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Justice on Horseback

“That’s justice, Hattie, and justice is what keeps us all from becoming like a pack of ravenous wolves, taking what we want with no regard for anybody else.”

Brooks has been the most righteous and just sheriff of Texas, until one day, his family was murdered by bandits. He’s never managed to deliver full justice and he’s quitted his job, caring only for his favorite bottle of scotch. When an attacked woman with her babe knocks on the door asking for his help, he knows that something is foul. He assumes his sheriff’s duties once more and goes on a hunt for the men that have terrorized his life.

A dangerous game of cat and mouse led by one of the most capable sheriff Texas has ever known—Brooks, The Golden Star. Follow Zachary McCrae’s exciting new tale of justice in the West, inspired by Zane Grey’s spiritedness and C. J Petit’s fast-paced narration.

Written by:

Western Historical Adventure Author

4.3/5

4.3/5 (1,395 ratings)

Prologue

Houma, Louisiana

July 25, 1868

Just another day. Or it should have been.

Brooks Shanton sat at the table; weathered hands squeezed tight around a tin mug of coffee. The coffee had long since grown cold as he stared at the bottle of open whiskey before him. It was a bottle he’d found on a shelf in the barn, forgotten, dusty, and laced with cobwebs, a bottle he’d set aside with the intention of never taking another drink, abandoned with pride two months ago when he’d vowed never to let another drop of liquor past his lips. A vow he’d kept.

Until today.

Tall and broad shouldered, the offspring of a generation of hard-laboring men who built the railroad across the west, he dwarfed the small front room of his two-room log cabin. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d shaved, or cared to. The chestnut-brown stubble on his chin matched the uncombed hair on his head. His wrinkled dark blue trousers and mussed gray flannel shirt could do with a wash, but Brooks had ceased to care how he looked – or smelled – to others. Besides, there was no one around to care.

Brooks ached to pour the whiskey into the coffee and swill himself senseless in the worst way. He wanted it more than almost anything he’d wanted in his entire thirty years on this earth. Well, maybe. There was one other thing he wanted more – revenge.

The wall calendar from the feed store shouted the date – July 25th, 1862. He should have torn up and tossed the calendar in the fire more than five years ago. Why he’d kept the fool thing, brought it all the way from Texas to hang on a nail, he didn’t know. It was always a reminder of a day he wished with all his might to forget.

Most days he could forget, losing himself in the hard work of carving a ranch from the harsh Louisiana land and bayous. Most of the time he counted off days on another calendar from Jepson’s Mercantile in Houma. Today should have been just another day on his small ranch. Another morning to milk the cow and make sure the cattle he’d take to market in the fall were thriving. Feed the chickens, slop the hog, maybe ride out along the fence line in the south pasture. See if that last storm had taken out any scrub oak he could chop for firewood. Sure, it was just another day.

Except it wasn’t. It was the day. The one that could still give him nightmares. Just the memory could seize him by the guts until he couldn’t breathe, eat, or sleep without wanting to tear something apart. No, not something, someone. Three someones. It was the date that had given him an overwhelming desire to lose himself in drink. A date that cost him everything. A date he’d tried to drown in whiskey for nearly six years.

He’d expected to drink until it killed him. Each night he drank until the pain and memories went away so he could sleep – until two months ago. A freak storm came up one night after he’d drank himself to nothingness. Booming thunder tore him from the welcome oblivion of sleep. In a blur, his first thought went to Ruthie, his milk cow, ready to calf any day now. Did I put her in the barn? Fierce bolts of lightning scarred the sky as he fumbled from the twisted quilt, still fully dressed, stamped feet into boots and grabbed a buffalo-skin coat.

What happened in the hours after he slammed shut the log door, he could never remember completely. Ruthie was not in the barn. He’d set out to look for her and had become disoriented in the dark windy storm. The night was as black as the inside of an iron kettle. The rain, driving fierce needles of pain into his face, drenched his felt brimmed hat. Later, he knew he had gotten too close to the edge of a bayou and had fallen and hit his head. That he didn’t become gator bait – or worse – could only be an act of Providence. He came to with his mouth full of brackish water, a stench of decaying weeds in his nose, and a throbbing ache in his head.

Hours later, he dragged himself inside the cabin to lie panting on the floor, thankful to be alive and breathing. In that instant, he’d vowed to stop drinking once and forever. Two months later, the date on the calendar mocked his vow.

Brooks poured a generous amount of whiskey into the coffee and took a burning swallow of the bitter liquid. There goes two months of being sober down the drain.

“I was the best Sheriff Beaumont ever had.” He’d gotten in the habit of talking to himself. “Yes siree … the best. I used to have a nickname, The Golden Star. How about that?” He nodded to the whiskey, “’Course the ole’ demon rum, as my Sunday school teacher used to say, got me where I couldn’t do a good job. Too busy drinking to care about my duties.”

He remembered his former deputy, Sam Rathbone, the best friend he’d ever had, except for – no, he wouldn’t think of her. Not today. Today would be the worst day for memories, the worst date on the whole danged calendar.

