Retrospect was something Jack had a hard time grasping.
But finally understanding the truth was something he didn't want to grasp.
Because when he saw his father get off that horse, face him, look at him as if he was going to break if he even touched him the way a father should've, he knew that the past they had couldn't have been part of a book—no, it really couldn't have, not even when he greeted Ma, not even when he looked at her for the first time in however many months, in a way he dreamed of. There was that fine air of hesitancy around him, bleeding through the hunch in his shoulders and the veins in his hands, making Jack believe that John Marston Senior was indeed a man, not just a father.
The hushed voices in the other room should've been music to his ears, but they weren't. Those cracks in the walls were too big, anyway.
One, two, three: Five shards of glass, and the first had pricked his foot faster than he expected. Farm life had resumed as it had before, but Jack read the pages of his book, like the blanks had more content than the scrawl, and the summer heat had sweat clinging to him, no less desperate than how he perfected the image of a father at nights. He was happy, he was happy, he should've been damned happy: He had his Ma, his Pa, their little farmstead, and he even admitted that the Uncle wasn't too bad. They were all anticipating to live that normal life that had nothing to do with Uncle Dutch and Bill and waiting quietly at dusk for the team to drag in a stagecoach filled with bills. Hell, he also had Rufus snuggling at the foot of his bed.
All he needed was to grow up and be a man.
And maybe that enticement had made him realize that he heard too much, seen too much.
Most likely, it had been his fault; he didn't remember, but it was. He wanted a father; he wanted a man to teach him where to take the next step. But most of all, he wanted a man to make his mother happy, to see her smile, anything to take away that clench of restraint during their time under the federal government's control. He was never religious, but he had prayed for his father to show up one day on his mount, go up to their front step, and make them happy.
John Marston was going to make them happy.
He had promised to make them happy.
And he was making Jack happy. He was: He tried his best, did all the things a father was supposed to do, most likely spoiled him rotten, with the entirety of his rebuttals softer than most fathers gave to their sons. He had never realized that a father made the world not so cynical and hurtful, just by patting him on the shoulder when a shotgun was hoisted over his shoulder for the first time. That roughness of his Da's palms was soft in their movements, sure as it guided him in taking down a legendary grizzly.
And yet, when it all came down see how many bullets were left at his feet, he couldn't help but clench his fists.
Because what made a man? What made a father? Was a father supposed to look at him with eyes that melancholy, regardless of the hope they had? Was a father supposed to have fear he never voiced in front of his own family? Was a father supposed to give a broken smile that they could condone? Was a father supposed to give him the world, yet want nothing back in return?
Was a father supposed to spin a lie into truth?
And yet …
"We'll be fine," he suddenly heard, the gruff tone silencing his protests. It was at this crucial time that he wanted to question that authority, to push away from the smell of cigarettes and moonshine, to oppress that aggravating need to hold onto his father's shirt even more. "We'll be fine, son. We ain't like was in the past." A sigh breezed past his ears. "I promise."
He said nothing, because if he spoke, he tore himself out as a traitor—anger was supposed to consume him; raw, cold, bitter anger mixed with the highest dosage of nostalgia. If he spoke—God, if he spoke—through the fog of frustration and despair, he was going to break: break into relief, to sag against the warmth of his father's chest as that gloved hand would cradle his head. He was a man; a man wasn't supposed to sob like an army widow and depend on anyone. A man was supposed to—"
"You know why?"
"Because you're my boy."
That was why he stood there in stillness, a moist haze marring his vision as he clutched onto his father for dear life under the tree he found comfort in; that is why he asked not what a man was, but what a man who was his entire world became. There were too many questions he wanted answered, too many riddles clogging his mind, but he could say no more in that strong hold at dusk, with his senior proving his silence to speak louder than anything; his previous contemplations turned into ash. It was at this moment that he was that little boy holding his pa's hand in the mud and rain; it was at this very second that he forgot about ever thinking back on everything as he dropped his book and let the dam break fast.
"Because I got you."
And that was more than enough.