MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Keech Blackwood splashed up from the cold waters of the Third Fork River and blinked at the bright autumn sun. Sam was standing on the bank, holding the prized musket stick and hooting laughter.
“I finally got you!” Sam shouted. “I finally put you down!” Overcome by his victory, the boy bounced on one foot and started a champion’s dance.
They had been awake since first light, exploring the lush northwestern Missouri hills. Sometime after setting out, Sam had spotted a plump cottontail, his favorite animal, and Keech had cooked up the idea of tracking the critter and snare-trapping it for practice.
They set the rabbit snare using a couple of oak branches, a bent-over sapling, and a strand of dogbane for the noose. After waiting a whole precious hour for the animal to reappear, Sam lost all patience and offered a second suggestion: a game of Grab the Musket.
The boys had wandered down to the river searching for a long stick. Keech found a strong lacebark limb half-buried in the frosty mud. He washed the limb in the river, and then both boys stripped off their shirts and boots and squared off on the dark riverbank soil.
Pa Abner had taught them Grab the Musket a few years earlier. The rules were simple. Both contestants took a firm grip on the stick and then squared their shoulders and dug their feet into the ground. Keech would yell “Pull!” and they would wrestle to yank the stick free. When they had first learned the game, Sam was an imposing competitor. But now that Keech was two months shy of fourteen, and had grown much taller than his toothpick brother, he could pull the musket out of Sam’s grip every time.
Sam had managed something new. When Keech pulled, the smaller boy stepped forward and pushed. Keech rocked off balance. Sam pivoted his heel and twisted his body to the left, and before Keech could figure out what was happening, the rascal yanked hard on the stick.
Keech released the musket as his feet slid out. For a weightless moment he felt disconnected from the world, like a bird in flight. Then he flopped into the chill waters of the Third Fork.
The moment he lifted his head from the river, Keech spotted a man on horseback with his hat pulled low, gazing down at them from atop the wooded hill.
“Sam, pause your prancing.”
“Can’t do,” bellowed Sam. “The victory’s too sweet!” His champion’s dance continued.
The Third Fork River was wide and shallow at this edge, rising only to Keech’s waist, the riverbed beneath his bare feet paved with smooth stones. He pulled a wet curtain of dark hair out of his eyes and focused across the open. The sun hadn’t deceived him. There was a man on the hill, dressed in a long, black overcoat and mounted on a chestnut stallion.
“Hey, I mean it. We’re being watched.”
Sam turned to look. As if on cue, the man in the black overcoat called down, “Mornin’, pilgrims!” and doffed his hat. His voice sounded wrong, as though speaking pleasantries was new to him. “Don’t dash off, as I mean ya no harm!” The man dismounted, gathered his reins, and began to walk down the hill, the chestnut stallion in tow.
Sam held out the lacebark limb. “Here.” Keech grabbed it and Sam helped him out of the river.
“Let’s get back in our shirts and boots,” Keech said. “If he means us ill, we may need to run.”
Sam regarded the stranger with a frown. The narrow scar on the left side of Sam’s face paled even whiter than usual, as it did whenever he got nervous. “I’m the Rabbit, remember? I can run just as fast in bare feet.”
“Put your boots on anyhow.”
Both boys hurried to slip their muddy feet into their boots and put their shirts and coats on. Keech grabbed his bowler hat and kept his eyes locked on the man, who continued down the hill.
When the stranger was about twenty feet away, he dropped the reins and smiled, revealing a mouth full of gaps. Now that he was close, Keech could see that the man’s black overcoat was threadbare, riddled with holes in the elbows. He wore his trousers tucked into tall black boots and carried a heavy revolver on his hip, a Colt Dragoon with a glinting black barrel. Keech had never seen a real Dragoon before, but he recognized the revolver from a fine pencil drawing in one of Pa Abner’s books.
“Quite a chill in the air this morn,” the man said. He wore a long goatee pointed like a dagger at the end and greasy black hair drawn back into a ponytail. His left eye was yellowish and glazed over, surely blind.
Making sure his path to the trail was clear, Keech set his footing, ready to move in an instant should this man decide to get mean. He noticed Sam also steeling himself to run, just as Pa Abner had taught them to do if they ever encountered strangers with ill purpose. Run first, live to tell, Pa would always say, usually before their day’s training began.
“Yessir, quite a chill,” Keech replied. He fanned his wet bangs out of his eyes again and crammed his hat back on.
“This weather ain’t so bad, I s’pose,” the man said. “Could be worse. Farther north the brush rabbits have gnawed the sassafras sprouts down to nubs. Means a heavy snowfall comin’ for those poor folk.”
The stranger took a step closer. He reeked of pig slop, as though he hadn’t taken a bath in weeks. “Why are you little pilgrims dippin’ into icy rivers?”
Keech said, “We were playing war when my friend tripped me and I fell.”
