V Highwayman

Arthur Morgan

Pass Into Myth
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“Well, if it isn’t Dutch’s chained sally!”

If the long black dusters and general scruffiness hadn’t been enough to identify a couple of Colm O’Driscoll’s boys riding over the distant craggy ridge, that Irish lilt would’ve been a dead giveaway.

Gunshots and the sound of hoofbeats thundering toward him rang in his ears, followed shortly by much whooping and hollering. Arthur drew his horse up short in the middle of the road he'd been traveling down with a tug of her reins, the animal under him protesting and dragging her hooves in the dirt, hurling her weight around to let her rider know about the fast-approaching danger.

Arthur cursed as his horse threatened to startle out from under him, legs antsy and quivering like a filly’s, but he didn’t have the time to calm her beyond a solid pat to the side of her neck. There were three O’Driscolls riding up on them, guns drawn, and he sighted at least four more stirring along the boulders that made up the jagged outcropping of Citadel Rock; he’d need to act fast if he wanted to make it out of this alive, and he needed to act now.

He fought once more to get his horse back under control, but the Appaloosa still had that wild blood in her. A bullet whizzed past, streaking across the dirt in front of them, and she let loose with an agitated shriek— eyes rolling in her skull ‘til the whites flashed in his direction, looking for all the world like death itself were coming for them and not a few scum-sucking morons.

Thinking quickly, Arthur slid from the seat of his saddle in a second, drawing his repeater as his boots thumped against the ground.

“Git on!” he barked, swatting at her flank and dropping into a run, diving for a nearby huddle of rocks.

The decision was easy to make. He couldn’t risk losing Turnip— there was a fairly flawless pronghorn buck strapped to her, one that might make for some fancy new table covers in addition to a mighty fine stew back at camp if Pearson was willing, and little Jack’d be devastated if the horse he helped name got shot, odd as the moniker of Turnip was. He didn’t want this particular horse in the middle of all this; ‘sides, he could handle a few O’Driscolls.

“Don’t you fellers got anything better to do than skulk around here like a bunch’ve buzzards?” Arthur called out, ducking down behind cover as bullets struck the rock beside him. Chips of flinty stone sheared off, flying out to tear stinging scrapes across his cheeks and throat. He’d just drawn his pistol, ready to hump over the rock and blow some boy’s brains out, when a sly movement in his peripheral vision grabbed his attention. Pistol raised, Arthur turned his head—

The O’Driscoll’s full weight slammed into him like a stampeding bull, bowling him over into the dirt and flinging his pistol from his grip. He only had a second to get a good look at the other man’s features, a youngish green-eyed feller with dark brown hair and a wily face, before a fist was being hurled straight for his nose.

Grunting, Arthur tugged his knife from his belt and thrust it blindly at the man sitting atop him, just as the kid had leaned forward to try choking him out.

It was, and Arthur felt this deeply in his soul, a surprise to both of them when the blade clipped the kid’s nose off like a goddamn chopped carrot.

Arthur stared, the sliver of severed flesh bouncing off his buckskin vest and disappearing in the red-colored dust they’d kicked up with their wrestling, never to be seen again. The young man yowled, clapping a hand over the wound, sanguine red leaking between his fingers and dripping down his chin.

With nothing else to do, Arthur busted out laughing.

“Shit,” he said, then looked up at this man with a grotesque, bleeding hole in the middle of his face, hell and horses and gunfire descending all around them, blood seeping through where the O’Driscoll had his fingers cupped over his face, actually giggled, and said, “Got yer nose, you sonuvabitch,” and at that the noseless man raised his pistol and shot Arthur square in the head.

The bullet entered just under Arthur’s right eye socket, tore through his brain and shattered out from the back of his skull, pieces of scalp and bone spraying across the rock and the O’Driscoll in a grisly firework of gore. Arthur’s hat flew off. The knife plopped into his lap.

The body that was once Arthur Morgan persisted in staying upright for a moment more, stubborn as the man it belonged to, then sagged, tilted a little to the left, and smacked into the dirt.

——

Not even twenty minutes later, the body sat back up and groaned. Scrabbled around in the dirt for his hat with a mighty grumble. Whistled for his horse grazing out on a distant grassy knoll. Sighed as he discovered his prize pronghorn missing from her back, and $11 gone from his pocket.

——

Burying Jenny and Davey weren’t even the half of it. The past few months had been sunless and bitterly cold. Sometimes, when Arthur shut his eyes, he could still hear the ravenous howling of the blizzard, hear the thin slats of wood over the walls shudder and quake— letting in enough wind to chill them to the bone and bring up little Jack’s fever.

They’d finally managed to get that damned mountain at their backs, though the dismal memory of their stay at Colter continued to hang like a shroud over the gang’s heads.

It’d been hard on them all, especially Lenny who were a touch soft on the Kirk woman if Arthur’s suspicions were correct, but arriving at the Overlook seemed to put everyone back in good spirits. Having a home, even if just for a little while, settled something in the usually uneasy dynamic between Dutch’s big plans and Hosea’s common sense. Things weren’t quite mended between everyone after Blackwater, but this resting time gave folks the fortitude to heal. Besides, the Heartlands were sunny, green, teeming with game and birdsong. What more could a body ask for?

“—more money,” Arthur caught the tail-end of whatever Dutch had been saying, the man tapping out the butt of his cigar next to where Arthur’s hand rested on the table, the heady smell of tobacco thick in the air. Between them was a map of the region, faint pencil marks etched all along the railroads.

Hosea looked down at the map, grey-faced. It was real peculiar to Arthur, how just one bad job could turn a slightly achy man into an old one, but Hosea was still sharp as the crack of a whip, or so Arthur thought.

