Authors: A.M. Sexton
“Fuck you,” Aren said. His voice was loud in the small room. He sounded strong, and it gave him courage. “Fuck you!” he said again, louder this time, feeling more sure of himself. “I’m not scared.”
He jumped as somebody pounded on the wall of his room. Not one of the wraiths that may or may not have been outside in the wind. It came from the room next to Aren’s. “People trying to sleep in here!” the man on the other side of the wall yelled.
Aren couldn’t believe anybody could sleep through the buzz of the generator and the racket of the wind and yet be kept awake by somebody talking, but he didn’t want to cause trouble, so he resolved to stop cussing at people who were halfway across the world. Still, his outburst had given him the strength he needed to examine his situation rationally.
There was no point in being scared. If there really were wraiths in Oestend, it was obvious the locals knew how to handle them. The man who’d hired him had directed him to this particular hostel for the night. Presumably he wouldn’t have sent Aren to a place that was known for allowing its tenants to be killed in their sleep. Although the shutters on windows rattled, they seemed solid enough, and Aren would have bet his last coin there was a warding sign over the window as well. He had to trust those things would be enough to keep him safe.
He pulled the blanket over his head and snuggled down under the covers. At least the bed was soft and the sheets were clean. Tomorrow, a man from the ranch would arrive to take him to his new home. Whatever this backwater land wanted to throw at him, Aren was sure he was ready.
He was right on most counts. He was ready for the dust. He was ready for the wind. He was ready for the two-day trip to the ranch.
What he wasn’t ready for was Deacon.
Deacon was the man who arrived to take Aren to the BarChi Ranch. Deacon had come into town the night before, but had apparently elected to spend the night elsewhere—in the stables or at the whorehouse or at another inn, Aren didn’t know, and didn’t care. Deacon arrived at the hostel the next morning driving a wooden wagon drawn by a pair of sturdy draught horses.
The first thing Aren noticed about him was the deep colour of his skin. Back on the continent, skin-tones ran from white to pink to golden, but one rarely saw anybody darker than the sun could make them. Deacon, on the other hand, had skin that was a rich, dark reddish-brown. He wore a straw cowboy hat, and his pitch-black hair hung in a queue down his back. Aren supposed him to be around thirty years old. He was tall and broad and muscular and rough and everything Aren might have expected from a man who’d spent his entire life doing hard labour on a remote Oestend ranch. He was exactly the kind of man who usually managed to make Aren feel small and insignificant simply by being there. He looked at Aren’s pile of luggage with barely disguised amusement.
“You got an awful lot of stuff,” he said, turning his mocking gaze onto Aren. “What’s in all those?”
Deacon’s scrutiny made him uncomfortable. Aren tried to smooth his light brown hair down—it had grown out longer than he’d ever had it, which was still short by Oestend standards. It was too short to pull into a queue like Deacon’s, and though Aren tried to keep it straight, it seemed determined to form soft curls around his ears. He had a hard enough time getting men to take him seriously because of his small stature. Having hair that curled like a girl’s wasn’t going to help.
“Well?” Deacon asked, still waiting for an answer. “What’s in the bags?”
Aren forced himself to stop fidgeting, although he couldn’t quite meet Deacon’s eyes. “My clothes. Books. Art supplies.”
“Art supplies?” Deacon asked, as if the words held no meaning for him.
“Yes,” Aren said, and for some reason, Deacon’s absurd question gave him the strength he needed to stand up straight and face the rough cowboy in front of him. “Canvas and paint.”
Deacon’s eyebrows went up, and although he didn’t laugh, it was clear he wanted to. “Good thing. Barn’s needed a new coat of paint for a while now.”
Aren felt his cheeks turning red, and he hid it by turning to pick up the nearest suitcase. It had seemed perfectly reasonable to bring his art supplies with him, especially since he feared both paint and canvas might be hard to come by on the ranch. It bothered him that Deacon had managed to make him feel foolish for it. The fact that he’d done it within moments of meeting him only made it sting more.
One by one, he loaded his many suitcases into the wagon. He could feel Deacon’s gaze upon him the entire time. He moved quickly because he knew they had other things to do in town before they left. When his last bag was in the wagon, he turned to face Deacon again, ready for the mockery he’d seen in Deacon’s eyes before. He was surprised to see Deacon was no longer laughing at him. He was watching him appraisingly, and Aren thought he even saw a hint of approval in his dark eyes.
“Would have done that for you, you know,” he said.
Then why didn’t you?
Of course, if he’d wanted help, he could have asked, but this was obviously a world where physical strength earned more respect than education or refinement. Aren hated to give other men a reason to think he was weak. Just because he wasn’t made of muscle like Deacon didn’t mean he couldn’t handle his own luggage. A familiar feeling of angry rebellion bloomed in Aren’s chest. “I’m not helpless,” he snapped.
Deacon’s look of puzzled amusement returned. He shook his head. “Why’re you mad?” he asked.
It was a good question. Why was he mad? Because Deacon was laughing at him? Because he hadn’t helped with the bags? Or because he seemed surprised that Aren hadn’t asked for help with them? Or was it only because here, just as at the university, he was bound to be seen as less than a man by all the other men around him?
“I’m just tired,” Aren said, which wasn’t exactly a lie. He’d been travelling for more than a month to reach this point—four weeks on the small, stinky ship from Lanstead to Francshire, Oestend’s eastern port, being seasick most of the way, followed by two nights straight on the noisy, rickety train from Francshire to Milton, the western-most point of what could loosely be termed ‘civilisation’ in Oestend. Although he’d managed to get a few hours of sleep at the hostel the night before, he still felt terribly out of sorts. “I feel I’ve barely slept in ages.”
