Home > Wild Country (The World of the Others #2)(15)

Wild Country (The World of the Others #2)(15)
Author: Anne Bishop

“It’s near Talulah Falls—and Lakeside.”

“Yes.” His relief was almost a taste in the air. “My sister sent a message that there was work here.”

“Did your sister tell you this is a mixed community and what that means?”

“It means we must accept the customs of those who are not like us,” another man said. He stood apart from the others just enough to make Virgil think he might be the same kind of human but he hadn’t come from the same pack as the other four.

Kane growled—and Virgil agreed. It wasn’t what the man had said but the way he’d said it. Virgil didn’t smell anything wrong about the man, but …

<I don’t like him,> he said to Tolya.

<Agreed.>

“Don’t fuss,” Jesse whispered. “I have a feeling he won’t be here long.”

<The Jesse female is looking at her feet and not meeting any males’ eyes,> Kane said. <I don’t think the humans heard what she said.>

<There are other humans waiting,> Tolya said. <We’ll continue this discussion later.>

“Collect your baggage and put it in the van that’s waiting in the parking lot,” Virgil said. “Then walk down to the Bird Cage Saloon. We’ll meet you there to sort out the paperwork.” Not that he would do any sorting. He was the sheriff. He got to bite wrongdoers. Tolya had to deal with paperwork because he was the town’s leader.

The thought of being able to give that one Simple Life male a hard bite or two cheered him up, so he smiled, showing his teeth.

The one with the stick up his tail had opened his mouth—probably to yap about going to the saloon—but one look at Virgil’s smile and he hurried away to fetch his luggage.

The next group was a family pack made up of an adult female, a younger adult female, a boy, and …

Virgil cocked his head to one side, trying to figure out the third female. She didn’t look like the others. She was short and blocky and her face wasn’t shaped like any human he’d ever seen. She had to be a juvenile, but that didn’t feel right.

She gave Kane the sweetest smile and hurried toward the Wolf.

“Doggy!”

“Becky, no,” the dominant female said sharply, grabbing for the girl and missing.

Virgil leaned toward the girl, just enough to draw her attention from Kane. “Not a dog. A Wolf.”

She stared at Virgil. “Wollllff.” Her hand suddenly rose and came down, as if she was going to clobber Kane. Then she stopped the movement and said, “Gentle, gentle.”

<She’s a skippy,> Kane said as she petted his head. <I didn’t know humans had skippies.>

Sometimes Wolf pups were born with a skippy brain that made it hard for them to learn how to hunt—made it hard for them to survive. If they managed to reach adulthood, many of them outgrew the skippiness but most didn’t live that long in the wild country.

“She doesn’t mean any harm,” the dominant female said. “She’s a good girl and a good worker.”

“Will her brain get better?” Virgil asked.

The female’s mouth tightened and she looked like she’d been driven out of more than one pack because of the girl. “No. She’ll always be this way.”

Huh. Virgil glanced at Tolya.

“Your name?” Tolya asked.

“Hannah Gott. I’m Simple Life.” She gestured to the long dress and white apron. All three females wore white caps over their hair, although the skippy’s hat had food stains on the tie strings. Virgil smelled some kind of fruit and gravy made from beef.

Hannah Gott introduced her sister, Sarah, then her niece, Becky, and finally her nephew, Jacob.

“I’m guessing you have clothing here,” she said. “Lots of it that needs to be sorted into what is good and what just hasn’t been cut up into rags yet. There are plenty of people now who need clothes but can’t afford to buy new. I think it’s possible to find communities that are in need and sell them the excess goods that are here for a reasonable price.” She looked at Virgil but didn’t quite meet his eyes. “I’m guessing your people might appreciate a little help when it comes to buying human garments. Especially if it’s a new experience.”

“Because we have Intuits, Simple Life, and humans living here as well as terra indigene, we are establishing communities so that people can live among their own,” Tolya said.

“That’s not necessary for us.” Hannah Gott sounded sharp. “We would prefer to live among people who are tolerant of differences.”

Her response made Virgil wonder what usually happened to skippy-brained humans.

The two railway men offered to haul the Gotts’ luggage to the van, and Kane was assigned to lead them to the saloon.

And that left the last human who was waiting for their notice and permission to enter Bennett.

“Not another one,” Tolya said under his breath, causing Jesse Walker to huff in a way that sounded like laughter.

The smile and the look in the female’s eyes were things Virgil also recognized from his dealings with Barbara Ellen. Here was another bouncy fluffball.

“I’m Lila Gold.” Her arms were full of books and folders with papers sticking out the tops. “I heard you say there’s a saloon. Is it wonderful? I bet it’s wonderful.”

“You want to work in a saloon?” Tolya asked.

