Prologue

I hate everyone.

Ok, no I don't, not really. I'm just angry.

Although, if I'm being honest with myself it's close to real hate for a few people around here. Including the person in the mirror that has a good bit of responsibility for me being in the situation I'm in.

I sold myself. That's worth hating yourself for isn't it?

At first I told myself that I didn't have any choice. I was alone. I had a roof over my head but that was being taken away. Mr. Burdock and his supporters said it was necessary to keep the peace. "Look where trying to run things like they used to be done led us," he said afterwards. "We've got to go to our roots to find a way out of this mess." The thing is by "roots" it took me a long time to understand that he meant returning to the Dark Ages, only without the Chivalry. And to be honest in the beginning things weren't all that bad. Now ... now I just don't know. But this isn't going to make sense to just blather on with bits and pieces of it. They want a confession then I'll give them a confession.

Where to start? Where to start? Well I'm not going all the way back to the beginning; there's absolutely no sense in it. That's been picked apart ad nauseum for so long that I'm not sure what is true and what isn't. I do know it started before I was old enough to realize anything was going on. I wasn't a baby or even a little kid by the time I figured out the world was pretty messed up, but I wasn't much more than that. Dad used to say that things fell apart so slowly you almost didn't notice it as you were too busy just trying to get through the day and the next problem.

The haves. The have nots. Some people had money, some people didn't. Some people had their own homes, some people didn't. Some people had food, some people didn't. Some people had jobs, some people didn't. Some people lived in peaceful communities, some people didn't.

We were the kind that lived in a peaceful community. For a while.

But nothing lasts forever right? You gotta go with the flow. Take things as they come. Deal with reality.

Blah, blah, blah. Yada, yada, yada.

I'd grown up living with the war and the prejudices on both sides which caused the war. It made things hard for a lot of reasons but hard was "normal" for me; my peers and I didn't know anything different. The hate and the rhetoric was even part of the school day. As it turns out if it hadn't been for the war I likely wouldn't have been born ... I was a whoopsie from when Dad was home on leave one time.

After my dad got too old and injured to be in the war he came home and used his pension to buy out my uncles and take over my grandparents' farm rather than see it go out of the family which is where it was heading fast. No sooner had he done that than my brothers were called up to go off to war. But lucky for them they didn't have to be in it long because finally, despite taking forever and a flaming day, everyone around the world finally got tired of fighting and agreed to a more or less permanent cease fire ... no one actually surrendered, everyone saved face, and wound up just deciding to stop shooting and bombing the crap out of each other because no one was winning. When no one is winning even war can get boring as sin after a while.

Suddenly there were a lot of extra men floating around with no jobs and nothing to really help them use up all of the testosterone they were used to burning off on the battlefield or in training for battle. You can't blame them exactly since they didn't get much help re-interfacing with society, though they've gotta hold some responsibility. I don't know. I know my brothers acted a little crazy sometimes but not too bad all things considered. Besides which Dad told them if they were going to keep living at home they had to contribute which meant working their butts off like the rest of us to put food on the table and keep the lights on. Then there was this bad virus that went around and it killed a lot of people. It wasn't as bad as the influenza pandemic after the First World War but it wasn't far off from it either. Its major claim to fame was that it killed a disproportionate number of older folks, little kids, … and women.

My grandparents and most of their generation died or became so debilitated that Heaven's Gates got a whole lot closer. A lot of babies and toddlers died too. What really got hit and threw the population out of kilter was the death of so many women. It seems that for some reason certain strains of the pandemic virus got help spreading around inside the human body by some kind of estrogen sensitivity mechanism or whatever. No one has ever really determined what exactly the estrogen had to do with it, the scientists just knew that it did. They say that it is likely every female on the planet got infected but not all of them got sick. They don't know why for that either. But the fact remains that my mom and big sister Hannah died and I didn't. My dad and brothers - Jeremiah and Jason - were totally devastated and freaked and if it wasn't for the fact that I needed to help on the farm to keep things running they probably wouldn't have even let me outside of the house.

So from that point forward there were a lot of unattached males with grief issues and not as much self-control as you would like them to have. Now the haves and have nots were defined in a different way. Some men had families, some did not. Some men had female companionship, some did not. Women and girls started getting treated almost like a commodity in some places. That may have been like it already was in other countries but that's not the way it was supposed to be here; yet it was. People still tried to act civilized but if they would have gotten scratched you'd find it was only on the surface.

