Against all the odds, they’ve made it out alive.
It was Sadie’s idea to hide in plain sight. Rightly pointed out they couldn’t stay in Copperhead Landing, couldn’t head anywhere north or northeast since the area was swarming with Pinkertons, and everyone was dead against trying their luck in the bayou again. So their only option, she’d declared, was to head into Saint Denis. And with so many people, so many potential witnesses, it was the last place any self-respecting outlaw would hide out in; so it was the last place the Pinkertons would think to look for them. They’d ended up in a nice restaurant-come-hotel on the outskirts of the city, Sadie spinning some story about fleeing gang violence up in the north with her maid and her brother-in-law and his young family. The proprietor had looked a little skeptical, but most of his suspicions were relieved by the very real tears Sadie had shed when she sobbed about how the gang had killed her husband and burned down her ranch, how ‘Jim’ here had saved her life and caught a bullet in the arm for it.
Now, three days later, Sadie’s keeping first watch down in the parlour below, where she’s got a good view of the door and the stairs, while the others supposedly sleep. John’ll take over from her in a few hours, then Abigail or Tilly will come out on to the balconies for the morning shift. Plan is to hang around here for another few days while John’s arm heals up, keeping an eye on what’s in the papers about Pinkerton movements. Luckily, his name and description haven’t come up in the list of people they’re still searching for – hopefully they think he’s dead. Still, wouldn’t do for them to come down for breakfast and find Pinkertons or, worse, other ex-members of the Van der Linde gang waiting for them. So they’ve set up a watch rotation, someone always out on the balconies during the day to watch the roads, and down in the saloon at night, when the fog rolls in off the bayou, to watch the door.
He should be catching some sleep now, but he can’t, tired as he is – too keyed up by the past few days. So instead, he slips from the room he’s sharing with Abigail and Jack, out onto the small balcony, and sets himself down at the little table and chairs. It’s late at night, the mist reducing the lantern lights to a hazy glow, and the road below is deserted. So, he takes a steadying breath, and sets about doing what he’s been putting off.
He hasn’t read through Arthur’s journal proper – ain’t sure if he’ll ever be able to. For near on a decade and a half, Arthur’s journals have been perhaps the most sacred and secretive of objects in John’s life – after a few misguided attempts when he was a kid, he’s never dared to try and look inside. To go rifling through it now still seems near sacrilegious, somehow. But he’d skimmed through it, and read the last few pages a couple of nights ago. And though he’d kept quiet, the shaking of his sobs had still woken Abigail. She’d said nothing – simply gathered him in her arms, pressed a kiss to his temple, and laid a hand over his own, where it rested atop that worn leather cover.
There are many things, it seems, that Arthur never told him. About his hopes. His fears. About how heavily the weight of the gang crushed down on his shoulders. About the bright moments he found out there in the wilds, helping and befriending random strangers just because he could. The strange phenomena he saw and dutifully noted in his journal then never spoke of again. There is so much, John realises, that he never knew about his brother, because he never thought to ask just what he got up to on those long trips away from camp.
And maybe he’ll read the rest of the journal, someday, when he’s ready. If he’s ever ready. But for now, he gets on with another task, even though it too feels like a gross invasion of privacy.
He leans back in his chair, Arthur’s satchel on the table in front of him. Takes a steadying breath.
He’s opened it a few times already, of course – first to check if there was any food in there, because Jack was hungry. Sure enough, there was a tin of strawberries and half a pack of biscuits. Then John had quickly fumbled inside it to pay a doctor for his discretion after seeing to his arm, desperately hoping that Arthur had had a few dollars on him – and almost instantly his fingers brushed a fat money clip he hadn’t even noticed earlier. But his mind had flitted back to a dark evening in Shady Belle, when Arthur had took him aside, and quietly suggested that whatever jobs they get in the next few weeks, whatever take he manages, he should start keeping some of it aside. Had only given him a meaningful look when John asked what for. Perhaps he knew, even then, that things were going to fall apart. Because it looks like he’d been saving up too.
And it was Tilly’s idea to see if Arthur still kept a map that they could use to figure out where to go next whilst avoiding the Pinkertons. Everyone’s breath had stuttered a little when John pulled it out of Arthur’s satchel and spread it out – tattered around the edges, creases well worn-in from so much use – only to reveal little sketches all across its surface. Animals, plants, buildings, and a whole bunch other strange things that John has quietly vowed to go out to see for himself sometime. One day, he will take this map, and visit all these places, and try to see the world as Arthur did.
But for now, he intends to go through whatever else is in there – and it can’t be much, especially once he’s taken the journal out, since it’s only a satchel and it don’t feel too heavy. Still feels wrong though, and part of him still expects to get cuffed upside the head and snarled at for going through Arthur’s things.
