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The Orphan's Trail

One boy and one girl escape the orphanage and brave the wilderness of the California Trail. Will they make it out of there unharmed?

Abandoned at a young age, sixteen-year-old Jack has always felt called to leave the Christian orphanage he grew up in and seek his origins. Armed with his wit, resourcefulness, and a small wagon, he and Naomi traverse the rugged terrain of the California Trail, encountering danger and obstacles at every turn. But when they finally catch up with a wagon party, they realize that Naomi’s past has caught up with her, and they must fight to protect themselves against a vicious man who wants her back. Will they find Jack’s family and overcome the dangers they face along the way?

Don’t miss out on Zachary McCrae’s western adventure novel—perfect for fans of Louis L’ Amour and C. J Petit!

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Western Historical Adventure Author


4.3 / 5 (221 ratings)

Chapter One

Fairmont Orphanage, 1895—Saint Louis, Missouri, 1868


When Jack Holt emerged from the barn at the Fairmont Orphanage, he stood in the bright sunlight for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

For the past two hours, he’d been sitting with Blue Sky, a twenty-three year-old chestnut horse that had contracted colic the previous day. The weather had been acting up lately, going from swelteringly hot to unseasonably cold, which were prime conditions for a horse to suddenly get colic—especially a horse like Blue Sky, who had already taken ill this way twice in the past three years.

Luckily, though, she was doing much better now, prompting Jack to spend a good half an hour on his knees, thanking God for saving Blue Sky and asking the Lord to keep watch over everyone at the Fairmont Orphanage.

“Jack! Jack Holt!” A tall, lanky, dark-haired teenager ran towards him.

Jack grinned at the sight—as always, Kevin Montgomery looked like he still wasn’t quite sure how the different parts of his body worked. His arms kind of windmilled about, and his legs looked like each of them wanted to go in a different direction when he ran.

When he reached Jack, he paused, putting his head down, taking in deep gulps of air. Jack waited patiently for his friend to get himself under control.

“Mister Bill sent me to tell you he wants to see you in his office,” Kevin finally managed to gasp out.

“Did he say what he wanted?” Jack asked.

Kevin shook his head and said, “He just said for me to come down to the barn and tell you that he wanted to see you as soon as you were done with Blue Sky. You know how the old man is. He only tells us what he wants us to know.

Jack took Blue Sky and let her run over to the south pasture, watching for a few moments to make sure the horse started to eat some of the dew-covered grass beneath the large oak tree where Jack often would take his lunch on hot days.

As Jack headed up the small hill towards the main house, he forced himself to stay calm. Although there had been plenty of times when being summoned by Mister Bill had not turned out to be a bad thing, there had also been plenty of times when it had been less than enjoyable.

As he approached the two-story main house, Jack noticed that some of the white trim around the parlor window was peeling. He made a mental note to take care of that sometime soon.

Climbing the front steps into the main house, he saw a young, raven-haired girl watching him, who quickly turned away when she saw him looking at her. She had on a plain white dress, but when she turned, it flowed around her in an elegant arc. As always, he enjoyed watching her pretend not to notice him when he was around her.

Jack grinned and said, “Hello, Naomi.”

She turned around, then, and looked at him, her blue eyes widening in what was obviously very poorly acted surprise and said, “Oh, hello, Jack. I didn’t see you come in.”

Jack stood there for a moment, just looking at her. She wasn’t like any of the other girls at Fairmont. Most of them were just giggling little children who blushed a lot and wouldn’t meet his gaze. With Naomi, there was a kind of directness to the way she looked at him, even though he had never quite been able to figure out what was going on in that head of hers. He suspected she liked him, but when it came to figuring out women, Jack had not had a great deal of experience.

“Well, is there something you need, Jack Holt, or do you just want to stand there with your mouth hanging open, looking like you’re waiting for a fly to land on your tongue?” she asked, but he saw the slightest hint of a teasing smile on her lips.

Jack pulled himself out of his thoughts. “Is Mister Bill in his office?” he asked.

She nodded. “Last I looked, he was. He said when you showed up, you should just go right on in.”

“Thank you.”