The man laughed—a slippery sound, full of bad air. “Ah, now I see why you was wrestlin’ for that stick. You little pilgrims remember the Alamo! Which of you’s Jim Bowie and who’s got the awful job of playin’ Santa Anna?”
“But we ain’t playin’ the Alamo,” said Sam.
The man clicked his tongue. “A mighty shame you’d waste a chance to play Mr. Bowie. Can you name a more heroic figgur in all of history?”
“No, sir,” said Keech, though he and Sam had both long ago agreed Davy Crockett was their favorite hero of the Alamo. “Sir, I do apologize, but we need to be getting home.” He tapped Sam on the leg and they stepped away. A wind blustered and made every inch of Keech’s damp skin bump with gooseflesh.
The man coughed into his fist. “Hold on there a tick, pilgrims.”
Keech glanced back. “We must run off, sir. Time for chores.” The boys increased their pace.
The stranger called after them. “But surely you pilgrims can tell me where I can find a man named Isaiah Raines?”
Keech was happy he’d never heard the name. “No, sir!” he called back.
The stranger said, “What about Abner Carson?”
The boys stopped in their tracks—that was their pa’s name. Sam loosed a muffled gasp.
The man squinted at them, his yellow eye moist and dead.
“I was told down south somebody named Ab Carson might know of Mr. Raines’s where’bouts. You see, I got important business to conduct, so please tell me the way to Mr. Carson’s doorstep. If he knows of Isaiah Raines, I sure would like to hear it.”
Keech turned to face the dark man with the dead eye. “No disrespect, sir, but you’re a stranger.”
The man snorted surprise. “My apologies! I answer to ‘Whiskey,’ like the drink. Anyone who knows me calls me that.”
“But we don’t know you,” said Keech.
Whiskey winked his good eye. “But ya do know Ab Carson. I can read that plain as dirt.”
Sam leaned in close. “Reckon it’s time to run?”
Keech whispered, “I have an idea.”
He nodded to the stranger. “Yessir, Mr. Whiskey, I have heard the name. A few months back I went down to Farnham with my pa to buy a wagon. During our supper I heard a man at the next table say his name was just that, Ab Carson. He told a group of fellas he was traveling out west to seek the Fountain of Youth. I don’t recall more since I was involved in that fat steak I was eating.”
The man held up his hand. “Okay, pilgrim.”
“I’m sorry your hunt’s been for naught, Mr. Whiskey, but that’s the lot of what I know. If you wish more, I’d suggest you go down to Farnham. It’s about two days’ ride.” Keech turned and shoved at Sam. The boys started back into the woods.
Sam shot a backward glance at the figure. “That fella didn’t believe a word of your nonsense story.”
“Just keep moving. When he’s out of sight, start running.”
They were about to hurry off when Whiskey’s gruff voice filled the air. “Hold up.”
Again, both boys froze. The stranger picked up his reins and led his stallion closer. His free hand now hovered near his revolver.
“Keech, what do we do?” whispered Sam.
“Hush your tongue. If he goes for that gun, I’ll clean his plow.”
“But that’s a Dragoon!”
“Quiet,” Keech hissed.
Whiskey led his horse till he was roughly ten feet away. A vibrant wind rustled through the cottonwood trees, shaking branches and driving the man’s stink right up Keech’s nostrils. Whiskey said, “You heard the name of Abner Carson in the town of Farmhan?”
Keech considered changing his tale. There was a village called Farmhan up north, and sending this scoundrel up and down the state on a fruitless hunt seemed a worthwhile idea. But he worried that adding another layer of deception might bring the whole story tumbling down. “No, sir, Mr. Whiskey. I said I heard mention of Carson in Farnham. Down south.”
The one-eyed man looked at Keech, then Sam, slowly tilting his head as though his single eye was staring through each of them. After a long, breathless moment, the man nodded.
“Farnham, then. I reckon I oughta let you pilgrims run along. I’d hate for ya to catch yer death of cold.” On those words, Whiskey turned and led his horse back toward the river.
Keech and Sam didn’t wait to watch the man depart. They ran into the woods, leaping over rocks and sliding down slopes, till the river was well behind. They allowed their pace to slacken only when they crested a final hill and saw the two-story farmhouse where they’d been raised.
They dashed across the property, the front yard camouflaged by heavy ranks of firethorn shrubs and weigela bushes. Sam slipped ahead, huffing, and as they approached the shakepole fence that bordered the yard, he hopped on one foot and smacked the painted sign that hung above the gate. Keech followed suit. It was always good luck to slap the sign on your way to the house. It was their beacon in the harsh frontier, a symbol of family, a symbol of strength. The sign read:
CARSON’S HOME FOR LOST CAUSES
PROTECT US, ST. JUDE, FROM HARM
Copyright © 2018 by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester