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Contamination

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Arthur had a bad feeling soon as they stepped into the saloon, but shook it off as residual anger from a job gone sideways. Least none of them had gotten shot.

“We stoppin for a drink then, English?”

Arthur only grumbled in response as they all dismounted. He wasn’t ready to go back to camp empty-handed. They’d spend the night picking pockets, maybe he could cheat at cards a little. Just so the whole trip wasn’t a wash.

Downright embarrassing, four good guns not able to rob a lick because they’d gotten the goddamn train schedule wrong.

Arthur went straight for the bar, didn’t see where everyone else got to but that was fine by him, would give him some time alone to beat himself up. Dutch would be pissed when they came back, and as Arthur knocked back his fourth shot in less than a minute, he considered not going back at all.

Was probably just the bitter haze of the alcohol talking, though. 

Shook his head to try to clear it. Whiskey tasted different tonight so he switched to beer.

Charles leaned his elbows against the bar next to Arthur.

“Not your fault the train was early.”

Arthur finished his beer with a grunt. Tasted like cow piss so he ordered more whiskey. Charles grabbed the shot before Arthur could, knocked it back. Arthur would’ve complained, but his head had started to pound and there was a sharp twist in his stomach with every other heartbeat.

Charles made a face at the empty shot glass. “John’s over at the poker table. Sean’s already got his hands up a skirt.” Dug around his pockets, slid a billfold over to Arthur. “Don’t think we’re going to do much better than that in a town like this.”

Arthur rubbed at his sore temples. Couldn’t focus well on what Charles was saying over the throbbing in his head and the unease in his gut.

“You okay?”

“Fine,” Arthur growled and lurched away from the bar. He swatted Charles’ hand away and stumbled over to an empty table, sat down hard enough in the chair to make it creak. Must be getting old if a few shots had him feeling like shit already.

Charles sat in the other chair, worry creasing his face. Had his mouth open to say something but there was a commotion near the bar. Charles twisted in his chair; Arthur tried to blink the haziness from his eyes  Had to squeeze them shut as a wave of dizziness crashed over him. Arthur lost track of time as the saloon seemed to burst alive around them. A woman screamed, sounded like he’s dead! but the words drowned in the hysteria.

Something slammed into the table, knocked Arthur from his chair with a groaning body atop his own.

“Arthur, somethin’ ain’t right.”

Arthur opened his eyes to John sprawled over him.

Arthur didn’t get a chance to respond—John’s weight left him and a hand wrapped firm around his arm.

“We need to leave,” Charles said as he all but dragged them from the saloon. Arthur thought he saw a vague red headed blob stumbling after them. Definitely saw several bodies on the floor, tables and chairs knocked over, everything one little step short of chaos.

Arthur wrenched free of Charles’ grip once they were near the horses to vomit into the bushes. Felt like coals’d made their way up his throat and his clothes felt too tight around him, whole body flushed and certainly sweating.

“The hell’s happening,”  he ground out around an acidic burp. Vomited again a few seconds later, heard someone doing the same near him.

“Something wrong with the drinks, whole bar must’ve been poisoned,” Charles said from right next to him as he hauled Arthur up, arm around his chest. Arthur tried to push away but Charles held firm, guided him to his horse and helped him mount.

“That one feller died! Right in front o’ me!” Sean sounded a ways off; Arthur looked up, found him hovering near John, half-buried in a bush and sounding positively miserable. Had probably started drinking near the same time as Arthur, likely had just about as much—Marston drank like he were trying to drown fish, sometimes. Sean seemed more or less sober, by some miracle. Just left Charles, who Arthur knew had at least that one shot—

Arthur searched around for him, vision still blurred. “Charles?”

A vague noise from the other side of a horse, had to be Taima based on the different blob colors Arthur could make out.

If Arthur weren’t so focused on his insides feeling like they were trying their best to become his outsides, he’d probably feel guilty. Could’ve gone back to camp, heads hung and taken the tongue lashing, but he’d been too worried about disappointing Dutch. And now he’d gone and gotten them all poisoned.

Didn’t want to think about how someone had died. Arthur’d had a lot to drink.

“Let’s try to make it back to camp,” he panted, bent clean in half in the saddle.

Predictably they did not make it back to camp, couldn’t even blame Sean and his idiot sense of direction. They’d dipped into a shallow valley and Arthur hadn’t been able to stay on his horse, hit the dirt hard and rolled into a ditch of stagnant water. John fell from Old Boy once they stopped, and Charles couldn’t even hold himself up anymore.

They did their best to drag themselves away from the road. Made it maybe ten yards before giving up.

After an hour of Sean awkwardly hovering between the three of them, Arthur barked at him to make himself useful and go back to camp to fetch a wagon. Couldn’t even pay attention to the fading hoof beats, could only curl in on himself and try not to choke on his own sick.

The horses hovered nearby, uneasy, uncertain. Arthur thought maybe he passed out sometime around dawn to the sound of John heaving his guts dry and Charles trying to speak.


Half-woke bent over his knees retching into a bush, a hand settled in the middle of his back and another gripping him by the shoulder. A damp cloth was pressed into his hand before he could wipe his mouth on his sleeve. The person who’d given it to him was just a vague blur. The morning light seared his eyes and made his head throb twice as hard.

“Let’s get you in the wagon, son.”

“Hosea? Wha’re you doin’ here?”

Arthur tripped over his feet. Another set of hands grabbed his other arm, pulled it over someone’s shoulder to keep him steady.

“Went and got him just like you asked, English!” Sean near shouted as he adjusted his grip on Arthur. “Got a wagon and everything, you should be thankin’ me.”

Arthur merely groaned and allowed himself to be loaded into the wagon. Saw two other shapes hunched on the benches, must be Charles and John. Hosea climbed into the back with them as Sean sat up front with the driver, Arthur could only assume was Miss Grimshaw. Never got a chance to confirm it because he was out again before they even got moving.

- - - - - -

When he next woke, he felt slightly less dead. Stomach might as well have been filled with charcoal, but at least the fire had been quenched. The world was a lot less fuzzy and the headache had dulled.

It was dark outside his tent, the only light coming from the lamp on his table. Someone had been reading in the chair next to it, the book left open face-down. Couldn’t tell what the title was from here.

There was a sharp intake of breath from the entrance to his tent.

“Arthur? You awake?” Miss Grimshaw had a bowl in one hand, steaming mug in the other. Arthur could smell the strong herbal tea from here.

“Unfortunately.” Tried to sit up, but Susan bustled over and pushed him down with hand to his shoulder after she set the tea down. Arthur didn’t try to fight her; the small movement had made his stomach cramp, would’ve thrown up if he’d had anything left to throw up.

“Just lie back, you’ve had a rough few days.”

Arthur sank into his pillow, brought a shaking hand up to scratch the stubble on his chin. “Few days?”

Grimshaw nodded. “You and Marston had it the worst. He woke up this morning. Charles was fine a few hours after we gave him the medicine when we found you three fools curled up on the side of the road.” She grabbed the spoon from the bowl, wiped it on her skirt and stuck it in the tea. “Neither of ‘em can hardly keep anything down, so we’ll start you with this tea.”

Arthur didn’t have the strength to argue, to be embarrassed about not even being able to sit up to drink tea. It had a distinctly grassy taste to it. Arthur expected his stomach to reject it, but the warm liquid immediately began to ease the knots there. The tension drained from his shoulders, his back, his thighs as Grimshaw slowly fed him half the mug before withdrawing. Didn’t want to push him too far after everything his body had been through. The way she described the last few days… . Arthur was glad he couldn’t remember it. Sounded like it’d been worse to bear witness to. Dutch had sent Abigail away with Jack to spare him their noises, evidently. Mary-Beth had left to join her a few hours later, Tilly the next day.

“You and John were in a real bad way.”

She looked away from Arthur when she said it, and from her tone he could tell she’d been worried, that they’d all been convinced he and John weren’t going to make it. Arthur reached out, shaky, to squeeze her hand and give her the best smile he could muster.

“Sorry to worry you, Miss Grimshaw.”

She pat the back of his hand, then released it. “Just don’t do it again, you hear?” She stood, tidied her skirts and grabbed the tea and untouched bowl. “Hosea will want to see you, I’ll go fetch him.”

“Thank you, Miss Grimshaw.”

Arthur closed his eyes and tried to take in the sounds of camp. Lot quieter than it usually was. No Javier on his guitar. Muffled conversation at the fire, could usually make out what was being said but not tonight. Less voices than usual. Even the horses seemed too quiet and somber.

“Arthur?”

Arthur had to fight to open his eyes. Didn’t want to fall asleep, but the tea had eased so many of his aches it was hard not to. 

Hosea pulled the chair closer to Arthur’s cot. Looked like he’d aged a decade since Arthur last saw him. “How are you feeling, son?”

“Like shit.”

Hosea sighed, tremulous. “Mighty awful business, that was. People… .people died, Arthur. In that saloon. Fifteen people died from bad whiskey.”

Arthur scrubbed a hand over his face. Stomach soured with something other than poison. “Jesus.”

“You’re all lucky to be alive. No one seems to know what caused it, or why. Whole town’s crawling with law now, heard rumors of federal agents coming to investigate.”

Arthur sighed, just as shaky as Hosea. “Well shit, Hosea.”

“Well shit indeed.”

Arthur tried to reach for him, but his hand just flopped from the cot. Hosea held it between both his own hands, rested his elbows on his knees. They sat like that for a while, Arthur fighting sleep and Hosea fighting tears.

Hosea lost first. His voice shook as he spoke. “I was so scared, Arthur. You looked … you and John, you looked dead already when we found you. Charles could barely tell us what happened. Gave you all the medicine we had and prayed something worked.”

Arthur hadn’t seen Hosea cry often, or easily. Even now it was obvious the older man was trying to hold back. Arthur squeezed Hosea’s hand best he could, weak as he was and half-asleep. Wouldn’t be able to fight it much longer.

“I’m alive though, ain’t I?”

Tears slid down Hosea’s face as his bottom lip trembled. All he could do was nod.

Arthur nodded back, breathed deep. Couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer, tried to apologize. Hosea shushed him, watched the steady rise and fall of his chest, deep and smooth for the first time in nearly a week. A week Hosea would be reliving in his nightmares until the day he died, he was certain. A week of fevers, bloody vomit, muscle spasms, and begging. Hosea had had to hear his sons beg for death near on three days straight. He prayed they wouldn’t remember it, and they seemed to have been granted that small mercy. John had said the last thing he remembered was falling from his horse, and nothing between then and waking up this morning.

News of the town had only reached them the day before. Charles had brought Dutch the paper, silent, paper rumpled where his hands shook. Hosea thought he’d pass out when he read it and Dutch hadn’t looked much better. Hadn’t seen him the rest of the day, come to think of it.

A cough from the entrance brought Hosea from his thoughts. Looked up to see Dutch approaching them, Arthur’s hand still held in Hosea’s.

“Susan said he was awake.”

“He was, for a bit. Got some of that medicated tea in him.”

Dutch drew a deep, noisy breath and came to stand next to Hosea. Planted a hand on his shoulder. “He’ll be fine, he’s bounced back from worse.”

“I don’t think he’s had worse, Dutch. Same thing killed a lot of people.”

“The important thing is that he survived, and so did John. Our boys are fighters.” Dutch pat Hosea’s shoulder, then just stood there looking down at Arthur for a while. Dutch would never admit how worried he’d actually been, especially once they heard the fate of the other saloon patrons. He’d found a private spot to work through his panic, stayed out of camp until most folk had gone to bed and made himself scarce the next day. Probably would’ve gone back to his tent if Grimshaw hadn’t stopped to tell him Arthur had woken up.

Dutch gave Hosea’s shoulder a last squeeze before excusing himself. “Do your back a favor and try not to fall sleep in the chair.”

Hosea waved him off, but the comment pulled the tiniest smile from him. He gave Arthur a final once-over before easing his hand onto his cot and pulling the blanket up to his chest. Smoothed the hair from his face before dousing the lamp and settling into the chair for the night.

The clear night settled around the camp, quietude granted after a maelstrom. The sounds of nearly dying men were replaced by crickets and a cool breeze and Uncle’s snores near the main fire. Hosea though maybe things wouldn’t be so bad, if just for a little while, and fell into his first deep sleep in days.