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The Witness

From the moment that he’d shown up as sheriff, Johnny Steele had been the perfect example of everything that a man should be – strong, confident, and always willing to help out those in need.”

Sheriff Johnny Steele wakes up one day to find everything changed. It’s not just that he finds a teenage boy with tattered clothes in the midst of a violent storm. It’s that this boy serves as a valuable witness in a moment of cruelty. And now, Sheriff Steele must protect son and mother against a gang that wants them dead. The clock is ticking. Will he make it on time to serve justice in town and save innocents from certain death?

Don’t miss out on Zachary McCrae’s western adventure novel—perfect for fans of Louis L’ Amour and C. J Petit!

Written by:

Western Historical Adventure Author

4.4/5

4.4/5 (1,046 ratings)

Chapter One

Etta Heidelberg was petrified.

The weight of the figure on top of her was almost more than she could bear. The stench of the whiskey on his breath and the clumsy groping way his hands moved over her body made her struggle with every last ounce of strength she had. It was useless.

He was too powerful.

“Just relax, darlin’,” he said, his hateful voice close to her ear, “and it’ll be over soon. The more you fight, the longer I’ll be here. It’s all up to you, darlin’.”

Tears streaming from her eyes, Etta took a deep breath and forced herself to stop fighting, made herself go limp.

She had no idea how long he was with her. It might have been minutes but it seemed like hours. His body odor was overwhelming, but she knew if she threw up it might make him angry, so she simply turned her head to the side and tried, as best she could, to breathe through her mouth.

She didn’t know who he was.

Of course, she knew he was a soldier. That much was obvious but she couldn’t tell from the darkened room if he was Confederate or Union. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he was here with her and he was destroying her, taking part of her with him as he mounted her, forcing himself on her, slamming into her again and again.

When he was finally finished, he collapsed on top of her and said, in a voice that was almost thoughtful, “Maybe I’d be better off if I just went ahead and ended things with you right here and now.”

She felt the cold knife blade against her throat.

This was it.

She was going to die.

At that moment, she snapped awake and for a moment, she was completely disoriented.

She took in the coarse blanket, the flickering light from the lantern that she’d accidentally left burning and she lay there, willing her heart to slow down, forcing herself to remain calm.

“Just a nightmare,” she told herself. “That’s all it was. It was just a nightmare and everything’s fine now.”

Of course, it was more than just a nightmare, she knew.

It was a memory.

It was a memory of that night, years ago, when a young Etta had woken up in her bed to find a stranger there, dimly outlined by the light from the moon outside her window – a stranger reeking of alcohol and an unwashed body.

The weight of him as he claimed her in her own bed felt like a boulder dropped on her. At first, she’d tried to get him off of her, tried to open her mouth to scream, but he’d whispered, “You call for help, darlin’, and you’re gonna wind up getting some people hurt, and I’m sure you don’t want that. You just need to be quiet and let me do all the work. Once I’m done, I’m out of here and you ain’t never going to see me again – but I promise you that you’ll never forget me.”

She got out from under the blanket and wiped the sweat off her body with a small towel she’d taken to keeping by her bed. The nightmares always came without warning and they always left her feeling drained and completely exhausted.

***

By the time morning came, Etta had managed to pull herself together.

As she’d gotten dressed, she thought about the nightmare, thought about what she saw when she looked at herself in the mirror. There was still some of the pretty young girl she’d been back then, but now there was a weariness in her eyes she couldn’t avoid. She’d been told that her eyes sparkled when she laughed.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed, though.

With her long brown hair and high cheekbones, she’d seen how she could still turn the heads of the men in town – but that didn’t matter to her. She had one thing on her mind and that was to raise Peter into being the best possible man he could be.

Standing by the stove, she took a couple of eggs out of the skillet and set them down on a plate, next to a glass of milk.

“Peter!” she called. “Breakfast!”

From the room at the end of the small hallway, she heard the sound of movement. She knew from experience that it would be a few minutes before he managed to struggle out of bed and make it into the kitchen.

Sure enough, about five minutes later, Peter came out of his room.

Her attacker had lied when he’d said that she’d never see him again when he was done with her. Even though she had no idea what he looked like, she saw him every time she looked at Peter – the child she loved with her heart and soul and the one good thing to come out of that horrible night.

“Mornin’, Ma,” he said, sitting down at the table.

She looked at the sandy-haired, pale child that she had kept alive through a frightening childbirth and first few difficult months and, as always, she felt a warmth spread through her that helped her to fight the coldness that night long ago seemed to have left in her soul.

She noticed the way Peter was looking down at his breakfast and said, “Anything wrong, Peter?”

He shook his head and said, “Everything’s f-f-fine, Ma.”

She was immediately alert. Whenever Peter’s stutter began, she knew he was trying to keep something from her.

She left the stove and went over to him, lifting his chin up gently with her hand, and stared at the bruise around his left eye.

She felt sick to her stomach.

“Peter, have you been fighting again?”

He stared at her, his hazel eyes meeting her gaze, and he said, keeping his voice soft and even, “We were playing and I fell, Ma. That’s all.”

There was a part of her that suspected he might be lying to her, but she didn’t want to think about that. Instead, she held onto the words he gave her and nodded.

“All right, then. You know how I feel about fighting. It’s not something that I want to see you involved with. You understand that, don’t you?”

He nodded.

“Yes, ma’am. I do.”

“Anyone who uses their strength to hurt someone is not someone that I want living under the same roof with me. The world is a hard enough place without people out there wanting to cause pain to others.”

She watched him move the eggs around on his plate and then take a long drink of milk.

“How’s school going?” she asked.

He shrugged. “All right, I guess. Miss Victoria is a little harsh on us, sometimes, but that’s just who she is. She’s kind of hard.”

“She probably just wants all of you to do the best you can and to just behave. I’m sure having a bunch of rowdy boys in the classroom probably makes her have to use a little discipline now and then to keep you young bucks in line.”

Peter nodded. “I guess.”

“Well, finish your breakfast and then get ready for school. I’m going into town to get some flour and some fabric.”

Peter, staring down at his plate, nodded his head again and said, “Yes, Ma.”

As she looked at him, she realized that he was probably having a difficult time at school. After all, she was an unmarried woman who had a son, and even though no one had ever asked her about her past, as if sensing it was something she didn’t want to talk about, she felt certain that others suspected the truth about Peter’s father. After all, it was not an uncommon occurrence after the war.

It doesn’t matter who his father is, she thought. I’m his mother and I’ve put nothing but love and kindness into that boy – and I know he’s going to grow into a fine man.

She told herself that several times a day – and every night, she prayed to the Lord that Peter would turn out to be the man she wanted him to be.

***

“Hey, Peter,” came the familiar, hateful voice behind him, as he stood outside the schoolhouse that afternoon, “did you tell your mommy that I beat you up?”

When Peter turned around, he saw Butch standing there, along with a couple of the kids who always hung around the bully. The smirk on Butch’s face made Peter’s blood boil but he remembered all the promises he’d given his mother about not fighting and he slowly shook his head.

“I didn’t tell her, Butch. That was between you and me.”

Butch’s dark eyes regarded him for a moment, and then he said, “Yeah, well, that might have been between you and me, but that still don’t change what your mommy is. I heard my father saying that you don’t even know who your own daddy is because your mother didn’t know how to keep her legs closed.”

That did it for Peter.

A wave of rage washed over him and before he knew it, he had drawn his hand back, fingers curling into a fist, and he’d hauled off and punched Butch right in the nose.

The banker’s son let out a howl of pain and anger and when he pulled his hand away from his nose, blood started spurting out.

For a moment, everything seemed to stop. It was like they were all frozen in place – Peter standing there, feeling a burst of satisfaction over what he’d done to Butch, the others standing next to their friend, watching as he burst into tears, and –

“Peter Heidelberg!”

At the sound of his name coming from Miss Victoria, Peter whirled around to see the tall, pale schoolmarm marching towards him, fury in her eyes. Knowing that he was in trouble, Peter tried to tell her what Butch had said, but his stutter got in the way.

“B-B-Butch s-s-said th-that m-m-m– “

Miss Victoria grabbed him by the ear and started pulling him towards the schoolhouse, where Peter knew his punishment awaited him.

***

Peter watched his mother look up from the note that Miss Victoria had sent home with him; seeing the disappointment in her eyes was nearly enough to make him want to cry. He tried so hard to live up to his mother’s expectations, but it was really hard.

She didn’t understand what it was like for him – and there was no way he was ever going to tell her, either. He might not have had a man around the house to learn from, but Peter knew that part of being a man was dealing with his problems on his own – and doing everything he could to protect his mother from all the hatred out there in the world.

“Peter, I just don’t understand you,” she said, softly, shaking her head. “I know that you’re a good boy. You’re fifteen years old and well on your way to being a fine man. I see it in you all the time – but then you go and do something like this and I’ve got to tell you, it breaks my heart. With all the violence and fighting and hatred in the world, the thought that my own son would be a part of that makes me just sick to my stomach.”

Peter looked away from his mother’s gaze, feeling his face heat up. He hated disappointing her, but he knew that if he tried to tell her why he’d hit Butch, she wouldn’t understand. She’d just tell him that it didn’t matter what other people said about her. What mattered was that she knew the truth about who she was and she wasn’t about to let the opinions of others change how she saw herself.

“I reckon you’d better just go to your room, Peter, and get down on your knees and ask God to forgive you for what you did. Then, tomorrow, you and I are going to go to the Donaldson farm and you’re going to apologize to Butch in front of his parents and me. After that, the two of you are going to shake hands and this whole business will be done.”

As Peter trudged to his room, head down, he knew there was no way that he was going to apologize to Butch. It was time that he got himself away from here and made his way in the world.

He knew that if he stayed he’d only continue to disappoint his mother and he couldn’t let that happen.

Chapter Two

“Now, then, Wilfred,” Johnny Steele said, as the two of them rode to Eldin West’s farm, “you let me do all the talking, you hear?”

The short, heavyset deputy glanced at the sheriff and rolled his eyes. It was something that Sheriff Johnny Steele loved to joke with him about, considering that Wilfred Stander was as good a deputy as any sheriff could want, but he was also a man of very few words.

Where Wilfred was short and balding, Johnny towered over most men. He had thick brown hair and dark eyes that seemed to take in every detail they saw. Despite his size and his solid build, there was a kind of gentleness to the man that most lawmen didn’t have.

Then again, that gentleness quickly disappeared at the first sign of trouble.

They were heading up to pay a visit to Eldin West, a rancher just outside of town. West had had a few run-ins with Steele, and while he was not actually a “bad” man, there were times when he seemed to just charge right ahead and do things without thinking about them.

This was one of those times.

The trail turned to the left and the two men rode through the gate of the West farm. Johnny took note of the four horses out in the field grazing and looked around, studying the farmhouse and the small barn located just to the right.

The porch door opened and Eldin stepped out. He was a big man, with a body that had once been rock-hard but had softened up a bit with the years. His dark eyes glanced from Johnny to Wilfred and settled back on the sheriff.

“Afternoon, Sheriff,” he said, his deep voice rumbling. “What can I do for you?”

Johnny flashed him an easy grin.

“Well, I was kind of hoping that you could help me out with a little problem I’ve got,” he said, turning around and looking out into the field and glancing over at the barn. “I guess you’ve got four horses out there in the pasture, Eldin. That about right?”

The rancher nodded.

“That’s right, Sheriff.”

“So, all total, how many horses are on the property, Eldin?”

“I got four horses, Sheriff. I just told you that.”

Johnny chuckled.

“Yes, you sure did, Eldin. The thing is, I didn’t ask how many horses you have. I asked you how many horses are on the property right now. See, Jeremy Carter paid me a visit and told me that the two of you had a falling out and the next thing he knew, he was missing one of his horses. So, I thought that I might just come on by and see how you were and find out if maybe one of his horses might not have wandered over to your property here.”

Eldin licked his lips and shook his head, but he didn’t meet Johnny’s eyes.

“No, sir,” the rancher said, quietly. “Only horses I got around here are the ones you see out there.”

The sheriff turned his attention back to the barn, looking at the stall shutters; they were all open – except for one.

“You know, I think maybe I’ll head on over to the barn and just take a little look around. Who knows? Maybe Jeremy’s horse came all the way over here and then snuck into the barn without you picking up on that. I reckon something like that could have happened, right?”

Eldin took a deep breath. “Well, I reckon that there might have been a horse showing up here out of the blue this morning and I suppose that the horse might look like one I thought I seen over at Carter’s farm, come to think of it. The thing is, Sheriff, when Carter came over to you a-cryin’ about me, did he mention that he owes me money?”

Johnny shook his head.

“No, he didn’t. What you got to understand, Eldin, is that the law don’t care if he owes you money. That’s something that you got to settle in court. You don’t just take it upon yourself to go and steal a man’s horse. That just ain’t right.”

“It ain’t right the man owes me money, Johnny.”

“You’re right about that and that’s why we got Judge Mooney around. He can figure out what to do. In the meantime, though, I reckon you need to take Jeremy’s horse back to him and apologize.”

Eldin thought about that for a moment, then shook his head.

“I’ll take his horse back, Sheriff, but I’ll be danged if I apologize to the man. He owes me money.”

“Yes, so you said. Take the horse back and then go and tell Judge Mooney your story and if he finds that you’ve got yourself a case, you’ll get your money back – and you might even get an apology from Jeremy himself.”

***

As they rode back to town, Wilfred kept looking over at Johnny, frowning. It looked like he wanted to say something but was keeping it to himself.

After a few miles of the sideways glances, Johnny cleared his throat and said, “Reckon you got something that you want to talk to me about, Wilfred.”

“Sheriff Brandelle would have run Eldin in, you know. He’d have called the man a thief and that would be the end of it.”

Johnny nodded. “Technically, he would be right. I don’t see much point in throwing someone in jail if the only thing they did was make a mistake, though. Eldin’s not a bad man. He’s just someone who thought he got wronged and wanted to see justice done. Only thing tossing him in jail would have done is gotten him embarrassed and made him distrust the law even more than he probably already does. The way I see it, he’ll take the horse back and him and Jeremy will go to Judge Mooney and get everything worked out.”

Wilfred seemed to think about that for a few miles, then he turned to Johnny and asked, “Where were you before you showed up here, Johnny?”

The sheriff chuckled. This was something that Wilfred had been trying to find out since Johnny first arrived in town. Of course, everyone in Willow’s Bend had been trying to learn more about Sheriff Johnny Steele’s past, but that wasn’t a subject he discussed with anyone.

Some things just needed to stay private.

One of these days, Johnny hoped he’d find someone that he could share his past with – but, for the moment, he simply had to keep his past in the past.

***

When Johnny and Wilfred arrived at the jail, they found Lars McDill repairing one of the front steps leading into the sheriff’s office.

Lars was a tall man with thick blonde hair and a quick smile. He was one of the first people who had welcomed Johnny when he arrived in Willow’s Bend and there was an easygoing air about the man that immediately made most people relax around them.

“How did it go, Sheriff?” Lars asked, sanding down the edge of the step to remove any stray splinters that might have developed during the repair. He ran his hand over it several times to make certain the job was done properly.

Lars was one of the local handymen and everyone agreed that his work was beyond reproach. He was also one of the most active church members and Johnny knew him to be a vital part of the community, always available to lend assistance to those in need.

“Well,” Johnny said, “I think everything is all taken care of. Eldin is on his way to Jeremy’s to give him his horse back.”

The handyman looked at Johnny for a long moment and then asked, “Do you think most people are basically good people, Sheriff?”

Johnny thought about that for a moment.

“Well, an Indian friend of mine once told me that when he was a little boy, his grandfather told him that all of us have two wolves inside of us. One is good. One is bad. These two wolves are fighting all the time to try to win over the kind of person we are.”

“Which wolf wins?” Lars asked.

“His grandfather told him that the wolf who wins is the one we feed the most. I reckon that means we all have good and we all have bad inside of us, Lars, and we’re as good or as bad as we make ourselves to be.”

“Well, I guess the wolf in you is mostly good, Sheriff,” Lars said.

Johnny sighed but didn’t say a word.

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  • I thought that the story was very good would like too find out more about how the sheriff and the lady meet, probably would be over her son.

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