Read an Exerpt of The Countess

The heat-induced torpidity of the township was contagious. The jail was empty, the streets were quiet and almost everyone was indoors seeking respite from the midday sun. Chris was loath to stir himself from his comfortable spot in the corner but the Judge paid him to be the law in the town, he could hardly justify spending his entire day with a bottle of whiskey as a companion. As it was, the almost too difficult decision as to whether he should stay or go was made for him. The rising rumble of many voices in the street was enough to capture his interest; the shrill, horror-filled scream of a woman brought him to his feet and the familiar voice of Josiah summoning him was enough to finally draw him from the relative coolness of the saloon.

"What's up, Josiah?"

A small crowd had gathered around a wagon driven by a man and woman of middle-years, and from the awed expressions on the faces of the onlookers, he gathered the ruckus was over whatever they had brought in the wagon with them. He pushed forward, the crowd parting easily before him to let him through.

That the shapeless bundle on the wagon bed was a body was clear enough, and there was blood enough on both the boards and the blanket to be certain that Nathan's assistance would not be required this time. The preacher stood with his head down, his look of extreme sorrow mirroring exactly Jackson's expression and for a moment Chris' gut clenched in anticipation of what he was about to see.

"Josiah? Nathan?"

The bigger man threw back the old blanket which had, until then, offered the man underneath some degree of dignity and a soft gasp issued from the assembled townsfolk. Larabee was no stranger to violent death but he felt his gorge rise at the sight which Josiah had now exposed to view. That this had been a young man in the prime of his life was evident and the long brown hair and lean body reminded Chris so much of Vin that he felt his gut clench in sudden fear until reason took hold and he was able to shake the awful vision that it was the Texan lying there. The body had been savagely mauled, by what manner of creature Chris could not hazard a guess, but surely not human at any rate. There was not much left of the face to afford a ready identification but the townsfolk knew enough to put two and two together and name the corpse.

"It's the McKenzie boy," whispered one woman, "The Lord have mercy on the poor lad's soul."

The man who had been at the reins moved with wooden precision to the back of the wagon.

"Aye. That's my son, Angus," He looked to Chris. "Found him this mornin'. Been missin' for nigh on three days. The lad had tried to get home."

Josiah grasped the man's arm in unspoken sympathy and the man nodded dourly, keeping a firm grip on his emotions.

Chris moved to the side of the wagon and stared for a long moment at the pitiful remains of what had been a vital young man; someone's son.

"This is how you found him?"

"Just as you see him now. About two miles from my boundary fence."

"And is this how he was dressed when he went missing?";

The man seemed to suddenly realise what was being asked of him. The body was dressed in nothing more than rough homespun pants tied at the waist with twine; no boots, no shirt, no hat.

"Lord Jesus, no! Angus was dressed proper and all. Had his working clothes on."

"Was he wearing a gun?"

"Not a sidearm; not Angus, but he always carried a shotgun with him."

"And he was on horseback?"

"A sure thing. But Bessie came home yesterday. That's when I knew something was wrong and went looking for my boy."

Josiah pulled the blanket back over the ruined face.

"May the Lord Bless You and Keep You," he intoned, sombrely, "And may you find eternal peace in his care."

The elder McKenzie nodded his thanks and started to move back to the front of the wagon but turned and looked sadly at the three men. "I don't know what killed my son but, man or beast, I'd appreciate some help tracking it down."

Chris nodded. "We'll take care of it. You just take care of your family."

McKenzie tipped his hat. "Much obliged."

Slowly the man led the pair of horses drawing the wagon and its grisly load down the street in the direction of the undertaker, his hunched shoulders a symbol of sorrow and defeat.