WHILE IRIS was dealing with a potential enemy in Junction City, Carlos was waiting for Red and Durango to come through the brush trail. With time to kill, he spent it exploring the Camp. Inside the miner’s lean-to, he found several sticks of dynamite, and some fuse strings. He stared, dumbfounded at the explosive sticks. He knew there was no reason Lin and the others should have needed explosives. They were supposed to be panning the stream for gold and silver. Even using a high banker, they wouldn’t have needed to blow anything up. The camp was perilously close to the trail leading into the secret canyon. Perhaps the three men had intended to use the dynamite to block the trail, but the raiders had gotten to them first.
The sky was just showing the first streaks of sunlight and Carlos had barely started coffee when Red and Durango rode out of the hole in the brush forest.
“You’re here early,” he remarked. “Did you start out in the middle of the night?”
Red shrugged. “I kind of got the feeling it wouldn’t be too smart to hang around, so yeah, we snuck out as soon as we were sure they had gone to sleep.”
“I had the same feeling,” Durango admitted. “What’s more, I think we should block up that trail.”
“Were you followed?” Carlos asked as he poured coffee grounds into the metal pot on the fire.
“Who can say? But it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”
“True. Let’s eat and figure out the best way to close off that trail through the brush.”
As they ate a hurried breakfast of side meat and biscuits, they discussed how to block off the trail.
“I found dynamite the miners left when I got back yesterday,” Carlos said. “How big a charge do you think it will take to block the trail?”
“I don’t know anything about dynamite,” Red protested.
“Me neither,” said Durango.
Carlos sighed. “Well, I guess that makes me the nearest thing to an expert we have. I found six sticks of the stuff and some fuse line. I’ll set three charges about a hundred paces apart back along the trail with a delayed fuse. You boys gather up everything and head back down the stream at least a mile. You should be safe from the blast there in case I miscalculate the timing.”
“All right, but we’ll leave your ‘corn tied up a little ways down the stream, so you can get out of here in a hurry,” Red said.
It took Carlos most of the morning to set the charges. Trotting back toward the furthest charge, he thought he heard voices. Smiling grimly, he lit the fuse and ran for the second charge. When he lit the last one, he barely had time to make it out of the trail before the first explosion lit up the sky.
Red Lightning was cropping grass while he waited patiently for him. At the noise, his head lifted alertly. Carlos darted over to the tricorn and leaped into the saddle without using the stirrups. Red responded to his rider’s urgency by jumping into a dead run down stream. The next explosions came at almost the same time.
Carlos pulled up beside Red and Durango who were staring open mouthed at the chaos behind him.
“Geeze, boss,” Red exclaimed. “I hope you weren’t planning on surprising folks; everybody in the country will have heard that boom!”
“You must have blown that trail to bits,” added Durango. “I guess whoever was using it will have to find another way out of that valley.”
Carlos looked back over his shoulder. The entire brush forest was smoking and a few flames were showing over the top. “I hope I haven’t started a fire that will burn everyone on this side out,” he said ruefully.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Red replied. “That brush forest is thermite wood. It doesn’t burn well.”
“How do you know what kind of wood it is?” Durango asked suspiciously.
“I know because I worked as a packer for one of those scientist types. His specialty was identifying plants and figuring out how they could be used. If I wanted a bonus, I had to learn what kind of plants he was looking for. He paid good money if I could lead him to the plants he wanted.”
“Why did you quit if the job was so good?”
“Old Cinders got himself killed taking sides in the wrong fight. I didn’t want them hunting me, so I lit out of there after they killed him. He told me to take his notebooks to Mrs. St. Vyr if anything ever happened to him. That’s how I came to work for Mike.”
“Since we’re sure we aren’t going to burn this area to the ground, let’s start back,” Carlos said, turning Red Lightning toward home.
The three men had almost reached the tree line separating the valley from the hills when shots rang out.
Carlos cursed and jumped Red Lightning back into the thicker trees. Durango and Red did the same. Once behind the cover of a large boulder, they dismounted.
“Where did the shots came from?” Carlos asked.
“Over to the right, I think,” Durango replied.
