In the Shadow of a Merciless Thief (Preview)


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Chapter One

Bliss Creek,  Western Colorado Territory 1875.

Jethro Carson Mayer slowed his horse to a trot as he approached the slightly crooked sign hanging from two wooden posts with its name bearing credence to its state. The Crooked J Ranch.

A smile curved at his lips, almost hidden by the growth of mustache and beard he wore.

A streak of sunray caught at the cloistered tip of his beard as his eyes drank in the surrounding plains and tall fat green grasses swaying gently in the afternoon sun, in perfect rhythm with strands of his hair dancing in the air.

After so long, he had his own ranch, and he still simply couldn’t believe it.

The Crooked J stretched out over five thousand acres of lush prairie land. The creek which the town had been named for cut closely from it on the east, flowing down into the valley below.

Longhorns and Herefords peeked over the horizon, interlocking as they moved closer together.

The mountains towered in the distance, casting occasional shadows on the sun.

It was the sharp call of a blackbird in the nearby trees that caused his horse to whinny impatiently in a low tone and move his hooves around, that recalled Jethro to the present. His ears pricked to the sound of the hoof beats before he saw his foreman, Isaac Sutton riding toward him.

“Easy boy, easy,” he murmured to his horse, Onyx, who still moved around, eager to be on his way.

As Isaac drew closer, Jethro’s brows furrowed tightly. His usually smiling foreman with his salt and pepper hair and deeply arched laugh lines wore a grim look on his face. That didn’t bode well. 

“Boss …”

Jethro was tired of trying to convince the man to stop calling him that. Isaac was pushing fifty-two, nineteen years older than his thirty-three. His wiry frame and constantly dancing eyes full of mischief and youth gave the physical illusion he was anything but. Isaac had been foreman to the previous owner of the ranch, Carl Pritchard, who’d sold the ranch to Jethro two years before his death, to travel east to visit an older estranged brother who was dying and wanted to make peace.

The old man, although he had been too weak for the journey, was determined to see and bury old hatchets with his brother, who he hadn’t spoken to for almost thirty years.

Isaac had accompanied him to New York and brought the almost dying man who wanted to be buried by all means in the mountains which he’d called home for a very long time.

Jethro had pleaded with Isaac to remain on in the ranch as foreman when the old man passed away.

Isaac, who’d spent the bulk of his life in the Colorado territory, didn’t hesitate at all. He wasn’t a man prone to sudden changes or upheavals.

He’d been a blessing since Jethro got the ranch, not just with the cattle business but around the territory as a whole.

As Jethro watched the man’s dark eyes contract in restrained anger, he hoped and prayed it wasn’t the worst.

“Widebend Crossing was hit just a while ago,” Isaac said with barely concealed aggravation.

Jethro cursed under his breath. “Damned thieving swines!” Isaac spat and looked away with a tight expression on his face.

“How many head you reckon were taken this time?”

“About seventy. I rode over to speak to Wyatt about the breeding bull when he told me all about it,” Isaac responded, still upset.

Wyatt Strep;  Jethro’s closest neighbor to the west, was best friends with Isaac.

That had helped Jethro greatly when he got to town, as the man had become the only fellow rancher who was an ally almost instantly.

Wyatt had said he trusted and respected his character since Sutton trusted and respected him enough to stay on.

According to him, Isaac was the finest judge of character he’d ever met.

Wyatt’s ranch, Widebend Crossing, was the third biggest ranch in the entire west Colorado territory with almost fifteen thousand acres of land and large herds of cattle.

The way the rustlers were operating, those herd of cattle could soon be reduced to a trickle.

“This is really bad. These bastards aren’t likely to be thrown off their saddles anytime soon,” Jethro said through gritted teeth.

Isaac remained stonily silent as he stared far off into the plains.

“Take the men and circle around the ranch to check on the herd,” Jethro spoke to him. “I will join you fellers soon.”

“Yes, boss. Who knows if they got themselves busy sneaking around here too,” Isaac finally said and spurred his horse back toward the ranch.

The sharp galloping sounds of his horse, Dancer’s, hoofs seemed to be in sync with his master’s temper.

Jethro followed behind, his earlier mood completely ruined.

The rustling which had started almost seven months ago didn’t seem to be having an end anytime soon.

Sweeping through the five ranches in Bliss Creek, it was a vengeful force which was having a good old time bolstering a deep state of unrest, suspicion, and frequent quarrels between the ranchers and majority of the townspeople.

A high number of cattle had been stolen already, and even the large ranches were beginning to feel it also.

His ranch and herd were the smallest of the lot, and the sheer frustration with the magnitude of what he’d already lost was tearing at him inside.

The ranch meant the entire world to him. He couldn’t begin to think of the ruin it would cause him if the rustlers weren’t caught soon.

Onyx covered the distance between the entrance of the ranch and the corrals as if he understood the turmoil in Jethro’s heart as he cantered slowly once the stalls came into sight.

