Category Archives: sci-fi western

PREVIEW OF WARRIORS OF ST. ANTONI

Welcome to the Portal World Tales: The knowledge that it was possible to open a doorway to other worlds couldn’t be kept secret. The Portal technology was leaked, and unregulated gates popped up like fleas on a dog in summer. Immigrants who came through these illegal gates had only the supplies and technology they could carry to defend themselves against the alien plants and bizarre animals they found. But they came because of man’s lust to explore and because they wanted freedom and adventure. With intelligence, courage, and sheer stubbornness, they built a new world.

WARRIORS OF ST. ANTONI is the story of sisters Bethany, Jeanne and Iris, and the choices they make to survive on the world of St. Antoni. Bethany marries a mercenary warrior to shield her family from a predatory neighbor. To her surprise, the marriage of convenience turns into a love match, but Bethany and Alec must learn to trust as well as love each other. Iris chooses an arranged marriage with a beloved old friend, but did Carlos marry her for love, or to please her father? Jeanne and Samuel, the son of her family’s greatest enemy, run away to a distant city to build a new life, but discover you can’t run away from who you are.

A Portal World Tale

Warriors of St. Antoni

by

Gail Daley

Something Wicked This Way Comes

IT WAS THE luck of the draw that the illicit portal to the world of St. Antoni opened onto a planet that closely resembled its parent world. Although St. Antoni possessed a yellow sun, darker than the one that shone on earth, it looked down on blue seas, land masses covered with lush grass, gray Ironwood forests, high snowy mountains, hot dry deserts and continents threaded by large rivers and small streams. Plants and animals had developed along lines genetically close enough to earth to support human life, and St. Antoni’s temperature range was close enough to Earth to make living there bearable for humans.

St. Anthoni’s illegally founded portal in Gateway City had been open for several hundred years, giving its settlers time to develop seven City States with loosely connected governments. Except for areas directly connecting the City States, much of St. Antoni was still wild and unexplored. In the years the St. Antoni gateway had been open, Portal Runners had brought in a steady trickle of new settlers and other items highly valued on a planet without its own technological resources. The industries developed by the settlers, were mostly farming, ranching and mining in the interior, and fishing along the coastal areas, although manufacturing was growing. Travel took the form of steamboats along the deep rivers, and a newly built railroad system connecting the largest City states using steam driven trains. To get to anywhere else, the settlers walked, rode or drove a tricorn pulled wagon. Named for their three horns; the animals had two spikes set high in the forehead, and a third at the end of their noses. Tricorns were herd animals, and like the horses they resembled, once domesticated, served a variety of purposes for the settlers.

The area around River Crossing and its companion across the river, Minerstown, was dominated by six powerful families who together controlled mining and ranching in the area. Rather than decimate their livelihoods by fighting until only one family was left standing the families of Kenefic had jointly come to an agreement to settle their differences with a joint council. The mountains above River Crossing were rich in gold, silver, bluestones and gems. The Lucky Strike, owned by Michael St. Vyr, mined Bluestone, the other mines owned by the six families, worked gold, silver and various gemstones.

Michael St. Vyr had come through the portal in Gateway City with his parents when he was a child. By the power of his own hard work and ingenuity, he had carved a place for himself and his family in the long wide valley at the base of the mountains ringing the northern continent. He owned a Bluestone mine, gold, gemstone and silver claims in the hills above the valley, and a cattle and goat ranch with a good house and twenty acres of orchards.

Folks around River Crossing described him as a big man, solid, with a mane of graying red hair. His three pretty daughters, well he thought they were pretty, had recently come home from Copper City. He was on the road leading from his ranch into town, because he had just come from a meeting with his lawyer. Michael was pleased to think he had made satisfactory arrangements to divide his property equally between his three girls and their husbands in the event of his death.

“None of your daughters are married or engaged,” his lawyer, Terrance Milliner, pointed out.

St. Vyr waved that quibbling objection away. “Doesn’t matter. I have plans to take care of that. Before the year is out, I plan for all three of my girls to be wed.”

Riding home after signing the papers, his satisfaction was marred by an uncomfortable itch growing on the back of his neck that got worse the further away from town he rode. He knew better than to ignore the feeling.

He had been twelve the first time it happened. He and his parents followed a Portal Runner through an unregulated gate to the raw new world of St. Antoni. The emigrant camp where they were taken by the Runner was a wild place. Young Michael’s family had only been in the immigrant camp three days before his father had been gunned down and robbed of the small number of gems he had been carrying to the money changer. After Jess St. Vyr was killed, an investigation was done, but the investigator simply reported it had been a fair shooting because Jess had been armed. Michael and his mother had been left to fend for themselves in the camp.

Michaels neck itched that day too; he had been afraid of something bad happening that day, and had begged his father to let him accompany him, but Jess St. Vyr had left him with his mother.

After her husband’s death, Giselle, Michael’s mother quickly discovered that on this new world a woman needed to be tough enough to protect herself or find someone to do it for her. A strong-minded woman, she decided to learn how to take care of herself and her son. Michael and his mother were left at the mercy of a society that expected its people to be able to protect, feed and clothe themselves on their own. His parents had been fleeing an organized gang back home, so returning to earth on a permanent basis was out of the question. To support herself and her son, Giselle became a Portal Runner. apprenticing with the woman who brought them over. Portal Runners traveled back and forth between Earth and St. Antoni, smuggling in goods and people. Between trips she supported them with a variety of enterprises.

His father’s death had taught Michael a lesson; he never again ignored the warning he got from his gut and it saved his life many times over.

He paid heed to the warning now, and carefully examined the area around the road because paying attention to his surroundings had kept him alive a long time. He could see nothing out of place, however. The road leading from his ranch the Golden Tricorn into town was smooth; it had been recently graded by his own workers. The deep drainage ditch that kept the road from becoming a mire during the rainy season was dry. The thorn bushes growing in it would be underwater when the rains came, but that was not due to happen for several months. It was high summer and the waves of knee high buttery grass, broken here and there with tall thorn bushes, gave the undulating landscape a deceptively flat look. Evening was drawing near and the valley was beginning to cool from the blistering heat of a summer day. Long shadows had begun to shade the road.

The road had no heavy traffic this late in the afternoon, but it was busy enough to be safe from bands of roving outlaws. Deciding he wanted a better look around, he dismounted and fussed ostensibly with the cinch holding the saddle on his red and black striped tricorn. St. Vyr took the opportunity to loosen the gun in his holster while he was pretending to fiddle with the cinch. He never got the chance to draw it.

Without warning, a savage blow followed by the crack of a high-powered rifle hit him in the lower back. His Tricorn, Redbird, had been trained not to flinch from gunfire and stood like a rock when Michael collapsed against him. But when a second bullet burned the animal across the rump, he took off running, leaving his master to fall half in, half out of the drainage ditch.

St. Vyr slumped to the ground, still conscious but unable to feel his legs. He felt lightheaded, and knew he was in danger of passing out. He touched his waist and brought his hand away red with his own blood. The light wavered in front of his eyes and he knew he had to find cover before whoever fired the shots came to see if he had killed him. Desperately, he used his powerful arms to drag himself all the way into the drainage ditch at the side of the road. He slid sideways and rolled down into it. The ditch was dry this time of year and overgrown with thorn bushes. Just before he passed out, he rolled under a bush, praying there wasn’t a Sander, one of St. Antoni’s poisonous reptiles, lurking under it seeking shade from the heat of the day. Michael pulled some of the dead bushes lining the ditch over himself before blacking out.

Tricorns, like the horses they had replaced, were herd animals. The stallion ran hard for a few miles and then slowed to a more moderate pace as he made his way back to the ranch. Reaching the barn, he stopped outside the corral where he had the remuda tricorns for company.

The ranch house itself was a large two-story structure built with sun baked bricks made of the local dried grasses and clay found along the riverbanks. High walls, broken apart with narrow slits for windows made from the same material, enclosed an inner courtyard. Barns and corrals for animals rested against the outside wall facing the fruit and nut orchard, and a bunkhouse for the workers attached to the other wall. Racks of Bluestones to power the ranch’s steam generators were stored on layers of frames under a roof supported by long poles, so they couldn’t develop moisture and catch fire. St. Antoni’s first immigrants had discovered the bluestones by accident soon after they arrived. A man had spilled some water on a pile of them and they burst into flame. His partner, an engineer, experimented with adapting the chemical reaction from the mixture of stones and water to create enough heat to run a steam engine. The first few steam generators had been made from parts smuggled in from earth, but the engineer and his partner soon got rich making their own generators with parts made from a home-made alloy of iron, carbon, copper and tin.

Coming home several hours after Redbirds arrival, Michaels daughter Jeanne found her father’s tricorn loose in front of the corrals. Annoyed, because she hadn’t counted on her father being home and possibly asking her questions about what she had been doing, she was busy thinking up excuses as she rode up.

Her father had given orders that the girls weren’t to ride out alone, which Jeanne had disobeyed, and not for the first time. The youngest of Michael’s three daughters, she was accustomed to getting her own way by a combination of sweet cajolery or tantrums. Jeanne wasn’t above using her looks ruthlessly to obtain what she wanted, but she knew her father wouldn’t be fooled by the attributes that distracted others. Growing up, she had gotten away with doing forbidden things because when she was a young girl, people were diverted by her huge blue eyes that she could make swim with tears and her quivering lips. As she grew older, men especially failed to see past the lush figure, golden hair and red-lipped mouth. They frequently missed the hard-headed intelligence peeking out of those lovely turquoise eyes.

When her father didn’t appear, she dismounted and breathed a sigh of relief. She tied her gray striped mare up to the hitching rail in front of the tack room and unsaddled her. Coming out with a brush and currycomb after she deposited her saddle on a rack inside, she was surprised to see that Redbird, her father’s mount had come up to the hitching rail where she had tied Grayling her own tricorn, and was investigating the feedbag she had dropped over her nose.

“Redbird, how did you get loose?” she demanded of the tricorn, picking up his trailing reins. As she moved to re-tie him to the rail, she spotted the wound, still oozing a trickle of blood, on his rump where the second bullet had grazed him. When she stepped back and looked more carefully at the stallion, she could see a smear of blood on the stirrup leather.

Her first impulse was to remount and back trail Redbird to see if she could find her father. Looking around for help, she realized the stable area was empty. This time of day the thirty or so people who earned a living working for St. Vyr around the home ranch were probably inside resting from the burning heat of the day. The herders and farmers who normally would have been close by were doing the same in the orchards or out in the fields with the stock. Jeanne finished tying Redbird to the hitching rail and ran through the open doors on the courtyard to the house, shouting for her sisters, her grandmother and Margo the housekeeper.

“What is it, child?” Giselle, her grandmother asked in alarm when Jeanne burst through the French doors leading from the patio to the sitting room.

“Papa’s tricorn came back without him,” Jeanne gasped out. “There is blood on the stirrups and he has a bullet burn across his rump. Where is everyone?”

“Margo went into town to do the weekly shopping,” Bethany, her older sister said, referring to their housekeeper. “Did you say Papa was hurt? Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Jeanne said. “Redbird was loose by the corral when I got back. At first, I didn’t notice he was hurt. Where was Papa going today?”

“He went into town to see the lawyer,” Iris, the next oldest sister, told her.

“Jeanne, go saddle us some mounts while we change into riding clothes,” Bethany ordered. Jeanne ran back outside.

Bethany looked at her grandmother, her grey eyes worried. “Gran, You need to send someone out to the men working in the pastures closest to the house and have them come in and help with the search. If Papa was shot between the ranch and town, he’ll be found somewhere along the road to the Crossing.”

Giselle nodded her understanding and left quickly, calling for Macon, the head gardener.

Bethany came downstairs a few minutes later, dressed in homespun grey pants and shirt. The tight shirt and pants fit snuggly on her hourglass figure, and the grey color brought out the red highlights in her hair. she went to her father’s gun cabinet and loaded rifles and pistols for herself and her sisters. She belted on a holster belt specially made to fit around her waist. She slid a handgun into the holster.

“Oh, no,” Iris protested, her green eyes widening when she saw the weapons. She was tucking her white blond hair up under a wide-brimmed leather hat. “Surely we won’t need those.”

“If something happened to Papa,” Bethany told Iris grimly, “It wasn’t an accident. Jeanne said Redbird had a bullet burn across his rump. Do you want to be helpless if we need to rescue him?”

Bethany handed the second pistol and rifle to Iris who took it reluctantly. Despite her height, this middle girl of Michael St. Vyr’s had an air of fragility, belied by the expertise with which she checked the pistol and rifle.

“Where is mine?” Giselle asked, returning from her errand. Like the girls, she had changed to homespun pants, shirt and boots. She was a beautiful woman despite showing her fifty years of age, and could still turn heads in the tight pants and shirt.

“In the gun cabinet because we need you need to stay here in case Papa makes it home,” Jeanne informed her as she came back in through the window. She took her weapons from Bethany. “The Tricorns are ready to go.”

“Thank you, Jeanne,” Bethany said. She turned to Giselle. “You are our best doctor. You know you need to stay here in case someone brings Papa home wounded, Grandmother.”

Giselle gave reluctant consent to the plan. “I’ll give you girls three hours to find him, and then I’m coming out to look also.”

The land between the Golden Tricorn and the town of River Crossing looked flat, but it was pocked with shallow dips and cuts in the earth, making searching for a wounded man who might be trying to hide, slow and difficult work. The knee-high grass growing off the road could hide a body as well.

It was Iris who spotted the marks Michael had made when he dragged himself into the ditch for cover.

“Here!” Iris called, dismounting and sliding down into the waist deep ditch. Her tricorn smelled blood and pulled back nervously on the reins, nearly dragging her back up the embankment.

“Papa!” Jeanne called urgently. “Where are you?”

She too dismounted, and taking the reins of Iris’s tricorn, she tied the nervous animal to her saddle horn. She had no fear of her own mount running off because she smelled blood; she had spent hours training Grayling not to flinch under more difficult circumstances than a smell she didn’t like. When Bethany dismounted, she handed the reins of the tricorns to her and joined Iris in the ditch, carefully lifting the bushes to see if her father had crawled under them.

Iris had just spotted one of Michael’s boots sticking out from under a bush against the far bank, and she rushed forward, yanking the bushes out of her way.

“Be careful. There might be a Sander under there. You know how they like the shade when it’s hot,” Bethany warned, referring to St. Antoni’s large poisonous reptiles.

“So, shoot it with that damn gun you insisted we bring,” Iris retorted, dropping beside her father and picking up his wrist to feel for a pulse.

Jeanne had finished moving the brush aside and she too dropped beside Michael. “He’s bleeding. It looks like someone shot him in the back. We need to get him out of here and back to the ranch.”

“The doctor’s house in town is closer,” Bethany objected.

“Should we move him?” asked Iris doubtfully. “What if it hurts his back?”

“His back’s already hurt,” Jeanne snapped.

“That might not be relevant anyway,” Bethany observed. “I don’t think the three of us can get him back up the bank on our own. Here,” she pulled bandages, rags and a bottle of alcohol out of her saddlebag. “One of you see if you can clean the wound and bandage it. I—”

Her head lifted sharply as she heard the unmistakable clop, clop of a buckboard driven by a team of tricorns coming down the road from town.

“It’s Margo,” she cried, waving frantically at the driver. Margo snapped the reins, and the team broke into a gallop, coming to a sliding stop when they reached the girls.

“What happened, Nina?” Margo asked.

“It’s Papa. He’s wounded, and he’s down in the ditch. We will need help to get him out of there.”

“Dios mio!” the middle-aged housekeeper exclaimed, tumbling off the wagon seat and coming to look down into the ditch.

“I think we’ll soon have help to get him out of the ditch,” Jeanne said, pointing to a plume of dust rising on the road from the direction of the ranch. Shortly, about fifteen of the ranch hands thundered up on lathered tricorns, demanding to know what had happened.

With their help, it proved easy to move the wounded man into Margo’s buckboard. Margo made a wide, slow turn to jostle Michael as little as possible, and headed back into town. Iris and three of the hands, who were just aching for someone to attempt to stop them, rode with the wagon.

Bethany turned to Jeanne. “You’d better go back to the ranch and let Gran know what happened. She’ll want to come into town. Take a couple of the men with you.”

Jeanne nodded and remounted.

Bethany remounted her own tricorn and looked over at the hands that had stayed with her. “Durango, who is the best tracker?” she asked a tall slim man with a wide brimmed hat.

“Red and I,” he replied. “You want us to find out who did this?”

“Yes,” she said grimly. “I’m putting you in charge. And Durango, when you find him, we need him alive to be able to talk to the Sheriff. I don’t care if he dies afterward, just if he lives long enough to talk. I want to know who did this.”

She turned her tricorn and kicked her into a gallop, following the wagon into town, unaware of the startled look the men exchanged before they set off to find the sniper.

Unlike his father when he had been shot, Michael St. Vyr lived, but he would never walk again. He was lying in bed, unable to do anything but fume when he overheard Emory Johnson’s attempt to coerce Bethany into marrying him.

“You can marry me or end up in a whorehouse,” Emory told her arrogantly.

Giselle had taught Mike’s girls to take care of themselves. Bethany shoved him away and stomped over the front door which she threw open.

“Get out!” She snapped.

Emory hesitated, but Stevens, Michael’s attendant had come to the door of Michael’s room, and Margo’s son Paco was standing in the kitchen doorway watching, so he stalked out.

“This isn’t over,” he told Bethany.

“It had better be,” she retorted. “If you come back here, I’ll make sure someone shoots you.”

Michael knew then that he needed to start his plan for taking care of his daughters as soon as possible. Accordingly, he demanded pen, paper and a lap desk be brought to him. He wrote a letter and addressed it to McCaffey & Miller Range & Mine Detection in the City of Bitterstone. Margo’s son Paco took it into town and paid a runner to take it to Bitterstone.

An Interesting Proposition

THE YOUNG runner looked doubtfully at the letter he was being paid fifty copper chips to deliver. It was addressed to A. McCaffey, esq. The sign over the door simply read “McCaffey & Miller Range & Mine Detecting”. The messenger shrugged and opened the door. Inside the room were two wooden desks, a gun rack, and a cast iron stove with a battered coffee pot and two tables, one of which housed a stack of wanted flyers. A couple of straight-backed chairs pressed against the far wall of the room. The faded window shade rising halfway up the window fronting the street was drawn, but intense summer light glared in over the top of the glass panes.

The two desks had been positioned so that anyone entering by the door was automatically caught between them, but it wasn’t just the feeling of being trapped that made the messenger uncomfortable; it was the men. On the surface, this should not have happened. Outwardly, the two looked like prosperous townsmen, but the messenger could sense a faint edge of readiness for battle when he entered the office. It made him nervous. On St. Antoni, you paid attention to things that made you uneasy, or you died. The young messenger had been living on his own for more than ten years and he was still alive.

The older man was tall and skinny with a grey beard and bushy eyebrows. He wore a faded plaid shirt tucked into homespun jeans. He should have looked neat and tidy, but somehow didn’t. The younger man was a little below medium height with a tough, wiry build and mild brown eyes in a wedge-shaped face. Like the older man, he wore a plaid shirt and jeans but on him the clothes looked comfortable rather than messy. The two men regarded the messenger with almost identical expressions of quiet watchfulness.

“Ah—which of you is A. McCaffey?” the messenger inquired looking desperately from one to the other.

“That would be me.” The younger man held out his hand for the letter.

The messenger thrust a clipboard at him in haste. “Oh, please sign here, sir.”

  1. McCaffey dipped a quill in an open inkwell on the desk and scrawled a signature. He accepted the letter pushed at him and flipped a small handful of copper chips at the messenger who caught the tip deftly. He exchanged grins with the old man as the young man fled their office.

“You suppose he’ll change his drawers after he gets back to the Runner Office?” the older man, who called himself Henry Miller, was trying hard not to laugh. “You really oughtn’t to scare the boy that way. It’s bad for business.”

McCaffey made a rude noise. “Shut up, Henry. Besides, maybe it was your sour puss that scared him.”

The return address was the Golden Tricorn ranch in River Crossing. McCaffey turned the letter over several times before he opened it and began to read. Afterwards, he shoved it at Henry and went to stand looking out the window although not directly in front of it, as Henry read.

Henry was a slow, deliberate reader. When he was through, he refolded it carefully. Thoughtfully, he tapped it on the desk.

“Well, now. This is quite a proposition. Going to do it?”

“How, the Hell should I know?” Alec demanded almost fiercely.

Henry tapped the letter again. “Don’t hurt nothing to meet her, check out the situation. You can always say no. Been awhile since we got out in the field.”

