Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hope of Shridula

The Hope of Shridula
Abingdon Press (March 2012)
Kay Strom

Chapter 1

South India
May 1946

The last of the straggling laborers hefted massive bundles of grain onto their weary heads and started down the path toward the storage shed. Only twelve-year-old Shridula remained in the field. Frantically she raced up and down the rows, searching through the maze of harvested wheat stalks.

Each time a group of women left, the girl tried to go with them, her nervous fear rising. Each time Dinkar stopped her. The first time she had tried to slip in with the old women at the end of the line the overseer ordered, “Shridula! Search for any water jars left in the fields.” Of course she found none. She knew she wouldn’t. What water boy would be fool enough to leave a jar behind?

By the time the girl finished her search, twilight shrouded the empty field in dark shadows. Shridula hurried to grab up the last bundle of grain. Its stalk tie had been knocked undone, and wheat spilled out across the ground. Quickly tucking the tie back together, Shridula struggled to balance the bundle up on her head. It shifted . . . and sagged . . . and sank down to her shoulders.

Shridula was not used to managing so unwieldy a head load. In truth, she wasn’t used to working in the field at all. Her father made certain of that. This month was an exception, though, for it was the month of the first harvest. That meant everyone spent long days in the sweltering fields—including Shridula.

The girl, slight for her twelve years, possessed a haunting loveliness. Her black hair curled around her face in a most intriguing way that accented her piercing charcoal eyes. Stepping carefully, she picked her way out of the field and onto the path. Far up ahead, she could barely make out the form of the slowest woman. If she hurried, she still might be able to catch up with her. The thought of walking the path alone sent a shudder through the girl.

Shridula tried to hurry, but she could not. With each step, her awkward burden slipped further down toward her shoulders. She could hardly see through the stalks of grain that hung over her eyes.

“Please, allow me to lend you a hand.”

Shridula caught her breath. How well she knew that voice! It was Master Landlord, Boban Joseph Varghese.

Afraid to lift her head, Shridula peeked out from under the mass of grain stalks. Master Landlord, fat and puffy-faced, stood on the other side of the thorn fence, ankle-deep in the stubbly remains of the wheat field. His old-man eyes fastened on her.

Shridula reached up with both hands and grabbed at the bundle on her head.

“Do not struggle with the load,” Boban Joseph said, his voice as slippery-smooth as melted butter. “The women can retie it tomorrow. Let them carry it to the storehouse on their own worn-out old heads.”

A shiver of dread ran through Shridula’s thin body. She must be careful. Oh, she must be so very careful!


All day long, as fast as the women could carry bundles of grain from the fields, Ashish had gathered them up. He separated the bundles and propped the sheaves upright side by side in the storage shed. Everything must be done just right or the grain wouldn’t dry properly. One after another after another after another, Ashish stacked the grain sheaves. By the time the last woman brought in the last bundle, by the time he stood the last of the sheaves upright, by the time he closed the shed door and squeezed the padlock shut, then kicked a rock against the door for good measure and headed back to his hut, the orange shards of sunset had already disappeared from the sky.

A welcoming glow from Zia’s cooking fire beckoned to Ashish. He watched as his wife grabbed out a measure of spices and sprinkled them into the boiling rice pot. But this night something wasn’t right. This night Zia worked alone.

“Where is Shridula?” Ashish asked his wife.

Zia bent low over the fire and gave the pot such a hard stir it almost tipped over.

“She has not yet returned from the fields,” Zia said in a voice soft and even. But after so many years together, Ashish wasn’t fooled.

The glow of firelight danced across Zia’s features and cast the furrows of her brow into dark shadows. Ashish ran a gnarled hand over the deep crevices of his own aging face. He yanked up his mundu—his long, skirt-like garment—and pulled it high under his protruding ribs, untying the ends and retying them more tightly.

“She should not have to walk alone,” he said. “I will go back.” Ashish spoke with exaggerated nonchalance. He would remain calm for Zia’s sake.


“All night!” Ashish said to his daughter when she came in at first light. He spoke in a low voice, but it hung heavy with rebuke. “Gone from your home the entire night!”

Overhead, Ashish’s giant neem tree reached its branches out to offer welcome shelter from the early morning sun. Twenty-eight years earlier, on the day of his wedding, Ashish had planted that tree. Back then, it was no more than a struggling sprout. Yet even as he placed it in the ground, he had talked to Zia of the refreshing breezes that would one day rustle through its dark green leaves. He promised her showers of sweetly fragrant blossoms to carpet the barren packed dirt around their hut.

But no breeze pushed its way through this morning’s sweltering stillness, and the relentless sun had long since scorched away the last of the white blossoms. Still, the tree was true to its promise. Its great leaves sheltered Ashish’s distraught daughter from curious eyes.

Zia stared at the disheveled girl: sari torn, smudged face, wheat clinging to her untidy hair. Zia stared, but said nothing.

“Master Landlord told me I must go with him.” Shridula trembled and her eyes filled with tears. “I said no, but he said I had to obey him because he owns me. Because he owns all of us, so we must all do whatever he says.”

“Please, Daughter, stay away from Master Landlord,” Ashish pleaded.

“I did, Appa!” Shridula struggled to fight back tears. “I dropped the bundle of grain off my head and ran away from him, just as you told me to. He tried to catch me, but I ran into the field and sneaked into the storage shed the way you showed me and hid there. All night, I hid in the wheat shocks.”

“That new landlord!” Zia clucked her tongue and shook her head. “He is worse than the old one ever was!”

Zia reached over to brush the grain from her daughter’s hair, but Shridula pushed her mother’s hand away. Her dark eyes flashed with defiance. “Someday I will leave here!” she announced. “I will not stay a slave to the landlord!”


Boban Joseph was indeed worse than his father. Mammen Samuel Varghese had been an arrogant man, a heartless landowner with little mercy for the hapless Untouchables unfortunate enough to be caught up in his money-lending schemes.

Yet Mammen Samuel took great pride in his family’s deep Christian roots—he could trace his ancestry all the way back to the first century and the Apostle Thomas. He also clung tightly to the fringes of Hinduism. The duality served him well. It promoted his status and power, yet it also fattened his purse. Even so, Mammen Samuel Varghese had not been a happy man. He seethed continually over the sea of wrongs committed against him, some real and others conjured up in his mind.