“Welcome back boss,” a lanky young boy of roughly fourteen called to Jethro in his post-adolescent croaking voice which he cleared loudly as color suffused his cheek.

“Here Owen, take care of Onyx while I quickly grab a bite to eat before riding out to join the men.”

“Yes sir,” Owen replied with an alertness that impressed Jethro as he took the reins from him and walked his horse into the stall, rubbing its mane gently, his steps hurried and prepared.

He’d hired the boy just three weeks ago when he saw him in town mending a broken window in the schoolhouse.

Orphaned, the young lad was a determined chap who wanted to work hard and prove himself. Willing to do bits and pieces to rake out a living, Jethro saw a lot of himself in the boy.

He’d always wanted to work in a ranch but had been rejected in the first place he went to because of his puny gawky frame.

Painfully shy, he’d stuck to carpentry, sweeping the shops in town and offloading feeds in the feedstore.

Jethro gave him a year or two; the boy would fill out his bony limbs and lose the awkward appearance. He had serious eyes that seemed to be perpetually caught in the depth of some heavy thoughts and was quite tall for his age.

There was something about him that left Jethro with a pinch of sadness whenever he chanced upon him alone in the barn.

The boy was in a whole world of hurt but shielded it well.

He wished there was something he could do to help ease the storm he saw sometimes in his eyes.

Jethro strode to the ranch house, distracted from the thoughts in his head to the freshly tended garden lining the sides of the house.

Wild roses and Columbines shone bright with delight in the glare of the sun. Vegetable patches and herb shrubs filled the rest of the space the flowers didn’t cover.

The house stood behind, a one-story gray painted building which he’d recently renovated.

Before that, it had been a fading green with broken panes in the upstairs window and an unruly wild garden with vines creeping up the walls.

Jethro had been particular about the house and renovated when he bought the ranch because it was the first house he would ever own.

When he worked as a wrangler in other ranches outside of Colorado, he slept in the bunkhouse with usually about eight or ten men. He’d never been able to relax too well when he slept because a purse could get cut and your belongings stolen if you lost guard for too long.

The culprit could leave before the crack of dawn or he never always got caught.

Taking the porch steps in twos, Jethro entered the house and made a beeline for the kitchen.

“Sunshine, could you spring up something for me now, I missed lunch,” he said to the lady standing with her hands covered in soap suds who jumped at the sound of his voice.

“I’m sorry … didn’t mean to startle you,” he apologized hastily, reaching out to steady her when she flinched and took several steps back.

As if realizing her actions, she pasted up a forced smile which wobbled slightly at the edge.

“Not to worry, I was just lost there for some minutes. I will get you lunch right now,” she said, her voice strained and extremely polite that it bordered on coldness.

Jethro nodded, taking in the tightness of her oval face and the pale look on her skin even if the kitchen blazed with the heat from the cookstove.

She seemed unsure of what to do next, so he turned on his heels and returned to the living room to sit heavily in one of the chairs around the oak table dominating the room.

The image of the woman close by next door burned in his thoughts.

Shirley Sunshine McCarthy, Sunshine as she was mostly called by everybody.

It wasn’t hard to see why she was called Sunshine, the sheer gold of her waist-length unruly hair blazed like the sun, and her emerald green eyes slightly tilted, made her appear like a goddess of anyone’s imagination.

She was extremely beautiful, with full curves and a certain mix between hardness and softness.

Any man could easily lose his money, heart, and morality to her.

But as much as she was fawned over in the past and adored, now she was hated by almost everybody in the town.

She had started working on the ranch as cook and housekeeper barely four months ago, and as far as it went churned out extremely delicious meals with little experiments on the way that weren’t as bad as they’d seemed.

The men hadn’t taken to her completely because of her reputation in the past as an unkind wild girl who’d led her mother to an early grave.

Isaac and only two of the other men treated her with curtsey and respect. The others were just polite to her because they didn’t want to offend Jethro.

He’d even caught two of his men in the barn one day having a rude discussion about her and describing some of the things they’d heard about her with unsavory words.

She was a very good cook and kept everywhere clean even with the men dragging dirty feet inside after a day on the range.

The sound of plates clanging together as she almost tripped, righting herself quickly to hurry with the tray of roasted steaks and beans she carried made him sit up on his chair.

“Thank you,” he said to her.

She murmured an acceptance under her breath, refusing to meet his eyes as she poured him a glass of water.

He wondered why she was always so nervous in his presence.

He had seen her with his men. She appeared unconcerned by their quiet teasing remarks or the look some of them gave to her when she bent to lift dishes or clean around the house.

She was always quick to put anyone who spoke too far out of tone in their place.

With him, she was always fidgety and nervous, and for his life, he couldn’t understand why.

As she picked up the empty tray to go, he moved to say something to her, but no words came out of his mouth.

He just sat and ate his meals, his thoughts all over the place.

Remembering the men on patrols out in the plains checking if the rustlers hadn’t made a stop at the ranch had him going through his meals in record time before heading out to the stable to fetch his horse.


Sunshine McCarthy stood by the entrance of the kitchen and listened till she heard the sound of Jethro’s boots fading away before she hurried into the living room to clear the table.

She couldn’t understand why his presence unsettled her so greatly that she felt she’d dissolve into a puddle if she stayed around him any second more.

She couldn’t help the slight tremor that came over her whenever he stood close and the rapid stampede of her heart. In all her life she’d never met a man who twisted her up in knots like her boss did.

It wasn’t about his towering height, and firm stance like nothing could ever shake him, or his beard and full sideburns. His eyes seemed to reach into her soul.

She didn’t understand how he made her feel bare on the inside like all her hidden thoughts were written out on her forehead.

It was all a confusing situation. As much as Sunshine wanted to steer clear of him, she didn’t want him wondering what he’d done wrong to deserve the manner in which she treated him.

He gave her a job when no one wanted to even after everything and never asked her questions. Although he was still considered new in town, he hadn’t let prejudice rule him and had been  polite if not warmly receptive of her.

She knew how the townspeople had frowned when he hired her, but he didn’t seem to notice, and when he did, never really minded.

In fact, an elderly woman whose husband ran the only bank in town, Birdy Price, had brought over a woman she knew all the way from Texas three days later to Jethro, informing him in no subtle tone to let that one go, she’s a bad egg. 

Jethro had politely thanked her for her consideration but refused, stating Sunshine worked nice enough.

Birdy had returned to town with disbelief on her face that wasn’t funny then but a whole lot hilarious now.

Sunshine was very grateful to him for helping her when she was in a bad position and thought the world of him. She hadn’t deserved the help he gave her at that crucial time, and now she couldn’t afford to offend or alienate him.

She gathered the dishes with wobbly hands and told herself she needed a long rehearsal to help prevent him from getting to her the way he did.

After trying to mentally stable her thoughts, she escaped into the kitchen before he could return again.


The men had ridden back by the time Jethro got to the stable and were dismounting as he approached.

His foreman’s next words confirmed his worst fears.

“We’ve lost about twenty head boss.”

“Damnit!” Jethro exclaimed through gritted teeth, his eyes narrowing as he itched to hit something really hard.

“We found some cows far out to the east and aren’t sure if it’s rustlers, or perhaps they just wandered off,” one of his wranglers, Wallace, a quiet, intense man who’d been with him for a while spoke up in his gravelly low tone.

“Twenty is more than a figure to just wander off, and with the new wire fence, it would be hard for them to cross over without getting tangled or hooked,” Isaac said in a serious tone.

Jethro called to Owen who stood beside another hand, Rusty Gibbins, a kindhearted hard-working chap who struggled with a stutter.

“Saddle up Onyx for me, Owen.”

He turned to Isaac, who waited patiently for his decision. “Let us take a ride over the fence lines and check for prints or any little sign. We may be lucky to find something that gives us a headway.”

Isaac nodded, and Jethro got on his horse, which had arrived right then.

The pair rode off into the plains, checking on the fence lines and surrounding area for any indentation in the sand and short grasses.

After half an hour of circling back and forth, they both returned to the barn.

Jethro who was in a foul, frustrated mood, stood with the men who’d emerged from the stalls in the opposite stable and bunkhouse.

“I would need y’all to patrol a second time before retiring for the night. With the rate of loss we are heading into, we would need to take turns going on watches at night too.”

Jack, a handsome, fast-talking wrangler who was very good at his job despite his tendency to fly off the handle sometimes spoke up then. “We are already spread thin as it is, we would need an extra hand now.”

“Yes, I know that. I will be joining in till the new hand gets here. He is due any day from now,” Jethro said, nodding in agreement.

He dismissed the men and went into his office in the ranch house with Isaac.

Something had to be done soon before the rustlers ran him into bankruptcy.

“Don’t overthink yourself boss; those no good scums will slip up very soon and be caught,” Isaac, who’d mellowed considerably since he’d met him on the entrance to the ranch said quietly to Jethro who wore a troubled frown.

Jethro nodded as they covered the distance into the house. He hoped Isaac was right. He couldn’t afford to lose any more livestock as it was.

The future looked as bleak as the darkening clouds in the sky as evening gradually approached.

Chapter Two

As Jethro rode into Widebend Crossing the next morning, he felt lighter than he’d felt yesterday when he learnt of the stolen cattle.

He’d tossed and turned all night before falling into a tired sleep which felt like it had drained out all the worry and anger the day had brought.

He’d ridden over to see Wyatt to know the details behind the theft because the way Isaac had described it, Wyatt had been very upset.

The man who loomed in his thoughts walked out of a corral where he had been speaking to some of his men and strode toward him.

“I figured you heard already,” he said and shook hands with Jethro who’d dismounted.

Wyatt Strep was a slight but muscular man with a shock of platinum hair which he always pulled back with a bandanna before he wore his trademark curved hat.

He owned Widebend Crossing with his younger brother, who was an archaeologist somewhere in Arizona and knew nothing about the ranching life.

Wyatt had bought his brother’s share of the ranch out and more less owned it now.

“Yes, Wyatt. Isaac told me immediately I returned from town yesterday. We went to check on our cattle and realized we lost about twenty head too.”

“Damn shame,” Wyatt muttered crossly. “We’d just got done for patrols the previous evening before everyone retired to sleep. A haphazard fence cut and heavy prints alerted us during the morning checks. We rounded up the cattle hours later to confirm our suspicions.”

“This is getting damned frustrating,” Jethro said

“You don’t know much!” Wyatt replied and slapped his hand on Onyx’s saddle in a sudden burst of anger.

He turned to Jethro eyes blazing. “You know the unbelievable part in all of this? That damned Conrad Callahan marched in here not too long ago to tell me to leave his cows alone.”

Jethro’s eyes widened in surprise. “He thinks you are the rustler?”

“The old fool,” Wyatt answered, his brows furrowed together in fierce unbalanced lines.

“It took all I had not to whoop his ass all the way back to the Double C.”

Jethro bit back a smile.

Conrad Callahan who owned the Double C ranch miles from there was a short, wiry sneak of a man. His ranch was the second biggest around, but the man was a complex character. Often irascible and unreasonable, he constantly had issues with all the other ranchers in town and was rumored to barely get along with his wife and kids.

Wyatt had been threatening to whoop his ass for a long time but had never gotten around to it. Jethro didn’t blame him notwithstanding.

Although Conrad had a small build and was called little man in whispers around the Blue Moon saloon in town,  he was a dangerous snake who had a mouth as sharp as a razor and a sheer stubborn will to match. Getting into any particular scuffle with him was damned frustrating and tiring because he always had time to spare for any lick of trouble and could hold a grudge forever.

“Have you spoken to the sheriff?” Jethro asked.

Wyatt scoffed. “Aaron Winthrop is a sorry excuse for a sheriff, and I can’t wait for him to be replaced.”

Jethro nodded in agreement.

“The rustling has been going on for over now nine months now, and he still doesn’t have a lick of a lead.”

“His attitude to the thefts is maddening. It’s like he just comes out of town, takes a look around, and goes back to sit in the office doing nothing.”

“I am going into town to see him tomorrow about the theft on mine; I instructed the men about making double checks one more time before turning in tonight. A little extra security would go a long way as heads seem to be dropping like flies. The way things are going, there might not be enough in time for the cattle drive to the stockyards.”

“If we have any remainin’ by that time ya mean,” Wyatt scoffed. “I see Kirk Larson’s hand in all of this; I don’t know why, but my gut tells me he is embroiled in this rustling one way or the other.”

Curious, Jethro asked, “Why do you say so?”

“Because it’s obvious; can’t you see? He came up during the association meeting months ago and says he’s interested in buying up ranches around him to extend his. All of a sudden cattle start to disappear. Don’t forget how chummy he is with Sheriff Winthrop; this reeks of him, the bastard!”

“Easy Wyatt, he’s not getting his grubby hands on any of our ranches no matter what he does.”

“I’ll shoot him between the eyes first before letting him come two steps close to these acres,” Wyatt said with a thread of steel to his voice.

Kirk Larson owned the biggest ranch in the entire western Colorado territory. The Diamond K was spread over 20,000 acres of land, with the biggest herds of cattle, numbering over nine to ten thousand and more. Kirk kept buying more and more land despite the size he possessed already. It felt like he was always hungry for land.

The man himself was cold and unapproachable. He kept to himself and employed only the best wranglers in the parts. Jethro could count the number of times he’d seen him in person. The only person he saw around town too frequently in the saloons and gambling dens was his son; Zeke.

On the way back to his ranch after visiting Wyatt and trying to calm the man down from picking a fight with Kirk Larson and the other ranchers, Jethro pondered on what he’d said about the owner of the Diamond K.

What he’d noticed first-hand about the man was his unforgiveness in dealing with anything or anyone who crossed him. He never started vendettas he knew he couldn’t handle and only focused on those who actually did him a wrong or two.

It was mostly fair in some ways and just, but Jethro didn’t want to push it. The man was flawed in many places, and the most galling one was his inability to see his son’s true nature.

Could Kirk be the person behind the rustling so they could all declare bankruptcy and sell to him?

These thoughts hadn’t crossed his mind before, but since they did now, they sounded a whole lot like the truth.

The puzzles which were once scattered in different directions looked to be fitting quite nicely in some places.


Sunshine smoothed down the pale blue cotton dress she wore and wondered if the neckline wasn’t a little too plunging. This was the only dress she had redone in her entire wardrobe, covering up and untucking those tight-fitting areas.

The rest were either too tight, too short, or too revealing in the way their necklines dipped.

Sunshine had used a cotton material to cover the low neckline, but it didn’t look enough as she stared at it in the mirror.

Her cleavage still swelled to the top of the dress but not as squeezed together as it had previously been.

Oh hell! How she dreaded these trips to town.

Ever since her mother had died, she’d dumped all the precious silk and satins with expensive lace she owned in a bag and only wore her comfortable trousers and pinafores.

She hadn’t done the wash yet and had no clean trousers to wear into town.

It didn’t matter anyway, whether she wore sack clothes or sheer nets, they would still say mean hurtful words to her.

She was almost used to it except for when she finished dressing up to saddle her horse,  that was when the trepidation began inside, and million thoughts swam through her head.

Sunshine couldn’t fault them. Everything they said was true. She had been a terrible person for almost all her life and had caused pain to the only person who’d ever really cared for her.  Tabitha, her mare, whinnied gently as she approached her stall, the milk patch on her forehead contrasting sharply with her chocolate body and tousled mane.

“Come on, girl; we are going into the real word today. Are you ready?” she teased, rubbing her soft flank.

Owen had helped groom Tabitha when she was busy at the ranch house, and both of them had taken like a moth to a flame.

She tucked the papers she held in her left hand into her coat pocket and bent to pick up a brush lying close by.

“Yes … Just the way I like it, all the way down.”

Sunshine jumped and whirled around to see Jack Wilson standing behind her with a leer on his face.

“It’s all true ain’t it? Everything they say about you. How you can lead a man to the pit of sin and leave him there.”

With a glower, she snapped at him. “You need to stop doing that. I ain’t a reward to be enjoyed, now move.”

He shook his head slowly at her. “Now don’t go ruining the fun, Missy. You’ve been avoidin me for too long. I can really show you a good time if you let me and then make you my sunshine.”

Sunshine glowered at the unbelievably cocky man who thought the world of himself.

This wasn’t the first time he was coming on to her, and he wouldn’t be the first man.

Men had been coming on to her since she grew breasts and started showing off some skin deliberately.

“I’m really not in the mood to have a senseless argument with you, get out of  my way.”

He stared at her with dangerously gleaming eyes and only came closer. His hands moved suddenly to hold her in place.

She struggled to get out of his hold, but it only served to excite him as he held on tighter.

“Stop fightin’ it, Missy. One more man wouldn’t hurt would it? All those men that have been coming on to ya all these years; don’t tell me ya never gave them some. Stop denying me.” He growled in anger.

Sunshine twisted around and thought of getting her leg free to kick him in the groin when Owen shouted from behind.

“Git away from her you animal!”

Jack, surprised and distracted, turned to face him, which gave Sunshine a chance to move out of his hold and free.

“Boy ya need to mind your own damned business, ya need to learn how things work around here.” Jack spat angrily and wagged a finger at him.

“I don’t need to know nothing; you shouldn’t be touching her that way and trying to hurt her. That was wrong!” Owen retorted in anger, his dark, somber eyes fierce with the fire of justice.

“Stay away from me boy, or next time I will whoop you from Bliss Creek all the way to New Mexico,” Jack threatened, his face glowering and turning redder by the second.

He turned to smirk at Sunshine one more time and blew her a kiss before leaving the stall, brushing Owen’s shoulders as he passed.

Sunshine tried to bring her fast pacing heart under control and turned to the boy who rushed over to her immediately.

“How are you, Shirley, hope that jerk didn’t hurt you,” he said, looking over her in concern.

Owen was the only one who still called her Shirley. According to him, it was the name of someone who had been very kind to him at the orphanage where he grew up.

“I’m alright, Owen, thanks for stepping in when you did, but you shouldn’t have bothered. You know what Jack is like. I could have dealt with him; you didn’t have to do that,” Sunshine said, smiling warmly at the boy.

“I should have. I can’t stand to watch one person hurt the other without doing anything. He shouldn’t have harassed you that way.”

Sunshine’s heart jolted awake at that moment and filled to bursting at his words. There was something very special about the boy, and he constantly hovered around her.

Initially, she’d assumed he was infatuated with her, but over time, she’d noticed it wasn’t the case.

When she asked him why he hung around her most of the time, he’d smiled and told her she reminded him of somebody.

If it was the lady at the orphanage who bore the same name as hers, Sunshine was immensely grateful to her for treating this kind boy with some measures of love and care.

“Thank you, Owen; you are a kind young man,” she finally said quietly.

“But I am good and dandy. Don’t worry your head about me.” She playfully poked at his creased bushy brows.

After checking the cinches on Tabitha’s saddle, Owen helped her gently over the mare, watching as she rode out into the warm afternoon sun.

Sunshine was glad some of the men, despite their reservations about her, kept their thoughts to themselves and treated her politely.

All she needed to do was to stay as far away from Jack as possible.

She’d known him around town when her mother still worked for the Larsons’ as a housekeeper, and he was a no good braggart who had little to no scruples.

Sunshine had known his type for long and knew just how to deal with them.

She’d ridden past the Mercantile and the church when she realized she was already in town, so caught up in the thoughts of her encounter with Jack that she’d lost herself momentarily.

Schooling her expressions, she rode closer to the livery and dismounted as dignified as possible, using the cover to drag up her receding neckline.

“Hello, Miss Sunshine.”

“Hello, Wayne. Could you watch Tabitha for a while and give her a dollop of sugar while I do some shopping?” she said to the young stable boy who stood in front of her, trying and failing to avert his eyes from her bosom.

Sunshine cleared her throat to get his attention,  and Wayne hastily mumbled an apology and took over the reins from her, coloring with embarrassment.

Sunshine wished she’d donned the dirty jeans and shirt and felt a catch in her throat when she drew closer to the store.

Wagons were packed outside, and people trudged in and out of the establishment.

She took a deep breath and pasted a mask of indifference, walking in with her head held high.

Yes, they could hurt her as much as they did, but that didn’t mean she’d let them know the barbs struck home and bled.

Sunshine saw some women gathered close to the register and recognized three out of five of them instantly. She hurried quickly to a corner to look at some bottles of baking soda while they made their purchases and left.

As much as she was used to their mean silvery tongues, she wasn’t in the mood at the moment.

“Could you move a little, you are taking over all the space,” a voice said behind her, heavily laced with derision.

She turned slowly and knew they’d seen her rush into the corner.

If only she’d worn a headscarf or used a bandanna to shield the brightness of her hair.

Amanda Goodyear from the church where she’d worshipped with her mother as a child stood there with her lips curled in a smirk.

“Don’t tell me you were hiding out here. A vixen like you isn’t exactly afraid of anything or were we wrong?”

Sunshine stood her ground. “I don’t see why I should be answering to the likes of you.”

Amanda blanched, her eyes lighting up in righteous indignation. “You are so shameless; I bet your mother regrets ever birthing you.”

A tight fist squeezed Sunshine’s heart at the mention of her mother, but months of building a worthy defense against hurtful words had helped as she regarded Amanda with disinterest.

She watched her march angrily back to the counter where her cohorts stood,  her body jiggling with every step.

Sunshine picked a bottle of soda from the shelf and came out of the corner, moving around till she had all the supplies she needed amidst hostile stares from some women who didn’t look to be in the store to buy anything.

She strode without care to the register as the women gave her a wide berth and waited for the owner of the convenience store to ring all her goods.

Mr Bircher, who’d run the all goods store since she was a little girl, smiled at her and whispered in a low tone, “Pay them no mind child, they have too much time on their hands and are prob’ly waitin for their husbands to return so they can go on being fruitful.”

Sunshine couldn’t help the smile that crept onto her face at the old man’s words.

Mr Bircher had a wry, caustic tongue. but he usually delivered his jabs in such a sweet loving manner; you’d feel like you just received a compliment.

“Thank you,” she whispered in return.

He was one of the few people in town who never judged her when her mother passed but instead forgave her when she set out to correct some things about her life.

She felt tons better than she’d felt when she entered the store and thanked him again before gathering her supplies.

Walking past the gossiping women, she wore an amiable smile and didn’t miss the puzzled expressions on their faces.

Out in the glorious sunshine, her hair gleamed as she gathered it together and wound it around her head in a rough knot.

She returned to the livery to pick up Tabitha, her smile never wavering even as she saddled up to hear loud snickers from the men standing close by.

She was trying to look past all of it as best as she could and be more optimistic about the future.

Perhaps someday she might be happy and free from all that plagued her.

Sunshine recognized her mistakes and owned up to it always. The only thing she felt she would never really be able to do for a long time was let go of the guilt that haunted her within.


Jethro turned over the invoices on the table and felt a headache coming on.

With a slam of his palm on the desk, he stifled a curse.

He’d been holed up in the office since late afternoon and had been through everything twice now, but the numbers were still starkly the same.

If they lost any more cattle now and didn’t make the cattle drive by next month, he was heading straight into a huge loss.

Ever since the rustling started, they had lost a total of 100 head.  If it continued, heaven knew how many more they would lose.

At least the new hand would be coming in soon. They could now be evened out and take night watches over the herds.

Jethro sighed heavily as he rested his arms on the desk.

His father’s words echoed like a fragmented nightmare in the back of his head.

“You can never do anything good boy

You’re just a fluke, like your pa, 

There ain’t no difference

You as rotten as they come.”

Jethro shook his head to dispel the dark thoughts that had crept up suddenly on him.

He wasn’t and would never be like his father.

Everything he owned now, he did because he’d worked his ass off for a long time, saving every little penny that came his way. He wasn’t a fluke because he’d busted his balls to gather enough money to bring his dreams to fulfillment.

Despite all his efforts, owning the ranch wouldn’t have been possible if Carl Pritchard hadn’t believed in him and sold to him for only a pittance of what it would have normally gone for.

If Carl could believe in him so much, then there was no way he was a fluke.

A shadow crossed over the threshold of the room and receded. Jethro sat up instantly alert and looked carefully to see Owen shifting from foot to foot by the door.

The boy turned to leave when he saw Jethro had spotted him.

“Owen, why are you skulking by the door? Come on in,” he called.

The boy’s eyes widened as he shook his head. “Do not worry; I will come back if you’re busy or something, begging your pardon.”

Jethro, who had worn a frown earlier, eased into a reassuring half-smile and waved the boy in. “I’m not busy, just gently driving myself to the madhouse with this stack of bills right here.”

Owen walked in gingerly and stood a few feet from the table. He bit his lips and shifted nervously, clearing his throat at intervals.

“Come on, spit it out, Owen. Anything the matter?”

The boy cleared his throat noisily one more time and began in a low tone. “It’s not ‘bout me this time boss, I … don’t know if it’s in my place to say, but I can’t keep it to myself.”

Jethro urged him to continue with an encouraging nod.

“Jack was harassing Shirley today in the stable. He was almost hurting her before I arrived. She looked so frightened I couldn’t keep it, I … I just had to tell you,” Owen said in a rush. “I don’t know anything, but I don’t think she deserves that. No woman deserves to be treated in such a rough manner.”

“Owen! Are you damned right about this!?” Jethro asked with such a chill as the boy’s voice trailed off.

“Yes …You can ask Shirley; I don’t tell no lies. I seen him right in front of me, holding her roughly,” Owen stammered but cleared his throat again and faced Jethro with defiance in his eyes.

Jethro believed the boy from the beginning but had needed to confirm it. A small part of him wished it wasn’t true.

Jack was his finest wrangler after Rusty, and he couldn’t afford to lose any men at this time. He needed every available hand he could get.

Before Jethro could say anything more, the boy added quickly, the fear in his eyes previously having gone and been replaced by fierce justice and rightness, “This ain’t the first time. He’s always making nasty comments whenever she is along and picks on her every time. She says she can handle it and not to worry, but I can’t help it.”

Jethro felt swift anger kick through his body and nodded at the boy.

“Right. I’ll look into it as soon as possible. Jack knows better than that. I won’t tolerate abuse of any kind. Thank you for bringing this to me; you did the right thing, boy. Mighty proud of you.”

A beaming smile took over Owen’s face, and he battled to keep it under control.

“Thank you, boss,” he said with such a serious voice that made Jethro almost smile for a second.

As he walked out, he seemed taller and prouder than he’d been when he stood by the door, terribly unsure of himself.

Jethro’s smile faded immediately the boy disappeared.

Things were already complicated as it was; he didn’t need any more complications.

Jack was a hard worker, but he acted like a jerk most of the time.

In the past, Jethro had needed to break up fights between him and Rusty, more often than not when Jack constantly teased the poor chap about his stutter, and he spoke to his girlfriend Willow in a derogatory manner.

Jethro had threatened to throw him off the ranch then, which had put a stop to the constant fights.

He didn’t tolerate bullying or unkindness in any way and wouldn’t harbor a hand who displayed such cruelty every time.

He gathered the papers together, stuffed them in a drawer, and marched out to the bunkhouse.

Only Jack, Wallace, and Owen slept in the bunkhouse now. Ever since Rusty’s girlfriend, Willow, had shown up with a newborn baby, the pair had been living with Isaac in the foreman’s house a mile away from his.

Isaac had told Rusty he had two rooms in the house and only slept in one so the couple could have a little privacy with their child.

At the entrance of the bunkhouse, Jethro was met by Wallace who was leaving to go into town for the evening. Owen wasn’t anywhere around, and he figured the boy had stayed away deliberately.

Only he and Jack were left in the room.

“Hey boss,” Jack said, and Jethro wondered if it was sarcasm he heard in the greeting or simply an overplay of his imagination.

“Jack, can I speak to you for a second,” he said to the devilishly handsome man with cold, calculating eyes.

Jack drew closer and kept his expressions neutral as his mind seemed to go to work.

“I was told of the incident in the stable earlier today,” Jethro began and watched the man’s eyes slant in the beginning of belligerence.

“I didn’t do nothing she didn’t want!” Jack replied sharply.

“Listen to me!” Jethro half yelled as the wrangler’s tone hit on his last nerves.

“I don’t give a bloody horse’s ass if she was putting it out there or not. She works for me, and I demand you treat her with utmost respect and all the considerations you can muster. Y’hear me?”

“She’s a whore, that’s what she is, throwin herself around Zeke Larson and all his friends from back east. What’s wrong if I want me a piece?”

