by Shannon Wick
Dull metal train tracks stretched around the bend before disappearing in the dense forest. Moll’s worn shoe caught on the rocks pressed between the wooden slats as she stumbled over the tracks, holding tighter to the baby bundled in her arms. She was asleep now, but just. The morning fog had burned off hours ago before rushing in the humidity now suffocating them and setting Abby fussing. Above her, Moll watched swift clouds moving in, noting the subtle threat of coming rain. It’d be here by nightfall, just an hour away, if that. These tracks marked the edge of what she knew, before the small farm fields on the edge of town turned into wild country before the mountains rose up behind them. But the forest went deep first, and that was where she headed now. Her shoes pinched her feet, not made to fit, but rather fished from a pile of riffraff in a street market stall. Not custom-made like the shoes of her employers.
Abby wiggled and the breeze on her face reminded Moll her diaper was full. She considered stopping, maybe laying down her jacket on the forest floor as a blanket for the baby while she changed her. But she hadn’t thought to grab extra diaper cloth and the notion of stopping for a moment made her breath seize up. No, they had to keep going, a bit longer still and then they could hunker down in a place where Moll could cover Abby from the rain. She’d stopped once to tie an old scarf crossways around her in a sling for the sleeping babe. Though she’d fed not two hours ago, Moll’s breasts were full again to the point of pain. Dampness had already spread through her underclothes and over the front of the cheap dress she wore.
They moved through the trees, the only noise Moll’s footsteps over sticks and the slosh of her half-empty canteen. Her stockings were ripped from many burrs and the sun had already burned the part in her ditchwater-blond braid. She walked until the sun dipped below the trees and her canteen was empty, feeding Abby along the way before she drifted off into sleep yet again. At last she sagged with heavy relief beside a wide, shallow stream and found an alcove of tight trees to set down her heavy sack. She laid the baby down on her coat before moving toward the stream. Filling her canteen, she took in the blood running in thin lines down her hands and wrists from the trek through the dense trees and sharp branches. Pollen was stuck in her braid and her dress was soaked with sweat, but she rinsed her hands in the cool water and sighed anyway.
The whisper of a body brushing the face of a bush was all it took to make Moll scramble back to the alcove and scoop up the baby. Her neck cracked from side to side before spotting the doe fifteen feet away across the creek. Her fur was mottled in spots, but she nibbled on some grass, not seeming to notice them. The breeze shifted then, coming from behind and the deer froze, her eyes meeting Moll’s. They were set wide apart, a trait Moll found bothersome. But there was an alertness in her stance she recognized, and somehow that made her less afraid of the animal. They stared each other down until Abby’s thin cry broke the silence and the doe bolted through the trees.
“Aw, hell!” came a shout from behind Moll and to the left. A broken nub from a fallen branch stabbed her back as Moll fell against the trees behind her. Abby was outright wailing, struggling to loosen her arms from the swaddle that bound her.
A young man not much older than Moll stood in a small clearing behind her, two children coming up beside him and looking after the deer with obvious longing.
Moll held still like the deer, thinking they might not notice her in the pines. She cursed herself a moment later, the sound of the baby crying surfacing through the adrenaline crowding her mind. Besides, they looked right at her, all three, knowing where she was all along.
The two younger ones looked confused at her presence, but the older one—almost a man—had eyes set in deep suspicion. They weren’t dirty like Moll, but they were dressed in muted earth tones like the forest around them.
The young man spoke first. “Who are you? How’d you come here?” he asked.
Abby was still wailing. Moll pinched the tip of her tongue between her teeth.
“Sounds like your baby’s hungry,” said the little boy, his face open. He couldn’t have been but eight. The girl beside him seemed a bit older, saying nothing but frowning at Moll.
“She’s always hungry,” Moll said, her voice reedy from a day of disuse. “I’m just passing. Trying to make it out of the woods to the next town.” She didn’t know where, maps were no use to someone who couldn’t even read.
The man also frowned and gave her a dubious look. “The next town’s at least a day’s walk away. How long have you been out here?”
“Maybe she should come back with us, Lee. Dark’s coming,” the little boy said with a glance at what Moll would have guessed was his older brother.
“Archie, now, we don’t even know where she comes from. She could be anybody, could of done anything,” Lee said.
The boy—Archie—ducked his head, his black hair brushing his collar. “She’s got a baby. We can’t just leave her is all I’m saying.”
Archie was right, night was descending. Moll could already feel the warmth start to leave from the day, spreading above them like water saturating cloth.
