, but to herself too.
It isn’t all bad. Aside from a very impatient Susan Grimshaw – who thinks of money first and always – all of the women treat her fine. And most of the men are good enough, too. Uncle’s a miserable old bastard, but he always makes room for her at the fire so she won’t have to sit with someone who’ll turn it into an opportunity to try and get friendly. Reverend Swanson is a drunk and a fool, but he’s a kind drunk and fool, and he’s real careful about she and Jack, always checking in with them to make sure they have everything they need. Hosea teaches Jack to read, and he’s good at answering the boy’s endless questions and making sure he never feels the want of a father figure. Even Pearson gives she and Jack more food than they really need, probably so she won’t feel as though she has to work for some extra money.
And of course there’s Arthur.
Arthur was madder than anybody when John left. He took off after him, and he was gone for two weeks looking for him, and he was a stormcloud of a man when he returned. He slammed things around and huffed about loyalty and honor and how he was going to kill Little Johnny Marston if that bastard dared to show his face again. He spooked some of the younger ones something fierce, those who weren’t used to Arthur’s rare displays of open anger, and Hosea had been stern with him in a way that made Arthur sulk off like a scolded child.
He hadn’t looked at Abigail once during all that shouting, and it was only later that she realized it was out of guilt for not being able to bring John back to her.
Before she was John’s girl, she had briefly been Arthur’s. For a few weeks, barely, and they only lay together maybe a dozen times or so. It wasn’t really about the laying, with Arthur. It was more about the having part. The belonging and the safety that came with being someone’s girl. It was like a level of friendship that reached past the usual chatter around camp but never quite reached to love.
They kept each other warm and kept each other from whatever sadnesses they both had, and it was nice. Just a few weeks before she went and fell in love with John, and Arthur had given her his blessing with that small Arthur Morgan smile. The one that made his well-known face look heart-stopping sometimes.
That had been a strange time, because it had been gentle and easy and good, but there was a lack of passion there that made her feel unwanted. She knew about Mary, the woman who broke his heart. She knew about Eliza and Isaac, too, that poor dead waitress and their poor dead son. She knew Arthur had been hurt in love, and she figured maybe that was why he didn’t seem to want her with any kind of need.
She’d had her own share of quiet disappointments, so she figured the two of them would be fine together. Lost and broken souls, abandoned and forgotten by the world. It could even be romantic if you squinted at it right. Arthur was older than her. Older enough to make her feel like he knew more than he did, and kind enough to make her happy, and he was so close to Dutch. She liked talking to him a lot, sure. He was a nice man, funny when you knew him. He could also protect her.
It wasn’t really romance she’d been after, and she thought it was likely the same for him. He looked at her that first time like he knew it, and he’d been careful with her, making sure it was what she wanted every step. He wasn’t one to make a move, so she was usually the one doing the moving. Most nights, they were both tired from the day, and content with sleeping under the same blankets, taking some small pleasure from each other. She liked nestling close, his warm arm around her waist. She liked being with only him, and out of anyone she’d slept next to since she joined the Van der Linde gang, she liked his presence best. She liked that he’d give her little gifts. Nothing extravagant, but practical things. Pretty things, too. Like flowers he picked himself, or herbs he knew she liked the smell of.
He was solid, Arthur. Solid and firm and whole. A statue of a man, slightly weathered but no less beautiful for it. It might not have been love, but she’s come to think that what she felt for Arthur might have been more essential than that. It hadn’t been enough, at the time, because she’d still been young enough to want to be loved the way Arthur had once loved Mary, but at least it had felt full inside her. A contentment, a steadiness. When they stopped sleeping together, there was this deep affection there. A friendship that stayed.
But John – well, John Marston was another story entirely.
She’d heard tales of romance as a girl. That swooping feeling in your belly, that airy butterfly wing sensation. She’d thought a few times that she’d felt it with some people. There was a boy she met when she was on her own who lived in town, and he looked at her like she was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. Javier sometimes could say the sweetest things when he was touching her. And Arthur, when his big hands were gentle, or when he’d be sleeping behind her and nudge his nose into her hair, his throat making these little humming sounds like being near her made him happy, then sure, she’d feel those wings flutter then. But with John it was like the butterflies never stopped.
Sometimes she understands why he ran.
A love like that, it’s terrifying. If she’d had anywhere to run to, and if she didn’t have Jack, then maybe she would have run first.
Jack might be John’s boy. He might be.
It’s just that he also might be Arthur’s, and both men seemed to know that even if they never said.
One night after she found out she was pregnant, she and Tilly sat down by the fire and did the math, and it seems more likely that Jack is Arthur’s, though it’s not a sure thing. And she might just be seeing what she thinks she should see when she looks at Jack and sees Arthur’s hair and Arthur’s eyes. Because Jack has parts of John in him too, she thinks. That mouth and that nose. Those have to be Marston features.
John could see Arthur in the boy, too. He said it often enough when he was feeling angry about something else and needed a weapon.
“So what if he is, John Marston?” she had asked once, not long before he left. “You know what I was. You know what I did. And you knew Arthur and I were together before you and me ever had eyes for each other, so why does it matter? Would it make you love me any less?”
“Of course not,” John had said, and she knew he was telling the truth. Or he was telling his truth, at the time.
“Then why does it matter?” she had asked, and John hadn’t answered.
He was gone not long after that, so maybe the answer had been there inside him. He just didn’t ever find the words to tell her.
He left, instead.
And Arthur being angry, well. Maybe he knows Jack might be his boy, but Abigail doesn’t think that’s it. Arthur believes her when she tells him things, because as much as he protests to the contrary, he really is a good man, and he has a good heart. When he trusts a person, he trusts them. Jack is John’s son? Well, if she says so.
Abigail thinks he must suspect, so maybe it’s more like denial. Like if he doesn’t think it too hard, it won’t be true. He already lost one son. Murdered for money. A girl, too, even if Eliza wasn’t really his longer than the time it took to make Isaac. A man who’s already lost all that, maybe he’d be reluctant to do it again with someone else.
Abigail understands why Arthur was so goddamned angry with John for leaving. He hates John for it maybe even more than she does, because he knows what it’s like to lose everything John had, and John went and chose to throw it away.
By the time Blackwater comes around, Abigail knows she’s not going to be thrown out on the streets. She has proven herself, and the camp loves Jack like he’s their own. The new folk are mostly nice, excepting Micah, and they don’t ask questions about her boy or where he came from.
At one point, she starts wondering if that’s because they assume he’s Arthur’s.
Sometimes she thinks of telling him what she suspects, but there’s always something that stops the words in her throat. He’s been so good to her since John left, and he’s so kind to the boy. She’s sure she knows him well enough to know he won’t be angry with her if she tells him, and yet she thought she knew John well enough, too. And she never would have expected John to run the way he did.
And she isn’t going to be that woman, trying to lay claim to a man for a child that might not even be his. John was different. They were in love, and she thought it might help settle him, if he had a family to settle for. Arthur’s plenty settled already. A temper and a mean streak sometimes, sure, but it’s always directed at those who want to hurt the gang, and he isn’t reckless the way John was.
But sometimes…oh, he crouches down to talk to Jack, his face all seriousness and sincerity. Or he sits at the fire and pulls Jack into his lap so Jack doesn’t wander too close to the flames. Or he puts himself between Jack and Abigail and a loaded gun when things get tense.
Times like those, there’s a longing inside her. A longing not for herself, but for him to know the truth. In those moments, she thinks he might be glad for it, and she thinks maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have it said out loud.
Before things go bad in Blackwater, she dresses up nice one night, and she and Karen head into town to see if they can lift some money off some fools in the saloon. It’s been a while now since she’s felt wanted, and she finds she likes giggling with Karen, making men look at her. A distraction, sure. That’s what she is. And it’s nice to know that she can still do this. It’s not like she thinks John ran off on her because he didn’t think she was beautiful. He’d tell her she was beautiful every night. But it’s one thing to know it and another to feel it, and she feels more beautiful than she has in so long.
She’s flushed with it by the time she and Karen are in the street, their pockets stuffed with cash and trinkets, and they’re both giggling and a bit tipsy when they spot Arthur and Hosea and Sean talking down the road. Planning something, maybe, by the way they’re looking up at different buildings. Karen starts to tilt in their direction.
“Karen!” Abigail scolds, grabbing her arm. “They’re workin’! Come on!”
Karen scoffs something insulting and slurred as Abigail tries to tug her away.
But they’re spotted anyway, and Sean isn’t any more professional than Karen, so he darts over to say hello. He and Hosea make off with Karen, promising to buy her a drink, and then it’s just Arthur and Abigail standing in the street sort of half-smiling at each other.
“Good night?” he asks her, and he misses when he tries to put his hands in his pockets, trying to be casual. She’d forgotten how awkward he could be. When they were together, even. When he knew that she would come to his bed no matter what he said. There’s this deep discomfort in Arthur when he talks to people that reminds her of the way she felt when she was still a child on her own, trying to survive. Sometimes she thinks Arthur never really grew past that stage, for all he’s been with Dutch and Hosea for near on twenty years now.
“Yeah, we did all right,” she says. “Plenty of fools in Blackwater.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Arthur says. He does that soft little smile he does sometimes, and those butterflies that she thought were dead and frozen for good sparkle back to life, just a little.
“Want to head back to camp?” she asks, and Arthur nods.
“Boudicea’s down the road here,” he says, and they walk in silence for a while.
He’s sturdy, she remembers, riding behind him. She’s holding onto him, and it’s like holding onto a stone, or maybe a tree, roots sunk down deep into the earth. John was many things, and she loves him still, but he was not steady the way Arthur is. John was a wildfire, or an ocean storm. Waves high and beautiful and dangerous. Arthur, she can rest against his back like this, her arms around him, and she knows that he won’t let anything happen to her. That’s just who he is.