All of this out of kiltered-ness caused a schism in our community; a bad one. Everyone you might have asked would have given you a different reason for the schism, most of them trying to keep it something traditional like financial and social issues, but I heard my dad and brothers talking and it was really just over that some guys wanted or needed a woman anyway they could get her and on the other side there were men who were just as determined to keep and protect the women under their care.

Into this horrible mix came people that were supposed to be there to help straighten out the problems we were having. They would arrest agitators and protect women who just wanted to be able to walk down the street unmolested. They created public work projects to put people to work and give them something constructive to do. But behind the scenes they started pitting one person against another, one family against another. Feuds started up. The helpers were actually agitators themselves setting our community up to be taken over by their organization.

Then WHAM it was open war ... practically across the country all at the same time. And then open war around our country became real war around the world as the cease fire failed because we weren't the only ones to suffer devastating losses from the pandemic. It seems countries thought that the easiest way to downsize their young, male population was to use them as cannon fodder. A temporary fix, if that, because the war came to a halt as abruptly as it had started back up when several countries decided they were tired of there being no clear winners and used the nuclear option. Everyone quietly crawled back to their corners to lick their wounds.

Unfortunately not even that stopped all of the problems. Rainbows, skittles, and unicorn farts didn't suddenly fall from the sky making us all happy-happy; and, if there was a moral to the story it was blurred and blotched and no one could read it. Dad managed to keep Jeremiah and Jason, my hard-headed brothers, out of most of the trouble. We did what we could to stay to ourselves but we couldn't totally because our farm provided a lot of locally consumed produce and even some meat. It was like the Hatfields and McCoys where one side would take pot shots at the other side because of some imagined wrong or whatever. Dad and my brothers made sure I could take care of myself when they were away because it took all three of them to get the goods to town safely.

Only one day they didn't come back. There had been some kind of round up by whoever was in power that day and all three of them were executed in the center of town for having too much. Then someone remembered me and they started heading out to the farm. I didn't have to defend myself more than a few minutes using the guns Dad always had at the ready because Mr. Burdock and his men showed up and "arrested" the attackers. I was crying and asking for Dad and my brothers. He was pretty blunt about what had happened.

I didn't get hysterical ... in fact I stopped crying altogether. For some reason a part of me had already known because of a few things the attacking group of men had yelled. I just walked away from Mr. Burdock and went to the kitchen and came back with an igloo cooler of water for Mr. Burdock and his men. I may have been calm on the outside, trying to do the things I knew that Dad and Mom would have expected of me but on the inside ... I was dying. See I knew what was going to happen next.

Redistribution.

Mr. Burdock is a big wig in town. He heads what passes for the board of county commissioners. Dad had liked and respected him as far as anyone can like and respect a politician I suppose. But Mr. Burdock isn't just a politician ... he has a lot of practical experience from being a soldier, a city planner, and I don't know what all; at times it seems he's done a little bit of everything in his life. He is also a physically strong man and stills works with his own hands a lot. He leads from the front rather than from behind. He's a man other men will follow. He's a man's man. I just suppose I never thought what that would mean to me.

Redistribution.

One of the resulting problems that occurred because of the population destruction that occurred during the pandemic is that a lot of assets and resources are going to waste right at a time when the last thing we need is more waste. The old folks' home in town is full of people that can no longer take care of themselves but have no family to help them out. We've got men who are single fathers that just can't work full time and take care of their kids full time. We've got a lot of kids that were the children of single mothers who have died so the orphanages and foster homes are packed ... mostly with boys. It is just a real mess all around.

In the case of the farm, for the community to lose what it produced was an unacceptable loss. No one even gave half a thought to the possibility that I could have kept things moving along if I'd had some help. Instead the state of mind that Mr. Burdock fostered was that women, being the weaker sex, could not do things like that; and not just because they were physically weaker but because they were too vulnerable to the less scrupulous. Apparently in Mr. Burdock's world women are distractions. He didn't blame us for it but it was a state of being that he felt needed remedying. So when it was discovered that there was no male heir to inherit the farm and work it with me/for me the BOCC used imminent domain to manage the problem.

But ...

Isn't there always a but? See the thing that was happening at the same time was that the "weaker sex" thing was really gaining ground. And then it happened. I became part of the redistribution to manage the distraction I would inevitably cause some poor males.

I've given this a lot of thought. Some of it is an excuse for why I made the choice I did and some of it is just a desire to find out why ... why things have taken the turn they have. I want to rationalize and justify why everyone has done what they've done to make it comfortable and palatable. I guess most of the time it works, because I'm only half crazy and not completely crazy.

See I think what happened was that day someone determined that enough was enough. An example had to be made. My father and brothers weren't the only people executed that day in the town square. There were a lot of families hurting. A lot of people not thinking clearly. Maybe some of it was revenge too but mostly it was that everyone knew it just couldn't be allowed to happen anymore. The men that had executed my family and so many others were themselves executed. But that left a mess of broken up families and potentially ruining assets and somehow in a way it became the women's fault. And if not their fault they certainly hadn't helped matters as the women, or lack of, was said to be the root cause of everything. We were after all the weaker, distracting sex; no man would have done what they did if they'd been thinking straight. So since blame had to be laid, they laid it at the feet of women. I've talked to the few women that were there that day and they've all said that there was no reasoning with the men once the idea had been planted and their strategy developed.


CHAPTER ONE

"Mr. Burdock ... you ... I mean ..."

"Teaghan, I understand that you are still in shock but we have to move quickly before we have another civil war on our hands. And we still may yet if we cannot consolidate our communities and strengthen them against the threats that are coming from all sides these days."

"Yes sir. Ok. I heard you and Dad and the boys talking often enough about that part of it but ..."

"But me no buts young lady. Now listen here, I considered your father a friend, a good man, a fine soldier. He didn't tolerate shenanigans out of you and I know your mother was a fine woman that raised you to behave properly. That makes you, in my eyes, a high priority. And this farm ... it's been in your family a long time."

"Since before the Civil War ... the first one."

"You don't really want to leave it do you?"

Quietly, trying not to whine, I told him, "You know I don't Mr. Burdock."

"Then you need to take into serious consideration this offer. Sloan is a good man. Hard working. Lots of ingenuity. Farm experienced. He has two nephews to look after as well that wouldn't be hurt by a little female influence of the proper sort to let them know that such things exist and are to be looked for from the proper quarter. It's already been decided that Sloan is going to be the recipient of the farm. Additionally, he has won a lottery to have the opportunity to get matched up with a woman to help him take care of the house and his nephews. You want to stay on the farm then I'll arrange it so you don't have to go into the lottery so long as you agree to a marriage contract with Sloan Williams."

I heard ringing in my ears and felt like puking but Mr. Burdock didn't seem to notice though his next words made me wonder in hindsight. "There's been a few to object of course but they saw reason when they realized the alternative would be to leave the community and start someplace else on their own. I realize you are young and may not understand the whole of it but I hope you aren't so stupid as not to understand the dangers involved in that particular choice."

He talked a little more and mostly I listened.

"Do I at least get to meet him first?"

"Unfortunately no. To keep things fair and above board we've made it a blind draw. We are using proven methods to match compatible individuals. This avoids any of those ridiculous 'he's ugly, she's fat' arguments. You either agree to the match or you lose your opportunity." After a brief look around, as if checking to see there was no one listening in he added, "Teaghan you're 17. Old enough to marry without parental or guardian permission but too young to sign a legal contract. Realistically we could just put you on a bus and have you taken to the nearest orphanage until you reached your majority. I don't think you want that. This offer at least gives you an option. I picked out Sloan for you personally since I know his family and background."

"And ... and this Mr. Williams, he's agreed to this already?"

"Sloan is a good man. I can't say he is completely comfortable with the arrangement - all of us wish it didn't have to come to this - but he knows what is at stake. He's agreed to take a pig in a poke if it gains him what is necessary to continue to be a contributing member of our communities and that allows him to continue his business now that his cousin has taken over all of the warehouse as a distribution center and competes directly with Sloan. He's originally from Kiln Ridge though he spent some time traveling the world during the war since he was eighteen."

