A band of orphan avengers. A cursed stone. A horde of zombie outlaws.
This is Keech Blackwood’s new life after Bad Whiskey Nelson descends upon the Home for Lost Causes and burns it to the ground.
With his home destroyed and his family lost, Keech will have to use the lessons he learned from Pa Abner to hunt down the powerful Char Stone. Luckily, he has the help of a ragtag team of orphans. Together, they’ll travel through treacherous forests, fight off the risen dead, and discover that they share mysterious bonds as they search for the legendary stone. Now it’s a race against the clock, because if Bad Whiskey finds the stone first…all is lost.
But Keech and the other orphans won’t hesitate. Because they’re more than just heroes.
They’re Lost Causes.
Legends of the Lost Causes marks the thrilling start to an action-packed middle grade series by debut authors Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester.
Praise for Legends of the Lost Causes
A Junior Library Guild selection
"This is a fun and exciting story, written with the utmost respect for the Osage culture." Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center
"A rip-roaring adventure in the Wild West, filled with cowboys, magic, and a horde of undead villains that'll have you hunkered down in your bedroll, turning pages long after the campfire has died down." Heidi Schulz, author of the New York Times bestselling Hook's Revenge
"I don’t get to use the word rollicking enough but there’s no other word for this book: a rollicking adventure filled with mystery and magic that crackles like a brush fire." Emma Trevayne, author of The House of Months and Years
"Thrilling, dark, and full of heart, this is a Western like none I’ve ever read. I loved it." Stefan Bachmann, author of The Peculiar and The Whatnot
"McLelland and Sylvester imbue the adventure with a Louis L’Amour-esque flair refreshed for today’s readers by the thoughtful incorporation of American frontier history and Osage culture. This is an easy read for fans of Westerns like Bowman’s Vengeance Road." The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
About the Author
Born and raised in Arkansas, Brad McLelland spent several years working as a crime journalist in the South before earning his MFA in creative writing from Oklahoma State University. A part-time drummer and singer, Brad lives in Oklahoma with his wife, stepdaughter, a mini-Aussie who gives hugs, and a chubby cat who begs for ham.
Louis Sylvester is a professor at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. He earned his PhD from Oklahoma State University. He enjoys playing tabletop games from his collection of over 1,000 card and board games, watching western films, reading fantasy novels, and spending time with his wife and two dogs.
Read an Excerpt
Keech Blackwood splashed up from the cold waters of the Third Fork River and blinked at the bright autumn sun. Sam was standing on the bank, holding the prized musket stick and hooting laughter.
"I finally got you!" Sam shouted. "I finally put you down!" Overcome by his victory, the boy bounced on one foot and started a champion's dance.
They had been awake since first light, exploring the lush northwestern Missouri hills. Sometime after setting out, Sam had spotted a plump cottontail, his favorite animal, and Keech had cooked up the idea of tracking the critter and snare-trapping it for practice.
They set the rabbit snare using a couple of oak branches, a bent-over sapling, and a strand of dogbane for the noose. After waiting a whole precious hour for the animal to reappear, Sam lost all patience and offered a second suggestion: a game of Grab the Musket.
The boys had wandered down to the river searching for a long stick. Keech found a strong lacebark limb half-buried in the frosty mud. He washed the limb in the river, and then both boys stripped off their shirts and boots and squared off on the dark riverbank soil.
Pa Abner had taught them Grab the Musket a few years earlier. The rules were simple. Both contestants took a firm grip on the stick and then squared their shoulders and dug their feet into the ground. Keech would yell "Pull!" and they would wrestle to yank the stick free. When they had first learned the game, Sam was an imposing competitor. But now that Keech was two months shy of fourteen, and had grown much taller than his toothpick brother, he could pull the musket out of Sam's grip every time.
Sam had managed something new. When Keech pulled, the smaller boy stepped forward and pushed. Keech rocked off balance. Sam pivoted his heel and twisted his body to the left, and before Keech could figure out what was happening, the rascal yanked hard on the stick.
