“Arthur!” Tilly called across the camp, running lightly to meet him as he dismounted his horse. She approached him, a few letters in her hand, only a little out of breath. “It was addressed to you. Not Tacitus Kilgore or anything. You.” She passed one of the folded papers to him. “I would make sure you fixed that in your response – Dutch doesn’t want us using our names, you know.”
He nodded gravely. “I know. Thank you, Miss Tilly. I’ll get right on it.”
She smiled widely, and continued on her errand, calling for Micah next, the damned bastard.
Arthur walked purposefully to his tent, where he sat and ripped the fine wax seal on the trifold.
I heard tell of a man in town with your bearing, and I wasn’t sure if it was you, but I had to send this now for fear I would never run into you again.
I think it is very possible that you don’t remember me, but I aided in the birth of Isaac, and I wrote you the letter informing of Eliza’s passing after that terrible day. I know it was not the most traditional union between two people, but I always had faith you loved her and would settle down if you were able to. She was a sister to me, and your son a nephew. I was devastated by their loss, as we all were.
I have learned of a couple things since then that don’t quite add up, and I would like to share them with you. I live in a homestead about 5 miles northwest of Rhodes, between there and Valentine in the Heartlands. Please post your response to the Valentine post office, where I receive my weekly groceries. I anxiously await your response and hope you are well.
Emma Wilson neé Evans
Arthur folded the letter and heaved a sigh. Between this and Mary, he was sure the women he loved would kill him one day. He scrubbed a hand down his face and tore a page from his journal, quickly jotting a response.
Thank you for your letter. I am near Rhodes now and plan to be for some time. In the interest of security, please address letters to a Tacitus Kilgore. I receive mail in Rhodes and Saint Denis.
I will visit within the next week, giving time for you to receive this letter.
A. Morgan/T. Kilgore
Arthur didn’t have time to beautify it, only to send the immediate details. He trusted Emma would not do anything foolish. If she was anything like Eliza, she would understand his situation easily. He only hoped that was the case. If it wasn’t, well, it wouldn’t be Dutch’s fault that they were moving, this time around.
He folded, addressed, and sealed the envelope with some hot wax from the candle by his bedside. Standing and leaving his tent, he found Mrs. Grimshaw knitting by the fire scowling at Karen, who was crossly picking at faulty stitches. As usual, Karen was in an inappropriate state of undress, her breasts practically hanging out of her slip, with a bottle of rum open next to her. Arthur did his best to avert his eyes, focusing on the always-upright Mrs. Grimshaw.
“Susan, I have a letter to be posted the next time someone goes to town. Would that be too much trouble for one of your ladies to handle?” He offered the folded paper with the barest hint of a smile, hoping at least to warm her sour mood.
Mrs. Grimshaw snatched the letter from Arthur, stuffing it roughly into the bag at her feet. Se didn’t even look at him. He cringed. “I’ll get on it on our next outing if any of them decide to grow a brain between now and then.” She shot another look at Karen, who bit the inside of her cheeks and slunk further into her mending.
Arthur raised his eyebrows before schooling his expression into something warmer, more neutral. “Sure. Thank you, Mrs. Grimshaw. I appreciate it.”
“I’m sure you do.” Her needle stabbed in and out of the yarn.
He suddenly felt badly for Dutch, who'd been on the receiving end of this since for decades. Arthur turned on his heel and left to find Abigail and Jack, down by the river. He caught the eye of Mary-Beth, who was returning with the laundry. She smiled warmly at him, and he gestured purposefully to Mrs. Grimshaw, a meaningful look in his eye. Mary-Beth nodded, and about-faced toward the river once more, in search of another activity to make her look busy.
After a moment, he found Abby and her boy near the water. He watched them from a distance. Abigail knelt beside Jack, her skirts trailing in the mud as she demonstrated how to find a skipping rock and the best way to hold it. She threw a couple herself, staying on Jack’s level as she directed his attention to the way the rocks spun across the water.
Arthur often forgot how young Abigail was. She was a teenager when they’d picked her up.
She’d started to undress quickly taking off her outer frock before turning and shucking his gun belt and satchel from his shoulders. He reached up and stilled her, his hands on his arms. “Just hold on a minute, sit down.”
“Are you serious?” She sat on the edge of the bed, her long braid hanging over her right shoulder. Her round face and kind jaw was cocked to the side, and the corners of her lips turned up. “You paid fifteen dollars.”
Arthur shrugged, letting his coat fall from his shoulders. “Just wanted some company, is all.” He was noncommittal, and Abigail snorted. Who was this guy? Who pays for a prostitute and then doesn’t use her?
“Quite the gentleman then, alright.” Her mouth quirked, pursing her lips. Thinking. “What do you do for a living, Tacitus?” If he wasn’t going to unpack her, she would unpack him.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “That’s not really my name, you know.” He tossed his coat on the back of the chair in the corner.
“Oh, I know. Nobody’s got a name like that.” She laughed. Abigail had seen her share of outlaws and men who lived in sin. In fact, they were her primary customers.
Her laugh made his chest warm. He suddenly remembered Eliza, the way she looked when she laughed at rowdy saloon patrons. Abigail must have been around her age, maybe sixteen or seventeen at most.
“I’m Arthur.” He offered her a hand. She took it, and he kissed her knuckles.
She looked up at him through her lashes, red from her chest to her ears. “Arthur, could I convince you into anything unsavory?”
He laughed. “Not even a little, Miss Abigail. C’mon. Let’s get some rest. I’m sure you need it. You’re a working woman, after all.”
Not sure if he was teasing her or not, she turned down her corner of the bed and stripped to her underslip (for fun, she reasoned). Abigail was beautiful, but he didn’t make a habit out of sinning with anyone under twenty. Except maybe John. But killing was different.
She turned to face him after the light was out and they were tucked up and warm.
“You’re a good man Arthur. Where you from?”
“Around. You’re welcome to come with if you’d like.”
To his surprise, when he woke up in the morning and she was there, hair up and boots on, she did just that.
The Abigail of today still had a round face, but John’s yearlong “adventure” had worn lines around her mouth and eyes. They hadn’t quite settled in like Arthur’s, and he figured they gave her a stern and distinguished look. However, he was certain she would disagree.
Jack tried his hand at skipping a rock, but it just landed in the water with a hollow plunk. Arthur wandered toward them as Abigail took her son’s hand in hers, giving him scaffolding to find the technique.
That stone managed three skips before it sunk. Arthur crept behind Abigail, reaching for a smooth, flat rock. He weighed it in his hand, and
He threw it, and it skipped six times before sinking. Abigail just about leapt out of her skin. She lost her footing, falling backward into the mud and cursing loudly. She immediately blushed and slapped a hand over her mouth. Her wide eyes stared up at Arthur, and he wasn’t sure if she was pissed or laughing.
Jack collapsed into laughter, and Arthur caught him and hefted him on his shoulders. “Good work, boy. I think you’ve just about got it.”
By the time Jack cooled off, Abby had collected herself, rising from the mud and wiping her hands on her skirt. Mrs. Grimshaw was going to have a field day with that one. It would almost be better to go to the hotel in town and wash it herself, at that point. “You startled me, jackass.” She was still red from neckline to forehead, but her color was returning to normal as she swatted at Arthur’s hunting jacket.
Arthur was still laughing and Abigail continued to beat on his chest, and he felt Jack’s little hands in his too-long hair, holding tight and close to the roots.
“Now you don’t want to yank on the mane, son. You want to just hold on, nice and close to the neck so you can get a good grip without botherin’ too much.”
Jack nodded, his feathery brown hair floating around in the slight breeze. He was three next week, but already becoming a smart and serious boy, far more insightful than Arthur was at thirty. The boy tangled his impossibly small hands into Boadicea’s mane, following Arthur’s instructions exactly.
They were out in the meadow, walking around bareback. Arthur figured it was never too early to get a child on a horse, but he made sure Jack was safe and secure in front, between his legs and literally tied around his waist with a slat of leather. He kept a hand on his chubby thigh the whole time, a grip that was tight and protective without suffocating.
Abigail was watching from a distance, her fingernails worrying her lower lip. She offered a wave when she saw Arthur checking in. He smiled at her.
Boadicea was a good girl, calm and gentle. She and Arthur had a conversation earlier that day, and he was confident she understood the importance of her cargo today. He’d run her across the county tomorrow, but today she was playing babysitter. She seemed to enjoy it alright, remaining patient with Jack as he’d smacked her withers and pulled her hair. She’d even avoided sneezing when his fingers found their way up her nose.
“Well as long as your delicate sensibilities aren’t wilting, I can deal with my son.” Abigail reached up for Jack, but he only leaned further into the back of Arthur’s neck, his hands wandering around to his forehead. “Really? You’re gonna leave me for him now?”
“I can see everything up here,” Jack explained simply. “It’s much better than the ground.”
She couldn’t fault him for that. Her cheerful eyes met Arthur’s warm ones. “Just return him whenever he’s finished. I’ll be avoiding Mrs. Grimshaw if you’re looking for me.”
Arthur smiled. “Sure thing.” He reached out quickly, snagging her sleeve. “I would like to talk to you about something in a while though. When you have ears to yourself.”
She nodded. “Of course. Anything you need.” She slipped her arm out of his grasp and caught his fingers, squeezing twice before letting go.
He returned his hold to Jack’s tiny ankles and returned to camp. He actively avoided Micah, Javier, and Bill, who were all staring at the pair like they’d grown another set of legs, each.
“The way you treat that boy, Morgan, you’d think he was yours,” Bill jabbed at him from across the yard, where Arthur had an infant Jack wrapped in his coat.
He returned the comment with a dark glare. Jack had just fallen asleep, and he was giving Abigail a much-needed hand. They were short a pair of arms, after all.
“You know, he kind of looks like you, Arthur.” Javier, who Arthur hadn’t noticed, leaned on the side of his tent, arms crossed and a smirk on his lips.
Arthur heaved a sigh and chose to ignore them, focusing on the tiny set of fingers that clung tightly to his thumb. Jack’s round lips bobbed up and down while he slept, making little spit bubbles that trailed down his chin. Arthur mopped it up with his shirt. He was glad he wore cotton today. It was the only thing he owned soft enough for Jack’s delicate skin.
“Fooling around with Marston’s girl, weren’t you?” Bill had wandered over, lowly taunting. “I bet that’s why he left. He told me.”
Yeah, sure he did. Arthur slowed his breathing and leaned back against his wagon, firmly planted in his bed. He’d done this with Isaac too, leaning back and sleeping anywhere, not moving too much. Jack hardly stirred in his arms.
“She’s a good fuck, but you and I both know that.” Javier’s crude remark slithered past a shit-eating smirk.
Arthur couldn’t help himself. “Too bad she got sick of you then, you asshole.” It was as low as a growl. He simply couldn’t afford to wake Jack. Not now.
Javier snorted. “C’mon Bill. We’ll never get a rise out of him. He’s too busy with his bastard.”
A well of anger pooled in Arthur’s chest, but he fought it and closed his eyes. A few minutes passed in silence, where the peaceful crackling of the dying fire kept Arthur from leaving Jack in his cot in favor of his hunting knife. Javier and Bill knew where they could stick that. .
He felt the edge of his cot dip, and he cracked an eye. A tearful Abigail was there, wrapped in a blanket. She gave him a watery smile that told him all he needed to know. She’d heard everything. She was puffy, heavy from the weight of her pregnancy and her sorrow.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She hiccupped and swiped at her eyes.
Arthur shut his eyes again. “Don’t you dare.” He released his thumb from Jack’s grip and extended a hand to her. She held on to it like a lifeline. They fell asleep sitting up, next to each other.
He ran into John on his way to the horses.
“Arthur!” John crowed.
Jack wiggled on his shoulders, and Arthur swung him down, planting him firmly in the dirt. He ran immediately to his father, who picked him up and set him on his hip. “How was your hunting?”
“You’ll put me to shame, so I won’t bother telling you.”
Arthur shrugged. He wasn’t wrong. “Just make sure it all gets to Pearson so he can make something edible.”
“God forbid Abigail gets her hands on it.” John laughed. Jack laughed too, wrinkling his nose. The boy was lucky – he’d only heard tell of his mother’s poor cooking, but he was happy to be in on the joke.
Arthur checked his pocket watch. The sun would set soon, but Karen and Mary-Beth were headed into town with Charles, his letter with them. They would likely be back before dark. He would set out at the end of the week for Emma’s home. He was more anxious by the moment for what he would find waiting there.
He returned to the fire, where Javier had retired with his guitar. He hummed softly as he absentmindedly sung. Micah sat with his blade, picking at the dirt under his fingernails. Arthur hoped the blade slipped one of this days, leaving him without a hand, the bastard.
Arthur took up the last unoccupied log, closest to Dutch’s tent, where he was likely reading aloud to Molly. He was relieved the fighting between them had reached a cease-fire. God, it was incessant.
“I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong!” Molly’s lilt was tinged with indignation, and Arthur could tell this was more than a lover’s quarrel, something he wasn’t meant to hear.
“I’m not sure you’ve done anything wrong, Molly. I do not know what to tell you.” Dutch sounded exhausted.
“The women – they don’t like me.”
“I cannot help you with that.”
Dutch left the tent, then, and Arthur made himself busy at the ledger, ordering a few provisions for the next trip into town.
“Arthur.” Dutch greeted him. He lit a cigar and puffed on it, pensive.
Arthur nodded politely. “Dutch.” He sniffed. “Everything okay?”
“Oh, Arthur. You know women.”
Arthur snorted, and gave Dutch a nod. Arthur was sure he knew women, but he wasn’t sure Dutch did.
John and Abigail joined them a while later after Jack had gone to bed. Their arms swung as they walked hand-in-hand. Arthur threw a pebble at Bill’s feet when he caught him staring.
They joined Arthur on the far log. Abigail leaned heavily on him, one hand wrapped in her shawl and the other in John’s lap, her fingers laced in his. John’s eyes were heavy, and soon he was laying on his back, his head in Abigail’s lap, his eyes opening and closing every few minutes. He’d always reminded Arthur of a big cat, watchful and often lazy in the face of a heat source.
Hosea was wrapping up his final story. The crowd had dwindled and the errand-runners were home and sleeping. Abigail was snoozing lightly on Arthur’s shoulder. John rose and stretched, kissing Abigail on the temple before leaving for his tent.
“And that’s when I knew Dutch had my favorite wallet,” Hosea concluded, his hands out in an extended shrug. “The rest is history.”
Arthur chuckled. He’d heard the story about a million times, but somehow it always pulled a laugh from him. Abigail stirred as the rest of the gang went to bed. She sat up, rubbing her eyes. Her hair fell into her face, and it struck him again how young she was. She smiled sleepily at him.
“What did you want to talk about, Arthur darlin'?” Her voice was soft and tired with disuse. She hadn’t breathed a word since she sat down.
He couldn’t believe her. “You didn’t have to stay up for that.”
Her brow furrowed. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
She was a marvel. He’d said it before and he’d say it again. Marston was a damned fool if he didn’t understand how lucky he was. “Jus’ figured you might want to get some sleep, is all.”
She patted his hand. “Sleep can wait. What’s on your mind?” He recognized the briskness that returned to her tone. She was ready to listen, even if he wasn’t necessarily ready to tell.
“I got a letter today.” He pulled the letter in question out of his coat and passed it to her. She unfolded it carefully and watched her read it in silence. She squinted at it in the dark, but the fire gave enough light to see. “I can’t seem to make heads or tails of it.”
Halfway through, he realized with a pang of panic that he’d never told her about Isaac. Only ever Eliza. She was his best friend and she had no idea. Shit.
She looked up at him after a long while in silence. He was very focused on one of his cuticles, and Abigail had to search for his eyes.
“Your boy…what happened to him?” Her voice was naught but a whisper.
He swallowed thickly. “He passed with her – Eliza. Shot and killed for ten dollars and a couple of furs.”
Her soft gasp was an avalanche to his ears. “Oh, Arthur…” She trailed off. If he had a dime…
He felt he owed her an explanation. “I visited every couple months, to check in and see how they were getting on. I was too late.” His confession grew softer, as he continued. Abigail leaned forward, listening with the attention of a churchgoer. “I found two crosses in the yard the last time I returned.”
Abigail searched for his hand and finding it, gripped it as if she would never let go. “Christ in Heaven.” She shook her head, numb with the revelation. “When was this?”
“About ten years ago. I met her when I was about twenty or so. I’d been running with Dutch a couple years and couldn’t be with her proper.” Arthur sniffed, the cold air getting to him.
Abigail looped her arm through his, tracing the back of his hand with her finger, drawing patterns and swirls. “Was this before Mary?”
Arthur nodded. “A few years at least. I wasn’t ready to be married yet, or a father, or anything like that.” He stared into the fire. “With Mary, though, I was ready for a lot of that.”
“You think you’d wanna get married someday?” She propped herself on her arm and gazed at him, adoring.
Arthur turned to face her, touching her cheek. “Maybe. I gotta talk with Dutch. I’m not sure I can much get out of this business now that I’m in it.”
Eliza sighed. “It sounds so glamorous.”
He laughed through his nose. “Not even a little.”