Alec gave him an old-fashioned look over his shoulder. “You think I should go find out, don’t you?”

“Son, you ain’t been happy for a while. Oh, we’re making money, especially since we started hiring men for fieldwork, instead of doing the tough jobs ourselves, but you been looking for something. Maybe this is it.”

The Arrangement

THE GOLDEN Tricorn Ranch lay at the base of the foothills above a wide valley in the City State of Kenefic. The ranch had been originally owned by a family of First In settlers. They had died out, and the last of the family had sold the ranch to Michael St. Vyr, a placer miner who had made his fortune working claims in the rolling hills above the Valley. He still owned a Bluestone mine higher up in the mountains that separated the valley and settlement of River Crossing from the neighboring City State of Azure. He also had substantial shares in some placer gold and gemstone claims in the hills.

After buying the Golden Tricorn, St. Vyr, a canny man, put in wells, collected water in ponding basins, and diversified the fork-horned, shaggy cattle and the huge goats that were the ranches traditional crops by adding orchards of fruit trees in the winter and nuts in the hot summer. He added a dairy goat farm and raised geese to sell for meat and eggs. His two younger daughters now managed the dairy farm and sold the eggs and geese.

After St. Vyr had been shot, the family had converted Michael’s library into a bedroom, and his once vigorous body lay wasting away in the four-poster bed replacing the overstuffed chairs and tables, but his mind was still as sharp as ever.

The books had been moved into his den, but the room still smelled of the dearly bought leather bound books printed on rag paper, and the citrus and glycerin mixture the housekeeper, Margo Alveraz, used to polish the desk and tables. That pleasant smell was overlaid now by the less pleasant scents of chamomile, camphor and bandages.

According to the doctor, he would never walk again. Michael eyed the new wheeled chair, an ingenious affair brought by the doctor, in disgust. It was going to be his transportation from now on. A large chair body with the legs removed had been placed between four wooden bicycle wheels with a short axle connecting them. The chair moved when the front wheels were turned by hand.

His daughter Bethany sat in the straight-backed chair across from him looking down at her clasped hands. Except for her red hair and grey eyes, she bore little resemblance to her father. At twenty-four she couldn’t be considered a girl any longer—in fact by the standards of the pioneer society in which she lived, she was considered a spinster; old enough to be on the marriage shelf while younger women passed her by. She was wasn’t unmarried because of her looks; Bethany’s full, lush figure, fiery red hair and icy grey eyes as well as her father’s riches had attracted many men in the past, but by choice she was still unmarried. Although there was no social bar to a woman competing for work with men on St. Antoni, most of the work in the frontier society still required more physical strength than all but a few women possessed. With so few opportunities for women except marriage, Bethany should have been grateful for the marriage proposition her father had just presented to her. Instead, she regarded it with mixed feelings.

“Papa—”

“Mind, I’m not forcing you girl. If you’ve got a fancy for someone else, why, I can put this to Iris as she’s the next oldest. But so far as I can see, you haven’t got anyone else in mind.”

‘No,” she retorted, “and there is no one else eligible either! At least no one I could stand to be married to.”

“Just so. The only really eligible bachelors around here aren’t fit to sire pigs—well except for Carlos Madonna and I think he’s got eyes for Iris.”

“And she for him—not that she would admit it. Very well, Papa. I will meet this Alexander McCaffey. If we agree we are suited, then I will marry him; but I won’t consent until after I meet him.”

He scowled at her. “You’re as red-headed stubborn as your mother, but I agree. Now go and tell those two with their ears glued to the door your decision. I’m tired.”

Dismissed, Bethany shut the door softly on the downstairs room. Her father had posed a solution to their problems she would have liked more time to come to terms with. Unfortunately, her two younger sisters were lying in wait for her in the hall, anxious to discover the outcome of her discussion with their father.

The three girls shared a father, but different mothers and each of them had inherited their mothers looks. Iris was a tall slim blond, with dark green eyes and her mother’s patrician beauty. Just now, she looked anxious. Jeanne, the youngest, had inherited her mother’s full, red-lipped mouth, statuesque figure and her turquoise eyes. Just now the lush mouth was hard, and her blue snapped furiously.

“Well?” Iris whispered.

“Yes, what did the Doctor say?” demanded Jeanne at the same time.

“Come into the parlor,” Bethany gestured to the room across the hall.

Once inside the room Iris’s mother had designated the ‘lady’s’ parlor’, she shut the door and sat in one of the overstuffed chairs. She waited until her sisters had taken seats before she answered.

“The paralysis is permanent. The Doctor is sure, but that wasn’t what Papa wanted to talk about.”

Iris covered her face with her hands. Jeanne sent her a half-contemptuous look at what she considered an over-reaction. None of the girls had ever been close to their father. He had sent them all east to be raised by his mother after his last wife, Jeanne’s mother was murdered by raiders. Michel St. Vyr hadn’t had good luck with his wives. All three had died on him, leaving him with daughters and no son to take over for him. When Copper City, where they were living, was taken over by a rival gang faction, he had come east to rescue them but none of them had spent much time here on the ranch since the oldest, Bethany had been twelve years old.

“Then he wanted to talk about the ranch,” Iris stated.

“Who is going to take over handling the railroad holdings, and running the ranch and the mines?” the practical Jeanne asked. “Us?”

Bethany shrugged. “For the time being Papa is going to continue to run things from his chair—”

“What about the Johnsons? Isn’t he afraid they are going to take advantage? After all, we know one of them shot him from ambush, probably that horrible Abner, even if we can’t prove it.”

“Well, as I started to say, Papa has a plan for that. It involves all of us. It is pretty much the same plan he told us about when we first came home—”

“I’ll not be a sacrificial goat! He’s not marrying me off to some old man!” Jeanne exploded.

“If you don’t marry someone how do you expect to live if we lose the ranch and the mine to the Johnsons? Go to work as a cowhand?” Iris asked. “If we returned to Earth we would have nothing and probably be put in jail for violating the Portal Rights Act. Here at least we have money and land. If we allow it to be taken from us, how will we support ourselves? I mean the railroad practically runs itself and we get some revenue from the shares, but—”

Jeanne jumped to her feet. “I can run the ranch!”

Bethany shook her head. “While I agree that you could do that under ordinary circumstances, that isn’t the case right now. What do you or any of us for that matter, know about fighting a takeover like this? Jeanne, you know as well as I do, that the men won’t obey you if we must fight the Johnsons. No, Papa says we need a warrior to defend the ranch. A male warrior that the men will follow. In fact, he’s already sent for him.”

“What about Carlos?” objected Iris. “He would help us.”

Bethany shrugged. “He says Carlos has too much to do defending the Lucky Strike and the gold and gemstone claims. Apparently, there is trouble there too.”

Jeanne took a deep breath for another blast, but Bethany cut her off. “In any case Jeanne, you aren’t going to be the ‘goat’, I am.”

Her sister deflated like a wet pig’s bladder and sank back into her chair. “You? But that isn’t fair to you either—”

“What if he’s horrible?” whispered Iris.

“Papa isn’t forcing me,” replied Bethany mildly. “He did say that Alec McCaffey is young with an established investigator business and he has resolved situations like this before, so he will have the experience to take over the fight. If he is good enough, maybe the two of you won’t have to marry to save the ranch and the mines. I do have the right to refuse if we can’t stand each other.”

“Honey, we can’t ask you to do this for us,” protested Iris faintly.

“That’s right!” Jeanne seconded.

She smiled at them. “Do you know I love you both?” Bethany held out her arms and enfolded them in a tight embrace. “This is the best way. If we want this man to take up our fight, we must offer him something substantial, and to safeguard our ownership of the holdings, he must be bound to us. According to both Gran and Papa, the best way to bind a man to us is through a marriage. Kids, I’m the eldest. This is my job. We all know what happens to women who don’t have money or a way to support themselves. Remember what it was like for the Jones women when that Smith gang in Copper City killed their men?”

Iris shuddered. “The Smith’s turned them into whores. I’d rather die.”

“I won’t let that happen to you, and I won’t do it myself,” Bethany assured them, calm descending on her as she came to terms with her agreement with her father.

“Why does Papa think this man will be better than the Johnsons?” Iris asked.

“He was recommended by your uncle, Iris,” Bethany replied.

Jeanne frowned at her. “And if he is worse than Emory Johnson?”

Her sister smiled grimly at her. “Gran has a contingency plan for that. But first we let him defeat the Johnsons.”

Jeanne gave her a penetrating stare and Bethany nodded. Jeanne swallowed. Unlike the softer Iris, she had a good idea of what her grandmother’s ‘contingency’ plan might be. “I see.”

Bethany didn’t get any time to herself to think about her new situation until after dinner when she managed to slip away from her anxious sisters into the inner courtyard of the house. She had always loved the inner patio space. It was so quiet here. The dark sky overhead was broken up by stars, and St. Antoni’s double moons had risen, making the white-washed walls of the house stand out in sharp relief to the shadows cast by the night. Separated by a low wall from the outer courtyard leading to the stables, bunkhouse and barns, the patio was a quiet area of tranquility.

Separated from the outer courtyard by a low wall, the inner courtyard provided shaded benches under fruit trees and flowering plants with luxurious scents. It was too early for the fruit to be ripe, but hard little balls were already beginning to make fruit. In the moonlight, Grans flowers made splashes of bright color against the whitewashed walls. A deep brick pond with colorful fish surrounded by raised flower beds was attached to the shaded well in the center of the flagstone courtyard.

Razor, her grandmother’s brown and green striped Bobcat, yawned and stretched from his perch atop the wall enclosing the well. The Bobcats were a species of feline native to St. Antoni. Dubbed Bobcats for their resemblance to earthly wildcats by the settlers who first saw them, the bobcats of St. Antoni were about halfway in size between their namesakes and a pet cat on earth. A grown bobcat weighed about twenty-five pounds, with short, stripped fur in rainbow colors. Razor and his sons and daughters earned their keep by ridding the ranch house and barns of St. Antoni’s large rodent-like creatures who were attracted by grains stored there.

The area created an oasis from the late summer heat, but it was by no means cool. Bethany’s white blouse clung damply to her body in the heat.

A faint rustle of clothing caught her ear. She was not quite alone then. She turned her head. “It’s alright, Gran,” she said.

Her father’s mother came forward and sat beside her on the bench, stroking Razor’s tufted ears when he leaped down to join them. How did Gran manage it, Bethany wondered? Despite the heat, Giselle St. Vyr didn’t look in the least wilted in her long-sleeved blouse and trousers.

“I thought you might want to talk about it,” her grandmother’s voice was soft. “I think I met him once you know.”

Bethany shifted on the bench so she could see her grandmothers face. “Really? What was he like?”

“Very presentable actually. I could tell someone had taught him manners. Oh, not the kind you sometimes see out here, but true Gentleman’s manners. It was just after I moved to Copper City. I had gone to the hotel to make a delivery of a necklace to a customer. He had rescued a kitten from some boys who were tormenting it,” she added inconsequently. “He gave it to me to hold while he dealt with them. I found him quite charming.” She patted her granddaughter’s hand and went back into the house.

Her emotions a wildly teetering turmoil of hope and fear, Bethany continued to sit there in the scented darkness until it was time to retire to bed. Her prospective bridegroom rescued kittens and shot people. It was quite a combination.

The next few days were nerve wracking for Bethany. To keep herself busy, she went to help Jeanne with her birds. The large, rainbow feathered birds were raised by the ranch for meat and the eggs they laid.

“Today, you can help us separate out the ones we’re sending east to the market,” Jeanne said. The flock was still inside the enclosed fence next to the bird cote. All the workers were dressed in leather shirts and pants to protect them from the bird’s sharp beaks and talons as they separated them. She handed her sister a pair of gloves and a hat with netting to cover her face.

Bethany looked at her curiously. “I thought we were going to collect eggs today?”

Jeanne laughed. “I already did most of that. No, today, we are going to separate most of the grown drakes out of the flock to send them to market.”

The big drakes were easily identifiable by the black plume of feathers riding over their heads. Using long sticks with brooms on the ends, the crew began moving the drakes into a separate enclosure. From there they were herded into large wagons with enclosed tops to prevent their escape. When a wagon was full, it moved down to the spur of the railroad set up to load animals. Large wooden crates with sealed tops were waiting for the birds to be loaded. As soon as the shipping cars were loaded, they would be pulled to the docks and loaded onto steamboats where they would be taken to the rail head in Junction City, and then on to the other city states to be sold. It was hot, dirty and messy work. Bethany was soon too busy trying to shoo the hens back into the cote with a protesting Lulubelle to worry about the marriage she had agreed to. She knew Jeanne would spend the next day soothing a complaining Lulubelle, who would be searching for the missing members of her flock and keeping a jealous eye on the others as she supervised them feeding on the long grasses in the orchards.

On the third day, to keep herself busy, she went out to the barn where she kept her racing tricorns. Tricorn racing was big business. There was a racetrack on the outside of River Crossing that drew large crowds. Once a month during Race Day, breeders like Bethany brought their animals to town to pit them against each other in four races; two sprints of a quarter mile, a medium distance race of about three quarters of a mile and a longer race of a mile and a quarter. Bethany’s stable held two animals showing promise, a red and white stripped filly who could sprint like the wind, and a gold and brown colt who might prove himself as a distance racer.

Tessa, a slight girl who worked as her head groom, met her at the door this morning.

“Glory is feeling pretty fresh, Miss Bethany,” the girl told her. “I think she’s ready for her workout.”

“Then saddle up. I want you to ride her this morning,” Bethany said.

Tessa smiled delightedly. Bethany knew the girl wanted to be a rider because a rider got a percentage of the purse, so she had decided to see if Tessa could handle it. She saddled her own tricorn, a gold and brown mare and followed Tessa out to the practice track south of the nut orchards.

Bad Blood On The Rise

NESTLED FURTHER north in the same foothills above the valley, a far different family conference was taking place. The two ranches shared a border along Gold Creek whose headwaters began in the mountains to the east. The creek, dotted with small gold & gemstone claims, most of whom had been sponsored by St. Vyr, rushed down the mountains to join the Black River, the body of water bisecting River Crossing and who gave it its name.

Even from the outside, the ranch houses were very different. The Golden Tricorn was a gracious Spanish style hacienda with a tiled interior courtyard and a well in the center. The J4 ranch house was tucked up under the Ironwood trees bordering the valley. Although as large as its rival, the Johnson house was a timber-built two-story house with a breezeway between two bottom stories. The kitchens and laundry were on one side and the living and dining rooms on the other to avoid the intense summer heat.

The Johnson patriarch, Ira, was still tall and broad shouldered with bright blue eyes and a leonine shock of white hair. Before settling in River Crossing, Ira Johnson had been a member of the Grayling Clan who controlled Highland Mountain Stronghold. Having risen as far as he could in his own clan, he decided that opportunities in the lowland city states might prove easier to surmount. An ambitious man, he had traveled to the lowland City States, studying how to become a power in the three states bordering Highland Mountain. Introducing himself as a businessman, he made influential contacts. During this time, he met and married a woman who he felt would fit in with his new station when he achieved it. Pending that time, he set her up on a captured farm at the edge of Highland Mountain territory. When the war with the neighboring Kawasaki family had led to the demise of Johnson’s Grayling clan and the death of his wife, he fled Highland Mountain to the town of River Crossing and the J-4 ranch he had won by cheating in a card game.

Johnson had been a handsome man in his youth and had bequeathed his looks to his three sons. Emory, the oldest, made the most of his choir boy looks and natural animal magnetism with the ladies. He was quick-tempered, intolerant of opposition from both men and women, and prone to violent fits of anger when he had been drinking. The youngest son, Abner, was the most like his father in appearance. He was vain of his long golden locks which he kept tied back with a leather string. His dark blue eyes and clean cut features made many women sigh over him. He enjoyed his position as a member of a powerful family and his reputation as a gun hand. The middle son, Samuel, shared his brothers’ clean cut features and blue eyes, but his hair was a dark, burnt honey color. Unlike the other two, he had inherited their mother’s brown eyes and more importantly, her sense of right and wrong.

The current discussion like that on the Golden Tricorn concerned the coming fight, but offense was the topic here. Samuel was making coffee in the big tin pot. Abner was cleaning his gun at the table. Emory sat straddling a wooden chair with his arms crossed on its back. Ira turned from looking out the window to glare at his oldest son.

“When are you going to get married to that St. Vyr gal? You’ve been sparkin’ her long enough.”

Abner giggled. “He ain’t! Not if she has anything to say about it!”

“You shut up!” Emory slapped the table with his fist so the cups on it jumped.

Ira frowned at his son. “What’s wrong there? You’re a fine-looking man and you will have a share in the ranch.”

“She don’t like him,” Abner grinned and blew a kiss at his older brother. “He tried to kiss her at the last dance and she boxed his ears. Then he went over to tell her it was time they got married, and she threw him out.”

Ira snorted. “Rushed your fences, did you? Well, you go into town, buy up a big box of chocolates, and take it out to her. You be real sweet and apologize for taking liberties.”

Samuel brought the pot to the table and poured coffee into their cups. “Might be too late for that; I heard old St. Vyr sent off for a husband for her. Some range detective out of Bitterstone.”

“I swear boy, you got a better spy system than anybody I know! Where did you hear that?”

Samuel shrugged. “If some of us talked less and listened more, everyone could hear what I hear.”

Ira fixed his middle son with a cold stare. That had almost sounded insolent. But Samuel was never insolent to him. He grunted.

“You hear a name with this rumor?”

“Alec McCaffey. He’s supposed to be coming in on the train from Junction City this week.”

Ira’s fingers drummed on the table for a minute. “McCaffey, ain’t he the one cleaned up that mess at the Mill Creek Mine over the mountains? As I recall, he’s got an old gunhand he runs with name of Henry Miller.”

“Why don’t we take him out before he gets here?” suggested Abner eagerly, patting his handgun. “Emory would have time to make up with his lady-love.”

Ira shook his head. “If we arrange an ambush this soon after St. Vyr got shot we’ll end up with a District Marshall down here. I don’t want that. They’re getting too nosy as it is.”

“Who said anything about an ambush,” countered Abner, “I’ll meet him somewhere and force a fight on him.”

“Don’t be so sure you can take him out,” Samuel warned his younger brother. “Word is McCaffey got his start as a gun for hire; even if Emory came with you to even the odds, Henry Miller isn’t the only one he has in his crew. There were six guys with him on the Mill Creek job.”

Samuel was talking about Emory shooting at McCaffey from behind when Abner shot from in front and they all knew it. This was the part of his family Samuel hated. Love and loyalty kept him from riding off, just as it had kept his mother from leaving when she realized the kind of man she had married. Still, he did his best to discourage actions like these. It had earned him the reputation in the family of being too cautious, but sometimes the Old Man listened to him.

Ira considered battle tactics and his cocky youngest son. True, the boy was lightning fast with that gun, but he was green. McCaffey was rumored to be fast too and he was a seasoned fighter. However, Junction City was far enough away so a killing there might not be connected to St. Vyr’s shooting. It probably wouldn’t spark an investigation by the Territorial Agents office. The situation needed to be assessed. He could decide on the killing after he got there. It never occurred to Ira that he would be breaking the law. When he had taken over the J-4 five years ago, he had decided he wanted the Golden Tricorn. He planned to become governor of the Kenefic City State, and for that he needed money. St. Vyr had money and holdings. Laws were for the weak. Power was survival; to survive a man took what he wanted. He got rid of anyone or anything in his way.

“Maybe. Abner, You and I will take the riverboat up to Junction City. I’ll decide if you fight him after I’ve seen the setup there. You,” he pointed at Emory, “get into town and buy that girl those chocolates! Samuel will stay here and run the ranch as usual”

The Wrong Mac

THE PROPRIETOR of the Ferry Boat Hotel in Junction City was a canny man. Junction City, once just a convenient crossing place above where the Wild Mans River joined Black River and two other rivers on their way to the southern coast, had grown to be the main hub for travelers using the newly minted steam trains. Hopeful settlers wanting to take up land in the North and West came here from the eastern and southern city states to buy supplies and find guides. Junction City was the second oldest human settlement on St. Antoni, almost as large as Gateway City itself, where the illegal Earth Portal operated. It was large enough to overtake several of the smaller towns that had previously surrounded it. These boroughs had retained their independence and local government for the most part, joining into a larger council who decided on issues affecting all of them.

