He might not have the muscles, the mustache, or even the cool hat, but seventh-grader Blake Monroe has the heart of a cowboy. He just needs the chance to prove himself. So when the ghost of his rowdy Wild-West ancestor needs his help, Blake’s ready to ride. They begin their search for a long-hidden ransom, a treasure that Gray, the ghost, is determined to find . . . only life’s a little more confusing for him than during the 1800s.
The duo sets out on the trail, but their adventure is derailed when they realize they aren’t the only ones after the ransom—Gray’s old enemy, a deadly outlaw named Jack Wallace, is in pursuit. And that’s when Blake realizes it is going to take more than a cool hat to get them out of this one.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I like elements of Western writing. I like the idea of the white hats and the black hats, good vs. evil. I like the ruggedness and open spaces. I don’t think I’d ever write a true Western, but I thought I could take the best parts and make an exciting adventure.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I liked the idea of a regular, video-game playing middle grade student hitting the dusty trail with a tough old gunslinger. I knew there’d be lots of humor as they became a part of each other’s lives, and from there I filled in the details to make them real people.
Blake Monroe drifted through a crowd of his seventh grade classmates down the main street of Silver Strip, following a chubby tour guide with a plastic sheriff’s star pinned to his chest. Blake gazed at the long-abandoned houses that lined the outskirts of the settlement. Their walls sagged nearly to the point of collapsing. Businesses along the street had a few parts left from the 1800s, but now, with props and fresh paint, they felt like a movie set. The only thing that really interested Blake was a massive, brick-lined vault that stood in a pile of broken stone, the crumbled remains of the bank building. He briefly tuned in to what the tour guide was telling them:
“The Captain Moore outlaw gang attempted to blast into the vault in 1886.” When he spoke, he waved his arms around like he was conducting the church choir. “As you can see, the bank didn’t fare well, but the vault held up.”
Blake made a mental note to see if the vault door was unlocked. He doubted that they would have accidentally left money in it, but it was at least worth checking.
“Why do they call the town Silver Strip?” one of his classmates asked.
The tour guide blinked at the kid, his merry smile fading. “I just mentioned it. Who knows why they call it Silver Strip?”
Apparently, Blake wasn’t the only person who hadn’t been listening. I wonder what girls were like in the old days, he thought. I wonder if I would have had any better luck back then.
His teacher, Miss Kenyon, sighed with disappointment. She had this way of sighing that could be heard over an entire class of seventh graders. “Just go,” she muttered. “Have fun. I’ll be on the bus if you need anything.”
A cheer rose up, and Blake’s classmates scattered in all directions, stampeding with the excitement of the last day of school. Blake couldn’t be bothered with the craziness. As the dust settled around him, he tried to come up with a plan.
Tyler had already run off, but wandered back when Blake and Corey didn’t follow. “Let’s go, Blake,” Tyler said. He watched the rest of the class like a dog tied up on the porch. “We’re here to have fun, not mope around!”
Blake didn’t respond.
“This is like hanging out with my parents,” Tyler muttered. “Except you two are even more boring.”
“Forget about her,” Corey told Blake, taking off his glasses and wiping the sweat from the bridge of his nose. “Natalie’s about as far out of our league as any girl could possibly be. If you were lying on the ground and turning blue, she’d walk over your blue body.”
“If you did ask her out, what would you even talk about?” Tyler asked. His hair was spiked today. Always something new. It looked ridiculous, but Blake didn’t even feel like making fun of him.
Instead, Blake dragged the heels of his cowboy boots in the dirt, as the three boys slowly made their way toward the shade of a covered walkway that lined the storefronts. Blake’s eyes locked on Natalie, who sat on an old wagon parked across the street, giggling at something Marsha Richards had just told her.
“Maybe she likes horses.” He thought about taking her for a ride on the back of his grandmother’s Appaloosa. They could pack a picnic and ride out to the slope overlooking the city. “Don’t girls dream about guys on horses? Is that just a movie thing?”
Corey considered it for a moment.
“Don’t think too hard. You’ll hurt yourself,” Tyler said.
“I think one of the things that makes Natalie so popular is that she’d never speak to guys like us,” Corey concluded. He crinkled his nose. “Did you step in something? It smells awful.”
