Voices in the aisle invade my privacy. The company surprises me, considering the farmhands were called to lunch a half hour ago. One of the voices carries a northern lilt that rolls over my skin like a late day thunderstorm, pulling at the hairs on the back of my neck.
I stilled the hose against my palm, straining to catch the direction of their conversation. Marlboro stomped her hoof, irritated at the disruption of her bath.
“It’s been over forty-eight hours Jeremy. I thought you were capable.”
“Evelyn’s been killing us with the workload, I’m managing alright? I just need a few more weeks.”
“I don’t have a few more weeks, Jer- she’s almost stumbled across the truth twice already, I can’t afford to have another mishap. Two more days is all I can give you.”
“What if I-“
“There are no if’s, you’ve got no other option.” The discussion crumbles and silence returns to the barn isle. Blood pounds against my veins and my heart threatened to burst from my chest; the vague conversation has sparked my paranoia. Marlboro nips at the sleeve of my sweatshirt, reminding me that I’ve got work to finish. I wave off the voices; my anxiety was causing me to associate every moment with our situation. I was concerned over nothing.
I flip the nozzle on the hose; the cool water gushing from the spout chills my skin. I run the stream over the paint mare’s back, attempting to replicate the movements Eli showed me. The water runs rivulets down her fur and drips onto the concrete. The pitter-patter of droplets reminds me of rain drumming against the window of my room back in Seattle on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I hum along to the beat.
The soft snorts of the other horses are calming as I watch the sweat and grime disappear from the swirl of Marlboro’s fur. The mare stands patiently as I pull the scraper across her chest and stomach, winging water off her frame. As I reach towards her neck, Marlboro’s ears flick forward and her nostrils flare.
My body slams against the cement of the wash stall, the impact rattling my teeth. A figure looms in front of me with a hat pulled low over their face but from the uniform adorning their body it must be a cowhand.
“What the hell man, get off!” I shove at their arms pinning me to the wall but they don’t budge. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry. I’m new here; I don’t know the pecking order.” I’m squirming, trying to free myself from the manacle grip on my biceps. “I don’t even know you!” I aim a kick at him, but he swings his hips in time to dodge my assault. Marlboro is dancing around the stall, pulling at her ties as she tries to escape the confrontation.
The stranger lets out a snort of amusement, his chuckle transforming my blood to ice. It’s deep and ominous as it pierces my memory. He tips his chip up allowing me a glance beneath the brim of his hat. My stomach hollows as my eyes widen in recognition.
“That’s right darlin’ didn’t think I’d be seeing you around these parts.” The northern accent clashes with the southern phrasing. I open my mouth to scream, but Aaron slaps his gloved hand over my lips. Aaron sneers at me and I grimace at his proximity. He reeks of stale beer, sweat, and manure. “I wouldn’t. The only person out here who even considers you anything close to a priority is Eli and I have a feeling if you call him over here, you’re going to be greatly disappointed.”
My eyebrows shit in confusion. He smirks. “I have ties to him you can’t cut, they lie in the vein.” He slides a finger up the crease of my arm and I jerk from his touch. “You should know about that, what with your brother. Oh, and here’s the kicker: you’ve got another blood relative don’t you? A father all the way up in Washington.” Unease threads its way under my skin and my heart beats in a frantic rhythm.
“Dammit.” I mutter from underneath his glove.
“What was that? Couldn’t catch it.” Aaron lifts the glove from my mouth. I shoot him a glare.
“First off, I’ve already told you, we’re from Wyoming. Not Washington. Second, I don’t what father you’re talking about. Third, you don’t have the right to address anything concerning my brother. Why are you even here?” Aaron slams my back into the wall again, ramming the back of my head against the cement. A sharp pain spreads and I grit my teeth against it. My ears ring as my eyes water, trying to process blurry vision. Marlboro paws at the floor, impatience agitating her body.
“Don’t lie to me, it’s really not in your best interest. But if you must know, I’m here for pay, a certain family connection guarantees cushy living.”
“I know you’re not here on Evelyn’s account.”
“Sweetheart, it’s not really any of your business whose account I’m on.” Aaron pulls a cigarette from his pocket, but his grip on my bicep never loosens and the eye he keeps on my feet alerts me that he’s as well aware of any chance of escape as I am. The cigarette dangles from his lips as he grins at me, a captive in his sinister embrace.
“You’re here for Eli, aren’t you?” Aaron considers this for moment, his ebony eyes lighting with something resembling distain.
“My brother and I don’t see on the same scale, and I assure you he’s harboring some feeling for you and even your brother that I would have to work around. If I need him, I’ll fetch him. But in the meantime, I’ve got a decent pawn right here.” Aaron sizes me up, looping his free hand through his belt buckle. I eye him, trying to sift through the information.
“Bullshit.” I snarl.
“Well I mean, I really can’t impose your free will, that’s unconstitutional…But I’m not against taking a life if there’s a reward that makes it worth its while.” He leans beside my ear, until his body is flush with mine and I thrash. Aaron squeezes my wrist till I cease, crying out in pain. “And from what I’ve heard, the names Chastity and Chance Williamson cash in at ten grand.”
I can’t hold in the gasp at his comment. Aaron’s face glows with the realization that he’s hit home plate. I’m defenseless and he knows it. “Funny what you said about lying, considering that’s all that you can do to stay alive.” His words are blows to my conscious, chipping away at my armor. I fall limp as he releases my wrists and stalks off. My back slides against the wall until I’m slumped onto the gritty floor, water seeping through the seat of my jeans. Marlboro dances around me, her slim legs carrying her above my despair as my world crashes down around me.