“Watch the tricorns,” Carlos said. “I’m going to crawl up this rock to see if I can spot them.”
Carefully, he crept up the rough face of the boulder. Happily, the rock wasn’t smooth but had plenty of places to provide a climber with hand and footholds. There was a little flattened area close to the rim. Stopping to take off his hat, Carlos peeked over the top. About fifty yards away, he could the mounts of the men who attacked them tucked away behind a stand of trees. Seven Tricorns, that meant seven men. He was betting the men were under cover close to the tricorns. He waited patiently, and finally he spotted movement further down the hill, as he had guessed, not far from their tricorns.
He slid back down the rock and reported his findings. By chance, their own mounts were hidden by the boulders.
“Can you sneak up on them and fire so they have to break position, Red?”
“I reckon. What’s the plan?”
“The best shot of the three of us should wait up on top of the boulder. When ambushers break out of hiding, they can be picked off. The other two will try to flank them.”
“Durango here is a good shot. He took the sharp shooting prize at the rodeo last year.”
“I remember,” Carlos said. “Okay, that makes me the other man on the ground. I will sneak down the hill while you go around them Red. When you fire, be sure you’re undercover so I don’t accidentally hit you.”
The three men grinned at each other. “Good hunting,” they whispered as they each went to their spot.
Carlos darted from tree to tree as he made his way down the hill. His plan was to drive the ambushers toward Durango’s position on the rock.
He barely made it to cover beside a fat Indigotree before Red started shooting. Crouching, Carlos too fired his gun in the direction he thought the men were hiding. Two of them broke for cover firing over their shoulders. They were running toward Durango’s rock, and he easily picked them off.
A barrage of shots aimed at Durango’s position rang out. Carlos fired his rife in the direction the shots had come from. There was a yelp. Either he or Red must have hit someone.
The next men who tried to escape ran down the hill. Carlos took aim and fired two shots. Both men dropped, but he could see one man on the ground was still alive. His gun was empty, and he dug into his pocket for more shells.
“I call this serendipity,” drawled a familiar voice from behind him. “You lay that rifle down and stand up real slow.”
Not being a fool, Carlos did as he was told, and turned around to find Ben Sykes grinning at him.
“Hello Ben,” he said. “I might have known you were mixed up in this someway.”
“You’ve been a pain in my ass ever since you took over the Lucky Strike,” Sykes said. “I’m going to enjoy taking you out.”
“Shoot me down like a dog, Sykes? That will go over big when you tell it in the saloon. I’ll bet you clean it up though. It won’t do to tell everyone you shot me after you took my rifle because you were too much of a coward to face me with a handgun.”
“That’s a damn lie!” Sykes snapped. “I ain’t afraid of you Madonna.”
Carlos grinned at him. “Prove it.”
Angrily, Sykes switched his rifle to his other hand, grabbing for his gun as he did so.
In his rage at being called a coward, Sykes was in too much of a hurry and missed his first shot. Carlos didn’t. A bullet whipped past Carlos’s ear. He drew his own handgun and fired. Sykes’ second bullet went into the dirt when Carlos’ shot hit him dead in the heart.
Carlos removed the handgun from Sykes limp hand and picked up the rifle. He kicked Sykes with his boot to make sure he was dead. The outlaw rolled over and lay still.
Carlos’ head came up as two more shots came from Red’s position.
A tricorn broke from the stand of trees at a dead run, heading away from the fight toward the road to town. Red and Carlos fired, and the mounted man jerked in the saddle, falling limply over his steed’s neck. The Tricorn shied, and the man slipped off to the side, hitting the ground at an awkward angle.
That made six. Where was the seventh man? Although the adrenalin surge made him antsy, Carlos forced himself to remain still as he watched for movement in the area where the shots had come from.
Red called out, “This yahoo’s dead boss. Did you get yours?”
Carlos stood up and walked toward Red’s voice. “Yes, I got all three of mine. Durango?”
“Okay here boss. I reckon that accounts for all seven.”
The three men walked back to the boulders where they had hidden the tricorns.
