Outlaw Joshua Manning becomes a fugitive when his companion shoots a young Christian missionary in a robbery attempt a few days before Christmas in 1905. Escaping, he travels alone from Illinois to nearby Wisconsin, taking shelter in a thicket of pine trees. As a bitterly cold snow storm stalls out over the Mississippi River Valley, he falls asleep upon an icy bedroll by his fading campfire. Near death, he dreams about his earlier life.
He remembers his grandmother and the farm hands who made up his family as a young child. When his grandmother dies, he is sent to an orphanage. There he meets Luke and Russell, who become his family when they leave the orphanage together. Outcasts, they form a band of highway robbers, but thieving never feels right to Joshua, his grandmother's biblical teachings haunting him in his dreams. And his heart aches as memories of Samantha engulf him-Samantha in red velvet. Why did she marry another man when she was promised to him?
On Christmas Eve, he awakens from a deep slumber, a hundred years into the future, hearing the cries of nine-year-old Tommy Barker. Fearing for the boy's safety, Joshua takes him back to his family's farmhouse as the winter storm escalates. Tommy's mother, thankful for the return of her son, invites Joshua to share the holiday with their family.
Eventually, the twenty-first century invades the proceedings, and Joshua is forced to come to terms with his own humanity and spirituality. Together, Joshua and Tommy unravel the mystery that is eternal life.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)|
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By Wendy Moser
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Wendy Moser
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNorthwest Illinois December 23, 1905
Joshua Manning awoke in an unfamiliar room. The chamber stove in the corner sputtered on splinters of wood chips, the last of the heat escaping the grate like a sigh. Licking his chapped lips, he tasted the sour remnants of the potent whiskey he'd had the night before and wondered where he was and what he'd done that he'd surely be sorry for. He rolled over and covered his whiskered face with the threadbare quilt when he heard laughter coming from the other side of the room.
"Gran pay you a visit again, Josh?" his friend, Luke, called from his cot near the window, across the bodies of their companions Haley and Russell who were stretched out on the hard cots like corpses, hands folded on their chests and toes pointed straight up. They were snoring in unison.
Joshua moaned and crawled to the edge of the bed. The knees of his long johns stuck out when he straightened his legs, and they were stained where they'd rubbed against the dirty mattress. "Yeah, I suppose she did. Was I flyin' again?"
Luke nodded. "You looked more like you was swatting at somethin', but with a little imagination it could a been flyin'."
"I swear, Luke, she's tryin' to tell me somethin' in my dreams."
Joshua combed his fingers through his thick, black hair and made a face at Luke who stared back at him with brown, deep-set eyes, almost his mirror image. Luke had been like a brother to him since Gran's death, the only family he had known since they met in the orphanage, nearly two decades ago now.
Joshua rubbed his temple and closed his eyes, trying to recall the dream he'd had, the memory of his gran still so vivid after all the passing years.
He'd been in Gran's parlor, cold and empty except for a big, open coffin that was surrounded by burning candles, the wax dripping onto the shiny wood floor. Was it Gran in the casket? Joshua scratched his chin and squinted hard to see the vision more clearly. No, it was Papa dressed in his best clothes, his thick hair combed back smooth and shining. He never wore it like that.
Joshua, a boy again, was leaning against the coffin, his fingers wedged between his father's cold fingers. His chin was tucked into the stiff collar on his Sunday shirt. One tear splashed down his cheek and onto his father's dark frock-coat.
Suddenly, people filled the room. Gran lifted him to her knee just as old Bart, the farm hand, bent over him and called him a damn cry baby, his breath sickening from drunkenness. The tall, skeletal man leaned closer, muttering right into Joshua's ear.
"Why don't ya face it like a man," he said, "or yore gran will die, too." He staggered away laughing.
Joshua called to his gran not to die as she eased in and out of dream shadows, her calico skirt billowing in a death scene as she, too, was leaving him.
"Let me go with you, Gran," he cried out.
"You gotta learn to fly, boy," she warned, as she scowled beyond him. "Or you'll be just like him." Her eyes followed Bart as he stumbled into view.