"How ... uh ... old is he?"

"No details Teaghan. And I need your decision now."

God forgive me I was so scared that I agreed without really knowing what I was agreeing to. Then I read the contract and knowing what I had agreed to became something to simply accept and deal with.


So it was done. I didn't even have to go down to the courthouse with everyone else. I became Mrs. Teaghan Serenity Williams with what Mr. Burdock said was, "A relief from the fuss, muss, or histrionics that others are participating in." He handed me my copy of the contract and left me standing alone staring at it.

See, I was married by proxy. My future husband had sent word that he wouldn't be able to make it back in time for the ceremony at the town square because a river had flooded taking out a bridge and he was going to have to back track and go around. Mr. Burdock said that was just fine and took care of things with the admonition that I was not to leave the farm and that he would station watchers until Sloan could get home. Not my home anymore but his ... or still mine just not in the same way. It has taken me a while to come to terms with that no matter what I said in the beginning.

It was three days after I signed the marriage by proxy contract and I was still grieving. But plants don't understand grief. They live such brief lives that if they could think they would consider grief a waste of time. And time was something no one had to waste here at the opening of harvest time. The load of barley that Dad and my brothers had taken to town was just the start of the busy season. It was mid-June and I faced an overwhelming task but I knew I had to at least attempt it or all of the work that had been expended in the beginning would be wasted ... not to mention we wouldn't be eating either.

I was out at the Asparagus patch trimming the last of the shoots. It was too hot and they would be too tough from here on out but there were still enough in that last cutting that I could fill two canners full. I'd been busy that day already. A load of rhubarb was soaking in the sink at the house and I also had several flats of strawberries in the frig to deal with as well. Out of the blue a cold, wet nose goosed me and I yelped, "Boone!" Only suddenly I remembered that poor ol' Boone the watch dog had been killed when the men attacked the farm.

I jumped and scrambled away as the biggest, ugliest, smelliest mutt I'd ever seen sprawled in the middle of the asparagus patch. He reached out and plucked one of my asparagus spears out of my basket and held it in his mouth like a cigar.

"Great. Just tell me you didn't visit the chicken coop for a little snack before deciding to munch on my 'gus."

"Burdock said you weren't easy to knock off your pins. Most folks don't appreciate their first introduction to Shotgun but are quite a bit louder about it."

What the dog hadn't been able to do the voice of a man had. I had my gun out and aimed at his middle a whole lot faster than he or the dog had expected. The dog's hackles came up and he growled and the man said, "Easy. Shotgun is ready to lunge."

I knew it as I could see the dog out of the corner of my eye. But of the two the man seemed the more dangerous.

I didn't say a word. The man sighed and said, "The boys are going to be here in about five seconds and I'd prefer them not to see their new aunt in a threatening light."

I unstuck my voice and said, "Prove who you are."

"My ID is in the truck."

Then we both heard voices yelling, "Uncle Sloan?! Uncle Sloan?! You found her yet?!"

The gun disappeared as fast as it had appeared as two boys tried to push their way through the brambles. I told them, "Stop that. You're going to bruise the canes. Back out and come around the path like civilized people do. And don't scare the chickens; they've been traumatized off their laying schedule as it is."

The boys were so surprised to be confronted that way that they did as told while the man watched me with a bemused expression. The dog had stood down as soon as the gun had disappeared but as the boys entered the cleared space he tried to get into my 'gus again. I told him, "Unless you want your tail bobbed and no dinner you will keep your dirty snout out of my 'gus."

Two surly boys snapped, "Hey! You can't talk to our dog that way."

I looked at the boys and raised my eyebrow just like Mom had taught me. "Your dog? You're a poor master as I see three ticks in his ear without even trying. Take that poor beast over to the field barn, get rid of those ticks, and use the dog shampoo you find in there and give him a bath."

"You can't tell us what to do," the older of the two said even more angrily.

The man interrupted and said, "Yes, she can. I've already explained this to you."

"You said she can't hurt us."

"So far I haven't seen a thing she's said that would do that. Now take Shotgun and do what you were told to do."

That didn't set too well with the boys but they did as instructed. I asked, "Has the dog ... Shotgun is it ... had his shots?"

"Why?"

"Because if he hasn't I've got the stuff in the cooler. Boone ..."

