The Soldier and the Bandit (Preview)

Prologue

Kansas, 1865

A bullet shot over Xavier’s head. He dropped down, pressing himself hard against the makeshift barrier he and the other soldiers had built only the week before. The wood of the barrier was already splintered, fractured due to so many shots being fired at it this last week. Even now, it was shattering behind Xavier as he bent down, trying to shield himself from the shots.

Someday, I won’t have to hear gunshots like raindrops. Someday, there will be peace.

No matter how hard Xavier clung to this thought, it never seemed to come into reality. Each day brought more gunshots, more explosions, more blood, and more death.

As he turned his head left and right, the dark hair that just hung down beneath his soldier’s hat was visible, darkening the edges of his vision. It was dampened with sweat, practically dripping with it, as he peered past those locks to his fellow men. 

Beside him was a line of other soldiers, all pressing their backs to the same barrier. They clung to their rifled muskets, with knuckles ridged with tension and their faces bearing the furrowed lines of frowning for too long. 

“You ready, men?” the captain hollered from a short distance away. Even as he stood, he was forced to drop down again, cowering behind the barrier as shots rang out and chinked off the top of the bayonet he carried. 

Xavier cursed under his breath, feeling his hatred for his captain grow. More than once had this man led Xavier and their unit into a battle they could not win. Today felt just the same. How were they possibly to step out into that field when gunshots rained down upon them so fast?

“You’ve lost your mind, Captain!” one man shouted back at him, shaking his head. “You want us all to die?”

“You know what you signed up for,” the captain said darkly. “We fight for our cause.”

Xavier’s eyes darted down to the Northern uniform he wore. Over his dark skin, the blue uniform sat, stained with the dirt of his having lived so long on the land. The uniform reminded him of why he had signed up. He believed in what he was fighting for—a fairer world, a better world—but any belief he’d had in the honor of being a soldier had faded a long time ago. He’d seen too many men leave a dying man behind. It had made his mind dark, resentful of why he had agreed to fight.

“On my count,” the captain called once more. This time when he stood up, the bullets didn’t chink off his bayonet. He turned and grabbed the top of the barrier, ready to launch himself over it. “One… two… three!”

Xavier turned, his dirtied fingers grabbing one of the fractured wooden panels as he hauled himself over the encampment and out into a no man’s land of earth and dead. He ran forward, side by side with his fellow soldiers, head bent down and his weapon outstretched in front of him. A grayness had descended on the world. Perhaps the smoke from the explosions that had peppered them that morning hadn’t cleared, making it seem as if a dark mist hovered over their heads, or so many guns had been fired that their smoke trails still hung in the air.

The captain ran ahead, his bayonet outstretched, as Xavier and the other men followed, not one of them trailing. Xavier had seen what could happen if any man was left behind. They could be picked off by the enemy like a cornered animal, all too easy to do away with.

It’s how we survive. Each man must look out for one another.

“Look out!” The captain came to a sudden stop, his heavy boots skidding in the dry earth beneath them. With a gloved fist, he pointed over their heads. “Take cover.” 

At first, Xavier thought his captain was pointing at a bird, some dark crow that was shooting through the clouds, but when the small black mass began to descend, it was clear this was no bird. Too many Ketchum hand grenades had been dropped on the battlefield in his time.

“Get down,” Xavier called to the man beside him. 

They both dove for cover, landing face first in the earth as the grenade struck the ground not far away from them. An explosion ripped through the air, dust and dirt kicking up close by, leaving nothing but a deafening ring in Xavier’s ears. He tried to lift his chin from the earth, tilting his head to listen to his captain’s orders, but there didn’t seem to be any words now. Nearby, he could see men’s lips parted; they had to be screaming in pain, though Xavier’s temporary deafness from the bang meant he couldn’t hear them. He could only see the anguish on the men’s faces.

“No…” The word escaped Xavier’s lips, yet he couldn’t hear it. 

Beside him, the fellow soldier that had gone down wasn’t getting back up. His face was flat to the ground, his body still. 

“Thatcher? Thatcher!” Xavier barked the man’s name, moving toward him.