“Uh-huh. I’ve studied frontier towns since I was a little girl. It’s kind of my hobby. Or passion. Or vocation. Something like that. And I always thought working in a saloon would be fun. Not the more carnal things that used to go on, but the dancing and singing and talking to people. I worked as a waitress while I went to school, so I know how to wait on customers. And I took a self-defense class, so I know what to do with my knee if I need to. You know?”

Virgil didn’t know. Was sure he didn’t want to know. She was like a puppy who couldn’t resist grabbing his tail.

“You went to school,” Tolya said. “What did you study?”

The smile dimmed a bit. “I took secretarial classes but I don’t really—”

“So you can type and file and answer phones?” Tolya interrupted.

The smile dimmed a bit more. “I wanted to do something different.”

“You’re an Intuit,” Jesse Walker said. “You had a feeling that if you came here, you could have something different, something that would make you happy.”

“Yes!” Now Lila Gold focused on Jesse. “I was good at my job. I really was. But I’d come home at night and …” She waved a hand to indicate Bennett—and almost dropped all the books and folders. “A couple of weeks ago, I thought why shouldn’t I give it a try? No, it was more than that. I knew I should give it a try. So I quit my job and packed up my belongings and bought train fare to Bennett because this is the only frontier town that still has a train station. Well, not the only one, but it was the first one on the list because the name starts with the letter B.” She smiled at them.

She didn’t have freckles on her face but she did have yellow hair and blue eyes like Barbara Ellen. What were they supposed to do with a pack of bouncy fluffballs? Could two fluffballs be considered a pack?

“We need secretaries,” Tolya said. He held up a hand. “We need people who can do that work. However, if you’re willing to use your skills in that area for part of your required work hours, I’ll talk to Madam Scythe about giving you a chance to work in her saloon.”

“Her name is Madam Scythe? Really?” The bounce was back. “That would be awesome!”

“Then let’s go up to the saloon and go over all the requirements for residency in Bennett.” Tolya looked past Lila Gold. “Nicolai?”

“Should we take these belongings to the van?” Nicolai asked.

“Yes. It looks like everyone will be staying,” Tolya replied.

“Then I’ll tell the conductor the train can go on to the next stop. He’s been waiting to make sure no one needed to board. They want to leave soon to make all their stops before dark.”

“Tell them we appreciate their waiting.”

Jesse Walker took some of the books Lila Gold was carrying, and the two women headed for the Bird Cage Saloon.

“We have to do this for every train from now on?” Virgil asked.

“The humans migrating from Lakeside will have papers. We’ll send them on to the saloon,” Tolya said. “It’s the ones without papers that we need to look at carefully. There is something I need to show you and Kane. Will you be back at the sheriff’s office later this afternoon?”

“I’ll be there.”

But first he was going to go back to the office and strip off the human clothes and shift out of this human skin, and he was going to run and run in order to feel like who, and what, he was.

* * *

* * *

Standing in her office doorway, Scythe brushed a hand over the sapphire dress, enjoying the feel of the material. Not quite like the pictures of dresses worn in a frontier saloon, but close enough for now. Garnet Ravengard and Pearl Owlgard had found a shop where humans had had their pictures taken wearing frontier costumes and had found some clothing that looked appropriate for a saloon. They brought back all the costumes they could find and chose two outfits each. They also brought back dresses they thought might suit the owner of a saloon.

Did they know what she was, know what she could do to any of them? All of them?

The desire to belong had to be stronger than the compulsion to feast. Most of her kind didn’t have enough control. Better to feed and feed until there was nothing left and then move on. But sometimes one of them wanted more—and showed others among their kind that it was possible. Not easy. Never easy. But possible.

It took years to learn how to have that control. Years and mistakes. Villages devastated by a mysterious illness, where there might be a single survivor who ended up with a dead eye after glimpsing a black-haired stranger heading away from the village—a stranger who was too sated on the lives already consumed to take one more.

Or a crop bursting with life and ready for harvest—and the whole field changed to dead and rotting plants overnight.

It took years to learn how to sip a little life energy from many and even eat food the way a human would.

She might have settled in one of the little towns that had been emptied of humans—towns the terra indigene had reclaimed—and lived on whatever she could find until fresh prey arrived in the form of two-legged scavengers. She had been heading toward one of them when she came across the strange girl bleeding out on the side of the road. The girl should have been prey but wasn’t.

She hadn’t known about the sweet bloods, the humans who weren’t prey because they were Namid’s creation, both wondrous and terrible.

That day, Scythe had felt the life force flickering in the girl and knew there wasn’t much left to harvest, even if she hadn’t felt uneasy. But she’d crouched beside the girl, careful not to touch the blood.

   
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