THE SKELETON WALKERS
Sensitive and artistic, 19-year-old Clement Horn wants nothing more than to pursue a career as a painter, cradled in the loving support of his family. But when his beloved parents and young sister are murdered and he is accused of the crime, Horn flees the local sheriff and sets out across the prairie to exact revenge on the men who have taken away all that he loved.
Accompanied on his dangerous odyssey by his Cherokee friend Cold Horse, Horn will encounter the worst of human nature. Can good men pursue revenge and stay good?
Shortlist: Best First Western Novel 2015, Western Fictioneers
"Vivid and emotionally powerful . . . breathes new life into the genre."
"Engaging, fresh and cinematic."
"Grabs you from the very first page."
"Lyrical . . . taut and tense."
"I couldn't put it down . . . Derek Burnett is a masterful storyteller."
The shotgun had been so loud that neither could very well hear afterward. They picked the shot from the little rodent with the tip of Horn’s knife blade and ate the meat raw, listening to the effect of their chewing on the ringing in their ears and watching the great curtain of rain sweeping toward them over the plain. Then came a colossal suck of air and they could hear the rain at last and the wind circled around and blasted water into their faces while the thunder exploded in the low sky. So strongly did the wind gust that they dropped their food, their knife and their gun and sat with their arms wrapped around each other against the uncanny feeling that they might be altogether carried off by the tempest. The storm raged on, and together they clung. It had been early afternoon when they shot the prairie dog but the land had grown nearly as dark as night. At last the wind subsided and the rain let off.
“Clearing, now,” Horn shouted.
Cold Horse shook his head and lifted his chin toward the north. “Just gone back for another armload,” he said.
It was true. There was more coming, and it arrived a few minutes later, this time pelting them with grains of ice that left the ground and their shoulders and bare heads sheeted and slick. The wind blew as fiercely as before, the thunder once again inducing panic and the lightning snapping so sharp and close that their hair rose and the electricity’s frying even penetrated through to their gun-damaged hearing; they wondered that their eardrums didn’t burst altogether. After each split of lightning, they smelled ozone. By the time it was over, night had really come.
And so they shivered in that blackness, still clutching each other under their only blanket, waiting for morning. During the night some of the clouds began to part, opening tiny slits to the stars, but these windows gave no aid to orientation being so few and so small, no better than scraps from a shredded map. Such broadness of prairie and blankness of sky produced in the wanderers a feeling of floating upon some celestial or pelagic abyss. At last the moon rose – or its light did, flat and weak behind the thick clouds in the eastern sky but enough to anchor the boys in space and remind them that they still pertained to the world they had always known.
When at last dawn broke, they staggered to their feet, kicking about in the matted tallgrass for their belongings. They found the eight-gauge some hundred feet away from where they’d spent the night, with the knife there beside it, but neither could recall that they had moved after the storm had commenced.
The horse had slipped its hobble and was far off down the prairie. Horn hollered its name but it refused to come, so he lurched after it, all his muscles contracted with cold and pain and hunger. Cold Horse stomped around their miserable bivouac, trying to bring life back into his limbs. When Horn returned with the horse, they mounted in silence and rode on.
Before they had ridden four miles, the sun had burned through the clouds and was shining hard upon them with all the force of the previous days.
“What did you think about all night?” Cold Horse said.
“What did I think about? What did you think about?”
“Good food. A fire. A girl named New Grass back in the Territory. You didn’t think about anything like that?”
Horn didn’t answer for almost a mile. Then he said quietly, “Killing those men. I thought about all the different ways I might kill them.”