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Eyes in the Branches

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It was barely three in the morning when Abigail stumbled from her tent towards the tree line. Her stomach churned with heavy discomfort as she leaned against a tree and heaved the contents of last night’s dinner from her stomach. The feeling burning her throat and causing her stomach to churn harsher than before. There was nothing left in her stomach, but it didn’t stop her stomach from trying to push whatever through her throat.

She gasps and leans against the tree, beads of sweat pearling on her brow, as she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.

Someone reaches for her, and she looks over to see Annabel looking concerned. She’s silent, knowing neither of them wanted to wake the men or Ms. Grimshaw. Annabel guides her back to her tent, allowing Abigail to sit among of her bed covered in furs. Abigail watches as Annabel pulls vials and roots from wooden boxes. Ginger root was pulled and shredded with a blade; freshly sharpened with a handle made from elk bone.

Its blade is thin, but a few inches long with the purpose to be easily concealable. She watches as Annabel places the herbs in a mortar and pestle.

“How long have you been feeling sick?” she adds a few drops of water within the porcelain bowl.

“I don’t know. A few weeks.” The smell of ginger with ginseng and mint overpowers both of their senses but Annabel doesn’t seem bothered by the strong scent.

“When did you last… you know.” She pulls one of her camp spoons and handed them to Abigail. “When did you last have sex?”

Abigail paused in her motions. It was a few weeks ago, and she’s been trying to get close to John (in more ways than one). They’ve been so busy with moving around from town to city to state, that privacy wasn’t an option.

“I don’t know. A few weeks.”

“How long has it been since you’ve bled?”

Abigail sits and thinks hard about it. She thought it was just stress, so she didn’t worry about it. But now it’s starting to make sense.

“Oh, God. Anna…”

“First eat what I gave you, it’ll help with the upset stomach.”

She eats her spoonful of paste, making a face as the overpowering taste of mint sitting at the back of her mouth.

“Why so much mint?”

“Helps with breath.” Annabel kneels in front of Abigail, her hands on the younger woman’s knees.

“Did I wake you?”

“Kind of, but it’s okay. I was about to get ready for a hunt.” Abigail looks down at her hands, unsure of what to do in the moment. It’s still dark out, but the sun would be rising within the hour or so and with the July heat hitting everyone hard, it’s no wonder she wanted to rise before the sun.

“What do I do?” Annabel sighs, pushing herself up to sit next to Abigail. She holds her hand between her own.

“I’m not sure. I’ve never had to deal with this, but… I think the first question is whether you want to keep the child or not?”

“Of course, I want to keep the child. How could you even ask that?” Annabel raises a brow as Abigail seethes at her. She would yell and scream because how could someone ask her that? Why would she ask her that?

“For many reasons. The life we live isn’t safe or stable for a child, and you’re young. On top of it, do you even know who the child’s father would be?”

Abigail sat there in silence, her body burning hot from the news. It was settling in now, the idea that there could be a child within her belly. She sits there with her palm pressed to her stomach, her mind reeling more and more as she continued to think about it.

“You’re in your head, I can hear your thoughts.” Annabel was far to kind to her, Abigail noticed. Her hands rubbed circles over her shoulder blades, a soft humming sound came from her throat. “Do you know?”

“John’s.” her voice was barely a whisper, but Annabel made a face before she could hide her own thoughts.

“Oh, gods…” she sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose in concern.

“Why do you make is sound so terrible that he’s the father?”

“Because he’s irresponsible and a child.” Annabel looks down at the ground, thinking about what was going to happen once this gets out. “But I could be wrong. He might step up if you tell him.”

They sat in silence, Abigail’s hand on her stomach as Annabel leaned forward on her thighs.

The sun rises and shines through the tents opening, leaving the two of them basking in the warmth of the sun and the cold silence.

.-.-.

John didn’t react to the announcement well.

It started off a rather quiet day, Annabel skinning rabbits that she had collected from her traps as Pearson chopped up the wild carrots that she brought home from her morning hunt. There was a playful banter between them as she cubed the gamey meat and threw into a wooden bowl to be seasoned.

“Maybe we should get you out there with a bow or a rifle and get you to come back with meat instead of complaining that there’s never any food.” He chuckles, even though he crinkles his nose.

“The day you get me out hunting, is the day we eat a feast.”

“Of market bought game.” She bites back, flashing a amused smirk towards Pearson, who merely shook his head with a chuckle rumbling from his chest.