A quick glance showed their captain wasn’t going to stand again. The man was prostrate on the earth, as still as the horses they’d been forced to leave behind at their camp the night before. Those horses had been taken out by the enemy so Xavier’s battalion couldn’t use them to escape.

Many men laid in similarly still positions now, even Thatcher.

“Thatcher, you have to stand.” Xavier could see, through the gray mist, the enemy ascending over their own barriers. Their weapons were outstretched and they moved through the smoke like demons, their backs bent forward so that they could have been inhuman in shape. 

“Thatcher! We’ll be dead if we stay here.” He reached for Thatcher’s shoulder and rolled him over. The man was still alive, blinking and groaning in pain, but the missing arm showed the extent of his injury. 

“Go on…” he murmured. Xavier’s hearing had come back a little and he could just make out the words. Thatcher didn’t even manage to lift his hand to wave Xavier away, though a jerk of his chin said everything.

“Not a chance.” Xavier couldn’t watch it happen again. He’d seen it too many times. Enough men had lost their lives in this war, and he wouldn’t see another depart this world. 

He reached down to the belt across his waist, undid it with one hand, and wrapped it around Thatcher’s injured arm, tightening it hurriedly. The cry of pain that erupted from the soldier was like that of an animal. Xavier had heard a hog on his parents’ farm make such a noise once. It was a swine, dying. 

With the wounded arm staunched, Xavier took Thatcher’s other arm and pulled him to his feet.

“What are you doing?” Thatcher asked, his voice weak.

Xavier didn’t answer. His eyes were flicking toward the men who were already dead around them, and the enemy advancing through the smoke. They were getting closer, shooting madly with no real aim or direction. 

Pressing his shoulder into Thatcher’s legs, he thrust the man over his shoulder and ran back in the direction they’d come from. Maybe he couldn’t get everyone out of there, but if he could save one life, that was at least one more man who could come home. One more son that would go back to his parents.

Thatcher groaned with pain, the sound reverberating against Xavier’s back as he ran on across the open field, heading back toward their barriers. He moved quickly, not understanding why one of his feet seemed sluggish compared to the other. Glancing down, he saw why. Some shrapnel from the grenade’s explosion had caught him in the leg, but he’d been too numb to notice the pain. Even now, he didn’t feel it, he only saw a trickle of blood and the shrapnel in his leg.

Gritting his teeth, Xavier ran on. He wasn’t far now from the barrier. A short distance more, and Thatcher would be safe. They could get him to one of the army doctors, maybe even one of the hospitals, or a doctor’s house, not far from here. The barrier was in view, so close that the splintered wood was visible through the smoke, when a gunshot sounded behind Xavier.

This time, he felt the pain. It ripped through his left shoulder, the one not bearing the weight of Thatcher. He tumbled to the ground, unable to stand the pain and walk on carrying the other soldier.

They fell in a heavy mass, with Xavier’s face plastered to the dry earth, some of the sediment scratching his lip. Breathing heavily, he tried to stand again, but his left arm wouldn’t move. His hands refused to plant themselves in the dirt to make himself stand. Nothing would move on his command.

Darkness swept in. As before, the sound became muffled; not because of an explosion, but because Xavier was no longer awake to hear it. 

***

Xavier couldn’t be certain how long that darkness lasted. He felt the heaviness of his eyelids more than once as he fought against it, trying to wake. He could have sworn he saw images. Was that Thatcher’s face appearing before him? Or was that a woman? It was a woman he didn’t know. Dark green eyes kept appearing before him before they disappeared again and he was left in darkness.

The confusion melted away when he grew aware of strong sunlight above him. His eyelids lifted, allowing him to see the sunlight that streamed in through a pair of windows. Those windows were half broken, as if they had been shattered in some sort of explosion.

“Look who’s awake. At last! I thought I’d never get to see that fine pair of blue eyes gain.” The gentle voice was buoyant, humorous. Xavier turned his head, trying to look toward the sound.

It was plain he was no longer on the battlefield. He was far away from it now.

Thatcher? What about Thatcher?

He sat up suddenly, bolt upright, nearly leaping off the bed. Were there gunshots behind him now? He looked over his shoulder, but all he saw was a medical bag and glass vials on a sideboard. The bed beneath him was made up of white sheets, dirtied by a patch of dried blood.

