Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Today You Get Stand-In Story

There is no new Love Letters today. I hate that there isn't, I keep a schedule for a reason and this is twice in the last 5 weeks I've broken it, but I've gotta say these are some pretty extravagant extenuating circumstances.  I left you guys with a terrible cliffhanger, but then, we're kind of hanging onto a cliff ourselves right now.

I've spent my non-working time digging on my road, at the top of which rests my car, and at the bottom of which rests a collapsing culvert.  I figure I should still try to make the road usable, for whenever we manage to get a crew up here to help fix things.  My man and I are sharing a vehicle, and we've got neighbors to help who weren't as lucky as us.  Because we were truly, incredibly lucky with this storm.  Our home is fine, we're both mostly healthy (I'm a little screwed up, but what else is new?) and the cat is reassuringly ornery.  So, lucky!  But time isn't something we've had a lot of.  Time or clean water.  I'm boiling and bleaching my water again, it's like being back in Togo.  I risked a shower today--bring it, microbes!  No wait, don't.  Please don't bring it...

So, I'm going to do my best to have both Love Letters and the first entry for Cody's story--which I haven't titled yet, I need to--for you next week, as an apology.  Today, you get the first part of a story titled Dangerous Territory coming out next month in an SMP anthology.  This is just me givin' my darling something to go on, because I love you.  Read and enjoy, or don't and get your recompense next week.  

I hope you all are safe and happy.  Thanks for your lovely comments over the past week, I've really appreciated it and I'm sorry for delays in response--the power was iffy for awhile.


Dangerous Territory

By Cari Z

Carter Bly stared blankly at his father’s tombstone, so exhausted now that he couldn’t spare the energy to think about why he’d beaten his way out to the cemetery in the middle of a dust storm, too tired to think of anything except his own failure.  One month his pa had been in his grave.  One month was all it had taken for everything to go to hell.

The wind blew dry and hot this time of year across the Oklahoma Territories, stinging the skin with sand and filling every crevice of skin and cloth with dirt.  Carter was aware, absently, that he looked a damn fool out here, battered felt hat clenched in his fist, dust marking out the premature lines in his face, carved after decades of squinting into the sun.  He’d worked his whole life with his father on the ranch, worked to make it bigger and better.  More animals, better feed, the finest cattle west of the Mississippi.  Cattle that would command a great price at auction.  Cattle that would give him and his sister an easier life than their parents had had.

Carter’s eyes ached, red-rimmed and gritty from sleepless nights and never-ending frustration.  He ran a clumsy hand through his hair, felt the strands clump thick and greasy against his palm.  His mama would have switched him something fierce if she could see what he looked like right now. 

He glanced over at his mother’s tombstone, five feet away.  It was a little rounder about the edges than his pa’s, but the engraving was still clear.  Caroline Bly had been dead for five years, and Carter had never thought of that as something to be thankful for before now.  As it was, he was grateful she’d been spared the pain of seeing everything she’d worked for fall to pieces.

Well, not everything.  From one way of looking, Millie had done more than all right for herself.  Carter knew that was how his sister saw it; it was how she had to see it if she was going to live with herself.  Both Carter and Millie had taken after their father, and while in Carter’s case that made him a fairly handsome man, tall and long-legged and strong-featured, Millie had ended up a gangly, raw-boned and strong-featured woman, which no woman wanted to be called.  She’d been convinced she’d live and die a spinster before their little town had become a stopping point for barges heading downriver to the big trading cities.  Before Percy.

“Carter.”  A heavy hand clapped his shoulder, shaking him out of his reverie.  “Come on back to the big house now, son.”

His eyes prickled painfully at the word ‘son,’ but any moisture was soon swept away by the wind.  “I will not sleep in that house while he’s under the same roof.”

“Half of that roof is yours,” his company pointed out.  “You should claim it.”

“I can’t.”  Carter shook his head, the freshness of his misery finally resurfacing.  “I can’t, Keena.  I’ll punch the man in the face before he says two words, and then who knows what his fancy-pants lawyer will be able to bleed outta me?  I can’t go back there, not…”  Not broken.  Not like this.  Not while all I can think of is everything that I’ve lost.

“Then come home with me,” Keena said gently.  “Gertrude wants to get her hands on you anyway; she’s convinced you’ll starve to death without a cook around up there.”

