You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
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Irish immigrant Seamus Hanley is a lost soul, haunted by his
past as a U.S. Army deserter and living alone in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains in 1849. But after witnessing a deadly stage coach crash, he finds purpose in the scattered wreckage -- a letter with a picture of a beautiful and captivating woman named Ashlyn living in San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush. Moved by her written plea for help, he abandons all and sets out on an epic journey across the wild and picturesque American frontier. While being pursued by those who want to hang him, Seamus encounters fascinating characters including a young Pauite Indian who makes the ultimate sacrifice in helping Seamus to cross the snowy Yosemite Valley.
Battered but changed for the better, Seamus reaches San Francisco on Christmas Eve as the city burns in the tragic fire of 1849. But there is little time for rest, as an even greater, more harrowing adventure involving Ashlyn is about to begin.
List Price: $11.16
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: B&H Books; Reprint edition (July 15, 2013)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Man of the Mountain
Wilderness of the Southern Rocky Mountain Range
His sunken face windburned and forested by an icicle-encrusted mustache and beard, Seamus Hanley exhaled a steamy billow through his cracked lips into the frosty mountain air. Then the Irishman held his breath and lowered his rusted Brown Bess musket, his hands numbed by the frigidness breaching his torn and frayed bearskin gauntlets.
The pain of hunger in his stomach had long subsided, and now only the trembling of his grip and weariness of his soul impressed upon him the urgency of this unpleasant task.
He closed one of his lake-blue eyes, the last remnant of the promise of his youth, and sighted the muzzle of the weapon at the unsuspecting, rummaging elk.
Even at a distance, the ribs of the great beast showed through its patchy and scarred chestnut fur. Through the barrel’s eye, Seamus tracked the young bull as it limped its way over to an aspen tree. The elk raised its head, crowned in mockery by horns uneven and fractured.
Did it catch his scent?
Then the animal relaxed, bared its teeth, and tugged on a low-lying branch, releasing a powdery mist of fresh snowfall and uncovering autumnal leaves of maroon, amber, and burnt orange. Brilliant watercolor splashes on a white canvas.
In the deadly stillness of a finger poised on a trigger, Seamus shared a kinship of loneliness and futility with his prey, whose ear flapped and jaw bulged as it chewed.
This wasn’t the way it should be. For both were trailing the herd at this time of season.
This was when both mountain men and wildlife should be well fattened by summer’s gracious hands. For the fall offered only last provisions, the final stones in the fortress. Because, like shadows in the distant horizon, the bitter enemies of winter were approaching.
Seamus tried to steady his focus as the wind shrilled. “It’s me or you, my friend.”
The frizzen was closed, the powder set, and his very last musket ball was loaded. This would be his only shot.
For it had been another disappointing trade season amidst the dwindling market of beaver, otter, and marmot pelts. The fashion shifts in faraway places like New York and Europe were flushing out trappers like Seamus throughout the Western out- lands of this sprouting nation.
But he expected as much. Seamus’s past was rife with disap- pointing harvests.
With a pang of regret, his numb finger squeezed ever so gently and spark and flame breached the touchhole, igniting the gunpowder and sending a lead ball, laced with hope and des- peration, through the icy air. Sounds, though dampened by the snow, ricocheted through the woods.
The creature leapt into the air, thighs and legs flailing in a moment of frenzy. Then it gathered itself, turned, and bobbed its white tail up through the embankment into the sheltering embrace of the frozen forest.
A flash here. A speck of brown again. Then it was gone. And Seamus was alone. Completely alone.
Seamus lumbered over to a tree stump mushroomed by snow, and with the back of his glove he gave it a firm sweep to dust it clean before sitting down on the iced, jagged surface.
“Arrgh!” He flung his musket in the air, watching it spiral before being enveloped into a bank of snow. Then he lowered his face into his moist, fur-covered hands and sobbed.
No one would see him cry. No one ever did. Here, in the high country, emotions were shielded by solitude.
Though just two years had passed, it seemed forever ago when he chose self-exile. When he tried to hide from the memories.
Seamus could barely recall the laughter of his youth and his passion for whimsy. Growing up in the green-rich fields of Ireland, he would feast off the sparkle of cheer that echoed through the farmlands of his people back home.