She gave him another quick nod, turning away again, but not before he caught a glimpse of a brief smile.

Jack went down the narrow hallway until he reached the director’s office, where he knocked on the door.

“Come in!” came the rich, deep voice.

Jack went into the small office, which was filled by an oak desk, a few chairs, and a large filing cabinet off in one corner. Behind the desk sat Bill Willis, the director of the orphanage, known as “Mister Bill” to his charges. The man’s weathered features gave him a stern appearance, but his warm blue eyes revealed the man’s true nature.

Mister Bill looked up from his desk, and when he saw Jack, he gave him a bright smile. While that would have normally been reassuring, there was a look of concern in his blue eyes, and when he nodded towards a chair in front of his desk and told Jack to have a seat, there was something tight in the man’s voice. “How’s Blue Sky?”

Jack smiled and said, “She’s gonna be all right, I reckon. When she first started colicking, I made sure to get some oil down her throat to keep things moving through her. This morning, she was standing up ‘stead of lying down and rolling around. She don’t seem to be in pain today.”

“Glad to hear that. I know how much that horse means to you, Jack. I still can’t get over the way she takes to you but treats everyone else around here like they aren’t worth a darn.”

“That’s ‘cause I took the time to become her friend,” Jack said. “Way back when, when I first wanted to ride, she was the one I wanted, even though everyone told me to pick a different horse. Something in her eye got my attention, and I just spent the first couple of weeks just being around her, letting her know that I thought she was special, and I wanted to be her rider—and eventually, she came around.”

Mister Bill nodded and shuffled some papers around in front of him. He cleared his throat, then, and said, “Jack, you know that I hold you in the highest esteem here at the orphanage. Among all of the charges I’ve ever had, you are one of the ones who has most impressed me. You’ve always gone out of your way to help anyone out around here who needs help, and I’ve seen the way you always made sure that none of the younger kids ever got bullied by the older ones. You’ve always had a sense of decency and responsibility that I just wish more grown men could find in themselves.”

Jack felt his face heat up. He’d always tried to do the right thing, even in those times when he was never quite sure what the right thing was. “I appreciate the kind words, sir.”

“Now, the thing is, Jack, you’re going to be turning eighteen in a couple of weeks, and that means that you can’t stay here any longer. By law, I’ve got to cut you loose. If you wanted, though, I can maybe fix it so that you could stay on here at the orphanage as one of the workers—taking care of the animals, helping out with the charges, working in the kitchen and the laundry.

“Naturally, I can’t pay that much, since we’re not making money here, but it’s good, honest work, and you’d always have a place to sleep and food in your belly. You’re good with all the animals and every one of the young ones looks up to you. Some of the boys have actually wanted to learn to start reading because they’ve always seen you with your nose buried in one of those books on surviving in the wilderness.”

Jack was caught off-guard. He’d known that his impending birthday meant he’d have to leave Fairmont, but he hadn’t expected that he’d be given the chance to remain. It was an offer he’d never heard of any other charge being given.

Mister Bill, watching him carefully, held up a hand and said, “I don’t need an answer right now, Jack. I know you’ve got some plans of your own when you leave here, and that’s fine. I just wanted to let you know this was an option for you.”

“Sir, I promise that I’ll think about it, but I kind of have my mind set on going out into the world and seeing some of those places I’ve read about in books. There’s a whole world out there, and part of me just thinks that I have to go and see what’s out there for me.”

“Well, you think on it, Jack, and if you decide to stay, we’ll work something out. If you decide to go and take on the world, Jack—well, there ain’t a single doubt in my mind that you’re going to make your mark on it.”

The young man nodded, filled with an enormous warmth for this man who had been watching over him and the other charges for nearly eighteen years. Jack knew he was being given a tremendous opportunity to stay at the orphanage, the only home he’d ever known, but as Mister Bill had said, Jack had plans of his own for when he turned eighteen.


The full moon shone directly in through Jack’s window as he lay in bed that night, thinking about what Mister Bill had told him. Kevin, the young man who roomed with him, was still finishing up the last of his chores, making sure all the animals were in for the night and that the barn was locked up to keep the night predators from coming around for a meal.

It wasn’t a big room—just barely enough for him and Kevin, but it was a place where he’d always felt safe, secure. Yet, after his talk with Mister Bill, there was a kind of yearning inside of him which flared up more powerful than ever.

For the past six months, he’d been dreading turning eighteen—and yet, he couldn’t deny the excitement he’d felt, too. Even though he knew people saw him as mature for his age, there were often times when he felt like he was just a child, still.

Some of the others in the orphanage had come when they were older, and they had an air about them that made them seem as if they were already adults. When they’d talk about the things they’d done, the things they’d seen, it made Jack feel as if he had missed out on so much when he’d been in the orphanage.

Jack was one of the youngest charges when he’d been turned over to the orphanage. Too young to remember anything of what might have happened that long ago, he relied upon Mister Bill telling him about when Jack and a few older children had been dropped off by a harried official who had rescued them from a fire at another orphanage. The older children could remember their names, but Jack was only an infant, wrapped in a couple of thick blankets.

A paper pinned to the blankets said, “This is Jack Wyatt Holt. He needs someone to take care of him and to keep him safe.”

At the bottom of the paper, an address had been written, but the paper had somehow gotten wet. The only remaining word was “Texas.”

“I wish I could give you more information, Jack,” Mister Bill had once told him, “but honestly, that note is all we had to go on. Whoever left you probably had to move on to Texas, but we have no idea where in Texas they might be—and Texas is a mighty big place, I’m afraid.”

Although Jack never talked about his past again with Mister Bill, there were many nights that Jack had lain awake, looking out his window, wondering where his parents were, why they had left him, and whether or not he was ever going to meet them.

And now, he had a decision to make—stay with the safe and familiar world of the orphanage or take a gamble and head out to Texas, hoping he might be able to find answers to the questions of who he was and where he came from.

It wasn’t just wanting to try to find his parents, though. It went deeper than that. It went right down into Jack’s heart.

When he’d first discovered the magic found inside books, he’d found himself wanting to read about what it was like for the men who wrote those books to have themselves a “great adventure.” They went out into the world, hardly knowing what they were going to find, and they made their way, using whatever knowledge and tools they had.

For Jack, that sounded like the most exciting thing ever.

When they were in school, he knew some of the kids wanted to become doctors or something like that, but for Jack, the only thing he could see himself becoming was some kind of adventurer.

And now, he was about ready to do just that. He had the chance to either stay here at Fairmont or to go out there into the unknown with nothing but his wits and some supplies to challenge the world.

One way was safe and secure and familiar.

The other was scary and exciting and totally unknown.

It was a long time before he was able to get to sleep.


The following morning, Jack emerged from the barn after his morning chores, wanting to talk to Mister Bill, when he saw a very determined-looking Naomi Lawrence coming towards him.

He stood there, watching her long midnight braid trail out behind her, even as he wondered why her features were set in what he recognized as her “thunderstorm face.”

“Is it true?” she demanded, when she reached him. “You might as well tell me the truth, you know.”

Jack cocked his head to one side and asked, “Is that supposed to make sense? If it is, I’m telling you that it’s not working.”

“I heard that you’re leaving, Jack Holt. What kind of foolishness is that?”

He’d known this was coming. His relationship with Naomi was complicated. On the one hand, he felt as close to her as just about anyone else—but there were times when he just didn’t understand her. One time, after she’d yelled at him about something, Mister Bill had told him, “Jack, there are some people who don’t know how to tell folk they care about them, and it makes them angry. The angrier they are, the more they actually care.”

He sighed, shaking his head. “A man can’t get away with having any private business around this place, I reckon. Yeah, Naomi—I’ll probably wind up moving on. I’ll be eighteen soon enough, and it’s time that I went out into the world and made something of myself.”

She snorted. “I been out in the world, Jack Holt, and I can tell you right now that it ain’t like what you read in those books you’ve always got your nose buried in. You might know what it’s like to recognize a mountain lion trying to hide in a canyon, but you don’t know what to do when you meet the wrong kind of people who would as soon as knock you out and rob you blind as give you a drink of water.”

Jack couldn’t keep from chuckling. From the moment she’d arrived at the orphanage years ago, Naomi Lawrence had been spinning some of the tallest tall tales he’d ever heard, telling him that she’d once been part of a ruthless gang of outlaws that she’d escaped from before showing up at the orphanage.

Of course, that wasn’t quite the truth, Jack suspected. From what he’d overheard Mister Bill telling the orphanage chaplain, she’d been turned over to the orphanage by an uncle who was very ill and wasn’t expected to survive much longer. He never told her that he knew the truth about her because he suspected it would embarrass her, and he definitely didn’t want to do that.

“Well, I thank you for your concern, Naomi,” he said, smiling, “but I reckon I’m just one of those hard-headed fellas that’s just gonna have to find things out the hard way when it comes to the ways of the world.”

She stomped her foot, glaring at him, then spun around and stormed away.

Watching her go, Jack realized that if there had been any one reason that might have made him want to stay at Fairmont instead of going on his great adventure, it was probably being around Naomi. Yes, there were times when she was so stubborn about things that it made him want to pull his hair out but there were also times when he’d catch her looking at him with a kind of gentleness that she quickly covered up.

Of course, she wouldn’t be there forever herself. She’d probably have to leave when she was old enough, and she’d find herself a husband and have a family, which was why Jack knew the only thing he could do was go out into the world and make his own way. Of course, the very idea that he and Naomi could ever stand to be around each other longer than they had to was pure foolishness.

Wasn’t it?


The next day, when Jack arrived at Mister Bill’s office, he found Pastor David was with the orphanage director.

One of the people that he knew he was going to miss the most was the tall, pale chaplain who had been such an important part of his upbringing at Fairmont. From a very early age, the middle-aged pastor with the most penetrating dark eyes had seen something in Jack that made him take an interest in his upbringing, making sure that he read his Bible on a daily basis, as well as teaching him the importance of knowing how to read and always making sure to find the best inside of people, rather than just thinking the worst.

“When you’re a Christian, Jack,” he would say, “the important thing is to follow the example of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—and He was always seeking to make sure to find the light within even the darkest of souls.”

When the two men saw Jack, they both exchanged a look and Mister Bill said, “Something tells me that you’ve come to a decision, Jack.”

Jack nodded, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by what he had to say, but knowing that it was the right thing to do.

“Mister Bill, I spent just about all of last night thinking about what you said to me yesterday, and I prayed on it, trying to come to the right decision. I thank you for your offer to let me work here at the orphanage, but I think that I’ve got other things that I need to take care of, first.”

Mister Bill nodded. “I take it that you’re planning on finding yourself some adventure, then, Jack?”

“Well, I’m hoping to find a little adventure,” the young man admitted, “but that’s not why I’m going. I’m thinking of heading to Texas, maybe, to see if I might be able to get in touch with some people who might know who I am and where I came from.”

Pastor David gave him a warm smile of understanding, and said, in a soft voice, “It’s always good to know who we are, Jack, and to try to know what’s the right path for us to be on. If you prayed on this and sought Jesus to guide you, I’m sure that you’re doing the right thing.”

“Thank you, Pastor David.”

“You know, Jack,” Mister Bill said, “heading to Texas is a mighty big undertaking. It’s not something you should do lightly, but if you’re sure this is what you need to do, you know that I’m going to be the last man to stop you. I’ll ask around and see if there’s not something that Pastor David and I can do to make your journey easier. Like I’ve always told you, in all the years that I’ve been running this orphanage, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a young man who has a better soul and a deeper kindness than you.”

Jack felt his face heat up and he looked down at the floor, not trusting himself to speak. Instead, he simply nodded and said, softly, “Thank you, sir.”

Standing there, looking at those two fine gentlemen, Jack sent silent thanks to God that he’d been fortunate enough to have been raised at Fairmont. He’d heard stories about some of the other orphanages out there—places where the children were mistreated and abused. At Fairmont, he’d been shown nothing but kindness—mixed with the occasional dose of discipline, warranted when Jack had done something wrong, of course.

“I promise, sir, that I will do Fairmont proud.”

“I’m sure you will,” Mister Bill said, solemnly. “I’m sure you will, Jack.”

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