The year is 1872. Twelve-year-old Matthew Wilcox leads a charmed life on his family’s sprawling ranch in Washington Territory until a series of tragic events leave him orphaned and in the clutches of a vicious band of outlaws. Threatened by the gang leader’s perverted cousin, Top Hat, Matthew also faces Indian attacks, dangerous wildlife, and a deadly snowstorm. He survives but burns with an overwhelming hunger for revenge.
Thirteen years later, Matthew – now a Spokane County sheriff – realizes that Top Hat is riding again with a new gang called the Mad Hatters. It means risking his friends, his family and the love of a good woman, but Matthew must find the man who destroyed what he once loved most in the world. To that end, he and his posse venture into Idaho gold country to capture the Mad Hatters.
Top Hat, however, has a different idea. He turns the tables, heading to the sheriff’s hometown of Granville and going after everyone Matthew holds dear.
What follows will haunt Sheriff Wilcox for the rest of his life as he confronts the hatred, vengeance and retribution buried deep in his own soul. Matthew will do anything, though, to put an end to A DEADMAN’S LAMENT.
Coming over a high hill, twelve-year-old Matthew Wilcox searched the far green slopes for Adeline, his father’s mare. Addie liked to wander but now, ever since they sold her yearling colt to old man Hensley, she had taken to chasin’ north. It was Mattie’s duty to fetch that mare home. Spotting a flash of white by the Pinckney trail, he shook his head. The horse stood at the barbed wire fence, pawing at the ground, calling her offspring back home. Shoot, he thought, she’s as lonely as a teetotaler in a saloon.
Mattie grinned, feeling proud that he remembered one of his father’s sayings so exact. But his smile faltered and died when he recalled that his pa, Robert Wilcox, had not yet returned from his last trip into town. It was only Monday, though, so no call to get in a ruffle.
He clicked his tongue, “Come on, Pete. Let’s go and grab that old jug-headed hoss.”
Pete, the mule, farted in reply. Looping the lead rope around Pete’s neck, Mattie moved ahead on foot, keeping a sharp eye on the rocky ground that sheltered timber rattlers and skinny rabbits.
Pete was never afraid of any old snake but those jackrabbits did him in every time. He would get to shuddering and twitching and, next thing you knew, that mule would be running as fast as greased lightning or he’d go rodeo. Last time that happened, Mattie could barely sit down for a week, his tailbone was so bruised and sore.
Stepping carefully, they wound down the switchback trail, landing in the valley below. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. The mare left off crying for her foal long enough to turn and look at the approaching boy. Pete brayed in reproach and lowered his lips to the tender grass at his hooves.
Mattie pulled the lead from around the mule’s neck, muttering, “Come on, Pete. Let’s go…”
Pete flapped his long ears and hunkered down, calf-kneed…a sure sign that he wasn’t going anywhere, at least until he had his fill of sweet grass. The boy sighed and let the rope drop. At most, the mare was only a quarter mile away, so he grabbed the hackamore and took off walking.
Although the wind pinched with icy fingers, the sun was warm. Mattie took off his felt hat and stuck it in his belt. The breeze ruffled his hair and tears streamed from his eyes. Bending over, he grabbed a stout stick and swished at the grass and wildflowers in his path.
He thought about the harsh words his folks had whispered Friday night as he and his little sister Maude eavesdropped from the loft. Mattie wasn’t sure why his mother was so mad but it had to do with his daddy, and no money to spare. Yet it seemed to him that, every time his pa went to town, things were better rather than worse. After all, Pa had brought Pete, the mule, home a year ago and, one time, he brought home the new danger-wire and two ready-made dresses, one each for Ma and Maude.
Now, though, his ma was madder than a wet hen and his pa was late getting home. Calculating the distance to town while he lopped the tops off the dandelions at his feet, Mattie wondered. Pa’s gelding, Joe, could keep a brisk trot going for miles on end. It was thirty miles to the fort, so Pa could make it into town with daylight to spare. He had left on Saturday… even if Pa had lingered through Sunday to shop for supplies, he should be home by now.
He glanced up at the sudden pall in the sky. The sun hid behind a large black cloud and tiny beads of frozen rain were suspended between earth and sky. Mattie shivered at the chill. The mare had stopped pacing and stood waiting for his approach. She was sweated, her mane speckled with ice.
“Come on, Sis…,” Mattie crooned as he walked up slow. “Let’s go on home.”
The horse complied, bending her muzzle to nibble the weeds growing alongside the road. He smoothed the hackamore up the mare’s nose and over her ears. He took a double fistful of her mane, jumped up bareback, and ambled toward the mule grazing at the far end of the valley.
