1866: Jimmy Gray's parents killed by an evil man, Jimmy's brother wounded, the family treasure in the form of a gold mine deed stolen.
Jimmy finds himself alone and facing a deadly journey west to track and find the man who killed his parents.
Can Jimmy, his first time out of the big eastern cities, learn the ways of the West fast enough to stay alive?
Maybe with a little help from some friends.
The dangers of the Wild West come alive in USA Today bestselling author Dean Wesley Smith's young adult adventure about survival. A compelling coming of age story about the family we lose, the family we choose, and who we decide to become as a result. – Allyson Longueira
A Great Loss
THE FIRST SHOT ripped into nineteen-year-old Jimmy Gray's saddle with a sickening thud, barely missing his right leg.
The sound of the shot echoed over the rolling Missouri hills and died into the clear, sunny afternoon air. His horse reared and threatened to bolt even though the shot had not gone through the thick leather, but Jimmy fought it back into control, spinning around completely on ridgeline covered by prairie grass.
A second shot knocked Jimmy's brother, Luke, off his horse.
Jimmy dove for the ground and cover as a third shot narrowly missed him, the sound of the bullet whistling past his ear.
He lay on the ground, face pressed into the soft dirt and grass, trying to breathe. His heart was racing. He had never been so scared in all his life.
He had never been shot at before. He read about such things in dime novels and in the newspapers, but reading about it and having it happen to you were two very different things.
Jimmy and his family were two days ride from Independence, Missouri. He and his brother had just come over the ridge two hundred paces above their family's wagon. Five men had been down there near the back of the wagon, off their horses, from what Jimmy could tell in the quick glimpse before the shooting had started
He hadn't seen his parents.
That scared him even more than being shot at. He just hoped they weren't hurt.
And was Luke hurt? He had to find out.
He had to move.
Jimmy couldn't believe this was even happening. All Jimmy had wanted to see was buffalo. Since his teacher a year ago back in Boston, in his last year of high school, had told him stories of the great buffalo hunts, Jimmy had been focused on little else. The big beasts had become an obsession, his mother had said. His father had only laughed and promised that Jimmy would see his share of buffalo by the time they reached the Wyoming Territory.
His older brother, Luke, had told him as they rode out of camp that the buffalo were no longer in Missouri in 1866, at least not this part of it. They had all been killed or driven hundreds of miles away from the wagon trail, but Jimmy didn't care. He still had his mind set on seeing a buffalo and proving Luke wrong. For all he knew, there could be an entire herd just over the next ridge.
After riding fast away from the well-worn wagon road for a half-mile or so, they had scared up rabbits. Luke, who was twenty, had the family rifle. He had become a great shot and had managed to get three rabbits with only five shots. Jimmy was an expert shot as well. Once Luke even had admitted he was better than Luke, a real natural with a gun.
Jimmy had helped Luke skin the rabbits and then they had headed back. Luke had been sick since leaving Kansas City and was riding slowly. Jimmy could tell that both of his parents were worried about Luke making the long trip across the country, but Jimmy' father had a job offer at a bank in San Francisco, and had bought a gold mining claim in the mountains near Sacramento, so the family was set on making the trip and starting a new life in the west.
It had been such a perfect, spring day.
Until the shots.
What had happened?
Jimmy scrambled on all fours through the grass, his head low, until he finally managed to reach his brother.
Luke was pushing himself up slightly on his elbows and blood was streaming from his leg. "Get the rifle off my saddle," he said through gritted teeth. "Quick!"
Jimmy glanced around.
Luke's horse had only gone about twenty paces back from the top of the ridge and then stopped. Keeping his head down, Luke ran for the horse, grabbed the rifle from the saddle and brought it back.
There were no more shots at him coming from their wagon, but off his horse, Jimmy couldn't see the trail over the edge of the rise, which meant the men doing the shooting couldn't see him.
Luke had torn off the bottom of his shirt and wrapped it around his leg, but it didn't look to Jimmy as if the bleeding had slowed much.
Luke grabbed the rifle from Jimmy, cocked it to make sure it was loaded, then staying low, hopped the few steps to the top of the ridge, dragging his bad leg behind him.
Jimmy stayed beside him, and at the top of the ridge they both lay down in the grass and crawled the last few feet so they could see the trail below.
Jimmy was shocked at what faced them. He wanted to jump and run, but somehow stayed beside Luke.
Two men on horseback were riding up the hill toward them, guns drawn. Three other men were pulling things from the wagon and scattering them on the ground. Jimmy had no idea where his parents were.
