With the help of three strangers, a girl fights to rescue her father
When he sees the string of riders coming over the horizon, Luke Cason sends his daughter, Sally, to hide in the basement. She trembles in the dark, chilled by the terrible sounds of her father's past, come to take revenge. When the basement fills with smoke, she escapes the burning house and finds their little homestead deserted, her father taken by the mysterious men. She is alone on the prairie, without horse, gun, or food, and believes that things cannot get any worse—until she sees the riders coming back.
At the head of the pack is Trace Cavanaugh, a suntanned Arizona lawman with ice-blue eyes. He and his two companions are not the men who took Sally's father. They were on their way to fight alongside Luke, but arrived too late. With Trace's help, Sally sets out to find her father and kill the men who took him away.
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Trace Takes a Hand
By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Owen G. Irons
All rights reserved.
The summer had been hot across the west Texas plains. When Luke Cason first saw the strange riders approaching his small Independence ranch which lay along the Pecos River, they appeared like dark wraiths riding through a heat haze. Luke squinted into the sun and reached up on to the porch of his white clapboard house with the green roof for his Winchester '73. Luke was a friendly man but not a trusting one. Not after the life he had led.
In the doorway of the house stood Sally Cason, wearing a light blue dress and a white apron. The young woman brushed back a strand of hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist. Her eyes shifted in the direction her father was looking.
'Who is it?' she asked, shading her eyes with her hand.
'I don't know,' Luke Cason answered. 'Maybe just men passing by. Maybe ... go back into the house, Sally, and down into the basement.'
'The basement?' Sally said in surprise. The cellar was reached via a trapdoor in the kitchen floor. Sally almost never went down there. She remembered only vaguely the early years on the ranch when the Comanches had still been a threat, that she and her mother had gone down there to hide during a brief skirmish in which no one was killed, but an old ranch hand named Tate was seriously wounded.
'Yes. Do as I say!'
Confused, Sally complied dutifully. Rushing across the house, she went into the kitchen, tossing her apron on to the counter as she went. Then she opened the grudging trap door and slipped down into the cobwebbed, musty cellar, letting the heavy door close behind her. She locked it firmly with the barrel lock fastened there, sank into the dark, silent corner of the room and waited for what was to come.
Luke Cason continued to stand in front of his porch, his rifle at the ready. Still through the heat veils he could not make out the faces of the riders, but he knew who they had to be – old sins are never forgotten. The line of dark, distorted figures were approaching him from his past and they had come to demand payment. Luke continued to hold his fire. There was a chance that he could be wrong, and he did not wish to start a gunfight with Sally in the house. He thought there would be little choice in the matter.
Sally Cason could see little in the darkened cellar; she could hear little. The sounds from outside were muffled by the thick walls and heavy trapdoor. She strained eyes and ears. She got to her feet as she heard what she took for sharp rapping on the front door of the house. Why would they be knocking at the door with her father outside? Shivering now with the coolness of the cellar and with the fear which had begun to sink into her heart, she recognized the sounds for what they were.
The rapid pelting sounds were muffled gunshots. There were many of them. A dozen, twenty. Then they fell away leaving a dark and gloomy silence.
Bootheels sounded against the floorboards above Sally's hiding place. Someone spoke in a deep tone. No one answered. Sally lifted her eyes toward the trap door, hoping, praying that it would swing open to reveal light and the sturdy face of her father.
It did not.
A voice spoke again, uttering a few indistinguishable words, then the boots walked away, shaking the floor just enough to send light dust sifting down into the cellar. Sally withdrew into the far corner and cringed there, waiting and watching, her heart beating wildly. She hoped for the best, but feared the worst. The hardest part of it all, to her, was not being able to see what was happening, to help if help was needed. She made a silent vow to never hide again from trouble when it came visiting.
Long minutes passed, hours? She thought she heard horses being walked away, but could not be sure. There was only the darkness, the silence, the musty smell of the cellar. She suppressed a momentary urge to shriek out her frustration. She stood, fists clenched, her eyes futilely searching the darkness, her hearing alert for sounds which never came.
Her senses seemed useless in the depths of this small dark chamber. Then her head came up sharply and she was spurred into motion. Her senses had not proved futile, only those she had been depending on.
She could smell it quite clearly – the scent of cured lumber burning. The house had been set afire.
With a muffled gasp and with instant decision, Sally scrambled toward the ladder leading up into the house, fumbling with her skirts as she climbed. Smoke curled into the cellar the instant the trapdoor was thrown back. Sally knew that there was a basin of water and a washcloth still out on the counter. She had been preparing to wash the breakfast dishes. Now she staggered that way and soaked the washcloth, holding it over mouth and nostrils as she made her unsteady way toward the door.