“It’s too risky right now, Dutch,” said Hosea, rubbing uneasily at the stubble on his chin. “You know that. We’ve just robbed a Leviticus Cornwall train, for Christ’s sake...”

Arthur lolled his head to the side, looking off and away in what he tried to pass off as contemplative silence. In reality, he had half an idea about taking Jack on a little fishin’ trip swimming around in his brain. Figured it’d do the boy’s health some good to get out and roam every once in a while...

That was the excuse Arthur was planning to muster up for Abigail, anyhow.

Of course, he couldn’t blame her for bein' cautious. What happened with John— anyone’d be shaken up about that.

(Javier probably hadn’t noticed it. But the way John was all scarred up… the claw marks on his face rested there, jagged and ugly, like a branding. Arthur’d felt the man tense up before the wolves had even crested the snow-covered hill and began their chase.

Holing up at Colter, Abigail’d confided in Arthur that her John looked wilder in the face. That he’d wake up in the middle of the night and howl something awful, like he was on fire, and that only placing some cool snow on his chest and neck would bring him back down from his nightly hysteria.

And at Horseshoe Overlook, Arthur himself began to notice some things about Marston, too. Like that his eyes glinted like a wild animal’s when the fire hit ‘em just right, fearful and bright as the moon. Arthur wasn’t the type for staring into other folk’s eyes, but there was something different about John, now that they were down from the bitter cold of the mountains.

Something not quite right.)


It was as Arthur was deep in thought that the folds of a skirt bustled into view in front of him, snapping him from his reverie. Dutch and Hosea promptly fell silent.

“Mr. Morgan,” Susan Grimshaw said, a quirk of humor to her stern mouth. Her keen green eyes looked the other two men over from head to foot, then, and a decidedly dainty sniff colored her tone. “Gentlemen.

Dutch grinned, already beginning to puff up into his showman persona, though he knew damn well Susan’d see clear through it. Arthur s’posed that was what it was like sometimes, between folks who’d known each other for so long that the lines separating friends and kin became irreversibly blurred.

“Ms. Grimshaw, looking beautiful as ever, I see!" Dutch said, extending a hand— like the man expected her to place hers in it for a kiss, or somethin' equally ridiculous. "How are the ungrateful masses holding up?”

Grimshaw shot him an unimpressed look.

“If you must know, Pearson is boiling heads in the stew cooker again. Something about hanging damned animal skulls around here for ‘decoration’. You’d best tell him to finish up and scour those pots well, Dutch, or we’ll all be picking fur out of our teeth for days,” she huffed, crossing her arms. Her eyes flicked to Hosea. “And Abigail’s wondering when you’ll resume Jack’s reading lessons, Mr. Matthews. Since we’re settled, I’d imagine there’s plenty of time to pick up where you left off. And you.”

Arthur winced as Grimshaw turned all her tender attentions on him. “You need to wash up, Arthur Morgan, just look at you!”

“Now, Miss Grimshaw…” He hadn't had much time to clean up before heading back to camp, true, but he’d tried. Despite his protests, though, the frightening woman seized his arm and began hauling him over to a nearby water barrel. Arthur looked back, briefly, to see that Dutch and Hosea appeared just as much diminished by Susan’s tirade as he felt.

Susan handed him a small flake of soap and a rag, then doused her own rag in water, clearly intending to help. “You’ll make us all sick, Mr. Morgan, wandering around camp like... that. What is all this mess, blood? It’s like you went and hired on at a butcher!”

“It’s nothing like that. Just out hunting, ran into a little trouble,” Arthur drawled, sheepish. He distracted himself by working up a lather to rub down his shoulders with. Should've just tossed the whole shirt away, as covered in blood as it was. He couldn’t rightly recall what had happened on the road to cause this, just that he’d been jumped. Strange...

The sour-faced matron huffed, scrutinizing Arthur’s blood-encrusted hair. She lifted off his hat to get a better idea of where to start, but paused as a glimpse of sunlight showed through the dark material. Curious, she turned the hat over in her hands for a long moment, sticking a finger through a small, rounded gap in the hat’s crown. A bullethole.

“A little trouble?” asked Grimshaw, a strange note in her voice drawing Arthur’s attention just as he’d finished scrubbing the muck from his hair.

“Yeah,” said Arthur, setting down the soap and taking his hat back. He felt uncomfortable all of a sudden without the familiar weight on his head, like his skull’d be liable to float off his body if he weren’t careful. Replacing his hat on his head with a firm tug, Arthur shot her a wry grin. “Nothin’ to worry about, Miss Grimshaw. I’m back, ain’t I?”

“That you are, Mr. Morgan,” the matronly woman said gruffly, all business once more. She handed her washrag over with a little more force than necessary, turning to bustle off. “And keep yourself out of trouble for once, won’t you? This gang can’t afford to lose anyone else, not after all we’ve been through.”

Arthur tipped his hat at her retreating back, all traces of mirth gone from his face. “Un’erstood.”

The sunny clearing of Horseshoe Overlook abruptly felt much colder, like a remnant of Colter shadowing over him still. Shrugging his shoulders to ward off the sudden chill, Arthur walked over to his tent, settled in on his cot for a bit of shut-eye. His eyes roved over the photographs pinned on the wagon his canvas tent was propped against, not really seeing them.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that somethin' had happened on that dust-littered road he’d woken up on, knew that it would likely bother him for days to come. But for now, things were calm. Peaceful. He could rest a while, and the world could go on spinning whichever way it wanted.

Arthur leaned back and shut his eyes.
 
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