The ground was hard and ice cold beneath her, her warmth quickly seeping out of her and bleeding into the wet dirt. With only her thin pajamas on, she quickly started shivering against the brisk wind blowing snow onto her. Her eyes opened, squinting against the daggers of ice being blow into them. Around her it was all white and her mind reeled trying to understand what had happened.
“Ma’am?” A very professional voice grabbed her attention and a bright light shone in her eyes. “Ma’am can you hear me?” A hand, firm against her head held it still. She grunted in response, the words fumbling on her tongue. Weakly she struggled to push herself up. The light moved out of her eyes and for a moment she wasn’t on a snow covered ground but on her back with the worried face of an EMT hanging over her.
“I hear you.” The words finally croaked out of her.
“You were in an accident.” The EMT said.
“Obviously.” She snarked and like a switched was flipped she was back on her stomach in the snow. The EMT gone and she alone. Over the silence of snow the crunch of footsteps echoed out with the whinny of horses. Fighting the leaden cold in her limbs, she pushed herself up a few inches. Straining to see the horses, confused and freezing, her eyes spied riders coming over a hill. They seemed to be following a trail that ran near her.
Two men talked, voices unintelligible but rumbling low together, as their horses trotted near. A familiarity about the horses struck her but she couldn’t place it. Disoriented and growing sore with her shivering, her lungs burned as she forced a cry out for help. The riders pulled up sharp, their heads snapping to where she collapsed back into the snow. As her eyes closed she felt jostled, only to open them to the inside of an ambulance. For a moment she tried to talk again but something flipped again and the snow was freezing against her skin. Strong, gloved hands were pulling her from the ground.
“How did you get out here?” She knew that voice. Where did she know that voice? Squinting up to the man a shock ran through her as she placed him.
“Charles Smith?” The stocky man looked like she’d slapped him. His brows knitted together as he glanced to the other rider who hadn’t dismounted. Weakly rolling her head around, it was her turn to look like she’d been slapped. “Arthur Morgan?” The large man sat up straighter in his saddle, his shoulders going tight.
“How do you know us?” Charles asked, his arm under her shoulders still supporting her as she shivered.
“I think I’m dead.” Her head swam as she tried to understand exactly how she was inside her favorite game. “There was...” Memories, half formed and shades in her mind, flashed. Chasing after her damn cat, tires screeching, pain through her side. The memory made her gasp in pain and cough, doubling up. “An accident.” She hoarsely coughed out. Something clutched in her hand was colder against her palm and drew her eyes. Her phone. “Fucking hell.” Charles kept her steady, pulling her towards his horse. He hadn’t seen what was in her hand.
“I think you need to come with us.” It wasn’t a suggestion. Looking around, she realized she recognized the area from the start of the game. Snow blanketed the ground around them, a single trail the horses had forged the only path through the snow. Two deer were strung over the flanks of the two horses.
“I’m in Colter? I’m at the start of it.” Maybe this was her dying brain’s idea of a enjoyable send off. Taima, the grey Appaloosa of Charles, snorted as he pushed her up. A long forgotten muscle memory of riding as a child took hold and she was able to almost pull herself up. Her fingers, cold and numb, wouldn’t grab hold of the saddle horn though and Charles really had to force her up. Once settled, he climbed up behind her and shrugged out of his coat. Wrapping it around herself, she felt some of the shivering slow a bit. Charles called out to his horse and they began a bumpy ride back to the camp. She knew what she’d find there, she knew this story well. Her eyes fluttered closed and she felt herself falling backwards.
“Ma’am, can you tell me your name?” That professionally polite EMT’s voice was in her ear again.
“Juniper, my name is Juniper.” She mumbled.
“Alright, Juniper. How do you know me?” Charles’ voice pulled her back into the game, away from reality. Juniper laughed a bit, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I know all of you. I know the ending.” She realized his arms around her was all that was holding her up and she fought against the fuzzy feeling in her head to sit up straight.