Still, it had always been Mammen Samuel’s habit to think matters out thoroughly. In every situation, he first considered the circumstances in which he found himself, then measured each potential action and carefully weighed its consequence. It’s what he had done when he lent Ashish’s father the handful of rupees that led to his family’s enslavement. Only after such consideration would Mammen Samuel make a decision. His son Boban Joseph did no such thing.

No, Young Master Landlord was not his father. During the years of Ashish’s and Zia’s childhood, Mammen Samuel Varghese maintained tight control over his house and his settlement of indebted slaves. But age did not wear well on him. And the greater Mammen Samuel’s decline, the more wicked and cruel Boban Joseph became.

Soon after Ashish took Zia as his wife, the elder landlord began to release one responsibility after another to his first son. Boban Joseph eagerly snatched up each one. Soon Boban Joseph began to grasp control of matters behind his father’s back—always for his own personal advantage. This greatly displeased Mammen Samuel. Even more, it worried him. Boban Joseph was his heir, but something had to be done to place controls around him.

As the season grew hotter and the harvest more demanding, Boban Joseph accepted the agreement reached between the laborers and his father requiring them to work a longer day—begin before dawn and continue until after dark. But he refused to honor his father’s reciprocal agreement with the workers—to allow them to rest during the two hottest hours of the afternoon.

Only when a young man fell over and died of heatstroke while swinging his scythe, and the next day one of the best workers fell off his plow in exhaustion after begging in vain for shade and water, did Boban Joseph reluctantly agree to grant a midday break. “Only long enough for a cold meal out of the sun and not a minute more!” he instructed the overseer. (Since Boban Joseph spent his afternoons stretched out across the bed in the coolness of his own room, he never knew that Dinkar allowed the workers extra time in the shade.)

“Stay away from the fields today,” Ashish told Shridula.

“But the harvest—”

“The harvest is not your worry, Daughter. Busy yourself with work here in the settlement. Make it your job to be of help to weary laborers.”

“How can I do that?”

“Fill water jars for the women. Gather twigs and lay them beside the cold cooking pits.”

Zia scowled at her husband. “It is not right that you stand the girl up in front of Master Landlord’s revenge,” she said. “He is a spiteful man. And brutal.”

Ashish knew that. More than anyone, he knew it.

“Master Landlord knows Shridula is your daughter,” Zia pleaded. “And he will never forget.”

She was right, of course. For forty years, Boban Joseph had demonstrated a seething resentment toward Ashish’s family. He clung tightly to his own family’s humiliation that had been brought about when Ashish’s parents, Virat and Latha, dared escape from Mammen Samuel’s laborer settlement. Boban Joseph, then hardly more than a boy, greatly resented his father’s timid response to their capture and return. He didn’t hide his feelings; he let it be known to everyone that he considered his father’s actions shameful and cowardly. Boban Joseph himself had captured the runaway slaves and dragged them back in bonds. Yet his father ignored his demands to have them killed. Mammen Samuel wouldn’t even order a public flogging.

“You will stay here in the settlement today,” Ashish told his daughter. “You will be a servant to the workers, not to the master.” “Yes, Appa,” Shridula said.

“But watch out for the landlord. Should he come around, run to the forest and hide yourself. And do not come out until I am back.”

At midday, Boban Joseph pushed his way through the crowd of women unloading their head loads of grain and called out to Ashish, “Old man!” (Old man, he said, even though he was himself almost ten years older than Ashish!) “I do not see your daughter at work in the fields today. Where is she?”

Ashish turned his back to the landlord and untied another bundle. Paying Boban Joseph no mind, he separated the sheaves of grain. Long ago he had outlived his fear of the master.

“That girl of yours is nothing!” Boban Joseph spat at Ashish’s back. “Nothing but a worthless, disgusting Untouchable.”

With an expert hand, Ashish tossed three sheaves of wheat into the already-overflowing storage shed, then swung around and grabbed up the next one.

“A comely Untouchable, however,” Boban Joseph added. “In a dark and dirty sort of way. Yet there are those who like such girls.” Ashish’s eyes flashed and his jaw clenched. The landlord laughed out loud, scornful and mocking.

Ashish stopped his work and straightened his painfully stiff back. The wheat sheaf slipped from his hands. Stepping back, he turned around to look the landowner full in the face. “The pale English lady is but one day’s walk from here,” Ashish said. “She has not forgotten me. Most certainly, she has not forgotten your father, or anyone in your family.”

The smirk disappeared from the landlord’s lips.

Always, wherever Shridula went, Boban Joseph’s hungry eyes followed her. At one time, he had tried to force her to come up to the big house and work in his garden. There, from dawn to dusk, she would be always in his sight. Even more, she would be away from her father’s protection. But Ashish would not allow it. And although he was but a lowly Untouchable, and although Boban Joseph was his owner, Ashish prevailed because of his well-worn threat of the pale English lady.

It infuriated Boban Joseph. What did he care about that worn-out old foreign woman? That an Untouchable slave— the son of runaways, no less—should get his way was an outrage. Ashish belonged to him! And so did the girl. But Boban Joseph’s father had warned him not to press Ashish. “The British,” Mammen Samuel had said darkly. “Stay away from anything that touches on their affairs.”

Boban Joseph hissed to Ashish, “The time will come, Untouchable. The time will come.”


As a child, Ashish always dreaded the hot season, not for the discomfort alone, but because the heat took away the refuge of his family’s hut. He found it almost impossible to spend any time inside because the interior so quickly grew stifling. One might as well step into the cooking fire pit and sit down on simmering stones. In those days, no neem tree stretched out above the hut with shelter in its branches. His entire life, Ashish had longed for a place of refuge. For a safe haven. For a shady protection from the world.

The neem tree took root and grew quickly.

It had been early morning when Zia bore Ashish their first son. She tied the baby to her back and went to work in the fields the same as she did every other day. The child had grown big enough to run through the dirt and dribble water from a bowl onto the little tree by the time Zia bore their second son. When that one grew big enough to tag along after his brother and help water the tree’s roots, Zia had their third boy. By the time he was of a size to scamper about in the dirt with his brothers, the neem tree reached high enough to provide a bit of shade from the sun for all of them.

