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Eyes in the Branches

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Arthur knew that the O’Driscolls were no good rat bastards. Colm was a rotten shit for brains who only cared about quantity than quality, so the bullets that rained between the two gangs were almost unmatched to each other.

The sheer force of rain that pelted down over the valley covered the sounds of the O’Driscolls hiding away within the cover of the oak trees. Anna was the first one who realized there was someone there when she was pulling her saddle from her horse.

Her screams were muffled over the sound of the rumbling rain, but Dutch heard and ran from his tent yelling for Arthur and Hosea. They were almost overrun and taken over by the sheer numbers of O’Driscolls that invaded and ambushed their small camp.

The women scattered, Annabelle and Ms. Grimshaw pulled Anna away from the gunfire, the two women shooting their own revolvers with aggression equivalent to a mother bear. Pearson did his best to shoot several O’Driscolls down, and he only managed to take a few down. He watched as the three women sprang onto their horses and galloped away from the ongoing rage of men.

The fight went on for hours, and Arthur watched Dutch press his thumbs into Colm’s brothers’ eyes. The scream that emerged from his throat was blood-curdling and raw; there was nothing but snarls and curses from Dutch, but he wasn’t listening. He would go on to smash the back of his head into the ground until the bones cracks and breaks under the pressure and nothing, but blood and brains oozed from the skull.

Dutch saw red, and continued to see red. He fumed and paced at the edge of the camp; waiting for the women to come back. The rain refused to let up as Hosea urged Arthur to start packing everything up and get ready to move while they waited for Ms. Grimshaw to come back and guide them.

But the night went on longer and longer, and it left Dutch in a path of anxiety and rage. Hosea had to pull him from the edge of the camp, pressed a cigar into his hand and told him to relax.

“Those three women are more resourceful then all of us men combined. Annabelle and Susan are smart, and Anna will be safe with them.”

But they never came back, not until morning.

The sun rose, and only two horses came into view of the camp. Annabelle and Susan were somber, with Annabelle looking like she had cried before she came back home. Her cheeks were stained with tears, her eyes were bloodshot, but what gave everything away was the way she fell from her saddle and into Dutch’s arms.

Arthur stood at the base of camp; taking over for Dutch when Hosea had pulled him away and given him a welcomed distraction. He didn’t hear too much of their conversation because it was kept at a small sobbing whisper behind thick canvas walls, but from what Susan had said to him he was certain that the two were mourning.

Annabel was with them since March, and Annabelle had taken care of her like a mother would. Arthur knew that Annabel wanted a child, he remembered the talks that him and Dutch would have about the prospect that Annabelle might be carrying his child, but every month, she would bleed.

They had given up on the prospect – Annabelle more out of shame of not being able to do the one thing that was expected of a woman in this day and age – but Dutch continued to show her the love she deserved.

Then Annabel came into the picture – young and lost and damaged – and Annabelle came in with her soft hands and pulled her into the family. Annabel was the daughter Annabelle could never have, and Dutch – only wanting what made Annabelle happy – fell into the father-like, cookie cutter mold when it came to showing Annabel the ways of the world.

She already knew how to read and how to write, but without a proper education she was similar to how John was when the had pulled him from the nooses end.

Slightly feral and skittish around people who she wasn’t sure of.

Dutch would read her the same books that he would read John and Arthur. Those thick philosophy books with big words that even he had a hard time pronouncing, and understanding all together, but Annabel would take the books with a soft smile and read them in between chores.

She understood the literature but fought him on some parts when it came to his worldviews. His idea that this developing world leaves people filled with apathy, but Annabel would come in with a snappy rebuttal. “Yes, but the developing world has left you filled with empathy.”

“Well, it is a wonderful point.”

She understood his drive and want for a world where men can live the lifestyle they choose, to be free of rules and control. She had expressed her drive and love for hunting and wondering, and in that instant Arthur knew that Dutch could mold her into something with a similar drive equivalent to his own.

The two raised her like how Dutch and Hosea raised him and John. They pushed her to have ideals and morals and personal values that revolved around loyalty, liberty, equality, and cultural tolerance. Hosea taught her how to con a man, and how to pick pocket someone without them noticing anything missing. Dutch taught her how to shoot a gun, and how to pick a lock. Arthur would bring her things from the town they were closest to, simple things that she could use in a situation.

