It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
***Special thanks to Cathy Hickling of Whitaker House for sending me a review copy.***
Tammy Barley’s roots run deep and wide across the United States. With Cherokee heritage and such ancestors as James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, she inherited her literary vocation and her preferred setting: the American Wild West. Besides her recent three-book Sierra Chronicles for Whitaker House, she’s published two series of devotionals for the Lutheran Women’s Missionary Society. A homeschooling mother to three teens, Tammy’s speaking engagements often become living history lessons with the Barleys dressed in Civil War-era attire, demonstrating 19th century needlework and leather crafts. Barley is a professional editor, ghostwriter, and frequent contributor to fiction publications. She’s developed a strong fan base among lovers of the Christian western genre not only through her books, but also through her Lassos -N- Lace Newsletter and blog.
Visit the author’s website.
List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (January 4, 2011)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Honey Lake Valley, Northern California
Jessica Bennett jolted upright in bed, her hand trembling as it searched the cold sheets in the darkness beside her. Her fingers brushed Jake’s equally cold pillow, then the soft fur of the cat that huddled on it, the only trace of warmth in the place where her husband had gone to sleep beside her. “Jake?”
Wind rattled the windowpane with nearly enough force to crack it. The wintry cold had seeped through the glass and turned the bedroom to ice. Jess hugged her flannel nightgown firmly to her and sat still and alert, straining to hear over the storm for any indication of movement in the house, either upstairs or down. She heard no thud of boot heels on the plank floor, no jingle of spurs to suggest any presence inside the house but hers.
Judging by the thick darkness, dawn was still hours away. Though she and Jake had worked until sometime after midnight, until they were both exhausted, he must have rested in bed until she had fallen asleep, but no longer than that. Once he had been certain she and the baby within her were at rest, he must have gone back to work and joined the next shift of cattlemen who fought to keep their horses and cattle alive, digging them out of the snow and providing hay to stimulate their bodies’ heat.
The misty darkness abruptly grew darker, closing in around her.
An image flashed through her mind—she stood in boot-deep snow under a gray sky, a Henry rifle gripped in her hands. At her sides stood two of the cattlemen. More than a dozen Paiute Indian men stepped forward to stand alongside them. She recognized one Paiute who worked at the ranch. The others were strangers. Their faces revealed fear, and resolve. In front of her, perhaps five paces away, stood thirty or more renegade white men who, as one, reached their hands to their holsters, drew their guns, then took aim at Jess and the Indians. Jess cocked the Henry rifle, pressed the butt to her shoulder, and sighted down the barrel at the cold, glittering blue eyes of the man who aimed the bore of his revolver at her. Though fear burned like liquid fire beneath her skin, she firmed her grip, shifted her index finger from the rifle’s trigger guard to the curve of the metal trigger. And pulled.
An explosion rocked Jess, tearing her back to the present. Shaken, she waited for the effects of the premonition to ebb, and focused on palpable images as they came to her: Her pulse, pounding like rapid drumbeats just beneath her ears. Her breath, passing though her parted lips in deep gasps, drying her throat. She swallowed. A chill permeated her flannel nightgown. The scent of forest that clung to the pine log walls filled the bedroom. The storm…. A second explosion!—No, not an explosion. It was the windowpane, pounded by the wind. Something trickled down her temples, rolled onto her cheeks. Startled, she swiped at it with her fingers. Dampness. Sweat. Nothing more. Sweat misted her forehead as well. She dried it with her sleeve and forced her breathing to calm.
Jess felt beside her, then remembered. Jake was gone. He hadn’t gone to sleep the night before.
In one movement, she flung the covers aside and reached toward the end of the bed for the union suit she had purchased two months before, shortly after she’d realized she was expecting a child. Leaving her flannel nightgown and stockings on, she stuffed her feet into the woolen legs of the union suit then stood and buttoned it up to her neck, using her thumbs and fingertips to feel the buttonholes and shove the buttons through. Jess hurried to the pegs on the wall near the window and felt for one of Jake’s flannel shirts. Her hand brushed one, then a pair of his trousers. Frustrated with not being able to see, she grabbed both garments and flung them onto the bed then rounded it to Jake’s side, where she felt along the surface of the tall chest of drawers until her hands connected with the oil lantern they kept there and finally the matchbox. After three strikes, a flame flared to life, and she lit the lantern then replaced the chimney with a glass-on-metal clink.
Winter buffeted the window once again. Jess ignored it. Moments later, dressed and belted, she slid her feet into her cowboy boots, then stuffed the extra fourteen or fifteen inches of Jake’s pant legs into the boot tops. Just as rapidly, she plaited her hip-length brown hair and secured the bottom with a leather thong.
She grabbed up the lantern, threw open the bedroom door—the place where she first saw her tall, handsome Jake standing when she was brought to the ranch, she recalled with a sudden lightness in her heart—then hurried out onto the landing and down the stairs, her boots and the steps gilded by a wide ring of golden lantern light.
The fire in the hearth had burned down and gave off little heat. Jess set the lantern on the mantel and pulled her weighty sheepskin coat from its peg near the front door, then tugged it on, followed by her woolen hat, scarf, and gloves.
The premonition had shaken her more than the other few she’d experienced before it, but what truly unnerved her was the certainty that had woken her—something had happened to Jake.
Jess lifted the iron latch that served as a door handle. The front door blew in and struck her in the chest. Resisting the wind, she held tightly to the door as she stepped out onto the covered porch and pulled the door closed, straining against the force of the gales.
On the porch she huddled deeper into her coat, thankful it hung to her knees. Squinting against the wind, she scanned the ranch yard and glimpsed dots of orange that flickered ahead of her and to both sides, lit torches that were barely visible through the snowflakes being driven through the night and against her cheeks and chin. Most of the torches appeared to congregate near the smithy, ahead of her and to the left.
