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Chapter One

1885 Texas

Sheriff Oliver Herring was unhappy when a horse came barreling down the street, causing several people to jump out of the way or be run down. He decided that he was going to give the kid a stern talking to, and if the boy didn’t show some remorse in a respectful tone of voice, Oliver just might give the kid a tanning he would recall when he sat his saddle for the next several days. He didn’t put up with rowdy behavior in his town of Waterson, and he never would. With determination, he walked down the sidewalk in long strides. The man was big, and most folks respected his size alone, if not the badge he had worn for the last twenty-eight years.

“Son, what the hell are you thinkin’ by ridin’ like that and scarin’ the crap out of folks?” he asked, his deep voice full of disapproval.

“Just who do you think you are speaking to in that rude tone of voice, and using that kind of language?”

A soft, melodious voice assaulted Oliver’s senses, and he suddenly realized that he had made a huge mistake. “Beg pardon, miss. I thought you some young cowhand who needed a talking to. Do you have trouble of some kind?”

“Yes, I have trouble, and I will deal with it myself, Sheriff, if you would be so kind as to mind your own business.” She gave him her back and marched toward the saloon.

“Now see here, lady,” he sputtered in shock as he moved to block her way. “This here is no place for a lady. It’s a saloon, and a who— house of ill repute. You can’t go in there.”

“Sheriff,” she said quietly. “I expect you to stand aside. I do not tolerate fools lightly, and I am going inside the saloon, and there is nothing you can say or do to stop me!” Valerie Masters drew herself up to her slightly less than five feet of height, and then she poked him in the chest with one fingernail. She had no idea that her tight jeans made her look like a young girl, and she wouldn’t have given a damn if she did know. “Are you going to move, big man?” she asked in an antagonistic tone of voice.

“What I am thinking of doing, little lady, you wouldn’t like. I suggest you make up your mind that this saloon is off limits to you, and move along. If I can’t help you with your problem, then best that you head on home. Your pa would probably be happy to help you.”

“You are too funny, Sheriff. Now move aside.” Her voice was firm, and bespoke confidence.

“You have pushed me as far as I will be pushed. Now you move along or I am going to show you what happens to little girls who ride into this town full of sass.” Oliver wasn’t joking. He was two seconds from putting the girl over the hitching rail and dusting her britches with the palm of his hand.

Valerie was suddenly furious. How dare the big oaf call her a little girl? For God’s sake, at forty-three years of age, she was certainly not a little girl! She was a widow! Valerie was strong for a woman of her size, and she gave the sheriff a hard shove, intending to knock him on his butt and walk past him. Instead, the man did not budge, not even one inch. His blue eyes were furious as he glared down at her, and in the next second, he picked her up and plopped her over the hitching rail where she’d tied Soldier. “You let me go, you big baboon!” Her answer was a spank on the seat of her dusty britches. “How dare you!” she fumed. “I will shoot you dead for this!” she promised, and Valerie Masters always kept her promises. Suddenly, his hands were underneath her, and within seconds, he had stripped her of her gun belt and pistol.

“Now I can do a proper job of this, little girl.”

“I am not a little girl!” she screeched as he started peppering her behind with spanks that hurt and left her poor bottom stinging like crazy. An audience was gathering, and Valerie was growing angrier by the minute. How dare he treat her in this manner!

“You are not going in that saloon, little girl. Do you hear me?”

“I am not deaf, you big bully. Let me go, or I swear I will make you regret it if it is the very last thing I do!” Soldier was getting upset, and Valerie managed to reach over and untie him. “Go boy!” she ordered, and Soldier did as he was taught. He came lunging toward the sheriff and pushed him away from Valerie. While Soldier held the man at bay, she grabbed her gun, and went storming into the saloon, looking for Blade McCall. “Where is McCall?” she demanded.

“He saw you and flew out the back. Claimed you wanted marriage, but he was just helping out a widow relieve her frustration,” the bartender said with a snicker and an obscene grin, until she shot the mirror behind him and sent a shower of glass all over him, nicking him in places.

“McCall stole from me, and I want his ass in jail. If he comes back here, you’d best tell him to turn himself in before I catch him. I’m offering a five hundred dollar reward for him ALIVE. Dead will get you nothing at all.” She tossed a gold coin at the bartender. “Buy yourself a new mirror, and never, but never, speak to a widow like that.” She turned to leave, and the infuriating sheriff was standing there. “It is all your fault that McCall got away, Sheriff. Now get out of my way so I can track the bastard.”

“You aren’t going anywhere but to jail,” Oliver said, and his blue eyes reflected his anger. He no more believed the girl was a widow than he was the man with green cheese on the moon!

“You have already let a thief get away, and now you want to compound your foolishness by arresting me? You can go straight to hell, Sheriff.” She tried to walk past him, but the big man was too quick. He grabbed the gun from her hand, and then he bent and scooped her over his broad shoulder. “Put me down!” she yelled, using her fists to pummel his back.

Oliver reached up and smacked her butt with strength in the blow. She gasped in outrage and pain, and then she hit him even harder, using both fists. Oliver started spanking her fanny in earnest then, and by the time they reached the jail, Valerie was crying in pain. He dumped her on the cot in a cell, and then slammed the door shut and locked it.

“I will make you wish you had never been born, Sheriff!” The green eyes were full of fire as she gave him a look of pure contempt.

“I have heard that one too many times to count. Tell me who to send a wire to so they can come and get you,” he demanded, determined that he was sending her home with a male family member, father or brother or uncle. It made him no never mind, but the foolish little girl was going to get herself killed, or worse, if he left her on her own.

“Fine. Take your pick. My first son is as big as you are, and he wouldn’t raise a violent hand to a woman, but he won’t mind tearing you apart, limb by limb! My second son is an attorney, and he will have your badge for manhandling me. My third son isn’t so polite; he will simply gun you down in the street when you least expect it.”

“You expect me to believe that you have three grown sons, little girl?” he scoffed. “Maybe a pa and a couple of brothers, but they can’t be much if they let you run all over the countryside by yourself.”

“My father is deceased now. He was a colonel at the beginning of the Civil War and finished as a general; perhaps you have heard of General Abraham Norton? If he were still living, he would run you through with his sword!”

“I served under him,” Oliver replied, glaring at her.

“So did my deceased husband,” she said, getting up off the cot to rub her smarting rear.

“I am about to paddle you soundly, little girl; husband, father, brother, or uncle?”

“I have none of the above. I have four sons, but the youngest is only twelve years old, and much too young to ride anywhere alone.”

“Fine. I am going out for some dinner. Maybe you can tell me the truth when I come back.” If he didn’t get away from the brat he was going to punish her in anger, and with his strength, he could seriously hurt her if he unleashed his temper on her butt.

“Where is Soldier?” she suddenly demanded.

“Stabled. You’re damn lucky I didn’t shoot the beast.” He slammed the door to the jail and then stomped down the street to Grandma’s Kitchen. He sat there for five minutes, and Marjory still didn’t come to wait on him. “Marjory, I don’t have all day.” He usually received good service, but the young woman was purposely snubbing him, and it hurt his feelings.

She finally walked over and slapped a glass of water on the table, sloshing it all over. “What do you want?” she asked, her brown eyes snapping with temper as she glared at him.

“Marjory, what did I do to make you act like this?” he asked, his blue eyes full of concern.

“I can’t believe you honestly don’t know!” Marjory was not being coy. Her face reflected her disbelief.

“Honey, I honestly don’t know. Please tell me.”

“You humiliated Mrs. Masters, and her a widow!”

“What? That little girl?” He was stunned.

“She isn’t a little girl! She’s tiny, but she has to be at least forty years old, Oliver! I used to live in Kell County, and she and my ma were friends. I can’t believe you spanked her like that!”

“Marjory, I thought her a young girl. I truly did. I was tryin’ to keep her out of harm’s way in the saloon,” he explained.

“That is pure crazy. Val Masters can out draw and out shoot nearly everyone. She taught her boys to shoot. She also can use a knife, and a whip. I saw her beat the daylights out of a man for punching his wife in the jaw one day in the mercantile. She threw him out into the street, picked up a whip, and laid into him until he was blubbering like a baby.”

“How long has she been a widow?” he asked, wondering why her husband permitted that behavior.

“Well, see, Clem was thrown from a horse he was trying to break. Mrs. Val was pregnant then. I reckon it’s been a good thirteen years by now. She took on running the ranch until the eldest son grew up. He loves the ranch. The second boy went to law school, and the third is a U.S. Marshal. They are going to hurt you real bad if you don’t apologize to Mrs. Val and let her out of jail.”

“I need to think on this, Marjory. I truly thought that she was a kid.” He shook his head and then said, “Fix up two specials with two pieces of pie and two glasses of milk, and put it on a tray, honey.”

“That’s a start,” Marjory told him. “I knew there had to be an explanation for why you were so mean to a widow.” She hurried away then, and Oliver waited impatiently for her to get the food.

When he finally returned to the jail, he was shocked to see the cell door was wide open, and there was no sign of Valerie Masters anywhere. He left the food on his desk, and took off running for the stables. “Did Valerie Masters get her horse and ride out?” he demanded of Dan Miller.

“She shore did. I done thought you locked her up, but she smiled and said that you’d changed your mind, Ollie. She done paid me and saddled that stallion and rode out. She was wearin’ her gun belt tied down, and said she had a criminal to catch.”

“Damn! Get my horse ready, Dan. I’ve got to go after her before she gets herself killed.”

“I dunno about that, Sheriff. She handles her gun like a professional killer.”

“She’s a tiny woman, Dan. Get my horse ready while I inform Adam that I am leaving town.” Adam Smith was his deputy, and would have to take over the protection of the town in Oliver’s absence. When he caught up to that woman, he was going to give her a spankin’ that she wouldn’t forget in a hurry. If he’d done it before locking her up, she wouldn’t be able to sit her saddle right now, and it would have saved him a ton of trouble.

***

“Was there any news of Ma?” Case asked his brother, who was dismounting by the barn.

“Not a word,” Kane answered. “Nothing from Nate, either. Where is Seth?”

“In the house sulking. I caught him shooting at Ma’s chickens with his slingshot.”

“Did you set his britches on fire?” Kane asked with a grin.

“Worse. I made him take the chickens he killed, and pluck them and clean out the innards and take them inside to Nora and tell her that he was hungry for fried chicken tonight.”

“Lordy! How many did he kill?”

“Four. Then I sat him down at the table with paper and a pencil to write Ma a detailed explanation of what he did and why he did it. He is having a difficult time coming up with something that won’t earn him a tanning when Ma gets home.”

“Poor kid.”

“Poor kid, hell. If we did that, Ma would have blistered us raw. I felt that it was better to leave the tanning to her.”

“Yep.”

“You know you’ll defend him, brother. You won’t be able to resist.”

“It is what I do for a living.”

“Not right now, you don’t. Go change out of your dude clothes. I need some help with the corral. You are elected.”

“I have a brief to prepare.”

“Too bad. You can do it after the corral is fixed. I really need your help, bro. With Drury down sick, and Pledge gone home for a visit, I am shorthanded and I need you.”

“Where the hell is Nate?”

“Chasing after Ma. Please, Kane. Give me a hand so we can eat supper early. I have plans for tonight.”

“Seeing Rachel?” Kane asked with a grin.

“I plan to. We need to have a talk and settle a few things between us.”

“Uh oh, that doesn’t sound good.”

“Go and change out of that suit, and meet me by the corral. It won’t take long, but I need a hand.”

“Did you think of asking the kid? Seems to me that he would be big enough to give you a hand. We were doing lots of stuff at his age.”

“We had no choice if Ma was going to make this ranch work.” He paused to consider, and then nodded. “Send him out to me. Tell him I’m waiting for him in the barn,” Case said with a snicker, “and see how many excuses he makes to not come out here.”

Kane chuckled and went inside. He found Seth sitting at the kitchen table, a miserable expression on his face. “I heard you are in disgrace, kid. How is the letter to Ma coming along?”

“She is going to kill me,” Seth muttered darkly.

“Shooting chickens for fun is wrong, young man!” Nora scolded, and Kane was pretty sure it wasn’t the first time.

“Yes, ma’am,” Seth said, his cheeks red.

“Kid, Case wants you out in the barn right now. You’d better get going.”

“Aw! He said he wasn’t going to tan me, but I would rather he did than to make me write to Ma and tell her,” Seth explained.

“Get on out there and tell him how you feel. If I’d caught you, you wouldn’t sit for a week.”

Seth got up and headed out of the house, stopping only to grab his hat from the peg by the door.

“Case isn’t going to spank him, is he?” Nora asked with a frown.

“Nope. He’s putting him to work.” Kane picked up the letter, and was surprised as he read it. Seth had taken the time to think things through, and the letter was pretty darn good. He told their ma that he was sorry, and felt sick inside for doing something so awful. Kane picked it up to save to give to their ma to show her that Seth was truly sorry, and had learned his lesson.

“He is upset and feeling guilty. It would be more merciful to give him a few smacks on the backside, and send him to bed early a couple of nights,” Nora suggested, voicing her opinion.

“It’s between Case and Seth, and I think it best to stay out of it, Nora. A spanking would soon be over, and Seth needs to think about this for a while. Ma may take a switch to him, but by then, he will have given the matter some serious thought. Case loves Seth, and if he decides to tan him, he’ll probably use a strap, and won’t go as easy on him as Ma would. Besides, the poor kid will still have to tell Ma, and he could get another tanning,” Kane reasoned the entire situation, arguing both sides clearly.

“I can sure tell you’re a lawyer,” Nora muttered, and then patted him on the back. “Would you like a snack before you hole up in the study to work?”

“Yes, ma’am, especially if you baked sugar cookies.”

“How did you know that?”

“I can smell the vanilla, and the rest was pure hope on my part,” he admitted, grinning. “May I have coffee instead of milk?” Kane asked politely. Sometimes he had to remind Nora that he wasn’t Seth’s age. It wasn’t just him, either. Case and Nate were also treated like small boys by their grandmotherly housekeeper. She came to work on the Circle Bar M when their pa died. Ma said it was easier to find a housekeeper who could cook rather than hire someone to run the ranch and who could possibly cheat them. They all loved Nora.


 


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