Keech released the musket as his feet slid out. For a weightless moment he felt disconnected from the world, like a bird in flight. Then he flopped into the chill waters of the Third Fork.
The moment he lifted his head from the river, Keech spotted a man on horseback with his hat pulled low, gazing down at them from atop the wooded hill.
"Sam, pause your prancing."
"Can't do," bellowed Sam. "The victory's too sweet!" His champion's dance continued.
The Third Fork River was wide and shallow at this edge, rising only to Keech's waist, the riverbed beneath his bare feet paved with smooth stones. He pulled a wet curtain of dark hair out of his eyes and focused across the open. The sun hadn't deceived him. There was a man on the hill, dressed in a long, black overcoat and mounted on a chestnut stallion.
"Hey, I mean it. We're being watched."
Sam turned to look. As if on cue, the man in the black overcoat called down, "Mornin', pilgrims!" and doffed his hat. His voice sounded wrong, as though speaking pleasantries was new to him. "Don't dash off, as I mean ya no harm!" The man dismounted, gathered his reins, and began to walk down the hill, the chestnut stallion in tow.
Sam held out the lacebark limb. "Here." Keech grabbed it and Sam helped him out of the river.
"Let's get back in our shirts and boots," Keech said. "If he means us ill, we may need to run."
Sam regarded the stranger with a frown. The narrow scar on the left side of Sam's face paled even whiter than usual, as it did whenever he got nervous. "I'm the Rabbit, remember? I can run just as fast in bare feet."
"Put your boots on anyhow."
Both boys hurried to slip their muddy feet into their boots and put their shirts and coats on. Keech grabbed his bowler hat and kept his eyes locked on the man, who continued down the hill.
When the stranger was about twenty feet away, he dropped the reins and smiled, revealing a mouth full of gaps. Now that he was close, Keech could see that the man's black overcoat was threadbare, riddled with holes in the elbows. He wore his trousers tucked into tall black boots and carried a heavy revolver on his hip, a Colt Dragoon with a glinting black barrel. Keech had never seen a real Dragoon before, but he recognized the revolver from a fine pencil drawing in one of Pa Abner's books.
"Quite a chill in the air this morn," the man said. He wore a long goatee pointed like a dagger at the end and greasy black hair drawn back into a ponytail. His left eye was yellowish and glazed over, surely blind.
Making sure his path to the trail was clear, Keech set his footing, ready to move in an instant should this man decide to get mean. He noticed Sam also steeling himself to run, just as Pa Abner had taught them to do if they ever encountered strangers with ill purpose. Run first, live to tell, Pa would always say, usually before their day's training began.
"Yessir, quite a chill," Keech replied. He fanned his wet bangs out of his eyes again and crammed his hat back on.
"This weather ain't so bad, I s'pose," the man said. "Could be worse. Farther north the brush rabbits have gnawed the sassafras sprouts down to nubs. Means a heavy snowfall comin' for those poor folk."
The stranger took a step closer. He reeked of pig slop, as though he hadn't taken a bath in weeks. "Why are you little pilgrims dippin' into icy rivers?"
Keech said, "We were playing war when my friend tripped me and I fell."
The man laughed — a slippery sound, full of bad air. "Ah, now I see why you was wrestlin' for that stick. You little pilgrims remember the Alamo! Which of you's Jim Bowie and who's got the awful job of playin' Santa Anna?"
"But we ain't playin' the Alamo," said Sam.
The man clicked his tongue. "A mighty shame you'd waste a chance to play Mr. Bowie. Can you name a more heroic figgur in all of history?"
"No, sir," said Keech, though he and Sam had both long ago agreed Davy Crockett was their favorite hero of the Alamo. "Sir, I do apologize, but we need to be getting home." He tapped Sam on the leg and they stepped away. A wind blustered and made every inch of Keech's damp skin bump with gooseflesh.
The man coughed into his fist. "Hold on there a tick, pilgrims."
