Chapter 6: Crawling In My Skin
James had to carefully consider his answer.
First, he didn't want her to ask any pressing questions about his past. If he alluded to having encountered any kinds of monsters in the past, that would only build the case she was already forming against him that he might've been a monster hunter before, or something like it. It wouldn't bother him if she thought that was true - in fact, it would be convenient if she did - but it wouldn't explain everything. There would be too many holes in that story, and he didn't know how persistent she would be to find answers before they reached the ranch.
He didn't want to have to endure another day with this kind of scrutiny, but he didn't have a choice in that. So he had to come up with a reasonable answer that would shut her up and buy him 24 hours.
But he'd already taken too long to think of an answer.
He looked down to the ground with a sigh, ready to admit something that was only partially true to explain the hesitation.
And then he heard the others. Head shooting up, he saw Percy and Kenneth had gotten up. Or rather, Percy had just woken Kenneth up by clapping loudly right next to his ear. Kenneth jolted up and immediately punched Percy in the gut.
"Hey!" Percy wheezed.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?" Kenneth growled. "Seriously..."
Kenneth got up with a grumble, and Percy stood up holding his side, looking chastened. The commotion had been enough to wake Gregor, and once he got to his feet, James saw it as a natural escape from an unwanted conversation.
Getting to his feet, he glanced over at Clandestine.
"Looks like we ought to pack up," he said. "We'll be at the ranch soon."
The unspoken implication was that they'd be parting ways soon, and it didn't make sense to talk about things deeper than the surface. There was something on her face he couldn't quite read. Looking away, she seemed conflicted but ultimately bit her tongue. She nodded.
He could see the tense hesitation in her frame as she got up and walked off, reuniting with her horse, Billy.
Whatever it was, James was going to let her resolve it on her own. He had other things in mind. Like getting on the road again, and getting far, far away from everything and everyone.
Turning to Elliot, he began to prepare his things, and soon, they were moving again.
At the top of the final hill, James finally saw it. Fences lined the field where it became flat, and the pens led one into another over patchy earth, sparsely grown in the cattle's absence. Beyond the pens, there was a long barn where the horses were kept, and beyond that, a log cabin.
And beside it, a horse.
Behind the rest of the herd, James found himself frozen at the top of the hill as the cattle followed Gregor, hedged in between Percy and Kenneth. Without thinking, he'd pulled Elliot to a halt, and his eyes were fixed on the distant figure. His eyes were bad, but he knew the only thing that made sense to be found by the cabin was a horse, and wild horses didn't just wander into ranches.
He broke his stare to hastily reach into his saddlebag. He nearly dropped the binoculars as he pulled them out and brought them to his eyes.
Peering through them, he landed his sights back on the figure beside the cabin, and it was, indeed, a horse. With a saddle. Tied off at the post.
His heart began to race.
"Huh," Clandestine voiced, stopping beside him. "Who's that?"
That was the thing.
James didn't know, but something in his gut knew.
"I don't know," he said with a practiced casual disinterest. "We're not expecting anyone."
"Maybe it's a delivery," Clandestine asked. "Do mail boys come out this way?"
James didn't bother to say that Gregor hadn't ordered any delivery and that Gregor always went into town for any mail. If anyone came out this way it was to deliver urgent news, or it was someone Gregor knew. But if it was the latter, Gregor wouldn't look as confused as he did at the head of the herd, squinting off at the cabin with the same curiosity.
"Maybe," James said simply, finally urging Elliot forward, hastily catching back up to the tail of the herd.
Clandestine did the same, riding up alongside him.
James didn't look at her. He kept his eyes on the herd, trying not to draw any kind of suspicion his way. They had no reason to think anything of him. He was just a rancher, doing his job, focusing on the cows while Gregor took the lead and figured out who had come to his farm. For Gregor's sake, James hoped that it wasn't what he feared it was, but he couldn't afford to have that kind of hope.
He was already racing to prepare for the worst.
