The next book in the Little Creek series is coming soon! Check out this glimpse of the first chapter here:
The sunset filled the sky with streams of oranges and pinks, casting the western mountains in a purple shadow. He should have recognized the mountains, but he didn’t.
A cold wind woke the man where he slept, unprotected from the elements. His body ached as he leaned forward to stand, producing a groan; now his shaking legs could barely hold him upright. He stared at the mountains, willing them to be familiar, wishing for some sense of certainty, but nothing would fill the emptiness he felt.
His mind raced. How had he come to be alone in an unfamiliar territory?
Another cold wind blew from behind, and his instincts told him a storm was coming. He turned to face it, barely taking in the darkening sky ahead before the scattered shambles on the ground below captured his attention.
The scene was nothing short of hellish.
There was an overturned stagecoach with charred edges, and smoldering flames dying in the cold winds, all its contents smashed and shattered, strewn across the path.
And the bodies…
Four men lying still, blood puddling beneath them in patches of snow. There was no stench, but the man knew if it had been a hot summer day, there would have been no hiding from the smell of bleeding, burning carcasses.
Why did he know such a gruesome detail?
He brought a hand to cover his mouth, but instantly pulled it back when he felt a sticky moisture on his face.
Even in the disappearing sunlight, he could clearly see his hands and forearms covered in blood.
His heart began to pound.
Rubbing his fingers against his palm, he grew nauseated. He needed to get the blood off his hands.
Each of his senses were on alert. He squinted his eyes, scanning the horizon for some sign of life while the sun dipped down, leaving him shivering. With his mouth dry and his heart pumping, he strained to listen, turning his ears toward a sound… like rushing water.
He moved as quickly as his aching body would allow in search of the source. When he came across a nearly frozen stream, his hand reflexively went to his hip, intent on using his gun to break through the ice, but his holster was empty. Shouting in frustration, he brought his boot heel down, breaking the thin layer of ice to reveal crystal clear water.
Plunging his hands in, the cold widened his eyes and made him hiss, but he scrubbed vigorously to remove the stain. When he pulled them out of the water, remnants of blood still lingered in the cracks of his skin.
He looked beyond his hands and saw his own reflection in the water, now murky and swirling with blood. Tousled hair, bearded jaw, confused eyes… who was he? Panic rose within him as he didn’t recognize the face staring back at him. Mentally he dug for answers… the missing gun, the blood on his hands, the massacre behind him… but it was only grasping at emptiness. The man swallowed deeply, not knowing if he were the kind of man who would be responsible for the scene behind him.
Flurries of snow started to fall on the water, the ripples disrupting his reflection. The man shook his head as he realized he didn’t have much time. His panic did not subside, but his innate sense of survival and self-preservation had taken over. He needed to find shelter. Quickly.
Tucking his hands beneath his arms to hide them from the wind, he gazed across the horizon, searching for salvation. The path northward would take him to the tiny town at the base of the eastern mountains, barely visible in the distance, but he knew he would never make it on foot before the snow overcame him. He turned again, blinking to focus his vision through the snow. Just beyond the road was a rising spiral of smoke, different from the dark gathering clouds. It could very well be a house and a warm fire that produced the smoke.
The man took a deep breath and swallowed hard. He could make it if he hurried, but his conscience made him pause. He couldn’t leave the dead where they lie. He reached out to move the first body, but a sharp pain in his chest made him recoil. Pulling back the front of his shirt, there was a dried bullet wound in his left shoulder. The man huffed, but he managed as best he could with one arm, moving the bodies to rest under the stagecoach remnants. It felt a familiar task, and he wondered what kind of life he had led to have such an experience.
When he reached for the last body, he caught a glimpse of white paper peeking out from the man’s vest. On closer inspection, it wasn’t a paper, but a playing card. A seven of diamonds. Anger surged as the man questioned if the carnage was the result of some saloon brawl, but he pocketed the card as perhaps the only clue to his identity. The dead body wore a hefty coat, so the man begged his pardon and took it for himself, along with the hat, to shield against the oncoming cold.
Boots crunching in the collecting snow, he made his way toward his last chance. His head throbbed powerfully behind his eyes, but he pressed on, the smoke in the distance calling to him with the promise of a warm fire. Through the mist of snow, he could make out a log cabin, cradled by trees and surrounded by farmland at the foot of the mountain. He tried to keep his emotions in check, but he couldn’t keep from hoping to find answers there.
Trekking across the plains began to wear him down. Biting wind blew against him, so he pulled the coat tight around his neck. His legs shook from the exertion, and his hands still ached from the wet cold. It couldn’t be much farther now, but the snow in his eyes made it almost impossible to see.
Eventually he came up to the barn, a short distance from the cabin. The man was tempted to sneak in and sleep in the hay with the animals, then disappear before daylight. But he remembered the bullet wound in his shoulder and knew it needed attention before an infection set in, if one hadn’t already.
The snow was now up to his ankles as he approached the house. His head was swimming, and worrying he might not make it to the door, he called out, “Hello! Anyone home?”
A dog’s bark filled the air, and the door opened to reveal a woman with curled brown hair about her shoulders, holding a shotgun. The dog at her side gave a vicious growl to support the threat.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
The man stumbled. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to startle you…”
“How did you get out here?” she demanded. “Who are you?”
The man swallowed. He couldn’t give her that. “I mean you no harm, ma’am. I can hardly stay upright… I’m injured, and there’s a storm coming…”
She leveled the shotgun at him. “You didn’t answer my question.”
His vision began to slant and swirl. In desperation, he said, “Please, help me.”
Then the darkness came up to greet him.
Want to read more? You can see what happens next in The Widow's Hope!