“Really? Not even a little?” She wrinkled her nose and brought her hand to his face, drawing circles around the scar on his chin. “It looks good on you.”
“Well, that’s the problem, seeing as I don’t look good much at all.”
Eliza giggled, tucking herself into him. “Well then, my darling. Just let me know if you ever change your mind. I’ll be here, doing just fine with or without you.”
Arthur kissed her hair, breathing her in deep. “You’ll be the first to know.” He thought for a moment. “I want to get to know the boy as best I can.”
“Oh don’t worry about that.” She shuffled closer to his chest, tilting her head up to kiss his collarbone. “Isaac loves you more and more every time he sees you. You’re his pa. I tell him all the time.”
Sighing, he rolled onto his back, capturing her in his arms and holding her close. “You are a fool, Eliza.”
“Not as big’a one as you, Arthur.”
“What are you gonna do?” Abigail jolted him back to the present, her warm eyes seeking his.
“I dunno. I gotta go see what the fuss is about, I guess. Emma wouldn’t write if it wasn’t important. So I guess it’s important.” He found his head shaking without realizing.
Abigail huffed. “I guess so.” They were quiet for a moment. “Let me know if I can send John with you when you go.”
“I never said I was going.”
“You silly, silly man.” She stood, and kissed his knuckles where the skin was still split from a tiff with Micah last week. “You didn’t have to.”
A slight delay keeps Arthur close for the morning.
Arthur woke early, later that week, and he heard the quiet bustle of the early-risers around the fire, likely digging into the day’s first pot of coffee. He slipped a dress shirt and vest over his union suit and a pair of pants that didn’t have too many holes in them. He would have to get a couple pair to the ladies for mending sometime soon or buy new ones.
He stomped into his boots, slung his satchel around his shoulders, and jammed his hat on his head. Since it was early, he figured he could do some hunting before the day started.
Poking his head out of his tent, he saw Hosea and Lenny chatting quietly. They looked up at him.
“Good morning, my boy,” said Hosea. “How are you this morning?”
Arthur crossed to them, sitting heavily on one of the benches at the table. “Doin’ alright. Have a coupla errands to run today before I really get going.”
“Going hunting?” Lenny asked.
“Yeah, seems that way. Hoping to get a couple good deer before noon.”
Hosea nodded. “Now’s the time. They’ll be out and feeding as the sun rises. Want some coffee?” Arthur shrugged in response, but Hosea rose anyway, retrieving a cup and filling it with strong brew. He replaced the pot and returned to the table. “Here you go, son. Nice and hot for you.”
Arthur squinted at him, suspiciously sipping from his cup. It’s not that Hosea wasn’t nice. It’s just that he wasn’t usually this nice. “Anything on your mind, Hosea?”
“No, not much. I ran into Abigail earlier this morning. Jack wasn’t feeling well.” Hosea took a couple gulps of his coffee before rising, smacking his hands lightly on the table. “Well, boys. Time to get rolling. I have some business in Strawberry. You coming with me, Lenny?”
Lenny smiled and stood, reaching for his gun belt on the table to his right. “Sure. I’ll get Maggie ready and we can go anytime.” The pair meandered to their tents, talking quietly. Hosea snuck glances at Arthur, but if he was trying to be subtle, it wasn’t working. He would check in with Abigail when she woke.
Arthur, alone now at the table, finished his coffee with a sigh. The newly risen sun was burning off some of the chilly fog that had settled into camp in the early hours of the morning. People were starting to stir and stumble toward the coffee. Arthur refilled his cup and stood next to the fire, watching.
Karen looked like she hadn’t slept all night, and Arthur hazarded a guess that the look reflected reality. Her blonde hair was a mess, dull and sticky with mud. She was walking to the river with her scrub brush. A bath would do her good. He’d pick up something for her in town. A trinket of some kind. Something to make her smile, if even for a moment.
John threw his tent flap, ducking furtively to Abigail and Jack’s tent, holding a damp washcloth. Arthur’s heart jumped, and he sprinted across the camp with an impressive kickoff. Keiran, who’d just sat up from his bedroll by the horses watched him, bleary-eyed.
Arthur stopped outside the tent, listening.
Abigail sang quietly, and he couldn’t hear anything from John. Arthur ran his fingers down the flap as a warning and stepped inside.
His eyes adjusted to the dim light quickly. Abigail and John looked up quickly before turning back to their task.
"Hey, Arthur." Abigail held Jack in her arms. He was restless and fitful. Pale. Too pale. She was calm, which warmed Arthur slightly. She'd been an anxious new mother, especially during John's absence.
“He’s sick. I don’t know what’s wrong. He won’t stop crying.” Abigail was tearful herself, pacing and rocking a screaming baby Jack. She'd left for the clearing down the trail when she realized he wouldn't stop screaming. The last thing she wanted to do was wake all of camp.
Arthur took him from her. “Good of you to leave camp, but you should really be more careful.” He looked around, into the woods around the clearing. “Anyone or anything could be out here.”
Abigail sniffed. “I’m sorry, Arthur. I just – “
“I know.” Arthur held Jack to his shoulder and patted his back until he burped up all over Arthur’s union suit. He heard Abigail hiccup, but he didn't mind. He had plenty sets of underclothes - Jack could burp on as many as he'd like. “I think he’s just got colic. Babies have trouble getting stuff through ‘em more often than not.” Jack started to quiet, but his whining continued.
“Really?” Abigail approached him, smoothing her hands along Jack’s little soft head. “I thought there was something really wrong with him.”
“Probably not.” Arthur reached down with his free arm and checked for his revolver. It was planted firmly on his gun belt at his waist, next to his hunting knife. He could handle anything that came his way. “Why don’t you get some sleep. I’ll keep him with me tonight, and bring him back to camp when he falls asleep.”
“But you need to sleep, Arthur.” Her insistence was weak. She was exhausted.
“So do you, and I’ve had more’n you the past couple nights. You can’t do this by yourself.”
“What’s goin’ on?” Arthur’s question was flat and quiet.
John pressed the washcloth to Jack’s forehead. “He’s been sick all night.” His voice was low and terse, and the muscles at his shoulders were jumping around, restless.
“It shouldn’t be too serious. If he can’t keep anything down after tonight, I’ll take him into Valentine tomorrow.” Abigail’s voice was soft and soothing, only a slight waver betraying her fear.
She’d been up all night, washing the sheets from Jack’s vomit and keeping him cool. John found her at the river when he got up to piss in the middle of the night. Abigail knew he was upset with her. She didn’t wake him, hoping she could handle it herself. Some of those habits are harder to break than others, she guessed. He’d barely spoken to her since but did his best to help her in his frustration. She appreciated and admired his tenacity, but hoped he understood, even a little.
Arthur’s appearance in her little residence soothed her, and the tight set of John’s jaw loosened slightly. Arthur had a way of making them both feel calmer, like a balm for sore muscles.
“I can get you some more cool rags, John.” Arthur offered. He kept his voice low.
John felt it rumble around the tent. “Thank you.”
Arthur ducked out of the tent and raided Person’s shelves for a couple cooking rags. He would have them washed and returned, of course, but right now there was something more important to handle. He found two more in the laundry basket behind Karen’s tent.
Abigail rocked Jack back and forth, patting his back. He’d thrown up about three times in the night. John intercepted the last one, helping her with some of the mess. They both decided it was some kind of food poisoning. Abigail was sure she saw Jack eat something he wasn’t supposed to yesterday. If she had a heart attack every time that happened though, she would be dead many times over. The little gifts of parenthood never cease to amaze me.
As he crossed to the river, Arthur kept himself as composed as possible. Alarming the rest of camp to an illness that would likely pass in the next few hours seemed irresponsible. Selfishly, he wanted to keep John and Abigail as calm as possible and all to himself. The gang crowding around looking for a helpful task was just about the most anxiety-inducing situation he could imagine. He felt a pang of empathy for Mrs. Grimshaw.
He wet the rags, wringing them out so they wouldn’t drip. He tucked them over his elbow when he was satisfied, and took the back way to their tent as to not draw attention.
John held the flap for him as he knelt inside. It was cramped, certainly, but Arthur didn’t mind. He’d been in his share of foxholes, both literally and metaphorically, with Abigail and John. Jack’s fitfulness eased after a while, rotating washcloths and arms until he’d landed in Arthur’s lap. John and Abigail finally fell asleep in a heap on Jack’s bedroll.
Arthur was happy to rock him like he did when Jack was a child. They spent much of the morning there. Every once and a while, Mrs. Grimshaw would poke her head in with a raised eyebrow. Arthur would nod at her, waving her off or handing her a warm washcloth to be re-cooled. She kept quiet and brought Arthur coffee.
“What do you think is waiting for me with my girl’s cousin, huh?” Arthur said, quietly, to sleeping Jack. “Your momma’s been helpin’ me with that. I’d take you with me if you were feelin’ better. Your pa and I could go out riding like we did when we were kids. Didn’t feel much bigger’n you, really. You’ll see. Someday you’ll be old and tired and you’ll see someone like you and you’ll see.”
Arthur brushed Jack’s moppy brown hair off his brow and he turned in Arthur’s lap, fitting neatly in the nest he made with his crossed legs. No fever, thank God. His color was coming back, and he hadn’t been sick since before he arrived. He was less restless, looking just like his mother. A small hand was wrapped up in Arthur’s shirt.
He glanced over to John and startled, finding him awake.
Abby was curled up in his arms, grasping loosely at his shirt. She slept with her mouth open and her brow slack. Arthur’s lips turned up at the corners as he looked back at Jack. Just the same.
“You always talk to people when they’re sleeping?” John kept his voice down, but the teasing was evident.
“Well, I never did it with you. I only do it with people I like.” Arthur didn’t look at him, continuing to worry over Jack’s forehead.
John huffed down his nose. “Right.” He studied his son, squinting in the dark. It was bright outside, but the sturdy tents did excellently at keeping much of the light out, even through the afternoon. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s okay. I think he’ll be alright. I’m headed to near Valentine this afternoon if you want to take him to a doctor or something.”
“That may be a good idea.” John shifted his gaze to somewhere in the middle distance, thinking. The scars from his mountain run-in were fading, shifting silvery-white from the angry pink from before. Arthur thought it aged him, but it was hard to take away from John’s natural good looks, as a rule. You’ll never have that problem, you ugly bastard.
Arthur watched John’s hand, absently stroking Abby’s bare arm. She’d removed her frock during the night, leaving her in her full skirt and underslip, the thin straps falling off her shoulders.
Since he’d returned, John had slowly remembered how to love his wife. He’d forgotten what it was like to touch her without thinking or without her flinching.
He grabbed her hand. She jumped. He screwed his eyes shut, flooding with guilt. He’d been back three whole weeks now, hadn’t left once. And she still didn’t trust him.
It was John’s turn to jump when he felt her lips on the corner of his mouth.
John smiled. His skin had always burned when it touched Abigail, from the first press of his lips to her knuckles to the white heat of their bed. He was alight with her, to his very core.
The men were quiet for a while, then. Abigail stirred and rolled off to the side, landing squarely on the grassy floor. John and Arthur waited for her fall to wake her, but she just snuffled and kept sleeping.
“Amazing,” said John. His soft looks at his wife warmed Arthur. Maybe he was learning, after all.
Arthur shifted Jack in his lap, passing him to John as smoothly as he could. “I’m gonna head out to Valentine. I’ll stay in the hotel tonight and return tomorrow. If you bring Jack, just meet me there.”
John nodded. “Thanks, Arthur. Owe you one.”
Arthur snorted as he left the tent. “You already owe me one.”
He stretched, realizing the overwhelming tight soreness in his back from his morning in the tent. Was it past noon? He checked his watch. Past noon, and've done absolutely jack shit. Walking across camp for some stew, he ran into Molly. She smiled at him, small and tight, but smiled nevertheless. He couldn’t call Molly warm, but she tried to be friendly when she felt like it.
“How’s young Jack? I noticed Mrs. Grimshaw worrying over you all this morning.” Her lilt was quiet, and he wondered just exactly how many people Mrs. Grimshaw had to intercept this morning. He had to thank her later.
Arthur’s eyebrows raised, and he canted his head. He couldn’t remember a time where Molly cared about…well, any of them, really. “He’s doing alright. Likely ate somethin’ that disagreed with him is all.”
“Good to hear it.” She passed him then, brushing his shoulder with her puffy green sleeves.
Odd. She'd grown more comfortable since joining them, but she was still most attached to Dutch, remaining an outsider among the other women.
“Dutch are you serious? Irish nobility now?” Arthur kept his volume low, but the sheer disbelief in his tone was evident. His eyebrows were furrowed deep over his eyes, and he was looking at Dutch as if his tie was made of human flesh.
Dutch raised his hands as if in surrender. “Oh come on, Arthur. She’s no harm and I like her well enough.” He tried to return to his book.
“Does this Molly listen to your sermons?” Arthur swung his fork toward the book in Dutch’s hands.
The book hit the table with a thud. Dutch stared at Arthur, the picture of innocence. “If by that you mean my grand ideas, then yes. She does. She seems very eager about them as well, which is a nice change.”
Arthur poked at his stew. “Must be nice havin’ a new audience.”
Dutch’s lips turned down, amused. “it helps that she keeps the bed warm, to be crude.”
Ah. There it was. “Right,” Arthur said, noncommittally.
Shaking Molly from his head, he retrieved a couple extra rounds of ammo from his tent and added a few arrowheads to the pocket dedicated to them in his satchel. He may not start hunting now, but he’d certainly make an attempt to bring something home for his family while he was out.
As he passed Dutch, he reminded him he would be out, “No more than a few days.”
“Bringing back something good?” Dutch asked. “I’ve been in the mood for some bison myself.”
Arthur shrugged. “Maybe. Not sure what I’ll find.”
“Alright, son. see you soon.” Dutch returned to his reading.
Arthur found his mount, the Arabian from the mountain. He’d yet to give her a name, but he was sure she didn’t mind much. They’d talked about it, and her ideas were terrible.
“Hey there, girl. You sleep okay?” He offered her a sugar cube from his pocket, and she seemed to grumble at him. “That’s my girl.”
Mounting up, he kicked off right from camp. He heard a shout from Mrs. Grimshaw reminding him to “Quit that shit right now, Arthur Morgan!” but he figured that was another problem for another time. Shame, too. Lenny wasn’t even around to laugh at him.
The ride didn’t take him long, and he bagged a couple turkeys on his way into town. Five miles northwest of Rhodes put him close enough to Valentine to warrant a trip to the butcher, where he sold the turkeys for a couple dollars each. Good enough.
He pocketed the money and turned back southeast, expecting to find the homestead in about two miles.
The land in this part of the country was beautiful. Sparse little trees faded into full woods, with little patches of plains scrub brush and little animals everywhere. Even this far east, it reminded him of California.
Emma’s instructions did not disappoint. He found the homestead easily. It was beautifully crafted with care. He dismounted his horse and leaped up the stairs to the front door, knocking swiftly.
A woman, the spitting image of Eliza, opened the door. “Arthur!”
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A familiar stranger sits with our favorite cowboy.
Quick thing before we start:
Thank you all SO much for the beautiful and kind responses! Please keep them coming and I am so happy to write for such a thoughtful and sweet audience.
That's all. Have fun, kids. Don't forget the sunscreen.
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Arthur removed his hat and offered his hand. Emma took it in both of hers. “Arthur Morgan, ma’am.”
She pulled him through the door and continued through the small cabin to the kitchen. It was a lived-in home, with colorful quilts and embroidery on the chairs, bed, and even the walls. The fire was roaring, and the light was warm.
Portraits lined the walls, tacked in charming handmade frames. Arthur caught himself looking at them longer than he should’ve, snooping even. He saw a couple large family portraits, his eyes seeking the face he knew so well and missed so terribly. He found her in a couple of them, looking so terribly young and happy.
He felt as if his heart would burst.
“Please, make yourself comfortable. The coat rack is behind you. You’re more than welcome to set down anything you’d like.” She reached into the cupboard for a pair of mugs, politely ignoring the way he prowled around the pictures. “Coffee?”
Arthur nodded, removing his hunting jacket and taking a seat at the table, forcing himself to just act normal, for Chrissakes. What on earth could she know? “So what exactly has me here today, ma’am?”
His eyes continued to wander though, and found a photo of the two women – Emma and Eliza – sat in two chairs with large grins on their faces. He wondered how long they had to wait for the photo to develop. He’d taken a picture with Dutch and Hosea once. Somber expressions were encouraged, as they would have to stay that way for a while. Smiling was exhausting.
“Oh, enough of that ma’am nonsense, Arthur. We’re family.” She sat at the table, pushing a cup of coffee toward him insistently. She was brisk, no-nonsense. Not necessarily warm, but not unfriendly. She had the same eyes as Eliza.
Arthur wasn’t sure if he would go as far as family, but he embraced the sentiment. “Alright, Emma. What’ve you got for me?”
She didn’t seem perturbed by his insistence. She folded her hands and watched him carefully as she spoke. “I think Isaac is still alive.”
He didn’t know what it was like for his lungs to fall out of his body, but if it was anything like he was feeling now, he wouldn’t have been surprised. Isaac. His boy.
He ran to the door, knocking quickly before opening it and finding Eliza on the other side, flushed and breathless. She was on her feet, which surprised him. She’d given birth less than a week prior. Her baby weight was still there, around her middle, but she carried it well and seemed happy enough and eager to see him.
“I heard you coming up the trail.” She placed a delicate hand on his arm, holding tightly.
He took her in his arms and kissed her forehead. “I came as fast as I could. Where is he?”
Her eyes twinkled, and he understood more now what people talked about when women glowed with a baby. He could see it now, in the woman he loved. She took his hand and dragged him around the corner by way of an answer. Arthur followed her readily.
The bassinet was lined with white linen, and Isaac was inside, wiggling around and kicking his tiny little legs and waving his small fists. Arthur’s throat closed. He’d helped with that.
Eliza’s eyes pressed in on him, her hands clasped at her chest. She so desperately wanted Arthur to connect with his son. They were already so alike. The baby had his eyes, and she suspected his nose. She also found out about his particular kind of stubbornness and the way he was quiet until he truly had something to say.
Arthur stepped forward carefully, afraid his heavy steps would disturb him. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“Do you want to hold him?” Eliza asked. As Arthur’s eyes widened in fearful wonder, she realized she didn’t regret anything at all. Life had given her an interminable gift. She’d be damned if she wasted it.
Arthur nodded wordlessly. She steered him toward the handmade rocking chair he’d constructed during his last visit. She draped a blanket over him, covering his arms and shoulders. Returning to the crib, her face changed.
She smiled with an open mouth, greeting Isaac with a laugh. “Hi, baby! Look at you, handsome boy! Come with me, sweetheart.” Eliza hefted him out of the crib, careful of his head. He gurgled happily, and Arthur realized how small babies were. Small and lumpy and delicate.
Arthur’s anxiety increased, his heart racing and his palms beginning to sweat. He knew nothing about babies. He was sure he’d been one once, but that experience didn’t help him much now. Eliza had no such fear. She handled the baby with confidence and extreme tenderness.
He mirrored her, making a cradle with his arms.
“Just support his head. He does the rest,” she said. She set Isaac in his arms, and he grinned up at his father. “He’s pretty quiet for the most part. If he starts crying, he’s probably hungry, so just pass him to me.” She hovered for a moment. He looked up at her.
“Thank you.” He said.
She kissed his temple by way of response, leaving the room and closing the door behind her.
Arthur inhaled, big and slow, through his nose, easily recalling the smell of baby as he’d first encountered it on that day. He released his breath fully before responding. He let his body adjust to the possibility, resisting the initial rejection of his chest. His heart felt tight, and his head grew fuzzier. “And why do you think that?”
Emma wet her lips and sipped her coffee. “There’s a family down the way with a few kids. They’ve mentioned an orphan boy they picked up about ten years ago.” She paused, seemingly to catch her breath. “I’ve seen him in town the last few months. He looks just like you, Arthur, in the eyes and nose.”
“A lot of people look like me,” he said, humorlessly. He couldn’t afford hope. Not now. Not while everything was falling apart around him.
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.” She stared down at the table as if memorizing the grain of the wood. Every word felt like a confession, a dirty secret. “It startled me. And you forget – I knew him as a young child. The resemblance is uncanny.” She looked at the formal portrait of her cousin, hanging on the wall to Arthur’s right. He missed it in his initial evaluation. Eliza couldn’t have been more than fifteen when it was taken, a couple of years before he met her. “If he’s not your boy, it’s one hell of a coincidence.”
Arthur clenched his jaw and reaching for his coffee, downing it in one gulp and relishing the burning of his tongue and throat.
She continued, still looking at the portrait. “I think we can get him.”
Arthur laughed aloud then, flinty. “How? How do you think we’ll manage that. Just knock on the door?”
Isaac must hate me by now. He has to. I’ve left him, abandoned him.
“That’s what I thought, yes.” She replied to him simply. “And I think we should go today.”
Arthur stood and planted his hands on the table. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Wilson. I gotta go…figure this out. I’ll be in town, but I don’t think I can manage this now.”
“I understand.” She remained seated as he crossed to the coat rack, reaching for his coat. “I’d watch out though. If you spend a couple days in town, you might run into him sooner than later. He’s been keen on errands lately.”
Arthur nodded, placing his hat on his head. He watched her a moment, seeing for the first time the way Eliza’s face may have aged if she’d lived. “Thanks.”
She dipped her chin. “Take care, Arthur. You know where to find me.”
He shut the door behind him and walked mechanically to his horse and kicked off. He had to get the hell out of there. His chest was tight, the same way it was when he’d returned for the last time, to the small cabin in the woods.
Two crosses stood upright in the yard, and the door hung open on its hinges like a gaping mouth. Arthur fell to his knees, a wordless cry on his lips. They were gone.
He thought he tried, he had made peace with it. This opened a wound in him, fresh as it was ten years ago. He felt it must have been as clear to anyone else as it was to him, as clear the raw and healing scars on John’s face.
To Valentine he flew, down the trail, hurtling past a few folks before slowing down.
Arthur waved off the shouts, apologizing. He hitched his horse and entered the hotel. The innkeeper looked up from his book with a pleasant expression before it dissolved into a squint.
“Anyone here by the name of Jim Milton?” He asked.
The man at the desk looked at his book, and back at Arthur. “You here to cause trouble?”
“I ain’t looking for it.” He pointed at the book. “He came in here with a boy, about four or five years old?”
“Room 2C, upstairs. Don’t make me call the law on you.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. He, at least, was well past that. “Can I get a room as well?”
“Sure. 2B. Here’s the key.” The man passed it to him, heavy and brass. Arthur pocketed it and ascended the stairs.
Finding 2C, he knocked on the door. John opened it, a revolver preceding his face, and let him in. Jack was asleep in the plush armchair in the corner, in a set of plaid pajamas Hosea purchased for the boy’s birthday. They were almost too small already.
“Find anything useful?” John asked, his voice low.
Arthur sighed. “Not really. I’m gonna stay in town a few days, lie low and see if it warrants another look.” He looked over at Jack and swallowed the fear and shame clawing its way up his throat. “How’s he doing?”
John sat in one of the other chairs, and Arthur leaned on the dresser. “Doctor said he just ate somethin’ that put him off. Should be right as rain by morning.”
“That’s what I’d figured. Glad he’s doing alright.”
John ran a hand through his hair. “Me too. You comin’ back with us tomorrow morning?”
Arthur shook his head. “Nah. I gotta stay in town for a few days and figure some of this out.”
“You let me know if you need anything, brother.” John approached him with his hand out and grasped Arthur’s forearm.
“Thanks, John. Appreciate it. Let them know back at camp, would you?” Arthur stood and opened the door. “I’ll be next door if you or the boy need anything.”
John nodded with upturned lips, shutting the door behind him.
Thanks again, y'all. New chapter will be up shortly. I'm surprising myself and making pretty quick work of this thing.
This next chapter will be the end of this little shindig, but if any of y'all are itching for more after that, all you gotta do is drop me a line.
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A mirror looks back at our favorite cowboy.
This is the last installment of this little story. Please let me know if you're interested in a sequel, as I'm already playing around with a few ideas.
Thank you all for taking this ride with me. You are all wonderful and it's difficult for me to express the depth of my gratitude for your support and kind words!
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It wasn’t long until Arthur’s avoidance caught up with him. He’d been in Valentine for a day and a half, skittish and withdrawn, spending much of his time peering out of his hotel room window. However, he knew eventually that he would have to head down to the store to pick up supplies for camp – it was the least he could do.
He was browsing for candy in the Valentine General Store, wracking his brain for Jack’s favorite treat, when the shop’s bell above the door alerted him to someone’s entrance.
Both he and the shopkeeper looked up. Arthur felt that feeling of his lungs falling out of his body again when his breath left him in a whoosh.
The boy was just as Emma described, about fifteen, with somewhat unkempt brown hair, blue eyes, and a strong nose. Eliza was in his lips, full and bowed and pursed now, focused. He worried over a couple tins of chewing tobacco and canned goods before moving toward the fresh fruit. He carried an old burlap bag under his arm, fine and sinewy from a childhood of work.
Arthur pried his eyes from the young man and looked back at the candy, unseeing. He found a bag of crunchy little sweets, paying for that and a fine silver comb for Karen.
He turned on his heel and left as the boy approached the counter, speaking to the shopkeeper with a pleasant and friendly tenor voice. Arthur was alarmed to find that he recognized it as his own from youth. He shook his head, pulled his hat down over his brow, and pushed through the door, pocketing the candy and the comb as he ducked into the alleyway between the store and the saloon.
You don’t get to live a bad life and have good things happen to you. It was something he always thought, but hadn’t shared with anyone. He didn’t need to. His life was proof enough. First Eliza and Isaac, then Mary, all the way up to Blackwater and losing Davey in Colter. They were running, and hard. He would have to change something before he was even allowed to think of this good thing. I can’t lose this. Not now. Not again.
Leaning heavily on a barrel, he caught his breath. Panic clawed up his chest and throat, and his breath wouldn’t slow. He swallowed bile that threatened to come up, and thought, oddly, of Mary.
She stood on her father’s porch. It was raining, and she was crying. “You’re a good man Arthur Morgan. I love you.” She let out a rough, ragged sob. “You will find what you’re looking for. I swear it.” Her handkerchief swatted at her eyes. It had been a gift from Arthur on her 20th birthday. “But it can’t be with me.”
Jamie was peering from the upstairs window, and Arthur figured the shadow behind the front window was Mr. Gillis. Watching. Waiting.
Her sniffling tears almost broke the dam inside Arthur. He removed his hat, letting the rain wet the crown of his head and fall down his face. He approached her, taking her shaking hands in his. “You’ll catch your death out here, sweetheart.”
She continued to cry, her breath catching oddly in her throat, but her shaky, watery smile broke through. “You’ll make a wonderful father and husband one day, you know. If only you learned to get over yourself.” Mary turned on her heel and ran inside, shutting the door behind her.
Breathing in the memory of her words, he was able to steady himself, his hands on his knees. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuckfuckfuckfuck. Get over yourself. It’s that easy, Morgan.
It wasn’t like him to lose it, not like this. He wasn’t Micah, or Javier. He was steady, reliant. But if there was anything to wind yourself up about, this would be it. He laughed at himself then, quiet and under his breath.
He thought of Eliza. The soft touch of her fingers on his jaw, the way she laughed, and the way she loved their son, and raised him on her own. She’s the strongest person I know. If she can do it with a smile, I should at least try, goddamn it.
He didn’t have much time before the bell above the door twinkled again, and the boy was on the stoop. From here, he could really see him. He was tall, but not lanky. There was a strong and wide set to his shoulders that would better suit him when he was truly a man. The last time Arthur had seen him, he’d been Jack’s age, maybe a little older. He could only hope, pray that he had been around enough for it to make a difference now.
Arthur threw his bets to the wind, and swallowed the last of his panic, choosing instead to channel the women he loved and respected to his core. They handled me. Now it’s time for me to handle this, on my own.
“Isaac.” He called, and immediately regretted it. He wasn’t Dutch, lacking both honest charisma and a plan.
The boy turned, confused. When he saw Arthur, his eyes screwed up into a squint, and he took two steps forward, his mouth grew slack as he studied the older man. The suspicion on his brow dissolved into recognition after a few moments of tense, awkward silence.
Arthur, meanwhile, could feel his own insecurity and bewilderment reflecting off of him. If he had to explain….well. That would be another battle.
He tried to start with something. Anything. “I, uh –“
Arthur was cut off by the sheer force of Isaac throwing himself into his chest. The boy gripped the back of his jacket as if he’d never let go, and Arthur couldn’t breathe. He felt warm breath curling into his shirt, as heavy and fast as his had been moments prior. After a moment’s hesitation, he brought his arms around and completed the embrace, holding tightly to the young man. He tucked his face into his hair, breathing him in deep like he’d always done with Eliza.
“Pa!” Isaac squealed as he wriggled from Eliza’s grasp, recently five years old.
“My boy,” Arthur crowed, catching him as he leapt into his arms. He kissed the crown of his son’s head, feeling the joy radiate from his tiny body. Arthur threw him up in the air, bringing him back down and tickling him breathless. “I brought you something.”
Isaac grinned and wrapped his arms around Arthur’s neck, laying his head in the crook between his neck and his shoulder as he dug around in his satchel. Arthur could still easily carry him with one arm, but he was getting bigger by the foot every time he visited.
Eliza watched from the porch, leaning on the rail. She wore her hair up and elegant with a white ribbon, and a robin-egg blue frock that stood out like a beacon in the woods. Watching as Arthur pulled a children’s book from his bag, she thought on how simply lucky she was. Not many women could claim men who loved their children and spoiled them rotten, especially when said children had not been planned, or the couple married.
“Ready to come inside, you two?” There was a smile in her voice.
Arthur, Isaac on his hip, crossed the yard, wrapping his free arm around Eliza and pressing his face in her hair, breathing her in. “My girl.”
Her hands gripped the back of his jacket.
He could almost feel Eliza, wound around them both. They stayed that way for a moment before Isaac peeled himself backwards, the bag of groceries long forgotten in the mud by the stairs. He was a nearly proper man, with patchy, soft scruff growing around his chin.
I only hope I can teach him to shave, but some poor bastard probably beat me to it.
“You’re Arthur Morgan,” he said, resolute. There was something new in his eyes. Clarity. Confidence. Arthur recognized the look from his youth, and it seemed to cause his brain to sputter for a moment.
“You know me?” He heard the strangle of his own voice, and could feel the quaking of his gut and the wobbly uncertainty of his knees. What a terrible and obvious thing to say. Christ, am I getting old.
“Of course I know you.” Isaac ran a hand through his hair and laughed breathlessly. Arthur’s chest squeezed. Both habits were Eliza’s. “You’re my pa. My real pa.”
Regaining much of his sense and becoming aware of the bystanders that had taken notice of them, Arthur grabbed Isaac’s arm and hauled him around the back of the store, out of sight. He couldn’t afford prying eyes. “Isaac, how….”
He had so many questions, and those questions only invited more questions. There simply wasn’t a place to start.
Isaac bit his bottom lip, worrying it and thinking. Suddenly, his breath came back to him and he started in a rush. “There’s not a lot to it, really. My mother hid me when she heard the men coming. She thought they were you, at first, but there were too many of them.” Isaac swallowed, his eyes wandering. “She told me to hide under the back steps and stay as quiet as I could. I don’t really remember what happened next, but my neighbors, they took me in.”
She knelt to his level and took him by the shoulders. The pattering of multiple horses threatened at the path by their door. He didn’t understand.
“Get under the back steps, my love. Cover your ears. Close your eyes. Momma will be back to get you soon, but you have to be quiet. You remember what we talked about?”
Isaac nodded and started to cry as he ran to the back of the house, folding himself in his secret spot, familiar to him since he could walk.
This was always their contingency plan. Eliza stood in the kitchen, defiant, as the men penetrated their home.
Arthur looked at the ground, then looked into his own eyes, staring back at him. “There were two crosses.” He pause, shaking his head. Then, explaining further. “When I went to you both, I found two crosses in the yard. They’d told me both of you had…gone.” He finished lamely, not wanting to relieve the particular agony of that moment.
Isaac shrugged. “Someone made a mistake.” He said it simply, like it was the easiest thing in the world.
Arthur was alarmed to find the boy, almost a man, not altogether dissimilar from himself at this age. “…a mistake?” That’s one hell of a mistake. It was probably the government, with a fuck-up that huge. Arthur’s mind was reeling. So he was safe, all this time. Why didn’t…? “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
It seemed a selfish, stupid question, but Isaac seemed to understand. Arthur was still floored by his own son’s calm, as if he’d been expecting to run into him at some point. In all likelihood, he probably had expected to run into me. After all, his death was a one-sided affair.
Arthur tried to remember what he was like at this age. Certainly not this collected. He’d watched his father hang and found Dutch a few months later, at that point. He had a hotter temperament than his son, but could see the same tenacious vibration in Isaac that had calcified to anger in himself. What would turn to stone in Isaac?
“My neighbors, the Treems, they didn’t know how to get in contact with you. I –“ His brow furrowed, trying to remember, and Arthur hung on every word. “I think I remember telling them you did something dangerous for a living, like ma had told me as a little kid – she told me often and early because she knew how important it was. She’d always burned your letters after receiving them so they couldn’t find anything about you if there was trouble. She never told me where she wrote for you. The Treems were worried by that, of course, but they had enough money to keep me with them and their other kids, so they did.”
“And you kept your given name? Isaac?”
“They offered to give me another one, sure, but I knew my name, so it seemed silly to change it over nothin’. I didn’t much care for last names, so I was just Isaac Treem from then on.” He shrugged. “Of course I didn’t think much of it. Ma never really could figure out what my last name was anyways, whether it was hers or yours.” Isaac chuckled warmly. It stirred something in Arthur. “She bounced from Evans to Morgan depending on the company.” He sighed, growing resigned and something else Arthur couldn’t read. “I was five. We moved out here shortly after, anyways.”
Right. Of course. He was hardly a child, a toddler even. Arthur looked at him, now searching up and down for signs of illness, injury. “And they raised you alright? You’re safe?”
Isaac smiled at him with one side of his mouth. “Yeah, I’m just fine.” His mouth pinched up mournfully, and it aged him such that Arthur thought he was looking in a mirror. “They’d always told me my pa was out there somewhere, and that he probably missed me’n everything, and that my ma always loved me and all that.”
Arthur couldn’t help it. He pulled the boy in by the shoulder and held him close. Isaac wrapped his arms around him, under his jacket, burrowing like a child, with his head tucked under Arthur’s chin.
“I’m happy to see you, son.”
“I’m happy to see you too, pa.”
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All my love,
We continue with our favorite cowboy and his boy!
Remember how I said the last chapter was the end? I LIED!
More at the end. Love you all.
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Arthur and Isaac returned to the hotel, where Isaac wrote a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Treem. His handwriting was neat and fluent, clearly learned at a young age and well-practiced. Arthur admired his focus and found Eliza in the crease between his brows. His shoulders were hunched over the small table, the pencil gripped tightly in his hand.
Every so often, Isaac would whip his head up, looking at Arthur for a moment and then return to his work, as if he was afraid Arthur would disappear if he kept his eyes from him for too long. Arthur made sure to stay within his line of sight, writing in his own journal and sketching his son where he sat.
I met my son today, as I was warned I would, by Emma three days ago. It has been a strange few hours.
He’s a kind and attentive boy, nearly a man now. I see much of myself in him, though he’s not as angry and wild as I was. Makes sense, considering he didn’t see his mother die slowly of illness and his father hang. I hope for us all that Isaac can grow without this hardness.
Perhaps I understand John’s feeling more now. I don’t think I can be a good man or father, less so now than when I first found Eliza pregnant. He’s still a right idiot for leaving Abigail and his boy the way he did, and I’ll tell him that every time.
Looking my son in the eye, though. I could never part with him now. It was nearly impossible when he was a child, and it took everything I had to leave he and Eliza every time. Now he’s here, with me. I don’t rightly know if I can ever leave him again.
The evening passed quietly, the men focused on their respective tasks. When Isaac finished his lengthy letter, he folded it and sealed it with the wax from the candle beside him. He sighed, heavily, and sat back in his chair and shook his hand out. What little nightlife existed in Valentine was starting to stir. Men shouting inside the saloon across the street, horses and stagecoaches rolling through town. The hotel remained quiet, save for the few women soliciting near the front door.
Seems safe enough. He checked on his revolver, loaded on his off-hand side. Time for some provisions. He must be a little hungry at least.
“Want some food, kiddo?”
Isaac, still massaging his hand, nodded. “Sure, pa. Downstairs? They’ve got a decent lamb stew.”
“That’s what I was thinkin’ about. My favorite meal in town.”
Isaac grinned at him. “Me too.”
The pair meandered downstairs, where Arthur bought dinner for the boy.
"I'll drop your letter for you at the post office, and be back real soon," Arthur assured him with a hand on his shoulder.
Isaac smiled at him and dug into the lamb stew. “I’ll be here.”
Arthur walked purposefully toward his horse, the letter tucked safely into his satchel. He mounted and rode quickly, taking stock of both himself and grounding himself in what was rapidly becoming an alarming change to his daily life.
My son isn’t dead. My son is here. He’s eating dinner that I paid for, in a place I know. He’s safe. He’s with me. He’s here. My son is here. He’s….
His monologue was spinning out faster than he could catch up with it, so he halted it altogether. He heard Hosea, speaking to him when he’d returned from finding those crosses in that yard and couldn’t leave his cot for five days.
My boy, you tell yourself what is true until it sinks into your head. It will hurt. It will always hurt and it will never really heal, but as long as you tell yourself what’s true, you will survive this. I promise.
He’d said such things with the authority of a man who knew. He’d lost Bessie that summer, and Arthur lost Eliza and Isaac in the fall, before the first snow. It was a hard year, but they pulled through. They always pulled through.
As if on autopilot, Arthur placed the letter in the box, paying for express. The young man swiped the letter and stuck it in his bag right away, emboldened by Arthur's heavy tip. He jogged back to his horse, mounting and riding back into town. He caught sight of the house where he met Mary a couple weeks ago. She still there? If she writes again, I’ll have a few things to tell her this time.
Spurring his mount onward, Arthur arrived back at the hotel in record time, joining Isaac again with his own bowl of stew. He laid into it, not realizing how hungry he was. The men were silent, focused on their food. The bartender gave them plenty of space, likely deterred by the four sidearms between the two men.
When they finished, Arthur looked at his son, who’d brought a book down. He was reading with a focus admirable at the loud bar. He placed a hand on his shoulder. “Ready to head back up and pack?”
“Yeah, pa. I’m ready.” He glanced up at Arthur and flashed a smile, closing his book and tucking it under his arm.
They climbed the stairs and found their little temporary home, the twin beds and wash basin set and ready for their night in. Isaac returned to the desk, where his fine fountain pen rested by the candle. Arthur thought with a fondness about Mary-Beth. He had a feeling Isaac and she would get along like fire and gasoline.
"That was an exceptionally odd letter to write," he said. He looked at Arthur, fully, for the first time since they'd arrived. He saw his father, the man he'd become in the absence of him and his mother. He was weathered and worn, but the care and warmth he remembered were viscerally present and real. Isaac felt safe, protected. His early childhood was stuffed with this feeling, the memories bursting with a sense of stability that had been absent since his mother’s death. Flashes of memory, more feeling than an image, flew through his mind.
The inside of Arthur’s hunting jacket – soft fleece and a loud, strong heartbeat in front of the cabin fire. He fell in and out of sleep on Arthur’s chest, his tiny body fitting neatly on top of a broad, reclined torso. Fingers carded through his hair, smelling of gunpowder and teak wood.
His mother’s arms around him, a large hand on his back. The hand rubbed circles as his mother rocked him back and forth and back and forth. Eliza and Arthur spoke quietly, affectionally, in hushed tones.
Trotting circles in the front yard on Boadicea, feeling the wind and laughter and none of the danger. Eliza was on the porch, leaning on the rail. He waved to her, and she smiled at him. Arthur’s hands steadied him and Boadicea seemed to be laughing with them.
He hadn’t realized he was missing it until the feeling returned the moment he saw his own eyes in the face of his father.
Arthur looked up from his journal, a small piece of his too-long hair falling in front of his eyes. “I can’t even imagine.” He gestured to his journal. “I’m having trouble explaining it even to myself.”
Isaac studied Arthur. “What do you write in there?”
Arthur thumbed through the journal, tracing over sketches of Abigail, Sadie, Pearson, the old church he ran into in Lemoyne, Hosea with his coffee. “Things I see’n experience and all that. It helps me make sense of things and remember where I’ve been and what I’ve done.”
Isaac’s mouth quirked, thinking. “When did you start that one?” He craned his neck to better see the warped and worn pages. “It looks really full.”
Arthur flipped back to his first entry, dated before Blackwater. “A few months back, but these last few months have been…unusually eventful.” One side of Arthur’s mouth ticked up. That was the understatement of the century.
“Why’s that?” The innocence in the question belied Isaac’s sheltered, safe upbringing – painfully and purposefully separate from Arthur’s influence.
It was then that Arthur realized Isaac wouldn't couldn't know the nature of his life. How can I keep him from this? Can I? Should I? It’s the reason I wasn’t there in the first place I should have been there I should have -
He decided to start somewhere else. “Your momma told you I did something dangerous for a living, right?”
Isaac nodded and shuffled forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees, hands folded out in front of him.
And now the hard part. "I – well, I run with a …a group of men –"
“A gang, you mean.” Isaac’s eyes lit up, and Arthur smiled before he could restrain himself. He is my son.
“I suppose, yes.” Arthur watched Isaac carefully, as the wheels turned.
“Which one? The Lemoyne Raiders? The O’Driscoll Boys? Laramie Boys?” The gangs rattled off his tongue with ease. He was well-versed, having followed such groups since he was a child.
His brother Bailey ran to him, passing him a wanted poster. Colm O’Driscoll’s sketch scowled back at him. Isaac looked up at him, gripping the poster with both hands. “No way!”
They were twelve, and their mother was making stew in the kitchen. “You boys collecting those wanted posters again?”
Bailey looked over his shoulder from where he was braced on the table next to Isaac. “We have to keep up ma! If the farm fails, we gotta have a backup plan”
Mrs. Treem rolled her eyes, returning to her cooking. She felt a prickle of fear for Isaac. Her sweet boy was closer to that then he realized. But he was home now, and steady with her children, finding a place easily in her heart. “You won’t have to worry about that, boys. Focus on your letters and forms and you can become an accountant.”
The boys dutifully ignored her. Nothing was more unappetizing to the imagination than accounting. “Rumor has it, Colm killed Dutch Van der Linde’s girl a few years back, and they’ve been feuding ever since. There are a few towns out west that were caught in the crossfire.” Seeing Isaac’s fascination in his wide eyes, Bailey continued. “It was gruesome!” The boys poured over the poster, taking note of the bounty.
“They say he’s been in Lemoyne – it’s in the newspaper.” Isaac, eager to contribute, kept his eyes on the poster. “Have you heard how high the bounty is for Dutch Van der Linde in Blackwater? I hear its ten thousand!”
Bailey shook his head. “I’d turn myself in for that kind of money.”
Mrs. Treem smiled. What she could do with ten thousand dollars, she could hardly name. She listened to her oldest boys with a smile and prayed they escaped life without a bounty on their heads.
Arthur startled. He’s more well informed than I thought. Arthur’s uncertainty turned in his stomach – in one respect feeling more comfortable in the face of Isaac’s awe and excitement, but also fear. Would Isaac turn comfortably in this life as he had? Could he rip him away from this? Pull him to safety before “Van der Linde.”
Isaac's eyes widened even further if that was possible. He was on the edge of his seat, listening. "Dutch Van der Linde?”
Shit. “The very same.” Arthur watched his son, thinking again about how he was Isaac’s age when Dutch found him and brought him in.
Isaac was quiet for a moment. He was thinking, waiting, rolling words around in his mouth before he spoke them aloud. His mouth pinched up again. “I’m a good shot’n everything.”
“Beautiful shot, son!” Mr. Treem crowed from his position behind Isaac’s shoulder.
Isaac beamed, his small hands managing to keep a decent grip on the revolver in his hand. It was a gift from his adopted grandfather, with stunning and well-kept silver and pearl inlay in a paisley pattern. It still looked far too large for his hands.
He took another shot, and it found its mark: a small can of what used to be beans. Isaac was a sure and confident shot, much better than his brother of the same age. Mr. Treem smiled through his gulp. Isaac came by this skill honestly, it seemed. It was in his blood.
Arthur’s pride swelled in his chest, but the growing unease was creeping through his shoulders. “I’d like to tell you that you won’t need to be a good shot, but I won’t lie to you, son – that will be called upon you more than you know,” he said. Channeling Dutch. He wet his lips and continued. "That is if you even want to come with me. I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to go back home and live out your life doing something reasonable and stable.”
Isaac grinned at him. “I’ve never wanted anything less in my life.” He puffed his chest out. “It’s in my blood.”
Lord, forgive me. Forget the Pinkertons, if Eliza could kill me from heaven, she certainly would.
This story stuck with me so stubbornly that I just /had/ to continue. I will be updating regularly, and already have the next three chapters written and ready for editing.
As always, thank you all for your support and I am so excited to hear what you all think. Your feedback means the world to me.
Also if any of you want links to the playlists I made for some of these rootin' tootin' cowfolk, I can link them in the notes next time.
Next chapter up soon!
The boys return home, and introductions are in order.
It was nearly three o’clock in the morning when they packed their horses and took off, with only a few drunken saloon patrons watching them with a glazed, vacant look. Isaac had very little on his beautiful, young, Pinto mare – only a change of clothes and a revolver.
Arthur led the way, keeping his heels insistently in his horse's side. She really needed a name. Isaac followed well and rode beautifully. No wonder at that. He was on a horse with me before he could walk. It was second nature to both men, and they were happy to ride in silence.
They approached Clemens point, ducking into the narrow path with a wave of Arthur’s arm.
“Who’s there?” Arthur heard Charles’s voice and the cock of his gun.
"It's Arthur and a friend." The pair flew by and he waved to Charles, hoping to avoid a conversation. Isaac, thankfully, remained quiet and followed closely behind Arthur.
"Hey, Arthur." He saw Charles relax against the tree where he stood, his gun returning to his shoulder. He gave Arthur a lazy salute – a habit he’d picked up in the last few weeks.
The pair hitched their horses at the far station by Kieran’s makeshift home. Arthur was surprised by the quiet stillness of camp. He could usually count on Javier to be up playing, or Reverend Swanson to be drunkenly shouting about something. The restless members of the camp were either sleeping or away for some reason or another. Arthur was mostly relieved by Micah's absence.
They passed Kieran, sleeping peacefully propped on a set of barrels next to his bedroll. He’d begun to like the kid. For an outsider, he had a good handle on the horses and groomed them well. He seemed more at ease among them than the people they carried. Arthur noticed his favoring of Thoreau, Mary-Beth’s mount. There was a sweetness in his attention that the other men in camp lacked. Mary-Beth’s own gentle disposition aligned nicely with Kieran’s. Maybe they can rise above all…this. Learn from our mistakes..
Sean wasn’t in his tent, nor was he by his usual drunken haunt by Bill’s tent. Karen’s usual snore was notably absent as well, and Arthur allowed himself a private smile. Those two…He’d heard Karen’s gossip with Tilly enough to know that while Sean was apparently ‘deeply unsatisfying,’ she always returned for more.
Cain’s tail thumped into the dirt as they passed, his lithe grey body pressed happily between Hosea and Bill under the lean-to. Hosea’s soft snore and rattling chest was the only thing that belied his age as he slept. He seemed to lose twenty years in his face without the stress of the day resting on his brows.
Abigail was awake, wrapped in a blanket at the fire. She raised a hand to Arthur in greeting but faltered when she saw the young man beside him. Arthur returned, waving. Her smile was soft, and the fire illuminated the raw beauty in her, surrounding her with stillness and quiet.
Arthur woke from a start out of a nightmare, sitting up in his cot, drenched in a cold sweat. He shook off his dream and rose, throwing a coat and jeans over his union suit. Warming himself by the fire seemed like the best use of his time, and hopefully, he would be able to return to something that looked like sleep within the hour.
He’d stared at the ground as he approached the fire, and was startled upon looking up to find Abigail there, wrapped in a blanket and only dressed in her nightgown. Her hair was disheveled, falling out of its braid. She looked tired to the bone, and her bare feet shuffled on the desert floor.
Arthur sat down next to her, and she pressed her shoulder to his, laying her head down. He wrapped an arm around her wordlessly. She tucked into his arm like she’d done a thousand times before. Despite the heat of the desert rising from beneath them, she shivered.
“You alright, Miss Roberts?” Arthur kept his voice low and kind, as to not wake any of the men near them.
She nodded, but she sniffled and wiped at her nose with the corner of her blanket.
Arthur stayed with her as she cried for a few minutes. He was at a loss, but figured she would share with him when she was ready. She always did.
“I’m afraid they’ll stop being nice to me when they’re finished havin’ me,” she said.
Arthur’s heart broke for her, and he tightened his grip on her, hoping to hold her together. “I don’t think that’s the case, darlin’ Abby.”
“How do you know? Dutch is already tired of me, been ignoring me for weeks.” She was sharp and cross, but he had been on the other end of Eliza’s sharp tongue before her death to know it wasn’t about him.
“I just…I know if they’re unkind to you…if you ever want to say no and not do that anymore, you can. You’re safe here.”
She was quiet, and he could feel the doubt radiating from her in waves.
“Abigail….” Arthur started. He looked down at her, and she met his eyes with her big brown ones. “If anyone of those bastards gives you trouble, you just let me know and I’ll handle it.” He meant every word, too. He’d lay into anyone – John, even –who took advantage of her.
She laughed: a bitter, hollow sound. “I’m already in trouble, Arthur.”
He heaved a sigh. He’d heard those words before. Anger flared in his chest. Bill, Javier, John, Dutch. When would they learn to be careful? Arthur had made that error only once before, and look where it got him. Interminable joy and grief rolled into one. “How long?”
“I’ve missed two, so maybe a couple months?” Her voice leaked shame. “I don’t know…”
Arthur kissed the top of her head. “We’ll take care of you and your little one, sweetheart. Don't worry a thing about it.”
“I think it’s John’s. I want it to be John’s. But I don’t know.” Her voice was still quiet, but her body shook with unshed tears. She looked up at him again. “I’ll need help, and I can’t do that to Dutch and Mrs. Grimshaw. I’ll join a convent and practice abstinence and become a nun and get out of your hair. I can’t ask you to take care of me and take on the consequences of my foolishness.” She spat her last thoughts toward the fire, full of hate and bitterness.
"Yes, you can. You're our family now." Arthur’s reminder was gentle, but he couldn’t help but scoff at her.. “And if nobody steps up, I’ll always be here.”
“Thanks.” It was more loaded than either one was willing to admit.
