Western Wednesdays—STRANGER IN THUNDER BASIN

The life-defining moment of a hero, the catalyst that molds the man and sets his life course, is never so powerful as when it manifests in childhood. His path inevitably becomes a tightrope, one precariously balanced upon through adolescence and into adulthood until fate, as she always will, tips the scales. Spur award-winning author John D. Nesbitt forges just such a character and just such a moment in this tension-fraught opening to Stranger in Thunder Basin. Can justice and vengeance cohabitate in a man’s heart? Will they destroy him or set him free? Find out in Stranger in Thunder Basin.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

From the beginning there rose a memory ancient as blood.

The long, cold wind had quit blowing, but the sun was still shut out. Under a gray sky, the dunes of snow lay hard packed—domed and smooth on the windward side, ridged and sculpted on the leeward. The boy could walk up on top of a drift and, it seemed to him, stand in the sky. When Pa-Pa stood on the next drift over, he looked taller than ever.

All morning, Pa-Pa dug walkways from the cabin, first to the outhouse and then to the barn. Pa-Pa worked with a steady motion, carving out snow and tossing it to one side or the other. Orly the dog watched, looked up at Eddie. Pa-Pa was quiet, no sound but the slice of the shovel and the thump of the snow when it landed. At one point on the way to the barn, the passageway was higher than Eddie’s cap.

Pa-Pa worked on. When he cleared the door of the barn, Eddie and the dog followed him inside. The air was as thin and cold as outside. The horses whoofed and snuffled. Pa-Pa gave them grain from a burlap sack, hard pale sliding seeds that he called oats.

Pa-Pa carried the round-headed shovel and the square one. Eddie walked beside him, and Orly trotted ahead. A big drift lay across the road. Pa-Pa said he was going to have to clear it out before they could go anywhere. He started digging, first with the square shovel and then with the round one. He began on the right and worked across, then went to his right again and cut deeper into the drift, carving out slabs of solid white cake. As loose snow gathered at his feet, he scooped it up and tossed it as well.

Now with his shovel he held a big square piece in front of Eddie’s eyes. It was cleaner than lard, cleaner than the whitest ice cream. Then he tossed it, and it fell apart when it landed.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I throw it all to the right side here.”

Eddie looked at him without saying anything.

“Well, I don’t want the wind to blow it back in. If I throw it to the left and a big wind comes, all the loose and crumbly stuff’ll fill in, and I’ll have to come back tomorrow and do the same thing.”

He stabbed the shovel in the snowbank and took a deep breath, then opened and closed his hands. The creased leather gloves looked like part of him, as did the canvas coat and the sweat-lined hat. Pa-Pa, solid and tall against a gray sky, his weathered face like deer hide, his silvery hair flowing to cover his ears and touch his collar. He took another breath and went back to work.

Eddie rolled in the loose snow, tumbling with Orly and teasing him. Above, the gray sky went everywhere, and Eddie could not tell where the sky ended and the world began. Here below, his coat was a dull black, and his mittens, itchy as the coat, were dark gray. Orly was black and white, but the white was almost yellow compared with the snow.

“Here,” came Pa-Pa’s voice. “Stand up. You’re gettin’ too much snow on you.”

Eddie felt himself being pulled up in the scratchy coat. Pa-Pa took off the stocking cap, shook it out, then pressed it back over Eddie’s ears. With his leather gloves, he brushed the dry snow off the boy’s coat, turning him one way and the other. Eddie felt snow melting on the back of his neck, then a relaxing of the coat.

“I wonder who this is.” Pa-Pa’s hands let go.

Across the top of the snowdrift Eddie could see a man on a horse—a dark, narrow shape against the bleak background. Pa-Pa held the shovel at rest and watched the rider come closer. Sound carried as the horse’s hooves rose from the snow and punched in again.