"See," she said, lifting her arms up and down in a sweeping motion, "like the butterflies hoverin' over Gran's hollyhocks. Like an angel." Gran's voice disappeared in the last of her words. "Trust me, Joshua. Trust me," she called, her voice lost in his consciousness.
The dream always ended then, the child fading and the man reluctantly emerging.
Joshua's stomach churned and rumbled. He couldn't remember ever being so hungry, but there wouldn't be time for a meal until much later in the day, when their work was done. He brushed his fingertips along his bristly, upper lip and wished he could buy a shave and a haircut. As he poured cold water from the pitcher into the wash basin, thin sheets of ice broke like glass against the sides. The square of lye soap was like a chip of frozen ice, but it lathered up after he let it soak a bit, and he washed his face vigorously. He hoped the next small town would have a barbershop and a better hotel where he could have a steaming, hot bath.
After drying his face, he sat back down on his cot and covered up, shivering. Icicles had formed along the window sill. Stars were still shimmering in the early morning sky, and he looked at them through the open, dusty curtains.
The lace trim reminded him of his gran. He missed her the most after one of his dreams. But he was glad she'd gone on to her great reward and hadn't seen him like this, a thief taking money from weary travelers, a fugitive staying in a different flea-trap hotel every night, just a few steps ahead of the law. He was just about as far from Gran's angel as he could possibly be now. Instead of drifting over the earth like a butterfly, he pictured himself haunting it, draped in the chains of his misdeeds and regrets for all eternity, like poor old Marley in A Christmas Carol.
"Let's get those boys up, Joshua, and get goin'," Luke said. "The early travelers usually carry the most money."
Luke rummaged through his knapsack and found a small, wooden match, scratching it against the window sill a few times until it lit. He poked it against the end of a thin, black cigar dangling in the corner of his mouth and puffed three times. Thick smoke rings drifted about the room, and the stench of the cigar hovered with it, waking Haley who struggled to sit up. Luke handed the scowling man the lit cigar, and he took it with shaky fingers. Shoving it between his lips, he drew a deep breath and released it with a mucous-rattled cough, his eyes still closed.
Russell hadn't moved.
"We got good prospects today," Luke said, taking the damp stub from Haley and clenching it between his teeth as he pulled his pants over his long johns, "with it being so close to Christmas and all."
"Christmas," Joshua grumbled, as he dragged himself from his cot and peered out of the small window to look at the sky again. The stars had disappeared, and thick, gray clouds hovered over the small town.
A snow storm was coming.
Chapter TwoJoshua crouched low and out of sight. Loose curls fell across his forehead, and he brushed them aside as he watched his companion ride by, sitting tall in his saddle, most of his face hidden under the wide brim of his limp, weathered hat. Although Haley knew Joshua was hiding behind the bramble of twisted vines and small bushes, he kept his eyes straight ahead, focused on the bouncing buggy coming toward him on the narrow road.
A dark bandanna covered the lower half of Haley's face, and he kept his head down, his eyes fixed on the driver as the buggy crawled closer and closer, slowing down in hesitation. It stopped in a soft cloud of snow. Haley walked his horse several paces and lifted his gun in greeting.
"Howdy, boy," he said, looking over the young man and his female companion.
Joshua leaned forward and peered out at the couple, quite young to be driving a buggy in these parts, especially this early in the day. He looked to be around sixteen, barely old enough to tote a gun, and she looked only a wee bit older. The sun was grappling with the soot-tinged clouds just beyond the nearby stand of trees, and neither was winning.
"What is it you want, sir?" the young man asked, his voice shaky, his gaze resting keenly on Haley's menacing eyes, instead of the gun that Haley held casually against his saddle horn.
"Just about everything you got, mister," Haley said, in a husky voice. He lifted up from his saddle and dropped to the ground, taking a wide stance next to the buggy.
Dried leaves drifted to his snow-dusted boots from the nearby maple tree, one at a time, as pungent, hickory smoke and bacon smells lifted from the chimney of the distant farmhouse. Joshua felt hunger stir in his belly again.
