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Red Dead Reckoning

In a land of lawlessness, one man stands for justice.

In the wild and lawless land of Boise County, Sheriff Zeki Mitchell rides with a heart hardened by loss and vengeance. Determined to uncover the truth behind his father’s murder, he’ll stop at nothing to track down the man responsible. But when a courageous young woman named Annie enters his life, their shared quest for justice takes an unexpected turn. As bullets fly and secrets unravel, Zeki and Annie find themselves bound together in a battle against deceit and danger.

In this gritty tale of love and redemption, inspired by the classics of Zane Grey, the untamed frontier becomes the backdrop for a showdown where bullets will blaze and true courage will be tested. Will Sheriff Mitchell exact his revenge and find the answers he seeks?

Follow Zachary McCrae’s exciting new tale of justice in the West, inspired by Zane Grey’s spiritedness and C. J Petit’s fast-paced narration.

Written by:

Western Historical Adventure Author

4.2/5

4.2/5 (725 ratings)

Prologue

Warrinersville, Idaho – 1864

“I tell you, Zeke, this is awful. Just awful,” Deputy Jimmy McCoy stammered, wiping sweat from his forehead despite the mild chill in the air. He wajust out of breath and pale after riding pell-mell to the scene, late as always.

Sheriff Zeke Mitchell was mildly annoyed at his partner’s tardiness, but there were bigger concerns at the moment.

They stood near an expensive-looking coach that had driven off the dusty road and into the grass, leaving an erratic trail behind it. Bullet holes dotted the side of the light maroon wood, and Zeke felt a deep unease as he looked inside. Any death on his watch was a tragedy, and it felt even worse seeing two victims in one go.

A man, probably in his late forties with a large mustache, lay slumped next to a woman who seemed a few years younger, dressed in a fancy frock.

It took just a moment for Zeke to recognize the man—a businessman named Gideon Timberland. Zeke presumed the woman must be his wife. Gideon Timberland operated out of Idaho City, but he’d been planning a railroad project in Warrinersville for years, and Zeke had met him.

Blood dotted the dim interior of the coach, and a few flies buzzed around the grim scene. Zeke didn’t need to feel the couple’s bodies to tell that it was too late to help them. Even in the poor light of the carriage, he could see the pale pallor of their skin and the lifelessness of their eyes.

Zeke took a step back, noting that there was neither a driver nor a carriage horse in sight. He sighed under his breath as he scratched the dark stubble on his chin.

“Well?” Jimmy asked nervously.

Zeke shook his head and sighed. “Two dead, a man and a woman.”

“Oh geez! Know who they were?”

“Yeah, unfortunately. Gideon Timberland and his wife.”

“That businessman?” asked Jimmy.

“Yeah, I met him a few weeks past. He was planning on investing in the town in a big way once he started work on the railroad. It would have created a lot of work. Folks were really looking forward to it.”

“Shoot, Zeke. That’s just terrible. Why would someone do this?”

Zeke looked at the wide eyes of his partner, and despite the gravity of the situation he felt affection for his friend and his innocent view of the world.

Zeke was only a few years older than Jimmy, yet folks would usually assume he was much older. This was partly because Jimmy looked young—a head shorter than Zeke, with a long face beneath hair that was so blonde it almost appeared white. But Jimmy also seemed younger because he’d been mostly spared the harsher events that life could throw one’s way while Zeke had experienced more than his fair share.

If Zeke had stopped combing his nearly black hair, or if he let stubble grow on his bony jaw, nobody fussed about it. Or if they did, all Zeke had to do was turn his unhappy eyes on them, and they kept their peace.

While the tribulations that life had thrown his way were a burden to carry, one benefit was that it made it easier for Zeke to stomach grim scenes like the one before them.

Down the road, a small group of bystanders gathered, craning their necks to see what was going on. This stretch of road was normally beautiful to ride through, especially in the golden glow of the late afternoon. Yew trees lined the side of the road, their red berries glistening in the sun, and white flowers dotted the long grass between them.

Zeke had given some strong lads a few coins to stand in the road and prevent anyone from getting any closer; a job they performed with vigor and seriousness.

“Folks are already asking lots of questions about these killings,” Zeke said. “I’d like to keep this under wraps as long as possible, but we better prepare for panic when people start finding out. We better get them boys to help us move all this out the way.” He looked back at the coach, his face full of sorrow. “We’ll be needing two caskets, too.”

***

Once the bodies were safely at the church, Zeke and Jimmy questioned the bystanders. It was a small crowd, so it didn’t take long. Each person claimed that they hadn’t seen anything, just heard gunshots while they were doing whatever they were busy with. By the time they had run over, the coach was standing there, riddled with bulletholes.

