Following the Enemy’s Trail (Preview)

Prologue

Donnie Goodman peered off into the distance, looking for signs he was approaching Liberty Court. He’d traveled the forty-seven miles in the last three hours and was expecting to see the edges of his friend Jason’s farmhouse. It was very small, having been built by a couple who’d planned to add to it when they had children, but sadly, they were never blessed that way.

It had a lot of land around a tiny little house with four rooms on the first floor and two on the second, the size of large closets. Jason had moved to Liberty Court from their hometown of Bent Creek, Texas, where Donnie was currently courting Jason’s sister, Nicole Ronstadt.

With their upcoming nuptials, Nicole had urged Donnie to go to Liberty Court to fetch Jason so he wouldn’t miss out on the festivities. Donnie had originally questioned whether or not her brother would really want to participate in planning a wedding that he wasn’t in, but he knew how anxious Nicole was to see Jason again. He’d been gone for several years, and even though Liberty Court was only forty-seven miles from Bent Creek, neither sibling had managed to find time to visit the other for the last year or two.

Nicole had been the one writing letters to her brother, but she’d only gotten a handful back during that time. Jason’s life never seemed to change, he said, so he had nothing to report to her in a letter. He was always friendly, kind, and loving to his sister, but truth be told, Donnie understood why he didn’t write much. He wasn’t the smartest man and was probably self-conscious about his spelling and handwriting. Donnie had seen it, and it truly required dissection to understand what the man was saying.

Despite his academic failings, Jason was a genuinely nice fellow, and Donnie had no problems with him. So he was more than willing to travel the forty-seven miles and drag his soon-to-be brother-in-law back to his sister’s waiting arms.

He could finally see the farmhouse in the distance. The first thing he noticed was that it looked a lot more rundown than it had the last time he and Nicole had visited. They’d been courting for five years, and the first two had been filled with activities for the three of them. They were all friends and enjoyed spending time with each other. He and Nicole had helped Jason with the move and had been initially impressed with the house he’d picked.

It needed work at the time, and it looked like that work had never been done. The house had been allowed to deteriorate even further in the time Jason lived there. Donnie was surprised but chalked it up to Jason being so busy. That had been his excuse for not coming to see his sister, after all.

Donnie rode his horse to the porch, which had four wooden steps, all of them rife with cracks and holes. After dismounting, Donnie jumped up the steps, bypassing three of them completely and placing his foot on a seemingly stable part of the fourth. He was up on the porch in the next second, keeping his eyes down to make sure he didn’t go through where he was stepping.

The porch was in better shape, and the front door had obviously been replaced. The windows flanking that door were also new or appeared to be.

“Jason!” he called out, going through the front door and stopping in the small foyer. The open living room to his left was empty, and the half-open door to his right revealed a cooking and dining area big enough for only two or three people. More people in that room, and no one would be able to breathe.

Donnie was used to larger spaces, he decided as he moved through the rest of the house, the two back rooms and the narrow staircase going up to the second floor. Donnie didn’t dare go up the stairs. He was a big man and was sure he would go straight through the dilapidated wood.

“Jason!” he called again before going out the back door to the yard where there was a sitting area. He remembered it from the last time he’d visited. About forty yards out into the backyard, before the winding creek that meandered through the landscape, there was a set of trees planted sometime many, many years back so that they would grow to form a perfect circle. Inside the circle were placed stone benches that had recently been adorned with cushions to make them more comfortable. A fire pit had been added so that residents could enjoy a pleasant evening around the fire.

Donnie drew in a breath and opened his mouth to call for Jason when his eyes spotted something in the circle of trees. He blinked and focused, but his mind refused to believe what he knew he was seeing.

Dread and shock sent chills up his arms and down his spine. Instant tears came to his eyes, and he blinked rapidly to clear them. He broke out into a run.

He was at the trees a few moments later, lifting his arms, circling them around Jason’s hanging body, murmuring, “No, no, no, no….” repeatedly.

