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A Contract Signed in Red

In Nevada’s heart, a soldier’s journey back home triggers a fight for justice and legacy.

In the turbulent wake of the Civil War, where a nation’s scars are raw and its economy teeters on the brink, Thomas Lewis returns to his Nevada Ranch only to find his family ranch stolen by a deceitful tycoon wielding a suspicious contract. Haunted by personal loss, he seeks refuge in a neighboring village, offered sanctuary by a loyal former Captain. Yet peace proves elusive when a mysterious woman, gun in hand and trailed by gang members, comes knocking. She bears a harrowing tale and a desperate quest—unearth proof of the tycoon’s treacherous intent to conquer all neighboring villages.

Reminiscent of the gritty tales spun by Louis L’Amour, CJ Petit, and Zane Grey, this new western adventure tale by Zachary McCrae plunges readers into a world where honor is a beacon in the darkest times, and where redemption is fought for, bullet by bullet.

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

4.1/5

4.1/5 (694 ratings)

Prologue

Private Thomas Lewis thought he would never be able to get the war out of his mind.

Sitting around the fire with Edward Lewis, his father, and Samuel Lewis, his brother, he tried to remember what their lives had been like before the war, but the memories were elusive, skittering away when he tried to hold them. They’d gone from honest ranchers to soldiers—Edward and Samuel in the infantry, Thomas the scout and sharpshooter.

He couldn’t truly remember the sounds of home, the call of birds and the rustle of wind in the crops. Now, all he could bring to mind were the distant sounds of war—the cries of the wounded, the shouts of defiance, the rage of the battle.

There were the smells, too—the stench of fear, of unwashed bodies marching off to die, of gunpowder clouds pluming around them. Everything around them smelled like Hell.

“You might want to remember we’re at war, Thomas,” a gruff voice said. “You’d best try and keep your wits about you.”

He looked up and found his father, Sergeant Edward Lewis, standing there, intense blue eyes focused on his youngest son.

“You reckon Thomas has wits, Pa?” Samuel Lewis asked, and when Thomas glanced over at him, he saw the good-natured grin on his brother’s face.

“Just thinking about this war,” Thomas said, softly,” and wondering when in tarnation it’s going to end.”

He saw his father gently touch the gold cross around his neck and heard a weary sigh as Edward Lewis said, “The war will end when the fools in charge of this danged thing come to their senses and put an end to it. The good Lord never intended for brother to fight brother, for families to be ripped apart this way.”

In the distance, two more explosions shattered the night and Thomas wondered if he would ever know the sound of peaceful silence again.

“All I know,” Samuel said,” is that once I’m back home, I ain’t never leaving the ranch ever again. That’s my home and that’s where I’ll be for the rest of my life.”

“How do you reckon on courting Mary Ellen Cosgrove if you’re never leaving the ranch?” Edward asked, smiling. “You figure you can convince her to come out to our place so that she can court you?”

“I already got that figured out, Pa. When the war’s over, before I get to the ranch. I’m going to ride by Mary Ellen’s place and tell her we’re getting married and when she’s ready, she can find me at the ranch.”

Thomas burst out laughing.

“Well, when you put it like that, Samuel, there’s no way that girl will be able to resist such a romantic proposal. You reckon we’re going to have the wedding out on the ranch property, too?” he said, shaking his head.” I can just see you now—exchanging your sacred vows in the middle of the cow patties.”

There were more explosions in the distance and the mood was shattered.

“That sounded close,” Samuel said.

“Yeah,” Edward agreed. “It was close. Reckon we’re about to get the order to move out.”

Thomas sighed.

Gathering his belongings before tearing down his tent, he felt the nervous energy passing through the camp. He tried, once again, to remember what his life had been like before this war and found he could only capture stray moments—watching the sunrise on the ranch, riding his favorite horse and checking on the fence line after a summer downpour, sitting on the porch with his father and brother.

He wondered if anything was ever going to seem normal to him again.