"Who's Boone?" the man asked suspiciously.

"He was my dog. I had to bury him the other day."

The man was quiet and then sighed. "This is not how I imagined it would go."

"Meeting for the first time?" At his nod I asked, "How did you think it would go?"

He just shook his head. "Certainly not like this."

We stood looking at each other then I shrugged. "I didn't know either. You're not blonde. For some reason I thought you'd be a blonde."

"Like Prince Charming?" he snorted in derision.

"No. Like Mr. Burdock's son Henry. I don't know why really. I just did. Next would have been a sandy or a brunette, or maybe even white headed since I didn't know how old you were. I sure didn't think you'd be copper headed."

He looked closely at me and I felt embarrassed. "Sorry," I told him. "I know my manners aren't that good right now. I could make an excuse and say I'm stressed out but ..." I shrugged. "Mom would probably give me the eye over it. I'm just nervous and tend to run my mouth when ..." I stopped and then shrugged again not knowing how to get myself out of the hole I had dug.

He looked at me hard then seemed to relax. "It's all right. But nervous or not we ... er ..."

"Need to talk. Yeah. I kinda figured we should get it over up front. Just ... could we do it without an audience? This is hard enough to talk about without ... "

"My men will watch the boys."

At the mention of more men I stepped back and wound up tripping over my basket. The man ... Sloan ... bent forward and I backed away even further. He stopped and straightened up. "I'm not going to hurt you."

I swallowed. "What ... what about the other men." I was breathing hard and it wasn't until that point that some of the feelings I'd been trying to hold off caught up with me. I covered my mouth in shock. "Oh god ... I'm ... I'm sorry. I'm just ... freaking out. Give me a sec ... I'll ... I'll ..."

Sloan squatted down and I tried really hard not to back up any further. I already looked and felt ridiculous. "Burdock didn't say. Did those men hurt you?"

I shook my head quickly. "No."

"It's not going to do any good if we start off lying to each other."

"I'm not ... lying I mean. I don't know what the problem is. Just give me a sec. I'll be fine ... I am fine. I'm ... I'm just having a reaction or something."

It took almost a minute but I managed to get my shakes under control. He slowly put out his hand out to help me stand up and though it was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do up to that point I made myself put my hand in his to accept the hand up. Then I noticed the 'gus all over the place and groaned. "I swear. All I've done is make more work." I bent down hurriedly and picked everything up ... except for the two 'gus spears that the dog had chewed on and said, "I gotta get these back to the house and bathing in some cool water before they're rurnt."

"Ok," Sloan said carefully like he was trying not to scare me.

Getting irritated at the situation I had caused I told him, "Really. I'm OK. Just don't ask me to ... to ... you know ... get too close to ... your men. I'll get used to them, just not yet."

"Fair enough. I'm surprised you're not more shook up."

"Oh I'm shook. I could probably sit down and cry buckets but like Dad always says ... said ... a bucket of tears is harder to pump than a bucket of water so why not just do the water and get some work done so you can forget about the tears."

"My aunt says something along the lines if you're going to feel sorry for yourself you might as well go peck poop with the chickens."

Involuntarily my lips twitched then I looked at him. "You're a salesman aren't you." It was a statement, not a question.

"When I need to be."

I nodded. "Figured. You sound something like the men that would come to the farm and try and sweet talk Dad down to a lower price per bushel on things."

He said, "I've done that too. But a word of warning ... I might do the sweet talking but I don't fall for someone doing that to me."

I shrugged. "Well don't expect me to try, I never learned. I'd probably look even sillier than I already must."

I stopped for just the briefest of moments when I saw about a dozen men littering the porch and yard. "I can't believe I didn't hear you. I wish Boone ..." I shook my head and continued walking though I headed towards the back of the house where the big kitchen was.

He followed me in and I put the basket on the work table. "Unless you want ... want to ... change things up I usually serve the regular meals in the dining room - it's across the hall - but mornings I serve biscuits or pancakes or whatever straight from the stove top in here."

Sloan was looking around with a critical eye. It made me feel uncomfortable and defensive. "Just because it hasn't been modernized doesn't mean it isn't a good house."