Junction City had several fancy hotels to serve wealthy travelers who wanted a break before crossing the Wild Man and going on by train. Jim Faring, the owner of the Lilliput Saloon, was one of the business owners to decide to take advantage of the influx of travelers. He divided his Saloon into two parts and separated the halves with batwing doors. On one side, his regular customers could still congregate for food, liquor and cards. On the other, a man could safely bring his family for a nice meal or courting couples could enjoy a soft drink from the new soda machine.

On the Saloon side, Henry and Alec were enjoying a quiet supper before heading up to their room for the night. It was early evening. Arriving well before the rush from the incoming train, the mixture of miners coming off shift, far walkers and rivermen in town for a spree, they choose a table against the wall dividing the two areas, providing them a good view of all the customers.

At the bar, a tall, raw-boned man with dusty clothes leaned his double-barreled shotgun against it and ordered a whiskey. “You, better check that gun Mac, the bartender reminded him. You know how Sheriff Melody is about not following the City ordnance.”

“Yeah, just as soon as I get a drink,” the man called Mac replied.

At the sound of the name, Abner Johnson looked up. Like Mac, he hadn’t turned in his tied down handgun. Pa had said to wait, but here he was with a golden opportunity to rid the family of this McCaffey. He strode to the bar and bumped the man, knocking the shotgun to the floor.

“Hey, watch it!” he said loudly, shoving Mac again.

Instead of reaching for the fallen shotgun, Mac slowly turned to face him. “Kid, you need to settle down,” he said mildly. “Joe, set him up a drink.”

“I don’t drink with dirty Irish Micks!” Abner sneered.

“You got a big mouth, Kid,” one of the other men offered. “Maybe we ought to shut it for you.”

“Now, Tim,” Mac drawled, “he’s just a baby with a loud mouth.”

Across the room, Henry touched Alec with his hand and jerked his head towards the bar. “Trouble building,” he remarked.

Alec turned his chair to watch. “Both with guns, this could get ugly. Kid’s looking to make a rep as a gunfighter.”

Henry shook his head, “Big man’s shotgun got knocked down, and he hasn’t got a handgun; besides, he’s a blade man. He’s got a big-ass knife on his belt, one in his boot and another down his back under his shirt. My moneys on him.”

Abner slapped Mac across the face and stepped back so he could draw. A riverman sitting nearby stuck out his boot and Abner tripped. He went down on his rump, accompanied by jeers and laughter from the crowd. Furious, he scrambled to his feet and jerked at his gun. His draw was fast and sure, but before he could fire, ten inches of steel flashed across the room, speared itself into his throat and out the back of his neck. Abner’s bullet went into the sawdust floor.

“What’d he make me do that for?” the man called Mac complained.

“Guess he was looking to make a name,” suggested one of the bystanders.

The outside doors swung open and Ira Johnson came running in to kneel by his son.

“Who did this?” he demanded.

“It was a fair fight. He tried to pull his gun on Mac here Mister,” offered the riverman who had tripped Abner, gesturing to the tall rawboned man standing at the bar.

Sheriff Melody pushed his way past the crowd. “Anybody, see it?”

“I saw it, Sheriff,” the bartender said. “Mac here was minding his own business when the kid shoved him and then slapped him. He was looking for a fight. He tried to pull iron and Mac knifed him.”

“That’s right, Sheriff,” corroborated several witnesses.

The sheriff eyed Mac with disfavor. “Jeb Mackenzie, maybe I ought to have you check that knife as well as the shotgun.”

“Sheriff, my son was just a boy,” Ira protested. His son was dead and he would grieve for him later, but perhaps the situation could still be salvaged. “This man McCaffey is a known gunfighter. I say this was murder.”

“Didn’t use a gun, used a knife. And Mackenzie here is a pain in my ass but he’s no gunfighter,” the sheriff retorted. “It looks like a fair shooting to me.”

“His name’s not Alec McCaffey?” Ira asked.

“Nope. This here’s Jeb Mackenzie.”

At the back table, Alec exchanged looks with Henry. “Well now,” Henry observed. “Looks like Mike was right and you’ve bought chips in this game whether you anted up or not.”

“Yeah. I think we better check out and take the boat south tonight instead of in the morning.”

A Warrior Comes

THE MORNING her prospective bridegroom was expected to arrive, Bethany woke early after a fitful night’s sleep. The darkened sky was just showing the first streaks of light when she got out of bed to sit on the window bench in her room. A light breeze floated in through the open shutters. She propped her chin on her hands and looked out over the ranch. From here, she could see the kitchen gardens outside the walls, and the groves of fruit and nut trees at the base of the mountains where they joined the gray Ironwood trees thrusting up toward the darkened sky. Mike St. Vyr planted the orchards with the seedlings Giselle brought back from her final trip as a Portal Runner. Gold Creek cut through edge of the orchard, headed for its meeting with the Black River that gave River Crossing its name. Further west, the low rolling land covered with dry yellow grasses looked like a buttery sea extending to the horizon.

Everything was quiet, but she knew it wouldn’t last; already she could hear Iris’s goats and Jeanne’s geese stirring around. Below, a cooking pot clanged and a door slammed as the housekeeper, Margo Alvarez, added bluestones and water to the iron stove to start a fire for breakfast.

Life began early in the valley. By three o’clock, St. Antoni’s sun would have turned the place into an oven. Everyone living in the valley started early so they could rest in the afternoon to avoid working in the heat of the day.

The Steamboat Bethany knew Alec would take downriver to the Crossing from Junction City wouldn’t arrive until noon, so he wouldn’t arrive at the ranch itself until later that day. He would ride out from town and that was at least an hour ride. There was plenty to do to get ready for Alec’s arrival. She stood up and dressed for the day.

By lunchtime, Bethany had worn out her welcome with most of the household. She had squabbled with both her sisters, snapped at Margo and accomplished nothing the entire morning. In exasperation, her Grandmother, recognizing the ill temper for the nerves it was, thrust a broom into her hands with instructions to sweep the flagstones on the courtyard and stay out of everyone’s hair.

Both the large, arched wooden gates in the courtyard had been thrown open for the day, allowing the breeze to cool the house and grounds. Bethany had barely begun her task when she discovered both Iris’s and Jeanne’s especial pets had again escaped confinement and invaded the inner courtyard.

King George, Iris’s irascible Billy goat, was sneaking toward Giselle’s prized flower bushes. He loved the taste of them which was why he was not allowed in the courtyard when they were in bloom. Lulubelle, Jeanne’s pet goose, felt the courtyard was her property, fiercely resenting any encroachers human or animal. When she spied George, she hissed and spread her wings, attempting to drive him out of her territory. King George responded to her threat by lowering his head and stomping his feet. It was obvious battle was about to be joined.

Out of the corner of her eye, Bethany noticed the two riders dismounting just inside the gates. She ignored them and started toward the combatants, intending to use her broom to separate the pair. She was too slow. Just as she approached, King George lowered his head and charged. Lulubelle, back-winging to avoid his rush, smacked into Bethany. Furious at what she considered an attack from behind, Lulubelle hissed and honked, battering Bethany with her powerful wings and bill. Reeling backwards from the impact of the forty-pound goose, Bethany threw up her hands to protect her face and didn’t see King George until he butted her in the stomach. Still shielding her face from Lulubelle’s wrath, Bethany stumbled backward and landed on her rump in the raised flowerbed around the well. Lulubelle shrieked in anger, continuing to pummel Bethany with wings and beak. Meanwhile King George, the picture of innocence, ambled over to nibble on the forbidden flowers.

The uproar had drawn an audience: the two riders, Grandmother Giselle, Iris, Jeanne, and several of the stable and dairy hands had all rushed into the courtyard to see what was happening. Tessa, the stable girl in charge of Bethany’s racing tricorns headed over to help her, but the younger of the riders got there first. He booted the indignant Lulubelle, still shrieking madly, off Bethany and knelt beside her.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

Bethany wiped away a trickle of blood from under her nose, noticing as she did so that her hand was covered with dirt and blood, and her dress had a streak of white bird poop all down the front. She looked up into concerned dark brown eyes and blew out a breath before she answered. “No, I’m fine, thank you.” She wiped the dirt off her hand as well as she could and let him pull her to her feet.

“I’m Alec McCaffey, ma’am,” he said, still retaining her hand.

“How, do you do,” Bethany said, resigned to the ridiculous first impression she was making. “I’m Bethany St. Vyr. I’m sorry for the rude welcome. We don’t normally greet our guests with this kind of hullabaloo. May I present my sister Iris,” she gestured to the ethereal girl with the silver gilt hair detaching the goat from the flowers. Iris nodded in acknowledgement, but concentrated in pulling the goat toward the outer courtyard. “And this is my other sister, Jeanne.” He looked over at the honey-haired amazon checking for injuries on the still complaining goose whose cries had turned from wrathful to pitiful.

“That dratted goose!” Giselle came bustling up, firing off orders. “Just look at you! Bethany, go in the house and let Lisette help you clean up. Jeanne! Iris! Get those critters off my patio! Tessa,” she called to one of the watching stable hands, “Come and take the gentleman’s Tricorns.”

She turned to the younger man, who reluctantly let go of Bethany’s hand. “You must be Alec McCaffey. I’m Giselle St. Vyr. My son has told me so much about you.”

“Pleased to meet you ma’am,” he bowed over her hand. “May I present my friend and mentor, Henry Miller?”

Henry laughed. “No need, son, I remember Mike’s mother well. Nice to see you again Mrs. St. Vyr.”

“If you don’t mind, we prefer to see to our own Tricorns,” Alec intervened. “We’ll join you in the house as soon as that’s done.”

Giselle nodded. “I remember. Just come in that door and Stevens will show you where to clean up. We’ll have tea when you join us.”

Bethany had retreated to the house where Lisette, her grandmother’s oldest friend and maid, pounced on her and led off to change her clothes and wash her face.

“I can’t wear that,” she protested, when she saw the afternoon tea dress Lisette had picked out. “I’ll look overdressed.”

“You need to make a better impression,” Lisette retorted. “You want to get the upper hand in this marriage you use your best assets.”

“Lisette, he just saw me with a bloody nose and covered in bird poop! Nothing can change that kind of first impression!”

“He watched you all the way to the door,” Lisette retorted, undaunted. “Play your cards right and you’ll have him right where you want him.”

After washing their hands and dusting off the trail dust, Alec and Henry were led to a room on the ground floor overlooking the patio garden. Giselle St. Vyr greeted them, offering tea or coffee and a selection of small cookies and sandwiches.

“My son will join us soon,” Giselle promised. “After the shooting, he takes time to maneuver his new transportation.”

“He was shot from ambush?” inquired Henry.

“Yes. We were lucky that we found him as soon as we did.”

“Who is investigating the shooting?” Alec wanted to know.

He frowned when Iris responded, “The sheriff supposedly, but since he almost never leaves town, I don’t see how he could find out anything!”

“Well, if he investigated it,” Bethany added, seating herself on the sofa, “he would have to go into who had the best motive to shoot Papa, and that would lead to his biggest campaign supporter—Ira Johnson.”

She accepted the cup her grandmother handed her and passed it to Alec.

“Lulubelle suffered no injuries,” Jeanne announced from the doorway. “No thanks to you kicking her.” This last was directed at Alec with a glare. Lulubelle, he concluded, must be the goose.

“What about your sister?” he demanded. “That bird gave her a bloody nose and might have pecked out an eye!”

“Lulubelle was defending herself!” Jeanne declared, “She thought she was being attacked from behind and by that miserable Goat!”

“Did you discover how he got out again, Iris?” Bethany interjected hoping to change the subject before the argument could escalate.

“Well, there were hoof marks on the fence, so I’m thinking he must have climbed it. Goats are brilliant, you know, unlike geese,” Iris responded sweetly.

“Lulubelle’s smart—” Jeanne began.

“Ah, I see my girls are making you welcome,” Mike St. Vyr boomed out. Jeanne and Iris exchanged glares but quieted down at the sound of their father’s voice.

He rolled the chair into the room. “If that’s tea, I’ll take a cup.”

Giselle poured it and handed it to Jeanne to take to her father, along with a small plate of sandwiches.

After tea, Michael St. Vyr and Alexander McCaffey retired to the den, while Henry went out to check on the tricorns. Iris set out to examine the repairs to the goat enclosure she had ordered. Giselle and Bethany departed to go to her room to decide on her dress for this evening. Jeanne claimed she needed to check on Lulubelle again and disappeared.

In the den, McCaffey sat forward in the hide-covered chair and frowned at St. Vyr. “Your letter made me curious enough to come out here, but I’m not sure what I think it said is what you meant.”

St. Vyr rolled a brandy glass around in his huge hands. In the light from the windows, iron gray shone through what had once been a fiery head of hair. St. Vyr had been a powerful man before the shot had crippled him, and immense power still showed under the blue homespun shirt he wore. Since McCaffey knew St. Vyr owned a rich Bluestone mine and could have afforded to wear a silk shirt if he wanted to do so, it was obvious he was more comfortable in homespun.

“You didn’t make a mistake. I will make out the papers deeding you one third of the Golden Tricorn and the Lucky Strike, the day you marry my daughter, Bethany.”

Alec knew from the gossip they had picked up in River Crossing what St. Vyr was facing. He wasn’t surprised St. Vyr wanted a gunman, but the nature of the offer had thrown McCaffey off balance. His face showed none of his inner turmoil. To be offered everything he and Henry had worked toward for years was a tremendous temptation.

“You’re offering an awful lot more than fighting wages, St. Vyr. Why?”

St. Vyr looked at him. “The Doc says I may not last much longer.” He lifted the brandy glass. “I like this painkiller better than laudanum. You’re right. I could hire a bunch of gunmen and take care of Johnson and his sons. But what about after I’m gone? Besides, anybody I hired, well if he didn’t have a stake in the pot, he might get to thinking there was only a cripple and four women to keep him from taking over. Married to one of my girls, he’d be family.”

McCaffey snorted. “If I was that kind of sander, St. Vyr, I don’t reckon being married would stop me.”

St. Vyr set the glass down on the desk with a bang. “Dammit!” he roared, driven to the last ditch, “I want my girls to be happy. I always wanted one of them to marry a man who could take care of things. Well, they ain’t done it.”

“Why did you pick me?”

St. Vyr smiled a little wryly. “You recall a job up North for a man named Bill Spears?”

McCaffey’s face showed none of his surprise. He had brought that job to a successful conclusion avoiding the usual blood bath.

“Spears is kind of my brother-in-law. My second wife Astrid was sister to his wife. We were courting about the same time and we got to be friends. He still writes me from time to time. Bill told me quite a lot about you.”

McCaffey got up and stood looking out the window. It was a measure of how disturbed he was that he turned his back on St. Vyr.

St. Vyr watched him in silence, trying to see him as his daughter would. McCaffey was a little below medium height, not slim, but not fat either and he moved with the smoothness of a well-honed blade. His dark hair was clean; his wedge-shaped face clean-shaven, dark brown eyes looked out over a large, well-shaped nose. The nose had a scar across it, the obvious legacy of a knife fight. The boy was well enough looking he supposed, although Bethany had never seemed impressed by good looks. If she had been, she would have accepted the oldest Johnson boy’s proposal.

“St. Vyr,” said McCaffey at last, over his shoulder, “what makes you think you can order a girl to marry someone? Here on St. Antoni women have rights.”

St. Vyr took another sip of his brandy. “Bethany’s a good girl. She knows her duty. You needn’t be thinking I’m going to foist an antidote on you either. She’s got her mother’s looks. ‘Course she got my hair, but on her it looks good. And she will always tell you the truth. There’s been times when I wish she wasn’t so truthful, but that’s another story,” he added hastily.

“St. Vyr,” said McCaffey grimly, trying to take control of the conversation, “let me make this real plain. I am not about to marry any girl who feels she doesn’t have a choice. The very last thing I want is a wife who resents having to marry me.”

St. Vyr chuckled. He levered himself up out of his oversized chair with his crutches.

“I think it’s time you and my daughter got better acquainted. Let’s go to dinner.”

Exasperated, McCaffey followed his soon-to-be father-in-law out of the room.

Bethany was nervous. It was too early to go back downstairs, so instead she fussed with her hair which Lisette had helped her sweep into a loose knot at the crown of her head. Soft red curls wafted around her face. She checked her dress in the mirror, and decided, again, that it was perfect for a dinner at home ‘en famille’. The dress was a soft green made of thin material in deferral to the heat. In the new style, the bodice was deceptively modest, the sheer cloth descending from a high collar to the waist. The blouse was designed to catch a man’s eye; that sheer overblouse covered a low-cut chemise showing the full curve of her breasts. The nipped in waist showed off Bethany’s hourglass figure to perfection and the full, knee length skirt swayed enticingly when she walked. Gran had picked out the dress. Bethany wished for that strong presence to be in here giving her a pep talk. She was sure there was no social situation, not even this one, that Gran wouldn’t have been able to handle with aplomb.

I can’t do this! She thought in panic. And then that other voice, the one she had listened to all her life said, Oh, yes you can; You must. Do you want to be out in the street earning money for food on your back, like those Jones women in Copper City?

After Momma Clara was killed, Giselle had come and taken all three girls back east to live with her. Iris had stayed with her other grandparents in Port Breakwater a lot, but Bethany and Jeanne had lived with Gran in a modest house in Copper City.

Gran had supported them easily with the profits from her gemstone business until the clique war between the Jones and Smiths destroyed her livelihood. Michael St. Vyr had removed his family when he heard about the trouble, but it had taken him a week to get to Copper City using the train. Remembering the fate of the Jones women who had been on the losing side, Bethany understood clearly that the only thing standing between her family and destitution was the Golden Tricorn and the Lucky Strike Bluestone mine. She was determined to hold onto them for herself, her sisters and Gran.

When her father had explained his plan to her, she had agreed. If I am going to sell myself to save my family, she had thought grimly, it won’t be for a few paltry chips of copper. At least I’ll be a married woman so no one will call me a whore the way they did poor Priscilla Jones.

Her father had promised her he would try to find her the best man he could, but he had explained that the kind of man who could lead the firefight to rid themselves of the threat the Johnsons posed, might not be cultured or refined.

The dinner bell chimed. Bethany opened the door to find Margo’s son Paco waiting in the hall.

“You look muy bueno, senorita!” he exclaimed.

Bethany laughed. Paco’s juvenile admiration was soothing to her nerves. “How come you’re not at dinner?” she asked.

He skipped ahead of her down the stairs. “Mama said to come and tell you how you look, so you feel better,” he chortled, and ducked into the hallway leading to the kitchen before Bethany could catch him.

Despite Margo’s superb food, dinner was not a success. Margo preferred for her and Paco to eat in the kitchen, so only Giselle, Iris, Bethany, St. Vyr, Henry and McCaffey sat down at the dining room table.

Jeanne came in halfway through dinner and made herself disagreeable to her father to divert St. Vyr from delivering a scold or asking where she had been. She had disobeyed him and ridden out alone again. Her father recognized the tactics; Clara, Jeanne’s mother had often done the same for similar reasons. Giselle and Iris fled the dining room as soon as dinner was over. Giselle claiming the privilege of old age to retire early, and Iris to help Margo clean up in the kitchen.

Bethany was glad to escape to the parlor after dinner, Margo having told her not to help to clear the table tonight. She was annoyed with her youngest sister for making a difficult situation harder. So when she saw Jeanne sneaking off up the stairs, she called after her. “You had better get Margo to help you get those grass stains off your blouse, if you plan to wear it again.”

Jeanne frowned at her, trying to look at her back over her shoulder. “What grass stains?” she demanded.

“You can’t see them, dear,” said Bethany sweetly. “They are in the back.”

Jeanne opened her mouth to retaliate and then heard her father coming out of the dining room. With a gasp, she fled upstairs. Bethany stalked into the parlor and sat down in a chair with a thump.

When Paco brought in the tea tray, she gestured to him to set it on the low table in front of her. “Bed for you, young man,” she said. Paco gave her a hug before he left.

McCaffey sat his cup down on the table with a decided click. “St. Vyr, I think your daughter and I need to talk. Will you excuse us?”

“Now, see here,” St. Vyr blustered, “it’s hardly proper—”

“Papa,” Bethany interrupted him peremptorily, and added a short sentence in French.

Michael opened his mouth and then shut it again. There were things a man just didn’t say to his female offspring, no matter what the provocation. “I’ll be in the den,” he announced, just as if that was what he had planned to say all along.

McCaffey, who had learned French in Madame Tussaud’s House of Pleasure in the French quarter of Azure City eyed Bethany in astonishment. Surely, he hadn’t heard his ladylike bride say what he had thought he’d heard.

“What did you say?” he demanded.

Bethany eyed him speculatively. Papa had promised he would not force her to marry a man she found repulsive and so far, she had found nothing in McCaffey to dislike. It was time for another test. Composedly, she said, “I told him that unless he planned to lie between us in the marriage bed, he would have to leave us alone sooner or later.”

McCaffey choked on a mouthful of tea and had a coughing fit.

Eyes watering, he looked at her. “Your father said you would be truthful to a fault. I see now what he meant!”

“Truth is always preferable,” Bethany said. “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember later what lie you told.”

McCaffey came over and sat down opposite her in a comfortable wing chair. “Since you prefer the truth, you may as well know I told your father I will not marry a woman who is being forced to marry me.”

Bethany was taken aback. It had not occurred to her that a man who hired out his gun would have scruples about marrying her. Something inside her that had been tense uncoiled at that moment. McCaffey’s attitude was something she recognized—she had seen it in her father.

“But you are a Romantic!” she exclaimed. “How extraordinary!”

“Don’t be a damn fool!” snapped McCaffey, annoyed. “I’ve seen enough marriages to know it is rough enough when both parties want to get married. Marrying a woman who has been forced into it is a recipe for disaster.”

“No, you are right, of course,” Bethany said. Papa, she remembered did not like to be thought of as a romantic either. “Both parties in a marriage must have good reasons for entering the marriage. Papa is not forcing me to marry you, you know. He would never do that.”

“I don’t mean he would beat you. Look, being forced by circumstances isn’t much different from being forced in other ways. It isn’t right.”

It dawned on Bethany that unless she changed his mind, McCaffey would not cooperate with the plan. She would have to be very careful she realized, if she judged wrong, he would get up and walk out.

“My mother’s grave is up there under the trees,” she said. “So is Iris’s mother, and Jeanne’s. My mother didn’t have to come out here with Papa to this wild land. Gran had a good house in the city, and she made a comfortable living supporting herself. Mama came out here because she and Papa had a dream to build a home. It was the same with all Papa’s wives. I remember the day Jeanne’s mother died. Margo had taken us out to pick berries. We were on our way back when we heard the shooting and saw the fires. Margo wouldn’t let us children come to the house until after she had made her decent. It wasn’t fit for us to see, she said.”

“Your father has done a fine job here. I understand how proud you must be of him.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Bethany said. “Do you know what happens to women like me, like my sisters and grandmother when they have no income? Do you know what they do to survive? Well I do. I saw what happened to some of Gran’s customers when the Smith Clique took over in Copper City. You are a man; you can work. For a woman, there are very few places to work and stay respectable. I can’t sew a straight line, none of us can cook, and I am a terrible teacher; you should have seen me attempting to teach Jeanne how to dance. I thought we would pull out each other’s hair! Jeanne and Iris are no better. If we lose the ranch, Iris and Jeanne will lose the income from dairy and the geese farm, and I will lose my racers. We can’t go back through the Portal. If we tried to go back to earth, we would be arrested for violating the Portal Settlement Law. Besides, our mothers died for this land. I will not let that awful man and his cocksure sons come and take it away from us. They shot Papa in the back! Oh, I know the sheriff said he couldn’t arrest anyone without proof. But I know who did it.”

She turned around and looked McCaffey straight in the eye. “Even if I knew how to win a fight like this I am no warrior woman who men will follow into battle. But I can save my family if I marry a man who can do these things. I don’t know what you want in a wife. I don’t know if I could be other than I am. If it turns out I’m not the kind of woman you want to marry, I can’t change that. I can’t pretend either that I have fallen in love with you at first sight. But I will pledge to you I will do everything I can to make a marriage between us work. But you are correct; we must both be willing for the marriage to be a good one, so you must want it too.”

There was a long silence. McCaffey got up and went over to stare out the open French doors. Dusk was turning the sky a faint mauve color. He wanted to believe her. He wanted to believe it so badly he didn’t trust his own judgment. If she was telling the truth, she was offering him everything he had worked for since he had walked out of his stepfather’s house at fifteen; a home, a family, and work he could be proud of. If her words were a trick, it was a good one. Could Bethany be so good an actress? He looked at the clear gray eyes, the soft rounded chin, and the firm set of her mouth. He wanted to believe what she was offering was real. Still, if it was a trick, he could apply a simple test.

“I guess we can go into town tomorrow and get married,” he said.

Bethany, who had been thinking bitterly that she would have to tell Papa she had failed, was stunned. “What?” she blurted out.

“I said,” he repeated, “that we can go into town tomorrow and get married.”

“Tomorrow? No, we can’t get married tomorrow. There must be an announcement in the paper, we must see the Preacher and send out invitations.”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

Bethany eyed him warily. She wasn’t sure what had changed his mind, but she wasn’t about to let him ride roughshod over her either. “Tomorrow,” she stated firmly, “We will go into town, put the announcement in the paper, and talk to Preacher Mayer about holding the ceremony after church on Sunday. We will also,” she added, “make arrangements to hold a reception at the hotel the following Saturday.”

She stacked the cups and saucers on the tea tray so she could take them to the kitchen. Aware that he was watching her with a proprietary air, she suddenly felt shy, so to make conversation, she asked, “Did Paco tell you which room is yours?”

McCaffey took the tray from her and set it back down on the table. “No, he didn’t.”

“The first one at the head of the stairs. Your friend is next door.”

She stopped, because he had taken hold of her shoulders. She could feel the warmth of his hands through the thin material as if she were naked to his touch. After a moment, he tipped her chin up with his finger, forcing her to look at him.

“It will be a long time until Sunday,” he said ruefully before he kissed her.

Bethany had been kissed before. When she had gone with Gran to visit Iris’s grandparents, several men had tried, because despite her outspokenness, she was St. Vyr’s daughter and would inherit a considerable amount of property and money when he died, and she was more than passably good looking. She had been little impressed by the procedure. Emory Johnson had attempted to kiss her as well, but his attempt had been brutal. This was different. McCaffey’s hold was firm, but she could have released herself if she had tried. His mouth was warm and tasted faintly of brandy and the mint tea she had served after dinner. Without realizing it, she felt herself relaxing into his arms. When he felt her response, the kiss deepened. He coaxed her lips apart with his tongue and his arms came around her, one hand sliding down over her buttocks, pressing her up against him so she could feel the hard bulge of his arousal. Like everyone who grew up on St. Antoni, Bethany had spent a lot of her growing up years around animals; she knew what pressed against her. It startled her to feel an answering heat between her thighs. When she found herself lifting against him so she could feel more, she came back to herself with gasp of shock.

McCaffey let her go, smiling down at her.

“Good night,” she gasped, and fled upstairs, leaving the tea tray behind for Margo.

McCaffey stood in the doorway and watched her run up the stairs. She had felt good, he realized, and it was obvious her response to him hadn’t been planned. He whistled to himself as he gathered up the loaded tray and took it out to the kitchen.

It wasn’t until he was undressing for bed that it occurred to him that the interview with Bethany had not gone according to plan. He had intended to gently explain to her that he would accept the job, but not the marriage unless some real feelings developed between them. He scratched his head. How he had ended up engaged to her with a wedding planned for next Sunday? Furthermore, that sweet faced girl had virtually told her own father to mind his own business. What’s more, Michael St. Vyr had obeyed her.

 

 

 

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A PREVIEW OF FOREVER & A DAY – Book 2 in the Vensoog Handfasting series

Welcome to the far future. Let me introduce you to the courageous women and dangerous men who carve a home on the alien world of Vensoog

A marriage of convenience between two determined, strong-willed people sparks a planetary war and puts at risk everyone they love. 

Genevieve, beautiful, and strong-willed she had become leader of her people at seventeen. A bad betrayal had left her distrustful of men, but she needed a husband to keep her Clan secure. Could she learn to believe in love again? Gideon had been a soldier. After the war, he needed a home for his orphan niece and his adopted son. Genevieve’s offer would provide both, but with the model of his spoiled and selfish sister-in-law to measure by, could he follow his heart and learn to trust and love his new wife? With their world under attack, Genevieve and Gideon must learn to rely on each other and their newfound love to defeat their enemies.

 

Forever And A Day

The Handfasting – Vol 2

Gail Daley

Past Imperfect

 

GENEVIEVE, Laird of the O’Teague Clan, stood on the terrace of her room in the original O’Teague Manor and looked towards the spaceport. It couldn’t be seen from here yet she knew it was there and felt its presence like a lead weight on her heart. She grimaced. Today was her last day as an unmarried woman. Tomorrow, the ship Dancing Gryphon would begin unloading its passengers and cargo. Her younger sister Katherine would be bringing down the man who was going to be sharing her life and her bed for the next year. Although she knew and accepted the necessity for the coming Handfasting, she had hidden her inner reluctance from Katherine, whose plan it had been, and from her clan who were depending on her for leadership.

When the Karamine biogenetic weapon struck Vensoog in the final three years of the war killing or sterilizing all the male humans, it had been a devastating blow to the two-hundred-year-old colony. Since the Karaminetes only used the bio-bomb on planets they planned to resettle, the virus had a very short life span and soon dissipated.

Two years later, the treaty declaring peace was signed and the Confederated Worlds began the slow road to recovery. It did not take the Vensoog Clans long to realize they were in deep trouble. The additional loss of most of the men and woman on the five ships supplied to the war effort by the Vensoog Clans had only worsened the problem created by the bioweapon. With no additional children being born, the colony population would die out within three to four generations.

Genevieve’s younger sister Katherine had come up with a solution to the dilemma. The planet needed a fresh supply of healthy sperm to maintain a good genetic balance. Since the Vensoog people shunned the cloning of humans, Katherine had concluded they needed a fresh batch of male colonists. Vensoog had been lucky in that they still had a viable planetary ecosystem; a few planets had simply been burned off, leaving thousands of souls homeless. Since the weapon seemed to have had a very short shelf life, bringing in a fresh supply of genetic material should solve the problem. In accordance with Katherine’s plan, she and her Aunt Corrine had gone to Fenris, where most of the returning soldiers from this area were being decommissioned and offered them a new home, providing they were willing to join one of the Vensoog Clans by entering a ‘Year And A Day’ Handfasting rite with a suitable Vensoog woman. Or if the new immigrant didn’t want to be matched for some reason they could choose to supply sperm or ova (if the soldier happened to be female) for the planetary genetic banks. These Donations would be later developed into embryos and implanted in living volunteers. Tomorrow Katherine and representatives from the other Clans would be returning home with the first round of new immigrants.

To persuade their fellow clanswomen to participate, both Katherine and Genevieve had signed up to be Handfasted. Showing the strength of their confidence and belief in the program by signing up for it inspired the young women of the Clan to participate. Katherine’s Handfasting program, unlike the previous Match program used by the Makers was designed to pair couples not just for genetic diversity, but the personality and lifestyles of the women with their prospective husbands, thus ensuring a happy joining. The couples would be joined for a Year And A Day, after which they could dissolve the union or opt for the ‘Forever And A Day’ Handfasting Ceremony, which was a lifetime commitment. Not all the new immigrants were male, some of the returning soldiers had been women and they too were offered Clan membership. Those immigrants already in committed relationships had been offered full clan membership for their families as well, but they were expected to Donate to the planetary banks. The sperm or ova would later be combined, as the Maker Program deemed suitable to create children. The donors could raise the children if they chose, but the most common situation was for the children to be adopted by childless clan members.

Genevieve had a great deal of faith in her sister’s programming skills, but she knew the kind of bad boy traits she had been attracted to in the past would not make a suitable husband in the long run, and probably not in the short term either. To rule wisely, she needed the kind of man who would prove a good counterbalance for her. She needed and wanted the kind of partnership she had seen in her parents before their deaths. She didn’t need another handsome, selfish charmer in her life. Don’t be such a wuss she chastised herself. This man won’t be like Gregor. You’re older and wiser now and Katherine’s program would have taken into account what she needed wouldn’t it? Genevieve studied the image of Gideon Michaels on her personal com. He certainly didn’t look like a man who depended on his charm or looks to get by. He wasn’t bad looking, but his blunt features held both strength and determination. His face showed none of the wild recklessness that had characterized Gregor Ivanov.

Maybe it would be all right, she thought hopefully. She needed a good, solid man who would come to care for the Clan as much as she did she reminded herself, and going by the steady set of Gideon’s eyes and the firm set of his mouth under that beak of a nose, Katherine had provided that. Genevieve knew that many of the Clan thought she still mourned the loss of the wild young man from the neighboring clan who had so nearly charmed her into marriage. Well, what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, she thought wryly.

The scent of the river and the soft breeze of the cooling summer night caused eleven years to drop away and she was again that seventeen-year-old girl facing the man she might have loved and refusing to elope with him and abandon her people and Vensoog to the mercies of the Karamites. It had been a shock to realize Gregor didn’t care what happened to her or Clan O’Teague if he wasn’t going to rule. She had stared at him in disbelief and horror when she recognized that he had fully intended to take over the Clan when they married, regulating her to an insignificant nothing. Gregor had apparently intended to use her status as Laird of O’Teague as a steppingstone to conquer the rest of Vensoog and overthrow the current Matriarchal Clan system. When the war disrupted his plans, he had decided to run rather than stay and defend Vensoog from the Karamines.

At the beginning of the war, the Parliamentary Council had announced that as a member of the Confederated Worlds, Vensoog was requested to supply both resources and staffing for five troop ships, which they had done. Genevieve’s father had commanded one of them. The Blackhand, Gregor’s ship in orbit, was not on the list of ships provided by Vensoog. In fact, Genevieve had begun to suspect that the Blackhands crew was responsible for the recent raiding of outlying O’Teague farms. What’s more, she had discovered that Gregor knew something about the raids he wasn’t sharing with his Grand Duke, but she had no proof of anything and she had been reluctant to admit she could have been so wrong about him. When Gregor had come back tonight to ask her to escape with him on the Blackhand, he told her that as first officer he could guarantee her a place aboard ship. She had refused and in the end, she had used her special talent against him to keep him from forcing her to go with him. When he realized she meant what she said, he had damned her as he went to join the crew of the shuttle waiting for him. As a final insult, he had shot into her airsled, trapping her ten miles from the nearest homestead and preventing her from warning anyone about the coming raid.

Her youngest sister Drusilla burst in abruptly jerking her thoughts back to the present.

“Aren’t you getting ready yet? We have that banquet in Port Recovery tonight with the other Clan chiefs and we need to leave in about an hour.”

Genevieve smiled at her. Drusilla was turning into a lovely young woman. Drusilla had very ably taken over the management of O’Teague lands while Genevieve had been attending Katherine’s seat in Parliament. She had organized tomorrow’s ceremony and the journey back to Glass Isle. Much tinier than Genevieve, she still had the family red hair and grey eyes.

“I’ll be ready when it’s time. I was just thinking,” Genevieve replied. “Is that what you’re planning to wear?”

“Why not? I’m just the youngest sister, I don’t have to intimidate or impress anyone tonight,” Drusilla replied. At sixteen, her fresh face was bare of makeup, and she had yet to put her short dark red hair into the elaborate hairstyles favored by the elite of the Clans.

“Oh no, you don’t,” retorted her sister. “It’s time you took your place among us as a woman of power. You planned and organized all of this. You should take credit for it. Come on, I think I have a gown that will become you and Mary will dress your hair.”

As the sisters dressed, Genevieve reminded Drusilla she needed to speak privately to LaDoña DeMedici so she could pass on the message Katherine had sent.

“Do you think she will listen?” asked Drusilla doubtfully. “Isn’t it kind of a criticism of Doña Sabina? I mean we’ll be sort of implying she can’t handle the job, aren’t we?”

Genevieve smiled at her approvingly. “That’s a very astute observation. For that reason, I intend to speak to her alone and be as tactful as I can. I intend to hand her the crystal Katherine sent and urge her to listen to it in private. I want everyone to have eyes on you and not notice when I do it.”

Once dressed, the two sisters stood in front of the mirror in Genevieve’s dressing room examining their appearance. For Drusilla’s first public appearance as an adult, Genevieve had put her into brilliant white with a dragon silk, off the shoulder blouse and dressed her dark red hair with small white flowers. The fitted girdle cupping her full breasts was white as were the loose pants and filmy knee-length skirt split up each side to her hips. The only touches of color were the opalescent pendant of the Dragon Talkers, which she was entitled to wear, and a pair of red quartz drop earrings. Drusilla most certainly didn’t look like a child tonight. Her Quirka, Toula who accompanied her everywhere, had been provided with a jeweled collar in matching stones.

Genevieve herself had dressed in her favorite dark green in the same style, and she had wound her fiery red hair into a neat chignon held in place by the golden diadem of her office as Laird. She had been amused when Gorla, her own Quirka had insisted on picking through her jewelry box for a suitable bracelet to wear as a collar.

Seeing the stunned look on her baby sister’s face when she caught her first glimpse of her mirrored image, Genevieve chuckled. “You aren’t a little girl anymore so get used to it, sweetie. Next Planting Festival the Makers will be giving you your Match List and I predict you’ll need to beat the young men off with a stick. I know there isn’t much to choose from right now, but we will be getting some new families joining the clan this time as well as Katherine’s soldiers; perhaps there will be some young men your age. Even if there are no one you like in this round of immigrants, there might be someone in the next wave. This won’t be the last group of displaced colonists to take advantage of our offer you know. Katherine left the program running on Fenris.” She frowned, thinking she still had to choose a suitable clanswoman to administer the program on Fenris as well as the other three planets where displaced refugees were being kept.

“Are you nervous Genevieve? I mean about meeting—ah—Gideon, wasn’t it?” Drusilla asked.

Genevieve’s smile turned wry. “Yes, I am, I suppose. I have a lot of faith in Katherine’s programming skills, but you may not remember that I don’t have a very good track record in choosing men.”

Drusilla glanced at her speculatively, “That wasn’t your fault. I know what he did.”

“I knew what he was doing too,” her sister said grimly. “I just couldn’t seem to break free of him until the last, and I had help to do that, didn’t I?”

Drusilla looked a little self-conscious. “You would have done it on your own eventually. You were fighting it.”

“Yes, but maybe not before he managed to drag me aboard that ship.”

“That wasn’t going to happen,” Drusilla said firmly.

“Well, it’s in the past. Better to forget it and move on,” Genevieve agreed.

The next day, Genevieve and Drusilla waited in the arrival dome in Port Recovery for the first set of the new colonists to arrive. Because she had wanted a look at Lewiston, Genevieve had arranged for them to be there in time to see the DeMedici party arrive.

“He looks like a vid hero,” Drusilla whispered to her as they watched him escort Doña Sabina through the doors.

“Yes,” Genevieve replied dryly, “all flash and no substance.” Just as Gregor had proved to be, she added mentally. If Katherine’s information about Lewiston’s plans was correct though he might prove a much more formidable opponent that Gregor ever was. While they waited, she continued to watch him out of the corner of her eye to see if she could learn more of his intentions.

Their small party watched the first wave of the DeMedici’s leave the dome and the Yang’s arrive. Lewiston and Doña Sabina however, stayed around, obviously waiting on something.

“They look like tough customers,” Drusilla remarked to her after seeing the contingent of men, women and families arriving with Nü-Huang Toshi Ishimara.

“Well, they are soldiers,” Genevieve retorted, “not really surprising they’d look like it. I’m glad Toshi Ishimara recruited families the way we did. Did you happen to notice that there weren’t any children with Lewiston’s group?”

“I wonder, is that because Doña Sabina refused to bring them or because Lewiston didn’t want them?”

“I doubt if she would have refused. It’s more likely Lewiston thought families would be a liability to his plans.”

About a half hour later, Katherine and Zack walked through the doors with the first party of their new clan members.

Genevieve was only a second behind Drusilla in swamping their sister in a welcoming hug.

“We made it,” Katherine declared unnecessarily.

“So I see,” Genevieve retorted. “How was the trip out?”

Katherine made a face. “Space sick as usual for the first three days but it’s gone now.” She gestured a tall bronze-skinned woman holding two toddlers forward. “Jayne, this is my sister Genevieve, your new Laird. Genevieve this is Jayne, who has agreed to take over as governess for my new family.”

Genevieve nodded graciously. “Welcome to Vensoog, Mistress Jayne. I hope you and your children will be happy here.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” the woman replied.

While Katherine was introducing Jayne to the kennel mistress Margie and her new nanny dogs, Genevieve had time to take stock of the men who had followed Katherine off the shuttle. She was uncomfortably aware of Gideon Michaels studying her as well. She was about to take matters into her own hands and introduce herself when Katherine turned back to her.