“I think we just took out the crew that’s been doing the raiding,” Carlos told his companions with satisfaction. “One of the men I killed was Ben Sykes and he takes orders from Franks.”
Gathering the dead men’s tricorns, they threw the bodies over their saddles and tied them in place. Red created a pack train by running a rope through each tricorns bridle, and the three riders set off down the slope.
The hacienda was in sight when Red Lightning sighted a coiled sander and leaped up and sidewise to get away from it. The jump threw Carlos forward onto the tricorn’s neck just as a shot rang out. The shot burned Carlos across one shoulder and he fell on Red Lightning’s neck. A second shot knocked his hat off and Red Lightning took off at a dead run.
“What the Hell—” Durango yelled.
“They got the boss!” Red yelled back. “Run for the ranch!”
Red and Durango kicked their tricorns into a dead run, aiming for the wide-open doors in the wall. To move faster, Red dropped the pack train rope knowing those tricorns would follow where the others led.
When the three men thundered inside, Iris saw them from the house. Seeing Carlos slumping over Red Lightning’s neck with blood pouring off his shoulder, her heart stopped for a second before she ran to him. “Oh, my God! You’re bleeding,” she gasped.
“Get the gates closed,” Carlos said as he slid down from the animal into her arms.
He was too heavy for her and Iris folded with him on top of her. Clutching Carlos to her, she screamed,” Paco! Get the gates closed! Hurry!”
Paco ran for the gates, yanking the tie back loose, he swung one side closed, just as the last of the tricorns carrying the dead men trotted into the garden. Red already had the other door swinging closed to meet him.
Red swung the heavy bar down into the slots to bar the gate and went to help Durango who had gone to close the other one.
“STEVENS, DURANGO, take Carlos up to Iris’s room and put him in her bed,” Bethany ordered, having followed her sister. “Margo go heat some water. Gran, can you treat his wounds?”
“Yes, I can stop the bleeding and bandage him,” Giselle replied. “We still need the doctor to come out from town.”
Bethany nodded. “Do what you can for him. We’ll get the doctor.” She turned to the men who came in with Carlos. Red, we need to find this shooter and take him out. Did you see where he shot from?”
“He got the boss across the shoulder from the back. I’d say he was on the south side. Do you want me to hunt him?”
“Yes. I’m going to send a message to my husband. He and the others are up in Ruby Canyon starting roundup, so you will have help soon.”
“You want him able to talk?”
Her eyes hardened and her soft mouth flattened in a hard line. “I don’t care. Use your best judgment. Do you have enough ammunition?”
“We used up most of what we had on them,” he said pointing to the tricorns who were still carrying the dead bodies.
Bethany pulled out her keys, detached one and handed it to him. “Here, this is the key to the firearm storage. Take what you need and draw a fresh tricorn from the remuda. Good hunting.”
He took the key and turned away.
“Miss Bethany, what do we do with them?” It was Tim, an older man who helped Iris with the milking. He was pointing to the laden tricorns.
“Unload them and put the dead bodies in the cold cellar where Miss Iris cures her cheese. They need to be kept cold or they’ll stink.”
“Yes, I know she won’t like it and it’s unsanitary, but it can’t be helped for the moment. For God’s sake, don’t let any of the bodies touch the cheese or Iris will have a fit,” Bethany added. “When you’ve finished, you can turn the tricorns into the corral with the remuda. Get Tom and Mary to help you.”
“Tessa,” she called to a young girl about Paco’s age who helped with her racing tricorns, “Come with me to the stable. You too Paco.”
When they followed her into the stable, she pulled two light racing saddles out of the tack room. “Paco bring out Stinger and Glory. You and Tessa put these saddles on them.”
“But those are your racing saddles,” Tessa protested.
“And my racing tricorns,” Bethany agreed. “The two of you will be my messengers. Which of you knows the way to Ruby Canyon the best?”
“I do,” Tessa volunteered as she cinched the light saddle onto the brown and grey striped tricorn. Bethany slid the hackamore over Stinger’s nose horn and then fastened it behind his ears. She went on to do the same to Glory. She patted Glory’s red and gold striped cheek before tossing the reins over her head.