Jess descended the two porch steps and moved toward the smithy, leaning into the wind. Her nostrils stuck closed, and she was forced to breathe through her mouth. If Jake had walked in this direction and broken a path through the drifts, she was unable to distinguish his tracks in the blackness. Already her toes and fingers tingled in sharp pain as if rubbed by frost.
One of the orange torches blew out. A moment later, another torch relit it. The man who held the relit torch shifted the flame away from the others, toward the ground. Its fire burst to nearly thrice its size, then gradually settled back to its original mass. The men must be using kerosene to keep them lit. On the wind, the faint smell of smoke drifted to her.
She pushed on and lifted one booted foot after the other over the snow as she forced her straining muscles to move as quickly as she could make them go, feeling oddly off-balance due to her inability to see.
A torch broke away from the others and wended its way in her direction, no doubt carried by someone bringing hay for animals to eat so they could produce their own warmth. She and Jake had done the same, beginning late the previous afternoon, when the storm had given its first whispers of the violence to come, and continuing until midnight, scattering hay about the ranch’s main compound. But now the snows made foraging impossible. The men who gathered near the smithy must have found another way to protect the animals.
The light of the single torch grew brighter and nearer, and she altered her path to move toward it. Orange light revealed Taggart’s surprised round face as his eyes met hers, his hairy eyebrows, mustache, and beard frozen white with ice and snow.
Jess leaned close to his ear and shouted over the storm. “Have you seen Jake?”
“He’s tendin’ the fireplaces in the buildings!” he yelled back and jerked a wool-clad thumb over his beefy shoulder. His fingers held a coiled lasso. “He told the men to string a rope corral from the smithy to the cookhouse to the bunkhouse, and back to the smithy. We’re searchin’ for the beasts and bringin’ them over, hopin’ the heat from the buildings will keep the critters from freezing.”
“By ‘beasts’ do you mean the horses?”
Taggart shifted the torch, apparently in mild impatience to be under way. “No, the cattle.”
Jess’s eyes searched the darkness and found a distant square of light emanating from the cookhouse window. Jake must be warm near the fires, or at least he remained so while inside, between jaunts from one building to the next in the deathly cold. Still, she couldn’t throw off the conviction that something was horribly wrong. “What about the horses? Without them, we’ll lose the ranch!”
“Jess, there’s no time for explainin’, though the boss knows about the horses,” he assured her above the scream of the wind. “He ordered us to wrangle the horses to the barn and stable.”
Jess nodded and held a glove over her nose, wishing she had a way to warm her face.
“Ye should be sleepin’,” Taggart chastised her, “but since ye’re here, we need ye.” He took her arm and turned her to face the outskirts of the ranch. “We’re able to drive the horses—a couple of the boys are on horseback doin’ just that—but the cows are the problem. They turned their backsides to the wind and lowered their heads to stay warm, but the snow is coverin’ them, and their breath and body heat have turned the snow into a casing of ice around them. They’re suffocatin’. Come on!”
Within her, Jess’s stomach sank in dread. She kept up with Taggart, step for step. They wended their way east past the ranch house and toward the Paiute village in the same manner he had approached her, occasionally changing direction from left to right as they continued forward, searching for cattle trapped in ice.
“Ye see? There!” Taggart held out the torch and headed toward a large mound half buried in a drift. The beast moaned, a pathetic plea that was nearly swallowed by the howl of the storm.
Jess thought the cow was merely covered in snow, but as she neared and touched its side, her glove stuck to ice.
Taggart kicked low to break the ice, again, then again, until it gave way with a dull crunch. The cow, with its first full breath, gave a loud bawl.
Desperate to help, Jess rounded the animal and kicked from the other side. Her toes stung unbearably with each blow, so she turned her boot and kicked with her heel. The frozen casing gave way.
Taggart secured the lasso around the cow’s neck and rapidly pushed off the rest of the snow. “Can ye take her to the rope corral, Jess, then come find me again? With two of us working together, one can break the cows free and the other can lead them to the buildings.”
Immediately, Jess took the end of the lasso from him. “If you wander too far, I won’t be able to see your torch.”
“Ye will. The wind’s still a fury, but the snows are dyin’ down. See?”
Jess realized he was right, though she was still forced to squint. Thank You, God, that the snows are dying. “I’ll hurry back.”
She had to pull to encourage the cow to move, and had to keep pulling against its wont to stop and hunker down. At the rope corral, she exchanged brief nods with the ranchmen there, then lifted the looped end of a rope from an iron post to lead the cow through to join the others. Jake’s idea was working. The cow nosed its way into the warm press of livestock and lowered its head to eat from one of the bales of hay. Though she paused to scan the open spaces between the buildings for Jake, she didn’t see him.
For the next several hours until sunrise, Jess helped the men rescue cows mired belly-deep in the snow, pausing only to gulp hot coffee kept in constant supply by the ranch cook and her longtime friend, Ho Chen.
Gradually, the snow had slowed until it resembled falling dust, but it wasn’t until dawn, while she led yet another cow into the corral, that she finally saw Jake. He was making his way toward the ranch house, hunched over, coughing uncontrollably, and was supported by two of the cattlemen, Seth and Lee.
The last of Jess’s strength bled from her. Jake had passed between extreme heat and cold, into hot buildings and out into the frigid storm, all night. She knew what such extremes did to miners who descended shafts to work in the hot steam more than two thousand feet beneath the surface of the Comstock, then later emerged up into arctic gales. Countless numbers of the miners died. From pneumonia.
“Lord Almighty,” she breathed, and ran toward the house. Never again, she promised God, never again will I doubt the instincts You gave me, if only You will let Jake live.