“Genevieve, may I present Colonel Gideon Michaels, his son Lucas and his niece Jayla?”

Genevieve held out her hand and Gideon bowed over it, brushing it with a kiss. “Lady Genevieve, I am honored to meet you,” he said, retaining his grip on her hand when he rose.

She smiled back at him. “Just Genevieve, please. Since we are to be Handfasted, I suggest we start with first names instead of titles.” She turned to Lucas and Jayla. “These are your wards?”

“Yes, this is Lucas Llewelyn and Jayla Michaels.” He kicked Lucas in the ankle to get his attention since the boy had apparently not heard the introduction; he had been staring dumbstruck at Drusilla ever since he’d seen her.

“What? Oh, pleased to meet you ma’am,” Lucas said, bowing, but his eyes went straight back to Drusilla.

Seeing what had drawn his gaze, Genevieve’s lips twitched, but she turned her attention to Jayla. “Welcome to Vensoog, Lady Jayla,” she said as the girl, having been coached by Katherine on the trip out, dropped a curtsey. “Lord Lucas, I am pleased to meet you. I can see you will be a welcome addition to the Clan.”

She gestured Drusilla forward. “Gideon, this is my youngest sister, Lady Drusilla. Drusilla has been largely responsible for organizing the ceremony this afternoon and the journey back to Glass City we will take later this week.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Drusilla said shyly, blushing when she met Lucas’ openly admiring eyes.

“Excuse me,” Genevieve murmured to Gideon, gently freeing her hand. “Protocol,” as she moved back over to Katherine.

“Lady Genevieve, Lady Drusilla,” Katherine said formally. “This is my fiancée Zackery Jackson,” she said gesturing to the dark, wiry man standing next to her, “and his wards, the Ladies Violet and Lucinda, and his nephews Lord Rupert and Lord Roderick. And this,” she added going to stand behind a young redheaded girl with sharp green eyes, and putting her hands on both the girl’s shoulders, “is my First Daughter, Lady Juliette O’Teague ’Ni Jones. Everyone, this is my sister, your new Laird, the Lady Genevieve O’Teague, and my younger sister Lady Drusilla.”

Genevieve’s eyebrows rose in surprise because somehow in all the communications Katherine hadn’t yet informed her that she had chosen a First. She held out both hands to Juliette and said, “Welcome to our family, First Daughter. I am so pleased to meet all of you.”

Katherine nodded her thanks. “If you will come with me M’Lady, I’ll present you to some of the other families who landed with us. We can do the formal presentation after everyone has arrived at the Manor house.”

“Didn’t Aunt Corrine come down with you?” asked Drusilla.

“Corrine and Vernal will come down with the last group. I hope you don’t mind, Genevieve, but I invited Captain Heidelberg and his officers to the wedding feast this afternoon, so I hope they will accompany the last landing party,” Katherine added.

Largely thanks to Drusilla’s organization and Katherine’s efficiency, the first group of new O’Teague clansmen went aboard the paddleboat Saucy Salsa, and headed down the channel towards the outer islands less than an hour after they arrived.

Genevieve had been absurdly conscious of Gideon’s presence while she performed her duties as hostess. Finally, to her relief the family was settled in chairs on the deck as the boat made its ponderous way through the traffic. Gorla, her Quirka, had inspected Gideon earlier from Genevieve’s shoulder and seemed to accept him.

“She’s a cute little thing,” he remarked as Gorla preened visibly under his regard.

“Yes, and vain too, I’m afraid. Behave yourself, Gorla!” she scolded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t have much time to make you welcome earlier.”

A deep rumble of masculine laughter answered her. “Not to worry,” he said. “I’m just enjoying the sights. It’s been a long time since I had leisure just to look around and not worry about where the next attack was going to come from.”

“You were career military?” Genevieve asked.

“Yes I was, but now I have Lucas and Jayla to care for. I was ready for something different after the war in any case.”

“Well, I can’t promise you no more fighting as we do have the occasional raid from the Wilders in the hills and from a few from Outlaw space ships, but on the whole, we’re a pretty peaceful bunch,” Genevieve said.

Gideon nodded. “I understand from Katherine, that handling those types of incursions will be my primary responsibility?” he asked.

“Yes. Traditionally, the Laird’s spouse does handle security for both the Clan and in Glass Harbor City,” Genevieve responded. “If you are comfortable with the duty, in the O’Teague Clan the Laird’s husband also coordinates Planetary Security, that of Port Recovery and the waterways used for travel with his opposites in the other Clans.”

“At least I won’t be bored,” he said smiling.

“It kept my father pretty busy,” she acknowledged. “I don’t know what types of things interest you yet though but if you want to take on other pursuits, there will be time for them.”

“Perhaps there are some things we can do together?” he asked, reaching for her hand again.

Genevieve put hers into it, enjoying the feel of strength carefully controlled as he clasped hers. “I’m sure we can find something. We will have to return to Port Recovery in a couple of weeks though. There is a Security Council meeting scheduled for six weeks from now. By then all the Clans should have been able to assimilate their new members and we can introduce our new Heads of Security to each other. I probably should warn you that this year it is our clan’s responsibility to chair the meeting of the Security Council.”

“Always?” he asked curiously.

“No, just for this year. The Security Chair position rotates every year. When we first settled here, a rotating schedule was set up so no one clan would be able to establish dominance over the others. The Founders were very concerned about not giving any Clan an excuse to set up a power monopoly. Usually we don’t have so many new members to introduce in a session, but so many of the ten Security Council members went off to war that this time we probably will have at least six new members. I thought if I went with you it would give us some time without the entire clan watching us.”

“Did you say ten members?” he asked curiously. “I thought there were only eight clans.”

“There are, but the Talker’s Guild has a member and so do the Independent Fishers.”

Gideon nodded approvingly. “How long will it take for us to travel back and forth?”

“We have air sleds available which make Port Recovery only about a day’s travel from home. We’ll use one of them,” she said. “I think we should spend the time until the meeting traveling around the Clan territories so you can get to know those of us who didn’t come to meet you,” she added.

He nodded in agreement. “Thank you for arranging some time for us to get to know each other out of the limelight, Genevieve. Seeing the territory is a good idea too. It will give me some idea of what defenses are available and what areas would be likely targets of any Jacks. To design a proper defense against an attack, I really need to see the topography of the area.”

“Jacks?” she asked curiously.

He shrugged. “In the forces, we nicknamed the planetary raiders Jacks because they so often ah—hi-jacked items that didn’t belong to them.”

She grinned at him. “Was that a joke?”

He grinned back at her. “Well, it is a bad pun, I admit, but that’s what we called them.”

She felt herself relax as their mutual laugher broke some of the tension she had been feeling. It was nice to realize her new husband had a sense of humor matching her own. Bless Katherine’s programming, she thought. “Well,” she continued, “after we return from the meeting, we still won’t be totally tied to the Clan territory. We will be returning to Port Recovery each quarter when the Security Council meets. We will be returning for the Planting and Harvest Solstice Celebrations. Those are mainly social functions. Traditionally all the young men and women who have come of age are given a Match List of genetically suitable mates and the celebration provides a time and a place for them to meet young people from other clans. Attending the festivals helps me to keep up with who is who and who is doing what in the other clans.”

He nodded in agreement. “It should help me keep up with things.”

“Your Lucas seemed really taken with my little sister,” Genevieve remarked, changing the subject. She was watching the two of them leaning over the rail as Drusilla pointed out a family of Water Dragons feeding in the shallows on the shore.

“I did notice that,” Gideon agreed. ” I would have said he was struck dumb when he saw her. I’m afraid he hasn’t had much experience around girls his age outside of those in the military academy. I was fortunate to get him a placement there while I was serving, but since he was due to graduate this year, he elected to come with me when I decided to emigrate.”

“Well, Drusilla hasn’t had much experience with young men her age either,” Genevieve remarked. “We lost so many from the fever when the bio-bomb hit us. I reminded her just this week, that next Planting she would be getting her Match List from the Makers—”

“The Makers? What or who is that? You mentioned Match Lists earlier, but I didn’t really understand what it meant,” Gideon said.

“The Makers oversee the genetic tracking program that keeps our colony gene pool healthy,” Genevieve replied. “Every year during the Planting and Harvest Festivals, all men and women who are of age are given a Match List of acceptable breeding partners.”

“Ah—Breeding partners?” he asked incredously.

“Well, the Makers don’t put it that crudely, but that is what it amounts to. The two Festivals are traditionally the time when the eligible candidates from all the clans gather in Port Recovery City. The social aspects ensure the mixing of the population and the lists help to prevent inbreeding within a clan. A lot of myths and misinformation about the Maker program are widely held and many engagements are arranged for couples who meet during Planting and Harvest Festivals simply because of the widespread acceptance that your list has your ideal match somewhere on it.”

Hearing the irony in her voice, he looked at her sharply. “Not true?” he inquired.

Genevieve made a face. “I suppose that is a matter of opinion. I found it to be not true at all when I got my list. And when Katherine was reworking the program to take to Fenris, I learned the Maker program was designed to ensure genetic diversity. It barely gives lip service to the emotional harmony of the couples involved. To give equal weight to each partner’s needs, social status and personal likes and dislikes, Katherine had to re-write that part of the program completely. In my opinion, That misbegotten program has probably created more unhappy marriages than happy ones,” she snorted.

“As I understand it then, you were given such a list the year you turned seventeen?” Gideon pursued, obviously interested in her reasoning. “Do I take it you didn’t like the results?”

“Well, let’s just say I caught one of the men on my list raiding O’Teague land right before the war was declared,” Genevieve replied grimly. “Gregor was from the Ivanov Clan across the channel and anytime he was caught in O’Teague territory, he used the excuse that he was there to court me to be where he wasn’t supposed to be. And he—well let’s just say that I found him to be less than honorable in his treatment of women. Before she left for Fenris I asked Katherine to ensure that her changes were implemented into the Maker program that will be used from now on.”

Gideon looked thoughtful. “They just let you do that?”

“I didn’t ask permission,” Genevieve told him.

Overhearing this last, Zack attempted to turn a laugh into a cough, gave up and howled. Gideon stared at him, puzzled. “What is so funny?”

Still laughing, Zack replied, “Not asking permission for stuff like that must run in the family. Remind me to tell you a story about how I ended up with so many nephews and cousins living on Fenris sometime. I bet your Makers won’t notice any changes to the program either—Katherine’s good.”

Genevieve had seen the outdoor pavilion and other preparations Drusilla had arranged for the arrival and Handfasting ceremony for the new couples, but she felt she was seeing it through new eyes when she showed it to Gideon. Several smaller colorful dome roofs had been fastened together to form a larger area for the Handfasting ceremony and wedding feast. The cupolas were held up with poles wrapped in colorful ribbons. To take advantage of the breeze coming in off the water, no sidewalls had been put up so the entire area was open to the beach. Decorated tables of food with stasis shielding were already laid out for the afternoon and evening meals. Folding chairs had been placed around other tables set up for dining. A leaf-covered arbor for the Handfasting ceremonies itself had been erected off to the side. Behind and a little to the right of the arbor were two smaller tables holding a stack of red and silver braided ribbons, glasses and clear decanters filled with a golden syrup.

Up the hill from the pavilion were a series of larger connected domes enfolding the main house and dormitories. Extensive and fragrant gardens marked with stone paths led up from the rotunda toward the main house. Twenty or thirty smaller, colorful porta domes had been set up to provide privacy for the newlywed couples at secluded spots in the gardens as well. Behind the flower gardens were the acres of fruit trees and a large vegetable garden that supplied the manor with food.

One of the acolytes struck a crystal gong and a single clear note pealed. Everyone quieted, directing their eyes towards the tiny woman who would be officiating at the Handfasting ceremony. She stood under a canopy of green, sunlight filtering down through the leaves. The woman was wearing what Gideon had learned was traditional dress for women on Vensoog, a loose blouse with a vest laced in under her breasts, soft pants and a knee-length split skirt in rainbow shades. The colors made her eyes seem an even more vivid green than the arbor. Her white hair was braided in a coronet around her face. A large multi-colored crystal pendant rested on her breast, and large drops of the same stones were braided into her hair and hung from her ears; she was attended by two slim teenagers similarly dressed but in paler tones.

“Good afternoon,” her voice had a deep bell-like quality. “For those who do not know me, I am High Priestess Arella of Clan O’Teague. I will be performing the Handfasting ceremonies today. Since we have quite a few couples to unite this afternoon, each ritual will be brief. I will ask each couple to come forward and join me under the Greenleaf, we will perform the service, and then you will be free to enjoy the arranged festivities until it is time for the brides to leave for the wedding bower. If there are any here who wish for the Forever and A Day Handfasting, please let me know when you come forward.” Arella consulted the infopad next to her.

“Genevieve and Gideon, please join me.”

When the Laird and her betrothed had joined her, Arella said, “Please turn and face one another. Each of you cross your arms and take the others hands.”

She picked up a thin, braided red and silver cord and laid it over their wrists, allowing the ends to dangle.

“Genevieve, Gideon, your crossed arms and joined hands create the symbol for Infinity. Today, we ask that the Light Of The Divine shine upon this union for a year and a day. In that spirit, I offer a blessing to this Handfasting.”

“Blessed be this Handfasting with the offerings from the East — new beginnings that come each day with the dawn, junction of the heart, soul, body and mind.”

“Blessed be this Handfasting with the offerings of the South — the untroubled heart, the heat of passion, and the tenderness of a loving home.”

“Blessed be this Handfasting with the offerings of the West — the hastening eagerness of a raging river, the softness and pure cleansing of a rainstorm, and faithfulness as deep as the ocean.”

“Blessed be this Handfasting with the offerings of the North — a solid footing on which to build your lives, richness and growth of your home, and the strength to be found by embracing one another at the end of the day.”

     Arella wrapped the dangling ends of the cord around the wrists of the bride and groom, binding them together loosely and tying a knot.

“The bonds of this Handfasting are not formed by these ribbons, or even by the knots connecting them. They are formed instead by your vows, by your pledge, to love and honor each other for a year and a day, at which time these vows may be renewed or dissolved by each according to their lights. Genevieve, Gideon, do you agree with the terms of this Handfasting?”

“We agree,” they said in unison, and then Genevieve and Gideon stepped forward, hands still clasped, and kissed. Arella touched the cord and it slid off their hands, still tied. The acolyte a slim teenager in a pale robe stepped forward with a tray holding one of the glass boxes. Arella placed the cord inside the box and gestured for Gideon and Genevieve to each hold opposite ends of the box. The acolyte stepped back returning the tray to the table, where the second acolyte placed another empty box on it.

“By blood this oath is taken, on this day and in this hour,” Arella intoned, touching the box with a small gold wand. Everyone felt the small surge of power. He had been warned to expect it so Gideon held firmly onto his end when the sharp stab of pain in his palm caused a drop of blood to form on his end of the box. Blood from a similar prick on Genevieve’s hand met his in the center. The edges disappeared as the box sealed and their names and the date scrolled across the top in red. Examining his hand later, he found only a small pink scar had formed on his palm.

“This Knot is a symbol of your union. Hold it fast and give it an honored place in your home.”

Genevieve slipped the box into a pocket of her wedding dress and Arella gestured the acolyte to step forward again, this time holding a tray with a clear decanter and two glasses. “For love and fertility,” Arella said, pouring a small amount of golden syrup into the glasses. The two spouts of the decanter enabled both glasses to be filled at once with the same amount of liquid. Genevieve and Gideon each held the glass to the other’s lips as they drank, and then set the glasses back on the tray for the acolyte to take back to the table.

“Thank you Arella.” Genevieve motioned for Lucas and Jayla to come forward. Holding Gideon’s hand, she stepped up beside them.

“The O’Teague presents her new family, my husband Lord Gideon ni’Warlord of Clan O’Teague, his son Lucas and niece Jayla.” She made the announcement and led the way from the arbor to make room for the next couple.

Jayla looked at her. “Why didn’t you say I was your First Daughter, the way Katherine did with Juliette when she introduced her to you,” she demanded.

Genevieve took a deep breath. She would have much preferred not to have this conversation at this time. “I didn’t announce it, because it isn’t true,” she said mildly. “The position of First Daughter is not one that is automatically given by birth or family position. It isn’t just a title either; it requires a lot of hard work and dedication. You and I don’t know each other well enough for either of us to make the decision if you will be cut out for the duties, or even if you want it once you understand the responsibility. I hope that we can become friends as we get to know one another. Perhaps this decision can be brought up later when we know more about each other.”

“You don’t like me,” Jayla declared, a hint of tears in her voice as well as anger.

“Jayla—” Gideon began in annoyance just as Genevieve spoke.

“That isn’t true,” Genevieve said quietly. “I just don’t know you. I hope we will get to like each other very much—”

Jayla dashed tears from her eyes and said stiffly, “May I be excused? I’m tired. I would like to go take a nap.”

“Of course, dear,” Genevieve said calmly, “As soon as dinner is over. You wouldn’t want the other girls to think you are upset about anything, and they will if you leave so early.”

Gideon had opened his mouth again but closed it at a slight shake of Genevieve’s head. They watched Jayla as she stalked off to the table where Zacks children were sitting.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, frustrated. “That was out of line. She just isn’t happy and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Genevieve found herself patting his arm in reassurance. “It’s alright. I expect these last few months have been a lot for her to handle. Didn’t she lose her parents just a few months before you pulled her out of school? Her whole life has been turned upside down. Her parents are gone and so are her friends from school, she has a new father and a new home with new customs. It’s actually reassuring she feels safe enough with you to lash out a little.”

He gave her an odd look. “You’re very understanding,” he said.

“I lost my parents at a young age too and I remember what that was like,” she said. “Oh, I was not as young as Jayla, but a lot of responsibility got dropped on me before I felt I was ready. When mother died in childbirth, suddenly I was Laird with the entire weight of the Clan riding on every decision I made. Unlike Jayla, I didn’t have anyone it was safe to lash out at, but I sure wanted to. Give her time. I’m sure she’ll regain her balance eventually.”

“I hope so,” Gideon returned, looking thoughtful. He didn’t say so, but his memories of his late sister-in-law Celia, made him doubt Jayla would feel any need to change her behavior. He loved his brother’s daughter, but he found her attitude frustrating. Genevieve’s responses to things like Jayla’s behavior had caught him by surprise several times since meeting her. The Vensoog ladies certainly seemed to have gotten different training, perhaps, he thought hopefully, they would be able to pass some of that onto Jayla.

When Zack and Katherine had returned to their table to watch the rest of the ceremonies, Gideon took the opportunity to ask Zack what had been in the syrup they drank during the ceremony.

Zack shrugged. “Payome, I think Katherine called it. She tells me it’s traditional during the ceremony. It’s supposed to make the first night a little easier. Apparently, it’s a mild aphrodisiac with a touch of soother. She says the effects usually last a couple of hours so it won’t wear off before the couple goes to bed.” He grinned, “Since Katherine and I are pretty well at ease with each other, I don’t think we’re going to need it—Vernal and Corrine either, but you might,” he teased Gideon, who snorted and cuffed him affectionately on the shoulder.

Corrine and Vernal chose to become handfasted, opting for the more involved Forever and A Day ceremony. Several couples of the same sex chose to announce their Handfasting at that time as well. As expected, the individual Handfasting ceremonies had taken most of the afternoon and part of the evening, and then any new single members were presented to the Clan.

The wedding feast turned into quite a party. Genevieve and Gideon as hosts presided over the head table attended by Katherine and Zack and Corrine and Vernal. As special witnesses, the Captain and his officers from the Dancing Gryphon had been seated with them. Drusilla had a place there as well, but she was seldom to be found sitting down. She kept jumping up to attend to many small problems that seemed require her attention. She had provided music so the couples could dance with each other as well as games for the children.

To Genevieve’s silent amusement, Lucas seemed to have been designated as Drusilla’s dinner partner instead of sitting with the other children. It’s started already she thought. I’m going to need a big stick to beat them off with before she comes of age. He had been following her around ever since they had been introduced. If Lucas persisted, she would have to ask Drusilla if his attentions were welcome or not.

In a rare quiet moment, Genevieve directed Gideon’s attention to the children’s table because she had noticed tension between Jayla and Zack’s wards.

Gideon sighed. “I’m afraid they didn’t hit it off well,” he admitted. “Jayla has had such a different upbringing, and there were several incidents—just childish nonsense really, but I’m afraid I don’t know much about handling young girls so I expect I wasn’t as sympathetic as she thought I should be.”