First, he pulls out the map, carefully sets it aside with the journal. There are more papers in there, so he pulls those out too – mostly looks like miscellaneous notes and letters, so he puts those aside to read in a better light. But then he pulls out a couple more maps – one marked with animals, and one with fish. When he checks it against Arthur’s map, he can see small, delicate sketches matching their locations, with little crowns above them – most of them have been crossed out though. Or maybe crossed off? Which is strange – Arthur was never much into trophy hunting or fishing. But, he was never one to leave things unfinished either. So John mentally adds that to his list of things to do – cross off the rest of those trophies some day, finish what Arthur started. Who knows, maybe it’d be a good way to bring in some money?
Speaking of which, he wonders if there’s any more loose change in there, since they don’t have much left after paying their board, and are gonna need all they can get (and John is glad that Arthur never looked inside the bag of ‘money’ from that damned train before giving it to Tilly. Meant he never knew that they’d risked their lives, suffered and caused so much suffering, for what was mostly military credit bills – worthless, unless you were actually in the military, and too dangerous to be caught with without a damn good cover story. It was just one more punch in the gut, when they emptied the sack out onto the rotting floorboards of Copperhead Landing – one more of Dutch’s grand plans that cost them everything and gained them almost nothing). Ignoring that bitter thought, John nudges a box of rifle cartridges aside.
Arthur sits out on the pier, boots dangling over the water. He shuts his eyes, listening to the sounds of O’Creagh’s Run; the piping chorus of songbirds, the soft rush of the wind in the trees, the gentle lap of the lake against the shore, and Hamish’s cheerful cursing as he bangs and crashes about in his cabin. Man had insisted he stay for dinner, declaring they must feast in celebration of the end of ‘The Great Tyrant’. He’d shown Arthur how to fillet the massive pike without ruining the skin (“This bastard’s going on my wall!”), then shooed him out of the cabin so he could make a mess with only Buell to judge him through the window. So Arthur contents himself with sitting on the pier, watching the water and enjoying the rare moment of peace. Usually at a time like this, he might smoke – but the very thought now makes his lungs bubble uncomfortably. So he settles with sketching, admiring the way the late sunlight creeps down the Three Sisters, eventually painting the lake a beautiful gold.
Then he pauses. Looks at the little island in the middle of the lake, the one they’d fished beside. Digs in his satchel, until he finds an old scrap of paper. Looks at it. Looks at the island.
Twenty minutes later, he dazedly brings the rowboat back alongside the pier, and stumbles into the cabin to show Hamish what he found.
“I remember now – there were rumours about the Jack Hall gang being in these parts; hell, there were even rumours that ghosts of outlaws haunted these mountains. I figured the land agent was just trying to spook me into buying a more expensive plot closer to town.” Hamish scoffs as he brings their dinner over – vegetables and pike steaks, drizzled in some kind of buttery herbed sauce, the smell of which is making Arthur hungrier than he’s felt in weeks. “’Course, it backfired on the bastard – I told ‘im ‘Good! Hopefully the rumours will keep the busybodies away!’ You shoulda seen his face!”
Arthur chuckles, gratefully accepting his plate and the cup of ‘special’ mulled wine that Hamish passes him.
“A toast!” Hamish declares, raising his own cup, “to ghosts, treasure, and the end of tyranny!”
“Heh, I’ll drink to that!” Arthur clinks their cups together, then takes a sip. And immediately breaks into a coughing fit that ain’t got nothing to do with tuberculosis.
“Christ!” he wheezes as Hamish cackles, thumping him on the back a few times good-naturedly. “’The hell is this?!”
“It’s an old German recipe that’s been ah, adapted – red wine, some spices, and a good lug of Guarma rum. Bound to put hairs on your chest!”
“Think it’s puttin’ hairs on my eyeballs,” Arthur croaks. Hamish just laughs and sips his own like it’s fruit juice, starting on some story about one of his friends in the army who he’d got the recipe from. And Arthur isn’t sure if it’s the special wine, the food (which is as delicious as it smells), the fact he’s sitting near the fire, or just the good company – but the chill that seems to have wormed its way into his bones eases as the evening wears on. Maybe it’s just nice to be reminded that life, with all its highs and lows, is worth living, is worth enjoying. Hamish Sinclair had his leg shot off, must’ve seen unspeakable things on the battlefield, and yet Arthur doesn’t think he’s met anyone who relishes life quite like he does – the man’s so damn passionate about everything, even something as simple as fishing, despite all his previous misfortunes. Or maybe because of them. And Arthur reckons he might be beginning understand that, in a way he doesn’t think he could’ve before.
“So, what you gonna do with your treasure? ‘Sides stock up on spices and dodgy rum?” he asks, nodding to the gold bars that sit on the table.
“‘My treasure’? Ain’t mine, friend.”
“But they was on your land-”
“Nuh-uh. Finders keepers, I say. ‘Sides, the hell am I gonna do with two gold bars?”
“But... Hamish, that’s a lot of money-”
“Bah, I don’t want more money. Give me somewhere to sleep, a good horse, and good hunting, that’s all I need. Lotsa money just makes people go crazy.”
“...You’re not wrong,” Arthur says quietly, staring into the fire.
“So, keep ‘em, or give ‘em to someone who needs ‘em,” Hamish dismisses, before making his way back into the kitchen area to refill their cups.
Arthur thanks him profusely, but his mind’s racing. He sure as hell ain’t gonna turn the bars over to Dutch, not when he’ll just squirrel them away somewhere ‘for safekeeping’ while the camp continues to run out of basic supplies. Trouble is, he knows Dutch has the local fence in his pocket – if Arthur tries to exchange them, Dutch will get tipped off. So he’ll hang on to them for now, until he gets a chance to turn them into cash – Mary-Beth has started to get the shifty-eyed look, he reckons she’ll try to leave soon, and it’d be nice if he could give her a decent wad of cash to pay her way with. He’s got high hopes for that girl.
And he’d rest easier if he knew the Marstons had a good stash of money tucked away, too.
John stares at the gold bars, shining in the lamplights. If he can find a fence around here – and there’s gotta be one in this godforsaken city – then that’s around a thousand dollars in actual cash, maybe more. Enough to get them new clothes, supplies, another horse or two and a wagon; hell, maybe enough for train tickets to the other side of the country, if they can get past the Pinkerton checkpoints. Even though there are no other guests awake at this hour and the road below is deserted, he carefully lays the bars out on the table and covers them with the maps, just in case. Then, he turns back to the satchel.
That, he reasons, has to be the last of it now, except that box of rifle cartridges.
Reaches in, pulls out a different box of bullets.
Frowning, he reaches in again, pulls out- more tinned strawberries.
And then some of those collectible cigarette cards.
And then an apple.
And then a revolver, silver-plated no less, with ‘Canis Canem Edit’ engraved on the barrel.
And then a tin of coffee.
...and something ain’t right with this bag.
Eventually, he stops looking inside; just puts his hand in blindly, pulling out all sorts of things and putting them on the table, then the remaining chairs, then on the floor because there’s so much crap in there.
Finally, he reaches in and only feels soft leather. Experimentally splays his fingers. With his wrist at the opening, his middle fingertip touches the bottom of the bag, his thumb and little finger the sides. It’s no bigger than an ordinary satchel.
There are many things, it seems, that Arthur never told him. But really, of all the things to not mention, the fact he had a goddamn magic satchel seems kinda important.
Dazedly, John casts his eyes across the items that he’s haphazardly sorted into piles. There’re bullets, of all kinds, enough to last a goddamn platoon in a shootout. More revolvers and pistols, each with customised engravings and details – surely not something Arthur had bought in a shop, if only because they’d be eye-wateringly expensive. So how did he come by them?
More tinned food – a lot of tinned food (and so much of it strawberries – John’s always known Arthur secretly had a sweet tooth, but Jesus, man seems to have had an addiction). And John remembers, on a night when Charles came back to Beaver Hollow with empty hands and a grim expression, how Arthur had suddenly appeared with tins of beans and canned fish and salted meat. Said he had supplies tucked away for long hunting trips, forgot he even had them. And none of them had really questioned it, because Arthur had always taken Hosea’s lectures about survival and ‘being prepared’ seriously. But now...
Next to the tins of food, there’s a small mountain of those cigarette cards. There are so many. It looks like he was collecting different sets – there are little pieces of twine wrapped around different piles. And John knows Arthur liked the artwork on them, but actually collecting trading cards, like some schoolboy, just seems so... un-Arthur-like. Surely he’d think that sort of thing was just a waste of time?
“Oh, you’re awake! Oh what a relief – I was worried I’d finally killed someone with my cooking!”
“I... huh?” Arthur stands in the doorway, blinking stupidly, brain still trying to catch up on where the hell he is, chest aching. Oh, right. Charlotte Balfour. The shooting lesson. Her kind offer of a meal. Trying to hold the coughs in as she told him about her life...
“Oh, no ma’am, your cooking was just fine. I’ve just got this little cough-” he wheezes, more coughs forcing their way out his throat – has to hang on to the door frame as the room starts to spin again. Almost instantly, Charlotte is at his side, gently leading him back into the bedroom.
“If you don’t mind me saying, that seems like more than ‘a little cough’,” she remarks – but her voice and expression are full of concern rather than chastisement as she helps him ease back onto the bed, propping up the pillows behind him. Arthur can’t even muster a thank you, just shuts his eyes and tries to get his breathing back under control, wishing his head would stop swimming. But he can hear Charlotte’s footsteps fade into the other room then return.
“Here, try to drink this,” she says gently, and Arthur blinks his eyes open to see she’s holding out a cup of water. He accepts it with a whispered ‘thank you’, and gingerly sips at it. But the water’s cool and refreshing, and he feels a little revived once he’s finished it.
