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Coming Soon! FROM THIS DAY FORWARD

Just in time for Christmas! The 4th installment of the Handfasting Series is now in digital stores and in soft cover copy.

A preview of the 4th installment in the Handfasting series: When she finds the body of a retired shopkeeper on the beach, a series of mysterious events draw the new shop owner into a web of passion, terror and murder. Jayla must find the killer and discover what he wants because she is his next target. All the while dealing with a disfunctional house-bot who thinks he is a sex machine, a nosy boyfriend, an overprotective family, interplanetary jewel thieves with missing loot, and the interplanetary and local detectives who think she stole the jewels…

From This Day Forward

The Handfasting Vol 4

Gail Daley 

Suspicion

THE SUN WAS just peeking over the horizon as Jayla ran with her usual long easy strides along the deserted beach. Jayla liked to jog along the shore next to the spaceport because despite the noise the shuttles made taking off and landing, the shore was usually deserted except for a few solitary runners like herself. She and Ghost, the creamy white Quirka clinging to her shoulder, enjoyed the fresh breeze and the freedom from demands on her time.

She brushed her short gold hair back out of her face. It seemed she had been running half her life. Jayla smiled to herself as she remembered how hard it had been when she began to run every morning.

Jayla wasn’t native to Vensoog. Her Uncle Gideon had married Genevieve, the Laird of clan O’Teague and emigrated to Vensoog after Moodon, their home planet was burnt off in the last war with the Karamine Coalition. Jayla had just lost her parents and had resented being uprooted to a new world with strange customs where she knew no one. A headstrong, resentful teenager can find plenty of trouble to get into by herself and even more if she connects with unscrupulous adults who intend to take advantage of her rebellious feelings. She had made loads of mistakes that first year. She bitterly regretted having gotten involved with Gregor Ivanov, the much older man who had romanced her and planned to sell her for the child sex trade. While it had not been her fault when she and other girls from the clans were kidnapped by the Thieves Guild, she hated remembering how helpless she felt as a captive. She was rescued from both situations, but she vowed to learn to defend herself so nothing like that could happen again.

Two weeks after the clans had rescued the girls from the Jack ship, Wolf Larsen from her Uncle Zack’s old Recon unit, showed up on Glass Isle to give her lessons in self-defense. She later learned Wolf had been specially requested as her teacher by Lord Jake Reynolds, her Cousin Luc’s best friend.

“Stamina,” Wolf’s deep voice echoed in her mind, “is the essence of fighting. You can’t fight if you are exhausted or out of breath.” He had knocked on her door at dawn that first day to drag her out to run a mile. Wheezing, and with her legs feeling like jelly, Jayla had kept at it because she was tired of being pushed around. Seeing her determination, Wolf agreed to show up every day for the next two years to train her in self defense.

After Wolf had returned to his other clan duties, she had kept up the training. The morning runs were not an indulgence even though they took time away from her shop. She ran, worked out in the Clan gym at Glass Manor, and practiced her marksmanship faithfully because she intended to never again be at the mercy of someone else.

Thanks to her parent’s foresight in moving their accounts to Fenris as soon as the war with the Karamine Coalition started, Jayla had inherited a sizable nest egg when she came of age. Enough to buy the gift shop she had always wanted. When she had bought the shop with the apartment over it earlier in the year, Jake had promised to come by and see how she was getting along.

Her faithful companion Ghost was a Quirka. Quirka were native animals adopted as pets by the early Vensoog settlers because they were small, cute and avid hunters of the insects and other vermin infesting human dwellings. The Quirka adopted humans because they provided a mutually satisfying emotional bond and a ready source of food and hunting grounds.

Like all Quirka joined with a person, Ghost went everywhere with her chosen human and even seemed to enjoy the morning runs. Her pristine white coat sparkled in the morning sun, and her plume of a tail waved with the motion of Jayla’s steps. The sturdy leather straps affixed to the shoulders of Jayla’s running clothes allowed Ghost to cling to Jayla with her tiny, hand-like paws and feet. White Quirka like Ghost were rare. Ghost had never developed the ability to adapt her fur color to match her environment the way other Quirka did. The hollow rows of retractable venom quills along her backbone, which were Ghost’s chief defense against predators, glistened as the sun hit them. If she felt threatened, her quills stood upright and filled with an acidy venom. Being stung by a Quirka was quite unpleasant, and in case of smaller predators, sometimes fatal. Ghost’s bright blue eyes, also unusual for Quirka, matched Jayla’s in color. She chirped in Jayla’s ear now, her small upright ears pricked forward as she recognized the large rock where Jayla usually turned to make the return trip.

There appeared to be a bundle of rags and sticks lying next to the boulder. Jayla slowed as she approached, hoping it wasn’t something nasty a picnicker had left there. If it were, she decided, she would report it instead of hauling it all the way back to the Spaceport buildings the way she ordinarily did.

Ghost hissed as they approached and her quills lifted, her sharply pointed nose wrinkled in distaste. The smell hit Jayla whose olfactory senses were less well developed than a Quirka, and she stopped several feet away. She had once come upon a goat on Glass Isle that had been dead for several days. It had smelled like this.

It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at. What she had taken for a bundle of sticks was wearing shoes. Swallowing nausea, she made herself walk closer to see if what was lying in the sand was human or humanoid. It was difficult to tell what species it was, because the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, but it had been some type of humanoid.

Glad she hadn’t eaten before starting her run, she backed away and sat down on a driftwood log, trying not to throw up. Ghost, in the way of all Quirka, was more concerned with Jayla than with the unknown body. She stroked her mistress’s face and crooned soothingly to her projecting comfort. Jayla dropped a kiss in gratitude between the small pricked ears and took a deep breath before she tapped on her wrist com.

The com automatically dialed Clan security on the O’Teague compound instead of the emergency Port Recovery Security Patrol. Even though she was now living above her shop in Port Recovery, she had forgotten to re-program it. Her com was immediately answered by the Clan communication center.

“Jayla, I haven’t heard from you in ages—what’s wrong, honey?” Mira, who had often been assigned as her trainer, had sounded cheerful until she saw the girls face.

Jayla turned her wrist so Mira could see the body through the com. “I need Port Recovery Security to come out here. It looks like Ghost and I found a dead body this morning. We’re out at the end of the island behind the spaceport.”

“Are you safe?” Mira demanded, instinct kicking in. Her regular job was O’Teague Clan Security but she was pulling desk duty because she was pregnant.

“Yes, we’re safe,” Jayla reassured her. “I think it’s been here a while.”

In the background, Jayla could hear her calling for Larry to grab a sled and get his ass out to the end of Port Recovery Island. “Jayla’s found a body. I’m calling the Port Recovery Security but she’s alone out there—”

“Jayla,” Mira’s voice was calm. “You stay where you are. I’m sending Larry out to you, and I’ll call the Port Recovery Security. I want you to keep this com open, okay?”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Jayla assured her.

The trip from Glass Manor on O’Teague Isle to Port Recovery Isle took thirty minutes by boat, but a fast airsled could make it across the channel in ten. When the tall, dark skinned man dismounted from the sled, he smiled reassuringly at Jayla whom he still saw as the little girl she had been when he first met her. Larry Jorgensen, the O’Teague Clan Security Chief, was a former member of her Uncle Gideon’s unit who had married into the clan

“You okay, kid?” his deep voice rumbled.

She nodded, giving him a watery smile. “Yes, I’m fine Larry. It was a nasty surprise, but we’re okay.”

Jorgensen nodded at her and went to inspect the body, being careful not to touch it. He was examining something on the ground in front of the corpse when they heard the approaching whine of the Port Authority Security sleds. He came over to her side to wait with her.

Within a few short minutes the deserted shore was swarming with Patrol. The first to arrive were the uniformed officers who came to check out her story, then the medics, and finally, the detectives in charge, a man and a woman in civilian clothing.

Since she and Larry and been told to wait for the detectives, she leaned back against a boulder on shore, and sipped at the bottled water Larry provided for her and Ghost. Ghost, no longer perched protectively on her shoulder, was busy investigating a pile of seaweed a few feet from where Jayla sat. They had both missed breakfast, and presumably the Quirka was hoping to find a few insects to munch on until they could return home. Larry had offered Jayla an energy bar earlier, but her stomach had rebelled at thought of eating anything.

When the two detectives finally approached her, Larry moved in protectively.

“Lady Jayla?” the male detective asked. “I’m Jim Gorsling, and this is my partner, June Sipowitz. We have a few questions for you.” Gorsling was short, with a square, bulldog face and dark hair in contrast to his partner, a tall, hazel-eyed woman with bronzed skin.

“You found the body?” Gorsling asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Why did you contact Clan O’Teague Security before you called us?” Sipowitz asked.

“Like all the Laird’s immediate family, Lady Jayla’s emergency signal is set for Glass Manor on O’Teague,” Jorgensen interjected, obliquely reminding the two detectives they were dealing with a high-ranking clan member and to be careful how they treated her.

“Perhaps you could join me over here, sir,” Gorsling suggested. “We have a few questions for you.”

“I was dispatched here when Lady Jayla notified O’Teague clan she had found a body,” Jorgensen said, not moving. “It’s been requested I stay with her until she can leave. I’m to give her a ride back to her shop.”

“Are you her legal representative?” Gorsling inquired. “Because unless you have some legal standing—”

Ghost, sensing discord, left off hunting for bugs and scrambled back to Jayla where she hopped up to her shoulder. She turned her bright blue eyes to the two detectives and hissed defensively, her quills lifting.

The detectives eyed the Quirka warily. Neither one wanted to chance getting stung by the Quirka’s acid tipped barbs.

Sipowitz tried a different tactic. “Your Quirka is unusual. I don’t think I’ve seen a white one before.”

Jayla stroked Ghost’s back and the quills lowered marginally. “Yes, she is different. Ghost was a gift.”

“From me,” announced a voice from behind them. “Why is it,” Jake remarked as he dismounted his airsled, “that whenever I find you, you’re either in trouble or causing it?”

“Jake!” Jayla cried, jumping up. “Where did you come from?”

Jake pulled off his helmet and hung it on the handlebars of the sled, revealing a shock of dark hair. The male detective gave Jake a sharp look of recognition. He saw, as she did, a slim man in his early twenties with an easy smile, and an air of assurance showing he was accustomed to being obeyed.

Ghost bounced in delight, and when he was close enough, leaped to his arms chirping happily. “Yes, I’m glad to see you too,” he told her, petting her before moving her to his shoulder.

Sipowitz frowned. “And who might you be?”

Her partner answered her. “Cara, this is Lord Jake Reynolds, the Duc d’Orleans’ nephew, L’Roux Clan. What brings you here Lord Reynolds?”

Jake gave them a little bow. “I’ve been requested by Clan O’Teague to assist Lady Jayla in her present difficulty. Ah—I do have legal standing.”

Jorgensen relaxed his protective stance. “Good to see you kid. If you’ve got this, I’ll head back to the manor. I was just coming off shift when I was notified about it.”

“Sure,” Jake said, “take off.”

Jorgensen stepped away and spoke with Gorsling for a few minutes before mounting his sled and zipping off.

When Gorsling returned, he said, “Lord Reynolds, you said you had legal standing but—”

Smiling, Jake pulled a small crystal out of his pocket and handed it to the detective. “Here is my authority to act for Lady Jayla.”

Frowning, Gorsling stuck the crystal into his porta-tab and showed it to his partner who rolled her eyes. All they needed was interference in their investigation by a high clan lord.

Jake looked over at Jayla. “So, you found a body, did you?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“This is a kind of deserted area to run in.”

“I like to run out here,” she said a little defensively. “Nobody bothers me.”

He grunted. “Where’s your weapon?”

She patted the pocket of her running shirt. “It’s here. Mira got me a small one to fit in this pocket and I always carry it when I run.”

Sipowitz looked up and held out her hand. “May I see, it Lady Jayla?”

Jayla slid her hand into her pocked and pulled out a pulsar gun about the size of her palm, which she held out butt first to the detective. Sipowitz took it and examined it. “Hasn’t been fired,” she said, handing it back.

“That’s right,” Jayla said.

Sipowitz studied her. “Had you ever seen the deceased before this?”

“I don’t think so,” Jayla replied. “I’m afraid the smell got to me so I didn’t go any closer than I needed to make sure it was a person.”

“Okay. Just as a matter of form, can you tell us where you’ve been over the last several days?”

“I’ve just moved into my new apartment in Port Recovery. I’ve been out on Glass Isle collecting the rest of my stuff.”

“All right,” the detective said. “That’s all for now. We may have more questions later though so don’t leave town.”

“I believe it’s time we let these officers get on with their investigation Jayla. If you have any further questions, Detectives, you can get in touch with Lady Jayla through Clan O’Teague,” Jake said. He took Jayla by the arm and led her over to his sled.

“There’s no place for Ghost,” she objected.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Jake replied, opening a cache in the side. He took out a spare helmet for her and handed it to her. Then he brought out what looked like an upside-down helmet with a clear visor. He snapped it into place on the front control panel. “C’mon Ghost,” he said patting it. Ghost hopped into the cavity and settled happily into the made-for-Quirka seat.

“I want one,” Jayla declared. “Where did you get it?”

“It’s a prototype. Friend of mine is marketing them. I’ll tell him he’s got a sale.” He mounted the sled and waited for her to throw a leg over the seat behind him before they took off in a whirl of sand.

Gosling left the Coroner and returned to his partner as Jayla and Jake took off. “Coroner thinks it’s a body dump,” he told Sipowitz. “She figures the woman has been dead about two days.”

“That means if Lady Jayla was out on Glass Isle she couldn’t have done it.”

“I suppose so, but she sure drew a lot of defensive firepower for someone who is innocent,” Gorsling said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I told you Lord Reynolds is the Duc d’Orleans’s blood nephew. He’s the clan troubleshooter. The Duc sends him out to solve problems. And the guy we found here with her? That is O’Teague’s Head of Security here in the Port.”

“Well even if her bracelet is marked as a member of the Laird’s immediate family, I’m surprised to find the clan sent two people out to back her up though, unless—”

“Unless what?”

“I’ll tell you after you run her Match List history and that of Lord Reynolds,” she said.

“I’ll do it on the way back to headquarters. What do you want it for?”

“Well, the Planting Festival is coming up and it occurred to me that Lord Reynolds coming to ‘rescue’ her from us might have nothing to do with this murder. Either the Laird or the Duc could be doing a little matchmaking. If that’s the case, then O’Teague’s local Security Head showing up might only mean Lady Jayla has an overprotective family.”