He looked at me in surprise and then shook his head. "You're reading me wrong. Look, I'm gonna go talk to my men and get them started. It's already mid-day and there's alot to do. You'll see them going all over the place. They're going to survey the land and outbuildings. Legal docs are one thing but I want a critical eye to what might be needed and what I have to work with."

I wanted to scream or sit down and have a cry but I knew neither one would put things the way I wanted them to be so I looked away and nodded.

He continued, "I know this isn't ... well ... Look, it's just got to be done."

"I know," I told him then sighed. "Look, they do know how to watch out so they don't trample things right? They're not like the boys and gonna stomp roughshod over things?"

"For the sake of argument what in particular would you worry about them 'stomping' on?"

"The wheat for one thing ... we plant Winter Red the end of September and it's ready for the combine. We keep ... kept ... about half of it for us and then traded the rest. The field is down the road that leads to the burley tobacco barn ... passed the hogs. And that's another thing ... the hogs are mean from being stirred up. The boys and their dog definitely need to stay out until they get the measure of each other. The potato patch looks weedy because the cultivator needs to be run through it but I put it off because we were going to dig the first couple of rows." I swallowed back the tears that I wouldn't be following Jeremiah and Jason picking up potatoes ever again. "The bramble hedges ... oh I suppose it doesn't matter. They'll do what they do. Just keep them out of the wheat and the hogs 'cause I guess right now that's the most important."

"What about cows? Burdock said you have a small herd."

"Had. Dad had to sell most of them last year just because we couldn't keep up with them all and he wouldn't hire a man because ..."

"Of you."

"Yeah. Because of me. I suppose Mr. Burdock told you. He'd hired one right after Mom and Hannah died - Hannah was my sister - and he tried ..." I shook my head again since it was no good going over bad times. "Before those men attacked the farm we were down to six cows and one bull. Two of the six were milch and Dad was planning on freshening two more but the bull was shot and there was no way to save him. They got one of the cows too but it wasn't one of the milch."

"Where are they and I'll have the men bury them?"

"Too late. I've butchered them rather than lose the meat. It's why I had to put off so many things the last couple of days."

"You. You butchered them. By yourself."

There was definite disbelief in his voice and I told him, "Yeah, it wasn't pretty but Dad would have had a fit if I had let it all go to waste. Most of it is in the freezer because I've been running the canners with other things. I would have had a hog to butcher too but the shot tore through its intestines and rurnt the carcass. I guess I need to ask ... do I need to cook for your men too?"

"When they're here. Is that a problem?"

"Depends."

"Depends?"

Noting the tone of his voice I said, "Huh? Oh I just meant ... Not the cooking part - I cooked for the tobacco harvesters when they came and there were about the same number - I just meant we just didn't plan the kitchen garden for this many people on a regular basis. I'm going to have to sit down and work the food budget to see what has to be moved around and if there is anything that I can plant more of."

"You? You did the books?"

Again with the disbelief which left me understanding he didn't have a whole lot of confidence in the female species, or didn't have a whole lot of experience in people as a general habit. I shrugged. "Jeremiah and Jason were number dyslexic. There wasn't much they couldn't do but numbers was one of them. So Sarah and I helped Dad with that part and helped Mom with the house ledger at the same time. Then ... then there was just me so I did it all. It was how I helped because Dad wouldn't let me run the big machinery when it had to be used. I can run a tractor of course ..."

Sloan said, "Of course."

I checked to see if he was making fun of me and there was a strange look on his face but I think it was surprise more than sarcasm. "Of course," I repeated.

"Just not the big machinery."

This time I saw a twinkle in his eye and I wasn't sure what to make of it. I knew it made me uncomfortable. "Don't."

"What?"

"Don't make fun. I'm trying to be ... mature about this whole thing. I know ... well mostly know ... what I've gotten myself into. I think. But don't make fun. We've both already said that neither of us knew what exactly to expect but don't start out making fun of who I am."

With a sigh of resignation he said, "You're definitely pricklier than I expected."

"I don't mean to be. I'm tired but I'm trying to use good manners. Mr. Burdock said that was important and one of the reasons why he let me have a chance at staying with my home. I don't want to get sent away. I don't. It's just a lot to get used to so quickly."

Taking his cap off and scratching his head he mumbled, "We really need to talk."