THE LEGEND BEGINS
In 1863, a teenaged boy fled his home in Atherton, Missouri, to escape the power-hungry men who murdered his father and stole his family’s land. He joined the Confederacy under an assumed name and led guerilla raids in the Civil War. Then came a decade as a Texas Ranger. Now, after ten blood-soaked years, he is finally coming home. Finally using his real name. And finally getting revenge against the cold-hearted devils who destroyed his family and his life . . .
This is the story of Samuel Pritchard. Now a small town sheriff with a long history of violence, a deep sense of honor, and wild streak of justice as dangerous as the guns that made him famous . . .
“A riveting thriller that bristles with hard-boiled authenticity.”
—bestselling author Mark Greaney on Thy Partner’s Wife
“Sean Lynch spins a tale that is fast, fun and realistic.”
—Bestselling author James O. Born on Like Hell
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Atherton, Missouri, October 1863
Samuel Pritchard quietly eased back the hammer of the Hawken rifle. He didn't want the telltale click to spook the flock only thirty yards from where he and his friend David "Ditch" Clemson lay concealed behind a fallen tree.
The rifle belonged to Ditch's father. The Pritchard family owned a similar weapon, but Samuel was rarely allowed to take it out, and never on a school day. Thomas Pritchard was a practical, hardworking, and devoutly religious man. He was also a man who didn't like guns and believed his son's time was better spent working at the family's sawmill or devoted to his studies at Atherton's only schoolhouse. Had he known seventeen-year-old Samuel cut class with Ditch to go hunting along the Missouri River, he'd have been more than displeased.
The boys were in the mile-long stretch of woods between their families' properties, the Clemsons' humble cabin and horse ranch, and the Pritchards' prestigious, two-story home. Thomas Pritchard was known in Jackson County as a wealthy man.
Young Thomas Pritchard started out cutting and freighting wood along the Missouri River by himself, shipping it to Kansas City by barge. Before long he had a crew of local men working for him and was able to provide a solid living for his beautiful wife, Dovie, and their two small children, Samuel and Idelle.
But as the children grew, and the Terre Haute & Richmond, and Madison & Indianapolis railroads began pushing west, lumber was needed like never before. Thomas invested in a steam-driven saw, and then another, and soon his modest business was booming. When the war started, the Pritchard Lumber Company added government contracts to its burgeoning list of clients. That's when the money really began rolling in.
Pritchard placed the rifle's front sight on the neck of a large tom, intending for a head shot. A .54 caliber ball could do a lot of damage. He wanted a clean kill and as much of the bird's meat intact as possible.
Though only a few days shy of his eighteenth birthday, Samuel Pritchard was very big, like his father. He stood well over six feet and, also like his father, possessed a powerful physique born from a lifetime of cutting, loading, and hauling lumber. Thomas Pritchard took pride in the fact that his son was one of the strongest youths in Jackson County. Had he known Samuel was also one of the best rifle shots, which he didn't, he'd have been furious. Skill with a gun was something the elder Pritchard frowned upon.
Most of the men in the county, some even as young as Samuel, had already volunteered and gone off to fight on one side or the other. Ditch's older brother Paul was a Confederate volunteer, and last anyone heard was serving with Shelby's Missouri Iron Brigade somewhere in Arkansas.
Those who hadn't volunteered had been conscripted by the Union. The Enrollment Act, passed the previous March, required all males age twenty and above to join the Federal army. Thomas Pritchard hoped the war would end before Samuel attained conscription age. Should the war still be raging, however, he had more than hope to keep his son from participating. Thomas Pritchard had a plan.
Though Samuel didn't know it, it was his father's intention to buy out his enlistment. This practice was legal, and would be carried out by paying a local family to have their son enlist in his place. There was no shortage of impoverished families with boys of eligible age in Jackson County who would welcome the cash money Thomas Pritchard would pony up to keep his own son out of harm's way. If that didn't work, Thomas had a backup plan; he could pay to have Samuel's enlistment commuted. This would be far more expensive, but could be accomplished by direct payment to the district provost marshal who headed the local Federal enlistment board.
The Federal district provost marshal, hotel and saloonkeeper Burnell Shipley, also happened to be Atherton's mayor. An easier man to bribe didn't live in Jackson County.
In the meantime, Thomas Pritchard was careful to remain neutral. He refused to publicly take sides and kept his family, especially his son, from doing the same.
Tensions were high along the Missouri River since the "War of the Rebellion," or the "War of Northern Aggression," as it was called, depending on which side you favored, began. Folks in Jackson County were split down the middle into which camp they fell, with the greater number of rural residents siding with the South, and the majority of Atherton's townsfolk aligning with the North.
There had been feuds, raids, gunfights, and even murder, sometimes between members of the same family who'd chosen different camps. Such was life in the border states during the war, and it was Thomas Pritchard's goal to remain as nonpartisan as a man could be in such volatile times. A big part of his neutral posture was keeping his son Samuel away from guns.
Before the war, it was rare to see men wearing sidearms. Though hunting rifles were common outside of town, and widely employed, a man wearing a pistol openly on his belt within town limits, who wasn't a lawman or soldier, was a peculiar sight.
Now most men sported pistols, and not just in the country. Just about every fellow walking the streets of Atherton was heeled. Consequently, the last thing Thomas Pritchard wanted was for his son to become known as a skilled shot. Such a reputation, in these hair-trigger times, could get a man, or teenage boy, killed.
Pritchard took in, and let out, a slow, easy breath. Steadying the rifle's front sight on the gobbler's head, he gently placed his finger on the trigger. He had to make the shot count. The only ball, cap, and powder the boys brought were in the gun.
He was about to squeeze when the sound of gunshots rang out. There were five or six of them, off in the distance. The flock of turkey before him spooked and scattered.
"Damn," Pritchard cursed at the missed opportunity. He lowered the rifle's hammer and the boys stood up. "Who fired off all those shots?"
"I don't know," Ditch answered, "but look yonder." He nudged Pritchard and pointed over the tree line to the east. "Smoke. It looks to be comin' from where those shots came from."
"That's our place," Pritchard said, dread creeping into his voice.
"I know," Ditch said.
The boys started running.CHAPTER 2
Pritchard and Ditch approached the edge of the woods bordering the Pritchards' property at a full sprint. Ditch had taken the Hawken back, and both boys were out of breath from their all-out run. Pritchard was in the lead, as his much longer legs and greater strength gave him speed over his medium-sized friend. The smell of burning wood, and the increasing glow of flames as they neared, urged them onward.
Pritchard reached the woodline first and halted. Ditch skidded to a stop on his heels. Both stared in horror at the scene before them.
The Pritchard home was fully engulfed and sending a billowing trail of black smoke skyward. There were riders, six of them, wearing gray reb coats and cloth masks under their hats. All had pistols. Some wielded torches.
Pritchard was taking it in, frozen and aghast, when Ditch grabbed his arm and pointed to the big sycamore off to one side of the house. There, hanging by the neck from a rope looped over one of the big tree's stout branches, was his father. One of his boots had fallen off. He swung slowly back and forth.
"Pa!" Pritchard gasped. He started toward him. Suddenly there was an explosion in his head and everything went hazy. The last thing he remembered was seeing the ground jump up toward his face.
* * *
Pritchard blinked, and his vision came back into focus. He was on his back, looking up at the sky. It was late afternoon, and the sun had begun to dip below the tree line. He carefully sat up. His head throbbed.
"Shhhh," Ditch cooed, his hand over Pritchard's mouth. "Stay quiet. There's a couple of 'em still out there."
Pritchard realized he was no longer at the edge of the woodline. Ditch removed his hand.
"I ain't proud of smackin' you in the noggin with a rifle butt," Ditch whispered, "but I ain't gonna apologize. We both know I can't take you. If I'd let you run out there, you'd be swingin' in that tree next to your pa."
Pritchard slowly nodded. "How long have I been out?"
"Couple of hours. I drug you back into the woods, so's we wouldn't get seen. Your house is nothing but a pile of ashes."
"Let's go look."
"You ain't gonna get stupid again, are you?"
"No," Pritchard said. "I've got my wits about me now."
Ditch picked up the Hawken, and both boys crept silently again to the edge of the woodline. What awaited them was exactly as Ditch had described. The house was a smoldering black heap of charred wood. The barn was intact, but the doors were open, and all the horses gone. All but two of the gray raiders had departed.
The remaining two horsemen had dismounted and tied their animals nearby. One, sipping from a bottle and chewing a blade of grass, sat with his back against the sycamore tree where Thomas Pritchard's body still hung. The other stood next to him, leisurely smoking a pipe. Both had removed their canvas masks. That a dead man swayed overhead seemed to bother them not in the least.
"You didn't see any sign of my ma or Idelle, did you?" Pritchard whispered, angrily wiping back tears he hoped his friend Ditch didn't see. He was almost afraid to ask the question.
"No sign of them," Ditch assured him.
"Ma took Idelle into town to do some shopping this morning," Pritchard explained.
"It's just as well they weren't home," Ditch said. Neither wanted to think about what would have transpired if his mother or his nine-year-old sister, Idelle, had been present when the riders arrived.
"Why are two of them still here?" Pritchard asked, pointing to the graycoats. "Why didn't they take off when the rest of the raiding party left?"
"I figure those two were left behind to get you when you came home." Pritchard absorbed his friend's words. "Maybe your ma and Idelle, too.
"Aren't they afraid of a posse coming?"
"Nope," Ditch answered. "They ain't afraid of no posse. Look closer. Recognize either of 'em?"
"Yes." Pritchard squinted. "I know them both. The one smoking the pipe is Bob Toole. He works at Shipley's hotel. The other one is — "
"— Glen Bedgley," Ditch finished. "Deputy Glenn Bedgley. Don't forget, Shipley doesn't just own the town. He owns the town marshal and the county sheriff, too. Still think they're afraid of a posse?"
Pritchard shook his head. "I don't get it. Toole and Bedgley are both Union men. Hell, Toole runs the enlistment board for Shipley. Why would Union men be dressed like Confederate raiders? And why would they kill Pa and burn our house?"
"I don't know for sure," Ditch whispered, "but I can guess. My dad says Shipley's using his position with the government to take over everything he can get his hands on. Remember last winter when he took over the riverside loading docks, claiming they were vital to the Union cause? And the train station? And how he took over the livery stable and the stockyards this past spring?"
"I do," Pritchard said. "Pa said Shipley tried to buy out the sawmill last year, but he refused to sell."
"I wouldn't be surprised if Shipley had his eye on your family's mill all along," Ditch went on, "especially since your pa never took sides with the Union. I'll bet he's in town, as we speak, declaring the sawmill a 'vital resource to the war effort,' and commandeering it for the 'Great Cause.'"
"I get it," Pritchard said. "By dressing his men as reb raiders, Shipley can blame the raid on folks who lean with the South. Not only will that cover his tracks, it'll rile up every Union gun in the county."
"That's how I figure it," Ditch said. He put his hand on Pritchard's shoulder. "I'm powerful sorry about your pa."
Ditch and Pritchard were silent for a long time. Pritchard again fought back tears. They watched the sun slowly fall and kept their eyes on the two Union men, dressed in rebel gray, lounging beneath Thomas Pritchard's dangling body.
"What do you aim to do?" Ditch finally asked.
"First, I'm gonna kill those two murderin' bastards," Pritchard said. His tears were gone, replaced by narrowed eyes and a set jaw. "Then I'm going to cut Pa down from that tree and bury him."
"Then I'm going to pay Burnell Shipley a visit."CHAPTER 3
Pritchard and Ditch crept across the lawn toward the two men in gray coats. Ditch held the Hawken at the ready, with the hammer back. Pritchard grasped Ditch's skinning knife in his left hand and a hatchet in his right.
It was dusk, and full dark was only minutes away. The flickering firelight from what was left of the Pritchard home, and the crackling of still-burning embers, cast dancing shadows and covered the sounds of their movement.
The two boys carefully circumnavigated the property and emerged from behind the sentries. The Union men were by now both seated and looked to be dozing, though one held a pistol loosely in each hand.
Pritchard picked up a hatchet from the woodpile near the barn as they made their way around the yard. He tried not to look above the two gray- coated men, at his father's hanging body, but found he couldn't keep his gaze from drifting up. The best he could do was stare at his pa's dangling feet, one bootless, while keeping the two men below in sight.
Suddenly Ditch and Pritchard were upon them. Bob Toole saw the boys first. He cried out a warning, started to rise, and went for the pistol stuck in the wide belt around his gray reb coat.
Pritchard brought down the razor-sharp hatchet and sliced off Toole's right hand in one clean swoop, as he tried to draw the Navy Colt. He followed up by ramming Ditch's knife, hilt deep, into the hotel clerk's chest.
Deputy Glenn Bedgley, his guns already in hand, struggled to get his fat body to his feet. As he clumsily rose, he thumbed the hammers back on his pair of 1858 Remington .44s. He was bringing the weapons to bear on Pritchard, at point-blank range, when the. 54 caliber ball fired from Ditch Clemson's Hawken rifle entered his stomach. Bedgley dropped the pistols, screamed, clutched his midsection, and fell forward onto his face.
Ditch set his rifle against the tree as Pritchard examined the downed men. Bob Toole was dead, his sightless eyes staring up at nothing. Pritchard extracted the blade from his chest and handed it to Ditch.
"Cut down Pa, will ya?"
"Sure, Samuel," Ditch answered solemnly, taking the knife.
Pritchard kicked Bedgley over onto his back. The bearded deputy was conscious and still clutching his stomach. His face was contorted in agony. He looked up at Pritchard looming over him.
"You're in a heap of trouble, boy," Bedgley grunted, straining to get the words out. He punctuated his sentence by spitting blood.
"And you're gut-shot," Pritchard said. "You won't see morning."
"Get me into town," Bedgley ordered, "to the doctor."
Pritchard ignored him. He tossed the hatchet aside and picked up Bedgley's dropped revolvers. He had never before held a pistol. The weapons were heavier than he anticipated.
"Give me a hand, will ya?" Ditch called out. He'd cut the rope and was struggling with Thomas Pritchard's large, heavy, body.
Pritchard lowered the revolver's hammers, stuck both guns into his belt, and helped his friend lower his father to the ground.
"Looks like he put up a fight," Ditch said, pointing to the skinned knuckles on both of Thomas Pritchard's hands. Pritchard parted his father's shirt and saw several gunshot wounds on his torso.
"As much fight as one unarmed man can put up," Pritchard said grimly, "against a pack of armed cowards." He took some solace in hoping his father might have already been dead when they hanged him.
"Get Toole's gun," Pritchard told Ditch.
"No thanks," Ditch said. "I ain't takin' a gun out of a dead man's fist." He pointed to the dismembered hand, still wrapped around the Navy Colt. It lay several feet from Toole's body.
"Safest way to take a gun from a man is when he's dead, I reckon," Pritchard said. He picked up the detached hand and pried it from the gun. Then he tossed the hand aside and examined the pistol. Holding the weapon up to the fading firelight, he checked the load.
"Only four unfired," he announced. "Toole shot Pa at least once." He spat on Toole's body, tossed the gun to Ditch, who reluctantly caught it, and walked back over to where the deputy lay writhing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death Rattle"
Copyright © 2019 Sean Lynch.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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