“Well, when we arrive at Glass Castle, I’m sure we can find some young ladies who share more of her interests,” she said reassuringly. “In the meantime, perhaps she can accompany Drusilla into city when she is checking on the riverboat loads. Drusilla is older than Jayla, but it might serve.”

He smiled at her. “Thank you. I confess I am getting to my wits end in dealing with her.”

About an hour after the ceremonies had been concluded and the children sent to their rooms, a soft chime sounded. All the brides rose, each handing their groom a small crystal projecting a map to their quarters.

“Give us about twenty minutes or so to prepare before you gentlemen start for the house,” Genevieve told Gideon. “Our efficient Drusilla has seen to it that each crystal will take you to the right room,” she added as she followed Katherine and Corrine out of the pavilion.

New Beginnings

AS GENEVIEVE undressed slowly, she could feel the Payome kicking in causing slow warmth to build between her legs and her nipples felt swollen and sensitive. She picked up the negligee laid out on the bed. The gift of the gowns to all the brides had been her idea, but Drusilla had declared that there was nothing suitable in stores so she had designed them. Genevieve had been busy with Parliament, so other than approving the material and expense of sewing, and knowing Drusilla was a skilled designer she had left the creation of the gowns in her baby sister’s hands. Now Genevieve picked up hers and her mouth dropped open. Great Goddess! Her sixteen-year-old baby sister had designed this?

The material slid sensuously through her hands and along her body as she slipped it on. The loose gown was so thin it felt and looked like a green film and it clung to her skin showing every curve she had. The back started just above her buttocks, the deep vee in front went all the way to her navel and the split on both sides went more than halfway up her thighs. Hastily she picked up the matching robe and donned it. Looking in the mirror, she realized ruefully that the robe’s translucent material didn’t really make much of an improvement towards modesty.

As the door opened and Gideon entered, she caught a brief glimpse of Vernal passing with his head averted. The door slid closed behind Gideon, but he just stood transfixed, running his eyes over her. She could see him swallow and as his heated gaze rose to meet hers and she could feel herself blushing.

“Drusilla designed the gown and robe. All the brides got one. I’m going to have to ask her where she got the idea for the design—”I’m babbling, she thought. What is wrong with me?

Gideon moved forward slowly, raising a hand to thread his fingers through her unbound hair. “You look beautiful. Your hair is like fire,” he said.

“Umm, you like red hair?” she asked inanely. Her prior experience with a man under the influence of Payome led her to expect their first encounter was going to be fast and a little rough.

Gideon surprised her. “Yes, I like your hair,” he said, sliding his hands softly down her arms and bringing her fingers up to his mouth, pressing a kiss on them before laying them on the front of his shirt.

“Why don’t you help me undress,” he suggested, moving his hands back up to her shoulders and neck so he could cup her face for a kiss. The kiss was gentle and soft, giving her plenty of time to accustom herself to his mouth.

Obediently, Genevieve found herself sliding the buttons open on his shirt and pushing it off his shoulders even as she felt her lips parting for him. As Gideon continued his slow, gentle assault on her senses, she felt a deep, powerful need began to build. Subliminally she knew part of the sexual heat she was feeling was due to the Payome, but it had been years since she had been with a man, and her body was waking up and remembering feelings she thought she had put away forever.

Gideon’s skin was slightly rough under her hands, and a light sprinkling of blond hair on his chest made its way down his stomach, disappearing into his trousers. She felt the urge to see and feel more of him, but hesitated to begin to unfasten his pants, so instead she moved closer to him, sliding her arms around his neck and returning his kiss.

As their bodies touched, she could feel the iron control he was exercising to keep from moving too fast for her. When her hips touched his, she felt his arousal and he made a deep guttural sound of pleasure. For just an instant his control slipped, the kiss deepened and his hand tightened on her buttocks, pressing her harder against his swollen shaft.

Not completely in control after all, Genevieve thought naughtily, reaching for the fastening of his trousers.

The climax of their lovemaking was series of fierce and intense waves of pleasure. Afterward, when he collapsed atop her she could still feel faint tremors of pleasure running through her. Absently, she ran her hand through his thick waves blond hair and he turned to look at her anxiously. His expression relaxed when he saw she was smiling faintly at him.

“I think I saw some wine and finger foods on the terrace under a stasis field if you’re hungry,” Genevieve said.

“Not for food,” Gideon said.

“Me neither,” Genevieve admitted, reaching for him, wondering if the second time could possibly be as good as the first.

Gorla, her Quirka, woke her just as the sun was rising by bouncing off the balcony rail onto her pillow. Her quills rose as she discovered Gideon sprawled in sleep next to her mistress, but after sniffing his hair, she appeared to accept his presence in Genevieve’s bed. The small foxlike pet had disliked Gregor intensely, Genevieve remembered, and the feeling had been mutual.

Carefully so as not to waken her new husband, Genevieve slid out of bed and opened the stasis field long enough to take out a couple of Gorla’s favorite finger sandwiches before she made her way to the bathroom. Gorla’s fur rippled with pleasure as it changed color to match the food set out.

Putting her hair up to keep it dry, Genevieve eyed her reflection in the mirror. She certainly looked like a woman who had enjoyed her wedding night, she reflected ruefully. Her body was sore in a couple of unaccustomed places too. Strange that Gorla had accepted Gideon so readily, she mused. Comparing the two men was useless because they were so different, Genevieve thought. She was going to have to remember to thank her sister privately for ensuring this relationship was so much better than her last one. Everything about Gideon was different from Gregor not just Gorla’s response to him and his to her. Gideon had seemed determined that she should enjoy their sexual encounters as much as he had. Had they really made love four or five times? She couldn’t remember Gregor being particularly interested in her reactions to sex at all other than to make sure she was available for it.

Genevieve was so lost in thought she jumped in surprise nearly slipping and falling on the slippery floor when the shower door opened and Gideon stepped in. He caught her against his body, easily keeping her from falling.

“Didn’t mean to scare you to death,” he said laughing. “I thought we could wash each other’s backs.”

Genevieve was laughing too. “I’m not used to having company in the shower. I thought you were still asleep and I was trying not to wake you.”

“Well, your Quirka wasn’t so thoughtful; she wanted more food out of the stasis cube, so she tickled me until I woke up and got it for her. I hope you don’t mind. Katherine told us they pretty much eat anything.”

“Little glutton; I fed her too,” Genevieve said indulgently. She handed him a soapy sponge as he talked, and he began running it over her body.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Genevieve grabbed a second sponge and began doing the same to him. “You don’t get it all your own way this time. I get to play too.”

Sailing On The River

ON THE third day after the Handfastings, everyone except for Glass Manor’s permanent staff of caretakers, packed up onto five paddlewheel barges and began floating down the river toward Glass Isle. The paddlewheel boats had three decks, two above water and one below to hold cargo. The top deck was the ships control center. On the Second deck were crew and passenger cabins with a long open space in the front. To the front and rear of each boat was a raised platform used as the Dragon Talker station. An outside rail ran the entire length and width of the boat, with a gate opening on the Port side to let down a ramp for loading cargo and passengers. The O’Teague Clan boats were by no means the only traffic in the channel. Small one, two or three man sleds darted about amidst the larger paddlewheel boats. Several independent traders were to be seen sailing both ways, as well as crafts affiliated with various Clans. The Harbor and River Patrols could be seen moving up and down the channel.

The trip to Glass Isle took almost ten days and although each boat was crowded, there was a carnival atmosphere among the passengers, with many of the couples taking the opportunity to enjoy the journey as a honeymoon period. Since privacy was at a minimum due to the crowded conditions, there was a lot of talking, laughing and singing. Impromptu games were encouraged. The O’Teague leaders had all elected to travel on the Riverwitch, which was the lead boat. The sisters and aunt took the time to bring each other up to speed on Katherine and Corrine’s trip as well as Clan activities. Since there was very little to occupy everyone other than enjoying the scenery, many of the couples took advantage of the enforced idleness to enjoy becoming better acquainted. The Riverwitch only boasted eight passenger cabins besides those occupied by the Captain and her crew and those had been allotted to the O’Teague and her family. The rest of the clan was using pallets on deck at night and occupying foldup chairs during the day. Jayne and the other governesses were kept busy ensuring their charges didn’t fall overboard or get in the way of the boat crew as they worked.

As a Dragon Talker, Drusilla was assisting the boat’s regular Talker by taking her turn in the front of the boat, ready to ward off any River Nessies who approached too closely. River Nessies lived in large extended family groups with a dominant cow and bull in charge. Unlike the omnivorous Sea Dragons, the herbivorous River Dragons were customarily placid creatures. Although not normally belligerent, their size did make them a hazard to boats plying the channel between islands, and they were nosy creatures, investigating anything new that came their way. The younger bulls could be aggressive in showing off for the females, sometimes causing boats to capsize during their mock battles with each other.

The five ships had just begun the swing around the last two islands in the channel before they began the last leg to Glass Isle. Gideon was standing with Zack and Vernal near the rail. It gave him a good position to watch his new wife as she sat cross-legged on the deck talking to one of Zack’s twin boys (he was still having trouble telling them apart). The boy was clutching a basket that Gideon knew held Sooka and Divit, Katherine and Corrine’s Quirkas who were expectant parents.

Zack laughed, giving him a friendly punch on the shoulder. “We can tell where your mind is mate. I bet you he didn’t hear a word we just said,” he told Vernal.

The older man shook his head mournfully. “No, I’m not giving away my money to you on a sucker’s bet like that.”

“Hey,” Gideon protested. “I was listening.”       “Right, mate,” Zack retorted. “What were we just talking about then?”

Gideon thought fast. “Those,” he pointed to the family of Nessies who were swimming slowly across in front of the boat. “We were wondering how long we were going to have to wait on them.”

Zack had opened his mouth to reply when the rhythmic sound of the water wheels and the low hum of happy talk was shattered by the scream of several overtaxed engines and the sirens of the River Patrol.

Several watersleds carrying riders and traveling too fast to make the turn raced into the channel and kissed the side of the Riverwitch causing it to rock wildly from side to side. While everyone scrambled not to fall, or for those next to the rail to fall in the water, several more sleds rounded the turn, narrowly missing their careening companions. They were followed by the River Patrol in hot pursuit. The Patrol, being more experienced in traversing the channel at high speed, took the turn fast but in control.

One of the out of control sleds smacked into the rump of a swimming Nessie calf, causing a bellow of pain and fright. Intent on avenging the injury, several infuriated adults turned on the boats. A stream of sticky green goo shot from one Nessie’s opened mouth, covering a watersled and its passengers. Screams came from the sled’s riders as the acidy goo burned them. A second Nessie sent a large wave of water, swamping not only the sleds, but it caused the Riverwitch to rock wildly back and forth, and the rail to dip dangerously toward the water on both sides. Screams and shouts erupted as people and chairs slid towards the rails and a wave of water soaked everyone on the deck. When the boat righted itself, it tipped dangerously back toward the other side, causing everything to slide in the other direction. Gideon tried to move toward Genevieve and the boy who had been sitting on the deck, but just then, Jayla, arms pinwheeling for balance, crashed into him. Instinctively, he grabbed her with one hand and the rail next to him to keep his balance. He could see that Genevieve was in no danger. She was sitting down with one arm wrapped around the rail stanchion and the other around the boy who was fiercely clutching the basket with the Quirkas. She had caught one of Zack’s girls by the back of her shirt with her other hand, keeping the boy and the basket between them.

In the meantime, the Patrol, the fleeing sleds and the Dragons were engaging in a furious three-way battle; the Dragons were bellowing and shooting more goo, the fugitives on the sleds kept firing and dodging in and out wildly and the Patrol was calmly aiming nets at the escaping sleds. Gradually, the fight moved away from the boat, and once the boat ceased rocking so violently Gideon could look for Lucas. He found him at the front of the boat supporting Drusilla as she and the other Talker attempted to calm the Nessies and move them away from the Riverwitch. The Patrol had succeeded in capturing some of the sleds, but a couple had escaped, pursued by some of the Patrol sleds.

The cows had moved the Nessie calves over to the safety of a small island, and one of them let out a mournful bellow, calling the defenders back to them. Drusilla and Macon, the other Talker, were finally able to push hard enough at the two remaining Bull Nessies that they slowly began to shift back toward their herd, still hissing in anger.

Once it was over, Drusilla and the other Talker collapsed, falling ungracefully back on their anchors who sat down hard on the deck to keep either one from hitting her head on the hardwood railing as she went down.

Gideon set Jayla on her feet, and once he ascertained she was unhurt except for being soaked to the knees, he left her and went to check on Genevieve and the two children. Since they had been sitting on the deck, all three of them were completely soaked with smelly river water. The children seemed to be more worried about the Quirkas whose basket had been drenched than about themselves. Genevieve removed the soaked blankets from the basket and wrung them out, handing them to the boy and telling him to hang them up to dry. She instructed Violet to get some dry ones from Katherine’s cabin. “And as soon as you’ve done that, change into some dry clothes,” she called after them as they rushed off with the basket.

Gideon reached down and helped her to her feet. “You could use some dry clothes too,” he said.

She pulled her clammy blouse away from herself and sniffed experimentally. “Ugh. I do stink, don’t I?” she said. “I’ll change as soon as I can, but I have to make sure no one was hurt before I can worry about how I smell. It’s a warm day. A little water won’t hurt me. Did you see what happened?”

“Not really, I was too busy fielding Jayla and keeping her and myself from falling overboard. I was worried about you too.” He pulled her against him, not caring if she got him wet too.

“Now we’re both wet and smelly,” Genevieve complained laughing at him.

She stepped back as Katherine, followed by Lucas carrying an unconscious Drusilla headed for the lower wheelhouse.

“What happened?” she asked Corrine, who was following Vernal who was carrying the other Talker.

“I think they just exhausted themselves,” Corrine reassured her.

The lower wheelhouse was just a small area with stairs to the upper deck. It had several padded benches and a table for eating. Lucas laid Drusilla down on one and then ordered Riverwitch’s captain to bring a glass of water. He knelt beside the bench, rubbing her hands. The captain sent her daughter after two water glasses and then checked on the other Talker who was a crewmember.

“They sure saved our bacon today,” she said. She went over to a cabinet and brought out two vials, one of which she handed to Lucas. “Restorative,” she told him. “Give it to her when she comes around.”

Katherine inclined her head toward Lucas. “Well,” she remarked to Zack, “he’s certainly taking charge.”

Zack snorted. “Uh-huh. It’s wonderful what love will do for a guy.”

“What? When? They’ve known each other less than a week—”

He grinned at her. “Doesn’t matter. When it’s the right girl, you go down like you were hit by a Robo Tank. I ought to know.”

Overhearing, Genevieve protested, “She’s only sixteen!”

“So is he,” Gideon said mildly. “Maybe we shouldn’t let ourselves get all het up over what may prove to be a case of puppy love? She could do a lot worse though.”

“It isn’t that I don’t like him,” Genevieve said, “but she’s underage—”

Katherine shook her head at her. “Relax Mom,” she said, referring to Genevieve having raised Drusilla after their mother passed away. “You weren’t much older than she is now when you became Laird. Besides,” she added sadly, “a Dragon Talker is never really a child. Before they learn how to shield themselves, a Talker will hear and feel things no child should know about.”

At that opportune moment, the Riverwitch Captain reentered with the Patrol Commander who had been chasing the fugitives.

“My Lord, he doesn’t recognize them,” she addressed Gideon, “and he would like for you and the others to see if they came to Vensoog on the ship with you.”

 

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To Have & To Hold and Queen’s Gambit

It’s Friday, so it’s time to post the next chapter in the serial the Warriors of St. Antoni. This week I’m giving you a bonus – 2 chapters of the serial.

Warriors of St. Antoni is the first of my new Portal World Tales. 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 got dead. The only defense is a gun; your safety depends on 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. To protect her baby sister, Iris chooses an arranged marriage with a beloved old friend. Jeanne and the son of their 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

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SINCE IT WAS considered bad luck for Carlos to see her today, Iris had stayed in her room this morning while everyone else started cleaning up after the fire.

Patrice, her head milkmaid peeked around the door at her. “Oh, you do look beautiful,” she said.

Iris laughed. “Thank you, but this is just the underdress. Come in and tell me how things are going with the clean-up.”

“We did fine in the dairy, although I must say it was a real relief to get those dead outlaws out of the cheese room! I told Tim and the other men to wrap the bodies in the used cheese cloth like you said, and even Tim had to admit it cut down on the smells.”

“Did they get the graves dug?”

“Mrs. Giselle had the graves dug in Outlaws corner of the cemetery. The preacher did a fine funeral, even though those murdering outlaws didn’t deserve it.”

“Is George behaving?” Iris asked, referring to her pet Billy goat who considered himself king of her milk goats.”

Patrice grinned, “Well he’s still pretty full of himself after his he beat up all the other Billy goats when we were across the river.”

Bethany came in just then carrying a tray with two plates. “I brought you lunch, and I thought I would eat up here with you.”

She set the tray down on the dresser and picked up a sheet to drape over her sister. “Here this should protect that beautiful dress while you eat.”

“I’m not very hungry,” Iris confessed.

“That’s nerves,” Patrice told her. “You need to eat something, anyway.”

“Yes,” agreed Bethany. “You don’t want to have an empty stomach when you and Carlos drink champagne on your wedding night.”

“We gave you brandy, and you said it was awful,” protested Iris.

“Yes, but Alec brought up the champagne with him. It was much better.”

Patrice left the two sisters, closing the door softly behind her. It was a shame that Jeanne couldn’t be here as well, she thought.

After pushing her food around on her plate enough to satisfy her sister, Iris stood in front of the mirror in her room as Lisette and Bethany helped her into her wedding dress.

Iris and Carlos were married on the Patio. The heavy scent of Giselle’s blooming bushes filled the air. In deference to Mike’s wheeled chair, he waited at the Altar with Carlos and Preacher Meeker. The afternoon sun cast glittering sparkles on Iris’ white-blond hair. The wide brimmed, flower covered hat she wore instead of a veil shielded Iris’ face from Carlos, but she could easily see his expression as she walked toward him. She hoped she was correctly interpreting the combination of tenderness and lust she read there as love.

For Iris, the small private wedding attended only by close family and friends was perfect. She detested the limelight and intense focus that had been on Bethany and Alec when they married. She knew there had been reasons for it; by the public display the St. Vyr’s had declared to the world around them that the St. Vyr family was still strong enough to defend itself and that Bethany was off limits as a lever to be used against her loved ones.

It had been decided during the prior night’s midnight conference that Iris and Carlos would spend their wedding night at the St. Vyr’s suite in River Crossings Hotel. Alec, Bethany, Henry and Giselle would ride into town as well, but later in the day so attention would not be drawn to the fact that only Mike and the hands would be left to mind the ranch.

Iris smiled when Bethany and Giselle slipped into her hotel room as she was removing the traveling outfit she had worn from the ranch. They brought up an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne and two long stemmed glasses.

“It tastes better than the brandy they gave me, and it will be just as effective to help you relax,” Bethany explained, setting the bucket on the dresser.

“I’m not afraid of Carlos,” Iris said mildly.

“I wasn’t afraid of Alec either,” Bethany replied, “But this is going to be the first time you and Carlos will be naked in front of each other. At least I assume it will be.”

Iris’ pale skin flushed with embarrassment. “Do you have to talk like that?”

“Why not?” Bethany inquired.

“Girls,” Giselle intervened. “Bethany lay out Iris’s nightgown, the blue one. Iris turn around so I can undo these buttons.”

The blue nightgown had been designed to complement the wedding trousseau; the silky material clung like a second skin, barely covering Iris’ full breasts and it was slit up the sides to her hips. Underneath it, she was naked. Iris blushed red again when she looked at herself in the mirror.

Bethany had popped the cork on the champagne and poured Iris a glass. “Here,” she advised, “take a good sip, it will help you relax.” She didn’t bother asking Iris if she knew how a man and woman made love; Giselle had made sure all her granddaughters were acquainted with the facts of life.

Both women kissed Iris goodnight and slipped out the door just as Carlos was coming up.

“Goodnight,” Giselle told him.

“You better treat her right,” Bethany warned him as they left.

They had no need to warn him to treat Iris gently. She was his dream girl, a fragile woman to be cared for tenderly and adored. He had no intention of repeating his performance in the hallway after they had come up from the revue, or his behavior after the fight at Bethany and Alec’s reception. Frowning a little, Carlos shut the door and turned to look at his wife, stopping dead in his tracks as an enormous surge of lust caught him unaware. The wedding dress had muted her sexuality, but this gown revealed all that the dress had shielded.