“The O’Teagues do have that reputation,” he admitted. “We’ve got an intern from that clan working down in the morgue this year, and from what I heard Lady Katherine practically microscanned the place for germs before she let the kid work there.”

Unaware of the speculation they left behind them on the beach, Jake stopped the sled in the rear of Jayla’s shop. Her apartment was on the second level. Although she had access from the store, the private entrance was upstairs in the back. She dismounted and pried a reluctant Ghost loose from her perch in the Quirka basket. “Thanks for coming to the rescue again,” she told Jake.

“I was coming to see you anyway. Drusilla wanted me to invite you to have dinner with the three of us tonight here in the city,” he said.

“I’d love to, but I’ve been invited to attend the Merchant Guild mixer tonight. It’s my first one and I don’t want to miss it.”

Jake shrugged. “So, I’ll escort you there, and then we’ll meet Luc and Drusilla for dinner afterwards.”

He waited while she and Ghost mounted the stairs to the owner’s quarters. When the door had closed on Jayla and Ghost, he restarted the sled as he commed his uncle. L’Roux was head of security in Port Recovery this year and his uncle liked to be informed of anything touching the clan families.

Once inside her apartment, Jayla stripped and then she and Ghost got in the shower. She lifted Ghost to the specially made Quirka shelf, and turned on the water letting the hot spray wash away the morning. Ghost enjoyed playing in the water, turning and twisting to rinse her short, plush fur of the sand and salt that had accumulated on it during their stay at the beach.

Once they were both clean, Jayla wrapped a towel around herself while she patted Ghost dry. She set the Quirka down on the mat in front of the Quirka sized blower on her dresser, laughing as Ghost danced and whirled in the stream of warm air.

“May I assist you in dressing?” Jayla jumped as her house-bot spoke behind her.

Jayla gave a small shriek of surprise and scowled at it. The bot had been christened Daryl by the previous owner. It was one of the expensive bots that could fool the unwary into thinking he was human. When she first moved in, Jayla thought it was a plus that her apartment came furnished with a house-bot to cook and clean. However, Daryl had yet to cook or       clean anything, and judging by his behavior, his previous owner had installed some unconventional programming, which Jayla had tried in vain to modify.

“No, you may not,” she snapped. “Remove yourself from this room while I am dressing. Go in the kitchen and make a grocery shopping list.”

“But Mistress,” the Daryl protested. “I am versed in all forms of physical pleasure and I can assure you—”

“Out!” she shouted. Thank Goddess the maintence people were due to come today to adjust his programming, she thought half hysterically. If she had to listen one more time to that bloody list of sexual acts he was programed to perform, she would scream.

She was furious all over again when she listened to the messages on the house net and discovered that the Robo-Maintence crew was not coming out today. They were sorry to hear she had canceled and wanted to reschedule the appointment.

Furious, Jayla got on the com with them and demanded to know who had canceled the prior arrangement.

“Your house-bot left us a message you were canceling the appointment,” she was told.

“Well, I didn’t,” she snapped. “I expect to see you out here today at our scheduled time.”

“I’m sorry, but that won’t be possible,” the receptionist said. “We’ve filled your time. We have an open slot two weeks from now if you want that.”

Jayla made a growling noise. “Fine! please have it noted in the records that until he has been re-programed, you are not to accept messages from my house-bot! Is that clear?”

“As crystal,” she was told snippily.

Jayla turned her glare on the house-bot. “You may no longer contact anyone without my express order.”

“That is a waste of my talents,” Daryl informed her. “I am well versed in communication protocols needed to efficiently run this house for you and—”

“Shut up!” she yelled.

Daryl hadn’t stocked the robo-chef either so Jayla took Ghost down the street to a local eatery that served breakfast where she ordered Ghost the Quirka Special (diced raw meat, nuts and vegetables) and a large spicy omelet made from Ostamu eggs for herself. Ostamu were huge flightless birds bred by the settlers for their meat and eggs. Their multi-colored feathers were highly prized for clothing and decorations as well.

Since Jayla was a fellow business woman, Carol, the café owner, brought her order to her and sat down for a friendly chat.

“What’s the matter, hon?” Carol asked, pouring them both a large Cafka. Carol was in her late forties with the comfortable shape of those who work in the food industry.

“Can they charge you for killing a droid?” Jayla demanded. “I just found out that clump of slag I inherited as a house-bot canceled the appointment I made to get him reprogrammed!”

Carol’s eyes danced over the rim of her cup as she gave a gasp of laughter. “Oh, dear,” she said inadequately. “Is he still offering you sexual favors?”

Jayla nodded over a bite of omelet. “This morning when we got out of the shower. I don’t dare invite anyone over—I hate to think what might happen if he does it to a guest. Suppose my friends think I programed him for that stuff?”

Carol sputtered into her Cafka. “You never know—it might lead to some interesting encounters.” She eyed her friend shrewdly. “That’s not all that’s bothering you, though is it?”

Jayla sighed. “No. I found a body on my morning run today. It was nasty.”

“Oh, you poor thing. Who was it?”

“Well, to tell the truth the smell was so bad I didn’t get close enough to find out. Just that it was human or humanoid.”

“Icky,” Carol sympathized. “I wonder who it could be? I don’t know of anyone local who is missing—”

“I’d rather talk about something else if you don’t mind though. Anything else.”

“Sure,” Carol said obligingly. “It’s going to make the rounds though. You’re likely to have customers asking about it all day. There’s nothing like curiosity to drum up business.”

Jayla made a face. “You’re probably right. I’m not officially open, but I can’t afford to turn away customers.”

“The other shop owners will be dropping by too, you can bet,” Carol told her.

The rest of the day was productive, even with the constant interruptions from her fellow shop owners and local customers who had heard about the body and wanted the latest gossip about it. When she went upstairs from the shop to dress for the evening events, she was conscious of a pleasant feeling of achievement.

The original shop owner, Sara Lipski had sold high-end imports, but Jayla intended to widen the sales base by featuring locally made arts and craft products. She already had several local artists and craftspeople bringing in new products, and hoped to pick up more at the Planting Festival.

She and Ghost were still dressing when she heard Daryl let Jake in. The apartment’s walls were soundproofed so she couldn’t hear the actual conversation, just the murmur of voices.

She looked at herself and Ghost in her mirror and nodded in satisfaction. She wanted to look professional, but classy tonight, so she had decided on loose black pants and a dark gray vest over a blue, dragon-nest silk blouse. The blue in the blouse, with its three-quarter inch sleeves and scooped neck matched her eyes, and the gray vest snugged under her breast and drew attention to her slim waist. Ghost wore a bracelet of glittering black and blue stones around her neck, and Jayla had fluffed her white coat until the hollow ends of her fur sparkled.

When she joined him in the sitting room, Jake was standing with his arms crossed frowning at Daryl, but he gave her a wide smile and a wolf whistle.

“You look great. Very classy,” he said.

“Thanks. I want to look like a businesswoman at the mixer.”

“You pulled it off,” he said. “At least you will have if no one at the mixer ever meets Daryl here.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the house-bot as they shut the door and started down the stairs. “Seriously Jayla, you need to get that sucker re-programmed. Do you know what he asked me?”

She signed, “I can guess. The programmers were supposed to be out today, but Daryl called them and canceled. I was furious. He’s driving me crazy. It seems Sara Lipski had some very irregular enhancements programmed into him. The house maintence company told me it would be another two weeks before they could reschedule me. I’ve told them not to accept any more orders unless it comes from me in person, but I don’t know if I can stand keeping him around for that long.”

“You could turn him off.”

She snorted. “I tried that. He’s got a failsafe that resets itself if he’s been off for over eight hours.”

“Want me to check around for another House Maintence company?”

“Thanks, but I’ll do it. I just didn’t want to deal with stuff like that today. I hid in the shop doing inventory.”

She was pleased to see that Jake had brought a closed two-seater airsled for tonight. She had enjoyed the ride from the beach but tonight she didn’t want to arrive at the mixer looking windblown.

The Merchant Guild Mixer was held at a meeting room in City Hall, one of the large domes lived in by the first settlers that the City had converted to civic use. Tonight, the Merchant Guild had scattered tables around the large room for seating, but a lot of the local shop owners were standing around in groups talking. When Jake and Jayla entered, they were met by Miles Standish, the current Elector of the Guild.

“So glad you came tonight, Jayla,” Miles said, enthusiastically pumping her hand while his eyes ran over her admiringly. When he saw Jake, he frowned, but quickly smoothed out his expression. “And you brought a plus one, too. Nice to meet you. Are you a close friend of Jayla’s Lord Reynolds?” he asked Jake, smiling owlishly.

Miles and Jake were of similar heights, but Miles mild blue eyes, snub nose and round face gave him the air of a friendly puppy.

Next to Miles, Jake appeared dark and dangerous and it was plain Miles wasn’t exactly happy to see him despite his pleasant welcome. Jake did nothing Jayla could object to; in fact, he was perfectly pleasant to the Elector, but Ghost muttered fretfully in her ear and Jayla could almost feel Jake going on alert as the men talked.

“That’s right,” Jake agreed. “Jayla and I go way back. He cousin Lucas introduced us.”

“I see. I hope you will excuse us for a few minutes while I introduce Jayla to some of the other merchants. Ah, Carol,” Miles said snagging Jaylas friend from the café, “Perhaps you can find Lord Jake here a drink and entertain him while Jayla and I make the rounds.”

“Sure,” Carol agreed, smiling. “I’m always up for a drink with a good-looking man.”

She signaled a waiter-bot who brought over a tray of drinks. “What’s your poison, Jake?”

“Cafka,” he told the server. “No alcohol for me thanks; Jayla and I are meeting friends for dinner after this, and I don’t like depending on the auto pilot on my two-seater. It’s been a little wonky lately.”

“Miles always likes to give special attention to the new women merchants,” she told him.

Jake gave her a considering look. “Especially if they are young and beautiful?”

Carol grinned at him. “Somehow I don’t think he was expecting competition like you.” She slipped her arm through his. “C’mon, I’ll introduce you to some people I think you’ll enjoy talking to.”

Jayla enjoyed meeting the other store owners, some of whom she could see becoming friends. After several minutes though, she became aware that a few of them seemed ill at ease. Everyone was friendly and polite, but she caught some odd expressions whenever Miles put a hand on her shoulder or her back, which he did a little too frequently. Whenever Miles touched her, Ghost stiffened on her shoulder and muttered unhappily. Jayla wondered what the Quirka sensed that she didn’t.

When she was introduced to a young couple named Fred and Elsie Boyington, who owned a food supply store, she surprised a flicker of relief mixed with pity in Elsie’s expression. It was even more puzzling to get almost the same response from a pair of sisters named Jan and Lin Sorency who ran a local clothing shop.

“Perhaps we can get together later this week for lunch, Jan suggested, directing a challenging look at Standish. “Miles always encourages us old timers to make you newbies welcome, don’t you Miles?”

He hesitated briefly, and then said, “Of course. An excellent idea. Just don’t frighten her away.”

Jan bit her lip, but nodded. “Sure. No reason to scare a newcomer away.”

“That sounds as if there is something to be afraid of. Don’t worry—I don’t scare easily,” Jayla said lightly.

About halfway around the room, Miles stopped. He seemed to hesitate for a minute then he asked, “Do you mind a personal question?”

“I suppose it depends on the question,” Jayla responded, looking at him curiously.

“That guy who came with you—is he boyfriend or guard?”

Jayla stiffened. “Jake is a good friend of mine and of Clan O’Teague,” she said somewhat haughtily. The ‘it’s none of your business’ remained unspoken.

Miles looked self-conscious. “I’m sorry, it’s just—well I got a copy of my Match List today and you’re on it, and I find you very attractive, so I was wondering—”

Jayla’s anger softened. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be offensive,” she said. “Look Miles, I like you, and you seem like a nice man, but I will be too busy getting my shop up and running to think about Match Lists.”

Deciding it was time to put an end to this type of overture, she caught Jakes eye and he moved casually toward her.

As soon as he was within speaking distance, Jake asked, “Everything Okay here, Jayla?” Jayla turned to him with relief.

“I’m fine, Jake,” she said. “I guess this morning took a little more out of me than I thought. I’m sorry Miles, Carol, but I think we need to get going to meet our friends for dinner. Thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time and I do want to meet more of my compatriots later.”

“Of course,” Miles said. “I’ll drop by with the application for joining the Guild sometime this week.”

“Thank you and good night,” Jayla told him

Jake was silent as he put her into the airsled. He gave the order to proceed to the restaurant, a new one overlooking the water, and turned to face her.

“Okay, what did I interrupt?” he asked.

Jayla made a frustrated noise. “Did anyone ever tell you what a nosy boots you are?”

Yes,” he said calmly. “You, many times. Give.”

“You’re worse than Ghost at a vermin hole,” she complained. “He wanted to tell me I was on his Match List. There, are you satisfied?”

He studied her face. “You didn’t look overjoyed at the news. Is he on yours?”

She looked at him blankly. “I don’t know. I didn’t download mine when it came in this morning. I was too busy dealing with the house programmer fiasco and then I went down to work in the shop.”

“So look now,” he said. “I’ve got mine.”

When she hesitated, he said, “I’ll make you a deal. You download yours, and I’ll call mine up and we’ll swap. That way neither of us will have any surprises.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “Why would you be willing to do that? You always guarded your list like it was pirate gold before.”

He grinned at her. “And you always found out who was on it anyway. What are you afraid of?”

Jayla tapped her com unit and scrolled down through the list until she found the message from the Makers, conscious of Jake doing the same. When she called it up her Match List, she stared at it in shock. Miles Standish was on it all right, but so was Jake. Before she could wipe it clear, Jake had started the data swap. She looked at his list. She was on his list.

“You knew I was on your list this time,” she accused him. “That’s why you wanted to swap.”

“Well, I was curious,” he admitted. “Now we both know and we don’t have to worry who else is on it. All we have to do is decide what we’re going to do.” He patted her hand. “You think about it.”

Truthfully, she didn’t know what to think or feel. Her first girlish hero worship of Jake, began when he had defended her from Gregor at the trial and intensified when he rescued her from the Jack ship, had never quite gone away. However, over the years she had accustomed herself to thinking he regarded her like a little sister, and that he was just a friend. Now he was hinting at something different and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

The two-seater stopped at the door of the restaurant and the valet came to open the doors. Jayla exited the car with mixed emotions.

 

Burglary

THE RESTAURANT where they were meeting Drusilla and Lucas was one of the newer establishments in Port Recovery. The Spinning Mollusk had been created by a couple matched in the first wave of Handfasting immigrants. The restaurant had become famous for its exotic seafood. It boasted retractable terraces with views of the city, the spaceport and the wharf. The terraces had to be retractable because if they weren’t, they would be torn off during the fierce yearly storms Vensoog was blessed (or plagued) with.

When Jake gave the hostess Luc’s name, she told them “Your party is waiting in the bar as the table isn’t ready, yet.”

Jayla gave her cousin and his wife a hug before allowing Jake to help her onto one of the high stools next to the polished, rainbowwood bar. Toula, Drusilla’s Quirka, and Ghost touched noses in greeting and then shared the serving of shelled nuts the bartender had set out for them.

A news feed vid from Aphrodite, one of the water worlds, was talking about a jewelry heist. Thieves had stolen the ruling families Crown Jewels and the entire planet was in an uproar. The criminals were suspected of escaping off planet.

“That was a real security screw up,” Luc remarked, eying the vid. “I bet it cost somebody their job. I wonder where the thieves actually went?”

Jake grimaced. “Uncle Max thinks the thieves will come here to pass the jewels to a fence. With the Planting Festival drawing so many off-worlders, he says the thieves might be hoping to slip in with the crowds.”

Jayla glanced briefly at the vid feed, and then turned to Drusilla.

“How are you feeling?” She asked the heavily pregnant woman. Drusilla was a Dragon Talker, and a powerful empath who could communicate with and control the wildlife native to Vensoog. Drusilla didn’t brag about it, but the family knew she was one of the few Dragon Talkers powerful enough to control humans as well. Just now she was about eight months pregnant. With a Dragon Talker, there was always the chance the emotional upheaval caused by the pregnancy hormone changes could cause chaos around her, but Drusilla seemed to be weathering the changes easily.

The tiny redhead touched her belly ruefully. “I’m doing okay, but I look like a fat water dragon. My three Sand Dragon trainees have been a big help though.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’ve got Violet, Ceri and Simon interning with you this season,” Jayla said, speaking of the two girls and the boy who had adopted orphan Sand Dragon Calves. Sand Dragons were cousins to the enormous Water Dragons Vensoog was famous for. Despite their name, both species were warm-blooded mammals. Like several species of animals on Vensoog, the Sand Dragons were empathic. Unlike their feral cousins, the three owned by the children were accustomed to being treated as pets and behaved more like over large dogs. They would grow much larger than any dog of course. At maturity, they might top out at between four and six hundred pounds. Hard skin plates resembling dragon scales except for the head and underbelly protected their body. Like Quirka, Sand Dragons could adapt their coloring to conditions around them. A necessary protection for attacks from the air by the huge flying Dactyls who preyed on the Water Dragons.

“However, did you get Katherine to release Violet to you? I thought she refused to send any of her kids off for training,” Jayla asked Drusilla. Violet was an extremely powerful empath but she was still a child, and Jayla knew Lady Katherine hovered over her like a mamma Water Dragon.

Drusilla shrugged. “Well, she had already agreed to allow Lucinda to intern with Patrol Security here in the city, and Violet wanted to come to me, so she let her. Still, if it was anyone but me doing the teaching, I’m not sure my over-protective sister would have agreed. I think Katherine is having a hard time with her children growing up. Not to change the subject, but how is your shop going? Are you open for business yet?”

“Next week, I think. I’m planning to continue the booth Lipski optioned during the festival as well and that’s taken a lot of planning.”

“How will you handle both the shop and the booth?” her cousin Lucas asked curiously.

“Well, I can leave Wayne, my sales-bot on duty in the shop during the day and handle the Festival booth myself. If it turns out I need him to help me in the booth, I can close Whimsical for a few days. A lot of the other shopkeepers are planning to do that.”

“That’s a clever name,” Drusilla said. “Did you choose it?”

“No, that’s the name the shop came with. To keep the customer base, I kept the name. I am changing some of the merchandise I will carry though.”

“What kind of changes?” Jake asked.

Jayla shrugged. “Well, Sara Lipski carried a lot of stuff imported from off-planet. I will still carry some of that in the shop, but I want to stock more bits and pieces from Vensoog Artists and craftspeople.”

Just then, three young men about Jake’s age walked into the bar.

“Hey, Jake’s here!” one of them exclaimed and the three came over to them. Jayla recognized two of them, although it had been many years since she had seen them. Jorge Carmody out of Clan Caldwalder, a tall guy with orangey hair recognized her and nodded in greeting. Silas Crawford was from Clan Ivanov, a blocky round-faced young man whose merry smile hadn’t changed as he bowed to the two women.

“Are you in town for the festival?” Silas asked.

“Yes,” Lucas answered. “Drusilla and I came in to pick up her three interns so we decided we might as well stay for the festival and see who gets Matched this season.”

Jorge groaned. “Don’t talk about the Lists. I got a new one this year, and my family is pushing hard for me to make a permanent choice this time.”

“Mine too,” the third young man said. “Since these two louts don’t seem to have the manners to introduce us, I will present myself. I am Nels Ridenhour out of Clan Yang. Lord Lucas, I know the Bard of Lewellyn by reputation, but may I meet these lovely ladies?” He bowed to both Drusilla and Jayla.

“This is my wife, Lady Drusilla, Reverend Mother to the Dragon Talkers, and my cousin Lady Jayla, Warlord Gideon’s niece,” Lucas said.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Lady Drusilla. Congratulations on your coming child,” Nels said. He then turned to Jayla and gave her a big smile. “Lady Jayla, if you are on my new match list, I can see obeying my clan this year won’t be a hardship.”

“Thank you,” Jayla said, conscious of Jake stiffening beside her. Since Drusilla was a married woman whose husband was well-known for his possessive attitude, she was drawing most of the young men’s attention. She caught her cousin’s eyes, noticing his unholy grin of amusement when he saw Jake take a possessive step closer to her.

Hastily, she said, “I haven’t gone through my list yet, so I don’t know everyone who is on it. Are you going to be attending any of the events?”

Silas snorted. “I was told that I’d better be at a few of the official ones or my name would be mud, so I suppose I will.”

“The Makers events are boring,” Jorge agreed, “but I know of some off the mark places. How about it, Lady Jayla, want to see stuff we don’t show the tourists?”

“For Voids sake, Carmody,” Jake exploded. “You aren’t taking Jayla to some of those dives you frequent. I won’t have it.”

“What business is it of yours Reynolds?” Jorge demanded. “Last I heard she was a free agent, and she’s sure not underage anymore.” The two young men glared at each other.

Both Ghost and Toula twittered in distress at the negative energy in the atmosphere, and Drusilla, the empath, said, “Whoa boys, let’s not start a brawl in here, shall we?”

Even Jayla felt the calming push the other woman was sending.

Fortunately, just then, the hostess appeared and said, “Your table is ready Lord Lewellyn.”

Drusilla slid down off the bar stool with difficulty. “I think I need to make a trip to the lady’s room before we sit down.”

Jayla got up too. “Here, let me help you.” She cast an admonishing look over her shoulder at Jake as she followed her cousin’s wife. “I’m hungry so try not to get us thrown out of here before we eat, okay?”

Watching the women leave, Lucas laughed out loud. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep them in line,” he promised. He nodded to the three young men. “Nice to have met you, gentlemen; I hope you enjoy your dinner. Come on Jake, let’s wait for our ladies at our table, shall we?”

Jake scowled as Lucas chuckled all the way to the table. Once seated, Lucas looked at his friend with a grin. “So, it’s Jayla, is it? Oh, Man, I’m going to enjoy watching this. Especially after the hard time you gave me when I was courting Drusilla four years ago. What was it you compared me to? A Saharan Snap Dragon looking for a fight?”

Jake gave his best friend a sour look. “Oh, you’re hilarious Lewellyn.” His normal good humor reasserted itself and he shook his head ruefully. “I guess it serves me right; I did give you a hard time when you were courting your wife. It’s just—I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now. When we met, she was so young I kept telling myself being around her was like getting my sister Karen back for a while. I convinced myself I felt like a big brother.”

“That was four years ago,” Luc pointed out. “She isn’t a kid anymore and neither are you. Besides, didn’t you end up on each other’s Match List this time?”

“Yes, we did, but how did you know?”

Lucas shrugged. “Drusilla’s sister Katherine watches the family Lists like a hunting Dactyl. I think she must have a back door into the Maker’s computer or something, because she always seems to know what they’re up to.”

Jake looked thoughtful. “Wasn’t it Lady Katherine who developed the program used to create the original matches that brought all of us here?”

“It sure was.” Lucas laughed. “I remember her husband Zack telling me once that when she wrote that program, she had corrected some ‘oversights’ she found in the original program the Makers had been using for years. He thought it was funny because she didn’t ask their permission. If you are serious about courting Jayla, you better learn the O’Teague women are very prone to independent action. Jayla is no different.”

In the meantime, Jayla and Drusilla were making their slow way back to where the men waited. “I can see you will have a lot of fun with this year’s Match List,” Drusilla said. “I’m glad I’ll be here to watch the fun. I heard you and Jake are on each other’s this year.”

Jayla looked troubled. “Yes,” she acknowledged. “I’m not sure what Jake thinks about that. He’s always considered me a sort of replacement for the little sister who was killed in the war you know.”

“Humm,” Drusilla said. “Maybe, but earlier in the bar I sure wasn’t picking up big brother feelings from him. It felt like jealousy. Do you want him?”

“Four years ago, I would have said yes. I had the most awful crush on him when I was fourteen,” Jayla admitted. “He was the first non-family guy I met after Gregor who was decent. Then he defended me at the trial and helped rescue me from the Jacks—I sort of saw him as this knight in shining armor, but he always treated me like a kid.”

“Perfectly normal for you to feel that way,” Drusilla said. “You know he had to treat you like a kid because that’s what you were. Besides, even if he saw you as a sister then, I don’t think he does anymore. If no one told you, you’ve grown into quite a beautiful girl.”

Jayla shrugged. “That’s surface stuff. It means nothing.”

By this time, they had arrived back at the table and both women dropped the subject. After some discussion, the four of them shared a large baked shellfish, imported from the water world Oceana. It was lightly seasoned, baked in a rich wine sauce and served with creamed orange roots called tapiala and a large pea-like vegetable, fried crispy in its own pods. Bowls of uncooked, diced fish and vegetables were set out for Toula and Ghost, along with the small water bowls the Quirka would use to wash their paws and muzzles after dinner. Visitors to Vensoog were always surprised to find the natives shared meals with their pets.

Because of her pregnancy, Drusilla ordered fizzy water so by the time dinner was over she was the only one not feeling some effects from the wine served with the meal. When Jake took Jayla home that night, she was feeling quite relaxed from the two bottles wine the three of them had shared. When they arrived in the alley behind her shop, Jake insisted on walking her up to her door.

“What, do you think I’m too wobbly to make it up my own stairs?” she demanded. The comment might have had more force if she hadn’t tripped on the steps when she said it. Ghost, hung on gamely as she rocked on her perch on Jayla’s shoulder.

Jake caught Jayla’s elbow before she went all the way down. “Oh, no,” he retorted, guiding her up the stairs, “I can see you’re as steady as a rock—”

He cut off abruptly, staring at the open door. “Wait. That shouldn’t be open. I saw you lock it.”

“Huh?” she stared owlishly at the door for a second. “I did too lock it.”

“That’s what I said.” Unlike Jayla, he had imbibed very little of the wine. He pushed her up against the wall, drawing his gun. “You stay here. I’m going to check it out.”

Ghost trilled, and hopped from Jayla’s shoulder to his, her quills lifting. “All right,” he told her, “you can come but you stay out of trouble.”

Jayla pushed away from the wall. “I’m coming in too,” she announced. “I’m not staying out here by myself.”

Jake hesitated. “Okay, you can come, but stay behind me and do what I tell you.”

Standing sideways to the door, he pushed it open, taking a quick look into the darkened kitchen. Gripping Jayla’s hand, he ducked into the room, pulling her with him out of the doorway. “Lights,” he told the house program, and the room lights came on.

It was a mess. Drawers were pulled out, and the contents spilled on the floor. The robo-chef had been broken into and what little food Daryl had shopped for was strewn around and ground underfoot.

The sitting room was worse. Cushions on the couch and chairs were ripped open, and the stuffing pulled out. Art was pulled off the walls, the frames broken, and the canvas slashed. Shelves of old-fashioned books were pulled out and the books themselves ripped apart.

“This is awful!” Jayla gasped. “Why would someone do this?”

“Looking for something, I’ll bet,” Jake responded. There was a tinkle of glass breaking from downstairs. He shoved her down behind the overturned couch with a curt, “Stay there,” and headed for the stairs to the shop.

“Don’t!” she exclaimed. “What if whoever it is has a gun?”

“So do I,” he reminded her as he vanished through the doorway. She hesitated for a second and then stood up and went to her bedroom. This was her apartment, her shop, dammit. She would not hide up here and play the damsel in distress.

The bedroom had been treated similarly as the sitting room, but they hadn’t found the wall safe. She keyed in the combination and a portion of the wall panel slid back. Jayla reached inside and pulled out her pulse gun. Checking to make sure it was loaded, she started down the stairs to the shop. The shop and the living quarters were separated on the bottom with a locked door, but that had been forced open. The shock of the break-in had sobered her enough so she could hold her gun steady and traverse the stairs without tripping.

The shop was never completely dark because low wattage security lights were always on. Gritting her teeth, she called for more lights in the shop, relieved not to see much damage. Suddenly there was a yell of fury, pulsar fire flashed, she heard glass shattering and then running feet. Jayla whirled around, but her reflexes were slower than normal. A big man in dark clothes with a hood and mask was firing back over his shoulder and charging toward her. Hot on his heels, Jake dodged the wild shots being fired at him. He raised his gun, but checked when he saw her in the doorway.

“Jayla get down!” Jake yelled, unable to return fire without taking the chance of hitting her.

She dodged, but it was too late. The intruder hit her full force, knocking her down. Her head smacked into the doorframe behind her and she blacked out. When she came to, she was sitting on the floor. Jake had one arm around her while he wiped her face with a wet cloth. The cloth smelled vaguely of disinfectant and dusting oil. Irritably, she pushed it away.

“Can you stand?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she said. He pulled her to her feet, steadying her with an arm around her when she swayed. Ghost twittered anxiously from his shoulder.

“I’m all right Ghost,” she managed. “What happened?”

“You didn’t stay upstairs like I told you to,” he informed her. “I almost caught him when he tried to open the front door, but he took off running toward the back, and I couldn’t shoot him with you in the line of fire. Then he barreled into you and got away up the stairs. Didn’t I tell you to stay behind the couch?”

Under other circumstances, Jayla would have been furious at his calm assumption of authority; just now, she felt too dizzy and her head hurt too badly for her to care.

Despite his rough words, his hands were gentle as he guided her back up the stairs. He righted the least damaged of the chairs and sat her down in it.

“Sit here while I get you some water,” he instructed, dropping a worried Ghost in her lap. The Quirka climbed up her shoulder and sniffed anxiously at her head. Absently, she stroked the small creature, accepting the love and concern Ghost was projecting at her and sending reassurance back. In the kitchen, she could hear Jake’s voice talking to the Patrol as he ran water into a glass. His next call was to Glass Manor, informing them she’d had a break-in at her place.

Three hours later, she was sitting sleepily in the same chair, Ghost pillowed on her lap while Jake talked to the two detectives who had investigated the body on the beach. Jorgensen, O’Teague’s local head of security stood by listening. Crime scene techs were busy with their instruments recording everything.

The one bright spot in an otherwise hideous ending to their date, was Daryl being found hanging upside down in his utility closet, stripped to his android skin. That the intruder had turned him off was evidenced by the open flap on his back. His dermal tissue was pockmarked with slashes and holes; evidently, the thief had been looking for hidden pouches on his body.

Looking annoyed, Jake left the two detectives and came over to her. He tilted her chin up and examined the cut the medic had bandaged. “Are you feeling up to answering questions from those two?” he asked jerking his head at the two detectives.

“Sure, why not?” she leaned her head back against the damaged chair.

He sat down on the arm and nodded curtly to the two detectives who had followed him over. Larry Jorgensen took up a position on the other side of her chair.

Sipowitz frowned at the two men. “Alone if you don’t mind Lord Reynolds.”

“No,” Jake said simply. “You can do this with us here, or later at your headquarters when she has Jess Braydon with her.”

“We could take her downtown now,” Gorsling responded.

“The only thing that will get you is Lady Jayla says nothing until Braydon gets there, and Braydon rakes you over the coals for attempting to talk to her client when she has a head injury.”

“Never mind,” Sipowitz, the senior partner, said. “I’m surprised you told us you didn’t recognize the body on the beach, My Lady.”

“I told you I didn’t get close to it,” Jayla reminded them. “I only got near enough to be sure it was humanoid. Who was it?”

“Sara Lipski,” Gorsling said, watching Jayla with hard eyes.

“Oh no! That makes it seem worse somehow. I bought this shop from her. She told me she planned to retire to Sand Castle Cove on DeMedici. I only met her once, and that was the day we signed the papers for the sale,” Jayla said. “Do you know how she died?”

“The coroner is ruling it a homicide,” Sipowitz responded. “That’s what makes your little home invasion so interesting. Did they take anything?”

Jayla fumbled for Jake’s hand, which was resting on her shoulder.

“I don’t think so, but I haven’t looked yet.”

Just then, the head of the repair crew from O’Teague came over to tell Jorgensen that the material to repair Jayla’s broken doors had arrived.

“Okay to start the repair work?” Jorgensen asked the detectives.

Sipowitz hesitated, glancing at the head crime scene tech. “We’re done with the doors,” she said. “They can fix them if they want to, and we’ve finished our scans. We’ll be out of here as soon as we finish processing the house-bot.”

Sipowitz nodded, and Jayla winced as the repair crew banged on the back door as they removed the broken one to replace it. Ghost stirred in her lap at the noise. Sipowitz turned back to Jayla.

“What do you think whoever did this was looking for?”

Jayla’s shoulders lifted. “I suppose it must be something Lipski had or they think she had, but I don’t know what it could be. There wasn’t anything but furniture in the apartment and sales goods in the shop when I moved in. Nothing anyone would want badly enough to do this.”

“He had a go at Daryl,” Jake remarked. Maybe he knows something. Didn’t you say Lipski had added some unusual enhancements in his programming?”

Gorsling got up and went into the other room where the techs were working on Daryl.

Sipowitz nodded again. “Okay, we will be out of here as soon as they finish in there. You must come down to the station to give a statement tomorrow. Where are you going to be staying?”

“I’m taking her out to Glass Manor on O’Teague for the night,” Jake told them. “Do you want any clothes or anything Jayla?”

She shuddered; remembering the tangled mess of her clothes strewn out all over the ruined bed and the floor. “No. Everything will have to be cleaned before I can wear it. They’ll find me something for tonight and tomorrow at the manor.”

He reached down for the sleeping Ghost, scooping her up in one hand as he helped Jayla rise. “We’ll see you out at the compound, Larry. You can give her the keys tomorrow. She will need replacement furniture too.”

Jorgensen nodded. “There’s stuff in stores she can have.”

Jayla made a face. “I think I’ll just buy new. I have enough capital left from my parent’s legacy. I didn’t like this furniture anyway.”

 

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An amnesiac fighter on the run falls for a sorceress hiding deadly secrets.

In the Kingdom of Askela being born a Magi means slavery in the Kings Witch Kore or a death sentence. Rebecca will do anything to save her family from being found by the King’s Witch Proctors—even accepting an engagement to a mercenary fighter with a price on his head.

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In The Beginning

A WAY TO travel from world to world was discovered in the late 22nd Century on a planet called Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy. Were these new worlds simply other planets in the known galaxy or did the gateways lead to other dimensions with other physical laws? Or perhaps—both?

         Earth was constantly beset by strife and wars and the portals became simply another item to be fought over. A group on the losing side of one of a conflict captured and held a portal for a space of three months, allowing their families to escape. As the winning forces flooded the city, the last of the fleeing losers fled through the Portal, erasing their destination as they left so they couldn’t be hunted down by their enemies.

         Travel now to the world of Rulari the new home of the escaping Terrans. Not only does time march differently on Rulari, but this world answers to the rule of will, heart, mind and of magic as much as the laws science that had governed on earth.

         Humans are very adaptable and began to prize those families with the ingrained talent to use magic. In the years since man first came to Rulari, Seven Places Of Power were searched out, new portals established and enclosed in keeps held by the seven of the most powerfully gifted families. Formidable wards were set to assure the keeps stayed in the control of the families. One of these ancient keeps was Ironlyn on the northwestern sea of the country of Askela. It is held by a family named Mabinogion.

1  The Witchlings

KATHLEA MABINOGION, heritary Draconi to the shire of Ironlyn, was a powerful, unregistered Magi. Her much loved husband Maxton was a great soldier, but he had no talent other than his swordplay. Magi were highly valued in the kingdom of Askela but only if a registered member of the Elite Kings Magi Kore. Unregistered Magi were hunted by the Magi Proctors and forced to join. When a Magi joined the Kore, to ensure loyalty only to the King and the Kore, the Kore insisted all family ties be broken. The Kore would choose a mate for you, to breed stronger Magi. It mattered little to the Kore if the Magi ‘recruited’ was already mated, in a relationship or if they even liked their assigned partner. If she had been a registered Magi, Kathlea would never have been allowed to marry Maxton. If the Kore caught her, her children would be tested for Magi talents. Any of her Magi gifted children would be separated from their parents and sent to a special school where they were indoctrinated in loyalty to the Kore above all else.

Kathlea had born Maxton three children, Rebecca, age ten and the twins Catrin and Owen, age four, all of whom were showing signs of nascent Magi talent. There was also hope of a fourth child, but Kathlea hadn’t yet shared that with her family on that fatal day when the Proctors found them.

Years ago, the rebellious unregistered Magi of Askela had formed a network called the Cabal to enable Magi to escape the nets spread by the Kore. Travelers like the Maginogion family picked up Magi hiding from the Proctors and aided them to escape to neighboring countries where the Magi Laws were different. For the truly desperate, there was Ironlyn Keep and a portal.

Magical in itself, Ironlyn had defied attempts by the King and the Magi Proctors to force their way into it. Unable to break the wards or decipher the spell that created them, the Proctors continually searched for members of the bloodline in the hope they would be able to control them and in turn control so powerful a resource.

The family belonged to the cabal dedicated to helping Magi escape the Proctors. Joined by Kathlea’s parents, the family traveled around the kingdom in wagons, eking out a living selling spices, potions and medicine to various villages, while a cousin without Magi abilities held Ironlyn for them. On Rebecca’s tenth birthday, the Proctors found her mother. Her grandparents had driven their wagon into a nearby village to meet their contact and pick up a Magi hiding there. Kathlea and Maxton had stayed behind because it was rumored the Proctors were in the village, and Lewys Maginogion felt that two traveler wagons would draw too much attention.

Rebecca and the twins had been playing under the wagon when Kathlea suddenly stood up and looked towards the town.

“What is it?” Maxton demanded.

“He’s coming!” Kathlea gasped. “I feel him. He knows I’m here.”

She turned to Rebecca. “Go! Hide where we found the berries. Be quiet, and keep the twins quiet also. Don’t come out whatever you see or hear. Promise me!”

“I promise,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Catrin and Owen’s hands and ran into the bushes. They barely made it before the Proctor and his men thundered into camp.

The Proctor immediately cast a Binding Spell on Kathlea to keep her from using her Rainbow Magic to help her husband. Rebecca could see the bubble of magic over her mother push outward as Kathlea tried to break through it. Hidden in a hollow in the brush with her hands covering the mouths of her brother and sister, she watched in terror as her father fought the guardsmen who came with the Proctor.

Catrin whimpered. “Hush!” Rebecca breathed and the children obediently stilled.

The Proctor had brought ten guards with him. Maxton fought like a tiger to reach him, slaying all but four before an unlucky strike brought him down. Kathlea screamed.

“Shut up woman!” the Proctor yelled. “You are Magi and a strong one. I will let him live if you do not resist.”

Sobbing, Kathlea allowed herself to be led away, the bubble binding her to the saddle. The remaining guards loaded up their dead and wounded comrades and followed their master.

Rebecca made the twins wait until the Proctor and his men had disappeared before they came out of hiding. Maxton was unconscious but alive. Anghard, Rebecca’s grandmother had just begun to teach the girl healing, but she bathed and bound her father’s wounds as well as she could, applying a poultice of crushed bayberry and skunkweed to stop the bleeding.

Lewys and Anghard had been forced to watch as the Proctor led their captive daughter through the village, arriving back at the camp to find Maxton alive but still unconscious.

As soon as he was recovered, he left to try and rescue his wife from the Kore. The family packed up and left the area, traveling in a roundabout way toward the Capitol city of Khios where the Kore was headquartered, hoping to be able to help their daughter and her husband.

Lewys learned through his contacts in the Cabal that Kathlea had arrived there and been taken into the inner courts for training, but he could discover nothing more. Almost a year later, news came that Maxton and Kathlea were both dead.

“It is a tale to sing of that will inspire rebels against the Kore for generations,” the woman, an escaped Magi, brought the news. “He fought his way in to her, and they defied the Chief Magi himself, but they were trapped on the highest tower of the castle above the ocean cliffs. They kissed each other and jumped into the ocean. It is believed they drowned.”

Anghard sobbed. Lewys Maginogion’s face was hard.         “Someday, I will kill them,” he said. “All who support this cursed system that destroys families.”

The woman telling the tale looked frightened. “There is more,” she whispered. “It is rumor only, but they say your daughter was delivered of a babe who was sent out of the city.”

“What happened to the child?” Anghard asked, a desperate hope in her voice.

The woman shrugged. “A servant woman was paid to smuggle her out of the nursery. That is all I know. I’m sorry.”

“You are sure the babe was a girl?”

The woman hesitated. “That is what I was told, but—”

Anghard pressed her hand. “Thank you.”

 

2  Fire Magic

THIRTEEN YEARS passed and the family never forgot their lost daughter or the child she might have born. The night the fever took her grandmother, Rebecca stood under the byre looking up at the sky. Anghard had fought the illness and fought hard, but in the end, she succumbed. “You are Draconi now,” she told Rebecca. Holding her granddaughter’s firm young hand in her wasted one. “Take care of your grandfather and your brother and sister. It will be up to you to find our lost one now.” She had pressed an amulet into Rebecca’s hand. “Use this to help you skry for her.”

“I’ll find her grandmother,” she vowed. “Mother is gone, but if her child lives, I’ll find her. I promise.”

“It’s hopeless,” Catrin said, wiping her eyes. She and Owen were sixteen now, a tall strapping pair, with curly dark hair and usually ready smiles.

Rebecca looked over at Lewys Maginogion’s ravaged face. He would miss his beloved Anghard. She reached for her sibling’s hands. “He will stay with her tonight, I think. Let’s go back to camp.”

Dinner that night was a simple stew which they ate in silence. Afterwards, Owen set up the rope corral around the unicorn herd that was their uncle’s prize possession. Rebecca and Catrin were finishing up the supper dishes and setting up for breakfast the next morning, when they had unwelcome visitors.

John Thomas Lazarus was an important man in the nearby village of Stonhenge.

“What, no dancing around the fire? I was looking forward to that,” he said jovially.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca replied quietly. “We are not entertaining visitors tonight. This is a camp of sorrow. Our grandmother Anghard passed into the great beyond this afternoon. Please excuse us.”

She went back to wiping down the clean plates, ignoring him, hoping he would take the hint and go away.

Instead, he threw some coins down on the ground. “Here, I’ll pay for my entertainment.”

She made no move to pick up the coins. “No, Sir.”

Lazarus frowned, but he hesitated. “Maybe I should ask the old man. Where is he?”

“Grandfather is sitting vigil with Grandmother,” Owen, who had just returned to the camp, replied.

Lazarus looked at him in incredulity. “You mean someone really did die?”

The three just looked at him in silence.

“I see. Alright, I’ll be back tomorrow then.” He turned and left.

Owen spat on the ground at his back.

“Make sure he really leaves,” Rebecca said. “I intend to skry for our lost sister tonight, and I don’t want a witness.”

“He and the others have left the Trade Station Circle and headed back into town,” Owen reported. “Becca, are you sure this is a good idea? Grandmother always did it before.”

Rebecca pulled out the bronze stone that had been Anghard’s last gift to her. “Yes. I feel her spirit strongly tonight. She will help me before she passes on. I know it.”

Catrin unrolled the ancient map of the kingdom, stretching it on the wooden worktable the girls used for making their medicines, and held down the corners with four flat stones.

Rebecca took the necklace over her head and held the stone in one hand. She cut a small prick in her finger and rubbed it over the stone. Holding the stone over the map, she rubbed the blood on the surface.

“Bone of my bone, blood of my blood, seek now that which is lost.”

Catrin picked up the knife and did the same. Handing the knife to Owen, she too rubbed the stone with a bloody fingertip, and repeated the chant.

After a second’s hesitation, he repeated the actions and the chant.

At first, nothing happened, but finally, the stone began to swing gently. There was a surge of power and then the stone pulled strongly toward the west finally coming to rest on the symbol for the village of Buttersea.

All three felt the soft caress as Anghard left them for the final time.

“What have you done?” Lewys demanded.

Catrin looked up at him with tears running down her face. “It was grandmamma. I felt her,” she sobbed.

“We all felt her,” Rebecca said coolly. “Look, we have a destination.”

Lewys stared down at the map with the stone resting on it. “Yes,” he sighed. “I heard from Cousin Lerrys. He needs to leave Ironlyn. The local Proctor is getting suspicious of him. We will go home. That village is on the way. If your sister is there, we will find her.”

Rebecca nodded. “We will be ready.”

“I need to go into the village tomorrow and pick up the supplies I ordered. You three stay will here and pack up so we can leave when I return,” Lewys instructed.

Breakfast the next morning was quiet. Lewys put a pack saddle on one of the herd mares, saddle Sunrise and left for the village outside the Trade Station, while his grandchildren began the process of packing the two wagons. It was a complicated process. The limited space meant that everything stowed for traveling had to go in exactly the right place or it wouldn’t all fit.

Packing took longer than it should have because Owen kept stuffing things in higgledy-piggledy. It was obvious he was in a hurry. After she had unloaded and re-packed the things he had already packed several times, Rebecca turned to him in exasperation. “What is wrong with you? This will take forever if you aren’t more careful. Why are you in such a hurry?”

Catrin laughed. “He wants to get done so he can hurry over and say goodbye to Fiona,” she said with a knowing look.

“The Station Master’s daughter?” Rebecca inquired.

Owen nodded.

“Okay, take off then,” his sister said. “The way you’re working, we’ll get on better without you. Scram!”

Her little brother kissed her cheek and loped off toward the Trade Station.

“Grandpa told us all to stay here,” Catrin remarked.

“I know,” Rebecca replied, “but he’s only young once.”

Catrin laughed and began repacking the pots and pans Owen had made a mess of.

“Leave a space for what Grandpa is bringing back,” Rebecca reminded her.

“What is it, do you know?” Catrin asked.

“Not a clue,” her sister replied. “He was very mysterious about it.”

“Well, we’ve finished,” Catrin said, a few minutes later. “I suppose we can harness the unicorns. Whose turn is it today?”

Lewys’ prize unicorn herd were mostly draft animals and to keep from overusing any of them, the family rotated the ones used to pull the wagons.

“Let’s rotate the teams,” Rebecca suggested. She went to the rope corral and called four mares to her. She was about to lead them over to the front of the first wagon when they again had unwelcome visitors. Lazarus was back.

“Not leaving already are you?” he asked Catrin, looking the girl up and down in a way that made her flush with embarrassment.

“Yes, we are,” Rebecca answered him. She deliberately led the four large unicorns between him and Catrin, forcing him to move back out of the way.

“Really?” he sneered. “Leaving without allowing me to sample your wares? I don’t think so.”

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. She understood exactly what type of ‘wares’ he referred to, but pretended she didn’t.

“I’m afraid we’ve already packed away our herbs and medicines, Mr. Lazarus,” she said.

“I’m not talking about any piddly spices girl and you know it,” he said.

“Catrin, get in the wagon and lock the door,” Rebecca told her sister.

Catrin hesitated, but obeyed her.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca continued, “but we aren’t receiving visitors, and my grandfather and brother will be back soon. I need to get our unicorns harnessed. Please excuse me.”

She lined up the unicorns and was preparing to throw the first harness over one’s back when Lazarus grabbed her.

Rebecca fought him, but he was stronger than she. When she landed a lucky kick on his knee, he slapped her hard across the face. The dizzying blow stunned her long enough for Lazarus to rip her blouse open. He yanked her to him and mashed his mouth down on hers.

When she tried to turn her head away, he grabbed a handful of her hair and forced her face back to his. With her arms pinned against his body, she was unable to move. Finally, she managed to free one of her arms and stabbed at his eyes with her fingers.

Lazarus hit her again, this time with his fist. She stumbled and fell to her knees. He knocked her the rest of the way to the ground, following it up by falling on her body. He tore her blouse the rest of the way off, biting at her bared breast. The pain brought her out of the stun, and she clawed at his face and head.

When she felt him fumbling at the buttons on her pants, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to stop him unless she used her Magi talents. Fear and anger ignited her Fire Magic. A fireball burst in his face, causing his greasy hair to catch fire. Lazarus screamed and drew back.

Suddenly, he was knocked off Rebecca by the solid twack! of the shovel wielded by Catrin, who had disobeyed her sister and come to help. He fell to the side unconscious, with his hair still smoldering.

When Lewys and Owen arrived a few minutes later, they found Rebecca leaning on her sister’s shoulder while Catrin applied a poultice to take down the bruising.

Lewys looked down at Lazarus in silence. He had checked the man for life signs and was disappointed to find him still alive. “You should have made sure he was dead,” he informed his granddaughters.

“We can still do that,” Rebecca said, half hysterically.

“No, child we can’t. It would be murder. Owen, go and get Trade Master Jordan.”

When Catrin started to take Rebecca inside the wagon, Lewys stopped her. “Better he sees her just like she is, so he knows this was justified,” Lewys said.

The Trade Master arrived in Owen’s wake, puffing. He was a round man, no longer made for running.

“Oh, no, Oh, no,” he kept repeating, wringing his hands. “This is bad.”

“It was self defense,” Lewys reminded him. “Look at my granddaughter. Since when is it bad to stop a man from raping her?”

“Since the man is John Thomas Lazarus!” Jordan snapped. “You don’t live here. He is the most powerful man in this county. He owns half the farms around here and at least a third owe him money. He pretty much does as he pleases.”

“Including rape?” demanded Lewys.

“I’ve heard rumors,” Jordan said. “Well, the first thing is to get you out of here. You boy,” he pointed at Owen. “Get those unicorns harnessed. I’m going to the village to round up a few men to help me collect Lazarus and take him back into town to a healer. You need to be on the road by the time I get back. I can give you about an hour. Who knows? Maybe he’ll die in the meantime and solve both our problems.”

While Lewys and Owen harnessed the unicorns to the wagons, Rebecca threw off her torn blouse and put on a loose comfortable shirt. She mounted the wagon box and took her place to drive.

“Are you able to do this, girl?” her grandfather looked at her from the back of his golden unicorn.

She set her hat firmly on her head and nodded. “Yes, lets just go away from here.”

They camped that night by a small creek deep in a black leaf forest, Lewys having decided that it would be wiser to avoid the Trade Stations until they were a long way from Joppa.

The next morning, he had them whitewash the sides of the wagons so they would appear a different color. He also instructed Catrin to prepare a concoction he said would dye the unicorn’s coats a different color. It turned Sunrise and the mares’ golden coats to a dull brown.

To make Owen appear older, he brought out a fake beard for him to put on each morning.

It was while they were dying the unicorns that Rebecca found the three hungry kittens. They were very young and hadn’t yet grown the white manes they would have as adults. She also found the body of their mother nearby. Gathering up the kits in her arms, she brought them back to camp. Milking one of the nursing unicorns, she mixed the rich milk into a feed for them.

For several weeks, they continued to travel west avoiding the usual travel lanes.

 

3  A Spell Is Cast

HARRY SIMS, proprietor of the Glass Slipper Tavern, was an unhappy man on this fine summer evening. He should have been happy. The Glass Slipper was full. The Jamborees for local stock collection and sale had just finished and all the holdings, small and large were in town and spending coin freely.

The chief cause of his unhappiness was not the rowdiness of the crowd; he was long accustomed to that. No, the cause of his worry was the five-man gambling game going on in the corner. Harry knew four of the five players well. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, was losing and was going to be in trouble with his wife for being out so late in the evening. Ruddy Tyer, a long, skinny kid from Gryphon’s Nest, was still reasonably sober but he would lose his Jamboree bonus before the end of the night. Charger French, a squatty rider from back in the badlands with it was said—but not where he could hear it—a reputation for shady deals. The fourth player was Jajson Buttersnake the son of old ‘Rock’ Buttersnake, the biggest breeder around. Jajson figured he was top dog in this town because no one dared challenge the son of old Rock. Rock ran a tough, salty crew of drovers. They didn’t much like the boss’s son, but they would take his side in a fight.

It was the fifth dice thrower who worried Harry. Harry had seen him ride into town earlier that day on the highbred, dapple war unicorn presently taking up space at Harry’s hitching rail. The stranger wasn’t a big man; he stood around five-eight with a short, neatly trimmed black beard and cold green eyes. To Harry, who had seen quite of few of his kind as a young man, the stranger had ‘Merc’ written all over him. His clothes were of too good quality and too clean, his thigh-high boots too new and shiny, and the saddle on that fancy unicorn stud was too pricey for a coin a day drover. His needle-gun was tied low on his leg in a well-worn holster, and unless Harry was mistaken, he had a blade down his back, one in his boot, and a second gun hidden in his sleeve.

Absently, Harry polished a glass while he tried to place the man. He didn’t look that familiar, but the blood feud over to the south between the RedBird and Smoker clans had just finished. Before he died, the Smoker Chief Hutchins had claimed Rupert RedBird was hiring paid Mercs. A practice that while not against the law, was something Prince Tarragon disapproved of; and the stranger had ridden in from the south.

Harry swore softly to himself. Jajson Buttersnake was drunk. When he was sober, he was a poor card player and an even worse loser. Because he ran with the Buttersnake mob, he was usually safe when he had a tantrum; no one in his right mind wanted to start a fighting ruckus with Old Rock’s crew.

Harry had a bad feeling the fifth card player wouldn’t give a damn how tough Old Rock Buttersnake’s crew was. There was just something in that dark face that said, ‘I don’t care’. And it was going to happen in his place too, he thought bitterly. They would probably cause a lot of damage before things got settled.

Suddenly Buttersnake stood up, scattering dice and coins. “I want a new set of dice!” he cried. “You shouldn’t have won that throw!”

The stranger came up out of his chair in one swift, clean movement. He slapped Jajson across the mouth, knocking him into the crowded bar.

The room exploded away from young Buttersnake. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, dived away from the table so fast he knocked over his chair.

Jajson Buttersnake staggered to his feet, a trickle of blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He was white with fury. “You cheated!” he shrieked, pawing for his gun. He fumbled and almost dropped it in his rage.

The stranger waited until Buttersnake had his needlegun coming level before he drew and fired. His gun made a loud snapping noise as the puff of compressed air sent a fatal needle right down Buttersnake’s throat.

In that instant, Harry recognized the fighter. Hammer Smith was the handle he went by, but Harry was one of the few who knew his real name was Andre Benoit. Benoit hailed from the coastal area at the south end of the kingdom. Hammer Smith was reputed to be in his twenties, but he was already known as a dangerous man. It was said that he never drew a weapon unless the man was armed and facing him but if you pushed him, you died. Jajson Buttersnake died.

In the stillness after the weapon fire, Hammer Smith calmly reloaded his weapon, scooped up his coins from the table and quietly walked through the swinging doors. Whispers started in his wake.

“Shot him in the mouth,” someone said.

Hammer Smith mounted the dapple unicorn and set off at a brisk trot.

“So much for a warm bed for me and a soft stall for you, Blackfeather,” he said. “Unless, I’m mistaken we’re going to have a bunch of irate drovers on our tail really quick. Why did I sit down at that game, anyway?”

Blackfeather’s stride increased to a smooth, ground-eating lope. The double moons were full, making the road as clear as day, but Hammer Smith knew he was going to have to leave it soon. He started looking for a good place to hide his trail. Behind him, he could hear angry shouts and then the snap of needle gunfire.

“Okay, boy,” he spoke softly to the unicorn, who cocked an attentive black ear, “let’s ride some lightning.”

Blackfeather was fast. Hammer Smith had traded him off from a CatMan who had used him for racing. The trouble was, he had beaten every unicorn in the area so often that no one would race against him anymore and the CatMan was broke. Hammer Smith had traded him a half-broke unicorn with the disposition of a poison beetle crossed with a snapdragon, an extra needle rifle and twenty coins in eating money.

He knew if he could get a start on the impromptu mob forming behind him, he could make it across the line into CatMan Territory. Not the safest place in the world to be, but safer than here as it was unlikely any posse would follow him there. The Prince had given orders that entering CatMan territory was forbidden. No one wanted to re-start the raiding again, and the Cats would undoubtedly see any group of armed men as breaking the treaty. Single riders entered at their own risk, and were usually ignored. Maybe.

Suddenly ahead of him came the pound of running hooves and a wild screeching yell. A mob coming in late off the Jamboree maybe?

He checked the unicorn and faded off to the side, stopping under a kaleidoscope tree about twenty feet away from the road. The moon flecked through the shinny semi-transparent leaves, causing light and dark shadows that blended with Blackfeather’s coat.

A more cautious man would have taken the opportunity to scuttle out of there quick. But Hammer Smith was not a cautious man. Grinning, he watched as the mob from town ran full tilt into the celebrating drovers.

Chuckling, he started Blackfeather around the tree and to the north at an easy lope heading into a forest of more kaleidoscope trees. In the melee behind him, he heard the snap of air guns as some fool started shooting and he knew everybody soon would be.

He paid a price for the inattention caused by his unholy amusement. Karma has a way of catching up with a man. In the darkness, he never saw the tree branch coming that dealt his head a smashing blow, stunned, he blacked out. Only his instinctive riding ability and Blackfeather’s superb gait kept him from falling off. Several times, Blackfeather shifted stride and course to ensure his rider stayed in the saddle. Puzzled at being given no other signals, Blackfeather continued to travel west, taking the easiest route.

The sun was just coming up when Hammer Smith awoke. Blackfeather had slowed to a walk. Muzzily, Hammer Smith peered around. His head hurt and he was having trouble focusing his eyes. Blackfeather mounted the top of a small rise and started down toward a creek gurgling below.

Hammer Smith blinked harder to focus his eyes because he was sure he was seeing things. The loveliest girl he had ever seen knelt by the water washing her face. Straight black hair fell in a curtain to the ground around her, some of the strands floating in the water.

Blackfeather stopped at the edge of the creek and lowered his head to drink. The girl lifted her head to stare back at Hammer Smith out of the clearest gray eyes he’d ever seen. She stood, pulling her hair back over her shoulders. Her crimson night robe clung to her lush figure, making a bright splash of red against the green plants growing on the bank of the stream.

At that moment, Hammer Smith was beyond appreciating nature’s decorating schemes. The whole world felt unreal. There was no one in it but him and the girl, and never would be. He nudged Blackfeather across the stream and stopped beside her.

She looked up at him with no sign of fear. He stared down at her. It seemed as if her eyes grew enormous and he was diving into a huge pool of gray water. This time he did fall off his unicorn.

Rebecca tried to break his fall, but since he outweighed her, she ended up on the ground with him on top. Awkwardly, she sat up, wriggling out from under his weight. His head lolled back against her breast.

“Gosh!” exclaimed her sixteen-year-old brother Owen, “where did he come from?”

“Over the hill,” Rebecca said absently, looking at the dark face. He wasn’t bad looking; of course, you couldn’t tell much with that beard…

“What’s the matter with him?” demanded Owen’s twin, Catrin. Like Rebecca, she was still in her nightclothes.

Rebecca had found the caked blood matted in his hair.

“He’s been hurt,” she said. “One of you go and get Grandpa.”

“Gosh!” said Owen again. “That’s a funny place to get hurt. Do you suppose somebody whacked him?”

“Maybe.”

Blackfeather nudged Hammer Smith curiously with his soft grey nose. Why was he so still? Absently, Rebecca patted him.

“He’ll be fine,” she said to the unicorn. Blackfeather snorted gently and wandered off to crop some grass growing by the bank.

Pulling the straps of his suspenders, Lewys Maginogion, awakened out of a sound sleep by Catrin, hurried up to them. His sharp old eyes took in the situation at a glance.

“Owen, unsaddle that unicorn and take care of it. Catrin, go fix up a bed in the wagon.”

As the two hurried to obey, he knelt beside Rebecca.

“He’s got blood on his head. Owen thought maybe he’d been whacked in a fight,” she said.

Gingerly Maginogion turned Hammer Smith’s head, running a finger in the gash on the top of his head and forehead.

“You’ll make it bleed again,” protested Rebecca.

“He’s out like a candle. Doesn’t feel a thing. We’d best get him in the wagon and that wound dressed before he wakes up.”

Unobserved by Rebecca, Lewys Maginogion looked pensively down at the lovely visage of his eldest granddaughter, who was gazing at the face of the young man resting in her arms. It had been six months since the incident, and in all that time his beautiful Rebecca had not voluntarily let any man touch her. Yet she held this stranger against her with no sign of shrinking.

They put the unconscious man to bed in the wagon. As Lewys cleaned and dressed the wound, he thought about what he had learned in the village yesterday, and a plan began to form in his mind. Only if the young man proved worthy of course…

Twenty minutes later, dressed in a grey cotton shirt and trousers, Rebecca was sitting on a folding campstool, brushing her hair with the aid of a hand mirror.

A pan of sliced meat was sizzling on the fire, and Catrin, similarly dressed, with her long curly hair tied back was making sourdough wafers, her face flushed from the fire.

Owen was brushing the mud from the stranger’s unicorn. Blackfeather seemed to enjoy it, one hip cocked as he sleepily munched a bag of grain.

Lewys Maginogion surveyed his brood proudly. They were good kids all of them. Owen was growing tall and straight as a young fire tree. He was gangly still, but his blue eyes met a man head on.

His twin, Catrin, took after Lewys’ mother, being tall and buxom. Her dark hair was thick and curly; she wasn’t conceited either for all she drew the men’s eyes like bees to nectar.

His gaze dropped to his oldest granddaughter. With her hair drawn back, the resemblance to his dead wife was uncanny. Rebecca wasn’t the looker Catrin was; her red-lipped mouth was too wide, and those gray eyes under her slanted brows gave her heart-shaped face an eerie beauty, but he knew from his own experience many years ago just how potent a spell that exotic loveliness could cast. He had been caught in just such a spell years ago when he first laid eyes on his dead wife, Anghard.

“All of you, come here,” he said. “I need to tell you what I learned in the village yesterday. Catrin, leave those biscuits alone. We won’t starve in the next ten minutes.

Obediently, Catrin and Owen seated themselves on a nearby log. Rebecca turned to face him on the folding campstool, a thick black braid lying over her shoulder.

“John Thomas Lazarus has put out a reward for our arrest for unauthorized magic. I saw it posted on the wall outside the sheriff’s office.”

“But we haven’t done anything!” Catrin cried, tears trembling on the ends of her lashes.

Rebecca said nothing, but she shut her eyes and clasped her hands in her lap. Magic users were regulated by the King. Powerful users were recruited to serve in the Kings Magi Kore. Less powerful magic users were required to buy a license to use magic, or if proven to be of the right bloodlines, used as breeding stock. In either case, Magi were tested and licensed and paid a fee to the King to practice their arts. Unauthorized users could be hung without trial if they committed crimes using magic.

Owen started to curse, and was immediately called to order.

“Owen I’ll not have you using words like that in front of your sisters,” Lewys said sternly. “Besides, saying a thing like that about a man can get you killed in a challenge.”

“Even when he deserves it?” asked Catrin wryly.

“Yes,” her grandfather said flatly. “Especially if he deserves it. It’s about how powerful he is, not if he deserves the name.”

After a short struggle with himself, Owen said, “Yes sir. Sorry, girls.”

“Never mind that,” Catrin said. “What are we going to do?”

Her grandfather patted her hand. “I’ll think of something,” he said. In fact, he already had a plan in mind, but he wanted to talk to their guest before he came out with it.

“Now, how about breakfast? Am I to starve to death today?”

“Grandfather, what exactly does that notice say?” demanded Rebecca.

He took it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She frowned as she read it aloud. Travelers such as themselves always had a bad reputation in any new town, being automatically suspected of thievery and other less savory actions. Combined with hints of outlaw magic it spelled real trouble. Lewys and Owen were wanted for the assault and attempted murder of John Thomas Lazarus, Catrin and herself for a magical assault on Mrs. Charity Lazarus and for burning a wagon. All were hanging offenses.

They had left the village quickly after the incident hoping an old man traveling to his new hold with his grandchildren might escape notice. They never gave their real names when plying their trade as sellers of herbs and medicines in a village, but the descriptions of them on the flyer were very close. Upon fleeing Coverville, they had turned the gaudy signs on the wagon’s side inward and stretched canvas over the outside so the wagons looked more like ordinary travelling wagons. Unfortunately, Lewys’ treasured herd of beautiful draft unicorns were very noticeable.

“Sorcery my foot!” Owen exclaimed. “That old hag died of spleen when she found out what her supposedly God-fearing husband was up to!”

“Look for the mote in your own eye,” quoted Lewys, “before speaking of the one in your neighbors.”

Owen made an angry noise. “I don’t care! And don’t quote that stuff at me! I’m sick to death of—”

“Stop it! Please!” Rebecca cried.

Everyone looked at her in astonishment. She was weeping. Rebecca never cried.

“This is all my fault,” she sobbed. “I should have just done what he wanted—”

“Wash out your mouth of that filth girl!” Lewys roared. “No granddaughter of mine and Angard’s would make a whore of herself for any reason! You did just as you should have,” he added more gently. “What’s done is done, and we live now, not in the past.”

“Uh—breakfast is ready,” Catrin inserted. “That is if anyone is interested.

They stayed another day by the creek tending to the wounded man and checking the dyes they had applied to the unicorn herd. The man didn’t really wake up, but Lewys was able to get a couple of spoons of broth down him.

The first night after everyone had gone to bed, Lewys sat up late. Another man might have been ashamed of himself for what he intended to do. Lewys Maginogion was not. He had a plan to protect his family but he needed more information about his patient before he could decide how much of it was workable. He opened the saddlebags Owen had taken off the unicorn. There wasn’t much in them. One of the bags held a clean shirt, an extra needle gun, a small sleeve weapon, a package of kophie and a battered cup and pot. The other held tools for making needles and small containers of compressed air. The most interesting things he found were a gold pendant with a man and woman’s image inside and a small packet of letters.

Most of the letters were addressed to Andre Benoit. The oldest of these was dated almost ten years ago and had been written to a schoolboy.

My dear son, Lewys read, Mr. James, the head master from St. Anthony’s visited us today and I am afraid your father is very angry with you. Dearest, you must learn to control that dreadful temper of yours or one day I fear it will lead to serious trouble. I am very proud of you for standing up for that poor young man, but was it really necessary to half-drown his tormenter in the chamber pot? And did you really need to break a valuable urn over Jimmy Hendricks head? Not but what I do sympathize with your desire to hit him with something. A more horrid brat I’ve never met and his mother is just the same—but I hear your father coming. All my love dear and do try to stay out of trouble for a few days. All my love Mama.

There were several others, all in the same vein. The last one was not written by his mother. Instead, it was written by the Cleric at a church.

My Dear boy, my heart goes out to you at this time. I wish I could be with you to comfort you, but as I cannot, I can only tell you to call upon He who is our greatest comfort in our grief as well as in joy. Your mother did not suffer at all. Dr. Thomas tells us the fall killed her instantly. Your poor father is sorely stricken. I hope this mutual sorrow will heal the gulf that has opened between you. Call upon me if you should feel the need for my services and I will come. God be with you, Respected Vincent McCauley

There were two other letters. One was from someone named Marie. It was just a note thanking him for the money to get back home to her family and telling him of her upcoming Handfasting.

The last one was addressed to someone named Hammer Smith, desiring him to come a village named Cutterston and quoting a price of seven thousand silver coins for unnamed services.

Thoughtfully Lewys re-folded the letters and replaced them. A handful of letters wasn’t much to base his plan on, but they were all he had. ‘The Divinity helps those who helps themselves’ he reminded himself. It had been one of Angard’s favorite sayings. Just the thought of her somehow made her seem closer. Would she have approved of what he intended? He thought so. Comforted, he turned into his bedroll and went to sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Looking into the wagon Lewys found his patient awake.

“Well,” he said, “you scared us a mite son. How do you feel?”

Andre Benoit touched his head gingerly. “If I move will it fall off?”

“Headache? Well, I think that can be helped.” Lewys rummaged around in Anghard’s medicine box until he found a small leather packet filled with white powder. He poured a tiny amount of the powder into a tin cup, added water and swished it around.

“Here,” he said, “handing Andre the cup. “This should do the trick.”

Andre accepted the cup gingerly. “Who are you?” he asked.

Lewys looked at him in well-feigned surprise. “Why don’t you know?”

There was a small silence as Andre finished his medicine. “No,” he said at last, “I don’t guess I do.”

He paused, searching his memory and then he frowned. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I know who I am.”

“Good Lord,” exclaimed Lewys. “I’ve heard of such a thing, but—”

Andre took him up sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Why, memory loss after a blow to the head. When I was at sea, a fella got knocked on the head like you. He claimed he didn’t know who he was either. Of course, we didn’t believe him at first, but we came down to it in the end.”

Lewys rubbed his chin. “As I recall, that fella never did get his right memory back.”

Andre carefully set his cup down on the wooden chest next to him. “Do you know who I am? How I got here? How did I get hurt?”

“Whoa son,” Lewys flung up a hand. “One thing at a time. First, your name is Andre Benoit and you’re engaged to marry my eldest granddaughter Rebecca.”

Lewys told that whopping lie without a blink. He rushed on before Andre could question him. “You’re in bed because it looks like someone took a whack at you. We’re not sure how it happened. You rode off hunting yesterday and your unicorn brought you back. I’m afraid there isn’t a lot more I can tell you about yourself before you joined us a couple of weeks back, because we only just met you.”

For once in his quick-tongued life, Andre was struck speechless. The story sounded fantastic and he wanted to hear more, but he was very tired and found himself drifting back to sleep. Lewys watched him for a minute more, then rose and left the wagon.

That had been relatively easy compared to what was next—explaining to Rebecca, Catrin and Owen what he had done and getting them to go along with it.

The girls were down by the creek, washing clothes. Owen was making a fresh pot of kophie. He had heard what had gone on between Lewys and Andre. He scowled at his grandfather and opened his mouth to speak. Lewys shook his head at him.

“Where are Rebecca and Catrin?”

“Down at the creek.”

“Good. Come with me; we’re going to have a family conference.”

“We just did that yesterday,” Owen grumbled under his breath as he followed Lewys. “Much good as it did us.”

Arriving at the creek, Lewys said jovially, “You two girls look as lovely as flowers in springtime this morning.”

Catrin and Rebecca exchanged glances over the bucket of dirty clothes. When their Grandfather started showering compliments, it generally meant he was up to something.

“Thank you,” Rebecca said politely.

Both girls waited.

Lewys cleared his throat. “All of you read that wanted notice I brought back from town, didn’t you?”

“We read it, Grandpa,” Catrin replied.

“Well, then you know there weren’t images of us, just a description of an old man, two girls and a younger man. It occurred to me that what we need here is a bit of misdirection. Now we can’t change our looks, but we can become a party of five instead of four. Our new place is around three weeks’ travel from here and there are several villages between Ironlyn and us. If we travel through those villages as a party of five, everyone who sees us will think of us a group of five people not four, even if the fifth member of the group doesn’t stay around long.”

Catrin was the first to speak. “You’re talking about the man on the war unicorn. Has he agreed to this?”

Owen made a rude noise. “He’ll probably stay. You should have heard that pack of lies Grandpa fed him!”

“What if he finds out about the wanted notice?” Rebecca asked. “He might decide to collect the two thousand coins by turning us in.”

“He might not turn us in but not want to stay either—”

“Quiet!” Lewys glared them individually into silence.

“Our young friend—his name is Andre Benoit incidentally, has lost his memory because of that clout on the noggin he took.”

“Permanently?” Owen asked. “What if he starts remembering?”

Lewys waved that aside. “Makes no difference. It’ll stay lost long enough to suit us. Now stop interrupting me! Where was I?”

“Memory loss,” Catrin supplied.

“Yes. Well I told him we met him a couple of weeks ago on the trail. He went hunting for meat and came back with a cut across his head. I also told him he was engaged to Rebecca so he’d have a reason to stay around.”

