In this compelling new installment of bestselling author Ralph Compton's Sundown Riders series, a man seeks revenge for the death of his wife and sons while caring for his traumatized daughter.
Carl Novak returned to the Texas hill country after fighting in the Civil War, but unlike most of his neighbors, Carl didn't fight for the Confederacy. He was a Union soldier.
Carl tries to resume his life as a farmer with his wife and three children. One day, when returning from an overnight trip to buy a calf, he finds his home burned to the ground and, even worse, his wife and sons murdered. His young daughter escaped the slaughter by hiding in the fields. She is so traumatized that she refuses to speak.
Carl has one clue: a group of strangers has just left town. One man had a tattoo of a scorpion on his hand and one man was missing two fingers. Carl is determined to track them and exact his revenge.
Release date: July 27, 2021
Print pages: 304
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Ralph Compton Seven Roads to Revenge
Rays of warm Hill Country sun streamed through the grape arbors as the congregation made its way down the front steps of the Wolf Creek Family Church. Among the small group was Carl Novak, proud daddy of the young girl who had just sung her first solo at the close of Reverend Benedict's Sunday-morning service.
"I swear, that young lady has the voice of an angel," schoolteacher Dottie Rumley said as she approached Novak and his wife, her arms spread wide in celebration. "She truly does." As several others stepped forward to agree, Lucy, the center of attention, stood close by her mother, embarrassed and anxious to be freed to spend a few minutes playing with the other children before it was time to head home.
Novak, six-two, broad-shouldered, and dark-eyed, hugged his wife a bit tighter than usual and a faint smile crossed his face. A man who spoke sparingly, he rarely left his farm except to come to town for supplies or bring his family to church. He had been home from the war for a year, yet there were a few in Wolf Creek who still cast disapproving looks whenever he passed.
In their minds, he had fought for the wrong side.
When fighting first broke out between the North and the Southern states determined to secede from the Union, Novak spent long days wrestling with the issue that had so divided the country. Members of the Confederate army, many of them his neighbors, were determined to keep the practice of owning slaves alive and well. Up north, meanwhile, men were prepared to shed blood to see that the nation remained whole, the slave practice abolished, and freedom awarded to one and all.
Carl Novak was a hardworking farmer, not a politican; a self-proclaimed simple man who thought about little else but keeping his young family safe and bringing in a decent crop every season. For him, it was a plain and reliable formula for happiness handed down to him by his father. Then war broke out, raising troubling questions and causing him sleepless nights as he came to a realization that he had to take a stand.
Frieda, whom he'd married shortly after they graduated from Wolf Creek School, recognized Novak's struggle. She knew that his best friend as a youngster had been Billy Wayne Jefferson, son of a slave family that was property of the biggest landowner in Gillespie County. Carl and Billy Wayne hunted squirrels and fished for carp and catfish together, ate dinners at each other's kitchen tables, and gave little thought that they were of different color and social standing. Carl never questioned why Billy Wayne wasn't allowed to attend school with him or join his family at Sunday services. Billy Wayne, meanwhile, ignored others' cruel catcalls when they saw him riding behind Carl astride Sister, the Novak family mule. Their lives had been so simple back then, their feeling for one another genuine, their innocent focus on enjoying the moments they were together.
That began to change as Billy Wayne grew older and stronger, capable of joining his father in the owner's fields. Little time was left for carefree days with his friend. Carl missed that.
Now, years later, as he and Frieda sat on their porch, enjoying the gentle night sounds that settled over their small plot of land, they talked of those days past. Carl had lost track of his boyhood friend. The last time he'd seen Billy Wayne was when he attended the funeral of his father several years earlier. When Carl's mother passed a few years later, Jefferson was not among the mourners. He had vanished, along with the rest of his family.
Over the years, as he'd become more aware of the hardships his friend had endured, Carl saw the injustice society had forced on him, feeling guilty that he had not been more aware back when they were children.
In time, Frieda had come to better understand her husband's silent feelings than he did. When she sensed he was considering joining the war, it was she who first suggested he soldier for the Union. "It's what's right to do," she said as she leaned down to scratch behind the ears of Echo, the black-haired sheepdog sleeping at her feet. "It won't be long before things get settled and you can come back home."
It was all Carl Novak needed to hear. The decision made, he began preparations. The cotton had been picked and the soil turned, the smokehouse was filled with pork and venison, and Frieda had put up jars of vegetables from the garden. There was pay for six bales of cotton, next year's seed money, and the small savings his mother had given him before she died, carefully hidden away under the floor of their bedroom.
The following morning he had ridden over to the Williamson place, Echo following close behind, to explain his sudden plan and strike a deal with the oldest son, Lyndon, to keep watch over his wife and daughter in his absence. Though a bit slow, Lyndon was a strong, hard worker and the most trustworthy man Carl knew. Pleased with the responsibility offered him, Lyndon promised he would keep Frieda and Lucy safe, the livestock tended, and the cow milked every morning. The fifty cents a day that he was offered was agreed to with a firm handshake.
Years later, Carl remembered their conversation as if it had occurred yesterday.
"When is it you plan on leaving?"
"Sunup tomorrow. I'm thinking I better say my goodbyes and get going before I change my mind. Frieda said tell you she'll settle up with you at the end of every week if that suits you."
"Sounds fair to me," Lyndon had replied, placing a hand on Carl's shoulder. "My pa won't understand you going off to fight with them folks that call themselves abolitionists, but I'll wish you a safe return."
The mixed aroma of biscuits and blackberry muffins wafted from the farmhouse as Carl stood in the doorway of the barn that day. He inhaled a peace and quiet that was almost palpable, miles removed from what he would soon be headed to. Questions rumbled through his mind. Was he doing the right thing? Would his family, the thing he cherished more than anything else in the world, be safe in his absence? Could he really leave behind the role of contented farmer, husband, and father and become a fighter?
Frieda appeared on the front porch, waving toward him. "Breakfast's on the table," she yelled. "Lucy's waiting and says to tell you she's starving."
Inside, his daughter, still in her nightgown, gave him a peck on the cheek before taking her seat.
The parents looked on silently as Lucy hummed while she ate. Despite the fact she had not yet brushed her long auburn hair or even wiped the sleep from her eyes, she was a beautiful child. Carl felt an ache deep inside as he thought back on the unsatisfactory explanation he'd given her at bedtime. All she knew was that Daddy had to go away for a while, assuming he would return home soon and life would return to normal. Frieda, sensing his concern, reached across the table and placed a hand on his arm. "No need to worry," she said. "We're going to be just fine."
A saddlebag filled with biscuits, beef jerky, and fried cracklings sat on the edge of the stove. "I figured you'll be able to find plenty of water, so Lucy suggested we put lemonade in your canteen," Frieda said as she began clearing away the dishes. "I also pinned a little money in the pocket of your spare shirt."
Carl managed a smile. "Don't suppose you thought to polish my boots or saddle my horse," he said.
Frieda laughed and tossed a dishrag in his direction. "Some things you lazy menfolk need to care for yourselves."
What a wonderful woman he'd married, Carl thought as he rose from the table and moved toward her. He ran his fingers through her auburn hair and looked into her hazel eyes. He knew she wouldn't cry. She was too strong-minded for that. He then lifted his daughter into his arms and kissed her brow. "Promise you'll help your momma while I'm gone . . ."
He was going to tell her he loved her, but she beat him to it. "I love you this much," she said, stretching her arms as wide as she could. "More'n the whole world."
Frieda had moved to the doorway, silently holding his hat. She watched as he took his gun belt from its peg and pulled it tight around his waist. He couldn't remember the last time he'd worn it, and the weight of the Peacemaker in its holster felt uncomfortable.
Two weeks later, in a Union camp somewhere in eastern Tennessee, he and a half-dozen strangers had enlisted and joined a regiment of soldiers who looked as wary as he felt. It was the beginning of the worst time of his life. In the endless days and nights to come, there were bloody battles at places like Tupelo, Mississippi, and Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, and others whose names he never knew or quickly forgot. Some of the confrontations were won by the Union, some by the Confederates. In the frantic blur of war, they fought in blazing heat and bone-chilling cold, there was little sleep and food, and medicine seemed always in short supply. As the days and nights ran together, some even had difficulty remembering what the fighting was about.
The only certainty was that men died on a daily basis. Carl Novak, who had grown up a peaceful, God-fearing man, lost count of the number of faceless enemy soldiers whose lives he had taken, of those who had tried to kill him. With each well-aimed shot, each death that was on his hands, he had felt his soul slipping away. In time, only a single goal motivated him and kept him sane: to return home safely to Frieda and Lucy and let them help him forget.
It was almost two years before Confederate general Robert E. Lee finally surrendered, bringing the seemingly endless fighting to an end. Novak had headed for Texas as soon as the news came, feeling no joy in the fact he and the Union had been declared the winner. He was just glad to have survived, to be going home.
When his weary mare, Dawn, had forded the Guadalupe River, a sign that he was less than a mile from the farm, his spirits rose. He was thinner, a scruffy beard covered his face, and his hair hung well below the collar of the tattered uniform he wore. He was still having dark nightmares of the dead and wounded, and likely would for some time to come. He was, he knew, a different man from the one who had ridden away from his family.
As he urged Dawn into a gallop, he prayed that he could somehow recapture the warmth and gentleness of the life he remembered. He couldn't help but wonder if such a miracle was even possible.
As he neared, he was pleased to see that Lyndon had done a good job taking care of the place. The cedar post fences were sturdy, there was a new roof on the smokehouse, the hay was baled, and wood was chopped and neatly stacked at the side of the house. The rich, black soil of the field had been plowed and readied for planting.
Echo was the first to see him coming, barking and happily wagging his tail as soon as the horse and rider appeared on the pathway leading to the farmhouse. Soon Carl's wife and daughter were on the front porch, Frieda waving and Lucy bounding down the steps to catch up with the dog.
Carl's feet had not even touched the ground before he was smothered in welcoming hugs and kisses. This time, Frieda didn't try to hold back her tears. Lyndon Williamson emerged from the barn, smiling and pumping his hands in the air as he hurried to take the reins of Novak's mare. "I'll see she's fed and rubbed down proper," he said. "You go on in and visit your family. Proud you're home, Mr. Novak."
Frieda took a step back and held her husband at arm's length, smiling. "I bet you're hungry," she said.
Carl freed one hand and gently wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I'm near starved."
"You look it. But you'll not sit at my table until you've bathed, shaved your face, and rid yourself of that filthy uniform. I'll start heating water. We'll wait until later to give you a haircut."
Lifting his daughter into his arms as he moved toward the porch, Carl let out a mock groan. "You've grown up on me, gal," he said. "How old is it you are now?"
"I'm ten. My birthday was two weeks ago. Momma made a cake and Lyndon churned ice cream. Momma put a place for you at the table, even if you weren't there. When she wasn't looking, I gave Echo your ice cream once it melted."
Carl laughed and thought how good it felt. "I'm so sorry I've been missing your birthdays, little one," her daddy said. "I'll not miss anymore. That's a promise."
The days flew past as he reacquainted himself with surrounds that had only been visions in sweet daydreams for so long. He walked the field, breathing in the rich smell of the soil, sat on the bank of the creek, watching as squirrels played chase in the pecan trees. He visited the gravesites of his parents, pleased to find them well kept with purple iris blooming all around them. He mucked out stalls in the barn even though LyndonÕs work really made it unnecessary. And in the evenings he sat on the porch, drinking lemonade, counting the stars with Lucy, and whispering thanks that he could hear no gunfire in the distance. In a barrel on the edge of the garden, the remnants of his uniform were nothing but cold ashes, burned the morning after his return.
He had no desire to venture beyond the quiet comfort of home, not even to join his wife and daughter at Sunday services. Whatever he needed from the feed store or the livery, Lyndon volunteered to fetch for him. Frieda understood her husband's reluctance to mingle among the townspeople of Wolf Creek and didn't press the issue. "I just need a little time" was Carl's only explanation, and that was good enough.
Gradually, thanks to his wife's cooking, he regained the lost weight. He and she enjoyed long, quiet conversations, mostly in the evenings and usually about their daughter or the progress of the crops, but never the war. When, occasionally, Lyndon would stop by to see if his friend needed anything, the two men would sit in silence on a bench in front of the barn for a while before Lyndon finally pulled on his hat and said he needed to be getting on back home.
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