He whipped the knife from the sheath attached to his gun belt, stepped up on one of the benches, and sliced through the rope, allowing Jason to fall into his arms.

“Oh, no, no…Jason. Jason.”

Donnie sat on the bench with Jason bundled in his arms, not bothering to fight the tears that streamed down his face. Nicole would be devastated. How could this have happened? There were no signs that Jason had climbed up there and done this himself. Donnie had easily stepped up on the bench to get him down.

Donnie felt something wet on Jason’s back and lifted one of his hands to hold out in front of his face. It was covered in blood.

Donnie closed his eyes. This was all wrong.

Jason had been murdered.

Chapter One

Donnie’s mind was a virtual blank as he sat in the sheriff’s office. He stared in front of him, examining the front of the man’s desk, noticing it was made from wood that had lines of differing colors weaving their way through the surface. He wasn’t interested in the different colors nor the pattern they made.

He wasn’t even thinking about anything. The only thing Donnie could comprehend was that his friend, Nicole’s brother, was dead, and he couldn’t do anything about it. There was no way to make this better. The entire situation was out of his control, and that left him feeling numb and helpless.

“How long did you say it’s been since you saw Jason last?” the sheriff, an average-sized man in his mid-thirties, peered at Donnie with piercing blue eyes. He was sitting forward, his fingers laced together on the surface of the desk. Donnie looked up at him, blinking as he focused.

“I…I think we saw him a couple years ago….”

“You think? Or do you know? You don’t know when you saw the man last? Your own brother-in-law?”

Donnie chose not to say anything about the reference to his relationship with Jason. He had to say something to show they were closer than just friends. His vest and shirt were now covered in Jason’s blood, and all he wanted to do was take a bath and change clothes. He understood the sheriff wanted to ask him questions, but he would have hoped they could wait until he got comfortable.

He couldn’t get the sight of his friend hanging from the tree out of his mind. He could close his eyes, but he would see it in his mind and on the back of his eyelids. He could open them, but no matter what he stared at, all he saw was Jason, swinging slightly, dead as a stone.

“How long was he up there?” Donnie murmured, chills covering his body. “How long did he have to hang there like that with no one noticing?” He lifted one hand, sliding down in the chair a little, placing his hand over his eyes and forehead. He squeezed his fingers together, applying pressure to his skull. Nothing would rid his mind of that image…nothing. “I can’t believe this. Why would someone do this to him? Why?”

“Do this?” Sheriff Ian Trumaine was already showing himself to be incompetent. Donnie was disappointed to see it. “You think someone killed him? You don’t think he did it himself?”

Donnie took his hand away from his eyes long enough to give the sheriff a hard stare before sitting forward and resting his elbows on his knees. He looked up at the man sternly.

“No. Did you not talk to that undertaker? He said he’d know more after he looked at Jason’s…body, but he said that the combination of being stabbed and then hung up was what killed my…my brother-in-law. Not just the hanging. So did he stab himself in the back several times? Or how do you explain that?”

Donnie sat back hard in frustration. The sheriff also sat back but without taking his eyes from Donnie’s face.

Donnie barely noticed. He wanted to get clean. He had to ride back to Bent Creek and tell Nicole what had happened. There would be a wake and a funeral, and a burial to consider. They would have to find out who in Liberty Court were his friends so they could be invited. Nicole wouldn’t want anyone to be left out.

Donnie’s chest felt like it was suddenly placed in a vice with the handle turning. He nearly lost his breath and had to sit forward again, this time putting his head in his hands. He choked back a sudden sob that left him coughing.

“All right, all right,” Sheriff Trumaine said in a softer voice than he’d been using. “You calm yourself down, sir. How about you get yourself into some clean clothes and go tell your loved ones about this. I’m sure his sister will wanna know.”

“We…we aren’t from here,” Donnie said, looking up at the man, “which is why you don’t know me. Can you tell me who I can talk to around here that might have known Jason?”

A strange look came across the sheriff’s face before he answered, “He worked at Stern Ranch. You wanna know who he was friends with. That’s the place you gotta start. Don’t you wanna go get your family first, though?”