“Percy has provided his own cook,” Carter sneered.  “Calls him a chef, actually.  Boy from the Loozy-Do who can’t even make biscuits without burnin’ ‘em.  Covers perfectly good steak with sauces, and he actually brought gator sausage with him.  Throws it into the grits and ruins the taste.  Gator.  Who in the hell eats gator?”

“Come home,” Keena repeated.  “You can get a bath, get some food, some sleep.  Tomorrow is soon enough to figure out the rest of it.”

Carter wanted to argue, wanted to say that there was nothing to figure out, he was pure and simple screwed, that was all, screwed out of his inheritance by his besotted sister and her snake-eyed husband, but he knew Keena didn’t want to hear that.  The old man had worked on this ranch since before Carter was born, and he was the closest thing to family that Carter had now outside of Millie.  Hell, he and his wife Gertrude might be Carter’s closest thing to family including Millie, what with how she’d behaved of late, like some prissy, weak-minded debutante who wouldn’t even breathe without asking for her husband’s permission first.  That wasn’t the sister he knew.  Nothing was familiar anymore, nothing except…

“C’mon now,” Keena coaxed him, and Carter let himself be led away from his father’s grave.  There was no comfort to be had there, anyway.

Keena and Gertrude had a small place about a half-mile from the big house, where they’d lived ever since they’d first married and Pa had put Keena in charge of the herd.  Carter used to run back and forth between the two homes on a daily basis, delivering food or gossip for the women, carrying plans and whiskey for the men.  Gertrude and Caroline had been friends their whole lives, and Caroline had been one of the only people not to shun Gertrude after she’d married Keena. 

Keena was half shifter, and that sort of intermarriage was still frowned upon by polite society.  Fierce shifter clans were a large part of the reason that early efforts to make this new land into one united country had failed so spectacularly; the newcomers might have had better guns, but they couldn’t track a hawk through the sky, or a wolf into the mountains.  

Many attempts at inroads into shifter territory had been made, but the cost was usually so high for whomever tried it that an uneasy peace had gradually settled over the land.  Shifters gave up territory they didn’t much care for to whomever could grab it first, and with no central government that made for a lot of small, insular communities. 

Apart from the original thirteen colonies back east, who had gotten their land in part by passing along illness before shifters got wise to it, the continent was a patchwork of claims.  Various shifter tribes, the Oklahoma Territories, the Dukedom of Louisiana, the People’s Republic of Texas…it was a wild place, this part of the world.  Hardscrabble lives made it difficult to trust outsiders, and Keena was shunned by both groups.  The Blys had provided him and his family with a sanctuary, and now even that might be taken away.

Keena pulled Carter to the small barn outside his home, opened up a rain barrel that had nearly gone dry and dampened a handkerchief, then passed it over.  “Better clean up some first, or Gertrude will take one look atcha and send you right back outside.”

Carter took the cloth and ran it numbly over his face, shutting his eyes for a moment and letting the cool water wash some of the grit away.  God, he was so tired…it was tempting to keep the thin cotton draped there, easing the harshness of his breaths and taking away some of the pain of reality for a while, but Carter knew he couldn’t hide from his troubles.  He had tonight, and only tonight, to figure out a plan that would keep him independent, or he’d have to give in to Percy’s demands.  There was too much at stake for him to be obstinate now.

Keena’s warm hand touched Carter’s elbow.  “C’mon now, son,” he murmured, turning them both toward the house.  “Come on.”

Inside that humble front door was the warmth and welcome that Carter had always received from Gertrude, in the form of a pair of work-weathered hands clasping his face and a brief, concerned cluck.  “What type of fool are ya, Carter, to go out into those dustups with nothing but a single layer, hmm?” she asked him with a sigh.  “Your mama didn’t raise you to be ignorin’ the weather.”  She pointed at one of the chairs—the widest one, the one she’d always given to his father before now—at the table.  “Go and sit down before you fall down and let me get some food into you.  Both of you,” she added, including her husband in her admonition.  He raised his hands peaceably and sat down.

They stayed mostly quiet while they ate, Keena and Gertrude exchanging soft, easy words and touches as the food made its way around the table.  It was a light evening meal, not the hearty dinner served earlier in the day, but there was bread and slices of cold, salted ham, and stewed apples flavored with cinnamon and a few precious cloves.  That bottle of cloves had been Caroline Bly’s last gift to Gertrude, and the experienced cook had made them last for half a decade so far.  Carter gulped down his lemon water, finally realizing how parched he was, and had seconds under Gertrude’s watchful eye until he could eat no more.  While she cleared the plates, Keena took out a bottle of whiskey and poured them all a dram.

