Nathaniel urged his horse forward, and while the beast sauntered through the gate, he gawked at Marcus's ranch. He shook his head as he studied the pristine landscape. He ran his hand through his hair as he cursed his friend's dedicated spirit. People like Kethra, who didn't know Marcus grumbled that the farmer usurped resources, but Marcus did not need to. The man devoted himself to cultivate perfection out of every blade of grass.
As Marcus's home came within view, Nathaniel caught sight of someone working near the house. He drove the horse to a gallop while muttering, "Kethra needs to get over her vendetta." When he could identify the farmhand, Nathanial pulled on the horse's reins. "How are you doing, Wayne? Have you seen Marcus?"
"He's with Talia and Preston in the animal pen," Wayne replied with a wave.
"Talia is with him?"
"As far as I know," Wayne responded as he examined two bales of hay. "Did you want to wait in the house for them?"
"No, Kethra is stirring up trouble again." The leader rubbed his horse's neck while he stared out towards his friend's pen. "Can I ride out there? Or do I have to walk?"
"She won't get past the cattle guard," Wayne replied without looking away from his work. "You better tie up your horse and hoof it."
Nathanial dropped to the ground and guided the mount to the post. Once he secured the mare, he entwined his hands behind his neck. "That pen is substantial. Can you narrow down my search?"
Wayne wrapped his arms around one bail and answered. "Open the main gate and go straight. When you reach the opposite fence line, hang a right, and hug the railing until you find them."
"What are they working on?"
The farmhand tossed the bailed straw over his shoulder and headed for the barn.
"Wayne, what are those three up to?"
Wayne stopped and let his burden tumble to the ground. As it settled, he brushed his shoulders and snorted. "The razor hounds have become an intolerable nuisance, of late." He leaned against the hay and continued, "And Marcus is hoping that Talia might have some suggestions to help limit the damage they can do." Without another word, Wayne tossed the bundle over his shoulder and resumed his walk to the barn.
Nathaniel patted his horse's flank and headed for the animal pen, walking through the small field of grain.
"Be careful with the crop," Bret commanded.
Nathanial jumped away from the plants and searched for the farmhand.
As the second assistant emerged from the grain, he continued. "According to Marcus, there's no faster way to damage a crop. And you know how protective he is."
"I do," Nathanial replied. He reached for the gate to the pen and asked. "Any idea where Marcus and Talia are in there?"
"Nope," Bret muttered, vanishing into the grain.
Nathaniel grunted at the farmhand as he entered the pen and followed Wayne's route. After a brief walk, Nathaniel saw his friends. "Marcus, how are you?"
"Why are you here, Nathanial?"
"Marcus, don't be rude," Talia rebuked as she rushed to meet Nathanial. "I hope you're doing well."
"Talia, I wish I was here with better news."
Her head fell as she dragged her friend towards her work. "What is going on now?"
"Kethra is making another fuss," Nathanial answered.
With a curse, Marcus threw his wrench down. "What's her problem now!?"
"Same as always," Nathanial replied. He sat down on the fence line and gripped a leg. "She's spouting reasons that she cannot meet her quotas."
"No doubt she is blaming us," Talia muttered as she focused on her work.
"Can you increase the number of animals you send to the Western Region?" Nathanial asked.
Marcus rubbed at his neck and retrieved his wrench. "Not without an improved means of transportation."
"That's about to change," Nathanial replied.
"You've been saying that for the last several months," Marcus said as he pointed at the fence. His third farmhand positioned a box on the outside of the wall and Marcus secured it. "Come back once you have something more concrete than it'll happen."
"As we speak, we're breaking ground on the station within an hour's ride of your farm." Nathaniel retorted.
Marcus's and Talia's heads whipped around and stared blankly at their friend. Marcus jumped over the fence and grabbed Nathanial's collar. "What about the tracks?"
"They started that project less than a month ago," Nathanial said, pushing Marcus away. "They should finish laying the track to the station's location by the end of the day. Do you think you can increase your breeding of all the animals and make regular deliveries to Kethra's crew?"
"What about getting better weapons?" Marcus asked as he swatted Nathanial's arm. "I'd enjoy an easier way to protect my land."
"The train tracks will help everyone, Marcus. That's why we've focused on it rather than munitions."
Marcus shrugged his shoulder and delved back into his work.
"Would you like me to focus the engineers on developing better weapons for you and the Northern region?"
Marcus handed the wrench to Preston and leaned against the fence. "I think developing a few prototypes would be worth us increasing the breeding of the animals, provided that Talia thinks it's reasonable."
"What kind of increase is Kethra demanding?"
"You've delivered how many shipments?" Nathaniel asked.
"Four," Marcus answered.
Nathanial shook his head, burying it into his hands. "She claimed that you only sent her two, and she wanted to raise it to six a cycle."
"Well, she's lying," Talia replied. "But if you can get us the prototypes, I think we'll be ready to handle Kethra's latest tantrum without an issue." She peered over her work at Nathanial and qualified her to answer, "Provided that train station actually materializes when you're claiming."
"Thank you," Nathanial said, inclining his head. "You should be able to shut her up nicely within a week."
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