The morning had become afternoon an hour ago as the sun’s intense rays pierced through the holes in Jacob’s walls and persisted to assault his face and eyes. Despite his best efforts to ignore the day and sleep it off, it had become too much. He pushed his blanket off his beaten body. Those birds weren’t helping with all of their damned yapping, either. Couldn’t they shut up for just another few moments?
Jacob Mann reeked of whiskey and “the odour of hard workin’ man”, as he liked to put it. Other ranchers in the Chela district had lesser words of Jacob’s scent, and of his work ethic. He planted his bare feet on the wooden planks below his bed and stretched his small frame as far as it would go. Whether he liked it or not, today was another day and there was work to be done.
The work would have to wait a few hours before he could get to it. His head was killing him and it was way too hot to be out in the fields this afternoon. Only a fool would be out breaking their backs in this kind of heat. Not him, though. He wasn’t stupid.
First thing was first, he needed a drink of water. He stumbled to the canteen on the table and squeezed every drop out of the small leather sack. Drops of water clung to his beard and he contorted his tongue to find each and every bead. He patted his pockets to ensure that he hadn’t lost anything to the night before. He thought that he should maybe change his clothes but decided that there was no one here to impress. Besides, the pocket in the shirt he had on had exactly what he had been looking for – his pipe. He plopped himself down on a wooden chair and lit the half-burnt tobacco inside. All he had to do now is have a pipe while he waited out this heat, check on his sheep in the evening, and head over to The Pig’s Head after a day of honest work.
The embers of Jacob’s pipe smoldered out as he did on his wooden chair. His buzz-saw snoring droned on for what seemed like hours. The peace of the first break of his workday was suddenly broken by loud thuds on his door. Jacob’s foot nearly met his chin as he flew off the chair and onto his back.
The knocks on the door were relentless as Jacob pulled himself off of the floor. An aggressive voice pierced through Jacob’s walls.
“Jacob Mann, Mr. Jacob Mann! Open the door this instant! In the name of the Chela District Diplomacy, you will answer the calls of the court or face persecution!”
Jacob stumbled to the door and flung his door open to the unforgiving wrath of the sunlight. After rubbing his eyes, Jacob looked upon the man. The man stood tall, his black hair slicked back diligently and his clothes too pristine for the Chela Plains. He even wore a watch on his belt. The gleam of his shoes shone just as brightly as the sun itself. Jacob knew what kind of man he was dealing with – this was a city man.
“What’re you flappin’ your gums about, son?” Jacob asked as his hand slid up the frame of his now open door.
“You know damn well what I’m ‘flapping my gums about’, Mr. Mann. My name is Sam Braser and I represent the Chela District Diplomacy and we have been waiting for far too long for your Grazing and Ranching Taxes.”
“Go on then, Sam,” Jacob replied.
“Do you think that you are above paying taxes as your fellow ranchers do? Do you feel good about yourself for not paying the mandatory fees?”
Jacob did not have his arm pressed against the door just for balance, he was aware of the Chela District’s laws regarding open doors. So long as the doorway was not open for the city man, he could not enter without a warrant. This was not met with a lack of trying. The ornery man attempted to enter the home and Jacob pushed him back with a palm to the chest.
“Let’s just hold on for a second, son. Are you employed with the Chela District Diplomacy or are you a contractor?”
“I represent the Chela District Diplomacy.”
“You didn’t answer the question. Are ya or ain’t ya?”
“I’ve been contracted by the C.D.D. as a private collector on all outstanding taxes and to find evasive debtors, like yourself, Mr. Mann.”
“Evasive? I’m standing right here, ain’t I, Mr. City Man? Y’all know where to find me. As for these alleged taxes, I sent mine in at least two months ago. I suggest that you go back to the government that’s got your manhood and you tell ’em to bugger off.”
Jacob went to close the door, “Besides, you ain’t got any real authority here.”
Sam clasped the door and struggled to keep it from closing, underestimated the frail-looking rancher’s strength.
“Regardless, Mr. Mann, I have been sent here to do a job. I will not be leaving your side until you pay what you owe. My provisions are with me and I have been instructed to gather the funds by any means necessary within the law. I can be here for a long, long time.”
Jacob relented and rubbed his temporal. He was too tired for this nonsense and just wanted to get back to the work that he was doing.
“Fine. What do you need to get out of here and back into whatever hole you crawled out of?”
“Eleven hundred? I can barely clear that in a season. Where in Ariel’s name am I supposed to get that kind of scratch together?”
“That sounds like a “you” problem, Mr. Mann. All I know is that I will not be leaving until the debt is paid.”
Jacob Mann had a plan.
“I can see that you traveled a long way to just to harass me, Mr. Braser. You’re also a very persistent fellow, which is a rare virtue to see on the job these days…”
“Just get to the point,” the man seethed.
“How would you like to get all of the money that you’re owed and then some?”
“And how do you propose that?”
“A Raven’s nest. It is not but a few miles East of here. It will have all kinds of treasures. Enough to settle the debt and more. Might even be enough to buy yourself a new personality.”
Sam snarled but bit his tongue. Based on the rancher’s abode and demeanor, this nest was the best chance to bring at least something back to his employers.
“Show me the way, rancher. But if you try to weasel out this in any way, so help me I will murder you where you stand.”
“I doubt that. What I don’t doubt is that I want you off of my property and I’m guessing that you aren’t too crazy about spending time with me. Let’s get a move on, shall we?”
Sam mounted his horse while Jacob packed the few provisions that they would need for the journey and they rode out. Sam spent most of the journey gritting his teeth and stewing over all of the better things that he could be doing at the moment. Occasionally, this would be interrupted by Jacob’s off-key singing while he strutted on his donkey. Sam could not help but crack a smile at it, he had dealt with many debtors in his day but never any this carefree. He must have been confident in the riches this Raven’s nest and of his abilities as a thief. How else would he be this nonchalant about this ordeal? Sam shuddered to think what the Ravens would do to somebody if they caught them stealing in their nest. Even though Sam was a city man, he knew that a man who stole from Ravens was as good as dead.
The open fields of Jacob’s ranch seemed more-and-more of a distant memory as the embrace of the forest became thicker. Jacob pressed on as if the branches were not a constant nuisance but Sam had difficulty in doing so. At seemingly every moment Sam was spitting out bugs, keeping the wooden whips from slapping his face and feeling the sticky sap invade his clothing. He had wished that his agency had insisted that he wear these fancy clothes at all times, they never did understand how diverse this job could be. He bet that Jacob never had a demeaning boss who never listened or would kick him while he was down at every opportunity. Jacob may be in debt, but Sam figured that the rancher was far more a free man than Sam was.
Sam’s horse had not been as deep in thought as his rider and jerked to a halt. They had made it to a clearing in the center of the forest. The thickets had subsided but the moss was like plush carpeting and the mushrooms of the forest floor were bigger than a large man’s fist. It was the most peaceful place that Sam had seen The absolute silence was a far cry from the bustle of the city and the offices that he was used to. He felt at peace and oddly grateful to Jacob for bringing him here. If only he had met this odd rancher over different circumstances.
“Well, what you lookin’ like a pig pissin’ for?” Jacob said as he pointed to the massive pine nearby, “this is the place, all we gotta do is climb to the top and you’ve earned your payment.”
“I certainly can’t climb a tree in my duds,” Sam said. “It’s your debt, Mr. Mann, if this is the jackpot that you claim it to be, you go retrieve it.”
Jacob gave a shrug that said ‘that’s what I thought’ and began to climb the gargantuan tree. His hands and feet guided him ever upward without so much as a change in his expression. It was obvious to Sam that this man had raided this nest many times before. There had to have been valuables in this nest before to come all of this way for it. Maybe this rancher wasn’t completely full of it?
The rancher reached the foot of the nest and peered down on the dot that was now the taxman. Poor boy in his Sunday best. Now, it was time to find a treasure to get this peon out of his life. Jacob stumbled into the nest and fumbled around in the bed of feathers and branches. Ravens are as jealous as they are greedy. If they have shiny things, they will bury it away from the prying eyes of other murders. Jacob began to frisk the nest: stick, stick, piece of fur, feather, stick. Finally, Jacob felt something man-made, he felt glass. His arm withdrew a half bottle of scotch. The label had been torn off years ago, but the bottle was nice and after a quick taste test Jacob confirmed that it was very fine scotch. That was good enough for him, but not for his friend on the ground. He slipped the bottle into his coat pocket and continued to dig. The search had begun to feel fruitless until Jacob spotted a gleaming piece of steel sticking from a corner of the nest. He snatched the bit of hope up like a hungry dog to scraps only to find a bracelet of bone and brass. These bracelets were usually made by farmwives to be sold at local markets in the region and were as common as a bowl of stew. They were cheaper too, everybody in Chela knew that. However, the ornery sucker on the ground probably didn’t. He slipped the bracelet into his pocket and made his descent.
“Are you ever in luck! I cannot lie, I did not suspect that this nest would much of anything up, but am I ever glad to be wrong.”
Jacob withdrew the bracelet from his pocket and hoisted it above his head like as if it were a prized fish.
“That,” Sam scoffed. “That is the big-time payday that you drug me through this for? This what I ruined my clothing and nearly killed my horse for?”
“Quit yer bellyaching. If you were nearly two-thousand years old you wouldn’t look nearly as good as this fine jewelry.”
“Fine jewelry? That is about as a fine as an old mule. You’re going to have to do better than that, Mr. Mann.”
“I suppose that you are right, Sam. I’m sure that the Ravens don’t steal anything of value, certainly not a warrior bracelet from the First Age. I’ll just hang on to this and work off the debt over the next several months. You are welcome to bunk with me until then.”
“Hold on, debtor,” Sam interjected. “I can accept the bracelet as a beginning payment. I will need it appraised to see if it is worth what you claim.”
Jacob relinquished the bracelet to Sam.
“There’s a jewelry appraiser and pawnbroker just West of Noird. He’s a lowballer but if you tell him that you represent the C. D. D. he’ll be a bit more inclined to give you a fair estimate to get you out of his hair. Doesn’t like the eyes of the law and the government on him too much, that one.”
“Very well, Mr. Mann,” Sam said as he took in one last look on the pristine forest floor. “Let’s get out of this Godless bush.”
The duo returned to Jacob’s ranch home. The afternoon heat had begun to subside as clear blue skies transformed to fantastic shades of violet and crimson. Sam had truly hoped that the bracelet was the First Age relic that Jacob had claimed it to be but another part of him hoped that he had a reason to escape the city and return to the ranch. His training had instructed him to treat every debtor as less than dirt but he had a hard time doing that to Jacob now. He could not help but have a soft spot for the old lush.
Sam bid the rancher a goodbye and rode over the hills. Jacob let out a sigh of relief. For the time being, he could live another day without some snotty city kid breathing down his neck. Now, it was time to get back to work. He plopped back down in the chair that he had flipped off of hours ago and began to rest his eyes.
Jacob found himself flying head over heels again as his house rattled with the force of one thousand earthquakes. The assaults on his home ranged from deafening wing beats, planks flying off his walls and sharp beaks easily piercing the roof. He ran outside to find three Ravens hovering above the now destroyed shack.
“Hey! What’s your trouble, you home-wrecking cretins?”
The leader of the bunch dropped to Jacob’s feet with such a tremendous impact that the dust of the dry land blew into his face. The Raven’s claws burrowed into the dirt with rage. The great bird towered over the rancher, he leaned in to bring his beak nearly to his eyes.
“Our ‘trouble’, little man, is that you have stolen from us. Did you expect us not to notice that our precious treasures were gone? Return them to us, at once!”
Jacob withdrew and lit his pipe, looking upon the Raven with an apathetic expression.
“I don’t know about that one, it’s a bit of a stretch if you ask me. Here’s what happened – you see that fancy boy on your way over here? The clean lookin’ fella with the watch hangin’ off his belt? He came ’round here this morning hootin’ and hollerin’ that everything and everyone on this here land owes taxes. Y’all being the intelligent birds that you are, that includes you, according to him.”
“You betchya. I tried to stop him but I’m afraid that the fella was insistent. Didn’t think too highly of y’all, either. I think I heard him call you something along the lines of ‘black disease-bags’.”
“Is that so? I am to believe that you had nothing to do with this? This city man just knew where our nest was?”
The Raven stepped closer and closer to the rancher’s eyes, pushing him back.
“I realize that we’ve had our differences in the past but this isn’t like that. I watched the city man take a worthless bracelet and a quarter bottle of booze. He took it for taxes but what on Earth would I do with that?”
“It isn’t worthless to us. Are your words true, rancher?”
“Of course they are. I’ve been nothing but respectful to the Ravens and have even helped you find treasures before if you care to remember. You find the city man, you find your treasures.”
The Raven signaled the two members of his murder off to scout for the tax collector.
“Listen to me and listen well, rancher. We will find this ‘city man’ and bring him to justice. If we find out that you are lying to us we will be back to you bring justice, as well.”
“You find the right guy and I guarantee that your return here will not be necessary.”
“We will see about that,” the Raven said as his mighty wings slammed one last gust of dirt into Jacob’s face.
Jacob watched the Raven transform from a vengeful giant to a black sliver in the sky. He withdrew the bottle of scotch from his breast pocket and took a swig. Perhaps the Raven and the taxman will be problems that will take care of themselves. Then again, perhaps they won’t be. In the meantime, Jacob watched the sunset and had realized that his workday was done. It was time to go to the Pig’s Head Tavern. With any luck that hunter that he hired every now and then would still be there. The guy is a bit of self-righteous blowhard but he’s in a tough spot, he needs Jacob’s advice now more than anybody. Jacob mounted his donkey and began his journey over to the bar. The rancher’s work was never done.