In their initial look, it was difficult to tell if anything other than the horses had been stolen, and Zeke wished there had been at least one witness.

After everything had been cleared, he and Jimmy returned to search the area more closely for any objects or clues as to what had motivated the attack, but there was little to find. Zeke thought the coach may have been pulling a cart or wagon of some sort since there were wider and deeper tracks than the ones the coach left that followed closely behind it, even in the clearing where the unfortunate conveyence had come to a halt. The trailing wagon’s tracks, however, turned, left the clearing, and appeared to return in the direction the coach had come from.

Zeke urged his horse to follow the deep tracks left by the mysterious cart, narrowing his eyes to keep track of the marks left in the dirt. After riding for about an hour, he saw a large empty cart on the side of the road.

A mess of narrower, shallower tracks surrounded it. Zeke hopped to the ground to examine them more closely. The tracks suggested that at least five smaller carts had left from this spot.

He suspected that the thieves had some smaller carts stored in the area and transported whatever was on the cart to them to distribute the weight and leave less distinct tracks.

Sure enough, as Zeke followed the marks left by the smaller carts, all five disappeared into the general roadway within the next three miles.

The road headed to Idaho City and beyond, but unless one of the carts left the road, there would be no way to follow it—not with the head start these outlaws had on them.

Still, Zeke hired an old mountain man he trusted to follow the trail and see if any of the carts did leave the main road. Then he headed back to his office to write letters—more than he’d ever had to write during his tenure as sheriff. He needed to know all about Gidoen Timberland’s business, the goods he was carrying, and anything else that might explain why he’d been ambushed outside Zeke’s town.

The ride back to town went by without Zeke paying much attention to his surroundings, as the enormity of the task ahead of him truly hit him.

As he reached the edge of Warrinersville, Zeke decided to visit the home of his best friend, as his counsel would often bring Zeke calm that he couldn’t find on his own.

***

“Go fetch, boy!”

Dan Dylan threw a small piece of branch that went too high before landing not too far from where he stood with Zeke. He was thirteen-years-old, tall for his age and had a head of sandy blonde hair. Bobby, a skinny white greyhound, didn’t seem to mind the poor throw and went for the stick with frenzied enthusiasm.

Zeke laughed and took the stick before Dan could.

“You gotta throw it like this, see…”

He arched his back, bent his arm behind his back and then twisted around with a powerful thrust from his arm. He let go at just the right angle, and it went flying through the air, much to Bobby’s delight.

“All in the arm, you see,” he said as he ruffled Dan’s hair.

They stood near a small, forested area near the Dylan household. Cottonwood trees lined a small creek, and the peaceful scene calmed Zeke’s nerves after the brutality he had seen earlier.

“Dang, You’re so good at it!” Dan said wistfully.

Zeke smiled and winced as Bobby licked his face with an unexpectedly accurate strike when he bent to get the stick from him.

“I’ve had plenty of practice.”

Dan threw the stick again. It didn’t quite match the trajectory of Zeke’s throw, but it was an improvement.

“Say…” Dan began awkwardly. “Can I… Can I see your new gun again? Please?”

Zeke smiled and put his hands on his belt.

“I would have thought you were sick of seeing it by now! But sure, let’s take a look.”

Dan’s face lit up as Zeke pulled his Colt revolver out of the holster at his hip. Zeke took great pride in cleaning and maintaining it, and the metal shone.

He had bought it and had it specially modified a week earlier on a trip to Idaho City, and he was secretly thrilled to show it off to Dan again, even though it was what felt like the hundredth time.

“Wow! Can I try it? Pa never seems to have time to take me shooting anymore!”

Zeke smiled and slapped Dan’s shoulder. “I don’t see why not! Here, let me load it real quick.”

He flicked open the loading gate on the side of the revolver and pulled the hammer to half cock with a satisfying click. He pulled a bullet from his belt and placed it in the cylinder before spinning it until the bullet was in the chamber.

“All right, let’s see if I can hit…” he scanned the area and saw a distinctive branch halfway up one of the cottonwoods. He pointed. “…the y-fork in that branch.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it!” Dan smirked.

Zeke straightened his arm and posture and aimed the revolver. “It’s all about patience and breathing. Stay calm, line up the shot, then…”

A shot cracked and echoed throughout the meadow, and the smaller half of the branch fell to the ground. Birds flew from the trees in a panic at the sudden sound.

“Nothing to it,” Zeke said with satisfaction.

He flicked open the loading gate and pulled the plunger to eject the spent cartridge which he caught swiftly as it left the cylinder.

“Whooooooa…” Dan said slowly, his eyes glazed over.

Zeke patted the boy on the back, smiling with a fondness. He longed to have a son of his own one day, and Dan definitely felt like family to him. He appreciated the bond even more since Zeke’s own father had died a few years before.

Zeke had learned that sometimes it took a person’s passing to realize how much that kind of bond meant. Sorrow clouded his mind for a moment, eclipsing the pleasant moment. His thoughts were interrupted by yelling.

“Zeke! Hey, Zeke!”

Zeke turned to see Dan’s father, Trevor, jogging towards them. “Hello Trevor!” Zeke said warmly.

Trevor was four years older than Zeke, yet he looked older and wiser than his thirty-six years. He had a slightly pudgy, friendly face, and his red hair was gone from everywhere except the sides and back of his head.

Trevor had been a doctor for many years, even before agreeing to become the doctor for Warrinersville when he had moved to the area a couple of years prior. As the town doctor, he naturally interacted with the sheriff frequently. Zeke struck up a friendship with him when meeting him for business, and they quickly became inseparable.

Trevor’s cheeks were red from exertion, and he had to take a few minutes to catch his breath. “Say, son. Why don’t you go help your ma pluck some chickens in the kitchen for dinner?”

“Yes, sir,” Dan said, his eyes on the revolver as Zeke holstered it.

Dan ran back to the house as his father looked on fondly. When out of earshot, he showed Zeke the newspaper he had under his arm. “Look here. There’s going to be a load of prospectors arriving from the East. Some should be here by now! Apparently, gold has been found up by the lake, and folks seem to be flocking there to grab their share!”

Zeke looked at the newspaper and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t like the sound of that. All these folks arriving around the same time as these killings? Something doesn’t sit right about this.”

“I had a feeling you’d feel that way. Especially, well… Last time we had activity like this, your father…” his voice trailed off.

The memory of what happened to his father was not one that Zeke liked to revisit.

It was difficult to not associate miners with trouble, even in the short history of Warrinersville. Gold miners had gathered in a nearby area two years prior, and naturally some of them drifted to the newly established town, bringing news of the excitement.

Just a few short weeks after Zeke and his father had moved to Warrinersville, his father had been found not far from the town’s limits, shot several times.

It was a shock to everyone, especially Zeke. His father had assured him that he was heading up to a mining group to look into some disturbance, and he had been so confident about his return that he had even stated the kind of stew he would like to make for dinner on his return.

After the murder, Zeke had questioned all the miners he could find, but they all reacted with a shrug, either unwilling or unable to help.

Warrinersville had seemed like such a fresh start after his father was asked personally to be the sheriff of the new town.

They had lived in Wyoming previously, and it was a place they were eager to escape, as it held only the memories of Zeke’s mother and sister who had passed.

Zeke realized he was doing what he so often wished to avoid; dwelling on the past, and he brought his attention back to the present.

“I know,” Zeke said. “It’s hard not to be brought back to the feeling from that time. I’m going to find Jimmy and scope out these new arrivals. We’ll get to the bottom of this, I assure you.”

He shook his friend’s hand and walked off with determination, his smile quickly fading.

Chapter One

A few hours after his visit with Trevor, Zeke and Jimmy approached the less reputable of the two saloons in town. A light rain was falling, causing haloes of light around the lamps hanging about the town.

“I sure wish this rain would stick around,” Jimmy said. “Goodness knows we need it!”

The smell of mud and manure was thick in the air, and mist steamed off the backs of the horses hitched outside the saloon. The sound of shouting and merriment drifted from the interior of the saloon, and Zeke flinched as the sound of broken glass came from within.

“Boy, I could sure use a drink after what we saw earlier,” Jimmy said as he barreled towards the swinging doors. Zeke put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him away to the side.

“Hang on there, Jimmy. We gotta play this smart. We need to find out about the new folks in town, and they won’t be so honest if they see these badges on our coats.”

Jimmy looked down at his badge as if he’d forgotten it was there. “Oh… Yeah! Right!”

Zeke couldn’t help but smile at Jimmy. Many people found Jimmy to be frustrating and even annoying, as his absentmindedness and lack of sense could get in the way of his duties sometimes. Zeke had grown used to his deputy’s ways and knew that he just needed some direction. When he was told what to do, he did it with earnestness and determination, fully committing to the role.

Zeke knew that Jimmy’s absentmindedness would make it hard for him to be a good sheriff, but he did make a fine deputy, despite his failings.

What Jimmy lacked in sense and attention to detail, he made up for with deep empathy and a way of reading people’s emotions that Zeke tried to emulate himself. Zeke would pick an honest man who cared about the people of his town over someone studious yet cold any day of the week.

They took off their badges and stored them in their coat pockets, and Zeke made sure to ruffle up his and Jimmy’s hair a bit before they went in.

“Now you watch my back in there, okay? You go get a drink. I’m going to befriend the newcomers.”

Jimmy nodded, and they pushed through the doors.

Cigar smoke was heavy in the air, and the place was already packed. Glasses clinked, men laughed, and a piano was played in the corner. Some of the keys were dead, so there was a soft thudding sound between some of the notes.

Excitement hung in the air almost as thickly as the cigar smoke drifting around. The gold rush was alive again in the area, and Zeke and Jimmy were probably the only men in the room not dreaming of the riches that were awaiting them out in the wilderness. The chatter in the room was lively and wild, and Zeke could hear the word ‘gold’ mixed frequently among everything else being said.

Jimmy jostled his way to the bar, and Zeke flashed a friendly smile as he surveyed the place. It was filled with men, most of them filthy and covered with dust. He recognized at least one person at every table he saw, save for one.

At this table, four large, muscly men sat playing cards with a man who had dark black hair that was thinning at the temples. What the man lacked in hair volume, he made up for with a healthy mustache on his lip. The thing that really stood out to Zeke was the man’s voice. Not only was it smooth yet commanding, but it was painted with a strong foreign accent.

It was a German accent, one quite rare in these parts. Zeke made his way over to the table slowly, a wide smile on his face. He kept his eyes trained on the German man as much as possible without it seeming odd. The man must have sensed someone looking at him because he looked up and watched Zeke with narrowed eyes.

As Zeke approached, he took a moment to gauge what he was up against. The four men were dressed in dusty worker’s clothes, and all of them had pistols at their belts. They all glanced at the German man nervously occasionally, as if for approval. He was dressed in a much cleaner shirt with a vest, and he was much less talkative than anyone else, sipping at his drink as if contemplating some great dilemma.

“Afternoon, fellas!” Zeke said cheerfully. The four men looked at him and two of them even nodded their heads in greeting. The German man merely watched him, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly.

“Mind if I take a load off here?” Zeke asked, pulling out an empty chair. “This place is packed to the rafters!”

There was a moment of silence, and the four men looked to what Zeke could only assume was their leader.

The German betrayed no emotion and made no effort to answer. The moment started to grow awkward, so Zeke felt he needed to say something. “How about if I get a round for everybody?”

This lit up the faces of the four men, and even the German’s mustache twitched with a slight smile. “It is a free country,” he said. “Sit if you must.”

“Thank you kindly, sir!” he said as he sat down and motioned for a round from a passing saloon girl. “It doesn’t seem right to drink with folks whose names I don’t know! I’ll start, name’s Clay Milton,” he said, saying the first fake name that came to mind.

The men all answered briskly.

“Tom Smith.”

“James Black.

“John Michael.”

“Peter… Smith,” the final man said with a wince as he realized Smith had already been used.

Zeke noted that perhaps the only thing he had in common with these men was that they had all given fake names. He also noted that the German had declined to offer a name.

Soon, drinks arrived, and the four men seemed a lot more friendly, but the German surveyed him as coldly as ever. Zeke was surveying him right back without being too obvious about it.

“Boy, I can’t wait to get started, I have a good feeling about this town, gentlemen, a good feeling indeed! You fellas been prospecting here long?”

No one answered for a few moments until eventually one of the men spoke up.

“A couple of us were here two, maybe three years ago. In a different area more in the direction of that big forest, though. It didn’t amount to much, and we left for a while. We heard tales that there was more gold found higher up on the mountain, so we’re back to try our luck again.”

Zeke was glad Trevor had read the newspaper story to him earlier so that he could make common chatter with the men. He could tell that they had also gotten their information from indirect sources, and suspected that the gold rush was not their true calling in the town.

“Up in the mountains—that’s all everyone can seem to talk about! I’ve heard that all over, so that’s where I’m going to be trying my luck too.”

The men shared a look, and then the one who had spoken nodded. “Good place to start, I reckon.”

Zeke didn’t want to consume any of his drink, as he needed all of his faculties intact. Instead, he pretended to take a sip, then placed his cup close to the cup of the man next to him. He had to wait a while for the right moment, as the German was watching him intently, but he looked away for a moment when someone yelled near him. Zeke took the opportunity to switch his glass with the other man’s mostly empty one, and he didn’t seem to notice.

