Thunder at Dawn

Thunder at Dawn

by S.K. Salzer

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The epic saga of the heroic pioneers who struggled and fought, lived and died, to stake their claim on the untamed American frontier…

Western Missouri. Former army scout Jack Gregory returns from battle to a homestead in ruins. A wanted man with no place to go, he chooses an even deadlier career—as a scout for General George Armstrong Custer. Under a new name, Jack serves bravely in the Seventh Cavalry. But when Custer’s disastrous leadership ends in devastating slaughter, Jack sets off to forge his own destiny. Winning a small ranch in a card game, he hopes to settle down and live a peaceful life. But with the Cheyenne nation rising up to defend their land—with nightly raids on innocent settlers—there can be no peace for a scout like Jack. Only a man of his experience is skilled enough to infiltrate Cheyenne territory. Only an outcast with nothing to lose is crazy enough to face their war chief—man to man, one on one.

Warrior or peacemaker, friend or enemy, Jack Gregory is among the breed of courageous men and women who risked their lives for freedom, justice, and a dream. This is the story of America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786036271
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 05/26/2015
Series: Frontier Series , #2
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, S.K. Salzer's first novel, Up From Thunder, a tale of the Civil War Missouri featuring the young Jesse James, was published in 2010. Salzer's short story "Cornflower Blue" won the 2009 Spur Award from Western Writers of America (WWA) for short fiction and the 2010 John Newman Edwards Award from the Friends of the James Farm. Salzer's short story, "The Saint of Pox Island," published in the March/April 2012 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, was a finalist in WWA's 2013 short fiction competition. S.K. lives in Missouri.

Read an Excerpt

Frontier Thunder at Dawn

By S. K. Salzer


Copyright © 2015 Susan Salzer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7860-3628-8


Fort Phil Kearny, Dakota Territory December 21, 1866

The laudanum began to take effect. He turned, trying to find comfort, and was just drifting toward a fevered sleep when a shadow darkened the doorway.

"Who is it?" he said. "Dr. Horton, is that you?" Getting no answer, he reached for the eyeglasses on the bedside table. The shadow sharpened to the silhouette of a man, outlined against the flickering red light from the heating stove in the room behind him. "Sam," he said, "did you forget something?"

The man in the door came forward. "Lieutenant Mark Reynolds?"

"Yes, of course. What is this?"

"Do you know me?"

"I can't see you," Reynolds said, impatiently motioning to the coal lamp smoking in its glass chimney on the table. "Come closer, I can't see your face."

The visitor stepped into the dim circle of light. He was of middling height, with short hair and sunburned skin. He wore civilian clothing, the clothes of a range rider.

"You're Gregory, the scout," Reynolds said. "We met at Fort Sedgwick. What's this about?"

Jack Gregory had been hunting Mark Reynolds for three years, but now that the end had come, it was not as he pictured. The wasted, one-armed wretch on the bed was just a shadow of the proud officer Gregory's sister pointed out to him that day in Kansas City as the murderer of their father. That man rode by in a fine carriage, high and handsome as the pharaoh of Egypt. This fellow was so low he was mostly dead already. Gregory knew this from the room's queer rooty smell, an aroma he knew only too well. Nonetheless, he would do what he came for. He raised his revolver and leveled it at Reynolds's left eye.

"I am Jack Gregory, of Cass County, Missouri," he said, speaking words he had rehearsed many times. "On the ninth of September, eighteen sixty-three, you killed my father. You and the Kansas trash you rode with burned John Jordan Gregory alive, with his wife and daughters looking on. After that, you burned our home to cinders, putting my mother and sisters out in the hedges. Now, in my family's name, I have come to put you through. If you have anything to say, Reynolds, now is the time. Hell is about to gain a new devil."

Reynold's eyes glittered in the weak light. "I don't know what you're talking about, Gregory. Like I said, you're the scout I met at Sedgwick.

Other than that, I don't know you, or your pa, from Adam's left-off ox."

