i stop somewhere waiting for you - Chapter 1 - anderfels (2024)

Chapter Text

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Summer swells. The season soars towards its height in days that stretch like pulling taffy, brief nights ushered into the moonlit corners of dusk by the ever-confident sun, lounging across Lemoyne like an overfed cat. There hasn’t been rain for weeks, but the lowland plains still seep with run-off from the Heartlands, lush with verdant vibrant life, congregating around the precious pockets of water, where the dry grass is still green. Birds have flocked in numbers, feasting on the living land, the bees that hurry through the flower meadows, vying with the butterflies for nectar and pollen, busy in the rising heat.

Clemens Point bustles, too. One bank robbery, and a daring gallop out of Valentine for the second time in barely a month, scattering lawmen through the dry prairie amongst the antelope and mustang herds. It’s a risk, and Arthur knows it, yet he rides back into Scarlett Meadows with the same elated grin as when they’d raced to catch the bison, so long and many miles ago, breathless with adrenaline and camaraderie, worn proudly on his chest like medals. Money flows from the cracked safes. Abundant and precious.

Not enough, says Dutch.

Molly withers with his neglect, and it comes to shouting more often than not, a deliberately ignored feature of the camp’s quiet mornings, conspicuous as a blueberry in a pan of milk. Despite the tension, Dutch doesn’t seem concerned. He lazes as a basking lizard, lips stretched around his cigar, and when he rises it’s to tell them all that there’s not enough money to get away. Not enough food, not enough time. Not enough, never enough.

Within the day, Arthur’s smile is gone. Forgotten as he tells Karen that he’s seen too many people die to think of robbing as fun anymore. She visibly deflates, and Arthur tries not to take her disappointment in him to heart.

A stagecoach comes next, a tale Arthur enjoys retelling to Charles, if only to prove his earlier statement that Trelawny is but a man, just like the rest of them. A crook in pinstripes. And a good one at that, fleecing a plush primadonna of her worldly goods in as much time as it takes Arthur to pronounce the Italian opera she’s supposedly singing from.

The impression he does of her makes Charles laugh hard enough to spill his coffee, and despite Dutch’s badgering, Arthur seems happier. With some distance between them and the ruling families of Rhodes, they all feel a little more content.

It’s a few days since their hunting trip. Arthur dresses, eats leftover cornbread with his coffee as he grooms Magpie for the day, and Taima too, since Charles is under strict orders (from Arthur) to sleep late. Rare for him, but he had the night’s guard duty, and Arthur has seen him working on a mere two hours’ sleep far too many times, insisting he take the morning off to catch up. The amount Charles does, mostly completely taken for granted, hasn’t yet ceased to amaze him.

Blessedly free of Molly and Dutch circling each other like alley cats, the morning is a quiet one, and he greets Cain on his way from the horses, wondering if perhaps Hosea would humour him with a round of dominoes, to pass the time before whatever needs his attention presents itself.

Heading back to his wagon first, he drinks the last of his coffee, and tips his hat at Dutch, sitting just outside his tent, head down. “Mornin’, Dut-”

Micah looks up, not Dutch at all, and Arthur nearly inhales his mouthful, spitting lukewarm coffee down his chin in a dribbling spurt.

“Careful, cowpoke,” Micah warns, stroking the revolver in his hand with a rag, voice bored as he watches Arthur splutter, like one of those vaguely terrifying children who delights in pulling the wings off flies. “Wouldn’t want you to choke. Heard you’re prone to it.”

“F-f*ck off,” Arthur spits, wiping his mouth. What’s he doing sitting outside Dutch’s tent like he’s spent the night in it?

“Or maybe it’s a thrill for you, huh Morgan? Losin’ control like that? That what gets you off?”

His grin is like a ravine, holey and jagged, and Arthur is tempted to throttle him himself, see how much he likes joking then. “What you want?”

“Testy feller, ain’tcha,” Micah says, tipping his gun up towards his lips and blowing some invisible gunpowder from the muzzle, still smiling like an alligator.

A rumbling chuckle, and he holds both hands up in surrender, leering at the look on Arthur’s face, revolver catching the light just as his yellowed teeth do. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called,” he says, and Arthur’s already not paying attention to whatever he’s rambling on about, gaze caught by Molly as she stalks past behind him, dress whipping up the dust from the dry earth.

“Hey- Molly?” he asks, spinning on his heel, replacing his coffee cup in his satchel. “Where’s Dutch?”

She brushes past him, waving her hand in dismissal by way of answering, Micah’s snickering in the background.

“Well-” he says. Arthur peers around Dutch’s tent, and then cranes his neck to see past the slightly open canvas flaps, hoping against hope he doesn’t see Dutch inside half-dressed, waiting for Micah to come back to bed.

Jesus Christ.

“-However it goes.”

“I ain’t sure that line of thought serves you or me very well,” Arthur snaps, finally giving Micah the attention he’s grubbing for.

“That’s because, cowpoke,” Micah says, face turned up to him, puckered and jowly like a bulldog. “You are a man of profoundly limited intelligence.”

Every expression Micah has in his facial catalogue seems to drip somehow, like over-buttered bread, greasy and shiny, opening up beneath his moustache like a gold-toothed bear trap.

Arthur just sighs, habitual. “No doubt.”

“While you and the old man and Dutch have been runnin’ around, digging us ever deeper into sh*t-”

Your sh*t. This two-timing con was your dumbass idea-”

“Old Mr Pearson,” Micah continues, eyes unblinking. “Might’ve gone and lightened the load a little. Pearson!”

Sighing again, Arthur looks across the camp to find Pearson, already heading their way, wiping his hands on the apron tucked under the overhang of his belly. “Ain’t you curious?” Micah asks, eyes flicking back up to Arthur, watching.

“I guess…”


Dutch’s voice rings out.

Striding towards them from the hitching posts, he makes his way into the camp, the brocade on his waistcoat catching the light. Despite the heat, he’s still dressed up like a prize-winning rooster at the county fair, buttons rubbed until they shine, a handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket as a neatly folded flag. Micah stands to greet him as Pearson blusters over, sweat dark across his shirt.

“Perfect timing, Dutch! You tell him what we was discussin’, fat man,” Micah says, eager even as Dutch marches past all of them, intending to get to his tent without interruption.

“It’s peace, Dutch,” Pearson says, looking to Arthur, then to Micah, then to Dutch’s back. “The O’Driscolls. I mean- I think there’s a way.”

“What on Earth are you blathering about?”

Dutch ducks into his tent, pulling the canvas back, and again Pearson looks to Micah for help. “Get the words out properly, fat man,” Micah chides, and Pearson either doesn’t notice the patronising ooze in his voice, or elects to ignore it.

“I met a couple of them O’Driscoll boys on the road into town.” Hesitating, Pearson lingers at the edge of Dutch’s tent, unwilling to cross the threshold as Dutch busies himself inside, taking his revolver out of its holster to inspect the sights, filling his time with whatever mundanity needed to rid his space of the three of them. “Things were about to get ugly, but uh… Well, you know how I am in a fight, huh,” Pearson chirps, gleeful, and finally Dutch looks back at him, blankly watching as Pearson mimes aforementioned fighting prowess, jabbing at the air and skirting an unseen foe with a paring knife from his apron.

“Like a cornered tiger!” he quips, hopping between each foot to parry imaginary blows, huffing a weak dishwater smile back at Arthur, who barely manages a grimace in return.

After a long, awkward second, Pearson puts the knife away. “Anyway…”

Satisfied with his gun, Dutch continues to bustle about the tent, locating a box tucked on top of a small chest of drawers, hidden behind a hanging rug, ornately flowered like the one in Trelawny’s shack had been, silk and craftsmanship claiming to be imported from Outer Mongolia or some such nonsense. It was probably made in Arizona. He takes out a cigar, thicker than two of Arthur’s fingers and twice as long, clipping the end before placing it between his teeth to light.

“Somehow, it didn’t,” Pearson continues, turning back to Dutch, hoping to reel in his attention again. “But, well, we got to talking, and they suggested a parley! To end things.”

Brow creasing, Dutch simply looks at him. His cigar smoulders. “Like… Like gentlemen,” Pearson mumbles, voice trailing, tumbling over on itself.

“Gentlemen?” Dutch echoes, eyes narrowing to mere slits. “Colm O’Driscoll?!”

Rounding on a cowering Pearson, Dutch all but shoves him from his tent, gesturing with the quick jerking movements of the incredibly angry. He looks from a nonplussed Arthur to Micah, and then to Pearson again, looming at his full height, shoulders taut. “Have you lost your damn minds?!”

Voice placating, Micah speaks first, palms up as if trying to calm a spooked horse. “Now, you’re always tellin’ us, Dutch,” he lilts, simpering, a panther coaxing a rabbit out from its burrow with the promise to admire the rabbit’s soft coat, and definitely absolutely unequivocally not to eat him. “Do what has to be done, but don’t fight wars ain’t worth fightin’.”

“They want a parley?”

Hosea’s voice calls from the dominoes table where he’s reading the newspaper, and apparently listening to every word. “It’s a trap.”

“Well of course, it’s probably a trap!” Micah snaps, sarcasm in his shaking head as he rounds back to Dutch, hands out like he’s calling the faithful to prayer. “But what’ve we got to lose finding out?”

It’s bullsh*t, clearly, but Arthur can’t work out Micah’s angle. He watches from the sidelines of whatever pantomime he’s been unwillingly roped into, thumbs in his belt, frowning as he looks from Micah to Pearson, to Dutch, to Hosea. If it was anyone but Micah, he’d have to agree. Their feud with the O’Driscolls is about as old as his tenure in the gang, and he’d like to think, much less useful. Lying low is difficult enough without the perpetual harassment of Colm’s boys on top of everything else they’re trying to outrun. It’s one more wasp’s nest they don’t need to be poking.

But Micah… What game is he playing? Despite the good sense his argument makes, Arthur can’t help but feel uneasy that it’s him that’s making it. Good sense and Micah don’t go together.

Besides, there’s always a lot left to lose.

“We could get shot,” he offers, and shrugs a shoulder.

“We ain’t gettin’ shot, ‘cause you’ll be protectin’ us, cowpoke,” Micah says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world, and steps into Arthur’s space to gingerly touch his arm, clasping his bicep with over-emphasised friendliness. Play-acting for the crowd.

Setting his teeth, Arthur stands up straight, and Micah backs off, both hands held palm-up. “If it’s a trap, you shoot the lotta them. If it ain’t a trap, that slim chance-”

“I don’t see the point in any of this,” Dutch snaps, brushing past them all again, drawing on his cigar as he heads over to Hosea’s table.

“Surely, it’s a chance we gotta take,” Micah says, following after him, a puppy trotting at his master’s heels.

Dutch stops, and hunches where Hosea has his newspaper, hands flat on the table for a moment, enjoying the pause. They all look to him, even Hosea, discarding his reading to trace the lines of Dutch’s face, the furl of his brow.

“I killed Colm’s brother,” he says finally, pushing off to stand before the four of them, gathered around the table in a loose crowd. “Long time ago.” Silent, his mouth opens, then shuts again, cigar held in limbo between his side and his lips. “Then he…”

The sun gathers in the brim of Dutch’s hat, glowing along the lines of his profile. He stares for a long second, caught in a memory in the middle distance, chin tipped slightly down to his chest before he looks up. “Then he killed…” A sigh, heavy, eyes following some unseen trail of thought, darting. “A woman I loved dear.”

Silence reigns for a moment, Pearson shuffling uncomfortably beside Arthur, only Micah daring to break the wordless barrier, stepping forward to the table. “As you say,” he says, voice low, rasping noiselessly like leaves against a branch. “It’s a long time ago, Dutch.”

Again, if it wasn’t Micah, Arthur might describe it as gentle. As it is, he only feels vaguely disturbed, fur rubbed in the wrong direction, watching Dutch slink through a rotoscope of emotions - pain, anger, annoyance, regret, indifference - settling finally in acceptance, jaw clenched tight. He nods, head staying down in a dangerous bow, an animal on the prowl, and finally looks at Micah having made his decision. “Let’s go. You and me, with Arthur protecting us. No one else.”

“What about me?” Pearson asks, and Arthur sighs in sympathy as he weakly claps his shoulder.

“This ain’t the time for tigers, my friend,” Dutch quips, barely bothering to hide his amusem*nt as he throws away his half-smoked cigar.

He touches Hosea’s back as he passes, heading out towards the grazing geldings, purpose renewed in every stride. “Arthur, ready up, we’re headin’ out.”

Another sigh, and Arthur follows after them, collecting Magpie’s saddle on the way, hoisting it up to rest on his hip as he walks towards the group of mares. “Fine,” he mumbles, to no one but himself, planting his hat from where it rests on the saddle horn firmly on his head. How does he always manage to get himself stuck into the most ridiculous of things.

Anxiety nags at him. Mostly he ignores it, focusing on the pieces of Magpie’s bridle, gently helping her ears through the browband with his right hand as his left cups the bit into her mouth, set in place behind her teeth. She chews it willingly, tail swishing up over her flanks to shoo the summer flies. A reassuring routine, slipping leather straps through the buckle keepers, crossing her reins over her crest, adjusting his repeater in the saddle holster, the rifle sheathed in the cinch.

Baylock and The Count are pawing the red ground towards the treeline before long, the Arabian turning fidgeting circles while they wait for Arthur. He catches Dutch’s deliberately raised voice, “He’s always loved his horses far more than any one of us!” and waves a dismissive hand in reply, checking Magpie’s saddlebags are properly secured, the water canteen on her right shoulder, the lasso looped on her left. He doesn’t notice he’s being watched from the hitching post.

“Hey,” Charles says, voice still low with lost sleep, and Arthur’s attention jumps to him, settling on his face with the same warm comfort as sinking into a plush armchair after a hard day of work. Somehow, Charles never looks tired. Some miracle of perfect genetics, it must be, whereas when Arthur gets less sleep than usual, by his own admission he looks like a badly reheated corpse.

But Charles is just as handsome as he always is, grey-green undershirt clinging across his chest like grass to the earth, rolling with the contours of his muscle like deep hills. “You good?” he asks, and Arthur has to smile despite himself, warm beneath his breastbone.

“Mm,” he hums, which is as effective as if he’d said no, leading Magpie over to where Charles is standing next to Taima, affectionately rubbing her neck. “You was s’posed to be sleepin’ in.”

“I did, it’s nearly 8,” Charles says, greeting Magpie, letting her nudge her nose into his palm, whiskers tickling his fingers. “Want me in bed longer than that, you’ll have to persuade me.”

Arthur snickers, grateful for the humour. It’s soothing somehow, a small brush of normality calming his nerves, melting away with Charles’ easy flirting. “Reckon I’d enjoy that,” he says, sly smile creeping across his lips.

“Arthur!” Dutch yells from across the clearing, startling a few chickens pecking about Sadie’s feet as they wait for their feed. “You’re wasting daylight!”

A sigh and Arthur reluctantly looks away from Charles. “So...you headin’ out?” Charles asks, curiosity turning away from the riders waiting by the trees and trying to catch his eyes again.

“Mm. Whatever this sh*t is, some harebrained scheme of Micah’s, as usual… Much rather be persuadin’ you back into bed.”

The smile returns, but only for a second, ghostlike in how it haunts Arthur’s face, as if he can’t quite catch hold of it firmly enough to feel the contentedness that preceded it. He gestures to where Dutch and Micah are waiting. “Micah reckons Colm O’Driscoll wants to offer some kinda...parley, I don’t know. S’a trap, most likely.”

Charles is frowning when Arthur looks back to him, brow heavy. “I’d rather you were persuading me back into bed, too.” His gaze drops to Arthur’s lips, laden with silent meaning, and Arthur subconsciously wets them with his tongue, still tasting the bitter tang of his morning coffee, wanting nothing but to kiss him. Damn the rest of them, damn Dutch, damn anything that would stand in his way.

“Goddamnit,” Arthur hisses, and sighs once more, looking away from Charles and scuffing his boot hard into a tuft of grass, kicking up a wedge of earth.

“Hey,” Charles says, soft. Starting forward, his fingers brush Arthur’s for just a second before he can retreat, not enough, but all he feels he can afford to offer. “You’ll be back later.”

“Yeah,” Arthur murmurs. “Yeah. I just- I-”

He rubs his clean-shaven chin, nails catching on old acne scars, blemishes usually hidden beneath perpetually scruffy stubble. Whatever he wants to say isn’t entirely clear even to him, stoppered in his throat no matter how he tries to pull words through the knot of anxiety. He wants to...tell Charles how much he wishes things were different. Tell him how much he enjoys his company, and isn’t joking when he flirts with him. That he dreams of more than kisses, even though that alone is difficult enough to find the space for, and something he would happily spend the rest of his life fighting for the privilege to do. Things that seem too complex for an early morning. Too important for his crude tongue. “I’unno. Doesn’t matter. I uh...I’ll catch you later. I can bore you with it then.”

“Listening to you is never boring,” Charles says softly, with his silk smile. “Be careful.”

An easy chuckle, and Arthur tips his hat slightly, adjusting it on his head. “I’m always careful,” he says, and gives his two-fingered salute as he leads Magpie away, mounting up to ride out on Dutch’s tail. “Catch you later.”

“Count on it,” Charles replies, mimicking the gesture as he watches them go.

“Finally,” Dutch says, and The Count skips up to trot behind Baylock, philodendrons brushing his hooves as they ride through the undergrowth. He’s a finicky horse, The Count, tossing his head impatiently, ears flicked back towards Magpie as she slots tentatively behind him, unused to riding together. Without the familiar presence of Taima to boost her confidence, Magpie keeps a length away from the geldings, and Arthur silently strokes her neck, rolling the kinks from his own shoulders to settle for the long ride.

They wind through Scarlett Meadows, a monochrome parade trailing north through the rich fields, greens and browns, patchwork scraps of grass and dirt, tiled between the forests. The road takes them all the way to Dewberry Creek, a dry strip of bare skin beneath the covering land of the plains, like the naked midriff of a giant. There’s no water to be found in the old riverbed, nothing but dust and bleached rock. Even the wildlife has moved on, the crag picked clean until rain comes, and washes colour back into the banks, stirring the life slumbering away from the summer heat.

“You know,” Dutch says, as they cross the railroad tracks near the state border with New Hanover, as mid-morning drifts in, bringing pale clouds blown in from the lake. “I been fighting Colm for so long now, I can barely remember a time when it was different.”

“You’re still fightin’ him now,” Arthur says gruffly from behind. “Make no mistake of that-”

“Here he goes, Doubtin’ Thomas.”

Micah twists in his saddle, gesturing with his reins to the two riders behind him, the roll of his eyes audible in his voice. “Is there any plan you ain’t sour on?”

Turning too, Dutch looks back at him with pointed agreement, and Arthur sighs, shaking his head. “I’unno,” he admits, defeated. “Maybe you’re right, I- I’m just nervous. I don’t wanna waste more lives needlessly.”

“I ain’t costin’ lives here,” Micah says, facing forward again, raising his voice to be heard over the steady drum of hooves. “I’m savin’ ‘em! What’d you say, Dutch, we got Pinkertons after us-”

“‘Cause of Blackwater,” Arthur mutters.

“Plus Leviticus Cornwall, and his private army.”

“‘Cause of the train Dutch robbed off of Colm-”

“Then, who knows when this local hillbilly double cross’ll come to a head, hm?”

“Which you was itchin’ to wet your dick with, Micah!”


“I’m just sayin’! Ain’t me who was thinkin’ any of this was a good idea.”

Dutch scoffs, loud enough to make Arthur scowl, pouting like a scolded child. “Your hindsight is perfect as always, my friend,” he says, sarcastic, and Micah cuts Arthur off before he can retort.

“Can we really afford to be fighting on all these fronts?” he says, turning back to both of them. “All this sh*t, and O’Driscoll?”

“There is wisdom in that,” Dutch says, deepening the scowl on Arthur’s face.

He waves his hand at the clouding midges as they cross to the north bank of the creek, horses kicking up dust in single file, taking out his discomfort on the tiny flies. They flank the dead river at the base of the cliff above, a moat around a great grassy castle, following its path before looping back on themselves to cut up to higher ground, brush thinning out as they progress further towards the plains. “I just- Like I said, I’m...nervous,” Arthur says eventually, and subconsciously rubs Magpie’s crest, reassuring himself as much as her.

“You ain’t even gonna be the one in danger,” Micah says, managing not to sound completely patronising. A grand feat for him. “We’ll get on over there, find you a nice little perch. You got a scoped rifle?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“So me an’ Dutch walk right into the lion’s den, with you coverin’ us.”

“Okay, okay, just-” Arthur shakes his head. “Just keep calm. Unless I give you reason not to.”

“Oh we’ll be fine,” Dutch says, chuckling to himself. “We’ve got you.”

“I shall try my best.”

“Oh my dear and trusted friend,” Dutch says, curling his fingers in the air beside him with a flourish. “With you watching over me, I would walk into Hell itself.”

Another soft sigh and Arthur swallows around a pang of guilt, hot on the back of his neck and not just from the sun. Maybe Micah’s right. Maybe he truly is just becoming doubtful in his old age, being so frequently reminded of his own mortality, his lack of much to be proud of in life. Going soft. Perhaps his newfound affection for Charles is colouring his view of the world, influencing how he sees situations he might not have seen as risky before, even...pulling him away from the job at hand, from what Dutch needs him to be. Maybe he’s being selfish.

It’s not fair of him to put any self-interest before Dutch. Dutch has only ever looked after him, after all of them. Has brought him up to be good at what he does. And he needs Arthur’s support. Things are hard enough without him causing more stress, surely.

“Dutch, I-”

“As would I,” Micah says, and ruins the moment entirely.

They meander beneath the rising cliff, the trail twisting back and forth in lazy curves, climbing higher. Movement above catches their attention north of Dewberry Creek - riders on the ridge, overlooking the road, and the flash of green in their clothing makes it clear who they are, who they’re riding for.

All four turn at the sight of them far below, disappearing away from the cliff edge, and Micah leads them on undeterred around the edge of the plains where the grass can’t tell whether it’s green or brown, scrubby savannah or riparian field, the overflow floodplain meeting the dry scarp of the stretching prairie in a tangle of sedge and brush.

Emerald Ranch appears in the northeast distance as they climb higher, not quite sparkling as its namesake, but shimmering with the heat haze, blurred against the backdrop of foreshortened forest towards the east. The blur of green swims, rich swathes of colour, sweating with the shallow water that congregates in the heart of the marshland to the north. Waterfowl are pinpricks of pink and white, herds of whitetail no more than brown smudges further than Arthur can see.

Climbing towards the higher ridges, they sit heavy in their saddles to counterbalance, sweat already clinging to all three horses’ flanks, and all three men’s, at that. Baylock tosses the foam from his mouth, and drops to a steaming trot, heavy with the heat, and the three of them ride abreast for the last dozen miles or so, Micah starting up the conversation again as they crest the ridge.

“Maybe he’s right, Dutch,” he says, and Arthur’s eyebrow raises before he can tell it not to. The sun burns white in Micah’s hat, having to tip his face up from beneath it to see beyond the glare. “Maybe I have pushed too hard. Got us into situations that...coulda been safer. I just-”

His voice wobbles, a hollow sort of cracking sound, like someone’s trodden on a raw egg. “I see all those mouths we gotta feed, and I-”

It’s like watching a particularly terrible stage play, seeing the emotions jostle on Micah’s face in real time, jowls hanging, brows pulled down as if by strings, moustache highlighting the downturn in his mouth and giving the distinct impression he’s melting, like a wax figure starting to drip in the heat. He clenches his features up, puckered together as if held by clothespins, and Arthur gets the delirious urge to start laughing.

“I dream too big!” he says, gesturing up at the uncaring sky like the soprano warbling her eponymous lament at the climax of the opera, crying out her aria for catharsis. “Caring too much, that’s my problem. I feel so strongly for everyone.”

“Caring too much?” Dutch says, slightly hushed with emotion, false or not, Arthur can’t tell. He gazes imploringly across at Micah beside him, ignoring Arthur’s abject incredulity from his other side. “There’s no such thing.”

