Author Elizabeth Lane
by Elizabeth Lane
Excerpt from "The Homecoming"
Kansas State Penitentiary
Leavenworth County, Kansas
December 4, 1878
“You’ve served your time, McAllister. You’re free to go.”
Clay McAllister shivered as the iron gates clanged shut behind him. The December cold cut to his bones. His cheap prison-issue coat was too thin for the weather, but it would have to do until he got back to Texas.
Back home—if he still had a home.
A lot of could change in three years, Clay knew. His wife hadn’t written to him once. The only thing he’d received from her were his own unopened letters, with a terse “Return to Sender” penned on each envelope. The returned letters had told him, at least, that she was still living on the ranch. But they answered none of his other questions.
Why was Elise so angry? Didn’t she know what had happened to him?
What in hell’s name had gone wrong?
The memory of that awful night still darkened Clay’s dreams. He and his eighteen-year-old brother Buck had driven a thousand head of longhorn cattle up the trail to Abilene. After selling them for top dollar, they’d paid off the hired vaqueros and set out for an evening of celebration. A bath, a good meal and a couple of drinks had been enough for Clay. With the cash in the hotel safe, he’d retired early to rest up for the trip home.
He’d drifted off to sleep with a smile on his face. The money from the cattle sale—almost $20,000—would pay off the debts on the ranch and give them a good start for next year. It would also buy the new furniture Elise had been wanting, as well as clothes and toys for their two-year-old boy, Toby. They’d been living on the ragged edge of poverty for so long. What a pleasure it would be to buy nice things for his wife and child.
Sometime after midnight he’d awakened to discover that Buck’s bed was empty. His brother hadn’t returned to the hotel.
Worried, Clay had dressed and gone out looking for him. Buck was a strapping lad, able to do a man’s work on the trail. But at eighteen he had a lot to learn. Abilene was as rough as any cow town on the map, a place where a young man could get into no end of trouble. As he searched the saloons and gambling dens and checked the drunks passed out on the boardwalk, Clay had lashed himself for leaving Buck on his own. If anything had happened to the boy, he would never forgive himself.
He’d lost track of the time it took to work his way toward the far end of the street. Here, even at this late hour, the discreetly shuttered houses swarmed with activity. Half-opened doorways offered glimpses of seductively clad women. Raucous female laughter and the notes of a tinny piano drifted through the darkness.
Damn him! Clay didn’t relish the thought of dragging Buck out of a whorehouse. But he was getting worried—and angry. He’d raised his kid brother after their parents died, and he’d tried to teach him decent values. But it appeared that the lessons hadn’t taken. When he found the young whelp, by heaven, Buck was going to get the tongue lashing of his life!
He was mounting the steps of the first house when he heard the commotion. Upstairs, in the place across the street, a fight had broken out. Glass shattered as a chair smashed through a window. Shouts and screams erupted in the night, accompanied by the sound of crashing furniture and bodies.
Thinking only of his brother, Clay plunged across the street, shoved his way inside and charged up the stairs. By then the whole place had become a melee of shrieking women and their scrambling customers. In a lamplit room at the end of the hall he found Buck, half dressed and fighting off three men. A tired-looking redhead, her makeup smeared, cringed in a corner, clutching a sheet against her body.
One of the men, a stocky, fellow in a checkered suit, had drawn a hidden knife. The blade flashed as he made a lunge for Buck. Reacting instinctively, Clay seized a cast iron boot jack and swung it against the man’s head. The man sagged to the floor, collapsing without a sound.
Seconds passed before someone realized he wasn’t breathing.
A sudden hush fell over the room. Rough hands seized Clay from behind, holding him fast. Before they dragged him away, Clay managed to mouth a few words to his brother.
“Get out of here, Buck. Take the cash from the hotel and ride for all you’re worth. Give the money to Elise and tell her what happened. I’ll come as soon as I can.”
His trial was speedy. Under different circumstances Clay might have gone free on the grounds of defending his brother. But the man he’d struck down was a city councilman, and the town was screaming for justice. With a verdict of manslaughter, he was sentenced to serve five years in the state penitentiary. Good behavior had gotten him out in a little more than three.
Clay had never learned what the fight was about. And he’d never heard from Buck again.
Now, mounted on an aging buckskin horse that was all he could afford, Clay headed through swirling snow—south by southwest, along the empty cattle trails to the high Texas plains he called home.
With luck, he would be there by Christmas.