Dark magic meets the Wild West in this rip-roaring middle-grade adventure series filled with scrappy heroes and diabolical villains.
Keech Blackwood and his band of fellow orphans demand justice for their fallen families. But the road to retribution is a long and hard-fought journey.
After defeating Bad Whiskey Nelson, the man who burned Keech’s home to the ground, the Lost Causes have a new mission: find Bonfire Crossing, the mysterious land that holds clues to the whereabouts of the all-powerful Char Stone. Along the way they’ll have to fend off a shapeshifting beast, a swarm of river monsters, and a fearsome desperado named Big Ben Loving who conjures tornadoes out of thin air. It’s an epic standoff between the Lost Causes and the outlaw Reverend Rose, a powerful sorcerer who would be unstoppable with the Stone in his possession.
With the worldand vengeancehanging in the balance, the Lost Causes are ready for battle.
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 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
About the Author
Brad McLelland was born and raised in Arkansas and spent several years working as a crime journalist in the South. In 2011 he obtained his MFA in creative writing from Oklahoma State University, where he met his writing partner, Louis. 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 and his wife spend their free time playing tabletop games from his collection of over 1,000 card and board games. Louis enjoys watching Western films and reading fantasy novels. He has two dogs that go wild when they hear the word treats.
Read an Excerpt
Keech Blackwood knelt beside a plump cottonwood tree, inspecting two small dips in the frozen soil. They were shaped like bowls and sat a few inches apart, each covered in leaves and brittle twigs. One hollow was larger than the other, and when Keech ran his palm over the dirt cavities, he realized a short tunnel connected the two dips below the ground.
He grinned in admiration.
The November day was standoffish with cold. Pockets of light snow and ice dappled the Kansas forest — a decline in the weather that felt too early for these parts. A heavy mist clung to the hills, turning the region ghost-pale.
Tethered to the cottonwood, Keech's pony, Felix, blustered at the cold. Keech pointed to the ground with a smile. "Felix, do you know what these holes make? A Dakota pit."
The pony gazed off into the woods, unimpressed.
"I haven't seen one of these in a long time."
Keech poked his finger down into the dirt and felt the void of the little tunnel. Read the earth, his foster father, Pa Abner, used to say. Let it tell you its story. The history here was blurry, but one telltale sign was clear: Whoever had filled these holes had done it willy-nilly, sliding the dirt back in with the side of one foot.
"Something interrupted you," Keech murmured, envisioning the traveler standing here. "You didn't want to leave your camp, but you had no choice."
He peered around the campsite for signs of quick passage. There were none, not even horse tracks. Disappointed, he returned his scrutiny to the indentations.
"You were sloppy to fill the holes too quick, but smart enough to erase your prints. And crafty enough to build a Dakota pit in the first place."
Those who knew of Dakota fire pits understood they had two purposes. They concealed the traveler's firelight below the ground, and their tunnel-and-vent design left no rising smoke for enemies to see. Keech had learned to build one five years ago, when he was only eight. His orphan brother Sam had been seven. Pa Abner had taken them on a two-week hunting trip up to Nodaway country. The first week, Pa had taught them how to build the fire pit and how to cook small game. The following Sunday, he instructed them to leave no sign of their camps, then left them alone for five days in the wilderness to practice. The excursion had pushed Keech and Sam to their limits, but after the week was done, Pa rewarded them with a sackful of Granny's homemade peanut brittle and a special campfire recitation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," one of Sam's favorite poems.
The memory warmed Keech's heart. It was nice to see Sam's face in his mind again. The past few days he'd been trying to remember every little tidbit about Sam — as well as Granny Nell and the others, Robby, Little Eugena, Patrick. He'd also been trying to cherish all the memories he could of Pa Abner, whose real name, whose Enforcer name, had been Isaiah Raines. Forgetting the family that Bad Whiskey Nelson had murdered would be easier than suffering alone in their haunting memories, but Keech knew he could no more forget their faces than stop breathing.
A fierce breeze rustled around the cottonwood, fluttering Keech's dark bangs. He tucked the hair back into his bowler hat and returned his focus to the buried camp.
"Could be the Kickapoo," he said to Felix. The Kickapoo tribe resided on lands not far from here, and they would be careful not to build fires that the harsh Kansas winds could sweep across the hills and plains.
Widening his sweep of the ground, Keech realized it wasn't the Kickapoo. Whoever had built this fire pit had slipped up, leaving a clue: a heel print at the base of the cottonwood. The heel was from a large boot, not a moccasin.
"Maybe this print belongs to Red Jeffreys," Keech said.
