Excerpt: Dangerous Territory

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 forced 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.

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 have seen 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; 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 unexpectedly 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 have been 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 colonists 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 got 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, dampened a handkerchief, and 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.

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