“Whoa, there. You want to leap across your room after I made you that nice bed?” The teasing voice was closer now. A pair of hands took Xavier’s shoulders and lowered him back onto the bed. 

“Argh!” Pain ripped through his shoulder as he sat back.

“Well, that was unfortunate,” the buoyant voice continued. “Yet if you do insist on getting out of bed before you’re ready, I have to put you back in there somehow.” 

A face appeared before him. It was blurry, and he found it difficult at first to focus on the features. 

It was that pair of green eyes he had been certain he’d seen in that darkness. They rested in a beautiful face, with high cheekbones, small but full lips, and auburn hair that was pulled back sleekly from her face into a chignon.

“You…” Xavier whispered. “I thought I dreamed you.”

“Well, that’s quite a compliment.” She laughed and took his good shoulder, urging him to sit back again. “You look quite confused, stranger.” 

He nodded. “I was on the battlefield,” he whispered.

“You were found.” She smiled, rather sadly. “Along with others. You were brought here, and I’m pleased to say you will be fine, stranger. You will recover.”

“There was a man with me. Thatcher… is he…?” He swallowed, unable to finish the sentence.

“Thatcher Parker?” She smiled once more. “He’s alive, we found his identity card on him. He’s here, too.”

“Thank God.” Xavier sat back on the bed, overwhelmed with emotion. His good hand raised to his injured shoulder, where he saw it had been bandaged and wrapped in a sling. 

He was alive, as was Thatcher, and they were in a hospital, bathed in sunshine. It was a far cry from the battlefield. When his breath hitched in his throat, the woman beside him took his hand from his shoulder and sat down on the bed beside him. She held his hand in her own, her fingers small and delicate compared to his. 

“You’re safe now, stranger.”

“Am I?” He could scarcely believe it. 

“You don’t have to go back to that world again,” she whispered. “No more battles, no more war. You don’t have to stare death in the face anymore.”

He prayed she was right.

 

Chapter One

One Year Later

“What did you say?” Xavier stifled his yawn as he stared at the bank manager across the fine desk in front of him. It was too fine, really, the dark mahogany beautifully carved, topped with inkwells made of agate and onyx. The quill pens were tucked tightly away, the paper folded up neatly, and everything was lined up perfectly. Even the bank manager was too smartly dressed, in his sharp suit and necktie. It was a strong contrast to Xavier’s own clothes.

He sat in the chair with his knee bobbing up and down, his trousers still stained with dirt from his attending to the pigs earlier that day on the farm. He’d tried to tidy himself up and had put on a neat shirt, but this one was creased, and he kept trying to hide those creases by pulling his dark jacket over it. His dark hair was pushed back from his forehead, in the hopes the loose curls would behave for a change.

“I fear you heard me, Mr. Ashby.” The bank manager didn’t even manage a grimace or a look of apology. “If you fall behind on the mortgage payments one more time, the farm will be seized from you.”

Xavier had to stop himself from cursing or acting out, balling his hands into fists on his lap.

What a year. Zounds, what a God-awful year!

When he’d woken up in that hospital after the final battle of the Civil War, he’d been overcome with elation and relief—yet as he had soon learned, good things didn’t always last forever. The good that had come in that hospital was tinged with the bad, and the bad just kept on coming.

“Sir, my father took out this mortgage when he was alive. I have the paperwork for it.” Stuffing a hand into his pocket, Xavier pulled out the papers his father had kept so safely. “The interest rate was quite mad, even back then. He can’t have known what he was doing to take this out.” 

He waved it in the air madly. His father had been ill in the last few months of his life. He’d struggled with money, having to remortgage the farm just to afford to pay their workers and take care of his wife, who had also become ill. Yet the mortgage he’d taken out was not a fair one.

Xavier had read once in a newspaper how small banks could take advantage of being the only bank in small towns out here on the frontier. All they had to do was offer up the dream of being able to afford something greater than what their customer currently owned. The interest rates would soon be hiked, and just like for Xavier, the payments would be impossible for any customer to make.

“Whether your father knew what he was doing is irrelevant.” The bank manager shook his head and offered a smile. Xavier supposed the man thought he was being sympathetic, but it looked rather smug to his mind. After all, why would the bank manager feel sorry for his predicament? These high interest rates were what kept the bank manager in such fine clothes and with a nice desk, bearing fine ornaments. 