Donnie nodded. “I’m going back to Bent Creek in a few hours. I need to get cleaned up and go through Jason’s house. Will you be doing that, too?”

“Yeah, I have two deputies over there looking around the backyard. You let me know if you see anything that might help us figure out who did this, all right?”

Donnie stood up and held out his hand for the sheriff to shake. He had to wonder what had caused the sudden shift in the sheriff’s attitude. At first, he’d obviously been suspicious that Donnie had something to do with the murder. It seemed all Donnie had to do was show some emotion for Sheriff Trumaine to believe he was innocent of any wrongdoing.

Donnie didn’t know how to feel about that. This was the man’s town. Whoever had done this had to live in this town. Was the sheriff going to really investigate or just let off anyone who showed emotion when being questioned?

It was like a double-edged sword. He didn’t want to be blamed, but he didn’t want everyone let off because the sheriff had a “feeling” they were innocent.

“You don’t mind if I look around then?”

Sheriff Trumaine shook his head, now standing with his hands firmly placed on his belt at his sides. “Not a bit, friend. Do what you think you gotta do. Sometimes the people who are closest see the things the rest of us don’t, am I right?”

“Yes, sir,” Donnie replied, nodding, his mind already formulating what he would need to do to solve this crime. He would have to enlist Nicole’s help—he already knew she wasn’t about to stand on the sidelines—and that might mean both of them would be put in some dangerous situations.

As a carpenter by trade, Donnie hadn’t gotten into any sticky situations doing the work he did. But somehow, he and Nicole seemed a magnet for people in trouble and had twice already acted as bounty hunters, tracking someone down after a chance encounter and bringing them to justice.

Now the danger had hit close to home. Very close. The forty-seven mile between Bent Creek and Liberty Court had suddenly been brought together in Donnie’s mind, had folded into a next-door neighbor situation.

He left the jailhouse wishing he had visited Liberty Court more often. He had never written a letter to Jason. He’d sent his well-wishes through Nicole’s letters. He’d never received a letter from Jason, either, which was par for the course. He had never expected one and might have fainted dead away if he’d received one.

Who could have done this to his good friend? Why would anyone want to kill Jason? Last he’d heard, the man was a simple ranch hand, not the smartest man on earth, but he’d had skills with his hands and a creative mind. Stabbed multiple times in the back and strung up like a piece of butcher’s meat.

Donnie’s heart hurt as he headed back to Jason’s tumbledown shack. He needed to clean up. He would have to wash the shirt, as well, because he hadn’t been intending to stay and hadn’t brought any change of clothes. He didn’t know he would be getting covered in blood that day.

Chapter Two

Nicole lived with her cousin, Martha, a woman seventeen years her senior, on the west side of Bent Creek in a lovely two-story farmhouse with all the elements of the farm, including a chicken coop, pig pen, several barns filled with animals, and a pair of geese to wander around the property making noise. She loved living there and didn’t mind telling people it was one of the reasons she was not yet a married woman, though she was devoted to just one man.

There were almost two thousand people in Bent Creek, and it was considered one of the most popular towns in that area of Texas.

It was the day she expected Donnie to return, and she was hoping Jason would come with him. When he came into the living room with his hat in his hand and a disturbingly sad look on his handsome face, she wondered why immediately.

She got to her feet, setting the mending she was doing to the side. “Donnie? He said no, didn’t he? Oh, dear. Why doesn’t he want to come back?”

Donnie didn’t reply right away. He just kept looking at her. Nicole felt a sense of panic slide through her. She stepped back, her skin tingling with dread.

“What’s happened?” she asked breathlessly.

Donnie licked his lips, his eyes flipping to Martha, who had done the same as Nicole, putting her sewing to the side and standing to approach him.

“It’s Jason,” Donnie whispered loudly. He swallowed visibly, his eyes still intent on her. Chills erupted on her skin. Her mind immediately went to the darkest edges, and her fear was confirmed when he followed up with, “He’s been killed. He’s dead.”