As he was carefully folding his clothes into his bedroll and then binding it tightly, Samuel came over, an excited light in his eyes.

“Just had a rider come from HQ,” he said, ”and even though nothing’s official, there’s talk about this danged war finally being over.”

Thomas snorted, shaking his head.

“We’ve been hearing the same stories every time we get a rider showing up. I ain’t gonna hold my breath until the President of the United States of America shows up here and tells us it’s time to lay down our guns.”

“War’s gotta end sometime,” his brother told him. “Maybe this time is the one.”

The distant rumble of explosions came to them and Thomas gave his brother a long look.

“Sounds like this war is far from over, Samuel.”

***

The first rays of dawn crept over the battlefield. The smell of burnt powder assaulted Thomas as he crouched low in the underbrush. The morning dew glistened like tiny crystals and for a moment he was captivated by the sight.

Then, there was the sharp report of a nearby rifle, followed by the frighteningly close buzz of a bullet passing him by.

There was the sickening sound of it finding its mark and a cry of pain.

Thomas glanced over and was greeted by the horrific sight of his father crumbling to the ground.

“Pa!” Samuel cried, suddenly standing up—and another shot shattered the air.

Thomas saw the sudden crimson stain appear on his brother’s vest. A look of surprise crossed Samuel’s face, as if he didn’t understand what was happening. Then, he fell beside his father.

Thomas could not move.

The air stank of iron—the unmistakable smell of blood. Another bullet shot past him and still, he could not move.

Around him, screams of pain, loud explosions, total chaos.

With an almost inhuman effort, he pushed through his paralysis and crawled over to where his father and brother had fallen.

Sergeant Lewis’ breathing was ragged, each gasp sounding more strained than the previous. His hand clutched his gold cross and Thomas watched as the older man tried to unlatch it from his neck.

Thomas went over and watched as his own hands gently took it from around his father’s neck

His father’s words were barely a whisper as he said, “Keep… faith, son. Remember me. I’m gonna… gonna see your ma.”

His father’s blood-stained hands pressed the cross into Thomas’ palm.

Thomas turned to Samuel, needing to see if there was anything he could do. His brother’s sightless eyes stared heavenward, the sky turning golden with the rising sun.

Silence exploded around Thomas, then.

He turned to his father as a soft groan passed from the man’s lips. His hand fell limply to the side and Thomas held the cross tightly in his palm.

It seemed impossible. How could the lives of the two men he loved most in the world have been ended so quickly?

A coldness moved through Thomas then, passing into his blood, his bones, his soul.

Chapter One

Thomas stood in the icy cold rain slashing down upon him, staring at the two grave markers before him. He tried to comprehend that his father and brother were beneath that soil, never to be with him again, never to stand by his side.

He knew he should be feeling sorrow or loss or grief, but none of those emotions were available to him. Instead, all he felt was a numbness inside his very bones—a cold chill that promised he would never again experience warmth.

At one time, he’d hated this war. Now, with the loss of his family, even the hatred went away. He knew he should be experiencing more powerful emotions. He’d seen it on the battlefield when a man would lose a companion and there would be overwhelming waves of grief.

For him, that was being denied.

He wondered if he would ever again feel anything, or if the frozen emotions within him were to be his personal torment.

He heard Storm let out a huff of impatient annoyance and Thomas turned to look at the black quarterhorse tied up to a young oak tree. The soldier let out a sigh, shaking his head and went over to his companion, patting him on the side of his thick neck.

“Fine,” he said, softly. “Let’s head on back to the campsite, boy. You’ve had enough of standing around watching me look like some kind of danged fool.”

***

The ride back to the camp from the temporary gravesite took less than fifteen minutes. During that time, the rain had increased in intensity but when he arrived at the camp, soldiers were moving around with barely contained excitement.

A young cavalry officer rushed over to him and said, hope obvious on his barely formed features, “Have you heard, private? The war’s almost over! They’re talking about Grant signing a surrender in the next couple of days.”