Smoke in the outer room was much heavier, scented with coal oil. Sally had to feel her way along the wall which was heated. Her eyes smarted from the smoke which seemed to lower like a falling curtain across the room. Beyond, in her bedroom, she could now see live flames licking at the walls and curling up toward the ceiling. She did not try to make her way there to retrieve her few possessions.
Her only thoughts were on her own survival – and that of her father. She would have expected Luke Cason to have rushed to the cellar or at least have cried out to her if he were able. Something seemed to reignite the dying flames. Perhaps they had touched another pool of coal oil. The fire suddenly flared up in front of her and the entire house seemed to be engulfed. Had she remained in the cellar she would have been trapped, suffocating slowly to death by now. As it was she was near enough to the door to see a way out, open land beyond.
Ribbons of bright flame hung from the eaves of the porch like scarlet garlands; the uprights were blackened and eaten away, appearing like huge matchsticks. Sally needed no one to tell her they were unstable.
As was the entire roof. Now, as she lurched toward the door, the ceiling opened up and sections of roof beams followed by tumbling shingles caved inward. The flames inside the house leaped skyward as if attracted by the oxygen, and the entire house became a conflagration.
Barely able to breathe despite having her mouth covered with the washcloth, Sally raced toward the front door, tripping over a burning fallen timber. She breached the doorway in time to watch the curling flames do their final damage to the porch awning and it began to sag badly at one end. Sally leaped clumsily into the yard as the house and the attached structure, sagged, spewed black smoke and gave up its battle against the fire.
The roof caved in, scarlet flames jutted high, smoke curled and roiled in the wind. Platter-sized pieces of ash sailed upward and then settled. Sally kept moving, away from the intense heat and strangling black smoke. She threw away the washcloth which now steamed against her face. A hundred feet from the house she stopped in the shade of the three cottonwood trees growing there, bending over at the waist, breathing in deeply. The heat of the fire was still intense against her body, on her face. Her ankles felt singed, and looking down she saw that the hem of her skirt had been touched by fire. Using her hands she slapped out these tiny remnants of the flames within the house and stood in the scant shade of the trees, watching as her home slowly buckled and collapsed.
When it hit the ground it made a terrific sound, like a cannon's roar. The flames that had been tall, flicking at the belly of the pale sky now began to dwindle. But still the black smoke rose heavily, a swarm of small tongues of fires ate at the remains of the house.
Where was her father? She knew that he could not be alive; he would have never left her where she was if he could have done a single thing to prevent it.
Sally stood with her hands to her cheeks searching the area with her eyes. An odd smell reached her nostrils, and she realized that her hair was singed. Slapping angrily at her skull, she reflected both on how long she had taken dressing her hair that morning and how unimportant it was now.
She was a woman alone in an empty, depleted world where black smoke hovered low across the earth and ever so slowly dissipated with the wind. Hell fire had dwindled to bright, angry memories. Her father was gone. There was no point in watching the remains of the house, the fire burning itself out, and so she started a slow survey of the yard. The barn was empty; the three horses had scattered in fright. The yellow grass stubble was blackened from the heat.
The pale high sky remained featureless. Heat shimmers still rose from the long white flats toward the Pecos River. Not a bird stirred, no small animals fled before her boots. The fire had scattered them all, frightened them away.
She could see no trace of her father. Her worst fear was that the raiders – whoever they had been – had gunned Luke Cason down, but that did not seem to be the case. Why would they take the body with them? No, her father was alive, but wounded? They had taken him away with them, and it would not be to seek treatment for him.
Who would ride into this barren, lost country to find her father, and then, having found him, ridden away with him? Would he ever be able to free himself and make his way back? Giving up her search, Sally Cason seated herself on the fallen trunk of a cottonwood tree and stared blankly into the distances, away from the ruin of a house which still smoldered in its death, and took stock.
She was alone, completely alone. She was afoot: the horses had run off or been taken. The nearest town of any sort was Sheffield and that lay almost seventy miles to the south. They had no neighbors, something that her father had appreciated although it had made for a lonely childhood for Sally.
She sniffed and reached for a handkerchief in her skirt pocket. She was about to cry – and darnit! – she did not want to cry. Her eyes were still smoke-irritated. There was a hitch in her breathing from inhaling some of the stuff. Her skirt had a funny scorched ring around it. Her house, the only home she could remember ever having lay in a dry puddle of ash and destruction.
She was an orphan – or as good as – alone on the long, dry, west Texas plains. Her only relative, her only friend – her father – had apparently been spirited away unless he was hiding somewhere, and that seemed unlikely. She raised her hands skyward in a gesture of futility and then decided:
Well, darnit, I have the right to cry! And she did.