“I’m real sorry about this, ma’am,” he says as he starts to push himself upright, “I’ll get out of your hair-”
“What? No, don’t be silly! You’re unwell, you can’t possibly ride off like this!”
“I don’t wanna impose on you any more than I already-”
“You’re not imposing on me, truly. You’ve saved my life, the least I can do is let you recuperate in my spare room.” She must see he’s about to argue, because she carries on, squeezing his hand. “Please say you’ll stay and rest a little longer. Just until you’ve got some colour back in your cheeks. For my peace of mind, if not for yours. Please? I... I really don’t want to have to bury two people in as many weeks.”
And he damn well can’t say no to that, can he?
So he lets himself lie back, dozing on and off, vaguely aware of Charlotte puttering about in the living area. A couple of times, he thinks there’s the soft creak of the door, followed by a gentle hand against his forehead. But maybe he dreams it. When he finally drags himself out of the bedroom a second time, he finds her sitting at the table, a whole bunch of cards spread out before her.
“How are you feeling?” she asks, immediately standing and coming to his side.
“Much better, thank you.” And it’s true – the ever-present ache in his chest has lessened, and his limbs don’t quite feel like they’re made of lead any more.
“Well I’m glad to hear it! But please, sit down.” He lets her place him back in the same chair as before, watching in bemusement as she bustles about with something on the stove.
“Here – I made you a tea my nursemaid used to make me whenever I got sick – she used to swear it cured everything from colds to stomach upsets! ...I’m not actually sure if it has any medicinal qualities, but, I always find it very comforting, so I thought, maybe...”
“Thank you,” Arthur says again earnestly as she places a steaming mug in front of him. It’s fragrant and sweet as he lifts it to his lips, and when he takes a sip, he blinks in surprise.
“No good?” Charlotte asks, twisting her skirt in her fingers. “It’s okay, I won’t be offended if you don’t like it, honestly I don’t think I’ve ever managed to make it quite like-”
“No, no, it’s fine. It’s delicious!” he says truthfully. “I was just... surprised, since... my father used to make something like this.”
Hosea would have had a field day up in these mountain woodlands – man was forever wandering off and coming back ten minutes later with a bouquet of herbs and other plants for his tonics whenever they camped in places like this. The thought brings a sad smile to his face, and he shakes his head, looking for something to change the subject.
“Whatchu got there?” He gestures to the cards, which he can now see aren’t playing cards, but look very familiar.
“Oh, I was just- Well, it’s silly. Cal and I used to collect cards from cigarette packets – it was just something to entertain ourselves.” A sad smile crosses over Charlotte’s own face as she gazes down at them. “It sounds childish, I know, but we each had our own collections – and we passed so many evenings trading them. The haggling was quite fierce, I can assure you.”
Arthur chuckles as he sips at his tea. “Sounds like fun.”
She smiles, though the expression quickly falters. “It was. And I thought I might amass my and Cal’s collections together now. But... I don’t really care about the sets, not really, and neither did Cal. It was just a way to pass time – oh, but it was so much fun.” She gives an embarrassed laugh, shaking her head. “We’d get into these passionate, ludicrous debates about why a Bart Love was worth three Hattie Langtry’s or what have you. But if you’re just collecting them on your own then...” she shrugs with another sad smile. “It sort of takes the joy out of it.”
Arthur regards her for a moment. Makes a decision. Leans back and scoffs.
“Please, Bart Love is worth a Schooner or a Fountain Pen at most.”
It’s the right thing to say – Charlotte’s eyes light up in a way that makes all the hardship she’s recently suffered fall away from her face.
Arthur grins, turns to where his satchel is still hanging off the back of his chair and starts digging out his own cigarette cards.
“You got a Dutch Warmblood or a Missouri Fox Trotter, by any chance? I’m trying to complete the horses set.”
Before he knows it, a couple more hours have gone by, as they trade and bargain and giggle over the cards. He’d started off collecting the things to try and make some money like that jumpy fella at Flatneck Station said he could. But it was kind of satisfying, every time he found a new card for a set – he’s found himself getting just as excited to find a rare card as he is to find a stack of cash. It ain’t ever occurred to him that there’d be other amateur collectors out there he could trade with. And Charlotte was right – it sure is entertaining.
“A Goat Carriage is absolutely better than a Hot Air Balloon! Trust me – if I had to pick a mode of transportation, I’d take the goat any day.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“I most certainly am.”
“Well, a Hot Air Balloon is still worth more than a George Dixie-”
“No ma’am – I’d rather get a piggy-back from George than ride in one of those flying death traps.”
As they continue to argue and barter, Arthur realises he’s having fun. Pure, honest fun; he can’t even remember the last time he laughed this much without being drunk to some degree. That thought in itself is sobering; as is looking out the window.
“Aw hell – I’m sorry Mrs. Balfour, I should get goin’.”