He goes to rebuttal; something weak most likely, but the moment his mouth opens, John’s voice echoes through the camp.

“That’s bullshit, Abigail!”

“Don’t be a fool, John! I should know who’s the father! I’m the one making the damn child!”

Annabel puts her knife down, a heavy sigh leaving her nose as she cleans her hands of the blood. “Oh, boy…”

“Did she just say child?” Pearson comes to Annabel’s side, peaking around her to watch the two young adults argue and yell at each other.

“Yes.”

“She’s pregnant?” she groans this time, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll go calm them down.”

The yelling and the raging energy that swirled around the two was unbearable, a lingering and heavy aura that felt like she was being crushed by a rock. Her chest felt tight, but she still pushed through to the eye of the storm, placing a hand on Abigail’s arm.

“You are insufferable, John Marston!” Annabel did her best to keep Abigail from reaching out to hit John, holding her back by her waist and trying to talk calmly in her ear.

“What in god’s name is goin’ on!?” Dutch and Arthur finally peered from the privacy of Dutch’s tent, the both of them bounding over to where John continued to yell at Abigail.

“She’s pregnant and she thinks it’s mine!” Abigail lunged at John, and Annabel nearly stumbled trying to hold her back.

“I know who the child’s father would be! And it’s you, Marston!”

They continued yelling until John grew fed up with the pitched screaming and mounted his mare and rode off. Abigail pushed herself from Annabel’s hold, cursing John’s name as she did so and ran to her small tent with tears spilling from her eyes.

Annabel was left in the middle of the camp, her eyes following Abigail as she shuts herself from the world around her.

“Well, it makes sense why she’s been throwin’ up.” Hosea commented, bookmarking his novel and placing it down on the rounded table.

“Should we send someone to go after John?” Annabel looked from Abigail’s tent to the forest line that protected their makeshift home.

“No, let them both cool off. They’re young and stupid, but they’ll soon enough have to grow up.”

Annabel huffs, placing her hands on her hips as Arthur stands next to her with his thumbs hooked into his gun belt.

“Well, that was eventful…” she looks over at him, a worried look furrowed into her brows.

“You know how John is.” He sighs, pulls a cigarette and a match from his satchel. “He’s hot headed, and dumb.”

“He’s young.” She mutters under her breath, running her hands over her face.

“You and John are the same age.” She looks over at him as he chuckles into his lit cigarette. She gaps, trying to hide her smile behind her futile bickering.

“Yes, but he’s still…” she laughs at this point, knowing full well that she wasn’t any better than he was. “He’s gonna have to get used to it, huh.”

“Yep.”

They stand next to each other in silence, watching the way the wind pushed through the leaves. She enjoys his presence whenever she’s around him, and she wish it wasn’t as rare as it was now. He goes day’s away from camp, running jobs with Hosea or scouting robbery’s with Bill and the Callander boys. He was working, constantly and coming back to camp in time for there to be leftovers from their nightly meals.

She sighs, soft and hopefully inaudible, leaning her body towards Arthur’s. He had a pull on her, she knew that and for some reason, she found that to be dangerous as well as exciting.

“Well, I should get back to making dinner.” She whispers, looking over at him as he finishes his cigarette and snuffing the remaining embers in the dirt below. “Will you be joining us tonight?”

“Most likely. Hosea and I are ridin’ out tomorrow morning to a city down south.”

“I’ll be sure to pack you some food for tomorrow.”

“That would be mighty nice.”

Silence lays down thick and awkward, his hand scratching the back of his neck and her bottom lip caught between her teeth.

“Okay.”

She walks off after that, not sure what to do next.

Gods, she felt like a child once again.

.-.-.

Her hunts were filled with an unsettling silence, her bow thrown over her shoulder with her arrows thrown into quiver. The morning was covering in dew and fog and the echoing bugles of elk. Turkeys gobble with the morning light, flapping their wings at the sudden movement that she caused.

She stayed kneeling behind the brush and trees, an arrow already nocked and her breath already settling low in her belly.

She sees a cow elk, grazing along the river line with her herd. The cow wanders farther from her herd to graze along the berry bushes, closer to where Annabel settled with her weapon.

She waited until the cow was settled, pulling at the hardy leaves as Annabel pulls the arrow back and lifts her body over the bushes.

She whistles and the cow’s head pops up right as she releases the arrow. The cow drops as the arrow sticks from its skull, and the heard goes running in a mild panic from the sound of a body dropping harshly.

She lets out a long, low whistle for Zander, who nickers and trots his way over to her. Strings of rabbits and pheasants were tied to the sides of her saddlebags, blood dripping from their open wounds.

She skinned the elk with deft fingers, pulling at the hide and cutting as much meat from the animal as she could. Meat was ripped from the hocks and shoulders, wrapped up neatly in a canvas cloth before she stripped the meat from the rips in small pieces, packing them the same way she did the hocks and shoulders.

Everything was packed and thrown onto Zander’s rump, and by the time she made it back to camp, the sun was high in the sky. Her hips rocked with the motion of Zanders canter, a hand resting along her thigh as she hummed a soft tune.

She trotted into camp and was met with Dutch calling for her. He had a man under his arm who tried to make himself seem small. He seemed quiet, but Dutch was boisterous as he dragged the man over to where Annabel stood, throwing small game over her shoulders.

“Anna, I want you to meet Javier.” He stood back, placing his hands out towards the man in some grand gesture. She could only smile softly, before placing the string of animals into the man’s arms.

“Nice to meet you, do you think you can take those to Pearson?” he watched, slightly wide eyed and unsure before looking down at the fresh animals, “I’ll meet you over there, don’t worry. He has no bark, let alone a bite.”

Dutch pulls the hide from Zander’s romp, a wide smile along his lips as they both walked towards Pearson’s wagon. “Where’d you find him?”

“I was stealing chickens.”

“You? Stealing chickens? Well, I’ll be…” she sets down her bow against the butchering table, a smile gracing her lips as she thanks Javier with a nod, “What’s his story?”

“Not sure, but he’s got potential.”

“He seems quiet.”

“Give him time, he’ll surely open up.”

Annabel hums as Dutch throws the hide down on the ground, before placing a soft hand upon her shoulders, “Maybe you can talk to him, I know how you and Annabelle used to play folk songs by the fire. Get to know him and,” he points a finger towards Bill, who laid down by the fire like a drunken fool, “keep him away from Bill.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Good.” He places a soft kiss upon her forehead, something that started to become common the longer she stayed within camp.

She did as she was asked, got to know the man that seemed rather skinny and feeble. He barely spoke any English, but both she and Hosea worked their way into helping him learn. It took some time, but he grew accustomed to the roll of English along his tongue.

It also helped that an older witch that Annabel learned from was from Mexico and taught her Spanish during the two years she ran with her before her death. She liked that woman; she was old but stronger than most in her age and wiser beyond her years. She told Annabel of the witch trials that occurred in Spain when her great grandmother was still a child. Her family has fled from there, hoping to find peace and solace within Latin America. She was a sweet lady, kind and willing to teach the young witch what she knew.

“Her name was Sofia.” She talks with Javier in his native tongue, shocking the both of them that she could even hold a conversation with each other.

She laid among her pile of furs holding a talisman that Sofia had given her. A hag stone tied up into a beaded necklace and blessed under the full moon and rushing rivers.

“Never forget that magic is laced with intentions. Don’t let the anger that resides in your belly, taint the good within your heart.”

.-.-.

The cold started to disperse and spring brought along a flourish of flowers and pollen.

Abigail was swollen, close to giving birth.

Annabel was worried; the way Abigail groaned in pain and would have to stay bed bound through most of the day because she wouldn’t be able to stand or do much for very long. Her fatigue was growing the bigger her belly grew and by early March, Annabel had a feeling that she would be due.

It was the middle of the night when Annabel woke in a cold sweat. Her light cotton chemise sticking to her sweat sheened body as she threw herself from her cot covered in furs and blankets. She kneeled into the ground, her fingers gripping the furs as she gasps for air.

Her nightmares are coming in harsher voids, her body taking a toll from the memories that she’s done her best to repress into the back of her mind.

She lets herself breathe, pulling the thinning cotton blanket from her cot to her shoulders before she heard a scream. It pierced through the camp, leaving a chill down her spine as she rushed from the comfort of her tent, her blanket now abandoned.

She forgot that she was barely covered, but at this point it didn’t matter when Abigail was wailing in pain.

“What’s going on?!” Annabel rushes over to where John and Ms. Grimshaw talk in rushed voices, Ms. Grimshaw looks at her with incredulous eyes. She was still dressed in her chemise, a thin sheen of sweat still covering her skin. “Where’s Abigail?”

A scream of pain pierced through the three of them, and Annabel pushed past them and into Abigail’s tent. She’s on her side, clutching her stomach and soaking her cot with sweat.

“Ms. Grimshaw!” Annabel placed a hand on the woman’s hip, feeling the way her skin scalds under her fingers and in that moment, she felt time freeze around her. She knew that magic is transferred from mother to child, but it’s rare to see a mother’s magic come from the creation of a child.

Abigail was a witch.

The aura was hot and thick, and she’s surprised how long it too her to notice that she was a witch. She screamed as another contraction hit her, and a surge of energy burst and shook the ground below Annabel. Maybe, that was her imagination since no one else reacted the same way she did.

“Oh, what do I do now…” she mumbles as Ms. Grimshaw comes in with a bucket of hot water and towels over her shoulders.

“How is she?”

“Her contractions are rather far apart, we’re gonna be here a while.”

Annabel heard the hushed voices of the men from behind the tent flaps, Dutch talking to John about how this was a big day for them. Uncle talked in drunken slurs, while Javier played a soft tune by the fire.

Abigail does her best to keep her voice quiet as her contractions hit her closer and closer together but as the morning sun rose and heated the dewy grass outside, her voice started to grow raspy and course with each contraction. Damp rags covered in blood were thrown out of the tent, Abigails wails only grew louder as the child’s head started to crown.

By the time evening came around, time stood still once Abigail’s last push brought the child into this world. The energy that burst was hotter than fire and it hit her like a wave of hot emotions that left her breathless and suffocated. Thank the gods Ms. Grimshaw was there to take the child with a linen white sheet, placing the small delicate infant onto the new mother’s chest.

“It’s a boy.” Ms. Grimshaw’s smile is wider than ever, excited at the prospect of a child within camp. Annabel can’t seem to find air within the fabric walls of the tent and pushes herself through the flaps and into the cool evening air.

She traveled down to the end of camp, sitting on a rotting log covering in overgrown moss. Annabel had to get her bearings straight, her head seemed far too fuzzy and drunk on the energy that cast a barrier around Abigail’s tent. It left her feeling tingly, her lungs constricted and the way it tied its way around her neck and pulled her into the essence that made Abigail a witch.

A witch… She couldn’t believe that Abigail was a witch. Of all the people in the world, it had to be the young mother. All she could do was scoff, pressing the heels of her palms into her eyes until she was seeing spots behind her lids.

A blanket is draped over her shoulders and she flinches just slightly at the contact. Fingers brushed over her shoulders, and she reached to pull the blanket closer to her body for warmth, though it’s not like she needs it with how feverish she feels.

She looked over her shoulder, watching as Arthur threw his legs over the leg to settle next to her. They reveled in the silence, letting the sun give them the last bit of warmth before it settled below the western horizon. The breeze that brushes over their bodies is refreshing and easily leaves Annabel dazed and exhausted.

Arthur scribbles in his journal, his pencil scratching at the thick paper. She knows he probably writing or sketching something, but she doesn’t peak, and she doesn’t talk.

She enjoys his company while she can, despite how distant he’s been.

.-.-.

 

A year passes and John breaks.

He’s tired, Annabel can tell. He’s got bags under his eyes, he’s snappier than usual (it’s left Annabel smacking him across the ear more than once) and it takes only one last push from Abigail for him to pack his shit and leaves.

He throws his saddlebags over his mare, a tired sigh pushes through his nose. Annabel is up, peaking through her tent at his commotion. He’s like a bull in a China shop, his heels stomping into the grass and his gun belt jingling with each step.

She slips through, a robe covering her body and all John could do was glare at her.

“You’re not gonna convince me to stay, are you?” she furrows her brow, crossing her arms and huddling into her body.

“John –,”

“I can’t do it, Anna.” He seethes, and she wonders what he means. “That child is not mine.”

“John –,”

“No, Annabel. Don’t even try –,”

“Would you let me speak.” She snaps, baring her teeth and snarling at him. “I’m not gonna try and convince you to stay, dammit. Just,” she runs a hand over her face, before taking soft steps over to Pearson’s wagon. “at least take some food with you.”

She pulls a canvas bag from the wagon, pulling canned foods and salted meats from crates for John. He watches her, confused with dissipating frustration.

“Why aren’t you stopping me?”

“Because it’ll only make it worse.” She ties the bag, holding it out to John as she walks him to his horse. “I’ve had a feeling for a while that you’d leave.

They stand in silence, John looking down at their feet, kicking some dirt with his toe. Annabel leans down to look up at him, a hopeful smile along her face. She wraps the robe tighter to her body once more, before placing a hand on his shoulder.

“May you find what you’re looking for, and may your soul find its way home.” He chuckles, his façade breaking for just the slightest moment.

“You still practicing that witchcraft shit?”

“It’s my way of life, John. I’ll never stop practicing.”

They stand like that, listening to the calmness of earth beneath their feet. Wolves howls, and owls hoot into the night. There are coyote yips that dance through the wind as they hunt their next meal. They simply enjoy their company before John sighs once more.

“Goodbye, John.”

“Goodbye, Anna.”

He rides off, and she wonders if she’d ever see him again.

She was stoking the fire, preparing the stew for the morning. The morning started off somber, almost melancholic as she started to make a broth and cube up meaty chunks. She hums to herself, softly whispering a good morning to Pearson and Ms. Grimshaw.

She continues to work as Abigail runs from her tent, a letter within her grasps – and Annabel is sure that the paper is crumpled between her fingertips – as she stomps over to Dutch’s tent to scream and sob.

Annabel continues to cook food as the camp falls into dismay, Dutch wondering if it would be possible to follow John’s tracks, Arthur growing anger consumes and blankets the camp as he fums and stomps around with intentions to beat John once they find him.

If they find him.

.-.-.

She remembers how Sean came to be apart of the gang.

Dutch and Hosea had invited Annabel on a job, a simple in and out larceny. They would distract the bar, and she would sneak back into where the employees would stash their items before work. It was simple and easy and with how small she way, sneaking around would be easier.

They left the bar with their pockets filled with cash, and the men’s belly’s filled with warm whiskey and rum. The alleyway where they had planned to sneak away from the town before anyone noticed their items gone was when a man comes up to them and points his dirty revolver at Dutch.

Annabel stands there, behind the two men she’s grown to call her family.

And she listens to them laugh.

The Irish man threatens them, his hands shaking from either adrenaline or the lack of food in his belly. Hosea and Dutch merely continue to laugh, and Annabel merely gives them a look of cluelessness.

“Go ahead,” Dutch continues to chuckle, lighting a cigar without a care in the world. Annabel places a hand on his arm, perturbed by the instigation. “Shoot us.”

Three clicks go off, his gun dry firing each time, and he stands there in shock.

The Irishman cowers, afraid for his life now that he’s threatened two men and a woman with an empty revolver, but he laughs with anxiety and tears dripping from him.

And when Annabel thought she would have to convince Dutch not to put a bullet within his skull, she watched as he walked up to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

“Let’s get you a bite to eat, son.”

Sean rode on the back of Annabel’s gelding, who had less of a temperament than the older men’s horses.

She’ll never forget the incessant flirting she had to experience the whole ride home.

But she’d tell Ms. Grimshaw later that she enjoyed the flirting, no matter how silly it was.

Now, Arthur was different. He had a hard time getting used to Sean. He was loud mouthed, barely did what he was told, and always found a way to antagonize Annabel.

Though, it wasn’t antagonizing if Annabel invited it, right?

He was jealous, though he would never admit it to anyone – or himself – that he felt that way. How dare he feel jealous over a woman that wasn’t his. He shouldn’t even be thinking about getting into another relationship with how all of the others seemed to end terribly.

He’d only bring her down; or worse, get her killed.

So, he continued to fum from his tent, reading books that Hosea would bring back for him, or spend time with Abigail, getting to know his little nephew who was just starting to walk on his own. He wonders and imagines what it was like to see Isaac take his first steps, to watch the young boy wobble with confidence as he hobbled over to him.

He didn’t think too much of it as Jack stumbled over to his lap, plopping over his knee and crawling into his lap.

“Ah, te little lad likes ya.” Sean called from across the fire, Annabel pressed close to him as the night turns colder. He wondered what it felt like to have her so close, what her body felt like pressed so close to his side; what kind of warmth radiated from her body.

He merely grumbles, letting Abigail take the child from his lap as she cooed a soft tune in order to put him to bed.

He dismissed himself, not wanting to watch Annabel smile at the red headed man any longer than he’s already witnessed.

He barely slept as he heard her softening whimpers and Sean’s muffled grunts from her tent.