"Now, why don't you jump on down here, missy, and let's see what you got," Haley demanded, motioning with his gun for the young woman to step down and with his empty hand for the young man to stay seated.
She did as she was told, and Joshua could see she was small, her head barely reaching Haley's shoulders as she stood next to him, her head tilted up bravely. She wore a long, black cape edged in silk embroidery, and her face was covered in a thin, black veil that tied loosely around her wide-brimmed hat. She looked down and clenched her hands together as if in prayer.
"Any money on you, miss?" Haley asked.
"It's in the satchel under the seat, sir," she answered hesitantly, her eyes meeting Haley's again. "We're on our way to Galena to start a Christian school."
"Looks like your plans have changed a mite." Haley winked at her.
"Now let's see what you got hidden under that heavy cape." He smiled and touched her cheek. "If I like what I see, I just might leave you with some of yore money."
"See here!" the young man said, shifting in his seat, his knees shaking. "Leave my sister alone."
Haley wagged his gun toward the young man who stiffened up, suddenly looking much younger than he first appeared.
The young woman reached out to slap Haley, but he caught her hand in midair.
"You best not do that, missy," Haley said, holding her arm firmly. She let out a soft cry.
"Why don't you bend down slow and easy, boy, and bring out the satchel," Haley said, lifting one side of the woman's cape with the barrel of his gun, "whilst I have a look."
She stared ahead, her eyes wide, her jaw set, doing her best to ignore his searching eyes.
The young man fumbled with a leather thong attached under the seat and bent to retrieve a small satchel that fell to the floorboard with a thud.
"Toss it down here," Haley said, scratching a line in the snow in front of him with the toe of his boot.
"Yes, sir," the young man said, following directions. "Please let us go now, mister." His voice wavered, and he sounded like a child.
Haley looked up and shook his head. "Not just yet, son. I ain't done with yore sister." He dropped his eyes back down to the young lady and smiled.
"Well, I'll be, little lady," he exclaimed, as his hand moved slowly between her shoulders. "You got quite a generous form on you for one so young." His large fingers fumbled with the top button on her dress, and she started to cry softly. He leaned his face close to hers, and she tried to pull away. "And you smell like a fistful of posies," he said, nuzzling her throat.
Joshua shifted his weight and tilted his hat back on his head. He jumped from his horse, and the young woman turned damp eyes to him.
"Hold on, Haley," he called, taking a few steps, his eyes still resting on the young woman's anguished face. "I won't have any part of this. Grab the satchel and let's get out of here."
Haley turned to scowl at him, his hand still resting near the young woman's throat. "Her little heart's a beatin' so, Josh. I think she likes me."
"Clearly she don't," Joshua said, resting his hand on his gun, his eyes turned now toward Haley.
The young man shifted slowly in the buggy seat, and his hand went inside his coat pocket.
Haley caught the movement and turned his gun back on the young man, discharging it with a sudden, deafening blast. The young man fell from his seat to the snow covered ground, blood seeping from his chest.
"Tad? Tad? Tad!" the young woman called, each time louder and more pitiful until it was a wail. She broke away from Haley who was still aiming the gun at her brother, his expression surprised, then blank. She fell on top of the young man's body as if to shield him.
Joshua took long strides from where he stood and knelt beside the young woman.
"My Lord," she exclaimed, her eyes reaching high into the clouds, "don't let my brother die."
Joshua tore a heavy, woolen mitten from his right hand and touched the young man's throat firmly, praying for a pulse. He could smell the blood that pooled under the young man's shoulder. The boy's heart was still beating.
"He'll ... be all right, miss," Joshua whispered, his voice loud in the shivery silence that surrounded them. He swallowed hard, tasting bile that was rising in response to the awful turn of events.
"He has to be," the young woman shrieked, her eyes wild with fear. "Pa won't allow him to die. We got work to do in Galena...." Her voice faded. She lifted the young man's head into her lap and brushed loose strands of his pale hair from his forehead. His blood soaked into her black homespun skirt in a jagged stain.
Joshua turned to Haley. "Get out of here. Go meet up with the others like we planned."
Haley nodded and mounted his horse. He snapped the reins crisply and the horse pounded down the dirt lane, becoming just a cloud of white, powdery dust in the snow-laden sky.
Joshua felt the bitter cold seep into his bones as he rummaged in the back of the buggy looking for a blanket. He gently moved the young man's body onto the tattered one he found, while the young woman watched, still kneeling and hugging herself. After Joshua lifted the boy into the back of the buggy, he helped the girl to her feet and pulled the cape over her shoulder. She was in shock and moved at his bidding. Her eyes were glazed over, and her lip was bleeding from biting it.
"I'll take you to the house yonder," Joshua offered, nodding toward the nearby farmstead.
"My little brother, Tad, and me ... we were going to ... Pa was coming to join us tomorrow. He's a circuit preacher all over these parts, and he had one more stop to make before he could follow us." Tears finally filled her eyes, and then she broke down and sobbed into her hands.
"I'll take you into Galena, miss, if you'd like."
"No, sir," she said, firmly, pulling her shoulders back and climbing into the buggy. "I'll do this myself." After taking a few deep breaths and touching her brother's cheek, she leaned over and took the reins, moving the small horses and old buggy down the road slowly. She stopped and looked back at Joshua, studying him with bitter eyes that softened as she looked skyward above him, reminding him of Gran. She was mouthing some words, but he couldn't make them out, probably a prayer, and then she coaxed the horses to a quick pace down the narrow road. Joshua watched until she turned into the farm lane. She never looked back again.
As he started toward the ravine where his horse, Abe, waited in the shadows, he saw the money satchel laying near the dark, red puddle. Something small lay next to it in the bright, white snow. He knelt to pick it up, a tiny book, no bigger than a tobacco pouch and bound in black leather. Gospel was printed on the cover in small, gold letters.
Joshua thought about the boy's motionless body lying in his sister's arms. He could still see the look of surprise in Haley's eyes when the gun went off. Haley must have thought the boy had a weapon, but sadly he was reaching for the little book, wanting only to share the Gospel. Gran would have called him a soldier of the cross. Joshua might have called him a fool. But he couldn't forget the sight of the brave, young man dressed in black, lying in a bed of glistening, white snow, his head haloed in his own, dark red blood ... all in the name of the Lord. It was a mighty powerful image, one he'd never forget.
He touched the little book and opened it slowly. Inside, on the first page, was a hand-drawn cross and the words, 'Repent in the name of Jesus. The Lord will be gracious.' It was signed Cordelia.
Joshua held it for a minute, then tucked it into his pocket as he stepped carefully over the money satchel. He lifted onto Abe's back and rode slowly across the clearing and onto the trail that was almost invisible in the heavy snow that was falling now. He scanned the hillside and saw no one. The others were long gone. He knew they were heading east, according to the plan they had devised in the beginning, in case of serious trouble.
"Long ride ahead, boy," he whispered into Abe's ear.
He rode west a mile, maybe more, and then on a whim he turned north, heading into the hills along the Mississippi River, toward Wisconsin, toward Samantha. She had been in his thoughts for days. He'd tried hard to forget her for three long years, but now, for some reason, he couldn't stop thinking about her. He wanted to see her again, if only to inquire about her welfare and see for himself that she was truly happy with her chosen husband.
He felt his time was running out.
Chapter ThreeClouds were thick and heavy with snow, hanging stubbornly over the frozen land. It was late afternoon, and Joshua was exhausted. He'd been lost several times during the day, when the snow had blown briefly, blinding him, and some of the scenery was starting to look familiar, as if he were riding in circles. Men were following him, he was certain. He'd heard horses and an occasional voice in the distance.
The snow had stopped falling now, and the landscape glistened white, as daylight fell below the horizon, and the full moon began its ascent. Tree branches were frosted with snow, drooping from the weight. It would be easy to follow his horse's snow-packed prints, and he looked over his shoulder from time to time when he felt as if someone was watching him.
Excerpted from Prodigal Song by Wendy Moser Copyright © 2012 by Wendy Moser. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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