Donnie’s face crumpled with emotion, and he dropped his hat to the floor, putting up both hands to cover it up and catch his tears.

“I’m so sorry to have to tell it to you, Nic. I’m so sorry.”

Nicole stood for a moment staring at him, absorbing what he’d said. Her brother couldn’t be dead. She hadn’t had a chance to rekindle their closeness. She wasn’t able to tell him how much she loved him and cared for him. He was so funny, making her laugh all the time with his silly jokes. He made the best beef stew she’d ever tasted, seasoning it perfectly and serving it with his version of cornbread that, for some reason, was better than any other ever made.

He couldn’t be gone.

He couldn’t be.

She felt Martha’s arms around her, but she stepped out of them to get closer to Donnie. “What are you talking about?” she asked, unable to accept what she’d heard. “You must have gone to the wrong house. You must be talking about someone else. Maybe that man just looked like Jason. It wasn’t Jason that was killed. That doesn’t make sense. Who would want to do that? Why? He doesn’t hurt anyone. He’s not an outlaw or a criminal. This doesn’t make sense….” She would have continued, but Donnie circled his arms around her and pulled her into a hug she couldn’t resist. Her arms were between them, having come up in front of her chest when he grabbed her, and she stood there, letting him hold her to him. She stared over his shoulder, confused, frustrated, shocked.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she finally whispered.

He squeezed her and pushed away from her, holding her directly in front of him and staring into her eyes.

“Nic. He’s gone. Do you hear me? He was…hanging from a tree when I got there.”

Martha gasped, her hands flying to cover her mouth, her eyes wide. “Oh my!” she let out in a breathy voice.

Donnie glanced at her before returning his eyes to Nicole. She tried to concentrate on what he was saying.

“It wasn’t someone else. It was Jason. I wasn’t mistaken. I didn’t get the wrong house. He’s been killed, Nic, and we have to go find out who did it.”

When the tears finally came, Nicole was sure they would never stop. She saw Jason in her mind through the years, when they were young, what they’d done, where they’d gone together. She remembered him standing up for her against those mean boys and girls in school, though there had been few. She heard his laughter and heard his joking voice in her head.

She dropped to her knees and began to weep uncontrollably. She felt Martha come to hold her on one side while Donnie did the same on the other. They let her cry and cry until she couldn’t cry anymore. Not then, anyway. More tears would come for years. Of that, she was certain.

“What…what did they say happened?” she asked when she was able to get herself under control. Martha had retrieved a handkerchief, and she mopped up her teary face. Nicole wanted to hear the whole story. “Tell me everything that happened from as soon as you got there,” she said.

Donnie led her by the hand to the couch she’d been sitting on and sat next to her. Martha sat nearby in a chair, still having said nothing substantial, the agonized look on her face saying it all for her.

Donnie told her how he’d found Jason and got him down so easily, and that there were stab wounds in his back that Donnie didn’t see at first. He didn’t trust the sheriff. Trumaine was driven by emotions, which made him incapable of being objective.

“I know you want to come back with me, Nic,” Donnie said, “and I don’t mind if ya do. But you gotta know we’re gonna get in some trouble with some people. Somebody was willin’ to kill Jason, so they’re sure to be willin’ to kill two strangers trying to uncover their crimes. You gonna be all right with that? This might be worse danger than the other times because he was your brother. These bad men are sure to find out about that.”

Nicole had recovered enough in her grief to know she wanted to find out who murdered her brother. She pulled her eyebrows together and glared at him for a moment. “You know I don’t care what happens to me now. I have been in danger for other people I didn’t even know. I’m certainly going to find out who did this, no matter what I have to go through.”

Donnie nodded. “I know. I just have to warn you because we haven’t been after a murderer before. Thieves, yes. Killers, no. I just want you to be sure you want to get involved. I can take care of this. I can get Adrian, and we can go out there and find the men who did it.”

Nicole shook her head. “You can’t take the doctor of Bent Creek and go after these men, Donnie. He’s needed here.”