Mattie started to eat one of the bacon sandwiches his ma had made for his lunch when, suddenly, Pete lurched to the left and—with a panicked bray—jumped backwards. Glaring through the fitful sunlight, he saw a small pack of wolves worrying at Pete’s flanks.
“Haw!” Mattie cried, kicking the mare hard. Addie took off running with a startled snort. It only took a couple of minutes to reach the trembling mule. The wolves had run off at his approach but he saw them gather at the foot of a rocky crag bordering the valley’s northern rim.
The pack stared down at him with cool appraisal and the boy felt a tingle of fear. It was unusual at this time of year for wolves to attack in the bright of day and even more uncommon to go after as formidable a beast as a full-grown mule with a human so close by. Studying the wolves’ slat-ribbed bodies and hollow eyes, Mattie understood that they were starving to death and had thrown caution to the wind in their quest for sustenance.
Both horse and mule were skittish and blowing hard with fear. Although his hands were clammy with sweat, he reached for his slingshot. Taking careful aim, he shot a rock at the lead wolf, a big rangy male with a gray muzzle. His rock fell short but ricocheted upward, hitting it in the belly. The animal spun in mid-air with a yelp and the pack took off over the hill and out of sight.
Shaking and too scared to climb down off the horse’s back, Mattie bent down to see what damage, if any, the wolves had done to the mule. There were two rake marks across Pete’s rump, but little blood and he seemed sound. The boy gathered up the lead rope and, clicking his teeth, sharply brought the two animals to a trot. His blood was still racing and he cursed himself for being a coward.
He decided to cut back and take the road home instead of going overland. Common sense told him the wolves were long gone by now but the idea of following hard on their tail did not appeal. He slowed Addie and rode a wide circle back toward the road. A couple of times, he turned around to study the landscape, making sure the wolves were not tracking and then sighed with self-disgust; going back on the road would cost him a couple of hours and make his ma worry.
Mattie was about a hundred yards from the road when he heard a distant shout. Pulling the mare up short, he sat and watched as a draft horse hove into view, followed by a large wagon. A horse and its rider walked along beside them. The wagon driver was speaking to the solitary rider but stopped talking and pointed in Mattie’s direction.
“Hey boy, how far to the Wilcox farm?” the rider called.
“Well,” Mattie hesitated. “You’re on it…the south end of it, anyway.”
The man on the horse spoke to the driver for a moment and then he spurred up and trotted toward Mattie. The rider sat high in the saddle and wore a wealth of silver on his saddle leather and on his person. The boy saw a star on the man’s chest and realized it was the sheriff approaching. He slid off the mare’s back and waited.
The sheriff creaked to a stop in front of him. The huge bay gelding bared its teeth at Pete, pissing a heavy stream on the grass in front of where Mattie stood.
“Dang it,” the man muttered and climbed down off his horse. Leading the gelding away a bit, he hobbled it and walked back, hitching his belt leather and swatting his hat at a persistent fly. He was a heavy-set man of middle years with thinning ginger hair and the red nose of a serious drinker. His eyes were fixed on Mattie’s face and something within his gaze made the boy’s heart race with fear.
“My name is Bradley…Sheriff Bradley. Are you Robert Wilcox’s boy?”
Mattie nodded and said, “Yessir. My name is Matthew, sir.”
The sheriff clutched his hat in both hands and growled, “Well, Matthew…I got a piece of bad news for you, sorry to say.”
Mattie glanced at the wagon on the road and the driver who leaned against it chewing a piece of cheat grass. Suddenly understanding, Mattie started to run in that direction but the sheriff leaned down and grabbed his arm.
“Whoa, son. Why don’t we sit for a spell afore you go runnin’ off? That’s your pa, for sure, but the doc’s got him all fixed up proper for buryin’.”
Mattie felt dizzy and his ears rang. Looking up at the fat, old sheriff from where he sat on the ground, Mattie realized he must have fainted. The man was kneeling over him with a canteen, urging him to drink. Mattie shook his head and dashed tears from his face.
“What happened?” he cried. “Did someone hurt him?”
“Well, no. Your pa had a stroke.” Bradley scratched at the stubble on his chin. “Thing is, though,” he continued, “Doc thinks yer pa had a stroke on account of what happened.” The sheriff sighed.
“What do you mean? What happened before that?” Mattie felt tears running down his face but could not make them stop.
“Well…and this is gonna be hard on you and yer family, you understand, but yer pa put this farm up on the poker table.”
“What do you mean?” Mattie cried. “My pa doesn’t gamble!”
