The campfire offered little but to dry the tears on her face to salt. Her eyes seemed heavy, too heavy, but she couldn’t sleep, not with the thoughts sleep brought. Whether or not she saw her dead husband’s eyes again. That fear moments before he fell to slaughter.
A twig snapped as someone approached and Sadie rubbed her face with a grubby sleeve before anyone could see.
“It’s just me.” Abigail sat on the log next to her, a small smile on her freckled face. The firelight danced across her cheeks.
Sadie sniffed, lowering her sleeve. “Sorry Abigail, didn’t want you to see me cryin’ again. Like a damn schoolgirl.”
“Hey now,” she reached a hand out and set it on Sadie’s knee, “Ain’t no small thing you’ve been through. You’ve got every right to cry all you want.”
“It’s just,” She let out a sigh, clearing her lungs, her voice a bit stronger, “I feel so damn useless. I could be doin’ so much more.”
“Don’t let Miss Grimshaw hear you sayin’ that.”
Sadie laughed quietly, hanging her head. She set a hand on top of Abigail’s covering her knee.
“Don’t think I ever told you, I appreciate what you’ve been doin’ for me, Miss Roberts. No one else’s been ‘round like you have.”
“Don’t think nothin’ of it.” Abigail smiled. “You can call me Abigail.” She flipped her hand around to grab Sadie’s and gave it a gentle squeeze of reassurance. “I best be going, Jack needs to get to bed.”
Sadie nodded, “G’night, Abigail.” And watched the mother leave.
Sadie did her chores, her labor, her repayment for the gang and its security. Her evidence that she belonged, at least for now. She kept her head down, mostly, still hurting as her husband’s eyes appeared in the faces of others. They appeared especially in Abigail’s. Pale blue and so full of concern. It made Sadie’s heart pound every time she’d look at her. An insistent warmth inside the cavern of her chest, knock, knock, knocking to get out.
But she couldn’t. Not with Jake still so fresh in her memory. Not with Abigail’s boy and Marston, whatever the hell that was. Not with this gang and their prying eyes. Even among outlaws there were things that remained unspoken, a paradox as it was.
The distraction of her newly susceptible heart served to forget about that night. Forget that her life now was keeping her head down ‘till she couldn’t no more.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Sometimes at night they’d dance and sing around fire pit, drunk and jolly. They’d take turns picking songs, accompanied by a man with a guitar. She’d learned his name was Javier, a revolutionary from south of the border. And Pearson, the cook, a former sailor, offered her whiskey that she politely declined for now.
At night the fire served as a blanket, pulling her in from the cold of the surrounding forest. She offered her hand to Abigail that night, a rough laugh in her throat and a hesitant smile on her lips. They danced around the camp to the guitar, a bottle of whiskey shared between the two. There was nothing else that night, just Abigail, her warm hands on Sadie’s hips as they moved together until she woke up the next morning.
The next day Pinkertons entered the camp and threatened Dutch. They drove the two agents out, but fled immediately after. Sadie felt that the little comfort she’s built up in the camp fled like rainwater.
They crossed into Lemoyne, carpeted in fields and red, red dirt.
Then Arthur took her into town and something inside her finally escaped. Maybe it was her grief. The acceptance that she was, unavoidably, alone. The acceptance of her broken heart. There wasn’t healing for this, only moving on.
The blood of the raiders sealed that fact for good. Killing them filled the desire for revenge, for now.
That night they sat around the campfire, most people asleep or pulled away by some pressing issue. But Javier faithfully sat in his tent, guitar quietly singing its wordless tune. Mary-Beth sat nearby, writing away in her journal next to Pearson and the old man, Uncle, who he shared a whiskey bottle with.
“Mrs. Adler?” The cook held the bottle by the neck and offered the end to her. She accepted and took a drink.
Abigail, sitting next to her, drew her attention by placing a hand on her thigh. “So Arthur tells me you two have been causin’ trouble out in Rhodes.”
“Aw, it was nothin.” She shook it off, but saw the others staring raptly at her, waiting to be spun a tale. And for a moment, everything was good. Respect, whiskey, and those blue eyes set on her like she was the only person in the world. Jake wavered in her thoughts a moment, but he wasn’t dead. He smiled.
“Well,” She began, settling her hand on Abigail’s, “We was held up by the local bullies, the Lemoyne raiders they call themselves…”
“You sure about this?”
Abigail gave her a look, “Never been so sure.”
“You sure it ain’t just the whiskey talking?”
“I’m sure it ain’t that.” Abigail set her head on Sadie’s shoulder. “I been thinkin,’ really thinkin,’ when this is all over, who-? Who’s there that I’m gonna stick my neck out for?” They sat on a rocky outcropping outside of camp, buzzing from the liquor and campfire smoke. The fat moon hung low.
Sadie grabbed Abigail’s pale hand and absentmindedly fiddled with her fingers in only a way that a drunk yet affectionate woman could. “Well you got your boy-“
“-‘Course I got Jack-”
Sadie nodded, continuing, “You got, uh, Mary-Beth n’ Tilly, they’re both pleasant young women.”
“Sure, but Ms. Grimshaw-“
“As long as I’m breathin,’” Sadie started to laugh, “Ms. Grimshaw won’t bother you none.”
Abigail stared at their hands, slowly closing hers so that she was holding Sadie’s. “That’s a big promise, Mrs. Adler.”
“I intend to keep it.” She stated. “Let’s see, uh, you got Arthur, he’s a decent man. Mr. Smith and Mr. Pearson. Both respectable.” She was staring at their hands as well. “What about Marston?”
Suddenly she could feel the stillness of the air, the tense breathing from her own chest as she waited anxiously for an answer she expected, like some kind of smothered animal.
“John’s John.” Abigail told her, “He done left us for about a year. I don’t know what the hell he went ‘n did, none of us do, but I ain’t forgetting, and I ain’t forgiving, neither.”
“So John’s a maybe.”
Abigail let out what might’ve been a snort. “Yeah, I guess he’s a maybe.”
“I’m running out of folks…” Sadie set her cheek on the crown of Abigail’s head and turned their hands over, rubbing the back of Abigail’s hand with her thumb.
“Me? Nah, would you? I expect I won’t be leavin’ this life behind.”
Abigail moved her head to look up at Sadie.
“Sadie, I wouldn’t want anyone else.”
And then she surprised Sadie by letting go of their clasped hands to pull her in and kiss her.
There was no hesitation from Sadie as she kissed back. Anxiety lingered in her stomach but it was worth it, so worth it.
Sadie parted from her, “Abigail,” Voice stern.
“Oh goddamn it, Sadie I’m sorry-“
“Abigail.” She grabbed her by the shoulders. “We could leave. Get your boy and we ride away tonight.”
Abigail’s eyes stared into hers, filled with desperate longing that she knew, she’d always known, would never be satisfied.
“Oh, Sadie.” Was all she said before hugging her tightly around the waist, head tucked in her chest. And before she knew it, Abigail was sobbing quietly against her. Sadie held her hands above in alarm, but set them slowly and gently to Abigail’s rocking shoulders.
Carefully she lifted the still-crying Abigail to her feet and lead her into camp. Mr. Pearson, still miraculously awake, watched them with concern, but Sadie caught his eye and made a motion of drinking from a bottle. He nodded, still wary of them but looking too tired to bother. Sadie ducked under the tent flap and led Abigail inside. Jack slept soundly on a roll at the foot of the cot that she lowered Abigail onto.
Abigail held onto her wrist before she could turn to leave. “Stay with me?”
“What about John?”
“He ain’t comin’ back tonight. Stay.”
She couldn’t find a reason to say no anymore, and laid down on the cot, holding Abigail in her arms. She sniffled and kept her head buried in Sadie’s chest for a while. Sadie held still as she could and felt the drafts move in and out of the tent, sending shivers through her body. Even in Lemoyne the nights chilled to the bone. It reminded her of the Grizzlies, up in the ranch with Jake, the two of them close for warmth in early January. Sadie planted a kiss on Abigail’s head.
She whispered gently against her hair, “Abigail, this really might be the whiskey talkin,’ but you’re the most beautiful woman I ever met and I couldn’t complain if we done live together, far away from this, whatever this is.”
The silence that met her was worrying for a moment, but she realized Abigail still held her tightly, now with even breathing.
“I ain’t believe in God. Even so, I ain’t believe in a god who’d punish us for love. We can have a house. Up in Big Valley with some horses, away from civilization. Neighbor’s’ll think us a tad strange, but....” Her thoughts drifted back to the burnt ranch hidden in the Grizzlies and she felt paralyzed but she kept speaking, “At night we’ll bring the horses into the barn and feed ‘n water them. When the thaw comes we’ll plant some crops for next winter…”
By the time she finished, Abigail was asleep.
“You washin’ those?”
Abigail looked up from the basket in her arms, stray hairs sticking to her face in the humidity. Her face softened when she recognized Sadie. Subtle bags had formed under eyes from the recent anxieties that’d preoccupied her, but she still lit up like the sun when Sadie spoke to her.
“Sure am. I suppose women’s work is under an individual such as yourself.” Her eyes wrinkled with a playful smile.
Sadie made a grab for the basket in her hands. “Shut up, you.” She laughed, rough in her throat from disuse. In her chest, she felt her heart swell from Abigail’s smile.
They made their way to the west side of camp, carefully picking their way down the river bank onto the shore. Gentle green waves lapped at the sand. Sadie set the basket in the sand.
“Hotter’n hell out here.” Abigail noted, stooping to pick out the washboard from the laundry.
Sadie took several strides out into the lake, boots and all. “Sure is. Too bad there ain’t a way to cool down ‘round here.” She turned to look at Abigail on the shore with a grin, but found her already working the washboard vigorously with someone’s shirt.
“Hey!” Abigail looked up when Sadie shouted, and she crouched and swung her arms up, sending a slash towards Abigail.
“Sadie Adler…” Her expression looked frighteningly stern as she approached, pulling her skirts up and out of the muddy lake. Sadie wondered briefly how Marston was still living after suffering Abigail’s wrath.
“Come on, Miss Roberts…” Sadie told her, feigning innocence until she splashed her again and laughed.
Abigail hiked her skirts up farther to try and reach Sadie, who was up past her knees in water. But before she could, she tripped on something under the surface and stumbled.
“Abi-“ Sadie was on top of her, grabbing her shoulder and trying to help her back up. A grin fashioned itself on Abigail’s lips when she grasped Sadie’s forearm and pulled her into the water, too. Her head went under but she broke the surface quickly, wiping her eyes with her fingers.
“Why, you-“ Sadie stood and shook her arms, sending water flying off her sleeves.
She scooped Abigail up, much to the woman’s protest, and waded against the water and farther from the shore. Abigail shrieked with both shock and delight as Sadie tossed her out into the water in front of them.
“Missus Adler you are unbelievable.” Abigail stood in chest high water, arms crossed.
Sadie laughed, deep and raspy in her chest, and yelped when Abigail splashed her and wrapped her soaking wet arms around her.
“Cool enough for you?”
“Mmhmm.” Abigail fished Sadie’s hat from where it floated next to them and set it on her head. Streams of water ran down her freckled face; they were so close Abigail could make out each one.
“Missus Adler you’re the most beautiful woman I ever met.”
Sadie smiled again, and lifted a hand to tilt Abigail’s face up to her own. She closed her eyes and kissed Abigail.
She felt the imaginary eyes of the gang of strangers on them, but let it be. She’d burden the consequences of her love. “Let’s get on out of here, Miss Roberts.”