She felt a drop of relief in her wounded heart when Donnie lifted one side of his lips in a half-grin. “He’s good to have around if you get wounded, though.”

Nicole appreciated his dry humor when the atmosphere was so painful. She nodded. “That may be true, but Jason is my brother, and I’m going with you. I know how to shoot a gun, and I’m not afraid…well, I’m not too afraid to do what I need to do. It would be foolish and careless not to be worried a little when going after bad men.”

“All right. We’ll travel back there tomorrow and start looking around.”

“I’m ready to go now,” Nicole said, shaking her head. “I don’t want to waste any time.”

Donnie took her by the shoulders. “It’s nine at night. We’ll get some rest and leave tomorrow.”

Chapter Three

Things didn’t go as Nicole and Donnie planned. When they woke up the next day, they found Sheriff Trumaine had come to visit and brought Jason’s body with him. The undertaker had also paid a visit at the same time. They had returned Jason to his family, they said, so that he could have a proper burial.

From the moment he saw them in Bent Creek, Donnie suspected something had happened. The sheriff had acted like Jason hadn’t been murdered and tried to insist it was self-inflicted wounds. The undertaker was less vehement about it, looking reluctant when he agreed with the sheriff’s assessment.

He hadn’t exactly warned them off, but Donnie and Nicole got the impression the sheriff didn’t want them to return to Liberty Court to investigate the death.

Donnie looked at Nicole’s profile as she scanned the guests at the wake they were holding.

It had been three days since he’d found Jason, and the sheriff was in Bent Creek, seemingly to keep Donnie and Nicole from going back to Liberty Court. He told the two he would keep them updated as his deputies were sending him telegrams twice a day.

This didn’t sit well with either Donnie or Nicole, and they were both stewing about it the day of the wake.

The angry look that was now set on Nicole’s face was unsettling, as well. She had maintained a happy, positive outlook most of her life despite her and her brother losing both parents in a stagecoach accident and being forced to then live on their own until grown. He hoped that when they got to start investigating, that anger would ease up a little. He didn’t want it affecting the rest of her life.

“I don’t understand why he’s here,” Nicole grumbled, getting Donnie’s attention. He looked where her eyes were directed to see Sheriff Trumaine standing near the door by himself, looking around. “He didn’t know Jason. I didn’t invite him.” She turned her eyes to him, narrow and accusing. “Did you invite him?”

“Of course I didn’t,” Donnie replied, shaking his head. “I reckon he thinks he can be here because he’s the sheriff.”

“But he thinks Jason took his own life. So why is he needed? It’s not like he is looking for the person who did this. He’s just here to save face. Maybe he killed my brother. Who’s to say he didn’t?”

Donnie could see her building herself up into a fit. He reached out and put his arm around her shoulders, leaning his head close to her to whisper, “Please try to stay calm. We might need him and his men when we go to Liberty Court in a couple days. You’ve got to stay calm. Being angry now isn’t going to help matters at all.”

Nicole sighed heavily, glancing up at him over her shoulder. “Of course, you’re right, Donnie. I just can’t believe he is trying to say Jason took his own life now after you told him the undertaker said that isn’t possible because he would have had to stab himself in the back several times. Why does everyone believe that sheriff?”

Donnie shook his head. “Who says they do believe him?”

“But why is he lying now?” Nicole asked harshly, keeping her voice low so she wouldn’t disturb the guests at her brother’s wake. “Why would the undertaker change his mind, too? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Donnie had to admit he felt the same way. How could he not? He had been the one to point out to the sheriff that it was the undertaker—not Donnie—who noticed the stab wounds were in Jason’s back. There was no explanation for them except that someone else had done it. And since one of them was perfectly placed to go through the heart, it was those injuries that had killed Jason, not the hanging. The hanging had just been an afterthought, probably so that he wouldn’t be found for a long time and to throw even a shadow of a doubt on the method of death.

“We’re going to find out what’s going on whether or not the sheriff helps,” he said firmly, “but it’s always good to try to keep them on our side. Besides, this wake is for Jason, and I don’t want his memory disrespected. I know you don’t either. Let’s keep this to ourselves for now.”

His words had the desired effect.

She nodded and held her tongue, moving her eyes away from the sheriff. He was glad, but he understood how she felt. The sheriff seemed almost useless, and why he’d shown up at the wake knowing the two were upset with his decision to call it a suicide was beyond Donnie’s comprehension.

“Come on,” he said, grabbing Nicole’s arm. “Let’s get some fresh air.”

She came along with him willingly and without question. They went out to the veranda on the back deck of the pastor’s house, which was where they were holding the wake. Martha’s cottage was too small, and there was no way Donnie would have allowed it to be held at Jason’s house.

His father had offered their house, but in the end, they’d decided to have the wake and funeral at the pastor’s house because the cemetery was between the house and the church. It was a quick walk for everyone. Nicole wanted it to be convenient for people. That’s how Jason would have wanted it.

The two walked out of the house and left behind the din of noise, people murmuring, telling their stories to one another of things probably having nothing to do with Jason at all. But they’d shown up out of respect, about two dozen people, and that was enough for Nicole, who hadn’t complained at all about the turnout. She’d been worried, he knew, mostly because Jason had few friends left in Bent Creek. He hadn’t done anything to them. They’d just left the town or the state on their own. He himself had left Bent Creek, so having two dozen people remember him probably meant a lot to his sister.

They turned to the south, heading for the cemetery. Donnie could see the grave diggers with their shovels, preparing the earth to receive the body of his good friend. His heart tugged, and he pushed a fresh batch of tears back down.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Nicole murmured. “It’s Jason. Jason. He never hurt anyone or harmed anyone. Surely he would have sent me some kind of hint in a letter that he was involved with dangerous people, wouldn’t he? He was a gambler, but was it that bad?”

Donnie took his lady’s hand and squeezed it, bringing it up to his lips to kiss the back. “I don’t recall him being a terrible gambler, no. I don’t recall him being that kind of man.”

“No.” Her tone was stern. “Of course, he wasn’t. He wasn’t a cheating man or a liar or drinking all the time. He wasn’t violent.”

Donnie had heard her defense of her brother many times in the last several days. He imagined he would hear those words from her again, especially if they encountered someone new.

“Who is that?” Her words made him look at her sharply and then turn his eyes to gaze in the direction she was staring. He saw a woman standing near the grave that was currently being dug. She was watching the gravediggers with an intense look on her face, as if she was about to throw off her fancy hat and gloves and scarf and jump in the hole with them.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Shall we go find out?”

Donnie was surprised when the two of them set off toward the woman. She turned and noticed them but did not hurry off. She waited for them, never taking her eyes off them. The anxious look on her face told Donnie she wanted them to come over and talk to her. As strange as it was, he was curious to find out why.

“Hello?” Nicole framed the word as a question, giving the impression the woman wasn’t allowed where she was standing.

“Hello,” the woman replied without hesitation. “I’m Helen Davidson. I need to tell you something about your brother.”


“Following the Enemy’s Trail” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

When Donnie Goodman arrives at Liberty Court to pick up his best friend, Jason, a shock unlike any other hits him; his closest companion has been brutally murdered. This is not the news Donnie wants to deliver to the woman he loves, Jason’s sister. What if the ruthless assassin targets her next? Whatever the cost, he must uncover the monster who did it.

The time has come for payback…

In her pursuit of justice, Nicole Ronstadt is determined to find the murderer of her brother, and ensure that he is punished for his crime. Embarking on a quest with Donnie, she will have to put her feelings on the back-burner. Now is no time for mourning…

Who could be behind this murderous rampage?

Sooner or later, Nicole and Donnie find themselves entangled in a web of deception with no end in sight. Who will be the next innocent victim? Will they find the killer in time? Survival is going to require more bullets than you can imagine!

“Following the Enemy’s Trail” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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