The news hit Thomas like a physical blow.

Back when they’d first heard the rumors of the war ending, he hadn’t paid it much thought. Out here, things like that were always appearing on the horizon. Some soldier heard from another soldier who heard from an officer who heard from a general who heard from the President himself that the war was over—and, each time, it turned out to be false.

But now, this was different. Thomas saw that. There was an energy moving through the camp that hadn’t been there before—a palpable presence that signaled the end truly was coming.

And his family had not lived to see it.

Thomas blamed himself. How could he not? If he’d been more alert, if he’d been more careful, if he’d been able to somehow make himself a more attractive target than his father and his brother, he’d be the one who would finally be at peace.

Instead, he was the one carrying around a bucketload of guilt that threatened to cripple him.

He watched the officer rush off to tell the news to one of the other soldiers and he took a deep breath. At the moment, he couldn’t even muster the strength to feel anger over the senselessness of what had happened.

If they had just held out for a few more days, all three of them would be able to go home—back to their farm, back to where they belonged.

Just then, an image came to him—a pretty young girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, who had fallen in love with his brother.

Mary Ellen Cosgrove.

She’d told Samuel that she’d wait for him and that when he got back, she was going to make sure he never left her sight ever again. Now, it looked as if there had been no point to her waiting for someone who was never going to return.

And then, there was the slightest spark of anger in Thomas.

The excited chatter all around him made him want to scream. Didn’t these fools understand that nothing was ever going to be the same again? Even when they returned home, nothing would be the same. They’d all been changed by the war and for many of them, there was never going to be anything but shattered dreams and crushed hopes.

He rode towards the stable, then, needing to take his mind off of everything that was taking place around him.

When he dismounted, he saw a familiar figure grabbing some hay for the cavalry horses.

Captain Rick Charles—cavalry officer and one of the finest men Thomas knew. The man had a reputation for being fearless and loyal to his men to a fault. He’d never once placed a man in a position he wouldn’t be in, and he’d been close friends with Edward Lewis since before the war.

Thomas watched the tall, broad-shouldered man stride over to him, a solemn look on his face.

“Thomas.”

“Rick.”

That was something else that set Captain Rick Charles apart from all the other officers. He didn’t want to be known by his rank. He wanted to be known by his name and even though several of the other officers had complained about his lack of following regulations, he’d never backed down.

“If I’m going into battle with a man, I’m going into battle with him as a brother—and not as an officer,” he’d once told a visiting officer.

“I paid my respects to them last night,” Rick said, softly. “That’s always been one of the hardest things about this danged war—having to say goodbye to some of the bravest and most loyal souls it’s ever been my honor to meet. Edward and Samuel were the best of the best, Thomas, and there’s a whole lot of them inside of you.”

Thomas shrugged.

“I guess. Tell you the truth, Rick—I don’t feel much of anything. It’s like something inside of me died when those bullets took my family away from me.”

“You ain’t dead, Thomas. You’re hurting—but it’s the kind of hurt that’s so deep that you can’t even feel it yet. It’ll hit you, though, and it’ll move through you like a wildfire. You’ll ride it out and, if you’re lucky, you’ll come out of it able to move on.”

“And if I ain’t lucky?” Thomas asked.

Rick looked down at the ground, shaking his head.

“You’ll spend the rest of your life wishing you were dead, then.”

***

The storm passed and night fell. A chill wind stirred the Confederate camp, whistling through the flaps of the tents, rustling the verdant leaves overhead. Rick turned his gaze towards the dusky shadows of the southern woodlands that bordered the campsite. His deep-set eyes reflected an inimitable mix of resolve and concern, cast in the flickering campfire light.

“Those damned Northern boys could be lurking in those woods,” he muttered, crumpling the hand-drawn map spread across his lap. “We’ll need a scout out.”

