|The two mules were named Ned and Fred, although to be fair that’s not the names they used for themselves. They had been pulling the old worn wagon for almost a decade down the same old worn out road. Some folk there about swore that the cracked and broken road had been bigger and smoother once and even light up at dusk, if you could believe that.
They said back before the change it was what they used to call a super highway. Jebediah couldn’t vouch for that one way or another, although he’d been traveling the twenty miles down to one settlement market or another every week since he was old enough to ride shotgun for Pappy back before he even had the beard that now stretched almost to his waist. That had been bout twenty years back or so since Pappy had been gone almost that long, although time was funny now so Jeb wouldn't have bet his beard or sworn on the book to it. After all not much is more sacred to a ‘right’ man then his beard, and Jeb hadn’t shaved since his 15th year.
Yep, lot of things had changed since back when he was lil’ scrawy pink-cheeked boy riding next to his grandfather. He vaguely remembered Pappy talking firsthand about ‘cricity and indoor plumbing and how every house had its own heating back before the change. Personally, Jeb would of thought it was another one of his pappy’s foolies (that all the neighbor's said he was famous for), cept the old farmhouse still had a few pipes left that Daddy (god rest his soul), hadn’t found a better use for before he died from the ‘wasting’ ten seasons back.
“Annabelle, best you get up here now. We’re almost to the whores' market and you know how them godless settlement women are wont to act if they see me up here without you,” yelled Jeb to the back of the loaded wagon trying to get his eldest daughter’s attention. She’d been his natural, well his only, choice to come out to Herasburg since the Lord had seen fit to take his dear Clara.
Frankly, if personal feelings mattered at all, Jeb would rather have seen the woman who ran Herasburg starve to death before he'd trade even a chicken with them. But that wasn’t the ‘right men’s’ way and the Church elders had already spoken on the matter. Simple fact was their goods and coin spent just good as any of the other meager settlements around the Right men’s territory did and times were hard enough.
“Yes Papa,” replied the fifteen year old Anna as she carefully negotiated her way up to the front of the wagon and sat next to her father.
“Now cut that Papa stuff out, Anna. We’ve done been over this. Until we’re safely on the road back home you’re to call me Brother Jeb and if I speak to you at all, I’ll call you Mistress. Remember this is serious business. These heathen woman folk think they’re better than their men and better than us. Now the lord is just and they’ll all burn in hell one day for it. But until then it’s their settlement and while we’re there it’s their rules,” replied Jeb as his dark grey eyes bored into the ice blue eyes of his daughter’s searching for indecision or fear.
“You mean Mistress…” replied Anna with a smirk breaking the momentary tension.
“That’s my girl,” laughed Jeb. “Now remember how this is going to work. After we pass the guards we’ll be let into the main market. The prices have already been negotiated by the council so really all you have to do is smile and nod in the right places and then let their men folk and me unload the wagon. These women will ignore me, since their men are all mute and soft in the head. Naturally they’ll look to you as being in charge. But don't worry really all you have to do is make sure they don’t try to short us on the pay.”
“Ok, I’ll try my best,” said Anna with the shudder as she thought about how unnatural and different things in Herasburg would be.
“That’s fine girl; I know you will. Your mother, if she was here today, would be so proud of you. In fact here put this on for luck,” said Jeb as he handed his daughter a small tin cross-man hanging from a length of hemp twine.
“Oh Papa, I mean Brother Jeb. But this is Mama’s, the one you gave her on Vow day. I, I, I…” replied Anna as tears started to well up in her eyes.
“Hush now. You’re the woman of our household now so it’s right as not that you wear it and it’s been that way for the last five years. In fact, it’s probably well past the time when you should be yours. I know that's what your mother would have wanted. I’ve just been slow in recognizing that fact and for that I’m sorry; besides these women here know enough of our ways to know that a woman without a cross-man ain’t but a girl.
“It still means the world to me Papa… Even if part of it is just to pull a foolie on these Towners. This makes the trip to this horrible place worth it,” replied Anna, smiling as she put on the cross-man before clenching it tightly.
“That’s my girl, now look sharp it’s time, “said Jeb as they pulled up to the claptrap gates and the pair of large Amazonian women who guarded the outskirts of the town.