Jethro used all the strength he had at that moment to rein in the urge to punch the man on the face. He chose instead to speak quietly through gritted teeth as he wagged a finger and advanced toward him.

“Now pay mind to what I have to say right now. If you as far as come close to her one more time,  I won’t just kick you off my property … I will throttle you with my hands and break your cowardly legs before doing so. Do you understand?”

Jack flinched, the smirk which had been on his face before had been completely wiped out.

He nodded after a while, still frowning at Jethro, but his pugnacity had toned down considerably.

Jethro swiveled and stalked out of the bunkhouse, too mad to stay a second more around the wrangler lest he got violent.

Before he got back to the ranch house, his mood had gotten under control, and he no longer felt like hitting somebody.

He hated men who preyed on women no matter if she was a saloon girl or worked in a bordello.

Consent was a big deal for him, and the ease with which Jack had taken the issue had angered him greatly.

He met Sunshine, who looked to have just finished cleaning the kitchen for the night and was on her way to her bedroom just by the kitchen door.

“Hi Sunshine,  can I talk to you for a bit before you retire?” he said,  his voice still retaining a bit of gruff from his blowout just a while ago.

He still hadn’t been able to stop calling her Sunshine, despite how many times she insisted on being called Shirley or Miss McCarthy. Sunshine suited her a lot better.

She hesitated as he drew closer and finally stood still enough to feel like a frozen icicle.

Her emerald eyes flew up to the frown on his face, and she hastily said, “Hope I haven’t done anything wrong, Mr Mayer?”

Jethro quickly shook his head to dispel her worry. He wanted to admonish her about calling him Mr Mayer instead of Jethro but thought against it; there would be plenty time for that later.

“Nothing’s wrong. I just need to ask you about what happened today with Jack. I spoke to Jack immediately Owen told me. He won’t be trying that next time.”

Sunshine’s eyes grew guarded almost instantly;  she shook her head. “You didn’t have to do that, Mr Mayer. It wasn’t a big deal. Owen is just a kid, and he overreacted. Jack and I just had a brief spat; I know just how to deal with him myself.”

“Whether you can or not is not the issue, Sunshine. You work for me, which means you’re under my protection. Jack shouldn’t have done that, and the kid did the right thing.”

She fell silent and looked everywhere but at his face.

Jethro knew she was holding back and trying to downplay the situation. He sensed she didn’t want to cause any trouble.

As much as he wanted to probe harder till she told him the details of what had transpired, he chose to let it go and said instead, searching her subdued eyes, “Will you at least come to me if any of the men say anything unkind and inappropriate to you? It will make me feel a whole lot better, trust me,” he quickly added before she could voice the protest he saw on her face.

She caught his gaze in a thorough probe for some seconds before nodding. Her eyes felt like they could see deep into his heart.

“Goodnight, Mr Mayer,” she said almost immediately and disappeared like a flash into her room.

Jethro stood there for a long moment before leaving for his room. He couldn’t seem to wipe the image of her slanted green eyes perusing his face. They had been filled with such a deep haunt that left him upset and yearning to take a walk through the thoughts in her head.

“In the Shadow of a Merciless Thief” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Jethro Carson Mayer, a newcomer rancher in the serene town of Bliss Creek, had never realized that with great power, even greater worries are to come. When he leasts expects it, numerous heads of cattle disappear mysteriously from both his ranch and the neighboring ones, and he soon finds himself caught in a dangerous trap. Still being a total outsider in the small town, the rumors about him being the cattle thief now spread like wildfire. Will Jethro manage to solve the puzzle that threatens to put his life in deadly danger?

On the spur of the moment, Jethro decides to take matters into his hands and detect the shadowy figure behind the cattle rustling. While struggling to clear his own name, a sizzling passion grows inside him for Sunshine, the housekeeper of his ranch. But, little did he know that his affection for her would only complicate his demanding mission. Having the reputation of a wild girl, culpable of her mother’s early death, Sunshine was hated by almost everybody in town. Unfortunately, her scandalous connection to Jethro will quickly raise suspicion among townspeople. Will Jethro repel the malicious rumors, or will he be sentenced for a theft that he never committed?

As Jethro is in search of vindication, some ghosts of his past will come back to haunt him… Will he manage to unravel the truth behind the enigmatic crime? Or will the menacing threats stop him from riding down the trail to justice?

An action-packed story, featuring complex and fascinating characters, and twists and turns that will take your breath away. A must-read for fans of Western action and romance.

“In the Shadow of a Merciless Thief” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

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4 thoughts on “In the Shadow of a Merciless Thief (Preview)”

  1. A Western Mystery. I LOVE IT. I can’t wait to find it in Stores. So I can get it. A lot of twists and turns that it keeping me guessing on what is going to happen to Sunshine and what happened in her past ,and the same with Owen.then you want to punch Jack out for being a jerk to Sunshine & Owen. Very surspenvile, a story that you won’t be able to put down till the last page. And will have to pick up and reread again.

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