Thomas rose from his crouched position by the fire. His heart was a rock within his chest, weighed down by his recent loss. The numbness inside him was an icy veil, buffering him from the physical world.

“I’ll go, sir,” Thomas offered, his voice steady as if carved from the same granite his heart had turned into.

Captain Rick turned his gaze towards the young private, his eyes softening, the lines around them deepening.

“No, son,” Rick responded, rising to his full height. His large, calloused hand clasped onto Thomas’ shoulder, “It’s a dangerous mission… I can’t allow it.”

Thomas, with a look of resolve mirroring the captain’s, met his eyes.

“Let me do this. I insist. I have less to lose now. Some of these others—they got a lot more to look forward to than I do.”

Rick, a man hardened by many winters of war, felt a pang in his heart. He looked at the boy-turned-soldier standing in front of him, a painful reflection of the cost of their bloody conflict. He sighed, realizing that the war had already taken too much from Thomas, yet here he was, willing to risk the last thing he had: his life.

“Well, Thomas,” he finally agreed, grudgingly. “If it’s what you want.” His voice was gruff, carrying the weight of a decision he wished he didn’t have to make. “You’re a brave man, braver than most. May the good Lord guide you through those woods, son.”

Their eyes locked once more in a silent understanding. Despite the numbness that threatened to consume him, Private Thomas Lewis stood taller, a testament to the strength that adversity could endow. The morning light began to creep upon them, casting long shadows behind the duo, painting a stark tableau of the reality of war.

***

Thomas entered the silent woods a thousand yards beyond the perimeter of the camp. The clouds overhead would hide the rays of the full moon, then release it onto the world below, creating an almost magical painting of shadows and silver beauty.

He moved with grace, grim determination in his every footfall. Behind him, the echoes of the camp faded, swiftly replaced by leaves rustling in the night breeze, as well as nocturnal sounds of the woods.

He hadn’t been traveling for long when a low growl cut through the night. The marrow in his bones turned cold at the deep rumble coming from directly ahead. He froze, not wanting to move, not wanting to alert whatever was out there to his presence.

The moon, previously hidden behind clouds, appeared—and in that moment, Thomas saw the threat before him.

A mountain lion, fur glowing with an almost mystical light, its eyes glowing with emerald beauty captured by the moonlight.

Thomas stood there, his gaze never wavering from the formidable creature.

There he was—a soldier in the middle of a war, armed with a rifle that had brought death to the enemy, ending their lives quickly, effortlessly.

He did not raise his gun.

Calm filled him.

He watched the mountain lion crouch down, muscles tensing, ready to strike.

Perhaps this is the way it was supposed to end, Thomas decided. Perhaps he would finally find some peace from what he’d been experiencing.

A single gunshot echoed, ringing through the night air—and the mountain lion’s powerful leap ended, its body falling lifelessly to the leaf-strewn ground.

From the surrounding gloom, Captain Rick emerged, his rifle smoking in the moonlight. His face was a stern mask, but his eyes were bright, reflecting both the moonlight and a deep understanding of the private’s state of mind.

“Just thought I’d take a moonlit stroll through the woods,” Rick said, a grim humor underlining his words. He looked at the fallen beast, then turned his gaze back to Thomas. “You did well to stand your ground, son.”

Silence descended once more as their eyes locked. The rustling leaves and chirping crickets played a quiet symphony around them, nature resuming its rhythm, oblivious to the mortal dance that had just unfolded.

Rick’s words hung heavy in the air—but Thomas had seen silent understanding in the man’s gaze. There had been no judgment there, only a simple recognition of a desire for the pain to end.

In that moment, as the two men headed back to camp, Thomas heard the woods spring to life around him, various night creatures calling out to one another, branches moving with the wind. There was a palpable, tangible life force here and although Thomas knew the numbness would return, for a few moments, he was grateful to be alive.