Iris took another gulp of the champagne. “They left this,” she pointed to the bucket. “Would you like some?” Despite her confident words to her sister, her voice squeaked a little.

Carlos heard the underlying nervousness and caught hold of himself.

“That sounds good. Why don’t I sit here while you bring me a glass,” he sat down on the overstuffed armchair by the window.

Very conscious of his eyes devouring her, Iris went to the dresser and poured a second glass. When she brought it to him, he took it and set it on the table and then pulled her down into his lap.

“You aren’t afraid of me, are you?” he asked.

“No, of course not,” she said, a little defensively, “but this is new to both of us. What if I don’t do it right?”

Carlos snorted. “So, we keep trying until we get it right. Just like learning to ride a horse.”

Iris gave a gasp of laughter at the image is words provoked, almost spitting the champagne. He caught her glass before it spilled on them and set it on the table with his.

Carlos slid his hand into the silky mane of her hair and pulled her mouth to his own, parting her lips with his tongue. The invasion of his mouth started a pleasant tickling sensation in her groin, and she could feel the fabric of her thin gown and his shirt against her hardening nipples. When he cupped her full breast with his hand and rubbed a thumb across them, she moved restlessly against him, her hands skimming over the tight muscles under his shirt.

When she fingered the buttons tentatively, he encouraged, “Go ahead, I want to feel your hands on me.”

His skin was smooth, with a light sprinkling of hair on his chest. Iris combed her fingers through it, sliding her hands over his hard ribs to the waist of his pants. Carlos moaned in pleasure against her mouth, and abruptly stood up, keeping hold of her so she felt his hard arousal as her legs pressed against his.

Iris turned to face him, pressing a kiss on his throat while her hands pushed the shirt off his wide shoulders. Carlos dropped both hands to cup her bottom under the nightgown, lifting her against him. The slit sides of the gown allowed Iris to wrap both legs around his waist, soothing the need in her nether mouth.

She made a small protesting sound when Carlos let go and let her legs drop.

“Hold on Darling, let me get my pants off,” his voice was guttural. He stepped out of his pants and lifted the edge of her gown, pulling it over her head before catching her under the buttocks and lifting her again. Iris flung her arms around his neck and kissed him back, her tongue dueling with his as he walked toward the bed. Turning around, he fell backward on the bed with her riding his hips. He rocked, his shaft rubbing against her nether mouth, and Iris moaned.

“Ride me,” he whispered, and she rubbed herself against him frantically, going over the edge when he stroked both her nipples with his thumbs.

When she collapsed atop him after her climax, Carlos rolled, lifting them both further up on the bed. Frantic now to assuage his own lust he thrust himself between her already spread legs. Iris gave a gasp of pain and stiffened under him as he broke through the tight barrier inside her womb.

Carlos kissed her again, lifting himself so he could rub her nipples again to bring her back with him. She was too sated to be fully roused, but when she wiggled against him, he couldn’t resist, and began moving inside her. His movements softened and lubricated her channel and pleasure returned. When he gave a final thrust, and pumped into her, she felt an echo of that earlier intense gratification.

Iris was yawning when they joined the family at breakfast in the dining room the next morning. Carlos had woken her three more times in the night to make intense love to her. She had enjoyed it each time, but she was conscious of a little soreness between her legs.

Iris ignored the amused and knowing looks her sister and Grandmother gave her when she and Carlos both ordered a hearty breakfast.

“I spoke to a couple of folks last night after you married folks all went to bed,” Henry said. “Hennessy hasn’t been seen here in town for a couple of days, so he may be hiding out up at the mine.”

Alec nodded. “Henry, you and I will go to his house and ask his wife if she knows where he is.” He looked at Carlos and Iris. “You two be careful up there. Hennessy may be a cowardly rat, but rats have teeth.”

“Then it’s good that both of us are going,” Iris said, adding as she correctly interpreted the scowl on Carlos’ face, “No, I will not stay here and hide, so don’t even think about it.”

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FOR SOME time after Iris and the men had left the Hotel to find Hennessy, Giselle and Bethany sat at a table dining room, thoughtfully sipping their coffee.

The plan the family discussed earlier had Alec and Henry paying a visit to Hennessy’s home to search for evidence of his complicity in forging the loan papers and searching the town for him if he wasn’t home. Iris and Carlos intended to take the train up to the mine and search Hennessy’s office and rooms there to see if they could find evidence he had forged St. Vyr’s signature on loan papers.

“He is a very painstaking man,” Carlos had said. “If he made an agreement with Lutz, he will have kept a written record of it to avoid being cheated.”

Giselle had an additional plan she chose not to share with her son and grand-sons-in-law.

“Bethany,” Giselle said rising from the table, “come upstairs, put on some old riding clothes and put your hair up under an old hat. You and I are also going to pay someone a visit.”

“Why do we need old clothes?”

“Because we don’t want to be seen visiting Antoinette Larrabee. If anyone knows something we can use against Lutz, it’s her.”

“Why would she tell you what she knows?”

“She and I once lived in the same emigrant camp,” Giselle said, as they headed upstairs. “At one time, we were friends.”

On the way to their rooms, she stopped and ordered the hotel clerk to send to a note to the local stable requesting two saddled tricorns be brought to the back of the Hotel.

She nodded approvingly when she saw their nondescript appearance. Mounting, Giselle led the way upriver, walking the animals until they passed the edge of town so as not to attract much notice leaving. Once they were out of sight of the town, she urged her tricorn to a faster pace.

Bethany hadn’t asked many questions, but seeing the direction they were riding, she was puzzled enough to ask, “Where are we going? There is nothing out this way.”

“We’re going the back way into Minerstown,” Giselle informed her. “We don’t want to be seen going there, or have it known who we are going to see, so we will be using the ford about ten miles upriver.”

“Ah—who are we going to see? I thought you said we would be visiting Antoinette Larrabee. Does she live up here?”

“Antoinette owns La Belle Sans Merci.”

Her granddaughter gasped. “What?”

“You heard me.”

“But—Gran—that’s a bawdy house!”

“Yes, and we are going to be talking to the head bawd. Treat her like a lady when you meet her. And for the love of Pete, don’t go telling your husband about this visit!”

“No kidding,” Bethany muttered to herself.

For an hour, they traveled north along the edge of Black River, arriving finally at a wide ford not much used by anyone. The ford wasn’t exactly shallow; the water was high enough both women ended up soaked to the tops of their boots, but it was crossable on the tricorns.

Once across, Giselle kicked her tricorn into an easy lope to traverse the trail into the back side of Minerstown.

Unlike River Crossing with its clusters of houses extending behind the businesses grouped around the center of town, Minerstown had one long street. Saloons, hash houses, sleeping dormitories, the Chinese laundry, a dry goods store and those places advertising feminine company lined both sides of that long street. At the very end of town, La Belle Sans Merci occupied a large two story building. Unlike most of the other buildings, it had been painted, and was surrounded by a neatly kept garden and white picket fence.

From the rear, the building looked to Bethany like just a very large mansion. A stable and corral were set off to the left.

Giselle rode right up to the stable and dismounted. The young boy who came to take their mounts, stopped dead when he realized he was facing two women.

“Ma’am,” he blurted out, “you shouldn’t be here!”

Giselle tied her tricorn to the hitching rail. “Never mind that. Please give Madam Antoinette this,” she handed the boy a small pouch. “Tell her an old friend wants to talk to her. We will wait here until you come back.”

He accepted the pouch and bowed to her. “Better you wait in here, Missus,” he said, opening a door to a small office. “No will see you there.”

“Thank you. Come, girl.”

Bethany dismounted and followed her grandmother. She waited until the boy had closed the door before she whispered. “He acted like he knew you. Have you been here before?”

“Not for a long time. Antoinette and I lived together in the emigrant camp in Gateway City after your grandfather was murdered.”

“I never knew that. You don’t usually talk much about that time. I’d like to hear more if you want to tell me.”

Giselle sat down on a dusty couch she suspected doubled as the boy’s bed and patted the seat beside her. When Bethany joined her, she said, “I don’t talk much about it, because I was forced to do some things I’m not proud of to keep your father and I fed and housed.”

“Were you a—I mean—”

Giselle laughed. “No, I didn’t have to sell myself, but for a time I was a Portal Runner, a thief and a grifter. I told fortunes and read cards. A woman alone in a place like that—well it’s hard. The Tresoni family ran the camp and the City then. There was a set of rules serving as laws, but unless you killed someone they pretty much left us to settle things ourselves. I learned to use a knife and a gun to defend Michael and myself. That is why I made sure you girls could shoot and defend yourselves. Several of the women in the camp banded together to help each other. At first, there was only Antoinette and myself but eventually there were seven of us. We formed our own network of influence to help each other as much as we could. Some of us made different choices in our lives, but the bond is still there. Or so I hope.”

She had given Bethany a lot to think about. When the boy opened the door, she looked up in surprise. “Madam will see you now, Missus,” he said. “Please to follow me.”

He led them in through the kitchen, and up the backstairs to a sitting room. Madam Antoinette was not at all what Bethany expected. She was tall and slim, dressed in an afternoon tea dress that any lady might have worn. Her face bore a minimum of makeup, and her once gold hair, showing only the barest touch of gray, was bound up in a chignon, fastened with a single gold clasp. She greeted Giselle with both hands held out.

“Giselle, how wonderful to see you. You look just the same. And this must be one of your granddaughters.”

“It’s good to see you as well Antoinette. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, but as you may have heard, we’ve had a lot of trouble keeping us busy lately.”

She drew Bethany forward. “This is my eldest granddaughter, Bethany. Bethany just got married.”

“How do you do, Ma’am,” Bethany said, dropping a curtsy.

Antoinette chuckled. “My, what lovely manners! It’s nice to meet you Bethany. Congratulations on your marriage.” She turned to Giselle, “I heard about your son. I’m so sorry.”

Giselle nodded. “Thank you. He will live. That is what matters. You said you wanted to talk to me about something?”

“Yes. Oh, my goodness where are my manners! Please sit down.”

Once they were all sitting, Antoinette nervously pleated a fold of her dress. “I don’t know if you heard, but my daughter Sandra and her husband were killed in a rock slide four years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Giselle exclaimed. “We have lost touch, haven’t we? Why didn’t you let me know?”

“I sent a message to the house in Copper City, but I guess you didn’t get it.”

“No, the war between the Jones and the Smiths was heating up, and everyone was having a hard time getting any communications out; both sides intercepted private messages right and left during those years. Didn’t they have a child? Was she killed too?”

“No, she was staying with her father’s parents at the time. They asked if that could continue, and since I didn’t want her living here, I said yes. That is why I wrote you.”

“What can I do for you, old friend?”

“Glenna is old enough to get married now. She wants to come out here to see me. She doesn’t understand that if she lived with me, people—men—would assume that she is what I have become.”

“Are you sorry you chose as you did? If you want to start over somewhere else—”

“No, I made my choices, and I will live with them. But I don’t want Glenna to have to make that choice. If she had a respectable family to sponsor her when she comes…”

“Why couldn’t she stay with us?” inquired Bethany. “We could arrange for the two of you to meet away from here, if that’s what troubles you. I think there is a cabin on this side of the river that could be fixed up. The two of you could spend time there together.”

Both older women turned to look at her in surprise. “Have I said something wrong?” she asked.

Giselle smiled at her. “No, you haven’t. I think that would be an excellent idea. If you will give me her direction, Antoinette, I will write to her and invite her to stay with us. We will say she is a friend of Bethany’s.”

Antoinette wiped tears from her eyes. “Thank you, Giselle. I shouldn’t have doubted you, but when I didn’t hear from you after Sandra and Frank died, I thought—well you can probably guess what I thought.”

“I saw Amy in Junction City. I know she would be glad to hear from you. Why don’t you write to her?”

“I’ll do that. I am glad you came, Giselle, but I know you are still having troubles, and if what I hear is true, they aren’t over yet.”

“What have you heard?”

“I heard that Frank Lutz plans to foreclose on your ranch and mine with some papers a man named Hennessy forged for him.”

Giselle nodded. “I need an edge,” she admitted. “What do you know about Lutz?”

“I know that isn’t his real name. His real name is Smith, and he’s originally from Copper City.”

“It’s strange he didn’t go back when they came to power last year.”

“He can’t. He’s hiding from Caleb Jones.”

“But the Jones, lost the war,” Bethany said, puzzled. “Why would he still be hiding?”

“Caleb Jones didn’t die, and he’s been hunting Jake Smith for years. Caleb was Jones’s toughest enforcer. He can use a variety of weapons, including martial arts, and he’s mean as a sander. You see, Jake Smith raped and killed his baby sister ten years ago.” She paused and looked at Giselle. “Caleb Jones is in Bitterstone right now, or at least he was two weeks ago.”

“And he still wants revenge on Smith, alias Lutz?”

“The grapevine says he does. He adored that little girl. The man who told me this recognized Lutz and wanted to warn me about him. Lutz likes to rough up the girls, and he prefers them very young. My friend didn’t need to tell me that though. Two years ago, I had a young girl working in the kitchen. She was only thirteen, too young to work the backstairs, but Lutz saw her. He cornered her one night when we were especially busy and tried to rape her. I threw him out, but he told me unless he got to use her, he would see to it that I was put out of business. I got her away and he backed off, but Lutz still comes around and threatens me. My friend gave me the name of a man in Bitterstone who knows how to reach Caleb Jones.”

She rose and went to her desk and took a piece of paper out of a drawer. “Here, this is the address.”

Giselle took it. “Don’t you want to keep it in case you need it?”

Antoinette smiled grimly at her. “I already used it, but Lutz doesn’t know that, does he? If you tell him you won’t use it, to make him give you the forged documents, who is going to tell him you aren’t the only one who knows who he is?”

The two older women exchanged looks of understanding. Bethany kept her mouth shut.

Giselle stood up, “I need your granddaughter’s address as well.”

As they mounted and rode away from the pleasure house, Bethany looked over at her grandmother in wonder. “Gran,” she asked, “is there any place on St. Antoni where you don’t know someone with information when you need it?”

“A few places,” Giselle admitted. “It’s time for you girls to begin to know about the women’s network and meet the next generation. This is what we do, honey, this is how we survive.”

Returning to the Hotel by the same route, they left the tricorns tied to the back of the building, letting the porter know to have them returned to the stable. Once back upstairs, Giselle and Bethany put on the clothes they regularly wore in town.

Outside the bank, Giselle looked over at her granddaughter. “You remember what I told you to do?”

Bethany nodded, nothing in her face showing how nervous she was. She held open the door so her grandmother could enter.

Giselle nodded at the smattering of customers and acquaintances in the bank lobby they passed on their way to Lutz’s office. His office was off to the side, with glass halfway up the walls so he could watch his employees while they worked. Giselle entered without knocking. Lutz rose from his chair as she entered.

“Why Mrs. St. Vyr, what a pleasant surprise. How can I help you today?” he asked genially.

Giselle seated herself on the leather chair opposite Lutz’s enormous desk. Bethany closed and locked the office door and then pulled down the shades on the windows before coming to sit in the chair beside Giselle’s.

Lutz’s eyebrows rose. “I take it this is a private matter?”

Giselle folded her hands in her lap, allowing her eyes to run over him. Lutz was short with a round, moon shaped face and sandy hair.

“Yes, Jake Smith, this is a private matter.”

Lutz quickly hid his startled expression under a surprised one. “Jake Smith? Who is that?”

“Don’t bother to pretend you don’t understand me, Mr. Smith. I used to live in Copper City, remember. Survival there meant becoming very familiar with all the prominent members of both the Smith and Jones families. You are a little fatter, but you haven’t changed that much.”

He sat back down in his chair slowly, his benign expression hardening. “What do you want?”

“I still have ties to some of the Jones family. Caleb Jones is still alive, you know,” she said, watching his face, smiling a little when she saw the flicker of fear.

“What do you think he will do when I tell him where you are?”

“He can’t do anything,” Smith, alias Lutz blustered. “The Jones family is no longer in power.”

Giselle laughed, a light rippling sound. “I don’t think he will care about that, do you? You killed and raped his baby sister, Smith. Caleb has a long memory.”

Smith was breathing a little fast. “I had an alibi,” he said.

“Your brother and his wife? The Jones think your alibi was a lie, they just didn’t have time to prove it because the war was going on. In any case, I don’t think Caleb Jones will care about that. You should have left my family alone, Mr. Smith.”

“What do you want?” he repeated.

“I certainly think that not passing on this information to Caleb Jones will be worth my price. I want every piece of paper you have about the ranch, the mine, and the railroad stock, signed or not, and I want them right now.”

Smith’s teeth drew back over his lips in a snarl. “I don’t have them all here in this office.”

She waited, just looking at him.

“Some of them yes, but the others are at my home.”

“Then we will visit your lovely wife while you retrieve them,” she replied.

He looked at her slyly. “There might be other copies out there; I don’t have them all.”

She smiled at him. “Hennessy’s copies are being retrieved as we speak.”

He glared at her and went to the safe behind his desk. Bethany rose and followed him. He glanced at her and flinched when he saw the pistol in her hand. He opened the safe and reached inside.

“No,” Bethany said mildly. “Go and sit down over there in the corner. I will look for them.”

Glaring in impotent fury, Smith did as he was told.

Bethany removed the pistol inside the safe and took several bundles of papers out and put them on the desk, along with several heavy bags of gold and silver chips. Setting these aside, she carefully went through the papers, removing any that had any connection to her family, the ranch or the mine. After returning the money bags and the other papers to the safe, she closed it and stuck the pistol in her shoulderbag. Picking up the papers she had selected, she folded them and tucked them inside it as well.

Meticulously, she also went through all the drawers in the desk and in the file cabinet next to the wall. “I think this is all he has here, Gran,” she said.

“Excellent,” Giselle said. She gestured for Smith to get up. “Let’s go and pay a visit to your lovely wife, shall we?”

Sullenly, he stood up and led the way out of his office. Bethany tucked her gun back inside her shoulder bag and followed Giselle and Smith. She kept her hand on it though. She didn’t really think he would cause any trouble; it was broad daylight and there were too many potential witnesses around for him to try any tricks, but it never hurt to be safe.

Bethany and Giselle left Smith, alias Lutz fuming at his house and attempting to explain to his irate wife why he had allowed the two women to search their home.

“I’m sending you back to Copper City to visit your family,” he told her. “It isn’t safe here right now. I’ll follow you as soon as I can.

 

Of Cabbages & Kings – Warriors of St. Antoni

It’s Friday, so it’s time to post the next chapter in the ongoing serial the Warriors of St. Antoni.

Warriors of St. Antoni is the first of my new Portal World Tales. 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 got dead. The only defense is a gun; your safety depends on 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 an arranged marriage with a beloved old friend. Jeanne and the son of their 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: Of Cabbages & Kings

https://www.facebook.com/groups/GailDaleyWriter/

THEY FOUND Mike sitting by the fishpond with Razor stretched out on his lap, a rusty purr sounding as St. Vyr stroked his back.

Alec started the ball rolling. “Mike, did you know Lutz is planning to foreclose on the ranch and the mine?”

“What?” St. Vyr roared. “Who told you that?”

“Ira Johnson said so,” Carlos replied.

“Johnson? Is that stinking rat here?”

“Not anymore; he left.”

Is there a loan on the ranch or the mine?”

“No, there is not,” Mike snapped. “Why the hell would I need a loan?”

“You signed nothing like that?”

“No. If they have something with my signature, it’s a fake.”

Alec sat down beside Mike on the bench. “Who do you know familiar enough with it to forge your signature on documents?”

“Gary Hennessy,” Carlos said, taking a seat on the raised flowerbed across from the bench.

“Who is that?”

“The accountant I hired to keep the books at the mine and the ranch,” Mike answered. “Why do you think it’s him?”

“He has a gambling problem and a wife with expensive tastes. As far as I know it hasn’t affected his work yet, but I’ve been watching him.”

Bethany and Iris came out of the house with the sheriff.

“St. Vyr, I need to hear your account of what happened when Emory Johnson came into your room today,” Morrison said. “I’m going to need a spare tricorn to haul his body to the undertaker in town.”

“Sure.” St. Vyr turned to the two young men. “Go ahead and finish clearing up after the fire. We’ll finish this discussion and make some plans to deal with Hennessy and Lutz, as soon as I’m done here.”

“Sheriff, it’s too late to travel back to town. We can make you a bed in the house so you won’t need to ride back tonight,” Bethany offered.

Morrison nodded. “Thank you. Now Mike, start with when you first saw Johnson.”