“Tessa, you take Stinger. He is the distance runner. You find my husband and tell him what happened. I don’t want Alec running to an ambush when he comes back. Tell him I’ve set Red to hunting the sniper so not to shoot him by mistake. Can you do that?”
The girl nodded. Bethany held out her cupped hands and boosted Tessa up into the saddle. Stinger tossed his head and danced, eager to run.
When she turned to help Paco mount Glory, he was already up. “Where do I go?”
Bethany patted Glory on the shoulder. “Paco, you ride into town for the Doctor. I don’t know if anyone is watching the road, but be careful. Try to get Sheriff Gonzalez to come out with you and the doctor.”
She led the way to the back of the stable, opening the seldom used eastern doors. Both riders burst out of the stable at a dead run, Paco turning right toward town and Tessa heading through orchard.
Bethany watched them go. She was betting the sniper didn’t know about the back way out of the ranch compound. The racers were fast and the riders light. Stinger’s coloring would blend into the trees and rocks making him harder to spot if the sniper was looking for a rider. Glory was easier seen, but Paco would have the house between him and where Red thought the sniper was.
Red came toward her leading a tough, wiry tricorn. He had added a double row of saddle bags and a bedroll to the saddle. An extra rifle was thrust down in the saddle sleeve.
“I’ll have someone posted in the watchtower in relays to watch for signals,” Bethany said, referring to the tall cupola on the roof the house.
“Did you send someone for McCaffey?” Red asked, handing her the key.
“Yes, I hope he will be here by morning. You will have help then.”
Red swung into the saddle and set off at a trot out of the doors. When he first came to the ranch, he had been more than half in love with Bethany. When Alec arrived, Red had envied Alec his bride and his position as St. Vyr’s son-in-law, but today he didn’t. He had seen Bethany’s expression harden when she spoke of killing the sniper, and suddenly he wasn’t so sure about Alec’s good fortune. It took a tough man to be married to the woman he had just left. Ruefully, Red realized he didn’t want to take a woman that strong to bed.
Bethany closed the doors and returned to the house where she found her father waiting in the parlor.
“What is going on?” St. Vyr roared. “Don’t ignore me! I’m crippled, not helpless Missy!”
Bethany took a deep breath. “I’m sorry Papa. I know you aren’t helpless, but I had to—”
“Do the things I can’t do anymore,” her father said bitterly.
He sighed. “It’s not your fault. You’re a good girl and I know you’re doing your best.”
“How is Carlos?” she asked.
“No one has come down to tell me that either,” her father said.
“Shall I go find out, or do you want to hear what I’ve set in motion first?”
“Tell me what you’ve done first.”
He nodded approvingly as Bethany detailed her activities for the past hour.
“You’ve done a good job girl. Now go check on my boy.”
Bethany ran upstairs, stopping at the open door of Iris’s room. Gran was just finishing sewing the cut made by the bullet on Carlos’ head. Giselle added a few drops from a glass vial to a spoonful of honey. While Iris lifted his head, Giselle spooned the mixture into Carlos’ mouth. He swallowed and closed his eyes.
Iris gently laid his head back down on a pillow and tucked the sheet in around him.
“Sleep, now Darling,” she said, stroking his hair. “Everything is being taken care of. You just get better.”
“Papa wants to know how he is,” Bethany said.
“Flesh wounds only,” Giselle assured her. “I will tell Mike he will live. Did you send for the doctor?”
“Yes, Paco rode Glory into town. I asked him to bring the Sheriff back with them.”
“Thank you for sending your racehorse Bethany,” Iris smiled tiredly at her. “I know how much you care about your racing stock.”
“Yes, I love them,” her sister agreed, “but they aren’t worth more than the lives of my family.” Bethany sank down on the chest at the foot of the bed. “How are you holding up?” she asked her sister.
Iris let her hand drift over Carlos damp hair again in a brief caress. “I could be better but I am doing all right. I must keep reminding myself that he is alive and going to stay that way. Bethany, I was so scared when I saw him covered in blood—”
“So, when is the wedding?”