John would challenge her – they were the same age, after all – and he would always find himself on his back with Arthur laughing about how a girl put him on his back.

She was a joy to the camp – though Arthur would never admit to that simple truth – and hearing Annabelle cry about the found blood, the scraps of her dress, lead him to believe that she was lost to the wild of the valley.

Dutch tried to console her; trying to make promises that were as empty as his whiskey bottle, but he was pushed aside, called a liar.

Annabelle slept in Anna’s cot that night, and both Dutch and Arthur went out the next morning to see if there was a body they could’ve buried.

They found the tracks of blood first where her palms could have grazed against the rough tree bark. It was dried, and barely visible but they followed the tracks.

More scraps of her dress – a brown pleated wool scrap – before they found fur stuck to a twig.

“Dutch.” Arthur already knew what could’ve happened, though the words were stuck in his throat. “We should get back to camp. Get ready to leave soon.”

Dutch takes a moment, holding the scrap of wool between his calloused fingers. He’s reminiscing, confused and unsure of what comes next. With no body, what does he do? What does he say to his sweet Annabelle who was just as distraught as he was?

Dutch simply nods, pocketing the scrap, before mounting the Count with Arthur tailing close behind him.

.-.-.

A month after Annabel had passed, an older man – a lazy, sodden old fool that never did a damn thing – joined the gang. His stories were enough to entice the young John, and his drunken escapades were enough to keep Arthur on his toes.

Uncle talked of times in Africa – though Arthur wasn’t sure exactly how true those stories were – about how they worshiped him like a God in the Congo.

Uncle talked a big talk, but he was always caught drunk and asleep under a shady tree or hidden away from Ms. Grimshaw.

The days went by slow since Annabel. Dutch tries to comfort his lover – who grew into a deep depression and frustration – but he was a leader, a surrogate father to John and Arthur. He had to step up in some places and make sure his small, make-shift family was safe and feed and out of the law’s beady eyes.

But the days were becoming normal once more and Annabelle started to get color back to her complexion as she made her way back into the world she loved so much.

Soon months went by, then three years were gone within the pages of his journal and the wind that the whimsical whispered to. Arthur would run his jobs, leave for a few days every other month to drop money off at Eliza’s house and see his estranged son.

Then they moved north, closer to the snow. It’s the end of November of 1892. Annabelle started to ride with them once more, a fierce outlaw in her prime once more. Her smile was back, and her energy was at its peak. But Arthur Morgan was not built for the cold.

His wool coat that was lined with sheep’s skin kept him warm, but his face would flush a deep red and his nose would run when he ran around too long in the cold. He would sweat, feel it cool as it dripped down his temple.

His body ran so warm, and with the cold and running jobs constantly, it left him with a fluctuating internal temperature.

It was a simple train robbery, or it was meant to be. Arthur would stop the train before it hit the next station, with Dutch and Annabelle climbing into the cars and taking what they could from the rich city folk. Hosea would keep watch with John as Arthur made his way towards the back with Dutch.

That was the plan, at least.

It soon became a turf war; a game of finders’ keepers.

O’Driscolls.

Ever since Dutch did the things he did – and Arthur will never forget the sight of his ring clad thumbs pressing into the soft, gooey flesh of eyeballs – the O’Driscolls were out on a game of revenge.

A game of vengeance.

It was an ever-losing battle that Arthur tried to tell Dutch time and time again. He claimed that revenge was a fool’s game, and in a way it was.

But sometimes he wonders if Dutch saw honor in revenge.

There was no real revenge for Dutch to take part of, but Annabelle sought it like a bee to honey. The O’Driscolls took her only semblance of a child from her, she blamed them for her lose and her grief and her anger.

Dutch saw it; the way her eyes burned hot with an anger that could smoke the devil out of hell, a snarl on her perfect lips and sharp teeth that could tear flesh.

Then it hit her.

Everything felt so slow and so hot in that moment alone. Arthur heard Dutch yell – a fear filled scream really as he ignored the enemy not twenty feet away to run to his lover – then he saw the red. It stained her white blouse and her blue jeans. It stuck to her tongue and her lips as she gasped and whined for air. He saw tears run down Dutch’s face, softly dropping onto her soft, blush dusted cheek.

Arthur covered Dutch, but still yelled his name. They needed him – he needed him, to focus.

But Annabelle was dying right in Dutch’s arms.

The only woman who could hold his heart.

She died to the sound of Dutch’s voice – all choked up and sobbing – and gunfire.

She was burned later that night.

Dutch wasn’t the same after that, his heart hardened and he hyper focused his ideals and morals into his work to get them west.

That was his new focus – one to keep him from feeling the pain.

First his only daughter, then his lover.

Arthur didn’t sleep that night, listening to the deep howls of wolves. He could only hear two, a higher pitched howl and a lower, deeper one. Both fill with mourn and sadness and regret, as if the wolves could feel his family’s pain.

With a pain that swirled in his belly and tears threatening to spill, he howled back.

.-.-.

Annabel felt it all happen.

She didn’t want to believe that her surrogate mother passed, as a fire bloomed hot and heavy in her abdomen. It hurt, the way her body crackled with heat, that she fell from Zander’s back and into the thick, white snow.

It crunched under the sound of Silas’s paws, his cold, wet nose pressing against her temple.

Bonded witches were special – whether it was between lovers, friends or family – it was a bond that could keep the other safe. It was a way to keep the other from feeling too much pain as the other passed on. She and her mother never thought they would have to deal with it.

Hot tears drop onto the snow, sobs crack from her throat as Silas continued to push her to stand. She feels weak, and hot even as she melts the snow below her and allows her garments to soak the water.

She hears a whisper – a call of love and want – but her head starts to thrum from pain.

Annabel starts to peel her furs and wool coat from her body, leaving her body exposed to the cold under her. She can hear an echo of gun fire, yelling and sobs that seemed uncharacteristic of the man they were coming from. She heard words – muffled and full of static – but she could see a fuzzy picture as she raised her head to look over the darkening sky and glittering snow.

“I love you.” Annabel sobs at that, knowing full well that it was her mother – the only one she would consider to be her true mother.

She screams, pressing the heels of her palms into her eyes. The earth below her rattles, Zander starts to rear and grow restless and Silas is left with his ears pinned back and his tail tucked below him.

Annabel feels like she’s being ripped in half as she hears the voices more clearly – Dutch speaking to her in soft tones, Annabelle coughing and trying to make words through the struggle, even Arthur who was yelling for Dutch’s attention.

“She’s alive, my love.” Annabel pulls her face from her hands, but her vision is swimming with a sea of blue and static, “Our sweet Anna… I can see her now.”

Hazel eyes are the only thing that is clear to her, along with mother’s face. Even in death she is still beautiful, with full lips, flushed cheeks and a soft expression.

“I’ll find you both in the next life.”

She feels everything explode within her. It’s hot – sweltering – and all Annabel can do is rip at her clothes and scream. The tree’s rattle, Silas is no longer a physical entity – but a soft blue flame that flutters away from Annabel to keep himself from getting consumed. The earthquakes under her legs and snow seams to flutter down from the evergreens.

Then it all stops, and she feels numb in her skin.

When she comes back to her reality, the sun is no longer peaking over the horizon and the moon as taken it’s place high in the midnight blue sky. Stars light the sky, with a waxing gibbous lighting what it can.

She howls, unsure of her body to do anything proper in that moment and she howls for a long quiet moment before Silas joins her once more.

She shivers, but she doesn’t care. She howls like that for mere minutes, hoping it would keep her from mourning.

Then she hears a howl – human like and in the distance. It’s too deep to be a wolf’s howl and a single howl isn’t something that would normally happen in a pack.

The wind picks up, and she hears the human howl once more. The wind pushes the emotion from the howl and into her and her body starts to prickle with anxiety and excitement.

Silas nudges her, nipping at her long-braided hair. A chill runs down her spine before she picks up her coat and her furs.

She whistles for Zander who happily nickers to her commands and trots up to her side.

She rides south, hoping that she’s not mistaking that newfound energy for someone – or something else.

.-.-.

After the death of Annabelle, Dutch wasn’t able to keep himself still and Arthur couldn’t blame him for it.