Red Jeffreys was the Enforcer who had apparently stolen the Char Stone from the grave of his mother, Erin Blackwood, in Bone Ridge Cemetery. In the Stone's place, the thief had left a peculiar trinket in Keech's mother's hands — a child's figurine with a carved wooden head, a doll Keech now carried in his coat pocket.
Before dying, Pa Abner had told Keech that a devilish fiend known as the Reverend Rose had now set his dark sights on this Jeffreys and that Rose wouldn't stop hunting till his gang of killers found the man and retrieved the Stone.
What Rose wanted with the Char Stone was still a mystery, but Bad Whiskey had claimed it would thwart damnation itself. The Reverend took my soul, the one-eyed scoundrel had said. He brought me back, but left me empty. The Char Stone's the only thing that can save me. All Keech knew was that the Stone was cursed and should never be touched. Pa Abner had been clear about that.
"Blackwood, get over here! You need to see this!"
Keech peered through the woods to where his new friend Cutter was crouching beside a maple tree. John Wesley hunkered behind him. Both boys were intently studying the ground.
Keech moseyed over to his trailmates. As he moved toward John Wesley's chubby gelding, Lightnin', the horse pinned his ears back and released an angry snort. "Hey now, take it easy," Keech said under his breath. "Be a good boy." They were not on the best of terms, he and Lightnin'. Whenever Keech approached the horse, the ornery beast would spin his behind toward him, as though aiming to kick his head off. This time, Keech made sure to walk an extra foot away.
Neither boy looked up when he approached. Cutter had scored a large circle in the frozen mud with his bone-handled knife, the blade he liked to claim was magic. His palomino mare, Chantico, waited nearby, watching her master work while she chomped on stiff grass.
"About time, Lost Cause." The dusty clothes Cutter wore made him look bronze, almost statuesque, in the midday light. He would have blended almost perfectly with the Kansas forest if it weren't for his light blue neck bandana and the red silk sash tied around his waist. Though his real name was Miguel Herrera, he preferred to be called Cutter on account of his wicked blade.
"I was occupied. I found a strange campsite."
"Hang your campsite." John Wesley jabbed his finger at the knife circle in the mud. He was a heavyset boy, nearly six feet tall, and one of the unluckiest people Keech had ever met. If a piece of a plan went off-kilter, John Wesley usually bore the brunt of the mishap, such as the time in Missouri when he almost drowned in the Little Wild Boy River. "Tell us what you make of that."
Inside Cutter's knife circle lay a large paw print, strange and deformed. There was only one print where Cutter had drawn his boundary, but when Keech glanced ahead, he spotted a second marking, emblazoned in a thin patch of snow. "There's another."
"We saw it," Cutter said.
Keech knelt beside his companions to get a closer look. "This track isn't natural."
A less experienced tracker might have assumed the print belonged to a coyote, or perhaps a large red fox. In a sprint, both animals left a four-print pattern, with visible claw marks on the front two toes. This was no fox or coyote paw print. It was far too large.
"I've never seen anything like it," Keech said. "The footpads have the markings of a canine, but the toes split up the middle, like a deer's hoof."
Cutter and John Wesley scowled at the print. Both were superstitious boys, prone to anxiety about midnight ghosts and boogermen. After all the young riders had witnessed in Missouri — dead men rising from their graves, Bad Whiskey speaking through the mouths of his thralls — Keech reckoned they were entitled to their fears.
Cutter frowned. "Maybe an oversized wolf got caught in a trap." But he didn't sound convinced.
"A mangled paw would leave traces of blood and fur." Keech glanced around the forest floor, hoping for more tracks. Sure enough, a little beyond the second track lay another run of prints where the animal had apparently dropped to lope on all four limbs.
"This doesn't make sense."
"Nothing's made sense since we met you," John Wesley said.
Keech straightened and balanced on his left foot. "It's like the animal stopped here and rose to one paw," he said, reenacting the image he saw in his mind. "Then leaped to the other paw, like this" — he hopped toward the second track and landed on his right foot — "then dropped to all fours. But where did it go afterward?"
"I think I know," Cutter said, and pointed up at the forest canopy.
"The trees," Keech said. "It jumped into the trees." The cottonwoods and maples were dense in this area, forming white spiderwebs of icy boughs and branches.
Cutter and John Wesley backed away from the track. "Shifter," Cutter whispered, and crossed himself with his blade. Keech shivered deeply at the sound of the word. He hadn't heard mention of Shifters in a long time, not since Pa Abner's campfire tales from years back. Whenever Pa spoke about them, he would do so with a hushed tone of respect. There are things in this world we sometimes won't understand, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate them, Pa said. Revere all creatures, because each holds a vital place in the world.