He and Luke were going to die, Jimmy was sure of that.
This was just like all the bad stories he had heard about the western frontier coming true right now.
His stomach was so twisted up, he could hardly breathe.
"Keep your head down," Luke whispered.
Then, taking a deep breath, Luke pulled down on the men like he was shooting rabbits. The shot exploded in Jimmy's ear, since he was so close to Luke.
The lead man went over backwards off his horse like a trick rider Jimmy had seen at the Circus last year in Boston.
The other man's horse reared up, and by the time he could get turned around, Luke fired again.
He must have missed. The second man took off back down the hill toward the wagon. The man that Luke had shot pushed himself to his feet, holding his stomach, and then half-ran, half-staggered back down the hill.
The three men below had their guns out and were firing up at Luke and Jimmy.
"Keep your head down," Luke ordered again. Then he fired back at the men around the wagon. Jimmy watched one of Luke's shots splinter wood off the wagon bed right beside one man.
Luke shot again and another of the men danced as the bullet kicked up dirt and mud right at his feet.
Luke didn't hit any of the men, but his next shot, and the one after, sent them scrambling for their horses.
Jimmy recognized one of the men.
Jake Benson, the man his father had hired to guide them from Kansas City to Independence.
The three men quickly mounted up and joined the fourth. He had picked up the wounded man and was riding at full speed down the trail toward Independence. The horse of the man Luke had shot grazed on the side of the hill. Clearly, they didn't have the stomach for a fight in the open for a horse with Luke having the rifle and the upper ground and all they had were pistols.
Jimmy watched them go, their dust kicking up small clouds behind them.
It seemed to take an eternity for them to vanish over the distant rise.
When would they be back? The question made Jimmy shudder.
The wagon still sat where Jimmy and Luke had left it when they had left to go hunting. It was sitting just off to one side of the muddy tracks of the wagon road, with their two secondary horses grazing while still in harness. But the lunch fire was smoldering instead of burning, and a lot of their personal things had been tossed out into the dirt and dried mud.
After all the shooting, the silence of the wide-open prairie was broken only by the light breeze through the grass.
Luke sat up, checked his wound, then pushed himself to his feet.
"Get our horses," he said to Jimmy.
Jimmy turned and ran for their two horses, the fear of what might have happened to his parents twisting at his stomach like a bad belly-ache. He grabbed Luke's horse, then mounted up on his own, the hole where the bullet had embedded in the leather of his saddle a clear reminder of just how close he had come to getting shot.
By the time he got back to his brother, Luke's face looked white, and it was clear that he was in a lot of pain.
"Let's find Mother and Father," Luke said, reaching for his horse's reins.
Jimmy made sure Luke could get back on his horse, then started down the hill ahead of his older brother, working to keep his hands from shaking and his stomach under control while trying to look in a thousand directions at the same time for Benson and his men. They would be back. He had no doubt.
The wind whistled lightly in his ears under his hat, the warm afternoon sun glared in his eyes. He forced himself to take shallow breaths as the ride seemed to stretch into an eternity.
It wasn't until he had moved almost halfway down the hill that he saw what he had feared the most. His mother and father were lying in the mud near the rear wheels of the wagon. Neither seemed to be moving.
Jimmy dismounted ten running steps from the wagon before the horse had even stopped.
An instant later he was on his knees beside his father.
He was dead.
His blood had made a muddy pool, his eyes were staring up, unseeing at the blue sky and light white clouds. He had been shot at least twice.
Jimmy stared at the man who had always been there for him. His father couldn't be dead. He was too strong, too powerful a man to die.
An instant later, Luke was on the ground beside their mother.
Jimmy watched as Luke rolled her over. The front of her pretty blue dress was coated in mud and her own blood.
She had been shot in the back.
As Luke rolled her over, she blinked, then opened her eyes.
She was alive!
For a moment, it was clear she wasn't aware of where she was, but as Jimmy moved closer, she looked up at Luke.
"Mother?" Luke said, his voice shaking.
Jimmy touched her arm, trying to give her some comfort as well. He had no idea what they could do.
"Benson," she whispered. "Hide from him."
"He's not here," Luke said. "We chased him and his men off."
She nodded, seemingly satisfied with that. She coughed, blood coming out of the corner of her mouth. She looked up at Jimmy and smiled, then back at Luke. "Take care of each other."
Jimmy watched as she closed her eyes and her body relaxed.
All the life seemed to leave her.
"Mother!" Luke shouted, his voice swallowed by the vast wilderness around them.
Their mother was dead.
They were alone.