At night, Ashish spread two sleeping mats outside under the spreading branches, one for him and one for Zia. The three little boys curled up around them, and the entire family slept soundly and securely.

The life-giving tree; that’s what Indians called a neem. And that’s what it was, too, because each part of the tree nurtured life and brought health to the family fortunate enough to live under the protection of its shade. The bark, the twigs, the blossoms, the leaves—every part of the tree enhanced life. Even the bitter fruit could be boiled into a healing medicine.

Most certainly it was a life-giving tree—except for the one time Ashish needed it most.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Chase

The Chase
Zondervan (March 27, 2012)
DiAnn Mills

Chapter 1

Present day

Kariss had fulfilled all her dreams but one by age thirty-five. Most women would bask in such a claim, but not Kariss. The one mountain yet to climb beckoned her to strap on hiking boots and make her approach. The peak held her in fascination, and failing meant losing everything she’d ever gained.

Her heels clicked along the marble flooring of the Marriott hotel’s lobby adjoining Houston’s Intercontinental Airport. Ten minutes early for her appointment with her literary agent and she could use the time to make sure her responses to Meredith were gracious and resolute. A mouthful for sure.

Sinking into a plush chair, she took a deep breath and waited. With all of her prolific abilities, why couldn’t she respond with words that relayed her passion for this story? But now she had the opportunity to convince Meredith of her sincerity. A little encouragement went a long way when calling up the powers of inspiration and creativity.

Right on time, Meredith Rockford slipped into a chair across from Kariss, sipping on a cup of tea, no doubt Earl Gray. Dressed in a black traveler’s knit jacket and pants, the only color emitting from Meredith was her crimson lipstick. “You could have texted me that you were early,” Meredith said.

Kariss smiled. “Just got here. Did you have a good night’s rest?”

Meredith lifted a brow while taking a sip of her tea. “My head is killing me. I had to fly from New York to Houston. Arrived late and had to cancel our dinner appointment, and you ask me if I slept well?” She set the cup on a table in front of them. “The only thing that will give me a good night’s sleep is for you to abandon this ludicrous idea of changing genres.”

Kariss valued integrity above all things, and she refused to lose control. “Please understand I have given this writing project considerable thought. I need a break from writing women’s fiction. I’m not discounting what you’ve done for my career, my friends who continue to write women’s fiction, or my faithful readers. But I have a deep need to write a suspense novel.”

“You rehearsed your spiel very nicely, but let me give you the facts: you, Kariss Walker, are about to commit publishing suicide. Changing genres in the middle of New York Times bestselling status means starting all over.”

“I was hoping you’d champion my goals.”

“My goal is to make sure my writers and my agency make money while ensuring the publishing community has quality writing projects.” She crossed her arms. “After Sunrise has held the number two slot for three months. Always a Lady sold over six hundred thousand copies each along with a sweet spot on the bestseller list. You write women’s fiction. Period. Not suspense. Your ratings are going to plummet like an avalanche.”

Kariss uncrossed her legs and allowed her arms to lay limp at her side. How much more open could she be? “Ten novels in five years is a bit much, don’t you think? Suspense intrigues me. Remember the eight years I spent reporting evening news on Houston’s Channel 5? I have more ideas than I will ever have time to write.”

“It won’t work. Your readers want stories about women. They’ll drop you tomorrow if you switch to suspense. Now send me the proposal for the next story. The one we chatted about in New York will do nicely. You’re the only writer who can remind the reader that the victim isn’t just a case file, but a human life.”

Meredith started to stand, but Kariss gestured for her to stay. “Please hear me out. Deep inside me is a well of passion for stories that burst onto the suspense scene. These are real and happening in my city. One in particular touched my heart several years ago and has never let me go. I cannot not write this. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have a contract. If one of the big six doesn’t want to publish it, I’ll self-publish.”

“If you do not adhere to the demands of the publishing world, your actions may dissolve our representation of your work.”

Kariss moistened her lips. “I am fully aware of the consequences.” “Are you? You may never publish again.” Meredith retrieved her cup of Earl Gray and left the lobby.

Kariss gathered her purse and laptop before leaving the hotel. She had two hours until her appointment with Lincoln Abrams, special agent in charge of Houston’s FBI, referred to as the SAC. Five years had passed since she’d linked arms with law enforcement agencies and enlisted public support to help find criminals. Excitement with a twinge of apprehension grabbed hold of her senses. If only her agent held the same enthusiasm about her writing a suspense novel. Maybe if she knew the real reason why Kariss wanted to protect children. . .

This story meant more than all the six-figure checks combined. In five years, no one had solved the crime stalking her, and she didn’t possess the skills to smoke out a killer. But in her novel version, the perpetrator would be brought to justice.

* * *

Drinking a double espresso, his breakfast of choice, Tigo drove through the seedy neighborhood off South Main in Houston, looking for the dark-green van last seen at the shipyards speeding away with two hundred and fifty grand of stolen AK – 47 rifles.

The area looked deserted except for the battered vehicles matching the twisted and dented people who hid behind their weapons and bravado. Some residents were simply poor and trying to eke out a living. Why they stayed made no sense. But those weren’t the ones Tigo wanted to question. He needed Cheeky and his gang of Arroyos behind bars for gun smuggling. Add to that the identity of the dealers who were selling them weapons, and he was a happy man. Houston ranked as Mexico’s largest gun supplier, and Tigo intended to drop that stat like a live grenade.

He drove slowly, studying each peeled-painted house for signs of rodents. He didn’t really expect a tattooed ganger this time of the morning, but he also knew they could tear through a door at any moment ready to blow him to pieces. He risked the encounter and hoped they were sleeping off the previous night. His appointment was critical to draw out those who continued to break the law, one important enough for him to break the rules and work alone. He’d long ago given up trying to figure out if he wanted credit for the arrests or if he didn’t want to endanger another agent. Probably both.

The gangs living here counted coup on law enforcement types.

Tigo eased to the curb next to a bungalow with boarded-up windows. Turning off the engine of the twenty-year-old Toyota minus the fender and hubcaps, he waited for his guest and drank the espresso.

A toddler pushed open the door of a house across the street. Wearing nothing but a diaper, he carried what looked like a rag — probably a substitution for his mother. The reality of the kid’s future yanked at Tigo’s thoughts, along with the likelihood of him already being an addict. How long before he was dealing and carrying a piece?