Cutter heaved a nervous sigh. "When I was a kid, mi mamá used to tell me stories at bedtime. The tales that scared me the most were about the Shifters from another world, the monsters that could turn into dogs and wolves and roam about in the moonlight."
"That don't sound like a bad life," said John Wesley. "Think of all the chickens you could eat!" He bumped Keech on the arm and chuckled.
Cutter's face remained deadly serious as he stared at the mangled print. "The thing is, I don't think they were just stories. I saw something like this before, when I was a boy."
"Tracks like this?" Keech asked.
Cutter nodded uncertainly.
"What did you mean 'from another world'?" John Wesley asked.
Keech had never heard tales of Shifters from other worlds; the notion was disquieting, yet intriguing.
Cutter glanced around the forest, then shook his head. "I don't want to speak of Shifters in the woods. Let's get back to camp. We shouldn't be in this forest when night falls."
"I agree. Nothing good comes from the dark these days," said Keech, and he headed back to Felix with extra speed in his step.CHAPTER 2
The Kansas wind crackled through the icy woodland, turning the trees into angry brutes. Keech pondered the sky with concern. A fierce norther looked to be brewing, driving fresh bundles of snow and ice clouds over the tepid afternoon sunlight.
As the trio rode back to camp, they came upon a deep ravine. The ground fell away at a steep angle, the deep bottom full of dead limbs and mammoth red stones. Felix skirted the chasm with confidence, but Chantico and Lightnin' balked at the sight of it.
"A river must have cut this ravine," Keech said, leaning over his saddle to inspect the chasm's floor. The dried-up gorge appeared to run south for a spell, then veer east. "I bet if we followed it a day or two, we'd reach the Kansas River."
"Ravines are nice, but I'd like to get out of these woods," John Wesley said. Since saving all their lives at Bone Ridge, John seemed to be in loftier spirits. He still refused to speak about his mother's killer, but at least he was riding a little taller in his saddle and joking with the gang. Sometimes, though, Keech sensed that John was feeling more and more apprehensive the deeper they rode into Kansas.
Truth be told, Kansas was getting under the whole group's skin. Since leaving Missouri, Cutter didn't spit the fire and vinegar he usually did, and Nat, the usually unflappable rancher, had taken to constant glances over his shoulder. But it was Nat's young sister, Duck, who concerned Keech the most. She was the kindest, fiercest person he'd ever met, other than Sam, but sometimes in the night, she would wake by the campfire, hugging herself into a tight ball, the corners of her blanket tucked into her mouth to hold a scream at bay. It's just bad dreams. Everybody gets those, she said once. Don't you worry about me. We got bigger fish to fret over.
Keech understood the foreboding. This whole territory had a foul temper about it, like a rotten child with a toothache. His travels with Pa Abner had never taken him into Kansas, but Pa had sometimes spoken of it as a dangerous place, a harsh region of wildfires and tornadoes and open spaces that could rob a lonely horseman of his sanity.
The trio approached a dense wall of twisted brush and thistle. A narrow fox run meandered through the tangle, and Keech suggested they use it as a shortcut back to camp.
As they plodded in single file down the critter path, Keech's mind couldn't help spiraling to thoughts of Bonfire Crossing, the Osage encampment where Pa Abner and his Enforcer chums had taken the Oath of Memory, the mysterious ritual that had caused them to forget the Char Stone's hiding place. Pa's clues on how to find this Crossing had been rather vague — Ride west, he had said, follow the rivers, the bending trees — but there were dozens of rivers in Kansas Territory, and Keech had never seen a "bending tree" in his life.
"Blackwood, we got company!"
Every rambling thought fell away at Cutter's voice, and Keech snapped to attention.
A Morgan horse with a black mane stood in the distance. A brown hairy monster sat on its saddle. The beast and the horse lingered on a short hill thinly covered in snow.
"What in blue tarnation?" John Wesley muttered.
Cutter clenched his reins. "Am I seeing things, or is a bear riding that horse?"
Keech squinted at the terrible rider. It was no monster; the figure on the hill wore a heavy coat made from the pelts of a brown bear. The bear's open maw wrapped around the rider's head, its fangs encircling the stranger's face.
"Stay ready," Keech said, sizing up the clearing, the forest, their potential escape. "If he pulls a gun, split east and west."
The stranger rode forward a few steps, revealing himself to be a middle-aged man. He raised a large gloved hand in greeting. Keech returned the gesture, keeping a sharp eye on the fellow's other hand.
"We shouldn't stop," John Wesley mumbled.