He might as well have a gold ingot on his desk.

“I’m afraid your father signed the contract, and that farm was left to you when he died.” The bank manager stood to his feet, showing their meeting was now over. “It is a commitment. Fail on one more of the payments and the—”

“I know.” Xavier’s harsh tone made the bank manager fall quiet. He supposed it had something to do with the guns that he always wore at his hips. They made him look intimidating, even if he had no wish to handle a gun again. 

“You’ll find the money somewhere.” The bank manager smiled again and urged Xavier to his feet. Xavier stood and extended his hand to shake. The bank manager looked a little uncertain, but he shook Xavier’s hand, then wiped his palm on his jacket, clearly worried about being contaminated by Xavier’s dirt.

“I’ll find the money,” he said aloud, then turned his back and walked out of the office. “When my pigs start to fly as high as the clouds.” 

Cursing under his breath, he left the office and turned his back on the bank clerks. They were all sniggering about something. He guessed they were laughing at some other poor man who couldn’t repay his mortgage. 

Stepping out into the town, Xavier breathed deeply and turned his face up to the sun overhead. It was a hot day, the heat bearing down relentlessly. The pigs on the farm would be restless now, struggling to cool down if their mud dried out too much. He had to get back to them, soon, but there was one more stop he had to make first.

Striding through town, he didn’t return to his horse yet, but went to the post office. Inside, it was busy, lined with men and women all trying to send letters. It only took one question of the postmaster to find what Xavier was looking for.

“Any for me?” Xavier called. 

“Xavier! Aye, your usual one.” The postmaster turned to the pigeon holes behind him and pulled out a letter, passing it over a counter into Xavier’s hand. “That young woman hasn’t stopped writing to you. When will we get to meet her, eh?”

“Someday, Thomas, someday,” Xavier said, holding tightly to the letter. “I hope,” he muttered under his breath and stepped out of the post office, back into the street. Moving toward his horse, he greeted the black steed with a tap to his nose, earning a grunt in reply, before he ripped open the letter.

A small smile tweaked his lips as he saw Mary’s familiar handwriting. She had written many times—the postmaster was not wrong—and Xavier had written back to her just as many times this last year. Just the memory of her had him stirring, thinking of their time together in the hospital. 

Those fine green eyes had watched over him in his recovery, and those gentle fingers had frequently reached for his hand, clasping it tight. As a nurse, she’d seen what damage could be done because of the war. She’d understood the harrowing danger when Xavier had talked of it to her, but she had also understood when he wished to stay quiet.

Falling in love with her had been inevitable, really. She had a beautiful soul and had accomplished something that Xavier had once thought was impossible—she had made him laugh again. After his injury in the war, knowing how many had died, it would have been all too easy to fall into a misery that he could not pull himself out of. Mary had pulled him out of it, though. Frequently, when the doctor wasn’t paying attention, she had come and sat on the bed beside him. They had talked for hours, sometimes late into the night, until they were falling asleep leaning on one another.

He’d only left her when he’d heard of his parents falling ill. That darkness was yet another to add to the list. Having watched them pass, he’d promised Mary that when the time was right, he’d send for her. They’d marry and live on the hog farm together, yet that moment he so longed for kept being put off.

How can I ask her to come and marry me when I can’t offer her a life here? I can’t ask her to come when the farm may be taken away!

He tried to push away the thought as he turned his eyes down to the letter in front of him. Mary’s handwriting was slanted in such a familiar way. She’d written another long letter to him, opening with kind words before she had grown serious.

I so long to see you, Xavier. It has been too long, far too long! I swear my mother asks me daily why I do not go to see my suitor, but she doesn’t seem to understand that we are dependent on money to be able to marry. It wasn’t something she ever worried about when she was young, and she seems to be blind to the woes of lacking money now.

Write to me when you can, my love. Tell me what progress you have made with the farm. I love my work in the hospital, but it isn’t the same, not when I dream of a better future for the two of us. What’s more, I don’t smile as much when you’re not here to tease! 

Pray, write soon.

Your loving fiancée,

Mary.

