— Horseshoe Overlook —
Arthur thundered across dusty scrubland, twisting away from bullets, with Calpurnia’s powerful muscles bunching between his thighs. Arthur was never more at peace, at his best when he could let his instincts take over. He knew himself best in these situations: the law on his tail, gold in his saddlebags, and a gun in his hand. No time for self-doubt. No time to question his skills. A straightforward goal.
He leaned into a turn with Calpurnia as they whipped around a rocky outcropping east of Wallace Station. If they could get past Cumberland falls, they would be scot-free. He and Calpurnia would be able to disappear into the forest there, after they led the law away from John, Bill and Sean, fresh from robbing two stagecoaches in a row. It had been a ripe opportunity, both coaches arriving at the crossroads within minutes of one another. Maybe it had been a stupid idea, but the spoils would be worth it, assuming they all made it out alive. Unfortunately, it had also brought on extra law from nearby Emerald Ranch and they were hot on Arthur and Calpurnia’s heels. In an unspoken agreement, he had agreed to lead the lawmen away while John took the others back to camp the long way to mislead any hangers-on who may try to track them. At times like these, Arthur was grateful that he and John had ridden together for so long, that they could communicate complex plans with a glance.
Bullets whipped out of the forest to Arthur’s left, startling Calpurnia who skittered to the side on loose gravel that lined the trail. A weight slammed into his side, knocking the air from his lungs. Blood smeared his hand when he grabbed at his side. Arthur hauled Calpurnia’s head around, cutting at an angle away from the additional guns that had appeared from the trees. He ducked several branches while Calpurnia crashed through the underbrush, looking for a better trail to follow. Off to the right, he could hear the pounding of the falls. He didn’t think that they should be so close to the water already.
Calpurnia slammed to a halt at the edge of the cliff, rearing to keep her balance on the skree as her hooves scrambled for purchase. Arthur felt her reins slip through his blood-slicked hands as her head yanked against his hold and he went tumbling backwards. Calpurnia whinnied and darted back into the trees. At least Arthur thought she might make it back to camp with her saddlebags full of money for the others. It was the last coherent thought he had before he slammed into the cold, rushing water of the Dakota river.
Roaring water tumbled him ass over tea kettle through the relatively calm waters of the lower Dakota. He thanked whatever dumb luck kept him alive for dumping him into the rapids below the falls, where at least he had a chance at surviving. His lungs burned, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why. All the cold had leached the instinct right out of his body. He slammed sideways into a heavy rock and the pain in his side made him gasp. Air. He needed air. After a moment of disorienting spinning, he surfaced and gasped, choking against the water that had already invaded his body and now pounded him from all sides. Before he could do anything more than gulp a lungful of air, a tree trunk that bobbed in the water caught on his satchel. He twisted, trying to free himself, but the leather strap caught on his jacket lapel and forced him underwater as the log rolled. When it dragged him back up, he gasped again, desperate for air. His fingertips clawed at the rough bark, trying to keep himself on top of the trunk as it turned sideways. It caught on two boulders and slammed to a halt, while Arthur kept going. His satchel tore free, but not before it wrenched his shoulder out of the socket and dumped him back underwater with no air in his lungs, only fire.
Pain from his shoulder snapped everything back into focus. Arthur’s body remembered how to breath. His head breached the surface and he dragged air into lungs. His cold-numbed hands and feet remembered their jobs too, and started to guide Arthur’s dizzying journey down the river. He swam one-handed against the current, trying to pull himself towards the opposite shore, on the Valentine side of the river. It took a couple of tries, but he finally caught at the roots of a toppled tree that hadn’t yet been washed away.
He climbed out of the river and collapsed in the dirt at the edge. Turning to the west, he could see the sun beginning to set. It was the first time that sight had worried him. He was already shivering in the cold. Soaked clothing, no supplies, and several injuries would make it hard to find shelter or start a fire or do much of anything, really. He groaned and rolled onto the side with the bullet wound. Fire roared through his flank. It still hurt less than the shoulder. At least the cold had worked to numb some of the pain.
Breathing through his teeth, Arthur hauled himself to his feet, bit by careful bit. Upright, he stumbled into a tree and held himself there to a count of three then made his way forward. He worked his way from tree to tree, stopping often to breathe through the pain. Sluggish blood made its way down his side, warm and sticky in contrast to the biting cold of his skin. He wanted, at least, to stop and wring the water from his jacket, but he wasn’t sure that he could get it off without making his shoulder worse. Nor did he think he could get it back on again.
Teeth chattering against the cold, he pushed on. A tall rock face rose out of the evening mist off of the river. He looked back to discover that he’d made it a disappointingly short distance from the water. Now he was faced with finding a path up the cliffside. He thought that he was near Caliban’s seat, but his current location didn’t afford him a view of any landmarks.
Arthur followed a switch backing trail that wound up the side of the rocks, taking slow and deliberate steps, but his feet were beginning to burn with the cold and had gone numb inside his boots. He stepped sideways on a loose stone and dropped, rolling down the slope until he slid to a stop back near the base of the rocks.
At that point, Arthur gave up. He wasn’t too proud to admit it — inside his own head, anyway. He lay in the dirt, groaning and wished for his horse… a bottle of whiskey… dry clothes... He wished for a lot of things, even just the will to get up and keep going up the slope. Wobbly darkness at the edges of his vision told him a tale of heavy blood loss and he wasn’t sure that he could drag himself to his feet again if he wanted to.
Not many more of his thoughts made sense after that, as he started to hallucinate John’s face swimming in the air above him. John’s voice was more soothing in death, than Arthur would have expected. And, God, did heaven and its angels have it out for him, sending John Marston to escort him to the pearly gates. Pain flared in his side again and he gasped.
“Shit, Charles, he’s still alive.”
“How in the hell did he make it this far with a wound like that? Quick, get him up on Taima.”
“I think he needs a doctor.” Someone tugged his arm up, trying to lift him from the ground and he screamed.
“I think you may be right. Valentine? It’s closest.” Hands on his arms, dragging him upright again. Fire everywhere. By the time his feet left the ground as he was shoved into Taima’s saddle, he had blacked out and welcomed the dark, ominous end of communication between his brain and body.
When he next awoke, he wished that he hadn’t. Death might have been preferable to the bruising that seemed to reach into the very core of him. At least he lay on something soft — far softer than his camp bed. Warmth radiated from several heat sources tucked in around him. Blankets were draped across his naked torso and bandages wrapped around his middle, binding the bullet wound and holding his arm in place. His other arm was free, on top of the blankets. Golden lamp light fell from the table beside him, illuminating a real bed somewhere in a dark room that smelled vaguely of alcohol and liniment. He shifted, trying to get a better view and groaned in pain.
“Easy, Arthur.” Charles. Arthur closed his eyes and breathed out, relieved beyond measure. He hadn’t hallucinated Charles dragging Arthur onto his horse. “Doctor Barrow? I think he’s awake.”
Several sets of footsteps announced the arrival of others. Arthur opened his eyes, winching in the brighter light that accompanied the others’ additional lamps.
“Arthur?” John asked, leaning over his bed. So, he hadn’t hallucinated John’s presence either. He’d never live that down.
“What’d you want Marston?” he mumbled. “Turn down the damn lamp.” Arthur was surprised at the watery laugh John produced as he moved away from Arthur, to be replaced by the doctor. Or, a doctor at least. Arthur had met the Valentine doctor once before, while buying some spare bandages and rubbing alcohol for camp. This man looked nothing like him. He was quite a lot younger, clean shaven and dark haired, with small round spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose. Light glared off of the lenses, obscuring the doctor’s eyes so that Arthur couldn’t see their color, only the long, straight nose set between them.
“Good evening, Mr. Morgan,” the doctor said, pulling a stool closer so that he could sit beside the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“No worse than usual.” John chuckled, but Charles only pursed his lips into a frown. One out of two on a bad joke was better than none. Arthur cleared his sore throat. “Like I got trampled by a whole herd of horses.”
“Well, that’s better than you might be feeling after the day you’ve had. Open,” the doctor said, holding out a thermometer. “I want to make sure that you haven’t contracted pneumonia. Or anything else, for that matter.”
Arthur didn’t have the energy to fight this kind of fussing. On a normal day, he might get up and walk away, but he wasn’t sure that he could even sit up on his own. And, frankly, he didn’t want to find out where John could see him fail. Charles at least wouldn’t terrorize him or suggest that he’d become feeble in his old age. Arthur really should have beaten John more, when they were younger. He might be more respectful now. He was jerked out of his thoughts by the doctor removing the thermometer from his mouth.
“Your fever has gotten worse since your companions brought you in. I would really suggest staying here until you recover. Mr. Marston, would you get a cup of that tea off of the stove please?” John left the room, taking his offensive lamp with him.
“I think I’d best be getting home Doc. Can’t really wait around here, when there’s stuff needs doing.” He saw an odd expression flutter across the doctor’s mouth, that he didn’t quite know how to read.
“Go ahead, then, Mr. Morgan.” He leaned back from the bed, giving Arthur room to stand.
Arthur could recognize a challenge when it stared him right in the eyes. He pressed his unbound elbow down into the mattress and tried to force himself into a sitting position. He almost blacked out again from the pain and dropped back, gasping for breath. He hadn’t risen more than a few inches from the mattress. Stitches, front and back, pulled on his left side where the bullet had pierced it, but that was nothing compared to the pain that clawed at his shoulder; his back, his neck, his ribs and stomach, even his jaw got in on the action. Sweat broke out across his chest and forehead as he ground his teeth against the pain. He recognized the doctor’s expression: smug.
Arthur glanced at Charles, whose expression was stony and unreadable, then at the ceiling, which he imagined he’d be staring at for a long while. At least the pressed tin tiles were pretty enough, with their intricate patterning. John arrived with a cup of tea in hand.
“I’ll give you all a moment. See if you can get him to drink that whole thing. It’ll help with the pain,” the doctor said as he walked out of the room, which was starting to feel hot and cramped with four fully grown men in it. Charles settled on the doctor’s stool and helped raise Arthur into a sitting position, pushing a pillow behind him. Even with help, it hurt. Arthur waited for John to take a swipe at his inability to sit up on his own. Instead, John stepped forward and offered the cup to Arthur, with the handle turned towards his right side so that he could take it without struggle. Arthur felt the back of his neck burning, surprised at the thoughtfulness. Bitter tea burned his tongue, but he took a second sip anyway.
“We realized that something must have happened, when Calpurnia made it back to camp without you,” Charles said. “Hosea sent a few of us out to look for you.”
“He sent Marston to rescue me? Should’a left me to die,” Arthur drawled. Charles frowned at him.
“You almost did.” Arthur glanced at John, who looked away, also frowning. Arthur didn’t usually manage to piss them both off at once. He swallowed hard and drank some more of the scalding tea. At least his burning tongue distracted from the pain everywhere else, if only for a moment.
“Everyone’s glad you’re alright, Arthur.” Charles put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “We should get back soon, let folks know how you’re doing. We’ll be back tomorrow.”
He squeezed Arthur’s shoulder and stood from the stool with a groan, stretching his back “You’re heavy, you know.” Arthur rasped out a laugh as the doctor came back into the room.
He watched John and Charles leave. Both shook the doctor’s hand and thanked him for the help; John even clapped a friendly hand on the other man’s shoulder as he said something else too quiet for Arthur to hear. Whatever it was, it made the doctor laugh, a low rumbling sound in his chest. He escorted them out of the room. Arthur heard the front door of the clinic close and let his head fall back against the pillow.
“Those are some loyal friends you have there.” Doctor Barrow’s voice filtered through the foggy feeling had wrapped itself around Arthur’s head. “Very concerned for your safety.”
“Nah, just don’t wanna have to do all the work on their own.” Arthur snorted. Doctor Barrow raised his eyebrows at Arthur, looking doubtful. He was sure that they didn’t want to lose him as a contributor to the group, but he couldn’t speak to what other motivations they might have. Arthur also wasn’t about to discuss his companions or their loyalty with a stranger. He was even less inclined to do so when they were still wanted men.
“I promise not to keep you from your duties for long,” the doctor said. He braced Arthur with one hand and rearranged the pillows so that Arthur could lay down for the night, pulled the blankets up across Arthur’s bandaged chest. Arthur couldn’t remember the last time someone had tucked him in. It was...nicer than he remembered. It also seemed a strange thing for a doctor to be doing. Wasn’t this the sort of thing nurses were in charge of? Even a small town doctor was a busy, well-respected person far above this level of patient coddling. Bent over the bed, Arthur could see him better in the low light. His glasses, looking so much like Strauss’s, did nothing to endear Arthur to the man, but in the light his eyes were a warm, golden brown.
“No offense, Doc, but how much is all this gonna cost me?” Arthur asked, garbling the last couple of words with a massive yawn. Whatever had been in the bitter tea was making him fuzzy with sleep. He closed his eyes.
“No charge, Mr. Morgan.” Arthur knew that couldn’t be right, but he would have to deal with in the morning.
Weak sunlight filtered through the yellowed paper over the window in Arthur’s room, casting an unfortunate pallor over everything. Arthur pulled the blankets away from his torso and winced at the sight. Marks in all the colors of the rainbow splattered across his chest; bruises in dark blues and purples, with yellowing edges; angry red cuts and scrapes from sharp rocks and tree limbs. He tried once more to push himself into a seated position, but his arm shook from the effort and the exhaustion that still clung to his bones. He dropped against his pillow with a huff.
A knock at the door announced the doctor’s presence, standing in the entrance with another cup of tea and a small metal tray piled with bandages and a few glass bottles. “Good morning, Mr. Morgan. How are you feeling today?”
“Bit farther from death this morning, I think.”
“A ringing endorsement of my skills.” Arthur choked out a laugh, while the doctor smiled softly. At least his throat hurt less this morning. He told the doctor so, while the other man helped Arthur sit up against the pillows again. “Drink that tea. It’ll help. And it will distract you while I change your bandages. Might sting a little.”
Arthur sipped at the tea while the doctor peeled away the blood soaked padding from his side. Although the doctor’s stitches were neat and precise — maybe the best Arthur had ever received — the wound itself was a disgusting color and still oozed when the doctor prodded at its edges. Arthur sucked in a sharp breath and the doctor apologized. He began to clean the wound with the contents from the bottles and Arthur just stared at the ceiling, breathing steadily and counting the tiles above his bed.
“All done,” Doctor Barrow said. Arthur had made it to seventy six tiles. “Better than I’d hoped for, but we still need to keep a careful eye on it. Since the bullet went through, it’s not too bad an injury. Then you went and dragged yourself through a disgusting muddy river and collapsed in the dirt. I want to make sure that it doesn’t fester.”
Arthur took another sip of tea and his stomach growled in the quiet. Doctor Barrow smiled. “I can help with that too.” He returned soon after with hot, salty porridge that Arthur wolfed down.
“Where’s the other doctor?” Arthur asked between spoonfuls, trying not to talk with his mouthful.
“He had to leave suddenly, but no one told me why. I was looking for a job and when this spot opened up, I accepted and came right out. Left the back of the clinic in a terrible state.”
“So, you’re not from around here then?”
“No, I moved from Boston.” He frowned. Arthur knew the type. He didn’t have anything against the doctor, but he was dead certain the doctor would take issue with him. City boys didn’t come out west voluntarily, they were sent for some reason or another and they never seemed to leave their old life behind; forever going on about hot water and plumbing and the theatre. Arthur always had the worst trouble from wealthy easterners who didn’t understand what the west was really like. Although, they often had the fattest pocketbooks.
“Coulda guessed you were a city boy.” Arthur said, with a hint of derision in his voice. “Too fancy for Valentine, I reckon.”
“I needed work, Mr. Morgan. Wherever it may be found.”
“Don’t we all,” Arthur responded with a sigh. Doctor Barrow took his empty bowl and piled it onto the tray as he left the room.
“I have to go out on a house call. Should be back in an hour or so. My assistant is here if you need anything.” There was a coldness to his voice that hadn’t been there earlier. A hint of guilt crawled up Arthur’s spine as he remembered the doctor’s words from the night before about not charging him for the help. Arthur nodded, unsure what else to say.
Arthur dozed against the pillows in the low light, waking only to drink tea when the doctor’s assistant brought him a new cup. Noise from the outside of the clinic brought him back out of sleep, he heard voices that he recognized. Charles and Hosea came through the door. Hosea crossed the room and put a hand on Arthur’s forehead as he settled onto the doctor’s stool.
“How are you son?”
“Just fine, Hosea. Y’all are fussing for no good goddamn reason.”
“Arthur,” Charles said. “You were in such rough shape when we found you, John thought you were dead.”
“Yeah, well, Marston’s an idiot, ain’t he?”
“We were all worried Arthur.” Hosea took his hand away and Arthur missed it instantly, the cool touch had felt so nice against his too-hot skin. “Brought you a change of clothes.”
“And this,” Charles added, setting Arthur’s journal on the bedside table. “I just wanted to make sure you were still alive, before I went and bought supplies for the camp. I’ll see you back there, Hosea.”
Hosea turned to Arthur as Charles left, putting his hand back on Arthur’s forehead. Arthur sighed and turned into it. “What happened after you left the others?”
Arthur closed his eyes and tried to remember the details of the night before. So much of it was a blur of pain and confusion, being tossed about in the water. He told Hosea the parts that he could remember.
“I’m sorry, Arthur. You shouldn’t have been left on your own like that.”
“My own choice to do it, Hosea,” Arthur grunted.
Hosea frowned. “You shouldn’t have had to make it.” Arthur shook his head, looking for a different topic. He didn’t know what Hosea was on about. Arthur always had to make the tough decisions like that. He never had the luxury of any other way of doing things. Of course Arthur had to make those decisions, even if he sometimes chose poorly and got himself put through the wringer.
“How was the take from the coaches?” He asked, hoping to distract Hosea from Arthur’s apparent shortcomings as a leader and companion. Hosea grinned and turned his attention to Arthur’s question, Dutch’s glee over the tidy profit they had made — including the haul from Calpurnia’s saddlebags — and the generally positive feeling of the gang with more hope for escape on the horizon.
As Hosea was getting up to leave, the doctor returned, ringing the bell above the door in the main clinic. Hosea shook his hand on the way out and waved to Arthur.
“Your father was worried about you too, you know.”
Arthur smiled softly and didn’t correct him.. At least the doctor seemed to have forgotten about Arthur’s rudeness earlier that morning. He had another plate of food for Arthur.
“But first, a check up.” He said, setting the plate at the end of the bed out of Arthur’s reach. Alright, maybe he hadn’t forgotten about that morning. Arthur fidgeted, impatient while the doctor checked his bullet wounds, took his temperature and examined his shoulder.
“What kinda doctor are you?” He asked, while the other man wrote something in a notebook. “Ain’t ever been fussed over this much even by my own momma.”
“A doctor that cares about my patients not wandering around with septic infections and deadly fevers.”
On his fourth morning in the clinic, Arthur managed to haul himself up right and out of bed a few minutes before sunrise. Doctor Barrow came into the room as Arthur was leaning against the wall, trying to pull on the pants Hosea had left him with his one working hand.
“Your friends warned me that you’d be like this,” he said as he slid his shoulder under Arthur’s uninjured one, holding him upright. Arthur’s ears turned pink as he wiggled the rest of the way into his jeans. Doctor Barrow buckled his belt and then helped Arthur back over to the bed, lowering him down. “Is there a reason you’re out of bed?”
“Told you Doc, I can’t just sit around like this.” Doctor Barrow stared at him, emotionless.
“What jobs, exactly, do you think you’ll be able to do if you can’t even put on your own pants?” Arthur bristled. He didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that he was infirm, or couldn’t do his job. Even if it was true, this doctor didn’t get to stand there acting like Arthur was useless.
Dutch had visited the night before. All he’d said to Arthur was that he should take all the time he needed to convalesce, that they couldn’t function without him, that he was no use to them in his current state. All Arthur had heard was that he was useless to the group. He’d tossed and turned all night, getting very little sleep and irritating his injuries. Dutch only had the best intentions for Arthur. And Arthur was letting him down. He worked too hard for the gang, to fade away into nothingness over a couple of injuries.
“If I let you exercise your shoulder, will you behave yourself?” Arthur glanced up at the doctor, still glowering. “I have some stretches that you can try, to get your arm functional again. If you want to try them.” Arthur chewed the inside of his cheek. He would be doing something other than sitting around and it might get him up on his feet faster.
“Alright. Show me.” Doctor Barrow smiled and started to show Arthur a collection of exercises and stretches to help his arm. Arthur tried to follow along, but he could barely move his arm. He ground his teeth against the pain during the whole process. By the time the doctor helped Arthur into bed, he was shaking from the effort and sweat had broken out across his face and neck. Lying back against the pillows, Arthur had to admit that maybe he wasn’t ready to be up and about just yet. He glared at the ceiling, resenting his lack of an instant recovery. He used to feel invincible, doing this job. Now he just felt old. Old and tired.
A few days later, after almost a full week had passed since his dip in the river, Arthur could sit up on his own and move his arm without wanting to vomit from the pain. Days of rest, good food and, frankly, pampering by Doctor Barrow and his assistant Lucy, and Arthur was starting to feel like a human being again. It may have been the most restful vacation he’d ever had, compliments of a bullet and near drowning in the Dakota. He sat on the edge of his bed, buttoning a shirt that he’d struggled to get on with his arm’s limited mobility.
“You’re certainly looking better.” Doctor Barrow had appeared in the doorway, holding one last mug of tea for Arthur.
“Jesus, Doc. I look like shit.”
“Well, the only frame of reference I have is what you look like a hair's breadth from death. Compared to that, you’re looking positively radiant.” Arthur laughed and took the cup of tea. Given that he couldn’t saddle Calpurnia on his own, Charles was coming to get him later that morning for the ride back to camp. Arthur found that he was reluctant to leave. He told himself it was a matter of having been spoiled by his treatment at the clinic, but it was more than that. He couldn’t even nail down the feeling in his own mind.
“You really ain’t gonna charge me for all this, Doc?” He asked, staring at the empty cup in his lap. He and Hosea had both tried to get the doctor to take some form of payment and been refused. “I been eatin’ your food, drinking whatever the fuck is in this cup two, three times a day, getting fussed over by you and Miss King. Seems foolish of ya, not to take any money from me.”
“I only accept payment from patients that… have extra money lying around, that they aren’t using, that could benefit others. Usually, the wealthy assholes.” Arthur stared.
“So, you’re what, the Robin Hood of medicine?” Barrow laughed at the description.
“Hardly. I’m not stealing from the rich, they get their treatments same as anyone. I just charge them through the nose for it.”
Arthur shook his head. His own relationship with morality was weak, more distant acquaintance than anything else, nodding as they passed each other in the street. Whenever he stopped to think about good and evil, it all ended up jumbled in his head and he could never make heads nor tails of how it all fit inside him. Seemed the doctor had a different approach, had it all figured out for himself and found a place where he could do his version of the right thing.
“Secret’s safe with me, Doc.” Arthur shook his head and returned to his boots, pulling them on one-handed with great difficulty.
Arthur rode back into camp a little bit after midday, to the cheers of those present and many hands touching him. Despite the protest from his tender shoulder, he was glad to see everyone. So many people seemed to have worried about his absence. Even Strauss gave him a pat on the back. Arthur cradled his arm, still in its sling, against his chest to protect it from jostling. He pushed his way through the crowd.
“Alright, get outta here, y’all. Get back to work.” Arthur chuckled and waved them all away. Charles squeezed Arthur’s uninjured shoulder and left to unsaddle both his and Arthur’s horses. John hadn’t come to greet Arthur, but nodded from across the camp now, acknowledging Arthur’s presence. Arthur pushed back a sudden swell of emotion at the sight of everyone safe and happy, excited to see him.
After everyone had gone away, back to their tasks, Arthur took his time feeding and grooming Calpurnia, whispering sweet nothings into her soft ears. She pressed her velvety nose against his chest and lipped at his shirt. He brushed until her coat glistened in the sunlight and every scrap of dirt had been removed, cleaned her hooves and slipped her sugar cubes the entire time he worked. Pressing his head against her strong neck, he relaxed. She deserved the star treatment. No one would have come looking for him if she hadn’t come back to the camp without him. She’d brought the money back. Hell, she’d done more for the group than Arthur had managed, only burdening them with his injuries. He pressed a solid kiss to the white blaze on her nose and made promises involving fresh produce and peppermints. She’d saved his life just as much as Charles and John had, just as much as the doctor.
Recovery took a few more weeks, before Arthur could use his shoulder. He could finally shoot, but bow hunting was still beyond his reach. Saddling Calpurnia still caused a twinge and heavy animal carcasses were sometimes a struggle. Sleep remained elusive, without the doctor’s pain relieving tea. Still, he healed.
On another sunny, spring day Arthur and Lenny found themselves tucked into a corner table at the saloon in Valentine, drinking lukewarm beer and whiling away the afternoon. Arthur had never been a great fan of Valentine — a town of mud and morons, as Hosea once called it. But he certainly didn’t hate it. As towns went, it was far from the worst: small and out of the way — to its benefit and Arthur’s — with a doctor, cheap booze, and an easily bribed Sheriff. It suited the gangs purposes just fine and it smelled better than other places he’d been. Shame they’d have to leave soon, if Pinkertons were already sniffing around with their snouts down in the dirt. He’d better get a move on, collecting the last of their debts in the area for that little weasel Strauss. He turned to Lenny, stuck in a chair beside him at their corner table. It was quite, with only a few other people scattered throughout the saloon at this time of day. Arthur sat with his feet up on another chair and his journal propped up against the table, sketching the street outside. He closed it with a sigh.
“Best be on my way up to the Downes ranch. Gotta collect that debt for Herr Strauss” Arthur sneered, emphasizing the man’s german title. Lenny took a moment, then looked up from his book, cluing into the fact that Arthur was speaking to him. Arthur shook his head with a wry grin. He envied Lenny’s ability to turn off from everything happening around camp. Arthur felt that his own work was never done, no rest for the wicked, and he never stopped worrying about the needs of everyone else. Not that Lenny didn’t worry about others, he wasn’t selfish. Only, he had the ability to pull back and relax that Arthur lacked.
“I’ll probably head back to camp in a bit.” He turned back to his reading and flipped the page.
“You do that kid.” Arthur rolled his eyes and thumped Lenny on the back. At least he was less likely to get into trouble than the others, if Arthur left him behind in the saloon; he’d be content to read until the sun began to set and then he’d head home. As long as he didn’t have Arthur’s bad influence around, he’d be fine.
Arthur knocked back the last of his whiskey and left the empty glass on the bar. Outside, he stretched and popped his back as he headed for Calpurnia. A voice called his name and he turned to see the doctor striding across the street.
“Afternoon.” Arthur tipped his hat in greeting.
“How’s your arm?”
“Doing fine now. Bullet wound’s all healed up too.”
“I assume you slugged back some whiskey and asked one of your companions to remove your stitches, instead of coming to me.” Arthur laughed, surprised that the doctor had guessed the exact circumstances, despite hardly knowing Arthur or his friends.
“Bullseye, doc.” Barrow rolled his eyes toward the sky and shook his head.
“I don’t mean to keep you. Just wanted to say hello, check on your shoulder.”
“No hurry, doc. I’m heading up to the Downes ranch for a little business, then I’m done for the day.”
“Downes… Thomas Downes?”
“That’s the feller.”
“You can’t go up there.”
“Excuse me?” Arthur asked, incredulous at the doctor’s commanding tone. “I can damn well go wherever I please.” Arthur moved to swing into the saddle and Doctor Barrow grabbed his arm before he could get a good grip on his saddle horn.
Arthur’s free hand flew to his pistol. “I ain’t lying half-dead in one’a your clinic beds, Doc. You don’t actually got any control over what I do or where I go.”
“I didn't have much control over you then, you stubborn fool.” Arthur yanked his arm away from the doctor’s grip. “Thomas Downes has tuberculosis.” Arthur stared at him, jaw clenched. “You know, consumption.”
“I know what the fuck it is. Don’t see how it’s any of your business.”
“It’s contagious. I’m already struggling to keep his wife and son from contracting the disease while they care for him.”
“Well, I’d best be going quick then, if he’s as close to death as you’re suggestin’. Man owes me money, can’t rightly take it off of his corpse.”
“That sounds like robbery.”
“Money lending’s plenty legal, Doc.”
“And entirely immoral,” he muttered, staring down at the ground in thought. He squared his shoulders and looked Arthur in the eye. “I cannot let you expose yourself and the rest of the town to this disease. I’m enough of a threat by treating him.”
“I got folks to take care of,” Arthur growled.
“I’m thinking of them too!” Arthur pulled back when the doctor’s voice rose to a shout, calm demeanour vanishing. It startled him enough that he stopped to process what the doctor had said and found that he had a point. It would be a risk to bring disease like that back to the camp, where they already lived right on top of each other, crammed into a small space. Sickness would spread through them like wildfire. Arthur rubbed at his chin.
“I still need that debt. We can’t just be givin’ money out to people, or we’ll never make enough to…” He trailed off, deciding that maybe the doctor needn’t be privy to all their business. “Gotta get that money somehow. Man owes us what he borrowed.”
Arthur thought maybe he could confront Downes’ wife when she came to town, try to coax the cash out of her, but that turned his stomach more than the debt collecting usually did. Threatening a sick man’s wife didn’t sit well with him. Bad men still had lines that they wouldn’t cross, even Arthur, and this felt like one of them.
“How much does he owe you?” Arthur grunted and turned towards the doctor, who had a gleam in his eyes now, devious and determined. “How much?”
He fumbled in the leather satchel at his side and came out with a bundle of cash, leaving the bag hanging open, where Arthur could see more bills inside. It looked like a lot more money than a small town doctor should have in his possession. “Take it.” He waved the cash in Arthur’s general direction, while Arthur rocked back on his boot heels, considering the offer. Doing this in broad daylight in the middle of main street seemed like a bad idea that could lead to trouble for the lot of them, doctor included.
“Just take it.” He gestured at Arthur, more aggressive this time, and took a few steps closer.
“Man, bandits must lo-ove you.” Arthur drawled. “I ain’t even threatened you yet and you’re handing over the goods.” The doctor rolled his eyes.
“Are you really going to wring the money out of a man in his condition? He’s dying, in front of his family and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.” He gestured broadly at Arthur with his wad of bills for emphasis. “I can stop this, though. If you’ll only take the money.”
Arthur eyed the money that the doctor offered him. He hated this usury business at the best of times. Robbing banks and hitting trains didn’t feel half so cruel as going after desperate folks for their pocket change or, worse, their life savings. Maybe this doctor had a point. Did it matter how Arthur got the money, so long as he did? Strauss would never notice, nor likely care. Maybe, Arthur conceded, the doctor had a point.
And here he stood in front of Arthur, offering him the easier option. Kinder option too, though Arthur didn’t consider that much within his purview. He chewed at the inside of his cheek. Dutch had said they were meant to be helping people, and this surely counted, even if it was a bit roundabout in its execution. Maybe Strauss hadn't had all the information or maybe he hadn't felt obliged to share it with Arthur, but the doctor had it. He'd shared. He was giving Arthur a choice to do...differently. He stared at the pair of buck antlers hanging over the saloon’s doorway.
Before he could question his decision any further, Arthur strode forward and accepted money, thumbing through the stack of bills while he counted. “This is more’n he paid for your doctorin’.”
“It’s only money.” Doctor Barrow looked down at the ground, seeming smaller and more anxious now that Arthur had accepted the money. Deflated, like the fight had gone out of him. He flipped the top of his satchel closed. “If I’d known that he was in debt, I wouldn’t have accepted it in the first place.”
Only money wasn’t really a thought that Arthur could sympathize with. He saw that guilt was partly to blame for the doctor’s show of defiance and that, at least, he could understand. “No one woulda blamed you for taking it, you gotta make money, same as the rest of us.”
The doctor hummed a non-committal response. Arthur shook his head in disbelief. Maybe the doctor really did thrive on pissing people off. “It’s worth it, to help people who need it.”
Arthur snorted. Doctor Barrow had just hit the nail on the head of Arthur’s own dislike of their more legal business endeavours. Legal, but unsavoury, and his least favourite job. They were meant to be helping folks, like Dutch had said, and Strauss’s side business seemed to do the exact opposite of that. Here he was, too, giving Arthur a way out of the dirty feeling debt collecting gave him. Maybe just for this one job, but it unkinked something in Arthur’s spine that let him relax some. Probably a good thing, too, that he wouldn’t be bringing tuberculosis back into the camp. It certainly added to the justification in his own mind. He looked at the expectant doctor.
“Alright. Consider the debt paid.” He yanked two extra bills out of the pile, seeing that the doctor had overpaid, and handed the folded bills over to the doctor. “Gave me too much.” He had huffed out a breath and seemed relieved when Arthur had absolved the debt, but now a wary look had found its way back to his face. He accepted the money with a nod.
“Thank you, Mr. Morgan.” He tucked the bills back into his bag, with a small, tight smile. “Is it customary for highway robbers to provide change?”
“As I saw it, you paid up all on your own, doc. That’s hardly robbery. Twice now you’ve accused me of it, though.”
Arthur would be the first to say that he didn’t know much about folks. Strange people abounded all across the world, particularly the closer one got to civilization, and their motivations were often baffling. Everything about this exchange with the doctor had been strange. Arthur had been thanked by a man who had, moments earlier, begged Arthur to take his money, to protect a dying man, because a sense of duty had compelled the doctor to do so. If Arthur thought too hard about it, his head spun. He favoured a more simplistic approach. Guns or talking solved most of his problems.
After all of that, he felt there ought to be something else to say between them. Something about this conversation felt unfinished. It seemed the doctor might agree, as they stood in the street, staring at each other in awkward silence. Arthur caught himself staring; Barrow’s eyes were practically golden in the late afternoon sunlight.
“Arthur?” Lenny’s voice interrupted them. Both men jumped, startled by the sound cutting through their moment. “Thought you’d headed out already.”
“Got distracted Lenny.” He faced the doctor again.”Suppose that concludes our business, doc?”
“I’ll let you go,” the doctor said, backing away from Arthur and Lenny. He nodded at them and walked towards the clinic, long legs speeding him across the road. Arthur watched him go, feeling odd about the whole conversation and the doctor’s strange moral code, that existed far outside of Arthur’s realm of experience. Money didn’t grow on trees for people like him. He didn’t just have handfuls of it to give away.
“Good take today Arthur!” Sean swung an arm around his neck and waved a beer bottle in the air. Arthur rolled his eyes and steadied them both. It would be like Sean to drag them both into the dirt in his exuberance. “Dutch bought a crate of whiskey for the whole camp!”
“Alright kid, get off’a me.” Arthur pushed Sean back towards the rest of the celebrating camp. He whooped and threw an arm around Karen instead, who rolled her eyes and took a drink of whiskey.
“They’re just excited. Hit another stagecoach today and made off with a decent haul.” Hosea sidled up beside Arthur, chuckling.
“You ever worry one’a them’s gonna fall in the fire?” Sean now hung off of John, who looked like he was considering dumping Sean in the fire himself.
“Constantly.” Hosea laughed. “But we’ve avoided it so far.” Arthur clapped Hosea on the shoulder and walked away, dumping his belongings in his tent. He took the money to Strauss.
“Ah, Mr. Morgan, efficient as always.” He counted the bills and recorded the amount in his ledger, dropping the rest into a lockbox in his wagon. “I’ll have a few more names drawn up for you next week.”
Arthur grunted in response, and pulled a bottle of whiskey from the crate nearby. Strauss smiled — a tight, unfriendly little grimace. “A pleasure, as always.”
— Can’t say I like Barrow much, but there was something admirable about his way of doing things. Stupid, maybe. Even self-destructive. A doctor’s just as liable to starve as we are with no money.
Can’t say I mind the way things worked out neither. Always hated Strauss’s money lending. I’m glad that I didn’t have to beat $100 out of a sickly old man. Barely enough to feed the camp for more than a day or two. Hard to understand the point of something like that, in Dutch’s grand scheme. Seems a damned evil thing to do for damned little reward. How’s robbing and beaten poor folks going to get us enough cash to get out of here for good?
We’ll have to keep looking for work and hope that Dutch’s plan comes together. He’s never led us astray before, excepting Blackwater. —
Charles dropped beside Arthur in his spot near the scout fire. Arthur jumped and snapped his journal closed, trapping the pencil between its pages and likely smearing his sketch. “Didn’t mean to startle you, Arthur.”
“If you weren’t so damned quiet–,” he started.
“Are you going to share the dirty pictures or leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves?”
“I should leave you all to starve , if this is what I have to put up with.”Arthur dropped the journal into his lap. “Dirty pictures,” he mumbled under his breath.
Laughing, Charles knocked his bottle against Arthur’s and leaned back against the tree beside him. Arthur thought about telling him to fuck off, but Charles was good company. They drank in silence for a few minutes. Laughter and singing filtered over from the main campfire. Javier’s guitar sounded wonderful, the rest was drunken tomfoolery. Arthur didn’t mind in the least. Maybe not his first choice for a lullabye, but it always pleased him to see the others happy and safe.
“Brought in another debt for Strauss today,” Charles said. “He was real happy about it. Said you do the best work for him.”
“Oh, and you know how much I enjoy making that little weasel happy,” Arthur drawled. He kicked his feet out, one foot over the other and relaxed against the trunk at his back.
“He’s always been your favourite, admit it.” Charles laughed and ducked when Arthur chucked a stick at him. Charles’ laughter faded back into a companionable silence. “You seemed happy about it too. Easy job?”
“More or less. Didn’t get bloody, so I was in a good mood.” Arthur hadn’t thought much of it at the time, but he hadn’t wanted to punch Strauss in the face the moment he saw him and it had been so novel he’d been cheered by it. It was true, he’d been happy ever since. He wouldn’t have thought anyone paid enough attention to notice his behaviour like that. It both comforted and unsettled him. Being seen by others was always a mixture of the two.
“I’m glad it went well.” Charles sipped from his bottle. “I worried when you weren’t stoic and cranky all night. Thought maybe you’d come down with something.”
“I most certainly am stoic and cranky. Don’t you dare tell anyone otherwise, Mr. Smith.” Arthur leveled a playful glare at Charles, who shook his head. Arthur tipped his hat down over his eyes and folded his hands on his belly, looking to all the world as if he’d gone to sleep in an instant. “I’d lose my reputation.”
“Oh, I’ll never tell, Arthur.”
“Now go on, get,” Arthur muttered from beneath his hat. He waited until Charles had wandered laughing back to the campfire, before he pulled out his journal and set out to sketch in the fading sunlight.
Only a few hours ago, with the rising of the sun, Arthur had set out hunting for Pearson’s stew pot and now he was crouched at the side of the road, sawing away at some poor bastard’s blood-soaked jeans. He only wanted to stop the man’s hollering and leave, but to do that, he needed to suck out the venom before it progressed any further. He’d tied a tourniquet tight around the man’s thigh while he worked.
“How in hell’d you get yourself in this spot, mister?” He didn’t respond, only hollered louder, crying out at his own stupidity. Arthur pushed him back down the ground one handed while the man thrashed around in the dirt. “Hold still, for fuck’s sake.”
Arthur tossed his hat behind him and bent to suck the venom out of the man’s exposed knee, spitting mouthfuls of blood into the dirt beside them. After the fifth mouthful, he yanked the canteen from his belt and tried to rinse away the foul taste. Now the man lay at his feat moaning, not looking much better off than when Arthur had stumbled across him. Arthur sat with his hands braced on his thighs, watching the man’s chest rise and fall.
“Shit.” He scrambled up out of the dirt, scooping up his hat and dragging the man into a sitting position, then onto Calpurnia’s back.
Joseph Barrow stepped onto the porch when he heard his name being shouted outside of the clinic. An unfamiliar form stood with his back to Joseph, dragging an unconscious man out of the saddle and across his shoulders. He murmured to his horse as he patted her neck, then turned towards Joseph. He recognized Arthur Morgan, who looked as surly as ever, and nearly as bloody as the first time they’d met, smeared in streaks across his face and hands.
“Bring him inside, quickly.” He held the door wide and waved Arthur inside. “What happened?”
“Snake bite. Above his knee.” Arthur puffed his way upstairs with the heavy weight across his shoulders. Joseph directed Arthur towards a metal cot, where he dropped the unconscious man. Blood coated the back of his jacket. “Tried to suck out some of the poison.”
Joseph saw now where the blood on Arthur’s chin had come from. He pulled out a pair of sharp scissors and cut away the remaining pant leg and the blood soaked belt had been used to staunch the bleeding. More than just a puncture, the would was nasty. It looked as if the snake’s fangs had torn out a chunk of the man’s flesh, leaving a nasty, jagged hole.
“Miss King!” He shouted into the back room. “I need a splint and bandages, needle and thread. Whatever alcohol we have. Fast as you can.”
His assistant shouted a confirmation and he could hear cabinets and metal clattering as she gathered the requested materials. Once he had the alcohol in hand, he soaked a rag and cleaned the blood off of the area around the injury, to better assess the damage. He would need stitches. As Joseph poked at the wound, the man groaned in pain.
“Between sucking out the venom and that tourniquet, you saved your friend’s life,” he told Arthur.
“He ain’t my friend,” came Arthur’s gruff response. Joseph glanced up.
“Who is he then?”
“Found him out on the trail. He was hollerin’ and scaring off all the game.” Joseph pursed his lips. Only a few days ago, Joseph had been pleading with Arthur not to beat a sick old man for money, and here he was bringing Joseph injured strangers. Joseph had assumed that he would never see Arthur Morgan again. He would have been fine with that, too. Stubborn patients were a pain even after they’d walked off their injuries.
“Thank you for bringing him,” Joseph said, splashing clear alcohol across the wound. His patient bucked up against the bed with a guttural scream of pain. Arthur lurched forward to hold his shoulders down. Joseph took advantage of the help and worked at cleaning the wound. He used metal forceps to pull the edges of the skin together while he passed a needle and thread through the gash. It took several long minutes, made slower each time the man tried to thrash against Arthur’s tight hold. He snipped the last of the stitches with a sigh. Arthur’s forearms still held the man down and he was staring at Joseph’s hands while Joseph wrapped bandages around the wound.
“You can let go now, Mr. Morgan.”
Arthur shook himself and let go, easing off of the man’s torso. Their patient would sleep for a while now. If he made it until tomorrow morning, he would live and his wound should heal without too much trouble. Joseph walked over to a wash basin in the corner and cleaned the blood off of his hands. When he turned back to the clinic, Arthur was gone.
Joseph stepped onto the clinic’s front porch, wiping his hands on a clean towel and looked for Arthur, who he found leaning against the building’s warped wooden siding. “It’s a good thing you got him here as quick as you did.”
“Thought he was a goner for sure.” Arthur stubbed a barely-smoked cigarette out on the bottom of his boot.
“Not your friend, but you carried him all the way here, on the off-chance that he might survive?” Arthur shrugged and Joseph reevaluated what he knew of the other man. Under Joseph’s gaze, Arthur fidgeted, as if unused to this level of scrutiny. Or maybe Joseph still hadn’t yet figured out how to look at people without staring. He thought that perhaps he may have misjudged Arthur during their first encounter. He looked away, to spare Arthur the discomfort and prolonged eye contact. Although Arthur had been on the way to do something vile, he had stopped when Joseph confronted him and offered him an alternative. Maybe that spoke to a stronger moral code than Joseph would have guessed. Joseph had a bad habit of assuming the worst of people and, between the company Arthur kept and working as a loan shark, Joseph had made a snap judgement of him.
“He gonna make it?” Arthur pushed off of the wall and took two steps forward to spit into the street moving away from Joseph. He tucked his hands into his belt.
“Snake bites are almost impossible to treat, if you don’t get the venom out early. If he lives ‘til morning, he should be fine. All we can do now is wait.”
“Well, Doc, while you do that, I never did finish my hunting this morning and I gotta whole bunch of people to feed.”
“Thank you.” Joseph cleared his throat and Arthur looked up. “In case someone doesn’t get a chance to tell you.”
“I just wanted him to stop hollerin’ and scarin’ off the game.” Arthur’s ears turned pink. He stepped off into the mud and walked away, tossing a casual two-fingered salute back at the doctor.
fun fact: most snake bite treatments prior to 1901 were as likely to kill you as the bite please do not treat snake bites with arterial tourniquets, and do not attempt to suck out the venom, thank heavens for the invention of antivenin so we no longer have to inject people with strychnine.
Chapter by asphodel (msqjoe)
The boys go flower picking. That's it. That's the chapter.
Arthur looked down at the lake from Calpurnia’s back, baffled by the sight before him. Doctor Barrow stood with his trousers rolled to the knee, soaked in thick, dark mud. Green sludge oozed across the surface and his stomping had turned up a sulfurous odor. Arthur wrinkled his nose. It had been a few days since their last meeting. Well, Arthur wasn’t sure it could be called a meeting, since the doctor hadn’t noticed Arthur or spoken to him at all. Arthur hadn’t approached him either.
"Doc, what in the hell are you doin'?" Arthur asked, since the doctor hadn’t once looked up from whatever it was that he was fiddling with. Arthur had made no effort to be quiet, the doctor was simply distracted. Barrow jumped, overbalancing and almost submerging his whole body in pond scum.
“Mr. Morgan!” He wobbled a little as he turned. “You scared me half to death.”
“I seen cleaner corpses.” Barrow looked down at the state of his clothes and the mud all around. Splashes of dirty green water dotted the front of his shirt and trousers and, only visible to Arthur, he had a smear of mud across his temple.
“Yes, well, needs must.” He frowned.
“Now, what is it you’re doing?” Arthur slid off of Calpurnia’s back and approached the edge of the water.
“Hunting.” Barrow turned back toward the soupy lake bed.
“Hunting,” Arthur repeated. “Hunting what exactly?”
“There. Ha!” Barrow pointed at a patch of tiny blue flowers. He pushed forward through the water and started plucking the leaves. “Brooklime. We used it to treat scurvy, but it should also be useful for the cases of dysentery that happen through Valentine. A few came through last week and I didn’t have any handy. Family had a rough time of it.”
“I’ll just get my bow then, before it can run off on you again.” Barrow glowered at him. He grinned, rolling his pant legs. He left his boots on the shore and waded into the pond to help corral the delicate little blossoms. Grimshaw would have Arthur’s hide if she saw the muck clinging to his legs.
“You know, you can tell me what all you’re looking for and I could help ,” Arthur drawled. “It would go a lot faster.”
“Well, I need foxglove as well. Some yarrow, ginseng, burdock root, if we can find it.” Barrow hummed. “Stinging nettle would also be a great help.” Arthur shook his head and waded over to another patch of brooklime and started to gather. Delicate blue blossoms looked so bright against the murky water.
After a few minutes of quiet work had passed, Arthur spoke up. “Why all the plants, Doc?”
“Patient of mine is having heart trouble, amongst other things, and I was thinking about some of the medications we’ve used back east. Remembered I had a book about some of the native plants around here, thought I might be able to concoct something for her myself.” He sighed and straightened. “All the drugs I’ve had shipped here… they just aren’t working. Not as well as I’d like. She isn’t getting any better.”
“So, the nettle and the foxglove are for her then?” Arthur asked. Joseph blinked at him. Arthur scrubbed at the back of his neck and grimaced at the dirt he’d smeared there without thinking. “I may be an idiot, Doc, but I know plants. How you think I’ve survived out here so long? Can’t live off’a rabbit meat all the time.”
Arthur knew he wasn’t as smart as all that, but Hosea had taught him plants, and taught him well. It had come in handy more than once and he had a bit of a knack for finding them. An eye for detail worked in his favour, when it came to picking out one plant from a sea of green. He looked away from the doctor, who was scrutinizing him once more. Arthur crouched by the lake’s edge and pulled up a few cattails, snapping off the crunchy roots and rinsing them in the clearer water there. He picked up one of the fuzzy brown plant heads and ran it through his fingers, letting the fluff explode out into the breeze. If he was going to be digging them up at the roots, the least he could do is make sure they had a chance at regrowing.
“You must know the best place to find foxgloves then.” Arthur turned back and Barrow smiled at him. He walked out of the water.
“Reckon I know a few places.”
“I bow to your experience,” he said, then actually tried to bow, wobbling in the mud once more. “Lead on. Mr. Morgan.”
On horseback, Arthur led the way along a trail into denser forest, and then up between tall, winding columns of rock. Apparently, he hadn’t meant that he knew where to find foxgloves in the immediate area. At the top of the rise, the tight chasm opened up into more trees and beyond, a flowing meadow sprinkled with colorful patches of flowers that swayed in the breeze. Dotted throughout the meadow were numerous isolated thickets of pale birch trees, like little islands in a sea of grass. A creek ran through the area, bisecting obvious animal trails that had beaten down the vegetation, tumbling over rocks with a soft, musical sound.
They stopped when they hit the boundary between further forest blanketing the hills that rolled up and away from them and the edge of the meadow. Arthur dismounted and went about picketing their horses in a patch of shade. Joseph followed, less graceful sliding off of his own horse. Arthur moved with more grace than Joseph expected, particularly out in the countryside, easy with his horse and the flora they’d encountered. Arthur left the horses long leads so that they could graze and removed their saddles, setting them on the ground nearby. Joseph noticed that both horses crunched sugar cubes after Arthur had finished with them.
“Come on, Doc.” He trotted off into the meadow. “We’ll be able to find most of your grocery list around here.” Joseph hurried after him.
After an hour, Joseph realized that, not only was Arthur knowledgeable about the local flora, he was a damned savant when it came to finding the plants he wanted. Joseph had found only one patch of yarrow and been scolded by Arthur for nearly stripping the plant bare. He had a practical knowledge of nature that Joseph admired. He was the first to admit that he was used to being the smartest person in most rooms. Sometimes he needed to reevaluate. He knew his arrogance wasn’t exactly charming. Several friends and family members had made their feelings clear about it.
“It won’t be able to regrow if you take everything from the one bush.” Joseph hadn’t even considered that and felt sheepish. Arthur crouched and examined a patch of pale-spotted leaves. He plucked a handful of leaves and waved them at Joseph. “Lungwort. Useful for treating Mr. Downes.” Joseph accepted the leaves and tucked them into his satchel with everything else they had gathered. A few meters away he saw a patch of tall stalks of colorful blossoms and made his way over.
“I found foxgloves!” he called, examining the delicate flowers. Arthur came up behind him, scratching at the stubble on his chin.
“‘Fraid not, Doc.” Arthur plucked one of the flowers and sniffed it, twirled it between his fingers so that the crȇpe-like petals danced away from the stem.
“Nonsense,” Joseph turned the plant in his hand, looking at it from different angles. “It looks just like the description in the book.”
Arthur shook his head. “That’s a lovely little patch of hollyhocks you’ve found there.” He pulled a leather bound book out of his satchel and flipped through it, turning the pages towards Joseph.
On it were a series of detailed sketches of flowers and plants, some that Joseph recognized, but many that he didn’t, all labeled in Arthur’s neat handwriting. Under “hollyhock” was a flower drawn with wide open petals like a twirling skirt on long, delicate looking stalks. Several were bunched together, stacked off center, working upwards toward the buds that hadn’t bloomed yet. Arthur turned to a second page and tapped at the handwritten label, where he had also illustrated a foxglove. Both flowers could fit into the description from Joseph’s book, but they were clearly different plants. The foxglove had smaller, bell-shaped blossoms that hung down towards the ground with speckled insides and sturdier stalks that supported many of the small blooms packed together.
“Mr. Morgan, these… are amazing,” he breathed. Arthur rubbed at the back of his neck.
“Naw, they’re just scribbles. Help me keep track of different plants so I don’t accidentally kill myself.”
“No. These are beautiful. They’re so detailed.” He huffed. “I couldn’t have told you the difference between these two flowers with my book. At least I wouldn’t have killed Maeve with the hollyhocks.”
“No, Doc.” Arthur chuckled. “Might’a given her the runs, though.”
Joseph winced and took the book out of Arthur’s hands so that he could take a closer look at the page of flowers. Arthur tensed as the book left his grasp. Yarrow was detailed there too, with its tight clusters of tiny white blossoms, as well as several species of mushroom. If these were simple sketches to Arthur, he wondered what the man could do when he put his mind to a drawing. He wondered if Arthur could paint . He might like to see that some day. Joseph had always been a bit envious of people with artistic leanings and the beautiful things they could produce. His own art left a lot to be desired.
He reached to turn the page and Arthur snatched at the book. Joseph fumbled and dropped it on the ground. He was glad to see that the white pages were face up, unmarred by the dirt. Arthur was no longer lunging for the book that he and Joseph stared down at. Flowers had been replaced by writing and a pencil sketch of a man sitting in a chair, reading, with small round glasses perched on his nose. He looked away from the artist at an angle, staring off into the distance. One leg crossed over the other, ankle resting on his knee. As it happened, when Arthur put his mind to a drawing, it came out beautiful and detailed.
It seemed that Joseph had also made his way into Arthur’s journal, rendered in swift, delicate pencil strokes alongside the flowers and mushrooms. A charming duck had been doodled in one corner. He bent to pluck it out of the dirt. Closing it, he handed the book back to Arthur whose face had closed off and turned to stone, unreadable to Joseph, who didn’t know him well. Arthur must be angry, at the very least. Joseph would be, if someone had gone digging around in his private things without permission. He knew he shouldn’t have done it, in retrospect, he’d just been so enamoured with Arthur’s drawings.
“I’m sorry.” He swallowed. “I, uh, I thought it was just the plants. I should have asked.”
Something passed over Arthur’s face, a flicker of emotion that Joseph couldn’t identify. It looked like he might want to shout at Joseph, who couldn’t understand why he wasn’t yelling. He blinked and Joseph watched his jaw relax a tic. He shoved the journal back in his bag and mumbled that it was alright.
“Only a journal. Like to document things.” Arthur shifted his weight and stared off across the meadow, continuing to not make eye contact. “I’ll go make us some lunch.”
“I can help–,” Joseph started. Arthur interrupted him.
“It’s alright Doc, you keep looking for your flowers.” It wasn’t a suggestion, but a dismissal. Arthur had been so genial throughout the last few weeks, Joseph worried that he’d upset Arthur and broken the equilibrium between the two of them. “We can check it ain’t poisonous while we eat.”
Arthur walked across the meadow towards the horses. Joseph was left feeling off about the whole exchange. Obviously, Arthur hadn’t wanted Joseph looking through his private journal, which he could understand, but the actual contents hadn’t seemed all that private. He wondered why Arthur had ended up sketching him of all people. Perhaps that’s what had embarrassed Arthur. If that was the emotion he’d been feeling. Joseph remained unsure.
As they’d wandered, Joseph had come to realize that he enjoyed Arthur’s company. He had a sharp, sly sense of humour that Joseph found refreshing after he spent his own days trying to be calm and professional with patients. He also had a quiet, thoughtful intelligence that Joseph wished he encountered more often — even if the other man didn’t seem to recognize it in himself. He’d learned a lot from Arthur in only a few hours of conversation over flowers and he was growing more comfortable with the new world he’d found himself in upon moving to Valentine. He hoped that Arthur would forgive him the invasion of privacy, perhaps give them a chance to become friends.
Arthur busied himself with their packs. He’d brought his usual kit, assuming he’d spend most of the day hunting, try to bring back a fat whitetail for the camp’s dinner. How he’d ended up traipsing around a meadow with a pushy doctor was a total mystery. Arthur really had to start saying no when people asked him for weird favours. Half the time he ended up somewhere odd, covered in weird substances, injured, or on the run from the law. At least Barrow had taken this errand into his own hands, instead of making Arthur do all of the work. Although, they would need to check the flowers afterwards, on the off chance the doctor picked something deadly to pass along to one of his patients. Given how poor the man’s wilderness skills seemed so far, Arthur was surprised that he’d made it out of the swampy pond without drowning or ending up mudied head to toe.
Fire blazed up beneath Arthur’s hands as he scraped flint and tinder together into the pile of dry kindling he’d collected. He set about stoking the fire, adding a few heavier branches, until it blazed. He gathered up water from the stream, filling first his waterskin, then his coffee pot, so that they would have something hot to drink with their lunch. Something sharp lay on the bottom of the stream, not rounded and organic like the rocks around it. He scooped it up, rinsing the dirt from its chipped surface with his thumb to reveal an arrowhead. Carved from stone, it glistened wetly in the sunshine along its pitted surface. Arthur tucked it into his pocket, smiling. Jack would love it, and it wasn’t so sharp that Abigail would bite his head off for giving it to the boy.
Once he set the water boiling, he wandered off into the trees, looking for something to eat. He had canned food, of course, but whenever possible he tried to offset it with fresh ingredients. In a small patch of wet earth, he found wild carrots and, nearby, wild garlic. An arrow through the eye of a jackrabbit and the cattails from his bag, mixed with the rest, would make a decent meal for the two of them. He set the food to cook, coffee to brewing, and distributed oatcakes and wild carrots to the horses. Work kept his mind off things he’d rather not think about. Finally out of things to do, he sat back against a tree and watched the doctor working his way through the meadow.
Arthur had never intended for the doctor to see anything but the flowers he’d sketched in his journal. It was rare that he showed anyone anything that he’d drawn or written. Sometimes Hosea asked to see one, or he tore a page out as a gift for one of the women in camp. A few of those were scattered around camp, tacked to wagons beneath people’s tents. Last winter, he’d given Jenny a drawing of an old mission church they’d passed to the west of Blackwater. Arthur wondered what had happened to it, when she’d died. No one ever saw the drawings he made of them. He’d been drunk when he’d drawn the doctor. Arthur had been two whiskies in to an evening out with Charles and Javier — complete with a black eye and a muddy shirt from a bar fight. The doctor walked in and took a seat, reading in a corner with his feet up and a drink at his elbow. Arthur hadn’t said hello, or even greeted the man, but he’d been distracted the entire evening. Alcohol made people do stupid things, like drawing strangers in the middle of crowded bars. At least Charles and Javier had been too drunk and distracted themselves to notice Arthur’s activities or their focus. Thank christ, no one needed to know who Arthur liked drawing or why.
Barrow hadn’t turned on him though, gotten violent or angry or twitchy, the way Arthur worried he was going to. Instead, he didn’t seem to have noticed anything weird about Arthur’s sketches or their subject matter. He seemed to think that he’d done something wrong, not Arthur. Invaded Arthur’s privacy, rather than revealing his drunken stupidity to the light. He didn’t even seem to like Arthur much. Certainly thought he was an idiot and a criminal, which Arthur had done nothing to disprove. He wasn’t wrong, but Arthur didn’t need the judgement from Barrow, just because their moral codes didn’t align.
Barrow wandered around the meadow, picking flowers as he found them. Arthur watched from beneath the brim of his hat, shielding his eyes from the sunlight and from view. He’d have an easier time of it, if he were more methodical, but he seemed to be doing alright. Arthur was glad that the doctor was so far away, it stripped Arthur of the urge to draw him again, because the rest of the doctor’s attitude hadn’t managed it. He’d only be a dot amongst the waving flowers, if Arthur sketched the scene in front of him. Not that it mattered much. Arthur could sketch him from memory later, if he felt so inclined. He closed his eyes and let the coolness of the shade lull him into a doze.
Arthur sat with his back against a tree, hat tipped down over his eyes, hands folded on his chest. A small grill held sizzling pieces of meat and sticks pierced cattail roots and wild carrots over the fire. A smattering of other ingredients already sat on two tin plates. Fresh coffee steamed near Arthur’s feet.
“Hell, that smells good.” Joseph dropped down beside Arthur and the fire. Arthur glanced up from beneath his hat with one eye, then let it fall back down over his face.
“It’ll be done in a couple’a minutes.” A salty, gamey smell rose from the meat on the grill that made his mouth water. Joseph chewed his lower lip while he stared at Arthur, still thinking.
‘Stop watchin’ me sleep, Doc.”
“Sorry.” Joseph chuckled. He wanted to know how Arthur knew that he was staring, without looking. Arthur made a nice picture, legs stretched out long in front of him, looking relaxed for the first time since Joseph had met him. He was a handsome man, if a bit rough. Joseph took a breath, steeling himself. “Do you think you could copy some of those drawings into my guidebook? It would be so much more useful if it were illustrated. You’d be saving all of my patients from my stupidity.”
Arthur chuckled, but took his time responding. “Yeah, I guess I can do that. Might not know what all them plants in your book look like, they gotta be ones I seen before. Or I guess ones we can find.”
“Whatever you can do. I could even pay you. Good, honest work.” Arthur stiffened, then abandoned his nap, sitting up to check the food without looking at Joseph. He was sad to see that he’d broken Arthur’s relaxation, even if he didn’t understand exactly how. He groaned inwardly. Why anyone at all bothered with him was a mystery. Arthur pulled things off of the fire and dropped them on the plates. Joseph inhaled the delicious smell when he was handed his portion. Arthur had put together a startling spread that would never have occurred to Joseph. Arthur had prepared rabbit meat — fresh, if the small pelt hanging from Calpurnia’s saddle was any indication — grilled with garlic, roasted cattails and wild carrots with a sprinkle of salt. Arthur’s foraged camp meal was better than anything Joseph could cook, but instead of being insulted, he accepted his substandard abilities and a plate from Arthur.
He vowed to let Arthur cook for them again. Assuming there would be another meeting like this one. Joseph didn’t have a lot of experience with adult friendships, with only his relationship with Felicity to draw on. Joseph had always struggled in that regard — colleagues, bosses, other soldiers, professors and other students, none had ever quite clicked with Joseph. Maybe he hadn’t ever found a place where people understood him. He choked down the rabbit that had gone dry in his throat. He didn’t want to ruin whatever dynamic had popped up between Arthur and himself over their brief handful of interactions. Arthur made for good company, all told.
“Bet you can teach me about plenty of plants I’ve never even heard of,” he said. “We could do this again, sometime. I’d love to pick your brain. As you’ve already seen, I’m not well-suited to the wilderness.”
“Well, we’ ain’t exactly got hot running water out here.” Arthur teased. “It’s not like you’re born to it, Doc. We all gotta learn how to do shit like this. And it sticks or you die.”
Arthur didn’t respond right away, he seemed to be thinking. Since there had been no immediate denial, Joseph took it as a good sign. He looked down at his food, too nervous to keep eating while Arthur stared at him. He supposed Arthur had a point, about survival. It was something one had to learn on their feet, or they’d be swept away in a blink. Cynical though it was, it seemed like a good life philosophy for someone in Arthur’s position to have. Wilderness romps were different than living out in it, day to day, subject to its unforgiving nature.
“Sure. Why not?” Arthur cleared his throat. Joseph smiled, relieved, and went back to his rabbit. He hadn’t disrupted things after all, maybe hadn’t even upset Arthur as much as he’d thought. “Can’t have you killin’ your patients.”
“We don’t know very much about each other.” Joseph pointed out, pausing again, after they’d been eating in silence for several minutes. It was true, they didn’t know much about each other. Admittedly, they hadn't known each other for long, or with any real level of intimacy. Although, Arthur did seem to let his guard down around Joseph sometimes.
“Ain't like you share much.”
Joseph opened his mouth to respond, not sure where to start. Arthur thought he didn’t share? A man with a chronic scowl, and one word where ten would do, thought that Joseph was secretive. He laughed.
“I am an open book, Mr. Morgan.”
“Alright,” he drawled. “Why’d you come out west? It don’t seem to suit you much.”
“I’m better on the ocean.” Joseph found himself responding. It was as if he’d lost all control of the pipeline between his brain and mouth. Arthur caused him to blurt things out, with no thought given to the consequences. Arthur raised an eyebrow and Joseph barreled ahead. “I was a navy doctor for four years.”
“Why in the hell’d you do a thing like that?” Arthur laughed, incredulous.
“My father wanted me to. More of a demand, actually. I think he wanted the military to turn me into a proper man. Said it would teach me responsibility and how not to piss off the people in charge.”
“Heavens no.” Joseph chuckled. “I’m terrible at following orders and have no respect for authority. I think the navy made me worse . My father certainly thought so.” He chewed, reminiscing. “I can sail and I was good at my job, but I’m happier on dry land where I can go where I want, when I want, and choose the people that I spend my time with. There’s no one out here to give me a dressing down.” Arthur’s lips twitched a small smile and he nodded.
“Might be a few militant squirrels that take issue with your clothes.” Arthur said, straightfaced. Joseph laughed.
“Don’t know what I would do, if I couldn’t pack up and leave whenever I wanted,” Arthur said, sipping his coffee. “Probably lose my mind, if I’m being honest. Never much liked the ocean, myself. Awful lot I don’t know about sailing, either.”
“You could learn it, better than most others, I’d guess.” Arthur ducked his head. His openness made Joseph bold enough to ask. “Tell me about that family of yours. I met a few of them, but they didn’t hang around for long.”
“We ain’t family by blood,” Arthur said. He pressed his tongue to his cheek while he thought. “Some of us are. Most found each other different ways, now we all travel together.” It was more than Joseph thought he’d get out of Arthur. He could see that Arthur was considering each fact before he shared it, weighing what Joseph was allowed to know.
“Hosea, he’s how I know so much about herbs. Taught me everything I know about ‘em. Taught me most everything else too. Raised me when there was no one else left to do it. Him and Dutch.”
“My patients and I are grateful to him, for that,” Joseph said. Arthur laughed, but Joseph could see that he was starting to close back up again. That he’d felt comfortable enough to share at all was something Joseph appreciated. He started in on a story about three soldiers who’d drunk the local brew on an island down south, and been found naked in the jungle two days later. Arthur leaned back, seeming to relax into the conversation, and they talked while they ate.
After their meal, they relaxed by the fire as it petered out, untended. Arthur had brought out a flask and dumped a shot of whiskey into each of their coffees, that they now drank in the shade. Joseph watched cloud shadows slipping across the meadow. At the far end of the valley darker clouds gathered, heavy with rain. In the distance, he could see slanting curtains of dark rain, woven with patches of sunshine. He drifted off.
He jerked awake when Arthur kicked his boot, standing over him. Both horses had been saddled, the fire doused, and their belongings packed away. Joseph wanted to be annoyed that Arthur hadn’t let him help, but he was grateful for the nap. He thanked Arthur who ducked his head and moved away. Joseph noticed that thanks always caused him to fidget or hide his face. It was charming on such a gruff and stoic person, who otherwise seemed self-assured.
A twig snapped in the trees and Arthur paused, peering over Calpurnia’s head into the forest. He put a finger to his lips and waved at Joseph to follow him. He crouched behind a tree and pointed into a clearing ahead. Joseph stifled a gasp. In the middle of the trees, where a clear patch had been beaten down and grazed over, stood the most magnificent ten point buck that Joseph had ever seen. A rack of antlers stood from his head like a crown. Other deer lay scattered around the field, relaxing in the beams of golden light that shone down on them through the trees. Now this was something you couldn’t get in the city.
Arthur had been heading out to hunt when Joseph had distracted him with plant collecting and he had his bow strung on his back. Joseph felt a pang, he couldn’t bare the thought that Arthur would shoot such a magnificent creature, even if the meat was needed. When Arthur reached towards his own back, Joseph grabbed at his wrist, stopping him. Arthur stared at Joseph’s hand for a long moment before he looked up. He used his other hand to shrug his bow off, setting it on the ground behind him, so that he could lean back against the tree to watch the deer grazing.
Joseph swallowed. Maybe he shouldn’t have presumed with Arthur. Arthur’s face had gone soft, not quite smiling, but calm and content. He seemed less tense and wary than he had most day, if not as relaxed as he had been while napping beneath the trees. Joseph sat back on his heels and watched the deer too. After a while, Arthur crept backwards, scooping up his bow, and returned to the horses, with Joseph on his tail. He mounted back up and waited for Arthur, who pulled a bundle out of his saddle bag. Arthur swept on to Calpurnia’s back then let the cloth fall open in his hand. Several handfuls of blackberries dotted the clean handkerchief. Arthur popped one into his mouth and offered them to Joseph as he chewed.
A week later, Arthur found himself in town fetching supplies for the camp with Mary-Beth and Lenny along to barter and carry. He offered Mary-Beth an absent-minded hand out of the wagon while he stared at the sign over the doctor’s office across the way.
“You comin’ Arthur?” she asked, hiking her skirts clear of the churned up mud from last night’s rain.
“Got an errand to run. I’ll meet y’all back at camp.”
Joseph looked up as Arthur stepped inside, “Mr. Morgan, good morning.”
“Mornin’.” Arthur nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Have you brought me another wayward victim of the local snake population?”
“No.” Arthur shifted his weight and looked around the room, scratched at the stubble on his chin. “Ain’t come across any more of them.”
An awkward silence draped itself over the room. In the distance, Arthur could hear sloshing water and the doctor’s assistant shuffling around, singing to herself. Outside a horse snorted and stomped, people passed on the walkways, and chickens clucked in the backyard. Inside, nothing but the rustle of clothes and soft breathing. And, Arthur was sure, the audible pounding of his heart as his anxiety set in. Arthur couldn’t think of a good reason for being there, wasn’t even sure why he’d come in to the clinic. Joseph’s bemused expression didn’t help, waiting for Arthur’s reason for being there at half past ten in the morning, not covered in blood, not carrying medicinal plants or an unconscious victim — a reason Arthur couldn’t supply. He hadn’t thought this far of the head, only coming inside on a whim.
“Something you needed? Bandages? Painkillers? Seems necessary, given your usual bullet holes.” Joseph smiled stiffly. Arthur bristled, bothered by the doctor’s insinuation, and Joseph’s smiled dropped. “I only meant that you seem to wander about injured an awful lot.”
Arthur’s ears burned. He was starting to feel ridiculous, like Joseph was laughing at him. Although, given what he knew of the doctor, it maybe wasn’t all that malicious. He’d felt off-kilter since their previous meeting. Last they’d seen each other, Joseph had expressed interest in meeting again, more hunting for medicinal plants, which sounded ridiculous now that Arthur thought about it. Had he been serious when he’d suggested it, or just talking to talk, as he tended to do? Arthur had enjoyed that day, thought he might like to do it again, when he had the time. There was something real satisfying about doing a thing he knew well, that didn’t involve running from the law, and using it to help the doctor and his patients. He enjoyed watching the doctor in the clinic, too — he had seemed less squirrely, more at ease and had shown a competence in his work that Arthur always respected. What he wanted now was to talk about that last meeting, but he wasn’t sure where to start. It felt like such an odd question: Say, Doc, you want to go pickin’ wildflowers again? He shook his head at his own stupidity. Arthur’s mind was as tongue-tied as the rest of him.
“Ah, nevermind.” He ducked his head, scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Arthur froze with his hand on the doorknob and looked back over his shoulder. “I could use your help, actually. If you’re free?” Arthur let out a breath and nodded.
Arthur listened to the doctor’s rambling while they drove up into the hills above Valentine. When Arthur was nervous, he tended towards silence. It was easier to not say something foolish in the first place than it was to try to corral it again once it had escaped. His silence contrasted poorly with Joseph’s chattering and made him seem uninterested, while the opposite was true. Only, he couldn’t quite seem to concentrate on the content of Joseph’s chatter. His thoughts rattled along with the crates of groceries in the wagon behind him. Joseph seemed to be talking about his acquisition of the clinic.
“So, I took over and all of the previous doctor’s patients, but Mrs. Hennesey — Maeve, uh, she insists I call her by her given name — I couldn’t ask her to come to town for her medication, it’s too far. I started bringing it out to her and then, well, it seemed like she and Felix could use the help. Next thing I knew, I was hauling groceries and helping with chores around the farm.” He cut himself off with a glance at Arthur and fidgeted.
“Why can’t he do all this haulin’ and totin’?” Arthur asked. Joe sighed through his nose and slumped back in his seat, stretching long legs out in front of him. Arthur stared until the wagon bumped over a stone he should have avoided and jerked his eyes back to the road.
“He doesn’t come to town often. People aren’t–” Joe paused, shifted in his seat, distracting Arthur from driving again. His polished shoes shone in the sunlight. Arthur dressed well enough, but his clothes were rough and work-worn. Joseph dressed well, neat and pressed, despite often being covered in other people’s bodily fluids. Arthur wasn’t sure how he maintained it in the face of blood and god knows what else. “People aren’t very kind to the boy. He was one of the best horse trainers in the state, until he got kicked in the head. Got knocked out, slept for about a week, and woke up different. Doesn’t talk now.”
Arthur grunted a response. Joseph seemed fidgety and anxious, watching Arthur out of the corner of his eye. All he could do was feel sorry for the injured boy, but he tried to think of something to say. With a crack and a thump, one of the wheels caught in a rut and came loose, dragging the wagon to a halt. Arthur cursed and clambered down from the driver’s seat to see the damage. At least it wasn’t broken, only knocked loose. Joseph surprised him by hopping down to take a look too.
“I’ll lift, you put the wheel back on?” He asked. Arthur nodded and rolled the wheel back up to the side. On the doctor’s count of three, Arthur realigned the wheel while Joseph lifted.
“I hate this town.” Arthur said, punctuating each word by ramming his shoulder into the loose, mud-caked wheel. Joseph laughed. Back in the wagon, Arthur saw that Joseph’s shoes had obtained a layer of dirt. He was glad to see that the doctor could pull his own weight. Wandering in the woods had called the doctor’s more practical abilities into question, but it was obvious to Arthur that he was at least willing to try and to do his part.
After a long drive, they pulled up outside of a sprawling property. Bounded on three sides by sparse forest, out buildings, paddocks and livestock pens surrounded a robust stable and a small ranch house with clapboard siding and a front door painted a cheerful spring green. Age showed in the few places that had fallen to disrepair, but it was clear that the property was well loved and taken care, despite those little wobbles. Arthur assumed that Maeve was the petite old woman seated on the wrap-around porch. She climbed to her feet as the wagon approached and Joseph waved. Arthur ducked his head to hide a crooked smile at Joseph’s easy excitability. Maeve came to the edge of the stairs, but didn’t descend while Joseph jumped out of the wagon, dragging his bag behind him.
“I see you brought some muscle along this time, Joe,” Maeve grinned, revealing strong teeth that seemed at odds with her age. Her voice carried an accent that Arthur couldn’t quite identify; Something worn away at the edges by long exposure to the mixed accent of the west. She wore her thick grey hair plaited down her back and a sturdy, practical blue dress. Arthur already liked her. She had the no nonsense air that Arthur always enjoyed. Women who’d lived a good long while on the earth tended to have a better grasp of things than Arthur or anyone else he knew, and he was happy to bow to their experience. By the way she held herself, it was clear, even to Arthur, that Maeve’s joints pained her.
“That I did, Maeve. I thought he could help Felix with the supplies, maybe chop some firewood, if he gets bored. Maeve, this is Mr. Morgan.”
“Mornin’ ma’am.” Arthur tipped his hat at her.
“Shame he can’t come in and visit with us. Strappin’ lad like that, I’m sure he’s got stories to rival mine.” Arthur felt his ears go hot. Older women were also often, in Arthur’s experience, shameless flirts.
“Maeve.” Joseph laughed. “Didn’t you once tell me that you scared a young soldier back to life? No one’s stories can rival yours.”
“Said I’d tell his gran, brought him right back. I’ll tell you about it sometime.” She cackled and accepted the arm Joseph offered her. As the door closed behind them, Arthur heard their cheerful conversation and smiled. Felix stood beside the wagon, watching Arthur.
“Alright kid, come on then. You grab that sack there. Yeah, that’s the ticket. How about you show me where this goes in the barn.” Felix tipped the sack over his shoulder with careful movements and started towards the barn. Arthur followed, his own grain sack tossed over his shoulder.
Inside, Maeve made her way back into her bedroom. Joseph helped to prop her up against the headboard with a pillow for her comfort. He could tell from the shake in her hands that she was in more pain than usual. He chewed his lip while she settled into place.
“Where’d you find the big handsome feller?” Maeve asked, snapping Joseph out of his distracted thoughts. She laughed and waved in the direction of the barn. “Not every day one of them just wanders onto your farm. You gotta tell me if he’s married, so I don’t embarrass myself later when I swoon and get him to carry me back in the house.”
“You’re incorrigible, Maeve. Leave the poor man alone.” Joseph laughed and shook his head. Joseph also hadn’t the foggiest idea if Arthur was married, or partnered up. He’d never seen a ring, or talked about a wife, but Arthur had surprised him before. He had spent a fair amount of time looking at Arthur during their interactions, but hadn’t let himself stop to think about it in any kind of depth. He had to admit that Maeve had a point. Arthur was a handsome man, more so because of the casual ease with which he carried himself that suggested a general lack of awareness about his looks.
“You’d best be bringing him back by,” she chuckled. “He’s nice to look at.” Yes, he is , thought Joseph.
“How are the new medications working?” Joseph asked, in hopes of distracting Maeve, before she could see the pink tinge on his cheeks. She started to describe her symptoms, both heart and joint, and Joseph focused on the medicine instead of thinking about Arthur.
His medical knowledge was good, strengthened by experience at sea and with the injuries born of warfare. But with Maeve, he’d hit a wall. Facefirst. At a gallop. But, instead of breaking his own nose, Maeve would suffer the consequences. He felt derailed. His training had never focused on the day to day illnesses of people just going about their lives. He could amputate a limb, treat hypothermia in drowning victims, stitch a bullet wound. He was in the weeds with Maeve’s condition and other doctors that he’d written to hadn’t been a huge help, only recommending things that he’d already tried while awaiting their responses. He was glad to hear that the foxglove that he and Arthur had harvested was working well, now he needed to find some better treatments for her joints. He told her as much.
“I look forward to it. I do need my hands, you know.” Joseph did know. He hadn’t confessed this to Arthur during their ride to the farm, but he was worried about Maeve and Felix; Alone, so far from town. Now with Maeve losing the use of her hands, struggling to walk and get out of bed on the bad days, he worried even more. She was approaching a point where he wouldn’t be able to do anything more for her besides numbing her pain. The outcome and consequences of that were quite clear to him. He wondered if he could take Felix in, when Maeve passed. Felix hadn’t any family left, besides his grandmother, and there weren’t many places for him to go. Joseph thought while he worked. He couldn’t quite bring himself to look Maeve in the eyes, knowing that she could see right through him.
“Did I ever tell you about the man I nursed during the war who’d lost a hand to cannon fire?” She asked, looking him straight in the eye. He swallowed a nervous smile and shook his head. While she talked, he put on the kettle and stoked the fire. He collected a few blood samples in small glass bottles and started his physical exam. He always listened to every word of her stories, but today he was even more focused and let it soak into his mind. When Maeve passed, those stories would be all Jo had left of their time together and the warm relationship that had developed between them. He missed his grandmother. One of the few people he had felt understood him and loved him, in a family that otherwise seemed disconnected from one another. He and his father — cold and vicious, disapproving of his choices during and after medical school — had never been close and their relationship had vanished entirely, when he’d left for Valentine in disgrace. Maeve had only ever criticized his cooking and he loved her all the more for it. It was also a valid criticism; Joseph was a terrible cook.
It was afternoon by the time he’d finished his work and Maeve her story. She’d drifted off part way through and Joseph had left her to sleep with warm towels wrapped around her achiest joints. It was such hard work to get her to take it easy in the first place, he could use the help. Then he’d gone about doing some chores around the house that he knew troubled Maeve. Afterwards, he stretched and popped a kink out of his spine as he stepped onto the porch. Arthur and Felix were nowhere in sight, but the wagon was empty — all the crates piled on the step, waiting to be carried inside — and a large stack of firewood was stacked in the shelter by the door. He heard Arthur’s laughter from the back of the house and went to investigate. He followed the trail of chores around to the back of the house. Joseph worried, for Felix’s sake, because people so often failed to be kind to him, despite his renown as a trainer from only a few years back. Respect for the boy hadn’t lasted past his usefulness for most people.
“Yeah, just like that. Good work son.” Felix looked up and grinned at Arthur’s praise, from where he was doing the bulk of the repair on a loose shutter. Arthur stood by, holding the hinge in place while Felix nailed it in with careful hammer strikes. Arthur looked up as Joseph approached. When he saw Joseph, he seemed to tuck his smile away. Joseph wondered if he’d done something to make Arthur hide his feelings like that. “Hey Doc. All done in there?”
Joseph nodded. “Finished a few minutes ago and came to look for you two. Figured you’d be ready to high tail it out of here by now.”
“Sure. Unless there’s something else ‘round here that needs doing.” Felix finished with the nail and Arthur admired their handiwork, ruffling Felix’s hair as he praised the boy’s good work. Joseph glanced around. Together they had accomplished a lot in the handful of hours that they’d been left to their own devices. Firewood was chopped, home repairs completed, fresh hay thrown down from the loft for the horses, and sacks of grain stored away in the barn. Boxes sat stacked on the front porch, replete with groceries for the household, the only chore left unfinished. Joseph pointed this out to Arthur who now stood beside him, leaving Felix to hammer in the last of the three nails by himself.
“We didn’t want to disturb the goings-on inside. Felix agreed to carry all them crates in once you and his gran were finished, ain’t that right Felix?” It took Felix a moment to switch tasks, looking away from the newly secured hinge to Arthur, who repeated his question. Felix nodded with enthusiasm. Joseph was glad to see that Arthur and Felix had gotten along so well during the day. Joseph hadn’t been sure what to expect, given how surly Arthur appeared on the ride to the property. He was surprised to see that Arthur didn’t seem keen to leave.
“Well, I’m ready whenever you are, Mr. Morgan.”
“Reckon we can head out. Felix, you hungry yet?” He looked up from the hinge he was admiring and nodded. “Bite to eat before we head back, Doc?” Joseph gave a faint nod and followed the two men over to the front porch, where Arthur dug around in the crates stacked there. He came up with a packet of crackers and, from his own satchel, some cured sausage, a flask and a knife. He tossed three apples to Joseph, who caught them with ease, juggling all three into his arms.
“Didn’t know you could juggle, Doc.” Arthur laughed.
“Sailing can get very boring,” Joseph responded, feeling his face get hot. “Also, it’s good for your dexterity”
“Planning to join the circus if medicine didn’t work out?”
“My father wouldn’t have disowned me then, he’d have just died.” Joseph was glad to see Arthur’s smile returning, even at his own expense. They sat on the steps and set about their lunch; Arthur and Felix with the gusto born of an afternoon of labour, Joseph less so, as he took small bites and listened to Arthur speaking. After a moment, he focused on Arthur’s words and found that the other man was telling a story about his old horse and its complicated relationship with ducks. Felix listened with wide eyes, enraptured, hanging on Arthur’s every word and laughing when Arthur described being thrown into a pond.
Lunch didn’t last nearly long enough. Joseph had enjoyed Arthur’s story and realized that he could listen to Arthur talk for hours. His voice was gruff, but soothing. He was reluctant to leave now, to burst the happy little bubble that he’d found himself in for the last half hour. But he had other patients and Arthur… he had a family to get back to, work to do that didn’t involve hanging around with Joseph and running errands for little old ladies. They packed up to go and, as Arthur turned to bid Felix goodbye, the young man threw his arms around Arthur’s broad torso. Arthur grunted as the air was squeezed right out of him and patted Felix on the back, as high as he could reach with his arms pinned at his sides.
“Alright kid, it was nice hanging out with you too.” Joseph smiled and climbed into the wagon. Maybe Maeve would get her wish and Arthur would visit again.
Arthur started riding into Valentine a few times a week. Not many people around camp noticed, since Arthur setting out first thing in the morning wasn’t unusual and he brought back game or money, always contributing. Folks around camp were calm and happy, and it kept them from asking questions about where he was going, or what he was doing with his time. It wasn’t like Arthur was breaking the rules, and he was doing what he usually did for the gang, he just didn’t want the scrutiny over his actions. He wasn’t even sure why, he only knew that he didn’t want to explain himself. Trust was hard-earned in the gang, and Arthur offering it up to a virtual stranger would create suspicion where it wasn’t deserved. He didn’t want to disturb the equilibrium they’d developed.
Not only had he continued to help Maeve and Felix around the ranch, he had run other errands for the doctor — fetching supplies from other towns or the train station, lifting and carrying heavy boxes, sometimes helping transport patients to and from the clinic. He’d even spent an afternoon washing bandages and linens out back, when Joseph’s assistant had stayed home to care for her sick mother. Arthur felt a calm joy in these tasks. Building and helping, repairing, feeding, and being appreciated for it all. It was rare that he did most of these things back at camp. Usually, such tasks were relegated to the women or those not out earning for the group’s funds. Arthur’s contributions tended to be fixed. He made money and he hunted, sometimes he chopped wood or hauled water. Nothing that felt constructive. It was all maintenance, sustaining their long-held status quo, keeping everyone alive and waiting to run from the law, when the next time came.
He hadn’t spent every day in town, of course. He’d continued to work for Dutch, robbed and rustled and hunted, had a couple of firefights with passing O’Driscolls and a lawman or two. After one such firefight, Joseph had even taken a look at the bullet wound on Arthur’s thigh when he’d been limping that day. Arthur appreciated that he didn’t ask too many questions and didn’t seem to want to know where the injury had come from. Arthur was grateful for the help, too. He rarely got any more pain relief than a few mouthfuls of whiskey could provide, but the doctor kept his clinic well supplied. It wasn’t just the errands that Arthur enjoyed, either. As it happened, he liked the doctor’s company more than he had expected.
Arthur arrived at the clinic one morning to find it empty of both patients and medical professionals, although the door was unlocked. Following the feel of fresh air, Arthur made his way out to the backyard where Joseph sat in a comfortable chair, watching the chickens scratch at the dirt. Fresh laundry, swung in the soft breeze, strung between the clinic and the shed in the yard. Joseph stared off into the distance, lost in thought. A rumpled letter lay in his lap. He hadn’t noticed Arthur’s arrival and jumped when Arthur settled in the chair beside him, where they’d sat sipping whiskey a few nights before, watching the sunset after a long day. Arthur had enjoyed himself.
“Kinda rare around here.” Arthur wondered if Joseph wanted him around, disturbing his peace. It wasn’t like his presence was always welcome.
“Got a letter, Doc?” Joseph gave Arthur a quick, tight smile, almost a grimace. He gripped the paper so that it wrinkled in his fist and Arthur saw where the crumpled appearance had come from. Neat, looping hand writing covered the paper, something angry about the slant of the letters and the occasional splotch of ink, as if it had been written in a hurry. Even when he made eye contact, Arthur could tell that the doctor was a thousand miles away in his own head. He waited for the other man to wrangle his thoughts, appreciating the early morning quiet.
“My father wants me to come home.”
“No shit,” Arthur whistled low and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Thought you two were feudin’ when you came out here.”
Joe let out a bitter laugh and waved the handful of papers at him. “I assure you, that hasn’t changed.”
“What’s he want then?”
“I’ve been ordered to return home immediately, marry the nice girl they’ve found for me and set up my own practice in the city.”
“Don’t you miss Boston?” Joseph took his time responding and stared down at the letter in his hands, looking dour.
“I don’t know. Sometimes.” He sighed and stared off into the distance again. “Cities have...an appeal. Hot running water and theatre and libraries are things I can’t deny missing, but...”
“Might be a good opportunity. For you.” Arthur tried to sound supportive, but his heart wasn’t in it. He’d be happy for Joseph if he went back, but it’s not like he wanted him to leave. Arthur didn’t tend to have a lot of friends outside of the gang, but he and the doctor had been enjoying themselves and friendship felt like a possibility. Joseph stared at him hard for several seconds, so long that Arthur started to feel his ears going pink. He fidgeted and looked away, unable to take the scrutiny any longer. He felt like he’d said something wrong.
“Maybe I should go back and marry.” Joseph leaned forward and put his chin in his hand. “I thought about marrying my friend Eleanor, just to get it over with.”
“Jesus, Doc. What a romantic you are.” Arthur plastered on a little half-smile. Joseph shook his head, sardonic and bemused. “Try not to sound so enthusiastic about it”
“You’re not married. What do you know about it?”
Arthur was quiet for a moment, watching Joseph reread the letter in his hands. He stammered, “I tried, once.”
“You did?” Joseph seemed surprised. Arthur couldn’t blame him. It wasn’t like he was much of a catch, nor much of a romantic. Probably hard to picture Arthur courting a woman, even when he had been. Seemed the women didn’t think it counted for much either, in the long run. “Why didn’t it work out?”
“She didn’t want me, in the end. Married someone else. Life I lead didn’t suit her and neither one’a us was gonna change.” Arthur went quiet, stewing in his own distant memories.
“You’ve never mentioned.” Joseph pointed out. He watched Arthur for a moment, then added, “I’m around, if you ever want to talk about it.”
“Not much to tell, Doc.” Arthur frowned. “Any idea what you’re gonna tell your dad?” Joseph shook his head.
“Do you even know the girl they want you to marry?”
Joseph laughed. “That’s far more information than my father felt was necessary to include. He expects that if he says jump, I’ll jump, facts or feelings be damned.” Arthur was surprised and oddly pleased at Joseph’s anger showing its face. Not that he wanted the other man upset. Rather, he was pleased to see a spark of fire. He was also pleased that Joseph didn’t seem at all inclined to follow his father’s orders and return to Boston. Selfish, maybe, but Arthur couldn’t help feeling relieved.
Morning ticked by while Joseph stewed in the silence between them. Arthur had things to do. A job out near Strawberry at some point, a stopover at the gunsmiths and the stables — he needed a piece to fix Calpurnia’s spare halter — but he didn’t want to abandon Joseph to his own misery. Joseph had even fewer folks to rely on that Arthur did. At least Arthur had Hosea in his life, who cared about his happiness like a father should, as well as all the others around camp, most of whom he would trust with his life. Joseph had Maeve and Felix. He also had Arthur, not that Arthur thought that counted for much in the end. Arthur had begun to doze in the sunshine, hat tipped over his eyes, far too comfortable in Joseph’s presence if he could drift off like that, when the doctor’s voice startled him awake. When he raised his hat to see Joseph pacing the narrow width of the yard, restless and fidgety.
“Let’s go for a ride.” He stopped with his back to Arthur, staring at the distant mountains. “No one’s been in for three days.”
“Hot as hell out,” Arthur mused, scratching a thumb across his chin. Moving into early summer, the air had grown heavier and more humid, making the indoors miserable during the day. “Not even dehydration or heat stroke or somesuch?”
“Nothing. Apparently the people of Valentine are all healthy as horses.” He sighed. “Or at least dying quietly where I can’t see it happening.”
“No one needin’ you by their bedside, tending their fevered brows?” Joseph glared, producing Arthur’s favourite part of teasing him about his bleeding-hearted tendencies.
“Miss King can send for me, if something comes up. It’s just a ride in the country. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Heat beat down on them, making folks cranky and miserable as they rode out of town. Passing through a small valley between tall hills, they passed a group of people trudging down the road towards Valentine with one wagon and a sad, underfed donkey. Most of them carried a pack or two, even the children helping with the burden. Arthur and Joseph slowed on the way by, Arthur nodding a greeting at them. Little acknowledgement came from the progress. He and Joseph made eye contact and shrugged. The party wasn’t far from town, they’d make it without issue and didn’t seem to want to acknowledge Joseph and Arthur, much less accept help from them. Arthur was curious about where they’d come from.
Rounding the base of the hills, Arthur spotted a familiar horse picketed in the brush, grazing. Up the slope, another familiar shape lay along the ridge line, looking down into the forest beyond. Arthur rode up to the bottom of the hill with Joseph on his heels and dismounted, tying Calpurnia and Cutter by Taima so that they could gossip and graze together. Charles looked up and waved a greeting, then put his binoculars back to his eyes. Arthur scurried up the hill, keeping low and kicking up dust as he went. He crawled the last few feet on his stomach to settle beside Charles. Joseph came up on his other side, showing surprising skill at stealth that Arthur hadn’t expected. A deep furrow marked Charles’ brow as he frowned down at a work camp in the trees.
“What’s wrong Charles?”
“Cornwall’s men,” he said, passing the binoculars to Arthur. Down in a clear cut chunk of the Cumberland forest, a bunch of men had set up a work camp of sorts. Out buildings surrounded a small collection of tents, with a few pens of assorted livestock scattered near a barn. For a small camp, they’d cleared a lot of trees and men in the distance could be seen hacking away at even more. “Asked around a bit, turns out they’re looking to start drilling here despite protests. Cornwall thinks it’s a good spot for more crude and he sent the men to setup a headquarters.” Arthur returned the binoculars.
“Doesn’t seem to care how many folks live down river or depend on the forest for game,” Charles added with a bitter grumble. Arthur gave his shoulder a sympathetic pat, stirring up a layer of dust that had settled on his back as he lay watching the camp. All three scooted backwards until they were below the ridge and out of sight, laying back against the steep slope on their backs. Joseph sat up and glanced between Arthur and Charles’ faces, confusion evident on his face.
“Shit,” Arthur cursed. He rubbed his hand across his lips as he thought. Joseph stopped glancing between his and Charles’ faces to stare at Arthur’s hand. Arthur stopped and the doctor looked up, making eye contact then looked away. Arthur dropped his hand away, feeling self-conscious.
“Leviticus Cornwall? That oil magnate?”
“That’s the one,” Charles said.
“Doesn’t he have his own personal militia?”
“He does,” Arthur added. Joseph watched both men thinking and frowned.
“Thought they were poachers at first, since they killed a few bison. Followed them here and figured out what was going on.” He turned towards Arthur. “You see that group of travelers? Folks are already being driven off.” He paused and ground his jaw. “I want to stop them. Oil drilling here will destroy the river and hurt people here and downstream.”
“Plus, if we drive them away it’ll be a screw you to Cornwall,” Arthur added.
“Is that wise?” Joseph asked.
Arthur waved a dismissive hand. “Cornwall already hates us, this won’t even make a dent.” He thought a few more seconds, then said, “Let’s put together a plan. His men will recognize the two of us, most likely.”
“I’d rather not shoot anyone, if we can avoid it,” Charles added.
“Doc, you need an escort back to town?”
“I want to help.” Arthur looked up surprised. He knew the doctor assumed some things about Arthur’s activities, but he hadn’t expected Joseph to want to help. He mulled it over, watching the other man who seemed determined and a little defiant. “Alright. Got any ideas?”
“A couple,” he responded with a grin.
Joseph approached the work camp, appearing rumpled and downtrodden in an old, patched shirt of Arthur’s, having rolled in the dirt for that authentic, transient worker look. Arthur had mussed his hair with pomade to make the slight greasy tousle hold for a while. He had a spare leather satchel from Charles tossed over one shoulder, containing supplies for his later role in their mission. He’d outlined his rough idea to Charles and Arthur, who’d agreed, laughing, that it sounded both productive and fun. After a bit of spitballing, rolling ideas back and forth, they’d worked out a plan. Joseph’s role came first.
“Hold it right there, mister.” One of the guards called out to him, brandishing a rifle. Joseph put up his hands in surrender, despite the man’s unthreatening appearance. He hardly looked like he knew how to hold the rifle, much less use it. Joseph took it as a good sign that the rest of their mission wasn’t doomed. If they were going up against trained guards or soldiers, it might fail before they even got started.
“Whoa. I was just comin’ to talk to the boss. Heard there was work ‘round here.”
“Depends,” said the second guard. “What kinda work you lookin’ for?”
“Whatever you got. I ain’t picky.”
Both of the guards made eye contact, something disconcerting passing between them. Joseph swallowed, but stayed steady. The first guard nodded at him, dropping his muzzle towards the ground, and gestured towards the work site. Joseph nodded and stuffed his hands in his pockets while he tried to look as non-threatening as possible — not that he often looked threatening, he just didn’t want to alert the guards to anything before it was time.
Men around the camp called greetings as the guard marched Joseph towards the small wooden office building and inside. A clean man in a nice suit sat behind the desk, writing in a ledger. Sweat beaded on his forehead in the heat, but his outfit remained pressed and crisp, the red satin of his waistcoat glistening.
“Got a new recruit here, boss.” Joseph straightened and held out his hand to introduce himself. The boss man glanced at his hand and then his face, dismissing the gesture. He made no move to stand or greet Joseph himself.
“Mr. Hatfield, do you think perhaps I should be the one to decide who our new recruits should be?” he asked. Joseph’s guard looked sheepish. “You can go back to work now.”
“Yes, Mr. Roth. Sorry, sir.” Mr. Roth waved a hand at the guard and shooed him away.
“What’s your name?”
“Joe Callahan,” Joseph supplied, borrowing one of Arthur’s aliases.
“What can you do, Mr. Callahan?”
“Whatever needs doin’, sir.” Roth smiled, smug and satisfied. Joseph recognized Roth’s kind of authority, a figure who thought he was a bigger fish than they really were. He’d seen plenty of them in the navy. Roth would be easy to deal with, as long as Joseph sucked up and bowed and scraped to the man’s satisfaction. Roth shouted and another man appeared in the doorway.
“Take our new worker to the tents, find him a bed and a set him up with the diggers.” Joseph groaned internally. Digging hadn’t been in his plan and his shoulders already ached at the prospect. Joseph followed the other man out of the door, realizing that he and Roth hadn’t discussed anything like compensation for his labour. He frowned and wondered how many of the other men had been swept up in this work without a contract or conversation about their duties or pay. Even the military hadn’t been that underhanded. Slimy management annoyed him almost as much as the rest of the operation.
Not fifteen minutes later, he found himself with several other men digging a trench along one side of the camp. For what purpose, he didn’t know. Within minutes, he was drenched in sweat, hands slipping on the shovel handle. He joined the other diggers and unbuttoned Arthur’s shirt to alleviate some of the heat and dug until blisters started to form, far too early in the process for his comfort. Some of the other men were holding a conversation. Joseph and two of the others huffed and puffed too much over their shovels to bother. Time blended into one horrible morass and Joseph focused on the task at hand, worrying about Arthur and Charles’ part of the plan. He knew that their jobs were more dangerous and he hoped that nothing would go wrong. At least he didn’t actually rely on this work and could walk away if the rest of the plot went awry.
He realized that the other diggers beside him did rely on this work and felt a twinge of sympathy — mostly in his hands and back — sad that they were dependent on backbreaking labour to care for themselves and their families. Joseph had always been lucky, in that regard. He’d worked hard in the navy, but there was plenty of down time and his duties were centered more around other sailors than the ship. It occurred to him that Arthur’s work, while illegal, kept him and his people from having to do work this hard and hazardous in order to just scrape by. He could almost understand why they made the choices that they did.
A whistle sounded, calling for a noon break and Joseph followed suit as they dropped their shovels and made their way to the mess tent to accept bowls of food and cups of cold water drawn from the well. Did they realize that drilling for oil here would pollute the well water? Did Cornwall care? He settled beside the rest of the men from his area and tucked into his lunch, ravenous as he hadn’t been in ages.
“Where you from, new guy?” Asked the man who seemed like the leader of their section. He had a thick accent that Joseph couldn’t quite identify, something southern. Joseph looked up, mouth full and mumbled something about Boston, which was at least partly true.
“Ain’t they got food in Boston?” joked one of the other men. Everyone laughed, including Joseph.
“Didn’t realize diggin’ would build up such an appetite,” he said, sheepish. Someone passed him an extra roll and he accepted it. Joseph was surprised at how easy it was to ingratiate himself with the workers. Turned out, when he put on a playacting personality, he could be charming and pleasant. Lunch didn’t last long, but he bantered back and forth with the others, keeping up a positive vibe. By the end of the day, he had wormed his way into popularity and become a focus of everyone’s attention. It all worked in his favour for his part of the plan. He almost felt bad about tricking the men, who seemed nice enough, even though they were working for an unpleasant man. Nightfell and he slipped out of his bedroll with supplies in hand.
Arthur’s job was straightforward enough. While Joseph and Charles got into place, he rode to Emerald Ranch with a shopping list that included two small bags of flour, a debt for Strauss and the entire payroll for Cornwall’s workers at the campsite. He collected the debt first, so that he could afford the flour and some ammunition for the payroll robbery. At the last minute, he bought a replacement part for Calpurnia’s halter, as he’d planned to do in Valentine earlier that morning.
Given that no one knew much about Cornwall’s new worksite, the coach only had two guards who were riding ahead of it rather than behind. Arthur loosed Calpurnia with his supplies and whistled for her to follow as he slipped into the passenger-less coach. No one had bothered guarding the inside of it while they stopped in Emerald Ranch. Once they were on the road, Arthur slipped out the back window to hang upside down, fiddling with a lockbreaker on the cashbox. He popped it open and retrieved the money, then hauled his whole body out of the window, where he jumped off of the back and rolled in the dirt. He scrambled to his feet and dropped into the bushes to hide from sight. Once the coach had disappeared over the rise, he whistled for Calpurnia. Three things accomplished in only a couple of hours left Arthur feeling satisfied and pleased with himself. He returned to their campsite and waited for dark before he crept back towards Cornwall’s camp to watch the events orchestrated by Charles and Joseph.
A little while after midnight, a scream broke the silence of the night and chaos ensued. Arthur watched as a ghost, glowing white in the waxing moon’s light, grabbed Joseph from behind and dragged him into the trees. Charles seemed almost translucent, covered head to toe in flower that made him look ethereal and unreal. Arthur was surprised at how well the disguse worked. Blood spurted from Joseph’s chest, painting the ground red and they vanished before anyone could register what was happening. Joseph’s screams cut off. In the relative silence, the men of the camp erupted to their feet shouting and grabbing for weapons, from guns to shovels. At the mouth of the tent, Joseph’s — well, Arthur’s — shirt sleeve had been torn off had been left shredded in a pool of fresh chicken blood. Men raced for the trees, ready to defend their own, but found nothing, as the three of them had planned. Charles and Joseph, Arthur was confident, had slipped away unseen, running at top speed. Arthur stayed to watch, curious to see how the men and their boss would react. It would inform the rest of their actions. Useful intel. Moments after they disappeared, the men tramped back into camp looking shaken and muttering between themselves, voices overlapping.
“Like a ghost, did you see? All white and see-through.”
“Dragged the new guy off and killed him, I’m sure of it.”
“Looked native to me, do you think it’s an attack?”
“Sure, idiot. Natives go around all wispy like that all the time. Whole armies of ‘em.” Arthur heard a thump as the speaker smacked his companion in the back of the head. “He weren’t alive, I’m telling you.” Lanterns came out, lighting up the area. Men stoked the fire and Roth came stumbling out of his bedroom in the main building rumpled and fuming.
“What in the hell is going on here?” Several men scrambled to explain, until Roth roared over top of them. “If we ain’t under attack, you’d best all get back to your damn beds. We start at the same time in the morning, no matter what nonsense y’all fishwives are screeching about.”
One of the guards tried to explain, pointing at the blood stains pooled in the dirt by their sleeping quarters, at the shredded shirt sleeve that looked like animals had attacked it, but Roth slammed back inside, ignoring them. A few at a time, the workers returned to their bedrolls, but they didn’t look inspired to go back to sleep. Most sat up, whispering between tents and sounding scared. Satisfied, Arthur crept away and left them to it. In the morning, they’d be tired, scared and paranoid.
Arthur waited in camp for their return, which was announced by their delighted laughter and complete lack of stealth. That’s more what Arthur had expected from the doctor, but Arthur was surprised that Charles had let loose along with him. Both men were covered in chicken blood when they slipped between the rocks, giggling to themselves. Arthur clapped them on the back one at a time, sending a puff of flour off of Charles as he did so. Joseph collapsed beside Arthur at the campfire while Charles wandered towards the water to wash himself. Arthur told them about what he’d seen after they left in delighted detail while they shared hot coffee between them. Joseph laughed and flopped against him, exhausted from a day’s hard labour. Arthur brought an arm up around his shoulder to keep him from toppling over and ignored the flour transferring from Joseph’s hair to his shirt.
“Got ‘em terrified, for sure.” Arthur felt Joseph’s continued laughter rumbling through his own chest.
“Won’t be no problem to scare ‘em off for good tomorrow,” he responded. They lapsed into silence, until Charles returned. Joseph sat up and pulled away from him, leaning to pour a cup of coffee for the new arrival.
After they discussed the rest of their plans, they burned the remains of Arthur’s shirt, thanking it for its sacrifice. As Arthur prepared for bed, yanking off his boots while seated on his bedroll, he watched Joseph pull an envelope out of his jacket. When he turned it towards the firelight to read its contents, Arthur recognized the writing on the outside. Text shouldn’t be able to convey fury through the angled slant of a person’s handwriting, but somehow Joseph’s father had managed it. Arthur wanted to say something. Joseph had slouched down against the fallen log they’d been using as a seat earlier in the evening. He looked, well, Arthur wasn’t entirely sure. Ponderous maybe, lost in thought. Before Arthur could figure out what to say Joseph glanced up at him. He felt cornered, sitting there with one boot on and the other in his hand, knew he looked like startled game. A soft, crooked smile graced Joseph’s face and he tossed the papers into the fire. Arthur nodded and smiled back.
Most of the next morning was spent relaxing, dipping out of camp for short hunting trips and to run errands at the work site — at least for Arthur and Charles. Joseph stayed hidden away, waiting for his return later that night. Arthur snuck into the camp and made off with tools during the lunch break, reducing the whole site to chaos when they tried to return to work. Charles absconded with livestock, reducing their numbers by a third when no one was looking, and leaving leftover chicken blood behind, smeared on the fence posts. At dinner, Arthur slipped into the main building and stole Roth’s ledger and every penny from his personal cash box — a not insignificant amount that suggested he’d been skimming from the payroll for some time. Guilt tickled the back of his neck as Roth screamed at the workers and blamed them for the theft, but without proof he couldn’t fire any of them and all the men had been accounted for. Three men quit before the day was up, a fourth after dinner. They were furious at the lack of pay that morning, the murder of one of their own, unacknowledged by those in charge, and the interruptions to their work day and meals. Chaos had been easy to sew in their ranks, with no blood shed, Arthur was glad to say. Well, except for the chicken’s noble sacrifice.
Charles, Arthur and Joseph ate a light dinner and napped for a while, waiting for the moon to rise and then they enacted the rest of their plan. Carrying supplies, they crept the long way around to the work site, where the men tossed and turned in a restless sleep. Guards slumped at their posts, drowsy from the poor night’s sleep during the previous day’s chaos. Charles pulled a jar from his bag, Arthur put a hand on his arm and raised his brows in a silent question.
“Wolf pee,” Charles whispered, teeth flashing white in the moonlight. At the look on Joseph’s face, Arthur’s iron control on his laughter almost broke.
“You just keep wolf pee on you for… emergencies?”
“You’d be surprised how often it comes in handy.” Joseph made a horrified face. Charles and Arthur shook in silent laughter. Each broke off in a different direction, headed for their personal jobs.
Arthur slipped inside the barn and flipped the latches on all of the stalls, so that the horses would be free to run at the first opportunity. Outside, he could already hear the livestock penned beside the tents squealing in distress. Charles’ wolf pee, doing its job.
He rounded a corner and saw a man dozing against the wall on top of a hay bale, legs stretched across the side entrance. Backing away from the unexpected obstruction, Arthur bumped a bucket that rattled in the open space. He froze and held his breath. The sleeping guard snorted and stirred, but didn’t wake. Arthur breathed a sigh of relief. Then, one of the horses whinnied and kicked at the back wall of its stall.
Arthur’s stable guard startled awake, eyes bugging as soon as he registered Arthur’s crouched form. Arthur lunged, clapping a hand over the man’s mouth before he could shout and they rolled on the ground. Arthur was surprised at how dirty the other man fought, kicking and scratching at him as they scuffled in the dirt. Arthur grunted as the man elbowed him in the gut and lost his grip. Arthur scrambled up with him, before he could get more than the start of a shout out and dragged him backwards. When the man kicked again, his foot collided with a lantern. Glass shattered and sprayed burning kerosene into the hay. At the sound and the smell of smoke, the horses panicked. Rearing, they broke out of their stalls too early for Arthur’s part of the plan. He hoped the others were good at improvisation. Arthur’s combatant rolled into the fire and screamed as he burst into flame. Arthur watched him run out of the barn screaming as fire licked up his side. Arthur thought the sight would only help their cause. One of the last horses, desperate to flee the burning barn, crashed into Arthur and sent him tumbling back into the hay. His pant leg caught light, and he rolled in the dirt slapping at the fire with his hat and hands. He yelped at the pain. Crawling backwards, he crashed into a bucket full of water and dumped it on his leg. Tendrils of smoke and steam rose from the blackened denim on his calf. He sent a quick thank you to whatever dumb luck kept him alive. With the barn well and truly on fire, he slipped out the side door and moved towards the main building.
Outside, men screamed and scattered, too panicked to notice his presence as he limped away. Charles and Joseph had covered themselves in flour once more and glowed in the full moon’s bright light. Arthur was glad he hadn’t been covered in flour when he’d caught fire. No one ran towards them as they shouted and howled. Livestock and horses fled into the forest, with the workmen hot on their heels. Weapons and tools lay abandoned, tents knocked down. Even Roth had fled. Charles wandered over and put a torch to the empty animal paddocks. Every single man had vanished into the night, their panicked shouts still audible through the trees. Smoke from the flame-engulfed barn turned the moon a frightening shade of red. Before, they might have stayed to fight the fire in the barn, but the fear that Arthur and his companions had sewn the two days prior had caused them to flee instead. Arthur was glad that the men would find their well-earned cash in their bags and pockets in the morning, deposited there by the three of them throughout the day. He was also glad that they’d still walked away turning a profit, due to Roth’s greed.
A few minutes later, Joseph found Arthur leaned against a tree gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg. He hated burns. Arthur would rather be shot full of lead. Arthur cackled at the sight of Joseph covered in flour and old chicken blood, pain briefly forgotten.
“Shut up, Morgan,” he chuckled. Arthur pushed off of the tree and winced, pulling Joseph’s attention to his injury. He rushed forward. “Are you alright?”
“Casualty of the barn fire,” Arthur said with a dismissive wave. Joseph ducked under his arm to act as a human crutch to help him hobble down the hill towards the water, where they’d planned to meet Charles. Arthur leaned into him, marvelling at the fact that his hair still smelled nice, despite the day they’d had. At the very least, it covered the burning smell that clung to Arthur.
Despite the pain in his leg, Arthur doubled over with laughter at the sight of Charles, covered in flour, making his way down the hill towards them, leaving powdery white clouds in his wake. He hopped as his leg twinged, almost dragging Joseph down with him.
Charles still somehow looked dignified and he made a rude gesture and walked past them down to the water. Arthur continued to chuckle while Joseph held him upright, so that he could hop along the path after Charles without putting weight on his leg. Charles dunked his entire head in the water, scrubbing the flour from his face and hair. When he emerged again, any trace of dignity had vanished. Charles took his turn helping Arthur while Joseph dipped into the river to clean himself. Arthur couldn’t be bothered to wash the transferred flour from his side.
Camp was a riot of laughter as Charles cracked open a bottle of whiskey for Arthur, who took two long drinks before he nodded his permission for Joseph to work on his leg. He hissed in pain as Joseph peeled the denim away from his burnt calf. A true celebration of their success would have to come after his wound was cared for.
“Fucking Christ, Doc.”
“Yeah, this is gonna hurt. I’m sorry.” Arthur yelped when the cool water from the river splashed across his leg and threw his head back, biting his lip until he tasted blood. Charles fetched multiple buckets of freezing water from the river and the cooling sensation did a lot to alleviate Arthur’s pain. Joseph worked fast, cleaning the burning and bandaging it with a loose layer of gauze. Satisfied with Arthur’s status, Joseph took the bottle from his hand and knocked back a long swig of whiskey, grimacing at the burn in his throat. Arthur and Charles whooped. Arthur was glad to see the doctor relaxing, loosening up a bit. It seemed Charles had helped a good deal with that. He caught himself with a stupid, lopsided grin on his face and realized that he’d been having fun the last couple of days. Joseph nodded, decisive, and returned the bottle to Arthur’s hand.
“That’s quite enough excitement for me today,” he said, then shot them both a sloppy salute and then crawled off to bed in Arthur’s tent. Arthur watched him go, chuckling the whole time. He looked up to find Charles scrutinizing him.
“What?” he muttered, shoulders curling into a defensive hunch.
“Nothing.” He sipped at his coffee. “Nice to see you outside of camp, with other people. We get so insular, you know? Makes me miss normal folks sometimes.” Arthur snorted.
“Know what you mean, we can get a bit too up in each other’s business, living like we do.”
After a few minutes, Charles asked, so nonchalant that it seemed suspicious to Arthur, “if you hate debt collecting for Strauss so much, why do you do it?”
“We all gotta do jobs we don’t like.”
“Seems to me you have more choice than most, on that front. You’re, what, second or third in command after Dutch?” Arthur frowned, considering. He didn’t see much of a choice in his activities, did as Dutch asked, whatever it may be. He didn’t always like it, Often didn’t, actually, but those tasks needed to be done and Arthur… it was his job.
“I ain’t exactly a nice man, Charles. Reckon it’s my job to do the low-down, dirty stuff ‘round here. I’ve earned it, life I’ve lived. Spares others from the shit if I do it.” He scoffed into his drink. “Besides, who else is going to do it?”
“Micah, he ain’t a nice man at all.”
“Christ,” Arthur laughed. “Micah’s a backstabbing weasel and a monster. Can’t do a simple job without shooting someone or losing his head. He’d just kill whoever Strauss sent him after. Least I ain’t out here hurtin’ innocents.”
“We rob a lotta payrolls.” Charles pointed out. “You think that money ever makes it to the people owed it for their work?” Arthur shrugged. “Bystanders die. Guards we kill are trying to care for their families, make an honest living.”
“You really think working for Cornwall is an honest living? Seems to me it’s just as big a lie as the rest of civilization.”
“Well, maybe not Cornwall…” Charles smiled at him.
“Far as I can tell, they’re all the same Charles. Rich folks who don’t got souls or morals or nothing, think they can do whatever they want, and hire desperate people to do it for them, cause they got money to give ‘em.” Arthur sighed and popped the top off of his whiskey bottle for another swig. Alcohol, pain and Charles’ questions had soured his good mood. “All I see ‘round me is a whole lotta damned folks, tryin’ not to be damned and failing cause the whole world runs on money that they ain’t got. Ain’t ever gonna have, neither. Don’t really matter who we hurt, as I see it. What difference does it make if I’m Dutch’s muscle or someone else is?”
“I don’t know you well, Arthur.” Charles said with a frown. “But mean and heartless doesn’t suit you near as well as you think.”
“Been my job for a long time.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be.” He said as he dumped the rest of his coffee into the brush and stood. He nodded at Arthur and made for his tent. “Night Arthur.”
Arthur waved a lazy farewell and went back to his drinking. A few hours before dawn, he ducked into his own tent and stumbled over its forgotten secondary occupant, swearing. Last night, they’d traded off keeping watch and it hadn’t been an issue. He’d forgotten they were sharing two tents between three people. Joseph grunted and looked up at Arthur on his knees beside him, leg out at an awkward angle to avoid jostling it. Arthur put his hands up, placating.
“Sorry, sorry. Go back to sleep.” Arthur hoped that Joseph would roll over, close his eyes and ignore Arthur’s drunken fumbling as he tried to climb into his own bed in the tight space. Instead, Joseph watched him shuck off his hat, jacket and boots and crawl under the spare blanket Charles had stolen from the worksite. Arthur tried to will away the feeling of Joseph’s eyes on him and closed his own. Joseph settled back down without moving too much. Arthur could tell that Joseph was still facing him, but he didn’t say anything. Arthur drifted off the the sound of the other man’s quiet breathing.
Morning dawned bright and far too early for three men who’d worked a late night and then drank themselves to sleep. Arthur groaned and tried to move, only to find that he’d rolled into Joseph as they slept and they were tangled together beneath the blankets. He extracted himself from the embrace and bumped his leg, wincing at the pain. Joseph stirred but stayed asleep as Arthur crawled out of the tent. He looked up to see Charles sitting by the fire, studiously ignoring them. Arthur limped off into the trees to relieve himself. When he returned, Joseph had emerged from the tent and sat beside Charles, looking rumpled and sleepy. He offered a fresh cup of coffee to Arthur, who accepted it with a brief smile and nod. Conversation was slow to start up, their day even slower, but they broke down camp and made their way back towards Valentine before noon. Joseph broke off with a yawn and wave, riding to his clinic, while Charles and Arthur headed towards the overlook.
No chickens or cowboys were harmed in the making of this chapter. Thank you to everyone who had read this fic or commented, I appreciate every word!
When they returned to camp, Arthur shoved the cash they’d stolen into Charles’ hands and told him to hand it over to Dutch, turning away as soon as the other man started to argue. He unsaddled and groomed Calpurnia, letting her loose with the other horses for a well deserved rest. She was a sturdy, steady companion and Arthur often found that the calm, repetitive process of grooming her steadied his nerves. Charles had brought up questions last night that Arthur didn’t want to dwell on during the daylight hours, but the harder he tried to forget them, the more jumbled up it all became in his mind. Arthur wanted Charles to take the credit for the job. He deserved it and it had been his idea to go after the camp in the first place. With a start, he realized that he hadn’t asked Charles to keep Joseph out of his explanation.
It was an odd feeling, to know down in his bones at that precise moment that he trusted Charles as much as he trusted the closest members of his family, maybe more. Charles was a discreet person, observant, and he wouldn’t mention the doctor’s role in their adventure. Arthur felt like an ass because of his surly behaviour the night before. He’d fouled their good spirits with his moodiness. Charles’ questions and the points he’d made had been valid, important, worth considering once Arthur had sobered up. Although they hit a bit too close to home, nipping at the heels of his own insecurities — baying hounds of doubt and worry — Charles hadn’t asked them to be cruel or judgemental. Charles didn’t have to try to answer complex questions like Arthur did. He simply understood that the world was messy and knew how to make it less so. Arthur found it was something he liked about Charles these days. Before recent events, he might have been more annoyed by the idea than anything. Arthur wished that the right actions came to him as easily.
Arthur also didn’t want to think too hard about how he’d woken up that morning, tangled up in Joseph’s arms, warm and content despite his hangover blossoming in the sunshine. He hadn’t woken up with another person like that in a long time, years maybe, and he missed it. Plenty of sex had come his way over the last few years, it wasn’t hard to come by, but he liked to wake with someone he knew in his arms. It was a nice feeling, loathe though he was to admit it, even to himself. Waking up with Eliza in his arms had been one of the best parts of visiting her and Isaac. But, he knew there was a timeline on his friendship with Joseph, as there had been from the start. Arthur lived a transient life and never settled down too long in one place. It would be foolish to build up some kind of relationship only to walk away in a few weeks time, when Cornwall or the Pinkertons or whoever else came for them. He already anticipated the pain of leaving Maeve and Felix, who he’d grown attached as spring had begun to roll over into summer, but they’d been fine without him and they’d be fine once he was gone.
Regretting the mess he was soon to make, Arthur hefted the doe they’d shot on their way back up over his shoulder to deliver it to Pearson. At Dutch’s gritty, delighted laughter, he glanced up. Charles was explaining how they’d robbed Cornwall again and ruined his prospects in the forest.
“Christ Arthur, what’d you do to get so bloody?” Bill asked, passing Pearson’s wagon with two pails of cold, sloshing water from the river. Arthur dropped the potato he’d just peeled into a bucket with the other spuds and made a rude gesture, then grabbed another from the bucket to his right. Exhausted from the previous days antics, but feeling antsy with energy thrumming beneath his skin, he’d opted to help Pearson with dinner. Punishment work at any other time, it was repetitive and soothing, much like grooming the horses. While he worked, he noticed that the O’Driscoll boy lurked nearby, twitching with nerves. Arthur could hardly blame him, but the pacing in and out of his peripheral vision was making his skin crawl.
“Knock it off, boy, or you’re going in the stewpot instead of the venison.” Kieran swallowed hard, feet frozen in place while his hands fidgeted with a broken bit of bridle. “What the hell are you doin’ over there? Don’t you got chores or are you thinking you’re on a vacation from Colm?”
“I do. I–I’ve been helping with the horses.” Arthur snorted and scooped up another potato. Kieran mumbled, “I’m good with ‘em.”
“Still ain’t answered my question.”
“Your girl, Calpurnia?” Arthur grunted. “I think she’s hurt.”
“She’s riding fine, just got back with her this morning.” Arthur said. Calpurnia grazed with the other horses, weight shifting side to side as she snuffled through the grass looking for the juiciest patches and mowing them down to nothing. Sean moved about through the group, breaking up a hay bale for their dinner. Kieran twitched, nervous.
“I think she’s twisted something. Maybe not even while you were out. There’re gopher holes and the like around here. But she’s hurt.” If she was, Arthur couldn’t tell, but Kieran seemed adamant. Maybe the most backbone he’d shown at any point since Arthur had roped him in the mountains. “You don’t believe me, but I can prove it.” Arthur stopped peeling, knife wedged beneath a bit of peel and pressed against the pad of his thumb. He glowered at Kieran while he thought for a moment and then nodded.
“Show me then.”
And Kieran did. Moments later he and Arthur were bent over side by side examining Calpurnia’s left back leg for an injury. Arthur couldn’t see any scrapes or blood, but Kieran had grabbed Arthur’s fingers and wrapped them around her hock.
“See how it’s hot? She ain’t limping yet, but I think she will be.”
Her leg was hot. Only in the one area, much like a human sprain. Inflammation, Joseph had called it. Arthur felt bad for not noticing sooner and lowered her leg back to the ground. He cooed and slipped her a peppermint from his pocket, thumped her shoulder with a couple loving pats. Arthur stood back, impressed and pleased with Kieran’s observation. Calpurnia could have been hurt if he’d kept riding her injured. Hell, Arthur could have been killed if she’d fallen or thrown him. Kieran could have stayed quiet and no one would have ever known, but he didn’t. Arthur wasn’t deluded into thinking that it was because Kieran cared about his well being, he knew that it was because the boy liked the horses.
“I’ll borrow a spare, for now. Let her rest up.” Kieran’s shoulders slumped as he relaxed. He hadn’t been trying to impress Arthur or anyone else, he had wanted to protect Calpurnia from injury. He started to walk away, content with having gotten Arthur to listen to him. Arthur called his name and he looked back at Arthur, wary again. “Good work...with the horses. Thank you.”
Kieran swallowed hard and bobbed his head, then scuttled away.
Arthur hurried across the campsite, hauling a new batch of wood over to the fire, where most everyone else sat eating dinner. Beneath the canopy of his tent, Javier tuned his guitar. It was shaping up to be a cozy night with music and drinking. Not a party, exactly, but something cheerful and appreciative of the place they’d found themselves in recent weeks. He dumped the logs and Bill bent to stack them into a neat pile. He saw Dutch emerge from his tent for the first time that day. Arthur strode over to his tent where he stood smoking, phonogram playing softly in the background.
“Well done, my boy,” he said as Arthur approached. Dutch clapped him on the back. Chuckling, he said, “Charles told me all about it. Not like you to come up with such a smart plan. You know that I’m not easily impressed, but I’m proud of you.” Like always, the praise made Arthur feel important, dependable, loyal.
“Had fun fuckin’ with Cornwall’s men like that. Ran away with their tails between their legs.” He nodded towards the campfire, where Charles sat with the others. “Charles was the brains of it all.”
“Scaring the pants off them! Just the kind of forward thinking, clever plans I’m hoping for from everyone else. Micah says he’s got a few things in the works.”
“Sure he does.”
“Arthur, come on now. We have to cooperate to succeed. I do wish I could convince you to trust Micah.”
“Perhaps I’ll change my mind, if he ever does somethin’ trustworthy.” Dutch only shook his head. Arthur thought back to the massacre that had come from Micah’s time in Strawberry, bodies in the streets, all over a pair of guns. Arthur saw what Micah valued and it sure as shit weren’t the gang or their safety. He thought that Dutch was oblivious to it all, and then felt guilty for doubting the man who’d raised him. Arthur might be even more of a low-down, dirty, scoundrel without Dutch and Hosea.
“I can always count on you, Arthur.” He used the hand that still lay on Arthur’s shoulder to give him a gentle shake. ”We all can. You’re the most dependable man we have. Don’t let yourself get jealous over Micah’s presence.”
“I ain’t fuckin’ jealous of him, Dutch. I think he’s dangerous .”
“No more dangerous’n you, son.” Arthur grumbled and made a noncommittal noise. Micah wouldn’t be getting on his good side anytime soon. Arthur still didn’t know what had gone down in Blackwater, but Micah and Dutch had killed some poor girl and in a brutal fashion. While it wasn’t like Dutch at all, it was exactly the kind of shit Micah pulled. He wasn’t sure if Micah had convinced Dutch to do something violent and stupid, or if Dutch had accepted part of the blame for some unfathomable reason, some misguided sense of loyalty to their newest and deadliest member.
“How are you feeling about the train job we’ve been planning?” he asked, guiding Arthur over to the poker table. He kicked a crate out for Arthur to sit beside him. Arthur let the wood carrier drape on the table in an awkward lump. We haven’t planned anything, Arthur wanted to point out. John did, it was all his idea and he and Arthur had done all the work so far. Retrieving that oil wagon from Cornwall Kerosene and Tar had been a pain in his ass.
“John’s plan seems fine, Dutch. No Bill, that already makes me feel better.” Dutch chuckled and puffed on his cigar. Arthur had an idea, perhaps a stupid idea. He scratched at the stubble on his chin. He needed to shave, it was getting unruly. “I was thinking though… Maybe we should take Kieran on this job.”
Dutch looked askance and raised an eyebrow. “The O’Driscoll? Why?”
“I’m thinking he deserves an opportunity to contribute to the group. Always claiming he ain’t an O’Driscoll… maybe we give him a chance to prove it. What’s the harm?” Something about the way Dutch’s eyes narrowed concerned Arthur. He sat, letting Dutch’s scrutiny wash over him, not entirely sure where it was coming from. “We won’t give him any big jobs, or tell him anything until we’re right up on the tracks. He never leaves camp, not like he can a rat us out or anything.”
Dutch puffed away while he thought, and then said, “I’m hesitant, with these Pinkertons sniffing around.”
“Likewise.” Arthur was still furious that that those two damned Pinkertons had approached him while he’d been out with Jack. It was as if they hoped to use the boy as a shield for themselves, assuming that Arthur wouldn’t draw on them or fight back with Jack present. He’d stormed right up to Dutch’s tent and begun ranting about the encounter the second they returned to camp. He was furious, too, that they’d put a damper on the good time he’d been having with the boy. It wasn’t often that he had the time to devote to Jack — he wasn’t the boy’s father, but as with everything else the responsibility seemed to fall to his shoulders. In the end though, he didn’t mind so much. Jack was a nice kid, too nice for their lifestyle he thought. No kid really deserved to grow up the way he and John had with the gang.
“Alright, take the O’Driscoll. Let’s see how he does under pressure.” He’d already saved Arthur’s life under pressure up at Six-Point Cabin, but Arthur didn’t feel the need to point that out. He’d expected more resistance from Dutch. It was an honest surprise to Arthur that he’d agreed so easily. He mentally shrugged and then stood to finish his chores so that he could relax near the others and enjoy the food he’d helped to prepare.
— Dutch agreed to let us take the O’Driscoll boy on the train job. Not quite sure why I recommended it, but it seems he wants a chance to ingratiate himself with the lot of us. Not quite sure why he’d want to, if I’m being honest. Sometimes seems that good, undeserving folks get swept up in this life with no way out. I’ll be in till I die, but maybe Jack or Kieran or Tilly could have futures outside of all this, if we can wrangle the money. —
Hosea lent him Silver Dollar for the train job, so that Calpurnia could rest. Arthur had been sure to explain that Kieran had identified the injury and deserved the credit for it. Hosea, at least, would take that into consideration where Dutch might not. His hatred of Colm O’Driscoll clouded a lot of his decisions. More and more these days, it seemed. Arthur and Silver Dollar got on well. He was a calm, gentle horse, but good in a crisis, much like his owner. But, he needed to be reshooed before Arthur was forced to flee the law on his back, else they’d both end up dead, so he took a ride to Valentine’s stables.
He wished it weren’t pouring rain, but he was on a time limit and this needed to be done. Silver Dollar would take a few hours to get reshooed, giving Arthur some time to putter around town. Rain pelted down in sheets, running freezing trails down the back the back of his neck. He tucked his chin down into his collar and tried not to collect anymore water in the upturned brim of his hat. He scurried up under the shelter of the main street’s store fronts. Two brothers splashed past him, across the street, arguing the whole way while a woman wrapped in a shawl followed rolling her eyes. People trudged past him, sliding through in the muck as they dodged from one side of the street to the other. A town of mud and morons indeed. He headed towards the saloon, thinking that he could duck inside to get out of the rain and grab a drink while he waits for the horses. He stood dripping on the deck boards, feet refusing to move for no good reason. Patrons were pouring into the saloon as fast as the rain and it would be crowded. Arthur wasn’t in the mood for that kind of thing today.
On the other hand, Joseph’s clinic was just there a few stores down and Arthur could be in the mood for a quiet drink with a friend. At least the inside of the clinic would be dry and warm. When he ducked inside, though, it appeared empty, aside from the steady dripping of water from somewhere in the back. Arthur splashed into the store room and found that the doctor had arranged buckets in several places along the back wall, collecting rain that crept in through leaks along the edge of the roof. The small flood had caused several of the buckets to move with the flow of the water, which now ran down the walls. Arthur looked out the back window and saw Miss King standing in the rain, holding the bottom of a ladder and looking miserable.
“What in the hell are you doing?” he asked as he banged outside into the cold again. Joseph’s ladder gave a dangerous wobble, despite his assistant’s steady hands. Joseph stood at the top of the ladder with a hammer in hand, trying to repair a chunk of battered gutter that was the obvious source of the leaks inside.
“Arthur!” Lucy shouted. Her nose and cheeks had gone bright pink with the cold and her hair was a sodden mess, sticking to her face and neck. “Oh it’s good to see you. Can you talk him down from there?”
“You’ll freeze out here. I’ll hold that. Go inside, warm up. Get some tea in you, please.”
“Are you sure?” Arthur nodded and reached around her to grasp the ladder in a firm hold. “Alright, but do try to keep him alive please. He’s an idiot, but I do like him.”
“I’d hate to have to find a new boss. They’re always so difficult to train.” Arthur chuckled and she swept inside as a peal of thunder cracked in the distance. Arthur shivered. He’d been so close to sitting inside, warm and toasty, with a glass of whiskey, apparently having forgotten who he was friends with. He wasn’t even surprised. “Any reason you chose to do this during a fucking typhoon Doc?”
“You may have noticed that this ‘typhoon’ is trying to wash my damned clinic away. I had to do it now, before there’s no roof left to attach the gutter to.” Arthur glanced up to see Joseph tapping away with the hammer as he tried to nail the wobbling piece of pipe into place. Joseph was also drenched, far worse that Arthur since he’d climbed up there without a jacket, and his button down was nearly translucent. It looked like color from his vest was bleeding into the white fabric. Arthur waited, freezing and watching his hands turn red in the cold. Every time he looked up to keep an eye on the doctor, water slid off his hat and tipped down his back. Awful, but better than without the hat. Time crawled by, until Arthur heard Joseph’s triumphant yell. It looked like he’d finished, the gutter affixed to the wall and the holes patched.
“Get down here before we both freeze to death.” Arthur caught the flash of Joseph’s white teeth as he smiled and then started to back down the ladder.
Once Arthur shrugged out of his jacket, he was down to a shirt and vest that were merely damp at the edges. Water had soaked up the cuffs of his pants a few inches, but otherwise he was dry enough. Out of the rain, he’d warm up. Joseph, however, was drenched, dripping onto the clinic’s floorboards. His face was a charming rosy pink all over. He looked down at himself, as if he was only now noticing the extent of his personal water damage, instead of just the clinic’s. He grimaced.
“Let’s go, Doc. Upstairs.” Arthur lifted his jacked up over both of their heads and shuttled them up to Joseph’s apartment and then shoved him inside. Arthur pulled the door shut. When he turned, Joseph was rummaging through a closet. Arthur left him to it and took the opportunity to look around the apartment. He’d never been inside before. It was small and tidy, but felt cold, unlived in. Arthur hadn’t stayed in many places long enough to settle in, not an apartment like this one, but even he’d had a few more personal touches than Joseph had managed. He glanced over and saw Joseph struggling to undo his buttons with frozen fingers. Arthur could see that they’d turned bright pink from the cold and shook too hard for him to get a grip on the small buttons. Wearing gloves as he had been, Arthur’s own fingers were fine. The solution was obvious.
“Hang on.” He draped his own jacket over the back of a wooden chair and strode across the small space and took Joseph’s wrists in his hands, unbuttoning one cuff and then the other. He fumbled a bit with the buttons down his front, unused to unfastening them from the front instead of his own perspective. Women’s clothing had always been easier to remove. He flushed at the thought. Joseph was watching him with an odd expression. It occurred to Arthur that this might be too personal for the doctor, he hadn’t thought about it in the moment. Unlike the doctor, Arthur remembered waking up in the tent tangled together. Up close, he found that he wanted to talk about the tent. It might even have been his unconscious reason for coming here today, lingering in the back of his mind as it had been. He realized that they’d been staring at each other a bit too long. He cleared his throat and stepped back.
“Why the hell’d you climb up there dressed like this. You couldn’t have put on a jacket before hand?”
“I wasn’t thinking. Water was coming in and the room was flooding.” He shrugged. Arthur thought that, for a very smart man, the doctor had somewhat poor forethought. Intelligent, but at times impractical. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“Well, I was looking to get out of the rain. Thought a hot drink with a friend might be nice instead of sittin’ in that crowded saloon. I shoulda known it would turn out like this.” Joseph looked sheepish. If he was blushing, Arthur couldn’t tell through the pink that already colored his cheeks. He was still drenched.
“I, uh, think I can handle the rest.”
He came back out in dry clothes. Wearing clean pants, pulling a fresh button up on over his undershirt, he looked warmer already. Arthur stepped forward without thinking and took his wrist, fastening his right cuff. It wasn’t until he reached for the other hand that he stopped to think that Joseph didn’t actually need help at this point. He paused, not wanting to look up.
“Uh, did you want–” He heard the doctor swallow hard.
“Do you mind? My fingers are still stiff.” Arthur could feel how much warmer his hands were, having changed out of his wet clothes. Arthur grasped his other wrist and fastened that cuff too, then he moved on to the delicate buttons down Joseph’s front. Against his better judgement, he took his time. When he’d finished, he smoothed a hand down Joseph’s front, pressing the fabric flat. Up close like this, he could see Joseph’s clean shaven jaw clenched against the cold, accentuating the square angle of it. He wanted to ask about the tent, find out if the doctor remembered, find out if he’d enjoyed it as much as Arthur had. It required more bravery than he had at his disposal. He’d faced down cougars that scared him less. He opened his mouth–
Joseph interrupted, “It’s not too late for that drink, if you’d like to stay.”
“I’d like that.”
A botched god damned train job is how Arthur ended up back at Joseph’s clinic that evening, half-carrying, half-dragging Kieran through the mud and the steps while the boy moaned in pain. John, Charles and Sean he’d ordered back to camp — the long way round — while he dragged Kieran in to have his wounds dealt with. Never had they thought that men law men might show. Arthur couldn’t even fathom how that many men had showed at a train crossing in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, looking like they’d expected resistance, expected the gang. It was a miracle they’d made it out in one piece. Mostly. He banged on the door to the clinic. Given how late it was, Arthur thought he might have to run upstairs to get the doctor. Then the door opened and Arthur blew out a breath of relief, so happy to see his face and his round little glasses. He took one look at Arthur’s burden and waved them inside.
“You are exactly like a cat,” Joseph said, staring down at them over the top of his glasses in the dimly lit front room of the clinic, where Arthur supported a moaning Kieran over one shoulder. “Always bringing dead birds and leaving them on my front step.”
“This one’s still alive, Doc. And I’d rather we kept him that way, much as I don’t like him.” Arthur hefted Kieran onto a cot.
“Yes, the fact that you always want them saved, given the state that you bring them to me, is one of the great miseries of my life.” Arthur chuckled while Kieran looked alarmed.
“Plus, I was the bird one time, that hardly counts.” He laid a reassuring hand on Kieran’s shoulder. “Settle down, kid. You’ll be alright. Doc’s seen me through far worse. Might even give you some whiskey before he starts digging buckshot outta you.” Kieran blanched, turning whiter than the bloodloss had already made him.
“Arthur, instead of torturing the boy, why don’t you go and get me some supplies.”
“Where’s Miss King?” Arthur asked, moving towards the cabinets.
“Given the slow day I was having, I sent her home. I wasn’t aware you’d be bringing me gunshot victims at half past one in the morning.” Arthur banged about in the cabinets, fetching the things he knew Joseph would need to clean and stitch Kieran’s wounds.
Kieran did better than Arthur would have thought. When they’d first captured and interrogated him, he’d been whiny and annoyed Arthur with his turn-coat attitude towards the O’Driscolls, rolling over at the gang’s feet and showing his belly like a beaten dog. Then the boy had saved his life that one time, and Arthur had at least started to warm up to him. He’d helped with Calpurnia, despite fearing Arthur. Maybe he had a backbone afterall. It was a start. Joseph gave him a shot of morphine.
“See kid, you get the good stuff.” Kieran moaned.
“Twice in one day, Arthur?”
“Apparently, I can’t stay away.” Arthur said, holding Kieran’s leg in place while the doctor worked. A hint of bitterness crept into his voice as he said it. More and more, he was being drawn back to the clinic and Joseph. Not that he was fighting it. But it was becoming dangerous. “Happens when you ride with dumbasses who don’t know when to duck outta the way.”
“Do I want to know how this happened?”
“Call it a hunting accident. ‘Cause of all the mud.” Arthur said. Joseph rolled his eyes and began digging shrapnel out of the leg. Kieran startled awake with a yelp. Even with the morphine, the doctor’s ministrations would hurt.
“I could call it a hitching post, doesn’t mean it is one.” Arthur huffed. Joseph had some idea of what Arthur did, but he never asked outright and Arthur never confirmed nor denied anything. It was an fine, unsteady line that Arthur walked. Some part of him, the bit that had come to trust Joseph despite Arthur’s reservations, wanted to tell him the truth. Fear prevented him from going through with it. Not fear of Joseph, but fear of what it might do to their friendship. Suspecting that Arthur was a criminal and outlaw was different from knowing it. And, once heard, it couldn’t be unheard and might color Joseph’s opinion of him forever. It was getting dangerous to know this man. Arthur worried that he could slip up at any time and reveal himself. It would ruin everything between them and it might put the gang in jeopardy. He couldn’t have that.
Joseph had finished with the shrapnel and moved on to stitching. Arthur tried to be helpful, scooped up the doctor’s instruments and took them to the sink in the back to rinse the blood off. Joseph would sterilize them later, but Arthur needed something to do with his hands, needed a short break to gather his thoughts. He had begun to come down off of his exhilaration high from the train job. In the other room, he could hear voices. Curious, he stepped closer and pressed his back to the wall so that he could hear better.
“Don’t wanna do it no more. Never wanted to do it in the first place and I just...just keep getting dragged in to it and then–” he trailed off for a moment, words slurring as he spoke to Joseph. He moaned when Joseph tightened the bandage around his leg. Arthur wished he’d heard what the doctor had asked him. “Then your face gets slapped on a poster and what you want don’t matter anymore, cause you’re a criminal and it’s for life.” Arthur winced. Kieran was close to spilling the gang’s secrets if he kept this up.
“What is it you don’t want to do anymore, Kieran?”
“Killin’!” Arthur swept into the room, ready to put a permanent cork in the kid, but he hadn’t been fast enough. “Robbin’ and hurtin’ people. S’like I’m trapped and there ain’t no way out.”
Joseph looked up at the sound of him cursing, another odd look on his face. Arthur’s skin burned and he didn’t want to meet Joseph’s eyes. If he’d had suspicions about Arthur’s activities before, then Kieran had confirmed them. Kieran hadn’t even noticed what he’d done. He’d passed out, drugged and dopey. Arthur wanted to join him.
“All done Doc?”
“Yes.” Joseph was slow to respond. He sighed and took off his glasses, rubbing at the bridge of his nose where they pinched. Arthur thought looked handsome with or without them, the planes of his face illuminated by the low-burning lamp on the table beside Kieran. He caught sight of his own hands and grimaced. Blood splattered his forearms and rolled up his sleeve. He tried to wipe it off with little success, he’d need a good scrub. Arthur tried not to stare at the lean corded muscle that the doctor's forearms had on display, twisting up beneath his shirt. Arthur could stare at him, but he couldn’t meet his eyes. If he did, he felt like he might burst into flames from the shame. He hadn’t realized how much he wanted the doctor to respect him, to not fear him like so many others did, to not know what a monster he could become.
“Are you injured at all?”
“I asked if you have any injuries that you need me to look at. Sometimes you don’t notice, during a firefight.” Arthur swallowed. He hadn’t bothered to check. Bruises would be showing up soon and he’d pulled a muscle in his thigh, he thought. Steeling himself, he looked up and met Joseph’s eyes. No revulsion, no anger. Joseph only seemed… tired.
“Pulled something, but nothing else, I don’t think.”
“Are you going to run away like a coward if I come over there to check?” Arthur startled, taken aback.
“You look like a spooked horse, Arthur.” He sighed. “I would like to know if you’re alright.” Arthur nodded. Joseph approached him, cautious and slow, to give him a quick pat down, checking for bullet holes. Arthur lifted his arms away from his body to submit to the check up. His heart raced. He couldn’t find it in himself to be mad at Kieran, though he desperately wanted someone else to blame. Joseph’s examination ended, but didn’t step out of Arthur’s space. Arthur ached to touch him, but that barrier felt even more insurmountable than it had before. He’d had so much to say, before he’d ruined this. He had known it would never last. He opened his mouth to speak, to apologize or explain himself, something , when the doctor interrupted him again, by stepping forward and wrapping his arms around Arthur’s torso. Arthur’s arms hovered at his sides and then settled against Joe’s back. He squeezed tight and felt Joe's hands bunch the fabric at small of his back. It only lasted a moment and then the doctor moved away, not looking at Arthur. He puttered with the materials he’d used to stitch up Kieran’s leg.
He cleared his throat. Arthur wanted to break the tension in the room. "I'm glad you're alright."
“He’ll be fine," Joseph said, jerking his head towards Kieran. "You can take him home in the morning. Keep him off of the leg, keep it dry and make sure to change the bandage twice a day. Pretty minor injury, all told. We should keep an eye on him for a few hours.” He glanced at his pocket watch. “Morning isn’t actually that far away now, but there seems to be some internal bleeding.”
“Good amount of bleeding on the outside too.” Joseph turned to look at Arthur, eyes crinkled in a silent laugh, trying not to disturb their patient.
“Was that a joke, Mr. Morgan?”
“Obviously not a very good one,” Arthur said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Look, I’d like to explain. I–”
"My gran always said 'you never have to explain a good joke'."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know." He sighed and pinned Arthur with a look. “Do you have any plans to rob or murder me?”
“Jesus, Doc. No, of course not.”
“Then I don’t need an explanation.” Arthur opened his mouth to protest. He felt contrary, now that the doctor had told him not to explain, he felt even more compelled to do so. “Do you want to sleep to pass the time, or have another drink with me?” Arthur’s jaw clicked shut with a frustrated huff. Joseph had that same defiant look in his eye, like he was ready to bite down on something and not let go until he’d gotten his way. Arthur found that the stubborn, righteous, bossiness was… not unattractive.
“A drink.” Joseph’s eyes crinkled again when he smiled and that wasn’t unattractive either.
I recognize that Arthur isn't peeling potatoes in the safest way but like... What's anyone going to do about it? Call OSHA? Arthur's PPE is his horse and a revolver.
“Afternoon boys!” Maeve called from her spot on the porch, where she rocked in the shade, snapping beans into a bowl on her lap. Joe and Arthur both smiled and waved, pulling their horses up by the front of the house and tying them there. Arthur visited often now, much to Maeve’s delight. Today, he’d arrived with a heavy turkey tied to Calpurnia’s saddle, ready to prep for Maeve and Felix’s dinner.
“What are a couple of handsome young men doing on my porch? Come to woo me?” Joseph laughed, and bent to kiss her wrinkled cheek.
“Come on now Maeve, you know I’m an old man, too old for the likes of you.” Arthur bent and kissed her cheek as well. Joe had been pleased to learn that he was a softer man than he’d first seemed, softer than his background would imply.
“At heart maybe. A grouchy one.” Arthur grinned at her. Maeve was one of the few people who could reliably pull a smile out of him.
“Brought you some game and some free manual labour.”
“You know I ain’t takin’ your labour for free. You’ll join us for supper or leave right now.” She swatted at his arm. Arthur shook his head and untied the wild turkey. Joe took it out of his hands. They both knew that Maeve couldn’t pluck it without his help, not without suffering for the rest of the day as a result. “Felix is just around the corner, working with the horses.” Arthur tipped his hat and walked off towards the barn.
Joe settled beside her on the porch. Dragging a pot over with his foot, he began skinning the bird, and finished gutting it where he and Arthur had left off in the field. It had been a nice morning, just the two of them out in the woods. Joe was never much of a hunter — he was good with a gun, a good shot, but Arthur had been teaching him to use a bow and he’d learned a lot in the last couple of weeks. He’d brought the bird down himself. Maybe not the cleanest kill, but he was still proud of himself. Arthur had seemed pleased too, clapping him on the back and leaving his hand there while he congratulated Joe with a gentle shake. Ever since Joe had hugged him in the clinic, Arthur had been freer with his affection. At least, in private. Joe drank it in, relishing the surly cowboy’s change in demeanor. It was like something had snapped the tension and he’d relaxed into being friends with Joe.
“Joe, dear, you seem distracted.” His head jerked up as he realized that Maeve was speaking to him.
“Boy, you don’t need to apologize for letting your mind wander.” She laughed. “I keep telling you to relax, you’re too uptight all the time. Ain’t no reason for a fine boy like you to be so rigid.”
“And I keep telling you it’s ain’t rigidity, it’s propriety.”
“That’s more like it.” Maeve cackled at Joe slipping into a more local speech pattern, he responded with a small smile. “Come on laddie, I’ve got some potatoes inside that need your gentle touch.”
Maeve latched on to Joe’s arm, letting him help her into the house. At the sink by the window, she had a basket full of dirt-covered potatoes that needed to be cleaned and peeled. Joe turned his attention there, setting down the basket of greens she’d been working on when they’d arrived. Maeve bent and pulled out a heavy bottomed pan to put the bird in. It was peaceful, working with Maeve. Joe had always enjoyed it, found the farm warm and quiet, the kind of place he felt settled and calm.
Maeve grabbed his arm in a tight grip and whistled. Joe stiffened and followed her gaze out the window, concerned at Maeve’s iron grasp interrupting the peace he’d been feeling. Outside, Arthur was stripping off his shirt, suspenders hanging at his sides.
“Lord, that ain’t good for an old woman’s heart.” Maeve put a hand to her chest.Joe swallowed hard. He wasn’t sure how good it was for his heart either. Discreet as a kitchen fire, he turned away from the window with heat blazing across his face. Joe had been steadfast about ignoring the way Arthur’s presence made him feel. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, but it never led anywhere good.
After that rainy afternoon they’d spend in Joe’s apartment, it had become almost impossible to ignore. Arthur had been so close, so warm, while he buttoned Joe’s shirt. When he’d fastened the cuffs of Joe’s shirt, his thumb had brushed the inside of Joe’s wrist and it had set his skin on fire. It was all the spark he needed to figure out that he wanted more from Arthur. He’d spent the rest of the afternoon kicking himself over how selfish that thought was. Arthur had done nothing more than help him when his fingers were frozen because of his own stupidity. He’d made it clear that Joe’s messes were a pain to clean up all of the time.
As he bustled about the kitchen, rinsing and chopping vegetables, he could feel Maeve’s eyes following him. He ignored the sensation and worked. Other things needed to be done around the house, dinner would need a while to cook.
“Plenty in this life ain’t proper boy.”
“Pardon?” He paused with his knife halfway through a hearty carrot.
“I’m an old lady, Joseph, I’ve lived. Most of the fun things in this world ain’t proper. It’s part of what makes them fun.”
“I always knew you were a rule-breaker, Maeve.” She laughed at him and they continued to work. After a moment, she continued.
“Drinking, gambling, sex.” Joe choked on his own tongue and coughed, his face going beet-red. He looked away from the vegetables to Maeve’s wicked grin.
“Mrs. Hennesey,” he gasped. “What in the hell are you on about?”
“You should have more fun, boy. I can’t get up to half the things I used to, but here you are wasting all that potential.”
“I have plenty of fun. I like spending time with you and Felix.”
“Well, yes.” He cleared his throat. “Him too. But I have fun, I’m not a complete stick in the mud.”
“I ain’t had so many handsome young bachelors around me since before I was married,” she mused.
“Oh, I’m sure you were quite the prize. You still are.”
“Hush you, you’re hardly my type.” Joe looked up, affronted. “I like I’m tall and rugged. Blonde too. You’re lucky I’m old and don’t have the energy to pursue that handsome man out in the barn. I’d give you a run for your money.” Joe couldn’t help it, he burst into nervous laughter.
“Maeve, I have no idea what you mean.” She leveled a look at him that said that she saw right through him. Joe’s skin broke out in goosebumps, that hint of fear sinking its claws into his spine, cold and invasive. Nothing about Maeve’s attitude hinted that she took issue with his attraction. He wasn’t surprised, it wasn’t like Maeve to care about things like that, but he’d been feeling that dread a lot longer than he’d known Maeve. It was instinctual at this point. He stared out the window at the horses in the paddock outside, leaning on the edge of the kitchen counter.
“I’m old, I ain’t dead. And I don’t have many manners left at this point. He’s a fine man, gruff exterior and all, I’d be a fool to let him get away without at least a bit of flirtin’. Not a lot of ways for an old lady like me to have fun these days.” She handed him the basket of green beans. “Anybody would be a fool to let him go.”
Down to only an undershirt, damp with sweat in the noon sun, Arthur picked up his pitchfork again. Only a few minutes in the heat of the barn and he’d been soaked and approaching miserable. Now, he leaned against the fence of the corral, while Felix exercised one of the horses Arthur had brought him two weeks ago. He’d found the beautiful dark bay mustang on one of his jaunts through the heartlands and thought to himself that it would make an excellent gift for Felix. So, he’d roped the mare and hauled her straight out to the farm. Felix had been ecstatic, cooing over the horse and running his hands across her withers, flank and legs. He didn’t say it out loud, but Arthur didn’t really need him too. He and Felix had learned to communicate, and everything about the kid’s body language said that he was enamoured with the horse. Arthur smiled at the memory, as she jogged past him, dark mane billowing behind her. Felix had groomed her until she practically glittered and it looked as if her training was coming along well.
Felix whistled and she slowed, trotting across the paddock to butt him with her head. Arthur was always happy to see Felix laughing and excited. Sometimes, it was hard to engage with him, when he wasn’t interested in a particular task. But the horses never bored him. Arthur encouraged the training and tried to help where he could. He and Joe had talked at length about Joe’s concern for Felix’s future, if something were to happen to Maeve, and Arthur hoped that horse training could give him a chance at a life on his own. Enough customers, enough support, and Arthur thought he might do alright for himself in an unaccommodating world.
Felix emerged from the stable, having brushed the new mare, and noticed Arthur for the first time. He ran forward and hugged him, a bit more affectionate than Arthur typically welcomed, but he appreciated the exuberance enough to let it go, patting the kid’s back with his free hand. He’d been trying lately to be more open and approachable. He’d been trying.
“Howdy, kid. How’re things?” he asked. Felix backed away and smiled, waving excited hands at the stables. It was good that he’d gotten back into training. Arthur was excited to see what might come of it.
Arthur had advertised Felix’s skills around Strawberry and Emerald Ranch, hoping that someone might be willing to pay for his work. Even if they didn’t buy one of Felix’s horses, they might send their own to him for training. He’d been leaning against a fence at Emerald Ranch, watching the horses in the pen with a critical eye, looking for one that might suit Joe better than the skittish old thing he currently rode, when the owner had come over to speak with him. Hosea was nearby, trading with their fence in the area, handing over another coach they’d jacked earlier in the day.
“Looking for a new mount?” Arthur shook his head in response.
“Friend of mine needs one, I was havin’ a gander at what you’ve got.”
“Couple’a fine beasts. I’ve got a few wild ones in that other field.” He nodded with his head towards a different area. Arthur examined them from a distance, but didn’t see anything that would work for Joe. Man barely knew how to sit a horse, he needed one that was calm and gentle and would put up with his fidgeting in the saddle. All of the wild ones he saw here were good horses, full of energy, and unbroken. Mounts that Arthur would love to work with, and ones that would toss Joe into a lake the first chance they got.
“Say, you don’t happen to need a trainer, do you?” Arthur asked.
“Last man ran out on me with a woman, cause contracts don’t mean nothing round here. Why, you know someone?”
“I do,” he’d begun, then he’d sung Felix’s praises until Hosea found him and they’d left for home.
Now, Arthur was glad to see that Felix was coming out of his shell. Arthur understood how hard damage could be to recover from, although he could never understand what Felix had been through. None of Arthur’s injuries had ever been permanent. He enjoyed helping the family, enjoyed Maeve’s company and Felix’s, enjoyed the rides to the farm with Joe. He’d even dropped by a few times on his own, just for a visit. Felix had a whole collection of well trained horses now and Arthur needed to start looking for buyers in his travels. Leaving Felix to it, he made his way to the barn for some good, old fashioned manual labour mucking out stalls. Dirty work was the kind of thing Arthur was built for, whether it was thieving or shoveling shit. Not that much difference between the two , he thought.
While he worked, his mind wandered — one of the dangers of heavy work, it gave one time to think — and he thought about about Kieran’s conversation with the doctor. He hadn’t wanted to dwell too much on Joe’s reaction, or the quick hug from the clinic, but Kieran’s comments had stewed in his mind for the last few weeks. Arthur hadn’t considered that Kieran might want to get out of this life entirely, rather than being shunted between different gangs. He felt all the more fool because of it. Arthur hadn’t had time for pity or comfort for the boy when they’d been running the train job, but the boy had stuck to his side and followed every command — including the ones that had almost gotten him killed. Kieran would do well somewhere like this, training horses on a working ranch. Arthur chose this life. Sometimes he forgot that others in the gang hadn’t, and they were simply trapped in it due to circumstance. Kieran wasn’t wanted yet — by anyone but the O’Driscolls — maybe there was still a chance for him to end up on a different path.
After two hours of sweaty, backbreaking labour, the barn’s stalls were clean, compost turned, and horses fed. Roasting meat and vegetables filled the air with a delicious smell, but there was still time for dinner. Arthur grabbed his shirt and a pack of cigarettes and made his way down to the creek that flowed past the ranch, behind the barn. He washed his face and neck in the stream, splashing in the cold water, before he collapsed back against the soft grass to watch the clouds and smoke. He was starting to drift off, when footsteps crunched in the dirt behind him. Joe stood nearby with his hands in his stuffed in his pockets, looking awkward. He was looking anywhere but at Arthur.
“Dinner’s almost ready.”
“Smells good.” Arthur said as he sat up and pulled his shirt on. Cool, fresh air blowing across the creek had dried his skin while he’d laid in the shade. He reached for his boots, but didn’t feel like putting them on yet. Joe’s face was hot and red, like he’d spent too much time in the kitchen’s heat. Arthur nodded towards the creek. “Water’s nice, if you want to wash up.”
Joe glanced at him and then went down to the shore to splash cold water on his face and neck. Arthur lay back in the grass again, while Joe came over and sat beside him an arm’s length away. Bright sunlight brought out the reddish tones in his dark hair. Rivulets of water ran down his neck to pool in the hollow of his throat. Arthur looked back at the sky. Joe’s quiet stillness was unusual, and Arthur wondered if he’d done something to cause it.
“How is it that you and Felix get along so well?” Joe asked, disrupting the silence.
Arthur shrugged in response. “I like kids.”
“Felix and Kieran are hardly children.”
“They ain’t, but they’re young.” Arthur tucked his arms behind his head. “Young people just want someone to care about them, most of the time. A little guidance, someone who gives a shit, it goes a long way.”
Arthur winced at the idea of himself as some kind of mentor. Teaching Jack to fish or read was one thing, but he wasn’t any kind of moral authority. He realized how stupid it sounded, to suggest that he might be able to guide a young person into any kind of good life. He could barely manage to do that for himself. He didn’t even want to look at Joe.
Only, he did. When Joe didn’t respond or say anything further, Arthur shot him a furtive glance. Joe was watching him with another one of those searching looks, that always made Arthur feel like he was being peeled open. He wasn’t sure that he wanted Joe to dig into all the layers of grime to reveal the core of him. Hell, Arthur wasn’t sure he wanted to see that core himself. He wasn’t secretive, but he was private, kept things close to heart and not laid bare for any stranger to see and judge. Then again, Joe was hardly a stranger. And Joe seemed to be able to see through him the way very few others could.
“I’ve told you about Jack. He’s happy, so long as someone takes an interest and spends some time with him.” Arthur took a deep breath. “My son was like that too.” Joe didn’t say anything and Arthur couldn’t look at his face, didn’t want to see whatever expression the other man now wore. He was a coward, down to the core. He'd turn over the stone to reveal all the secrets hidden underneath and then ran away before anyone could examine them. “Dutch and Hosea gave me that, when I was young. Don’t know where I’d be without them.” He let the quiet settle back over them. After a few long moments, Joe spoke again.
“I’m glad Jack has you then. And Felix. I wish I’d had more of that as a boy.” Arthur let out a breath and relaxed. “Who knows where we’d all be now.”
Arthur hummed and watched the clouds moving by, broken up by the canopy of leaves overhead. He wasn’t all that bothered with the state of things just then. He was even rather content. Joe leaned back on his elbows beside him and they relaxed by the stream until they heard Maeve calling them a few minutes later.
Arthur returned to camp at the end of another long day not a penny richer, with no food or leads to show for his work, but cheerier than he’d been in months despite a failed hunt. Between Maeve’s gratitude and the doctor’s company, he felt more rewarded and appreciated than he had in some time. Nothing that they asked of him brought the law down on his head or resulted in the deaths of anything more than grouse or elk. And, when he did fail, it didn’t bring the whole arrangement crumbling to the ground. Fortunate, since he and Joe had failed to bag a single kill that morning. When Arthur had slipped down an embankment and splatted into the mud Joe’s loud laughter had scared off all the game for miles. It wasn’t Arthur’s most graceful moment, but he’d been distracted by the way the sunlight had hit the angles of Joe’s face and the sudden, fierce need to draw him. After an hour spent trying to salvage the hunting trip, they’d given up — Joe apologetic, Arthur muddy, damp and cold — and flopped in the sunshine by the river until they both needed to return home. It had been downright lazy of them and Arthur found that he hadn’t cared.
After hitching Calpurnia, he shouted greetings at both Charles and Uncle on guard duty, to the pleasure of the former and consternation of the latter. As he dismounted, he found John nearby mending tack and grabbed him in a brotherly headlock, preparing some much deserved verbal haranguing, when he heard Dutch call his name and froze. His hesitation lasted only a heartbeat, but in that short time his thoughts flew by so quickly that he felt dizzy. He knew that tone in Dutch’s voice and it didn’t bode well. Arthur hadn’t heard that tone directed at him for nearly a decade and it sent his skin crawling with anxiety.
“A word, son.” Dutch’s voice was stern, but not angry. Not yet. Still, it wasn’t a request. Arthur gave John a good natured shove and plastered on a smile as he walked away, but a blanket of disquiet lay across the camp. Most folks had scattered, quiet, the moment Dutch had appeared. It seemed Arthur wasn’t the only one who knew that Dutch was primed like dynamite, temperamental with a blast radius. Dutch’s anger was rare, but unavoidable when it did appear. They had all been on the receiving end of that anger at one point or another. He strode forward and pushed back the flap to Dutch’s lodgings. It dropped back into place, cutting them off from view. Dutch stood with his back to Arthur.
“What can I do for you Dutch?” Arthur tried to keep the question light and casual, maybe feigned a little bit of ignorance. It wasn’t likely to work, but Arthur was not yet prepared to admit fault for whatever may have angered Dutch. Best not to take the fall until he knew what it was about.
“You’ve always been so reliable Arthur. Ever since you were a boy, I knew I could count on you. My expectations are high because, well son, you always deliver.” Arthur frowned, skeptical of the praise. Dutch sighed, sounding disappointed. “Where have you been today?”
“Hunting.” Dutch raised his eyebrows, taking in Arthur’s clean and bloodless entrance, with no meat in sight. “No luck. Something scared off the game and I lost the trail.” Dutch turned to look at him, an odd expression on his face.
“And Strauss’s side business? How’s that been going?” Arthur’s skin prickled.
“Figure you’d know better than me,” he responded with a shrug.
“I’m not really involved in collections.”
“I think there’s a few debts outstanding debts, but nothing urgent. Strauss hasn’t approached me in… a few weeks, at least.”
“No, I didn’t think he had.” Arthur’s brow furrowed. “I need to know that when we send you out, you actually collect Arthur.” Arthur stiffened. What the hell had Dutch heard? “I found out about your little run-in with the town doctor. What were you thinking Arthur?”
Not wanting to incriminate himself, Arthur chose not to respond. At least, not until Dutch spilled a few more details. There was a world of difference between a one-time encounter with the town doctor and the entire days spent traipsing around the wilderness teaching Joe to shoot a bow or identify plants. He wasn’t eager to share the ways that he’d been wasting his time. Dutch frowned at him, the very picture of a disappointed father.
“Do you understand what you’ve done, son? By not doing your job, the one that I sent you to do, the way I sent you to do it, you’ve harmed us all. Didn’t follow through with Strauss’s client, took charity from the town doctor and worst of all, you lied to me about it.” So, someone had ratted him out about the debt he’d accepted from Joe, that afternoon outside of the saloon. Arthur could only identify two people who might be responsible: Lenny, who hadn’t heard enough and Joe. That thought hurt. He didn’t want to entertain the idea that Joe might have turned on him like that. Who would he even have spoken to?
“I expected more from you Arthur.”
“Do you understand what you’ve done, Arthur?” Dutch asked, voice rising. “We cannot appear weak . Not when we have O’Driscoll’s and Pinkertons and god knows who else breathing down our neck. You’ve made it so that we all have to work that much harder to get out of here.”
Arthur hadn’t considered that detail. Now that he did he couldn’t help but think that Dutch might be right. Joe had offered him an easy way out and Arthur had taken it, only thinking about how it might make him look, in the face of accusations from the likes of Bill Williamson. He hadn’t taken the gang’s image into account. He’d only wanted to prevent some senseless violence and Joe’s solution had been right there, ripe for the taking. Dutch’s voiced dripped disgust that Arthur felt like poison in his gut. He wanted to defend himself, but what was there to say? Non-violence wasn’t a noble goal for someone like him, who did the work that he did. He had fucked up and put them all in harm’s way. Hell, he’d even told Joe where they were camped. Getting cozy with straight-laced townsfolk was foolish. He knew that and he’d done it anyway. He’d allowed himself to be distracted, falling into mud, both literal and figurative.
He’d put his family in harm’s way. Another facet of his selfishness, he supposed. He’d had a wonderful day, sure, but he hadn’t contributed squat to the camp. People might go hungry because of him. He’d wanted some time off from shooting and robbing and he’d gotten them, but what had it cost the camp? His family ? Dutch had every right to be furious with him and all Arthur could do was try to make it up to him.
“You cannot do this to us again, Arthur. You are a pillar of strength amongst these fools. Without you, we would all fall. You know how much your loyalty, your faith means to me.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“I know it won’t, son.” Dutch smiled at him and Arthur saw something worrying beneath the façade. He had wondered in the past at Dutch’s grasp of “calm”, but he saw now that the man was more than capable of it, and that it carried with it a truly frightening threat of what the alternative might be. Dutch had a firm grasp of “calm”, with both hands wrapped tight around its throat and ready to squeeze. He set a supportive hand on the back of Arthur’s neck, leaning their heads close together. “Fortunately, I sent Micah to finish your work and he delivered.”
“Micah? ” Arthur tried to pull back, to fully express his disgust, but Dutch had a firm grip on his neck, held in place like a wayward kitten.
“He was willing to do the job.” Dutch looked him in the eyes again, holding his gaze. “This cannot happen again, Arthur. We– I need you.”
Arthur couldn’t remember the last time Dutch had punished him for anything — so long ago that it escaped his memory entirely — but he feared now that that’s exactly what Dutch intended for him. And whatever he had in mind wouldn’t be some boring camp chore. Furious as he was that Micah had been seen fit to replace him, Arthur couldn’t help but think that he deserved it. He should have done it the right way the first time, instead of letting Joseph talk him out of it. A half-assed, lazy approach to their business was the kind of thing that got people killed. He’d been preaching that for two decades, hammering it into John’s thick skull only a few years after Hosea had finished hammering it into his. And Arthur hadn’t been around camp enough to defend folks if something were to go wrong, roaming around the countryside with people he barely knew, who weren’t his family. Dutch pulled them both out of the tent, smiling the whole time while Arthur tried to keep his face neutral.
“Go on now, Micah’s waiting by the river for you. Head on up towards Monto’s Rest” Dutch led him back over to Calpurnia, who hadn’t even been unsaddled. “And son? Thanks for volunteering.”
Micah did nothing to improve Arthur’s mood. For some god damned reason, the man could never just do a job, grab the take, and make for the hills. Things always went south, Arthur got shot at while Micah whooped and cursed and killed with abandon. No regard for bystanders, innocent lives lost to his warped and gleeful destruction. Arthur knew that he was a bad man, they all were, given their choice of careers, but Micah took it all to another level. He crossed lines that Arthur never would, likely ones that Arthur couldn’t imagine, and didn’t want to. Arthur thought back to the botched job with Micah only a week ago, where they’d almost robbed a stagecoach without issue, only to have it go belly up at the last moment. They’d left the dead to poison the river. The take had been good, but Arthur questioned whether it was worth the destruction they’d caused. Worse, he rode alongside Arthur and refused to shut up for the entire journey.
“Really, Morgan? A sick old man and you couldn’t collect?”
“Shut up Micah.”
“He rolled right over for me, screaming wife and all.” Calpurnia’s reins creaked in Arthur’s white-knuckled grip. “Easy pickins. That kid of his is barely old enough to hold a rifle, much less use one.”
“Shut up Micah.”
“Settle down cowpoke. I ain’t angling for your job or nothing. No one’s better at the big, angry brute thing than you are.” Arthur tried not to let it show, how much Micah’s commentary bothered him. It only added fuel to the fire.
“Old man could barely stand when I got there. What’d he do, cough and scare you away?” At least Micah didn’t know the full story, had no idea that Arthur hadn’t even made it to the ranch before he’d failed in his mission, distracted by the doctor’s plea for leniency. Who had told Dutch about their interaction? Arthur didn’t want to think that Joe might have ratted him out, even accidentally, but now it nagged at the back of his mind while they rode. He only had to endure a few more minutes with Micah.
It hadn’t been far to the homestead at all. Bodies littered the property by the time they were done with it. Micah had galloped his sweaty horse into camp only a few minutes before Arthur had and told Dutch that he’d found a place ripe with easy pickings, panting hard. Micah had assured him that the original family had been misplaced by some rogue gang of bandits, who wouldn’t be missed. Nor would their money. He’d called Arthur a bleeding-heart, when Arthur had asked for those assurances. Arthur had done as he was told, after Dutch had made it clear that this was Micah’s job and Arthur was there as support. Opening fire, they’d wiped out the bandits in only a few minutes. They’d been surprised, despite Micah and Arthur’s obvious approach, had seemed undisturbed by their appearance at the edge of the property. None of them had raised a gun until after Arthur and Micah had started shooting. Micah had run ahead of him, putting bullets in those men that still writhed on the ground, instead of waiting for their injuries to take them. Arthur hadn’t really understood the other man’s motivations. Now, rifling through the pockets of the dead, Arthur wasn’t so sure about Micah’s assurances either.
Most of the men they found did have the rough-and-tumble look of outlaws. As they approached the house, Arthur came across a younger man — a boy really — who didn’t have the same look, but who sported fresh bullet wounds, their size matching the caliber of Micah’s pearl-handled pistols. Micah stomped off to the barn, looking for more loot, maybe some horses or cattle that they could steal and sell. Arthur approached the house instead, where he found two more dead bodies, who also looked too clean to have been with the other group, but had been shot recently, blood still soaking into their white shirts. Arthur checked them over and found that they still had money in their pockets, not yet robbed by the bandits in the yard, but dead nonetheless. Arthur chewed at his cheek, perplexed by the incongruities.
He was certain that he hadn’t killed any of the men here in the house. No glass had even been shot out of the windows. Micah had promised that the house had already fallen to the bandits. Had that been a lie? Were these men part of the original family, only recently killed by the bandits? Both men’s hands were bound. Arthur wouldn’t have bothered with two men who couldn’t even fight back, but maybe the bandits had been less sure. He explored the house, opening cabinets and drawers, where he found a few small trinkets that weren’t entirely worthless. In the chimney stack, tucked into a metal lock box, he found a small nest egg of bills, which he tucked into his satchel.
Little else revealed itself in the house. He found a few other trinkets, a battered pistol hidden in a bedside drawer. All the makings of a quaint little homestead, including girls’ dresses, a handful of fancy ribbons in one of the rooms and a big quilt near the main hearth, half-finished. Something wasn’t adding up to Arthur. Here were signs of women in the house, but no women anywhere to be found. He checked the rooms again, and found only the dead men. He went outside to check those bodies too and found nothing. It also didn’t seem that the bandits had settled into the homestead, like Micah had suggested. In fact, it looked like they had only just begun to set up camp. He wanted to investigate further, a thought nagging at the back of his mind that begged to be explored. While he stood in the main room, chewing his lip, he heard Micah call his name.
“Ain’t much here,” Micah said, with a disappointed grumble. He hadn’t found much in the barn, no horses worth botherin’ to sell, basic tack, no hidden cache. One of the bandits had a good deal of money on him, which Micah had taken with glee. They mounted up and headed out, Arthur still mulling over his findings.
“Seems like a real good location to set up camp,” Micah said. “Maybe we should burn it down, make it less desirable a spot. Might cut down on the competition.” Arthur had been thinking about going back to have a second look. A fire, although a reasonable enough way to deal with the property, made it seem all the more like Micah had lied about something. Obscured some important element. Arthur couldn’t even say why it was bugging him so much.
“Ain’t we done enough today? ‘Sides, if it burns outta control we’ve started a forest fire near camp. Damn foolish idea, to me. It’ll scare off all the game too.”
“Fuck you, Arthur. I’m just tryin’ to cover our tails. You wanna leave a bunch’a corpses lying around, be my guest.” He spurred his horse into a trot, weaving between broken fence posts and down hill towards the road. “Guess you are all about leavin’ things half finished, like Dutch says.” Arthur bristled and kept his mouth shut, not wanting to start a fight with Micah this close to the homestead. Arthur had muscled down all the other urges he’d had to break Micah’s face, this one could be controlled as well. At least if he’d tried to start a fire, Arthur would have had a good excuse to wring his neck. When they reached the road, Arthur turned towards camp while Micah headed the other way.
“Where the hell are you going? Camp’s that way.” Arthur had been planning how to ditch Micah, so that he could return to the homestead. Micah ditching him instead had been an unexpected twist.
“Got some shit to take care of Morgan.”
“And the money? Where’s the camp’s share?”
“Jesus, man. You ain’t got a trustin’ bone in your body.” Micah rode a few feet closer and slapped a handful of cash into Arthur’s palm. “You losin’ faith in all’a us now? Or just Dutch?”
“Ain’t ever had any faith in you to begin with,” Arthur drawled, counting the bills he’d been handed. Micah rode off towards Strawberry — because of course he wanted to traipse around the places that had his wanted poster plastered on every building and sign post. Arthur wondered if it was some kind of narcissism. Maybe Micah liked seeing his own face wallpapering the whole town. Arthur went a ways up the road, to be sure that Micah wouldn’t follow, then looped back around to the house.
Once again, he went through the corpses outside with a more thorough eye. Everything about them said that they were a bunch of rough outlaws, that seemed to fit with the rest of it. He examined their belongings and found that they had just begun to set up camp when he and Micah had arrived. A firepit in the middle of the property was filled with fresh wood, a camp kettled had been tipped over beside it. Could that account for their lack of surprise? Maybe. Still, Micah had claimed that they had been camping on the property for a while when he found them.
Arthur approached the front door. Before he could open it again, it flew open to reveal the muzzle of a shotgun pointed between Arthur’s eyes. He put his hands up. Behind the shotgun stood a furious woman with wet, red eyes and three children clinging to her skirts. Where had she even been hiding?
“Saw you ride off with that man from the barn, the one that killed my husband when he answered the door. Wasn’t about to let that happen again.” Determination had hardened her features, and Arthur knew she wouldn’t hesitate to fill him full of buckshot. Arthur frowned. During the firefight, Micah hadn’t approached the house until well after the bulk of the fighting, hadn’t even gone inside, long after the woman’s husband had already been killed. Maybe she was mistaken? Arthur doubted it before he’d even finished the thought.
“Micah there, he told us this place had been abandoned to raiders.” He used one hand to gesture at the property, but snapped it back up when the woman waved her shotgun at him. “It’s why we came and shot the place up.”
“We weren’t overrun by those vermin until he showed up and killed my boys. Them raiders followed right behind.” Arthur looked at the property again, taking in the mess and trying to remember the details of their firefight, which were so easy to lose in the adrenaline of the moment. Micah had appeared in camp, looking as if he’d already been in fight of some kind. He’d led Arthur here and the men who’d taken over the property had been surprised by their approach, as if they recognized Micah and hadn’t expected him to attack. Pieces started to click into place.
“Man I was with, you’re telling me he showed up here and shot your husband and boys? And then this group of bandits arrived?” He gestured at the bodies behind with his thumb.
“That’s right,” she snarled. “‘Bout 5 minutes later, whoopin’ and hollerin’ like the animals they was, cheering that murderous bastard on. Then your friend rode off without them, like a bat outta hell. None’a them seemed to care.”
Arthur closed his eyes and let the thoughts congeal a minute. Micah had done this, murdered this woman’s husband and sons alongside a group of bandits, that he’d then come back to wipe out with Arthur. What had been the logic there? Trying to take out two birds with one stone? Double the take from the family and the bandits? Arthur couldn’t begin to guess, but one thing was obvious, that Micah was a bigger snake than Arthur had suspected. When he opened his eyes again, the woman’s face had less of a suspicious squint, although the shotgun remained steady and aimed right at him.
“Ma’am, if there’s one thing I can assure you of, it’s that Micah Bell ain’t my friend. We was here to rob you. Well, not you, but the house, when I thought it was just bandits.” She continued to glare, jaw set, gun not wavering an inch. Arthur didn’t see his trust in Micah improving soon, not in this lifetime. Arthur reached for his satchel, despite the woman’s waving of the shotgun and looped it over his head. “All the money I took from you and them bandits is in there. Take it all back, it’s yours.”
The woman looked skeptical, but the oldest of the children tucked behind her darted forward to pick up the satchel. She dug through it for the money and the goods he’d taken for the fence down at Emerald Ranch. She also found the small wooden horse he’d been wittling for Jack when he had a spare minute. It was almost done. He nodded at it in her hand.
“You can keep that too, if you want.” She handed it to her little brother, the smallest and shyest of the bunch and then tossed Arthur’s satchel back towards him. He made no move to pick it up. He’d tested the woman’s patience enough by removing it the first time.
“I’m not a nice man, but I don’t go around robbing children and grieving widows. Ain’t much of an honor code, but it’s something.”
“You was with that man.”
“I was–I am . We’re...business partners. Ain’t no excuse for his actions.” No excuse for mine either , he thought.
“That it is. “I’m–I’m sorry.” He glanced around the property again. “I’d like to offer you some help cleaning up around here, if you’ll accept it.”
“Your friend coming back to finish us off?”
“No. Not that I’m aware of.” Although it was clear that Micah lied as easy as breathing. Arthur was starting to resent this woman referring to Micah as his “friend”, not that he could complain about it. He’d been complicit in destroying her family. Maybe he deserved it. Worse punishments than being thought of as a friend to Micah… probably.
“I swear, all I want to do is help you fix this place up.” Arthur could tell that she was reluctant to accept his help, but also that she knew how hard it would be without his help.
“I want to bury my sons and husband.”
“Where do you keep the shovel?” he asked, lowering his hands for the first time as the tip of her gun pointed towards the ground. She inclined her head towards the barn and Arthur went to work, all the while thinking about the risk of something like this happening to Maeve and Felix. How complicit he would be in that, too. How much danger he was bringing into their lives.
Camp that night, became Arthur’s own personal hell. He’d returned long before Micah and tossed cash from his own savings into Strauss’s lap for bookkeeping. Arthur wanted nothing more than to watch the man’s nose crumple beneath his fist. He knew that would bring more problems than it would solve, but he longed for the satisfaction. He never wanted to help Strauss in the first place, and now he was in trouble with Dutch for having found a different way of doing things. One time. He and Micah hadn’t even tried to find a different way of robbing that stagecoach, just shot and killed those guarding it and walked away with the money, leaving bodies to bleed out in the river. He’d come to suspect that, when Micah did look for different ways of doing things, he ended up using more brutal tactics and hurting people who didn’t deserve it. Micah had returned to camp well after dark, looking pleased with himself and that never boded well in Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur wanted to talk to Dutch about Micah’s place in the gang, but the look on Dutch’s face earlier that day made him reluctant to approach Dutch at all. How Micah had become Dutch’s new confidant and buddy, Arthur didn’t know. Aside from the shifty tactics, and violence far beyond what the gang usually brought to the table, he was unpleasant to talk to, pitched bad plans, and terrorized others around camp. People that Dutch was meant to be protecting, defending, who’d been around far longer than Micah. People that Arthur liked a whole lot more than Micah, too. Arthur ribbing John about his scars was different from Micah doing it.
He knew that it was pointless to dwell on the family from earlier, the one that it seemed Micah had attacked and ruined. Arthur didn’t have much in the way of hard proof. Nothing that Dutch would take to heart, at least. Micah was teaming up with random gangs of bandits to attack innocent folks, and Arthur’s loyalties were in question, because he’d… what? Failed to beat the debt out of Thomas Downes? No, not failed. He’d chosen not to, taking an easier path. But, at the time at least, he’d also thought it was a kinder, gentler path. One that hurt fewer people. Hadn’t Dutch been crowing about their need to help the poor and downtrodden? We shoot fellers as need shooting, save fellers as need saving, and feed ‘em as needs feeding. Dutch had said when they’d first emerged from the mountains. It was a solid philosophy, Arthur thought, but not if they didn’t stick to it. Micah hadn’t needed to shoot that family and they sure as hell weren’t saving or feeding anyone but themselves. Much as he wanted to blame Joe, in part, for the trouble he’d found himself in and the doubting of his abilities, he couldn’t help but think that he liked the doctor’s way of doing things. They were more in keeping with Dutch’s supposed philosophy.
Later, Strauss approached the spot where Arthur sat against a tree, whiskey bottle in hand. He had settled himself close enough to the fire for defense against the night time chill, but far enough away to be, hopefully, ignored. It was fortunate that people tended to avoid him when he was in one of his moods. An angry Arthur was given a wide berth by anyone in camp with a hint of common sense or self-preservation. It seemed that Strauss possessed neither. Firelight flashing on the money lender’s glasses reminded Arthur of nothing more than a predator’s eye shine in the darkness. He shivered, suddenly wishing he were closer to the fire, and took another swallow of whiskey.
“Thank you for your contribution today, Mr. Morgan.” Strauss said with his quiet, lilting accent. “I’ve noticed that your additions to the cash box have been… a bit light lately. Is there anything I can do to help you? Perhaps more contracts to fulfill?” Arthur didn’t respond, only took another slug out of the bottle and continued to stare into the fire.
“Very well, Mr. Morgan. Perhaps another time.”
Arthur ached to leave the camp, get away from the dragging feeling that dogged him. Arthur wondered how he managed to feel lonely while surrounded by people. Part of his soul that didn't work right, he guessed. He couldn’t describe the feeling, couldn’t fight it. He only knew that it would fade as he moved away from the overlook, disappearing entirely if he went far enough from camp. Away from prying eyes and pressure always alleviated the feeling. A pang in his chest made him regret those thoughts. He looked around the camp, where Javier had brought out his guitar and the others were singing along, cheerful and content, at least for the time being. Micah said something to Bill and their uproarious laughter echoed around the site.
Arthur scowled. These fools were his family, he shouldn’t want to escape them like this. His priorities had become skewed as the doctor had distracted him. Feeding and helping and protecting them should be his top priority, no matter the methods used. But… he was tired. He looked up at the sound of crunching leaf litter to see Hosea making his way over.
“Evenin’ Arthur,” he said. Arthur nodded. Most people avoided him when he was like this, but Hosea always had a pass, seeing as he was the voice of reason more often than not. “Do you remember that summer we stayed near– aw hell, what was it. Something orchard? Couple years before John joined us.”
“Orchard Mills? Down south?”
“That’s the spot,” Hosea said. Arthur grunted, not expecting the question from Hosea. He’d been prepared for a fatherly lecture, maybe some faff about learning to work with Micah or Arthur’s responsibilities. He didn’t know where Hosea was going with the question, only that he was being dragged along for the ride.
“It was after that big take from the mine’s payroll, so we had money. Spent the whole summer relaxing. I preferred the dry heat, you know. Never much liked humidity. Bessie met us there, for a while. You and that boy were always skiving off work. What was his name?”
“I remember you ran off every chance you got. Ditched all your chores to go swimming, cause it was such a hot summer.”
“Robbed a lot’a orchards that summer too.” Arthur added.
Hosea chuckled. “Stolen fruit tastes better anyways.”
Arthur remembered that summer. Pilfering ripe peaches right off the trees and swimming in a clear, cool creek with the only real friend he’d made in his youth, he’d had more fun during those few hot months than he had in most other summers put together. Ira had been… an anomaly. Arthur hadn’t made a lot of friends, growing up with Dutch and Hosea. People came and went, they were on the move so often that there wasn’t a lot of time to meet anyone that stuck. He and John had more of an antagonistic, sibling relationship than a friendship — Arthur would never admit it outloud, but he and John were brothers to the end, but even that had been a few years after the summer in Orchard Mills. Memories of that summer bloomed vividly in his mind. Arthur had turned seventeen and had his first kiss, under one of those stupid trees. He’d also relaxed, really relaxed, since he first came to Dutch and Hosea. Officially, they didn’t have vacations, but that was as close to any kind of prolonged break as Arthur had ever gotten.
“Maybe I’m just gettin’ old, but that seems like it was one of the nicest summers we ever had.” Hosea’s voice pulled him out of his reminiscence, seemed he was talking just to talk, since Arthur wasn’t. “My joints don’t like the cold so much, anymore. Could really use another vacation like that one. Especially after those mountains. I was starting to worry I’d never be warm again.”
“Dutch was spittin’ mad, yelled at me every damn time I didn’t finish something.”
“So, most days,” Hosea said, laughing. “But you were just a kid and we all needed some fun back then.”
“Never did lay into John as hard as me.” Arthur thought back to John’s days as a stupid, gangly kid, new to the gang. He’d worked hard when asked, but he’d been a layabout the rest of the time. Most of the responsibility off-loaded onto Arthur’s older, more capable shoulders. Resentment still lingered in Arthur’s memories. John had left, too, and Arthur had once again been forced to pick up the slack, furious that John had abandoned Abigail and Jack, taken them for granted. Then John had come back, welcomed with open arms and no consequences for his desertion. Maybe those scars he’d gotten were some kind of cosmic punishment. Arthur wondered if he would have received the same greeting, had he run out on the gang for more than a year. He’d considered it, when Eliza and Isaac were still alive. He tried not to linger over it. John and Abigail and Jack deserved happiness, that Arthur believed. No matter how frustrating John could be, he was still family and Arthur wanted better for them. Not that it was within his ability to provide, given the future that stretched out before him, but he could dream of happy endings for everyone else.
Hosea paused, contemplating. Arthur looked back down at his whiskey, at the journal discarded at his side. “Dutch can be wrong, you know. Sometimes we need to think about different ways of doing things, different ways of living. World’s complicated.” Hosea sighed. “Ain’t nothing wrong with considering how it all works. Seems to me, some of us should do that a bit more often.”
“What are you on about old man?” Arthur tried to inject some wry humour into the question, but it came out flat and surlier than he intended.
“We all deserve a break sometimes Arthur.” Hosea climbed to his feet and put a gentle hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “We all deserve happiness, whatever form it comes in.” Arthur stared into the fire again.
“I don’t know if that’s true. We ain’t good men, Hosea.” Some better than others , he thought to himself, still bitter about Micah.
“Maybe we can be.”
Arthur picked up his journal once again, after Hosea had moved on and wrote something for the first time that night. Earlier, he’d done nothing more than draw the tear-streaked, broken face of the woman whose life he’d had a hand in ruining. He knew he’d be seeing it whenever he closed his eyes, for a good long while.
— I am a damned fool, hoping for things I cannot have. I am destined for this life, but perhaps others could be spared. May be there is a chance for some of the others, down the line. Once we have enough money, they could live peaceful lives. If only we can find it. —
He stuck his pencil between the pages and closed it with a thump before he returned to drinking.
Dutch’s plans were imperfect. Arthur knew this, always had, but he always brought them through it too. Before Blackwater, they’d been a well-oiled machine, chugging its way west. Arthur couldn’t help but question him now. Blackwater had shaken him and, despite Hosea’s best efforts, he hadn’t yet snapped out of it. Not leaving the overlook was a mistake. Arthur could feel it in his bones. Pinkertons roamed the area, confronting him in front of Jack — a child — and they knew his face, knew all their faces. Cornwall’s money supplied power to their cause, fuelling the fire of civilization that was eating up the land. O’Driscolls were coming out of the cracks in the walls, like rats. Trouble had hounded them through the Grizzlies and it was coming to ruin what little peace they’d scrounged up.
Arthur was still furious that they’d spoken to Jack; furious and frightened. He loved that boy, as much as he’d loved his own. Had to, given John’s half-assed approach to fatherhood. Jack didn’t deserve to become a target, just because of who he’d been born to. It weren’t fair. And now, Dutch didn’t want them to pack up and leave. He was putting them in danger by sticking around at the overlook out of some misplaced sense of pride. Or maybe a challenge. It felt foolish to wave a red flag at a bull when there wasn’t anything but a cliff behind you and nowhere to run.
Camp had Arthur all turned around inside his own head. He hadn’t done more than walk out to hunt a few times, feeling as if Dutch watched his every move. He hadn’t been to town, had no idea how Joe was doing. Tensions ran high and certain people only fanned the flames. Micah antagonized folks freely, including Arthur, and Dutch hadn’t done a thing to curb his behaviour or even acknowledged the gang’s complaints. Abigail and John were at each other’s throats, driven to fighting by the threat to Jack. Bill drank and heckled his companions until they snapped. Uncle and the Reverend just drank . And through it all, Sean yapped like a terrier.
When John offered him the opportunity to rustle sheep — an easy, low stakes job, by all accounts — he’d jumped at the chance to leave camp, to do something other than sitting around camp, waiting for that metaphorical powder keg to explode. He and John had ended up enjoying themselves, even if they hadn’t negotiated quite the payday he’d been hoping for. As they wandered back towards the main street, Arthur knocked a playful elbow into John’s side. He dodged and grabbed at Arthur, trying to snag him in a headlock. They roughhoused like a pair of stupid boys. Arthur was still mad at John for leaving the way he had, but it was getting easier every day to slide back into the kind of relationship they’d had before.
He looked up from the stranglehold he had around John’s neck, pulling away from a weak punch at his ribs, and saw Joe striding towards them, long legs eating up ground at a brisk pace. Arthur released John and stood upright, glancing sideways at his companion. Charles was still the only member of the gang that had any idea how much time Arthur and Joe had been spending together. John might find it suspicious that they were on such good terms. He’d only met the doctor that one time, when Arthur had been injured. And, as far as he knew, that was all the time Arthur and Joe had spent together too. Arthur raised a hand in an awkward greeting, barely a wave. Now that Joe was closer, Arthur could see that concern had carved deep furrows between his brows and he kept glancing between buildings as he passed. His body language telegraphed a twitchy urgency. Arthur expected Joe to stop or slow when he approached them, instead the other man grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him between two buildings, John trailing behind, confused. Joe peeked out between the buildings, looking up and down the street before he pulled back.
“You have to get out of here.”
“What in the hell?” John glanced between them. Arthur was well aware of the fact that he’d allowed Joe to manhandle him into an alleyway and didn’t feel like addressing it with John. It wasn’t like Arthur to let himself be dragged about.
“Cornwall’s men are here and they’re looking for you.”
“How d’you know?”
“You’d be amazed at the things people say in front of me, I’m practically invisible.” Arthur wanted to argue, that statement couldn't be less true for him. He wasn't sure that he was ready to admit that though.
“He’s got a bunch of paid men here, some Pinkertons among them.” Joe let go of Arthur’s elbow. Arthur hadn’t even noticed that he was still holding it. “I’m going to stay with–uh, at the ranch for a few days, in case any of them recognizes me.”
“Why would they give a shit about the town doctor?” Joe looked up at John’s question and then glanced at Arthur.
“If you start shooting folks, I’m the one that has to clean up the mess. I’d rather we avoided that.” John’s eyes narrowed, suspicious of the weak excuse. Arthur didn't think they would come after Joe, for his role in their scheme, but it seemed that Cornwall was vindictive enough. Arthur didn't think it likely that any of the men from that night would talk, still too spooked by the experience to reveal many details. “You need to get your companions and go, before they find out that you’re here.” Joe looked Arthur right in the eyes, imploring.
“I don’t trust you.”
“You don’t have to trust him, John. You have to trust me.” Arthur leaned out into the street and looked around. There were odd clusters of men on the balconies, talking in clumps outside of several buildings. If he hadn’t been horsing around with John, he might have caught on, but it was unlikely. A few sported the same civilized looking bowler hats and clean jackets of the men who’d approached him and Jack by the river. Joe may have saved all of their lives. He walked out into the street, casual as could be, and made his way toward the bar where Dutch had asked to meet him. He felt eyes on them the whole way. A group of two men broke off and started on a path to intercept them. Arthur looked down at the feeling of Joe’s hand on him again. He gave Arthur’s arm a quick squeeze.
“Get out of here,” he whispered before he moved off towards the men. Arthur wanted to stop him, but John grabbed at his other arm, hard and hauled him off towards the bar. Arthur watched over his shoulder as Joe walked past the men, knocking his shoulder into one of the passersby. When the man turned to bark a warning, Joe shoved at his chest and said something that Arthur couldn’t hear. John yanked him inside as the three men’s attention centered on Joe. The door slammed shut, cutting off the escalating sounds of a fight and Arthur’s view of the situation. He wanted to go after Joe, but John's grip was like iron. Arthur could overpower him, if he tried. Both he and John knew that, but something in John's expression gave him pause. If the Cornwall's men were after them, they needed to get out and they needed to take the rest of the gang with them. A vicious stream of curses fell out of his mouth as John hauled at his elbow. For the second time, Arthur allowed himself to be dragged along. At the very least, he was now certain that Joe hadn't been the one to rat him out. Although that still left the question of who had.
After a quick word, with Dutch and Strauss, the four of them slipped out the back and rode for their camp, splitting up to avoid any possible pursuit. Arthur had tried to find Joe as they’d fled, but hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him. All three of the Pinkerton men had disappeared as well. He wasn’t sure if that was good sign or bad. What he did know, was that his family was more important right now. He'd come back and look for Joe later, make sure that he got out alright. He had some defenses as the town doctor. Even the Pinkertons would be reluctant to hassle him over a minor altercation. Arthur had to tell himself that Joe would be fine. He could handle himself. He knew what he was doing. Arthur repeated the idea over and over while he and Charles rode south in search of a new campsite.
Chapter by asphodel (msqjoe)
Apologies for the lateness of the update, but I hope y'all enjoy the chapter. Next chapter is written and just needs to be edited a bit, so expect it soon! Thank you for reading as well as for all the nice comments and kudos :)
— Clemens Point —
Arthur watched as Pearson’s meat cleaver thunked into the chopping board, where it quivered, penetrating deep in the already scarred wood. It was almost loud enough to drown out the sounds of him and Sadie shouting at each other. He hoped it was in deep enough that Sadie couldn’t yank it out and use it to gut Pearson. He dreaded to think of what the camp’s meals would turn into without even Pearson’s basic competence to keep them edible. He’d suffered Abigail’s cooking once when a flu had put half the camp out of commission and he had vowed never to do it again. It might even redeem Joe’s cooking. Arthur shook his head, he couldn’t think about that right now. Enough news came out of Valentine that he at least knew that Joe was alive. He had jobs to do, a camp to settle and Pearson’s murder to preempt.
While he was glad that Sadie seemed to be coming out of the fog that she’d lived in ever since Colter, it was making Arthur’s life as camp referee a lot harder. He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed, then stepped in to separate them. Not that she and Pearson were the only ones at each other’s throats. Fights broke out hourly around the camp, many between the usual culprits, but even the calmest, most level-headed members of the Van Der Linde gang were getting sucked into the conflicts. Some of those fights he enjoyed, sitting back to watch as Javier dropped Bill to his knees with a knife at his throat. Both men could handle themselves and frankly, he thought a little humility in Bill might keep him from being killed by someone outside of the gang. Camp set up took longer than usual, with all the squabbling. Buckets of water spilled during arguments, someone knocked over the stew pot, a whole line of clean laundry was knocked into the dirt and had to be washed all over again.
It was no surprise that their simple sheep rustling scheme hadn’t gone as planned. Nothing had in months. In Blackwater, their luck had turned and never quite recovered. Arthur didn’t like their prospects these days, nor Dutch’s increasingly fallible plans. He hadn’t often steered them wrong in the past, but now that seemed to be the exception more than the rule. At least the near run in with Cornwall’s men had given Dutch the push he needed to pack up and move out. Arthur felt profound relief when the whole gang put Valentine behind them and rode out together, although concern for Joe still needled the back of his mind. But he knew where he was needed most, where his priorities lay, so he let the worry settle in as background noise while he and Charles had scouted their new location.
Of course that had turned into a mess, too. Most things did when they were on the run. Arthur’s moodiness hadn’t helped the situation, stress and worry making him even more surly than usual, no matter how much he tried to push them to the back of his mind. Although he’d hardly noticed until Charles snapped at him. Then, he’d felt bad. He’d been cold and harsh with the immigrant family, while they’d been kind and grateful to him — despite his insistence that Charles had done most of the work, they’d given him small fortune in gold for doing… what he already did almost every day. He found himself wishing that he were better at corralling that part of himself, less prone to lashing out. Maybe he’d end up running into the family again some day, out west, settled somewhere nearby his own new home.
Now Arthur sat at the edge of their new camp, outside of a dry, red town called Rhodes that still clung to a heyday of rich plantation families and slavery. It smelled of dust and foul legacies and left a nasty taste in Arthur’s mouth. Already, Charles, Lenny and Tilly were hesitant to wander far from camp, grown cautious. Rhodes itself was out of the question. Arthur hated it and it was nothing more than a stop-gap measure before one of their enemies found them again. West was where they belonged, out in the wild territories beyond the Grizzlies. But now Dutch had started talking about confederate gold and warring southern families and that brief sense of relief he’d felt vanished on the wind, blown along by all the hot air Dutch spouted. Instead of running westwards, they were trapped where the air they breathed was soup, their clothes never quite dried on the line and everyone was hot and cranky.
It was three full days before Arthur could get away from camp.
After he’d broken up his third fight of the day before noon, Arthur found himself on the road to Maeve’s farm, hardly realizing that he’d made the decision. Things had settled enough that he felt like he could leave for a short while and he had something he needed to do.
He wanted to say goodbye. And he worried that, if he waited, he might not get another opportunity. He knew that he needed to cut himself off from them. For their own good, more than anything. Joe was already getting sucked into their confrontations with the law. Dutch had made it clear, too, that they were a threat to the gang and Arthur could see his point. If he was being honest with himself, it was for his own good too. He knew there was a short fuse on his relationships with all three of them and he was nothing, if not good at blowing things up. Eventually, Arthur would be forced to move on for good, maybe without the chance to say his piece to the lot of them, so he wanted to do it now, while he could. Bad shit followed him everywhere he went and it likely always would. It put innocent people like Maeve and Felix in danger. Joe had thrown himself at a bunch of hired killers on Arthur’s behalf and he couldn’t have that happening. They’d be fine without him, same as they had been before. If anything, all the crime and chaos on his heels made his presence more dangerous to them. Worse still, if Micah or one of their enemies ever discovered their existence, Arthur didn’t know what would happen. He’d been thinking about it often, glaring at Micah across the campfire with all the mistrust he could muster. Yes. He’d decided. It was easier to cut things off now, than to be forced into it by some other means. He took the long way around, avoiding Valentine.
Quiet suffused the ranch when he approached. Another hot day beat down on the unshaded property and all was still and muted, the horses tucked away in the shadow of the barn out of view, chickens cooing softly from their coop. Arthur was tying Calpurnia to the hitch by the front porch when the door opened and Joe stepped out with a basketful of eggshells, peels and leavings for the compost heap. He froze when he spotted Arthur, a look on his face like he wanted to run back inside. Arthur didn’t have time to process why Joe looked like that, or how much he hated that he was the one that had inspired it. It was the least upsetting thing about Joe’s face.
A vivid sunset of a bruise encircled one of his eyes, fading from deep, midnight purple to nasty shades of green and yellow. He had a gash across the cheekbone below, red and swollen with two small stitches holding it closed. Maeve had probably sutured the wound. With Joe’s sleeves rolled up, Arthur could see more bruises spotted across his arms and a few that peeked out of his collar. He sported a couple of raised red welts too. Insects buzzed in the heat, whispered noise so dense it had become the new sound of silence, saturating the air. He made eye contact with Arthur and adjusted his grip on the basket, then turned away and trudged over to dump the basket’s contents, Arthur on his heels. When he straightened again, Arthur could tell that his ribs were bruised too by the stiff way he held himself. Joe hadn’t turned away from the compost to look at him yet. Instead he stared off into the distance, shoulders tense.
“I’ve gotta know what you said to get a shiner like that.” Joe’s startled responding laughter cut off as he winced and grabbed at his ribs, muttering a soft “ ow ”.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come right away.” Arthur shoved his hands in his pockets when Joe turned to look at him. His face had lost its taught wariness and now Arthur could see that he was tired and trying not to let injuries show.
“Figured you were resettling your family somewhere far away from Valentine.” Joe twisted to the side, like he was trying to stretch the pain out of his torso.” Truth be told, I thought you might not show up at all.” It was Arthur’s turn to grimace as a wave of guilt squirmed down his spine. He was hurt that Joe would assume he’d just disappear without a word.
“You thought I wouldn’t come?” After all that Joe had done for them, how could he not? And, if Joe thought that, then why had he bothered to help Arthur in the first place?
Joe sighed as he responded, “I know you have priorities, people that depend on you. I… wouldn’t expect you to walk away from them.” Had he really thought that Arthur would skip town without saying goodbye? Is that what he’d wanted, the reason he’d looked skittish when Arthur arrived? He had done exactly as Joe assumed, prioritized his family and moved them away from the scene of disaster. But he was here to see Joe. And Maeve and Felix, of course. But they hadn’t been the ones engaged in recreationally pissing off a pack of Cornwall’s hired goons.
“I wanted to see you,” he blurted out. Joe glanced at him sideways. Arthur cleared his throat. “All of you.”
Joe stared a few seconds, then said, “Come on, Maeve made lunch.” Joe walked past him, back towards the house. Arthur thought about tossing an arm over his shoulder while they walked, but he didn’t want to jostle Joe’s ribs or any other injuries. Besides, it was a poor substitute what he really wanted — to reel him in for a proper hug and to check the state of Joe’s ribs himself. He had to suppress the urge, surprised at its strength. He’d been more worried about Joe than he realized. When they walked around the corner, Maeve had wandered onto the porch.
“Afternoon Arthur.” She greeted him, less warm than usual. He stooped to kiss her cheek. “You boys were here again so soon?”
“You know me, Maeve, like a bad penny.”
“Ain’t that so.” She made a noise in the back of her throat. “Come on in then, and have some lunch. ” Inside, cloth covered dishes of food steamed on the table. It was hot in the house — sweat already sliding down the back of Arthur’s neck — set to the exact temperature that Maeve liked it. Arthur hadn’t realized that her joints had improved to the point that she could cook like this on her own. His mouth watered at the delicious smells. At least that was one small thing of which he could be proud; his time with the three of them hadn’t been wasted. Maeve had improved with the medicines that he and Joe had collected and Felix’s business was taking off, filling their pockets with honest profit that would see them safe for a good, long while. He felt good about the little bit of help that he’d been able to offer them, leaving a positive mark on the world for at least a couple of people.
Felix wrapped him in a strong hug. All the horse wrangling had caused him to bulk up and become less weedy, so that Arthur was left to absorb the sweet, crushing affection while Joe shuffled around the table keeping an arm around his torso for protection. Arthur raised an eyebrow at Joe over Felix’s head as the hug dragged on longer than usual. Joe pointed at his own black eye and Arthur sighed and patted Felix on the back. Of course he’d have been concerned when Joe showed up on their porch covered in bruises. Under the onslaught, Arthur felt his earlier resolve weakening. He would really miss the kid.
When Felix pulled away and went back to setting the table, Arthur caught sight of Maeve’s stern and calculating look from across the room, direct at him. Before he could say anything, Maeve’s demeanor shifted and she stuffed a handful of cutlery into his hands with a cheerful smile, shooing him towards the table. He added that to his list of conversations that needed to be had. Arthur put out the place settings as he worked his way around the table. Joe slid along behind him, carrying a small stack of plates and whispered in his ear. “Don’t worry, all I did was peel vegetables.”
Arthur snorted out a quiet laugh and shivered at the not unwelcome sensation of breath against his ear. At least Joe didn’t seem mad about the beating he’d taken on behalf of Arthur’s mistakes. Joe’s elbow brushed his back on the way by, and a thought began percolating at the back of his mind, quiet and unobtrusive, easy to ignore while they sat themselves at the table. Unlike Joe’s black eye, which was even worse up close and distracted him throughout the whole meal. Guilt warred with the small, impressed part of him that was a little bit proud of Joe’s nerve.
Everyone took a seat together at a table that was really too small for the four of them, but instead of uncomfortable it felt cozy. Most of the camp ate in shifts. Rarely did they sit around like this together. As they ate, Arthur resolved to get the group together more often. It felt nice, eating like this. Maybe it would improve morale, cut down on the fighting. He loved the pack of fools he called a family, so why not spend more time with them like this? If they were truly a family, as Dutch so often claimed, they might as well act like it.
Maeve had made a delicious stew and fresh biscuits. Sliced cheese and apples made their way around the table. Arthur loved it, but didn’t eat much. Something in his gut rolled whenever he thought about the decision he’d made. But, he knew that this whole thing had been temporary from the very beginning. He kept repeating that idea to himself. As they talked and laughed and ate, his resolve weakened further. Maybe coming to say goodbye had been a mistake.
After lunch, Felix went outside to deal with the horses. Arthur hauled in a tub of water and scrubbed their plates. Everytime Maeve thrust a new chore at him, it sent him in a different direction to Joe. He was starting to wonder if it was deliberate. At last, Joe was sent to deliver stale leftovers to the feeder pigs behind the barn, leaving Arthur and Maeve alone in the kitchen. Arthur considered how to start the conversation he wanted to have. But Maeve beat him to it, setting three tea cups down at the table and nodding towards the empty chair beside hers. Arthur was no fool, he could take a hint. He swallowed and sat beside her. They sipped their tea in silence while Maeve looked him over, that same kind of searching gaze that Joe could conjure up, which always felt like they were digging around inside his head and made him squirm. It was amazing that too unrelated people could look so similar. Arthur looked down at the table, pushing the tea cup around on its saucer.
“Loyalty will drive a herd of fools to the edge of a cliff, but it’s only the blind ones that will jump to their deaths.” She set her chin in one hand and stared out the window. “My da told me that, when I tried to run away with Glenn Cochrane as a girl.” Arthur chuckled. She smiled at him. “He was a year older than me, handsome as the devil and full of ideas. Wanted to emigrate and start a family overseas. My family convinced me not to go, nearly broke my heart. But, it weren’t two months later that he’d married another girl from a village down the road with a babe on the way. Turned out he was a scoundrel and didn’t do right by her. Still took me a long time to understand what my da had actually meant by it.”
He thought of Joe’s injuries, the way he jumped right into the path of men who wanted Arthur’s head and come out worse for wear. “Blind loyalty will get you killed?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Glenn Cochrane was a snake, but I couldn’t see it through his charm. But my da could, most of our family could. I think he saw it as his responsibility to try to stop me.” Ah , thought Arthur. He couldn’t muster even an ounce of outrage on his own behalf, he deserved all the blame Maeve could dump on him. He should have done more to stop Joe. He didn’t want to see him hurt or jailed or dead on Arthur’s behalf.
“I don’t understand why he did it. Involved himself like that, with a bunch of people he’s never met.” Maeve stopped drinking her tea, mid-sip, and raised an eyebrow at him over the brim of her cup. She set it down with a clink.
“Arthur, what I mean is, that I think if we see someone headed down a dangerous path, the least we can do is warn them, to let them make an informed decision if they can’t see the danger themselves.” Arthur frowned at her. “Joe is about as loyal as they come. To you, especially, regardless of the threat it poses. Loyalty like that is priceless, but it can cost a person everything.”
“You couldn’t live with yourself if you didn’t at least try to warn him about me.”
“Not you, Arthur,” she said with a sad smile. “Just the kind of life you lead.” He shook his head. Of course she’d figured that he was an outlaw. Not that he’d been hiding it, but he’d done his best to keep it away from the ranch, and away from Maeve and Felix. But Maeve was sharp as a tack and, thinking on it, somehow he knew that she’d get to the point soon enough. She interrupted his train of thought.
“And not a warning either. We can’t always stop people from doing rash and foolhardy things, but we can give them all the facts. I know you’ll do what you can to keep him safe.”
As if on cue, the back door banged open with Joe silhouetted in sunlight, kicking the mud off of his boots. He glanced up and looked between Arthur and Maeve, with concern scrawled across his brow. Maeve smiled at him and filled the third cup, pushing it towards the seat beside Arthur. Joe’s shoulders dropped and he appeared properly relaxed for the first time that day. Arthur couldn’t help but notice that his brown eyes sparkled when he smiled, golden flecks picked out in the late afternoon sunlight, bright in contrast to the dark bruise. Arthur smiled back, but caught the sight of Maeve rolling her eyes out of the corner of his own. Joe sat close enough that their shoulders touched and it was almost enough for Arthur. Affection fizzed in his stomach, effervescent like good champagne. Joe knew the details of Arthur’s life, Maeve had warned him, but he still smiled at Arthur, still obviously wanted him around. Arthur still intended to to keep as much trouble away from Maeve and Felix as he could, to visit less often for their safety and his own peace of mind. But he was beginning to think that maybe he didn’t have to say a permanent goodbye after all.
Outside, the sun was starting to set and Arthur could hear Felix whistling to the horses while he worked them in the field. A rare stillness settled across the three of them. Maeve drifted, head nodding against her chest as she sat by the oven relaxing in the radiant warmth. After he finished his tea, Arthur flopped on the sofa for a nap. Joe had found himself a lapful of Maeve’s sewing and was working his way through it with tiny, even stitches. It was so quiet, Arthur could hear the gentle shuttling of the needle and threat through the fabric. He was forced to close his eyes, when watching Joe’s long, graceful hands at work proved to be distracting. He drifted off to the soothing sounds of life happening around him.
Arthur shot upright on the sofa. A metallic bang had come from outside, wrenching him from his doze. Listening hard, he stiffened when he heard a group of men laughing outside of the house. Maeve had woken too and she and Joe looked at Arthur, concern evident across all their faces. Horses whinnied in distress and Arthur could hear the men’s laughter turn to shouts. He scraped his chair back as he leapt to his feet, banging through the front door onto the stoop. His pistol was in his hand before he even knew it. Outside of the main barn, where Felix kept the horses, several men stood over the boy who lay sprawled in the dirt with blood dripping from his nose.
Arthur approached the scene with his gun drawn and raised at the group of men, who looked unintimidated by one one man with a pistol, although several of their hands went to their own gun belts in apprehension.
“Who in t’hell are you?” One of them asked in a thick Irish accent. Shit. O’Driscolls. “Ain’t supposed to be no one here but the boy and the old woman.” With that, Arthur knew that this was all his fault.
Arthur’s thoughts raced. The last thing that Arthur wanted on Maeve’s property was a shootout. People would get hurt, probably people he cared about. It might bring the law, too, and then his time with Maeve and the doctor would end with him at the end of a rope. It was the exact kind of thing he’d been hoping to avoid. He’d only brought his pistol inside with him, but he had a rifle strapped to his saddle. He looked at Felix, who had pushed himself up with his elbows.
“Come here, son.” He beckoned with his free hand never quite taking his gun off of the O’Driscolls spread out before him. Felix scrambled to his feet and ran towards Arthur. One of the O’Driscolls kicked dirt at him on the way past. Arthur aimed between his eyes. Felix wiped his bloody nose on his sleeve as he ducked behind Arthur.
A stack of crates to his left would make decent enough cover, as long as he got down fast enough. Arthur and one pistol versus seven men, armed and dressed for rough work. He’d beat far worse odds. It was easy to be reckless with his own life. He knew that Joseph had followed him out and hoped that Maeve hadn’t. He didn’t dare turn to look. “Doc, get them inside.”
“Arthur?” Joseph sounded worried.
“Get them inside ,” he growled. He heard the door close behind him and turned the rest of his attention to the O’Driscolls, who had begun to spread out in an arc. It would make it harder for Arthur to take them out. He could take down one, maybe two, but the others would make it to cover and then he’d have a real fight on his hands.
“Ain’t that one of Van der Linde’s men?” One of them asked. Arthur fired twice before any of them could respond and dove for the stacked crates. If they knew who he was, there was no getting out of this without blood on his hands. Not if he wanted to keep the others safe.
As he’d predicted, he took out two of O’Driscolls men, before the other five found cover of their own and began shooting. He heard scrambling in the dirt from behind a water barrel near the front door and saw Joseph crouched behind it. Bullets kicked up plumes of dirt as they struck the ground around him.
“I told you to get inside!” he shouted over the wood above his head.
“You told me to get them inside,” the doctor responded. Arthur’s mouth hung open. Joseph flinched as another bullet ricocheted off of his barrel’s metal banding. How had he managed to befriend someone so well educated and yet so incomparably stupid? “I meant you too, you fool. They won’t beat you, they’ll kill you!”
More bullets lodged in the crate. Calpurnia was safe from the gunfire, aside from ricochets, but she whinnied and pulled at her tether. Arthur popped up from cover and shot at another O’Driscoll. A shout indicated that he’d hit someone. He glanced at his horse again and the rifle stored there. Joseph followed his gaze and Arthur saw realization dawn in the doctor’s eyes.
“Hang on–” he managed to say before the doctor was running across the gap towards the horses. Bullets flew past him, but it seemed the insane choice had caught their enemies off guard. Joe slid on his ass in the dirt, near the horses and grabbed Arthur’s rifle.
“Toss it here!” Arthur shouted, yanking his arm down again when the gesture caught the attention of the O’Driscolls’s guns. Arthur had expected the doctor to comply. He should have known better, Joe often didn’t do what Arthur expected. Instead, he ducked behind the porch steps for shelter and sighted down the barrel of the rifle. In one breath, he fired and dropped one of the O’Driscolls with a bullet square to the forehead. He ducked behind the stairs and pulled back the bolt, chambering another round. Instincts overroad Arthur’s surprise and he fired again, trying to provide Joe with some cover. A bullet grazed his shoulder and he rolled behind the crate. Joseph knelt out of cover and fired twice more, dropping one of the men with a shot to the head, and taking out another with a shot straight through the left shoulder.
Two men remained. Arthur could see one man’s heels peeking out from behind Maeve’s wagon, but the other’s location was a mystery. He couldn’t come out of cover long enough to get a glimpse of the other man. Joe popped out of cover a few more times, trading shots with the one that they could see. After he reloaded, Arthur rose on one knee and propped his gun on the crate he hid behind, firing most of his bullets at the man whenever he started to look out, keeping him pinned.
No other shots were forthcoming. Arthur scanned the area, looking for the other O’Driscoll. He ducked into cover to reload, counting his remaining bullets, when a noise from near the house caught his attention. Their missing O’Driscoll had snuck around the back of the house to go after Joe from behind. Before Arthur could shout to warn him, the man lunged, tackling Joe into the dirt with a knife in hand. Arthur lurched towards them without thinking about the O’Driscoll still in hiding. Joe rammed the butt of his rifle into the man’s temple and rolled on top of him as the other O’Driscoll’s bullets whizzed by Arthur’s head, sending him behind the barrel Joe had been using as cover earlier in the fight.
Arthur watched them struggle, praying they were outside of the other shooter’s sights. He tried to get a shot off, but they were moving around too much for him to shoot without risking Joe’s safety. Finally, Joe wrestled the gun free and hit the other man again, then snatched the knife from his hand and sunk it hilt deep into his throat. Arthur heard the remaining attacker scrambling around by the wagon. He saw the O’Driscoll take aim at Joe, who knelt squarely in the open on top of the man he’d just killed. Arthur rolled up to his knees, pushing with his injured arm, and gave into one of his few good instincts. He shot the man straight through the sternum. Arthur collapsed to the ground, breathing hard. Blood oozed from his shoulder, soaking his shirt with a spreading, red stain.
Joe scrambled to his feet and dropped to his knees beside Arthur, brustling with concern over his wounded shoulder. He left splotches of fresh O’Driscoll blood on Arthur’s shirt while he attempted to look at the injury. Arthur brushed him off. Blood dripped from the cut, but adrenaline had dulled the pain for now. Decades experience told him that part would come later, once the high wore off. Arthur collapsed to the ground with a grunt and a puff of dust. Joe rocked back on his heels and watched Arthur as his breath returned to normal, a curious look on his face.
“Do you do this often?”
“Excuse me?” Arthur wheezed.
“For a professional gunslinger and wanted outlaw, you’re spending a lot of time on your back bleeding out in the dirt.” Arthur turned his head towards the other man, incredulous and saw the small, dry smirk on Joe’s lips that indicated the other man was screwing with him. “I always thought it would be a little more impressive, is all.” Arthur whacked him in the thigh as hard as he could manage in his current state. “I have broken ribs, what’s your excuse?”
“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” Arthur muttered up at the sky. “Help me up, you ass.” The line of tension between them snapped with the sound of Joe’s deep laughter. Joe eased him into a sitting position and this time Arthur let the doctor examine his injury. He dealt better with heckling than genuine concern; It seemed Joe had figured that out on his own. “Do you get some kind of kick out of throwing yourself into dangerous situations with half a thought?” Joe’s smile crinkled the bruise around his eye and he winced. Arthur reached out to touch the bruise and failed to catch himself before his thumb had brushed the pale, uninjured skin of his cheek. He hesitated for a moment, then pulled his hand away while Joe watched his every move.
“Thanks for the assist.” Joe didn’t reply, only nodded his head and prodded the wound. “What actually happened ?” Arthur asked. Joe cleared his throat and looked off into the distance.
“Cornwall’s men took umbrage at my manners and kicked the crap out of me behind the saloon. Apparently they found me difficult and insulting.” He pointed at the sutured wound beneath his eye and said, “I suspect this was specific retaliation for the insinuations I made about their fathers and goats.”
“Fuck. I’m sorry.” It was clear that Joe wanted to drag another dry chuckle out of Arthur, to deflect the attention away from the new facts about his personality that were coming to light. Mainly, his foolhardy willingness to jump into fights that barely, if at all, involved him. Joe looked away. For once he was the one suffering under Arthur’s scrutiny. Arthur tried not to enjoy it.
“I knew what I was doing.” Arthur frowned at him. Even if he knew what he was doing, it was damn near suicidal. Hearing a moan from one of the men who wasn’t dead yet, Arthur clambered to his feet and made his way towards the downed O’Driscolls. He lay in the dirt, clutching his bleeding gut wound and writhing in pain. Arthur looked down at him.
“Go check on the two of them,” Arthur nodded towards the house. Joe seemed reluctant to go. Arthur tried for a conciliatory tone. “They’ll be upset, you’re better at that sorta thing than me.” Arthur approached the man and kicked him hard in the side. Joe hesitated a moment longer before his concern for Maeve and Felix overwhelmed his desire to keep an eye on Arthur’s copious bleeding. He disappeared inside with the rifle slung over his shoulder.
“Why’d you come here?” The man only whined and curled away from Arthur’s foot. He knelt and grabbed the man’s lapels, hauling him part way off of the ground to growl right in his face. “I said: why’d you come to this damn farm?”
“We was just looking for horses to steal,” he gasped. “Someone said a trainer broke ‘em here. Please...” Arthur released the man’s jacket and let him fall. He aimed his pistol at the man’s head.
“No, wait. Please…” He tried to push himself upright and blood poured from his stomach wound, staining the ground. He pulled himself a few inches through the dirt, leaving a red smear behind. No chance he’d survive, even with the doctor in his corner. As Arthur assumed he would be, devoted as he was to keeping idiots like Arthur alive. It would be a painful death too. Gut wounds were. “Please.”
“I’m doing you a kindness, son,” Arthur said as he pulled the trigger.
He checked the others and found them all dead. Calpurnia whinnied and he went to check on her as well, whispering into her ears as he scratched them. He slipped her a crushed peppermint from his pocket, one more casualty of the fight. In the barn, he retrieved a shovel and began dragging the bodies one by one around the back of the barn towards the trees. Each body left a trail of bloodied mud in the dirt. Then, he broke ground and began digging a mass grave. His arm ached within seconds, but it only needed to be deep enough to keep animals away. He turned at a sound behind him. Joe stood there, still wearing Arthur’s rifle on his shoulder, but with a shovel in hand. He set the gun to the side and started to dig before Arthur could protest.
“They ok?” Arthur asked, sinking his shovel into the dirt again.
“A little shaken. Felix has never been shot at before. Maeve, of course, has taken as much gunfire as the two of us combined.” Arthur huffed out a laugh.
“Forgot you were in the navy.” Arthur had thought he struck an impressive image, kneeling long and lean line with the gun pressed to his shoulder. Arthur truly had forgotten about Joe’s time in the military. He was soft spoken, gentle with patients and enthusiastic about almost everything Arthur showed him, bouncing from interest to interest with boundless enthusiasm and deep intelligence. Not like any of the soldiers Arthur had met. Most were like Bill, a little jaded and surly, filled with bad memories of battles that never quite went away. Joe was also relatively unflappable, tough, and a bit of a shithead, which fit better with his mental image of the average soldier. He found himself trying to reconcile warring mental images of the man: what he’d seen and what he’d been told. He cleared his throat. “That was some good shootin’.”
“It’s been a while. Can’t say I really missed it.” Shovels sinking into the earth was the only sound for a while as they worked.
“You knew those men.” Joe’s voice cut through the quiet. It was firm and confident, his doctoring voice; the one he used on stubborn patients. Arthur was well acquainted with it.
“Not those ones specifically.” Arthur sighed. “But their gang generally? Yeah. They work for Colm O’Driscoll. Had run-ins with them before. Usually end about like this. He and Dutch have hated each other for, oh… years now, I guess.”
“Are you the reason they came here?” Joe sounded reluctant to ask the question. Like he didn’t really want to hear the answer. Arthur sighed.
“They were here for the horses.”
“Oh,” Joe said. He dumped another shovelful of dirt on the growing mound at their side. “Guess Felix is still a sought after horse trainer.”
Arthur snorted. Joe’s dark sense of humour reared its head at the oddest times. He smiled crookedly at Arthur, who leaned on his shovel and breathed through his nose. His arm hurt. Blood trickled down his sleeve and dripped into the grave they dug, making the handle slippery.
“Don’t see you running for the law,” Arthur pointed out. A small part of him had almost expected that, over Joe helping him to dig a grave behind the barn. Joe frowned and looked away.
“No. I’m not.”
“Thought you were against this kind of thing, making the world a worse place. May not have wanted me caught by Cornwall’s men, but I figured this might at least warrant a visit to the sheriff.” Joe thought for a moment, silence dragging.
“First, the nearest sheriff is in Valentine and I don’t trust him.” He sighed. “Second, I’m not sure you did make it worse.” Arthur looked up at him, surprised. It was one thing for the doctor to know the kind of violent life that Arthur led and another thing entirely to experience it first hand. “They were going to rob the farm, they hurt Felix, maybe they would have hurt Maeve too — probably, it’s not like she’d have just let them take everything. You stopped them. I wish there had been some way to do it without… killing them. But it’s not like they would have listened if you’d asked them politely to leave.” He trailed off, as if trying to imagine what that might have looked like, then let out a gusty sigh. “I may not like everything you do, but I like you and, as it happens, that’s enough to want to keep you around. So, no, I won’t be going to the authorities. Besides, I think I’m an accomplice at this point.”
Arthur was surprised at the doctor’s attitude. Here he was, suggesting that Arthur had done the honorable thing by killing seven men, one of them in cold blood. Arthur was happy to kill to protect people that he cared about, it hadn’t been an issue for him, but he hadn’t expected the doctor to agree with him. On the other hand, Joe had picked up a gun and helped.
“I’ve killed a lot of men too, you know.” Joe added. “We weren’t at war when I joined up, but I’ve been in battles. We were attacked, fought back.”
“You were doing your duty then. I’m only an outlaw.”
“Don’t see that they’re so different. I killed people too. Following orders or not, didn’t change that. I saw soldiers looting, taking supplies. Many… most weren’t particularly good men, we just had a uniform to make our crimes official.” He shrugged, dismissing the memories more than anything. “Outlaws do much of the same. Our cause was sanctioned by the government, yours isn’t.”
“Doubt you ever held up a bank while you was in the navy.”
“Other soldiers did.”
“You don’t say?” Arthur raised his eyebrows.
“People’s morals don’t stand up too well when they’re the ones making the rules. At least, in my experience.” He huffed air out of his nose.”Turns out, if you question any of that, they throw you out and send you on your way.”
“You never said you got booted.”
“I’m not ashamed or anything, I still think I did the right thing. It’s just not the best memory, so I don’t talk about it much. I put it behind me. What do you reckon, this hole deep enough?” Arthur nodded and tossed his shovel to the side. He could recognize deflection from an unsavory topic. It was his go to. Together, they rolled the dead men into the pit and began to fill it. When they’d finished, Arthur supported himself on his shovel. Exhaustion was creeping in as the adrenaline faded. He and Joe both looked down at the mass grave in silence.
“Sometimes, I don’t feel no better than an animal, doing this shit.” Arthur stood stiffly, jaw clenched. “Wish it didn’t always have to be this way. Everything ends in bloodshed.” Joe looked at him, with something close to pity, but that didn’t make Arthur’s skin crawl. Compassion, maybe. Sympathy. A look Arthur wasn’t too used to anyway. He minded even less because of the person it came from.
“We’re all animals, Arthur. Gotta choose what kind of animal you want to be. Humans are pretty unique that way, we get some choice.”
“Predator or prey?” He asked with a snort.
“Not exactly… You know those dinosaur fossils you were telling me about? Ones you found out near Flatneck station, was it?” Arthur nodded once. “They’re extinct now, but we think some of them survived over time. Mammoths turned into elephants, some of the big lizards turned into alligators — I think, I’m not up on the science anymore — but my point is that they changed, they adapted to different environments and learned to deal with the new challenges that appeared. It’s how they carried on living, in the modern world.”
“Predators have sharp teeth. Herbivores have flat teeth to grind of vegetation. Different tools for different creatures, suited to their specific needs. Some do it better than others.”
“So, we get a choice because we wear pants?”
“In essence.” Joe chuckled.
Arthur shook his head. He wasn’t stupid, everything Joe was saying made sense. He just wasn’t sure that it applied to the situation. And he didn’t have the energy to delve too deeply into what he was feeling at the moment, not when there was still work to be done before he could rest. He’d told Dutch himself that they needed to adapt to the changing world or they’d be killed off like vermin. Or the same sentiment, not in as many words. World didn’t want them no more, but they kept on fighting the rising tide of civilization, its waves beating against their shore and threatening to wash them all away. He’d zoned out, staring at the fresh gravedirt, but didn’t realize it until Joe’s hand came to rest on his forearm.
“I just don't think we always have to be what the world's made us. What's the point if we don't have some choice?” He muttered. It didn’t appear to be directed at Arthur. His hand was warm, firm, fortifying. Arthur didn’t want him to let go. Worse, he wanted more than a bracing hand on his arm. He’d been shoving that thought to the back of his mind, stomped on it whenever it appeared, unbidden. But then Joe’s breath had ghosted along the back of his neck and, from then on, it had only been a matter of time before it broke loose. He felt like he’d been thrown from a horse, winded and unsteady on his feet. He started to reach for Joe’s shoulder and wobbled, stumbling a bit as dizziness overwhelmed him. Maybe it was love, maybe it was blood loss. Either way, he wasn’t handling it well. Joe rolled his eyes and tucked a shoulder under Arthur’s arm to help him to the house.
Maeve and Felix waited anxiously by the door. They waved Arthur and Joe inside and while Maeve pushed them into chairs. Arthur looked at himself, then Joe and realized that they were filthy , covered head to toe in mud made of blood and dirt. Both of their shirts were riddled with holes and irreversible stains. Arthur felt like the grit was ground right into his skin. He thought about wriggling away to clean up, but Joe grabbed Arthur’s arm before he could and cut the rest of his sleeve. Arthur winced when the doctor dumped clear alcohol over the wound and dabbed at the blood with a clean cloth, provided by Maeve.
“This is going to need stitches.” Arthur groaned and tried to pull away, only for Joe’s grip on his arm to tighten. “Let me get my bag, and then I’ll give you the good painkillers.” The way he cinched the bandage around Arthur’s arm conveyed his seriousness well enough that Arthur didn’t argue. Instead, he turned to Maeve and Felix.
“Are you both alright?”
“Felix was a bit frightened, weren’t you dear?” Felix nodded at his grandmother. Maeve had a mug of something that steamed at her elbow. “But we were safe enough in here. And we never doubted that you’d be able to handle it.”
Arthur wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Did it speak to his competence, that Maeve had assumed he could deal with anything? Or did he just look like a violent criminal? Felix twitched and fidgeted near the door.
“Everything alright son?” Felix looked out the window and back at Arthur, clearly anxious about something outside. Joe piped up from Arthur’s side.
“I think he wants to check on the horses,” Joe said. Arthur tried to rise and Joe pushed him back down into the chair. He put the rifle strap back over his shoulder. “I’ll go. Stay here and try not to hurt yourself further. Come on Felix.” Arthur watched them leave and let out a sigh. He looked up and found Maeve watching him, with a sympathetic look on her face.
“You ain’t gonna try to doctor me too, are ya?”
“No dear. Those days are long past me.” She smiled at him. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Heartfelt enthusiasm and giddy-up weren’t the same thing as sturdiness.
“Good. Joe’d have to start paying you a salary.” He’d hoped for a laugh, but Maeve remained silent. Something occurred to him. “Did you stitch up Joe’s face?”
“He did that himself.” Arthur grunted, impressed despite himself. Joe was tougher than he’d expected. He shifted in his seat with a quiet groan. Maeve looked sad, now, on top of the sympathy. She cleared her throat.
“You’re a good man, Arthur Morgan. My farm might not be here anymore, if you hadn’t been. Felix and I could be in that grave out there, instead of those thieves.” Arthur frowned and looked down and away from Maeve’s eyes. How could he walk away from them now? What if they were attacked like this again, with no one to protect them? He might be able to teach Felix to shoot, but the boy was so terrified Arthur didn’t think it would matter when the time came for him to fire. And, well, he shouldn’t have to learn something like that. It didn’t make anyone’s life better, it just made everything more violent, everyone worse off. Maeve might be able to hold a gun — probably a crack shot, if Arthur were to guess — but she’d never be able to take on as many men as they’d faced today. As Arthur thought about it, he wasn’t sure that he could have taken on all seven O’Driscolls without Joe’s help. That last one would have snuck up on him and taken him out. Then again, it was his fault they’d made it here in the first place. His presence surely did more harm than good.
“Those men might not have come here, if it weren’t for me. We’ve been fighting with the O’Driscolls for a long time. They killed some of our folks. It’s my fault they were here, looking for the horses.”
“And you killed some of theirs,” she added. “I’m sure it’s a mutual hatred. You still did the right thing, protecting us like that.”
“I don’t regret killing them.” He ran one filthy hand across his forehead. “But I’m not so sure I know what the right thing is anymore.” He didn’t like questioning all these things he thought he knew the answers to, things that had always been stable in his life. Everything Dutch had taught him seemed to be up in the air and Arthur had never learned to juggle. He was waiting for it all to come crashing down around himself.
“None of us do. We’re all just feeling our way along in the darkness, Arthur. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to know someone who brings in a little light, but mostly we stumble along and hope for the best, whatever that may be.”
Pain and adrenaline and a long, emotional day made the exhaustion well up in Arthur. Heat pricked at his eyes and he closed them again, breathing deep and pushing it all back down. Even though he was willing to kill when it was necessary, it didn’t erase the emotional toll it could take. Surrounded by the gang, he could gloss over it all when they went back to camp and drank whiskey around the fire, turn it into a celebration instead of regret. He wanted a drink. Breath shuddered out of him, along with all the energy he had left.
“Oh, darling.” She shuffled over to him, cupping his cheek in one soft hand and kissed his forehead. “You saved my boy and my home. I’ll never be anything but grateful. Don’t you dare let yourself lose track of that. Right or wrong ain’t as important as all that, but you keep trying to do good, and eventually you will.”
Joe returned to the house with Felix, soothed by the horses and the with the blood cleaned off of his upper lip. Of all the things that had happened that day, he felt the worst about Felix being targeted and found himself unbothered by the deaths of the men that had attacked them. His indifference surprised him. He could see that it bothered Arthur, maybe even the killing, but more so the where and how that it had happened and who had seen him do it. By now, everyone knew what Arthur did and the kind of people he ran with, Maeve had cautioned him about all of it, not against Arthur, but she’d encouraged him to use his head and to consider the kinds of dangers Arthur’s presence might expose him too. It seemed he’d seen the worst of it that evening and he was surprised at how untroubled he felt.
After his dismissal from the navy, he’d gone a bit… rigid, as Arthur might put it and fallen into seeing things more black and white than he ever had before, like he’d wanted to justify his rebellion by clinging to a strict dichotomy that put him on the “right” side. He still didn’t doubt that what he’d done was right and what the others had been doing was wrong, but he could see some more of the layers, the complexity that he’d struggled with when he’d first returned home. He could see the layers to what Arthur did as well. He’d come to care for Maeve and Felix as much as his own family, like Arthur cared for his own and, when he considered it, he could see himself turning to crime to support them, if that’s what it took. He’d been privileged in that way, never wanted for money, even now that his father had finally cut him off for refusing to come home. He was starting to understand why Arthur did what he did, what motivated him. He had people he cared about, that he’d sacrifice for. That was… new to Joe, but not unwelcome.
Arthur jerked awake when they came through the door, still keyed up from the fight. Everyone looked exhausted. Joe banished Maeve and Felix to bed with an armload of reassurances, so that he could sit and stitch Arthur’s arm without interruptions. Arthur didn’t even complain when Joe gave him a shot of morphine, which said a lot about the kind of night they’d been having. Joe had assumed Arthur would want to ride home that very night to report back to Dutch about the O’Driscoll menace. Then again, they’d wiped out all the men who’d come to the farm so perhaps they weren’t much of a threat at the moment. Maybe he even wanted to be knocked out for a little while.
He peeled the last of the destroyed shirt sleeve away to reveal the gash on his arm. How Arthur had dug the better part of a mass grave with his arm in this state, Joe couldn’t understand. There was tough, and then there was dangerously self-destructive and Arthur walked that fine line like a cat on a ridgepole. He’d given it a cursory clean, but took the time now to be more thorough while the morphine kicked in. Sweat beaded on Arthur’s forehead, past the adrenaline high as they were, and the blood drained from his face while Joe checked the edges of the wound and rinsed away the grit that had found its way in. Its edges might not have been so ragged if Arthur had let Joe clean it earlier, but he could work with it. He tried to think of something to distract Arthur and remembered how foolish he’d felt while they were digging.
“I wasn’t trying to call you an animal earlier.”
Arthur snorted. “Your metaphors could use work.” Joe smiled, avoiding Arthur’s gaze by bending over his work. “But I know that’s not how you meant it.”
“Where did you all end up?”
“South, near Rhodes.”
“All the way down in Lemoyne?” Joe glanced up at him. “Guess we won’t be seeing much of each other anymore.”
“It’s better if I go.” Arthur winced as the needle pulled and squeezed his eyes shut. “Not like you need my help so much anymore. You can handle yourself. Took on a whole parcel of Pinkertons and hired goons.”
“No, I don’t need your help” Arthur swallowed, keeping his eyes shut. “But I’ve always liked your company.”
“I ain’t as pleasant as all that.” Joe rolled his eyes and scoffed, which caused Arthur to glance sideways at him, surprised by the reaction. Joe found himself feeling angry with Arthur, and not for the first time. What had Arthur heard from people, to make him think that way about himself? He saw affection and ran the other way. Was he trying to push Joe away? He breathed deep, trying to rein his anger in, but Arthur winced as he pulled a stitch tight and Joe felt bad, embarrassment heating the back of his neck. He refocused on the wound. Something told Joe that this conversation was important, for reasons he didn’t quite understand, and he felt like he was dropping his end.
“Sorry.” Arthur sighed. Joe kept his eyes down. He didn’t want Arthur to feel bad. It was obvious, to Joe at least, that self-deprecation was a natural reaction for Arthur. Maybe Arthur knew this about himself. Maybe he was trying to do better. “I was planning on going up north for a little while, until the heat blows over. Everyone else is safe down south I just… hate it there.” He huffed. “Heard a good rumour about some wild horses up near Lake Isabella, thought I might have a look. Bring something back for–” he cut himself off. After a few heartbeats, Joe spoke into the sudden silence.
“So, you’re leaving.” Arthur stared at the ceiling. “For how long?” Joe stopped stitching, finished with the wound, waiting for Arthur to respond. It took far too long.
“Should be permanently. People aren’t safe around me.” Joe’s heart constricted in his chest. He’d suspected Arthur’s motivations for returning were related to the gang’s flight from Valentine. Maeve had also suggested that Arthur was fully capable of breaking Joe’s heart and now that seemed more than likely. “Can’t quite bring myself to do it though.”
Joe sucked in a breath. His hands had fallen to his lap, where they lay folded on top of the clean bandages he had yet to apply to Arthur’s arm. Arthur slumped in his seat. “Good.”
Arthur turned to face him. “I’m selfish.”
“And I don’t want you to go. What does that make me?”
“Foolish.” Arthur shook his head, eyes closed. “Bad shit follows me, Doc. Dangerous people want me dead. I don’t want you– anyone caught in the crossfire. I ain’t worth all that.”
“And if I disagree?”
“Then you’re an idiot.” Joe smiled and stared at Arthur, who avoided his gaze. He wanted to drag him in by his filthy shirt collar and kiss him, but the whole moment felt fragile and the last thing he wanted to do was scare Arthur away. It was one thing for Arthur to enjoy his company, join him for hunting, flower picking, visiting patients and another entirely for Arthur to feel the same way that Joe did.
“I always have been. Just ask my father.” Arthur let out a startled bark of laughter and the taught moment shattered. Joe picked up the clean, cotton bandages and wrapped it around Arthur’s arm, tying it into place. His fingers lingered against Arthur’s skin. Arthur’s head lolled against the back of the chair as he turned it to look at Joe. Firelight cast a warm glow across his face, logs popping in the hearth. Maybe it was foolish to love someone with a price on their head, but if the fluttering of his heart was anything to go by, he couldn’t help himself. It stuttered when Arthur looked at him that way, knocking him off balance in the best way.
“I’ll come back, I promise. Once the heat dies down in Valentine.”
“Good.” Arthur’s bangs had flopped across his face. Joe pushed them out of his eyes. Arthur sighed and leaned into the touch. He was more than half asleep. “I look forward to it.”
In the morning, Arthur’s anxiety got the best of him as it hadn’t the night before, when he’d been knocked out by the morphine. He rose before anyone else and went to work while the air was still cold and the only sounds were the soft stirrings of sleepy livestock. He passed Joe, asleep on the sofa with his arm thrown over his face eyes. Arthur had been downright disappointed to wake up alone, when his last coherent memory from the night before had been Joe’s hand on his forehead.mIt took a while to expel all of the extra energy he’d built up, but he was calmer by the time the others had climbed out of bed, with breakfast ready for them, the animals all fed and a host of other chores squared away.
After they ate, he left without ceremony. He smiled at Joe and promised to see him in Valentine, once the town’s law enforcement had settled down and found new prey to chase. Felix hugged him tight before he went back to work training the newest horse. Last of all, once Joe had retreated to a respectful distance, Maeve took his hand.
“You’ll be going then?” He swallowed and nodded.
“I don’t know when I’ll be back. If I even can come back. I want to promise that nothing like this will happen again.”
“I know dear. We’ll keep an eye out for you.” Maeve patted his hand. “You’re always welcome here, Arthur.”
I did promise it'd be ready soon. As always thanks for reading and leaving comments, you guys are great!
(fun fact: Maeve is loosely based on a mixture of two women, one of whom I worked for as a ranch hand in 2014/15. now I try to seduce people with my knowledge of goat husbandry.)
Chapter by asphodel (msqjoe)
on the other hand, since most of my goat husbandry knowledge centers around how to castrate them, it might not be the BEST type of flirting...
your reminder that this self-indulgent dross will be embracing ALL of the tropes. enjoy.
Joe looked up from the bundle of mail in his hand to see a very familiar horse hitched beside several others across the street. Arthur was nowhere to be seen, but if his horse was there then he must be as well. They hadn’t seen each other since the shootout at Maeve’s farm. Shortly after, Arthur had disappeared into the mountains for too long, in Joe’s opinion. He’d received a letter, once, and nothing more. It seemed Arthur really had decided that he was too dangerous to have around. Joe shoved the mail into his saddlebags and jogged from the train station towards Valentine’s wheel-rutted main street. He climbed the stairs outside of the gunsmith’s shop and scanned the crowds for any of the faces that he recognized. Ahead of him, a well-dressed woman walked into the bank, blonde hair coiffed in ringlets. People milled on the streets, going about their daily business in town, but no Arthur. Joe cursed under his breath. He hadn’t expected Arthur to simply abandon him. Leaving Maeve and Felix he could understand, they’d been threatened by those O’Driscolls, but hadn’t Joe proven he could take care of himself?
A group of men stood outside the bank now, backs to him. All were dressed in dark clothing and carrying guns. Lounging, relaxed, against the outer wall they looked a touch too casual. An odd feeling niggled in the back of his mind. One of the men turned to do a quick survey of the street. Joe’s heart plummeted at the sight of Arthur pulling a black mask up over his face. He’d disappeared from Valentine with hardly a word to Joe and now he was back to rob the bank without a hint of a warning, or a quick hello, or… anything. Joe’d been expecting less of Arthur, more infrequent visits maybe, but not a complete disappearance. Joe found he was also a touch disappointed in Arthur. It had seemed like he intended to follow a better path, when they’d last spoken, but maybe that was the blood loss doing Arthur’s talking for him.
The first few drops of rain had begun to sprinkle down on him as he moved from store to store. Despite knowing that it was a foolish idea, Joe strode towards the bank. He could hear the woman crying and thought that perhaps she’d been cornered in the impending robbery. He ducked inside and found himself looking down the barrel of a gun.
Bank patrons cowered on the ground, handing wallets over to one of Arthur’s companions who dropped them into a sack while he waved a gun around. Arthur was nowhere to be seen, but the blonde woman it seemed was with them. She had a pistol drawn and pointed at one of the bank tellers too, issuing harsh commands to empty the tills into the sack she’d shoved through the partition. He couldn’t begin to guess which of Arthur’s companions she might be. He’d kept his descriptions too vague. Somewhere in the back room, he could hear Arthur’s low growl and a loud thump, followed by cursing.
“You’re watching the door, Lenny! That means you don’t let any damn fool wander in here while we’re robbin’ the place.” One of the men snapped at the other who held the gun in Joe’s face. Joe got a good look at the part of his face not obscured by a bandana in the watery, grey light through the window and recognized Arthur’s friend. At least these really were Arthur’s people, not some random group he’d been press ganged into helping. Although, that might have been preferred, the robbery not being Arthur’s idea. Judging by the startled look on Lenny’s face, he recognized the doctor too.
“Get on your knees, hands up.” He said, with little conviction. Joe complied. He could hear some kind of commotion outside, distressed horses and men shouting. He hoped that Arthur and his friends had an escape route in mind. Lenny called towards the backroom, distress evident in his voice, “Arthur?”
“Do your job, kid. Eyes on the prize,” the other man growled. He shot a nervous glance out the window and then aimed his shotgun back at the bank teller who sat in the corner with a large bruise on one side of his face and blood flowing freely from a cut above his eye. Joe frowned. “Come on, Arthur. Hurry up!”
“Hold your fucking horses, Bill” Arthur shouted from the back. A moment later, he stumbled out with saddle bags tossed over his shoulders, bulging with cash. He tossed one of the bags to Bill and then caught sight of Joe. More emotions than Joe could count flashed across his face. Swearing, he holstered his pistol and grabbed Joe’s arm, dragging him to his feet. Lenny jumped out of the way.
“Shit.” He pulled Joe close and whispered, “What the hell are you doin’ here?”
“Well, I was going to make a deposit.”
“This is a joke to you?” Arthur growled.
“I saw your horse, I was coming to see you . I walked in on this.”
“Shit.” Arthur glanced out the window. A real ruckus had started up in the street. Raised voices directed at the bank, signaled the arrival of the law. “ Shit. ” Arthur paced, moving away from the windows so that he was less visible. “We have to get out of here. Come on, Doc. You lot, horses. Now.”
“You’re bringing him with us?” Karen asked, wrinkling her nose at the prospect. “Why?”
Bill opened his mouth to respond and Arthur interrupted him. “Innocent bystander. We’re not robbing him, we’re getting him out of here.” Joe restrained himself from pointing out that, technically, everyone in the bank was an innocent bystander accept themselves. Lenny continued to look stricken. Joe suspected the bank job was meant to go more smoothly than it had. Lawmen outside had begun to shout, demanding that they come out with their hands up. Joe could see several sheltering behind crates and boxes in the street. Karen peeked out the front door to get a look at the chaos on the street. She straightened her skirts. Arthur swore again and shoved one of his pistols into Joe’s hands with a grimace.
“Let me go first,” Karen said. “Just trust me.”
She pushed through the doors with her hands in the air, speaking in a high voice that made her seem younger, more innocent. Joe was impressed at the change, given the bluestreak she’d been swearing moments earlier. She pulled her pistol and dropped the sheriff with a single shot. All hell broke loose. Gunfire ripped through the windows. Arthur ducked outside, firing at anything that moved and guarded everyone as they ran for the horses through the back alley. Joseph hesitated beside Arthur, only to be met with a hard shove towards the others. He hurtled along behind the others, ducking behind a crate when bullets flew past them, law men now shooting at them from the end of the alley. Behind them, he heard a grunt and, peeking over the top of the crate, saw Arthur go down beneath a man who was tackling him into the mud. Arthur cracked the man’s wrist against the ground, forcing him to drop his gun, but the man was bigger and heavier, easily grappling Arthur and keeping him pinned.
Joe hesitated. He was a good shot, but not good enough to hit the man without hitting Arthur. He shoved the pistol through his belt and then ran back towards Arthur, barreling into the man with his left shoulder, so that they both rolled into the mud. Joe ended up pinned before blood splattered his face and the man collapsed on top of him, groaning in pain. Arthur grabbed Joe’s arm and yanked him from underneath the bleeding man, both of them staggering to their feet and running towards the horses. It had only taken seconds, but time felt molasses slow. Like, if Arthur let go of him, he might not be able to keep going.
Arthur grabbed Calpurnia’s reins as they darted past, racing towards Joe’s horse outside of the post office. He climbed into Cutter’s saddle while Arthur did the same beside him, shots still flying all around them. Everyone in their right mind had already fled indoors to hide from the chaos on the street. Together, he and Arthur spurred their horses towards the edge of town as they all galloped into the building thunderstorm.
Bullets and horses followed, their riders in hot pursuit of the group of thieves and their hanger-on. Hooves slipped in the churned up mud, slowing their escape, but they pounded onwards. Arthur’s sharp whistle cut through the noise, as he signaled the others of the approaching train. Karen, Bill and Lenny pushed ahead, urging their horses to go faster. If they could beat it, they could lose the law and get away relatively unscathed. Joseph’s horse, never a calm creature, was in a full panic and he was losing control of it. He had never been much of a horseman. They would never beat the train with Cutter fighting as he was. He was falling behind the others. Arthur looked around, noticing that Joe was no longer beside him, and then back over his shoulder. He jerked Calpurnia’s reins to the side, scaring Joe’s horse into a parallel path with the train, cutting them off from the others. Several of their pursuers turned from the others to follow Joe and Arthur alongside the train, splitting off of the main posse with a shout.
Beside Calpurnia, Joe’s horse had calmed somewhat and they barreled along the path side by side. Looping up to the north and around led them towards the falls and a series of tight, winding paths that they could maybe use to disappear. After the firefight with the O’Driscolls, Joe knew that Arthur was a crack shot. He hadn’t known the extent of it though. Arthur picked off their pursuers with ease, guiding Calpurnia with his knees while he twisted to aim his pistol at the next lawman foolish enough to end up in his sights. It should have filled Joe with unease, instead he had the odd feeling that he was in good hands. He didn’t doubt that Arthur would see them through this.
Ahead, their path diverged. One route clattered over a narrow wooden footbridge that crossed the canyon, with the river roaring below, while the other twisted along the water’s edge, following the scraggly shore line down the side of the cliff. As they approached the bridge, Cutter shied away from the open space beneath them and turned down the other path, fighting Joe the whole way. With no other choice, he raced along the trail, trying to outpace the law at their backs. Every time they fired a round, Cutter skittered nervously, slowing. Rainwater made the path slick and treacherous. As they moved down into the valley, towards the river, their road’s twists and turns tightened, until Joe could hardly navigate them at all, much less at Cutter’s top speed. He’d lost track of Arthur, but couldn’t do a thing to stop what was happening, short of jumping off of Cutter’s back. Solid rock to one side and a sheer, icy river drop on the other prevented that.
Rain and runoff from the mountains had swollen the river and turned it into a raging monster, eating up the shoreline and any trees unfortunate enough to be close to the edge. Joe realized too late that Cutter had lost his footing and they were sliding down a slick, muddy embankment with no hope of stopping. Cutter and Joe both screamed as the earth gave way and they tumbled into the roaring Dakota river. Freezing water closed over his head, shocking the air from his lungs.
Arthur felt triumphant as he looked back and saw that they’d finally lost the law. No chance that they were being followed down these tight paths, this close to the dangerous, surging river. He turned to look for Joe, expecting him to still be on his heels, only to see that he’d veered off on a branching, parallel path. Arthur watched, powerless to stop it, as Joe and his horse both disappeared over the edge. Both of the lawmen on his tail pulled up short, sliding dangerously close to the edge of the the cliff before they backed off. Arthur yanked Calpurnia’s reins to the side, forcing them along the river’s edge, down towards the water. He caught up only a few seconds later, heart hammering in his chest and looked down into the water. Joe bobbed to the surface, fighting the current, before a rolling log on the river crashed into him and forced him back under.
On the other side of the river, there was a path that ran parallel to the water low down. Arthur could see a crossing, one he’d even used before, and he raced towards it. The water was high, but manageable once he slowed. Calpurnia picked her way across the slippery stones while Arthur tried to catch a glimpse of Joe somewhere in the water. Arthur remembered his own tumble down the Dakota and the state he’d been in at the end. At least Joe wasn’t full of bullet holes, the way Arthur had been — he hoped. When they reached the other side, he spurred Calpurnia to run faster than he’d ever asked of her. They passed Cutter’s corpse, caught up in a ragged tangle of logs and branches at the edge of the water and Arthur encouraged Calpurnia to go a little faster.
Galloping along, he spotted Joe, caught up on a branch. He was awake, still fighting to stay afloat. Arthur leapt to the ground and grabbed his lasso from his saddle, feet sliding in the slippery mud, churned up by hooves and rain and the river’s erosion. His first throw missed by a few feet, but Joe now struggled against the current towards Arthur. His second throw missed too, but ended up closer than the first. Joe lunged to reach it and his shirt tore. He scrambled to get a grip on the branch again, hands scrabbling against the wet bark of the log in search of a handhold. Arthur swore as the current yanked him away again. Arthur pelted along the shore, trying to keep up.
He could shout himself hoarse, but there was no chance he’d be heard over the roar of the upcoming falls. It was almost too loud for Arthur to hear himself think. Ahead the river churned in violent, thrashing rapids, meters before the falls and a long drop to a painful death. Rocks continued to slide by, too slick for Joe to get a decent grip. Enough taction to slow himself, nothing more.
Calpurnia’s run and Joe’s own, brief stops as he grabbed at handholds had slowed him enough that Arthur had moved ahead of him. He hauled on Calpurnia’s reins to slow her and leapt off of her back, stumbling into the freezing water, waste high. He threw the loop of the lasso backward, letting it catch on a heavy tree branch closer to the river now that it had risen so much, then wrapped the other end several times tight around his forearm. He made it to the edge of where his own balance would give out on the slippery stones and lunged into the deeper water, where Joe crashed into him and held tight.
Overbalanced with their combine weight, they slipped beneath the rushing river. Freezing cold, it closed over his head and he fought the urge to gasp underwater. Cold threatened to knock the air from his lungs. Being back in the river is a shock to his system, memories of his own near drowning spilling out of the back of his mind where he’d squirreled them away. He almost panicked, until his head broke the surface and he could see again. He wrapped on arm tight around Joe’s waist and held on.
Arthur’s lasso went taught against the current and spun them around, slamming his back into a boulder near the edge of the water. He almost lost hold of Joe, jostled by the impact. One handed, he managed to haul the two of them along the sodden rope towards shore, where he collapsed in the mud at the water’s edge and lay there, panting. He groaned as pushed himself up onto his hands and knees and rolled Joe over, thumping his back. He coughed up some of the water he’d swallowed, but Arthur was forced to fight down the panic rising up his throat when Joe didn’t immediately regain consciousness.
Between the damp and the storm and night time closing in, Arthur was already shivering. They would be in trouble without shelter. Joe needed fire, a roof, blankets. A tent wouldn’t be enough, not in the current torrential downpour, and it wouldn’t hide them from any patrolling lawmen in the area. It wouldn’t do to survive the river and the robbery, only for Joe to wake up in a jail cell awaiting a hanging. He wracked his mind, eyes roving to where a small feeder creek met up with the raging Dakota and remembered a cabin not too far along it, near a small pond. He’d have to hope that it was abandoned, that he wouldn’t have to fight someone to get Joe inside, warm and dry.
His fear subsided to a low buzz in the back of his thoughts. Everything was easier with a plan, a goal, somewhere to focus. He whistled for Calpurnia who was torn between worry for her rider and fear of the water. With a grunt, he dragged Joe upright, tossing him over his shoulder like a sack of grain. Arthur made his way over to her and, with difficulty, hefted Joe up into the saddle then climbed up behind him. Arms tight around Joe’s middle so that he wouldn’t topple out of the saddle, Arthur urged Calpurnia along the trail towards Cattail pond. Slick stones and mud made the trek difficult, but Calpurnia was clever and sure-footed and Arthur swore, outloud, that he’d spoil her rotten at the first opportunity. Her ears flicked back forth, as if she planned on holding him to it.
Relief flooded his body when he saw that the hunting cabin looked as ragged and abandoned as it had the last time he’d seen it. Inside, after he’d kicked the door open, he found a single room with a heavy, metal wood stove in the middle, two tables and some chairs, and a wooden bed frame in the corner with a bare mattress. He dumped Joe onto the bed and then went back to Calpurnia. His bedroll was a bit damp where it had been exposed to the rain, but nowhere near as soaked as they were. He fished out his warm hunting jacket and took it inside too. Joe had developed the pallor of a pickled herring, milky white, all color drained from his face and hands.
“Shit, Doc.” Arthur draped Joe against his shoulder, providing support while he tugged off his soaked clothing. A medallion on a leather cord caught on the collar of his shirt. Arthur flipped it out of the way. Blood oozed from a wound on his side, that looked ragged, but not too deep. Arthur’s hand brushed Joe’s back as he shifted him, tugging the shirt off his shoulders, and found raised scars scattered across his torso. He wrapped his hunting jacket around Joe’s body while he yanked his pants off and then added a later of woolen bedroll, so that only Joe’s face peeked out. After he set a fire in the stove, with wood that he found in a small lean-to outside, and had the inside of the cabin blazing hot, he left to deal with Calpurnia. A primitive shed out back would serve as a temporary stable for her; wobbly, but sturdy enough to keep the rain off for the night. He unsaddled and brushed her, and left water and grain as he took his saddle bags and her blanket inside. He gave a cursory scrub to Joe’s hair with a shirt from his bag to dry it and then added Calpurnia’s musty blanket to his nest. Already the small space smelled of damp sheep, what difference would wet horse make? He tucked the edges in beneath Joe, trying to retain as much body heat as possible. Then, on a whim, he brushed the damp hair off of his forehead and left a kiss in its place.
He collapsed in the chair beside the bed and rubbed his hands over his face. It hadn’t been more than half an hour since their dip in the river but it felt like an eternity. He was exhausted. He also realized that hadn’t changed yet, and turned to dig out dry clothing for himself. Rope strung across the cabin made for a clothesline, where he draped their wet things so that they could hang near the fire. He set fresh water to boiling and returned to his seat, afraid to move too far away from Joe, whose pulse he checked frequently. It remained weak, but steady. He was warmer, the blankets and fire doing their job. Arthur hoped that a hot drink would help too once the water was ready. While he waited, he unrolled Joe to check the wound on his side. Arthur examined the sluggish bleeding, but didn’t see too much to worry about, besides the potential for the water to infect it. He dabbed it clean with some clear alcohol before he bandaged it. It didn’t even look like it would require stitches.
Joe was alive. More than that, Arthur wasn’t sure he had the right to ask of the universe. He was still unconscious, but his skin had already lost the white translucency it had gained in the water. Arthur wouldn’t describe him as pink-cheeked quite yet. But improving. Arthur had made a stupid mistake and almost gotten him killed. He never should have agreed to the robbery. It hadn’t sounded like a terrible idea when the others had pitched it to him. Joe shifted in his sleep and muttered something incoherent. Hope kept making a fool out of him. He drifted off, fingertips resting on the inside of Joe’s wrist.
Chapter by asphodel (msqjoe)
as usual, thank you so much for reading, commenting and leaving kudos! you're all fantastic
Arthur turned from his work at the sound of Joe’s gravelly voice whispering his name. Morning had come and gone, gray and wet like the day before, while Arthur puttered around the cabin. He’d woken stiff and sore from a night spent sleeping upright in a hard wooden chair, river-chilled muscles protesting the mistreatment. He’d left Joe to sleep while he took care of some chores. Calpurnia had whickered and tried to rummage through his pockets for treats while he’d fed her hot mash, evidently expecting that he’d start keeping his treat promises right away. He’d also hiked down to the river, where he’d retrieved Joe’s ruined saddle bags and the deceased Cutter’s horse blanket, which he hung in the cabin to dry out.
“How are you feeling?” He asked, settling in the chair beside the bed again. Joe was nothing but a lump of wool at this point, wrapped in layers of blankets — both human and horse. All the wet wool, cooked dry by the fire, had a created an awful and unique smell that had filled the cabin with a musty fog. Joe, staring at the ceiling, wriggled slightly in the nest of blankets.
“Am I naked?”
“Yes.” Arthur laughed. Joe turned his head to look at him, the only part of his body he could move from within his wool cocoon. “Sorry about that.”
“Am I dead?”
Arthur smiled. “If I said you were, would you feel better or worse?”
“I’m not sure.” He groaned. Arthur watched him shift again, grimacing in pain. “Is it really hot in here?”
“At least your powers of perception have improved. This morning, you thought I was a magical talking catfish.” Arthur had kept the fire blazing most of the day, sweating it out to ensure that Joe stayed as warm as possible. Joe blinked and frowned.
“I did not.”
“You did,” Arthur teased. “You were real upset that I wouldn’t grant any wishes.”
“Are you going to be cracking jokes on my deathbed?” he asked, scowling. Arthur chuckled again and helped push Joe into a sitting position, without unwrapping him from the nest of blankets — although he loosened them enough that Joe was no longer immobilized. He was still pale, despite the blazing heat of the tent. Color hadn’t yet returned to his cheeks and Arthur worried. An odd rattle to his lungs did nothing to ease Arthur’s concern. Arthur helped him wiggle one arm free, resettling the blankets across his lap and around his shoulders. Arthur reached for the steaming cup of tea beside the bed and handed it over.
“You ain’t dying yet. Drink this.” Joe sipped at it and made a face.
“Now you know how your patients feel.” Arthur felt his own whining was vindicated. He sat again and resumed the chore that he’d been working on when the other man awoke.
“We’ve really got to stop meeting like this,” Joe muttered into his cup. Arthur chuckled.
“What are you doing?” Joe croaked out after several valiant minutes of attempting to stomach the tea. Arthur held up Joe’s tattered shirt, not so tattered anymore. He’d been stitching the holes torn by rocks and branches. Once the weather broke, he could go wash it in the river. He and Joe would both need a good scrub soon. It was a shoddy patch job, but it would hold together until they could pick up a new shirt in town somewhere. Well, he hoped it would. “I didn’t know you could sew.”
“Plenty you don’t know about me, Doc. I’m a world’a mystery.” He glanced over, grinning. Joe watched him with a soft smile. “Hungry?”
“What happened?” he asked, while Arthur dished up a bowl of stew that he’d set on the wood stove earlier in the day. Arthur set about telling him the whole story. It took up part of the afternoon and knocked Joe right out. Arthur tucked him back in and let him sleep some more.
“How are you feeling?” Arthur asked several hours later, after Joe had managed another two cups of the vile tea with a small bowl of stew and a couple crackers. Joe wiggled his hand in a so-so gesture, then tucked it back into the blankets, slowly chewing his last cracker before he drifted off again, unable to keep his eyes open.
Evening rolled in before Joe woke again. He looked better, cheeks reddened by the heat. Warmth had returned to his skin, chasing away a few of Arthur’s worries. He lay in the dark and quiet while Arthur worked, ate what Arthur fed him, drank whatever Arthur put in his cup. No energy, Arthur figured, was a small price to pay. He knew how Joe must be feeling. Arthur was impressed that the other man was awake at all. He himself had slept for days after his trip down the river, despite a much milder experience in the Dakota. He’d also received better medical care than Arthur was really capable of providing. Arthur kept an eye on him, considering his next steps.
He figured it would take Joe the better part of a week to recover, which was fine. He had plenty of supplies for the both of them and the hunting skills to keep them fed with little effort, so long as he could leave Joe alone in the cabin. After that, if someone from camp hadn’t already come looking for them, he’d need to return to Rhodes to report back and hand over the rest of the money from Valentine. Joe wouldn’t be able to return home yet. He was well known around town and bound to have been recognized during their escape. Likely, his face was plastered on wanted posters around town alongside Arthur’s and the others. Arthur felt entirely responsible for what had happened. Joe’s clinic would be compromised, his horse was dead, and he was half-drowned and ill, trapped in a decrepit cabin with someone not well suited to caretaking. He had wanted to join in on the robbery right up until everything went to hell, but there was a nagging sense of something rattling around in the back of his mind. Not the guilt, that was forefront in all his musings, a solid weight draped over Arthur throughout the day. He could see that some changes were needed in the gang, that they would need to shift their focus, find a bigger plan if they were to get out of this situation with any chance of deliverance. It looked like he’d have to drag Joe along, since he had nowhere else to go. Not even Maeve’s farm was safe, since most people in town knew about how much time Joe spent out there. More than once, people in search of emergency medical care had sought him out there. He would be surprised if Joe still wanted him around after all of this .
Joe woke some time later, but couldn’t keep up much of a conversation, concentration drifting about. Rain still slicked the cabin’s sole window, obscuring the trees outside. Flashes of lightning had cut through the sky ever since the sun had set. Arthur, concerned, left Joe to his vacant staring at the wall and went to check on Calpurnia. Her ears snapped back and forth, displaying her displeasure at the accommodations, but she would be alright. He’d already apologized to Joe for the loss of Cutter. Except the guilt continued to weigh on him. Cutter never should have been put in that position, or used for a job like that. He wasn’t trained or suited for it. And Joe wasn’t the kind of rider who could handle him on a good day. It was clear that the loss hurt Joe too, and that he blamed himself, which made Arthur feel all the guiltier. He slipped Calpurnia a couple of treats, grabbed an armful of firewood and went back inside. Joe had already passed out, curled beneath the blankets.
In the morning, Joe woke to another pot of food that, unlike yesterday’s, made his stomach growl with hunger. It smelled inviting, rather than nauseating. If his appetite was recovering, that was a good sign. Arthur scooped some of the soup into a bowl and brought it over with another cup of tea, which Joe really was beginning to hate. Arthur gestured at Joe, indicating that he should lift his left arm out of the way. He did so, allowing Arthur to check the wound on his ribs which was healing better than the rest of him.
“Did you know you talk in your sleep Doc?” Joe groaned in embarrassment as Arthur backed away.
“What wish did I ask the catfish for this time?”
“I don’t recall,” Arthur responded with a grin that looked very much like a lie.
Joe sighed aloud and sipped his tea. “Were you kind enough to ignore the rest of my fevered ravings?”
“I tried, but you were awful insistent.”
“Christ,” he groaned again, looking to the heavens for help that wouldn’t come. “Did I say anything horrendously embarrassing?”
“No, nothing too terrible.” Arthur’s smile looked warm and fond as he ate his own soup. “I made a few notes though.”
Joe shook his head, unable to stop himself from smiling. Stuck in bed and miserable, it was still so easy to slip into the camaraderie that he and Arthur had developed over the last few months. He wanted to be upset at everything that had come to pass and, well, he was, but he was also happy to see Arthur. Happy to be alive. Even if it wasn’t going to last. Arthur was probably already anxious to get back to Rhodes, to report back to Dutch and the rest of the gang. While he ate, he watched Arthur moving around the cabin and working. He stoked the fire, mixed up hot food to take to Calpurnia and then brought two ducks that he started to dress. Joe felt like time had gone to molasses, heavy and tired, so much so that Arthur’s steady work was making him sleepy. He slipped into unconsciousness again and woke a few hours later, to find that Arthur had completed even more tasks around the cabin — and those, only the ones that Joe could see inside. He started to feel guilty, that Arthur was stuck here looking after him. He also worried. Who knew what was going on back in Valentine, what Maeve thought had happened to him, what the law thought had happened to him.
Later, Arthur returned with a small turkey, that he left hanging in the corner of the cabin while he went back outside. Joe could hear the steady thump of an axe and the crack of splitting wood. He crawled out from under the blankets and set his feet on the uneven floorboards, before he pushed himself upright and made his way over to the bird, one hand on the wall for support. He could at least finish dressing it before Arthur finished with the wood pile, contribute even a little bit. Arthur walked back in to find him leaning unsteadily against the wall, breathing hard. Black spots had started to dance around the edge of his vision. He thought he’d stood up too quickly, but the longer he stayed upright, the worse they got instead of dissipating. Arthur wrapped an arm around his waist and guided him back to the bed.
“What’re you doin’ up?”
“Wanted to help.” He took a shaky breath.
“Might not be ready for that.”
“No. I think not.”
Despite Arthur’s protestations, Joe tried to stay awake for the next few hours. At the very least, he could talk to Arthur, provide some kind of conversation while he worked. After a while, Arthur stopped grumbling and seemed to enjoy having someone to talk to. After dinner, he struggled to keep his eyes open, but Arthur was still steadily working away, sharpening the startling array of knives that he’d emptied out of his pack. Joe yawned wide, jaw cracking and shook his head a little to stave off sleep a little longer. Arthur fought back a strangled laugh while Joe scowled at him again.
“Sun’s down, you don’t gotta stay awake on my account. Get some rest.”
“Where have you been sleeping?” Joe asked, realizing that he had yet to see Arthur lie down for any real rest. Surely he hadn’t been sleeping in the chair this whole time.
“Second horse blanket’s dry and good as anything.” Arthur shrugged. Joe frowned at him.
“You fished me out of the river. I owe you my life. The least I can do is share the bed.” Joe was ashamed that it hadn’t occurred to him to offer sooner. Arthur never would have let Joe take the floor, and he knew that, but they’d shared a bedroll before and, given the way Arthur lived, he was used to sleeping packed close to other people.
“It ain’t an obligation. Floor’s fine. I’ve slept in worse places.”
“I know. I’m offering.” Joe waited for a response, eyes roaming around the cabin instead of looking at Arthur, who’d become twitchy and nervous. Joe had tried to keep his feelings in check, although he still wanted to kiss Arthur, but his offer of sharing a bed was an innocent desire to see Arthur sleep comfortably. It was all Joe really had to offer in exchange for Arthur taking care of him. Arthur cleared his throat. He wasn’t used to other people taking care of him. He was usually the one doing that and it made him oddly uncomfortable.
“Alright.” He scooped Calpurnia’s blanket off of the ground by the hearth and shook it out over the bed. “Scoot over.”
The next afternoon, Joe had emerged further from his blanket cocoon — more movement than Arthur had seen all day — and sat with his saddlebags beside him, their contents strewn over the bed. At the sound of the door closing, he shot Arthur a weak smile. Arthur dumped the wood in the rack by the door. Joe’s damp letters had been spread out across the blankets to dry, surrounded by the rest of Joe’s belongings that hadn’t been lost to the river: a handful of coins, a broken pair of glasses, a canteen full of water and a small pouch full of medical supplies. Arthur picked up the book and peeled apart its still damp pages, hopelessly wrinkled and smeared with ink.
“I know. It’s ruined.”
“More waterlogged than you.” Arthur sat beside him, enjoying the ability he had to make Joe roll his eyes. He leafed through the book. It was Joe’s book of medicinal plants. His own illustrations had been added in beside paragraphs of descriptions and details about the featured plants. He hadn’t managed to add many. It required that he sit somewhere stable, with ink and a pen and good lighting and there weren’t many opportunities for that in his life. He set the book down closer to the fire, tipped on its end so that the pages fanned out — he’d lost a few of his own books to water and knew the drill. Although it seemed like the book itself was beyond repair, the information remained in tact enough that Arthur thought he could probably recreate it with enough time. He scooped up Joe’s spare socks and shirt from the end of the bed and hung them to dry. Joe watched it all with a thoughtful expression before returning to the letters, to see which ones were salvageable. Arthur sat by the fire with Calpurnia’s spare halter that needed repairing and they settled into a companionable silence for the rest of the afternoon.
“When do we need to leave?” Arthur looked up at Joe, who’d woken and watched him work a little while ago without saying anything. His question sounded resigned, as he pushed himself upright. Arthur was draping their spare shirts, which he’d washed in the river, over the clothes line strung across the cabin.
“Not going anywhere until you’re well enough to move.” Arthur responded, tugging Joe’s shirt flat so that it would dry with fewer creases.
“I can move now.”
Arthur frowned and kept fiddling with the placement of their clean socks so that he wouldn’t have to turn around. “Why the rush?”
“You need to get back, don’t you?”
“We’re safe for now. No one followed us.” He paused in his moving around the cabin. Arthur had made sure to obscure their path out of the ravine as much as he could and the continuous rain storm had taken care of the rest. Even Charles wouldn’t have been able to track them through that storm. “And the gang won’t send anyone out after me for a while yet. I’m like a stray dog, I usually come back on my own,” he said with a grin.
“What about your people? Been a few days already.” Joe asked, his tone serious, without a hint of amusement at Arthur’s joke. He’d watched Joe grow more and more serious over the last day and a half, all of his good humour washing away and he’d started to worry. But, Arthur wasn’t worried about the others. He knew the train had kept the law off of Bill, Lenny and Karen and that everyone would be relatively safe near Rhodes. Aside from the general awfulness of the area, they weren’t actually wanted by the law. Well, not yet . With their current string of luck, who knew how long that would last.
Regardless, there was no chance of Arthur dragging Joe about in his current state, no matter how worried the gang might be. He wasn’t about to abandon Joe here alone either, without a horse or money or the ability to stay awake for more than an hour at a time. Besides, Joe looked exhausted and miserable, with dark circles beneath his eyes. Arthur knew that he was trying to hide it, but there was only so far that kind of playacting could take him and Arthur saw right through it. He had first hand experience with his own bullshit attempts to convince people that he was fine when he wasn’t. It was like looking in an extremely stubborn mirror.
“We’ve got time for you to rest.” Joe let out a frustrated huff, that set him off coughing. Arthur moved over to pat him on the back. He was pretty certain that Joe had meant something else with his question, some secondary layer of meaning that Arthur had missed. At least his lungs sounded better than they had the day before.
“Suddenly they aren’t important enough for you to leave?” came Joe’s curt response. Right, Arthur had definitely missed something. His hand stilled.
“That’s why you left, remember?” Joe tugged the blanket tighter around his chest, pulling away from Arthur in the process. Arthur dropped into the chair beside the bed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You don’t need to stay on my account. I can make my way to Strawberry on my own in a day or two.”
“Joe, y’look like shit. You can’t even walk across the cabin on your own.”
“Of course I can.”
“Care to demonstrate?” Arthur raised a skeptical eyebrow.
Joe hesitated. “...I’ll be better soon.”
“You don’t get to be mad about me taking care of my family.”
“I’m not. I just don’t need you taking care of me.”
“Sure sound mad–”
“You left me!” he snapped. Arthur’s brow wrinkled into a frown. He sat up from the position he’d slumped into, arms still crossed. He refused to meet Arthur’s eyes. Unusual, since he seemed to enjoy pinning Arthur with his eyes, like a beetle to a board in some insect collection. “I thought we were friends at least.”
“Said I’d come back, didn’t I?”
“And you did. To rob a bank . Without a single word in weeks. It’s like you forgot about us the second you left.” Joe wasn’t quite shouting, but Arthur thought it might be as close as the man ever got. He felt awful that he’d inspired that reaction and even worse because Joe had hit close to the truth. Arthur had tried, a little, to forget about Valentine and the people he’d grown to love there, because it still felt doomed whenever he thought about the situation. He thought that perhaps time and distance might make it easier, or at least less messy. But that had failed, thoroughly , and only made him miss them all the more.
“I didn’t want to go.”
“But you did anyway. No one forced you to leave! That was your choice.”
Arthur stomped over to his saddle bags and yanked out his journal, before tossing it in Joe’s lap. The pencil trapped between it’s pages bounced out onto the bed. Joe looked up at him, frowning. As if it weren’t immediately clear what he was supposed to do with the damn thing.
Joe opened it to the most recent entry — all about the last few days in the cabin — and then turned to the next, which happened to be a sketch of a decaying old church covered in vines, then flipped back to the page before, which was filled with Arthur’s handwriting. Arthur grabbed his coat disappeared into the rain before he could see Joe’s reaction to the journal’s contents. He hadn’t written much. He didn’t always trust that his journal’s contents were safe when it wasn’t with him, and there were things he didn’t want others knowing, but it was full of stories about Joe and, more tellingly, sketch after sketch of the man. He wasn’t quite ready to confront the cat he’d let out of the bag; there was still a chance it might bite him in the ass.
Joe stared at the journal’s contents for a long time, leafing through the pages of sketches and writing. Arthur’s entries were, at times, downright poetic but also provided a window into his thoughts that Joe hadn’t imagined he’d ever see. He had never doubted Arthur’s thoughtfulness, but it was different, seeing it in a tangible form like that. He was shocked at the number of sketches he featured in, more so the ones that he realized had never happened, but had come from Arthur’s own imagination. Or his fantasies, maybe, if the shirtless sketches were anything to go by. He’d never been shirtless in front of Arthur. And Arthur had failed to include the scars on his back. When his vision started to go spotty again, he had to stop looking at the sketches. Instead, he flipped through the written entries. His name appeared as often as the pictures had.
Arthur returned well after dark, startling Joe out of his thoughts when the door opened. He hesitated as he came in, like he was considering leaving again, but came inside and kicked the door shut, shaking off the rain. He shrugged out of his coat and hung it by the door to dry, then kicked off his boots and unbuckled his gun belt. Joe watched until Arthur came and sat by the waning fire again, stuffing a few logs into the stove. He wished that he had something like Arthur’s diary, that he could shove under the other man’s nose to say “look, I feel the same way”, but he’d never been much for writing his thoughts down and now he was at a loss.
“I’m sorry,” he said instead. Arthur grunted an acknowledgment and poked the fire, elbows resting on his knees. He had angled himself away from Joe, shoulders around his ears in a defensive hunch. Joe chewed at the inside of his lip, where it was still healing from being split open in the river. There was a possibility that he’d misunderstood the point of Arthur showing him the journal, but it seemed a slim probability. He climbed out of the bed in his sock feet and walked the few steps towards Arthur, who still wouldn’t look at him. Maybe he could do better than a revealing journal. Or at least be a touch clearer with his intentions. He tipped Arthur’s chin up and leaned down to kiss him.
Joe’s heartbeat thundered in his ears for the handful of seconds that passed without Arthur responding. A handful of seconds in which Joe worried and wondered if he’d misunderstood the journal’s contents. He thought it had been startling in its clarity, especially for Arthur’s taciturn nature, but as Arthur stayed frozen and unmoving beneath his touch, he started to doubt. Then Arthur moved, his lips sliding across Joe’s as he tilted his head, leaning up into the kiss. Joe melted against him with relief.
It was rough and warm and dry and so much better than Joe had imagined. And he had imagined it a fair bit. He trailed his fingers along Arthur’s stubble-roughened jaw and into his hair. As Arthur’s lips parted, allowing Joe to dip his tongue into Arthur’s mouth, he found himself burning with gratitude that at least one of them had been brave enough to say something about their feelings. Romantic confessions had never been his strong suit, and he doubted they were Arthur’s, but a sketch filled journal had been better than Joe could have imagined. His mouth moved over Joe’s, firm and tender, with the bitter taste of black coffee lingering on his tongue.
Arthur wrapped a hesitant hand around the back of Joe’s thigh and the other reached up to cup his jaw, pulling him closer. Joe lost himself in the wealth of sensations. Goosebumps crawled across his body and he shivered at every place where Arthur’s warm hands burned against his skin. His knees turned watery and he pulled back to breathe, trying to blink spots out of his vision. Dizziness washed over him as he sucked in a deep gulp of air. He’d been struggling to breathe before his heart had started pounding like he’d run a mile in the last five minutes. Panting, he looked down at Arthur’s glassy-eyed, crooked smile and decided that breathing wasn’t that important after all. Following the pull of Arthur’s hand on his thigh, he swung one leg over Arthur’s knees, then let out a sharp puff of air as Arthur’s arms wrapped around his waist and dragged him down into his lap. The cabin’s lone chair gave an ominous creak under their combined weight.
Joe sighed out a breath, a touch embarrassed at how pleased he was to be seated again, but it gave him the opportunity to pull Arthur closer, to wrap an arm around his back and to run the other along Arthur’s jaw, teasingly across his shell of his ear and into his hair. He scratched gentle nails across Arthur’s scalp and felt him shiver beneath the touch. He broke off the kiss to suck in another deep breath, which didn’t slow Arthur down in the slightest. Arthur busied himself with Joe’s neck, the underside of his jaw, the soft spot behind his ear, pressing hot kisses against goosebump-riddled skin. Joe leaned in, drifting closer to the warmth that radiated off of Arthur. It felt like his heart was beating out of his chest, blood rushing in his ears. Arthur dipped his tongue into the hollow of Joe’s throat and ran his tongue along his collarbone.
Joe tightened his hand in Arthur’s hair and tugged. Arthur allowed himself to be led, tilting his head back so that Joe could slot their mouths together again, licking into Arthur’s. He was surprised at how easily Arthur gave himself over to Joe’s guiding touches. Arthur melted, pliant and responsive beneath him, leaning into each caress with soft, contented sounds. His hands wandered across Joe’s sides and back, carefully avoiding the bandage on his ribs.
Need settled low and heavy in his belly. Arthur’s hands found their way under his shirt, rough, calloused fingers skipping over his skin, sending sparks of pleasure skittering across his body. Arthur’s hands were gentle, teasing and far too soft. All Joe wanted was for him to hold on tight, dig his fingers in and not let go. Joe ground his hips down against Arthur’s lap. Arthur’s grip on his sides tightened roughly and Joe licked the subsequent groan right out of his mouth. He grinned against Arthur’s lips, pleased that he’d figured out how to elicit the kind of reaction that he wanted. Seeking out more, he ground down again, pulling Arthur close. He’d take whatever Arthur would give him, for as long as it would last. A wide open range of possibilities spread out before him, his thoughts galloping away unfettered.
Numerous, creative ideas that been floating around in the back of his mind for the last several weeks jockeyed for precedence. For the moment, he settled on stripping Arthur’s shirt, getting his hands and mouth on the rest of Arthur’s skin. But that didn’t last long. Hot kisses shifted into tongue and the scrape of teeth as Arthur began sucking a mark into Joe’s neck. Distracted and hazy, Joe dug his hands into the meat of Arthur’s shoulders and held on until he could breathe again. He wanted Arthur in bed, naked and moaning.
He climbed to his feet too quickly. He had meant to drag Arthur along with him, but his vision sparkled at the edges and he stumbled under a fresh of wave of dizziness. It was possible that breathing was more important to his plans than he’d bothered to consider.
“Woah,” Arthur said as he stumbled too, halfway to his feet on Joe’s heels, clearly on board with the move to the bed. He caught Joe’s arm and held him upright. “Don’t gotta swoon,” he teased.
Joe groaned and buried his face against Arthur’s shoulder. He’d never live that down, not this century at least. Arthur wrapped an arm around him for support and closed his eyes, rubbing their noses together in a caress dripping with affection. Joe thought his heart might have stopped as it swelled with emotion, his chest tightened in a way that had nothing to do with a lack of air. He dragged Arthur in for another kiss, lips tingling from the scrape of stubble and let Arthur hold him up as he backed them towards the bed. Arthur pressed him down into the rumpled blankets. One of his knees slid between Joe’s thighs, his body settling over Joe with a pleasing weight and warmth. Arthur rocked their hips together, rough denim dragging between them.
Joe gasped at the touch and his lungs constricted against the rush of cold air. He sat up with a jolt, nearly headbutting Arthur in the nose as he hacked, lungs rattling. It lasted for an annoying length of time. He felt utterly disgusting, but rather pleased that Arthur hadn’t stopped touching him, his hand falling instead to rub soothing circles against his back.
“Sorry,” he gasped, when he could get the breath to do so. Arthur had shifted to sit beside him, their legs still tangled together. A soft laugh spilled out of him as he let his head fall forward to thump against Joe’s trembling shoulder.
“Knew you were sicker than you said.” He raised his head and pressed a gentle kiss to Joe’s temple. “Maybe you should get some rest.”
It sounded more like an instruction than some kind of gentle suggestion and some small, stubborn part of Joe wanted to ignore him and get back to what they’d been doing, but he wheezed faintly as he breathed and had gone pale and sweaty for reasons not related to Arthur touching him. It was perhaps the least sexy he had ever looked or felt. And yet, Arthur hadn’t pulled away for anything more than a direct attack, when Joe had made a valiant effort to break his nose. He also realized, with no small amount of disappointment and a hint of embarrassment, that he wasn’t even half hard after all of that. Something Arthur had surely noticed. He collapsed back against the blankets with a frustrated grunt, furious with his body for ruining his plans. And all Arthur did, damn him, was snuggle closer.
Enough time had already passed with the two of them not being together, that he wasn’t inclined to add more on to the clock. He was already counting down the short time that they would be able to enjoy… whatever this was, before Arthur went back to his people and it all went away again. Judging by Arthur’s small frown, the disappointment showed clearly on his face too. He took Joe by the chin, thumb caressing his bottom lip and tilted his head back to kiss him, softer this time. “You’re on the mend and I ain’t going anywhere.”
Joe’s breath hitched, overwhelmed by the sense that Arthur knew him, and saw him and liked him despite it all. Liked him enough to sketch him over and over again, like some kind of unwritten love letter. Joe’s own family hadn’t been as accepting of illness, even when he was just a boy. He leaned in and kissed him again, grateful beyond belief that Arthur had washed ashore in his clinic. Would it be too much to thank Charles and John for bringing Arthur to him? Probably. But the temptation was there.
Arthur kicked his boots over the side of the bed and slid down beneath the blankets. Joe allowed himself to be pulled down against Arthur’s chest as he was held from behind. He relaxed into the feeling of Arthur’s warm embrace, one arm wrapped snake like around his waist, fingers splayed low against Joe’s stomach. Warm, dry lips pressed against the back of his neck. He had been thinking that this was far from his top choice of activities, but he found that had just been the disappointment talking. As it happened, there was nowhere else he’d rather be. Wrapped up in scratchy, woolen blankets he drifted off with the smell of horse in his nose. He had the fleeting thought that he’d managed to stay away for the longest stretch yet before he finally passed out.
Joe woke to a roaring fire in an otherwise empty cabin. He dropped a hand to the spot beside him, still warm from where Arthur had lain. Outside of the only window, it was dark, but he could hear the soft whickering of Calpurnia as she grazed her way around the building, making a valiant effort to denude the landscape of all greenery. Arthur wouldn’t be far off. If only he were tucked in with Joe, where his presence would be real instead of Joe’s imagination trying to fill the empty spot beside him as it had been for months. After only a few days of sharing a bed with Arthur, he didn’t want to go without it anymore. Staring at the ceiling, Joe realized that he could simply find Arthur outside. He wasn’t stuck with a handful of imaginary morsels of Arthur, he had the real thing at his fingertips, under which he’d seemed eager and willing. If Arthur wanted to be alone, Joe would go back to bed, but it would be so much easier if he could get a quick glance, to reassure himself that it hadn’t all been a delight of his fevered mind.
He opened the door and almost tripped over Arthur, seated on one of the two creaky, decaying steps beneath the threshold. Apparently, he hadn’t gone far at all. Joe hadn’t bothered with a jacket or shoes, so the cold bit instantly through his thin shirt and made him shiver. He picked his way down the steps to stand on the grass beside Arthur, who had thought ahead and sat wrapped in one of the heavy wool horse blankets. As summer wrapped up, the cold crept in at night and gave the forest a forbidding air, with a frigid reminder that death could come swiftly in the mountains. It wasn’t enough to force him back inside yet. He followed Arthur’s contented gaze up towards the swirling canopy of stars overhead. He hadn’t seen them since well before they’d left Valentine. Grey clouds had cut them off from the sky for days, and then his own illness had kept him locked away inside. Arthur’s voice interrupted his train of thought. Joe glanced down at Arthur’s face and felt his heart constrict. It had only happened twice, and he already knew he’d never get enough of Arthur looking at him like that.
“Fine,” Joe said with another shiver. He smiled, “missed you when I woke up.”
“Come over here, before you make yourself even sicker,” Arthur growled. He lifted the side of the blanket up and jerked his head towards the empty space. Even in the low light from inside the cabin, Joe could see a flush creeping up the back of Arthur’s neck. He ducked beneath the offered blanket and settled on the step. Heat blazed off of Arthur’s skin, more than a match for the night time chill. Joe had become so much more sensitive to the temperature since his dip in the Dakota, which made Arthur’s touch all the more delicious in combating the cold.
“It’s freezing. What are you doing out here?”
Arthur shrugged. “Don’t sleep indoors very often, ain’t much used to it.” Arthur went back to sharpening his knife with steady scrapes against a whetstone. A half-formed horse’s wooden head protruded from the pale piece of pine wood that Arthur was carving. He liked to watch Arthur do little tasks like this. His hands moved with grace over the tools. He’d always been enamoured with people that knew their craft well and practiced it with confidence. Arthur wanted to pretend that he wasn’t skilled or clever, but Joe knew better and awaited the day he could have a word with whoever had brought Arthur to believe that vicious lie with such sincerity. Arthur was more than those skills too, so much more. Joe wished he could help Arthur understand. He loved Arthur’s hands for all the fine work that they could do, but also simply because they belonged to Arthur.
“You saved my life.”
“Reckon we’re even on that front, more or less.” Joe could see his small smile out of the corner of his eye. He blew on the wood and a handful of soft pine curls fell to join the others in a pile at their feet. Setting the wooden horse aside, he returned to sharpening.
“Should we talk about it?” Arthur stiffened beside him, hands stilling over his whetstone. Frozen in place, he kept his eyes down, looking at the dirt between his boots. Joe slipped one hand out of the blanket and reached out to turn Arthur’s face towards him. He pressed a deep, tender kiss to Arthur’s lips. “Thank you. For showing me your journal.”
Arthur met his eyes and nodded once, swallowing hard before they dropped back to the ground. Joe listed to the side, letting his head drop to Arthur’s shoulder while they sat. He pressed their knees together. After a minute, Arthur shifted and then stopped. A few seconds later, he did it again. Joe thought maybe he’d pushed too hard. Or perhaps was simply making Arthur uncomfortable, but when he sat up, pulling his head away from Arthur's shoulder, Arthur's arm snaked out around his waist, hand settling in a loose hold on Joe's hip. Joe’s breath stopped. Arthur’s fingers left hot spots of fire against his skin.
He cuddled closer, wrapping his own arm’s around Arthur’s waist and tucking himself more comfortably against Arthur, who settled into the touch and tightened his grip. Shifting about, they twined themselves together. Arthur dropped his knife and whetstone to the ground, abandoning the task to pull Joe closer. He couldn’t remember the last time he’s simply sat and watched the stars, tucked up against another warm body. All the pressing issues that he’d had nothing but time to think about for the last few days drifted away. Their small puffs of breath mingled in the cold night air. He breathed out a contented sigh and closed his eyes, soaking in the moment for as long as he could.
Joe let out a startled yelp as a hot burst of horse breath ruffled his hair, yanking him back into alertness. Calpurnia, choosing to ignore his theatrics, lipped at his hair as she investigated his person. He hadn’t seen her since the bank robbery, but wasn’t fool enough to think she had been concerned for him, only his ability to pass along treats. Her demanding nose bumped against his pockets, nudging his entire body so that he rocked against Arthur, pushed by her heavy head. Arthur’s chuckle was a low, warm rumble against his back.
“Sorry girl, I haven’t got anything.” She pulled face her back with an offended snort and blew a damp breath into his face again. Arthur’s head tipped back with open, delighted laughter.
“Your own fault for spoiling her,” he whispered into Joe’s ear, as if he wasn’t wrapped around her hoof, wandering around the woods with his pockets full of peppermints. “Best not be expecting some kind of reward,” he said, pushing Calpurnia’s inquisitive nose away from his own pockets. “Off with you. Get. Think there’s one whole plant over there you ain’t eaten yet.”
Arms tight around Joe’s waist, Arthur pulled him close again, tucked between Arthur’s knees so that he could wrap the blanket all the way around both of them. Arthur kissed the angle of his jaw and he shivered, sighing into the embrace with Arthur’s smile pressed into his skin. He much preferred the warmth of Arthur’s breath ghosting across his neck.
“She can’t help it. She was raised in a barn, you know,” he said, just to feel Arthur’s soft laughter tickling his ear.
Arthur woke long before Joe, eyes cracking open at the first brush of sunlight on his face. He’d watched the storm clouds break apart last night, peeling away to reveal a glittering, inky black sky that promised the resurgence of warm weather in the morning. Despite that certainty, everything else was like a haze. He was walking through a dreamscape where few events made sense, and those that did still felt topsy-turvy. Joe lay beside him, blankets pulled up over his face, so that nothing but a tuft of curly dark hair peeked out. Arthur reached out to brush it off of his forehead. Because I’m allowed to do that now, he thought with a giddy rush. When he’d practically thrown his feelings at Joe by tossing the journal in his lap, he hadn’t known what to expect. Not that he’d gone in completely blind. Joe had said and done things over the last few weeks that had lessened Arthur’s doubts time and again. It was so rare that his love life worked out the way he wanted it to that Arthur had still been worried. He hadn’t expected that Joe would be horrible, but any level of rejection would have hurt.
Fortunately for Arthur, rejection didn’t seem to be on the table, or even in the room.
Inside the cabin, it was bright and warm. A happy change from the last few days of dreary skies and cold. Maybe Rhodes wouldn’t be so bad, as they tumbled into autumn, with its warmer, southern weather. Valentine’s fall would be wet and muddy, which Arthur thought they’d both endured enough of that week to last for the rest of the season. Arthur slipped out of bed, leaving Joe to sleep. He’d be lying to himself, if he said that he wasn’t a touch more invested in Joe’s recovery than he already had been. For entirely selfish reasons.
Over the next couple of days, they settled into a rhythm that comprised of Arthur working to keep them warm and fed, and Joe sleeping and driving Arthur to the brink of madness. Arthur didn’t mind the idea of working while Joe recovered, found it relaxing, even a touch domestic, but Joe chafed over it all. Pent up energy drove him mad, his body unable to keep up with his desire to be up and out of bed. Arthur tried to give him an array of quiet distractions, but they didn’t tend to last long. He powered through every chore Joe gave him before Arthur could find another one to fill his time. In the evenings, he managed to keep Joe abed with a steady supply of warm touches and kissing as Arthur read to him from the book that he’d been carrying in his saddle bags.
It was all terribly domestic, something that he had never really envisioned for himself. Even with Eliza, he’d dipped in and out so infrequently that they hadn’t settled into any kind of daily routine. He didn’t see his usual chores as domestic, just duties that needed to be done. But he found himself enjoying the quiet moments with Joe, not minding laundry or anything of the other jobs that he often found so tedious. After a while, he realized that he’d be sad for it to end. They’d made the cabin cozy and inhabitable and for a little while, everything was easy and gentle with no threats to his or any one else’s life.
One evening Arthur returned from the wood pile outside to, once again, find Joe shuffling around the cabin attempting to stoke the fire and stir the stew that Arthur had left to bubble on the stove.
“How many times–” Arthur huffed, dumping his things by the front door. “Stay in the goddamned bed.” He pulled Joe to his feet and hustled him over to the bed, where he sat back with a thump. Arthur could see goosebumps on what little flesh he had exposed to the elements, despite the toasty temperature within the cabin, and he’d gone a greenish shade of pale again. His lungs rattled on each breath out. Life was devolving into a race to see what would kill Joe first: Arthur or his lungs.
“I can’t watch you run around and do all the work.”
“Until you can get out of bed without breaking out into chills or coughing , you’re not well enough to be up.” Arthur pushed Joe’s legs back up under the blankets and tucked them firmly around him, hoping to restrain him for a little while at least.
“And you’re a bad patient,” Arthur snapped at him. Joe pouted and Arthur was annoyed that he found it charming, rather than ridiculous, despite his frustrations.
“Almost as bad as you,” Joe muttered.
“Oh, no. I was worse. But you think I’m an idiot, you don’t want to be like me.”
“That’s not true.” He uncrossed his arms and sighed, pulling the blankets up around himself. “You shouldn’t be doing all of the work, it isn’t fair. Besides, moving about a bit is good for patients with pneumonia, it helps your lungs heal.”
“Is that a professional diagnosis or are you just lyin’ to me so I’ll let you up?” Joe fidgeted while Arthur stoked the fire properly. After a few moments of watching Arthur moving about, he tossed the blankets down again in a huff.
“I feel useless! I could cook. That’s simple, not much standing at all.”
“I’d rather our food remain edible.” Joe scowled in response. Arthur went over and pressed a kiss to his forehead. He was happy to tease Joe, but he wasn’t willing to make him actually feel bad about the scenario.
“I don’t want you to have to take care of me,” he mumbled. Arthur sat on the edge of the bed and squeezed Joe’s knee through the blanket. He’d figured out quickly that Joe was a tactile person, rubbing up on him like a cat at every opportunity, and Arthur didn’t mind at all. He shot Arthur a wobbly, apologetic smile that did very little to make him look less miserable. He stared down at his hands, folded in his lap and murmured, “I’m not very good at this.”
“Not sure recovering counts as bein’ idle.” Arthur tucked some of Joe’s dark hair back behind his ear. “Body’s rebuildin’ itself and repairin’ things, ain’t it?”
“You’ve spent too much time with me,” Joe snorted, rolling his eyes. Arthur waited for him to respond, some desire to comment evident in his body language. Arthur was nothing if not patient. More so, whenever it managed to annoy Joe.
Eventually, he spoke, ”you’ll start to resent me.”
“I will if you up and die on me cause you won’t rest,” Arthur responded with a crooked smile and then sobered, sensing a need for seriousness. He couldn’t imagine why Joe was worried about that. Arthur owed him and cared for him and failed to see any other way that this could turn out. He would have taken care of Joe no matter the circumstances at this point. It was a bit of a shock for him to realize that. Somewhere in the last little while, he’d become invested in Joe’s health and happiness and he wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it. It was the same old problem that he always encountered: his lifestyle wasn’t conducive to relationships with normal people, whose faces didn’t appear on wanted posters across multiple states. The universe seemed to be against it. He tried not to take it too personally.
“I don’t mind. You’ve done more’n that for me.” Joe didn’t look convinced. Arthur leaned in and kissed him. “I want to take care of you.” He kissed Joe again, pressing closer and licking into his mouth. “And if you weren’t so damn stubborn, you’d let me.”
Joe laughed as Arthur pushed him down against the bed, slotting their thighs together and rolling them to the side, kissing and stroking until Joe turned into a happy puddle beneath his hands. He stopped, with a quick peck to Joe’s lips, who looked instantly ruffled and offended. Arthur grinned. “If you want more of this , you have to get healthy enough to have it. I ain’t sure you’d survive right now.”
Arthur kissed the aghast expression off of his face, dragging them together for another slow round of necking. He trailed his hand down Joe’s side and dipped his thumb beneath the band of his trousers. Joe arched up into the touch, fingers tightening where they’d wandered into Arthur’s hair. By far, Arthur preferred this method of keeping Joe in bed.
Arthur fair considered it a miracle when Joe emerged from the cabin a few days later, looking much farther from death than he had for the week prior. He was still pale and a touch weak, but the cough had eased to the occasional bout and he’d been fever free for a while. Cold air didn’t bring him out in chill bumps at the slightest provocation and he had only fallen into short naps here and there, rather than sleeping through most of the day. Arthur also considered it a minor miracle that he hadn’t murdered Joe over the last couple of days, when it had become harder and hard to convince him to rest. He wasn’t sure that it was necessary, and Joe certainly argued that it wasn’t, but he didn’t want to take any chances. He’d seen the smallest injuries turn fatal in the blink of an eye.
Calpurnia stomped and hit Arthur with a restless slap of her tail as he cinched the strap around her flank. He smacked her rump and pointed one stern finger at her when she glared at him with one black and glassy eye. Grunting, he heaved the heavy saddle bags over her back and tied them in place. Joe went to collect more of their things for the journey, to check for anything they might have forgotten.
Now that the time had come, he didn’t really want to leave. He could have stayed in the cabin for weeks more, maybe months. Strawberry wasn’t far, an easy ride for supplies, and there was fresh flowing water a stone’s throw away. He’d already invested time in minor repairs, with some additional work he could have made it more than livable. In another time, it might have been the perfect place to while away the days with Joe. But, in the end, it didn’t suit either of them. Both had jobs to do, people to look after. Joe stepped back outside with the last of their belongings and the door shut behind him, closing on their little spot of peace.
Arthur mounted up and waited for Joe to shrug into his jacket, offering his hand to help the other man up. He swung into his seat behind Arthur, tucked warmly against him. Calpurnia shifted beneath them, displeased with the weight she was being forced to carry after so many days without any passengers larger than flies. She stomped once, jostling them, then settled. Joe grabbed Arthur and held on; Arthur could feel Joe’s nervous tension digging into his sides. One handed, Arthur grabbed Joe’s hand and tugged it around his waist, threading their fingers together where he rested them against his stomach. Joe’s soft laugh bumped against his back as he leaned into the touch and relaxed. Arthur smiled as they set off for civilization.
AO3's spell checker is viciously American and kept trying to convince me that "enamoured" was spelled without a 'u'. Sadly, it is very wrong.
Arthur flinched as water shook off of the tightly packed evergreen needles above his head, shaken loose by the passing train. Calpurnia shied away from the sound, twitching with unhappiness and causing more water to run down the back of Arthur’s neck. He watched heavy droplets battering the periwinkle petals of a bunch of columbines and felt grateful for the branches easing the downpour above them. At least they were sheltered from the worst of the downpour. Wrapped in Arthur’s heavy shearling leather jacket and Arthur’s arms, Joe was sheltered from the rain entirely.
A raucous group of lawmen outside of Wallace station had forced them to backtrack a short distance, alerting Joe and Arthur to their presence with loud laughter. Down the hill, where the trees packed together in dense thickets, they’d found a spot to hide, wedged between the station and the train tracks. Rain had begun to fall an hour into their ride, while they had been going slow to prevent Calpurnia from tiring too quickly, forced to carry the both of them and an extra set of packs. Arthur might have walked the whole way to Strawberry, if he were alone, but he didn’t think Joe would make it without exhausting himself. And, with the mud and damp, they wouldn’t have made it before dark. Gentle mist had turned into a cold deluge, so that Arthur had been considering getting off of the trail anyway. The last thing he wanted to do was try to escape or outrun the law on Calpurnia, both him and Joe together. Although, in all likelihood Arthur would have sent Joe off with Calpurnia and tried to lead the law away. He’d get them there in the end.
Somewhere in the distance, an echoing howl made Calpurnia stamp and fidget, ears flicking back and forth and eyes rolling in her head. He hated this part of the country, having run into more than his fair share of bears and wolves roving the landscape. Joe shivered and pulled closer, tucking his face in against Arthur’s neck. Warm lips passed over his skin, leaving three small kisses in their wake. Arthur had his suspicions that Joe wasn’t all that afraid of the threat of wolves, but he was happy to maintain the façade. He’d been clingy, pressed up against Arthur for most of the trip. Not that Arthur had any real complaints about that.
“Fought off two goddamn grizzlies in one day out here, you know.”
“And this is supposed to make me feel better?” Joe mumbled against his skin. Arthur grinned.
“Black bears I like, they’re cowards who’ll run for the hills soon as they smell you‘n your horse, but grizzlies look at a man on horseback and take it as some kinda challenge.”
“But you fought two of them? That’s terribly impressive,” he said, turning his head to plant a trail of kisses up the otherside of Arthur’s neck. Arthur tipped his head back and felt his hair catch in a bit of sap. He almost regretted leaving his hat hooked to Calpurnia’s saddle.
“I’ll show you the scar sometime.”
He kept talking, to fill the time.
“Wolves, they don’t much care for people. Even in packs. Humans just ain’t their cup of tea. Gotta be real hungry.” Joe slid his hands beneath Arthur’s jacket, tucking them up against the back of his shirt. “Now, cougars. They’re the real assholes of the forest.” Joe smothered his laughter against Arthur’s chest, shoulders shaking. “Take one look at a human being walkin’ along and think to themselves ‘mm-mm, lunch on the hoof’.”
Joe snorted again, then froze as the voices they’d been hiding from got closer. Hidden beneath the trees, so far from the trail, it was alarming to hear the creak of the horse’s tack as the lawmen passed them by, their voices close and loud. Arthur silently willed Calpurnia to stay calm and still. He could feel Joe holding his breath. A few heartbeats later and they were gone, splashing away down the trail.
“Do you think that’s all of them?”
“Maybe. Might wait a bit longer to be sure.” Arthur replied, tightening his hold on Joe. Despite the ice cold water making its way down his back and the suggestion of nearby dangerous predators — both human and animal — he didn’t have too many complaints about the situation.
Joe wasn’t warm enough though. Still pale and clammy. Arthur continued to feel bad about how wrongheaded things had gotten and how much chaos he’d sewn in Joe’s life. Even Joe’s breath against his throat was a touch colder than he thought it should be. Joe scraped his teeth across Arthur’s collar bone and he sucked in a cool breath of pine-scented air. Springy, needle-filled soil shifted beneath their feet.
Lawmen trotting about in the wilderness was a concern. Aside from the station, there were few settlements in the area and not a lot of places to run or hide, except for places in which Arthur had ended up at one point or another. Given that information, he didn’t take their presence as a good sign. It seemed more than likely they were searching for bank robbers in hiding. Arthur couldn’t be sure of their safety until he’d seen the wanted posters in town, but he didn’t want to risk coming in to contact with lawmen out in the wild. That wasn’t a fight he wanted to have. He yelped when Joe’s freezing cold hands found their way under his shirt, sending goosebumps rippling across his skin.
“Now that’s just mean.”
Arthur kept their going slow, to keep Calpurnia from turning an ankle in the sloppy mud around their feet and dismounted frequently to walk her through the more treacherous parts of the trail. Caught up in the euphoria of their time in the cabin, he’d almost forgotten the mountain of bullshit that awaited them back in the real world. Or he’d blocked it out at the very least, tried to forget the fact that he’d inadvertently ruined Joe’s life. It was possible that Joe had forgotten too, since he had kissed Arthur… Although, Arthur had seen enough of the kinds of decisions that Joe made to at least consider the idea that the man had lost his mind. He hadn’t shown any signs of regretting it though. Arthur wanted to relax into Joe, but he was distracted by the oncoming storm he could feel brewing ahead of them, its shape unknown. It bothered him that he didn’t have enough information to predict what might happen. There was a solid chance that everything would blow up in their faces the second they hit town. He sighed as Joe’s hands and mouth wandered aimlessly across his skin. Pine bark bit into his lower back where his shirt and jacket rode up against the trunk.
“Once we get to Strawberry, I’ll have a better idea of what’s goin’ on.”
“And how much trouble we’re in?” Arthur snorted. “Maybe no one recognized me. Might be lucky this time.” He was surprised, Joe seemed so relaxed about the whole situation.
Joe leaned back, looking puzzled. “For what?”
“Ruinin’ everything for you, I guess.” Arthur shrugged and let his hands drop to Joe’s upper arms with a gentle squeeze. “Sorry you can’t go home. Sorry it’s all a mess.”
“I liked Valentine fine, but I never really considered it home. Haven’t had anything I’d call ‘home’ in a long time.”
“Well, wherever you want to go, anywhere, wherever home is, I’ll help get ya there. Got a little money, know some people.”
“Right.” Joe pulled out of Arthur’s grip, his chilled hands sliding the rest of the way out of Arthur’s jacket. He stepped a few feet away and wrapped his arms around himself. “Anywhere.”
“It’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you,” Joe responded, sounding stilted. Arthur shivered, sad to lose what little heat Joe had been providing, but they needed to get going if they wanted to reach town before dark. He led Calpurnia out from under the trees and checked the saddle over, slipping her a wild carrot in the process to thank her for her cooperation. She crunched happily while he cinched a strap. Joe stayed beneath the tree’s sheltering branches until the last minute, when he mounted up behind Arthur. He frowned, but said nothing, when Joe didn’t press back up against him and rested his hands on Arthur’s hips, touch a bit more polite than Arthur would have liked. He nudged Calpurnia back up the trail and stopped to listen. A few moments of silence later, they rode off through a field of fireweed and sweetgrass, kicking up a fresh, sweet smell into the air. Joe remained quiet for the rest of the ride, only speaking when Arthur asked him a direct question and even then, he did little more than grunt out one word answers. Arthur missed the warmth clinging to his back.
Strawberry came into view through a gap in the rocks, glittering with lamp light. Somehow, Arthur was surprised when the drizzle kept coming after they’d arrived in Strawberry, like he’d thought the introduction of civilization would cut them off from the wilderness, the rain. Like it could hold off the weather. It was later than he’d planned, right around twilight. But the lawmen had waylaid them for a while and they hadn’t hurried. At the very least, the semi-darkness gave them a bit of cover if the law was lying in wait, ready to grab them up and lock them away.
Arthur guided Calpurnia to the message board as they passed it, browsing the combination of adverts and wanted posters. He was pleased to see neither his face, nor Joe’s. Perhaps he had gotten away from the Valentine bank robbery without being implicated. Coming as no surprise to Arthur, Micah’s was a prominent feature, repeated no less than three times. He wasn’t proud of the part he’d played in freeing Micah or what they had done to the town. He still couldn’t quite decide if helping Micah had been better or worse than leaving him to hang. Loyalty mattered, sure, but he wondered how far that went when it was directed towards someone that killed indiscriminately and revelled in the havoc they caused. He suspected he knew Dutch’s opinion, but Arthur wasn’t sold. Certainly not on Micah.
“Do I want to know?” came Joe’s sullen voice from behind him, a few feet back.
“Free and clear. Here at least,” he said with a small, crooked smile.
Joe declined the offer of a ride and walked beside Arthur to the inn, a respectable distance away. Standing in the visitor center’s foyer, dripping on their polished hardwood floors, he looked exhausted. For the last hour, they had slogged through the mud on slippery hills, leading Calpurnia behind them. By the time they’d stumbled into town, both men and their horse were soaked through and covered in mud up to their knees. Arthur ordered hot baths and food, and asked to have their clothes cleaned for the morning, all while the man behind the desk glared daggers at them for tracking in mud.
It took a few tries before Joe registered Arthur’s voice calling his name and snapped back to reality and Arthur dangling a key in front of his face. Arthur smiled at him and rattled off their room numbers upstairs, but he got only the barest twitch of a smile in return. He hoped that Joe’s reticent misery was purely because of the cold and damp. Joe took his key and disappeared up the stairs. Arthur was tempted to follow him, to make sure he was alright, but he had a few things to accomplish before night fell. He had been distracted and unfocused for hours by that point and Arthur worried. He was starting to worry that he’d done something wrong by taking them away from the cabin in the woods. Or done something to Joe, hurt him in some way. He wasn’t sure what to do about Joe’s sudden change in behaviour. Maybe he wasn’t as relaxed about the mess as Arthur had assumed.
After depositing Calpurnia at a stable and paying extra to ensure she was treated like a queen, Arthur posted a letter to Maeve and Felix, to reassure them that he and Joe were alright. He considered including the fact that he and Joe had finally started to figure their shit out, thinking that she’d get a kick out of it, but in the end he realized that they hadn’t really talked about much of anything. He hauled their packs upstairs to his room and knocked on Joe’s door. After the second knock with no response, he wandered off to take his own bath.
Although Arthur tended to eschew civilization as a general rule, he could admit that it had its perks. Many of which he’d forgotten until he was submerged up to his chin in steaming hot, citrus-scented bathwater. He looked forward to decent food, a comfortable mattress and clean clothes, all waiting for him after his bath. Bubbles tickled his skin.
He scrubbed himself from head to toe until the water went cold and his fingertips began to wrinkle, then hauled himself out to dry off and shave away nearly two weeks worth of beard growth. He pulled on fresh, clean clothes and went off to look for Joe. Either he was ignoring Arthur knocking on his door, or he’d left the hotel entirely. Arthur hoped it was the latter.
While passing by the saloon, Arthur caught sight of Joe inside, ensconced in a back corner nursing a glass of whiskey with a blank expression while he watched a handful of people swing around the dancefloor. A wall of noise met Arthur in the doorway, thrusting him firmly back into civilization, where everything was loud and populous. Cheerful, jaunty piano music danced throughout the room. Joe looked up when Arthur sat beside him with his own drink, a puzzled expression passing over his face. Arthur grew more certain that he’d done something to upset him, but struggled to believe that Joe was punishing him, or ignoring him. It simply wasn’t like him to react that way to anything. Joe had more than proven that he’d rather meet things head on.
He sat with one elbow propped on the table, chin in hand, staring out over the people moving around him as if he didn’t see them. Arthur almost wished he were frowning instead, rather than the blank, mindless look he wore now. All Arthur wanted to do was drag him in by the collar and kiss him until it slid off of his face. Not that the Strawberry saloon was the right place for that kind of thing. But he’d gotten used to being able to do so over the last week.
After a while, he went to the counter and got another round of beers. When he returned to the table, he scraped his chair to the side so that he was closer to Joe, their backs to the wall and kicked his feet up on the chair across from him, angling his upper body towards Joe. He didn’t pull away, which Arthur took as a good sign, but he didn’t seem changed much at all. Arthur wasn’t foolish enough to think that his mere presence would cheer Joe up. He wanted that to be the case, but knew better. He only hoped that it might make Joe feel a little less alone. Arthur was well acquainted with the feeling, particularly when he’d been shoved back into civilization’s tender mercies like this and needed time to adapt. At least he was used to it. He doubted Joe had much experience with the transition, born city boy that he was.
When the light began to dim with sunset washing over the town and the bar got dark, the music got louder, the people rowdier, and Arthur let himself relax into a feeling of anonymity tucked into their back corner. He laughed along with everyone else when two couples crashed into each other and nearly took out the piano player, then slipped one hand beneath the table to squeeze Joe’s thigh in the distracting chaos. He hadn’t really been thinking much when he’d made the decision. Joe jumped, startled.
For the next little while, Joe seemed less vacant, kept sneaking glances at Arthur out of the corner of his eye. Arthur couldn’t read his expression any better than that. After a while, he started to relax. He was still quiet and closed off, but looked more tense and perplexed than actively unhappy. Eventually, they relaxed back into their chairs and watched the ebb and flow of the bar patrons swirling around them.
True night had fallen by the time they left the saloon. Two tumblers of whiskey had made Arthur warm and loose and happy, but not drunk. He was sad to leave the coziness of the bar for the cold, muddy streets as they made their way back to the inn. Joe chose to walk beside him, about an arm’s length away, outside of Arthur’s reach, which felt pointed and disappointing. Arthur still wanted to reach out for him, but his body language was clear enough that he didn’t. He seemed closed off and uninterested, like he’d shut himself off from Arthur. Instead, he tucked his hands in his pockets and wandered along beside Joe in the quiet darkness.
Upstairs, past the unmanned reception area, they once again parted ways going to opposite corners of the sitting area and their respective doors. Arthur slotted his key in the lock but, standing there, he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to fall asleep without Joe tucked up against him. He’d been sleeping alone for most of his life, but now he couldn’t see the appeal anymore. He didn’t want to. It was cold, even inside the building. He’d gotten them separate rooms part as a pretense and part because he wanted to give Joe space. Arthur was used to cramped quarters, everyone living out of each other’s pockets, but Joe wasn’t. He’d had a whole building to himself not too long ago, living out of the clinic.
Now confronted with the idea of sleeping alone, he decided that he had made the wrong decision and sent a message he hadn’t intended. He wasn’t quite sure how to take it back. He turned to say something and saw that Joe, standing in a mirror of Arthur’s own position, forehead pressed to the door he slumped against, eyes shut tight. Arthur must have made some kind of noise, because the next thing he knew, Joe was looking at him with that same piercing gaze that Arthur loved and hated in equal measure. Tension filled the room like a tangible thing; Arthur could take a bite out of it if he wanted to.
"Joe—" he began and in three long strides, Joe had crossed the space between them and crowded Arthur against the door; he was in Arthur’s arms, cupping his jaw and pulling him into a searing, open-mouthed kiss. Arthur groaned into it. Sharp, smokey whiskey lingered on his tongue when Arthur licked into his mouth. There were things they needed to talk about, but Arthur couldn’t bring himself to care one whit with Joe pressed up against him.
He fumbled with the key, glad he’d slipped it into the lock before this all started, because he wasn’t sure he would be willing to stop kissing Joe long enough to get them through the door. He doubted the Strawberry welcome center would look kindly on them tearing each other’s clothes off in the sitting room. On his fourth try, the lock clicked open and them tumbled into the room. Joe kicked it shut, then whipped Arthur around and shoved him back against it all over again. Arthur grunted as the door knob dug into his kidney.
Suspenders slipped from his shoulders, pushed by Joe’s hands, which had moved on to his belt buckled before Arthur could catch up. Joe pulled away so that he could see what he was doing and Arthur panted, his lips felt bruised. Arthur’s gunbelt dropped to the floor with a thud that seemed loud in the small space and he briefly wondered if there were other guests that might be disturbed, then Joe was kissing him again and he forgot all about it. Normally graceful, Joe’s hands had turned clumsy in his haste as they popped the buttons of his shirt. He dragged Arthur in for another kiss, their teeth clicking together painfully.
Arthur was far from unwilling. Joe was healthy again. Or, well, healthier than he had been and it had been a long time since Arthur had gotten to have sex indoors, on a comfortable bed with walls and sheets and pillows; all the trappings he rarely got to enjoy. He was excited by the opportunity to do, but Joe’s hand was already down his pants, gripping him through the fabric of his underclothes and Arthur thought they might not make it to the bed. Arthur groaned into Joe’s mouth and twitched his hips.
“Joe,” Arthur tried to say, voice muffled against the other man’s lips. “Hang on a sec.”
“Do you want to stop?” Joe pulled back a bit, still pressed against Arthur, still breathing the same air.
“No. Just, slow down. We got plenty of time.” Joe let out a small, hysterical laugh.
“We’ve got all night,” Arthur said, leaning in to press a quick kiss to his lips. “Might as well use the bed while we got it.”
Joe’s only response was to grind their hips together with the rough slide of denim between them. He slowed, but not much. Something about him still seemed off. Arthur couldn’t put his finger on it. Joe wasn’t quite acting like himself. At least, not in any way Arthur had seen. But this whole situation was new and Joe full of surprises. His hot tongue and teeth scraping at Arthur’s jawline had taken on a desperate tinge. He wondered if he should be stopping this. If not this, he couldn’t imagine what might help Joe feel better, to drag him out of his own head for a while, where he was clearly trapped in a flurry of unhappy thoughts. Arthur felt responsible for Joe’s evident misery. Neither of them would be in this situation if it hadn’t been for the bank robbery and Arthur’s bad decisions. If he’d been a better man, Joe wouldn’t be suffering, wanted, on the run, ill and injured. He’d have his clinic and his work and his stable life. No matter how much Arthur cared, he’d still messed things up for Joe.
“I’m better,” Joe whispered against his lips, “I’m fine.” He kissed the underside of Arthur’s jaw. “I want this, if you do.”
Arthur grabbed Joe’s collar and dragged him into another kiss, angling his head to push it deeper. Joe’s tongue pressed against his lips until they parted, bringing that sharp whiskey-bite into his mouth again. Wrapping his arms around Joe’s waist, Arthur pulled him closer. Joe’s chilled hands caressed his neck and slid up the nape into his hair, where he buried his fingers, sending a shiver down Arthur’s spine. He’d been cold since the river, like his body had forgotten how to generate heat all on its own. Judging by the flush on his cheeks, that wasn’t quite true. Arthur found himself enjoying the tingling contrast between Joe’s cold hands and his own flushed skin.
Joe finished with Arthur’s buttons and tugged his shirt tails free, then his undershirt, and slid his hands around Arthur’s exposed waist. Arthur’s abdominal muscles jumped at the cool touch. Joe’s thumb traced the bullet scar on his flank, the only remnant of the wound that had first brought Arthur to the clinic. Arthur, feeling exposed, started in on Joe’s clothes, fumbling and distracted by Joe’s hands sliding down the curve of his ass as he began to push Arthur’s jeans down. Joe pressed a kiss to the pulse point in his neck, dragging his lips along the sensitive skin to nip at the skin of his throat. Freshly shaved, the sensation felt novel and delightful. Arthur hadn’t had anyone focus on his neck before and he found that he liked it, enjoying the feeling of someone’s teeth at his throat who didn’t want to kill him.
Joe returned his attention to Arthur’s mouth, sucking and biting at his lower lip. They fell into a rhythm, kissing and working away at each other’s clothes. Arthur’s skin burned. It had been a too long since he’d last done this. He slid his hands down Joe’s sides, careful to avoid his wound from his trip down the river, although it was healing well. As his hand floated over the bandage, his heart skipped a beat. Joe had almost died in that river, before they could ever experience this. Arthur hadn’t quite realized how devastating that would have been. His hands clenched tighter, digging into Joe’s waist.
He dragged their hips together, slid his right leg between Joe’s and rocked up, pulling a gasp out of him. He was making slow progress with Joe’s clothing, distracted as he was by Joe’s hands and lips and the urge to touch. Joe’s single-minded determination hadn’t been impeded at all and now Arthur stood slouched against the door, half-dressed, in complete disarray: jeans unbuttoned, undershirt rucked up his chest and belt abandoned on the floor. His hand had been working its way back into Arthur’s pants, but he pulled away. Arthur made a noise, not exactly happy about the development.
But Arthur got to experience Joe’s scrutiny in an entirely new context. His face went hot under the look on Joe’s face, like he was admiring Arthur’s debauched appearance in the room’s low light. Joe had never looked at him quite like that before and he found he wanted to see a whole lot more of it. But still, he couldn’t help himself, he scoffed at Joe’s appreciative hum.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joe asked, with one eyebrow raised, finishing off the rest of his own buttons.
“Ain’t much to look at.” Arthur shrugged. Joe opened his mouth to respond and then rolled his eyes instead. It was one of the first sparks of Joe’s personality to shine through that evening. Figured that Arthur would simply annoy it out of him. He yanked Arthur’s shirts up over his head and pushed into Arthur’s space and dropped to his knees, shoving Arthur’s hips back against the door. Arthur shifted away from the doorknob, which was starting to get a touch too familiar with his spine. Joe carried on where he’d left off, pulling his pants down his thighs. Arthur’s head dropped back and cracked against the door. He groaned, half from the pain, half from the intense heat of Joe’s mouth suddenly wrapped around his cock. It seemed Joe saw something he liked.
His hands dropped to Joe’s shoulders and gripped his shirt in balled fists. Joe’s hands held his thighs, pressing his hips back against the door. Joe did something with his tongue and Arthur’s hands convulsed, vision sparkling as a pleasant pressure shivered along his spine. He twitched his hips forward and and a hand on his abdomen shoved him back. Joe pulled part way off and looked up at Arthur, lips still wrapped around the tip of his cock and grabbed one of Arthur’s hands. He cooperated as Joe guided it into his own hair at the back of his head. It was just long enough for Arthur to hold, sweeping a few stray bits of fringe out of his eyes, so that he could see them better. In the room’s dim light, they were so dark they were almost black. Then he sank down on Arthur’s full length without breaking eye contact. Arthur’s hand tightened in his hair and he hummed, satisfied, turning his full attention back to licking and sucking. Arthur started to worry about his heart and almost came on the spot. Joe’s typical intensity carried through in every swipe of his tongue, the attention bordered on too much for Arthur.
He gathered Joe’s hair in his fist and, as he pulled back to swirl his tongue around the tip of Arthur’s cock, he tugged and turned Joe’s face to the side. Eyes squeezed shut, he panted and shuddered against the door, trying to hold off before this was all over too soon. When he opened them again, Joe watched him with an expression both adoring and mischievous, more of his personality coming back out of his earlier silences. Head still turned to the side, he locked eyes with Arthur and ran his lips along the underside of Arthur’s cock.
Arthur grabbed his open shirt and hauled Joe back to his feet. Joe stumbled forward, crashing into him and shoving one denim-clad leg between Arthur’s, scraping rough fabric against his erection. Arthur let out a strangled groan at the almost-painful sensation. Joe laughed out an apology against his throat while Arthur grabbed at his trousers and worked the fly open, taking him in hand. His laughter turned into a rough gasp at the touch.
One handed, Arthur pushed Joe’s pants down his thighs while he jerked him slowly, far softer than Joe had been. He drank down the small, guttural sounds that Joe was making, the soft puffs of hot breath against his neck. Having shoved both of their pants off and kicked their boots to the side, Arthur let go a moment and reached for Joe’s shirt, only to be stopped by a hesitant hand. Joe stayed pressed up against him, chest heaving, but wouldn’t meet his eyes anymore. Arthur let go. It was a touch awkward, being the only one completely naked, but he wouldn’t have forced Joe to do anything uncomfortable. He grabbed Joe’s waist instead, pulling him close and and rolling their hips together, hot and insistent.
Joe laughed short and rough, weaving his hands into Arthur’s hair. He sounded giddy. Joe’s head tipped back, exposing his neck and Arthur took full advantage, kissing him again. He ran teeth and tongue over the taught cords of his neck, the soft spot behind his ear and the edge of his jaw. He tasted fresh and clean with the same lingering citrusy scent as the inn’s bath soap. Joe’s hands tightened in Arthur’s hair and turned his head to the side, so that he could lick into his mouth again. Arthur reached down to grip them both in one calloused hand. Joe groaned into his mouth, thrusting his hips.
“God that’s good,” Joe managed to choke out, breath coming in stuttering puffs. Arthur chuckled. He pulled away from Arthur for heartbeat and grabbed the bottom of his undershirt, yanking it and the button-up over his head. Hair tousled and eyes glazed, he looked the exact right amount of rumpled for Arthur’s liking. He backed towards the bed, pulling Joe along with him.
With Joe’s arms around his shoulders, Arthur hooked his hands beneath his thighs and hauled him up into his arms, tipping back onto the bed at an angle with Joe straddling his hips. Arthur tried not to hit too hard, but the old brass bedstead rattled beneath them. Joe laughed. As he tipped forward on to his hands, the medallion around his neck swinging on its leather cord to smack Arthur in the face.
“Sorry,” he said, tossing it over his shoulder and out of the way. Arthur made a quick, distracted mental note to ask about it later.
“Better that than your skull.” Joe’s eyeroll started out sarcastic and ended on a note of pleasure as Arthur took him in hand again, stroking slowly. Joe curled over his hand to kiss at the junction between his neck and shoulder, dragging his teeth against the muscle there, thrusting against Arthur’s stomach.
“What d’you want to do?” Arthur asked, baring his throat again. Joe took the hint and worked a leisurely nibble up the side of his neck. He had some idea, but clarity was always helpful.
“Do you have oil?” Arthur nodded. Joe pressed their bodies together again and kissed Arthur before he slid off the bed.
“Saddlebag. Small one, left side.” Arthur rolled on his side to watch him. He rummaged around until he made a triumphant noise and held up a small glass bottle. He pushed at Arthur until he rolled back over and straddled his hips again. Before Arthur could ask anymore questions, Joe had unscrewed the cap, poured oil onto his fingers, and reached behind himself. He groaned and rocked back while Arthur ran his hands across Joe’s torso, alternating between the soft scrape of calloused skin and the sharp bite of fingernails. He looked amazing on top of Arthur: head thrown back and eyes closed; lips parted by soft, rapid panting; spine bent in one taught arch; skin flushed and glistening.
When he reached for more oil, Arthur dipped his fingers too and slid one in alongside Joe’s. He wrapped his other hand around Joe’s cock, adding the remaining oil as he tugged, enjoying the broken noises that fell from Joe. He pulled out when Joe did, hissing as cold oil dripped on his cock too. Joe jerked him a few times then leaned forward and guided Arthur in. Arthur let him set the pace. He waited until Joe began to move with a slow roll of his hips, then thrust upwards in one long, slow glide; then another. Joe let out a sound that was half-gasp, half-whimper and oh, how Arthur wanted to hear that sound from him. He bucked up harder and faster.
Arthur ran his hands up Joe’s thighs, rubbing his thumbs into his hip bones, wrapping his hands around Joe’s waist and holding on. Joe braced his hands on Arthur’s thighs and rocked back, rolling his hips until Arthur saw stars. Nothing mattered for that brief span of time, both of them moving against each other, dragging raw noises out of each other, not thinking about anything else. Joe set a relentless pace; Arthur gave himself over to it, let it happen.
“Arthur, Arthur,” he groaned, voice ragged. “Please”. An orgasm crept down Arthur’s spine, building with each thrust and roll of hips. He wrapped a hand around Joe’s cock and began to stroke, dragging his lover along with him. A few quick pulls and Joe clenched around Arthur, coming on his chest with a gasped cry. Arthur thrust up into the tight heat of him a few more times and came with a white-hot orgasm, buried to the hilt in Joe.
He collapsed forward against Arthur, trembling, and brushed their mouths together, smearing a mess between them. It was too soft and formless to be a kiss, a simple drag of their lips against each other. Arthur wrapped an arm around his waist and hauled him closer. Heart pounding, he pressed his face into Joe’s hair, burrowing in the soft, sweat-soaked locks. After a while, Joe twisted around so that he was half draped over Arthur, legs tangled together and Arthur kissed him deep and slow. Arthur’s fantasies hasn’t even been able to keep up with Joe and he already yearned for more, mind wandering to the future as he held Joe. He smiled, fond and happy.
“I should go. So that you can sleep.”
Arthur’s wandering mind took a moment to catch on to the meaning behind Joe’s words. He pulled away — not to dislodge Joe, he didn’t want to — but far enough that he could see Joe’s face as he spoke. Resigned sadness lay written across his features again. Exhaustion made it hard for Arthur to analyze the change in Joe’s behaviour, back to where it had been at the start of the evening. Joe tried to look away again; Arthur held his chin in place and asked, “Did I do something wrong here?”
“What?” Joe said, voice filled with genuine surprise. “No, of course not.”
“What’s wrong then?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Arthur gave him a flat, unimpressed look. Bullshit wasn’t going to fly with him. “You’ve been miserable the whole day. Most people at least pretend to enjoy sleepin’ with me.”
Joe rolled away and slid out of bed. “Hang on now.” Arthur lunged forward and grabbed his wrist. Joe stopped, didn’t fight it, but didn’t look at Arthur either. Arthur was overwhelmed with the sensation that he couldn’t let Joe leave without talking about this, or he’d never understand Joe’s sudden misery that afternoon and they might not recover. Sex was grand, but the last thing he wanted to do at this point was lose Joe over a misunderstanding or a mistake.
“You got me my own room,” he pointed out, like Arthur was being slow on purpose. Arthur frowned.
“Thought you’d appreciate some space. Didn’t mean I wanted you to sleep there. Never gave me a chance to say otherwise.” Arthur rubbed his thumb against the inside of Joe’s wrist. “I’d rather you stay.”
“I can’t,” he said, shoulders slumping. “It’ll hurt too much.”
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked, stomach dropping right out through his feet. Maybe leaving the cabin had been his mistake and Joe had finally realized that this was all Arthur’s fault. He was going to lose someone he cared about, again.
“Because this–whatever this is–it’s over now. You’re gonna go back to your people and I’m gonna go back to Valentine, or wherever it is you send me.” His breath hitched on the last word and he sounded close to tears. “And that’s it. You’ll go back to your life and I’ll–I’ll go back to whatever’s left of mine. We’ll see each other when– if you get a chance to visit.”
“Wait a second. I never meant it like that.” Arthur rolled up into a seated position and tugged his wrist, turning him around. “Don’t gotta go anywhere you don’t want. Stay right here, if that’s what you want.” He stumbled to explain.”I don’t want you to go anywhere, I figured that’s what you’d want. You had a good life in Valentine, ‘til I ruined it all, thought you’d want it back eventually.”
“You have to go back–to your folks.”
“I do, but I planned on taking you with me. Least ‘til we figured some things out.” They had definitely forgotten to discuss a few important details. Arthur tugged again and Joe dropped back to the bed beside him with a thump. Arthur wrapped an arm around him and titled his chin until he could kiss him. “Come with me. Please.”
Joe still looked hesitant. Arthur kissed him again, grinning with roguish intent. “I promise I’ll make it worth your while,” he whispered. Soft, watery laughter bubbled out of Joe. Sobering, he said, “if you don’t want to sleep with me, that’s your choice, but I’d like it if you stayed.” Joe held his gaze for a long, drawn out moment and for once, Arthur didn’t feel himself flushing. He meant every word and wanted Joe to see it. A smile crawled across Joe’s face, gentle and tentative.
“I’ll stay. I’d like that.” Joe pecked a quick kiss to his lips, eyes soft. “One second.”
Satisfied that Joe wasn’t going to leave, Arthur rolled over and sprawled against the pillows with one arm thrown over his eyes. He was astonished to find that he now knew someone less straightforward with their feelings than himself. Writing in a journal was one thing, spilling your heart to someone another thing entirely and Arthur had never been good at the latter, but Joe was even worse. He heard Joe moving around and a moment later a damp cloth landed on his chest with a smack. Arthur winced and moved his arm to glare at Joe as he wiped himself down.
Joe smiled at him. Arthur suspected it was meant to be a cheeky kind of grin, but it came across as fond instead. Or maybe that had been Joe’s intention afterall. He should stop assuming things. Cleaned up, Joe crawled back into bed beside Arthur, curling around him with his head on Arthur’s shoulder.
“You thought I was going to send you away and end it.” Arthur said. “Is that why you been squirrely all day?”
“I am not squirrely. ”
“Squirrliest man I know. Gonna find you up a tree one’a these days, building a nest.” Arthur jerked when Joe sank retaliatory teeth into his shoulder.
“I thought the cabin was all the time we’d get. Nothing like this ever lasts long for me.” He sighed. Arthur could sympathize. No one ever wanted to stick with him either, not romantically, not in the long term. He understood why, but it never made it hurt less. He wondered what Joe's history with that was. “Longest relationship I’ve ever had is my best friend Felicity.”
“Twenty-five years, give or take.” Arthur pulled the quilt and rough cotton sheets up over them. Goosebumps were breaking out across Joe’s skin as their sweat cooled and chilled them. Joe shifted and settled. “We got in a fight as school kids. I bit her. We’ve been friends every since.”
“So, the biting is normal for you.”
“You know what? I’m going to go sleep in my own room.” Joe said with mock outrage, kicking at the blankets and rolling away. Arthur grabbed him around the waist and pulled Joe’s back flush against his chest, laughing. He pressed his nose to the back of Joe’s neck and breathed deep, kissing the top of his spine. Joe relaxed into him, muttering under his breath.
He whispered against Joe’s skin, “All that time in the cabin and ya never said anything?” Joe nestled into him, tipping his head to the side so that Arthur could mouth at his neck. Joe gnawed at his lip, thinking on a response.
“You know when you’re little and you’re afraid of whatever’s in the darkest corner of your bedroom, but you don’t want to light a lamp, because then you’ll know what’s there?” Arthur huffed in understanding. He did know. There were plenty of monsters in the dark corners of his life and he was afraid to illuminate any of them. “I was afraid of what you might say.”
“Don’t really know what to do, now that you’re stickin’ around.” Arthur admitted. He found the conversation easier when he couldn’t see Joe’s face. “Not exactly used to it.”
“I don’t want to be anywhere else right now.”
“After all the shit I put you through? Bein’ shot at and half-drowned and branded a criminal?”
“Experienced plenty of those things before I even met you, Arthur. Plenty worse things, too.”
“Sure, but it’s not like you’re suddenly fine with all the low down shit I get up to,” he said. Joe didn’t say anything for a long while, but not because he’d fallen asleep. Arthur worried that he’d prematurely poked a hornet’s nest that he was too tired to deal with after the day they’d had.
“It’s not like you’re okay with all of it either.” Arthur didn’t have a response for that.
I can't look at this any longer, so here you go. Thus ends Act 1 of 3. Enjoy!
In the quiet breath before dawn, Joe startled awake. Grasping hands and darkness. Rough rope cutting into the delicate skin of his neck, sharp pain and the panicked, rancid smell of fear. Staring up at the ceiling, he lay in bed, heart hammering in his throat. It beat so hard he worried that it might actually wake Arthur, whose face was pressed against his chest. Soft breaths tickled the sensitive spot behind his ear. One arm and part of Arthur’s leg were thrown across Joe, a warm, comforting presence, despite nightmare-sweat chilling on his skin and making him shiver.
He didn’t want to wake Arthur, or to disrupt the little bubble of silence that had filled the room in the early morning hours. Not that he didn’t enjoy Arthur, or talking to Arthur or the recently discovered touching Arthur, but there was always the chance that Arthur would wake up and regret the night before. For now, Joe could relax and live in the maybe, instead of the no. He kept replaying the night before; shocked, delighted and a little bit confused. He’d been so certain and so miserable, mostly about Arthur, but a few other things too. Now there was an unsteady sense of chaos all around him, like sand shifting beneath his feet. He didn’t exactly mind — it brought some good surprises, like Arthur’s wonderful hands moving over him and the beautiful flush of his throat, head thrown back as he came. Still, he’d always been happier with stability, knowing what came next. He’d happily let go of a little control if it meant more of that.
Arthur’s chest rose steadily beside him, with a gentle snore. His cuddling didn’t surprise Joe. He’d had a few chances to get used to it, even before the cabin. It was nice, too. Joe wasn’t used to it, from anyone. Relationships weren’t a major part of his general purview. He felt awkward, with one arm losing feeling beneath Arthur’s head and his right side burning hot and sweating where Arthur was mashed against him. Arthur’d called him persnickety the night before, teasing, but he didn’t like to be dirty. He didn’t think living rough and a lack of bath’s had to go hand in hand. Arthur stirred, arm tightening around Joe’s waist. He chose to ignore the sticky sweaty awfulness.
Damp earth and bruised grass permeated the air, cut through with the sharp, ozone-tang of a storm on the horizon. Mere hours ago, he could hardly imagine this scenario, for all the pain it caused, longing crawling up his throat to choke him. Now, satisfaction clung to his muscles with a pleasant ache. He basked in the press of Arthur against him. He still felt unsettled by his dreams, but a deep-seated sense of affection lodged beneath his sternum and did a lot to dispel the sensation.
Over the last little while, learned that Arthur was an early riser (and forgave him...mostly), but if he didn’t fall back to sleep soon, he’d be exhausted the next day when they set out for Arthur’s camp down south. He drifted off for what felt like seconds, only to wake up when a hand moved across his stomach. Pale pink light dusted the tops of the trees outside the windows, meaning that he’d been asleep longer than he’d imagined. Arthur pressed a kiss to his shoulder, then ran his lips lightly along the tip of one long scar that crossed from his left shoulder to the top of his right hip. He responded with a sleepy sigh.
“Mornin’,” Arthur said, with a touch of hesitation in his voice, resting a hand on Joe’s upper arm. Joe acknowledged him with a soft grunt and wriggled closer. He felt Arthur relax. “I know you ain’t much of a mornin’ person...”
“No, I’m not,” he mumbled into the pillow, closing his eyes. He never had been, much to the chagrin of his early-rising father, who couldn’t fathom his son’s apparent dislike of dawn exercise and coffee before the birds had begun to chirp. It often made him wonder why he’d chosen to surround himself with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed medical students for so many years of his life. How they all had so much energy first thing in the morning had always baffled him. His attitude hadn’t improved while he’d been ill either, not least because Arthur had let him sleep late every day.
Arthur gave his arm an encouraging rub, then moved on to trail a hand along his ribs. It was still so early. So, so early. He drowsed an hour or two and he wanted to go back to sleep, wait until the sun had actually warmed the air; Arthur was already awake and perky, particularly if the hard cock digging into his thigh meant anything. They did, presumably, have a long day ahead of them to get where they were going. Suddenly, Arthur’s gentle wake up made a disgusting amount of sense.
“We have to get an early start, don’t we?” Joe groaned, horrified by the realization. Arthur’s hand roamed up and down his side, the smile pressed into his shoulder was answer enough. He buried his face in the pillow, smothering another groan that had less to do with Arthur’s wandering hands than he would have liked. Downy pillow fluff garbled his next words, “you’re a menace.”
“Incentive?” Arthur drawled, voice rasping in Joe’s ear as his hand finally drifted lower. That voice made Joe’s knees go weak when it wasn’t whispered directly into his ear. Arthur rolled between his legs with a mischievous grin and began kissing his way down Joe’s chest. He hadn’t been certain what would happen when Arthur woke up and remembered everything, but he was happy with the results.
“Wish I’d said something sooner,” he mumbled against Arthur’s shoulder half an hour later, when the sun was finally up. In the few short minutes that they’d been laying together, he’d gone a bit melancholy, dwelling on regret. He should have spoken up earlier. “We’ve missed out on so much time.” Arthur chuckled, stroked a hand up Joe’s bicep. Sleepy and blissed out, Joe didn’t fight the urge to keep things to himself. “I’ve wanted you for ages, you know.”
“Ages, huh?” Arthur asked, ann odd tone to his voice. “How long?”
“Not sure exactly.” He frowned, thinking about it. He couldn’t pinpoint one particular moment where he’d switched over from admiring Arthur and enjoying his company to wanting him. With a slightly confused smile, he asked, “does it matter?”
“Tryin’ to figure out how long you been pinin’ for me.” Joe burst out laughing and palmed Arthur’s face, shoving at him.
“Come on, admit it.”
“Never,” he laughed and started to climb out of bed, indignant, but Arthur pulled him back in and kissed him, far too amused with himself. Joe could see his face again, eyes like a mountain pond pale, shifting blue-green. An unnamable emotion clutched at his chest, one that he was afraid to address at the moment, with so much else going on. He's well aware of his own feelings, that Arthur's rugged, handsome appeal was only the tip of the iceberg, all the rest of it buried beneath the water, out of sight out of mind. Affection, fondness, lust, boredom, all were acceptable explanations in his own, personal experience, but anything additional to that tended to be frowned upon and he couldn’t bear to hear what Arthur’s response might be. Arthur liked him, that much was obvious, and more than Joe had expected. He could live with that.
After trading a few lazy kisses, Arthur rolled over him — pressing a quick kiss to his forehead — and climbed out of bed, while Joe burrowed deeper into the covers and the warm patch that Arthur left behind. He tugged on pieces of clothing as he found them scattered around the room. Joe propped his head on one hand and watched.
“I could learn to like mornings,” he added, while Arthur bent over and pulled on his discarded jeans. He grinned as a blush appeared on the back of Arthur’s neck. “Where are you going?”
“Gonna go see if we’re wanted yet. Pick up a few supplies. Check on Calpurnia.” He buckled his gun belt on and grabbed his satchel. He smiled at Joe, who had no desire whatsoever to leave the warm nest of blankets Arthur had just vacated. “You can sleep a little longer if you want.”
“Are you saying that you woke me up early unnecessarily ?” he asked. He looked aghast as Arthur pecked a kiss against his lips and headed for the door.
“You weren’t complainin’ five minutes ago.”
Joe fell back against the pillows and pulled the quilt back up over himself, burrowing deeper and ignoring Arthur’s laughter as he walked around the room. He wondered how long Arthur’s happy, open affection would last outside of their room, out in the real world. It felt like each time he and Arthur grew closer, the bubble of peace around them constricted. He decided to drink it in now, while he could, because he didn’t know how long it would last. Whatever happened, he knew it would be different when they joined up with the rest of Arthur’s crew.
In no time at all, they were bathed and packed, dressed in clean clothes — new in Joe’s case, thanks to Arthur — and ready to hit the road. Calpurnia’s glossy chestnut coat shone in the light, looking the cleanest that Joe had ever seen. He cooed and offered her some of the dried fruit from his breakfast, running his hand over her silky neck. He held the reins while Arthur strapped on the saddle bags, now filled with new supplies. Joe wandered away while Arthur checked Calpurnia’s various straps and buckles, making sure everything was secure. He wanted to get a better look at the sign board from the previous night. Hurried footsteps alerted him to Arthur following, before a hand grabbed at his arm and turned him around.
“We gotta get goin’.” Joe frowned and glanced at the board again. Arthur winced and tugged at his upper arm, pulling him towards the horse. A brand new poster fluttered in the breeze, crisply printed with fresh ink.
“What’s on the poster, Arthur?”
“It ain’t important.” His hand tightened on Joe’s arm, voice dropping to a whisper. He yanked his arm away from Arthur, who made only a cursory attempt at stopping him, and strode over to the wanted posters. On the new piece of paper, he learned that a sizable reward was being offered for information about the bank robbery in Valentine and the names or descriptions of anyone involved. All of the blood drained out of his face. Arthur stood behind him, hands shoved in his pockets, guilt twisting his mouth. “No one saw your face. No one knows you was there.”
“Doesn’t matter. Someone will piece it together, sooner or later.” Nausea swooped through his gut. “Any chance one of your people will turn me in? Hardly any of them know me.”
“No. They know me, they trust me. None of them’s got the balls to try anything.” Joe wanted to believe him, but he could see the hesitancy on his face.
“Sodomy is illegal you know.”
“Pretty sure that’s the least of my crimes.”
“Depends who you ask…,” Joe muttered as Arthur led him back towards Calpurnia. She had picked her way across the muddy road to stand on a clear patch of flourishing greenery, which she had dedicated herself to clear cutting in their absence.
“I’m used to being a criminal.” Arthur’s cheeky smile did nothing to assuage his concerns, although it did make his heart flutter a little in the middle of the street. Joe had been witness to plenty of crime and it wasn’t as if he was pure as the driven snow, or anything like that, but now he was a wanted man. It was a lot to process. He wasn’t used to being a criminal. Not in this capacity. In the last few weeks, he’d broken more laws than the rest of his life combined, mostly on Arthur’s behalf. He’d killed O’Driscolls, robbed a bank, attacked a lawman, run from arrest and punched more than one Pinkerton. His father had cut him off from the family money when he’d refused to go home, so he’d lost his moral footing
the cash he’d once used to sustain it. He’d lost almost everything in the blink of an eye. Worse, the consequences of his actions were only now sinking in. His clinic and all the good he’d been able to do with it were gone, he’d left his Lucy without a job or any income, left patients high and dry, put friends in danger and committed crimes that came with a noose if he were caught. And, he was going to live with a gang of wanted thieves and con artists and murderers. Perhaps it was time he got used to being a criminal.
“Arthur! Christ, son. We were worried sick about you!” Dutch shouted out Arthur wound through the trees, Joe riding pillion behind him. Calpurnia had carried them the whole distance with minimal complaint and Arthur made a mental note to shower her with praise and treats at the first opportunity. She’d done well over the long journey, carrying two grown men and all their supplies.
“Keep your shirt on Dutch, I’m fine.”
Arthur pulled up to the horse hitches as people crowded around, calling greetings and concern. Joe slipped off of Calpurnia’s saddle and retreated from the pack, while Arthur was slapped on the back. Arthur couldn’t pick out individual questions from the chaos — Where have you been? What happened? Who’s that? Are you hurt? Where’s the money? A few faces were missing from camp, but there were enough to drown out Arthur’s thoughts with the cacophony.
“Alright, alright. Get back to work, you pack of fools,” Arthur said, raising his voice above the noise. In secret, he was pleased by the boisterous greeting, but he worried that it might overwhelm Joe. Most people broke away, still shouting at Arthur in their excitement. A few of the less invested individuals wandered back to their jobs. Dutch and Hosea stayed close to talk, while Charles and John lurked nearby, inconspicuous as a pack of dogs after table scraps. Hosea dragged him into a hug, thumping his back, but Dutch’s attention had turned to Joe lurking in the background.
“Friend of yours Arthur?” Dutch asked. Arthur turned and nodded his head at Joe, gesturing towards Dutch and Hosea. As he approached, Arthur saw the genuine rattling of his nerves at being this close to the camp. Regret gripped his heart, once more, over the situation he’d landed Joe in, now dragging him to stay with a bunch of wanted outlaws. It wasn’t ideal, Arthur knew that, but he didn’t see another choice until they either cleared Joe’s name or the suspicion for the robbery in Valentine slipped to someone else. Joe shook both men’s hands as he introduced himself, shaking firmly. It was more than Arthur had gotten out of him the entire day. He’d been near silent since they’d left Strawberry. Best behaviour, he supposed.
“Doctor Barro–uh, Joseph.”
“Nice to see you again, Doc.” Hosea said. Joe’s responding smile was small, but real. It reached his eyes, when most of the others hadn’t.
“He was with us during the bank robbery, Dutch. Got caught up in it when we ran outta there. Saved my life when one of the sheriff’s men grabbed me.”
“Lenny told me about that. Said the last thing he saw was the two of you riding off into the hills together with half of the money.” Arthur snapped his fingers, and reached into Calpurnia’s saddle bags, retrieving the cash he’d kept from the job, minus the cost of their hotel room in Strawberry and his own share. Dutch accepted the money, still stony faced. “We were starting to worry you’d run out on us.”
“I’d never do you like that, Dutch. You know me.” Hosea frowned at Dutch. Arthur was certain that Hosea hadn’t doubted his return. “He’s gonna stay with us for a bit, get back on his feet.”
“Welcome to camp, doctor,” Dutch said with a stiff smile. “Come talk to me, when you get a chance Arthur. We’ve plans to discuss.” Arthur nodded as he walked away.
“Don’t mind Dutch, he doesn’t like change is all.” Hosea’s welcome was far friendlier, as he set a hand on Joseph’s shoulder. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you need. We always have someone around here needing stitches.”
“So long as you contribute!” Pearson shouted from the supply wagon nearby. “I ain’t feeding people who don’t do there share.”
“Good think you ain’t in charge of who gets fed around here then.” Mrs. Grimshaw added, revealing that people around camp had been listening in far more than Arthur’d thought. He pinched the bridge of his nose. How he’d gotten crammed in with a bunch of busy bodies who couldn’t mind their own business, he’d never know. They were all thieves, every last one of them. Weren’t thieves supposed to be discreet?
“‘Course I’m in charge! I’m doing the cooking ain’t I?”
“Not if I shove you in that stew pot, Mr. Pearson.”
“I’m happy to work,” Joe said, not near loud enough to be heard by anyone accept Arthur, since the clamour had returned and folks were shouting back and forth across the camp. He glanced at Arthur, who offered him a crooked smile.
For now, Joe would have to cram into the same tent as him. It was the only one left with any room. He asked Grimshaw for a second cot on the way by. He had a chest full of spare clothes, blankets in the wagon, and enough space beneath the canopy if he rearranged some things. It would be cozy, but what sleeping arrangement in camp wasn’t, with everyone living in each other’s pockets. Arthur didn’t even need to know Joe as well as he did to read the misery on his face. From a house to a cot in the middle of nowhere, none of his own things, surrounded by strangers and criminals, of course he wasn’t happy. Despite the eyes of the camp on them — pretending that they weren’t staring, and doing a poor job of it — he set a light hand on Joe’s arm.
“It won’t be for long, I promise.” Joe glanced up at him with a puzzled expression and nodded. “Take anything you need, what’s mine is yours. And folks around here are nice. Mostly. Holler for me, if you need anything.” Arthur rubbed at the back of his neck. He wanted to do something comforting, but Joe didn’t seem like he’d accept that at the moment and Arthur didn’t want to push him.
“Doctor?” Both men looked up at the soft spoken question. Arthur hadn’t even heard Mary-Beth approach, which told him that he was more distracted than he’d realized. Dangerous, in his line of work. “We were just going to have something to eat, we thought you might like to join us.”
“You’re that doctor from Valentine, right? Stitched a few of these fools up for us, if I remember. Come have a seat.” Karen called from her place near the fire, where she was ladling an undefined stew into bowls for herself and the others.
“Arthur Morgan, if you think I’m hauling this bed over there for you, you got another thing coming!” Arthur smiled at Joe and waved him off. Mary-Beth took his arm and led him over to the food, where Tilly stood waiting with a bowl for him. Arthur trotted over to help Susan wrestle the spare cot out of their supply wagon. He glanced up to see Charles giving Joe’s hand a welcoming shake that Joe returned with another real smile. Arthur couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he was glad that Charles had gone over to chat with him. A small cluster of others gathered around, with even Sadie lurking on the outskirts. Arthur wasn’t too worried. Most folks would get along with Joe fine. He tended to inspire affection in odd ways — like Maeve and Felix, and a whole host of recovered patients that brought him gifts in lieu of money for his services — and Arthur was sure it would carry through to many of the others.
After he finished setting up, rearranging canvas and crates to make some additional space, Arthur made his way over to Dutch’s tent. He paused outside. Over the quiet music issuing from the tent, he could hear Dutch and Hosea’s voices. Not arguing, exactly, but there was tension between them.
“Dutch, you have to admit that having a doctor around camp could be useful. You know the kind of trouble we get in to.”
“I don’t like him. We’re having enough trouble with the Pinkertons, who’s to say he isn’t some kind of spy.”
“He ain’t.” Arthur said, knocking the tent flap aside with one hand. “He ain’t a fuckin’ Pinkerton spy , Dutch, Jesus.”
“Good to see you Arthur.” Hosea said, leaned back in his chair, looking casual and relaxed.
“Hosea,” Arthur nodded.
“You can’t vouch for him Arthur, you hardly know the man. Couple’a doctor’s visits ain’t enough to go off of, not with everything we have on the line.”
“Dutch, you gotta trust me.”
“After you went and disappeared for two whole weeks, with half the money from the bank?” Dutch’s jaw ticked, incredulous. Arthur hesitated. A few months, half a year ago, Arthur would have known better how to navigate this situation, but Dutch had been so off-kilter that he wasn’t quite sure what to do.
“You have to admit having our own doctor around camp could be useful," Hosea pointed out. Dutch glared at him. Arthur could see the wheels turning in his head, weighing the apparent risk against the benefits. Arthur didn’t wholy trusted Dutch’s judgement these days, but he didn’t know what the hell he’d do if they told Joe to leave. It’s not like Arthur could go with him.
After a while, Dutch spoke again, “he gonna work around here? Pull his weight?”
“Better’n some I could name,” Arthur responded, thinking of their resident slackers and freeloaders.
“You best believe I’ll be keeping an eye on him.” Dutch leaned back on his bunk. “Takin’ him in, it’s a big damn risk Arthur. Better be worth it.”
“Always got your back Dutch, you know that.” A shadow passed over Dutch’s face, one that worried Arthur more than anything else he’d seen or heard in the past few months.
“Let’s talk about the locals and their mystery gold,” Hosea said, clapping his hands together cheerfully as he leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I’ve been working on my accents.”