“He hasn’t actually asked me yet, you know. And Papa—”
Her sister looked her over in silence and Iris shifted uncomfortably. “That isn’t what I asked you, Iris. What do you want? I’ve always thought you were more than halfway in love with him. Am I wrong?”
Iris let her hand drift over his damp curls again. She took a deep breath. “No, you aren’t wrong. But I want—I need for him to love me too. I don’t want him to marry me to please Papa.”
“Alec says I’m not very good at reading men, but even I can see the way Carlos looks at you. He’s not marrying you to please Papa. He wants you.”
Bethany rose and gave her sister a hug. “I’ll send you up dinner and some broth for him as soon as I get the chance. His color looks better than it did when he got here.”
She headed down to the kitchen where she found Margo just starting on dinner.
“It will be late,” Margo warned her.
“Don’t do anything elaborate,” Bethany said. “Sandwiches and the soup we had yesterday will be fine.”
“Soup’s already on the stove. I’ll cut bread for sandwiches. Did Paco ride for the doctor?”
“Yes, I let him ride Glory.”
Margo smiled. “He will be on top of the world. He wants to ride the next time you race them you know.”
Bethany poured herself a cup of hot tea and sipped gingerly to avoid burning her tongue. “Your son has the skills as a rider, but I wouldn’t ask him unless you agreed.”
Margo lifted her shoulders. “Life has to be lived. I can’t hold him back, even though I will worry about how dangerous it is.”
Tessa reached the roundup camp by evening. Knowing she had many miles to go, she had alternately walked and galloped Stinger, who was breathing easy and still frisky enough to kick out at a hand who got too close when they arrived.
McCaffey saw the girl coming and recognized his wife’s prized racing colt. Circling the herd of fractious cattle, he started his tricorn back to the camp at a sharp trot. When he arrived, he realized the rider hadn’t been Bethany. The young stable hand sipping the coffee handed her by the cook was waiting to speak to him.
“Tessa, what are you doing here riding Bethany’s racing colt?” Alec demanded.
“I have permission,” she assured him. “There is a sniper targeting the ranch house. He got Carlos Madonna when they came back from investigating those miner thefts.”
“Got him?” he demanded. “Is he dead?”
“I don’t think so, but Paco rode Glory into town to fetch the doctor. Miss Bethany sent me to ask you to come home and to warn you to be careful. She sent Red Courteen up into the hills after the sniper. He’s the best tracker we have.”
“Was Carlos alone when he was shot?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Red and Durango rode in with him.”
“How many shots were fired? Were the other two hit?”
“Just the two I think. Neither Red or Durango looked wounded.”
“He got who he was aiming at then,” Alec said. “That means he was after Carlos, or maybe both of us.” He was thinking out loud. “Johnson himself isn’t that good a shot. He must have hired someone for this, or its one of the sons.”
“Boss?” it was Jorge Verduzco, “Why don’t we leave part of the crew to finish up and go hunting too?”
Several of the crew had been listening and there were sounds of agreement.
Alec shook his head. “We wouldn’t find him blundering around in the dark. We’ll start back tomorrow. Unsaddle Stinger,” he told Tessa. “There’s extra bedrolls in the wagon.”
He unsaddled his tricorn and picketed him where he could crop grass.
The next morning, Alec had the crew draw lots. Half of them would remain with the wagon and move the herd culled for sale down toward the stockyards at the ranch. The other half would ride with him to find the sniper.
“You’ve done your job,” he told Tessa when she protested staying with the herd. “Your main concern now is to take care of Stinger and make sure the pair of you get home safely.”
It was mid-morning when Alec and the hands reached the hills above the ranch. Alec had the men dismount. He changed his riding boots for soft moccasins. The soft shoes would make less noise on the ground. He noticed Jorge and a few of the others doing the same. Leaving one man to guard the tricorns, he set the others up to do a wide sweep, moving in a straight line about ten feet apart, looking for the sniper’s camp or for him. The Ironwood forest leading up into the mountains surrounding the Golden Tricorn was thick with thorn bushes carrying ripe berries. Groves of massive grey trees thrust straight up through the brush.
“This place has a lot of cover,” Alec remarked to Jorge, who nodded in agreement.
“Going to be hard to spot him in all this,” said a tall man with a shock of black hair.
“It will at that. I’d like to have proof who hired him,” Alec continued, “But when it comes down to it, he needs taken out.”
There were nods of understanding. These men had all grown up on St. Antoni, they understood the harsh conditions under which man survived here. A local Sheriff would handle trouble inside a town; outside of town, there was one District Marshall to enforce the law over thousands of square miles. On St. Antoni, you handled your problems yourself, and reported it afterwards to any law that was around. The men riding with Alec knew they were hunting a man who shot from ambush without giving his opponent the chance to defend himself. To the men of St. Antoni, that meant the sniper was fair game.
The men crept at a snail’s pace through the forest making as little noise as possible. Alec could see that this wasn’t the first time some of them had performed this duty; they were the ones who seemed to fade into the brush.
Alec discovered the sniper’s tricorn hidden in a small glade. The animal’s dark grey/brown stripes blended so well with the surrounding trees that he almost missed him. The tricorn was saddled and ready to ride at a moment’s notice. He found ashes from a small fire under an overhanging boulder. The sniper had camped here last night.
Alec stopped and made a bird trill sound. He was answered by the men on either side of him and he could hear the call being passed down the line.
He signaled for Jorge to bring the men in. “Find cover and spread out. He’s going to come back here sooner or later. When he does, we’ll be waiting for him.”
Alec didn’t even jump when Red appeared beside him.
“You stole my idea boss,” he complained. “I was hunting him all yesterday and today.”
“Sorry about that,” Alec whispered. “You’ll have to take your turn now.”
Martin Chamber had stayed alive by listening to his inner voice when it signaled danger. Right now, that voice was telling him he had stayed in this spot too long. He gathered up his rifle and other tools and climbed down from the nest he was using to spot his prey.
Alec waited patiently while Chamber scouted his camp. When the man came in, he waited until Chamber stuck his rifle into the scabbard on the saddle before he stepped out into the glade.
“Looking for me?” he asked.
Chamber whirled around, his hand going instinctively for his holstered weapon. Alec made no move to draw his own, and Chamber hesitated.
“You’re McCaffey ain’t you? You alone? No, you’ve got St. Vyr’s men out there in the bush. If I draw my gun, they’ll cut me to ribbons.”
Alec shook his head. “No, they won’t. You hear that?” he called. “This is my fight. If he shoots me, let him go.”
Red, Jorge and several others stepped into the clearing. “We hear you.”
There was a rebellious mutter from some of the men as they too came out of hiding. They stood silent and menacing as they waited.
“Let me step away from my ‘corn. I don’t want him hit,” Chambers said, edging sideways.
Alec watched him, turning a little, so he still faced him. “What’s your name? We want something to put on your grave.”
Chambers scowled at him. “I’m Martin Chambers. You won’t need to put up a marker because I’m walking away from this.”
McCaffey laughed. “Don’t bet your life on it. I’ve heard of you. You’re a money fighter who shoots from ambush. Who hired you?”
Chambers spat. “None of your business.”
“I know him too,” Red snarled. “He usually works for the Smiths in Copper City. Fact is, I owe him for a killing he did for them. A while back he took out a harmless old man named Cinders. Shot him in the back. You find out who in River Crossing has ties to the Smiths and you’ll know who hired him.”
“See here,” Chambers protested. “This ain’t got nothing to do with that other job—”
His hand dropped to his gun. Jerking the pistol up, he fired.
The bullet whipped past Alec and smacked into the tree behind him. Alec had taken a step to the side when he saw Chamber’s hand begin to move. As he stepped to the side, he drew his own gun and fired in one smooth motion. His bullet bored a round hole precisely in Chamber’s forehead.
“Good shooting, boss,” said Red.
Alec walked over to Chambers and kicked him in the side. “He’s dead, alright. Jorge, go and tell Martin to bring our mounts down here. One of you boys throw him on his ‘corn and tie him off. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m ready to go home.”