Blake felt goose bumps, a strange sensation with the summer heat beating down on him. He looked down at the hairs standing on end on his skinny, pasty-white arms. A cow bell clanked lazily, and he glanced between the buildings to see a few cattle meandering along. They appeared to shimmer in the heat.
“Where did they come from?” Blake asked.
Tyler stopped short, and Blake bumped into his shoulder. Above his friends towered a cowboy’s silhouette. He looked authentic, from his grimy white Stetson hat to his chaps. Shadows filled in his hard features. He flashed a strained grin from behind his dark black mustache.
“Pardon me, fellas,” he said with a distinct drawl in his voice. The man glanced at Tyler, then Corey, before turning his eyes to Blake. He was studying Blake, trying to get a read on him.
Blake’s toes squirmed uncomfortably in his boots. Nothing to see here, mister, he said in his head. Move along.
“Howdy!” Tyler apparently wasn’t nervous. He nodded toward the cowboy’s holstered six-shooters. “Do you know any quick draw tricks? You know, like spinning your gun on your finger?”
He nodded. “I know one trick—that’s making holes in people where there didn’t used to be none.” His lips curled into a sly smile, and he chuckled as Tyler’s smile vanished. Then, the man glanced over his shoulder and leaned in toward the boys. Blake noticed a feather tucked into his hat band. “Listen, I was wondering if one of you had a message for me.”
A message? Blake glanced at his friends, hoping they would answer, but they were useless. A message. His toes squirmed again. It felt like when the teacher asked a question in class and everyone tried to pretend they were invisible, but the cowboy’s eyes narrowed, making it clear that he expected a response.
“Well…” Corey cleared his throat. “No, I don’t think we have a message.”
The cowboy pointed a finger in Blake’s direction. “I was talking specifically to this fella.”
Oh good, he’s talking to me. Blake’s chest tightened. He wracked his brain trying to think of what this guy was talking about, which wasn’t easy with the cowboy’s eyes locked onto him. “Is this something we learned in class?” Blake asked.
The cowboy frowned. “Do you know who I am?”
“Are you supposed to be Wild Bill Hickok?” Corey asked, and the cowboy’s brown eyes became immediately stormy.
“In what way do I look like Wild Bill?” the cowboy growled. He pulled off his hat for the boys to get a good look at him.
In what way do you not look like Wild Bill? Blake wondered.
“My hair’s only about two feet shorter than Bill’s,” he grumbled to himself with his hat in his hand. The cowboy shook his head and turned his back on the boys, retreating the way he had come.
“What was that?” Tyler asked the others. “We should call the police. I thought he was actually going to shoot me.”
“Maybe he hates his job,” Corey said. His glasses were slipping again. “I’d hate to entertain people at a ghost town. He’s just a step up from a rodeo clown.”
Blake looked for the man down the street, but he was already gone. Instead he glanced back at Natalie, who slumped against the wagon seat. I wonder if she saw me talking to that weird guy.
“Did you see the way he glared at us?” Tyler asked, walking away. “He’s lucky I didn’t-”
Blake cut him off. “What’s the worst that could happen if I just went up and asked Natalie out?”
“She could laugh in your face.” Corey stared in the girls’ direction, apparently unaware that they might notice. Blake stepped into his line of sight to prevent any extra attention. “You know,” Corey added, “that’s probably the best thing that could happen, too. Her laughing in your face is the only result I can think of.”
Blake scowled at his friends. None of them was cool, but they seemed to believe the popular kids were actually better than them.
“Remember when you said that you could make the Legion baseball team?” Tyler asked. “Remember how you thought the coaches would see your potential? They cut you practically before you even stepped on the field.”
Of course he remembered. He could have made the team if the coaches would have given him a chance. Blake tugged on his sagging pants, thinking that he could impress the girls more if his mother stopped buying him clothes to grow into. But sagging pants or not, he knew what he needed to do. Butterflies danced around in his stomach. He puffed up his chest and began the march over to the wagon where Natalie and Marsha sat.
Tyler took a step with him before he realized where Blake was headed. He stopped and fled back to Corey, yelling after Blake, “You don’t have to prove anything! I was just giving you a hard time. Let’s go check out the blacksmith’s shop.”
Natalie and Marsha continued talking on the wagon, looking bored with the whole field trip. They watched their classmates passing by and turned to each other to relay the gossip they’d heard about those they picked out. Natalie adjusted the strap on her tank top, a move that Blake found beautiful in a way he couldn’t explain. Marsha’s eyes locked on to him first, and Blake swallowed hard. She leaned into Natalie, not bothering to pretend to look away, and he felt the urge to run for it. Natalie turned to watch him, but still he continued on, wondering what dirt they could possibly be discussing about him. I don’t even think I like Natalie anymore, he realized, but he had already reached the wagon.
The girls fell silent. Blake did, too. He turned his eyes down the street, squinting as though staring at something important. Nothing important immediately jumped out, but he nodded his head seriously. From across the street, he could hear Corey yelp, “He’s choking!” Blake shot a look in that direction and spotted Corey hiding behind one of the posts of the covered walkway.
He slowly turned his head back toward the girls. “I like it here. I like this ghost town,” he said, as he forced a smile. “Are you having fun, Natalie?”
“I’d almost rather be in school.” She scratched at a bug bite on her tan leg.
“Yeah, school’s okay, I guess.”
A sarcastic smile spread across her face. “I hate school.”
“Oh.” He slowly nodded again. To his horror, he realized he had already run out of things to say.
Marsha sat up straight, something down the street catching her eye. “George is coming,” she told Natalie.
Blake turned and saw George Buck, his least favorite person in the entire world, marching their way. His muscular arms pumped furiously. Blake had managed to stay clear of George for most of school, until the day George’s family started buying up his family’s land. It was just a matter of time before somebody bought it, but it still didn’t sit well with Blake. The next time George bumped into him in the hallway, Blake told him that he smelled like the Dumpster behind the cafeteria. Blake nearly ended up in the Dumpster that day, and it had been war ever since—a very one-sided war.
Blake realized he’d have to hurry, before George butted in. What have I got to lose? he asked himself.
“So, Natalie.” He wondered if he looked any calmer than he felt. “Do you want to go out sometime? Maybe go to a movie this weekend?” She didn’t react. “I’m buying,” he blurted out, realizing almost instantly how stupid that sounded.
“Hmm.” Natalie tilted her head and thought for a moment. “You know, I think I do want to watch a movie this weekend . . .”
Blake’s heart leapt. He could hear the guys whispering excitedly from across the street. George stopped next to him, but Blake didn’t care anymore.
“I want to go watch a movie . . .” she repeated “. . . just not with you.”
He looked back at her, and she glared at him like he was a pile of manure. Blake sagged. Marsha busted up laughing, and asked, “Do you even have enough money to pay for a movie?”
“Why are you messing with my girlfriend?” George positioned himself over Blake, bumping his chest into him. George had to shave already, and he wasn’t any good at it. He had this one long hair on his Adam’s apple that drove Blake crazy. It was gross from across the classroom, but it was even grosser right up in his face.
“Your girlfriend?” Blake’s stomach turned. Wish I’d known that five minutes ago. Corey was very wrong about what the worst thing that could happen to him might be.
George’s hairy forearm flexed as he made a fist. “You poor, pathetic loser,” he hissed into Blake’s ear.
Blake looked to Corey and Tyler for help, but they stood helplessly by. Thanks, guys. George again bumped him, causing Blake to stagger. “I can’t have a poor loser talking to my girlfriend. What will people say?”
“We’re not poor,” Blake snapped. Of course, everyone was poor to George. New Buck Hills was named after his family, after all. People joked that they owned half the land in Montana, but it probably wasn’t that much of an exaggeration.
Blake scowled. He glared at Natalie, glared back at George. He knew he should walk away, but he could feel anger worming its way through all the calm and reasonable thoughts in his head. Besides, if he was going to get beat up, he wanted to earn it. He turned back to Natalie and said flatly, “I’d sit with at least one seat between you two at the theater.” He pointed at George. “That guy’s got a hair on his neck that looks like a tree branch. You don’t want it to touch you.”
Natalie nearly choked on her gum. George looked dumbfounded, which wasn’t that far from his normal expression, and felt along his neck. Then, his lip curled into a snarl. “You. Are. Dead.”