“Going?” She looks alarmed. “Where on Earth to? You were unconscious and hardly breathing only a few hours ago! And it’ll be dark soon, you can’t go off riding like this. Please, won’t you at least stay the night? It’s no trouble, truly.”
And God, ain’t that a tempting offer. Exchanging the cold, damp misery of Beaver Hollow for a proper bed, in a warm, cozy cabin, with delightful company to boot. In another life, he thinks he and Charlotte could have been fast friends. But that ain’t the life he got dealt with.
“Much as I would like to,” he says gently, “I’m afraid I’ve got people waitin’ for me.”
“Oh.” She only looks crestfallen for a second, before setting her face in a determined smile. And Charlotte is lovely and funny and kind, but it’s that quiet determination of hers that he admires most about her. It’s... inspiring. ‘There’s always more to find in ourselves’, she’d said. He’d like to think that’s true.
“Well then, you must go to them,” she says firmly, “here, let me help.” They gather up Arthur’s cigarette cards, including his new additions, and she fills his canteen with more of the tea so he can sip at it while he rides.
“Do you think you’ll be able to stop by again, if you’re in the area? Just so I know you’re alright?”
“Sure,” he smiles as he pulls himself into the saddle. “I’ll try and swing by in a few days, see how your hunting’s goin’. And I’ll keep a lookout for a Carolina Lupine card for you in the mean time.”
The way her eyes light up again further eases the ache in his chest.
“I’ll hold you to that!” she calls from the porch. “And I’ll hunt something down so we can have another meal – I need to make sure it wasn’t my cooking that nearly did you in!”
“I promise you it weren’t, Mrs. Balfour!” he calls back, grinning. “But I’d like that very much, all the same.”
“Well good! I’ll try to find a goat!”
His lungs feel clear as he laughs, the sound bouncing and ringing off the cliff walls.
Might be fun, John supposes, looking at all the colourful pictures on the cards. Maybe something he could do with Jack – the card collecting part, not the smoking part. Little kids like colourful pictures, right? He scoops the cards into a more orderly pile, and looks at the next group of objects that he carefully lined up on the table. It’s medicine, of all sorts, in such quantities it’s probably illegal. Pain killing tonics, poultices to stop infection, tablets to chew when you can’t stay awake. Dozens of little green bottles, carefully labeled with Arthur’s looping handwriting. Arthur always took to Hosea’s lessons on herbal remedies better than John ever did – there’s bunches of herbs too, for both eating and medicine making, fragrant in the damp air. There’s enough here to make it look like Arthur robbed an entire pharmacy.
“Why the hell didn’t you use it, you idiot?” John whispers harshly, anger burning in his chest. There’s no cure for TB, he knows that – but the thought that Arthur had been suffering for weeks, when he had all this medicine... It could have helped him; could have eased the pain, helped him sleep better, helped him keep food down (and John had caught him, on a night that Mr. Pearson insisted he sat down and had a bowl of stew, retching miserably behind a tree not ten minutes later. That was when John had looked at Arthur good and proper, and realised just how much weight he’d lost.) Goddamn stupid, stubborn, self-sacrificing bastard. If he’d used all this damn medicine, maybe he would have been strong enough to make it off that mountain with him. Maybe he’d be here now, and John could ask him about his magic goddamn satchel. Ask him what they should do next, because Arthur always knew what to do. Maybe John wouldn’t have to lie awake at night, wondering what happened to his brother, wondering if he’s still there on that mountain, body left for the scavengers and the elements to-
His thoughts are interrupted by a noise down in the road below – almost like a horse’s snort. His head snaps up, hand instantly on his revolver, peering into the misty gloom. But there’s nothing there, even though he spends a tense few minutes listening for any other sound. Probably just one of the animals in the nearby farms, sounding closer because of the fog. So with a sigh, he goes back to examining the contents of Arthur’s satchel.
The rest of the table, and one of the chairs, are covered in what John assumes are hunting trophies – a claw, a horn, a clump of feathers and the like. But Arthur, or someone, has made an effort to pretty them up, with ribbons and beads and other decorations. One catches his eye though, more beautiful than all the rest; some kind of bracelet, he thinks, as he carefully picks it up, hung with fangs and feathers. It’s a real work of art, and sure, Arthur was great at drawing, but John doubts he could have made something like this. And it ain’t the sort of thing he’d think to steal – so how’d he come across it?
His coughing probably announces his arrival even before the sound of hoof beats. But he’d held in every single one as he slunk through that damn army camp, ducking between tents and crates as those thieving hooligans strolled around, chatting and drinking as if they were just at the saloon, and not there to threaten an entire people. Bastards.
Either way, Rains Fall doesn’t look surprised at his reappearance. He’s sitting in the burned ruins of the shrine, face grave.
“Please tell me you found it?” he asks softly. Arthur clears his throat one last time and nods, pulling the ‘chanupa’ from his saddlebag. And the relief in the old man’s face, the tired but sincere smile, the warm praise he gives him for retrieving the items peacefully, makes Arthur’s heart ache for a different reason. Here’s a man who’s witnessed countless atrocities against his people, who has every right to be consumed with anger and thoughts of vengeance, and yet still manages to be so sensible and calm and thoughtful. Arthur wants to ask him how he does it. Because Arthur wants to take that correct and brave path, but he’s not sure he knows how. Not when he seems to have spent his whole life suffering from and dispensing violence in turns. Killing those as needed killing. Or so he was told.
And the difference strikes him suddenly. Not long ago, he would have dismissed Rains Fall as weak and pathetic – leaders were supposed to be bold, fierce, grandiose, loud, supposed to be seen and heard and listened to. Rains Fall is quiet and gentle; he doesn’t grandstand, doesn’t make a show of what he’s doing for his people, just quietly gets on with it. He ain’t nothing like what Arthur would expect from an inspiring leader.
And yet, Arthur thinks he might respect Rains Fall more than he does any other man alive.
“My people owe you a great debt, and I am giving you very little,” Rains Fall is saying, reaching into his pocket, “but please, take this.”
Arthur reaches out on instinct when Rains Fall hands it to him, but his throat tightens he examines the talisman, a bracelet of fangs and owl feathers.
“We believe it to be sacred,” Rains Fall smiles. Arthur swallows thickly. To be given something obviously so precious, just for stealing back what was stolen in the first place...
“Thank you,” he says, hoping he sounds as grateful as he feels. Only months, maybe even weeks ago, he would have dismissed it as a pretty trinket. But now he feels a warmth in his chest as he studies it, even if his eyes are prickling. And that suddenly reminds him...
He helps Rains Fall up, but then digs in his satchel until he finds what he’s looking for – another ‘trinket’ he’d picked up on his travels.
“Here, I uh, I think this actually belongs to you.”
At the time, he’d taken it merely as a memento of his treasure hunt, to go along with a sketch of the cave paintings in his journal. But now the little stone arrowhead feels heavy with meaning in his palm. Rains Fall inspects it, eyebrows raising.
“How did you find this?” But he sounds intrigued, rather than angry. Arthur swallows nevertheless.
“I uh, I saw some of the totems, the ‘dream catchers’, while I been travelling around these parts. And Charles once told me that sometimes they act as like, uh, like stars, and make a constellation for an image. And after a while I realised they was makin’ a bison. And I figured, maybe there was something at the heart, or the eye. And I was up around where I figured the eye would be, or thereabouts- I’m real sorry, I didn’t really know what I was looking at, at the time, I just thought-”
“You found the paintings? Beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Yessir,” Arthur nods, even if shame is crawling up his spine, “they were really somethin’. But, I realise this weren’t mine to take, it’s probably sacred too? And it’s yours. So, here. Or, if you like, I’m headin’ up that way, I can put it back where I found-”
Rains Fall reaches out – and gently closes Arthur’s fingers over the arrowhead.
“Those paintings were created by our ancestors – the first of the Wapiti people to reach these lands. And yes, it is sacred.” But the smile he gives him is warm. “It is believed to bestow prowess and courage in battle. In these times, I advocate for peace – and besides, I am an old man. My days for ‘battle prowess’ are long gone! It is of little use to me. But, I fear you still have several battles ahead of you, Mr. Morgan. Please, keep it. I hope it will protect you.”
Arthur can’t bring himself to speak – just nods, and slips the ancient arrowhead back into his satchel.
There’s quite a few of these animal talismans, and when John looks back at the map, at Arthur’s crossed off ‘legendary’ animals, he can see where most of them came from. But, one of them is a paw. An entire paw, stuffed like he’s seen at taxidermists’. And thing is, it looks like a cat’s paw, but it’s way too big to be from a cougar, or even from one of the panthers that prowled the forests near Shady Belle. If John didn’t know better, he’d say it was from a goddamn lion. But that’s ridiculous – where could Arthur have possibly found a lion?
He moves on to the items on the floor. There’s Arthur’s fishing rod – and even though the pole is collapsible, when John holds it against the outside of the satchel, he realises it should never have been able to fit inside in the first place. How many hours did he spend fishing with Arthur over the years, and never even notice? Stranger still, is what’s lying next to the rod. An entire salmon. Wrapped in oil cloth, sure, but still moist and cool, as if it had only been pulled from the river minutes ago. But John’s had this satchel for near on a week, and he knows Arthur certainly didn’t have time to go fishing for a few days before... before it all ended. So how in the hell...
And then there’s the other carcasses. A woodpecker. A squirrel. A red cardinal. All in perfect condition – if it weren’t for the glazed-over eyes, you could sit them up and they’d look like they were still alive. John has no idea why Arthur’s got dead animals in his satchel, and he ain’t sure he wants to know. Maybe he wanted to do some still life drawings? Or perhaps he sold them? There might be some reason hidden in his journal, but they are definitely going into the trash. It’s goddamn creepy, is what it is.
Then there’s the oat crackers. Boxes and boxes of oat crackers. And peppermints, of course. John has always strongly suspected Arthur loved his various horses over the years more than he loved most people; man would have starved himself before he let his horses go hungry. He’d given them all away, in the end, except for Atlas; to ‘friends’, he’d said, people he knew would look after them. Dutch had been furious at him for giving away Freyr to a woman he’d saved not long ago when her own Missouri Fox Trotter had died on her.
”She knows how to handle high-strung breeds, and she cared about her horse. I could tell. She’ll look after her,” Arthur had said with a calmness that would frighten most sensible people. But of course, Dutch was well beyond any sense by that point.
“You have any idea how much an Arabian would sell for, you dolt?! And a brindled one at that? We need that money!” Dutch had seethed, clearly oblivious to just how upset Arthur was about giving Freyr away. And John understands why; she was a real sweet horse, used to come and bump her head into Arthur’s chest when he was in a mood, just like Boadicea used to. Giving her up must’ve been heartbreaking.
But Arthur had looked at Dutch coolly, replied, “Then sell The Count,” and walked off. And Dutch glared, but hadn’t argued – even in his madness, he seemed to remember not to cross Arthur when it came to his horses.
Finally, on the other chair, he’s put some more precious items besides the gold bars – a platinum watch. A silver bracelet. A fine-looking fountain pen with ‘J. B.’ embossed on the clip. A green stone that John thinks might be an emerald, easily the size of Jack’s fist. A strange little statuette carved from smooth, red-hued wood. A pendant necklace. And a ring. Nothing too fancy, just a gold band with a small red stone, a ruby maybe, set between two smaller, clearer stones – diamonds, perhaps. Probably still worth quite a bit. And John’s got half a mind to sell it – hell, got half a mind to toss it out into the dirt road here and now, because he knows who this ring was meant for. Knows all the heartache it represents.
Camp’s eerily quiet behind him – even more so than usual, despite the fact things have never been lively at Beaver Hollow. Everyone’s been giving him a wide berth since he threw Strauss out. And hell, maybe that was wrong – who was he to judge Strauss for his sins, when he himself had committed so many more?
But that woman. That brave, brave woman, living in a house outside of town. Raising her boy by herself. A little boy with wild hair and a cheeky smile, and a daddy named Arthur who weren’t there for him when he should’ve been. Though it weren’t the poor man’s own fault, this time around.
He shakes his head, reaches into his satchel, pulls out something else to blame the ache in his heart on. Rests his hat on his knee with a sigh, reading through Mary’s letter for the dozenth time. Over the years, he’d almost – almost – managed to convince himself that he didn’t love her. That he loved the idea of her – the idea of what life with her would be like. The idea of the man he would be, to be worthy of a place at her side. But reading that letter yesterday, thankfully shielded from view of the rest of camp by Atlas...
He thought he didn’t have a heart left to break. Turns out he was wrong.
John takes a seat on the log beside him. Arthur just nods in reply, and they both look out towards the river a while, though he knows John’s side-eyeing him – and the letter in his hands.
“Tilly mentioned you got another letter from Mary,” he finally mutters. “What she want this time?”
John scoffs. “You sure? Because seems she only ever writes you when-”
Arthur reaches into his satchel, pulls out the ring. Watches it glint in the sunlight. John’s eyes widen for a second, then he scowls. And Arthur really hopes they aren’t gonna have the same old argument again. Trouble is, John weren’t around when he was with Mary – he showed up in their lives when Arthur was at his lowest over the whole thing, a couple months after Mary had broke off their engagement. Kid only ever saw the bad parts of their relationship, not the good bits. Never got to see how happy Arthur was when he was with her – only his misery afterwards. John’s loathed Mary for most of his life, without ever having met her.
“Surprised she didn’t sell it,” John bites out, fingers clawing into the log, “seeing as she always seemed to be hasslin’ you for some-”
“Don’t, John. Please.” He can’t muster the strength for this, not anymore. John falters at the weariness at his voice, but then scowls out at the river.
“I don’t get it, Arthur,” he finally sighs. “How can you go on carin’ ‘bout someone when they just keep hurtin’ you?”
Arthur thinks about the torrent of abuse Abigail used to hurl at John. Thinks about John himself, drunk and sullen after the disappointing take from stealing the Braithwaite’s horses, slurring that he’d kill her if he thought he could get away with it, if only to escape the nagging. Thinks about Susan, carefully draping a blanket over Karen wherever she’s passed out, despite their screaming matches. Thinks, with a small smile, about Mr. Black and Mr. White, who he’d come across again after clearing out the last of the O’Driscolls with Sadie, and who still only seem to be able to communicate with each other via insults. Thinks more solemnly about poor Molly, tears falling from her eyes even when her wheezing breaths had silenced, and how long she’d stayed by Dutch’s side before she finally snapped.