"We best learn his purpose. We don't want a stranger to our backs if he has ill intentions."
"You're the leader, Lost Cause," Cutter said. "You talk to him."
"Who said I'm the leader?" Keech asked. Nat Embry was the top dog in their crew, and Keech wanted to keep it that way. He had already gotten his brother Sam killed; he didn't want to carry the responsibility of any more lives.
From across the distance, the stranger announced, "Pleasant day, boys!" Frowning, Keech called back, "Good day, sir."
"A rabble of young fellers in the deep woods," the horseman mused. "Musta run away from yer chores, eh?"
"We're just out hunting."
"Ride closer!" the stranger called. "A life of shootin' prairie hens done spoilt my ears."
"He's baiting us," Cutter said.
"Yeah, he wants a look at our getup," John Wesley added.
"I know." But Keech prodded Felix forward a few steps anyway and said to the man, "Okay, we're closer. Now kindly state your purpose, mister."
The grizzled horseman grinned, revealing chipped teeth. He wore a heavy brown beard that matched his bear pelt, and his eyelids drooped lazily in the sunlight. One of his hands gripped a yellow paper, rolled into a loose tube. He didn't appear to be armed — though he could have been hiding any manner of weapon inside his barbaric pelt.
"I'm a hunter, young feller. Go by the name of Sunrise Albert, on account that I rise like the sun and spread my joy 'cross the world." The man chortled. "You've heard of me, I'm sure."
"Sorry, Sunrise, we never have," Keech said.
The horseman grunted his disappointment. "That baffles me. I'm well known in these parts."
"I'm sure that's true," Keech said. "What brings you out today?"
"Just collectin' for a feller named Friendly. Surely you've heard of Friendly Williams."
"You ain't never heard of him, neither? He oversees the trade affairs from Atchison all the way down to Wisdom."
Keech nearly reeled when he heard the name of the town. Wisdom was the place that Sheriff Bose Turner told them might hold clues to Bonfire Crossing's whereabouts. Turner had said the lawman there, a fellow by the name of Strahan, knew the Osage folks in the region and might be able to help guide them in the right direction. "This town, Wisdom. How far is it?"
"About a day's ride southwest, as the crow flies. 'Course, the crows in these parts been actin' mighty peculiar the past few days."
The stranger was surely referring to the Reverend Rose's unnatural messenger crows, those dark agents of the sky that had followed the young riders all over Missouri. Since entering Kansas Territory a week ago, the gang hadn't seen any trace of the crows. Yet Keech felt sure they were somewhere up there, watching from a safe distance. Spying for the Reverend.
Keech's fingers crept to his chest, seeking the familiar crescent of metal through the fabric of his coat. Tucked inside his shirt rested Pa's silver pendant, the quarter-moon object that Pa had called "sacred." The magical amulets killed thralls and kept the monster crows at bay.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fang of Bonfire Crossing"
Copyright © 2019 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: Into Bleeding Kansas,
Chapter 1: The Tracker,
Chapter 2: Sunrise Albert,
Chapter 3: The Bending Tree,
Chapter 4: Mercy Mission,
Chapter 5: Quinn Revels,
Chapter 6: The Stash in the Cellar,
Chapter 7: The Rampage,
Chapter 8: The Broken Gun,
Chapter 9: Aboard the Liberator,
Chapter 10: Attack of the Marsh Bane,
Part 2: Wisdom,
Interlude: Big Ben and the Prisoner,
Chapter 11: Edgar Doyle,
Chapter 12: The Moss Farm,
Chapter 13: Shadow of the Buffalo,
Chapter 14: Lessons on the Prairie,
Chapter 15: The Town of Perpetual Night,
Chapter 16: Under the Wall,
Chapter 17: The Grim Circus,
Chapter 18: The Fourth Prisoner,
Chapter 19: Samson,
Chapter 20: The Bait,
Chapter 21: Showdown at the Big Snake Saloon,
Chapter 22: The Whistle Bomb,
Chapter 23: Clementine,
Part 3: Bonfire Crossing,
Interlude: Big Ben in the Rubble,
Chapter 24: Rendezvous,
Chapter 25: The Enforcer's Tale,
Chapter 26: Shadow of the Elk,
Chapter 27: Den of the Moon Stalker,
Chapter 28: The Protectors,
Chapter 29: The Two Elders,
Chapter 30: The Chamelia,
Chapter 31: The Harvester of Doom,
Chapter 32: Inside the Fire,
Chapter 33: The Fang,
Chapter 34: When the Door Closes,
Chapter 35: The Shifter's Farewell,
Chapter 36: Amico Fideli,
A Note from the Authors,
About the Authors,