The smile that spread across Deacon’s face this time wasn’t mocking. It was friendly, and a little bit mischievous. “Don’t worry. Pretty sure you’ll sleep good tonight.”
“Why is that?” Aren asked.
“Staying at the McAllen farm,” Deacon said. “Lots of maids and daughters there.” He winked at Aren. “One of them’s bound to tuck you in.”
Aren hoped the sinking feeling those words caused wasn’t apparent on his face. He fought to keep his voice steady. “I see.”
“We best get moving if we want to get there before the wraiths get us.”
“Of course,” Aren said, although at that moment, he would have preferred to take his chances with the wraiths.
They made a few quick stops for supplies before heading out into the prairie. Aren hadn’t seen much of Milton when he’d arrived. The hostel he’d stayed at was near the outskirts of the east side. They had to drive west all the way through town before leaving.
Although the cities back in Lanstead had their slums too, the parts Aren had been familiar with were filled with upscale shops and brightly-painted town homes. Stained glass windows had recently become a fad, and nearly every home sported at least one, usually as prominent and garish as it could be. Glancing around the dusty town of Milton, Aren saw nothing of the sort. The walkways fronting the businesses were bare wooden planks. The buildings he saw looked as if they’d never seen a single coat of paint. The few painted signs he saw were faded to the point of being practically useless.
“Some of these buildings don’t even have windows,” Aren said.
Deacon shrugged. “Glass is expensive. Plus, it’s damn hard to patch the hole in the wall if it breaks.”
Everywhere he looked, it seemed Aren saw no colour at all—only varying shades of brown and grey. He found it a bit depressing.
In the town’s centre lay a large wooden platform. It almost looked like a stage. Aren might have thought it was for executions, except there was no sign of a gallows.
“What’s that for?” he asked Deacon.
Deacon’s jaw clenched, as if the question angered him. He didn’t look at Aren. “That’s where they used to sell the slaves.”
“Slaves?” Aren asked, alarmed. “They still have slavery here?
“Not anymore,” Deacon said, “but it last
ed longer than you’d probably think.
Once they’d passed the last building, Deacon drove onto a rutted trail that led into the long, golden-green grass of the Oestend prairie. They were headed due west, presumably towards the BarChi Ranch, where Aren had
managed to secure a job as a bookkeeper. As the bustle of the town fell behind them, Aren found himself feeling simultaneously liberated and scared to death. In leaving Milton, he was abandoning all vestiges of the civilised society he’d grown up in. Ahead of him, Oestend held only ranches, mines, buffalo, and mile after mile of prairie. He was leaving behind the trappings of luxury. Back home in Lanstead, most homes had running water. A few even had electricity. He would find none of that here in Oestend.
Lanstead had first colonised Oestend a hundred and fifty years earlier, but shipping goods back and forth had proved to be more trouble and more expense than it was worth. Since that time, the empire had long since lost interest in the remote land, and the colonies had become more or less independent. The eastern seaboard was where the majority of the population resided, living off what the sea provided. Further inland, most of Oestend’s limited prosperity came from the many mines to the south and fur and fishing in the north. Of course, everybody in Oestend, from miners and trappers to the inn-keepers and blacksmiths, had to eat, and that was where the ranches came in. By accepting a position at one of them, Aren had committed himself to a life that was considered downright primitive by most of his colleagues.
Ex-colleagues, he reminded himself. It was time he stopped thinking of himself as a bourgeois university student from the most cosmopolitan city on the continent. He was now a bookkeeper for an Oestend rancher.
“You work for Jeremiah?” Aren asked Deacon.
Deacon frowned at the question. “Guess so.”
“Are you his son?
“Are you the foreman?”
Deacon tipped his head a bit to the side, squinting as if the question confused him. “Guess I’m the close
st thing we got.” He glanced over at Aren, looking him up and down in an appraising way—though not as if he were interested in Aren sexually. Aren thought it was probably closer to the way he might have examined a cow he was taking to market. “You’re not married, are you?” Deacon asked.
It seemed like such a strange question, completely out of nowhere, and it surprised Aren. “No,” he said. “Why?”
“Possible Fred McAllen’ll be throwing one of his daughters at you tonight.”
Aren found that alarming. It was bad enough he might have to face women who wanted sex, but if his host was expecting it for some reason, things were going to be even more uncomfortable than he’d imagined. “You mean he encourages his daughters to ‘tuck in’ the guests?”
Deacon laughed. “Hell, no! He catches one of them doing that, he might take a shotgun to you.”
That was something of a relief. “Then what—?
“I mean a bride.
Any fleeting sense of relief Aren had felt disappeared. “A what?
“The McAllens have a lot of daughters, and not many eligible sons around here to marry them off to.
“I’m not getting married!
Deacon laughed. “No, not tonight you a
in’t. I’m just saying, they’ll likely be sizing you up as a possible husband.
“Holy Saints, that’s the last thing I need.
“It’s possible they’ll hold off. Wait to see if you pan out before letting one of their girls marry you.
“Is there anything I ca
n do to discourage them?
Deacon laughed, and somehow the look he turned on Aren seemed far more congenial than it had been before. “Make yourself look like bad husband material, I guess.”
“How do I do that?”
“I don’t know. Never thought about it before.
I suppose act stupid. Or mean.”
Nobody in the world would believe Aren if he tried to act mean. Stupid, though? Stupid he thought he could do.
A couple of hours before sunset they rode over a ridge and the McAllen farm appeared below them. There was a house, a barn, and a few small outbuildings. Lined up behind the barn were pen after pen of pigs. Rising high above it all, casting its long shadow over the house, was the biggest windmill Aren had ever seen. It was also the strangest. It obviousl
y wasn’t part of any mill. Its base ended in a giant contraption that looked like an engine that had fallen off a passing train.