Xavier smiled as he closed up the letter and thrust it into his pocket. Even on paper, Mary still had the knack for making him smile.

“I have to find more money, somehow,” he muttered to his steed, who grunted as if in agreement. Once he had money, he could send for Mary, and just as she had said, their lives could begin the next stage. They could marry, make a family of their own, and maybe that hog farm would be full of smiles and excitement for the future rather than silence and the memories of his parents who had passed.

Pulling himself into the saddle, he mounted the horse and turned away from the center of town, riding out across the wilderness. The farm was a fair distance from town, a half an hour’s ride at least and sometimes more, depending on the weather. Overhead, the heat had grown so strong that the ground beneath the horses’ hooves was completely dry and arid, with nothing but dust that kicked up into the air.

“Soon, this heat will break,” he murmured, tilting his head to look to the horizon. When he saw the dark clouds swimming in, he gulped, fearing how right he was. Those clouds were as black as night. As they passed over a distant mountain, one cloud flashed with lightning. Such storms could cause havoc on the farm. He’d seen a storm pass the month before that had killed two of his pigs. One he was sure had just died of fright, for the thunder had rocked the earth so much, it could have been an earthquake.

Seeing the danger on the horizon, he flicked the reins and urged his steed to ride faster. If he was going to make money any time soon, he couldn’t afford to lose any more pigs from the farm, not today. He passed the stagecoach trail that led to his farm when he heard a gunshot ring out.

No.

His body froze at the sound and he pulled on the reins. Hearing gunshots was habitual in these parts, but Xavier’s response was always the same. It took him back to the war. All at once, he could see himself on that battlefield, head bent forward over his rifle as the gunshots rung out either side of him, some passing so close to the shoulders of his uniform that the cloth practically frayed.

A second gunshot came and Xavier pulled the horse to a stop, turning madly around on the stagecoach trail to see what was happening.

At a distance, he could see a stagecoach on the path. Some sort of fight had broken out. The horses were spooked, raising their hooves in the air. One kept bucking, lashing out at the stagecoach behind him, his hooves clattering against the wood of the cart. Three men had the coach surrounded, all wearing red and black bandanas over their faces. They had guns in their hands and were waving them aggressively in the direction of the coach.

Another gunshot rang out, and the driver that had been trying so hard to keep the horses under control slumped from his seat and fell to the earth beside him.

Dead.

Xavier watched, pulling tightly on the reins, uncertain what to do. Advance now, try to help, and he could end up dead, but if he did nothing, who knew what else might happen? He reached for the gun in his holster, checking it hurriedly. He had two bullets loaded. It wasn’t enough for the three bandits.

Another gunshot rang out, and Xavier jerked his head up. A man had stepped down from the coach. He’d been pleading for his life, but he’d gotten nowhere. The gunshot struck him in the chest and he fell to the earth.

Xavier couldn’t hold back anymore. Jerking on the reins, he went to run forward when he saw two of the bandits talking among themselves.

“Any witnesses, kill them!” one of the bandits ordered his friend. He flung open the coach door, but no one else stepped out.

I’m too late. Both men are dead.

The realization had Xavier jerking on the reins again, coming to a sharp halt. A minute earlier and maybe he could have done something for the men, but now, he was just a target. When one of the bandits turned to look up and down the trail, Xavier darted into the trees that bordered the trail, hiding both himself and the horse from view.

“Get the money. Get it!” a deep voice roared. 

Xavier peered around the nearest tree, trying to see what was happening. The stagecoach must have been targeted on purpose, for one of the bandits pulled out two wooden chests, locked tight with padlocks. Such coaches could be used sometimes to move money from town to town, bank to bank. The bandits must have been watching out for it.

“They’re dead… they’re dead!” one of the bandits said, his voice strained. Xavier frowned, uncertain if it was relief or panic that made the man’s voice so choked. 

“Check he doesn’t move,” the deep voice ordered, clearly coming from the leader of the group.

As the third bandit began to walk down the trail, checking for any witnesses, Xavier pressed himself behind the tree once more, praying the man wouldn’t come too close.

A third shot rang out. 

Startled, Xavier had to hold tightly to the reins of his steed, ensuring the animal wouldn’t bolt. He grunted beneath Xavier, but held still when Xavier patted his neck, comfortingly.