He reached for the bottle of whiskey. What did it matter if he stayed sober? Last night he’d had another nightmare. Woke up screaming, like he had as a little boy. That July 25 six years ago had marked him forever. The terror, the fear, his helplessness, it never went away. Maybe it never would.

Thinking about Sam reminded Brooks it had been a good long while since he’d heard from him. He fixed his mind on remembering and realized with a start how long it had been. “Guess I should write Sam,” he told himself. “Tell him I took his advice and got a ranch. Maybe wish him a happy fifty-fourth birthday.” Brooks remembered Sam’s birthday always came a week after …

Stop! Don’t think of her …

Just then a frantic pounding came at the door of the cabin. Brooks stared at the door, his hand on the bottle. Who in blazes?

“Help! Help me! Please!”

The voice sounded young and female.

Brooks jumped up, knocking over the wooden chair, and strode to the door. He pulled it open just as the woman on the other side lifted her hand to pound again. The sudden motion caused her to stumble forward, almost dropping the baby perched on one hip. Brooks got one startled glance at the greenest eyes he’d ever seen, set in a tear-streaked, flushed face covered with dirt and bloody scratches.

The woman fell through the doorway. “H-h-elp me, please!”

Brooks only just had time to snatch the baby up in one arm before the woman lunged forward, stumbled again, and collapsed in a puddle of sprigged green calico on the dusty wooden floor.

Just another day? Maybe not.

Chapter One

Earlier That Day

July 25, 1868

Near Houma, Louisiana

“‘Steal a baby from an orphanage,’ they said! ‘You’ll do it if you know what’s good for you.’”

Nineteen-year-old Hattie Munn stumbled down the dusty road, hampered by a long green calico dress and petticoats. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn a skirt; she usually wore pants like all the others. It felt a mite strange to be walking along like any other woman, in a dress and sunbonnet. The stolen baby in her arms gurgled and patted Hattie’s sunburned cheek, tugging on Hattie’s sunbonnet strings.

A baby! What am I doing with a baby?

“You know, Olive, I should have said I’m not doin’ it.”

A small voice babbled back at her. “Ma, ma?”

The night before, Hattie had managed to fool the old lady running the orphanage. She’d cried and screamed bloody murder, sobbing that a gang had attacked her. It had fooled the matron so well, she gave Hattie a room for the night, promising to send for a sheriff in the morning. Left alone, Hattie had all the time in the world to sneak into the room where the babies slept and take her pick, and to grab up some little baby dresses and some diaper flannels. It was easy as pie to climb out a window with her small bundle, mount a waiting horse and get clean away, then to find the others and show them she’d done as they ordered. I stole a baby, just like you told me.

The little girl, perched on Hattie’s hip, grinned at her with sweet blue eyes and a gap-toothed smile. Two little pearly teeth showed in the top of her mouth. Wisps of blond ringlets curled around dainty little ears.

Hattie sighed. Her hair was blond, too, but cut short so no one could take her for a girl.

Hattie had decided to name the baby Olive. Wasn’t no particular reason; it was just a name she fancied. Hattie had such a dull, brown-sounding name, almost like a cow’s name. Olive sounded fine and pretty. Once, Hattie had seen a fancy lady in Beaumont, dressed in a green silk dress. A gentleman had helped her out of a buggy and called her “Miss Olive.” Oh, how rich and fine it sounded!

“I reckon if you got to be stole from an orphanage, the least I can do is give you a pretty name,” Hattie told the baby. “Yes, sirree, Olive, I should have told him I’m not takin’ no baby from an orphanage.”

Hattie sighed, knowing she’d never be brave enough to refuse any of them. Especially him.

“You better do what I say, or else!”

Hattie didn’t need a reminder of what or else would mean. In the years since she’d been with the gang, she’d known a lot of or else. A sharp smack across the face, a switch to the backs of her legs … or worse. Sometimes she didn’t get to eat or have a cool drink of water for days. Hattie could remember thirst so powerful her tongue curled in on itself. As long as they tolerated her, it was best not to rile them. Where else could she go? Hattie had long since hardened her heart to wishing for any other life. What good would it do? Although maybe – this time – if I do good, I’ll be free.

Dang this sunbonnet! The sun burned overhead, so she struggled to keep it in place, but it didn’t fit her head in the same easy way the well-worn sombrero had. This sunbonnet twisted like a demon thing. If it didn’t pitch forward over her eyes, it near about strangled her when it flopped down her back, the strings taut against her throat. It was probably almost like being hung – something Hattie hoped never to find out.

“Wonder if stealin’ a baby counts as a hanging offense,” she asked Olive. “You reckon it’s the worst thing that could happen if we get caught?”

‘Cept maybe even the worst that could happen would be better than where she found herself now. Louisiana. What kind of a place is this?

“Gimme Texas any day,” she told the baby babbling in her aching arms. “Soon as we do what we gotta do, we can go back to Texas, and I won’t never leave again. Ever.”

Hattie couldn’t remember any home other than Beaumont, Texas. ‘Course, maybe when she had a Ma, she’d lived somewhere else. That was too far back to remember, though. It wasn’t the kind of question she could ask them. They said do, and she did. “I’m never leaving Texas again,” she repeated. “No sirree.”

Hattie knew well enough she might not be able to keep that promise – not to herself, or the baby – if he had his way. If he told her to go to Louisiana or anywhere else, she went.

Just like he’d told her to steal this baby.

Hattie stopped, shifting Olive from one hip to another. Who knew a baby could be so heavy, or a few miles so long?

Strange old place. Hattie shivered, despite the heat blistering the top of her head through the sunbonnet. The trees along this path were live oak – she knew that much – but they had gray-green strands of cobweb stuff hanging from the branches. Every slight breeze made the strands wiggle like mossy snakes.

Hattie skirted the path through the trees, staying away from the straggly strands as much as possible. What if they really were snakes, or worse? She exhaled a thankful breath when the trail opened, and she could see the beginning of a wagon path. Hattie stepped gratefully onto the grass between the ruts where the wheels had worn grooves.

The baby whimpered and grabbed Hattie’s arm. Probably hungry or thirsty. Again. Or wet. Hattie felt a damp spot on her side where the baby’s bottom perched. Babies sure were a lot of trouble. Be nice if you could just put them out in a pasture like a horse and have them fend for themselves.

Sighing, Hattie dropped a threadbare satchel and reached into the pocket of the green rose-patterned dress to pull out a piece of jerky. She put it between her teeth and bit off a length. The rest she put into the baby’s fisted hand. The baby’s bright, blue eyes stared at the strange food, but it didn’t take more than a second for the jerky strip to find her mouth. As near as Hattie could tell, the baby liked the dried beef, just like she had a while ago. Jerky shouldn’t hurt her none. But what do I know about babies?

“Guess you was hungry, huh? Only thing I know about babies is how to steal one,” she said through a mouthful of jerky. The salty taste burned, and she realized how dry her mouth felt. “Wish we had more water. An’ I guess a baby ought to have milk soon.”

Hattie picked up the satchel, shifted Olive to her other hip and started to walk again. Golly, how my feet ache! The canteen she’d been given hours before, when they dropped her off a few miles away from the Sheriff’s house, had run dry. She and the baby had taken tiny sips, but it was such a hot day, and they’d gotten so thirsty walking along that it hadn’t lasted long. Hattie hadn’t seen a nearby stream or watering hole to refill the canteen. They’d passed a big place about two miles back – what Hattie thought people called a plantation – but she hadn’t dared ask anyone for milk. “Guess when we get to that sheriff’s ranch, he’ll give us water. If we ever get there.”

Hattie squinted up at the sky. It was going on supper time, the sun making its downward slant to the land. It had taken longer to walk from the road than she’d figured.

They’d walked another few minutes when Hattie stumbled up a small rise. Off to her right, a sturdy split-rail fence ran down into a valley. A small but well-built log cabin nestled near a tiny barn, henhouse, and a few other outbuildings. Smoke curled in a lazy drift from the chimney. It was exactly where they’d told her it would be.

“We’re here,” she said to Olive.

Setting the baby on the ground, Hattie took a few seconds to bend over, rub her hands in the dirt, and smear it over her face. She pulled at the ripped sleeve to widen the tear, hearing the orders barked at her earlier today.

“You got to look like you’ve been attacked!”

That had been right before someone slashed her right cheek with jagged fingernails. It hurt like the devil, and Hattie had felt tears burn her eyes. But she knew better than to cry. To show weakness.

They didn’t like weakness. I wished I never had to see any of them again.

Hattie swallowed a knot of fear and gritted her teeth. Picking Olive up, she perched the baby on her hip. For just a second, she stopped, heart pounding. Her legs trembled beneath the ripped calico skirt. Once she walked up and knocked on the door, everything would fly into motion like a dust devil whirling before the wind. It would all come about just like he said. Everything would happen like it should until the sheriff got what was coming to him.

Hattie didn’t particularly care what happened to the man named Brooks Shanton. She didn’t know him. The man in the cabin was just someone she had to convince so he got his way. No one dared to flout his plans and she didn’t aim to be the first. Hattie had seen what happened to others who’d tried to defy him. If she couldn’t do this right, it might almost be better to just get hung and have it over.

Still, it didn’t keep her from being scared spitless or keep her heart from going pittypat, pittypat like a galloping mare.

“Reckon this is it, Olive.” Sucking in a deep breath she took off running toward the cabin. A lady running for her life would, of course, run. Hattie’s boots clattered up the two wooden steps onto the porch. Dropping the worn satchel, she raised her fist and pounded at the cabin door with all her might.

“Help me! Help me!”

Wasn’t no way to stop that dust devil plan from rollin’ on now. Not until Brooks Shanton ended up a dead man.

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