Benignly he smiled at his offspring who stared back at him with varying degrees of exasperation, horror or amusement.

“Why you old reprobate!” Catrin exclaimed.

“You,” said Owen forcefully, “are a sneaky, underhanded, unscrupulous old—I don’t know what.”

They both carefully did not look at Rebecca who had gone dead white. She raised stricken eyes to her grandfather.

“I’m sorry Grandpa, but I can’t,” she whispered. “He might want—I can’t do it.”

Lewys jerked his head at Owen and Catrin. “You two go back to camp. Rebecca and I need to talk. And mind, you remember what I told you if you talk to Andre.”

Obediently they started back to the fire. Lewys put an arm around Rebecca and felt her involuntary stiffening.

“Child, you’ve got to do it. Ironlyn is our last hope. You know we need a permanent spot to retire—it’s getting dangerous to keep up the traveling medicine wagon, we are beginning to be too recognizable. The Proctors were asking questions about us in the last town. If can’t reach Ironlyn, they’ll hunt us down. We don’t have enough coin to start again overseas even if we could get passage on a ship. Besides the Cabal is counting on us to take over at Ironlyn. You know how important that is to what we do.”

She pulled away from him and covered her face with her hands.

“Don’t you see, he’s going to think its real! I dread having even you or Owen touch me and I know you aren’t going to—every time a man even touches my hand I remember—”

She broke into sobs.

Lewys’ heart ached in pity, but he steeled himself against her tears. If she didn’t overcome this fear, she would go maimed all her life.

“Rebecca, you know it isn’t natural to feel that way. You must face your fear and overcome it. What is between a man and a woman is good, not evil.”

“What happened to me was evil!” she flashed.

“The man is evil and what he did was bad,” Lewys agreed. “I’m sorry your first experience was so ugly, but you cannot allow it to rule your life child. Do you want to end your days a sour old maid with no children to light your days as you light mine?”

Her eyes closed. “Grandpa, please!”

Lewys sighed. “Well, child I won’t force you to do this for our benefit. The Cabal will find someone else to handle Ironlyn. I can sell the unicorns—”

“Stop it!” she cried. She knew her grandfather loved his unicorn herd second only to his family. It would break his heart to let them go. Her refusal would bring hurt and destitution on everyone she loved and the innocents they were charged to protect. She lifted her chin and wiped her eyes.

“You’re right. There is no other way,” she took a deep breath and gave him a watery smile. “I’ll try the best I can.”

Lewys hugged her. “That’s my brave girl. I knew I could count on you.”

Rebecca deliberately forced her body to relax. Andre would be in bed for another day or so, she hoped. Perhaps by that time she could learn not to flinch.

Catrin and Owen both looked at her anxiously when she and Lewys returned to the fire.

“Are you alright, sis?” Owen asked, his eyes widening as he realize Lewys still had his arm around Rebecca’s shoulder and she had not only walked all the way back to camp that way, but didn’t move away.

“I’m fine Owen,” she smiled at him, a rather strained smile, but a real one nonetheless. “I have agreed to Grandpa’s plan.”

Owen opened his mouth, thought better of what he had been going to say, and shut it again.

Lewys gave his granddaughter a last hug and moved toward the fire. “Catrin are you burning the biscuits?”

“No, Owen is. It’s his turn to cook,” she replied.

Aggh!” Owen leaped toward the fire to rescue his mistreated breakfast.

Rebecca took a deep breath, poured a cup of kophie, and mounted the wagon steps. Andre was awake.

“I brought you a cup of kophie. Breakfast will be ready soon.”

“I hope you’re Rebecca, because if you aren’t, I’m engaged to the wrong girl.”

An involuntary laugh was surprised out of her. “What a thing to say! It would serve you right if I denied it!”

He smiled back at her, running his eyes over her possessively.

To cover her nervousness, she said hastily, “Here, let me help you sit up. You can’t drink kophie lying down.”

This was an error, she soon discovered. It brought her entirely too close to him, making her sharply aware of him as a man. He did nothing to ease her nervousness and when she attempted to help him sit up so she could place a pillow behind his back, he put both arms around her waist and leaned against her, inhaling her scent from her breast.

“Ummn—you smell good,” he said.

“Your kophie will get cold,” she said, pushing against him.

“Better cold kophie than a cold woman,” Andre retorted teasingly. But he allowed her to settle him back against the pillow and hand him his cup.

“Where’s yours?” he asked, lifting the cup to his mouth. Any doubts as to Lewys Maginogion’s veracity had vanished the instant he set eyes on his supposed fiancée. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to him that he should have wanted to marry Rebecca. She was everything he had ever dreamed of in a woman. He was a little puzzled and hurt at her reaction to his embrace though. His dream woman wouldn’t have pushed him back.

Rebecca retreated to perch on the foot of the blankets. “Grandpa says you don’t remember us.”

Andre almost laughed aloud at this simple explanation for her stiffness. She must feel extremely awkward to have him declare he was in love with her, ask her to marry him one day and then the next be told he didn’t remember her. No wonder she hadn’t responded.

He smiled warmly at her. “I plead guilty, but since I fell in love with you again on sight, I feel I deserve a suspended sentence, don’t you?”

 

 

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

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.”

 

Ambush! – Warriors of St. Antoni Chapter 20

Ambush!

 

WHILE IRIS was dealing with a potential enemy in Junction City, Carlos was waiting for Red and Durango to come through the brush trail. With time to kill, he spent it exploring the Camp. Inside the miner’s lean-to, he found several sticks of dynamite, and some fuse strings. He stared, dumbfounded at the explosive sticks. He knew there was no reason Lin and the others should have needed explosives. They were supposed to be panning the stream for gold and silver. Even using a high banker, they wouldn’t have needed to blow anything up. The camp was perilously close to the trail leading into the secret canyon. Perhaps the three men had intended to use the dynamite to block the trail, but the raiders had gotten to them first.

The sky was just showing the first streaks of sunlight and Carlos had barely started coffee when Red and Durango rode out of the hole in the brush forest.

“You’re here early,” he remarked. “Did you start out in the middle of the night?”

Red shrugged. “I kind of got the feeling it wouldn’t be too smart to hang around, so yeah, we snuck out as soon as we were sure they had gone to sleep.”

“I had the same feeling,” Durango admitted. “What’s more, I think we should block up that trail.”

“Were you followed?” Carlos asked as he poured coffee grounds into the metal pot on the fire.

“Who can say? But it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”

“True. Let’s eat and figure out the best way to close off that trail through the brush.”

As they ate a hurried breakfast of side meat and biscuits, they discussed how to block off the trail.

“I found dynamite the miners left when I got back yesterday,” Carlos said. “How big a charge do you think it will take to block the trail?”

“I don’t know anything about dynamite,” Red protested.

“Me neither,” said Durango.

Carlos sighed. “Well, I guess that makes me the nearest thing to an expert we have. I found six sticks of the stuff and some fuse line. I’ll set three charges about a hundred paces apart back along the trail with a delayed fuse. You boys gather up everything and head back down the stream at least a mile. You should be safe from the blast there in case I miscalculate the timing.”

“All right, but we’ll leave your ‘corn tied up a little ways down the stream, so you can get out of here in a hurry,” Red said.

It took Carlos most of the morning to set the charges. Trotting back toward the furthest charge, he thought he heard voices. Smiling grimly, he lit the fuse and ran for the second charge. When he lit the last one, he barely had time to make it out of the trail before the first explosion lit up the sky.

Red Lightning was cropping grass while he waited patiently for him. At the noise, his head lifted alertly. Carlos darted over to the tricorn and leaped into the saddle without using the stirrups. Red responded to his rider’s urgency by jumping into a dead run down stream. The next explosions came at almost the same time.

Carlos pulled up beside Red and Durango who were staring open mouthed at the chaos behind him.

“Geeze, boss,” Red exclaimed. “I hope you weren’t planning on surprising folks; everybody in the country will have heard that boom!”

“You must have blown that trail to bits,” added Durango. “I guess whoever was using it will have to find another way out of that valley.”

Carlos looked back over his shoulder. The entire brush forest was smoking and a few flames were showing over the top. “I hope I haven’t started a fire that will burn everyone on this side out,” he said ruefully.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Red replied. “That brush forest is thermite wood. It doesn’t burn well.”

“How do you know what kind of wood it is?” Durango asked suspiciously.

“I know because I worked as a packer for one of those scientist types. His specialty was identifying plants and figuring out how they could be used. If I wanted a bonus, I had to learn what kind of plants he was looking for. He paid good money if I could lead him to the plants he wanted.”

“Why did you quit if the job was so good?”

“Old Cinders got himself killed taking sides in the wrong fight. I didn’t want them hunting me, so I lit out of there after they killed him. He told me to take his notebooks to Mrs. St. Vyr if anything ever happened to him. That’s how I came to work for Mike.”

“Since we’re sure we aren’t going to burn this area to the ground, let’s start back,” Carlos said, turning Red Lightning toward home.

The three men had almost reached the tree line separating the valley from the hills when shots rang out.

Carlos cursed and jumped Red Lightning back into the thicker trees. Durango and Red did the same. Once behind the cover of a large boulder, they dismounted.

“Where did the shots came from?” Carlos asked.

“Over to the right, I think,” Durango replied.

“Watch the tricorns,” Carlos said. “I’m going to crawl up this rock to see if I can spot them.”

Carefully, he crept up the rough face of the boulder. Happily, the rock wasn’t smooth but had plenty of places to provide a climber with hand and footholds. There was a little flattened area close to the rim. Stopping to take off his hat, Carlos peeked over the top. About fifty yards away, he could the mounts of the men who attacked them tucked away behind a stand of trees. Seven Tricorns, that meant seven men. He was betting the men were under cover close to the tricorns. He waited patiently, and finally he spotted movement further down the hill, as he had guessed, not far from their tricorns.

He slid back down the rock and reported his findings. By chance, their own mounts were hidden by the boulders.

“Can you sneak up on them and fire so they have to break position, Red?”

“I reckon. What’s the plan?”

“The best shot of the three of us should wait up on top of the boulder. When ambushers break out of hiding, they can be picked off. The other two will try to flank them.”

“Durango here is a good shot. He took the sharp shooting prize at the rodeo last year.”

“I remember,” Carlos said. “Okay, that makes me the other man on the ground. I will sneak down the hill while you go around them Red. When you fire, be sure you’re undercover so I don’t accidentally hit you.”

The three men grinned at each other. “Good hunting,” they whispered as they each went to their spot.

Carlos darted from tree to tree as he made his way down the hill. His plan was to drive the ambushers toward Durango’s position on the rock.

He barely made it to cover beside a fat Indigotree before Red started shooting. Crouching, Carlos too fired his gun in the direction he thought the men were hiding. Two of them broke for cover firing over their shoulders. They were running toward Durango’s rock, and he easily picked them off.

A barrage of shots aimed at Durango’s position rang out. Carlos fired his rife in the direction the shots had come from. There was a yelp. Either he or Red must have hit someone.

The next men who tried to escape ran down the hill. Carlos took aim and fired two shots. Both men dropped, but he could see one man on the ground was still alive. His gun was empty, and he dug into his pocket for more shells.

“I call this serendipity,” drawled a familiar voice from behind him. “You lay that rifle down and stand up real slow.”

Not being a fool, Carlos did as he was told, and turned around to find Ben Sykes grinning at him.

“Hello Ben,” he said. “I might have known you were mixed up in this someway.”

“You’ve been a pain in my ass ever since you took over the Lucky Strike,” Sykes said. “I’m going to enjoy taking you out.”

“Shoot me down like a dog, Sykes? That will go over big when you tell it in the saloon. I’ll bet you clean it up though. It won’t do to tell everyone you shot me after you took my rifle because you were too much of a coward to face me with a handgun.”

“That’s a damn lie!” Sykes snapped. “I ain’t afraid of you Madonna.”

Carlos grinned at him. “Prove it.”

Angrily, Sykes switched his rifle to his other hand, grabbing for his gun as he did so.

In his rage at being called a coward, Sykes was in too much of a hurry and missed his first shot. Carlos didn’t. A bullet whipped past Carlos’s ear. He drew his own handgun and fired. Sykes’ second bullet went into the dirt when Carlos’ shot hit him dead in the heart.

Carlos removed the handgun from Sykes limp hand and picked up the rifle. He kicked Sykes with his boot to make sure he was dead. The outlaw rolled over and lay still.

Carlos’ head came up as two more shots came from Red’s position.

A tricorn broke from the stand of trees at a dead run, heading away from the fight toward the road to town. Red and Carlos fired, and the mounted man jerked in the saddle, falling limply over his steed’s neck. The Tricorn shied, and the man slipped off to the side, hitting the ground at an awkward angle.

That made six. Where was the seventh man? Although the adrenalin surge made him antsy, Carlos forced himself to remain still as he watched for movement in the area where the shots had come from.

Red called out, “This yahoo’s dead boss. Did you get yours?”

Carlos stood up and walked toward Red’s voice. “Yes, I got all three of mine. Durango?”

“Okay here boss. I reckon that accounts for all seven.”

The three men walked back to the boulders where they had hidden the tricorns.

“I think we just took out the crew that’s been doing the raiding,” Carlos told his companions with satisfaction. “One of the men I killed was Ben Sykes and he takes orders from Franks.”

Gathering the dead men’s tricorns, they threw the bodies over their saddles and tied them in place. Red created a pack train by running a rope through each tricorns bridle, and the three riders set off down the slope.

The hacienda was in sight when Red Lightning sighted a coiled sander and leaped up and sidewise to get away from it. The jump threw Carlos forward onto the tricorn’s neck just as a shot rang out. The shot burned Carlos across one shoulder and he fell on Red Lightning’s neck. A second shot knocked his hat off and Red Lightning took off at a dead run.

“What the Hell—” Durango yelled.

“They got the boss!” Red yelled back. “Run for the ranch!”

Red and Durango kicked their tricorns into a dead run, aiming for the wide-open doors in the wall. To move faster, Red dropped the pack train rope knowing those tricorns would follow where the others led.

When the three men thundered inside, Iris saw them from the house. Seeing Carlos slumping over Red Lightning’s neck with blood pouring off his shoulder, her heart stopped for a second before she ran to him. “Oh, my God! You’re bleeding,” she gasped.

“Get the gates closed,” Carlos said as he slid down from the animal into her arms.

He was too heavy for her and Iris folded with him on top of her. Clutching Carlos to her, she screamed,” Paco! Get the gates closed! Hurry!”

Paco ran for the gates, yanking the tie back loose, he swung one side closed, just as the last of the tricorns carrying the dead men trotted into the garden. Red already had the other door swinging closed to meet him.

Red swung the heavy bar down into the slots to bar the gate and went to help Durango who had gone to close the other one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Dangerous Prey

 

“STEVENS, DURANGO, take Carlos up to Iris’s room and put him in her bed,” Bethany ordered, having followed her sister. “Margo go heat some water. Gran, can you treat his wounds?”

“Yes, I can stop the bleeding and bandage him,” Giselle replied. “We still need the doctor to come out from town.”

Bethany nodded. “Do what you can for him. We’ll get the doctor.” She turned to the men who came in with Carlos. Red, we need to find this shooter and take him out. Did you see where he shot from?”

“He got the boss across the shoulder from the back. I’d say he was on the south side. Do you want me to hunt him?”

“Yes. I’m going to send a message to my husband. He and the others are up in Ruby Canyon starting roundup, so you will have help soon.”

“You want him able to talk?”

Her eyes hardened and her soft mouth flattened in a hard line. “I don’t care. Use your best judgment. Do you have enough ammunition?”

“We used up most of what we had on them,” he said pointing to the tricorns who were still carrying the dead bodies.

Bethany pulled out her keys, detached one and handed it to him. “Here, this is the key to the firearm storage. Take what you need and draw a fresh tricorn from the remuda. Good hunting.”

He took the key and turned away.

“Miss Bethany, what do we do with them?” It was Tim, an older man who helped Iris with the milking. He was pointing to the laden tricorns.

“Unload them and put the dead bodies in the cold cellar where Miss Iris cures her cheese. They need to be kept cold or they’ll stink.”

“But—”

“Yes, I know she won’t like it and it’s unsanitary, but it can’t be helped for the moment. For God’s sake, don’t let any of the bodies touch the cheese or Iris will have a fit,” Bethany added. “When you’ve finished, you can turn the tricorns into the corral with the remuda. Get Tom and Mary to help you.”

“Tessa,” she called to a young girl about Paco’s age who helped with her racing tricorns, “Come with me to the stable. You too Paco.”

When they followed her into the stable, she pulled two light racing saddles out of the tack room. “Paco bring out Stinger and Glory. You and Tessa put these saddles on them.”

“But those are your racing saddles,” Tessa protested.

“And my racing tricorns,” Bethany agreed. “The two of you will be my messengers. Which of you knows the way to Ruby Canyon the best?”

“I do,” Tessa volunteered as she cinched the light saddle onto the brown and grey striped tricorn. Bethany slid the hackamore over Stinger’s nose horn and then fastened it behind his ears. She went on to do the same to Glory. She patted Glory’s red and gold striped cheek before tossing the reins over her head.

“Tessa, you take Stinger. He is the distance runner. You find my husband and tell him what happened. I don’t want Alec running to an ambush when he comes back. Tell him I’ve set Red to hunting the sniper so not to shoot him by mistake. Can you do that?”

The girl nodded. Bethany held out her cupped hands and boosted Tessa up into the saddle. Stinger tossed his head and danced, eager to run.

When she turned to help Paco mount Glory, he was already up. “Where do I go?”

Bethany patted Glory on the shoulder. “Paco, you ride into town for the Doctor. I don’t know if anyone is watching the road, but be careful. Try to get Sheriff Gonzalez to come out with you and the doctor.”

She led the way to the back of the stable, opening the seldom used eastern doors. Both riders burst out of the stable at a dead run, Paco turning right toward town and Tessa heading through orchard.

Bethany watched them go. She was betting the sniper didn’t know about the back way out of the ranch compound. The racers were fast and the riders light. Stinger’s coloring would blend into the trees and rocks making him harder to spot if the sniper was looking for a rider. Glory was easier seen, but Paco would have the house between him and where Red thought the sniper was.

Red came toward her leading a tough, wiry tricorn. He had added a double row of saddle bags and a bedroll to the saddle. An extra rifle was thrust down in the saddle sleeve.

“I’ll have someone posted in the watchtower in relays to watch for signals,” Bethany said, referring to the tall cupola on the roof the house.

“Did you send someone for McCaffey?” Red asked, handing her the key.

“Yes, I hope he will be here by morning. You will have help then.”

Red swung into the saddle and set off at a trot out of the doors. When he first came to the ranch, he had been more than half in love with Bethany. When Alec arrived, Red had envied Alec his bride and his position as St. Vyr’s son-in-law, but today he didn’t. He had seen Bethany’s expression harden when she spoke of killing the sniper, and suddenly he wasn’t so sure about Alec’s good fortune. It took a tough man to be married to the woman he had just left. Ruefully, Red realized he didn’t want to take a woman that strong to bed.

Bethany closed the doors and returned to the house where she found her father waiting in the parlor.

“What is going on?” St. Vyr roared. “Don’t ignore me! I’m crippled, not helpless Missy!”

Bethany took a deep breath. “I’m sorry Papa. I know you aren’t helpless, but I had to—”

“Do the things I can’t do anymore,” her father said bitterly.

“Papa—”

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

“How is Carlos?” she asked.

“No one has come down to tell me that either,” her father said.

“Shall I go find out, or do you want to hear what I’ve set in motion first?”

“Tell me what you’ve done first.”

He nodded approvingly as Bethany detailed her activities for the past hour.

“You’ve done a good job girl. Now go check on my boy.”

Bethany ran upstairs, stopping at the open door of Iris’s room. Gran was just finishing sewing the cut made by the bullet on Carlos’ head. Giselle added a few drops from a glass vial to a spoonful of honey. While Iris lifted his head, Giselle spooned the mixture into Carlos’ mouth. He swallowed and closed his eyes.

Iris gently laid his head back down on a pillow and tucked the sheet in around him.

“Sleep, now Darling,” she said, stroking his hair. “Everything is being taken care of. You just get better.”

“Papa wants to know how he is,” Bethany said.

“Flesh wounds only,” Giselle assured her. “I will tell Mike he will live. Did you send for the doctor?”

“Yes, Paco rode Glory into town. I asked him to bring the Sheriff back with them.”

“Thank you for sending your racehorse Bethany,” Iris smiled tiredly at her. “I know how much you care about your racing stock.”

“Yes, I love them,” her sister agreed, “but they aren’t worth more than the lives of my family.” Bethany sank down on the chest at the foot of the bed. “How are you holding up?” she asked her sister.

Iris let her hand drift over Carlos damp hair again in a brief caress. “I could be better but I am doing all right. I must keep reminding myself that he is alive and going to stay that way. Bethany, I was so scared when I saw him covered in blood—”

“So, when is the wedding?”

“He hasn’t actually asked me yet, you know. And Papa—”

Her sister looked her over in silence and Iris shifted uncomfortably. “That isn’t what I asked you, Iris. What do you want? I’ve always thought you were more than halfway in love with him. Am I wrong?”

Iris let her hand drift over his damp curls again. She took a deep breath. “No, you aren’t wrong. But I want—I need for him to love me too. I don’t want him to marry me to please Papa.”

“Alec says I’m not very good at reading men, but even I can see the way Carlos looks at you. He’s not marrying you to please Papa. He wants you.”

Bethany rose and gave her sister a hug. “I’ll send you up dinner and some broth for him as soon as I get the chance. His color looks better than it did when he got here.”

She headed down to the kitchen where she found Margo just starting on dinner.

“It will be late,” Margo warned her.

“Don’t do anything elaborate,” Bethany said. “Sandwiches and the soup we had yesterday will be fine.”

“Soup’s already on the stove. I’ll cut bread for sandwiches. Did Paco ride for the doctor?”

“Yes, I let him ride Glory.”

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

Bethany poured herself a cup of hot tea and sipped gingerly to avoid burning her tongue. “Your son has the skills as a rider, but I wouldn’t ask him unless you agreed.”

Margo lifted her shoulders. “Life has to be lived. I can’t hold him back, even though I will worry about how dangerous it is.”

Tessa reached the roundup camp by evening. Knowing she had many miles to go, she had alternately walked and galloped Stinger, who was breathing easy and still frisky enough to kick out at a hand who got too close when they arrived.

McCaffey saw the girl coming and recognized his wife’s prized racing colt. Circling the herd of fractious cattle, he started his tricorn back to the camp at a sharp trot. When he arrived, he realized the rider hadn’t been Bethany. The young stable hand sipping the coffee handed her by the cook was waiting to speak to him.

“Tessa, what are you doing here riding Bethany’s racing colt?” Alec demanded.

“I have permission,” she assured him. “There is a sniper targeting the ranch house. He got Carlos Madonna when they came back from investigating those miner thefts.”

“Got him?” he demanded. “Is he dead?”

“I don’t think so, but Paco rode Glory into town to fetch the doctor. Miss Bethany sent me to ask you to come home and to warn you to be careful. She sent Red Courteen up into the hills after the sniper. He’s the best tracker we have.”

“Was Carlos alone when he was shot?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Red and Durango rode in with him.”

“How many shots were fired? Were the other two hit?”

“Just the two I think. Neither Red or Durango looked wounded.”

“He got who he was aiming at then,” Alec said. “That means he was after Carlos, or maybe both of us.” He was thinking out loud. “Johnson himself isn’t that good a shot. He must have hired someone for this, or its one of the sons.”

“Boss?” it was Jorge Verduzco, “Why don’t we leave part of the crew to finish up and go hunting too?”

Several of the crew had been listening and there were sounds of agreement.

Alec shook his head. “We wouldn’t find him blundering around in the dark. We’ll start back tomorrow. Unsaddle Stinger,” he told Tessa. “There’s extra bedrolls in the wagon.”

He unsaddled his tricorn and picketed him where he could crop grass.

The next morning, Alec had the crew draw lots. Half of them would remain with the wagon and move the herd culled for sale down toward the stockyards at the ranch. The other half would ride with him to find the sniper.

“You’ve done your job,” he told Tessa when she protested staying with the herd. “Your main concern now is to take care of Stinger and make sure the pair of you get home safely.”

It was mid-morning when Alec and the hands reached the hills above the ranch. Alec had the men dismount. He changed his riding boots for soft moccasins. The soft shoes would make less noise on the ground. He noticed Jorge and a few of the others doing the same. Leaving one man to guard the tricorns, he set the others up to do a wide sweep, moving in a straight line about ten feet apart, looking for the sniper’s camp or for him. The Ironwood forest leading up into the mountains surrounding the Golden Tricorn was thick with thorn bushes carrying ripe berries. Groves of massive grey trees thrust straight up through the brush.

“This place has a lot of cover,” Alec remarked to Jorge, who nodded in agreement.

“Going to be hard to spot him in all this,” said a tall man with a shock of black hair.

“It will at that. I’d like to have proof who hired him,” Alec continued, “But when it comes down to it, he needs taken out.”

There were nods of understanding. These men had all grown up on St. Antoni, they understood the harsh conditions under which man survived here. A local Sheriff would handle trouble inside a town; outside of town, there was one District Marshall to enforce the law over thousands of square miles. On St. Antoni, you handled your problems yourself, and reported it afterwards to any law that was around. The men riding with Alec knew they were hunting a man who shot from ambush without giving his opponent the chance to defend himself. To the men of St. Antoni, that meant the sniper was fair game.

The men crept at a snail’s pace through the forest making as little noise as possible. Alec could see that this wasn’t the first time some of them had performed this duty; they were the ones who seemed to fade into the brush.

Alec discovered the sniper’s tricorn hidden in a small glade. The animal’s dark grey/brown stripes blended so well with the surrounding trees that he almost missed him. The tricorn was saddled and ready to ride at a moment’s notice. He found ashes from a small fire under an overhanging boulder. The sniper had camped here last night.

Alec stopped and made a bird trill sound. He was answered by the men on either side of him and he could hear the call being passed down the line.

He signaled for Jorge to bring the men in. “Find cover and spread out. He’s going to come back here sooner or later. When he does, we’ll be waiting for him.”

Alec didn’t even jump when Red appeared beside him.

“You stole my idea boss,” he complained. “I was hunting him all yesterday and today.”

“Sorry about that,” Alec whispered. “You’ll have to take your turn now.”

Martin Chamber had stayed alive by listening to his inner voice when it signaled danger. Right now, that voice was telling him he had stayed in this spot too long. He gathered up his rifle and other tools and climbed down from the nest he was using to spot his prey.

Alec waited patiently while Chamber scouted his camp. When the man came in, he waited until Chamber stuck his rifle into the scabbard on the saddle before he stepped out into the glade.

“Looking for me?” he asked.

Chamber whirled around, his hand going instinctively for his holstered weapon. Alec made no move to draw his own, and Chamber hesitated.

“You’re McCaffey ain’t you? You alone? No, you’ve got St. Vyr’s men out there in the bush. If I draw my gun, they’ll cut me to ribbons.”

Alec shook his head. “No, they won’t. You hear that?” he called. “This is my fight. If he shoots me, let him go.”

Red, Jorge and several others stepped into the clearing. “We hear you.”

There was a rebellious mutter from some of the men as they too came out of hiding. They stood silent and menacing as they waited.

“Let me step away from my ‘corn. I don’t want him hit,” Chambers said, edging sideways.

Alec watched him, turning a little, so he still faced him. “What’s your name? We want something to put on your grave.”

Chambers scowled at him. “I’m Martin Chambers. You won’t need to put up a marker because I’m walking away from this.”

McCaffey laughed. “Don’t bet your life on it. I’ve heard of you. You’re a money fighter who shoots from ambush. Who hired you?”

Chambers spat. “None of your business.”

“I know him too,” Red snarled. “He usually works for the Smiths in Copper City. Fact is, I owe him for a killing he did for them. A while back he took out a harmless old man named Cinders. Shot him in the back. You find out who in River Crossing has ties to the Smiths and you’ll know who hired him.”

“See here,” Chambers protested. “This ain’t got nothing to do with that other job—”

His hand dropped to his gun. Jerking the pistol up, he fired.

The bullet whipped past Alec and smacked into the tree behind him. Alec had taken a step to the side when he saw Chamber’s hand begin to move. As he stepped to the side, he drew his own gun and fired in one smooth motion. His bullet bored a round hole precisely in Chamber’s forehead.

“Good shooting, boss,” said Red.

Alec walked over to Chambers and kicked him in the side. “He’s dead, alright. Jorge, go and tell Martin to bring our mounts down here. One of you boys throw him on his ‘corn and tie him off. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m ready to go home.”