The stranger came to a stop on the other side of the drift. Both horse and rider loomed dark. Wisps of steam floated from the animal’s nose and mouth. The horse’s body carried a dull color between black and dark brown. A lighter brown showed along the edges of the nose, the forehead, and the ears, while the mane and tail ran to pure black. The rider wore a flat-brimmed, flat-crowned black hat, dull with old dust. He had a narrow face with a long, thin nose; a pair of beady, close-set eyes; and thin lips. The lower part of his face, tapered, lay in shadow-like stubble, and a dark neckerchief covered his throat. He wore a scratchy-looking coat the color of a burned-out fire log.

Pa-Pa’s voice came out in the cold air. “What can I do for you?”

The thin lips moved. “I’m lookin’ for Jake Bishop.”

“That’s me.”

The stranger cast his beady glance at Eddie, then back at Pa-Pa. “Need to talk to you. Just you and me.”

“The kid’s no harm.”

“Little pitchers have big ears.”

“I said he’s no harm. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

The stranger came off his horse, slow and stiff-like. When he turned around, he had his coat unbuttoned and his gloves in his left hand. “I’ve got a message. Not for the ears of little boys.” With his right hand he touched the hem of his coat.

Pa-Pa turned to look at Eddie. “Here, sonny,” he said, reaching into his coat pocket and bringing out a piece of pale, hard candy. “Take this, and go get me the hatchet I use to split kindling.”

Eddie looked up into his face and saw nothing to understand.

“Here, take it, and go get me the hatchet.”

Eddie put the candy into his mouth, tasting the peppermint as he knew he would.

“Go, now. Take the dog.” Pa-Pa turned him around and gave him a push.

Eddie followed the footprints they had made coming out from the cabin. Even Pa-Pa’s tracks had not sunk in very deep, the snow was so hard. Orly pranced along, leaving no tracks at all. The cabin was getting closer.

A loud, cracking sound came from behind and made him jump. It was a gunshot, just like Pa-Pa made.

Orly had broken into a run and now stopped to turn around. Eddie was frozen, half-pivoting, not sure whether to run to the cabin or look back. Everything was quiet now. He knew it had been the sound of a gun, but Pa-Pa wasn’t wearing his, not when he worked with a shovel.

Eddie turned. The dark stranger was climbing onto his horse, then reining it around and riding away with flecks of snow kicking up. Where was Pa-Pa?

Eddie ran forward until the bottom of the snowdrift came into view. Then he saw Pa-Pa lying where he had shoveled out the snow. Eddie stopped. His heart was beating stronger than he had ever known, and a cold, prickly feeling ran through his scalp, face, neck, and shoulders.

He walked forward. He had a strange sensation, one he had never felt before. Something big had happened, like a crack in the sky or the edge of the earth falling off. But the sky was still there, gray stretching out forever, and so was the earth, white in every direction and a dark speck in the distance.

Closer now, he saw Pa-Pa lying in the snow where he had dug and trampled. The dun-colored hat had fallen a few feet away, and his full head of silvery hair lay still against the white snow. His eyes were closed, and his weathered face had relaxed. His right hand lay across his chest, while his left, also gloved, seemed to reach for the shovel that had fallen beside him.

All the world was still, and Pa-Pa stillest of all. Then Eddie saw a stain of red seeping through the canvas coat where it touched the snow and stained the crystals. He felt tears come to his eyes as his throat swelled.

He tried to swallow, and he realized the candy was still in his mouth. He took a deep breath and tried to hold himself from getting dizzy. Then he let go, and the tears fell. With the dog at his side, also silent, Eddie looked at this person who was so familiar to him. He knew Pa-Pa would not finish digging out the snow, or have to come back tomorrow, or ever speak, or build a fire, or saddle a horse again. Nothing would be the same.

Eddie looked off into the cold distance. The speck had disappeared, but the boy knew it had all happened for real. A man had come and done this, a man who looked like a coiled black bullwhip. Eddie thought hard and brought up a picture of the man as he stepped down from his horse and turned around. The face came to him now—a shadowy face with close-set eyes, a thin nose and lips, and a narrow chin. He would know that face if he ever saw it again.

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