“Thank you, Arthur,” she says.
“Looking after us like you do. Making sure we don’t want for nothing.”
“I don’t do more than anyone else,” Arthur argues. His voice is gentle with it, but there’s a firmness, too. He never wants credit.
“You do,” she says. “Maybe you don’t realize it, but you do. So accept my thank you, you big oaf, and shut up.”
But her voice is thick with fondness, and his chest rumbles a little as he laughs.
“Yes ma'am,” he says.
After that, there’s something. A softness between them, the way it was when she was Arthur’s girl, except she goes to her own tent every night, and she never touches him except for when she wants to get his attention or if they accidentally brush hands when they’re reaching for something.
And when that happens, every time, there’s those butterflies again. Not pounding away like a driverless train picking up too much speed, but a gentle flutter. A reminder of girlhood when she thought love was innocent and not a consuming thing.
She blushes. She, Abigail Roberts, former prostitute, former camp girl, she actually blushes every time this man she’s had inside her more than once looks at her.
A fool is what she is, but she can’t stop it.
Maybe for being called out on it, Arthur starts being sweeter, too. Not trying to hide his niceness around her or the boy anymore. It seems like Jack’s been missing John, though he was so young when John left that he might not even remember the man, so it’s good to see him following around after Arthur, chattering away about whatever thing he thinks needs discussion. He’s getting bigger, Jack. Showing a real personality. He likes picking flowers, and every dog he sees is his favorite thing in the world until it’s out of his sight. He’s obsessed with the horses in camp, and he’s in raptures when Dutch takes him riding one morning on that beautiful white steed. She stands next to Arthur, both of them laughing as they hear Jack’s cries of delight get quieter the farther Dutch takes him.
“He’s a good boy,” Arthur says, and she looks at him.
“Yeah,” she says. “He is.”
“Not like his pa,” Arthur can’t help but say, grinning a little like he thinks she’s going to get mad, the way she always does when he badmouths John.
But she doesn’t. She shakes her head. She doesn’t know why, exactly, it’s this moment that it happens, but she can’t stop it.
“Exactly like his pa,” she says, and her throat is close to closing with the need to cry, like she thinks he’s going to run away, too. Arthur swallows and looks away. “Arthur…”
He doesn’t say anything for a while. He stares after Dutch and The Count and the tiny speck of boy that’s Jack in Dutch’s arms.
“You sure?” he finally asks. She shakes her head, but…
“Every day a little more,” she says. Arthur closes his eyes, and she thinks of trees again, roots and steadiness. His jaw clenches, and he tilts his head toward the ground, but he doesn’t run.
“Abigail…” he starts.
“I ain’t asking for nothing. I ain’t even telling you nothing. I’m just saying that the more he grows, the more I see in him that makes me think I was wrong before. Now, I know what you…what you lost. And I’m not trying to replace any of it. Not with Jack, and certainly not with me. I just think you should know. We don’t ever have to talk about it. Not ever again. But you’re good for him, and I know you won’t take this out on him. Nor on me. If it were anyone else but you, I’d likely take it to my grave. But it is you, so I’m saying.”
Arthur looks at her finally, and she can see those gears in his head turning. He nods. He still doesn’t run.
“All right,” he says.
The softness doesn’t change, but there’s a weight to everything he does, now. She can see him considering the boy every time he makes a decision. He was always steady, Arthur, but he grows ever-stronger. He isn’t any less kind to her and Jack. It takes a little while for him to open up again, but he’s still himself. A little confused, maybe. Afraid to ask why, probably for a million questions. Why John? Why not me? Why now? Why did you tell me at all?
Truth is, she doesn’t know. Not for any of it. But that’s the thing about life. Not everything has a tidy explanation.
Then things go wrong in Blackwater, and they’re fleeing up a mountain in May, with a half-dead Davey and memories of more death behind them. Arthur gets sent to scout ahead, and Abigail tends to Davey and tries not to think of the way Arthur had looked at her and Jack before he went. Like he needed to make sure they were all right. Like they were some kind of touchstone for him, though he hadn’t made any moves to claim them.
It makes her think, because the road is long and harsh and there isn’t much to do but think.
Does he want to claim them? Does he want Jack as his own? She’d sensed hesitation when she told him, but she also hadn’t given him any reason to think she would welcome more than she already had. She told him they didn’t have to speak about it ever again, and he hadn’t spoken, and she thought that was that.
But that look…
Maybe for a man who has lost so much, another chance at a family is exactly what he needs.
And maybe it’s exactly what she needs, too.
There isn’t any time until later. They find an old mining camp, and they set out making it livable. Davey dies of his injuries, but there doesn’t even seem to be time to mourn. Arthur and Dutch ride off looking for Micah, and they come back with Micah and a sobbing widowed woman named Sadie whose man was killed by O’Driscolls.