“You can forgive someone a lot of things when you love them,” he finally says quietly.
“Can you?” And John hasn’t sounded so small and uncertain for a long time.
“Sure. I forgave you, didn’t I?”
John startles at that, turning to face him. And that’s something else to add to his long list of regrets. It’s sort of been an understanding between them, these past few weeks – but he’s never said it aloud. Neither of them has ever been good with words – and John’s clearly struggling now. So Arthur saves him the trouble.
“Don’t think too hard there, Marston, you’ll strain something.”
“Shut up,” John grumbles. And they share a smile, back in familiar territory. But he wants to say something, to articulate just how much John – the second shadow he never wanted, the brat who has been an endless source of frustration in his life, the little brother he would protect with his last breath – means to him. But then he has to go and ruin the moment with a coughing fit.
John rubs his back, murmuring “easy, easy...” as he wheezes, the hacking coughs bending him double. When it finally passes, he sits back with a sigh, feeling another ten years older and tasting iron on his tongue. Can’t bring himself to look at John, not when out of the corner of his eye he can see that same stricken expression on his face that a lot of people seem to look at him with, these days. Just slumps where he sits, staring with watering eyes down at the river.
He’s so tired.
But then John leans against him slightly. An invitation. And Arthur thinks about all the times he’d done the same for the kid over the years.
Not a kid anymore, he thinks ruefully, glancing at the young man beside him. John’s been taller than him for years (much to the kid’s unadulterated glee when he realised when he was about eighteen). But now, profile outlined by the late evening sun, dark eyes grave and thoughtful as he gazes down to the river, he sees a seriousness in John that he’s pretty sure wasn’t there before.
Looks like little Johnny Marston’s finally grown up.
The thought makes him smile, and eases a little of the anxiety whirling in his chest. So he takes the invitation, leans against John, resting his head on his shoulder. After a moment, John leans his own head against his. And it feels kinda strange, their roles reversed. But it’s nice. He takes a deep breath.
This is worth fighting for.
John studies the little ring. Knows that Arthur forgave Mary Gillis, or Linton, or whatever her name is these days, but that doesn’t mean he has to. He should write to her, he supposes, send it back with a note, ‘Dear Ms. Gillis-Linton-whatever, here’s your ring back, Arthur’s dead and while he was dying you broke his heart again, just thought you should know, warmest regards...’
And he can practically hear Arthur’s voice, calling him out for being so damn childish. But that doesn’t stop him from curling his fist around the ring. Because John wants to stay mad at her for doing that, for taking Arthur for granted, for calling on Arthur because she knew he would always help, time and time again. Because if John stops being angry with her, he’ll have to move on to the next thought, which is that everyone took Arthur for granted – including himself. And that ain’t a realisation he’s ready to face yet, so he lets the anger stay. Damn it, she doesn’t deserve the stupid ring back. He stands abruptly, pulls back his arm, ready to hurl the thing into the empty street-
And startles so hard he nearly drops it.
The street ain’t so empty after all.
It’s the biggest John’s ever seen. Fur golden in the lamplight, impressive horns, at least fourteen points, wreathed in mist.
John stares at the buck, and the buck stares back.
John slowly lowers his fist. Glances between the ring in his palm, and the animal down in the street. The buck snorts – the same noise as from before, he realises. But after a moment, he carefully places the ring on the table, and he could swear the buck relaxes slightly. Which don’t make no sense. It’s a wild animal. What the hell it’s doing here, on a strip of farmland between a major city and a swamp, John can’t even begin to guess. And yet, it’s staring right at him, watching him...
And the rational voice in John’s head (the one that sounds a lot like Hosea) clears its throat, and reminds him that wildlife acting peculiar is one thing, but it ain’t nothing compared to the fact that John has just pulled a small general store’s worth of stuff out of Arthur’s old satchel. John looks around helplessly at everything he’s spread across the balcony.
“What the hell, Arthur?” he whispers, looking at the buck as if it might have all the answers
And if John didn’t know better, he’d say it looked amused.
It snorts once more with a gentle tilt of its head, then bounds off into the mist.
John stares after it for a long moment. Then looks around at the collection of things surrounding him – and with a shake of his head, begins the long process of putting it all back, because what else is he going to do with it all? And it’s bizarre – every time he puts something into the satchel, there always seems to be just a bit more room.
Finally, he looks at the last item on the table. The ring glints golden in the lamplight, just like the buck’s fur had done. And for some reason, that’s comforting. With a shrug, he slips it back into the satchel – if only to keep as a memento of the strange encounter. And who knows? Maybe it’ll come in handy for something, someday.
He sits back, the satchel in his hands – small, unassuming, and no weightier than one would expect. And John finds his eyes are wet, even as he laughs softly at the absurdity of it all.
“What the HELL, Arthur?” he whispers again, with feeling.
In the distance, he thinks he hears a deer’s call in answer.