He needed a new focus, something that would keep him from breaking down over the idea that his bed would no longer be shared with the women he loved so dearly. Arthur and Hosea couldn’t bring that to him, and well – John was just John and it left Dutch with one thing.

Moving.

The rode back south, then east. They simply traveled, finding nothing and everything with each passing day.

Ms. Grimshaw would grow tired though, and scold Dutch into next week. She would demand that he stop and let everyone rest, but really it was because she was tired of listening to Uncle talk and complain from behind her in the wagon.

So, they set their sights back north, deeper into the snow then the last time – much to Arthur’s dismay – with the hopes that over the mountains they would find a nice little town that would be ripe for the taking.

A lumber and livestock town was soon in their sights with its thick evergreen trees. The roadways in the town were soggy with mud, but fresh powder covered the tops of the saloon and the general store and the houses along the hill. The stark contrast of dark wooden homes against the pure white powder.

They settle their camp a mile out from the town, a few abandoned cabins laid along the edge of a canyon. It was an easy place to stay while they waited the snow and cold out, but late December rushed into early January and then right into February. The snow barely let up, but that didn’t stop Hosea from running into the lumber town for leads, or for Uncle to ride to the saloon in hopes for warmth and alcohol.

It was nearly the end of February, and Arthur was left shivering near the fireplace in the cabin he had claimed as his temporary home. He remembers that morning required him to run through the snowy wilderness to find some game for that day’s stew. He remembers Hosea asking him to meet him in town for some help with a scam, which Arthur gladly agreed too.

He placed a bottle of whiskey in his hand and then a bolt action rifle before flashing a warm smile. He went back to warming his hands against the fire, a book sitting in his lap.

Arthur leaves for a hunt for a few hours, pulling in a string full of white and gray hares, and some Canadian geese that rested close to a pond west of the abandoned cabins.

When he came home with small game strapped lifelessly to his saddle, he saw Dutch with a hand on a man’s shoulder. He looked drunker than Uncle on a good day, but he had a spark in his eyes as he slowly sobered under the touch and silver tongue of Dutch.

Arthur merely grumbled as he slung the game over his shoulders. Dutch would soon call to him for introductions, but all he wanted to do was run into town to meet up with Hosea like he had promised.

Arthur!

He knew it.

The introductions were short – blunt and to the point – but he noticed the way his eyes shifted and the way his body slouched under the weight of Dutch’s hand on his shoulder.

Arthur squinted at him, but still extended his hand out to shake his hand.

“Let’s get you acquainted with everyone else. Arthur, Hosea said to remind you to meet him in the big saloon in town. You better get on, if you plan on meeting him before sundown.”

Arthur nods at him, waving his hand at him as a response. He watched Dutch guide Bill – the drunken bull he is simply stumbled under his heavy feet – towards where Ms. Grimshaw was settled in washing some sheets. Dutch was starting to get back to normal, but he could still see the heavy sadness behind his eyes when he catches the older man reading the same books that Annabelle would read to him at night.

Arthur would watch him flinch slightly and place a worn piece of cloth – a brown woolen cloth that looked like the same piece they found when they went to look for Annabel – into the page before stretching a smile and calling for his son.

He spurred Boadicea out towards the town, his coat pulled tight around his body as he rode into the falling snow.

.-.-.

It had been nearly four years since she had felt Dutch and Hosea’s energy around her and for the first time since she had run off, their energies were lingering along her skin like morning dew.

She had made home in a small cabin just on the outskirts of a small lumber town, selling medicinal herbs to the only doctor in town in exchange for goods and money. The snow was melting but just barely, even though it was nearly April.

The bell rings as she pushes open the store’s door, stomping her boots on the thick mat to get the snow and mud off her boots.

“Good morning, Miss Anna. I have your order ready.”

“I just finished the first half, but I’m gonna have to go south to pick up some yarrow and ginseng.” She places a few coins and a canvas bag filled with tonics. “I’ll be back in a few days, so I hope your customers can wait a little while longer.”

“Without you, we wouldn’t be thriving like we do so we’ll wait until your return.”

Dr. Galloway was a good man, young and sweet and itching for adventure even though he was stuck in the town where his family has been for generations.

He’s sweet on her, she knows with the way he sometimes brings her flowers that only grow in the snow or places a chocolate bar in some of her orders. She things he’s great, but she hasn’t had interest in men since… never.

But she plays along, afraid of breaking a relationship that benefited her in more ways than one.

“Is there anything I should grab while I’m down that way?”

“Maybe if you find some sage or lavender. Some of the men have been experiencing insomnia, and I know that some of your tonics with lavender have helped them sleep.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

And with that she leaves, feeling his lingering eyes on her back as she pulls the door open. The cold is bruising against her skin, her nose and cheeks growing flush as she pulls her furs closer over her face.

Zander stands hitched in front of the shop, heavy annoyed puffs of air billowing from his nose as Rowan sat close to his reins.

She remembers when she found Rowan, a young eyas who fell from his nest just south of Strawberry. She tried to place the bird back in the nest only for the parents to throw him from their nest once more.

Annabel took him home after watching him fall from the top of the tree, his small body nestled between her and her fur coat. She taught him out to fly, watching him learn to be independent from her as she taught him how to hunt on his own.

She tried to release him but, in the end, he would always fly back to her – his talons digging softly into her thick leather gauntlet on her left arm – with the expectations of food and a home.

Annabel thought about it for months before she finally went through with it, worried about what would happen if she did it or not.

She shook her head one night, sitting across from the fireplace in her small cabin and meditated. She had to focus on the good, pulling the pureness from her soul in preparation for the transfer.

Once the sun started to slowly break the horizon, she started to prepare the meal she caught for him. Minced rabbit and the stringy meat of a snake as she cooked up some turkey meat in a thick stew with wild carrots.

They ate in silence as she burned a smudge stick and lit some small white candles. Her words flowed slowly as she placed a barrier around the temporary hearth before she fed the two of them.

Rowan sat comfortably on his perch as the full moon slowly scaling the sky with Annabel placed in front of him, sitting straight upon her knees as she started the incantation. There was a surge of energy that rustled the trees, but the two of them stayed calm as Annabel continued to chant and pull part of her own soul to place into his.

She stayed up through the night, perfecting the chant over and over and over until the sun rose over their home. The warmth spread through her skin as she watched the bird – her new familiar – flap his wings in an awkward excitement.

Since then she found that they were inseparable.

He flew close to her when she rode off, his calls piercing her ears, but she would simply laugh. Zander grew antsy and annoyed with his presence, but she could tell that he preferred the bird over the greater wolf that follows.

Zander pushed through the snow in a canter, snorting and huffing along as they made way to the muddy trails. Her woolen hood was pulled over her head with her furs pressed close to her nose, covering her face from any passerby’s who might have been curious.

She saw several men approach her in the distance, and she debated on taking a different path to avoid seeing people or having to kill men who harass her.

A striking white Arabian, a beautiful dapple-gray Turkoman and a strong palomino thoroughbred passed by her, and as they did, she felt her soul clench and her stomach churn.

She pulled at her reins and turned Zander to watch the three riders’ backs.

It was Dutch and Hosea and Arthur.

Her old family.

Had they found her? Was she considered a traitor? She had half expected them to come find her that night, but they never did. They had left her bloody and bruised in the night, with a great wolf – who claimed to be her spirit guide with sharp teeth and piercing eyes – and a broken heart.

They were her family; the only family since her mother’s murder, and the first chance they had, they abandoned her.

She felt a sob creep up through her throat as Rowan placed himself on her left shoulder. He watched with her, his feet adjusting and readjusting over and over.

When they turned the corner of the path, she let out the sob in a rough croak. How had she not felt them before? There was talk from Dr. Galloway of some travelers who had made home in the old abandoned town just a few miles out.

She pushes Zander to a trot, hoping that the constant and jarring movement will pull her from her harsh emotions.

Her travels are filled with frequent stops as she moves from the snow into the mountainous valley, picking berries and herbs and roots along the way. Rowan brings home a rabbit at night, dropping the lifeless body harshly in front of Annabel’s slouching body as she relishes in the warmth of the fire.

She skins the punctured animal, stripping meat and tossing it towards the red tail hawk who made home on her stretched out thigh. He squawks and pulls at her dress with his beak for more, and she could only laugh at his pestering before throwing a chunk farther and watching him run with his wings stretched out and his legs carrying him weirdly.