Keech glanced back. "We must run off, sir. Time for chores." The boys increased their pace.
The stranger called after them. "But surely you pilgrims can tell me where I can find a man named Isaiah Raines?"
Keech was happy he'd never heard the name. "No, sir!" he called back.
The stranger said, "What about Abner Carson?"
The boys stopped in their tracks — that was their pa's name. Sam loosed a muffled gasp.
The man squinted at them, his yellow eye moist and dead.
"I was told down south somebody named Ab Carson might know of Mr. Raines's where'bouts. You see, I got important business to conduct, so please tell me the way to Mr. Carson's doorstep. If he knows of Isaiah Raines, I sure would like to hear it."
Keech turned to face the dark man with the dead eye. "No disrespect, sir, but you're a stranger."
The man snorted surprise. "My apologies! I answer to 'Whiskey,' like the drink. Anyone who knows me calls me that."
"But we don't know you," said Keech.
Whiskey winked his good eye. "But ya do know Ab Carson. I can read that plain as dirt."
Sam leaned in close. "Reckon it's time to run?" Keech whispered, "I have an idea."
He nodded to the stranger. "Yessir, Mr. Whiskey, I have heard the name. A few months back I went down to Farnham with my pa to buy a wagon. During our supper I heard a man at the next table say his name was just that, Ab Carson. He told a group of fellas he was traveling out west to seek the Fountain of Youth. I don't recall more since I was involved in that fat steak I was eating."
The man held up his hand. "Okay, pilgrim."
"I'm sorry your hunt's been for naught, Mr. Whiskey, but that's the lot of what I know. If you wish more, I'd suggest you go down to Farnham. It's about two days' ride." Keech turned and shoved at Sam. The boys started back into the woods.
Sam shot a backward glance at the figure. "That fella didn't believe a word of your nonsense story."
"Just keep moving. When he's out of sight, start running."
They were about to hurry off when Whiskey's gruff voice filled the air. "Hold up."
Again, both boys froze. The stranger picked up his reins and led his stallion closer. His free hand now hovered near his revolver.
"Keech, what do we do?" whispered Sam.
"Hush your tongue. If he goes for that gun, I'll clean his plow."
"But that's a Dragoon!"
"Quiet," Keech hissed.
Whiskey led his horse till he was roughly ten feet away. A vibrant wind rustled through the cottonwood trees, shaking branches and driving the man's stink right up Keech's nostrils. Whiskey said, "You heard the name of Abner Carson in the town of Farmhan?"
Keech considered changing his tale. There was a village called Farmhan up north, and sending this scoundrel up and down the state on a fruitless hunt seemed a worthwhile idea. But he worried that adding another layer of deception might bring the whole story tumbling down. "No, sir, Mr. Whiskey. I said I heard mention of Carson in Farnham. Down south."
The one-eyed man looked at Keech, then Sam, slowly tilting his head as though his single eye was staring through each of them. After a long, breathless moment, the man nodded.
"Farnham, then. I reckon I oughta let you pilgrims run along. I'd hate for ya to catch yer death of cold." On those words, Whiskey turned and led his horse back toward the river.
Keech and Sam didn't wait to watch the man depart. They ran into the woods, leaping over rocks and sliding down slopes, till the river was well behind. They allowed their pace to slacken only when they crested a final hill and saw the two-story farmhouse where they'd been raised.
They dashed across the property, the front yard camouflaged by heavy ranks of firethorn shrubs and weigela bushes. Sam slipped ahead, huffing, and as they approached the shakepole fence that bordered the yard, he hopped on one foot and smacked the painted sign that hung above the gate. Keech followed suit. It was always good luck to slap the sign on your way to the house. It was their beacon in the harsh frontier, a symbol of family, a symbol of strength. The sign read:
CARSON'S HOME FOR LOST CAUSES Protect Us, St. Jude, from Harm
Keech threw open the front door to find their brother Patrick waiting for them by the rumbling fireplace. The moment the small boy saw them, he jumped to his feet, bounded over to Keech, and squeezed his right leg in a bear hug.
"Keech! Sam! I've been waitin' all morning!" the boy yelled. His legs were uncovered, since he often forgot to wear any sort of trousers. In fact, his bare bottom was a common sight around the Home. At four years old, Patrick was the youngest of the five orphans. His blazing red hair stood straight out like a lion's mane, and smears of blackberry jelly stained his lips.
"Hey, flapjack," said Keech.
"I ate your biscuit while you was gone. Every last crumb."
"You better not have." Keech scooped up the half-naked boy in one arm and spun him around.
"Not yours. Sam's."
Sam gasped, and Keech snickered. "That's a good boy." He set Patrick back down on the rug. "Now where's your undershorts? Your derriere's hanging out."
Patrick noticed his naked lower half. "Whoops."
"Scurry on upstairs and get dressed."
Patrick darted to the stairway and stopped. "Oh, I almost forgot. Granny Nell says she's gonna whip the both of ya for skippin' breakfast and mornin' chores." With a loud cackle, he then scrambled up the Home's spindle balusters.
Keech called after the boy, "You know you're not supposed to climb like that! Pa said you ain't no squirrel."
"I know I'm not!" Patrick hollered down. "I'm a monkey!"
As Keech hung his bowler hat on the front door rack, Sam frowned at the entrance to the kitchen. "If Granny's in a foul way, maybe we should head back out."
"And put an extra nail in our coffin? Best we just take our punishment."
No sooner did the words come out of his mouth than a voice rang out from the kitchen. "If you two so much as think about running off again, you'll be whitewashing shutters all the way to next Christmas! Now get your skinny hinds in here!"
Granny Nell was sitting at the kitchen table, sharpening a butcher's knife on a long whetstone. Stacked behind her on the counter, dirty breakfast plates awaited the daily chore of wash-down and rinse-off. When she turned to inspect the boys, the blue ribbon holding back her silver hair came untied, dropping ringlets around her wrinkled face. Granny huffed a breath to move the hair out of her eyes. "First things first," she said. "Who is the culprit who left his Holy Bible sitting in the stairwell?"
Sam's eyes widened.
Granny Nell adjusted the black wool shawl around her shoulders. "Samuel, we may live in a home built square in the center of nowhere, but that does not mean you can act like a heathen. You are twelve years old and can use a bookshelf like the rest of us civilized folk."
She pointed to the bookshelf in the sitting room. "I placed your Bible there. Take care not to leave it underfoot. It'd be a terrible thing to murder an old woman with the Good Book."
Keech snickered — a dangerous mistake. Granny Nell turned her sharp, owl-like gaze upon him. "Do I hear laughter, Mr. Blackwood? From the boy who dragged poor Sam all over the countryside without his breakfast?"
Keech dropped his head. "We were tracking rabbits is all."
"Oh, tracking, were ya? Then tell me, Lewis and Clark, what do your keen eyes see when you gaze at yonder empty table?"
"That we missed a fine breakfast," lamented Sam.
"And what else do you gather when you see that barnload of dirty dishes?"
Both boys groaned.
* * *
Granny Nell finished sharpening her butcher's knife as Keech and Sam soaped and dried the plates. She stood to replace the cutlery. Although the shoulders beneath her black shawl were frail and her back slightly bent, she moved with an energy that rivaled young Patrick. One time Keech had seen her pick up two unruly shoats under each arm and haul them, squealing and kicking, back to the pigpen from where they'd escaped.
"I want that table wiped down to a perfect shine," Granny said. She cracked her old knuckles, a sound that sent the shivers through Keech. "I wrapped up some biscuits and placed them in the crock by the back door. When your chores are done, you may eat them. I wouldn't delay, though. I suspect Little Eugena will be prowling about any moment."
"Yes'm," Sam said, clearly worried. Their orphan sister Eugena — always referred to as Little Eugena for her size — tended to harvest up any seconds that might be available after a meal. But Keech figured they were safe for now. After breakfast and chores, Little Eugena usually disappeared into the woods for an hour to play her brass bugle, an instrument that Pa Abner had given the girl for her eighth birthday. Little Eugena resolutely believed that her dreadful-sounding contraption had once belonged to the 41st Regiment of Redcoats at the Battle of the Oakwoods in 1812. She played the bugle the way she ate her meals, with the fervor of a lunatic.
Granny Nell planted kisses on their cheeks, and all at once Keech's shivers were gone. "I want to see your smiling faces at breakfast tomorrow," she said. "If you behave till then, I'll make sausage links."
"That sounds nice," Keech said, hating that he and Sam had hurt her feelings. Granny had lived a difficult life, the worst of it many years ago when her husband had died over in Big Timber, the town a few miles east of the orphanage. The man's death had apparently been awful; he had been a slow victim of the disease everyone in the region called the Withers.
Keech remembered all the campfire stories about the Withers, the dreadful outbreak in the winter of 1832, the disease that took half the people in the county. If you died of the Withers, it was told, you got buried in Bone Ridge, the massive graveyard located somewhere out in the western wilderness. Most of the people in these parts knew the spook stories about Bone Ridge, and the old saying that went along with it:
Beware the high ridge made of bone.
As Pa Abner had once told it, Granny Nell's husband — a blacksmith named Abraham — had died in her arms, whispering her name as he had taken his last breath. He was buried out there in the west, in the vast expanse of Bone Ridge alongside the others, the unspeakable number of lost souls, taken by the Withers.
"Mr. Blackwood!" Granny barked. Her severe tone gave him a jolt, and he almost dropped a plate on the floor.
"I've never known you to be so untidy at dishes. What's got into you?"
Keech hesitated. He was unsure if he should keep the morning's events down by the river a secret or come right out and spill every detail. As the oldest of the orphans, he had long taken upon himself the role of guardian for the others, which meant facing things they could not yet handle. Sam was twelve, and had practiced all the same training as Keech, had excelled at the forest lessons and games with Pa, but his own confidence sometimes misguided him. Little Eugena was nine but weighed barely fifty pounds after a hearty meal. Patrick had just turned four a month ago. Robby was eleven but had a crooked hand that sometimes slowed him down. Keech felt like most of his duty at the Home was to keep the others safe. The last thing he wanted was to scare anyone with tales of one-eyed strangers.
Excerpted from "Legends of the Lost Causes"
Copyright © 2018 Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1: The Home for Lost Causes,
Chapter 1: Bad Whiskey,
Chapter 2: The Guardian,
Chapter 3: Pa Abner's Secret,
Chapter 4: A Message of Grave Importance,
Chapter 5: The Code Breakers,
Chapter 6: The Peg-Leg Bandit,
Chapter 7: The Whispering Crow,
Chapter 8: The Siege,
Chapter 9: Smoke and Ash,
Part 2: The Young Riders,
Interlude: Whiskey on the Trail,
Chapter 10: Ambush at Copperhead Rock,
Chapter 11: I Am the Wolf,
Chapter 12: A Revelation at Swift Hollow,
Chapter 13: The Escape,
Chapter 14: The Interrogation,
Chapter 15: What Happened at Whistler,
Chapter 16: Floodwood,
Chapter 17: A Bread-Crumb Trail,
Chapter 18: The Red Mountain,
Chapter 19: The Climb,
Chapter 20: The Doorway,
Chapter 21: Cutter's Decision,
Chapter 22: Wasape,
Part 3: The Sullied Place,
Interlude: Whiskey in the Dark,
Chapter 23: Exite,
Chapter 24: The Reunion,
Chapter 25: The Tsi'noo,
Chapter 26: Treasure Hunt,
Chapter 27: Destruction Cometh,
Chapter 28: Cut from the Reins,
Chapter 29: The Lawman's Blessing,
About the Authors,