“Charles, is this a good idea?” Arthur’s twang rang clear against the quiet snow.
“She’s delirious, half dead. You want to leave her to die?” His answer was quick. “Besides, if she dies we can’t figure out how she knows us.” Arthur gave a non committal sound before dropping the question. She laughed again, cackling at the entire situation.
“So distrustful, Arthur.” Juniper mockingly chided him. “Could use that distrust in the right places. Save yourself a whole lot of fucking trouble.” “What exactly is that supposed to mean?” His voice was tight and angry. Juniper was about to respond but she faded back out. The bumping of the horse ride became the bumping of an ambulance ride. An oxygen mask was over her face. Confused she struggled against it for a second before realizing where she was. The constant slipping free of reality was starting to give her brain whiplash.
“Am I going to die?” She muttered, the mask making it hard to be heard.
“I doubt it.” A woman’s voice, bitter and scratchy, responded and with a groan of annoyance Juniper was pulled back into the fantasy. She was warmer at least, by a small bit. Still shivering but now under several blankets and curled up in front of a large fire, Juniper tried to sit up. Her side was sore, felt like she was a giant bruise from her shoulder to her hip on her left side. The fingers of her left hand still clutched her phone tightly. Keeping it well hidden under the blankets seemed the most prudent idea.
Miss Grimshaw narrowed her eyes down at Juniper. The sharp eyes of the old woman narrowed and she looked at Juniper as if she was something dangerous. Curious, she looked away from her and looked around the cabin she was in. It was the cabin used by Dutch and Arthur. The tiny fireplace was blazing as she huddled in front of it. Miss Grimshaw was whispering in hushed tones with Hosea as Juniper mulled things over.
“So that was the hunting trip, which means they already got John.” She muttered to herself. Warmed and given time to think Juniper realized claiming to know the future might sound a little too crazy and struggled to think of a convincing lie. “The men who saved me, where are they?” That sounded like a reasonable question and it was apparently convincing enough as Miss Grimshaw relaxed noticeably.
“They’re out now. Who are you?” Her voice was suspicious and after taking a minute to think it over, Juniper couldn’t blame her.
“Juniper, Ma’am.” She nodded as she thought over what was happening. “I’m dreaming, I have to be.”
“This ain’t a dream, dearie.” Was the soft, sorry response from Miss Grimshaw. She almost looked like she felt pity for her. Juniper hadn’t thought Miss Grimshaw was capable of pity. A few more rushed whispers to Hosea and Miss Grimshaw left the cabin quickly. Hosea sat back in a chair, his gun across his lap as he watched Juniper.
"How's the cough?" She asked, eyeing the man as his hands tightened around the gun. Hosea seemed to bore a glare right through her. Sighing heavily to herself, Juniper turned back to the fire.
It was easy to look into the fire and think. It wasn’t easy to accept what she already knew. None of it really made sense but she’d always been one to take what was thrown at her, so Juniper spent her time trying to remember as much from the game as she could as well as her cousins.
Her entire cousin’s family had always been way too into Civil War reenactment and had sucked Juniper along when she was a kid. The clothing, listening to them go on and on about what life was like back then. It’d been fun but as she’d grown older it’d been hard to avoid the longing looks in their eyes when they talked about ‘back then’. So she’d mostly stopped hanging out with them, but it’d been lonely. All the talks, the facts were sitting there in her head and she could mostly remember them.
“Miss? I'm Abigail.” Abigail’s voice broke her thoughts. Juniper jumped a bit, her fingers clutching her phone against her thigh. Behind her, Abigail held a bundle of clothing in her arms. Hosea was gone and Juniper hadn’t even heard him leave. “Miss Grimshaw sent me over, we managed to find you some clothes. They’re not very nice, but it’ll be better than those underthings you’ve got on.” Juniper looked down at her pajamas she had on. Light shorts and a tank top. It had been summer before.