She places the rabbit saved for herself over the fire to roast, grounded up oregano and rosemary pressed into the slightly bloody body.

The night was calm, with the moon shining high over their small tent and roaring fire before gun shots – two of them, in succession – sounded loudly up the hill.

Rowan started to get agitated, Zander started to huff, and – as if he materialized out of thin air – Silas pushed himself through the bushes and placed himself next to her by the fire. There was a pull, an itch that stuck itself deep into her skin as she looked at Silas with curious and worried eyes.

“I need to go see what happened.”

Silas knew as a spirit guide – especially her spirit guide – that she wasn’t one to leave things behind. She is bound to the energies that swirled around her, and her emotions were always involved.

Her feet – bare and warmed from the fire – pushed her forward as she climbed the hill with her knife in hand, and Silas at her side. Rowan fly on ahead, giving her the chance to have a warning if there was anything that could cause her harm.

As she grew closer, she saw a small house with a small garden and a few cows which, she found, laid lifelessly in the grass with blood staining their white and brown fur. Their throats were slit, she knew that wouldn’t be the cause of the gun shots.

The house was dimly lit, and the door was ajar, and she took the risk of climbing the stairs. The wood was smooth from the excessive use, and so was the knob as she pushed it open.

Blood seeped through the cracks in the wooden planks, but she saw the way it pooled and puddled under the two bodies in front of her.

A woman and a child, with a shot each to the head.

Annabel fell backwards, her body shaking from the impact. Her hand covered her rapid breathing as she looked around the homestead. The dresser was pushed over, the bed was thrown apart, the table was flipped to its side with its matching chairs broken and splintered.

She sobbed from the shock, unsure of how to truly react to the scene.

The woman – young and beautiful – was splayed out on the floor with her skirt hiked up and her bloomers pulled to her ankles. A weird substance – a substance she refused to name – stuck to her inner thighs and her pelvis. The boy was only a few feet away, bruising over his cheeks and temples and throat but thankfully his clothes still stayed on his small body.

He was young, his mother was young.

She probably gave herself to the intruders in hopes to be left alone.

Annabel scrambled out of the house, screaming into the night. The painful aura’s that lingered from their bodies was still in the house – in the air – and she could only do one thing.

Scream.

She screamed until the sun rose over the eastern mountains, and when the birds started to squeak and tweet along to a morning serenade, she started to dig two graves.

Silas helped, using his powerful body to dig deep holes for her to bury them in, using his strength to drag them carefully into the holes. She helped him push the dirt over them, tears dripping down her face as she casted a protective spell over the graves.

She placed two crosses over their graves, hoping they would never be forgotten by those who knew them.

Annabel sat on her shins, still weeping silently over the sight she saw them in and bowed her head into the dirt. Her apologies were unheard, but she hoped that their souls were in a better place than this. Rowan placed his wings over her back protectively, letting out a call into the sky that only Annabel knew would be considered mournful.

Silas took her back to camp when the sun was high in the sky and her fingers digging deep into his fur.

.-.-.

When Arthur found two graves in front of the house, he panicked. He had taught Eliza how to shoot, just in case someone wanted to cause any trouble, but he was sure those graves were theirs when he saw the decomposing cows and the dying crops.

He rushed into the house, his lungs laboring under the panic he tried to control. That panic cascaded over him once he saw the blood – died and cracking over the soaked wooden planks – and all he could so was cry.

He cried out in pain, in anger, in an unholy despair with an urge to find the men who did this and make them pay for taking away his only semblance of a life.

His son – the only thing that was so seemingly untouched by his bloody hands – was six feet in the ground and his mother was right there next to him.

It was Isaac’s goddamn birthday, too.

He had brought the kid a toy gun – he had been asking for one just like his fathers – and now he sat here on the floor sobbing from the overflow of emotions.

He feels broken, inadequate, useless as he threw the gift into the cold fireplace.

The woman and child had barely any money, and he knew that because he did his best to provide them with enough to get by each and every month or so.

And now…

He couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe, his throat was closing up, but he felt like he was going to throw up from the way his stomach was clenching and gurgling.

Who shoots a fucking child?

What kind of monster would kill a family without a father –.

He was the father. He was supposed to take care of them, protect them.

He failed.

He fucking failed.