“Now, before we let ourselves go, why don’t you tell me what happened up at the big house today?” Keena asked gently.  “Sharing your burden might help ease it.”

Carter chuckled bitterly.  “I was going to have to talk to you about it anyway.  It’s got to do with the running of the ranch.”

Gertrude frowned as she sat back down.  “I thought that was settled,” she said.  “You and your sister split it equally, just like your father intended.”

“Only what’s left isn’t equal anymore,” Carter said with a sigh.

“What’s that mean, son?”

“It doesn’t take into account Millie’s dowry.”

Now Keena frowned.  “But the dowry was settled on before your father died.”

“Yes, but it wasn’t delivered,” Carter explained.  “It’s supposed to be ten percent of the total herd.  We didn’t have time to plan the ceremony while pa was so poorly, and since he’s been gone, well, there hasn’t been time for a wedding.”

“We knew about this,” Gertrude said.  “It’s all planned out now, isn’t it?  They’re going to marry next spring.”

“Can’t wait that long.  Millie’s pregnant.”

Gertrude’s hand flew to her mouth.  “Oh dear.  Oh, that poor dear.  Poor, stupid girl.”

“She’s not far enough along to show, not yet, but she was scared to death that Percy was going to change his mind and leave her, so she convinced him to marry her now.”  Carter snorted derisively.  “Didn’t take much convincing, honestly, that man would have had her the same day he met her if it meant getting a chance any sooner at our cattle and our land.  He’d already made himself comfortable in our home, and I let him, I let him have a hand in the running of my house because I thought it helped Millie, having him closer instead of in town.

“Apparently I kept him too close.  She married him today, at the courthouse.  She didn’t even bother to tell me until they got back.”  It hurt to think about, the look of nervous defiance on his sister’s face, her blank expression as Percy sat down in front of Carter and explained to him that, as 60 percent of the herd now belonged to him, and his sister had signed all of her authority over to her husband, and that by territory law Percy had control of the running of the ranch now.  And the first thing he would do, he said, was—

“—fire that wretched old shifter fellow who tends the beasts.”  Percy’s tone had been full of disdain, his modulated, educated words carelessly hateful.  He was dressed in his Sunday best coming back from the courthouse, a peacock next to his new wife’s drab peahen, for all that she’d tried.  Millie wouldn’t meet Carter’s eyes.  “I prefer to staff my own kind, not half-breeds or other raffle.”

“You can’t fire him,” Carter had replied, incensed and doing his best not to show it.  “He knows this land better than anyone, he keeps the snakes away from the animals, he knows which cows are about to drop, and he almost never loses a calf.  This ranch needs him.”

“Oh, I beg to differ,” Percy said with a sniff.  “And as I own controlling interest in this quaint little venture, I am the one who has the final say.”

Carter knew, then, that there was no way he could continue on here, in the house he’d been born and raised in, with this man and the sister he didn’t know anymore.  He’d grind his teeth to nothing holding back his rage, when all he wanted was to sock this dandy fop so hard in the jaw he couldn’t eat for a month.  He wanted to yell at his sister, to demand her support after everything they’d been through together, but he couldn’t do that to Millie.  No one should be made to choose between their husband and their family, so Carter would take that choice out of her hands.  He just had to figure out how to do it without impoverishing himself.

Keena and Gertrude were both silent, absorbing what Carter had shared.  Gertrude spoke first.  “That man doesn’t know the first thing about ranching,” she snapped.  “Keena’s worth the work of ten of his fancy cowboys.”

“I know it,” Carter agreed.  “I got Percy to agree to accept severance pay in exchange for me breakin’ off my share of the herd.”

“How much money?” Keena asked immediately.  “And when?”

“Another ten percent.  It’ll leave me with fewer than a thousand head, but we can build up from that.”  Carter blew out a frustrated breath.  “The thing is, I don’t have the money right now, and he won’t take the payment in more cattle.  Bastard’s already got his livestock booked on the first barges down to auction at the Big Top, and there’s no room for mine on board.  If he floods the market before I get there, I won’t get enough for my stock to make enough to pay him to sever with me.”

“And if you don’t sever now…”

“Then he has the running of the ranch for a year, while I scrape the money together,” Carter sighed.  “He’ll take this house.  He’s said as much, he wants it for his own men.”

Gertrude paled, and her eyes suddenly glistened in the lamp light.  “But…we’ve been here since we first got married, longer than you’ve been livin’.”  Her husband reached out and took her hand, stroking it gently.  She turned towards him and pressed her face into his shoulder.  Carter had never seen Gertrude cry before, not after her miscarriages, not even after his mama died.  To see it now made him feel strangely ashamed of himself.

Keena spoke up after a moment.  “You’ve got to get to auction before Percy.”

“I know,” Carter said, clenching his hands in his hair.  “I just don’t know how.  If the rains are late, real late, I could drive ‘em to auction and get there first, but that’s a long trip and I need you here, looking after the heifers and their calves.  It would be hard as hell by myself.”

“You could use Mason Canyon,” Keena said, and both Gertrude and Carter stared at him like he was crazy.

“That’s shifter territory,” Carter said at last. 

“The last time you went to speak to them, they tried to shoot you!” his wife exclaimed, wiping furiously at her eyes.
“The local tribe’s leadership has just changed.  I think their new chief might deal with me.”

Shifters willing to deal?  That didn’t happen in the Oklahoma Territories.  You carved out what you could hold and prayed no one saw fit to fight you for it.  Carter tried another tack.  “Mason Canyon’s full of snakes--they’d decimate my herd.”

“These shifters can handle any snake,” Keena said calmly.  “Mason Canyon is almost a straight shot right down to the Big Top.  You’d get there in under two weeks, and your guide could help you handle the cattle.”

God damn, but that was mighty tempting… Carter strained to hold on to his objectivity.  “If the rains come early,” he murmured, “the canyon will flood.  I could lose everything.”

“If you don’t try,” Keena told him bluntly, “you’ll lose everything anyway.  And so will we.”  He leaned forward a little, his plain, wide face earnest.  “Let me try to strike a deal.  If this works, you could make enough to pay off your debts and have enough to start over, build your own place, claim your own land.  I will help you.”

“We both will,” Gertrude said, then threw up her hands in exasperation.  “Assuming that this old fool doesn’t go off and get himself killed tonight dealing with those ruffians.”

Carter swallowed hard.  “You think it could work?”

Keena nodded slowly.  “I think it has to work.”  He pushed his chair back and stood up.  “This tribe is more active at night.  I should go before the moon is too high, though.”

“Are you sure you don’t—”

“Don’t you even think about going with him,” Gertrude interrupted.  “You need to sleep.  You’re dead on your feet.  I’ve got the spare bed all made up.”

“If you’re sure…”

“Of course I’m sure.  Go on, there’s more water in the room, and a kit for shaving in the morning.” 

“Get some sleep,” Keena reiterated.  “You’ll need it for the journey you’ve got ahead of you.”

A journey down Mason Canyon…the result was either going to be utterly brilliant or the worst mistake of his life.  Right now Carter was too tired to care.  He levered himself out of his chair, biting back a groan at the stiffness in his arms, and headed for the second bedroom.

The room was small, with hardly enough room for the slender bed, rough wooden nightstand with mirror, kit and lamp upon it, but it was homey and familiar.  Carter had slept in that bed more times than he could remember over the course of his life.  It was too short for him now, but he still found it more comfortable than anything he’d be sleeping in back in the Big House.  At least here, he could breathe.

He shucked off his dirty clothes and hung them over the rail at the foot of the bed, used the wet rag in the basin to wipe the worst of the sweat and dirt away, then slipped under the cool, stiff covers.  Carter was so wound up he honestly didn’t think he’d sleep, but the days of toil had taken their toll, and the moment his body actually began to relax, he was dead to the world.


  1. Wow, you are truly dedicated to your readers. Not even a disaster will keep you from posting a story. *hug* You get my vote for Author of the Year. Just keep you and yours safe and healthy. At least you know how to bleach water safely and skin is designed to handle imperfect water. Also, on the brighter side, you will have lots of new fodder for writing.

  2. I second Tali's vote. Your dedication to your readers is awesome. I enjoyed the "stand in" story and will have to check out the anthology for the rest of it.

    And while I will definitely not complain if I get Cody and Ben/Ryan next week, please don't add more stress to what you already have going on. (Having to dig out the road and boil/bleach water would have me pulling out my hair!!) Stay safe and I hope things get back to some sense of normal soon.