Arthur bursts out laughing. “This is horse sh*t!” he says, laughter spilling from him, titanic and snorting, like the neighing of a horse. “From both of you! ‘Caring too much’, this from the feller who shot up an entire town of honest innocent folk for some rusty revolvers-”

“My guns ain’t-”

“He ain’t care for no one but hisself and you know it, Dutch! What absolute stinkin’ horse sh*t-”

“It might be!” Dutch snaps, and Arthur’s laughter is torn out of him, stopping at once. “Micah might be full of sh*t! Colm O’Driscoll might be full of sh*t. The promise, of this great nation-”

Oh here we go. Arthur lets himself deflate, rolling his eyes beneath his hat as they emerge at the top of the incline, the plains stretching out before them like gold green tapestry, inlaid only with the great Twin Stacks and their cousins, pillars at the unmarked gateway to the Heartlands. The rock is stoic and sun-parched, corniced with wiry grass and eagle nests, pale stone cliffs crumbling for miles all the way to Valentine.

“Men created equal,” Dutch continues, gesturing to his enraptured audience of Micah alone. “Liberty, and justice for all… That might be nonsense too. But it’s worth trying for. It’s worth believing in. Can’t you see that, friend?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur grumbles, strained through his clenched teeth.

Try. All I ask is you try.”

“Uh huh.”

“Alright, cowpoke,” Micah interjects, gathering Baylock back to walk, peeling off the track to the left. The other horses slow too, Arthur sitting deep in the saddle to keep Magpie steady. “We’ll be meetin’ down on the plain over yonder. Head up the rise from here and you should have a clear view to keep an eye on things.”

“Right,” Arthur says, trying to pick a visual path through the yucca and prickly pear blanketing the cliff, a carpet of thorns and brush.

The road they had been following continues down, tumbling over the rise to a triangular crossroads, splitting through Twin Stack Pass and skirting beneath the hill they’re currently on, high above the plains. “However this shakes out, let’s meet back at the fork in the road down by the Pass afterwards.”

“We’ll be there, partner,” Micah assures, much too friendly, and kicks Baylock up to canter, Dutch tipping his hat as he collects his reins and follows, leaving Arthur alone amongst the cacti.

He sighs as he nudges Magpie forward, carefully moving through the foliage. Bees hum around the cactus flowers, the only wildlife braving the sun seemingly a few hardy prairie dogs, scattering to their burrows when Magpie approaches, picking her way up the rocky bluff, shade lessening with every yard they climb.

Finally the slope evens out, spilling up over the cliff to a bare outcrop, stark rock towering above the plains. The scrub thins and withers, bedrock exposed like bleached bone, and Arthur dismounts a dozen yards or so from the cliff edge, to let Magpie find some grass before it’s replaced completely by the rock, bringing his rifle with him as he leaves her.

Tumbling into the thin air, the cliff is a sheer drop. A vulture leaps out into the abyss as Arthur approaches, and soars down on spread black wings, pinions wide and pointed like grasping fingers. He kicks a scattering of pebbles and peers cautiously down over the edge, barely able to see the bottom, only distinguishing the contrast in colour between the pale rock and the golden prairie, some thousand feet below at least.

It’s a beautiful view. The savannah swells beneath him, an endless desert of dust and rocky pasture, broken only by the crooked oil derrick still leaning precariously in the centre, black as if scorched by the crevice of dark brush it sits within. Surging in slow waves, the dry sea rolls to the horizon in great pitching curves, the rocks caught up in the motion and thrown through the sedges and forbs, the weeds and cacti, like the tattered hulls of beached ships, dashed across the landscape with the scattered clumps of greenery, flotsam strewn across a beach.

Somewhere over to his right, indiscernible amongst the miles, is the ridge where they’d hunted the bison.

The memory of Charles that day is a treasure to him, alight with his own internal fire, in anger and elation both, like a star going supernova, and Arthur unable to break himself free of the gravitational pull. Not wanting to. Just a speck of space dust caught in the sinking inferno of Charles. Since that day, somehow nothing in his life has seemed quite the same.

His breath shudders.

He steps back from the edge. As he lowers himself down, with one last glance behind at Magpie, he props the rifle on his elbow, lying flat on the rock, warmed from the sun despite the morning hour. Within moments, the stark white of The Count enters his peripheral vision, and he checks the rifle’s scope by following Dutch across the plains, his red waistcoat the only bright colour for dozens of miles, cantering steadily with Baylock beside him.

Compulsive, Arthur rechecks the front and rear sights, opens and shuts the breech, sets and resets the stock against his shoulder. His thumbnail picks at the point of the hammer, head up to follow the black and white smudges of Baylock and The Count moving together through the prairie. Movement on his left attracts his attention, and through the scope he can see a new group approaching, two riders led by Colm O’Driscoll himself, all on dark horses, like storm clouds blowing through the fair sky.

He takes a breath.

The group rides on and then dismounts, and Arthur watches them walk to some barren patch of ground, a no man's land between the two fronts, Dutch and Micah following suit and approaching from his right. There’s no wind, but so high on the cliff, Arthur shivers, hairs on the back of his neck standing up. Intuition perhaps, or maybe just a lack of faith.

Twisting on the ground, he glances over his shoulder. Nothing. Magpie’s white head is just visible some distance back down the slope, stark against the dirt and dark plants, relaxing amongst the prickly pear.

Maybe he truly is getting too old for this.

Colm swaggers as he walks, with attitude or the stiffness of age, Arthur can’t tell, hands hovering around his holsters, just as Dutch’s are, giving them the appearance of two plump birds of paradise, donned in their fine feathers, puffed-up and dancing to entice the resident female. It’s an odd scene in the middle of the lonely prairie, like the stagehands have misread the script, and changed the background to something that doesn’t fit the actors.

Arthur exhales, and watches the interaction through the scope. The two other O’Driscolls flank Colm like trained dogs, rifles held at the ready, and Arthur can’t help but worry that Dutch is outnumbered. With just Micah for support. There’s no cover they could run to. A clump of weeds isn’t going to stop a rifle bullet. He’s Dutch’s only defence.

No pressure at all.

Colm seems to be laughing. Turning to his subordinates, gesturing wide. Dutch’s hands move. Colm encroaches again, taking a few steps closer. They taunt each other, skirting mutually assured destruction. Daring the other to break first in silent stand-off.

Whatever conversation they’re having, Arthur isn’t part of it, watching uselessly above them. Again, Colm steps closer. There’s barely an arm’s length between them. Close enough to touch.

Arthur shifts his aim. Hovers on Colm’s haggard face, slightly out of focus due to the sheer distance. And Colm - somehow - glances up to his right. Directly at the glint of the rifle scope.

For a split second, Arthur looks him in the eye.

He flinches back. Footsteps clatter behind him, skidding on the rock. He turns, and the butt of a rifle smashes into his head.


Heady, hot afternoon is lazing towards evening by the time Dutch and Micah return to Clemens Point. Clouds have scattered out from the west, and red haze drifts with them, dust in the air, blown by a consoling breeze that comes in from the lake, a welcome respite from the still heat of day.

The venison he and Arthur brought in recently has lasted well, now cured and salted to preserve the last of the meat, and he helps Pearson in preparing the day’s evening meal with some of it. As much as one can help Pearson - he’s too many cooks spoiling his own broth when it’s just him alone - but Charles lends his hand to dicing vegetables, and crumbles a healthy dose of salt, pepper, and dry herbs into the pot when Pearson isn’t looking. White people are hopeless.

Preoccupied as he is, he misses The Count and Baylock reappearing from the treeline, sweating from a hard day of riding, white foam dripping from their chewing mouths. They’re untacked and washed down before Charles has a moment to notice them, and particularly, that Arthur isn’t with them.

Magpie isn’t with the mares; Arthur hasn’t slipped in without him seeing.

“You’ll take your fingers off,” Pearson chides, and takes the knife from Charles’ distracted hand before he can lose a few knuckles to the carrot he’s chopping. “Though I suppose it’d add protein-”

“Arthur left with them this morning,” he says plainly, frowning at Dutch and Micah, deep in conversation beside their horses. “Didn’t he?”

“Hm? Oh. Sure.”

Pearson takes over with the carrot. “I volunteered to go with ‘em, I did. It was my idea - well, partly, I uh, facilitated the idea, certainly. It’s a shame they didn’t take me. You should see me in a fight, Mister Smith, I’m like a-”

“Why isn’t he with them now?”

Heavy brows sinking as he lowers his knife, pointed in ‘cornered tiger’ fashion, Pearson simply shrugs, turning to add the diced carrot to the stew pot. He drags the back of his hand across his wet forehead. “Mister Morgan… He’s a wanderer, like myself, always has been, long as I’ve known him. Don’t like being moored in one place too long. Gets restless, y’know?”

Charles knows; he himself is much the same. Being effectively stuck in camp for so long is starting to fray the ends of his nerves. But what could have come up that Arthur wouldn’t leave it until the next day?

Pearson continues, gesturing with the knife in his hand. “S’why he never married - or, I assume that’s why he never married. I didn’t take a wife myself for that very reason, not for lack of suitors, might I add! Men like us need to roam!” He points a celery stalk at Charles. “We’re wild stallions, sir! We must rove and ramble, seek our pleasures in far fields! One woman could not hope to satisfy-”

“I get the picture,” Charles says, dry as old hay. Dry as Pearson’s field full of suitors, no doubt.

He suspects Arthur never married for a very different reason than wanderlust, namely the gender of the candidates, but he keeps quiet, taking the celery stick from Pearson to wash before chopping.

“Yes, well,” Pearson huffs, lending him back the knife. “He probably just got sidetracked.”

Charles turns his attention back to vegetables and sighs, mildly disappointed. Tells himself Pearson’s probably right in that Arthur must have got distracted. Likely spotted something interesting on the way back and had to settle in to draw it, find a shady spot to sit in the grass with Magpie and start sketching, journal propped on his knees as always. An oddly shaped tree or a rundown building, a new plant for his compendium. He’d only realise it was so late when his stomach starts to rumble with the waning sun, and decide to set up his bedroll, find some wood for a fire, rather than trek back to camp. Lopsided smile on his face as he watches Magpie roll in the dusty grass, making sure her dinner is sorted before he starts on his own. Maybe sharing an apple with her for dessert as the stars emerge, sketching the constellations he can recognise before he settles to sleep.

The image reassures, and Charles has to stifle his smile as he adds the celery to the stew to soften and sweat, obligingly stirring the pot as Pearson instructs for a while longer before calling out to the camp that the food is nearly ready, and it’s all they’re going to get.

Without Arthur lingering at the edges of his attention, Charles sits alone to eat, until Hosea joins him at the table, seemingly grateful for the relative silence, judging by the singing coming from the campfire. Despite the cheerful hubbub of evening, the laughter and games, Charles remains deep in his own thoughts, picking through the venison and vegetables in his bowl.

It’s striking how empty he feels without Arthur. Without knowing when he’ll be back. It’s not new, Arthur often leaves camp for several days at a time, chasing wildlife, gunslingers, treasure; whatever Dutch, Hosea, random strangers, distressed damsels, or the other gang members ask of him. It’s not unheard of, and it’s not like they spend every waking moment together when he is in camp, but it’s the first time Charles has noticed how acutely...bereft it leaves him. Like he’s lost a sense, or lost Taima, half-blind or limbless or imprisoned. Unable to rely on freedom as a given, on the certainty of knowing he could just leave whenever he wants. Trapped, somehow, in the empty space where Arthur isn’t.

It sounds pathetic. In his head. He’s survived twenty odd years on his own, flitting through gangs and groups and other people like a migratory bird, never to stay for more than the season’s turn. Being alone has become safety. It’s the canvas roll he sleeps on, the knife in his belt. He’s good at being alone. Quicker, quieter, better.

And yet, in the past few months, he’s found being with Arthur doesn’t feel like other people. He isn’t too much. He doesn’t sap Charles’ energy, like so many others do. With Arthur, he no longer feels the desire to be alone. There’s no need; Arthur provides that same freedom, that same uninhibited comfort. And, he has to admit, he’s grown used to not being quite as lonely.

Charles sighs. Tells himself to snap out of it.

Across the table, Hosea looks up at him, and after a moment’s thought, head tilted like a wise bird, calls out to Dutch where he’s sitting outside his tent, reading one of his Evelyn Miller books. “Hey, Dutch! Where’s Arthur?”

“What’s that?”

“Arthur. Big feller, not that tall, kinda rough looking. Bonnie blue eyes. Known him for twenty years. You leave ‘im behind?”

Hosea snickers a wry laugh, and Charles tries to take comfort in the humour. He doesn’t turn to look at Dutch behind him, studying a chunk of carrot in his bowl.

“Oh he’s- Some errand, you know him,” Dutch calls back, waving his book dismissively. “Be back tomorrow, he said.”


Tapping his spoon on the rim of his bowl, Hosea looks down into the jumble of his stew, thinking again. “Boy’s like a bloodhound sometimes,” he says absently, only half directed at Charles, finishing his food in silence.


Silence hits him first.

His head is pounding, deafening loud, drowning all external sound in the gushing thump of his pulse. When his eyes open, it’s slow and out of time, vision blotted with black storm clouds, red haze like the Scarlett Meadows dust. Still no discernible sound comes to him, though he can see people above him, faces swimming through the gloom, lips moving wordlessly like the painted mouths of ventriloquist dummies, clattering open and shut on wooden hinges.

The faces aren’t recognisable.

“He’s dead,” one of the men says, and another laughs, stooping down to admire Arthur’s disjointed blinking, the swelling bruise beneath the skin of his forehead.

“Hello, sugar,” he sings, and squeezes Arthur’s cheeks between his thumb and forefinger, grinning at the tiny noise of protest that’s squashed in Arthur’s dumb mouth.

“Oh, you ain’t dead, is you?”

A third man chuckles, a sound like pulling the clapboards off a house. Ripping. “Not yet, anyway-” he says, and pain explodes in Arthur’s ankle, shuddering all the way up to his hip in a bright burst.

All he can do is whimper, and as he instinctively curls inwards, a dark shape snaps across the pitted sky of his vision, a clenched fist smashing into his head. It throws him back, what little he could see collapsing in half as another foot is brought down on his ankle, then his knee, boots thudding on his crunching bones as he’s kicked back to unconsciousness.

The sky is a different colour, next time he wakes. Brighter, and banded with pink. Like blossom.

All he registers is pain. Pulsing in his head, in his chest, cold below his waist. He groans, a guttural, animal noise, cracking in his throat, one hand moving on a clump of something - grass, perhaps - lying face down. There’s an acrid sort of smell all around him, one he recognises dimly as horse piss, leaving no doubt as to what the wet sludge is he’s lying in. Not just mud.

Again, no sound comes to him for what feels like an age. The light is harsh in his scrunched eyes, bleary, like ink has been smudged across the viewing lens, the puffy skin of his eyelids swollen, squeezing his skull. Cheek cold, pressed on the ground, he tries to lift his head, and he groans again, the weight too heavy to move, swirling with the dizzy deep urge to vomit.

“Y’think he’ll fall for it?”

“I’unno… Colm’s got a sense.”


Who the Hell is Colm?

He shifts, trying to find his knees beneath him, somewhere in the numbness. Pain rockets through his legs and he slips, skidding in the mud with another grunt. If he can just- Find his balance-

“You don’t think- I just... Handin’ him over to the law, it’s… I don’t know. Strange times.”

“They killed Seamus! f*ck the whole lotta them. With this feller, Colm’s right, we can draw them all back.”

None of it makes sense. Nothing penetrates the fog in Arthur’s head, nauseated and panicking fast, adrenaline starting to prickle in his nerves, muscles trembling from the pain and the determined punch of his fight-or-flight response. Nervous system taking over. He needs to run. He’s got to move.

“Where’d Colm and Patrick head off to?”

“Into town I think. Talk to the law.”

“Nah, they wouldn’t. It ain’t worth the risk.”

Tentative, he finally finds his knees, gritting his teeth as they align beneath him. Hands fist weakly in the sludge, pushing his body weight up.

“Colm’s got a sense about Van der Linde! He can play him.”

Crawling, Arthur hauls himself by inches through the mud, slipping down away from the clustered men, barely swallowing the agony it causes.

“Once he realises we got his man here, they’ll all come right into the trap, mark my words.”

There are horses in the distance. How far, Arthur can’t tell, vision swimming, head like dynamite has exploded inside his skull, legs like lead.

“And then we can all head off. Free as birds.”

“Van der Linde’ll really care that much for some dried-up cowboy?”

Groaning through his teeth, breathless with his panic, Arthur stumbles to his feet, barely able to feel them at all. The pain has made them numb, and he all but falls into a clumsy instinctive run, muscle memory carrying him desperately forward, only just managing to hear the men start shouting behind him.

Breath in his mouth, he wills his legs to keep moving, stumbling through the undergrowth, stinging nettles and thorns. The shouting stops, and for a split second, Arthur feels freedom, within reach past the blurring trees. He grasps for it, panting-

A bullet tears through his side. He collapses with a wail of agony, leg crumpling as blood erupts across his middle, throwing him to the ground sideways, rolling through bracken and weeds to a shaking, heaving stop.

“Did I kill ya?”


All he can do is groan, curled over on his bleeding side. His breath is fast draining, oxygen seeping out of the air. “Not yet,” he chokes, and manages to see the three blurry men again standing over him, the glint of metal telling him he’s an easy target to a very large gun, laughter echoing threefold through the wadding filling his head.

“No, of course not.”

“Not yet-”

Something hard nudges his left shoulder. The teeth of a muzzle, twin barrels. He draws in breath, fast, short gasps turning into a bolting gallop.

“But I will,” the man growls, and Arthur’s shoulder explodes.

He drifts. Sleep weighs him down, dragging at his eyelids, his head, like he’s shackled to rocks that have been thrown overboard, and though the water is crushing, choking in his lungs, he’s powerless to fight it, succumbing to the undertow.

When there’s light, it’s garish. And sound too, muffled as if through cloth; when it comes, it’s shrill, distorted, like the violent torture of a phonograph in both his ears, echoing in his screaming head.

He’s moving, mostly. Rocked by a horse’s ambling walk, four beats, swaying underneath him. Its coat bristles on his cheek, dusty, hot with friction, and for a long time it’s all he can feel, existing in a numb nothingness between states of consciousness, drifting on an unseen sea, between black sleep and the red sloshing around his lolling head.

No pain comes. Not at first.

Night rolls in unnoticed. The heat disappears from his blistered neck and the air is still, crickets buzzing through the fog in his head as if his skull is swarming with insects, flies already eating at his corpse.

At some point, there’s grass beneath him, and at another, water, dark with amorphous shadow. It’s impossible to tell in which order the images come, jumbling together, blurring through the tunnel of his vision in a dizzying lurch, the bitter after-adrenaline tang of nausea like a dead dog in his gut.


He swims awake, head jerked back. All he sees is darkness, and the impression of shapes, pushing and pressing, churning like worms in furrowed dirt. His arms are caught - he can see them - yet none of it is tangible, like he’s watching it happen to someone else, through a frosted window, some stranger puppeteering his body.

A groan sounds, in his own voice, low and plaintive and completely detached from himself, ripped from somewhere inside him that he can’t pinpoint, and he’s moved, dragged forwards, his knees scraping beneath him, legs bent cleanly in two like snapped root vegetables.

“Put his weapons over there.”

The ground falls upwards, and manages to hit him in the face, another weeping moan tumbling from him like his limbs, scattered across the dusty earth. Dull pain coats his entire left side, blunt somehow, like the strike of a mallet, but still muted, aching, something his brain hasn’t entirely processed yet. He grasps a handful of dirt, pushing weakly with his right hand.

Wherever the left hand is, he can’t tell.

“Where we puttin’ him?”

“Storm cellar, I reckon.”

“Get his kit off, let’s see what Cowboy’s packing.”

Something tightens around both arms, and with a new moan he’s hauled up on his haunches, shirt ripped backwards. The fabric wrenches his shoulders, and Arthur cries out in a mangled scream, the pain suddenly exploding through his entire torso, white hot and pounding.

All at once, his brain seems to realise it only has half a shoulder left to work with, shirt peeled back to reveal his sodden underwear, blown apart in a great black crater, fabric singed and sticking to a deep, mutilating wound. His head is shrieking, panicking and unable to understand, to see. It doesn’t respond as Arthur tries to move, to fight the arms on him, to look at whatever is causing him so much pain, and as he twists and writhes, the muscles of his breast ooze red in the hole, tissue on show, yellowish fat turned black with gunpowder.

There’s a gaping pothole lodged under his collarbone, like a mortar has gone off beneath the skin and hit the flesh of his back beneath his shoulder blade, ripping it apart from the front and bruising as it couldn’t break through behind. The tattered edges are like sheared muslin, blackened and bleeding, muscle and cartilage cut to mere ribbons in the pit. He sobs out loud, scrambling on half his limbs.

“Well f*ck.”

“Look what you did, ya fool- Ugh, that’s rank.”

“He’s barely got an arm!”

It’s agony. Burning, hot in every pore. Excruciating pain. Arthur mewls, pathetic, left arm held awkwardly still while the other half of him fights for its life, as if it can help stop the pain, grab it and stop the leak, hold the dam together. Sick fear starts to pulse through the dark abyss of his awareness, panic rising. He’s hurt. He’s hurt and doesn’t know why, can’t tell who’s pulling at his clothes, has no idea where he is. Why can’t he find his left arm?

“Oh who cares? f*ckin’ hurry it up, I’m starving.”

The ground lurches up to meet his forehead again, thudding, like punching a sack of flour. His breath is knocked out of him with a whimper, and rough hands grab at his hips, unfolding his limp legs to pull his jeans, forcing the stiff denim down his thighs, belt leather straining. Instinct makes him kick, shunting himself along the ground with his knees despite how it racks his torso, and as he scrabbles he’s dimly aware of the laughter from behind, from all around, with no ability to tell its source, no way of knowing which way he needs to go to get away.

An arm grapples for his thighs. Hauls him along the ground, scraped on his belly, falling flat forwards once again. The movement seems to ricochet in his shoulder, juddering loud and metallic, forcing another desperate cry, a reflex inhale that brings a lungful of dust with it. He coughs, whining wet grating cries with every breath, alien and agonised as panic starts to take hold and he scrambles in the dirt, breaking his own fingernails.

“Stop squirming, you f*ck-”

“Listen to him squeal!”

Hands hold his hips, jeans caught in his boots, and Arthur falls again, panting for breath in the dark silence, pain so violent it dizzies what little there is of his vision, like tinder to his rising fear. He’s panicking, fighting blind and deaf and dumb, until a weight crushes down onto his shoulder, and holds it to the ground, pinned beneath a thick-heeled boot so the others can strip him.

He screeches with the pain, and the darkness swallows him again.

The next time he wakes enough to know it, he’s curled on the floor in the dark. Stone presses against his cheek, huddled in the corner of some kind of cellar. He’s still in his underwear, wet with sweat and sticky with far too much blood, black and glistening.

Consciousness swirls to him, like a faint smell in the air, not quite strong enough to determine. A thick fog shrouds his every sense, his memory, his ability to think, and all he can do for some time is breathe against the stone floor, desperately picking through what little he can remember.

He’s hurt. Bad. There’s a hole in his proprioception where his left side should be, as if it’s somehow got lost between his nerves and his brain.

Slowly, breathing hard with the effort, he tries to move his hands, and finds them caught somewhere down around his middle, bound in rope to a chain loop embedded in the wall. Leashed like a dog. He tugs, and pain shudders so violently through his arm that he cries out, and can see his own consciousness waver in a white, sparkling blur before regaining its hold, his voice ragged and rasping.

So he’s being held captive. Why? Where’s Dutch?

Dutch- Dutch was there before. Colm O’Driscoll was there. Grass and rock; a long ride. Had he been captured? Did Colm hurt Dutch? Was Arthur not there to-

A clattering sounds above his head. Light spills into the space from a point he can’t see, dark and white, like moonlight would be. Garish. Too much for him to process.

“What’re you gonna do wit’ him?”

“Colm said he don’t want him til mornin’, we can do whatever we like with him. Long as he don’t die.”

“Maybe we introduce ourselves, hm? Repay him for Niall, and Seamus too.”

