Snowbound Justice (Preview)


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Sheriff Willie Armstrong took a position in front of the Colter home. The farm was quiet, nothing like the report he’d gotten from Cornelius Sacks. But that was far from a contradiction of his frightful appearance at the sheriff’s office just fifteen minutes before. It was likely to prove out that the bookish salesman had been right to be worried. It could mean that the worst had happened.

Night was falling over Bellevue, Nebraska, and the Missouri River sent a cold wind blowing west. His shaved-bald head was encased in a wool cap under his wide-brimmed five-gallon hat. Autumn has passed, snows were coming. But that was not what sent a chill running through the sheriff’s veins, and it wasn’t his bald pate, either.

Willie knew that any move he might make would be treacherous. He’d faced dangers before, as a sheriff and under other circumstances, but something told him that this would not be like anything he’d ever seen. It was instinct and impulse, something he could hardly identify or deny. Years of life in the rugged landscape of the United States had attuned him to the possibility of danger, and the quiet Colter farm drew upon every day which had preceded it.

It was more than instinct. Willie had heard the rumors, and he knew others had too. They weren’t true, of course. There was no gold buried under their house or anywhere else, as far as Willie was concerned. He’d had enough of fanciful stories about the crazed antics of Wild West villains and heroes from his childhood, enough to put a gun in his hand and a badge on his chest. They’d all proven to be bushwa, like most things in life.

His muscles were tense, jaw clenched. The place was quiet, too quiet. But there was still a chance that Sacks could have been overreacting to the shouting and screaming he’d heard. The way he’d described it, that hardly seemed the case. But the man was clearly not built for life in the United States, a rugged and challenging country that could put the heartiest of men into the ground at any turn. He was a shopkeeper, after all, a man for whom a Derringer was considered powerful armament.

With the place so quiet, there seemed little urgency. But there was one reason to wait, and that was enough to keep the sheriff at bay for those precious few seconds. If Sacks was right, there could be a dangerous person in that house, and that person would see him coming.

Willie drew his Colt and stepped away from his brown-and-white paint. He glanced around, seeing no traces of a hasty exit or of a massive intrusion. The front door was undamaged, telling the sheriff that nobody had forced himself in, at least not that way.

Willie reached up and knocked on the front door, then he ducked back in case of a gun shot through the door and straight into his chest. But the gun shot didn’t come. Frank Colter didn’t come to the door either, and that only told Sheriff Willie Armstrong that the Sacks man’s report was probably warranted.

Another cluster of knocks inspired no response. But he’d seen that the Colter’s horse was in the stable, the carriage parked next to it. The family would be home, as their screams were clear enough to the passing Cornelius Sacks. And there were no traces of anybody leaving the property.

Not anybody.

Willie reached for the front doorknob, hand wrapping around the metal knob and slowly twisting it. The latch clicked, Willie’s muscles feeling the metal hitting the metal. With a gentle push, the door creaked open. The upper lock hadn’t been closed.

The hinges creaked as Willie pushed the door open. The place was deathly quiet, no movement at all. The door opened further before him to reveal Frank Colter laying on the floor of his living room, face-up, a pool of blood beneath his head. Bloody footprints were tracked all over the floor, big boots the size of a man’s foot, though there was more than one set. Some were smaller, befitting the size of Mrs. Colter’s feet, and those of the children. 

It told Willie a lot about what had happened, but not everything.

The footprints went to the kitchen and also up the stairs. Cornelius Sacks’ trembling words echoed in Willie’s mind. The man had been right to make the report, right to be afraid. He was no kind of man to face what Willie knew he was facing. The mid-sized prints went to the kitchen, but not out of it.

Willie was afraid of what he’d find in that kitchen, and at the top of those stairs.

The Colters were a fine, Christian family of loving father Frank and his wife Enid. Their twin daughters, Ella and Stella, were only eight years old. They’d have run up the stairs, to their bedroom, for shelter.

Willie walked up those stairs, wood croaking under his boot heels. His palms were sweating, his mouth dry. Each step took him further up, closer to what he knew he would find. The only real question was whether the perpetrator was still in the house. With no signs of an escape, it seemed certain that somebody had killed Frank and his family, and that person was waiting for Willie at the top of the stairs, probably in the bedroom of the children he likely massacred.

He knew the house, being friendly with the Colters. The children’s bedroom faced the rear of the property, not a position to snipe at him as he approached. So not doing so didn’t mean whoever had killed Frank Colter wasn’t still in the children’s room. There were bloody tracks leading in, but not leading out.

Willie had to consider, What if they’re not dead … yet?

Willie’s instincts were to go in shooting, but it was too dangerous to any Colter still alive in that room. No sounds came from above as Willie approached, no screams either loud or muffled. There was only deathly silence as he arrived at the top of the stairs. He reached toward the bedroom door, sensing the death in the air, the tension invisible around him.

Willie stepped around to the side of the hallway next to the door and wrapped his fingers around the knob. He slowly turned, the metal clicking.

Bang! Bang-bang-bang! The bullet holes erupted through the bedroom door, just as Willie had suspected they might, telling him that the guilty party was in that room and ready to kill.

What if it’s Enid, protecting her children? I have to know for sure!

Willie dropped himself to the floor, loud enough to be heard, then pushed himself up and pressed his back against the wall behind the door. There he remained still and silent, heart pounding in his chest. He knew whoever fired those shots would open the door to check on his condition, likely dead.

Click … rrrrghghghghgh. The door opened slowly, hinges creaking. An unfamiliar man stuck his head out of the doorway and Willie made his move. He brought the handle of the Colt pistol down hard onto the back of the man’s head. He grunted and fell forward before Willie struck him again in the same fashion.