But that was many tragedies ago. Now that all looked like someone else’s life.
He dwelled in the blackness of despair for a while, but even- tually the chilling lashes of the winds pried him from the depths of his misery. Survival still lorded over the emptiness.
Seamus retrieved his musket from its snowy grave. It was useless without ammunition, but he couldn’t part with one of his only friends.
With slumping shoulders, he headed home. Home. His mis- shapen cabin in the hollow of the woods. Despite his best efforts to acclimate to the wilderness, he was still merely trespassing. And where was home when your spirit wandered?
Yet there was a more pressing question. Would he even make it back to the cabin? The moment the hobbled elk escaped, it became Seamus who was hunted. He had risked the chase and strayed far. Now his hunger grew fangs and eyed its prey.
The weariness. The throbbing of his temples. Every step mattered.
Seamus popped the top of his canteen, lifted it, and poured water down his dry, aching throat. Then he surveyed this unfamiliar terrain.
He rarely traversed this patch of backcountry and for good reason. Civilization had encroached following the opening of a United States Army outpost not far away. It intersected with the Oregon Trail, the main pathway for travelers to the West, who of late were drawn in droves to the resonating whispers of gold in California.
The army fort was tasked to free the flow of commerce from the growing hindrance of the Indian population. Seamus had no quarrels with the brown-skinned natives of this territory. In fact, he coveted their ability to thrive in this cruel environment, which had buckled him to his knees.
But he was terrified of the American soldiers.
At the thought, he reached up to the scar on his left cheek, hidden beneath his scraggly facial hair. The image haunted of that branding iron growing in size as it was pressed down on him, the burning flesh both his punishment and permanent mark as an Irish defector in Polk’s war, the battle against the Mexicans.
He bristled at the word defector. People confused it too easily with deserter. Seamus had fought bravely in the war and never wavered amidst firestorms, death screams, and the lead- filled chaos. Even when, like many of his countrymen, he chose to change allegiances and fight for the other side.
Suddenly, the whinnying of horses pulled him out of his trance. Seamus bent down behind a bush and strained his eyes high above in the direction of the repeating and frantic neighing sounds.
Of course. Fools Pass.
It was daunting enough for wagons to climb this section of the main trail during the warm and dry months. But trying to scale it during wintertime only validated its name.
The horses sounded again, this time blending with the curses of a man and the cracking of a whip. From Seamus’s vantage point far below, he could see a wagon drawn by two steeds straining to make it up the crest of the hill. Its driver beseeched the creatures with a mad flailing of his arm whilst they slid and grappled for traction.
The two great horses managed to find a steadiness in their hoofing and the wagon straightened and lunged forward with the wooden wheels digging into the deep snow. The vehicle moved closer to the crest of the peak.
Then there was a hideous splintering of wood. One of the horses reared and broke free from its bindings causing the other to stumble. In the matter of a moment, the still-yoked horse, the carriage, and its horrified teamster started to slide back down the slope, angling toward the trail’s edge that dropped hundreds of feet below.
Slowly. Excruciating to watch.
First one wheel cleared the edge. Then another. And all was lost.
The driver leapt from his bench, but much too late. The full momentum of the wagon and its cargo ripped violently against the futile efforts of the horse to regain its footing. The helpless creature was yanked through the air as if it were weightless. Its neck flexed unnaturally backward.
Then launching downward, in one flight of wagon, wooden shards, scattering luggage, and flapping limbs of man and beast, the behemoth plunged in fury to depths below amidst hideous songs of anguish rising above the wind’s mournful cries.
Seamus shielded his eyes from the horrific imagery. But his ears weren’t spared the tortuous screeching. He loathed to hear the conclusion of violence, the anticipated clash of rock and timber, metal and flesh.
Instead, there was a muffled thud. Was it possible they survived?
Energy surged through his flesh and he dropped his musket and ran with abandon, boots sinking through fresh powder and legs tripping over fallen pine boughs and sunken boulders.
After bloodying his face and arms through dashes between patches of trees, he arrived with his lungs ablaze at the scene of the carriage accident.