No one else ventured from the neighborhood. But Tigo couldn’t wait forever. Linc wanted to see him about something. Glancing at his watch and rolling down the window, he gave himself fifteen minutes.

Candy was ten minutes late. Maybe she’d overslept, since her career kept her occupied at night. But the olive-skinned beauty had always been prompt, especially when the extra money didn’t touch her pimp’s pockets. She seemed to sense Tigo’s drive to nail the gang, but he refused to psychoanalyze that. She claimed to have the information he needed to close down the Houston operation, including names of arms dealers and details about those dealers raising prices on their weapons.

Five more minutes passed, and the espresso cup lay crumpled on the passenger’s seat. Candy wouldn’t have left him waiting without a call. Lately she’d grown bolder . . . maybe too bold. After all, meeting here at seven-thirty had been her idea. Late nights ate up her earning power. She claimed his presence looked like a john leaving, and the neighborhood slept until noon.

Tigo punched in her number. Four rings. “This is Candy. I’m busy right now.” A giggle with a Hispanic accent. “Leave a message, and I’ll get back to you.”

He wasn’t stupid enough to leave a message.

They’d met five times, and he believed each one raised the bar on their trust. She wanted to leave her sordid life, but she needed money until she landed a respectable job. Even asked for the name of a shelter. Said her two kids would have a better future. That suckered him in. Now suspicions about her motives called him a fool.

Tigo fired up the Toyota, muttering the language of the area. At the end of the block, two Hispanics wearing black T-shirts stepped into the street carrying assault rifles, their muscled forearms tattooed with gang symbols, their shaven heads etched deep with crossbones. Tigo spun the car, tires squealing. The smell of burned rubber invaded his nostrils.

At the other end of the street, two more armed men straddled his path, matching the MO behind him. Both had sidearms tucked into the front of their jeans. Great. He headed straight for them. In his quest to singlehandedly stop this gang, thinking a prostitute would take an exchange of money for info, he’d allowed pride to overrule logic. He deserved to have that engraved on his tombstone.

The man on his left lifted his rifle and fired, shattering Tigo’s windshield and narrowly missing his left shoulder. In return, Tigo grabbed his Glock from the passenger seat, tossed it into his left hand, then fired into the man’s chest, sending him sprawling backward onto the street.

Another bullet whizzed past the top of Tigo’s head. The men behind him raced his way. Tigo stomped the accelerator and headed straight for the remaining man on the right. Tigo might have fallen for a classic fog job with Candy, but he still had a few tricks to save his neck.

With the next outburst of fire, he sliced the morning with a pain-filled cry. The man on the right hesitated, giving Tigo the break to send a bullet flying into his chest.

Candy had either set him up or she was dead.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Avon Inspire; Original edition (March 20, 2012)
Shelley Shepard Gray

Chapter 1

***Coming Soon***

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stuart Brannon's Final Shot

Stuart Brannon's Final Shot
Center Point Pub; Lrg edition (March 2012)
Stephen Bly

Chapter 1

Sunday afternoon, June 11, 1905,
south of Portland

“I thought you was dead.” The words rumbled out of some deep, dark pit of tales told at late night campfires and smoky saloons. Thick drops of dirty sweat careened down the bearded man’s face. A ripped-in-shreds shirt sleeve exposed a long, jagged old scar on his left arm. Bloodshot brown eyes glared into the future as if forecasting bad news. Very bad news.

“A common mistake.”

A faded, red bandana brushed the man’s bulging neck. His bronzed face held to the tight expression of a man looking for an advantage. “No foolin’. Argentiferous Jones said he shot you dead over a poker hand in Bisbee. I believe you was packin’ three queens.”

“He was wrong.” Every eye in the dining car watched the trigger of Stuart Brannon’s drawn Colt .44 revolver, ready to witness a sudden blast.

“I can see that now and would like to be given a chance to atone for my erroneous assumption.”

“I’m sure you would. You stopped this train on a tall trestle in the middle of a river, cold-cocked the conductor, stole the possessions of all the passengers and whatever else of cargo you found on board, and in the mix scared the women, children, and most of the men near to death. Out West a man can hang for such offenses.”

He tried to straighten his bow-legs, puffed out his huge chest. His good eye glared at Brannon like the headlight of a locomotive. “What do you get out of this? Surely you don’t expect to shoot me in front of these delicate ladies. What if I just put down my pistol and . . .”

Brannon glared right back. “And what do all of us get out of that?”

The man croaked out the words. “A clear conscience?”

“Already got one.” Brannon shoved the muzzle closer to the man’s ripped ten-gallon-hat with the creased crown and molded brim.

“What if I return the money and goods to all these fine folks on the train?”

“That’s a start.”

He dropped a leather sack to the carpeted floor, stepped back, and raised his hands. “What else can I do?”

“Hike down the track to the next town and turn yourself in to the sheriff for robbing this train.”

“You mean, turn myself in on my own accord?”

“Yep. You can do it. We’ll just ride on up ahead and let them know you’re on your way.”

“No one does that, especially Slash Barranca.” He studied Brannon to watch for the reaction.

Brannon didn’t blink. “Well, Slash, here’s your chance to stand out from a crowd of no-goods.”

“So, you know who I am?”

“Nope. Never heard of you.”

“Are you sure you’re the original Stuart Brannon?”

“The real question is, do you trust that I’m Stuart Brannon? If you aren’t certain, then make your move and see what happens. And if you still wonder, then say goodbye to these nice folks. I’m pullin’ this trigger right now. So, what’s your choice?”

The man looked over the crowd. His gaze stopped at two men in their fifties in brown suits. One of them glared a kind of warning. The other looked down. Brannon wondered if Barranca was going to make an appeal to them. But his chin drooped to his chest and his words blurted out with such force, the windows almost rattled. “Yeah, you’re Brannon, all right.”

“Good. Leave the stash, your gun and your boots in the car. Then, start walkin’.”

“Now, how do you expect me to make it to town without boots?”

“Very slow. By the time you get to the other side of the bridge, there should be a nice little posse gathered. And don’t think about diving over the edge. You’ve got one foot of water and a fifty foot drop.”

Slash Barranca pulled up his pants’ legs as he climbed out of the train and stepped onto the rough track surface. Applause and “hurrahs” rocked the car as the train rolled away without the bootless outlaw. The staff seemed eager to return order and routine for the passengers as quick as possible. Announcements of supper followed with beefsteak, fried eggs and fried potatoes wheeled out to the dining car. A little overdone, but no one complained.

A huge sign made of logs greeted them at the next stop when they transported the injured conductor off the train.

100 Miles to Portland, Oregon
Home of the world’s famous
Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition

Brannon stretched his arms and legs and tried to remove the dust from his travel suit. No amount of brushing or shaking made a dent. He pulled out a copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson that his daughter-in-law, Jannette, had given him before he left Arizona, but his mind wandered. He ran through the recent events once more.

It started at the Prescott Post Office with one of those rosy-scented letters from Lady Harriet Reed-Fletcher.

When Lady Fletcher sends you a scented letter, it’s a dangerous omen.

The answer he gave her was “no.”

At fifty-eight years old, Stuart Brannon had no intention of leaving his beloved ranch or Arizona Territory, not even for a long-time, good friend like Harriet. No matter how many times she offered her appeal—“I need one more celebrity . . . It’s for the Willamette Orphan Farm . . . It won’t cost you anything.” But she could not convince him to go to Oregon, especially to participate in a golf tournament charity event in conjunction with the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.

What was she thinking?

Yes, Captains Lewis and Clark were his heroes.

Yes, they deserved a gala celebration.

And yes, from what he heard, the Oregon coast promised a refreshing change from the desert landscape.

But he had never once picked up a golf club. An old rancher and retired lawman playing on a golf course? What a ridiculous idea.

And the Triple B ranch needed him.

Or he needed the ranch, since his adopted son, Littlefoot Brannon, could oversee and do most of the work.

Life had become a peaceful routine. L.F. and his wife, Jannette, provided him with four over-active grandchildren, who played tag, leapfrog, hopscotch and occasional simple card games, but more important, listened to his stories.

No more evil men to track down. No one trying to shoot him in the back. No lawless gangs preying on the innocent . . . not near his ranch anyway.

Then the telegram came from another friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Stuart, I need you in Portland. Tom Wiseman is missing. I think there’s a cover-up going on. Say you’re going to the Exposition. Find out how a U.S. Marshal can disappear and no one knows why. T.R.

If Tom Wiseman had vanished, Brannon suspected the marshal initiated the event. But why? And where?

But he was too close a friend to ignore this plea. As a government worker, as well as an Arizona rancher, Tom Wiseman had aided him with personal and legal problems. And many times Tom Wiseman had stood with Brannon against lawbreakers, when no one else could or would.

And how could he refuse a request from the President of the United States?

Still, Brannon wondered how much help he could contribute. He could track Wiseman through the hills of Colorado or the deserts of Arizona. But searching the coastal environs of Oregon? A local might do better.

The boy who tugged on his pant leg looked a bit older than his grandson, Everett, but he had similar big, brown eyes that looked at the world like a ball of mystery that had to be pounced on, juggled and unraveled anew each day. “Mr. Brannon, you’re famous like them two explorers, Lewis and Clark, aren’t ya?”

Brannon tussled the boy’s copper-colored hair. “Son, some Arizona outlaws know my name, but few others.”

“My daddy says . . . he’s the man sitting way over there by that window holding his hat between his knees. The pretty lady next to him with the red hair and reading a book is my mama.” The boy swallowed and wiped his nose with his sleeve.

Brannon guessed the man to be in his thirties, dark-haired, but already starting to bald. Next to the woman was a young girl with auburn hair, fresh into puberty, holding a squalling baby. “What does your daddy say?”

“He told me you done cattle drives all over South America and brought more than a thousand Mexican beef into Arizona Territory, all by your lonesome, and kilt off a hundred horses in the bargain, run ’em right into the ground.”

“Now, son, that’s what mountain man Jim Bridger called stretchers. I want you to get it right, tell it straight. I did have the privilege of helping out with several of the great cattle drives, but that was to Kansas. And I entered Arizona Territory with two hundred head.”

“You oughta know and you can call me Drift. That’s the name I picked for when I’m all growed up and carryin’ a Colt revolver, just like yours. Then I’ll be a brave captain in the U.S. Army and kill over a thousand . . .”

“Well, Drift, I scouted for them. That’s all.”

“And you built your ranch out of all the gold you prospected at the Little Stephen Mine. At sunrise it shines like heaven’s streets.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t wind up with more than a small poke from that mine and my Triple B house is made of wood and very rustic. In fact, it’s gotten a tad rundown over the years. Your daddy’s tellin’ you some mighty huge windies.” He winked at the boy.

“But how about that time you was a U.S. Marshal with Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody as your deputies and you three saved all those drowning women from a terrible flood in that huge canyon?”

“Why, I do believe I’ve never heard that one before and don’t even know an event close to make it an exaggeration. That one’s an outright lie.”

“Mama says honest men always become famous. But Daddy says most that try to be brave end up dead. And here you lived through that shootout with the train robber, so you must be one of the honest ones. I do know you’re famous. My whole family knows you, even the ones back home in Dinuba. That’s in Calyfornia.” He hitched in a deep breath after his bigger-than-boy-sized soliloquy.

“Now remember, Drift, there was no shootout on this train. No gun was discharged.” Brannon tried to give the boy something of importance to tell. “I have shaken hands with the President of our country and so did Lewis and Clark, only for them, it was President Jefferson instead of President Roosevelt, and they surely are famous.”

The boy’s face brightened and he ran off towards his parents, who stole glances in his direction. He did a kind of wave and nod, but they turned their heads away.

Brannon browsed the fields and hills they passed, filled with town sites, barbed wire fences, painted barns. A landscape both frontier and modern. One scene portrayed a slipshod claim shack with a brand new motor car parked outside.

Farmers and their families had come in droves at the enticement of railroad advertisements to fill up and fertilize the land, with promises of low prices and ownership. One way to populate the West in record time. Otherwise the tracks were laid on vast expanses of empty prairies and wilderness.

Before the railroads, those were the days. Vacant . . . wild . . . free.

Back when men like Stuart Brannon and Tom Wiseman established ranches, raised their families, tried to tame the borderlands by self-protection and the Code of the West before official law ruled.

In 1898 Wiseman called at the Triple B with a request, “We’re starting a volunteer cowboy regiment. Can you help us get some recruits?” Brannon didn’t hesitate. He did his part to enable them to be one of the first in the West to fill their quota to fight in the Spanish-American war.

Some mighty excellent men have been part of A Troop and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Tom has served his country well.

Now Tom Wiseman needed someone in this country to come to his aid. How, exactly, Brannon didn’t know. He couldn’t believe that anyone could get the draw on his friend.

When Lady Harriet Reed-Fletcher learned that Brannon was headed to Portland, she hurried back a telegram of her own. You’re needed in Gearhart. The orphans need you. Besides, Tom Wiseman last seen near here. We can help. Will meet you at Gearhart depot. Your friend always, Harriet.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Dog That Talked To God

The Dog That Talked To God
• Abingdon Press (March 2012)
Jim Kraus

Chapter 1

Born in the wealthy enclave of Barrington, Illinois, in late autumn, Rufus was the smallest pup in a litter of four—black with white highlights, white eyebrows and chest. The breeder, a precise woman with a lazy eye, said that as an adult, he would most likely remain on the smallish side. That’s a good trait for a miniature schnauzer. He had the look, even as a seven-weekold, of a polished, professional dog, holding a practiced dog show stance—legs back, chest forward, eyes alert—all inherited traits, genetics at its best.

But she said nothing about Rufus talking. Not just talking, but talking with God. In dog prayers, I imagine.

Though, in her defense, I would guess that she was unaware of this unusual talent.

And, also in her defense, if she knew of his abilities and had mentioned . . . “Oh yes, Mrs. Fassler, and the runt of the litter . . . the dog you want . . . well, he talks, and he claims he talks with God.” I mean, honestly, if she had said that, or anything remotely like that, then odds are that the good dog Rufus would not be sitting in the chair opposite me, right now, watching me type.

Perhaps if Rufus had been adopted into another home, a home with an owner who wasn’t lost and confused, and didn’t need to be returned to the awareness of the existence of God, he would not have bothered speaking at all, except to bark at the door to be let out. Even Rufus is not sure of that possibility.

“I don’t ask foolish questions, Mary,” Rufus answered when I asked him of the odds of him spending his life with me, rather than some other more spiritually healthy person. But I digress.


I did not mean to cavalierly hurry past the most compelling element of this story: the fact that Rufus talks to God. And he talks with me—Rufus, that is, not God. Sometimes.

Hard to be nonchalant, or blasé, about such an ability, I know. But I cannot leap into this tale without returning to the beginning. You need to know how all this came about. You need to know the origins of the story. After all, what would the Bible be without Genesis and the Garden of Eden? Confusing, to say the least, and most likely incomprehensible. Imagine the Bible as a movie you walk into during the middle. You can make up your own backstory, but it would all be just a guess. Admit it: without that opening scene, not much of the rest would contain any internal logic.

As a child, I used to do that—walk into a movie theater whenever, and watch the film, sit through the ending, and wait for the opening reel to start again until I would say to myself, “This is where I came in.” It was easier years ago, before the age of googolplexes and corporate theater chains. Back in the day, each theater had one screen and would play the same movie over and over, with only a cartoon and previews to separate one screening from another. Once I got to that point of having seen a particular scene before, I would leave, satisfied that I saw the entire story. I remember doing that to The Time Machine with Rod Taylor—a movie star without much reason to be a star. Seems ludicrous to me now. I had constructed my own narrative as to how Rod got to whatever point in the future he started at , which then altered my imagined story as the true narrative unfolded. With that movie, I was close to the guessing the actual story and plot. Close, but, as they say, no cigar.

As a child, reconstructing a complicated narrative was child’s play.

It is not so easy today.


Throughout my youth, my family owned pets. Owned, I suspect, is now a pejorative term. I mean, do we really own a dog? Or do we merely cohabit in the same spaces? The latter, I am now certain. My father, an impetuous man with a generous heart once bought a squirrel monkey from Gimbel’s Department Store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—when department stores, I surmise, could sell squirrel monkeys.

A monkey proved to be a pretty interesting pet, but if you fed it something it did not like, it would simply heave it out of the cage. Neatness is not any monkey’s most endearing trait.

I remember growing up with a mutt, the family dog, a loyal animal who became as much a member of the family as I . As a teenager, I stood beside her in the vet’s office when he administered the oh-so-humane and oh-so-lethal injection to a lame, sick, dying dog. I remember her eyes, just as they went dark. I remember weeping all night over that loss.

In my forties, (midway, if I am feeling honest) I found myself alone again. I was pretty certain I needed a dog. Christmas was coming and I did not want to be alone.

Before—well, before my current losses and tragedies—the parameters of a dog purchase became the topic of long conversations between Jacob, John, and me. It had been decided that hypo-allergenic was a necessity; preferably a non-shedding, small, with minimal genetic health concerns, loyal, good with children, non-nippy, benevolent, artistic, and kind. Just kidding about the last three, but we did have a pretty substantial list of preferences. The miniature schnauzer breed met all of our qualifications.

But we, as a family, never had a chance to fulfill that dream. Alone, now, I decided to take action—and taking action was something I did not do lightly. Unlike me, the schnauzer, according to the breed books, had decisiveness bred into its genes. A good watchdog, the books insisted. A barker, but not a biter. Since I live in a relatively safe suburb, a barker would be sufficient.

I made a few calls; I looked on the Internet. A friend advised against getting any dog. “They’re all the same—stupid, hairy, and only interested in food. Trust me,” she had said. “You will get companionship, but it will be stupid companionship. Like a blind date who you find out later cheated to get his GED, and who is five inches shorter than he claimed.”

She owned an Irish setter, a truly small-brained animal. I say she owned it since she did all the dog upkeep in her family—feeding, walking, feeding, letting out, letting in, feeding, washing the muck off of it. The rest of the household liked the dog, but as is often usual for families, the mother remained stuck with all the dog duties. And to complicate things, her dog could not be described as smart—not even close to smart. It ran into the same glass sliding door every morning of its life. Like a chicken, it appeared to wake up to a new world every dawn. A pleasant dog, for certain, but, as noted, not very smart. And it often smelled wet. Most of us know that musty, yeasty, heady, nearly unpleasant aroma of a wet dog. Like wet newspaper. What they have in common is beyond me.

“But I’m looking at a smaller dog. Something that I can pick up if I have to,” I told her.

It took two people to lift my friend’s Irish setter, or a single person using a Hoyer hospital lift—and where was one of those when needed?

“Jacob always wanted a schnauzer. Sort of like fulfilling a promise, you know?” I added. My friend shrugged, apparently resigned to my choice, to my fate.

After all, how do you argue with one of the last wishes of a dead man?

There were a few AKA breeders near where I live that specialized in miniature schnauzers.

And when I was ready, only one breeder—the precise lady in Barrington with the lazy eye—had a litter with an unspokenfor puppy.

“I have a litter of four. The two females are spoken for. The larger male is going to another breeder in Florida. That leaves one male puppy. He’s the runt of the litter. But he’s healthy.”

I attempted to make arrangements to complete the purchase.

“It’s not that simple,” she said, a slight note of caution in her voice. “Before you come, I have some questions. Save you a trip. I don’t sell my dogs to just anyone.”

“Of course not,” I said, thinking it was a poor method of marketing puppies, but I played along. “I completely understand.” “Do you live in a house or apartment?”

“A house. It’s too big for me,” I said, telling this stranger more than she needed to know. “I plan on selling in a year or two, and moving to a smaller house. More manageable. But a house. A house, yes, not an apartment or a condo. I don’t think I would do well in an apartment anymore. Odd noises and someone is always cooking with too much curry. So, yes, I have a house. I will have a house. Now. And in the future.”

“Does the house have a yard? Will the new house have a yard?” Don’t all houses have yards?

“It does. And the back is fenced. It’s pretty big. The landscapers bill me $40 a week to cut it . . . so there’s a lot of room for a dog to run. And if I do move, that house will have a fenced yard. Keeps out the riffraff dogs, if you know what I mean.”

Her silence probably meant that she didn’t.

“Do you work?”

No . . . I thought I might pay for the puppy with food stamps.

Sorry. That’s just me being snarky. Sorry.


“Are you gone all day? Will the dog be alone all day?”

Oh . . . now I see why you’re asking.

“No. I work from home. I write books. And I edit some. And I publish a newsletter for writers. But I’m home 95 percent of most weekdays. I do go out to Starbucks sometimes to write. There’s something about having to block out other people’s conversations that makes me concentrate more effectively. But that’s only once a week. Maybe twice, if I’m stumped by something.”

The precise lady waited, then spoke carefully.

“I wouldn’t sell this dog to a single person who worked outside the home all day. These puppies need companionship. They’ll get neurotic without a person—or people around. Nothing worse than a neurotic dog.”

She said nothing about dogs that had delusions of grandeur. Would I describe Rufus as . . . delusional . . . or would that just be me?

“Any small children in the home?”

I waited a heartbeat, like I have done now for these last few years, waited until that small scud of darkness passed.

“No. No one else. It’s just me.”

The precise lady must have been thinking: divorced, or widowed, or never married. I did not volunteer further information. She did not ask. Often, when even thinking about the past, even to myself—still—I would get teary. Buying a dog is no time to get teary.

“Well, why don’t you come up this Saturday? The puppy won’t be ready to leave for at least another three weeks. You can see how you’ll get on with him. We can talk.”

I hung up the phone thinking that I need to make a good impression on this woman, or else I’ll have to find another breeder and the next closest—with puppies available—was in Ohio. I did not want to drive to Ohio. Not just yet. Maybe not ever.

If you would like to continue reading more of this chapter, go HERE

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Before The Scarlet Dawn

Before The Scarlet Dawn
Abingdon Press (February 2012)
Rita Gerlach

Chapter 1

The Hope Valley, D1erbyshire, England

April 7, 1775

E liza Bloome sat forward from the tattered high-backed chair when someone pounded a fist on the front door downstairs. Her father’s bible lay open on her lap and slipped over her knees to the floor. She bent down to retrieve it, and felt the cold rippled over her fingers through a crack. Wind howled across the downs and moaned through the weatherworn windows. Shivering from the draft, she set another log on the fire and listened to Fiona’s shoes tap down the staircase. Whenever the wind rose fierce like on this night, it held the front door fast. Any moment now her father’s housekeeper would brace herself against it and the jamb until her strength gave out. As Eliza expected, the door slammed on its lock and hinges. The crash echoed up the staircase, mingling with a man’s voice.

The bedroom door quietly swung open.

“Who is it, Fiona?” Eliza glanced at her father, then back at the stout woman standing in the doorway. “Papa is asleep. He should not be disturbed.”

“A messenger to see him, my girl. Chilled to the bone, I’d say. Riding over the downs in the dead of night in the wind and cold. It must be important if he went to all this trouble. Should I let him in?”

The log caught fire and the room grew warmer. Eliza drew off her wrap and folded it across the chair. “Yes, I will speak to him.”

Fiona placed her hand over the brass knob and set her back against the door to allow entrance to a man dressed in the simple drab brown attire of a servant. He drew off his tricorn hat and gave Eliza a slight bow. A lock of brown hair fell over his broad forehead.

“Is he able to speak with me, Miss Eliza?” He glanced at the frail form asleep in the four-poster bed.

“My father is not well. It depends on who you are, why you’ve come, and for how long you intend to stay.”

“Name is John Travis. I’ve come with a letter from Mr. Langbourne with strict instructions to put it into your father’s hand and wait for his reply.”

“On a night like this? It is a wonder you were not blown off your horse, Mr. Travis. I do not think well of Mr. Langbourne for it. He must have paid you well.”

“Aye, he did. The wind is harsh tonight, to be sure. But I have a good horse, and Mr. Langbourne deemed my journey urgent. He has heard how sickly your father is. Everyone in the parish has.”

Knowing her father was not long for this world, Eliza went to his bedside and tucked in the coverlet. Tonight his breathing was labored, and when she touched his hands, they were cold as the chill wind.

Even in the bronze firelight, his face looked drawn and pale. His hair seemed to have gone white within such a short time, and his body smelled of sweat no matter how much she bathed him. He opened a pair of watery gray eyes and looked at her.