“Stop, boys!” Miss Kenyon came running from the buses. “You two behave!” She slid an arm between them as a barrier. At school, other teachers would have jumped in, but in Silver Strip, she was the only authority. George shoved Blake with both hands, sending him on his back in the dirt street. The bully forced himself past the teacher. By then the whole class had gathered around to watch Blake’s humiliation. George kicked a cloud of dust at him, and Blake launched into a coughing fit. “Stop!” Miss Kenyon yelled again, but George had no intention of stopping. His meaty hands reached for Blake. Blake squeezed his eyes shut, bracing for pain. His classmates gasped. Blake flinched, but the force of George’s fists never came.
He peeled his eyes open again. The mysterious cowboy stood face-to-face with George, grabbing and twisting George’s shirt collar to make it tight.
“Let me go,” George ordered, but his eyes widened in terror.
The cowboy pointed down at Blake. “Don’t ever touch that boy again.” His voice had become deeper, menacing.
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
The cowboy snorted. He grabbed the shirt with his other hand and lifted George half a foot off the ground. His feet dangled, searching for the street. “Do what you want, but I’ll come for you.”
Not used to orders, George pressed on. “My dad will—”
The cowboy yanked him further off the ground. “I’ll whip your whole family if I need to.” He flung the biggest kid in the seventh grade class backward as though he weighed nothing. The man’s brown eyes turned to Natalie. He didn’t speak, but his hardened face said that he hadn’t forgotten her.
The whole thing was too stunning to believe. George gave me a concussion, Blake decided. I’m seeing things. That’s the only explanation for this. He checked the faces of his classmates, who stared at the cowboy with fear and delight. Gradually, the man’s muscles relaxed. His face softened. Miss Kenyon inched forward. “I have it from here. Thank you.”
The cowboy smiled with no trace of the fury he just displayed. “You shouldn’t let these children take advantage of you.”
Her cheeks flushed, and her head dropped forward. He took one finger and raised it back up. “You’re a mighty pretty lady.”
Normally, Blake would have snickered, but he continued watching with his mouth hanging open. With a quick movement, the cowboy took Miss Kenyon’s hand, bent at the waist, and planted a soft kiss on it. The class let out a loud “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Her hand was released, and it clutched at her chest like she was afraid the class would see how fast her heart was beating. The cowboy turned, and the students parted, whooping loudly as he made his way out of town.
“Was that your boyfriend?” Tyler asked the teacher.
“Lord.” She fanned herself with her open hand. “I wish.”
On the way out of Silver Strip, Miss Kenyon had Blake sit in the seat next to her, George and Natalie across the aisle. She ordered the bus driver to stop near the visitors’ station, a small wooden shack with a drive-through window. She grumbled to herself when the chubby tour guide slid open the glass.
“Need another map for your classroom?” he asked. “I got plenty.”
“Who’s that cowboy you had back there?” she asked under her breath.
“This is a ghost town, ma’am. All the cowboys left about a hundred years ago.”
“Well, who’s that actor, then?”
“I’m the only person here—Sheriff Billy Bob. Just me and the ghosts.” He gave a corny wink.
Miss Kenyon took one more look around and motioned for the bus driver to drive on. George and Natalie slumped down in their seat. Blake glared at them, knowing they couldn’t do anything about it and wishing he could toss George Buck through the air like that cowboy did. “I don’t want anyone to save me,” Blake mumbled to himself. I want to be the hero.
I was born in Jefferson City, Missouri to a family of all twins (a brother and two younger sisters). I’ve been told that I liked to write at a young age, but I don’t remember that at all. I first remember really getting into writing during a creative writing class at Helias High School. After high school, I studied at Lindenwood University. I thought business was a more practical field than writing, but that only lasted for one boring class. Instead, I earned my degree in English and communications.
I’m a big fan of wandering around–usually a walk around the neighborhood will keep me happy–but after college I took it to a new level. Despite aiming for film school in Los Angeles, I ended up working at a casino on the Pojoaque Pueblo in New Mexico. It was a life changing experience in many ways, but that episode first got me interested in Western themes in my work.
After a little more wandering, and graduate school at Missouri State University, I moved back to Jefferson City, where I currently live with my wife and daughter. I teach online writing courses for Columbia College, and I also work at Communiqué, Inc., a communications firm my dad founded just months before I was born.
I don’t have much free time, but when I do I still like to write and wander, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Have you read this book or others by this author? Tell us in the comments how you liked it!