The collision with the ground had been softened by a deep snowdrift, and as a result, the wreckage was relatively intact. But the driver hadn’t survived the fall. His body was bent grotesquely in a rose-colored embankment.
There too lay the horse, still trained to the wagon. Amazingly, the poor creature still showed signs of life, though it was reduced to a dim wheezing, and tiny flumes rose in the coolness from the flutter of its bleeding nostrils.
Seamus curled up beside the fallen beast and stroked its head. “Shhh . . . dear fellow.” He sat beside it in an honoring silence until the last flicker extinguished in its eyes.
He then pushed to his feet and walked over to the mangled body of the driver dressed in a soldier’s uniform and young enough to still be in the daily prayers of a heartbroken mother.
As he looked upon the dead boy, he was struck by the emptiness of the wide-open orbs gazing into the murky skies. Seamus’s thoughts jarred to crimson-drenched fields, haunting memories of explosions, the flashing lights, the whirring of can- non shot hurled through the air against crumbling stone walls, battle equipment, flesh and bones.
How could he had ever fired at another human being? Back then they were faceless uniforms, just flags flapping in the winds of war. Yet this soldier lying below him could have been his brother. Maybe even the brother he lost.
Oh! Why bring back those haunting visions of his youth? Would they ever go away? Would he torment himself in even crueler ways than did his father?
Seamus looked around for anything that could serve as a shovel, and the best he could find was a wooden panel he ripped off of the carriage. He used it to drag snow over the body. It was a crude burial at best, but it would at least keep the corpse from being dragged away by scavenging predators for a day or so before the weather warmed again.
Perhaps he just couldn’t bear to see the boy’s face any longer. He then explored the wagon, which had landed on its side and was twisted and embedded deep in the snowbank.
Seamus reached down and pulled on the door, which tore from its bro- ken hinges, and he tossed it out of his way. He climbed down inside, discovered several canvas sacks, and threw them up and out of the carriage’s womb.
Getting out was a much more difficult proposition. Whatever parts of the cabin he tried to pull himself up with shattered to the touch, and the walls of snow around him threatened to col- lapse. He feared being crushed and suffocating.
After much exertion he managed to claw his way out, and when he was back on his feet, his muscles writhed and his breathing wheezed. Dizziness swept over him and he had to close his eyes to regain his balance.
There would be little time now. His stomach clenched. He must return home.
Could there be food?
He propped up the first of the bags and hesitated for a moment before unfastening the slender rope binding it shut.
Was this right to do? Wouldn’t this make him a robber of graves?
Ridiculous! He was starving.
He removed his leather gauntlets and worked the knot with determination. Then it was freed and when he opened the mouth of the bag his spirit sank.
Then the next bag. It was the same.
Another. Uniforms. He flung the sack down, and the cloth- ing scattered, blue against the white.
The heavy bag? Please. If there is a God above, then have mercy on me.
Cans! But there would be no way to open them out here. He untied the last bag, which proved to be the most stubborn. Finally it was freed and, once again, it was mail. But this one also had parcel boxes. He reached in to pull one out and several letters scattered in the wind.
Seamus stared at the box and shook it. Looking up, he saw the sun dipping below the crowns of the trees. He couldn’t squander any more daylight.
He returned the package in the sack and gathered the letters from the ground. As he did, one letter caught his eye.
In addition to an address on it was written PLEASE OPEN IMMEDIATELY. He stared at it for a moment and went to fling it but paused and examined it again.
Not understanding why he was compelled to do so, he tucked the envelope in an inner pocket of his doeskin jacket. Then he lifted the bag of canned goods and slung it over his shoulder. Too heavy. He would have to do something.
Yet he couldn’t fully embrace the thought of throwing away some of its contents. How much would he regret leaving any of these cans behind? The indecision was amplified by the pounding of his head and a surge of nausea.
Something drew him out of this. A movement in the trees behind him, a rustling of leaves.
He spun, now alert, and gazed through foliage beginning to be shrouded by dusk.
Silence. Even the wind had stilled. Only his breathing remained.
* Review coming at 12:00 today! :) ~ASC
Then. It happened again. The snapping of branches. Something or someone was approaching.