After half an hour or so of feeling sorry for herself, Sally gave one last snuffle and rose to her feet. She had to do something to help herself, but what was there to do? The house lay almost flat against the earth, still smoldering. The white sun rode high against the pale sky, shafting beams of light through the dark smoke which hovered over the ruins of the building.
Sally had no horse, no food, no water and nowhere to go. Her shelter, safety and security had all turned to ashes. Water – that was the first thing. She knew there was at least one old canteen hanging in the barn, She would fill that and walk, walk as far away a she could. It was best to leave ruined memories behind as quickly as possible.
If she followed the Pecos River southward she would always have a source of water, and there was the chance she might be able to hail one of the occasional flatboats which plied the river, hauling furs and buffalo hides nearer to the trading routes, though these boats were not as plentiful as they once had been with the buffalo die-off.
No matter. It was a chance, and Sally had made up her mind that she had to move. She only wished that her jeans, coat and sturdy boots could be rescued from the ashes, but she knew that was not possible. The burnt heap of wood still breathed heat. Even after the ashes had cooled it was unlikely that any of these items could be found or had survived in usable condition.
Well, her father had always said: 'We have to work with what we've got, not with what we wish we had.' What Sally had was very little indeed. She circled once more toward the barn, carrying a vague hope that one of the horses, frightened away by the fire might have returned. It was a futile hope. The barn remained empty. It was hot inside, nearly as hot as it had been in the burning house itself.
She found a half-gallon canteen hanging on its canvas strap from a nail driven into the wall and unhooked it. Putting the strap over her shoulder she hiked back through the drifting smoke and the heat toward the well. Some small component of the house snapped and collapsed, startling her. She felt that she had to get away from this small corner of hell as rapidly as possible now that she had decided that there was no choice but to leave.
The heat of the day burned her feet through the thin leather of her house shoes. She caught a glimpse of a black-tailed jack rabbit – the first living thing she had seen since the fire. It sat panting in the shade of the cottonwood trees. Twitching one upright ear toward her, it loped away with apparent lethargy.
The rope to the well bucket had not been touched by fire. Sally tugged up the bucket and started to drink from it. But there was a layer of ash on its surface. She skimmed it off angrily. There was ash dust on everything. Her hands were black with the stuff, her clothes, the new grass ... she paused to take a deep breath, stilling her anger at things that could not be helped. After two attempts she managed to fill her canteen. There was no telling what the formerly sweet water might taste like, but it was key to her survival.
She rested for a moment, leaning against the hot wooden box of the well cap. For a moment she stood watching the strange dark curlicues sketched by the smoke against the sky in the shifting breeze. There was something eerily fascinating about their movements.
This was doing her no good! Pulling herself erect, shouldering the canteen, Sally walked through the heated shade of the cottonwood trees and started her desperate journey eastward toward the Pecos.
She trudged across the white, empty land toward the river, its cooling influence only a distant longing. On the flats all was still, barren and sere. She tried singing to cheer herself, but found her throat was dry and her lungs were still stained with ash dust.
Plodding on across the limitless land, she then tried to imagine what her future life would be like. She dreamed in a fantastic way of satins, silk and fine jewelry before deciding that she would be appreciative of a home, safety, food and cool water – lots of cool water.
Well, once she reached the river, there was a chance at least, and once she arrived in some town – any nondescript frontier town – she was bound to be better off than she was now. Because at this moment, Sally was sure that things could not get any worse.
And then they did.
She saw them riding in a line. Three men, their figures elongated by the rising heat veils, their figures black and ominous, shimmering, but all too solid.
They had come back!
Sally halted and watched the riders who seemed to be emerging from pale smoke. Where her thoughts had been desperate, they now turned to heated anger. Where she had wished for a horse, sturdy boots and jeans, she now only wished that she had a gun in her hands to deliver bloody justice to the dark riders.CHAPTER 2
'There's someone,' Raven said, rising in his stirrups, pointing westward.
'I see her,' Trace Cavanaugh answered with a nod. His voice was toneless. The tall man with the deeply tanned face and ice-blue eyes halted his big gray horse.
'She's just standing there,' Woody Price, by far the youngest of the three, said with concern. He removed his Stetson briefly to mop his brow with his red kerchief. His straw-yellow hair tumbled out and he wiped it back. There was concern on his boyish face.
It was true, the slight woman they had come upon was simply standing there across the white flats, staring at them.
'That's about all she can do,' Trace said. 'Can't run away from us, hide.'
'Maybe she's in shock,' Raven said, leaning forward in his saddle. His dark eyes were intent.
Excerpted from Trace Takes a Hand by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2013 Owen G. Irons. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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