Why did they shoot a third time?

“Let’s go!” the deep voice called to his friend.

“But… what about the others? Someone might have seen.”

“If anyone was here, they would have come out by now,” the leader said. “We need to leave, now.” 

Xavier peered around the tree, watching as the third bandit raced back to the first, leaping onto his horse once more. Xavier’s brow furrowed as he watched two of the bandits race off. A third did not go with them.

What’s going on?

He waited until the sounds of the galloping hooves had faded into the distance before he crept out from his hiding place, urging his horse out onto the trail and toward the stagecoach. Xavier’s eyes shot first to the driver, dead on the ground, then to the man who had been guarding the boxes. Not a muscle moved in his cheek as he lay on the ground, one foot still in the coach, high above him. 

Beside him was a third body, but he was a bandit. 

How did this happen?

Jumping down from the horse, Xavier wrapped the reins around the nearest tree branch and went to each man in turn. He cursed when he reached for a pulse for the driver and the second man. There wasn’t a flicker of a heartbeat beneath the skin, nothing, not even as small as the beat of a butterfly’s wings.

Feeling a strangling hold on his throat, Xavier bent forward, recollecting what it was like in the battlefield. So many men had lain dead there, as though the grim reaper himself had walked between them, touching and killing each man he met. That same reaper had been here today, on this stagecoach trail.

“Ergh…” 

A moan met Xavier’s ears. Jumping to his feet, his eyes darted to the third man stretched out on the ground—the bandit. Racing toward him quickly, Xavier nearly tripped over his feet. He collected himself hurriedly, then dropped to his knees, reaching for the man’s wrist to check for a pulse. It was there this time, surprisingly strong. 

Turning the man over, Xavier saw his eyes flutter closed. He was unconscious but alive, and the shot in his back could no doubt kill him if he was left to bleed out.

“Hey? Hey!” Xavier tried to shake his shoulder, to wake the man up. 

He didn’t understand how this man could end up shot when Xavier had first thought he was one of the men to do the shooting. The man’s gun rested beside him on the earth, a few inches away from his fingers where it had been dropped. 

“Who shot you?” Xavier looked back at the driver and the man who had guarded the money. Is it possible one of them woke long enough to fire one last shot at their attackers?

“Er…” The man made a sound again, urging Xavier to shoot his gaze back at him. He was alive, but barely. 

Xavier had a choice. He could leave the bandit here, leave him to die, but he had seen enough men die. On both sides of the battlefield, they’d passed, and Xavier didn’t believe a man should die just for what he believed in.

He bent down over the bandit and pulled out a rope from his belt, placing it around the bandit’s wrists and forcing them together. Somehow, he had to help this man. He had to keep him alive.


“The Soldier and the Bandit” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

After the civil war, former soldier Xavier is doing the best he can on his late parents’ hog farm but he is faced with poverty and debt. On a stormy day though, he witnesses the holdup of a stagecoach that challenges his moral code. Xavier decides to save a wounded bandit and take care of him before handing him over to the authorities. When the outlaw regains his senses, he proposes that they go after the thieves together for the bounty, as payback for their betrayal. Torn between principle and his need for a better life with the woman he loves, Xavier takes the most fatal decision of his life.

Can a former soldier and a bandit find their common way to justice?

Since the war ended, Albert has been living a life of crime. Unable to escape the memories from war that haunt him, he follows the outlaws’ path with his gang, under one unbreakable rule; no one gets hurt. When his gang starts bending this rule, Albert is ready to leave, but the day he gets shot in the back turns his old partners into his sworn enemies. As his quest with Xavier begins, Albert will have to confront his own transgressive self, apart from his own vendetta.

Will he also pay the price for his own crimes, or will he take the chance to run?

On a mad chase through Kansas, Xavier and Albert realize they were both once soldiers, and their ghosts of the war walk alongside them, haunting their steps. As their relationship turns from that of captor and criminal to a respectful bond, they understand that the mission is no child’s play. Will Xavier and Albert capture the gang, or will their friendship and lives sink in blood and corruption?

 

“The Soldier and the Bandit” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

One thought on “The Soldier and the Bandit (Preview)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *