The Most Dangerous Prey – Warriors of St. Antoni

This is the first of my new Portal Worlds series. The book is still being written and edited, so what you read today is subject to change without notice in the published version.

On St. Antoni, you got tough or you died. The only defense is a gun; your security is your ability to use it. This is the story of three sisters and the choices they make to survive on St. Antoni. Bethany marries a mercenary warrior to shield her family from a predatory neighbor. Iris chooses between an arranged marriage with a beloved friend and an outlaw. Jeanne and the son of her greatest enemy defy both their families to find love.

 

This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any persons living or dead is unintentional and accidental. © Gail Daley 2017 All Rights reserved. Any duplication of this work electronically or printed, except for brief publicity quotes, is forbidden without the express written permission of the author. Cover Art © by Gail Daley’s Fine Art 2017

 

Serial Chapters are posted on Fridays. Check in next Friday for the next chapter of Warriors of St. Antoni

Click below to Download a PDF copy and start reading The Most Dangerous Prey

 

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“STEVENS, DURANGO, take Carlos up to Iris’s room and put him in her bed,” Bethany ordered. “Margo 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 man 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, who helped Iris with the milking. He was pointing to the laden tricorns.

“Unload the tricorns 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.”

“But—”

“Yes, I know 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, “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 him 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 will 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. The horses 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.

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 for McCaffey?” he asked her.

“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. Bethany closed them 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.

“Papa—”

He sighed. “It’s not your fault. You’re a good girl and I know you’re trying to help.”

“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 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.

“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 in a brief caress. “I could be better but I am doing all right. I have to keep reminding myself that he is alive and going to stay that way but 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 Stinger.”

Margo smiled. “He will be on top of the world. He wants to ride the next time you race him you know.”

Bethany poured herself a cup of hot tea and sipped gingerly. It was hot. “He 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 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. “How bad?”

“I’m not sure. Paco rode Glory into town to fetch the doctor. Miss Bethany sent me to warn you to be careful. She sent Red Courter 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 there?”

“Just two I think.”

“He got who he was aiming at then,” Alec said. “Either he was after Carlos, or maybe both of us.” He was thinking out loud. “That means Johnson either hired someone 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?”

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 and 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 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 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 drew and fired in one smooth motion. His bullet bored a smooth round hold 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.”

 

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