The sheriff nodded. “I know, son. Doc Wilcox was not known for it, but he played Sunday night, that’s for sure.” He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “From what I hear, he was doing real good too, but the stakes got too high and his luck jus’ ran out.”
Knees popping, the sheriff stood up, reaching his hand down to the boy. “This story is best told once, son. I aim to have you ride with me back home to your ma, alright?”
Ignoring the sheriff’s help, Mattie climbed to his feet. Grabbing Addie’s reins, he started walking toward the wagon. The driver tipped his hat and climbed aboard while he tied the mare to the back. Bradley tied Pete to the opposite side while Mattie climbed in next to his pa’s body. The doctor had wrapped Robert Wilcox in an old horse blanket. A note pinned on the blanket read, Propertee of Stokes Livery.
Mattie saw that his father’s blond hair stuck out from the top of the covering. It seemed improper, somehow, and not knowing what else to do, he pulled his hat from his belt and placed it on his pa’s head. It was too small, of course, but it made Mattie feel better.
The wagon lurched toward home while Mattie Wilcox rode guard and the sheriff contemplated the sorry task that lay ahead.
By the time they pulled up in front of the Wilcox’s house it was late afternoon. There had been no conversing along the way except for the occasional comment on the early onset of winter or muttered curses toward the balky lead horse.
Mattie had fallen asleep for a while and dreamt of his home…the only home he had ever known. It was a fine place…chinked logs and a sturdy roof that only leaked once in a while, usually after a sudden, spring thaw. He dreamed of Christmas’ past and how his pa would swing through the front door, sometimes with presents in his arms for his “womenfolk.”
Waking with a start, he recalled how his pa would lift him up onto his shoulders and say, “You are the king, my boy…the king of all you see!”
Mattie and his sister had learned long ago that his ma and pa came from West Virginia. Sarah Cummings, Mattie’s mother, was from a family of well-to-do landowners; Robert Wilcox was the son of a prosperous attorney.
Robert was well educated, whimsical and completely in love with the notion of settling in the new western territories. Abandoning his father’s law office, Robert packed up his new bride—incurring the wrath of Sarah’s family—and joined a wagon train heading to the Northwest into the exotic new land of Columbia, which would later, be re-named Washington State.
He had no real understanding of how hard the overland trek would be on his young wife though. Whereas the journey was a wonderful adventure for Robert, it was a terror-filled and dreadful ordeal for Sarah. Robert’s original plan was to set up office in the booming new city of Seattle. By the time they reached the Spokane area though, his beautiful Sarah was so undone by nerves and illness, Robert feared he would lose her entirely. The young couple abandoned the wagon train in Spokane and settled into their new lives.
Within the year, Robert purchased land thirty miles away from Fort Colville…a hundred acres of pasture ringed by high mountains. It was rich in timber, water and wild game. With the help of two out-of-work cowboys and one old Indian named Joseph Two-Toes, Robert built a fine house and barn. A year later, Matthew was born, followed by Maude.
The children led a charmed life. For years, Robert rode into town and stayed there for a week at a time, taking care of the sundry land disputes and criminal cases that came along. There was still money left in Sarah’s dowry that the family dipped into upon occasion. Although Robert’s payments often came in the form of chickens, or eggs or canned goods, the family prospered.
At least at first- then lack of money finally took a toll on Sarah’s nerves. She had been raised in wealthy splendor and she was unable to hide her disappointment with their present circumstances. Robert seemed unwilling or unable to demand cash for services rendered and the more she pushed for extra money the more Robert fled her constant nagging until, finally, his one week in town turned into two, or even three weeks gone. When he finally found his way back home, he stayed as far away from her as possible.
When they did spend time together, furious, whispered quarrels erupted over nothing and a tension-filled silence fell upon the once happy household. Soon, the Wilcox children understood that their parents’ love was dying. The last time his pa left, Sarah stood in the open doorway of their home with tears trickling, unheeded, down her pale cheeks.
Mattie took her hand in his and asked, “What’s the matter, Ma?”
She shook her head once, whispering, “He’s gone… and he might as well stay gone for all the good he does.”
Mattie was shocked.” Ma! Why would you say such a thing?” She turned away, saying nothing.
Mattie winced now, remembering the anger in her eyes. He sat up from where he had fallen asleep, nestled at his dead father’s side and peered over the edge of the tall-sided wagon.
His ma stood on the front porch, Maude by her side. Sarah Wilcox met her son’s eyes as they pulled up in front of the house and Mattie knew that he would never forget the look of guilty sorrow in his ma’s eyes, even if he lived to be a hundred years old.