Three figures shift through the shadow, crowding the cellar room. Arthur instinctively presses himself into the corner, a cowering animal, and can hear the disjointed rumble of laughter echo around him, disorientating all the more. A candle is lit, set across the room on some kind of workbench, flickering orange.

“Hi sugar!”

Something heavy smashes into his absent shoulder, and the pain is so great that he doesn’t wake up for several dark seconds, only coming to when the kicks move to his abdomen, his groin, doubling him over. Weak and whimpering, he curls his head into his chest, instinct trying to protect him, paralysed in pain and numbed to everything but.

A hand grabs his hair after the kicking, forces his head up. Strands break between the fingers, and he twists away from the grinning face in front of him, the heat of breath on his swollen face. “That’s a nasty hole ya got there in that shoulder, sugar.”

“Reckon he makes a better hole than he does a cowboy.”

“Ha! Why else is Van der Linde keepin’ him around?”

The laughter deafens, reverberating around him from every angle. His union suit is pulled sharply away from his chest, yanked down to bare his ruined skin to the firelight, his chest hair slick with coagulated blood like an oil spill, clots wrenched open as the fabric pulls. He writhes, pleads in wordless noise.

The three faces before him swim with the dancing flame, wet lips and swirling eyes, ogling, hands cupping his breast, prodding at the bruising like a poker at a fire, and laughing when he cries his pain, hunched over as if to shield his bare chest from view, collapsing the corners of himself like a house with crumbling walls.

With a dull thud, his head is shoved back into the wall. It crunches.


“Here, bet you’re thirsty, huh cowboy?”

The hard neck of a bottle is pressed to his lips, and before he can register the need to stop breathing, liquid is flowing down his throat, spilling from his mouth and down his front. He splutters, spitting a fine mist of whiskey as he chokes. It earns him a punch, a new hand pulling his hair painfully back, forcing the bottle past Arthur’s gagging tongue.

“Too much for you, sugar? And here I am bein’ generous-”

He swallows what he can, bitter whiskey flooding his mouth until he chokes again, and most of it is expelled burning through his nose, coughing as he scrambles for air, torso collapsing with the weight of the pain. Retching, his hands fight the bindings, unable to balance, and again the laughter bounces around his head, his own coughing racking through his body until all he sees is stars.

“Van der Linde got himself a lightweight!”

“Can’t handle a stiff one, huh sugar?”

With a grating moan, Arthur thrashes on the stone, chest heaving, tongue somewhere down his throat. He finds his knees beneath him and gags, bowed over, drool dripping to the floor.

“Ohh, that’s disgusting.”

“Is he gonna hurl?”

A boot lands in his stomach and he collapses sideways, caught by his hands tethered to the wall, swinging off them like a corpse through the gallows hatch. He groans again, desperate. Urgent. Another kick comes, and his gut lurches- There’s no way to stop it-

He vomits. His stomach empties itself, spattering across the stone floor and down his front, barely managing to turn his head to the side as the acid burns his throat. Nose streaming, he curls over on his knees to heave, bile and saliva dribbling thick from his mouth until he can breathe again, and the chorus of revulsion from the O’Driscolls is the last sound he hears before his head is crushed beneath a boot, and he’s knocked out once more.

The next days - one? three? thirty? - pass in featureless hours, seconds, years, all running awash together like watercolours, diluted of all meaning and importance until it’s an insipid liquid blur, vaguely brown in colour.

He wakes sometimes in starts, gasping like he’s finally found the surface of the sea he nearly drowned in, waves breaking over his head, and at other times merely slinks towards consciousness, creeping into awareness on his belly, with the same drudging slowness as a slug through mud. The painless bliss of sleep still clings to his extremities, begging him not to wake, to give in to the dark, the dumb daze between his ears.

He’s moved, at some point. Impossible to know when - today, yesterday, some time tomorrow, last Tuesday. Without any reference points - no light, no noise, no natural tiredness to signal where he is in which particular day, which bar of his circadian rhythm he’s supposed to be playing - he loses his grip on time, and thus reality, galloping away from him and yet crawling all at once, bracketed by the sheer agony of his shoulder, which numbs his ability to think clearly all the more.

Worse comes soon after.

They string him up by his ankles. He’s shackled and hung from the ceiling, bound in irons, biting through the skin with the impossible load of his entire body suspended underneath.

The cuffs start to bleed before long, dripping down towards his knees, and when one of the O’Driscolls brings a candle with which to inspect the carcass in the cellar, dangling like a side of meat, even through his failing eyesight Arthur can tell his toes should absolutely not be the colour they are. Unable to hold up his own arms, they dangle uselessly over his head, numb and swinging, left to bleed his own flesh dry.

He can’t tell how long he hangs.

Blood pools in his head. It throbs behind his eyes, pulling them shut in a red black haze, his breath squeezed tight and short. Swimming in and out of cognizance, he’s barely coherent as to whether he’s still upside down or has been dropped to curl on the floor, left motionless there until the kicks to his stomach wake him up, no need now for any shackles.

He’s beaten on the floor and while hanging both, a punching bag for nameless faces, disembodied voices, a pale quarter of some dead animal, left to bleed before butchering. He hardly notices. The pain from every single inch of him is so immense, so paralytic, such torture, that he starts to barely feel the hits at all. Like a single drop of rain in the entire Atlantic ocean - the beatings, the fingers probing sick and excruciating into the hole in his shoulder, the slaps, kicks, grabs, the tearing at his underwear to expose him to the cold, the whiskey bottle pressing to his lips when the laughter stops, clonking into his teeth - it’s another teaspoon of water filling his lungs when he’s already shut in the morgue having drowned, completely and utterly insignificant. Short, fleeting moments of respite are nothing, mocking even - sunlight on the wings of a butterfly, already skewered and pinned in a collector’s glass case.

Voices come and go. Faces whirl and drift, candlelit, and he’s touched by unseen hands, wet with unknown fluid. It’s violating, viscerally horrific, but he’s powerless to fight, to protect himself from any of it, and even the instinct that he should fight is long lost, silenced by so much pain. He bears the comments, the laughter, the brags and threats, like he’s forced to bear his own body weight, crushed beneath the load and yet helpless but to carry it.

“Y’all think I could get him to suck my balls for some water?”

“He’s got pretty enough lips for it.”

He knows cawing laughter, the squawking of a thousand crows, carrion birds pecking at his corpse. Bottles crack on his head. Glass splinters against walls, and his bare feet scrape through it when he’s dragged. Liquid is forced down his throat, the only sustenance he gets.

“Bet he’s well practiced, ain’t you sugarplum? Why else Van der Linde keepin’ him around? For his great conversation?”

“He’s a couple holes on legs, soft an’ warm like any c*nt.”

When the whiskey does come, it’s like nectar to his dehydrated mouth, thirst overtaking the forgotten knowledge that it will only dehydrate him further, and he drinks with such sloppy desperation that he regurgitates most of it, even while hanging upside down.

By some miracle of instinct, his right arm is still mobile enough to clumsily wipe his vomit from where it drips over his nose before he aspirates, that somehow seeming like an even more humiliating death than the one from blood loss or blunt force trauma or whatever other end he’s heading ever closer towards.

Perhaps on the third day, or maybe still the first, or possibly not until the following autumn, blood starts to bubble from his nose unbidden, dripping steadily over his cheeks like a persistent leak. His eyelids fall into spasm, choked by swollen eyeballs that feel more like overripe fruit, heavy and weeping, like they’re grapes caught between two pinching fingers, seconds away from bursting.

The air is cold in the cellar, fetid with the smell of vomit, of sickness and filth, and it makes it even harder to breathe than it already is, Arthur managing nothing but an intermittent rattle, like obstructed sobs, the sound of wrinkled tissue paper crackling in the shallow flutter of his lungs.

Blood overflows from his nostrils. He breathes through his teeth.

A clattering wakes him.

There’s a lantern, but Arthur can’t tell whether it’s day or night in the bright colourless glimpse he gets through an open hatch door, glow bouncing chaotically off the stone walls like a mobile migraine. Or even what day and night are, let alone what they look like.

He groans, braying. Like the noise is ripped out of him by a steel hook, dazzled by pain, blood vessel stars pounding in his eyes.

“Arthur Morgan.”

The voice is familiar. Cloying.

A figure sways through the darkness, and Arthur can’t help his delayed flinch as the shape reaches him, braced for more pain and not knowing when it will begin. Like tumbling over a cliff edge blindfolded, falling and falling and unable to see how close the ground is, when the end will come. “It’s good to see ya.”


Trying to speak makes him cough, chest wracked with heavy, wheezing shudders, the blood from his nose spattering around his top lip. Colm leans down, close to his face, hideous, writhing in Arthur’s unseeing eyes like a melting waxwork. “How’s the wound?” he asks, obscenely cheerful.

It strangles a laugh from Arthur. A meagre, grisly noise, like treading on a snail and crushing it, shell and all. “Ha… H-Hardly...feel it…”

“You will,” Colm says, purring.

He inspects the weeping crater in Arthur’s shoulder, wrinkling his nose with the smell. The skin is singed and oozing, already turning towards infection, the buckshot trapped beneath his collarbone with the wadding and half the muzzle gases, the tattered scraps of fabric burnt into the mess. Only a few pellets have broken through to become exit wounds, gouging holes in the swathes of muscle holding Arthur’s back together, pockmarked with the black bruise beneath his shoulder blade.

It’s filthy, nauseating, Colm clicking his tongue as he pulls back, muttering something Arthur doesn’t catch. The word ‘septic’ doesn’t cause much alarm.

How can it? Any fear he felt before has long been replaced by a torpid, hopeless lethargy, the need to be free from pain easily drowning out the screaming instinct to fight, to survive. Besides, if he knows nothing else, he knows Dutch wouldn’t abandon him. Dutch will come soon. He’s sure.

“Dutch…” Arthur croaks, and Colm laughs, a metallic clinking coming with it, like a spoon scraping a bowl.

“Now ain’t that funny, I came down here special just to chat about him! You weren’t so talkative the first time round.”

Colm’s hand appears in Arthur’s dead eyes, and he instinctively grabs for it, protecting himself, pushing him away, only he’s jolted backwards by the shackles biting into his ankles, and swings lamely in the air, spinning with a dizzying lurch. More laughter comes, and Arthur only groans, struggling to breathe.

“Tell me,” Colm says, and then there’s a sharpness pressing at his ribcage, something hard and round, like the muzzle of a handgun. “Fine gun like you. Why you still runnin’ around with old Dutch?”

The figure shifts away from him. His breathing becomes harsh with the swinging motion, lungs fighting for more air than they can find. “Could come ride with me. Make real money.”

“Ain’t… Ain’t ah- ‘B-bout…”

“Oh no, of course.”

Again the voice has moved, and Arthur can’t see where Colm is, can’t move his head from the weight crushing down on it, sure his skull will explode with the slightest misstep. The pressure behind his eyes is agony, every organ choking under his bodyweight, starved of blood and oxygen.

“It’s Dutch’s famous- Charisma!”

Colm kicks him, boot colliding with the bullet graze across his ribcage. Pain erupts through every inch of him and Arthur yells, piling on top of the pain that was already there, a brutal, incomprehensible torture, splitting him like a hatchet does a carcass. It’s like every pore in his body has had a metal screw jammed into it, like his brain is leaking out of his ears.

The noise he makes is animal, spinning pathetically on the hook and sobbing without tears, breath caught in his strangled throat. Whatever Colm says next is completely lost to him, the vice too strong to let anything but pain through, shrieking the danger to a deaf, failing brain, frazzled into short-circuit. “No... N-No-”

“Oh you lie, my friend.”

Another kick. The opposite side. Nearly as painful despite the lack of bullet wound. More noise is torn from him, heaving, shackles creaking, splitting his skin.

“And I thought Dutch preached truth!” Colm says, appearing again in front of him, the flash of his revolver like a poker in Arthur’s eyes.

“P-Please,” he chokes, desperate. “L-Le… Lemme...go-”

The sound of his own voice is pitiful, reduced to begging Colm O’Driscoll. “The way I see it,” Colm says, low, fuzzy in Arthur’s hearing like a distant conversation. “They get him… They forget about me.”

There’s no answer. Arthur’s eyes are barely open, breathing shallow like a slowly drowning fish, fast losing the ability to even gasp. “Y’see…” Colm blurs, and then there’s a hand on his upper stomach, tracing the ripped and gaping buttons of his union suit. “We lure an angry Dutch in to rescue ya,” he says, fingers dipping upwards over the bared patches of his abdomen, dirty nails snagging on hair that’s been exposed by the torn fabric.

Desperation flares in Arthur, making him writhe. He flops on the hanging, pathetically wriggling away from Colm’s touch as much as he can. The finger moves with him, back down his shuddering torso, swirling through his body hair.

“We grab all of ya,” Colm whispers, and cups some of the meat of Arthur’s chest, feeling the weight of his right pectoral muscle, like he’s testing the ripeness of fruit. He squeezes, Arthur’s head lolling gasping somewhere between Colm’s legs, violently struggling to pull himself away. “Hand ya in…”

The hand slips past the broken buttons over Arthur’s bruised sternum. Grunting in exertion, Arthur kicks his bound feet, doesn’t care if he has to dislocate his own knees to escape, frenzied with his need to rid himself of Colm’s touch. He can’t see Colm’s face, can’t see anything but the dark of his jeans, inches from him, the flash of light visible past his legs when he swings.

There’s a distant chuckle, and Colm rips the rest of the buttons upwards and open, splitting Arthur’s union suit open from breastbone to navel in one violent tear. Blood and grime make the fabric heavy, hanging from his hips as limply as his arms, smacking wet into his shivering stomach, and Arthur’s powerless to do anything. Anything at all. Inconsolable, he heaves and hisses through his teeth, saliva running with blood around his mouth, close to sobbing as Colm’s unseen hand creeps over him, skittering like a palm-sized spider.

All he manages is to further twist himself on his shackles, smudge dizziness through the nausea in his stomach, fast losing the last grating shreds of his oxygen.

“And then we disappear!”

The hand withdraws.

Half naked and panting, Arthur spins pitifully in slow, swaying half-circles, the smell coming from his bared shoulder doing nothing to help the revulsion churning in his gut, a perpetual motion of gagging nausea. His underwear is open over his belly, bruised and drooping like a flour bag, like a hideous furred tumour, black and blue and pink. But any shame he’d feel otherwise barely registers, a grating noise all he can make as understanding starts to dawn through the smog in his head, Colm’s words finally making sense.

Colm has kidnapped him, to get to Dutch. The whole meeting was a trap, not for Dutch, but for Arthur himself. “You… Y-You mm. Met him to…”

“Grab you, Cowboy. Of course.”

Colm’s hands wave in front of him, swimming through the air, everywhere at once. “He gon’ be so mad. He gonna come ragin’ over here, with a whole lotta ya, and the law’ll be waitin’ for him.” His voice trails low again, a lurid kind of whisper, and the same hard object presses into the bruised skin of Arthur’s abdomen, the muzzle of the revolver trailing through his body hair. Grinning, sick and yellow, Colm pokes at the fat of his stomach, the distended bulge of his neglected bladder, delighting in the fear jumping in his abused muscles.

“You his best gun, Arthur,” he says, from somewhere around Arthur’s groin, deliberately prodding at open cuts, at the footprints burned into his skin from so many kicks, the fingerprints from how hard he’s been grabbed. “Oh how he’d hate knowin’ what I could do to you…”

“F-f*ck you-” Arthur hisses. Blood bubbles wet from his nose, and he writhes, voice teetering on the edge of breaking into sobs. What little strength he had left is sapped with the random swinging, the pressure intensifying in his organs, seemingly dripping out of him with every second, hauled through him by gravity’s indomitable will, like all his innards are going to crush his head and splatter out of his eye sockets. His vision is black, spattered with red. “F-f*ck away fr’m- f*ck you!”

“Yeah,” Colm growls, probing the front sights to where the hair turns wiry in the V shape of Arthur’s hips, just covered by the union suit. Sweat runs down his torso, chest starting to convulse with how desperately he tries to fight. “He’d hate that the most.”

The underwear doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Thin cotton is stretched snug over Arthur’s groin, damp with sweat and run-off blood, everything clearly visible beneath. Colm pulls the fabric tight with his gun’s muzzle, and lets it smack painfully back to the tender skin, delighted with how Arthur jumps and heaves, how his breath is fast skidding into panic, not enough oxygen making it through the crushed cavities of his lungs.

Catching the light again, the revolver flips in Colm’s hand. “Oh Arthur,” he says, lilting, a sickening sultry murmur. “Arthur, I missed you.”

Colm smashes the stock into Arthur’s ribs.

He yells, the shrill, desperate scream of an animal being roasted alive, and can almost feel the crunch of bone, skin splitting, pain splintering outwards with every strike of the weapon. It’s an indescribable agony, incandescent, coming again and again, over and over, slamming into his side until blood starts to pool around the back of his union suit, revolver stock splattering a fine mist over Colm’s hand, red stark against the white of his grinning teeth.

It lasts days, seconds, years, a violent black blur, Colm hitting him until Arthur can’t cry out anymore, can’t see, can’t even recognise when he loses control of his full bladder between blows, piss gushing down his chest to a dribbling pool on the floor underneath him, union suit soaked and steaming. He doesn’t notice it. Can’t. Dangling uselessly as Colm laughs, dripping piss, vomit, blood - like a hanged man, dead if not for the stubbornness of his heartbeat, leaking fluids and twitching long after the crowd has gone home.

Unconsciousness is a blessing.

He doesn’t wake again. Not for a long time.


Time passes like molasses sliding off a spoon. Achingly slow, Charles aware of every minute that ticks by, Arthurless, with no sign of him or Magpie anywhere in Lemoyne. And certainly not at Clemens Point.

It’s been three days.

There have been longer diversions, of course. Arthur has stayed out for more than this before. Once, he was tasked with heading out to find him, his absence stretching towards a fortnight that Arthur had genuinely missed, an honest accident full of odd jobs and small detours. This is nothing compared to that, and the rest of the camp seems wholly unconcerned, barely noticing at all until the food supplies start to dwindle because no one has gone hunting, and Dutch comments on the lack of camp chores being completed by lunchtime everyday.

They take him for granted. Charles has long suspected it, but it’s plain to see once he really starts to look.

Still, it bothers him. Niggles, like a splinter he can’t dig out, playing on his conscience as he tries to preoccupy himself around the camp, going out to hunt, pick herbs, groom the horses, fetch more wood, anything he can do to mind the time. It helps to keep busy.

When he stops, he sees Arthur. Filling the gaps around the clearing with his presence. He’s playing with Cain on the beach, sitting on the washed-up log by the southern shore to sketch, catching tiny rock bass off the jetty with childlike excitement, singing around the campfire though he doesn’t know the words, playing poker in the evening, grooming Magpie as the sun sets and telling her about his day. Trying to be inconspicuous as he feeds her and Taima extra mints.

Sneaking a succinct kiss from Charles behind his wagon before they say goodnight.

Charles’ intuition is rarely wrong. It bothers him.


Feet propped up on a small stool in front of him, Dutch is lounging on the chair outside his tent, eyes fixed down on his book. It’s cool in the shade, a welcome respite from the sun. He doesn’t look up, the thin muscle of his cheek tightening as he sets his teeth together, moustache pulled a millimetre upwards. “I’m sure you can see I’m busy, Mister Smith.

Charles watches him turn the page, licking his fingertip to grip the paper. Because turning a page like a normal person was too much to ask, apparently. “Clearly,” Charles says, blank tone of voice sounding all the more derisive for the sincere and abject lack of sarcasm in it, purposefully not allowing any to show through. “It will only take a moment.”

With a maudlin sigh, Dutch closes the book around his fingers, marking his place, and finally looks up at Charles, regarding him with weary impatience. His dark eyes are stone. “If you wish to go out hunting or take on extra guard shifts, I’ve told you before you don’t need to ask.”

“I remember,” Charles says, and purses his lips for a second before he answers, composing the words like libretto, rehearsing what he needs to say. “Where did Arthur say he was going?”



“He didn’t.”

Charles stares, blank. “He didn’t?”

“Didn’t meet back up with us after the meeting. How should I know where he is?”

Charles stares again, dumbfounded, expression showing no sign of the mechanics working in his head, the cogs and gears ticking into realisation, grains of sand through an hourglass. “You told Hosea he’d be back by now,” he says, tightly controlled. “That he said he had an errand to run. How can you know that if you didn’t see him?”

Dutch looks curiously up at him, tilts his head. Scrutinising. He uncrosses his legs, and leans slightly forward in his seat, regarding Charles as if he’s trying to crack a safe, twirling the dial, listening. Intently focused on his slow fingers, the click of some hidden inner working, waiting for the correct combination which, in Charles, Dutch hasn’t yet unlocked. His stare is held firm; Charles doesn’t falter.

“Your tone’s taken a turn toward the accusing, Mister Smith,” Dutch says, with the same air of false pleasantness as a conductor on a runaway train, trying to keep the passengers in their seats as they hurtle suicidally towards the station with no brakes and a very dead engine driver. His head tilts again, tongue briefly wetting his lips beneath his moustache. “I know ‘cause I know Arthur.”

There’s a minute clench in Charles’ jaw. Dutch continues, brandishing a gesturing hand. “I know the pair of you have become...close these past few months-”

Months. A few of them. Barely any time at all.

“-I see that. And I am sure that you do consider Arthur your friend, a dear one even, but - and do forgive my...crudeness, Mister Smith, I dislike being quite so blunt - I known him a whole lot longer than you.”

It’s harsh, and raises his hackles, but even Charles can’t deny the truth of it. Most of them have known Arthur much longer than he has.

The comment swells between them, an ugly weight. Charles’ nostrils flare, and he berates himself for the lack of composure. Foolish. Like he’s just left his king exposed on the chessboard, and as expected, Dutch seizes the check as a victory, leaning slightly back. No longer on the offensive.

“Arthur’s a wayfaring soul,” he explains, gesturing widely with his book. “I known him more than twenty years. Can’t tell you how many times he’s wandered off. Like a mutt chasin’ rabbits. You get used to it.”

With a hollow chuckle, as if delighting in some inside joke that Charles couldn’t possibly understand, he reclines in his chair, gaze lazily shifting back up. “If that is all, Mister Smith, will you excuse me? I really am quite busy.”

“Of course,” Charles says, placating, as devoid of emotion as before, voice quieter.

He changes his strategy. Protects his vulnerable king. “I simply...wanted to volunteer, if you were looking to send someone to find him. I’m the best tracker here.”

Dutch chuckles again, a flourish of breath, legs now spread as if to take up twice as much room. “That you are,” he agrees, amused, clapping his free hand on his knee. “But, you are overreacting, my friend, I assure you. That boy has gone walkabout plenty of times before and no doubt will continue ‘til his dyin’ day. Ain’t no cause for concern.”

“Right,” Charles says, and obviously doesn’t sound as convinced as he attempts to, because Dutch sighs, comically loud, as if exasperated by the continuous presence of an overly-friendly wasp, buzzing around his ears.

“If there was any hint he - or any of you - was in some kind of danger, do you not think I’d be handling it?” He leans forward again, bristling. “I all but raised Arthur. Have I not given you that impression? That I would die for any one of you here? For your safety? That I would gladly lie down in my grave to keep any one of you safe?” Gesturing with his book, Dutch’s voice wavers in a practised tremolo, cracking slightly in his throat. He’s quieter then, “You truly think so little of me, Charles?”

Staring for another moment more, Charles dips his chin. A half inch movement at best. Allows Dutch another check. Another small victory. “Of course not,” he says, and finally lets his gaze drop. “I...apologise, Dutch. You’ve known him longer than I have, like you said.”

“Just a couple decades,” Dutch says, with a dry chuckle. “I appreciate you offerin’ yourself for Arthur’s sake, but I assure you, there ain’t no need. Now do excuse me, Mister Smith, I got a lot to do.” He flashes a smile up at Charles. Bites it into nothing a second later, like tearing a thread with his teeth.

Charles nods, shallow and still as he considers his next move. He’s not sure he’d be very good at chess. It seems like the sort of thing Dutch would enjoy. A game of logic, of wit and strategy, and from the sounds of it, very little fun.

He steps back from the shade of Dutch’s tent, intending to leave, and the westward sun sets him instantly aflame, like a torch to a pagan altar, erupting in gold, a gilt and gorgeous statue bathed in heavenward light. Dutch’s face is swallowed by the glare.

“I’ll make sure to get to know him better from now on,” Charles says, and turns away before he can see Dutch’s reaction, the slightest smile haunting his face, like a knife mark in unbaked dough. Checkmate.

There’s a few chores to be done, and Charles meets John behind one of the wagons, sharing a silent hour with him while they work on a wheel, replacing a splintered spoke. They don’t often speak beyond the job at hand or the next smoke, not having had much chance to get to know one another besides working.

Lacking their own relationship, Charles sees John through Arthur’s eyes, unable to help feeling Arthur’s sense of abandonment, of hurt, of deep knotted disapproval at John’s treatment of Abigail and young Jack. When Arthur talks about it, there’s something so very close to resentment there, wrapped up in the pain, as if some part of him longs for the chance John willfully squanders, but it’s a chapter of Arthur’s story Charles hasn’t been read yet, lacking the knowledge to join the dots. All he has is the loss he felt, the betrayal he still carries from the day John left.

It’s difficult not to let it affect his view of the man. But, John, like Arthur, is a creature of conflict, who carries his own trauma through life in his own way, just as Charles does himself. There’s a good man beneath the bite. Immature, but clearly Arthur’s brother, if only by circ*mstance rather than blood.

So, Charles offers him a cigarette, when the shadows start to lengthen further with the afternoon, taking their break and looking out across the still lake water, and mumbles his thanks when John lights them both, deciding it can’t hurt to share what he knows. Gain an ally. “Can I ask you something?”

John looks at him with mild surprise, as if never having heard him speak, smoke thick as he exhales. “...Sure?”

“Do you know where Dutch was meant to meet Colm O’Driscoll?”

“No… Why?”

Taking a drag, Charles hesitates. The lake water laps at the sand, foaming white. “Arthur didn’t meet Dutch afterwards.”

The frown John gives him is reassuring, somehow. He looks back out across the lake, shifting his weight, voice wheezing in his throat with the smoke. “Probably found a dog to befriend,” he says dismissively, flicking excess ash from the end of his cigarette. “Bastard’s always f*ckin’ off. Drawin’ sh*t in his journal. S’fine when he does it, of course.”

Charles doesn’t hesitate. “And I was sure he was just being an asshole when he called you dumb as rocks.”

“Ha,” John snaps, scar tissue tight across his face as he scowls.

They smoke in silence for a few minutes more, Charles focusing on the warmth of the sun, a constant in the midst of his spinning thoughts, ticking around his head like clockwork.

Perhaps he is just overreacting. Perhaps his feelings for Arthur are clouding his judgement, and Arthur will amble back into Clemens Point the next day, wondering what all the fuss is about, with several new drawings to show him, several tales to tell of his adventures, the colourful people he’s met - be they slave catchers, animal tamers, palaeontologists, blind fortune tellers, a whole carnival troupe of all of the above.

“Y’think somethin’ happened to him?”

Charles huffs. “I think...it’s an odd coincidence. Arthur disappears during a meeting with Colm O’Driscoll, and is not where he said he’d be afterwards.”

“I guess… He ain’t one to go back on his word lightly.”

John scratches his stubble where his scars bisect his cheek. Shifts his weight again, boots leaving impressions in the sand as he shuffles. “You ask Dutch?”

“Said I was overreacting.”

“...And Dutch didn’t see him after?”

“Dutch told Hosea he was running an errand.”

His gaze flicks across to John. Sticks. “It was a lie,” he says blankly. “He didn’t see him. Told me earlier. No one has.”

“I… I dunno.”

Voice thick with smoke, John shrugs, clearly unconvinced by his own dismissal. “It’s uh… If Dutch says it ain’t nothin’, then…”

“Then it’s probably nothing,” Charles says, and takes one last drag before crushing the cigarette stub beneath his toe, embedding it in the wet sand.

When John looks at him, he’s still frowning, but Charles can’t push any harder. Again, he changes strategy. “I just wondered. See you later,” he says, and makes to leave.

“I uh- I heard it was Pearson’s idea, the meeting. He’d probably know where they was headin’.”


“Sure,” John mumbles, and lets him go, frowning out over the water, clouded with smoke.


“Hey, sugar. You wanna smoke?”

The body on the floor doesn’t move. Not deliberately. Every muscle is trembling, racked with shivers, curled around his ruined shoulder, but it’s without conscious thought, nervous system in overdrive trying to control the fever licking inside him.

Smoke drifts through the still cellar, disturbed by the laughter. “I can’t hear you, Cowboy.” A heavy thud, spurs jingling with the force of the kick. Squeezed breath. More laughter.

“Well, seein’ as I’m a generous feller…”

Cigarette ash lands on mottled, sweating skin, where one hand is gripping the opposite elbow, trying to calm the convulsive shivering, holding himself together. The stub is pressed firm to the arm, hissing as it glows and devours itself, eating at the pale flesh in a raw red burn. There are several already, dotted in a body-wide constellation, tiny welts to punish exposed skin.

Again, the body doesn’t move.

“...He was more fun when he fought back.”

“Aye. Look at ‘im, he’ll be dead in a couple days. Fever’s gonna take ‘im.”

“Shame. He’ll miss the show when Van der Linde gets here.”

Laughter, dry and echoing.

“Y’all imagine Van der Linde’s face when he comes ragin’ in and finds his man already moulderin’ in his grave. Bless his heart.”

Again laughter. Arthur clenches his eyes shut.

“Hey, hey- Did y’all hear Colm beat ‘im so bad-”

“He went an’ pissed himself, I know. f*ckin’ hell.”

“Sorry bastard.”

“I knew a feller once- Army feller. Said they used to beat fellers - deserters and savages, y’know - ‘til he shat his guts out, and wet hisself besides. Like a contest who could burst ‘em quickest. It degrades ‘em, see. They resist less once they’s swimmin’ in their own cold piss.”

“It almost ain’t funny.”

“Aye. Almost.”

Raucous laughter.

Thoughts are elusive. Intangible. He grasps for them, can’t hold them long enough to understand. His burnt skin tingles. Sweat drips past his temples.

Dutch is in danger. Walking into a trap.

“Ah, let’s get. Smells bad enough to gag a maggot in here.”

“We gon’ hang him back up?”

“Nah, let the others do it later. Feller’s heavy. And stinks. He ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

He needs to warn Dutch. Dutch is in danger. He has to warn him. Warn Dutch. It’s a trap. Everyone will be killed or caught. Has to warn them. Has to warn Dutch.

Blood bubbles weakly beneath his nose, dead eyes unseeing, spattered with the red of broken vessels, like scattered poppies in a cornfield. The pain keeps him still, and he sleeps.


Charles sleeps until just before first light.

The hazy dark still lingers as he packs Taima’s saddlebags, clinging to the paling sky in wisps of cloud, stripes of sunrise, pink peeping from the near arrival of wan dawn. It’s only him and the dozing horses yet awake, too early even for the birds and the morning insects, the chill of night making the hairs on his arms stand up, fastening the cinch straps under Taima’s belly, ensuring she’s ready for a long ride.

She flicks her tail, eager to get working, at her happiest when given a job to do. Taima is a generous mare. Always giving.

When he was a child, Charles’ mother had talked about values. Generosity, kinship, fortitude, and wisdom. To share freely, to give of yourself, is to belong, and be in harmony with the world around you. It hadn’t meant much to a child. ‘What you give away, you keep. What you keep, you lose.’

It means a lot as an adult, even just as a memory, a reconfigured approximation of her voice, long forgotten, but still somehow with him so many years later. Sometimes, he wonders how different his life would be, if she were still alive. Would she be proud of who he is?

Probably not.

Charles huffs, humourless, unable to muster even the wry impression of a smile. Perhaps then, she could be proud of what he still values, how he tries to live, even if not the location he’s ended up in. He’s not sure he’s proud of that himself.

But he holds his mother’s words close. The concept of family isn’t limited to blood, for her people. Kinship is extended to all, and family is a measure of wealth. Generosity extends to all people.

He glances back around the sleeping camp. Another reconfigured approximation. This time of a family. It’s not quite the right word to describe the gang, but the closest one there is. They aren’t related by blood, but they share something Charles needs to protect as if they were. To keep safe. And Arthur is the heart of it. There’s little point understating it anymore. Arthur is the colour to everything he has built here, and Charles will give of himself to keep him whole.

Even if he returns within the day, Arthur laughing at him for worrying all the way home, he would rather give the time and effort, just in case.

“John says you’re disobeyin’ orders, Mister Smith.”

The voice is surprising in the silence of pre-dawn. Mrs Adler - Sadie - gently touches Taima’s nose, walking up to lean on the hitching post where she’s tethered. Charles looks up at her across Taima’s flank, checking her tack over. Sleep is heavy in her posture, underdressed since it’s still effectively still night. A jacket covers her drawers and chemise, held closed around her like a blanket.

“Morning,” Charles replies, deliberately evasive, and goes back to Taima’s saddle, adjusting the furred bison hide that sits between the leather and her back. “You’re up early.”

“As are you. Ain’t even light.”

Peeking up over Taima’s crest, Charles searches Sadie’s weary face for a long moment. They haven’t had much chance to get to know one another either, much like him and John, but again, Charles sees someone he can trust in her. A good woman, facing a terrible and heavy grief. Fierce as a mountain lion, but with a soft heart. He sighs, tugs Taima’s stirrup leather, and moves back around the hitching post. “I’m following a hunch.”

Sadie reads his expression in turn, her bare toes curled in the grass. Among different company, it might be seen as improper to be so undressed, but Charles has never spared much respect for the white man’s inflated sense of impropriety. Everyone has toes, and legs, and a breast. Why should Sadie hide hers? Ridiculous.

“My Jake, he used to say good instincts tell you what to do long before your head’s figured it out,” she says, resting against the post. The dying night gives the light a warm, syrup quality, the slight blush of sunrise worrying the eastern horizon behind them, a swell of peach blossom harrying the remnant dark. Sadie huffs, cheek pulled as if by a string, memory caught in her eyes. “Said he always knew he was gonna end up marryin’ me. Just knew.”

Charles stands beside her, looking out at Flat Iron Lake past the tents, the oak tree. The water shimmers with the fading stars, like a thousand jewels, swirling blue and pale, ribbons of colour and light. He doesn’t reply, doesn’t feel like his commentary is necessary, comfortable in the silence before the world wakes.

“Hunches ain’t often wrong,” she adds eventually, crossing her arms over her chest to keep her hands warm, fingers tucked in her armpits.

“I’m hoping this one is.”



Again, Sadie is silent. Charles considers excusing himself, eager to leave before the dawn breaks, but after a moment, she speaks again, quiet like rustling fabric. “My Jake also used to say...love is instinct. Ain’t no logic in love. You know or you don’t. He’d say to me, ‘Loving you takes no brains, but it’s the smartest thing I ever done.’”

Expressionless, Charles can only stare across at her, stunned for a second by the implication. Exactly what she isn’t saying.

She knows. Maybe he and Arthur haven’t been as discreet as they’d hoped. So, he smiles, huffing his understated laugh. Little point in denying it. “A wise man,” he murmurs, and catches how Sadie’s cheeks round with her smile, delighting in the unspoken confirmation, and the flash of affection it brings between them.

“Yeah. Yeah he was.”

Charles unhitches Taima’s reins, looping them up over the horn of her saddle. With one last check of his supplies, he moves to her left side, and mounts, settling his boots in the stirrups as she stretches her neck down into the contact, chewing the bit in her mouth.

“We’ll cover for you here,” Sadie says, turning to face Taima as she backs from the hitching post, Charles taking up the reins.


“I hope he’s safe. He’s a good man. You’re...good for each other.”

A gentle huff, Charles chuckles despite his four-day-old sense of unease, the veil of anxiety that’s settled over him. “Glad I’m not the only one who thinks so.”

She smiles, weak and slight like the promise of sunrise on the horizon, but genuine, watching Taima amble towards the treeline, only heading back towards bed when her spotted coat has disappeared from sight.

Pearson hadn’t been able to give him an exact location, only that the meeting would take place on the plains of the Heartlands, near the rundown oil derrick. But it’s enough for Charles, even several days behind Arthur. He’s sure he can pick up some kind of trail, find some clue. Or at least, rule out anything untoward.

Taima settles into an easy lope, relaxing into the rhythm of her long stride. The cool air is welcome, a misty curtain of pre-dawn hanging low over Scarlett Meadows like a cloud of breath across the surface of a mirror. Red earth, dry with dust, stretches between the clumps of trees like a huge bedspread, furred with wildflowers drawn out by the warm weather. Without the sun to brighten the landscape, there’s a purplish haze over everything, like an over-glazed photograph, still and silent for just a while before the birds begin to wake.

They cross Dewberry Creek as the sun finally breaks fully free of the horizon, and New Hanover is bathed in slick gold light, spreading out from Roanoke Ridge. The grass awakens, glistening with new colour, the Emerald Ranch windmill catching the sunlight and shimmering in the distance to the northeast. Sitting squat by its side is the main barn, a great green loaf just visible past the undulating hills that bracket the floodplain, and Charles peels off to the north before the land flattens out, following the road up into the Heartlands as morning blooms.

There aren’t any obvious tracks as Taima continues, climbing the ridges and slopes with ease in long looping curves. Stagecoaches, carriages, riders of all kinds use the road, and it’s been so long since Dutch’s party, presumably, came this way, that any trail is long muddied, scattered with the dust.

Still, Charles keeps on, eager to stay ahead of the sun if he can. Riding out at midday at this time of year is doable, but not ideal. Particularly since he has no real idea where he’s heading.

He follows the road, alone in the midst of endless miles of agricultural land, a pastiche counterpane miles across, spread out to the eastern forests and far to the north, almost familiar by now. As the track climbs, skirting the contours of the ridge overlooking Flat Iron Lake, the marsh foliage of Scarlett Meadows is all but forgotten, replaced by buffalograss, sedge, wild rye and sage, great spikes of yucca clinging to the hillsides as cliffs surge up towards the sun, rock parched and pale.

It’s the same picture as when they’d hunted the bison, and yet different at the same time, minute details having changed with the new season. Summer is the great provider, nature’s bounty, and it’s obvious in every direction, humming in the fabric of the earth, the weft and weave of the land itself.

The cacti are in fruit, and wildflowers are dots of colour in great tangled swathes with the forbs and weeds - bright yellow sunflowers, cinquefoil and black-eyed susan, cheerful purple lobelia, bergamot, prairie clover, blue aster, white yarrow, a kaleidoscope of busy pigment and texture. Berries are abundant; the seeding grasses are tall and reaching, swaying like the shimmer of heat on the horizon, interrupted by the prairie dog mounds that litter the hillsides, chipmunks and kangaroo rats scampering through cover, avoiding the eyes of soaring falcons, hawks, the perching shrikes with ready thorns.

It’s the time of plenty, and even in the early morning, the air is alive with butterflies, bees, dragonflies, rousing before the lizards come out to bask in the sun.

Arthur would love it.

Absently Charles scans ahead as they ride on, sure he’d be able to see Magpie’s distinctive coat even from a distance. For all the colours in the prairie at this time of year, black and white are rare amongst them.

The road shifts towards the west, air cooler with the altitude, and Twin Stack Pass looms below in the distance, bleached castle walls tumbling with age. It’s another reminder of the day they’d shared on the plains, how Arthur had looked while they were riding together at full gallop, like he was an eagle, whose pinions had been clipped for his entire life, and only then was he first discovering what it felt like to fly.

He was beautiful. Still is. Radiant in Charles’ mind, as he’d looked at the fallen bison, touched his crown with such gentle respect, as he’d listened to every word Charles said, every story he’d told about his mother and her people, their culture and customs. He’d asked questions, hesitant with his desire to be polite, always trying to understand, always eager to know more, even when it’s a subject he can’t personally relate to. It was important to Charles, and that had made it important to Arthur.

Just as beautiful too after he’d shot the poacher, a syllable away from another epithet, another breath intended to tear at Charles’ humanity, spat from a mouth that gaped in death a second later. There was blood on them both, sweat, wet adrenaline, the dangerous competence with which Arthur kills like a drug to him, and the same in reverse - Arthur’s expression after Charles had dispatched the first man, shotgun kicking his shoulder, a mix of thrill and admiration, shock, but no horror.

Achingly beautiful; all of him. His scrunched-up nose with the scar on the side, his blemished chin with the patch where his stubble never grows. Hands that are bitten around the nail beds, but gentle in everything they do, freckled like his cheeks are, like his chest and back. Eyes like aquamarine, like periwinkle flowers, like the nebulous stars before night’s dark overwhelms, sparkling pale and magnificent.

Everything in Arthur’s life has been so tightly controlled, so manufactured, and yet his mind is so curious, so clever, seeing beauty and meaning in things Charles doesn’t notice, shy and soft and stronger than anyone he’s ever known.

Somewhere in the depths of him, Charles knows he’s falling in love. Sadie was right. He hasn’t voiced it, but he knows it’s true, something he has never experienced and yet recognises all the same. Is it always so powerful? So thrilling and terrifying all at once?

How he longs to take Arthur up on that offer; to take a few days out and be with each other, revel in each other, fall into each other and make up for every want they have to keep hidden, every urge they can’t act on. Maybe he’ll manage to convince Arthur of his worth to him, how much he cares for him if only for a few days, stare down the prowling doubt within him and smother it with as much love as Charles can give, keep it blissfully quiet for long enough to worship every perfect inch of him, pay tribute at the altar of his body, pledge to him his own for him to do with as he will. Make him believe in his own inherent goodness, his attractiveness, everything he doubts in himself.

Hell. Whatever Arthur wants, needs, he’d give it.

He’d been close, that day in the forest, hunting the buck - unable to hold back, allowing himself to touch, to press into him, to show some of the desire he feels, close to throwing the bow aside and pinning him to the dappled ground, beg him to allow his roaming hands, allow him more than just heated kisses, beg to covet and revere and honour him as he so wholly deserves. Arthur has no idea what he does to him. How much he feels.

Charles swallows, hot in his cheeks and knowing it isn’t just the warm weather. He’s been made into a perfect fool, and it’s little consolation to know he’s far from the first man to be thoroughly laid low by the desires of his own heart.

Before the road starts to descend towards the pass, there are scuff marks in the dirt. Taima slows, taking the opportunity to stretch out while Charles inspects the tracks, leaning over her side.

Three horses left the road ahead. Multiple hoof tracks veer from the path and off to the left. He looks up, scanning the land ahead. A stretch of scrub climbs further, dense with plantlife, before dropping away out of sight, presumably overlooking the plains below.

Arthur was meant to be ‘protection’. If he was going to set up a sniping position, where better to do it?

Charles picks up his reins, urging Taima on through the brush, avoiding the worst of the prickly pear and pincushion cacti, the crumbling rock, dirt loose beneath her hooves. The tracks aren’t obvious, but he can see when three sets of hooves becomes one, the lone rider continuing on up towards the crest of the cliff.

It’s a tricky climb, meandering around and back and up even further, Taima picking her way through the jungle of foliage, only snorting her displeasure when a barbed yucca snags in her feathers. She kicks it, and Charles clicks his tongue, reassuring her forwards.

Finally the land spills up and over, and evens out into a short plateau, a high perch above the barren prairie. The oil derrick is a black tower in the centre, bent over as if awkwardly sat on by some ancient giant, the only feature in a sea of golden green scrubland. It’s a natural overlook, providing a vast and beautiful view of the Heartlands, reaching in all directions to greet the brightening sky.

He dismounts a distance from the edge, letting Taima take a break while he tries to follow the tracks, picking their path through the tall grasses, the low-growing cacti. A horse had definitely come this way, and stopped, left to wander and graze, distinct hoofprints imprinted in the dry earth, dust blown over them in the days that followed.

Charles crouches, tracing a horseshoe shaped impression. Then, not a few feet away, a footprint, much shallower than the hooves, but there. Arthur’s ghost, dismounting Magpie. It has to be.

The prints crowd, heels and toes smudged together by multiple steps, scattered by the breeze so high on the cliff, but legible still, and Charles follows the disturbed earth in a low stoop, noticing the scattered pebbles, a broken stem or two, treading a path towards the outcrop’s edge.

A vulture takes flight as he approaches, picking at a mangled coyote corpse, mostly bones and nearly falling off the precipice, as if dropped in an aerial tussle by its original killer, and passed through several talons since. Flies buzz in what’s left of the flesh, and Charles breathes, taking the few steps out onto the bare rock, eyes scanning.

A flash of colour catches his attention. Beneath his feet is a bright, dark splatter, thick as tar, reflecting the early sun. He crouches. It’s a streak of blood. Again he glances to the dead coyote a few yards away, innards strewn across the dusty rock. It’s possible. But there’s no other blood around the corpse, which means it likely wasn’t bleeding when it got there. No heartbeat to put blood flow under pressure. Which suggests…

He straightens up, looks around again.

An object distracts him. It’s lying nearby, mostly hidden beneath the round pads of a prickly pear cluster, caught in the dense growth bordering the rock. As he nears it, he can see what it is, stooping again to release it from the cactus’ prison, snaking his hand through the maze of thorns, its ripening fruit like a bunch of scarlet balloons.

It’s a hat. “sh*t.”

The worn black leather is instantly recognisable, scuffed to a lighter brown around the creases. Cord is tied around the crown, fraying at the ends, the lining shabby and faded from years of wear, shaped perfectly to Arthur’s head. He never leaves his hat. No matter what, Arthur always goes back for his hat.

Charles pulls it from the thorns, cradling it to his chest, and again stands up, searching the rest of the outcrop, as if Arthur could be hiding behind a clump of clover, waiting to jump out and surprise him. To laugh at the look of grim apprehension on his face, smooth out the lines between his brows with the pad of his thumb, fondly warning him he’ll get wrinkles if he frowns too much, and head home with him, hand in hand.

There’s nothing. Of course there isn’t. Nothing but the flap and flutter of a solitary sparrow, flitting between the stems of switchgrass, and the screeching call of a hawk, somewhere in the far distance.

Charles holds the hat to his heart, and moves on.

Another drop of blood is smeared in the dust further from the cliff edge, descending steeply, and crowded with more footprints. More than one person. The carpet grass is disturbed further on, flattened, trampled and pulled in clumps, as if rucked up beneath someone’s boots. It continues, a stuttering trail of lone footprints, scuffs in the dust, drag marks - just like in the Braithwaite cornfield, broken furrows through the dirt. Arthur’s heels.

He whistles for Taima, and remounts, Arthur’s hat fixed to her saddle.

The trail leads him back down to the road. It’s a muddle of hoofprints and carriage tracks, impossible to follow, except for the odd spot of darkened earth every fifty feet or so, solitary drops of blood, baked into the dust. Whoever it belongs to was moving while bleeding, a slow faucet-like leak, spattered from height.

Sighing, Charles touches the hat, thumbs the frayed rope. It might not even be Arthur. Anyone could have been injured in the days since he passed through this way. Anyone could have taken the same road. The hat could be a coincidence, lost by mistake.

He gees Taima up into canter.

As the morning soars behind them, they pass through the Twin Stacks, the pillars dimpled and pitted like they’re the faces of giants, with sunken eyes and crumbling features, turned towards the sun. The spots of blood continue, dropped into the earth and baking as the heat rises, near invisible.

It’s not much, but it’s the best lead he has.

In truth, his only lead.


Lead lodges in his chest. They rehang him. Unconsciousness envelops within seconds, and over the course of the next hours, he wakes in feverish bursts, fighting the paralysis of sleep with the little adrenaline he has left.

One thought is all that gets through, brain drowned in a deafening sea of blood, bursting at the seams of his skull and leaking from every orifice. He must warn Dutch.

It’s light at some indeterminate point in time, bright around the edges of his vision, spotty and unfocused. The next time, the light is gone. And each time he wakes, the battle starts again, desperate to keep his consciousness for more than a few moments. His breath ratchets with the horror of awareness, senses struggling to process what little they can through the fog, and when he wakes enough to feel the pain, his body flicks quickly into panic, and the resulting lack of oxygen puts him to sleep again.

Dutch is in danger.

His thigh muscle jerks in spasm. The shackles creak, and he swings lamely side-to-side. Familiarly nauseating. There’s been nothing in his stomach for days, but he still vomits every so often, retching until his tears are blood. Familiar. Oddly predictable.

Again he twitches, and he gasps to consciousness. Clings to it, desperate.

Gingerly, the dark swirling, he tries to find his hands. His left is unresponsive, but the right swims into view, the wrong way up and blurring red, every movement out of sync with his brain. He grabs for the air.

The darkness in his head throbs, pulls at him. Arthur breathes, as deeply as he can with his lungs crushed, and wheezes on the exhale, forcing his eyes to stay open.

All he can see is some kind of surface to his right, a workbench perhaps. It shifts and distorts as he tries to focus, and it could just be a trick of the low light, his abused eyes, but something metallic seems to flash on top of it.

His hand feels far off, pounding and cold, but he reaches to the bench, using the swinging motion of the binding around his ankles to get closer. The momentum is sickening, dizziness swirling in his gut, threatening to spill over into more nausea, but finally his fingers close on the object, dragging it clumsily into his hand.

He pants, choked and rattling, still for several minutes as he fights to keep himself awake. It’s the most lucidity he’s felt in what could be weeks; he battles to keep hold of it.

The object is a file, he decides, metal and sharp, caked in fine orange flecks of rust he can’t see, barely able to make out his hand half a foot in front of him, to close his fingers properly on the shaft. If he could reach his shackles- Maybe-

With a pained grunt, he reaches up, whole body trembling with the effort. The metal cuts into his ankles, reopening scabbed wounds, fighting gravity to find the lock between his feet, like trying to catch the sea in a teacup. He gives up, heaving.

Again he tries, folding himself in half to stab blindly at the iron between his feet, probing for a hole, scraping the file along whatever surface he can find. Finally, the sharp tip judders into the catch point and he jams it forward, twisting.

A soft click, and the shackles open.

He hits the ground with a whimper, what little breath he has knocked out of him, and he curls over on his only tangible side, bringing up his aching knees, rubbing absently at the spasming muscles of his thighs. For as long as it takes for his lungs to recover, he lies on the stone, just breathing, saliva pooling from his open mouth to the cellar floor.

It’s another age before he can move, and smear some clarity into his vision with the back of his hand rubbing at his eyes, though it’s only enough to see the vague impression of four walls around him. There’s no detail, only contrast, a blurry interpretation of colour and shape. A candle is lit on the workbench, barely an inch left to burn, the sides and holder caked in days of wax, and as he watches, the flame flickers, highlighting the dust motes in the air around it, bouncing chaotically off the stone. He squints, reaches for the workbench’s leg, and uses it to haul himself upright, the world spinning over itself to settle the right way up, for the first time in what could be years.

Nausea swells, and Arthur pants, trying to hold it back as his head swims. Picking up his knees on the floor, he ducks his head between his legs as much as his abused neck muscles can allow, shuts his eyes, and waits.

As he breathes, the same thought comes back to him. Dutch. Dutch is walking into a trap. He’s got no time to waste. Every lost minute could mean Dutch’s death. Hosea’s. All of them.

There’s something around his neck, he realises, when the room settles into a finite position, with the floor beneath him and the ceiling above. It’s a crude split sack, tied around his head like a baby’s bonnet, and Arthur rips it away from himself, throwing it to the corner as he tries to get up, using the workbench to balance.

He stumbles, catching himself on a chair tucked under the bench, hastily sitting down to catch his breath again. His left arm is leaden. Dimly, he knows he’s been shot. And even more dimly, he knows the smell of infection. There’s not much he can do. Not much he can think to do. Cauterising the wound is useless. If there’s shot in the flesh, there’s no way he can get it out. Can barely see the stained surface in front of him let alone perform any kind of first aid on himself. He’s wasting time.

A bottle of whiskey is on the bench too, opened and half empty. His hand trembles as he picks it up and pours the rest of the contents over his left shoulder with a hiss of pain, dousing the wound, spilling more liquid down his front. It’s deep, and he can’t turn his head enough to look at it properly, only able to see a reeking black mass in his peripheral vision where his shoulder once was, surrounding skin so bruised it’s indistinguishable from the wound itself. Scraps of his union suit cling in the shot, and pull whenever he tries to move, but once the alcohol is gone, still he forces himself to keep going, keep his eyes open. Keep breathing.

Dutch needs him. He has to warn him. He can die afterwards.

“Oh, shut your hole!”

His breath hitches. Clumsy, he stumbles from the chair to the opposite wall, ankles barely taking his own sudden weight. He falls to the stone, and a hatch clatters open above him, a shaft of light appearing and illuminating the cellar stairwell, glinting off the iron shackles suspended from a chain and hook on the ceiling, shining with the dull slick of blood. His head spins.

“I don’t wanna go to Mexico,” the voice continues, accent thick. Boots thud on the first step, and stop. “I wanna go home. Home!”

Arthur’s left side screams at him, heavy and wet. He’s only got one arm. It’s like his brain can’t process the loss, and is wading unbalanced without half the body it’s in charge of, every muscle off-centre and struggling to make up for the lack of his left torso. And if everything could stop moving, that’d be helpful. Even the footsteps seem to swim in his head, echoing, bouncing too loud in the cavernous space where there once was a brain, the rotting juices having long seeped out of his nose and eye sockets.

“Ugh. Hold on, I’ll be back in a minute. Gotta see if Sleepin’ Beauty’s still kickin’.”

The footsteps start again, and orange fills the cellar, bobbing lantern light careening closer like the lamp of a runaway train. Fresh air trails with it, a plume of thin, breathable oxygen, cutting through the thick mired stench of vomit and urine beneath the ground.

Arthur squints. Holds his breath.

“What the Hell?”

Moving forward, the O’Driscoll holds his lantern to the empty cellar wall, highlighting the empty shackles, the meat hook they’re hanging on. The floor is slick with various bodily fluids, writhing in the moving light, like maggots digging into a corpse and just as revolting.

Arthur crashes forward. With one arm, he tackles the man, locking his elbow under a reaching chin and squeezing with all he has, crushing his neck within the vice of every last vestige of his energy. The O’Driscoll writhes, bucking like an unbacked stallion. Nails dig into Arthur’s arm, fighting for his life, and the lantern clatters to the stone, weeping oil.

“Just- f*cking-” He snarls, spittle covering the O’Driscoll’s ear. They slip together, four legs on the stinking floor, thrashing as rams in rut. “Die-”

Another surge of effort, Arthur panting like an animal, and the man finally loses his fight, sinking limply in Arthur’s locked arm like a deflating balloon. His knees hit the floor.

Arthur stumbles backwards, and only just manages to turn in time, catching himself against the wall and vomiting a stomachful of bile on the floor. It spatters against his bare feet, and he sinks to his knees, unable to stay standing with how hard he’s shaking, every muscle twitching, like there’s a flock of sparrows perching all along his spine, pecking at all the branches of his nerves.

He grunts his breath. Hunched over on himself like a pale slab of undercooked meat, he huddles on the floor in the pool of his own stomach acid, waiting for the swell of sickness to pass, the room to stop swirling like it’s water running down a drain. His breath slows.

Pulling up a piece of his sleeve, he wipes his mouth and the sweat dripping down his forehead, the tears, the blood bubbling once more from his nose, and starts the agonising process of trying to stand once again, shaking from head to numb toes.

More time wasted. He has to keep moving.

The unconscious O’Driscoll has three knives in his belt, light and thin, the sort of thing Charles keeps handy-

Charles. Just the thought of him makes Arthur falter. Will he be coming too? Walking into Colm’s trap? It seems so long since he last saw him. What if that was the last time, and Arthur didn’t even know? Didn’t say a proper goodbye? Didn’t ever tell him how much he lov-

Panic surges. From an adrenaline-muffled simmer to a roar in a split second, and he’s got to get out. Needs to leave, to never look back. The cellar reeks. He’s wet, filthy, can barely see. Colm’s fingers still trail down his belly, unbutton his underwear- There’s so many hands on him, fingers, boots. He can’t see whose they are, can’t move to fight back, to escape, can’t breathe-

Knuckles white with how hard he grips the knives, he stumbles clumsily up the cellar stairs. Gulps the encroaching cold air.

“What’s he still doin’ down there?”

A lantern light passes the hatch. “It’s one thing torturing a man, it’s another thing puttin’ him through stories of the homeland.”

“He better hurry it up. Colm said law’s on its way. I don’t wanna be here when they come for that side of beef.”

Arthur crawls the last few steps. Fresh air hits his shivering skin, and he drinks every drop he can, heady and precious, trees appearing through the haze of his vision, like a thousand hands against the sky. It’s cold, dark, but whatever time of day it is is impossible to tell, forcing himself to keep moving, all but falling into cover behind the storm cellar hatch, pressed against an adjoining wall.

In the gloom of his consciousness, he remembers Charles again, beacon bright. Sitting across from him in a scorched and burning cornfield, fear contorting his face as he’d offered Arthur his hand, pleaded for him to take it, and helped unfurl his fingers when Arthur couldn’t do it himself. He’d held him up, held him together, strong and firm and achingly gentle, lulling certainty back to him, a soft lullaby of reality and focus, picking up the pieces of a tattered, shipwrecked soul.

His voice was honey then. Ambrosia. God-sent. Touch gentle on his tears, his running nose, his bleeding hands, coaxing him from a precipice that overlooked death itself. Listening with him to the birdsong, the earthen heartbeat, and grounding him within.

Arthur’s breath slows. He hears little, pulse thumping in his ears, but what he can listen to, he does, finding the land around him, the treeline, the crowding branches of broadleaf, the whispering grass. Creaks of wood, old and weather-beaten, blowing dust, a distant vulpine yell, far off.

His eyes open. He has to keep moving.

The lantern light is visible again, held by one of the O’Driscolls, who stops just beyond the building he’s sheltering against, leaning toward the side of what was once a wood store, a few lonely blocks of firewood illuminated by the glow.

There’s no time to waste. Jerking forward, scuttling like a blind crab, Arthur lurches across the distance and jams a knife into the O’Driscoll’s throat from behind. Grunting, he tears the flesh through, slicing his neck like butter, and the man falls over the log store’s side, gurgling his death into the dirt below.

Heaving for breath, Arthur wipes the knife on his thigh, and collapses to the ground against the wall behind him. It appears to be some kind of shack, the same cold stone as the adjacent cellar, a momentary relief to the trembling muscles of his back. Stretching past the pain, he can just reach the dead man’s gunbelt, and closes his fingers over the grip of a revolver, falling back to the wall behind him as he breathes.

His fingers slip over the stock, barely managing to flick out the barrel and bring it up to his eye level, trying in vain to count the loaded rounds. They swim through his vision, sometimes six and sometimes four, and the blood slick on his hands, the compulsive shaking jerking through his fingers makes it impossible to decipher by touch, let alone co*ck and fire the damn thing. “Useless,” he breathes, and clenches his teeth, dropping the revolver by his side. He’s better off with the knives.

Another point of lantern light appears after a moment, wobbling with the walk of its carrier, over to his right. It’s blurred by foliage, and Arthur can’t tell how far or near it is, eyelids heavy with the lingering weight of his whole body’s blood, like his eyeballs really have ruptured, and everything he’s seeing is through the red mush they’ve left behind.

His ankles feel like shattered glass. Still, he has to move, forcing himself into a clumsy run, stooped over like a bull lowering its horns, knees and one hand scrambling in the dirt to propel himself forward. The lantern grows brighter.

He makes it to a tree. Clings to it, bloodied fingers grasping at the bark as he peers around the trunk, the O’Driscoll beyond no more than a silhouette, edges lit in orange, patrolling the nearby track. Lantern raised, he pauses, lifting the light to get a better look at the bushes and shrubs lining the route, their dark leaves silent and churning with the flickering flame. Arthur charges.

The man yelps as he’s hit from behind, heavy weight colliding into his back before his throat is cut. Blood erupts from his neck in one spurt, coating Arthur’s slashing hand, hacking and tearing with the thin knife, fingers slipping, movements clumsy, and Arthur throws him off as soon as he stops fighting, blindly darting back to the cover of the shack. Dust clouds around him, and he wheezes into his good elbow to muffle the sound, eyes starting to water with the pain adrenaline can’t quite numb, racking his chest with every breath. He dries the knives on his thigh.

Got to keep moving. Dutch is in danger.

On the other side of the shack is a wooden shed with a lean-to roof, dilapidated beyond much use except storage. The light is stronger there, a campfire set up in the space between the two structures and shining bright through the holes in the rundown boards, like he’s looking through cell bars. Crates and barrels surround it by way of furniture, an overturned rope spool serving as a nearby card table, complete with bottles, half-smoked cigars. Voices drift, volume inconsistent, and it’s a chorus of white noise he’s familiar with by now, the unnerving laughter from an unknown source, suggesting far more onlookers than he can see, watching him get beaten, commenting on how endearing it is that he’s still trying to fight back.

They’re just Colm’s servants. Sycophants and yes-men, enjoying the power of belonging to something greater than the individual, but Arthur can’t help the vicious flare of anger he feels upon hearing the group laugh, the sick humiliation in his gut as he cowers behind the shack, shivering in his own piss and blood and vomit, the pain hammering in every inch of him, so deafening and massive that he’s sure his brain is shutting most of it out, knowing he’d be comatose if made to feel all of it at once. He breathes, shaky.

Can’t help but want to inflict just one fraction of that pain in return.

Shifting on the ground, he peeks around the corner of the shack. There are three. Unrecognisable, nameless men, with hoarse laughs and grabbing hands, drunk on the deadly disinhibition of being amongst peers, the amoral mentality of the mob. Alone, a man is dangerous, but with his friends- Far worse crimes are committed when the eyes of another are there to encourage.

“We gonna get goin’ soon? Law’s comin’, even if Van der Linde don’t show.”

“He’ll show.”

“That’s what you said yesterday. And the day before.”

“Well why wouldn’t he? Been days since we nabbed his man. Bastard’s prob’ly watchin’ us right now. Spyin’. Him and his bunch of lost boys.”

There’s a murmur of laughter. Arthur flattens against the wall, sinking to sit, legs unable to hold his own weight for long. He clasps the three knives in his only working hand, and breathes.

“You out there Van der Linde? You enjoyin’ watching your boy squeal?”

“Yeah, well- Enjoy this, ya bastard!”

More laughter, as one of the O’Driscolls raises both middle fingers to the darkness, and gestures wildly, showing any spying eyes just what he thinks of them. His companions hoot and bark, sloshing their bottles of beer.

“Maybe he wants to hear more of that journal!”

“Ooh, right you are! Where was I?”

One of the men clears his throat, theatrically loud over the others’ jeering laughter. Arthur peers past the wall again. There looks to be a book in the speaker’s lap, open on his knees.

“Ahem- ‘Charles and I went huntin’ again today. He never ceases to amaze and inspire me. Everything he does is with po- poy-’ Pose? Jesus, I can’t read this f*cker’s stupid frilly handwritin’.”

“It says ‘poise’, ya dummy.”

“Well if you so smart, you read it!”

Arthur stares ahead, unseeing. Horror creeps up his spine.

The book is snatched from the first reader, opened at a new page.

“Aha-hem. Ahem. ‘I kissed Charles. These feelings I’ve been having- I ain’t sure I know how to describe them, because I never felt anything like it before. After the cornfield, and Caliga Hall, we were sitting together, me half-dead and him like everything good and beautiful in the world wrapped up in one.’”

The others are barking, hollering their amusem*nt.

“‘He made peach cobbler. We were talking. And I kissed him. And that ain’t even the best part. He said he’d been wanting to for months, and then he kissed me back. I feel like such a fool, but I’m sure I’ve never felt so happy neither.’”

The laughter pounds in Arthur’s head.

“Ooh Lord, this sh*t is precious.”

“Y’all believe Van der Linde caught himself a co*cksucker.”

“f*ckin’ queer. Keep readin’!”

“Okay, okay- Shut up, let me find a good bit-”

The sound of pages rustling, paper between fingers. “Oh, oh! Listen: ‘I hope Charles and I can get away soon. I want to be alone with him, away from all this mess with these old families. It’s driving me crazy. I never felt so strong about anyone before. Even Mary - Devil take my soul - never stirred nothing in me like Charles does.’”


“Will you fools shut up? You’re makin’ me lose my place. ‘I always thought it was my fault.’”

“Oh my Lord-”

“‘Not loving her hard enough, not touching her right, not feeling nothing when I laid down with her like any other man would. But- But I want Charles like I never wanted nothing. I want all of him. Imagining it - being with him, physical like - raises a passion in me I can’t even describe. It’s embarrassing thinking it, let alone writing it down. Yet I can’t deny it no more, again Hell take me. And what’s better - or worse, I can’t tell - I think Charles wants the same too. Wants me. Old, beat-up, ugly sonofabitch me.’”

Laughter. Laughter. Colliding in his head. Shrill, rising.

“He a bit more beat-up now!”

“Maybe that’s what ‘Charles’ likes!”

“Listen, listen: ‘Is this what every other feller feels when he looks at a woman? When he takes a woman to bed? This heat, this desire- I never felt nothing like it with anyone, but Charles just has to look at me and I’m overcome, like some pubescent boy whose prick’s hard every moment of the day. I cannot hope to explain it, but neither do I want to escape.’”

“Aw hell, sick feller’s got it bad.”

“No wonder he squeaked so loud when Colm roughed him up, the puss*. He was savin’ hisself for Charles.”

“Maybe we oughta break him in. Get him warmed up. Since he likes it so much.”

Voices louder. Darker. Echoing. Tangled with laughter.

“That how Charles takes you, Cowboy? He like it raw?”

“Maybe Van der Linde’ll bring Charles along to rescue his boy, and we can see just what he likes-”

With an inhuman noise, Arthur lurches forward around the shack wall, crashing into the nearest O’Driscoll like a train hits a pigeon, erupting in a shriek of snapping bone and blood.

“Oh sh*t!”

“What the f*ck-”

He stabs into his neck. Twice, three times, so deeply that the knife handle is swallowed beneath the bulge of flesh, throat near bisected if not for the stubbornness of his spine, the man’s head teetering over onto his shoulder with one last burble. Arthur drops his body. His companions are screaming.

Blind, Arthur hurls the next knife towards the nearest moving object, seeing it collapse out of view, the spool table upturned, cards fluttering through the air like snow. The campfire light is everywhere at once, smudging the few distinct scraps of shape together, and Arthur has no idea where the third man is, can’t hear, can’t see, stumbling over the body of the decapitated O’Driscoll as his ankles give out, slipping blood-slick to his only working hand, dust kicked up over the fire.

There’s a voice, spitting, ringing in his ears - his, he thinks, roaring his anger, the war-cry of a rabid bear. The third man scrambles and falls sideways over the humble furniture, crawling backwards, and Arthur shunts up onto his knees, lunging for him, managing to close his fist in his shirt and haul, kicking up dirt and stones and dragging him back towards him. A gator dragging its kill into a death roll. The man’s mouth is open and shrieking, writhing in desperation as Arthur bodily pins him, knife dripping, knees on his thighs, wide eyes darting, bulging-

“No! No- God, no!”

Arthur plunges the last knife into his eye socket. Again, the blade sticks, deep, and Arthur snarls as he wrenches it from the screaming man’s skull just to stab him again. Blood is spattered upwards with every sink and squelch of the knife, coating his hand thick as molasses and just as dark, stabbing over and over into the crater left in his head by the dismembered eye, deeper and wetter until his grip slips with all the blood, and he’s slashing his own palm to pull the blade out again, his own blood flowing into the fray.

Face frozen in horror, the man dies somewhere in the middle, screeching in pain and gurgling on his own tongue, his body shuddering limp beneath Arthur’s weight. Even dead, the onslaught doesn’t stop, Arthur robotic in his need to hurt the nameless face, to murder him, to wipe any remnant of him and his unworthy voice from the Earth and return him silent to it. Bleed him into the sand, caught forever in agony and fear and powerlessness, out of reach of Charles’ name and never to exist in the same world as him again.

Only when his arm starts to tire does Arthur slow down. He’s braying loud and animal, leaving the knife plunged deep in the dead man’s hollow head and finally losing the strength to keep up the assault, heaving over the O’Driscoll’s mutilated face.

He falters. Wheezing, he tries to catch his breath, spit dribbling down his chin with the blood from his nose, deaf and half-blind. His knuckles are white around the knife, embedded in a weeping red mass below him, brain matter and fatty tissue spewing out of the slashed face, the other eye popped in sheer terror. It’s a sticky, steaming mess of viscera, more like a smashed watermelon than anything resembling a human head, or the stringy innards of a carved pumpkin, dripping to the ground.

Arthur shakes, wobbles, a string of saliva flowing from his wet mouth to the mauled crevice in the man’s head. He spits, awareness starting to hit him with the scent of blood, the unmistakable stench of the man’s emptied bowels.

It doesn’t matter. He whines between his teeth, a plaintive whimper, like a dying animal, and unfurls his hand from the knife, several bleeding cuts splitting the width of his palm, his fingers. Breath wheezing, he lets his weight sink, unable to keep holding himself up, and clings to the dead man beneath him, grounding himself in the solidness of him, his paunched stomach, the smell of rust and sweat and bodily fluids.

The man’s chest is still. Arthur rests his head down, eyes wide and panicked.

They’d taken his journal. His one outlet, and they’d taken that too, violated it as they had his body.


His breath falters, gets stuck between his lungs and his lips, and he chokes, shoulder shaking as he again whimpers, curling his dripping hand in the dirty fabric of the O’Driscoll’s shirt, squeezing. Compared to the agony of the rest of him, he barely feels it at all.

Their words spin in his head. Mocking, laughing, somehow worse than the torture. They’d spat Charles’ name like it was poison, like their relationship was disgusting, and anger swirls in him with the exhaustion, helpless fury burning behind his eyelids.

Part of him can’t see the point in getting up.

Why bother?

The O’Driscoll’s shirt starts to stain, red from the seep of blood from Arthur’s nose, the mucus and saliva, dripping steadily as his working shoulder shakes, unable to stop his own tears as they overflow.

It’s cold. As cold as it was in the cellar. His bared chest prickles with the chill, damp all over from sweat, and he shivers as he clings to the dead man’s shirt, squeezing harder with every urge to sob, breath choked and loud.

Maybe he’ll die here. Maybe the fever will take him, and the next time he falls asleep, he won’t wake up.

Maybe he’ll never see Charles again. In the fog of his head, he can barely picture his face at all.

The realisation spills more tears, and for a long time Arthur doesn’t get up, eyes open and streaming, unseeing as he cries. Tears drip down his nose.

Night settles around him, still as death and just as cold. The warmth ebbs from the corpse beneath him. If time passes, it’s unnoticeable, a slow dirge through a bog, sucked down by the mud, the only feeling that registers the gnawing of leeches covering his legs, drinking his energy. The pain drags, drowning.

A teardrop clings to the end of his nose, and he sniffs, the tickling sensation stirring something like thought in the mire. There was something important he was doing, he’s sure.

Dutch. Dutch is in danger.

A breeze rustles past, and Arthur blinks through the remaining tears, picking his head up from the still chest beneath him. “Dutch,” he chokes, voice wobbling, staring unseeingly to the black perimeter, as if the man himself was truly hiding in the trees, watching, waiting for the best moment.

No answer comes.

Dutch needs him. He has to warn him.

Blinking, Arthur sits up, achingly slow. His journal lies on the ground a few feet away, recognisable even through the haze, and he drags himself to it without hesitation, sliding limply off the dead O’Driscoll and hauling himself past the campfire on his knees, wading past toppled bottles, cigarette butts. It’s undamaged. Open on a sketch of Charles, dust blown over his pencilled face.

The face is recognisable. And inordinately beautiful, even if his meagre hand could never hope to capture Charles in his entirety.

He has to get back. Needs to see Charles’ face again. Needs to warn Dutch.

Arthur gently blows away the debris from the open page, and cradles the journal in his bloody hand against his chest, sitting in the dirt between three dead bodies. The fire crackles. He wipes his eyes.

His head throbs, blurring what little he can see in a disjointed, harried rhythm, chasing his pounding heartbeat, and for a moment he just sits, hand folded around his journal, breathing in the cold air, trying to get his bearings.

There’s a chest beside the shed door. They’d tipped furniture in the struggle, but even past the discarded crockery, the upturned chair, he can see his own gunbelt, thrown over the top of the chest. Gingerly, he gets to his feet, and totters like a newborn calf, stumbling towards the shed to recover his belongings.

They aren’t well hidden. His satchel is inside, revolver and sawn-off shotgun still in their holsters, and he slings the belt over his shoulder with the bag, clinging to the shed wall as he again stands on numbed feet, struggling to see through the gloom.

Movement stirs further ahead. Arthur tries to quiet his breathing, stooping as he makes his way further from the campfire’s light, away from the cellar, the black shackles. Anything he meets in the wilderness will be preferable to going back there. The corpses are left to steam in the night air, and only once he’s past being able to see them when he looks back does he realise what the movement is ahead.


Horses are tethered a short way from the camp, grazing, their burrs and snorts recognisable as Arthur approaches, clinging to the open-ended fence they’re hitched to. One mare stands out, the moonlight catching a black mane and white tail, velvet and gossamer in one, her back painted in the richest and most opaque dark he can see.

His mare. His Magpie.

As he stumbles closer, Magpie tosses her head, ears twitching back towards him. “Magpie,” he whispers, barely able to believe it’s truly her, there with him the entire time, left tied just as he was. Holding himself up on the fence, he blinks through the gloom to see her more clearly, breath trembling as badly as he is.

It’s her. It’s definitely her. His beloved mare, brave and beautiful. But…

Her eyes are wild. Even with him standing beside her, her ears are flat and warning, jolting unsteady on her hooves as she shifts in place, set apart from the other horses, tacked still as when Arthur last saw her. Sweat glistens on her chafed flanks. Nostrils flare in an anxious snort, mouth dripping around her bit. “Mags?”

Hand gentle, near blind on his wobbling legs, Arthur touches her shoulder, feels how she flinches beneath his palm. He strokes her stiff withers, and she reacts like she doesn’t know him, panic plain and rising. “It’s just me, girl.”

She whinnies, high and nervous, tail swishing, and the sound is heartbreaking, more so because Arthur can’t find the wherewithal he needs to be able calm her, knowing nothing except they have to leave. Now. They need to get out.

“We gotta go, sweetheart,” he whispers, rasping with the sheer effort of still holding himself up, feeling his way around her to untie her reins, fumbling with the leather. The blood makes his fingers slip, and nausea starts to swell in his gut again as the grass blurs beneath his feet as he moves, like he’s standing on the surface of a pitching ship, and his stomach is following suit. “I- They’ll find us here, we- We gotta-”

He shuts his eyes as the feeling clenches and writhes, and settles his head on her saddle to breathe, not knowing how in Hell he’s going to get up with only one arm, focusing first on securing his gunbelt and satchel where he can. Agitated by his fumbling, Magpie skitters in place, dancing, ready to run, to escape, her stirrups hitting her cinch strap, tight and biting at her belly.

She must be in as much pain as he is, and half as able to block it out with rational thought. They need to get back. No matter how terrified both of them are, they must get out.

Using the fence as a leg-up, and by some small miracle, he manages to haul himself up over her croup, hefting the dead weight of his body over the saddle, crumpling weakly forward across her neck. Leaden legs scramble to right his balance, her weight shifting uncomfortable beneath him as he wobbles and kicks, pitching him like a sapling in a storm. He clings to her, inching himself over the cantle as he tries multiple times to find the stirrups and some support, bare toes numb and clumsy.

“We gotta…” Arthur groans, head lolling into Magpie’s black mane, the urge to vomit again creeping up from his insides. The ground swirls. “We gotta go, girl. Get-”

She stutters forward, unsure, and immediately kicks out her hind hooves in panic and pain, splintering the fence as she skitters into an anxious, unbalanced lope, her legs stiff and unsound. Arthur falls over the saddle horn, breath knocked out of him, and lets instinct keep him moving with her, legs bumping uselessly against her girth, good hand tangled in a fistful of her mane. Skirting the perimeter fence, she runs, past the shack and out onto a dirt track, kicking up the dust behind her, desperate to flee.

Barely a few yards out, suddenly there’s a rider, lantern light visible before he is. A disembodied orange glow bobs on the road beyond, like will-o-the-wisps in the gloom of Arthur’s consciousness, phantoms luring him blind into the promise of light. The promise of heading right back into the cellar, and letting the fever take him.

He groans, clenched teeth, and clamps his left leg against Magpie’s side, bruised ankle bone knocking clumsily into her, pushing her out. Tossing her head, she snorts her discomfort and veers, lurching chaotically out over a dull stretch of scrubby grass, brushing through knots of ambiguous green foliage, too indistinct for Arthur to identify.

Leant deep over Magpie’s neck, Arthur shuts his eyes. The ground rushes past, a murky sea of brown and grey and green and the remnant red in his eye sockets, sloshing through his pounding head until he can’t breathe, nose pressed into Magpie’s mane, praying they’re not heard, not seen-

The land disappears. Magpie stumbles, tripping forward down an unseen slope of sand, loose rock slipping beneath her hooves. The grass has vanished, replaced by a low plain of silt and shifting sand, hurtling towards him, tipped over Magpie’s shoulder and unable to rebalance as she charges into a frenzied gallop, skidding out onto the beach.

He’s got no hope of holding on. Jarred sideways, Arthur falls.

His back hits the ground, breath knocked out, a short grunt of pain all he can voice. The sand slips loose and he rolls, shoulders tumbling over and over each other until he sprawls to a stop, spread-eagled and white, barely managing to curl up onto his side, head thudding with the sound of hoofbeats long after he passes out.

When he comes to, it’s to warmth on his face. His eyelids flutter, the warmth coming in short puffs, damp somehow, chilling the drops of sweat clinging to his forehead. He groans, deep and rattling, and wheezes himself awake, pain in every inch of him that he can feel, and a wetness on his fingers, somewhere out of reach beside him.

The warmth huffs over him again, and as he blinks, he finds its source. Two pink nostrils are snuffling at his face, soft muzzle tickling his hair. “M-Mags?”

Magpie snorts, and her hot breath makes him reflexively try to smile, a weak movement of his lips as he tries to lift his head, push away from her gentle lips, her filament whiskers, probing curiously at his face, breathing in his hair.

It’s dark around him, but the red of blood is visible, caked to his fingers, up his arm. His right hand is outstretched by his side, counterbalance to slow his fall, and the wetness belongs to the water lapping at his fingers, a pale expanse of featureless grey, trembling in his vision. A lake, perhaps? The water sucks at the blood coating them, kissing the shoreline where he’s lying in the gentle motion of a tide, sand wet and compacted beneath him.

Magpie snorts at him again, head low, and nudges his face with her nose, slowly ducking down onto her knees. Her hocks follow, and she settles to lie down on the sand next to him, awkward as only horses can be, as if always only just remembering they have four legs, let alone how to move all of them at once.

“My girl,” Arthur mumbles, voice wrought with exhaustion, and curls his hand up to touch her neck. “My s-sweet...girl.” He plants his elbow in the sand, and tries desperately to roll, to shift his weight to his front, every muscle trembling, aching with a deep, layered agony.

After a good few minutes, he manages to find his knees, and all but sprawls across Magpie’s back, once again clinging to her neck, unable to keep any kind of hold on her reins except to hook them over the saddlehorn. She clambers to her feet, stiff and unsteady, but Arthur stays on, slipping his feet beneath her girth strap since he can’t find the stirrups, and taking new hold of her mane with his one hand.

“Get me home, girl,” Arthur says, whispered unintelligibly into her mane. “We gotta get home. And… A-And I dunno the way. I can’t- Please…”

Miraculously, she responds to his clumsy squeezing at her sides, starting to walk with Arthur limp and trembling over her neck, bleeding unnoticed from his gaping shoulder, staining her coat red.


The red and pink of evening passes, and night rolls in, warm as cashmere. Charles doesn’t stop. Taima is a bulwark, determined to keep going no matter how far he urges her on, pausing only to answer nature or study the churned ground, dusting off the trail like an archaeologist chips a fossil from rock.

They ride on. The miles stick together, like sodden pages in a book, and with every step further into New Hanover, Arthur’s absence gets heavier, beating down on Charles’ shoulders like the sun had all day. Night is a relief, but a shallow one.

Out of the Heartlands, the prairie had merged back into green grassland, climbing into a sweeping plateau, sloping away to Flat Iron Lake to the south, and falling suddenly into the endless Dakota valley in the north. Reclaimed by trees, dense oak and pine forests bracket the ridges and cliffs, lush where the plains were barren, humming in the summer sun as the day wore on.

Horseshoe Overlook sits obscured behind one such forest, and Charles had spared a moment’s thought for their temporary home as he passed, following the railroad track westwards, out over the plateau. The farmer at Flatneck Station had lined his pocket with a few dollars as the sun had started to set, and only then remembered a group of men passing through in the preceding days, a distinctive black and white mare with them.

Tracks are indistinguishable on such well-travelled roads, and the blood trail had long been washed into nothing thanks to recent rainfall, but Charles knows Magpie is far too valuable a horse to just shoot, or leave in the wilderness. She’s rare, and trained well, and he counts on it to jog the farmer’s memory. Luckily, the hunch paid off, and Charles had continued, pointed towards the Dakota river, far down into the valley. Further west.

By dusk, he was scouring the riverbank, the cliff sides, carved out by the ancient flow of water eroding millennia of rock. From Caliban’s Seat, past the blackened husk of Limpany, and then beneath the towering ironwork of Bard’s Crossing bridge as night had begun its descent, he searched, hunting for any sign, any clue that could be related back to Arthur.

There’s nothing.

Desperation sets in with the dark of night.

On the riverbank, he lingers to collect himself, keep himself focused and together. The bridge looms above him, casting spider shadows on the sand below, and he lets Taima nibble at the rushes as they linger on the east bank, Charles caught between the need to stop and rest, and the drive to carry on.

They must have crossed the river. It’s the only way forward; there are no other signs this side of West Elizabeth. If he makes camp now, will it be more distance between them? Will it be another day of danger, another day of Arthur in trouble with no one to help?

Taima would ride all night if he asked her.

But maybe it’s just more overreaction. Maybe this whole fool’s errand has been overreaction, coloured by his feelings for Arthur, and he’ll have to face Dutch knowing he was wrong, accepting the thinly-veiled jab that Dutch knows Arthur better than anyone, and that Charles is nothing, nothing compared to him. Compared to the man who has shaped most of his life, molded his doctrine from malleable clay, given him purpose, profession. Belonging.

What is Charles’ few months compared to that?

He sighs through his teeth, and rubs Taima’s crest. It was a foolish, lovesick idea. Better saved for romance novels and silly fantasy. Had he expected to find Arthur in the wilderness? Rescue him from some unknown peril and carry him home in his arms, like some folk hero? Arthur could be camped anywhere, and would surely be taking advantage of the time alone. Enjoying his sleep beneath the stars he loves to watch, head free of worry and relaxing in the freedom that isolation brings him, dreaming of meadows, of eagles and deer.

What right does Charles have to intrude on him? On his life? He feels for Arthur, stronger than he’s ever felt for anyone or even known to be possible, and he’s sure Arthur felt similarly- He’s sure…

But what if that, too, is just another sign of his failure to understand Arthur and what they have together? Truly, he’s never felt anything like this...passion before. He has no frame of reference. Is he slotting himself into Arthur’s existence because of his own sense of loneliness, without stopping to think perhaps Arthur doesn’t want him there?

In the still of the night, Taima makes a soft noise, and cranes her neck to look back at him, interested in his boot where it hangs by her side. He sighs, and lets his shoulders fall, hope deflating from within him, plagued by doubt.

“I know,” he says, leaning down to rest his cheek on Taima’s grey neck, nose in her mane, barely audible over the flow of the water. She softens at the touch. “We’ll keep looking in the morning.”

It’s not helping to think so much. Arthur wouldn’t have missed out on a planned meeting without a word as to where he was going, especially not after such an important outing with Dutch. Even if he doesn’t know him as well as Dutch does, Charles is sure of that. Wanderlust is a trait they both share, but Arthur wears his loyalty to Dutch above all else, and takes pride in it, like a greatcoat, buttons polished, a jewelled pin on the lapel, only Charles seeming to notice that the side seams are worn, stitching coming apart.

Along the shore, Charles picks out a spot for a camp, beneath the watching eyes of an eagle, perched on the iron balustrades of the bridge, surveying the valley below. As he stretches his ankles from the stirrups, ready to dismount, Taima lifts her head, and her ears suddenly prick forward. She nickers, curious. Charles follows her gaze. Loses all his breath in one.

On the west bank of the river, emerging from the ragged cliffside, bright coat stark and glowing even with the waning crescent moon, is a horse. It’s walking lame, unsteady on its hooves as if burdened with an uneven load, leaning oddly to one side and stumbling often.

Like a weary phantom, it moves into the water, teetering on shaking legs like it’s drunk, staggering through the shallows beneath the bridge. Her coat is instantly recognisable. Like tar melting over snow, shining and slick in the dim light, the pale figure swims in reflection in the water, a thousand ghosts cast-off from each step and floundering with every ripple, images within images collapsing in on one another, like the house of mirrors at a carnival. It’s-

Taima whinnies. “Magpie?”

Charles grabs her reins, and she’s cantering before he even asks, closing on the lame mare with every stride. They crash through the river water, and at a hundred yards Charles knows for certain it’s her, knows her markings anywhere, her patterned saddle blanket. It’s definitely her, pitching on her legs like a sinking ship taking on water, being dragged into the depths, but- Where’s her rider? There’s nothing in her saddle but a formless red mass, some kind of luggage maybe-

The shape shifts, folding in half in the middle, and Arthur hits the water in horrifying slow motion, toppling over Magpie’s shoulder like a house of cards.


Breathless, Charles pulls Taima up, and she splashes to a stop in the shallow water as Magpie robotically continues walking, unable to register the loss of her rider. As she nears them, Charles can see the garish red stain over her left side, flooding her coat with colour and dripping down to her hocks in long strings, only washed off by the lake water as her hooves wade through. There’s sweat glistening all over her, and her head is high and tossing, ears flicking constantly, tail swishing as she mechanically keeps walking, as if it’s all she knows how to do. All she can do.

Desperate, Charles all but falls from the saddle, hurrying out to where Arthur’s body fell, able to see the blood swirling out in a wide circle from a nondescript lump, drifting through the pooled water like red ink. “Arthur?” he breathes, and runs, falling heavily to his knees in the sodden sand.

Arthur is curled on his side, half naked, only covered by what looks like his union suit, though it’s closer to rags than anything wearable. His face is ashen, mottled a sickly shade of white and black with bruises, with open cuts and welts, and what’s visible of his body isn’t any better, a patchwork quilt of injury, of swollen purple bruising beneath his sweating skin. Charles sits frozen in the water, and chokes on Arthur’s name, not knowing where to touch to pick him up, which parts of him are whole.

Arthur’s eyelids flutter, and some deep survival instinct turns his face slightly from the water’s surface, shifting his weight away from breathing it in. He’s alive-

“Arthur- It’s me, it’s Charles-”

His voice breaks. Shatters. He wants to scream. It feels vaguely like the air is running out of oxygen, swallowed up from his insides by a rising tide of disgust and horror. His hands move to touch him, but for a long moment he can’t close the remaining few inches, sure Arthur’s fragile body will crumble under his fingers, or else he’ll cause more pain, split Arthur apart by severing the threads that are holding him together.

The blood is still flowing. So much blood, he’s soaked in it, dripping wet- How is he alive?

His eyelids flutter again, pained crease appearing between his brow, dripping with sweat and caked in grime. A huge and hideous bruise covers most of his forehead, skin split in the centre. Hit by something blunt. One of his eyes has swollen into itself. There’s blood sticky around his nostrils, wiped clumsily from his eyes, even his ears, crusted red around every orifice.

He has to move him. Gentle as possible, Charles digs one hand into the fine sand beneath Arthur’s head, and sets the other around and under him, supporting his bloody ribcage as he picks him up from the ground, water sloshing in his lap as Arthur’s pulled through it, and cradled against his chest. “Arthur. Please-”

Every bit of him seems to radiate sickness, thrumming in the chill night air, veins like blue cracks in white porcelain, skin mottled and muddy like sour milk. Touching Arthur’s pale cheek, Charles presses his fingers to his neck, listening to feel his pulse. It’s racing, too fast to count, not much of a relief despite the fact it’s there and he’s alive - and as he breathes against Arthur’s head, too shocked to do anything but, Charles can smell the infected flesh, getting his first glimpse of the wound to his left shoulder.

‘Wound’ doesn’t seem an adequate word.

Realisation spreads across his face like dark, stealing his breath, and he pulls back to see the appalling extent of it, the ruined mess where once was Arthur’s chest. Eyes wide and jaw slack, Charles can recognise a shotgun wound when he sees one. The flesh is caved inwards, a dripping, reeking pit. It’s clearly septic, oozing with a thick black tar, gluing singed scraps of his underwear into the hole like flies drowning in honey, congealed blood and pus writhing alive in the thin moonlight. An angry rift has collapsed most of his pectoral just beneath his collarbone, muscle tattered in shreds along with the cotton, and it’s impossible to tell what used to be clothing and what was once skin, organic fibres ripped and sticky and red, sodden in blood.

It’s a visceral, revolting injury, leaking the stench of infection, leaving nothing but a mutilated crater in Arthur’s flesh, burnt at the edges with explosive powder burns, exposing the deep tissue of his chest like raw red meat that’s been carved with a flail rather than a single blade.

It’s horrifying.

Charles can only stare, dumbstruck, and cradle Arthur’s shivering body in his arms, holding him close without much care for how the blood seeps into his own shirt, for how the spit and mucus around Arthur’s lax mouth smears on his collar. He rocks, eyes blank and unseeing, embracing the body against his chest, afraid to let go.

For what feels like an hour, he sits with him in the water, paralysed in his own horror, the conflicting tangle of relief and guilt, fear and fury, only able to stroke his thumb over the patch of bare skin where he holds Arthur’s slack cheek, and listen to the rabbit pace of his heartbeat, sure that any second it will stop. His eyes burn, tears welling up.

It’s only a few minutes, in reality. Arthur whimpers, deep in unconsciousness, and Charles knows they must move. There’s no time for his breakdown.

Mechanical, he shifts his hold, gathers Arthur in both of his arms, and pointedly ignores the fact his feet look more blue than flesh-coloured, nails black with grime, some splintered completely in two.

The acrid scent of urine as they move is unmistakable, Arthur’s union suit stained heavily with what must be days of neglect, vomit down his front, blood coagulated everywhere Charles can see, dried in patches of his chest hair, clinging to the split buttons of his suit, far too open for any sort of modesty. He reeks of damp, of the filth of the cellar, and strongest of all, infection. They need to get back. Now. Three days ago.

He gets to his feet. Arthur’s head lolls against him as he moves, carrying him bodily against his chest, arm under his knees. His entire left arm looks useless, limp and hanging awkwardly from his shoulder as they walk, like a badly hung painting, hand pale and unmoving. Charles tries not to look at it.

“I’ve got you,” he says, as if talking will stave off the horror, stopper the unshed tears, and hauls Arthur towards Taima, managing to lift him high enough and prop him up in her saddle while he mounts, and sits behind him, arm tight around Arthur’s bared waist, keeping him safe and steady with his body pressed against his back. “Just hold on. Please, I-I’ve-” His voice breaks again, and Charles frowns, forehead resting on Arthur’s head for just a moment, biting back his own distress. There’s still the faintest scent of soap in his hair. “I’ve got you,” he whispers, and gees Taima up into canter.

Magpie has made it another few hundred yards in the meantime, prancing unevenly in her panic and making her way further along the beach, stuttered hoofprints winding through the damp sand on the eastern shore of the Dakota. She sees them coming, sidestepping as she lifts her head to watch Taima, wading a few steps into the lake to get away.

Charles slows, and keeps Taima steady, approaching at Magpie’s pace. If he dismounts, he’s sure Arthur will end up on the ground again, so he stays in the saddle, at enough distance that Magpie doesn’t flee any further into the water. “Magpie,” he says, eyeing the swathe of blood covering her shoulder, streaked with her sweat. “Be still, sweet thing. We’re friends.”

Slowing, Magpie throws her head, eyes staring, darting. She whinnies in warning, high-pitched, stamping her hooves. Threatening to run. The sand scuffs beneath her. “Shh, easy, brave girl. I know you’re afraid. I am too.”

Holding Arthur tight, hand fixed to his breastbone, Charles leans to rifle through one of his saddlebags, and pulls out an apple. He lets Magpie see it, offering it towards her. “Brave girl,” he says again, soft, despite how his voice tries to shake, attention caught by the thundering pulse beneath his left hand, racking Arthur’s ribcage. “Let me help. We’ll get home together. I’ve got you. Both of you.”

The smell of the apple triumphs over Magpie’s unease, days of starvation weighing heavily on her just as it does Arthur, and she eventually comes close enough to take it from Charles’ quiet hand, letting him reach for her reins as she eats, tether her to Taima’s bridle. It’s not ideal, but time is already against them. Every second he wastes listening to Arthur’s pulse, is another second closer to when it might stop.

As they walk further along the beach, horses abreast, Charles wraps Arthur in a blanket from his camping gear, tucking it around his bare torso, his shaking shoulders, colder than the water was. His head lolls, neck unable to take its weight, and as he holds him, tight to his chest, Charles wonders whether he’ll wake up at all.

Somewhere west of Dewberry Creek, there’s an abandoned mill on the riverbank where they rejoin the road, scattering a hunting pack of coyotes, yipping into the dark grass. Charles manages to feed him some sips of water, sure dehydration is amongst the myriad things Arthur is suffering with, though most of it ends up soaking into the blanket down his front. The canteen slips over his lips, clumsy. But he drinks out of reflex, and a little is surely better than nothing.

The night draws on as they do, slow and chilly, Charles unwilling to ask Magpie to move any faster than a nervous walk, clearly struggling with pain as well as exhaustion. They drag through the endless grassland of Scarlett Meadows, a moonlit grey watercolour littered with the crumbling remains of stone fences and hearths, rundown farm houses more splinters than structure. All Charles hears is hooves and the nocturnal animals, unseen owls and distant screeching foxes rustling through the undergrowth of the forests, and Arthur’s rattling breath, stilted and harsh, too quiet and yet deafening in the silence of night, echoing around the dense woods they pass through. Charles listens, and repeats all he knows as a mantra. A prayer to whatever gods are listening. They must get back.

There’s no room for more thought than his immediate perception, no energy to give for the panic pressing at his peripheral vision, the sick horror fluttering in his gut with every inhale of the smell clinging to the man in his arms. He has no time to acknowledge his own feelings, despite the length of the journey back, mind singular in its one permissible desire. They must get to camp.

Thinking can wait. Arthur can’t.

Finally, the red siding of the Southfield Flats mill comes into view, bright against the rich sky, like silk on velvet. Clouds are brushed through the indigo expanse, and no stars are visible, swallowed up in stormy sea, the sliver of visible moon seeming to crest and fall like a galleon, tossed upon the dark waves. Charles is the only rider for dozens of miles, following the lonely road towards the marshes, before finally, finally veering off, entering the woods around Clemens Point.

The camp is quiet. A few night owls sit around the campfire, visible from the treeline as Charles walks the horses on. Dread claws at him.

“Who’s there?” John’s voice rings through the night, disembodied through the blanket foliage. Straining to see through the darkness, he emerges from the trees and straightens up, readying his repeater, aimed at the track ahead.

Taima bustles into view through the weeds, tailing Magpie beside her, and the shock on John’s face is almost frightening in its intensity, the suddenness with which it overcomes his features, snapping across his face like the hanged man through the gallows trapdoor. “Holy hell- Is that-”

“Get Dutch,” Charles snaps, and looks down at him from the saddle.

He’s blazing with quashed fear, leaving only fury to fill the void, and his hushed voice seems to tremble with how tight it is, pulled taut like a bowstring. John’s eyes are saucers, staring at the corpse in Charles’ arms. “Wake him, wake Hosea, Miss Grimshaw- Everyone. Now.”


Now, John!”

John nods, and jolts himself into a run towards the glow of camp.

Making sure the blanket is covering the majority of Arthur’s bare abdomen at least, Charles urges Taima to continue, Magpie anxiously towed beside her towards the hitching posts set out between the treeline and the main camp.

Teeth clenched, he nuzzles his nose into the back of Arthur’s head, just a tiny gesture, knowing Arthur won’t be able to feel it at all. “We’re home,” he murmurs, adjusting his grip on Arthur’s waist, reluctantly loosening his hold. “I’ve got you. Just hold on a little longer.”

Deeper into the clearing, Karen notices them approach, watching John sprint clumsily ahead from where she’d been drinking around the campfire. She stands to see. Frowns.

“Is that Arthur?”

Realisation clamps her hand to her mouth, and the others around the fire take notice of the commotion, Uncle getting to his feet, Javier putting down his guitar.

John starts yelling, calling for Dutch outside his tent before hurrying to wake Hosea, shattering the late night calm, scurrying to and from the lean-to like a jackrabbit through fields. The slow quiet of their ride back seems to start spinning, whirring into a tight spiral like silk on a spindle, the speed of the world around him tripping forward, skipping faster. Charles dismounts.

Arthur pitches without his weight, but is caught in Charles’ waiting hands, steadying him before he can fall, bundling him in the blanket like a swaddled infant, cradled in Charles’ arms as he hoists him from the saddle. “I’ve got you,” he whispers, close to Arthur’s sweating forehead, and then he’s face-to-face with Miss Grimshaw, barrelling towards them from the fire, shrieking her distress when she sees the state of him.

“Arthur!” she cries, and touches his pallid face, pulls at his shredded union suit, the blanket, flapping like a grandmother might fuss over her grandchildren. Charles meets her desperate gaze with unbridled ferocity, like fire staring down a single snowflake.

“Arthur?” Karen appears, red flush in her cheeks, down over her breast. “What- What happened? Is he drunk?”

“What’s goin’ on?”


Dutch’s voice rings. He parts the hastening crowd like Moses did the Red Sea, hurrying towards him, clad in a black brocade dressing gown. Dimly, Charles reckons it’s probably worth more than the rest of the camp’s bedrolls combined. It’s almost a surprise he doesn’t have rollers curled into his hair, to complete the look, kept neat with a scarf knotted around his head.

“Arthur, my boy-”

Something about Dutch’s voice seems to stir Arthur’s hazy consciousness, and he wheezes against Charles’ shoulder where his head rests, lolling, blood bubbling from his nose, breath crackling through split lips. His eyelids twitch, and a sliver of blue appears beneath them, barely aware. “D...Dutch…”

“My boy, my dear boy, what-”

Dutch pushes past Miss Grimshaw, face contorted as he regards Arthur’s body, a vaudevillian mixture of horror and disgust. He reaches out, rings still adorning his fingers as they touch Arthur’s cheek.

A split second, and Arthur flinches, gasping backwards into the meat of Charles’ shoulder, momentarily terrified. Charles feels the occipital bone at the back of his skull, pressed tight and unyielding to his arm. Dutch retreats, sudden and then slow, as if trying to make it look deliberate.

“S’a trap...Dutch,” Arthur whispers, like he’s talking in his sleep, and nausea pulls at his eyes again, forcing them shut as he tries to right his spinning head, fair eyelashes fluttering. White seems to flood his face. “C-Colm…s’a trap...”

“The O’Driscolls took him,” Charles explains, dark and hurried.

“O’Driscolls?” Dutch echoes, clenched in realisation.

“I think he’s been tortured.”

“Tortured?!” snaps Karen, from somewhere on his right.

“O’Driscolls tortured Arthur?”

More questions join, more faces push into view.

“What happened-”

“I thought he was running errands!”

“We do not have time for this,” Charles snaps, as a thousand voices ask for answers, clamouring over one another like clucking hens, pecking at his patience. “He does not have time.”

He pushes through the crowd, Arthur groaning softly against his chest. A sleep-weary Hosea appears in the fray, Miss Grimshaw hurrying after him towards Arthur’s wagon. “Get him to bed,” she says, voice wobbling.

“Reverend Swanson! I need you here!”

“You’re safe now, Arthur-”

“Get him into bed.”

“Arthur- Arthur, I’m so sorry-”

“It’s a bit late for apologies, Mister Pearson!”

“Is he gonna be okay?”


“Oh, Mister Morgan- You’re safe now-”

“Enough!” Charles spits.

He draws himself up, nostrils flared, jaw muscle jumping. “He does not have time! We need boiled water. Gauze, wadding, clean towels. Now.”

In direct contrast to the fury of his expression, he enters Arthur’s personal space beneath the canopy of his wagon, and sets Arthur down on his cot with aching tenderness, gently pulling the blanket up over his bare chest, unwilling to let Arthur languish naked under so many pairs of eyes like a side of cold meat.

The crowd thins quickly, dispersing in a frenzy of hushed conversation, delegating tasks amongst themselves, and Charles is left standing silent over Arthur’s cot with Dutch alone, the brocade of his gown seeming three dimensional even in the dark.

“You’re safe now, son,” Dutch says, low and melancholy, and though it’s surely intended to be mournful, it reminds Charles of the hunting mewl of a panther, heard in the darkness between trees, a sound that pulls the tendon of his trigger finger, plucking at it. He straightens from Arthur’s bedside, and Charles simply stares at the back of his head in response, until the weight of his gaze is tangible, boring like drills, and Dutch looks up.

They meet each other’s eyes. There’s a few inches of height between them, Dutch taller than even Charles is, but even dishevelled, bloodied, his tunic stained with various bodily fluids and coated in dust on top of that, hair strewn chaotic around his face, Charles seems to ooze perfectly collected composure. And ferocity.

He’s a six foot statue carved in jasper, the fire alight and dancing in him, and Dutch is nothing in his gaze, not leader, not mentor, not messiah. Nothing. A sinner prostrate against the shrine of his uncaring god, begging for a forgiveness that won’t come. Tantalus beneath the eternal apple tree, his hunger shredding his insides, with Hades looking on from behind a three course meal, picking his teeth.

For a long moment, nothing is audible, the night silenced like a hand is squeezing at its throat, or else a ligature of biting wire, the space around Arthur’s wagon strung up and ratcheted tight enough to squeak, tension thick and crackling. It rolls off Charles in waves, like fever, like heat before a thunderstorm, rising, cloying, pounding into lightning that rents the sky in two.

All he does is stare. Dutch’s lips twitch. Beads of perspiration glisten on his moustache, like seed pearls.

Arthur shifts beside them. “Ch...Charles…”

His voice is worn linen, weft and weave coming apart. Chest heaving a deep and creaking breath, he grunts in his uneasy sleep, and settles again, still and silent.

Pride swells in Charles’ distraught heart, unbidden and dark. He was right. He knows Arthur. Eyes like inlaid stones, unwavering, goading in the sheer emptiness of them, devoid of anything but whatever Dutch sees reflected back at him, Charles dares him to speak. Dares him to spin a tale and explain this away. To open his mouth and let Charles make it the last time he has a tongue to lie with.

“S’cuse me-” Clattering between them, Hosea bustles into the space, kneeling haltingly on the grass beside Arthur’s bed to press a wet cloth to his forehead, wiping at the sweat. It distracts Dutch enough that he looks away. Instantly, the trembling tension shatters, and he doesn’t bother to excuse himself, simply turning and heading around the end of Arthur’s wagon, back towards his tent.

The silence breaks, and Charles huffs, short and sharp.

Kneeling beside Hosea, Charles exchanges a look with him. There aren’t any words. The pain in his lined face threatens, like a black cloud, heavy with rain, and Charles looks down, sure his own emotions will snap if he dwells on the reflection of them for too long, shimmering in Hosea’s eyes.

There’s no time.

Robotic, he finds a clean union suit in the trunk at the end of Arthur’s bed. Keeping Arthur covered as best they can with the blanket, he and Hosea strip the ruined one from his shivering body, absorbing every gasp of pain, every revealed wound, like sponges sucking water, compounding their joint horror deep inside the both of them.

It can wait.

Over the next hour, they give Arthur the scarcest cloth bath they can, washing away the worst of the dirt - the layer of congealed brown-yellow urine, dried blood and bile - with clean rags and boiled water, liniment from a green bottle that dyes his skin an odd yellow colour as it breaks through the compacted filth and lets the pale of his flesh show through. Part of him wants to protect Arthur from even Hosea, hide his nakedness, the embarrassment he’s sure Arthur would feel were he conscious. But Hosea is...the only one whose presence there Charles takes comfort in. The only one he’s certain will be respectful, and so they work in silence, an unsaid understanding between them.

Once clean, they redress him in the new underwear, mechanical, the clinical efficiency of orderlies in a military hospital, working in tandem as the time ticks away. They leave the left sleeve off, Arthur’s arm held awkwardly over the side of his bed, and the full horror of the shotgun wound is bared to the candlelight in grisly black glory, earning pained gasps from everyone who sees it. They bring the supplies Charles asked for, more pails of boiled water, nondescript bottles from Strauss’ wagon, strong alcohol, Charles’ pack full of herbs, a basin for them to wash their hands before touching Arthur any further, and each one leaves a little paler than they came, stunned into revolted silence.

It’s somehow even worse once cleaned. An indescribable horror to look at, let alone smell. It’ll be a miracle if he ever uses the arm again.

There’s a constant flurry of activity throughout the early hours, claustrophobic and yet a welcome distraction all at once, something to focus on when his mind drifts into dangerous territory, threatening to truly realise the gravity of what’s happening in front of him, teetering on the edge of it.

Miss Grimshaw re-appears at some point, and sits by the table next to Arthur’s bedside. She’s silent, and Charles considers telling her they’re grateful, but don’t need any help, and to get some more sleep. That he and Hosea can attempt the mammoth task of cleaning Arthur up, dressing his wounds. Until, he realises why it is she’s there.

It’s a vigil. Sitting at the bedside of the dying, those unlikely to make it through the night. Waiting. To meet their God, or the Creator, the Hunting Grounds of his mother’s people, or simply the darkness of oblivion, with someone there to light their way.

They think Arthur’s going to die.

When he looks at her, Susan’s eyes are ringed with red. But she never sheds any tears, simply watches, silent, waiting with them for when the end comes, and Arthur breathes his last on this unforgiving Earth.

Charles frowns, constantly. He watches Arthur’s pallid face, jaw muscles twitching in unsettled, pained sleep, and knows he will take on Death himself, to wrestle Arthur back from that brink. There is no one that deserves rest more than him, but no one he would fight harder to keep, to protect, sharing life with him, in whatever capacity he can. He can’t go now. Not when the feelings between them have only just been shared.

Working through the night, Javier and John repurpose some spare canvas, and create a shelter around Arthur’s wagon, gifting him the privacy and protection of a simple tent, rather than leaving him to suffer in the open. Lanterns are surrendered from the other wagons, and lit within the fabric walls, creating a muffled bubble of candlelight, Arthur’s mottled skin looking all the more sickly with the orange glow.

There’s an eerie quiet in everyone, hushed like the night, a stark absence of conversation, even as they buzz around Arthur’s wagon, like anxious insects, fetching and carrying, flitting nervously around the lanterns. Only a few words are heard in hours, simple questions or acknowledgements, a reassurance that the horses are untacked and grazing, that Sadie and Mary-Beth are journeying into Rhodes at first light to restock supplies and speak to the doctor, that Karen has already turned two moth-eaten old blankets into new pillowcases for Arthur’s bed, and Tilly is fetching water every half hour, to keep the pot boiling. The soiled union suit is taken by Abigail, and burned.

Within the tent, Arthur shivers compulsively, drenched in his own sweat, and doesn’t wake even when Hosea prods into the black crater of his shoulder with the thinnest forceps they can find - a tool of Kieran’s, something for removing fragments of a horse’s shattered teeth, apparently - managing to find several buckshot pellets lodged within, like pepper kernels thrown haphazardly into a stew pot. The wadding from the cartridge is buried deep in the hole too, bloodied and black with powder, and the smell is somehow worse when the infected flesh beneath hits the air, damp and dizzying. As Hosea douses the wound in whatever antiseptic they can find, Charles gets to work washing and then sewing the cut across his left ribcage closed, as neatly as he can with his fingers so set on trembling.

As the hours drag on, the wall he’s built around what’s happening continually wobbles, weakening with every rattle of Arthur’s breath, every muted groan that sounds through his sleep, every new injury they find amongst the indistinguishable mess of his body. The dam threatens to break after each clatter of buckshot, falling from Hosea’s forceps to a tin tray, each inhale of stringent ointment, each cigarette burn he finds on Arthur’s skin. He bites his bottom lip, hard, and focuses on dressing the newly-stitched wound - a bullet graze, or so it looks like.

It’s hard to tell what exactly made most of the injuries, except those obviously boot-shaped, burnt into the thin skin of his ribs, the spread spots of handprints on his upper arms, unknown fingers gripping hard enough to rupture blood vessels. His body is a mosaic of bruises and bleeding, jagged shards of colour interlocking across his whole torso, his abdomen, like gaudy paving slabs, purple and yellow and red. There are poorly-scabbed cuts bevelled into the skin of his ankles, and no matter how hard Charles tries to keep them warm, resting slightly raised on a spare pillow and rubbed regularly with a blanket, Arthur’s feet stay swollen, tinged with grey and blue. Like the blood supply was stoppered for too long to properly recover, leaving his toes cold and unresponsive.

They don’t speak much, but when he does, Hosea theorises the cuts are from shackles, voice small and hard.

Like Arthur was chained, kept imprisoned while his injuries festered, left alone in some dark cell. Was he waiting for rescue? Did he pray that someone would find him, and finally give up hope when no one came?

Charles huffs his emotion. His lips twitch, despite how he tries to keep his face still, hands hovering frozen a few inches from Arthur’s stitched side, and Hosea looks up at him from Arthur’s shoulder, his gnarled hands coated in blood, forceps glinting in the light. He sets them down on the tin tray of pellets, and absently strokes over Arthur’s blue-black collarbone with a wet rag, squeezing the clean water over the wound below. It runs in pink rivulets down the bruised slope of his breast, caught on the towel they’d laid beneath him.

“You wanna get some sleep?” Hosea asks, gentle. Charles is only a foot away, near the other end of the cot, yet even their hushed voices seem somehow too loud, too out of place, like loudly cursing in a church. “Think there’s one more pellet I can reach. Otherwise...we just gotta wait. You’ve done all you can.”

Stubborn, Charles shakes his head, and for a long moment, can’t look Hosea in the eyes, feeling them burning with furious tears, can’t lift his head to see if Miss Grimshaw is watching them. Shame chokes him, and he watches the lantern light flicker on the canvas walls while he tries to wrestle control back, painfully clenching his teeth as the swell of emotion surges, and then passes. Shoved bodily down into the pit in his gut with the rest. He can break down later. Whenever this night ends.

“I won’t leave him,” he manages, meagre, and opens the tin of ointment he has in his lap, dipping two fingers in to spread the paste on Arthur’s stitches, trying to lose the urge to scream in the heady scent of the poultice - coneflower and yarrow, bitterroot and purple mallow flowers.

Hosea watches him cover the wound, pressing a gauze pad to the site with one hand while he unravels a length of bandage with the other. “Here,” Hosea says, and shifts the dead weight of Arthur’s shoulders just high enough from the bed to let Charles wrap the bandage around his ribcage, securing the pad in place.

“Thanks,” Charles mumbles, and fastens the bandage with a safety pin, uncaring that Hosea sees his hand linger for too long on Arthur’s stomach as he refastens the buttons of his union suit over his abdomen, allowing himself just a few moments of tenderness, safe in the knowledge that Arthur’s still breathing. For now.

“I mean it,” Hosea says, even gentler than before. The same sadness that Charles feels sits heavily on Hosea’s shoulders, like a layer of dust coats a bookcase, and again Charles is grateful that it’s him there, sharing in an unsaid love of the man before them. Anyone else’s soft words might rankle, serve only to annoy him, but Hosea’s don’t. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable next to Hosea. “You brought him home. You’ve done more than-”

“I’ll sleep later, Hosea. Please.”

With a soft exhale, Hosea relents, and picks up the forceps again. “Okay,” he says, not unkindly, and silently goes back to work.

When Charles looks over, Miss Grimshaw’s eyes are closed. She’s seated in a rickety chair, her elbow on the square table where Arthur’s satchel has ended up, strap tangled around a standing frame containing a photo of his mother. Whether she is truly asleep, or simply giving them privacy, Charles can’t tell.

The sun rises. Surprising, somehow, as if a reprieve from the darkness was unexpected, time frozen in the wake of something so terrible it was enough to halt the sun itself. But the dawn still comes, and light returns.

It could easily be days after he first set out into the Heartlands, impossible to determine, the night seeming endless even as the sky blushes with the morning and light floods the rippling surface of Flat Iron Lake, streaming past the makeshift tent flaps covering Arthur’s wagon. Even as day breaks, the camp is silent in a shared and unspoken horror.

Hosea leaves him be when the worst of the wounds are clean and dressed, trying to eke out a few more hours of sleep, and Charles finds himself alone with Arthur when Miss Grimshaw follows suit, stepping out of the dark, ointment-perfumed space and out into the morning, satisfied that her watch is over. He sits on the ground, and leans on Arthur’s cot, just breathing. A long-forgotten deputy badge is embedded in the mud beside his crossed knees, lost underneath the bed.

His shoulder is heavily dressed. They’d packed the crater tight with gauze, and covered it with more, keeping it in place with a bandage wrapped under Arthur’s arm. It’s not ideal. Nothing about it is. But Arthur is still breathing, when the last of the sunrise’s pink and orange glow has faded into blue, the last notes of dawn’s chorus having been sung, and for Charles, that’s enough.

It feels like there’s nothing left inside his chest. He was sure as soon as he was alone, the emotions he’s been wrestling would overwhelm him, and he’d break down, but as it is he barely has the energy to think coherent thought. Like the pit of guilt and fear and terror in his gut has swallowed everything else with it, drowning his heart, his brain, his lungs, leaving nothing in the space left behind. It doesn’t matter. Screaming won’t help.

He rests his head on Arthur’s bed, cradled on his own bent arm, and studies the blackened tips of his fingers, the split fingernails. As if he’d fought something, hard, grappling for freedom, just as he had in that cornfield, ripping his own skin in his fierce instinct to survive.

What horror had he been through? What did they do to him?

This is the second time he’s seen Arthur closer to death than not. It’d probably be the sort of tragedy to be so hopelessly ridiculous as to be amusing, if he was sure Arthur truly was going to live, rather than tumbling over the cliff when he’s not looking, and not there to drag him back. All he feels instead is exhaustion.

“You’ve made a fool of me, Mister Morgan,” he whispers, and sets his free hand over Arthur’s on the cot, still. The flesh is cold, slightly greyer than his other hand, and who knows what damage the shot to his shoulder has caused? He hadn’t even got that far in his mental processing. If the hand is even usable, it’ll be a wonder. A small miracle.

Even meeting Arthur was a miracle. Everything about him, about them, is a tapestry of miracles, with Charles swept helplessly up in the middle, falling irrevocably and unequivocally in love somewhere along the way.

What stranger miracles are there than that?

It’s only been a few months since he barely knew Arthur. Came unspeaking and suspicious into the gang of misfits and collected oddities, and first met him, rough and coarse and too flippant to be taken seriously.

His first impression hadn’t been good. Charles had thought he was just another thug, joyless and violent, living out his power fantasy in a world even he, white-skinned and able to shoot straight, somehow couldn’t fit into. A sullen and selfish lout, hiding his penchant for thieving and killing behind Dutch’s ‘code’. No better than Micah.

He was wrong. He was spectacularly, exquisitely wrong.

“A while back, when we found this spot,” Charles says, barely audible, looking up the slope of Arthur’s chest to his slack expression. He shifts in sleep, eyelids twitching. “I told you how...I relied on isolation. It kept me safe. Kept people away.”

It seems so long ago now. Just a matter of weeks, and yet the course of everything seems to have changed. Like mountain streams that somehow meet in a boundless sea of rock, with infinite paths possible, spiting the earth’s natural shift and sway to flow together, stronger as one than apart.

“I’ve...been alone a long time. Being part of a group was easier, but it was functional. Served a purpose. I didn’t...believe in it. In family. Trust.”

Charles sighs, unsure why he feels the need to talk at all, especially since Arthur can’t hear him. It’s never been his strong suit, talking. And still feels redundant, as if his words are unnecessary by default, and are piling up around him, clumsy, tripping over themselves. “I trust myself. It’s kept me alive. I used to think...that was all there was for me. Just...exile. Never fitting anywhere, never wanting to try. Never letting myself...care. But now...”

He sighs again, soft, and feels his breath on his own hand, still carefully placed on Arthur’s. The bruised fingers twitch, and Charles flicks his gaze up to Arthur’s pale face. “What happened?” he asks the blank expression, no more than a whisper, and folds his fingers around Arthur’s palm, holding his hand. “You did.”

Eyes shutting for a moment, Charles focuses on the sound of Arthur’s breathing, raspy but regular. He can feel his pulse through his fingers, still too fast, but again, steady at least. When had Arthur become so desperately important to him? How did it happen so suddenly? How had something as simple and tacit as a heartbeat, someone else’s heartbeat, become more vital to his survival than his own?

“A part of me wants to run,” Charles whispers, letting his thumb stroke the middle knuckle of Arthur’s first finger, up and down over the point of it. “Run and not look back. Return to...not caring.”

With a soft breath, Arthur shifts, and his fingers curl into his own palm, trapping Charles’ in the middle. A huff, looking up at him again, and Charles’ lips move. Not a smile, not really close, but Arthur would recognise it as one anyway, seeing far more beneath his expressions now than most ever have.

Maybe he should expect the miraculous, after everything they’ve been through.

“It’s almost frightening. How much I feel. Feelings I’ve never felt,” he says plainly, thumb resuming its stroking of Arthur’s knuckle. “Sometimes I want to run from it. Go back to being alone. But, I was wrong before.”

Mouth dry, he swallows. Unstoppers his throat. “It didn’t keep me safe. It just...kept me alone. And I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

He sighs, and lets his sincerity be, feeling it hanging in the air around the wagon. It’s not in his nature to be embarrassed, not exactly; honesty comes easy to him, often being accused of too much rather than the opposite. When he speaks, he does so simply, if he can, and yet Charles is unused to voicing so much feeling in the first place. There’s very rarely been anyone to listen. Arthur does though. Charles always feels heard by Arthur. Even sleeping, so deep in his own sickness, Charles somehow doesn’t feel ignored.

“I’m a fool,” he mumbles, and shuts his eyes again, Arthur’s thigh warm against the top of his head. A long and weary exhale, and Charles waits for the pang of upset to pass, the foundations keeping him steady to stop quaking, and though he can hear the words he wants to say in his head, the three words he’s become more sure of than he’s ever been of anything, he saves them for another time. Needs to believe there’ll be another time. That Arthur will wake. That he’ll come back to him.

“I don’t want to be alone anymore, if I can be with you instead,” he whispers, and leans slightly forward, lifting their joined hands. “So...get better. Because you’re stuck with me.” Tentative, he presses a kiss to Arthur’s fingers, clasped snugly in his, before gently resting his arm back on the bed.

Gradually, his thumb slows. It’s been over 24 hours since he last slept, and the exhaustion of the past day weighs heavily on him, mind just as drained as his body. He sinks into sleep, folded over, half on the floor and half on Arthur’s cot, Arthur’s hand in his.

The next he knows, Miss Grimshaw is clearing her throat behind him, peeking around one of the fabric sheets shrouding Arthur’s wagon. Sunlight streams in, a bright wedge cut into the grass and over Charles’ hunched figure.

He picks up his head with a soft inhale as he wakes, and catches the tail of her polite apology as she enters the space, haggard face pale and tight. Her hair has come loose from her high pompadour, a few errant curls hanging around her shoulders, a rare show of disarray, by Susan’s own standards.

“He’s okay,” Charles murmurs, in reply to a question that wasn’t asked. Hesitating, he lets go of Arthur’s hand, and brushes his own hair back from where it’s fallen around his forehead, slowly clambering to his feet from the ground. His legs are still asleep. “Still breathing.”

Susan smiles, a wan, humourless thing, barely noticeable with the thin purse of her lips. “He’s a strong one, our Arthur,” she muses, terse and quiet, and simply stares for a moment at his still-sleeping body on the cot, expression unreadable.

Charles isn’t sure he remembers ever speaking to Miss Grimshaw for any length of time. She’s as fierce as she is protective, the personification of ‘tough love’, somehow both maternal and mercenary at once.

Her gaze flickers to him, and she clears her throat again. “Forgive me, Mister Smith, do- Do you need anything? Mrs Adler returned from Rhodes not long ago.”

Charles blinks, brushing off his breeches. It seems like he’s been made head nursemaid. Probably at his own stubborn, silent insistence. “Uh. Thank you, Miss Grimshaw. Is there water boiling? I’d...like to make him some tea.”

“Tea? I’m sure I can manage to make tea, sir.”

“For his fever. I’ve got some herbs. They’ll help.”

“Oh. W-Well, of course, I can have Miss Jackson bring some water-”

“No, I’ll go, thank you. I need to stretch my legs,” Charles says, shifting his weight on his aching knees.

Sleeping in such an odd position, even for just a few hours, wasn’t the best idea.

Miss Grimshaw nods, and her gaze drifts to Arthur again, eyes full of some emotion she can’t vocalise. Smoothing out the creases in her skirt, she sits again in the chair by the table, resuming her vigil.

“I’ll watch over him, Mister Smith,” she says, quiet. “You can be sure of that. Get some rest in the meantime.”

Charles doesn’t have the heart to tell her how much he vehemently does not want to leave Arthur, especially not to get more sleep. As if he could stomach languishing in his own bedroll while Arthur might be breathing his last. Instead, he says his thanks, and brushes his hair back again as he picks up his pack, parting the makeshift tent flaps.

“Oh- Mister Smith?”


Susan is looking at him, eyebrows pulled together, her wide cheeks seeming to sag with the weight of Arthur’s suffering, dark shadows beneath her eyes dragging her expression down. “Thank you,” she says, quiet. “For bringing him home.”

Momentarily still, Charles eventually nods, and pushes his way out of the tent.

The morning sun hits him like a slap. He squints, holding one hand up to the glare as his eyes adjust. It’s a warm summer day, hazy with heat and patchy cloud, the moisture from the lake rising into thick humid air. Despite the fair weather, a noticeable silence hangs over the camp, the rare few conversations kept hushed and whispered, like mourners at a funeral, congregating in black groups around a newly-filled grave.

For a place usually so lively, humming with background noise even when quiet, it’s eerie enough to seem transcendental, like the normal has been replaced by something otherworldly, the pastoral clearing beside the lake becoming somewhere unrecognisable.

He looks to Strauss’ wagon, and Trelawny grants him a polite tip of his hat as Charles begins to head through the camp, hoping to avoid as many of the others as possible, sure he’ll have to answer a thousand questions if he doesn’t.

At that moment, Mr Pearson appears, hustling into his field of view and wheezing like a church organ with woodworm. His face is sweaty and red, and by the looks of it, he hasn’t slept much either. Perhaps none of them have.

“Mister Smith- Mister Smith, I’m glad I caught you, how is he?” he asks, words knocking into one another with how quickly he tries to speak them.

“Alive,” Charles says, stubbornly frank.

“Oh- Oh good, that’s very good news, that’s better than the opposite, I’m so relieved, I am, I- I admit I was fearing the worst.”

“The worst may still come,” Charles says, and almost feels bad for how Pearson’s expression crumples, collapsing on itself like a half-filled sack. “Time will tell.”

“O-Of course,” Pearson says, morose.

He dabs at his forehead with the stained hem of his apron, letting out a long sigh. “I truly am so very sorry, Mister Smith, if I’d known- If I’d thought there was any danger, I- I’m a buffoon, sir, a rightly fool, and I will apologise to Mister Morgan at the very first opportunity. If you hadn’t gone-”

“Luckily, I did.”

“Yes. Yes, quite. I, uh-”

“It’s not your fault, Pearson.”

Expression caught, pinched in the middle of his brows, Pearson is silent for a long moment. Then he sighs, deflating. “Thanks, Charles,” he says, voice lower, less manic at least. “Thanks. I… I think I needed to hear that. You did a good thing, bringing him back.”

Charles shrugs, halfhearted. “He’d do the same for any of us.”

“Very true,” Pearson agrees, and nods to himself, heading back towards the chuckwagon, slow and solemn. “Very true.”

Watching Pearson go, Charles meanders through the camp, still strangely devoid of conversation. Even Cain seems affected by the mood, lying with his head on his paws in the shade of the great oak tree, tail still. His eyebrows pick up as Charles appears in his vision, watching him make his way through the tents, but nothing comes of it, and he harrumphs a sigh, like the weight of the world is on his narrow shoulders.

Since the stewpot is occupied, the main campfire has been repurposed into a boiler for a large cast iron pot of water, hanging from a frame above the pyramid of flames. The pot bubbles gently, simmering, thick plumes of steam rising with the humid air, and a few of the camp’s residents are sitting silently around it, as if answers can be found in the rolling fog.

Most of the others are absent, dotted randomly around the Point, from the inlet in the north to the wide woodland barring their secluded terrace from the rest of Scarlett Meadows in the south. Charles takes it as a good thing. The quicker he can get back to Arthur, the better he’ll feel, and that’s more likely if the others are distracted.

He waves politely to Tilly and Mary-Beth, who are sewing beneath their wagon canopy, and passes through Hosea’s lean-to, rifling through his own belongings for a tin mug and a tea strainer, before entering the circle around the campfire, everyone sitting just far enough from the fire to avoid the worst of the heat. Hosea is seated in a chair, sipping coffee, Lenny and Sadie sharing the log, while Karen sits on an upturned crate. Sean sits on the ground, and John is beside him, pulling up tufts of grass and throwing the ripped shreds towards the fire, brow furrowed in thought.

Murmuring a simple greeting into the mournful quiet, Charles kneels beside the fire, and removes a copper kettle from the bail hanger next to the pot itself, in lieu of a proper teapot. Pearson might boil him if he asked for a teapot, of all things. Cowboys and their coffee. The mere concept of tea is some kind of sin to most of them.

The group has likely been updated on Arthur’s condition by Hosea, and Charles is grateful for the lack of questions, silently wrapping his hand in a protective tea towel as he fills the kettle, to mind the burning steam. Nobody asks what he’s doing.

He searches through his pack, and brings out two bundles of plant matter, several sprigs tied together in each small bale. They’re weeds, tangled and dry, and thankfully not long picked, the stems a chaotic twist of buds and flowers, leaves still slightly furred in new growth. Careful, he breaks the plants into the kettle, a healthy handful of both wild four o’clock, with clustered purple flowers, and yellow gumweed, blooming with miniature suns. The former for fever, the latter for dehydration and healthy kidneys.

If there is something positive to be taken from spending so long alone, it’s how isolation forces knowledge, a working understanding of how to keep himself alive when potentially miles from civilisation. His mother had passed down generations of herbal medicine to him, even by the time she died, and Charles is sure he’d be a hundred times dead without it.

Swirling in the hot water, the flowers and leaves are left to steep, Charles sitting back on his heels out of the fire’s heat while he waits.


His head snaps up. Dutch is striding up to the circle, voice too jovial for the grim quiet.

“And ladies,” he adds, gesturing to Karen and Sadie, tipping the brim of his hat. No one else turns to look at him. It doesn’t seem to matter, and he holds his hands wide to all of them, cheerful and as plainly ignored as a politician giving a speech in a school.

“Well, I ain’t sure I’ve ever seen a sea of sourer faces,” he says, chuckling, high in his voice. “We’ve got something good down here! Fair weather, fair company, and no one will have thought to follow us down this wa-”

“When was you gonna tell us, Dutch?”

Dutch’s voice is cut off as if shut in a drawer. His hands hang awkwardly in front of him for a second, before they fall, and he shifts his gaze to John, narrowing his eyes. “What was that, son?”

John stares back at him, fingers still ripping up the grass. “When was you gonna tell us? That Arthur was missing?”

The workings of Dutch’s brain are plain on his face, and he shifts his weight, crossing his arms over his red silk waistcoat like a robin’s red breast, features tightening into the aquiline intensity of a Roman statue. “My dear boy, Arthur wasn’t missing-”

“Right,” Sean chirps, brandishing one hand, “‘Cause he was f*ckin’ kidnapped, Dutch.”

Gaze flicking over, Charles almost expects Hosea to cuff Sean’s ear - he’s seen him do worse for less - but Hosea simply looks up over his coffee mug, seemingly letting the impudence slide. His face is heavy, like tiny sandbags are dragging the skin down underneath his eyes, haggard like a whorl in tree bark.

“Mind who you’re speaking to, Mister Macguire,” Dutch growls, voice slipping low.

“But he ain’t wrong, Dutch,” Karen says, plaintive, expression bobbing anxiously between annoyance and upset. “It ain’t bad manners to ask what went on. Arthur-” She huffs, belying her emotion, turning her eyes down to the floor. “I ain’t seen many men look like that and still be breathing.”

Again, the others simply look at Dutch, a crowd of pigeons waiting for a morsel of bread, silently agreeing with every word said. Dutch looks back at them. He takes a second just to blink at the group, and then restarts whatever motor is keeping him running, churning back into motion.

“Arthur is going to be fine,” he says briskly, convincing as salesman patter. “He is here now, and he is safe-”

John scoffs, and throws a handful of grass shards at the fire. “You get a good look at him?” he asks, voice wheezing with how forceful it is, buzzing like a hornet in a jar. “You said he was runnin’ errands!”

Bristling, Dutch simply stares at him, face like a shard of flint. “Now, I-”

“Now, turns out he didn’t show up after your meetin’ at all! You didn’t think that was strange, Dutch? A meeting with Colm O’Driscoll and you don’t think it’s strange Arthur goes missing?” John demands, anger infectious, smouldering in all of them.

All eyes stick to Dutch, like a group of schoolchildren being reprimanded, complicitly quiet and refusing to give up the guilty one among them, defiant in their silence.

John isn’t finished. “In them mountains, back after Blackwater, you sent Arthur and Javier to find me after- How long?”

“Two days,” Hosea mumbles, grave, low in his voice.

“Two days! But we was just- Sittin’ here, for near five, while Arthur was bein’ tortured!”

“He ain’t no fool neither,” Sadie chips in, shaking her head. “He knew somethin’ was up ‘fore he even left. They’d’ve killed him, no doubt. If Charles hadn’ta gone for him…”

There’s a murmur of agreement. Charles stares at the kettle, expression deliberately empty, shut tight like the gate into a graveyard.

“I- All due respect, Dutch,” Lenny says, and looks guilty for it before he’s even started, gaze downcast. “If we’d known the situation, we coulda decided it sounded wrong and… Gone to find him sooner. Saved some of this from happening.”

“He’s a sour old prick, but- He’s our sour old prick. He’s our Arthur. Y’all came to get me when I was wit’ them bounty hunters,” Sean adds, frowning. “Not that I couldn’ta handled it-”

“That is enough!”

Dutch is breathing hard, expression like a thunderclap. His nostrils flare, and he has to visibly rein himself in, eyes shut for a moment as he breathes, face ruddy like a varnished apple, like his blood pressure is about to pop.

Caught in the middle, pressed against the oppressive heat of the fire and the tension trembling in everyone, Charles simply listens, and watches the pot of tea, as if willing it to swallow him.

He agrees, of course he does, and the proud thrill of vindication is a sweet feeling, but it niggles at him too. It’s not just him seeing Dutch’s glaring error, the abject lack of any critical thinking whatsoever. Whereas before he might have been able to convince himself it was his own affection for Arthur that was clouding his judgement, now it’s obvious - the others noticed too. Which makes it all the more difficult to understand, and all the more concerning.

“Now, I admit,” Dutch starts, voice thin as a knife edge, hands held palms forward. Placating. “Micah and I, we didn’t predict this happening. I admit that. And when we acted, it was ignorant of the fact we hadn’t predicted that outcome.”

That’s not an apology, Charles thinks to himself. He peers surreptitiously inside the kettle.

“Arthur ended up hurt, and I am truly, deeply upset by it. But it shows, more than ever, that some people in this world don’t deserve forgiveness. I see that. Colm O’Driscoll? He don’t deserve bein’ treated like he’s a sane, or rational individual! This proves he ain’t!”

John blinks like an owl who’s been woken up in the middle of the day, both confused and annoyed. Glances at Hosea. “I don’t get what that has to do with Arthur-”

“No, you don’t,” Dutch says, sharp.

He starts to pace. A few steps to each side, brandishing his hands, jerking like a wooden puppet. “You don’t get what this shows us movin’ forward! You don’t get that we represent everything Colm, these Pinkertons, and all else that’s chasing us, we represent everything they fear.”

Gesticulating still, he turns, and paces to the other side of the circle. “We’re gonna see tough times, I promise you that, and we seen it here with poor Arthur. Sometimes, we make mistakes. We are just humans, fallible, and imperfect, that is true. But if we stick together, if we stay tight now… Now is not the time for doubters.”

“Ain’t nobody doubting, Dutch,” Hosea says wearily.

“I care,” Dutch snaps, voice cracking wildly. “About all of you. All of you! Like my own kin.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Charles sees Sean share a glance with John. Dutch doesn’t notice, turning on his heel and pacing some more, orbiting the group in a half-circle, like a shepherd dog corrals sheep.

“Don’t none of you ever doubt that. I ain’t never gonna leave you, John. Nor you Sean, young Lenny, Miss Jones. Not you neither, Mrs Adler! No one here. And I ain’t never left you Hosea. Arthur knows that. Knowing that… Relying on that- That’s paradise. And together we have it.”

For a few moments, the only sound is the simmering water, trickling inside the pot. Nobody is looking at each other, conspicuously avoiding eye contact, and Charles is sure the tea has steeped enough by now but doesn’t dare make to leave, not trusting what he’d do if Dutch decided to call him out on his ‘doubting’.

Dutch finishes his walk-by a short distance from John, and looks down at him, capturing attention as intensely as if it’s a private audience, despite the multiple pairs of eyes on him. His hands come to rest on his belt, pushing his chest out, exaggerating the already stark difference in height between him standing and John sitting on the ground six feet below.

“Do you understand, son?” he asks, and John seems powerless to look away, caught in whatever snare Dutch sets in every speech, fixed to his eyes.

“I guess...”

“No, not ‘you guess’,” Dutch hisses, suddenly spitting like a cobra. He throws his hands. John’s teeth clack together as he shuts his mouth. “Guessin’ is doubt. Doubt is the end. We got no time for doubters! ‘Yes, Dutch’.”

For a second, Charles can only see John as he would have been when he first met Dutch. How old was he? Thirteen? Younger? The same age as he himself was when he left his father. From the weary familiarity in John’s expression, worn-in like old leather, a pattern of behaviour is recognisable. Maybe they’re so used to it, nobody notices anymore. He’s sure the same can be said for Arthur.

To Charles though, the interaction is just another cause for concern, digging uncomfortably in his head like boring yellow jackets, thrumming with anxiety.

He wants to get back to Arthur.

Dutch snaps again. “Say it!”

Seeming to deflate with his exhale, John flares his nostrils, looking for a second at the fire. The air strains with the heavy weight of unspoken voices, creaking, a vicious and palpable silence over all of them, like the moment before an earthquake. Then his gaze slides back to Dutch, chin tipped up, a miniscule gesture of defiance. “Yes. Dutch.”

Nodding, Dutch keeps his stare for a while longer, and his expression softens into something close to care, greasy like melted lard. “It’s hard,” he says, lilting. “I know it’s hard. But together…” His hands come up, and he addresses the whole group. “Together! We can achieve beautiful things... Alone? We’re sickly bison… Waiting on the wolves.”

Satisfied, he lets his hands drop, and nods once more before turning, and leaving the campfire. No one moves until the shining buttons on the back of his waistcoat have disappeared from view, like every one of them is holding their breath, striving to break the surface of the water.

Charles clears his throat, quiet. He checks on the tea. Getting to his feet, he brushes grass from his knees, and carefully picks up the kettle, hesitating for a moment before making to leave. “Excuse me,” he mutters to the assembled silence.

Heading back towards the other side of the clearing, Charles catches Sean’s incredulous voice, rising from the campfire. “Did that make no f*ckin’ sense to anyone else, or is it just me?”

“Mister Smith!”

Miss Grimshaw appears around the side of Arthur’s wagon. Her hand holds up her skirts. “Mister Smith! What took you so long? I think he’s- Oh, just, come and see.”

Already fearing the worst, Charles hurries to the wagon tent behind her, and steps into the dim candlelight inside. The lanterns cast irregular shadows, highlighting the gaunt hollows of Arthur’s cheeks, the bags beneath his eyes, and dancing as he shudders and rolls, caught in what looks like a nightmare.

“I daren’t wake him,” Miss Grimshaw says, and stands back as Charles sets the kettle and mug down on the bedside table, giving him space to go to Arthur’s side. He kneels on the ground by the cot again, and takes Arthur’s hand.

Somehow he’s managed to tangle the blanket down around his feet and half on the floor, tossing and turning in bed, shivering violently. His clean union suit is dark with sweat patches, breath running away from him as whatever he’s dreaming about takes hold, brows knit together.

“Here.” Miss Grimshaw soaks one of the washcloths in the cold water basin by the bed, and wrings it out before passing it to Charles, who folds it across Arthur’s forehead.

“Arthur,” Charles says, soft but firm. “Arthur, I-” He hesitates, feeling Susan’s presence far more keenly than he had Hosea’s. “I’ve got you. You need to wake up.”

As if on cue, Susan averts her gaze, and clears her throat. “I’ll leave you with him, Mister Smith,” she says, polite as always. “Holler if… If you need us.”

“Thank you, Miss Grimshaw,” Charles replies, and squints as the sun is let in for a moment as she leaves, dazzled by the light.

To his side, Arthur groans, panting all the more. His head turns, thrashing on his thin pillow, and Charles squeezes his hand, the other holding the cold cloth on his brow.

“Arthur, wake up. It’s just me. You’re okay.”

A whimper, Arthur kicking his blanket. “Arthur,” Charles repeats, insistent, squeezing his hand hard. “Arthur, wake up. You’re okay, I’ve got y-”

With a gasp, Arthur startles awake, wide-eyed and instantly terrified, kicking his heels on the cot. His free hand comes up to his chest, protective, and he blinks blindly in the dim light, gaze in all directions.

A short burst of horror, and Charles realises there’s no white left in his eyes. There’s only red, spider-like and angry, like his eyeballs have been boiled and smashed back into his head, leaving only a florid garish pulp in their place. Embedded in the sticky white pallour of his face, they’re even more horrifying. “Hey, shh- Shh, I’ve got you. It’s just me. It’s Charles.”

Charles gently strokes over his hand, kneeling up into Arthur’s field of view, perching on the edge of his cot. His shot eyes flicker rapidly, muscles twitching, unable to focus on anything, and still he heaves for breath, face alive with fear. “It’s me,” Charles says again, tentative. “I’ve got you.”


His face is white. Slowly, his gaze settles on Charles, swimming unfocused in front of him, and recognition dawns like a new sunrise, cresting the horizon in a gold burst. “Charles,” he gasps, and his right hand appears on Charles’ cheek, clinging even as he trembles, desperate relief flooding his expression. “You- Charles…”

“Hi,” Charles whispers, and Arthur huffs a wan smile in reply, finally relaxing, hand hungry on his face as if to make sure he’s real, anxiously touching his hair, his cheekbone, his jaw. His breathing starts to even out, legs falling still in the crumpled blanket. “There… You’re okay. You’re safe.”

Blinking, Arthur tries to look around the makeshift tent, eyes slow with lingering drowsiness, with pain, throbbing in his head like a thousand hammers. He’s barely awake at all, drifting in the space between conscious and not, unable to truly process his surroundings, understand anything that’s happening or has happened. Fear rolls off him with the sweat, streaming down the parts of his chest not covered with bandages, sticking in his hair, and he looks even less human than he did when asleep, pale and jerking, resembling something that’s been left outside for a decade, withered from sickness and neglect.

Charles simply strokes his deadened hand, rhythmic and reassuring, and settles beside him, unable to help how he stares at Arthur’s face, relief pinching his eyebrows together. That he’s awake, no matter how sleepy. No matter how he looks. That he’s alive.

Arthur’s agitated gaze flicks to him, and he stares back, hand falling to fist weakly in Charles’ shirt, holding his shoulder, fingers flexing, unable to keep still. “I’ve got you,” Charles whispers again, and squeezes his hand, voice wobbling with how he tries to keep it steady, heavy with emotion.

Faltering, Arthur wets his lips, and rasps Charles’ name again, starting to sink back into his pillow, the terror of the nightmare passing as easily as a breeze. His hand falls to the bed, sleep pulling, beckoning, until something else stirs, and he looks up at Charles again, breath hitching.

“It’s a trap,” he rasps, pulling weakly at Charles’ hand, fumbling, needing him to understand. His red eyes widen, sunk in like welts within his skull, like someone has replaced his eyeballs with ripe tomatoes, and crushed them for good measure, swollen and twitching. “S’a trap, Charles- Dutch… Dutch can’t-”

He takes a jarring breath, panic flaring again as memory resurfaces, blinking, scattered and shivering. “Dutch gonna… Law’s waitin’- Can’t come-”

“Shh... “ Charles hums, stroking the cloth back over Arthur’s forehead, soothing the sweating heat of his fever. “It’s okay. You’re home now. Everyone is safe.”

“Dutch- I-”

“Dutch is safe, Arthur. You’re safe.”


Arthur suddenly frowns, and if possible, his face seems to pale even further, what little colour he has draining from his face like diluted ink, swirling out of him in a wash. “I’m...”

“You’re okay.”

“I’m- Gonna be sick-”



Barely moving in time, Charles grabs for the nearest container he can see, pushing an empty water pail Tilly had brought in into Arthur’s way as he vomits over the side of his cot.

He sits, frozen on the floor, and holds the bucket for him, Arthur’s hands white-knuckled on the edge of his mattress and trembling so hard his chin knocks the metal pail, teeth chattering together as he retches, loud and ugly.

It lasts a few minutes. Charles shushes his groans and grating whimpers, unable to do much else but wait, the bucket weighed down in his hold, trying to avert his eyes to the middle distance, grant Arthur some modicum of privacy as he empties his stomach in front of him.

Once it’s over, Arthur simply crumples back to the bed, tears streaming down his cheeks with the effort, skin so pale his veins make him look like a wheel of blue cheese, criss-crossed with sickly colour. He groans, chest fighting for air. His eyelids are barely open.

Charles takes a breath.

He sets the bucket aside, and kneels up to replace the cold cloth on Arthur’s forehead, watching how his eyelashes flutter with the respite from his fever. Another cloth is wrung out and used to wipe his face, as gently as possible, and finally discarded with the bucket to be washed, leaving his skin damp but clean.

“There,” Charles says softly, and rests his hand on Arthur’s forehead to press at the cloth, brushing his fingers through his hair while he’s there. “Better.”

“Mhm,” Arthur grunts, already halfway asleep, frowning deeply.

“You good?”

“Mm,” he hums, breathy, as if it was meant to be a chuckle but the energy wasn’t there to fulfil it.

“I know,” Charles says, stroking through his hair, greasy with grime and days of neglect. He doesn’t much care. Arthur’s beautiful to him. “But I’ve got you. You’re safe now.”

Keeping contact with Arthur’s hand, Charles manages to pour a mug of tea one-handed, filtered through the strainer to remove any clumps of leaves or flowers, and then helps Arthur lean up enough to drink it before sleep takes him completely, keeping his trembling fingers steady. Arthur wrinkles his nose at the taste, and doesn’t comprehend when Charles explains what it’s for, but enjoys the low rumble of Charles’ voice all the same, a comfort somehow. Soothed, he slowly sips more than expected before needing to lie down again, helpless to try and stay awake against the pull of his exhaustion.

The mug is left beside him on the table, and a canteen of water too, and by the time Charles turns back to him, he’s drifting back to sleep, tucked beneath his blanket, and holding Charles’ hand.

i stop somewhere waiting for you - Chapter 1 - anderfels (2024)
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