Without drawing too much attention to it, he looked up and casually surveyed the bar area to see Jimmy standing there, making small talk with some miner. Almost as if he felt Zeke looking, Jimmy looked up, caught his eye and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

Zeke felt pride for a moment, as this was the kind of work Jimmy excelled at.

“That’s a fine piece you have there,” Zeke said to the man calling himself Tom. He nodded at the gun on the man’s hip.

“You think so?” Tom asked as he pulled it out, drawing a few worried looks from people at nearby tables.

It was a fine gun, or at least would have been at one point. Zeke noticed it needed a bit of care and cleaning, but it was at the very least maintained enough to not explode in the hand when fired.

He whistled anyway as the man proudly turned it over. “Now that is a gun,” Zeke said, feigning admiration.

“Thank you, sir. I got it from this fella we rob—”

The German coughed loudly, his eyes cold. The color drained from the man’s face, and he put the gun back in the holster.

Zeke made sure not to react, but he noted Tom’s clumsy slip up. It was clear that these men were not in town just for mining, and if they were capable of robbing people, then they could be capable of more.

“That is to say, I got it from this fella in another town. Gun store, you know.”

“I see! Do you folks run into much danger when out prospecting? I imagine so if you’re carrying a piece like that.”

Much to Zeke’s surprise, the German answered. “You never know when a gun might come in handy for some… side jobs,” he said with a smirk.

“I hear that! You gotta do what you gotta do,” Zeke said. “Not my line of work, but I don’t judge it. I bet you must run into… misunderstandings with the law, though.”

Zeke pretended to sip his drink, wondering if he was being coy enough.

“James” replied after a moment. “Yeah,” he said. “Misunderstandings. They happen from time to time.”

“Is the sheriff around here much trouble?” Zeke asked, acting casual.

One of the other men shrugged. “Don’t believe we’ve met him. I heard there was a new sheriff, but I ain’t seen him yet. Haven’t heard much about him either.”

“Me neither,” said one of the other men.

“Well,” Zeke said while making his voice deeper and his face more serious. “I’m the sheriff, and you boys are in big trouble.”

For a moment the sound seemed to drain out from the room as fast as the color drained from their faces. Zeke looked each of them in the eye before a smile broke out on his face.

“I really had you going there!” He laughed and ordered another round. “Please forgive me, it was just too tempting! You should have seen your faces.”

The men laughed and playfully punched his arm while calling him some profanities, but the German merely smiled at him.

“I do recall meeting the sheriff last time we were here,” the German said softly. “He was quite… a rude man. He liked throwing around strange ideas and accusations. Honestly, I wasn’t sad to hear someone had put him down.”

Zeke felt anger burning in his belly, and he hoped it wasn’t showing on his face as he forced a smile. What the man had said seemed like bait to gauge his reaction, and he didn’t like it. It also seemed like the German perhaps knew that the sheriff he referred to was Zeke’s father, but how could he know that? He took a deep breath to quell the embers in his belly and forced another smile.

“Disagreement with a lawman. We’ve all been there, I’m sure.”

The men all laughed and clinked their glasses together, but Zeke noticed something had changed in the German man’s eyes, as if he’d figured something out.

He didn’t learn much else after that, and soon the cards were out again. He found himself playing with them for pennies for about an hour. Every now and then, he noted that Jimmy was still sitting at the bar.

When he’d had enough. he stood up finally with a yawn. “I best be heading out, fellas, but it was a real hoot meeting you all. Good luck finding some gold out there, but you best not have better luck than me!”

After shaking their hands, he turned to leave. Jimmy started to get up, but Zeke pointed out his index and middle fingers and gently swiveled his hands in a quick circle. Jimmy knew that meant to hang back for a few moments and meet him outside later.

He was left alone with his thoughts and the sounds of merriment from the saloon for about ten minutes before Jimmy sauntered out, nodding at Zeke where he stood. The two men stood for a few moments, gathering their thoughts.

“All right, we better be heading home before anyone gets suspicious,” Zeke said.

With that, they put on their hats and walked out into the street.

“That one feller had a strange voice,” Jimmy said.

“Yeah, I think he was German. I didn’t like him, not one bit,” replied Zeke.

Mist gathered around their words like swirling silk, and the cold was nibbling through their coats.

“He had something to do with my pa’s death, I’d bet my horse on it,” Zeke said gravely.

“How do you know that?” asked Jimmy.

“I don’t, but I have a feeling deep in my belly that he has something to do with Pa’s death—and with the Timberland murders, too. And Jimmy, I intend to prove it, mark my words.”

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