A number of other possibilities ran through his head. Someone was lost and stumbled upon the ranch, and, seeing it was unoccupied, took shelter. Alternatively, someone stumbled upon the ranch seeking help. Perhaps it was a break-in. Thieves. Squatters. Orphans, with no recourse. Another lost soul looking for a job from the kind-hearted rancher who took people under his wing.
Gregor had gone ahead and pulled the first gate open, and the cattle we beginning to spill in. Kenneth and Percy remained on either side to keep the cattle in line while James followed the flow of the cows like a leaf in a stream.
When he made it to the gate, he paused. As everyone clustered around the gate on horseback, Gregor stood by the gate looking out at the cabin, and then he looked back at them.
"I s'pose I should see what that's all about," Gregor said.
Now closer, James could make out the shadow of someone on the cabin's front porch.
James had learned enough from his past to know that it wasn't worth taking chances. If he was wrong, he was running away from a peaceful situation he planned on leaving soon anyway. If he was right... if it was a bounty hunter...
He had to leave.
He didn't think he could stand it if anyone else got hurt again because of him.
"You think he's lost, boss?" Kenneth asked.
"Could be," Gregor hummed.
"I can go see what he wants," Kenneth volunteered.
"We can stay back and take care of things while you go ahead," James offered, quick to volunteer to stay back.
"Kenneth, come along with me," he said.
Nodding, Kenneth waited for Gregor to hop on his horse, and James watched as the two of them made the trek around the wide cow pen, circling around toward the cabin.
In their absence, James could sense Percy waiting just a moment to see who would take the lead in Gregor's absence.
"I'll take the horses to the barn," James said.
Clandestine was already hopping off her horse, and James did the same, walking over to take Billy's reins.
"You're leaving me with her?" Percy asked, needlessly ornery. He hopped out of his saddle and landed with a heavy thud.
"She has a name," James said flatly, reaching out to take his horse as well. "Maybe if you take a minute to speak with her you'll remember it."
Turning away with three horses in tow, James kept moving. Percy muttered something unintelligible, but if James was meant to hear it, it wasn't repeated.
On the walk over, James was careful to keep the horses between him and the cabin, obscuring a full view of him. It meant he couldn't get a good look at what was happening at the cabin even as he got closer, but he did see that by the time he made it to the barn, Kenneth and Gregor had walked up to the porch, leaving their horses by the post.
The moment he entered through the barn doors, he abandoned the horses' leads and hurried across the barn to the nearest window facing the cabin. With partial cover, he pulled out his binoculars again and peered out from the corner of the window. It took him a moment to adjust them before everything came back into focus and he was able to find the porch.
Now, he could make out things in more detail.
It was a man. He was tall, standing about eye level with Kenneth. He wore a long, dark coat, and there was something about his strict, upright posture that convinced James he had a military background. The man was turned away from him, so he couldn't make out his face, but that was a mercy. If the man was looking in his direction, there was a chance he'd be spotted.
Pulling away, James returned his attention to the horses, mind racing.
So they were sending people from the Moonlight Kingdom now? Was this man hired out, or was he a soldier-turned-bounty-hunter?
If he was from the Kingdom, this could end differently. He didn't know what kind of resources this man had to make sure things went his way.
His heart was beginning to pound so loud he could feel each beat in his ears. He barely remembered having put Percy's horse away in a pen by the time he was already locking up Billy, Clandestine's horse.
He turned to look at Elliot.
With his saddle still on, Elliot was ready to ride back out of the barn, and Elliot knew this well. Over the years, Elliot had become acquainted with the need for sudden departures. As James walked up to him, for just a second he rested his hand on Elliot's snout.
And then he moved on.
Hastily climbing up into the saddle, he turned Elliot around towards the already open barn doors.
The moment he rode out, everyone would see him. Every exit route was out in the open. The only thing between him and the cabin and on every other side was a field of grass.
He just had to get over the hill.
Taking in a deep breath, he steadied himself, steeling his nerves, and prepared for the worst.
He clicked his tongue, and Elliot moved forward.