The second they ride into camp, Arthur’s looking for Abigail and Jack. And she feels like she can see him now better than she could before.
Miss Grimshaw tries to lead Arthur to his own room in the largest cabin, but he hangs back.
“Abigail and the boy need the room more than I do,” he says.
“We’ll share with you, Arthur, if you don’t mind,” Abigail responds. She says it in front of all of them, proud.
And there she is. Claimed. Or maybe she’s the one doing the claiming. Abigail’s man, she thinks, has a nice ring to it.
Or maybe it’s just that they’re two friends coming back together after a time apart. She already knows he’s capable of separating family from a romantic kind of love, the way he did with Eliza, helping with Isaac though he and the girl weren’t together. And that seems nice, she thinks. Making a family with a man she cares for so much. Maybe that could be good, too.
Arthur says he’ll sleep on the floor and leave the bed for she and Jack, because of course he does. She rustles up a half-flattened mattress from one of the broken down cabins too bad off to sleep in, and Mary-Beth and Reverend Swanson help her dry it by the fire and put it on the floor while Arthur’s seeing to the horses with Lenny. Neither of them say anything about it, but she knows they’re wondering. Mary-Beth has a slyness to her, and the Reverend is uncommonly sober, both in temperament and in lack of spirit. But that’s the good thing about this kind of family. They judge and they poke and prod, but for important things, they know to leave well enough alone.
When Arthur sees the mattress on the floor, he seems surprised she went to the trouble.
“There ain’t anybody who deserves it more than you, so don’t start,” Abigail says firmly, and Arthur smiles. Just a bit, the way he does.
It’s a few mornings later that it happens. Jack’s up already. She can hear Hosea teaching him reading in the main room. Arthur wakes her up, just coming back in from whatever help he was doing outside. Trying to be quiet, but this old cabin creaks if you breathe too loud. She lays awake and watches him without him noticing she’s awake. He rubs his hands together as he takes off his gloves. They’re red and raw with cold, cracked and calloused because he doesn’t take care of himself. Always doing everything for everyone without ever getting the thanks he deserves.
She wants to hold those cold hands in hers, and so she gets up from her bed, blanket still wrapped around her shoulders, and she does.
His hands are as big as she remembers. She recalls one of the first times she made a move on him, and the way he put a hand out to stop her, stammering something about how she didn’t have to.
“Have to, Arthur Morgan?” she had asked, taking his big hand with her own smaller one. She can still feel the surprise of it, the little shock of the solidness of him. “I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. You’d best remember that.”
He’d fallen apart to her touch, later, but it wasn’t some days until she stopped going with anyone else. She still isn’t sure why it was Arthur, of all of them. He didn’t chase after her the way Javier had, or the way Bill tried to. Maybe she liked the flustered way he got when she paid him too many compliments. Or maybe she was mad because Uncle had told her about all that Mary business, and maybe she wanted to show Arthur he didn’t need some rich girl who didn’t know what a treasure she’d had. Or maybe it was just how his hands were so big this way, and they were so careful with her, and she realized that he was a man who could hurt her mightily but never, ever would.
It wasn’t love, but it never had to be, and she wanted whatever it was that she felt when those hands touched her.
She takes his cold hand now, and she wraps it in her smaller ones, rubbing it to warm it up. Arthur freezes and stares down at their joined fingers, and he says nothing at first.
When the one hand isn’t quite so bone cold, she reaches for the other, and he gives it, and she warms that one up too.
Hosea’s still teaching Jack in the next room, and now Dutch is there too, talking grand and optimistic. Abigail and Arthur might as well be in another state, for all they pay attention. Those butterflies are churning away gently inside her as they look at each other. Still and quiet.
She slides one of her warm hands up to his cold neck, cupping his cold jaw, and he leans into it the way a dog might, closing his eyes. How long has it been since someone touched him like this? Was it her? He wasn’t with Eliza for a long while even before Isaac was born, and Mary was longer ago still. Was Abigail the last person who was this gentle with him?
It’s unfair, is what it is. He’s always been gentler than this world deserves, just like Jack. And like John when he wasn’t feeling restless and boxed in. He might never admit it, but Arthur is a man better than his circumstances. He’ll do anything for Dutch, because Dutch is his father or brother or best friend or all three. But he wouldn’t hate himself so much if he didn’t know some things were wrong, and he wouldn’t think himself so undeserving if he realized how different he is from the rest of them.
She has to stand on her toes to kiss his cheek, and she does. Still holding one of his hands. Still holding his jaw with her other. She’s so close she can hear the hitch in his breath.
“Miss Roberts,” he warns, and she knows exactly what it is. Just two words, her own name, but she understands this man. Her friend.
“John ain’t here,” she says. “John left.” And you wouldn’t have. She doesn’t have to say it. He shakes his head, but he doesn’t move away. Like he knows he should but doesn’t want to. “Mary ain’t here either, Arthur.”
His eyes close tighter, and his head drops lower on his neck. It’s like relief. Pain, too, but relief most of all, because someone had to mention that torch he still carries for a woman a decade or more married to someone else.
“Abigail, I can’t...” he starts, and she knows he’s only saying what he thinks is right. He’s going to warn her that he isn’t a good man, that he’s older and broken and lost and he can’t give her what she needs, and that she’d be better off waiting for someone else. But there is no one else, and that’s why he doesn’t finish the sentence. He looks at her again, finally, at her standing there so close and unmoving. I ain’t gonna be scared off by you. She doesn’t say it, because she doesn’t need to, because he understands her too. She kisses his cheek again, closer to his mouth, and his breath shudders when it comes out of him, and he doesn’t move away. Just looks at her, searching. “Come on, now, Abigail. What is this?”
This, she thinks, means all of it. Her a few years younger and not yet pregnant, choosing him and clinging to him because he was steady and she was afraid. This means him, sitting close to her by the fire and never making any moves until she had made them first. This means Jack, and John, and Mary, and Isaac.
“I don’t know,” she tells him.
It wouldn’t have been enough for John. But there was a lot that wasn’t enough for John. And Abigail knows Arthur, even if he might not know himself. Even if Jack is John’s boy. Even if he grows up and his hair goes dark and he’s the very spitting image of John Marston, Arthur won’t love the boy any less. That’s the way it is, with Arthur.
“I don’t know,” she says again. “But I’m with you, if you’ll have me.”
That searching look is still in his eyes, but he only makes her wait another moment. Then he breathes out, and he nods, and he leans a little bit more into the touch on his cheek, and she knows it for the permission that it is.
They lean in together, and they meet in the middle, and it’s sweet. It’s not a new kiss. It’s not unexplored territory, not like it was the first tipsy time her lips found John’s. It’s familiar and gentle and makes her think of the smell of baking bread and cinnamon. Like home. Like the few good things she remembers about home.
He’s still soft with her, the way he always was. But that lack of churning butterflies, that absence of danger, doesn’t feel like being unwanted anymore. She knows Arthur better now, and she knows herself better, too. It doesn’t feel like being unwanted at all.
It’s separate, this thing she has with Arthur and the feelings she still feels for John. It’s almost better that Arthur has his own lost love story, because they both know exactly what this is, and exactly who they are. There are no secrets when you’ve lived so close together for so many years. Arthur tucks his picture of Mary back into his trunk, and she has this old drawing of John that Arthur once did and gave to her, and she folds it up and buries it in her own belongings. Like a compromise between moving on and lingering, the two of them coming together while still nursing old hurts and wondering about old loves. Were it anyone else but Arthur, maybe it would be too hard. But it is Arthur, and so it isn’t.
Arthur makes a good father, the way she knew he would. Jack looks at him like he would look at a giant, awed and shy sometimes, but with so much love. He still calls Arthur Uncle Arthur, and they don’t talk about what’ll happen when Jack stops asking after John and starts wondering about the truth, because it feels like they have forever.
There’s not much time to talk about it, between leaving the mountains and setting up camp outside some town called Valentine, but everyone seems to know that things have changed between them. Tilly gives her little smiles, and Mary-Beth makes sly comments, and Karen makes Arthur blush by calling Abigail Mrs. Morgan sometimes.
Things are still shaky after Blackwater, but they feel new. Like a rebirth. Horseshoe Overlook is a pretty place, and Miss Grimshaw sets up a tent for Arthur around the front of his wagon that has more privacy than his old one. There’s a cot for Jack, and she doesn’t mind sleeping on a padded bedroll on the ground, because it means Arthur’s solid at her back, and his arm is heavy around her waist, and his breath tickles the back of her neck and, oh, she’s nostalgic for those old weeks when she had this the first time, even though she has it again. The sturdiness of him is so comforting.
It’s still not love. Not the way she’s used to love. But it’s something.
And Arthur changes, after. He was always a good man. Abigail thinks there’s something inside him, same as there was with John, something inherent and firm. Some inner core of light that’s at the heart of some people, like Hosea and Tilly. Charles and Lenny and Mary-Beth. You can be good without it, but the deepest parts of a person are easy to see when you know them well enough, and Arthur’s deepest parts are golden with goodness.
But he loved Dutch, and he trusted Dutch, and he would do anything for Dutch, even if that meant doing things that he knew were bad. But things change after he and Abigail take up together again. He talks back more. Argues more. He stands up for himself more. Bill one time tries to take him to task.
“They was just lying there by the side of the road,” he says to Dutch. “And choir boy here tries to say we can’t even loot them. Weren’t even our kill!”
“They were children,” Arthur sneers, and he storms off, and later that night Abigail sends Jack to spend some time with Hosea, and she takes Arthur’s clothes off for the first time since they’ve been back at this. Just like last time, it’s been more about closeness and gentleness and a warm place to sleep for the both of them, but she wants to show him how she felt to hear about him refusing to loot those bodies. She wants him to know exactly how good and honorable she thinks he is. Abigail has never been very good with words, she doesn’t think. Not much learning how to use them growing up. But she knows this, and it’s been a long time for the both of them.
She kisses his shoulders, whiter than his forearms and covered in dim little freckles. She’s gentle with him, soft with him, and he’s gentle and soft in return. His breath gets heavy, and she makes him forget. She keeps the lantern low because it’s been a few years now since they’ve done this, and she wants to be the girl he remembers, eighteen and perfect and not yet gone through childbirth, but she thinks he doesn’t even need the light to see her, the way his fingertips explore every part of her that’s uncovered.
He needs this, she thinks. I think I need it too.
He tells Strauss to track down his own damn money.
He starts getting careful about jobs he goes on, making sure of things. Turns down side jobs where innocent folks might get hurt.
Dutch condescends to him. Micah, when he comes back, he mocks him. Together they goad Arthur, trying to bring the badness back, but there’s none of it left, and Abigail is fiercely proud in a quiet sort of way of Arthur’s unshaken insistence.
“Jack needs a good example more than Dutch needs a good gun,” he says once to her, quiet, like he’s afraid of being overheard.
She kisses him fierce for that. She kisses him like if she kisses him hard enough, she can drown out the other voices that would make him feel like less of a man for being so goddamned good.
It’s strange, later, when the Van der Linde gang is at its end. Strange not just because she’s been with them for so long and they’re crumbling, but strange because she only realizes something nearly too late.
Pinkertons take her. They take her, and they want to hang her, and Abigail doesn’t know what to do, and then she hears gunshots, and…
Dutch has been looking at her with suspicion for a long while now. Micah, too. And that would take care of Bill and Javier, but Arthur? Arthur knows Dutch now for the poison he’s become. Abigail has seen it growing, the knowledge and certainty, and she’s kissed Arthur harder and harder and more and more since she realized it, trying to give him something else to believe in.
She does not doubt for a second when she hears those gunshots.
The gang wouldn’t come for her, much as she has given them over the years.
No, but Arthur would.
And after, when he and Sadie have burst into the room where she’s being held, and they shoot the two men who had her tied up, and Arthur beats Agent Milton to death with nothing but a revolver and purpose and a little help from her when she trips that Pinkerton snake, Abigail takes it all in, and she understands. Arthur’s breathing hard on his knees over the body, numb with that devastated kind of fury, and Abigail sends Sadie out to keep watch with nothing but a look.
When she’s gone, Abigail kneels beside Arthur, and she puts her arms around him, trying to pull him back to her.
A good man. He’s such a good man. And he would kill as many men as he had to to get to her. That’s the way it is with Arthur. That’s the way it’s always been. Arthur’s goodness is so apparent in his unstated loyalty to the people he cares for. Dutch over the years, and the rest of the gang. And her and Jack, too. Maybe always, but even more now than before. She just couldn’t see until now that it’s a way of showing love. It isn’t love the way she thought of love. It isn’t love like she and John had. But it’s love all the same.
“Arthur, Arthur,” she pleads, and his eyes focus on her. She cups his jaw in her hand to keep him steady. “Arthur, please, let’s go.”
He nods, and he closes his eyes, and he leans into her touch, just like he did in the mountains that first time. It’s been nearly a year since then. Nearly a year, and it took her this long.
“The boy’s okay,” he tells her, and she kisses him quiet, grasping onto his hair with greedy fingers and pulling him closer. He tastes like blood and sweat and Arthur, and she kisses him harder than she ever has because she needs him to know.
“Are you okay?” she asks. He nods.
“Micah,” he says, looking down at Milton. The Pinkerton had been so cocky right to the end that he had told them all about Micah being the informant who’s been whittling the gang down. She can see what that knowledge did to Arthur. The darkness it woke inside him. “I need to get back and tell Dutch.”
“No,” she says. He looks at her. “Arthur, no. You know he won’t believe you. You know he won’t listen.”
“I have to try.”
“You’ve tried enough! All you’ve ever done for that man is try, and it won’t ever be enough until you’ve given him everything. That’s the way it’s always been with you two, and I know you see it. Now that Hosea is gone, Dutch, he’s…he needed Hosea to rein him in. You running in, playing the storybook hero, it’s only going to get you killed. Arthur, please.”
He’s looking at her. That means he’s listening, but she’s still so scared. How much is getting through? These Van der Linde men have a way of listening and comprehending and then doing whatever they want to do anyway.
“Abigail…” he starts.
“No, Arthur! You go up there to Beaver Hollow, and you won’t come back. I can feel it, Arthur. And I can’t do that. I can’t.”
“You can,” Arthur says mildly. He’s distracted, still thinking about going back there. She pulls his head again, fingers on his jaw, tugging him so his eyes line up with hers.