***

The night air of the camp had a crisp chill to it. Thomas stood watch, listening to the sounds of the campfires and the distant cries and howls of the beasts in the nearby wood. Although he was tired, Thomas remained alert, knowing his duty was to protect his fellow soldiers.

Hearing the firm stride of approaching footsteps, Thomas knew who was coming—and he knew why. A few moments later, Captain Rick stood next to him, his weary features illuminated by the dancing firelight.

His gaze was stern.

“Son,” he said, a coarse whisper contrasting with the other sounds around them, “we need to talk about what happened out there in the woods.”

Thomas tensed, recalling the mountain lion encounter. His breath hitched as he recalled the deadly beast’s piercing eyes, the lack of fear within him—only the expectation of impending death.

Death meant peace.

“Sir, I…,” he stammered, but Captain Rick raised a hand to stop him.

“You have a responsibility, son. Not just to this company, but to your kin,” he said, his voice steady and imposing. “They died and you lived. That means something. You’ve got a responsibility to carry on for them, you know.”

He paused, allowing his words to settle, then said, “Your father and your brother were two of the bravest, most honorable men it’s ever been my pleasure to know. The good Lord took them and I can’t pretend to know the reason why. What I do know is that you’re still here and that means your business here on this earth ain’t finished. Now, if I ever come across you about to do something stupid again, you can bet you’re going to find yourself in a world of trouble, son. You hear me?”

Thomas took a deep breath, then slowly nodded.

“Yes, sir.”

With that, Captain Rick turned and walked back to his tent, leaving Thomas alone with his thoughts.

***

The dust of war had settled on the landscape, the once green fields now scarred and desolate. For four years, these fields had witnessed brother fighting brother, fathers against sons, in a struggle that shook the very foundations of a young nation. But today, the cacophony of cannons and the chilling screams of wounded men had faded into a deafening silence. The Civil War was over.

Among the few still standing amidst the wreckage were Thomas and Private Barry Andrews. Their uniforms were tattered, the gray uniforms stained with sweat, dirt, and the memories of fallen comrades. Barry, despite the war’s scars etched into his young features, held a glimmer of hope in his dark eyes. This boy had turned into a man who had always managed to find a sliver of light even in the darkest of times.

On the other hand, Thomas remained lost in the silence, a figure of despair. His shoulders slouched, as if carrying the weight of every casualty, every loss the war had exacted. His father and brother had been taken by this war. Their faces, once full of life and vigor, haunted his thoughts, blending with the specter of death that had shadowed them these past few years.

Feeling the change in the air, a mix of relief and uncertainty, Barry looked at Thomas, a subtle excitement dancing in his voice. “It’s over, Thomas. We’re heading home.” It was the hope of seeing his family again that had kept Barry going through the darkest days of the war, as he’d told Thomas during some of their weary nights, sitting by the fires.

Thomas’s response was barely audible, his gaze still locked onto the horizon, as if searching for the lives that had been lost in the fray. “I’m… I’m heading to our family ranch.”

Barry’s eyebrows lifted in response, curious about his friend’s plans. The war was over, and the soldiers were left to pick up the pieces of their pre-war lives. “And then?” Barry asked. The expectant, yet cautious, gleam in his eyes told him that his friend was trying to strike a spark of his own enthusiasm in Thomas.

Thomas turned to face Barry, the light in his eyes faint but resolute. His words were measured, holding a promise to himself, “I’m going to try and find some measure of peace, I reckon.”

Silence built between them, heavier than before. Barry didn’t have any words of comfort, nor promises of better times. All he could do was nod, acknowledging Thomas’s intent.

The war had given them a bond of brotherhood, born of shared fear and loss. Now, as they stood on the brink of peace, they realized that each man had his own battle to fight. For Barry, it was a journey towards the warmth of family and the joy of reunion. For Thomas, it was a quest for peace in the vast emptiness left by the war, a solace he hoped to find in the familiar fields of his family’s ranch.

Thomas suspected Barry would find what he was looking for long before Thomas did.

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