In Gregory's imagining of this moment, Reynolds quaked in his boots when confronted with his gun and pleaded for his life in a womanish voice high as a bat squeak. But Reynolds did not tremble. He was cool as an April morning.

"You are a lying son of a bitch," Gregory said, "but I will tell you, like you don't know. You and your Jayhawker assassins came to our farm, looking for the guerilla Quantrill. You thought my pa knew where he and his boys were hiding, so you hung him by the neck from the apple tree beside our kitchen, cut him down and hung him again, and when still Pa wouldn't give you what you wanted, you threw him in the barn, barred the door, and put the torch to it. You and your goddamn Jayhawkers burned or stole everything us Gregorys owned—our house, animals, crop, the whole shebang. And now you will die for it."

Reynolds closed his eyes and wrinkled his brow. "Cass County, you say? I do recall it now, September of sixty-three, that would've been right after the Lawrence business. Feelings were high then, very high. My orders were to find William Quantrill and his Missouri ruffians and bring them to justice for the murder of two hundred men and boys. Yes, we thought the old man—your father, apparently—knew Quantrill's whereabouts, maybe he didn't. Who knows? John Jordan Gregory? To tell you the truth, I don't believe I ever knew his name, or if I did, I didn't remember. Why would I? There was nothing personal in it."

"Nothing personal in it?" At first Gregory thought Reynolds was mocking him, then he realized he was simply stating a truth, the way another man might say, "I believe we'll have snow tonight."

Reynolds shrugged his bony shoulders, wincing with the pain even that simple movement caused him. He was meaty as a skeleton and shirtless under a thin army blanket, even though the dark room was bitterly cold. If he were another man, Gregory would have felt pity.

"It was war, Gregory," Reynolds said. "I should think someone like you would understand that. Sometimes a man must distance himself from his actions. Sometimes, in the fulfillment of his duty, a man must do things he would otherwise find distasteful. Surely, you have found yourself in this position."

Gregory felt hatred, black and bilious, rise inside him. "Don't talk to me about duty. We were a Union family, goddamn you. We stood proudly for abolition, from well before the war started, despite the trouble it brought us from our slaver neighbors. On the day you came, I was soldiering in Mr. Lincoln's army, and see how the Federal government rewarded our allegiance! You are the reason I deserted to throw in with Quantrill in the Sni Hills. You are the reason I rode under the black flag. I would not have done it otherwise."

Reynolds sighed. "Oh, well, I suppose we had bad information from your neighbors. That happened often." He smiled. "You Missouri pukes were always eager to sell each other out."

Gregory stepped closer to the bed. Reynolds's wife, Rose, might return to the cabin at any moment. The time had come, but still, despite Reynolds's lack of remorse, Gregory sensed killing him may not bring full satisfaction. Though no stranger to death, he had never ended a man who was not actively trying to do the same to him, or one who appeared so helpless. His gun hand wavered.

"Having second thoughts?" Reynolds said, still smiling. "I would if I were you. After all, the Indians and U.S. Army medicine have already finished me." He raised his stained, bandaged stump. "This will put me in the grave soon enough, and if you don't believe me, just ask Sam Horton—he'll tell you. Or take a deep breath, that says it all. Why risk your immortal soul when I'll be dead in forty-eight hours anyway?"

"Saint Peter won't turn me away on your account, Reynolds."

Reynolds smiled. "But are you sure of that?" His remaining arm moved under the blanket and, quick as a rattlesnake, Gregory found a navy revolver pointed at his chest. Had the man been in full health, Gregory would have perished there and then, but Reynolds was unequal to the pistol's weight. His hand shook and he was too weak to pull the trigger. Without hesitation, Gregory sent a bullet into Reynolds's forehead. The officer died with his eyes open, an expression of surprise on his face, as if a trusted friend had betrayed him.