“Maybe I can,” she says, and it’s fierce and hoarse and half-growled. “Maybe me and Sadie, maybe we can get out of here and take Jack, and maybe we’ll be fine. But I don’t want to go without you, Arthur Morgan. Dutch has become something that you don’t want to be. And Micah, he will do anything to stop you from having Dutch’s ear. It’s over, Arthur. I know it hurts. It does. But some fights ain’t worth fighting, and this is one.”
She’s given him everything that she has inside her. Every wall built up after the disappointment of losing John. Every butterfly wing knocking against her ribcage with every gentle gesture Arthur has made towards her. She has let it all out, because there’s nothing to do for it but let him see her.
“He saved me,” Arthur says. “Gave me all I had.”
“And you gave all of it and more back to him. But we got a chance to get away, now. All of us. Be a family. Live some other kind of life. Start over. I know that’s what you want. Isn’t it?”
Arthur’s eyes are squeezed shut against the pain of the fact that he nods along to her words. Yes. She feels relief. Yes, she knew that it was what he wanted. She wasn’t built for this life, much as she has done her part to survive. And Arthur is the same.
“I loved them too,” she reminds him. “They was my family too. But they ain’t the same anymore, and we have to hold on to the ones we got left. And I love you, Arthur Morgan. Don’t look at me like I’m lyin’. It’s true. You know I ain’t one for talking about this, and I know you ain’t either. But you need to know it so you’ll know that when I say I’m scared for you, I mean it. You are such a good man. You are. Better all the time, and I know part of it is because you want to be to Jack what you never had until Dutch. I don’t want to use the boy like this, but I will if it’ll save you: he needs you. Please. He needs you.”
Arthur nods again, and this time he stands up.
“You’re right,” he says. And when she goes, he follows.
It isn’t perfect. Or easy. Things aren’t, usually, but they know that better than anyone, she and Arthur. They take Jack and Tilly and Sadie and they run, and they don’t stop until they’re up north and west a bit. They wait for news, and they hear of a big shoot-out. Dutch dead. Javier and Bill dead, too. Micah? No one seems to know.
She almost loses him for good, then. She can tell. He leaves one night, and she wonders if it’ll be like John again. Just gone without a word. Out to find and kill Micah, maybe. Get revenge. Or just wander away, hating her because she talked him into saving himself and leaving Dutch to die.
But he wanders back only a few hours later, a little drunk and a lot sad. The cabin they’re renting, they’ve got their own room, a big bed, but he lies close to her and rests his head against her stomach, and she’s so relieved she just clutches him.
“I wasn’t there,” he says. “He needed me, and I wasn’t there.”
“I know,” she says.
She does not need to tell him that he would likely be dead too, if he had gone back. He knows that. He also knows he might have been able to help. And he also knows that Dutch was beyond saving. Arthur’s a smarter man than most give him credit for, and he knows all those things. Doesn’t mean he can’t grieve.
She just hopes the grief leaves him whole. Doesn’t turn what this is into a darkness. A resentment towards her and the boy. It could, so easily, she thinks. Arthur has lost so much. Dutch and Hosea. John, too, though he’d never admit it aloud. His whole family. And all he’s got left is her, and Jack, and Tilly and Sadie for as long as they stay.
Is it enough?
“I know it was right,” he says, and she can feel him getting heavier, the weight of him against her stomach, as he gets closer to sleep. She guides him there by running fingers through his hair the way she knows he likes. “Going with you. Choosing family, choosing what we got. Choosing love instead of loyalty to something ain’t even the same anymore. I know leaving was right.”
“Leaving was right,” she promises, and she hopes he never stops believing it.
They move around for a bit, but eventually settle in a little town just across the mountains from Strawberry. Arthur finds himself a job running the town stable for the owner, who has gotten too old for the work. Abigail has never seen him more pleased with himself than when he hears the offer.
“Sure,” he says, mild enough, but she can see the way his joy glitters through him and makes him young. He takes to it, taking care of the horses, grooming them, going out on trips to tame wild ones in the area. He’s tired when he comes back to their rented cabin, but he’s happy, too. And when he’s not working, he’s hunting, or he’s fishing. He sells all the parts they don’t use, real careful. They start saving money, and they’re never hungry the way they used to be. He buys her little trinkets, just like before, and he has this trapper he knows make her and Jack warm clothes for the winter. A coyote-skin jacket for the boy. A white coat lined with fox fur for her. It’s the finest thing she’s ever owned, and when she tells him so, he blushes and stammers and tries to act like it was nothing.
Abigail and Tilly both get work at the hotel in town, until Tilly meets and marries a rich man and moves with him to Saint Denis. That isn’t for a few months, so at least they have some time to be a family together, all of them. Sadie is restless, always in and out, and eventually she finds that she likes bounty hunting. Arthur goes with her a few times in the beginning, when he isn’t at the stable yet, but he has no taste for killing anymore, the way he tells it.
