Excerpt: The Great Turning (Book 1)

TheGreatTurning_book1_200x300This is an excerpt from my book The Great Turning (writing as Lesli Richardson).

[111.2k words, science-fiction, post-apocalyptic, futuristic, dystopian, GLBTQ fiction]

It’s almost one hundred years since The Great Turning, the catastrophic meteor strike that changed the world forever. Russell Owens is a recently discharged New North Americas Army sniper who only wants to return to his home just outside of Yellowstone to resume life with his gentle husband, Ted. Russell doesn’t want to re-up and hates that he had to kill for a living.

Zola Wright is the most skilled assassin the NNAA has ever had. She was tricked into re-upping—once. When the burned-out Red is sent to find Russell to talk him into returning, what her commanding officer doesn’t realize is that she’s not coming back. Her conscription time is up, and she wants out. She’s also reluctantly falling for Russell.

Now the sniper and the assassin are the ones being hunted, on the run from the army they just finished serving. Their former CO has secrets he’ll kill to keep. But Russell and Zola have more in common than their killing skills. And when Russell and Ted both fall for Zola, she knows their only option is to stand and fight together for the happiness and peace they yearn for—or die trying.

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Excerpt

As they worked their way out of South Dakota and through Wyoming, Zola noticed Russ spent the time talking with her about anything and everything possible, except for his youth in Grand Junction.

In their three days of riding, they hadn’t seen any other people, although a few times they caught sight of smoke from a homestead’s chimney or ran across a gate of an obviously maintained fence line.

“We’re coming up on Cody,” he said. “Do you want to camp outside town, or see if there’s a boarding house available?”

“I wouldn’t mind hitting an outfitter or store and resupplying.”

“I was planning on doing that.” He turned in the saddle to look at her. “I’m talking about keeping a low profile.”

“I vote we don’t spend the night in town.”

“We should be there in time to hit the stores. We can camp just past the old reservoir to the west of town.”

The mountains and valleys they’d wound their way through felt nothing like the Carolinas. There, lush foliage would paint the hills in vibrant shades of green this time of year. Out west, the sometimes hardscrabble soil, especially above the lush, green valleys, seemed to rule. There were more species of pines and evergreens instead of the long-leaf oaks, elm, hickory, walnut, and other leafy trees she’d grown up with.

Vast open areas of valleys and grasslands that had once been agricultural or grazing lands before The Great Turning now sat silent and vacant, waiting for someone to once again put them to use. A few other times they had spotted wild cattle, and even more herds of bison.

“It’s no wonder the NNA’s offering incentives for people to move out here and start homesteads,” she said.

He nodded. “Lots of fertile land in Wyoming and Montana up for grabs. I heard there’s a five-year plan to improve the roads and rebuild a couple of the main rail routes to open up shipping through here. That will really jump-start things.”

When the road turned, they spotted Cody in the distance. Her instincts kicked in. “Hey, hold up.” She rode up next to him. “Let me go in alone.”

“Why?”

“Just a gut instinct. You circle around and we’ll meet up west of town.”

He pulled out a map and pointed out the spot where he’d intended for them to camp. “Here. We’re only a couple of miles from the reservoir at that point.”

“Okay.”

He handed her coin for his share of supplies. “You really think Craige could have put someone in Cody?”

“I don’t know. Do we really want to risk it?”

* * * *

Russ studied her. In the time he’d spent with her, his surety about her integrity grew. He didn’t think she’d double-cross him. If she was going to, she would have done it long before striking out on the road with him.

“What’s your story?” he asked.

He liked that she immediately knew what he meant. “I’m heading to Salt Lake City to go stay with family. That’s believable enough.” She tapped the map. “I’ll say I’m coming from Sheridan. That was my last stop. I’m originally from Fargo.”

He nodded. “Okay.” He folded the map and returned it to his saddlebag. “What if you run into trouble in town?”

“Then I guess I’ll be a little late meeting up with you.” She urged her mount forward into a brisk walk, the pack horse keeping up behind her.

Something about the playful, cocky smile she shot him over her shoulder before heading toward town made his heart take notice. It wasn’t bragging if it was true was an ancient chestnut he’d heard Reds bandy before.

In Zola’s case, it absolutely was true. Unless she was ambushed, he doubted anything except sheer overwhelming numbers could take her out.

As he held back his horses and mule and watched her grow smaller on the road ahead of him, he briefly considered disappearing. Heading up to the old east entrance to Yellowstone that ran past Dead Indian Hill.

That would mean risking heavier unmelted snowpacks in the upper elevations, and a crumbling, steep, switch-backed road that could be treacherous even in good weather.

It would also mean ditching Zo.

And hell, it wasn’t like she couldn’t find him again. She knew exactly where he was going.

Home, to Ted the Magnificent.

He couldn’t help but smile as he thought of the playful way she said it, almost as if she hoped that’s exactly what she’d find Ted to be—magnificent.

Despite all his training, despite his learned ability to make decisions based on survival, Russ couldn’t bring himself to let go of her.

Plus, he reminded himself, he’d seen her chip code. She was a freeman. Just like him.

He trusted her.

She trusted him.

And that’s a damn rare thing.

He started out to skirt around town and make their rendezvous point.

* * * *

As Zola headed into Cody, she wondered if she’d find Russ waiting for her on the other side, or if he’d take off on his own.

It wouldn’t surprise her if he did disappear, although it would disappoint her.

I refuse to think ahead like that.

She didn’t want to get her hopes up. Especially when she wasn’t even sure she’d want to stay with the men once they reunited.

Hell, I don’t even know if Ted the Magnificent will even want me.

Or if she’d want him.

Then again, maybe nobody else will want me, either.

Cody appeared to be even smaller than Custer, a tiny outpost settlement serving the surrounding homesteads with the bare essentials. Most of the old buildings and homes on the outskirts of town had burned at some point, their charred remnants overgrown and disintegrating, returning day by day to the land.

As she located the current downtown area, she found buildings, some ancient and some newer, each separated by enough space to help contain a fire if it broke out and protect the other structures.

The outfitter, as well as a grocer, were still open. No one questioned her as she purchased supplies and loaded them on the horses. Nothing about the way the townspeople acted set her internal alarms off. Nobody seemed particularly interested in her, or seemed to be pretending to not be interested in her, either.

As she was securing the last of the supplies onto her pack horse, the man from the outfitter walked over. “By the way, which direction you headed?”

Her spine tensed. “South. Family in Salt Lake City. Why?”

“That’s good. Be careful. We’ve had bears coming down this way out of the mountains. More than usual this year. Ranchers been losing stock, too. Especially to the west. Was gonna recommend you hold up ’til morning if you were heading west. South, you’ll probably be okay.”

She relaxed. “Thanks for the warning.”

He nodded before returning to the building.

Bears…that was nothing.

It was the human animals she worried about. They were far more unpredictable than any beast.

And far more dangerous.

She looked off to the west, where the sun would make its final drop for the day behind the Absaroka Range. At the upper elevations, she made out patches of white in the shaded areas, where the snowpack hadn’t yet completely melted. This time of year in the Carolinas, any snow they might have had during winter was long gone, those ridges looking more like gopher hills compared to the sprawling western mountain ranges in front of her.

Bears. She managed to not burst out laughing.

If only that could be the new biggest worry in her life, she’d gladly take it over what she’d dealt with for the past seven years, and be thankful for every encounter.

Aware people might be watching her leave, she headed out of town on the southern road before cutting back to the west. The shadows had lengthened and turned a deep purple as she rounded a corner on the road and found Russ sitting on his mount, rifle resting across his thighs, all three animals standing there with their ears perked and swiveling, listening.

That immediately put her on alert.

“Any trouble in town?” he asked.

“Nope. I don’t think Craige’s had anyone there. Yet.” She swung down from her horse and started transferring some of the supplies from her pack horse to his and the mule. “Just a warning about bears.” She nodded to his rifle. “What’s up with that?”