”Thank you, Abigail. That’s very generous of you. I know you don’t have much.” She didn’t move. Abigail crouched next to her.
“Charles said you’d been in an accident?” Her eyes looked Juniper over. “Would you like help dressing?” It was an earnest offer but Juniper knew the woman had to be curious about her. She knew, though, that she probably wouldn’t be able to figure out the clothing without help.
“Yes, that would be very kind of you.” Juniper tucked her phone into the folds of the blankets and went to stand. Her entire side screamed in pain and she grunted, stalling her motions and grabbing her aching ribs. Abigail caught a cry of surprise in her throat and reached out to help. “Shit, look at your side!” She cried out. Juniper looked to see mottled black and blue down her left side. Thin, strong fingers slipped around Juniper’s arms to help her to her feet.
“At least it looks as bad as it feels.” Juniper managed to croak as she adjusted to standing upright with her side killing her. Abigail gave a half hearted chuckle.
“Some accident. Maybe you shouldn’t bother with a corset until that’s healed up.” Abigail offered. Juniper cursed internally as she remembered corsets were common now. She’d have to look into finding a pair of pants at some point too.
“Yeah, I think so too.” She was still examining her side. “At least I don’t think anything’s broken.”
“Well, let’s hope. Do you want to keep wearing those...” Abigail’s eyes raked up and down her. “Underthings? I have some here that are a bit...nicer.” She was choosing her words carefully. Juniper shrugged.
“Sure, why not?” A chemise and drawers were handed to her and Abigail turned away, busying herself looking at something in the pile of clothing to give Juniper a little privacy. They felt soft, worn and nearly threadbare but comfortable. When she cleared her throat, Abigail turned back and helped her slide a shift over her head and smooth it down. Away from the fire and blankets, cold was starting to seep into her bones and Juniper started to shiver.
“How long were you out there?” Abigail asked as she separated out a bundle of skirts and held it open for Juniper to step into.
“I don’t know. Couldn’t have been long though, no one would last out there very long.” Juniper looked away as she tried to think. Abigail was buttoning the skirts closed around her waist.
“Thank goodness Charles and Arthur found you. Those are probably the two most trustworthy men we have here.” She smirked a bit to herself and Juniper caught it. Abigail quickly turned away to pick up the skirt of a blue dress. “It’s a bit long on you.” She clucked to herself as she buttoned the skirt closed and smoothed it down for her.
“Better long than short in this weather.” Juniper glanced outside. The whiteness of snow reflected enough light to make it difficult to see much outside. Abigail brought over a blouse to wear and began helping her button it up. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” She asked, keeping her eyes on the buttons.
“No.” Juniper swallowed, wondering what she could be thinking.
“Why did you cut your hair like that?” Abigail finally glance up at the shaved side of her head. Juniper sighed in relief and rubbed her hand against the short shorn hair.
“Oh, well I always wanted to but my husband said it would look ugly so I didn’t. And then he...left me.” That part still stung and Juniper grimaced a littler. “So I shaved it down because fuck him.” Abigail’s eyes narrowed and she gave a small nod.
“I think it looks nice. You’ll certainly fit right in with this group.” She laughed a bit as she held out a worn and patched coat to Juniper. Slipping inside, Juniper buttoned it up the the throat and began pulling her blankets up off the ground to cozy up inside. Almost forgetting about her phone, Juniper had to catch it quick before Abigail saw it and stuffed it inside one of the deep pockets of the coat. Wrapping a fire warmed blanket around herself, she looked back to Abigail. It was hard to comprehend that she was standing next to a character she’d seen a thousand times in a game.
“You’re a strong woman, Abigail.” The words slipped out before Juniper could realize how odd it must sound. Abigail only cocked her head in curiosity and a confused smile spread across her face.
“Thank you, I guess. Miss Grimshaw has us huddled up in the building across the way there. You’re welcome to join us when you’re ready.” Abigail opined out through the window.
"I have some things to think about." Juniper replied, her mind wandering already. Abigail gave a small smile and nodded.
"Of course." With that, she left. Juniper sat back in front of the fire, watching the flames dance as she tried to construct a plan of what to do.
Unsure how long she spaced out staring into the fire, a heavy hand on her shoulder made her flinch away and then immediately regret the movement. Her side pulled enough to make her grunt and grab her ribs with her good arm. Looking up to see Arthur standing over her, she shifted a bit to see Hosea and Dutch standing back. Their eyes were watching her closely as she shifted under the blankets to face them from the floor.
“Gentlemen, you’ll forgive me if I don’t stand up.” She said through gritted teeth as she stilled herself and waited for the pain to subside.
“How’d you end up here in the mountains in just your underthings, Miss?” Dutch spoke. Juniper let out a stiff breath once she could inhale without trouble again. Her eyes darted between the men towering over her.
“Honestly, I have no idea. There was, an accident...” She trailed off as she struggled again to remember exactly what had happened. “I hit my head, real hard, I think.” Ground, concrete rushing towards her flashed in her minds eye for a second before she could shake it off. “Sorry, Dutch, I ain’t got anything else to tell you.” Dutch pulled back as she said his name and she could have kicked herself for not paying attention to what she was saying.
“I told you, Dutch. She knows us.” Arthur said hoarsely.
“My dear,” Hosea crouched in front of her. “How do you know us?” Juniper thought hard of an answer they’d accept but nothing came to her.
“I told Arthur, I’ve been here before. I know this story, I know how it ends.” She met his eyes for a minute. There was only confusion there.
“Well then, Miss Juniper, how does it end?” Dutch asked, skeptical. When she looked up at him the world shifted, flickering back and forth between real and solid to the game style just shy of real. A sharp pain behind her eyes made Juniper winced, pinching the bridge of her nose as she looked away. A vice on her head made it hard to think clearly. The words she wanted to say stuck in her throat. Shaking her head she tried to shake off the splitting pain in her brain and find what words would come.
“Can’t fight gravity, Dutch.” She finally managed to spit words out. The first game had been a favorite of hers long ago and his final speech in that one was looping in her mind like a record playing. Dutch snorted, not believing her. He stepped back.
“She’s probably some poor woman the O’Driscoll’s caught. Gone crazy in their hands.” He turned away, glancing out of the window. Juniper grew annoyed at his dismissal, her face settling into lopsided snarl.
“Greta Van Der Linde, buried in Blackwater. Beloved mother of Dutch.” She grappled for any facts she could remember. “Would the O’Driscoll’s know that?” She could see the easy movements of his shoulders grow stiff as he stilled. “What exactly went wrong in Blackwater, anyways? Never could figure that out, annoyingly.” He turned, his hand strayed to the gun at his hip. Juniper debated whether she should be worried or not. “I told you. I know this story. I know the ending.” The repetitiveness was getting on her nerves.
“But you can’t tell us?” Hosea asked, standing up.
“Apparently not.” Juniper looked away from Dutch, confused herself. This was her own brain, why couldn’t she just say what she wanted? “I guess nothing’s that easy."
“Maybe a man ain’t supposed to know how he dies.” Arthur suggested, watching Dutch. Juniper snorted at that idea, causing Arthur to glance at her suspiciously. He would sure know how he was going to die. Her thoughts stalled. If this was her own brain, dream, purgatory, whatever it was, why couldn’t she change it how she wanted?
“Take me with you.” She said, looking back to the three men. “Have you robbed the train yet?” They looked between each other and back at her in a fearful surprise. “So not yet, I couldn’t convince you not to?”
“Will something go wrong on the train?” Hosea asked. Juniper sighed and shook her head. “Not exactly” With a grumble she dropped the question and tried to move on. “Once you’ve robbed the train, you'll head out to Horseshoe Overlook.” She thought of that camp, always had been her favorite one. “Think of me as a fortune teller. You could use an ace up your sleeve, trust me.” A pleased grin spread across her face as the three men in front of her gave each other glances.
“You’d help us?” Hosea asked. He didn't sound like he quite believed her but Juniper nodded enthusiastically anyways.
“Hell yeah, I love you guys.” She assured them. An excitement was bubbling up in her chest that made her grin a little manic. Getting to live through her favorite game, changing it how she wanted. Couldn’t think of a better way to spend a brain injury. The three men just looked confused between themselves before staring down at Juniper again.
"Horseshoe Overlook?" Dutch asked. Juniper nodded. He took a breath to think before holding out a hand to help her to her feet. "You'll need to pull your own weight, we'll find you something to do." Juniper took his hand and leveraged herself up with groan. Arthur reached out to help her to her feet as Dutch kept talking. "You'll be warmer if you stay with the other women."
"And maybe keep that 'I know this story' shit to yourself." Arthur hissed, more of a threat than advice. Juniper glanced at him with a soft nod, it was a suggestion she'd already been trying to follow. He let go of her arm, satisfied that she heard him.
"Arthur, show our little fortune teller to the women's cabin." Hosea suggested. Juniper could tell he still didn't believe her but she wasn't worried. He would in time. Arthur gave a curt nod to the older man before heading towards the door.
"Come on then, what did you say your name was again?" He barely glanced over his shoulder at her as shoved the door open and a blast of cold wind cut through her clothes to her core.
"Juniper. My friend's call me June." Wrapping her arms around herself, she trudged behind him attempting to use his large form as a windbreak.
"Well, Mrs. Juniper." Arthur drawled pointedly. "I ain't sure exactly what to make of you, just don't try nothing." He growled at her.
"You'll have to trust me eventually, Mister Morgan." Juniper copied his tone. "You're a smart enough man, even if you pretend not to be." Arthur paused in front of the door to the women's cabin and Juniper grabbed his arm. "Could it be possible for me to get a map of the surrounding area?" He looked at her as if he hadn't quite heard her.
"Yes, I suppose I could find one for you." His tone was careful, confused as he pushed the door open and waited for Juniper to step inside. The cabin was slightly warmer than the previous one, bodies huddled close. Woodsmoke and a light musty odor filled the room. Juniper stood in front of the door, unsure what to do next until Arthur roughly shoved her forward so he could close the door behind him. She skidded to the side and sat down on a crate away from the huddled women. Eyes were on her but when she didn't say anything they looked to Arthur. He grumbled some kind of explanation and the women started talking amongst themselves, looking to Abigail. Juniper wasn't listening though, already deep in thought.
A day or two until they left Colter, Juniper thought to herself, a few days to plan out what she was going to do. To remember the whole storyline and figure out how to correct things as best as possible. Not an impossible task.
It turned out to be a lonely one though, the other women seemed almost afraid of Juniper and none of the men were around much. Miss Grimshaw had given her an extra blanket when she’d curled up to sleep in her seat but had rudely jerked it off of her the next morning
“Make yourself useful! We’re loading up the wagons today, get up! Get up!” She nudged Juniper with her boot and walked off as the girl sat up. Her joints were a little stiff from the cold and it took a few minutes for her to work the kinks out. Still foggy from a fitful sleep, Juniper stepped outside and was immediately accosted by Grimshaw shoving things into her arms and directing her where to go.
Well past noon most of the men arrived back and began helping load up. Nearly an hour after that Arthur came galloping into camp. The wagons were well prepared and ready. As Juniper closed to gate of the wagon she’d been packing up she saw Abigail helping John limp to the wagon ahead of her. He looked worse than she remembered and a pain ran through her as she remembered the first game.
“Where’s your mind at?” Arthur asked, pausing as he was about to climb up into the driver’s seat.
“About a decade from now.” He scoffed at her answer. Juniper thought for a moment she saw a glint of actual concern for her in his eyes.
“Hey, you wanted a map, right?” Arthur said as she climbed into the back of the wagon. He reached into his satchel and handed her a folded piece of paper. “Thank you.” Juniper said as she unfolded a map that was so familiar to her. Shaking her head, she wedged herself between some rolls of canvas. Arthur snapped the reins and the wagon set out. Hosea talked on, familiar enough to Juniper she was mouthing the words as he said them. As they rode, she pulled out her phone and checked it. Fifty percent battery life and full bars somehow. Curious, Juniper looked at what WiFi network she had connected to.
Well that answered that question, Juniper thought. Shaking off the dark thoughts of where she really was, she spent the time marking her map up as much as possible with a pencil she borrowed from Arthur when he wasn’t looking.
“Watch that wheel.” She called out as the wagon splashed into the river crossing. Cringing as she heard it break, Juniper pocketed her phone and map, ready to climb out. Arthur gave her a sullen glance as he hopped down. She didn’t think he’d seen what she’d been doing but it was hard to tell. Charles held a hand out for Juniper as she jumped down from the back. Together, with Hosea they held the wagon up while Arthur put the wheel on. As they finished and set the wagon back down Hosea called attention to the riders on the crest above them and Juniper gave an enthusiastic wave to them while Charles stared at her.
“We’ll get to meet them later!” She tried to explain excitedly but the men ignored her. Rolling her eyes, she climbed up into the wagon again. Charles climbed up beside her, perched on the edge of the wagon. His eyes cut to her as she listened to Hosea describe how the Heartland had been stolen from the Natives. She realized she may have scoffed out loud and quickly tried to quiet herself.
When they picked up Javier, his eyes widened a bit when he saw her. She realized that none of the men outside Arthur, Dutch, Hosea and Charles even knew she was there. He flashed her a brilliant smile. Much more charming in the real life, she thought as she returned it. Light filtered down through the canopy of trees surrounding Horseshoe Overlook and Juniper watched the leaves above them while the wagon rattled into camp. Javier helped her down, his hand resting lightly on her back for a moment longer than necessary.
Dutch’s speech was the same as she remembered it and now it was hard to not feel annoyed by his soap box. It felt hollow now, knowing how he went in the end and she realized it was going to be a lot harder than she anticipated playing nice with Dutch.
"And please, everyone." Dutch wasn't finished like she remembered. Suddenly Hosea was pulling Juniper in front of the group to stand near Dutch. He kept his arms around her in an almost protective way. "This here is Juniper. We found her up in the snow and she's going to be staying with us for a while. She says she's a fortune teller so I'm sure we'll be having good fortune from now on." All eyes fell on her and she wanted to squirm but took a breath to hold herself steady. Abigail smiled at her encouragingly and Juniper returned it. "Now everyone, get to work!" He finished.
“Miss Juniper.” Grimshaw’s harsh tone pulled her out of her thoughts. “Now, I don’t know exactly what you can do but-“
“I was thinking I could help Pearson with cooking.” She offered. Miss Grimshaw looked surprised, startled into silence almost. “I’m not particularly good or swift with sewing but I can cook edible food that tastes better than shoe leather. I have been privy to the discovery of spices.”
“I suppose that would work.” The older woman said carefully.She eyed Juniper suspiciously but walked off to speak with Pearson. Karen walked over, taking Juniper by the arm.
"I can show you where the women sleep. You know, I don't think I've ever seen someone shut old Grimshaw up like that before. Can you really tell the future?" She asked excitedly as she began walking Juniper towards the wagon.
"Oh, yes. And I already know we're going to be good friends." Juniper smiled as Karen laughed.
"What about your hair?" The buxom woman reached up to graze her fingers across the shaved side of her head. "Is it like that because you're a fortune teller?"
“I just like it that way.” Karen seemed satisfied with that answer and began introducing her to the other women around the camp.