The other child looked up at Lee. He wasn’t looking at Moll anymore, but at where the doe had disappeared. Moll wondered if that was their hope for dinner, noticing the long shape of a gun resting over Lee’s shoulder. She knew the end of the barrel would be biting and cold, the kind of cold to raise hair on end. She clutched the baby tighter.
The little girl looked to the baby, her forehead creased in a frown. Lee sighed. “All right, then. You best come with us for the night,” he said.
Moll shook her head. “No—I mean, I’m grateful, but I can’t, you see. We got to be getting along.”
Lee looked at her, assessing. “Come because of the baby. I doubt you’d both last the night in the cold.”
He turned and began walking away, the girl right behind him and the boy trailing and beckoning Moll with a hand.
It seemed it was settled, like so many other things in Moll’s life—without much opinion from her. She expected that at the last moment, she would accept the cold, embrace it throughout her body. But she pushed that out of her mind and looked down at the small face in her arms. She followed them away from the creek.
Their not-quite-a-cabin sat in a small clearing just a ways from the creek. Moll guessed it was their main source for water. The log walls and roof made from split shingles were all weathered the same old grey—it had been here awhile. But Moll could see that it was built awkwardly, the porch crooked and the roof sloped, similar to the ones from Shoreditch where she grew up. Before she went to work in one of the big houses on Oak Avenue. An outhouse the same color was visible just to the side and beyond that, Moll suspected there was a small garden.
“Archie, go get the fire going. Opal, get this girl and her baby settled. They’ll sleep on the cot tonight,” Lee said to the children. Moll didn’t bother to interject and the children tittered off. Abby was asleep now, nestled into the crook of her scarf with one hand clutching her lapel. Moll hesitated at the threshold, the floor squeaking under her shuffled steps.
She felt Lee behind her and turned to protect her back. “Pitter patter, let’s get at ‘er,” he said, not glancing at her as he went around her into the one room. It contained everything they owned. Fireplace, one very old Dutch oven. A cot with a lumpy mattress and a pallet next to it by the window in one corner, the kitchen with a table and three chairs in the other.
The girl—Opal, Moll remembered—gestured for her to have a seat on the cot.
“Can’t she talk?” Moll asked and they all stopped to look at her. Her voice had gone scratchy again.
“Course she can,” Archie said. But he offered nothing further and went back to kindling the fire. Outside, the trees shook in the wind as the sky rumbled about the coming storm. It occurred to Moll that she should feel grateful for having shelter during the storm, but a trapped, stalled feeling was all she had. She said thank you anyway. Lee nodded as he hung his hunting gear by the door.
They all had such dark hair, black even. Nothing like Moll’s dirty blond. She was grateful Abby remained a baby’s bald.
Archie finished with the fire and sat next to Moll on the bed, peering into the baby’s face.
“What are your names?”
“You can call me Moll. And she’s Abby—Tabitha, that is, but I call her Abby,” she said.
Archie laughed. “Why do you call her that? Don’t people usually call girls Tab or Tabby for that name?”
Moll’s face was hot. “I—I need to feed her, if you don’t mind,” she said, turning toward the corner of the room. Undoing the buttons on her dress, she felt the familiar pain as Abby started feeding. It always hurt, no matter how many times she did it. Moll could have forgiven her own baby for the pain, though. For a short second, she resented Abby, before it passed as it always did in those moments.
She could hear the small family rustling behind her, but she stayed facing the wall even after Abby finished.
“Can I hold her?” she heard and looked over her shoulder. She saw it was Opal and not Archie as she expected. She was still tight-lipped, but she had asked. Moll nodded and the girl sat next to her. She set the baby in her small, cradled arms.
“Have you done this before?” Moll asked as the girl bounced Abby, the gentleness practiced.
“My little brothers and sisters. They all died before they could walk, the fourth one taking Momma with her up to heaven. But I didn’t hate her for it. That is, Lee says we shouldn’t,” Opal said.
“Are you all that’s left? Where’s your Pa?” Moll asked.
“Pops went to a town a day’s west looking for gold. He visits sometimes.”
Moll hung her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. She supposed she was. That was what you said, but everyone she knew had a similar story. One full of death and bad luck. She knew she did.
“No need to be digging in the past, Opal,” Lee said from his chair by the fire. He had a pipe lit and was puffing tobacco. The smell was faint from where they sat.
“Not a crime to remember, Lee,” she retorted.
“It’s rude to be bothering a stranger with it.”
Moll shook her head, “I don’t mind.”
They were all silent for a spell. Opal looked up at Moll. “Where’re you headed?”
She thought about lying but didn’t see much of a point. “I don’t know. To whatever is past the woods, I suppose.”