Carlos found Iris, Paco, Macon and several dairymen and maids trying to round up the goats who had fled the fire. King George trailed Iris like a puppy, complaining all the time and getting in the way.

The goats were enjoying their taste of freedom and reluctant to return to captivity. They hadn’t been near enough to the fire to become frightened, but they didn’t like the smell of burned grass. Whenever it seemed Iris and her troops were about to succeed in returning them to the pastures, the goats escaped without going through the gate.

After studying the situation, Carlos went to the grain bin and filled a bucket with some of the special feed Iris reserved for her milk goats. He began leaving a trail of grain on the ground leading inside the gate. Discovering the treat, the goats scrambled inside and Iris was at last able to close the gate on them.

“Whew!” she exclaimed, giving him a big smile. “I wish I had thought of doing that a half hour ago! Thank you.”

He put his arm around her and pulled her toward the house. “Yes,” he said, “we make a pretty good team, don’t we?”

“I—yes, we do,” she admitted.

“I want to get married Iris,” he said, “to you. What do you want?”

“I—yes, I will marry you.”

Carlos pulled her to him and kissed her until she was dizzy.

Plans for the coming wedding of Iris and Carlos occupied the family through dinner and the rest of the evening.

Later that night, after the sheriff had gone to bed, the family held an impromptu meeting in Mike’s bedroom.

“We need to get a handle on this fast,” Mike said grimly. “I want to know if there actually is a loan against the ranch or the mine showing my signature, or if Johnson was just blowing wind.”

“I’d like to know how Johnson knew about it,” Iris said.

“We need to question Hennessy about that, and about the loan,” Bethany said.

“Where does he usually hang out?” Alec asked.

Carlos frowned a little. “He and his wife have a small house in town, but I got the impression he doesn’t spend a lot of time there. His office up at the mine has a cot in it, so I think he stays overnight sometimes.”

“Then finding and questioning Hennessy will be my job. Carlos, since you are more familiar with the mine, I suggest you go and search the offices to see if Hennessy left a record of any deal he has with Lutz there.”

“I’ll go with him,” Iris announced. “I’m very good and finding places to hide things.”

Her father snorted. “If you’re going to go traipsing up there with Carlos, the two of you should go ahead and get hitched. I’ll send for the preacher in the morning.”

“Iris deserves to have our wedding be a special day,” Carlos protested. “Not some rushed affair—”

Iris patted his hand. “A small private wedding will suit me. We can hold a reception at the Hotel and invite everyone else later.”

“Good,” Mike said. “In the morning, I plan to send a man to town to bring back the preacher so we can get those men buried. He can stay to lunch and marry you and Iris afterward.”

“Serving the bridal feast with the funeral meats son?” his mother inquired wryly.

Mike nodded. “Alec, before you and Bethany got married, I had planned to make Red Courteen Segundo. If you want to formalize that with him, he can handle the clean up here while you hunt for Hennessy.”

“He’s a good man,” Alec said. “I’ll speak to him in the morning. The three of us can leave for town after the wedding. Carlos and Iris can leave for the mine the next morning.”

“No, make that five of us who are going into town,” Giselle said. ” I intend to visit some old friends to see what kind of information I can pick up about Hennessey and Lutz. Furthermore, Alec you should take Henry with you to watch your back when you search Hennessey’s house. ”

“None of us should go anywhere alone,” Iris objected.

“Very well,” her grandmother responded. “Bethany and I will go visiting some old friends.”

 

 

It’s Friday when I post the next chapter in my serials. I also decided that Friday would be the day I choose to pay it forward to other independent authors by sharing their books on my timeline. Please keep in mind that I haven’t read most of these books. Please check them out for yourself.

Gail

WIN A FREE BOOK!

CONTEST–WIN A FREE BOOK WITH CORRECT ANSWER!

It constantly amazes me how territorial writers and artists can be over others using similar settings or characters to ones they used in their books or a painting. While copyright infringement does exist, its been my experience, that any group of writers or artists can be given the exact same setting, charactors, etc, and in the end as soon as their creative muse kicks in, they will produce significantly different products!

This is not copyright infringement folks, its creative license! This happens because no two writers or artists have the same creative vision. As an example, two of my favorite witch series have several things in common (see the clues on the flow chart below). However, both of these authors have taken the basic premise and created two vastly different original series, and followed up by taking their characters and plots in completely different directions.

To prove my premise, I’m going to challenge you to identify the series and the authors I am refering to. The first 20 people who identify them both correctly, will get a free copy of my newest book (Warriors of St. Antoni). To enter, fill out the form below and return it with your answers. REMEMBER YOU MUST COMPLETE THE FORM BELOW AND CORRECTLY IDENTIFY BOTH SERIES & AUTHORS! CONTEST ENDS OCTOBER 1, 2017

YOUR NAME:

ADDRESS:

E-MAIL:

SERIES 1     AUTHOR                                 SERIES TITLE

SERIES 2     AUTHOR                                 SERIES TITLE

YES! PLEASE ADD ME TO THE LIST TO RECEIVE ADVANCE NOTICE OF YOUR NEXT BOOKS! (name, email & address information will not be used for any other purpose than that stated.)

NO, I DON’T WANT TO BE ADDED TO THE LIST, BUT I STILL WANT TO ENTER.

Send completed entries to gailsart1927@gaildaleysfineart.com

ENTRIES WITHOUT A COMPLETELY FILLED OUT ENTRY FORM WILL BE DISQUALIFIED

Contest ends October 1, 2017

CLUES

SETTING:

  • Financially struggling small town, semi isolated from large cities.
  • The town periodically has events to draw outsiders into it to increase it’s revenue base.
  • Area has a significant history of weird or mysterous happings that goes back hundreds of years.

CHARACTORS:

  • A family of three generations of witches (or paranormally gifted individuals) lives on the edge of the town.
  • The family has lived in the the area for many generations.
    • One elderly member
    • Three middle-aged members
    • Three adult members of the next generation

 

 

 

Plots & Schemes – 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 Plots & Schemes

 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/GailDaleyWriter/

 

JOHNSON WENT out to the bunkhouse where he found his range crew idly playing a hand of cards. “Why aren’t you men out working?” he demanded.

Jones, a short thin man with a wispy mustache, looked up from his cards. “We ain’t had no orders to do anything, boss.”

“What do you mean? Didn’t my son give you orders this morning?”

“We ain’t seen Sam in more than a week,” volunteered Tom Wright.

“Where did he go?”

Jones shrugged, pushing two chips into the center of the table. “I call,” he said. “If you mean Sam, he packed up stuff and took off more than a week ago,” he said.

“If you mean Emory, he’s been drunk since he got here,” Larry volunteered.

“Yeah,” complained Bert Johns, “He got fresh with the cook and she and her family up and left. We ain’t had any decent food since.”

“I’ll take care of the cook,” Johnson said. “You men get out to the south pasture and check on the herd.”

He turned and went into the house. Samuel’s room was bare. The bed was made up and the room tidy, but everything Samuel owned was gone.

When he went out to the tricorn corral, he saw that Samuel’s favorite mount was gone. Returning to the house, he sat down at the table and stared at the place where his middle son usually sat. Ira Johnson sat there for some time before he noticed the folded paper on the mantle.

“Dear Pa,” it read. “I’m sorry to leave this way without saying goodbye, but it has now become necessary. Please don’t look for me. I expect nothing from you, and I wish you and Emory luck in making the J-4 into a prosperous ranch.

Your son, Samuel

  1. s. Stay away from St. Vyr and his womenfolk.”

Samuel was gone. He had left his family. Ira was furious. He kicked the table across the room and followed it up with the chairs.

“What’s all that racket?” The noise of the breaking table and chairs roused Emory, and he staggered into the doorway, holding onto the jamb to keep from falling over.

“You stupid worthless drunk!” Ira roared. He backhanded his son and Emory went down on his butt. Instead of getting up, he lay there snoring.

Breathing hard, his father stared at him in impotent fury. Going to the sink, Ira pumped a bucket of water and sloshed it over his son, following it up with a kick.

Emory rolled over on his stomach and puked. Getting another bucket, Johnson slopped it over the mess Emory had created. Grabbing his son by the collar and his belt, he hauled him outside to the water trough and dunked him in it until he was convinced Emory was too drunk to be sobered up and would have to sleep it off. He left him lying there in the dirt and went into the house to get rid of any liquor he found.

When Emory sobered up several days later, Johnson had located another cook for the men and put them back to work. Emory staggered into the kitchen and fell into a chair. Johnson put a cup of coffee in front of him and waited until he had drunk it before slapping cold biscuits leftover from breakfast in front of his son.

Emory looked at the biscuits with disgust. “What’s this?”

“Breakfast. You may as well know your brother is gone.”

Emory blinked. “My head hurts. Did you say Samuel is gone? Where did he go?”

“He didn’t say. That means it’s up to you and me to make the plan work.”

His son broke off a piece of the cold biscuit and chewed it. “What do you mean Pa?”

“You’re going to marry St. Vyr’s girl.”

“She’s already married,” Emory pointed out, “and the other one is about to be.”

“So? We make her a widow.”

“Pa, I don’t think I’m fast enough to beat McCaffey to the draw.”

“You ain’t going to face him in a gunfight. I got that part covered. You will go over to St. Vyr’s spread, grab the girl and bring her back here.”

Emory sipped his coffee in silence, considering the order. Finally, he said, “Won’t work Pa. Too many people around. What if she screams? I can’t keep her quiet and fight off the hands at the same time. Say I get her away from the ranch, even if he’s crippled, St. Vyr can still send his hands after us, and it ain’t like she’s some whore out of a pleasure house we drug up here. She’s a respectable married woman. Even some of our own men would turn on us for kidnapping her.”

Ira sat back. “Well if you’re too yellow to do it…”

His son flushed red and lunged to his feet. “You take that back! That’s a lie!”

“Glad to see that beating didn’t take all the sand out of you,” his father said coolly. “Sit back down and listen. We’re going to set fire to St. Vyr’s pastures near the house. It’s been a dry year and that grass will go up like tinder. That will draw almost everyone to fight the fire. In the confusion, it shouldn’t be too hard to grab the girl; if she screams, it’s likely everyone will just think it’s got to do with the fire.”

“Okay, Pa.”

“Go take a bath. You stink. And stay away from the cook and her daughters. Save it to use on Bethany St. Vyr.”

Johnson was out of town, so he didn’t get the news that the first part of his plan had already failed. Martin Chamber was one of the bodies shown to Tim Gonzales, the town Sheriff who rode out to the ranch with the doctor and Paco. By this time, the St. Vyr’s had quite a collection of corpses to turn over to him.

The sheriff eyed the stiffs being piled into a buckboard for him to take back to town with disfavor. “Hell,” he said, “I don’t want them. Just bury them out here and charge the town for it. I’ll take any papers and money to hold for their next of kin, but that’s all I want besides your signed statements about what happened.”

“Certainly, Sheriff,” Giselle agreed. “You can use my parlor to take witness statements.”

After setting Gonzales up with a table, writing paper and some coffee, she went upstairs to check on the doctor’s progress.

“Well, Garth, how is our patient?” she inquired.

The Doctor, a portly man in his forties, looked up from taking Carlos’ pulse and smiled at her. “An excellent job, Giselle. I wish I had you as a nurse more often.”

She laughed. “Shame on you! What would your wife say?”

He laughed too. “Skin me, probably.”

“If you are through talking about me as if I’m not here,” Carlos interjected irritably, “When can I get out of this bed?”

Doctor Ruggles grinned at him. “Son, I thought the idea was for you to get into Miss Iris’s bed.”

Carlos glared at him. “You are hilarious. The idea is for us to get married. I can’t do that flat on my back.”

“Actually, you can get up now. I’d put off any marital gymnastics until your shoulder heals a little more though.”

“I want my clothes,” Carlos told Giselle.

“Over there on the chair,” she replied.

“Can I offer you a cup of coffee Garth before you start back?”

“I’d love one,” the doctor replied, following her out of the room.

Alec looked for Bethany and found her out in the stables, checking on her prize racers.

“You both did just fine,” she told Tessa and Paco. “They are in great shape.”

“Does this mean I can ride Stinger in next month’s races?” Paco asked eagerly.

Bethany nodded. “I spoke to your mother, and she agreed to allow it, so yes you can ride him.”

“What about me?” inquired Tessa.

“You will be up on Glory for the sprints,” Bethany said. “As of today, both of you will be spending a lot of time with my racers, so you are excused from any other duties around the house and barns.”

Tessa gave her a big smile.

“They act like you gave them a gift instead of a prescription for work,” Alec said.

She smiled at him. “Yes, they do, don’t they?”

“We need to talk, honey,” he said.

A little wariness came into her eyes. “About what?”

“It’s time to take the fight to the Johnsons,” he said. “So far, all we’ve done is make defensive moves. That won’t end the war.”

She leaned against him. “What do you want to do?”

“I intend to ask Carlos to go into Junction City and file a complaint with the District Court so we can get it legally on record that Johnson has attacked us twice.”

“Does that mean you are turning the fight over to the Marshals?”

“No, it just gives me cover when I take Johnson and his son down.”

She looked troubled. “What about Samuel?”

“As far as I know, he’s out of it. From what Giselle says, he left without intending to return.”

“He’s Jeanne’s husband now. I don’t want a rift in the family.”

He dropped a kiss on her brow. “I know you don’t. I won’t fight Samuel if I can help it. This is the way it has to be though.”

“Have you told Papa?”

He nodded. “We talked about it this morning before Gonzalez got here.”

“I see. You will be careful, won’t you?”

“Worried about me?”

“Oh, I know you can beat them in a fair fight, but they don’t fight fairly—”

Tessa came running back in the stable, followed by Paco. “The pasture is on fire!”

Bethany grabbed her arm. “Get up to the cupola and ring the bell.

“Paco, take a tricorn and open the pasture gates. Try to herd the goats toward the river. Go! Alec, open the stall doors in here. I will open the back doors.”

“Wait,” he said. “We need to keep enough saddled here to run if the fire gets away from us.

Bethany went to the tack room and dragged out saddles. Quickly she and Alec readied all the tricorns in the barn and led them into the courtyard.

Iris’s goats came running through and she opened the rear barn doors to let them out, ducking back inside the barn when Paco, who was screeching like a mad thing rode by.

She saw that Alec had organized the men to dig a firebreak between the house and the burning grass. Bethany headed to the house leading her father’s saddled tricorn. Unable to move, Michael St. Vyr would be trapped in the house if it burned.

Inside the house, Iris was handing out buckets and pails, instructing everyone to pour water down the house walls. Margo and Giselle were packing food and blankets into the buckboard in case they needed to make a run for town.

“Where’s Papa?” she asked Giselle.

“I told Stevens to help him out to the courtyard,” her grandmother replied.

“They aren’t there. I’m going to check his room.”

She nearly tripped over Stevens prone body when she entered her father’s room. Looking down, she saw that Stevens head was bleeding, bending to check on him, she realized that Michael was struggling with Emory Johnson over a knife.

“Leave him alone!” Bethany shouted. Jumping up, she grabbed Johnson’s knife arm, but he shrugged her off with a blow that sent her to the floor.

Screaming for her Grandmother to come and help, Bethany tried again to pull Johnson off her father. This time she saw stars when he hit her. Falling back against the bed, she banged against Michael’s holster hanging over the bedpost. She took a second to realize what had hit her. Grabbing the gun from the holster, she cocked it and pulled the trigger. There was a double boom in the small room as Bethany and another gun both fired.

A bloom of red exploded in Johnson’s back. He fell forward, still clutching the knife which cut a deep slash in Michael’s leg, before he slumped the rest of the way to the floor.

“Papa!” Iris shoved Carlos out of the doorway and ran to the bed. “He’s been cut. Bethany! Snap out of it! Get me a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.”

“Here,” Carlos handed her his neck bandanna, which she quickly wrapped around Michael’s bleeding leg and tied over the slash.

“It needs stitched,” she said.

“I’ll get Gran,” Bethany said.

She returned a few minutes later with Giselle who carried her first aid kit. Giselle shoved Emory Johnson with her foot. “Get this mess out of here. Carlos, see if Stevens is alive.”

Giselle took scissors and cut her son’s pant leg so she could reach his flesh. She cleaned the wound with an iodine mixture she made herself and then directed Iris to hold the edges of the skin together while she made her stitches in the wound, finishing by wrapping the wound tightly with linen strips.

Michael had lain there in tightlipped silence while his mother worked.

“What happened Mike? How did he get in here?” Carlos asked.

“He must have already been in the house. He followed Stevens when he came in hollering about fire and saying I needed to move out to the courtyard. Next thing I knew this Johnson whelp hit him over the head with the fire iron. He came at me with a knife when I reached for my pistol to shoot him. What is this about a fire?”

“The south pasture is on fire,” Bethany said. Alec hitched up two plow tricorns, and he’s got men taking turns plowing a firebreak between the house and orchards and the fire.”

“C’mon Mike, let’s get you out to the courtyard,” Carlos said. He went to the bed and slung the older man’s arm over his shoulder, grabbing him by his belt with his other hand. Iris came up on her father’s other side and helped steady him as Carlos took him outside.

“Is Doctor Ruggles still here?” Bethany asked Margo.

“Yes, I think he set up in the parlor to tend burns people will get from fighting the fire,” she replied. “Gonzales is out with the others fighting the fire. If you are going out there, take a wet bandana and wrap it around your face.”

Bethany nodded. Tying the bandana around her face, it occurred to her that the fire might not have been an accident, so she went to the gun cabinet and loaded her favorite pistol. Buckling on a holster to carry it.

She filled a bucket with water and grabbed as many bandanas as she could carry out of the cupboard in the hallway on her way to find Gonzales and tell him there was another body.

Outside the front door was beldam. As Bethany stood on the steps searching for Gonzales, she saw Ira Johnson as he dismounted from his tricorn. She set down the bucket and drew her pistol, keeping it hidden along her leg as she waited for him to come up to her.

When he was about five feet away, she raised the gun. “If you are looking for your son, his body is inside.”

Johnson checked his approach. “His body?” he repeated.

“Yes. I killed him. Can I assume it was you who set this fire?”

He stared at her, noticing for the first time how much she looked like her father. St. Vyr’s cold gray eyes stared back at him above her hard-set mouth in her pretty face. “You killed him? You?”

“That’s right. Do you want his body, or shall I just turn it over to the sheriff with the others?”

“What others?”

“Oh, the sniper you hired to kill my husband? He’s dead too. Alec took care of him. Carlos took care of the men who were robbing the miners. Now, if you want to claim your son’s body, you will have to wait until the sheriff has seen it.”

“You mean you’ve got another one?” Gonzales had come up while they talked and now stood at the base of the steps listening.

“I’m afraid so, sheriff. He is inside in my father’s room. I shot him when he was trying to knife Papa.”

“By the way, Johnson here probably started the fire. I don’t know if you can arrest him for that, but—”

“I want my son’s body returned!” Johnson said, turning to face the sheriff. “He stayed drunk for a week after she threw him over for that gunfighter. Today I found he’d headed over here, and I followed him. I didn’t set any damn fire!”

“Now why do I think that is a damn lie?” inquired Carlos. He shut the door behind him and stood looking down at Johnson, his hands resting on his hips, close to his holstered gun.

“Probably for the same reason I do,” answered Alec who had followed Gonzales to the house.

Gonzales looked uneasily from one young man to the other. He had been a sheriff too long not to recognize bad trouble brewing when he saw it.   He decided the safest path would be to answer Bethany. “I’m sorry Mrs. McCaffey, but unless you have some proof, like a witness, I can’t arrest Johnson for starting that fire.”

“Maybe you can’t arrest, him Gonzales,” Alec said implacably, “but I can damn well issue a warning. Don’t come back here again, Johnson. I’m issuing orders to shoot on sight if you, or any of your riders’ come onto the Golden Tricorn.”

“And I will double that for the Lucky Strike,” added Carlos.

Johnson glared at them. “Yeah? From what Lutz tells me you won’t own either of them for long. I may just come along when he forecloses. I want to see it.” He turned to Gonzales, “I want my son’s body brought out to the J-4 when you are done with it.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Gonzales assured him. As he walked back to his tricorn, mounted and rode away.

Carlos turned to look at Bethany, “What the hell is he talking about? How could Lutz foreclose? We don’t have any loans. Did Mike sign a loan without telling me?”

She shook her head. “Not as far as I know.”

Alec turned to his wife. “We think we have the fire contained. We plowed a circle around it, and right now it’s burning itself out. Let’s go talk to Mike about Lutz.”

 

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.”