“As a man of the law, as a man who had seen what he’d seen, he knew what answer he’d give anyone else who asked him that question in that situation – but this is gonna be difficult for her to hear.”
It hadn’t been a terrible winter for former sheriff Tommy Lee Lauman, now working and trying to make ends meet in a mountainous ranch, away from the pain of losing his family. However, when a young woman ends up on his doorstep, frostbitten and without her child, Tommy realizes that there’s another mission for him out there.
A mysterious red scarf, a vicious but smart gang leader and a surprising attack on a nearby ranch show Tommy that all is not what it seems in this quiet part of Colorado. Tommy Lee is caught in the middle of a corrupted plan and It would take an army to stop him from doing what’s right.
Zachary McCrae’s new Western adventure novel is a thrilling and unforgettable ride in the perilous side of the Old West!
Kansas City, Missouri
15 July 1869
It was raining. At first, innocently, a gentle sigh of relief breathed down from above onto the sunbaked Midwestern soil that cracked and shimmered like God had fashioned it from terracotta and placed it in a kiln.
Children rushed haphazardly onto the streets, under the tightly packed gray clouds. They felt the kiss of the still-silent drops and dug their toes into the sodden earth. Mothers snapped at their bonnets and shirt collars with retributive hands as carts and their drivers careened out the way. The white timber walls of the Main Street church ran red with the runoff of caked dirt, which settled like pools of blood on the ground. That was when the storm broke.
Tommy-Lee Lauman stood under an awning just outside the Main Street bank with his wife and daughter. The torrent came down like a battering of glass rods which shattered painfully against the people caught in them. He took an empty milk bottle from the ground outside the bank and peeked his hand out from under the awning. His flesh stung under the buckshot droplets. When he pulled the bottle back in, a knuckle’s depth of crystal water settled at the bottom. He splashed a little onto his hands and touched them to his daughter’s rosy cheeks.
“Cold,” she giggled.
He looked into his daughter’s bright eyes and saw the world held in balance between her soft, fluttering eyelids. The man knew of great love. When he looked up at his wife, he understood it.
“Would ya look at that, Elsa? Just two years old and speakin’ so clear.”
“It’s all the books you been readin’ her, I’m sure,” his wife said, and smiled at the little girl in her arms. “Ain’t that so, May?”
“On the notion of books, I’m goin’ to go over to Mr. Barnabas real quick while ya two make that deposit, all right? We just finished that princess story of hers.”
“Yessir,” she winked at him.
He watched his wife and daughter enter the bank, where a young black boy in a white shirt and flat cap opened the door for them. The boy must have lost his grip on the handle as the door swung back slightly and bumped Elsa on the rear. She looked back and laughed at Tommy. He admired his wife’s easygoing nature and good humor, but the bank manager did not share those qualities. The heavyset man roared toward the doorman, screaming obscenities, and threatening his job. Then, he caught Tommy’s dark, serious eyes. Tommy crossed his arms and shook his head at the manager, his mouth a tight scowl above his commanding chin and dark beard. That was all it took.
“Sorry, Sheriff,” said the bank manager.
“Don’t apologize to me.” Tommy looked at the doorman, who was trying to dig holes in the floor with his eyes.
The bank manager sighed and spat. “Sorry.”
“And to the ladies, fer yer cursin’.”
“My apologies, ladies.”
“Of all people, I’m sure a banker’d be most relieved that manners don’t cost nothin’,” said Elsa.
Tommy smiled. “Carry on, then,” he said to everyone in the bank. Almost all of them sent a sincere smile or nod back his way. They liked their Sheriff, just as they liked his father. He tipped his black felt hat and turned to make his way to the bookstore across the street. A child screamed and Tommy turned on the noise in an instant. Just a little boy pushing his sister in a puddle. An angry hand yanked them both out and plopped them down in a wet, wrestling pile. Tommy let go of his held breath. His hand, which had been hovering over his father’s old Colt six-shooter on his belt, dropped to his trouser pocket.
The tinkle of the bookstore bell was swallowed by a crack of thunder. Tommy shook his hat off out the door and did his best to dry his hands before he went around ruining any of the print. A small, bespectacled old man looked over his shoulder from atop a library ladder tucked away in the corner of the store. He blended in perfectly with the dark leather book spines.
“I haven’t seen you since, what was it, The Princess and the Pea?”
Tommy laughed. “Yessir, and she loved it. Now if only I could get her to eat her peas, much as she wants to read about ‘em.”
A voice pitched in from the corner of the store that was obscured by the door. “You should try The King of the Golden River if you ain’t read it to yer daughter already. I’m assumin’ that’s who the books are fer.”
The two men looked over. An older gentleman in a black bowler hat and trench stepped into the stormy gray light. He carried two books out in front of him, almost like a priest would carry a reliquary.
“Why, no, we ain’t had that one yet. Thank ya, sir.”
“Don’t mention it, Sheriff. That’s a mighty fine decision. Readin’ to our children is so important.”
Tommy thought something about the man was slightly odd, whether it was how he held the books or how he spoke about them. Many new folks had recently moved into the city, and the Sheriff was getting increasingly used to meeting odd folks.
“This rain’s gonna work wonders on the river, don’t ya think?” asked Barnabas.
“Certainly,” said Tommy. “Hopefully, with the Hannibal just bein’ built, we won’t have people drownin’. Deputy Sandmen can’t stand it when those bodies wash up. Somethin’ about goin’ that way turns him cold.”
The man in the bowler placed one of the two books on the counter. “Just this for me, sir,” he said. Barnabas peered down and noted the cover. “Mighty fine choice — a classic. That’ll be four dollars, please, sir.”
The man left the money on the counter and handed the other book to Tommy. “Here you go, Sheriff.” It was The King of the Golden River.
The man nodded and turned to leave the store. He picked up a black umbrella just next to the door and opened it as he stepped out. The bell tinkled, and the leaden thrum of the rain filled the store for a second and then disappeared.
“Guess it’ll be this fer me, Barnabas.” Tommy placed the book on the counter and took some money out of his pocket.
“No charge, Sheriff,” the old man said quickly.
“You and Mike, uh, Deputy Sandmen, have been workin’ real hard on findin’ those missin’ girls, and we all see it. No charge.”
Tommy nodded sullenly and took the book. “Thank ya, sir.”
He was about to leave the money on the counter anyway when the first stray bullet exploded through the bookstore window. Tommy placed the sound and trajectory of the gunshot in his mind. The bank.
His heartbeat was almost as loud as the next bullet and the screams that followed it.
By the time he crossed the street, Elsa and May’s blood had already been washed away into the murky, raging depths of the Mississippi.
Singing River Ranch, Colorado
18 December 1869
Tommy jolted up in bed and reached for the iron on his nightstand. Instead of a cold metal barrel, his hand landed on a lukewarm enamel cup filled with fresh coffee that clattered to the wooden floor.
Darn it, Andres, he thought.
Tommy quickly opened the nightstand drawer. The object he was looking for slid forward over the wood with a scratching noise and stopped with a bump when it hit the end of the drawer. It was Tommy’s Colt six-shooter that had originally belonged to his father.
Tommy leaned back onto the headboard of his bed and took stock of the room. Empty, but for a sense that, with the means to continue living, a man with very little may still carry on simply because he must. It was a sparse space kitted out with necessities for survival and perhaps a modest amount of comfort: Tommy’s single bed with a bison fur throw, bare wooden floors, a writing desk and stool, enamel wash basin and jug, a wardrobe with a small mirror built into one door, and a stone hearth in which a fire burned to warm up the room.
Reflected in the window-facing wardrobe mirror was a pristine white layer’ of snowfall, undisturbed but for a single set of horse tracks. The snow-dusted pines sat at the fringes of the wild world around the ranch, a gently swaying circle of indifference to man and beast alike.
It was his sixth month at this new place. After the funeral of Elsa and May, Deputy Mike Sandmen rode with him out to Colorado. Mike had asked him what he thought, and all Tommy said was, “It’s quiet.”
That must have meant something to Tommy, because he bought Singing River Ranch for two hundred dollars cash from an old rancher named John Nicholson. Nicholson’s wife and two sons had died from the pox. One of the old man’s ranch hands had stopped him from throwing a half-drunk bottle of whiskey stuffed with a flaming rag through the window of the main house. He was never seen again after that. Then it was Tommy’s. From his first day there, Tommy had approached his new life cultivating the land and raising cattle with the same sense of duty and devotion as when he was Kansas City Sheriff. The work exhausted him and that was his reason for doing it. He didn’t really know what he was doing, and a lot of the cowboys left when John did, but one stayed behind. Andres Brown, the ranch foreman and an ex-slave. Andres taught Tommy all about the lifestyle.
Suddenly, Tommy realized that he was starting his morning very late. He sprang out of bed, pulled a pair of looser jeans over his woolen sleeping trousers and socks, threw on a plaid shirt and walked over to the wardrobe. He grabbed his leather bandolier from inside the wardrobe. As he pulled it from its shelf, a small metal object dropped onto the floor.
Tommy bent down to pick it up and paused when he saw what it was. His old Sheriff’s badge. He could have sworn he left it for Mike on the day he rode from Kansas City. He picked it up and hurriedly packed it away inside an empty drawer in the wardrobe. He put on his bandolier, then took his Colt from the nightstand and holstered it.
He turned back and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. The glass was yellowed and dim. A dark vignette crept around his tired eyes. His bushy eyebrows and beard in the sepia glass made him think of photos he’d seen of cowboys in large cattle drives that came east from Colorado and the Territory of Utah.
Tommy walked to the door, where he shrugged into a long blue, fur-lined coat and a black, wide-brimmed felt hat. He stepped into a pair of simple, brown leather cowboy boots, and was ready for a day’s work in the cold.
A small silver pocket watch ticked away in the inside coat pocket. Twenty minutes past six. Almost an hour late. Andres had probably already cleaned the cattle pens and checked on the cows that were close to calving. Why don’t he just wake me up? The foreman did tell him he looked real balmy the last few days. He rushed downstairs.
Tommy walked through the small kitchen in the main house towards the outside. Dust in the air caught the soft light and danced around the stillness. A lot of it settled on unused iron cook pans and a bellow next to the heavy iron stove. One pan was missing from its usual place on the rack. The smell of warm grease filled the air. There was a plate of bacon and eggs on the table where Tommy always sat down to eat. He left the eggs but grabbed the bacon and welcomed the fatty, salty taste of freshly cooked meat.
“Thanks, Andres,” Tommy said.
Rushing in through the door like a housebreaker, an icy blast of Colorado mountain air made short work of the layer’s Tommy put on. It took him a moment to adjust, but it certainly woke him up. He accepted the cold. It gave him something to focus on for the day: don’t freeze to death.
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