That fear, that worry of resentment on his part, it starts to fade from Abigail’s mind. It’s a quiet life, the one they’ve built for themselves, and she worried that he would get restless the way that Sadie did. Or the way that John did. But by the time Dutch has been dead a year, Abigail can hardly remember that fear anymore.
Arthur wasn’t ever born to be an outlaw. He was born for this kind of quiet life, just the way she was. That’s why this has somehow worked, all of it, even when it shouldn’t have. It isn’t just that they’re both broken in the same kind of ways. Maybe that was never what it was about. Maybe this sameness of them has always been the thing pulling them together.
Arthur comes in from outside, and Jack greets him happily, still Uncle Arthur. Arthur goes to wash up, but not before kissing Abigail on the cheek. Happy as you please, a real smile on his face. Not that small Arthur Morgan smile, either.
“What has gotten into you?” she asks, setting aside a letter from Tilly that she was trying to make her way through.
“Got a lead on a bit of land outside town,” Arthur says. “Feller I helped down by Strawberry one time will sell it cheap. I just rode out to take a look. Think we could make ourselves a nice house out there. Here, I, uh, I already got some ideas.”
He pulls out his journal to show her once he’s washed the dirt from his hands. She watches him flip through the pages, sketches and words flying by. And there’s this careful little drawing of herself that she spots, a pretty thing of her with her head bent over a book, trying to learn to read. She remembers catching him drawing it at camp, back when they were at Shady Belle. He was meant to be teaching her, but he’d gotten distracted with the sketch, and she’d teased him for it.
She looks up from the journal, watching his face as he looks for the drawings he’s made. He’s got this little line between his brows, this look of concentration, and she just can’t stand it, sometimes, the way her feelings well up like this inside her. Surprising and fierce and almost terrible, because they’re so goddamn strong. It wasn’t supposed to be love like this. And it still isn’t the constant fury of butterfly wings inside her that thoughts of John Marston still send singing. But it’s something just as strong, she thinks. This contentment. This friendship. This partnership. It’s something firm and whole inside her, and she loves him.
He finds the sketch at last, and he leans real close when he shows her, and his clumsy fingers point out the rooms he’s imagined, and he’s labeled everything and drawn little pictures of the way he wants the front door to look, and the fireplace, and the kitchen.
“Oh, Arthur,” she says, overcome with happiness to see it. “It’s so much.”
“Don’t you ‘oh, Arthur’ me,” he says, and he tucks the journal back into his satchel with his cheeks flushed happily. “It’s not. I’ve been keeping track, and between the land and the supplies, we got the money for it. And Charles and I’ve been writing, you know that, and he said he’d come down and help us out for a spell. Sadie too, though I think she probably wants to trick me into helping her with a bounty again.”
Abigail laughs at him, at this enthusiasm in him. Maybe to someone who doesn’t know him, he’d seem himself. Quiet and reserved. But she sees him deeper than that, and he may as well be dancing, he’s so excited.
“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?” she says with wonder. He always was looking out for everyone. She’s not sure why she’s surprised he’s just the same away from the gang. Maybe it just seems too good to be true.
“Well, horses are quiet company,” Arthur demurs. “Give me lots of time to think.”
She kisses him on the cheek, because she cannot help herself, and those butterflies churn away inside her.
“You,” she starts, but nothing seems quite right. “You’re a fine man, Arthur Morgan.”
It’ll do, judging from the way he flushes a bit. Still a little awkward, even now. He’s more confident in himself away from the gang, with no Bill or Dutch or Micah dogging him for everything, but he remains a man who was a lonely boy who still feels like he hasn’t earned the goodness he has been granted.
“Well,” he says. “Not too fine a man. I still ain’t made an honest woman out of you.”
She smiles wide, and she kisses him full on the mouth this time. Jack groans, as he has got into the habit of doing when she and Arthur are like this.
“An honest woman,” she says, teasing. “It’ll take more than a ring to make me honest, Arthur Morgan.”
“Well. Honest enough, then.”
“Honest enough will be just fine,” Abigail says, “for Arthur and Abigail Morgan, I think.”
Arthur smiles, and he kisses her again, and then he goes to take Jack outside so they can check on their little herb garden, and Abigail stands in the window and watches them, and she feels so full.
He will buy them that land. He will build them that house. He will give her a ring, make things proper between them. He will do those things because he said he would, and because he has always been a good man.
And she will love him. And she will tell him about this child the town doctor says she’s carrying. And she will give him any more children she can give, and she will make sure that neither of them ever feel the loss of their old family too much, because they will be so happy with this new one.
Things are gentle and good between them, easier than they have any right to be, and maybe it’s still more friendship inside, more than that churning monster of a love she’ll always carry deep for John Marston, wherever he is.
But the love she feels for Arthur Morgan is strong enough. And the love he feels for her is the same. And she knows now that it’s the kind of love that might just be the saving of them both.