Opal glanced at the small canvas sack still strapped to Moll’s back. “Is this all you brought? Don’t you have other things?”
“She’s all I’ve got left.” Lee looked over when she said that.
Archie addled over next wanting to hold the baby and they all smiled when Abby yawned. The four of them ate a cold supper of cornbread and beans made earlier that day before tucking in for the night. Moll lay out on the bed, too tense for sleep. With every passing minute, she grew more certain she should steal away while they were all abed, the rain be damned. She rolled over onto her elbow with the baby. Before she could stand, she saw Lee’s head lift from the pallet on the floor he shared with the children and she stilled.
“I don’t know who you are, but I can see you’re trouble,” he spoke in a hushed voice. “These two expect to see you in the morning, so I expect the same. But then you’re gone—they don’t need to get attached.”
Moll made as though she had just been nestling back into the bed and slept in dozing fits for the rest of the night.
The family of three dove into work early the next morning, shuffling through breakfast and out to start the chores for the day. It reminded Moll of mornings in the big house, when she would help in the kitchens before the family woke and her services were needed elsewhere. Moll offered to help here, feeling bad for trying to run in the night.
The rain had kept on till dawn, leaving the tall valley grass to brush against their stockings and pants, leaving them damp. Moll carried the buckets of water from the stream that Opal would have hauled on any other day. Instead, she sat watching the baby, laying her down on a quilt near the porch. Archie snuck over from the small cowshed every once in a while to try and make her laugh. The children’s eyes were glued to Abby all morning, making Moll at once nervous and relieved to not always be minding her. Abby’s eyes were still blue, just like Mrs. Couther’s. Moll figured they’d stay that way.
By lunchtime, Lee’s frown had turned gruesome when he looked at Moll. Once they finished eating—the children making her a place without being asked—he stood from the table.
“It’s time you got along. You’ll have a night and a bit ahead of you if you don’t leave soon,” he said, gesturing south. “Next town’s Carlsbad, the railroad tracks lead right to it.”
Moll felt foolish for not knowing that, having passed the tracks yesterday.
“Why’s she got to go today, Lee? One more night—” Archie began with a mouthful, stopping at a look from his brother. Lee was taller than all of them, dark haired and lanky. Moll hadn’t seen his thin face smile yet. A lot of the men in these parts looked like him, especially the poorer folk. Her own baby’s father had a similar complexion but had brown hair. Or he did the last time she’d seen him before he left on a train. Not that she’d seen him in the last year.
“He’s right,” Moll said, bouncing the baby on her knee. “I really need to be making miles. I’ve got a long way to go.”
No one moved until Opal spoke. “It’s going to rain again, Lee. Before nightfall.” She said in her muted way, one that was quiet but that no one would call soft.
Lee looked out the open front door to see it for himself. A muscle twitched in his jaw and he pushed away from the table. “I’m going out alone this time. If I’m not back by dinner, it’s because I haven’t found anything. Have it on your own,” he said, grabbing his gun and hunting sack from where he’d hung them on the wall last night. He left without shutting the door. Abby let out a squawk so Moll shifted to cradle her against her shoulder.
“Lee doesn’t like babies much. Reminds him too much of Momma,” Archie said without preamble. Moll looked at Opal for confirmation, but she just offered her a shrug, so they went back to eating.
The children made dinner from what remained of lunch before spending the night playing with the baby. It was different from the nursery in the big house. Moll didn’t feel like a spectator here. The children smiled at them both and Moll tried to smile back, the movement feeling like muscle memory that started in her head but couldn’t make it to her mouth. They brought her a bucket of warmed water and a cloth. Small, apologetic smiles on their mouths. But she was grateful—days in the woods had left her covered in grime. She knew she smelled as bad.
Opal sang a soft lullaby to the baby, like one Moll’s mother might have sung, as they lay down to sleep. The children crowded into the bed with her and Abby, their small snores and kicking legs keeping Moll from drifting off for long hours.
A snap from the nearby woods outside woke the baby and set her fussing. She eased onto the porch and tried to see what had awoken Abby. It was warmer than last night, but still the hairs on her arms raised in the breeze. Abby had quieted, lulled by the gentle rocking. The rain was steady and she felt foolish, until she heard a gun being cocked behind her.
“Don’t move,” Lee said in a hushed voice. He was sitting in the chair right beside the door, so still Moll hadn’t seen him. He pointed the gun just past her, at once relieving her and making her spin around. Was it now, then? Had the men found her?
But it was just a deer, standing in the shelter of several leafy branches, trying to find a spot to lie down.
“Steady,” Lee said as she inched away from him and the gun. The adrenaline made her arms shake and loosed her tongue.
“Don’t,” she said.
He cut his eyes to her. “Why ever not?”
She could have said he’d wake everyone up. Or that it might draw unwanted attention. But she knew the thought of putting fresh game in their larder outweighed all of that. She’d seen that in the berries and roots they’d eaten with lunch today.
So instead, she said, “Don’t. She’s all alone. Look at her—even I can see how tired she is.” And she could see it. It was laid bare in the way the doe’s muscles struggled and collapsed as she tried to lower herself to the ground.
She stepped back and forth on the porch, earning a loud squeak from the boards. The deer was gone with a slight rustle of the low-hanging branches. Lee lowered his weapon.
Moll expected a rebuke, but none came.
“Momma said deer were supposed to guide you to the beyond—heaven I guess. I think she was sort of happy to be done by the end, no death left but her own to go through,” he said and paused, then added, “That’s not your baby.” There was a slight question in his voice.
The silence between them lasted long enough for Moll’s heart to pick up and for several plans of escape to form.
“Why would you think that?” she asked. She surprised herself with how steady her voice was.
He expected her to deny it, the surprise in his eyes told her so. “When our Momma looked at her babies, nothing troubled her as long as they were in her arms,” he began, setting the gun across his lap. “You don’t look like that.”
“What do I look like?” She wanted to know, needed to. Maybe it would feel like atonement.
“Sad,” he said, his own voice reflecting the sentiment. Moll knew she was crying but she didn’t much feel it. She looked down at Abby in her arms, this sweet babe she’d nursed since she was but two days old.
“The Couthers’ nursemaid took sick and died just before Abby was born. I was the quickest replacement they could find,” she said, stroking Abby’s cheeks.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“How old was your baby?”
“Death isn’t unlike birth—did you know that?” she asked. “Both of them leave you hurting all over, wanting heaven so bad you can taste it. Isaac, my baby, was three months old. They’re your heart from the day they get here and even when they leave.”
Her poor, sweet baby. He had just started laughing. Her own mother had lost a baby before she was born and had told her that more would come if she was blessed by God. They put him in the ground at the local church then later that day she started at the Couthers’. She had to once she’d given birth and her husband of nary a year had left for dreams of making it rich in gold. At first, she had hated Abby and the Couthers.
“Where’s her family?” Lee asked after a long while.
“They didn’t love her, not really. Her mother some days didn’t even hold her,” she said, her voice jagged by hiccups. “It was me she favored. Me.” They didn’t need Abby.
Lee didn’t say anything to that, just nodded his head.
“They’ll be coming after me,” she said. “I can’t go back there.”
He nodded again. “You’ll leave tomorrow. We’ll give you some food to get you there.” Then he went inside. Moll stayed out for a while longer, until the rain stopped.
They arrived in the morning.
Lee had already sent Archie and Opal to their normal foraging spot in the direction opposite of town. Moll was glad she wouldn’t have to say goodbye to them. She was packed and ready with Abby slung around her body when Lee stood from where he cleaned his gun at the table.
They were at the tree line. Moll hid behind the wall next to the door. Lee walked just outside and called, “That’s far enough, now.” He still held his gun, but he didn’t aim. There were at least five men, two of them wearing police badges. All of them armed.
“We’re looking for a girl and a baby. She’s a wanted kidnapper,” one of them—the leader, she supposed—called out. Moll reminded herself to breathe.
“No one like that round these parts, not that I seen anyway,” Lee responded, leaning against the doorframe.
From her sling, Abby woke and began crying.
“That your baby?” a man asked, a different one this time. His voice was angry. Moll could almost feel the adrenaline and rage as the group fed off each other’s responses.
“My little brother,” he said, and Moll believed him before she remembered he was lying. She could hear the men murmuring.
One spoke up. “Aren’t you Paul Anders’s boy? Heard his wife and her newborn died ‘bout two years back.”
The fear that squeezed her lungs loosened and her arms relaxed. There was no going back, not now. Lee glanced at her.
She unslung Abby, still crying, before pressing her lips to her head and breathing in her scent. Moll handed her to Lee, freeing his hands of the gun. He stared at the baby in his arms then looked up at Moll. She supposed it was pity in his eyes, but maybe not.
He gave a small nod then walked the child back toward what everyone must’ve thought was salvation. Safety from the one who stole her.
Moll cocked the gun, fit the barrel under her chin, and thought of her own lost baby. She wouldn’t think of the mess that would be left behind.
From the spot just a ways away, the children were startled to hear a gunshot and to find forest critters rushing past them and away from the noise. They caught a flash of a buck as he darted near the tree line, his mighty antlers the only thing they saw.