Gregory crossed the room in two long strides, raised the window and climbed out into the icy darkness. Already he heard shouts and the sound of men running toward Reynolds's cabin. Gregory made for the sally gate behind officers' row, hoping to find it unguarded. He did not want to kill an innocent man, but he would if he had to. This night was ordained to be Lieutenant Mark Reynolds's last on earth. It would not be Jack Gregory's.


The alley behind officers' row was dimly lit by lamplight from the cabin windows. Gregory dropped to the ground, concealing himself in the shadows at the base of a cabin. There was a guard at the sally wicket but, as Gregory hoped and expected on this night when the world had been turned upside down, the young soldier was frightened and distracted. After a few minutes of indecision, he fled his post to join the rush to Reynolds's quarters, passing within inches of Gregory's hiding place.

Fear was a living presence at Fort Phil Kearny that arctic night. Just hours before, hundreds of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, led by the Lakota chief Red Cloud and the warrior Crazy Horse, had killed and butchered Captain William Judd Fetterman and each of the eighty men who rode with him. Earlier that day, Gregory had been a member of the recovery party sent out to bring back the soldiers' remains, and never in his long experience of war had he seen such a display of hatred. The faces of Fetterman's men were unrecognizable, smashed by heavy war clubs to a meaty, half-jelled mix of brains, bone, and hair. The ground was slippery with frozen entrails. In some cases, guts encircled the necks of the dead like the devil's twine. As Gregory and the others went about their grim task, eyeballs watched them from atop a rock where they had been positioned beside a severed nose. Some of the bodies had been sliced open from thorax to pubis, the empty cavities stuffed with dry grass and set aflame. The soldiers stacked the bodies of their friends and comrades head to heels, like cordwood, in open wagons and carried them back to the post.

Now, hours later, the remaining soldiers along with the women and children waited in terror, expecting the Indians to come for them too. Even as he hid in the darkness of officers' row, Gregory knew Sioux and Cheyenne warriors might well be gathering on the far side of Lodge Trail Ridge, preparing for first light when they would ride down on the walled soldier town to finish off the last of the hated Long Knives.

Gregory slid the bar from its bracket, pushed open the gate, and slipped out, closing the gate behind him. He flattened himself against the stockade wall, knowing the sentries on the banquette above couldn't see him. He'd wait there until the guard changed, then make his way to the dry ravine by the main gate where he would find a cluster of abandoned dugouts, once homes to the civilian employees of the post quartermaster. He wouldn't have to wait long. Because of the desperate cold, commanding officer Colonel Henry Beebe Carrington had ordered the sentries be changed every twenty minutes. Still, the wait would hurt. It was the coldest, meanest night Jack Gregory had ever known, and the iron wind had teeth. His hands felt wooden inside his wolf-hide mittens and the bones of his legs fragile and snappable as dry twigs. Even so, he knew his leathers were warmer than the clothes the soldiers wore. He pitied them. When would the Quartermaster's Department stop fussing over frog buttons and black silk braid and give its fighting men something better than the poor, worsted wool that the wind penetrated like water through cheesecloth? Yes, it was bad luck to make a run on a night like this, but then luck had never been kind to Jack Gregory. At least he knew better than to expect it.

Finally the replacements arrived. He heard their voices above him on the banquette.

"So what was that shot?" a man said. "We heard a shot."

"Someone killed Lieutenant Reynolds," said another. "At first they thought he did himself in, there was a gun in his hand, but it hadn't been fired. So someone else did it. Shot him in his bed and went out the window."

"The hell. Maybe his wife? Wouldn't nobody blame her."

Gregory heard laughter as he crept on his stomach toward the steep ravine that lay between the main gate and Big Piney Creek. He was undiscovered. He climbed into one of the cave-like holes dug into the ravine's sides. These had been deserted in late summer when all civilians fled Fort Phil Kearny for the safety of Fort Reno some sixty miles to the south. Gregory used to pity the cave dwellers, not understanding how a man could live in a hole in the ground like an animal. Now he thanked God for those hardy souls and their dens. He would lay low for an hour or so, warm up and collect himself before pressing on to the ridge where his fortune was buried. Then, a rich man, he would turn his back on this godforsaken country and never look back.