Abigail was a gift.
The women slept in their lean-to behind Abigail, Mary-Beth curled around Tilly, who was tucked under an elk-hide blanket. Again, Arthur noted the empty space where Karen’s drunken snoring usually doused the sounds of the fire. Sadie was separate, on her own bedroll on the other side of the tent, wrapped in the heavy wolf hides Arthur picked up for her the week prior. She was the only one plagued by restlessness in her sleep. She tossed and turned and murmured. They often sat together at the poker table late into the night, sharing a restless but companionable silence.
Isaac looked around, taking it all in at his own pace. Arthur waited on him as he looked out across the bay, to Pearson’s kitchen, to the sleeping members of Arthur’s family all tucked up in their tents.
Arthur looked back at Abigail, who was watching them from the corner of her eye, pretending to look studiously at the fire. “Here,” he said. “I want you to meet somebody before we go off to bed.”
Isaac looked at him, puzzled. “I have a bed?”
Arthur laughed through his nose. “Not exactly, but you can have mine. We’ll figure out more in the morning and stop by your folks’ place to grab your things.”
Isaac nodded and followed Arthur to the fire where Abigail, seeing them approach, shed her blanket and stood. She had an odd half-smile on her face like she couldn't properly believe what she saw in front of her.
He found him. Two Arthurs. Christ alive, help us.
There was no question who's boy this was. Unlike Jack, who took mostly after her and cast shadows on his likeness to the men in camp, Isaac kept Arthur close in his eyes, brows, and jaw. There was a soft kindness to his face that could have been Arthur, but she guessed was primarily Eliza. She'd never seen a picture and wasn't even sure Arthur had one.
"Abby darlin', this is my son, Isaac. Isaac, this is Abigail Roberts." Arthur spoke with pride, and with a smile, Abigail had never seen before. When he’d had the same pride, years ago, he was introducing her to Dutch for the first time.
“This is Abigail Roberts,” he said, an arm around her thin shoulders. The pair took three days to ride back to camp, swapping stories and growing closer by the day. They'd arrived at the western camp early in the morning, and Arthur was surprised to find Dutch awake. Cassie, Dutch's flavor of the month, was still sleeping in the large ten, her curly t.
Abigail grinned at Dutch, ducking under Arthur’s arm, and stuck out her hand. “I’m very interested in your philosophy, Mr. Van der Linde, and would be happy to contribute to your vision if you'd have me."
Dutch smiled at her, shaking her hand with one of his and holding a cigar with another. He kissed her hand. “Pleasure is all mine, Miss Roberts.”
He turned his eyes to Arthur, who’s lips were upturned. Dutch figured if Arthur wasn’t already in love with her, it wouldn’t take long to get there.
She held out her hand. “The pleasure is all mine, Isaac.” He shook it, and she pulled him close for a moment, whispering conspiratorially. “Welcome home.”
Isaac smiled. He liked her already. She wasn’t that far off from his own age – maybe six or seven years - and had a youthful kindness to her face "Thank you, Miss Roberts." He looked up at Arthur. "Happy to be here."
She smiled warmly at him, “Abigail, please.” Her smile moved to Arthur, and she rested a hand on his arm. “You’ll meet the rest of our little family tomorrow morning, I’m sure.”
Isaac noticed, narrowing in on the way her fingers traced the rough fabric with tenderness and affection. What was that? Are they…?
Abigail caught him looking and gave him a soft smile. Perhaps one day, she would have enough of a vocabulary to articulate her relationship with Arthur – how special he was to her, and how much she loved him, but not like that. Maybe she would never have the words, but she felt it all the same.
“I think there was one time I thought I loved you, Arthur.”
They were in the meadow outside the Blackwater camp. Arthur was propped against his favorite tree, cleaning his revolver with focus and attention. Abigail picked absentmindedly at the grass around her, letting the informal clippings fall from her fingers. The sun was warm on her face, and the breeze lifted the ends of her hair that hung out of bounds around her face.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d be hurt by that, Miss Roberts.” He didn’t look up at her, but there was a smile playing at his lips.
“Well,” Abigail said from her place on the grass, “it’s a good thing you know better, then.”
Jack was horsing around with John farther away, out of earshot. Abigail watched them with ambivalence in her eyes and a thin smile at her lips.. Arthur knew how she struggled with John’s return.
“Was there a point to that thought, or did you just want to hurt an old man?” His revolver was clean at this point, but the repetitive motion relaxed him, easing the tension from his shoulders as he lightly teased his dearest friend.
She rolled her eyes, leaning back on her elbows. “You’re not an old man. Silly, maybe, but not old.”
He smiled at her and raised his eyebrows, inviting her to continue.
She obliged. “I think what I meant…You know I just never wanted to marry you or nothin’. But – you know…you’re just…” she stared down at her shoed feet, tapping together anxiously. “You’re important to me, Arthur. Important to us.” She looked out at Jack and John again.
Arthur set his tools in his lap and looked at her. “That’s very kind of you, Abigail.”
“I mean it.” She quirked a grin at him. “And don’t you dare forget it.”
He shook his head, laughing to himself. He’d be a fool to forget something like that.
They’d both grown since then, but the affection lingered in their looks and touches and the little chores they shared when they could. It lingered in Jack, too, and how he often came to Arthur before John.
“I’ll let you boys get to sleep. Goodnight, now.” She wrapped herself in her blanket, returning to her place by the fire. As the men walked away, she trained her eyes on Jack, sleeping peacefully in the hollow of John’s protective body. A great sense of balance washed over her. There were choices to make, lifestyles to evaluate, and a pair of precious boys to keep safe.
This chapter is a birthday present to myself, as I'm so happy with it (and my birthday is Thursday!). Let me know what you think. I always love to hear your feedback. This comes to you un-beta'd, so please let me know if there are any glaring errors.
Drop me a line @winterscaptain on tumblr. Send a request, ask for a headcanon, or simply say hello!
All my love,
Sadie, John, and Charles! Oh my!
In which young Isaac gets to meet the rest of the family and Arthur evaluates.
In the morning, Arthur woke with a start, not immediately remembering why he was sleeping on the floor. He sat for a moment, letting his brain adjust. The events of the past 24 hours had him reeling – if he blinked, he was sure it would all disappear. But there was Isaac, in the early light of the morning, curled up under a blanket on Arthur’s cot, sleeping peacefully.
Arthur rubbed his eyes and stood, shaking the last dregs of sleep out of his shoulders. First things first, need to talk to Dutch.
He closed the distance between his tent and Dutch’s, listening closely. He heard a rustling, and then the unmistakable sound of Molly’s illicit gasps…and was that a moan?
Jesus. With a raise of his eyebrows, he shook that image out of his head, turned heel, and headed toward the campfire, where Hosea, John, and Tilly were starting the morning early.
The man in question looked up a smile on his face. "My boy, I hear you have something new for us."
“You could say that, yeah,” Arthur said. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Hosea stood, clapping a hand on Arthur’s shoulder and guiding him toward the horses and chickens, where at least if they were overheard it would be by the sleeping Abigail and Mary-Beth. Arthur could feel John’s eyes on him as they left, curious and warm.
Arthur breathed deeply, looking out on the water before he spoke. “The boy – the – he,” The inability to articulate his thoughts was frustrating.
Hosea understood. He watched Arthur with warmth. If he had faith in anything it was his first and favorite son, blood or not. “Tell me, dear boy.”
“The boy I brought in last night.” He shuddered a breath. “My Isaac. I found him. He’s alive. And he’s here.”
Arthur returned to camp that night and looked like he’d aged ten years in a day. Hosea had stayed up waiting for him, a rare cup of tea held in his hands. He waved Arthur to the table of their small camp, and arrived and sat heavily.
Hosea said nothing, waiting for Arthur to speak. He knew he’d seen his family today, which with came its own kind of sadness and grief each time. He counted his blessings, each time Arthur returned, that Bessie was willing to come with him on his wild adventure of life. This time was different.
“They’re gone,” Arthur said, finally. “Some fuckin’ bastards rolled through and killed the both of them. They were down to their last ten dollars. I was –“ he cleared his throat, “I was too late.” He coughed, choking down a sob. He swiped angrily at his eyes as the tears fell, unbidden.
Hosea leaned forward, covering his son’s hands with his own. “There’s nothing you could have done.”
Arthur looked up at him. He looked a hundred years old. “That’s where you’re wrong. I could have done everything, anything else.”
Hosea studied Arthur, taking in the news with a grace characteristic and unsurprising of the old outlaw. He saw the worn weariness in his blue eyes and could see the weight of…everything on his shoulders. He’d been at this too long without someone by his side, someone he loved and cared about above all else. Hosea feared Arthur’s devotion to Dutch had cut into him. Arthur had given everything for Dutch – his commitment to Eliza and Isaac, his failed engagement to Mary. He was choked into this family, all others cut off from his wild and violent world.
Arthur hung his head, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “I don’t rightly know if I can do this, Hosea. I’m not like you.”
Hosea pressed a hand to Arthur’s shoulder. “No, you’re not. You’re not like me.”
Arthur flinched, shrugging the hand off his shoulder.
Hosea laughed lightly. “You misunderstand me, my boy.” He searched for Arthur’s eyes again – they’d fallen to the ground. “You’re not like me. You’re not like Dutch.” He lowered his voice and stepped forward, close and tense. “Which means you’ll make it out alive. With your boy. With your family.”
Arthur looked up at Hosea, his eyes wide with alarm. “You can’t mean-“
“Of course that’s what I mean.” Hosea looked furtively from one end of camp to the other, make sure they were free of prying ears. “You, John, Abby, and your boys can get out of here. Intact. In one piece. That’s more than I can say for Dutch or myself or Lenny or anyone else who’s ever lost someone to this business.”
Arthur sputtered for a moment. He didn’t understand. How...?
“Hosea, I can’t just leave. This is my family.”
“You have something more important now. You lost him once to us, don’t lose your boy again.” He exhaled heavily through his nose, and suddenly Arthur could see just how old Hosea had become, seemingly all at once. “You have to go.” He leaned forward. “Yours and John’s family. You have a chance.”
Arthur turned on his heel and walked away. Hosea was the closest he had to a father, even before Dutch. He fought the feeling of betrayal, knowing only that Hosea had his safety and the safety of his son in mind. He would be lying if he didn’t know Hosea was right. Dutch was rapidly turning away from the ethics he held dear, and it was becoming more dangerous for them by the day. Still hard to hear. He’s right, but…
He crossed back to his tent, where Isaac was stirring, but still asleep. Arthur swiped his journal from the table and penned a quick sketch of finding Isaac in Valentine, trying to note the way his eyes screwed up to look at him the day prior.
As Isaac rose, and Arthur snapped his journal shut and bound it, slipping it in his bag. The young man rubbed his eyes, sitting up in the cot.
“Sleep okay?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah, like the dead actually,” he said, and then laughed aloud at Arthur’s fallen face. He threw a hand in his hair. “I’m sorry – that was a terrible choice of words. I, ah –“
Arthur cracked a smile and laughed, standing. “It’s alright. You come by terrible word choice honestly, I’m afraid.”
Isaac smiled at him, slipping on an over shirt and buttoning his suspenders.
Arthur led him to Dutch’s tent, where Molly was awake, dressed, and painting her lips. “He’s over by the lakeside,” she said without looking at them.
Isaac looked curiously at Arthur, who waved him off. He would explain later. Poor girl has been played for a fool.
They walked to the lakeside, where Dutch was smoking one of his indulgent and expensive cigars. He heard them approach, but continued to face the water. Distractions are the last thing we can afford.
“I hear you brought us a miracle, Arthur.” His tone was clipped, and laden with irony.
Arthur took a breath before answering, choosing to ignore the cruelty in the glib greeting. "Dutch, this is my boy, Isaac." He flashed his son a quick, tight smile and placed a hand between his shoulder blades, encouraging and warm.
Lord if Bailey could see me now. “Mr. Van der Linde, it’s an honor to meet you, sir.” He swallowed, adopting a posture of deference with his head bent low and his hand ready to extend in greeting. He imagined he would feel similarly if he were to ever meet the king of Britain, or any other man that could have his head removed on command. He figured Dutch and King George weren’t much different, in that respect.
Dutch turned toward them for the first time, and there was a cold calculation to him Isaac didn’t expect, but he assumed was necessary to survive the life he lived. “Good to meet you, boy. I look forward to your pa having a better disposition now you’ve arrived.” He turned back. “Now if you gentlemen can leave me to my thoughts, I would deeply appreciate it.”
Isaac deflated, and Arthur quickly steered him away from Dutch, guiding him to Pearson’s tent, where the gang was gathering for coffee. Sadie and Abigail were in their usual haunt – back to the water, coffee in their hand, chatting lightly with Mary-Beth as she passed them to sit by her stump near the lake.
“Good morning, Isaac.” Abigail greeted him warmly, her shapr lilting pleasantly in the morning fog.
“Who’s this, Arthur?” Sadie’s friendly rasp immediately set Isaac at ease and he smiled.
"Isaac Morgan, ma'am." He stuck his hand out, and Sadie took it with a moment's hesitation. Her eyes flickered from Isaac up to Arthur and back again before she schooled her expression, making it warm once more. Arthur’s heart jumped when Isaac used his surname. It fit in his mouth so beautifully, and he certainly looked the part.
“Sadie Adler.” She pursed her lips and the crease returned to her brow. “Morgan, huh?”
Isaac nodded and Arthur stepped up beside him. “It’s a bit of a story, Mrs. Adler. Next time we go out to town, I’ll be sure to fill you in.” He winked at her, thinking fondly of their run-in with the Lemoyne Raiders. Now that was a story for the campfire. Isaac would love it.
“I’d like that,” Sadie said. Her lips upturned once more and she took a sip of her coffee. She usually had at least two cups before starting the day’s work with Pearson. It was a habit from the mountain. No use starting work if you weren’t good and warm and ready.
“Is this the friend from early this morning, Arthur?” Charles approached them, clapping Arthur on the shoulder.
“Yeah. Charles, this is my son, Isaac.” Arthur’s head buzzed every time he was able to say that out loud. My son. My son, Isaac.
“Welcome, Isaac. It will be good to have you.” Charles offered his arm, and Isaac took it in a warrior’s clasp.
“Good to meet you, Charles.” Isaac beamed at him. He was only a little confused by Charles’ ready acceptance of him. He seemed like a warm and friendly, if not more than a little reserved, man. Clearly a good friend to Arthur.
“Can you use a bow?” His deep brown eyes searched around Isaac’s face, making notes and marks of Arthur’s likeness as he went. He somehow missed this part of the story – the one where Arthur had a son, but he had made peace with all the things he had to learn. He’d only been here five months, after all.
Isaac shook his head. “Never tried. I could learn, though. I’m a decent shot.”
Charles nodded approvingly at him. “Let’s go tomorrow morning, dawn. You and me, with your father.” He smiled at Arthur. “He’s not so bad at it, really.”
Somehow, Isaac’s smile got brighter. He nodded.
It was not hard to recall the feeling of belonging the gang brought Art as a young man, even when it was just the five of them – Hosea, Dutch, Bessie, and Anabelle. Isaac had a family and unconditional love and stability and all the things he missed as a young man, but there was something special about the gang. The wildly different people cohabitating and breathing the same air and seeing the same sky, coming from everywhere with different stories, could intoxicate anyone feeling claustrophobic in their own dull life.
“Momma!” Jack’s shout punctuated the silence as he ran in his pajamas across the camp, leaping towards Abigail. She quickly poured the rest of her coffee into the dirt around the fire, kneeling to scoop Jack into her arms. She peppered him with kisses and shifted him to her hip.
"Good morning, my darling boy!" She nuzzled into his neck and he shrieked with laughter.
They performed this ritual every morning, as Jack was usually the last to wake before Uncle. He’d run to her starting the day he learned how to walk, but it never got old. Arthur especially loved it, cherished the joy Jack brought to camp.
John followed close behind his son, approaching Abigail and wrapping her in a warm embrace around Jack, kissing her forehead and closing his eyes. The rest of camp paused for a moment, pretending to and waiting. It was always a gamble with the Marston clan. Arthur’s lips upturned in a small smile.
"Goddamn you, John Marston!" Abigail's shout carried clear across the county. What he’d done exactly, was anybody’s guess. Arthur shrugged and returned to his journal.
He titled the sketch of a furious Abigail ‘Just another day at camp.’
“Good morning, my love.” His voice was low with sleep. This moment was for them, but by nature of their family, they all shared it together. Inside camp, everything was shared.
She smiled demurely at him. “Good morning, Mr. Marston.” She pressed her lips to the scars on his cheek. It was so painfully tender Arthur had to look away.
The little family looked alarmingly picturesque for a moment. The lack of shouting was odd, but everyone took the peace where they could get it. Sadie smiled into her coffee, but the lines around her eyes road mapped her grief. Arthur offered her a small smile, and she winked at him. Sweet woman.
John shuffled around Abigail and offered a hand to Isaac. “John Marston.”
“Isaac Morgan.” Isaac ducked out from around Arthur and grasped John’s hand with a smile.
John smiled as much as his puckered scars would allow. “It’ll be good to have you around, Isaac. Your pa’s been a real sore to us all.”
