TWO-DAYS RIDE WEST OF Sacramento – 1871
As his horse reached the crest of the hill just before his home, Beaumont pulled him to a stop, wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm. He was filthy and nothing he did could get the stench of the smoky train exhaust from his nostrils. But his contract with Central Pacific Rail was finished, at least for three months, and Beaumont was looking forward to spending some serious time with his wife and children.
Eugenie. Beaumont smiled as he looked down at the homestead they had built together, nestled in the valley below. The house was sturdy. Solid. Just like their marriage. Beaumont wasn’t sure who he had to thank for the way Eugenie came into his life, but he was forever grateful.
Eugenie had taken his animal spirit in her stride, even though her own father preached against the perils of ‘demons’ who walked in men’s clothing. She had said nothing about it, raised to be a decent woman in all things. She’d simply packed her bags when Beaumont proposed marriage and hitched her wagon to Beaumont’s life. In the years that followed, she’d blessed him with two sons and a daughter, turning their house into a true home.
“Come on, boy.” Beaumont urged his horse down the hill. Eugenie wouldn’t be expecting him, not that it mattered. She always kept a meal on the fire, and Beaumont’s blood surged as he imagined her helping him with a hot bath. He’d been gone three months—their only contact was the occasional letter. Beaumont always promised he would write to his wife more often, but working on the rail line had been hard and dangerous work. Most free moments Beaumont had, he spent eating or sleeping before they dragged him awake to face the next problem coming his way.
Eugenie would forgive him. She always did. Beaumont imagined her tut-tutting at him in that gentle manner she had as she helped him out of his dirty clothes.
His horse’s hooves clattered loudly over the paving stones she’d insisted on having laid around the back of the house—determined she didn’t want mud tracked onto her spotless wooden floors. The woman was a loving saint in every way, and Beaumont’s salvation. He didn’t like to think of the life he’d led before she showed him how a responsible man should be.
The state of the two-horse stables was the first indication that something was wrong. The old mare Eugenie had to pull the trap she used when she went to town, neighed frantically the moment she saw him. Checking her stall, Beaumont realized she had no water or feed, and her coat looked as if it hadn’t been brushed in a week.
Rather than spend time filling troughs, Beaumont released her and his own beast into the paddock behind the stables. There was rainwater in the trough there, and his concern grew as the mare flew to it as if demented, drinking fast. Looking around, it also surprised him that no one had come out to greet him. On previous homecomings, Eugenie would immediately go into the kitchen to heat water for his tea. And from when his sons could walk, they would both dash out of the house, often forgetting to put their boots on as they couldn’t wait to fling their arms around Beaumont’s legs.
The back door was wide open. There was nothing but ash in the kitchen stove. There were three bowls sitting on the table, spoons resting on the lovingly sanded wood—clean, as if waiting for the evening meal. But there was nothing cooking, and as Beaumont strained his ears, there were no sounds coming from anywhere in the house.
He sniffed, his animal side alert and wary as they picked up a musty metallic smell in the air and then the stench of death wafted over him like a wave.
“Eugenie!” Beaumont yelled, as he raced through the house, tugging at his shirt and the fastenings on his dusty pants. There was mud on his boots—Eugenie would be so disappointed… although, as Beaumont raced into the family room and stopped short at the horrific scene, he knew with the sudden plummet of his heart she would never be disappointed in him again.
There were so many flies. Beaumont let his shift come over him—alligators couldn’t cry, and the last thing Eugenie or baby Victoria needed was tears. Their bodies bloated in the oppressive heat, all Beaumont could hold on to was that the damage done to two fragile human bodies was above the neckline. Little Victoria’s body was still half hidden by her mother, who had tried to protect her passage through into the afterlife.
His thick tail swung around, sending a chair and a small occasional table flying. Beaumont remembered gently teasing Eugenie—what’s the point of an occasional table? What if we want to use it all the time? Eugenie had laughed, patting his arm in that way that always made Beaumont feel special, while he paid for the table she’d asked for. She so rarely asked for anything.
The boys. Where are the boys? His oldest son, Beau, was nine. His younger brother James—named after Eugenie’s deceased brother—was seven, almost eight. One of the reasons Beaumont had pushed his horse so hard to get home early was because it would be James’ birthday in just three days.
His alligator stalked through the house, tables and chairs crashing in his wake. Eugenie’s precious vase, the only gift she’d received from her mother, shattered, left in a million pieces on the floor. It was of no consequence. Ground floor, second floor, Beaumont covered every inch of the house he’d built with the desire to keep his family safe.
But they hadn’t been safe. Someone had come. More than one person. Stealing into his house while he was away working, murdering his precious wife and his sweet little girl. Victoria was only four. Dead and stinking up the living room, Eugenie carefully swept and dusted every day.
The boys were gone—there was no sign of them anywhere. Beaumont didn’t know whether to be relieved, or terrified for what might’ve happened to them.
Raging through the night, Beaumont waited for the morning to come before burying his sweet wife and daughter. Forgoing the house, Beaumont slept in the stables with the horses on the odd nights he was home, spending every minute he could hunting for the men who’d destroyed his family.
That was until he received word about the small body of a boy found washed up on a beach miles away, three months later. It was Beau. There was still no sign of James anywhere. After burying his son, Beaumont went home, packed a few basic possessions, gave Eugenie’s horse to the neighbor, and laid a fire in the house. The walls were falling under the flames as he rode away.
But Beaumont would never forget. Someone had answers about what happened to his family, and by everything that was holy, Beaumont wouldn’t rest until he found those answers and his family’s tragic deaths were avenged.
It took over a hundred years before Beaumont would get even a sniff of a clue about what might have happened to his family. While Beaumont was working on the shifter council, he listened as an unusual man named Marvin spoke in front of a members’ meeting about his friend Riley.
Riley was a young boy who’d been abducted from his murdered mother when he was just a few weeks old. He’d been kept away from his father, who was in the military—the father blackmailed into compromising his position by the promise of Riley’s safety. During a mission, the father finally learned Riley had been dead all along. He’d killed the man who claimed to have strangled baby Riley and thrown his body into the sea. The sea—the same place Beaumont’s son had been found washed up from.
Beaumont remembered thinking how at least Riley’s father had the satisfaction of killing the man who’d taken his son. But Marvin’s story wasn’t finished. Riley was returned, turning up at the father’s hotel like he’d just been out on a playdate—a playdate that lasted six long years.
Beaumont hated how his heart lit up with hope at hearing Riley’s outcome. Maybe now, after all the time that had passed, he could finally get some answers. All he had to do was to make friends with some assassins, apparently. And fortunately, he had plenty of contacts who could help him do that—one in particular. If only the damned man would answer his cell phone.