He lay still, hardly breathing, listening. The cave was surprisingly warm. It felt good to be out of the wind. He closed his eyes and imagined himself in a tub of hot, steaming water, so deep he could immerse himself all the way to his chin. He felt gooseflesh raise on his skin as the heat penetrated. Gradually, his breathing slowed and the knotted muscles of his back begin to soften and relax. This was a device, a trick, he had learned, the ability to lie to his brain so convincingly his body believed it. It was a talent he discovered at an early age, the power to transport himself beyond an unpleasant circumstance, and it had comforted him often during a lonely childhood when his affliction had been a torment. Because of the cleft in his palate and upper lip, his speech was peculiar and a source of amusement. Other children, the few he encountered on trips to nearby Harrisonville, laughed when the milk he tried to drink sometimes ran from his nose and refused to be his friends. He was solitary and ashamed until he found his trick. He told himself he could talk just as well as anyone else and gradually this became true, though because of the attention it required, his manner of speaking was slower and more formal than most. He told himself he was handsome, that he could eat and drink in public with the best of them, and that one day girls would be pleased to dance with him. These imaginings also came to pass, though they might not have if not for the ministrations of an itinerant surgeon, who saw six-year-old Jack on the street in Harrisonville and told his mother he would correct the fissure in return for a home-cooked meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and apple pie with cream. His mother agreed. On the day of the operation, Jack was alarmed when he detected the smell of whiskey on the surgeon's breath, but despite this he did a fine job. Jack healed quickly and without complications, and he was deeply grateful to the physician though he never saw him again after that day. By the time he was old enough to grow a mustache, the scar was hardly visible.

What was that? He tensed. Then it came again, a noise, a scratching, the sound of something stirring. Gregory was not alone in his hole. He felt his skin tighten as he crawled toward the rear. He squinted into the darkness, but saw nothing other than shadows in the silvery moonlight filtering from the cave's entrance.

"Show yourself!" Gregory said, drawing his pistol. There was no response. He crept deeper, feeling cloth beneath his hands. He struck a match and saw the floor was covered in feed sacks, pegged down at the corners. In the rear of the cave he saw a pile of dirty blankets, heaped next to a cracker box that must have served the former resident as a table. As the match burned down, he saw the blankets move.

Something was in there, something small. Gregory kneeled by the pile, struck a second match and threw the stinking blankets aside. He found a cluster of pups, all cold and still but for one who raised its face to the match. Gregory returned his pistol to his belt and took up the pup with his gun hand. The animal was shaking and made a small mewling sound.

Gregory carried the pup back to the mouth of the cave to examine in the moonlight. It was a male, black with white spots and floppy ears. One of the ears was bloody, as if it had been nibbled on. Maybe a rat, Gregory thought, or one of his dying siblings, trying to stave off starvation. He poured a small amount of water from his canteen into his cupped hand and held it under the pup's nose. He went greedily to work with his pink tongue. Gregory opened his kit, broke off a bit of hard cracker, and offered this to the pup also, but he didn't have the teeth for it, so Gregory chewed the cracker for him and offered it again. This time he had no trouble getting it down. After giving him another bit of chewed cracker, Gregory tucked the pup into his coat, leaving only his face exposed, and they sat together in the cold moonlight. The little animal curled in close, taking Gregory's warmth.

They had a hard night ahead. Somehow, Gregory had to get to the old Indian fort on top of the mountain without being spotted by the Indians or the soldiers. Either way, discovery meant death. And he'd have to do it on foot. His horse, General Jo Shelby, was in the stables back at Phil Kearny. It pained Gregory to leave him, but he had no choice.


Excerpted from Frontier Thunder at Dawn by S. K. Salzer. Copyright © 2015 Susan Salzer. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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