Arthur rolled his eyes and Isaac laughed. “The only sore here is you, John.”
John released Isaac’s hand and pressed a friendly hand to his shoulder. “You’ll have to join us – we’re fixing to rob a stage here in a few days. Good warmup.”
“Careful John,” Abigail said. “He’s only just got here.”
Before Arthur could say anything, a voice carried across camp and planted itself squarely in the middle of the peaceful fire. “I hear there’s a new bastard joining us!”
You’ve got to be shitting me.
Micah approached and clapped Isaac on the back. Arthur saw red. “Micah Bell. You Morgan’s boy? I heard a rumor.”
Before Isaac could respond, John threw himself at Micah, tackling him to the ground. He snatched his collar and dragged his chest off the ground, only inches between their faces. John’s legs had Micah pinned, a knee on his hip. It certainly didn’t look comfortable. Arthur drew his revolver from his off-hand holster and held it loosely by his side, watching wearily.
“What the fuck did you say, Bell?” John’s voice was dangerously quiet, and if everyone wasn’t fully awake before, they were then. Even Molly and Dutch turned, peeking around the large tent. Molly’s hands fluttered around Dutch’s chest, as if that would stop him if he wanted to intervene.
“I said, I hear there’s new bastard joining us.” Micah’s smirk tightened over his face. Arthur wanted to smack it into the dirt. He stepped forward, and Abigail grabbed at his sleeve impulsively, stalling his movement. Let John do right by you, Arthur. Let him show you.
John huffed down his nose with a humorless laugh. “You’re a goddamn fool, you know that? You keep your hands off our boys.” His eyes narrowed, jerking Micah by the collar. “You look at ‘em, talk to ‘em, hell, think about ‘em, I swear to God I’ll kill you if Arthur doesn’t get to you first.”
Arthur had crept forward slowly, creating a barrier between Abigail, Jack, and Isaac with his arm and outstretched palm. His brows were knit and his eyes cloudy. His other hand gripped his revolver a little tighter. Dangerous.
Micah struggled for a moment and John threw his elbow up and cocked his fist, ready to fly. A pair of broad hands landed on his shoulders, dragging him off Micah.
“He’s not worth it, John. I’d tell you if it was.” Charles, always level, steadied John on his feet, standing in front of him and pressing his hands deep into his shoulders. His eyes on John’s steadied the younger man, slowing his heavy breaths and soothing the tight set of his hands.
Abigail’s fingers remained lightly pinned to Arthur’s shirt, holding Jack in her free arm. She loosened her jaw, feeling the tightness radiate through the back of her head in the whisper of a headache. Jack clung to her, his fists gripping her shirtwaist to tightly she feared he might rip it. Isaac crowded in front of she and Jack, mirroring his father. It was almost funny, but perhaps in different circumstances.
She wasn’t concerned about John holding his own against Micah – quite the opposite. If he landed his punches like she knew he could, he would likely kill the bastard. And then where would they be. Lord. As pleasant as the thought was, Micah dead by John’s hand would cause a heap of trouble for all involved. Why Dutch is so fond of the snake, I will never know nor understand.
Arthur’s palm faced her, wide and protective. She pulled her fingers from his shirt and pressed them into his hand. He closed his fingers around hers, briefly reassuring, before opening them once more. She left her hand to rest loosely on his strong forearm. He almost leaned into her touch, but his back remained ramrod straight – coiled to pounce if needed. Isaac moved to accommodate her as Jack reached out for him. Isaac offered a hand without looking, focused on Micah and John. Jack grabbed two of Isaac’s fingers.
John straightened and impatiently swiped the dirt off his shirt, resetting his collar and suspenders. His scars added to the morning shadows on his face, disrupting his profile and reminding everyone how simply dangerous he was. He shot a glare to Micah, who’s smirk was still firmly planted on his face.
“You better wipe that off your mouth, boy,” said Mrs. Grimshaw. She’d appeared behind Abigail at some point. “Or I’m afraid Mister Morgan might have to do it for you.”
Micah knew better than to mouth off to Mrs. Grimshaw. He stood and slunk away from the group, replacing his hat on his head.
It was only when Micah was out of sight at the other scout fire that Arthur lowered his arms and everyone else took a collective breath. Isaac peered insistently at his father, who rolled out his shoulders and turned to him. Jack released Isaac and curled into Abigail.
“Pay Mr. Bell no mind. He hurts people for sport. Finds pleasure in it.” Arthur was gruff and frustrated, the commotion ruining his good humor – what little was left.
The side of Isaac’s mouth raised humorlessly. “Seems like a peach.”
“You could say that,” said Charles.
John chuckled. returned to Abigail, who pulled back from Arthur and tucked both herself and Jack into John’s chest. Jack was restless, struggling faintly in Abigail’s arms as he watched Tilly cross with the dirty laundry.
“He’s a piece of work, that one.” Abigail released Jack from her arms, and he wiggled to the ground and hopped off after Tilly, remarkably unperturbed by the altercation he’d witnessed. When he was out of sight, John kissed the crown of Abigail’s head.
“To be young and carefree,” Sadie snorted. She shook her head and took another sip of her coffee. “I hope for his sake he never grows up.”
Abigail smiled. “Hard to believe we were all that age, once. Especially Arthur.” She poked at his arm playfully and he was able to finally crack a smile.
“I wouldn’t go that far. I didn’t have half the momma he does, Miss Abigail.”
Abigail rolled her eyes and smacked his shoulder. Isaac could swear she muttered “Damn flirt” under her breath, but she wasn’t sure.
He smiled to himself. This was a family. Different, yes. But special.
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Brothers have a talk, and we meet Isaac's Noná.
Isaac settled in quick – finding sport in entertaining Jack by the lakeside. They built fortresses and wilting castles out of the mud.
Arthur and John sat at the poker table, playing without urgency. The camp was quiet. Dutch and the other men were in Rhodes, playing their terrible game of chicken between the Capulets and Montagues of the upper south.
John’s hand was decent, but he was more interested in being alone with Arthur, so he played slow, betting one or two cents at a time. Arthur followed suit, placing light bets with his small poker smile.
Every so often, Arthur’s eyes strayed from his cards to the boys by the lakeside. Isaac rested easily with one knee in the mud or propped up on his heels. He gestured wildly with his hands, enabling Jack’s storytelling and working as a vehicle to execute Jack’s little world. They had been at it for hours since midmorning, a little longer than Arthur and John’s poker game.
“You look…different,” John said, still staring at his cards.
Arthur hummed and placed a bet, his eyes jumping to John. “How’s that?”
“I dunno You seem happier somehow, more at ease I guess.” He was cagey. Arthur could see the internal pacing of his thoughts in the restlessness of his fingers, the bouncing of his knee, the constant adjustment of his shoulder and the tension in his neck.
“Makes sense enough to me.” He looked at the boys again. “We’ve been shaken up, it seems.”
“That’s true enough.” Leave it to Arthur to understate the return of his son, presumed dead. In fairness, he’d underplayed John’s return, but that was my own fault.
They were quiet again for a moment. Cards were flipped, John won the hand and it was his turn to deal. The cards were loose in his hand
“I’m sorry, ah…shit. I don’t really know how to start.” John leaned back and put his cards down, adjusting his hat on his head.
Arthur was quiet, watching him.
His teeth worked on the inside of his lip as he thought. “I get it more now. I think.”
"What do you get now, you think?" Arthur's tone was something that could be described as gentle but teasing.
“My leavin’ and Jack’n everything. I get why it was hard to forgive. Even now. Even for Abby. I just…I think I understand better. Seeing Isaac.” John’s eyes were glued to the table, his fingernail tracing the grain of the uneven wood.
Arthur's lips upturned into a smile. "You talk to your wife about this?"
“Plannin’ to. Not sure how so I figured I’d start with you.” He smiled and lowered his voice. “You’re less likely to smack me.”
“Wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Arthur chuckled. When Abigail and John fought…Lord.
John looked nervous for a moment before Arthur sat back in his chair and grinned at him.
“You bastard.” John removed his hat and threw a hand through his hair. “I come out here and pretend to play cards and you make fun of me.”
Arthur sobered and leaned forward, looking for John's eyes. John obliged, looking across the table at Arthur with clear, focused eyes. Arthur sighed and stationed a hand on John's shoulder. "Show your wife and your son how much you love them. That'll be enough apology to me. You're a good man, John. I think you could be a great father if you just tried a little harder."
Abigail unpinned her bun, letting her hair fall in heavy waves over one shoulder as she brushed it out. Arthur rocked Jack, whose eyes were fluttering closed. He watched the little boy rather than Abigail, electing to give her privacy.
This had become routine over the past few weeks. John had returned but remained distant and surly.
Abigail sighed and sank to the floor with her head in her hands, her hair falling around her in a sheet. "I just wish he'd try at least.”
Arthur sighed along with her. “I know, Abby.”
John fought the defense crawling up his throat. He nodded, swallowing his pride. He broke Arthur’s gaze and looked at Jack and Isaac for a long moment. He startled himself, seeing himself in his son for the first time. He’d always seen Abigail, but that was obvious. He wasn’t even sure if he saw it in a literal sense. He saw himself in the way Jack perched on the log above Isaac. He saw himself in the way Jack talked with his hands. He saw himself in the way Jack furrowed his brow before he spoke. Products of his influence over a little boy he loved so much, but couldn’t figure out how to express it.
Arthur seemed satisfied and sat back. He picked up his cards again and threw down the blind. John turned back to the table and did the same.
Abigail watched the exchange, pretended she didn’t, and sewed a patch onto one of Javier’s work shirts. She smiled to herself. Sons of Dutch. Brothers. Of all the men in camp, Arthur and John embodied that notion more than anyone else, especially when they were alone together. It was easy to forget, in the years since John’s departure, that they knew each other better than anyone else, save for Dutch and Hosea.
She’d have liked to know Arthur when he was John’s age, or maybe even when it was just he and Dutch with Hosea making up the gang. The three of them, she’d heard, were real heartbreakers back in the day. She’d seen the photos. There weren’t any pictures of John as a kid, but she could imagine he hadn’t changed much.
In a relative sense, she was new to John’s world. He was new to hers. But they were so wrapped up together now that it seemed as if it had always been this way. She loved John. She loved Jack. She loved Arthur. Nobody ignited her like John, though. She was surrounded by special, odd, and delightful men. Men that were stronger, kinder, more focused, more attentive than John. But he was it for her. She could only hope she was it for him.
Isaac, meanwhile, started to succeed in exhausting Jack. He was directing the architecture of their mud palace, but his eyes grew heavy as the sun crested in the sky. It was nearly noon. He looked up, searching for Arthur. When he caught his eye, Arthur waved him over.
“Ready to head in, kiddo?” Isaac stood and offered a hand to him.
Jack nodded, rubbing his eyes. He took Isaac’s hand and they wandered to their fathers. Abigail tabled her task and stood, brushing her skirt of any debris. She met Isaac and Jack at the poker table. Jack reached up to her and she lifted him into her arms, rocking him back and forth as he tucked his head into the crook of her neck. She closed her eyes, pressing her cheek into his sun-warmed hair.
“Ready for your nap, my sweet boy?” She opened her eyes over Jack’s head and smiled at Isaac in a silent thanks.
Jack nodded, his eyes already closed and Abigail’s shirtwaist collar balled in his hand.
“Want any help?” John stood, his eyes searching and hands outstretched looking for a task.
She took a breath to refuse him but changed her mind with a small smile. "Sure. He'll need his bed shaken out before he goes down."
John nodded and passed her, a hand brushing her waist. She followed him slowly, meandering in that indirect, bouncing way mothers do with their sleeping children.
Arthur stood, lightly smacking his thighs. He collected the cards, returning them to the little box at the end of the table. “Ready to head to your folks? If we leave now, we can be back by nightfall.”
~ *** ~
The ride back through the countryside was an easy one. The humidity grew less oppressive as they rode north through The Heartlands.
Side by side, they kept an easy canter.
“What do you remember of my mother?” Isaac asked after a while.
Arthur smiled, sitting back in his saddle and adjusting his grip on the reins. “I remember much of Eliza. She’s very special to me’n I didn’t rightly deserve her, especially at the time.” He thought for a moment. “Her ease’n grace are prominent in my mind. She always made good out of the things she had.” He smiled at his son. “You, me. She didn’t ask for it, but she was happy to have it and made it work for all of us, far as I knew.”
Isaac nodded. “That’s what I remember, too.”
“Did we do alright by you, Isaac?” The question was an honest one, but Arthur kept his eyes forward.
Isaac looked at his father’s profile, trusting his horse to keep her feet while he did so, and saw the insecurity and concern in his brow. In such a short time, it was clear to him that Arthur cared deeply, but was convinced he wasn’t capable of good. I’ll have to talk to Abigail. She’ll know. But to answer his question, “You did. I think you both did what you could, and I have fond memories of my life as a young child.” His lips upturned. “I remember missing you both after momma passed. The Treems were my family, but it was never quite the same as I remembered.”
Arthur softened. “’m glad we didn’t set you up too badly.”
“Not too bad, no.” Isaac gave a faint smile and pulled ahead, leading them both off the main road to an overgrown side path.
Arthur followed dutifully, ducking around the overhanging limbs and encouraging his mount over the knotted roots and debris trailing over the ground.
The house approached them, small and nondescript, from a clearing. As homesteads went, it was somewhat sprawling, reaching out into the surrounding forest with little rooms like fingers. Isaac didn’t speak, and there was something in Arthur that settled in his chest a little like fear.
Selfish. Selfish, ugly bastard. If he stays, he stays and he's better for it. You leave him. You leave it alone. Don't poison him.
They hitched their horses at the post by the porch, tying them without much urgency.
“Isaac!” The door flew open, and a young girl no more than seven sailed into Isaac’s arms.
He lifted her with ease, laughing lightly. "Hey, Lizzie!"
Arthur stood by his horse, hanging back and feeling a more than a little misplaced. Mrs. Treem, or who Arthur assumed was Mrs. Treem, opened the front door and held out her arms.
"Hey, Noná." Isaac tromped up the front steps and melted into her embrace. She smiled into the top of his head – oddly, mournfully.
Noná? Curious. Arthur stepped around his horse and removed his hat. Mrs. Treem looked over Isaac’s head, meeting his eyes.
She released the children and she pushed them behind her and into the house with a significant look. They were left alone on the porch. Arthur studied her.
The woman was close to sixty, with grey-streaked brown hair tied back in a loose braid. She wasn’t heavy nor was she waifish – indicative of a life of work. The wrinkles on her face came from smiling or squinting, which warmed Arthur to her.
She seemed to study him as well. “I’d always wondered what you were like.” Her voice had a light accent Arthur couldn’t place.
Arthur dipped his head, his hands wringing his hat. He didn’t know what to say – whether to apologize, attempt to explain himself. He was lost in the face of the woman who raised his son. Failure. You should be
Mrs. Treem saw this on his face. “Come on up here and we can chat while the children fix dinner.” She stepped to the side of the stairs and took a seat on the farthest chair of three on the porch, gesturing to the one beside her.
He followed her, stepping gingerly up the wooden stairs and seating himself beside her.
She stared out at her yard, relaxed and at ease. Her hands rested easily on her knees, her arms open and extended. “Arthur Morgan,” she started. She looked at him. “I wasn’t sure I would ever meet you in person.”
“Not sure if that’s a good thing?” He tried to lighten the heavy weight of her words and the implication that hung between them.
“No. I’m not.” She returned her gaze to the yard. “I suppose you’ve come to take him from me.”
“Now, ma’am –“
“Stella,” she corrected. “Now, I don’t mean to question you. It is your right as his father.” She leveled him with her gaze again, her walnut eyes boring into Arthur’s blue ones. He shifted under her scrutiny. “But I would be remiss if I did not share my concern with you.”
He could feel the flurry of activity behind him, the children set the table, speaking in English and another language he didn't recognize, exchanging barbs and laugher and the clinking silverware. It was comfortable inside. The porch was an island – the discomfort was palpable. Arthur didn't know how to respond.
“I don’t mean to necessarily take him anywhere.” That seemed like a good enough place to start.
“Then why do you come? To return him?” Her lips belied a smile. “That’s not what he expressed in his letter.”
Arthur thought for a moment. “I’ll be honest with you, ma’am…” He floundered for a moment. “I don’t know. I got a letter, and I came, and I found Isaac and…”
She placed a hand on his, balled into a fist on his bouncing leg, with a sigh. He looked at her, and she softened, eyes warm. “You don’t have to explain yourself. We would give the world for our children.”
He swallowed and nodded.
“I have no doubt you have Isaac’s best interests at heart.” Her eyes narrowed, and Arthur knew what came next. “Which is why he should stay with us.”
The door opened, and Isaac stood there, bag and bedroll in-hand. The pair looked up, startled.
“No. I’m going.”
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Kids, man. They're exhausting.
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(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The defiance in Isaac’s eyes would have annoyed Arthur if he didn’t think it so familiar. Of course, he was eavesdropping. He’d be lying if he said he wouldn’t do the same.
“Isaac –“ Arthur started.
“Agóri…” Stella said, at the same time.
They looked at each other and sighed. The plights of parenthood. Isaac bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. He schooled his expression and straightened his back, attempting to emulate the powerful stance of his father. He wasn’t as broad or as tall, but with the firm set of his jaw and the stubborn posture, he could almost carry it off.
Well into his thirties, Arthur still performed this act for Dutch when he felt unheard. Nature and nurture, I guess. Abigail would have a field day with this if she could see him now.
Stella redirected. “Mister Morgan, you can always come to visit any time you’d like, but I really must insist Isaac is safer here.”
Arthur stood on the porch, hat in hand. Eliza had Isaac in a sling wrapped around her chest.
“You sure I can’t stay?”
She smiled at him knowingly, with soft, gentle eyes. “I know you well enough to know you’d get restless, my dear. Go, run, and come back to us any time you’d like. We’ll be here.”
“You’ll be okay?” He cleared his throat, trying to keep the shaking out of his voice.
Eliza nodded. “We’ll do just fine. I’d like to try my hand at running a house by myself.” She paused, stepping down and kissing his cheek. He closed his eyes. “I’ll write if we run into trouble.”
“I love you.” His eyes were still closed, his head bowed. A finger lifted his chin, and he looked into Eliza’s warm grey eyes.
“I love you too, you damn outlaw. Now get, go rob a train or something.”
He grinned at her, jamming his hat on his head and turned on his heel with a two-fingered salute. As much as he hated it, she was right.
“I’m inclined to agree with you –“
“Stop talkin’ about me like I’m not here.” Isaac stepped forward, his boots pounding insistently on the wood. “I’m not staying.”
“Let’s have dinner and discuss it when there’s some food in us all, yes?” Without another word about it, Stella stood and brushed past them both. Isaac watched her go, gnawing on his lower lip.
Arthur stood up as an afterthought, but she’d already closed the door. Some manners, Morgan.
“Pa, I can’t stay here no more,” Isaac said. “I’m going with you.”
Arthur sighed, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose. Couldn’t have hoped for your kid to be smarter than you, Morgan? Great. “You can’t know what it’s like out there, son. You – it’s why I left you and your momma in the first place.”
“I’m nearly grown now.”
Not even a little. Nowhere near grown. But of course, he thought so. I know I did when I was his age. Arthur approached him, placing his hands on his son’s broad shoulders. “It’s dangerous, Isaac.”
“I know –“ Isaac tried to wrest himself from Arthur’s grip, but his father’s hands were too heavy on his shoulders.
“You don’t. You don’t know.” He fought the anger and frustration in his belly, keeping his voice as gentle as he could. He looked his son in his eyes – his bright, frustrated, living eyes – and placed a hand on the nape of his neck, feeling the hair that grew there, soft and thick. “I can’t lose you, son.” The vulnerability bit at his eyes, and he shoved at the insecurity that stood over his shoulder. “I can’t do that again. It can’t be my fault, neither.”
Isaac gulped and looked away before looking back. “It won’t be your fault. It’s my choice. Mine. Just like you when you went with Dutch.”
Arthur sighed. That’s it. He thinks he’s just like me. “You have things, family, here. I didn’t have that at your age. I didn’t have anyone. You do.”
Isaac shrugged him off. “I don’t want to do this right now.” He went into the house and closed the door behind him.
“Arthur, goddamn it, I don’t want to do this right now.” Eliza turned her back on him, leaning over the porch rail. “I’m tired.”
He heaved a sigh and came to her side, rubbing her back. She was nearly seven months along, and he could only imagine how the weight of her belly wore on her shoulders. “We don’t have to do anything right now, sweetheart.”
She hid her face from him. “I’m sorry, I’m just – I’m scared.”
“I know.” He kissed this side of her temple. “I’ve got you.”
Arthur followed him, pulling Stella to the side for a moment. The house was warm, icons lining the walls. He removed his hat.
“Forgive me, Mrs. Treem. I’ll return soon, but I think it’s best if I leave.” He looked at Isaac, who was avoiding his eyes. Best not interrupt dinner, and like she said, I can always come back.
Her lips pursed. “I understand, Mr. Morgan. Take care, and come back anytime.” She placed a hand on his forearm and squeezed. “God be with you.”
He nodded to the family, seated around the dinner table, and walked out the door. He shook the eyes of the children from his back, replacing his hat as he closed the door behind him. Bounding off the porch and mounting his horse, he spurred her down the trail and back to Clemens Point in record time. The sun had begun its descent over the lake when he arrived, the golden light filtering through the trees.
“Who’s there?” It was John’s turn on evening watch, and Arthur found him easily through the trees.
“It’s Arthur, dumbass.” The lightheartedness lifted his spirit, but John usually had that effect on him when he didn’t want to shoot him.
He heard John’s laughter streak past him as he trotted into camp. He hitched his horse, giving her a treat out of his bag, and purposefully walked back through camp, ignoring the stares, and sat heavily on his cot. Head in his hands, he breathed and breathed and breathed the humid air.
A delicate hand appeared on his shoulder. “You alright there, Arthur?”
It was Mary-Beth. He looked up at her, and he hadn’t realized he was crying until the air hit his face. She silently offered her handkerchief, and he took it gratefully.
“I’m alright, Mary-Beth. Thank you.” He passed her handkerchief back, and her sweet, delicate hands replaced it to the pocket of her skirts.
“May I sit with you for a moment?”
She sat beside him, absentmindedly patting his arm. Her silence was welcome, but her warmth and care of him were present. It was different than Abigail, who wrestled progress from raw emotion whenever she could. She could be exhausting, but Mary-Beth was like a balm – soothing his sore spirit and letting him fall back into her hands. They both had writer’s spirits, watchful and observing.
He took a talking breath, but Mary-Beth stalled him with her other hand, covering his resting on his knee.
“You don’t need to say anything if you don’t want’o.” She looked away from him for a moment, searching across camp. “I can find Abigail…”
“No, it’s alright. I just –“ He stopped himself, unable to articulate the chaotic windstorm occurring in his head. He held up a hand to stop her and she relaxed once more, watching him with her kind and expressive eyes.
What did he want to say? Where to begin?
“I’ve never seen you like this before.” It wasn’t an accusation, but the gentle prompt was enough to drop Arthur’s head to his chest and let his hand fall back between his thighs.
“I don’t know what I’m doing.” There was humor in his admission, but Mary-Beth saw to the truth of it.
He could feel her smile in the way her shoulder bumped him. “Nobody does.”
He huffed a laugh. “You might be right.”
“I know I’m right,” she laughed.
He looked at her, all self-satisfied and smug. “How’s that?”
“I read novels. Nobody in novels knows what they’re doing.”
Arthur cracked a smile. When she said that, it seemed like the simplest idea in the world. “That’s because they’re novels, Mary-Beth. If they knew what they were doin’, the story couldn’t go on.”
She stood and looked at him purposefully, patting his shoulder again. “I’ll get Abigail.” She skipped off, a spring in her step, across camp.
Why does everyone seem to know what I need before I do? Perhaps the curse of good women.
Arthur loved Mary-Beth. She was sweet, kind, and soft, unlike so many of the other people in camp. She hadn’t lost her compassionate spirit, and for that he was grateful. He sighed and removed his satchel and hat, making himself comfortable in his lean-to. He expected, with Abigail, he would be here for a while.
He sat back, watching the evening bustle of camp. Tilly came through with the laundry, offering him a soft smile. Micah ignored him as he walked across camp, turning his knife in his hands. Javier followed Mary-Beth from Abigail and Jack’s tent, guitar in hand, just as John returned from watch and Abigail made her way across to Arthur’s tent.
Arthur watched her as she passed John. She reached out to him, murmuring something to him as she passed. He nodded and changed paths – headed to Jack. She grasped his hand and squeezed before releasing him, all the while walking separate directions.
She crossed to Artur and stood in front of him, hands crossed over her chest. Her brown eyes peered down at him, not disappointed, but deeply skeptical.
“Where’d he go? You lose him already?” There was no heat to Abigail’s words, but the stung nevertheless. She felt him flinch and brought an arm around his shoulders, soothing her unintentional harshness.
“I had to get outta there, Abby. These people – they…” he trailed off, not sure where to begin, once more. It seemed to happen to him more and more since he found Isaac.
She sat beside him, like Mary-Beth had, and waited for him. “Did it go badly?” She gently prompted him, but he ignored her and continued on.
“They’re good, kind people. Isaac – he looks at home with them. He’s got family, but…” He trailed off again, taking a breath.
“But what, Arthur? Can’t he stay and you visit? At least they’re close by this time, right?” She didn’t understand.
“No, that’s what I want, but he – I just…” He growled in frustrating, his inability to articulate his thoughts wearing on him.
Understanding dawned on Abigail, all at once. She should have known sooner. This is Arthur’s son. He’s not just gonna sit by and live a normal life. “He wants to join us. Permanently.” She was certain and clear.
Arthur nodded, still staring at the ground. “I can’t let him do that.”
She sighed, thinking of Jack. If I had the choice, would I choose this for him? No. But, then again… “If he’s anything like you, he won’t give you much of a choice.”
He snorted. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Thank you all for your support and love! I could really use some feedback and encouragement for these next couple of chapters. I'm trying not to slow down, but with work, it's really hard. I may be posting less frequently, but I am still so excited to hear what you all think.
I can't tell you how your encouragement and ideas move me to write. It's motivation like NO OTHER and I simply can't overstate how thankful I am for those that comment on every chapter. It's been a blessing to get your tidbits. You are all friends to me, and I look forward to hearing from you all (and new people, if you're just joining us! I wanna hear from YOU!). I always try to reply to every comment as well, just so you know you're loved too :)
Whew, that was long-winded. Send me some love here. Or drop me a line below. I am so excited to hear what you want to see and what you think of the journey so far.
All my love,
When he woke up the next morning, Arthur took his time rising from bed. He rubbed a hand over his chest, which seemed to ache for something beyond the physical. He stretched his shoulders and back, rolling his head around before rising slowly to his feet.
He was on his second cup of coffee, sitting quietly across from Hosea when there was an odd commotion on the eastern side of camp. Sadie’s chin snapped up like a periscope and watched from beside Hosea as Arthur rose, his hand already on his revolver.
He saw the pinto mare before he saw her rider, and he heaved a sigh. You’ve got to be kidding me.
It was Isaac, his thick bedroll and bag strapped to the back of his horse, with Karen trailing behind him, a smirk on her face and gun in the crook of her arm.
“You’ve got a live one, Arthur!” She called.
He approached Isaac as he dismounted his horse, grabbing him roughly by the collar and pulling him close. Arthur loosened his jaw and held his shoulder’s down, suddenly aware of his own size and threat.
Isaac startled. He looked into a pair of stormy eyes and understood, in a moment, why Eliza always encouraged Arthur to go back to his life with Dutch. He’s dangerous. Not for a moment did he think his father would hurt him, but the realization flashed over his face before he could stop it.
Arthur’s breath left him in a huff, seeing that fear in his son’s eyes. He was brimming with shame, but couldn’t shake the confusion and anger that hovered over him. He released Isaac’s collar and awkwardly smoothed the wrinkles. The fire didn’t leave his eyes, but he made a point of avoiding the fear in his son’s.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Isaac’s mouth thinned, making a clean, handsome line across his face. He was just as frustrated as Arthur, maybe more, what with the way he was welcomed into camp. “I told you I wasn’t staying.”
Arthur threw a hand through his hair. Where was his hat when he needed it. “And I told you to stay put.” He lowered his voice, aware of the eyes that pretended not to watch. His eyes flickered between Hosea and Sadie and Charles, who hovered close enough to remain unobtrusive, but close enough to protect from prying eyes that harbored less honorable intentions.
“I guess I didn’t listen.” He heaved the bedroll and bag off his horse, who nickered quietly at him, and brushed past Arthur. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to talk to Dutch.”
Now, what on earth. Arthur stalled for a moment. He turned on his heel, shaking them off and following his son.
Isaac dropped his things in front of Dutch’s tent. The man in question had just started his day, risen by the unusual amount of activity. He stepped out, meeting Isaac’s firm stare with an impressed gaze of his own. Isaac did his best to look big and adult. He didn’t realize that only had the opposite effect.
“I wondered if you had it in you, son,” he said. Molly’s pale face peeked out from behind him, still in her dressing gown and wrapped in a blanket.
Her green eyes flickered to Arthur’s who rolled his eyes. Her lips twitched into an almost smile. For a moment, Arthur liked her more than he ever had, but that feeling was quickly squashed by the irritation of the word son coming out of Dutch’s mouth.
“I think I’ve got it in me, Mr. Van der Linde. It’s in my blood.” Isaac offered his hand to shake, and Dutch took it.
There was a reptilian, calculating glow behind his eyes Arthur didn’t like at all. “So it seems.” Without lifting his gaze from Isaac, Dutch called for Miss Grimshaw. “Find this young man a place, perhaps by Lenny or Sean or close to his pa.”
Arthur couldn’t see his face, but he could feel his son’s grin from where he was standing.
All at once, there was a flurry to accommodate the new member, and Arthur couldn’t get to Dutch. Hosea approached him then, with a hand on his shoulder.
“Do you remember what we talked about?” His low voice was the only thing holding Arthur to the ground.
Arthur nodded stiffly.
“It’ll be easier now, with the two of you here.” Hosea was almost gentle. “You’n me, we keep an eye on him easy when he’s here with us.”
“Not if he gets killed first.”
“Well, that goes for all of us.”
Arthur sighed, and Hosea left him be, with a gentle squeeze of his shoulder.
Isaac helped Mrs. Grimshaw and the ladies with his new place of residence. He was by Sean and Javier, but it didn’t escape his notice that he was within eyeline of Arthur’s tent. As much fuss as he’d caused, he wouldn’t deny Arthur the smallest peace of mind.
His bedroll was also mere feet away from Abigail and Jack, which he didn’t think was a coincidence at all. He didn’t mind, however, finding yesterday that he really liked the kid. Abigail and John weren’t so bad either when they weren’t at each other’s throats.
He folded his clothes and set them under his pallet, neat and tidy and (hopefully) dry.
“Hope ya don’t mind bunkin’ with us, Isaac,” Sean said, grabbing a bottle of something dark from under his pillow. “We’re usually the last to sleep, as it is.”
Isaac smiled. “Not at all, Mister MacGuire. It’s good to be around new faces’n all.”
“Well, we sure are that.” He sauntered away, brushing past Karen and pinching her hip. She squeaked and smacked him playfully. Catching her hand, he kissed it with a shit-eating grin.
A lot to pick up on around here…
“Isaac!” Arthur called, approaching him. “Have you eaten?”
Isaac shook his head, and he put a hand to his belly. He’d left in a hurry in the early afternoon, and he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
“Let’s get you som’n then.” Arthur clapped a hand on his shoulder and steered him to the pot, where he spooned him a bowl of stew and shuffled him to the table. He was trying to make up for the madness earlier, when fear gripped and choked him.
Isaac sat down between Charles and Sadie, feeling chastised and foolish, though Arthur said nothing. He kept his head down and shoulders down as he ate.
“Still want to go hunting tomorrow morning?” Charles spoke up quietly, still focused on his dinner. His deep voice was low and kind, and Isaac appreciated the way he didn’t make fuss.
Isaac’s head snapped up. He’d completely forgotten about the hunting trip planned for this morning. But I wouldn’t have forgotten if Arthur had just let me come back with him. He bit down the bitterness and offered Charles a small smile.
Tilly sat next to Charles, with her bowl in her hand. Isaac looked at her, offering a dip of his head. Charles looked at her for a moment, acknowledging her with his spoon before continuing to tuck into his food.
“Hey Tilly,” Sadie said, with a small nod.
Tilly smiled widely back at her before turning her attention to Isaac. “You’ve caused quite a stir, Mister Morgan.” She offered a hand. “Tilly Jackson.”
Isaac laughed, despite his sour mood. “Pleasure, Miss Jackson.” He shook his head, taking her hand. “And so it seems. Though, please call me Isaac. It’ll be tough with more than one Morgan around here.”
“In more ways than one, perhaps.” Sadie’s comment drew a low chuckle from Charles and a giggle from Tilly.
The next morning came far too early. Arthur’s hand on his shoulder woke Isaac with a start. He sat up, bleary-eyed and groggy. The fog was still hanging over camp off the lake, and Sean snored.
Arthur smiled at him, passing a spare shirt, a pair of socks, and suspenders from the pile next to his bedroll. He didn’t mind lending a hand. Isaac reminded him of Eliza in these moments.
“Could you pass me the – ehm…”
Arthur passed her a pair of her bloomers, in a set of drawers by the bed. She was still under the covers, eyes closed and hair spread like a halo on the pillow. He hated leaving her in bed, but Isaac was awake, crying and waiting to be changed.
She took the bloomers from him and tucked them under the covers. She sighed happily, and her eyelashes fluttered.
Arthur knelt by the bed, eye-level with her, and brushed a wayward strand of hair out of her eyes. Pushing the crying Isaac out of his bubble for a moment, he kissed her on the cheek, loving the way she sighed and leaned into him.
“Anything for you.”
“Careful with that. Got us in trouble last time.”
He chuckled and kissed her again, rising to deal with the trouble in question.
When didn’t he remind him of Eliza? Isaac silently dressed and pulled his boots on, minding Javier and Sean sleeping to his right. His eyes were still half closed when he finally stood and stretched. Shoulders popping, he raised his arms above his head and shook out his stiff back. His father helped him to his feet, and he shook of the rest of his sleep.
He and Arthur walked to Person’s wagon and threw a couple of cans of provisions in their satchels.
The fog hadn’t lifted from the lakeside camp, and the sky was still grey-green, the sun just below the horizon. It was quiet, peaceful. They were the only ones awake, but Arthur was sure Miss Grimshaw would rise soon to start on the daily chores.
They rode out, Charles on Taima, Isaac on Paisley, and Arthur on his still-unnamed mare. Perhaps they could bring back good hunt and a name for her. She was sweet enough, and friendly – very deserving of a good name.
“Are you settling in alright Isaac?” Charles called to him from his place in front. Isaac was sandwiched in the middle, followed by Arthur.
Isaac looked back at Arthur for a moment with a small, tired smile. “Seems that way. Happy to be back, at least.”
Arthur held back an eye roll. Foolish boy.
“Glad to hear it. Up ahead, we should find some pronghorn.” Charles slowed his horse, and Isaac and Arthur followed up, lining up over the open heartland.
“Let’s dismount here and take it on foot,” Arthur said.
Charles dismounted, pulling two bows from his saddle. Taima turned her head and snuffled at his arm. He patted her and playfully pushed at her face. She huffed and turned forward, dipping her head and tearing at the grass.
Isaac stood by Paisley, absently stroking her neck.
Arthur drew his bow and slung it over his shoulder with a quiver of arrows.
Charles passed one of the bows to Isaac, with a small packet of arrows. “You’ll learn fast, just watch for now and then you can try after we’ve taken a couple down.”
Isaac followed as they tracked through the grass. Apparently, there was a small herd of pronghorn deer moving north, stopping to graze. Charles gestured to trampled grass and patches of bare brush where they’d fed.
Arthur stuck close to him, whispering instruction and tracing the tracks with the pads of his fingers.
As foolish as Arthur made him feel when he arrived yesterday afternoon, and as distant he’d been in that time, he felt close to him now.
The way he moved through the tall grass was clean and graceful, something he never thought he’d see in his father. The attentiveness in his blue eyes as he followed Charles and searched the ground for clues Isaac couldn’t see. He saw, then, what his mother used to write about in the letters Noná left for him in the dresser on his sixteenth birthday.
My dear Emma,
I know you think I am very foolish, but the more Arthur visits the more I adore him. I was once content to engage in an intimate friendship with him, but seeing him with our boy…I cannot begin to express the feeling in my heart. It was like seeing him for the first time, and all at once I realized I couldn’t do this without him.
I don’t regret leaving him to his life, and I certainly prefer it this way. Fewer questions from the neighbors, oddly. But I must express that his leaving drew tears from me. I cried for him, Emma. His gentleness, his kindness. He was so afraid to hold him, but he did so well. He took to it easily.
There is a care and grace in the way he carries himself as if he knows how rough and course he looks. He makes himself small to fit in our home. It’s sweet.
Write soon, cousin. You know how I miss you.
Isaac smiled, still following. He was starting to see the changes in the ground where the deer passed through.
Charles raised his hand, pointing down in a small valley between hills where the deer were grazing. He beckoned Isaac to his side, and Isaac slipped past his father and crouched next to Charles.
“You really only have one shot at this, because the group is so large. Arthur and I,” he said, looking at the man in question, “will take down two at once. You will watch, and then we will track those that ran so you can try it yourself.”
Isaac nodded, sitting back and watching.
Charles and Arthur moved in tandem, winding their way down the hill. They drew arrows from their quiver and notched them simultaneously. They raised their bows, found their targets. Isaac breathed with them, in and out. Charles released his arrow, followed closely by Arthur, and two deer were downed on the open grass.
As expected, the rest scattered and disappeared over the bluffs and hills. Isaac stood and trotted down the hill, drawing his knife to help.
The trio skinned the animals in silence, whistling for their horses when they’d finished.
“Arthur, I’ll leave you to store these. Isaac and I will go find another.”
Arthur nodded, already pulling ties from his bag. He gave Charles a pat on his shoulder as he passed, rolling the skin with care and butchering slices of tender meat for Pearson.
Isaac followed Charles over another hill before finding the herd again. Charles placed a wide hand on his shoulder, and Isaac drew his bow.
“Just like shooting, you’ll release on your breath out.” Charles’s voice was like the desert wind itself, brushing over Isaac in a wash of warmth and dry breath.
Isaac notched an arrow, pulling it to his shoulder. Charles adjusted his grasp, showing him how to space his fingers and avoid chafing his arm.
“See that one, there?” Charles pointed to an outlier in the group, on the fringes and absently chewing on grass. “You have a shot at the neck for a quick clean kill.”
Isaac nodded, pressing the meat of his thumb to his chin to steady his arms. He breathed, in and out, and released. The arrow found its mark. Arthur heard Charles’s rare shout of encouragement from over the hill and smiled.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter! Sorry for the delay - I was writing a couple one shots and fulfilling some requests. Thank you all for your support and kind words. With your help, it's really writing itself and I'm LOVING this story. Let me know if you find any glaring errors - we're unbeta'd an unafraid.
Let me know what you think. You know how I love your feedback. As usual, let me know if you have any thoughts or requests. I'd love to write them for you.
All my love,
When they returned a couple hours after sunset, the camp was in chaos. The men were assembling their weapons, satchels, and rallying around Dutch, who was posturing in front of his tent. Christ, what now?
Karen was a mess, drunk and crying. Abigail was doing her best to soothe her, but unbridled panic rattled behind her eyes. When Arthur dismounted his horse, she ran to him. He caught her as she half-fell into him, hands on her waist and a furrow between his brows.
“Abby…” he searched for her eyes but found them teary and her breath heavy. Sadie appeared from nowhere, taking Karen’s arm and guiding her to the fire.
She took three breaths before starting, meeting the eyes of Charles and Isaac before speaking. “Sean’s dead.” She tried to control her breathing again but failing that, she pressed a hand to her chest. “Sean’s dead. Shot by the Greys. And…”
Arthur pulled her into his chest, fingers threading through her hair. Isaac stood by, a hand on Paisley’s neck. Sean. Only four years older than Isaac. Just a child.
“And what, Abigail?”
She pulled away from him, and he saw for the first time just how red and puffy her eyes were. “They have Jack. The Braithwaites. They took him.” Her expression collapsed and she let a sob rip from her chest. Arthur pulled her back, rubbing circles on her back. He looked for John over her head, but he was armed to the teeth, standing by Dutch.
“It’ll be okay Abby. We’ll get him.” Arthur glanced at Isaac out of the corner of his eye.
Abigail rode into camp on Old Boy, sliding off the saddle before he’d fully stopped and planted her feet on the ground, fuming.
The man in question looked up from his rifle.
“John’s in jail again.”
Arthur sighed. “What now?”
She approached him, sitting beside him heavily. “He said someone looked at me funny.”
Now Arthur rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help but huff a laugh. “Damn fool.” He scrubbed a hand down his face. “It’ll be okay, Abby. We’ll get him.”
Isaac took the hint, nodding and breaking away from his horse and sitting on the log next to Karen. “You alright there, Miss Jones?”
She snorted, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, smearing her makeup around. “Haven’t you heard?” She drawled, humorless laughter falling from her lips. “Sean’s dead.” She took another heavy swig of her drink and offered it to him.
Isaac shook his head, pushing the drink back to her. “I think you need it more than I do.”
She nodded thoughtfully as only the inebriated can, and took another drink. “I think you’re right. And what am I doin' offerin’ drinks to a child? Dear God, forgive me.” She raised her eyes to the sky, their dampness evident in the irregular light of the fire.
He watched her, wondering all at once what loving someone like this felt like. Maybe Sean and Karen didn’t love each other like that, but there was something special there. Something that was gone now. His eyes wandered back to his father who led Abigail to the poker table, one arm around her waist and the other with her hand in his. The tenderness with which he carried her, the quality of his voice that was almost gentle….They all revealed something else.
What was it like to lose my mother? He startled himself, thinking further, What was it like to lose me? Like Karen. Not seeing the body. Just hearing or knowing or finding out. Arthur let Abigail down to the bench, and he knelt beside her, speaking in hushed tones, holding her hands. No wonder he’s like that. Like what, Isaac couldn’t rightly say. But there was something about Arthur…the part of him that carried the pain, perhaps, that stood as a beacon of anguish.
Isaac reached for Karen’s hand – the one not occupied by rum – and squeezed once. “I’m sorry, Miss Jones.”
Her face crumpled, and she looked at him again, taking a long drink and swallowing with a bitter huff. Her voice was but a whisper. “Thanks.”
Isaac stayed behind as the rest of the men left for Braithwaite Manor and stood still in the middle of camp, with his father’s rifle held tightly across his chest until his feet pinched in his boots and his hips and shoulders ached. His eyes constantly roved over the camp, counting the horses and watching the women huddle by the fire and fetch water and sooth Abigail and Karen. It was far past midnight, and the air off the lake was cold.
Abigail clutched the tin of water, her fingers laced around it and her hands pressed between her knees. Karen was on the ground by her feet, resting her head on Abigail’s knee and snoring quietly. She’d drunk herself to sleep about an hour prior.
“I don’t know how she does that,” Tilly said. Her fingers were threaded through Karen’s curls, watching her with the devotion of a close friend.
Abigail looked at Karen’s splayed, relaxed form, the bottle of rum still loosely resting in her hand. “It’s easier to drown in drink than stay awake and face it.” She sighed. “Poor thing.”
Sadie snorted humorlessly.
Silence overcame them, then. Abigail’s eyes wandered to Isaac, who hadn’t moved since the other men left. In the dark, she could almost mistake him for Arthur, albeit a little smaller and only a little thinner. He was rigid, tense, and watchful.
She set her cup down and gently adjusted Karen such that Tilly carried her weight. Mary-Beth rose with Abigail and took her place on the log next to Karen.
“Taking a walk?” Mary-Beth asked, her eyes soft in the firelight.
She nodded, pressing a hand to Mary-Beth’s shoulder. The other woman smiled and turned her attention back to the fire, her body ever so slightly bent toward Karen and Tilly.
Abigail passed Molly on her way to Isaac. Molly kept her distance, but the firelight danced off her soft face and elegant gown all the same. She leaned against a tree, watching the other women with a rare softness. Abigail offered her a tight smile, which she returned.
Isaac watched her as she approached and stood next to him.
“You’ve been here for a while.” She kept her voice down, sensing the bubble of silence and tension that hung like a blanket around the young man.
He nodded tightly, his focus returning to the entrance to camp, where Micah and Kieran stood guard in the trees. He ignored the ache that continued to creep through his legs and back.
“Mind if I watch with you?” Her voice wavered ever so slightly, controlled and keeping a lid on her worry. The men had been absent for a couple hours.
“Not at all.” His voice, rough from disuse. He cleared his throat. “Happy for the company.”
They were quiet for another moment, listening to the rest of the girls retire, coax Karen into bed and murmur to themselves. Abigail threaded an arm through Isaac’s, resting her head on his shoulder. He was almost surprised at the contact, but he could feel her exhaustion and was thankful for the weight.
Abigail was special. That was plain enough to him, even after such a short time here. He wanted to know more about her – her peculiar relationship to his father, John, and the rest. She was a mother and a sister at once. Safe. He felt comfortable with her on his arm, anchoring her as if he’d known her all his life.
The thumping of hooves shook Abigail off his arm. She took a few steps back, and he raised his rifle.
“Comin’ in!” Dutch’s voice rang out and Isaac dropped his rifle, taking a breath for what felt like the first time in hours. The sun was rising over the lake, the fog rolling in under the trees.
Abigail rushed to where Dutch, John, and Arthur had dismounted their horses. “Where is he? Where’s Jack?”
John sighed, removing his hat and taking Abigail in his arms. She resisted, searching for an answer first from John, then over his shoulder at Arthur. “He’s in Saint Denis, with some bastard named Angelo Bronte.”
Abigail’s head tilted to the left, watching him insistently. “And?”
Dutch stepped forward, a hand on John’s shoulder. “I have a plan, my dear girl.” He held her hand aloft and kissed it. She rolled her eyes, exhausted and sick of his repetition. “We’ll get him back.” He released her and turned back. “John, Arthur, Hosea, with me.”
The four huddled around the poker table, and Isaac led Abigail back to her tent. She sat on the edge of her cot, staring into space for a moment. He hovered by the entrance to the tent, unsure whether he was welcome inside or not.
“I’m sure they’ll find him.” He wasn’t sure what to say, but that was a good enough place to start as any.
Abigail smiled thinly at him. She opened her mouth to speak, but something caught her eye behind him. She startled to her feet, yanking Isaac by the arm into the tent and closing the flap.
“Sh!” She quieted him, her ear to the tent flap and an insistent hand on his arm. She looked at him after a moment. “Pinkertons.”
Isaac’s brow furrowed, and his head shook minutely in his confusion. Pinkertons?
She sighed and held a finger up, listening. They both heard them ride away after a couple minutes of indistinct shouting and tense silence, and Abigail tied the flap open again, only to be greeted with Mrs. Grimshaw shouting, directing the camp to pack up the wagons.
Isaac rushed out to Arthur, who was already on his horse. John was mounted on Old Boy, itching to go.
Arthur turned on him, his little white Arabian shifting restlessly underneath him. “Stay here. Help the girls and keep a close eye on Misses Jones and Roberts.” He nodded to someone behind him, and they were gone before Isaac could say anything else
Hosea’s hand clamped down on his shoulder, and a rolled pack of bedrolls was dumped into his arms.
“My dear boy, go to Kieran with the horses when you’ve packed these away. Pearson will help you with those.”
Pa put him up to this. Goddamn it. Isaac sighed heavily and he hightailed to Pearson, who directed him to the northernmost wagon. Mary-Beth took the bedrolls with a grateful nod, and she pointed him to Kieran, who was saddling the horses, with a fond smile.
Arthur schlepped hay bales from one end of camp to the other, watched by Annabelle, who was laughing at him. Dutch stood beside her, a gentle hand on her waist.
“A little faster, Morgan!” He called.
Arthur threw him a withering glare over his shoulder. He wasn’t any older than sixteen. The first camp they built together – the five of them, Annabelle, Dutch, Hosea, Bessie, and Arthur – as a family.
Annabelle looked at Hosea over her shoulder, and he smiled tenderly at her before looking once more at the young man who would become his son.
Hosea watched Isaac go with the same smile.
“Hey, mister!” Kieran timidly greeted him, and Isaac offered him a smile. “Boaz needs a brush and a saddle before we’re on our way. You can use the checked blanket for him.”
Isaac got to work, vigorously brushing Boaz and feeding him a peppermint from his bag. Much like his rider, Boaz was usually friendly and agreeable, but Isaac wanted to stay on his good side regardless.
He saddled him efficiently, offering soothing pats when he tightened the saddle. “He’s ready.”
Kieran pointed to Javier with his chin, and Isaac led Boaz to him.
“Thanks, kid.” Javier flashed him a tense, but bright smile. He hitched Boaz near the entrance of camp, gathering an armful of watch rifles and storing them in a nearby chest.
“Isaac!” Tilly called. “Help me with your pa’s things, if you would.”
He trotted to her as she carefully packed and packaged his father’s personal effects and shaving kit.
“The ladies have your things, not to worry,” she said, noting his hesitation. “It’s just usually helpful to have an extra set of hands here, as Arthur has the munitions as well as his own things.”
Isaac was focused on his task, winding newspaper around the small jar with a flower in it. He’d never seen anything like it, not in this part of the country. He packed it in his chest, with the newspaper clippings and photos of people that looked oddly like himself. Lyle Morgan. Beatrice Morgan. He padded them with his father’s flannels, closing the chest and locking it. He hefted it into the wagon, organizing and packing the munitions as well.
Tilly and Mary-Beth collapsed the lean-to, and Arthur’s home was then entirely in the wagon. The only thing left of it was a worn section of grass where he’d planted his feet every morning for the past couple weeks.
Then they were on the road, Isaac astride Paisley, with Kieran behind him on Branwen. Dutch and Molly’s carriage followed them, rattling and bouncing along. The girls lounged in the open wagon in front of them, driven by Hosea. Karen remained sloshed, snoozing heavily on Mary-Beth’s skirts as Tilly combed her fingers through blonde curls.
Arriving to Shady Belle was an affair. Poorly hidden bodies littered the path to the decrepit house, and alligators basked in the wet sunshine by the swamp.
Arthur opened the front doors with a great amount of pomp, welcoming everyone home.
We are rolling now! As always, I crave your feedback and am so excited to hear what you think. You have all been very kind and supportive and I know I sound like a broken record but I am so thankful for all of you who have kept up with this.
I also delayed this to write this, and I would love some love or feedback on it as well! It's a little different, but I needed some young!John and Arthur in my life.
As always, un-beta'd. Let me know if anything is egregious xo