“Who is it, Eliza?”

“A man is here to speak to you, Papa. His name is John Travis. Should I send him away?”

Pressing his brows together, Reverend Bloome paused. Eliza waited patiently, knowing he needed a moment to think. Over several weeks, he had grown forgetful and confused, and relied more and more upon her to help him understand.

“I know no one by that name. Should I know him, Eliza?” “I do believe you met him once or twice, but no, Papa. You do not need to know him. But he says he has a letter for you— from Mr. Langbourne.”

“Langbourne I do recall. Raise me against the pillows, Daughter.” He pushed back on his elbows with her help. “There, that is better. Bring him forward and leave us to speak alone.”

A shiver passed through her at the last two words. Why would he not want her to stay? What did a letter from Langbourne, a man she had barely spoken two words to, mean? But she did not need to have a conversation with him to know what he thought of her. Either in church, the marketplace, or at a gathering, he always seemed to find her, bow in greeting, and feast his eyes on her.

Once outside the door, she leaned her ear against it and listened. Muffled voices were all she could make out. Seconds later, Fiona, the woman who had nurtured her from the day of her mother’s passing, poked her head around the corner. The cap she wore looked white as snow in the candlelight. Fiona always kept her caps starched and clean, and her hazel eyes, set deep within a face round as an October moon, looked just as bright when she raised her brows at Eliza.

“Go on with you, my girl. It is not polite to eavesdrop.” Fiona waved her off and moved in front of Eliza with the tray of tea toppling to the left.

Eliza stepped back. “What is this all about, Fiona? Do you know?”

“I won’t know a thing until I go in with the Reverend’s tea. Now move away from the door. Do not let me catch you peering inside to see what’s going on. It would be rude, my dear.”

“Then I shall listen outside the door. I have every right to.” “No, you do not, my girl. If your father wants you to know his business, he will tell you. He doesn’t need his daughter being so bold as to lay her ear upon his door and listen in on his private conversations.”

Determined, Eliza pressed her back against the wall. “Perhaps not, but I think I know why Mr. Travis has come. Langbourne sent him with a letter to Papa to ask permission to wed me. I wish I knew what Papa was telling him.”

Fiona rolled her eyes, huffed, and shoved the door open. Before she could close it with her hip, Eliza overheard, “Mr. Langbourne said he knows how dire your situation is, sir, and wishes an answer forthwith.”

“And what are the conditions?” “It’s all contained in the letter I have brought. Ah, hot tea. I am chilled, ma’am, to the marrow. Thank ye.”

Eliza’s breath slowly escaped her throat. She pressed her mouth into a firm line, kept her back against the paneled wall, and stared at the ceiling.

So Mr. Langbourne wishes an answer? No, Papa would never be so callous as to give me to a man I do not know very well, let alone love. He believes in the sacredness of marriage; a holy, unbroken institution in the Lord’s eyes, where man and woman make a lifetime commitment to each other in their love for each other. It’s a serious matter and not to be trifled with, or bartered for land, possessions, or money.

For a moment, she thought of her mother, how, through the years her father kept his beloved’s memory alive, telling Eliza how he had loved Mary Lanham. Plenty of opportunities presented themselves, but he never remarried. And if only her brother were home. He would see to it that she married the right man and take this burden off their father. Instead, he lived far away, serving in the King’s army, committed to finding his own way in the world. In another year, he would be able to resign his service and settle down. But his choice, he said—America. How could Stephen help her from so great a distance?

Unable to bear the suspense, she turned the doorknob and the door opened slowly. Standing in front of her father, Travis turned and passed his eyes over her, as if assessing her from head to toe.

She took the cup from his hand and set it on the tray. “My father is tired. You must leave now.”

Her father lifted one side of his mouth into a gentle smile. She hoped he saw her distress. “Thank you,” he said. “Tell Mr. Langbourne I am honored by his letter. But it is my daughter who must give him an answer.” Her father’s hands trembled while he clutched the letter between his fingers and set it down beside him. The disease that plagued his body caused the tremors, and they seemed to grow worse as the days wore on.

Hat in hand, John Travis nodded and stepped from the room.

“Do not look so troubled, child. This is good news, I should say,” Matthias reached for Eliza’s hand.

She drew up her chair beside her father and sat. “Let me guess. They have decided to accept women at Oxford and have offered that I come there to study.”

She smiled, hoping to ease his melancholy. He frowned instead. “It is nothing of the kind. Why do you jest about such things?”

“To make you smile, Papa.” She squeezed his hand. “But I failed.”

“Ah, it is good of you, but silly. Women will never be admitted into Oxford or Cambridge. You must read and study on your own at home, as you always have.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“But not too much, for all a girl needs to know is how to run a house, and you will not find that in the pages of books.”

She cocked her head. “Hmm. I do believe I might. But more importantly, love should run a house, not just head knowledge or skill. Now, tell me what Mr. Langbourne has written.”

Matthias sighed. “You have been offered a proposal of marriage.”

She glanced at the letter and did not let on that she had overheard some of the conversation. “Really? Again?”

“He tells me he will come into his inheritance soon. He says his situation at present is three hundred pounds a year. Later, he will have one thousand pounds yearly for the remainder of his life. For he has been named heir of Havendale, instead of his cousin Hayward Morgan.”

“I suppose that is because Mr. Hayward left for the Colonies.”

“Against his father’s wishes.”

“Hmm. He is a bitter man to cast off his true son.”

“We are not to judge. Whatever his reasons, Langbourne will own Havendale someday.”

Eliza screwed up her nose. “I hear Havendale is unbearably cold. I would not want to live there. And . . .”

He lifted his hand and patted hers. “Have you had any other proposals that exceed this offer?”

“No, Papa. But do not expect me to live with a man I do not care for. Surely he does not love me.”

“He says he likes you.”

“I cannot accept him.”

To read more...go here: http://tinyurl.com/862mgh5

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Prize of My Heart

Prize of My Heart
Bethany House Publishers (March 1, 2012)
Lisa Norato

Prize of My Heart

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Messenger

The Messenger
Bethany House Publishers (March 1, 2012)
Siri Mitchell

The Messenger

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chasing The Sun

Chasing The Sun
Bethany House Publishers (March 1, 2012)
Tracie Peterson

Chasing the Sun