He slowly nodded, scanning the area.

“Okay. What’s wrong?”

“Bears,” he said. “I heard one a while ago. Haven’t seen it, though. Just a lot of fresh scratch marks on the trees. And the animals are jittery.”

“We could push through until morning,” she suggested. “Just take it slow.”

“I’d rather not. I don’t want the horses to slip. We don’t know if there are any rockslides on the road. Moon’s dimming, and we have clouds. Don’t want to use the rechargeable light if I don’t have to.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

He’d scouted a little way up the road and found a suitable campsite for the night. What had once been a stone picnic shelter at an old park had been haphazardly walled in on three sides by someone in the past for use as a not-so-temporary shelter. They brought the horses and mule inside with them, rigging a hitching line along the back wall, in addition to using hobbles again.

Then they quickly scavenged enough dry wood to keep a fire going all night and built one up in the old fire pit someone had located in front of the doorway on the northern side of the shelter. Not so close as to smoke someone out or impede their entry and exit, but close enough it would discourage any large predators from venturing close and would reflect warmth into the shelter.

As the night wore on, the animals grew increasingly jittery, which didn’t help Zola’s nerves in the least.

Zola had also taken out her rifle and made sure she had a round in the chamber. Both of them kept weapons close by as they sat up, keeping watch.

“I don’t think I’m going to be sleeping tonight,” she told him. “No offense. Nothing against your sentry skills, and not a statement about my trust in you, either.”

“None taken. And ditto.” He slowly scanned the dark. “I feel it out there, watching us. I just hope it’s not a sow with cubs. They get really mean.”

“You’ll need to educate me about bears,” she said. “I don’t have much experience with them. We didn’t have many back home, and they were small, never came close to homes.”

“We’ve got black bears and grizzlies out here. Both are dangerous. Well, can be dangerous. Better encountered in the daytime than at night.”

Behind them, one of the horses let out a high-pitched whinny that was soon echoed by the other animals.

Rising at the same time, Zola and Russ both grabbed their rifles.

“How do I know what I’m looking for?” she asked, wishing she had night vision goggles. “I can barely see shit out there.”

“I’m going to start another fire,” Russ said, his head swiveling back and forth. “Keep me covered.”

She did, nervously watching as he built up a second fire twenty feet out from the first, using a burning branch from the first to get it started. She breathed a sigh of relief once Russ was safely back in the shelter’s entrance with her, but the animals still acted spooked.

“It backed off,” he said, still scanning the darkness beyond. “They can smell it, though. That means it’s got to be upwind of us, and damned big if they can smell it over the fire.”

She glanced at the direction the smoke was wicking up from the fires. “Coming out of the northwest,” she said.

“Probably. Or north.”

The animals had almost settled down an hour later when a loud roar somewhere nearby sent shivers down Zola’s spine.

“Grizzly,” Russ grimly said. “I’d bet on it.”

The animals also heard it, the horses close to panic and the easy-going mule not far behind them.

“Go handle the stock,” he said. “Try to soothe them. I’ll keep watch.”

“Who’s going to soothe me?” she muttered.

He smirked. “Just be glad we’re not camping in the open right now.”

She was—wholeheartedly. Walking back into the depths of the shelter, she started talking to the animals, trying to calm them. They were hobbled and tied, but she didn’t need any of them getting loose, thrashing around in the small space, and hurting itself or the other stock or one of them.

Just when she thought she’d gotten them calmed, and that everything was going to be okay, she caught sight of motion out of the corner of her eye.

When she turned, Russ no longer stood in the shelter’s entrance. The sound of several shots rang out in the dark, spooking the stock again.

Buy Links:

Kindle (US) | Kindle (UK) | Kindle (CA) | Kindle (AU)
Kindle (JP) | Kindle (IT)Kindle (DE) | Kindle (MX)
Kindle (BR)Kindle (IN) | Kindle (NL) | Kindle (ES) | Kindle (FR)

Nook | Kobo | Smashwords | ARe/OmniLit