“This is an authentic old west ghost town, son. Around these parts the dead don’t stay dead.”
Nick Caden’s vacation at Deadwood Canyon Ghost Town takes a deadly turn toward trouble when the fifteen-year-old finds himself trapped in a livery stable with the infamous outlaw Jesse James. The shooter whirls, aims and… vanishes. Great theatrics, Nick thinks, except now he’s alone in the hayloft with the bullet-riddled body of Billy the Kid. And by the time the sheriff arrives, the body disappears.
Soon Nick is caught in a deadly chase—from an abandoned gold mine, through forbidden buffalo hunting grounds, and across Rattlesnake Gulch. Around every turn he finds another suspect. Will Nick solve the murder? Will his parents have him committed? Or will the town's infatuation with Hollywood theatrics conceal the real truth about souls, spirits and the destiny that awaits those who die.
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Dead Man's HandThe Caden Chronicles
By Eddie Jones
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2012 Eddie Jones
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDEAD ON ARRIVAL
"Shouldn't be long now," Dad said, tapping the windshield. "Just on the other side of those mountains." Through the front glass I saw a white sign that read: WELCOME TO DEADWOOD: GHOST TOWN IN THE SKY.
I slumped in my seat, the vehicle's rear window reflecting my wild tangle of unruly bangs and bored expression. Beyond the curves ahead lay the ragged spine of the Rockies and green glades of spruce and fir. Dad stomped the accelerator, causing the underpowered engine to whine as we rocketed up the two-lane blacktop toward Deadwood Canyon, where for five fun-filled days we would pan for gold in mountain streams (Pan rentals extra), stalk buffalo herds with Native American guides (Please, do not call your guide an "Indian"), and learn to shoot and ride with Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and the Dalton Gang.
We cleared the mountain pass and banked around a curve. In the valley below stood a two-story hotel with a red roof and wraparound porch. Next to it a saloon, tannery shop, horse stables, and ... what's that? A bookstore offering a cowboy poetry reading? My younger sister the writer would be so thrilled. For weeks she'd talked of nothing except how much fun we would have on our summer vacation in the not-so-wild west. All I'd thought of was how I wished I could have gone to the video gaming convention in Vegas instead.
Mom touched the display on the GPS. "See, Frank? We're only two hours late."
"Wouldn't have been late at all if I hadn't followed that stupid contraption."
"You are the one who got us lost."
"Is it my fault the interstate was closed?"
"You could have followed the detour signs like everyone else."
"Yeah, and remained behind those eighteen-wheelers for who knows how long. My way was quicker."
"Sure, Frank. Whatever you say."
For most of the trip I'd managed to block out my parents bickering with a pair of form-fitted Skullcandy headphones, but a few miles outside of Golden, Colorado, the battery died on my iPod. Now Mom and Dad were at it again, ripping into each other and setting the tone for our "one big happy family" vacation. Bored, I stared into the valley at the large, furry bovine grazing on pastureland.
"Are those real buffalo?" my sister asked.
"Bison," I replied. "Buffalo are only found in Asia and Africa. Bison used to roam from the Great Bear Lake in Canada's far northwest to the western boundary of the Appalachian Mountains."
She replied, "Look like buffalo to me."
We reached the western side of the mountain range and entered the wide valley. A couple hundred yards past a road marker pointing toward a national park, Dad turned onto a gravel drive and parked our "toaster" car under a wooden archway decorated with cow horns and horseshoes. A sign announced: THIS WAY TO GUEST REGISTRATION AND LAZY JACK'S LIVERY STABLE. He pulled up to the guardhouse and rolled down his window. He waited a full five seconds before laying on the horn.
"For crying out loud, Frank. Chill!" Sighing, Mom fanned a hand through her cropped hair (bleached blonde to hide the gray) and fixed her pale gray eyes on Dad, who was drumming the steering wheel.
"Just letting them know we're here."
Dad popped the horn again. Two short beeps followed by a long blast.
"Really! You're so impatient."
Wendy rolled down her window and pointed. "Look at those cabins. They're just like I pictured in Comanche and the Cowboy. I hope we get one that backs up to the creek."
"I'm sure wherever we stay will be fine," Mom said.
Bet not. Bet we have to use an outhouse and bathe in a creek. They probably don't even have cell coverage in this hole. I reached into my pocket and checked. Sure enough, the status bar said it was still searching for a signal. Figures. I powered it off and slumped in my seat.
Dad gave the horn another loud, long squawk. "You'd think for what we're paying they'd send someone out to greet us."
Mom shot back, "Maybe if you weren't so rude ..."
Just then a horse and rider came galloping into view. The cowboy aimed his steed toward a hitching post, dismounted, and approached our vehicle with a slow, bow-legged stride.
"Howdy folks, I'm Wyatt Earp. You must be the Caden family."
"I'm Frank. This is my wife Sylvia and our youngest, Wendy."
The old man peered through Dad's open window in my direction. "And who's that handsome buckaroo back there?"
Buckaroo? Did he really call me a buckaroo?
Dad eyed me in the rearview mirror. "Nick."
"What's your pony's name?" I said to the old man.
Wyatt Earp glanced over his shoulder at the spotted horse. "Her? That's Marge. Named after my first wife. She was a nag too."
I cringed at his lame joke, refusing to give him the benefit of a smile.
"Hang this parkin' pass from your mirror," Earp said to Dad. "Follow this road over that rise and park behind Lazy Jack's. Someone'll come along shortly to meet you and unload your stuff. We got a stagecoach that will take you to your cabin."
"Did you hear that, Frank? A stagecoach. I don't remember reading anything about a stagecoach on the website."
"Website's sort of dated, ma'am. Owner's niece is supposed to keep it up, but you know how it is with youngins these days," he said, eyeing me.
Yep. This is definitely going to be one of the worst vacations ever.
I returned to my gaming magazine. The reviewer had given Deadly Encounters two stars, noting its poor graphics and obvious clues.
"How old are you, son?"
As with all "who-done-it" murder mystery games, the article began, the key to solving the crime is discarding red herrings and keeping track of the suspects' means, motives, and opportunities to commit murder. Remember rule number one for sleuthing: The first suspect you meet is never the killer. Rule number two: Don't trust rule number one.
"Nick, Mr. Earp asked you a question."
"Fourteen," I answered without looking up.
"Annie's 'bout your age. That's the marshal's niece. Annie Oakley. Just her stage name. Real name is ... well, can't recall right now but it'll come to me. Always does eventually. Two of you probably have a lot in common."
Resting his elbow on the car roof, he leaned toward Dad as if the two of them were best buds. "You folks might want to keep an eye out for Black Bart. I hear tell someone saw him ride into town a few days ago. Haven't spotted him yet myself, but your boy there, being a young whippersnapper and all, he could get hurt if he came upon that outlaw unarmed."
Whippersnapper? Is this guy for real?
"Just 'tween you and me, I think he'll have more trouble with the grizzlies than gunslingers. Still, best to make sure he doesn't go wanderin' off."
"We understand," Mom answered.
Wyatt Earp reached through the window on Dad's side of the car and handed Dad our welcome packet, then waved us through. The gate arm had barely cleared the roof before Dad accelerated and sped off, startling a herd of horses grazing near the fence that ran alongside the drive. How many horses were there? Twenty? Fifty? I wondered how hard it would be to ride one. Or if they'd even let me.
I'll probably get a pony—with a helmet.
Dad parked beside Lazy Jack's Stable and we piled out. My attention was immediately drawn to the deep-throated roar of a high-performance engine. Jogging towards Lazy Jack's, I heard my sister whining, "Daaaaad! Nick's not helping!"
I rounded the corner and looked inside the barn. The yellow Dodge Charger sat parked at the far end of the barn, its hood poking out open bay doors. A black racing stripe ran from the rear to the hood, matching the black spoiler on the trunk. Chrome exhaust pipes peeked out from under the chassis, matching the glint of the eighteen-inch polished wheels. Dad was yelling something at me but his words became lost in the guttural growl of the Hemi's 425 horsepower, 6.1 liter engine.
The rumble of the engine ceased; the driver stepped out. For an instant I saw a blur of denim jeans and a checkered shirt before the driver slammed the car door shut and hurried around the corner of the barn and out of sight. I realized the car appeared similar if not identical to the one that had passed us coming up the mountain—the one Mom had said was driving too fast.
I walked toward the car, listening to the pinging sound of the cooling engine and inhaling the smell of exhaust. Mom called, "NICK! WE'RE WAITING!"
Shoving my hands in my pockets, I turned and started out of the barn but stopped abruptly when crimson drops splattered the sawdust next to my sneaker. Looking up I saw a smear of red on the rafters. Drip, drip, splat. Elongated drops quivered like dripping paint then fell, turning the beige sawdust a silky brown.
"NICK, THE STAGECOACH IS HERE. YOU COMING OR NOT?"
Ignoring Mom, I bolted toward the stairs, taking the steps two at a time and reaching the loft just as Dad laid on the horn. A young cowboy lay among the bales of hay, his curled fingers resting on his chest—a crimson stain slowly turning his white shirt into evidence.
Red blood cells emit a metallic odor. The smell comes from congealing hemoglobin as oxygen mixes with iron. The gunshot wound was fresh and bubbled like a gurgling geyser ready to erupt, only I knew with each popping bubble his blood pressure lessoned. He was leaking a lot.
With the toe of my sneaker I nudged his scuffed cowboy boot, half-expecting the body to sit up, grin a syrupy-red smile, and spit away plastic capsules. This is a genuine Old West ghost town, right? Maybe part of the drill is to be greeted by a dead cowboy in the loft.
I bumped him again and he didn't move.
Here's the thing about death that my parents don't get. Once you lose a couple of friends like I have, you become sort of numb to it. Like the first time, when my friend Teddy Graham got tossed from his mom's car, a bunch of us lit candles along the front walk of our school. I was pretty torn up about it, but I didn't cry. At least not around my classmates. Then a few weeks later a boy in my biology class smashed into a tree while snowboarding and died of brain injuries. It was like, "Okay, that's freaky." By the time spring rolled around, I'd lost two more classmates to freak accidents, but by then I just felt numb—like there was a big scab over my heart.
That's what I was thinking as I looked at that cowboy. That I should've been more upset than I was.
A whirring noise caught my attention. Stepping past the bales of hay, I saw a video of a grizzled gunslinger projected on the far wall. He stood with hands by his sides, right palm hovering on the hilt of a revolver. A wide-brim hat cast a shadow over his dark eyes. With his sun-browned face and thick black sideburns, he looked as real as the body behind me. It was obvious the video had been filmed in town. I recognized the saloon in the background.
Slowly the cowboy tilted his head and stared at me as if tracking my movements, making it feel as though he was with me in the loft. His hands hovered over the holstered guns, fingers twitching the way I'd seen in Dad's collection of Spaghetti Western movies. All that was missing was the hokey soundtrack. In a blur he drew and fired and ... vanished. The projector cycled off, leaving me alone to my morbid thoughts.
A horn honked. And honked. And honked. Dad's signal that the waiting game was finished. I took a final glance at the dead cowboy's fixed eyes and bloody shirt and hurried down the steps, out of the barn, and toward the waiting stagecoach, certain of only one thing—this was going to be the best summer vacation ever.
Chapter TwoAN INVITATION TO MURDER
"What do you mean there's a dead cowboy in the barn?"
Marshal Walter Buckleberry stood over me. Early forties, maybe older. Silver star above the left breast pocket of a khaki shirt. Pale gray eyes gazed down at me beneath the brim of a high-crown cowboy hat. I guessed him to be a few inches taller than Dad and pounds lighter. Shoulders and biceps filled his shirt nicely.
I gulped from a water bottle and replied, "Just what I said. Go look for yourself if you don't believe me."
The marshal held my gaze, refusing to break eye contact. We'd started off on the wrong foot and neither of us was going to apologize. At last, he looked away toward Lazy Jack's. "What'd this fellow look like? This dead cowboy you think you saw?"
Sitting with my back against the stagecoach's wagon wheel, I described the way the blood gurgled from his chest and spread across the white shirt and how his bent fingers had formed a tent over the wound.
"Sounds like he's dead all right. What made you go in there in the first place?" the marshal asked me.
"Heard a car engine racing. Sounded like a supercharged Hemi with dual cams. Chrysler only offered that version on select models of the Charger. Can go from zero to sixty in six seconds. You can tell it's the stock supercharged model because of the Thrush mufflers. When I rounded the corner of the barn there she sat on Hoosier racing slicks. Yellow with a black racing stripe. Somebody around here's got an awesome ride."
"You sure that's the car you saw? Couldn't have been another make?"
"My son has a thing about automobiles," Dad interjected. "Has since he could crawl. First word was car."
"What about the driver? You say you saw him?"
"Could've been a her. Didn't see the face. Wore jeans and a tan and gold checkered shirt. If I'd arrived a few seconds earlier, I might have caught 'em in the act."
"So after this mysterious driver bolted from the barn you ran up the stairs and found the victim?" I chugged more water, nodding. "Is that when the dead cowboy vanished?"
"No, sir. The gunslinger in the video disappeared. Dead man's still there."
"Boss! Might have something." Another officer hurried over and held out his palm. "Found this in the wall."
Buckleberry eyed the smashed slug and asked, "And the victim?"
The deputy glanced at me, then back at the marshal. "No body, boss. No blood, neither."
"What do you mean?" the marshal said, fixing his gaze on me again. "Boy here says he saw a man get shot."
"Found him," I corrected. "Didn't actually witness the murder."
"There's a set of sneaker prints in the sawdust," the deputy replied, pointing toward my shoes. "But nothing else. No, wait. I forgot something. I found Jess's car parked in there."
"I'm telling you, Marshal. There's a dead man in that barn." Tossing my water bottle aside, I added, "If you'll just come with me ..."
Marshal Buckleberry's face softened. "Relax, son. No one is accusing you of making up stuff. But this is a ghost town. Not everything you'll see over the next few days is what it seems."
"I know what I saw, Marshal. And it wasn't a ghost."
"Tell you what. Why don't you folks get checked into your rooms," the marshal said to Mom and Dad. "I'll walk over to the barn and see if I can find out where our dead cowboy wandered off to. If he's shot like your boy says, he couldn't have gone too far."
"Want me to go with you, boss? Help you look?"
The marshal rounded on the deputy and said flatly, "One of us ought to be enough. Just bag that slug and put it in my saddlebag. I'll send it to the lab in Denver. Maybe they can pull something off it."
Marshal Buckleberry waited until his deputy was out of earshot before saying to my parents, "Man knows better than to remove evidence from a crime scene without gloves. Ought to write him up, but I just plain don't have the time to fill out the paperwork. Imagine if there had been a murder."
I stood, brushing dirt off the back of my jeans.
"But there was."
Dad cut in. "I hate to ask the obvious, but is it possible my son is telling the truth?"
The marshal rubbed a knuckle against his chin and smiled at me. "Son, here's what I think you saw. Tell me when I go off track. The man you say got shot, he was young, not much older than you. Slight build, blue eyes, buck-toothed smile. Wore a big square black hat with a band around the base. Yellow bandana around his neck. How am I doing?"
"That's him! That's the victim!"
Buckleberry turned toward my parents. "Name's Billy the Kid. Nasty one. Hot tempered. Quick on the draw too. At least that's the role he plays in our little performance. Real name is Billy Bell. An actor out of Los Angeles. Had a bit roll in that teen movie, The Boy Next Door. Now he's up for a supporting role in the remake of Rio Bravo."
Excerpted from Dead Man's Hand by Eddie Jones Copyright © 2012 by Eddie Jones. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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