He fell to the hallway floor and dropped his gun. Willie was on top of him in an instant. He craned the man’s hands behind his back and pulled out the Tower cuffs he carried on his belt. Willie locked them around the man’s wrists, the unfamiliar fellow’s new injuries leaving him with little fight left. 

It was almost a pity. Sheriff Willie Armstrong was no little girl, no farmer or his wife. He’d have given the man a different consideration entirely. But a glance back into the room of Ella and Stella Colter told Willie that they hadn’t been able to ward off their attacker the way Willie would have.

The man in Willie was ready to strangle the man to death there and then, to secure his death with another few crushing blows of the pistol to his bloodied head. But he was a sheriff and he had duties to the law. The man would be taken into town under the color of law. He’d be tried, convicted, and hanged.

And Willie would be there to see it. 

Chapter One

Calvin Tamarind stood before the witness stand, the shaved-bald sheriff, Willie Armstrong, sitting erect to give his testimony. The man was hardened by experience, but even he seemed to be swayed by the power of his own memory. Though it had been two months since the killings, the trial delayed for various reasons, the day seemed as fresh to him as if it had been the day before.

Cal didn’t blame the man. Calvin himself hadn’t seen the bodies of those children, their heads bashed in, bodies strewn on the beds. He hadn’t been the one to discover the body of Mrs. Enid Colter, butchered in the kitchen.

But the visions of what must have happened rang in his imagination, as it surely did for the sheriff. He could almost hear the woman’s terrified screams, the shrieks of the children as the monstrous man chased them up the stairs, violated their bedroom, did his terrible deed.

Cal asked the sheriff, “And after you brought the man in, Sheriff?”

“He came to,” Willie said. “I had the doc see to him.”

“He ever confess to the crime?”

“No sir, he did not. Stayed real tight-lipped about it.”

“I see,” Cal said. “You had time to investigate the scene though?”

“I did,” the sheriff said, “and found no other suspects, no traces of anyone other than Mr. Lutz. His boots match the bloody tracks in the house, he tried to kill me. I’ve said all else.”

“Yes,” Cal said. “Thank you for your service, Sheriff Armstrong.” Cal turned to the Jennifer Bolton, sitting next to Lutz at the defendant’s table, his wrists and ankles shackled. “Would the defense care to cross examine the witness?”

“The defense reserves the right to call the witness back to the stand at a later date, Your Honor.” Her client leaned over to her and whispered something Cal couldn’t hear. But the angry expression on his face told Cal that the man wasn’t necessarily pleased with his lawyer’s tactic.

Cal stepped away from the center of the courthouse. He knew he had the attention of everybody there, and that he’d have it even through the case presented by Miss Jennifer Bolton. She had little chance of success, and that only increased his admiration for her courage. She was fighting an uphill battle and was surrounded by people who were outraged by her legal position. The fact that she was a stranger among them, in from Omaha for the trial, could only make things worse.

Cal turned to the judge. “The prosecution rests, Your Honor.”

The judge glanced at his bailiff, the two in silent conference before the judge took a deep breath and turned his attention to the others in the courthouse.

“The court will adjourn until tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, when the defense will make its case.” 

Jennifer Bolton stood up from behind the defense table. “Your Honor, once again we request that my client be transferred to other accommodations for the rest of the trial. This building is old and dilapidated. The nights are bitterly cold, it’s inhumane. There’s no source of heat down there.”

Judge Rodney rolled his eyes. “Miss Bolton, we’ve been through this. The cell is secure and that is required, considering the nature of the crimes at issue here.”

“But … the sheriff’s office has an iron stove for eat, and—”

“The cell in the sheriff’s office is for holding suspects during investigations, Miss Bolton. I mean no slight against your sex, but … are you sure you understand what your profession requires? Perhaps you’d be better suited marrying an attorney than being one.”

The crowd rippled with a suppressed giggle, and Cal noted the bitter sneer on the woman’s otherwise pretty face.

She said to the judge, “I know that a man is still innocent until proven guilty. I know it’s the obligation of the court to provide humane conditions. The new courthouse should be ready shortly into the new year—”

“Not that again with the new courthouse,” the judge said, his baritone bellowing through the room. “The new courthouse would indeed be more comfortable for us all, but this is a time for sacrifice of those creature comforts on all our parts. This trial has been delayed too long as it is, Miss Bolton, thanks in no small part to your maneuvering.” 

“Your Honor, I was called in after nobody here would defend the man!”

Judge Rodney leaned forward and pointed his gavel at Jennifer. “Justice deferred is justice denied. And the longer the process drags on, the greater the danger of your client’s escaping justice altogether!”

“Expedience is wise,” Jennifer said quickly. “I will grant you that. But does it take precedence over the justice it was meant to serve?”

Judge Rodney rapped his gavel. “The defendant will return to the holding cell downstairs and remain under guard until the proceedings resume tomorrow morning, eight o’clock.” He wrapped his gavel again and stood up. He walked past the bailiff, who said, “Please evacuate the courthouse in an orderly fashion.”

The big bailiff crossed to the defense table to escort Ralphie Lutz to the cell in the basement of the building. Wrists shackled in front of him, his feet shackled together, Ralphie could only shuffle along with the bailiff as the big man led him to a door in another corner of the courtroom.

Cal crossed to the defense attorney as she collected her papers and closed her briefcase. She looked him over. “Here to gloat?”

Cal replied, “Case isn’t over yet.”

Jennifer shook her head, rolling her blue eyes under her black hair, pulled back in a very professional manner. “What is it, then? You’re going to warn me?”

“Warn you?”

“Oh please,” Jennifer said. “I’m not stupid, despite what this judge seems to think. I hear the rumors buzzing around here. This whole place is just a lynch mob in disguise, and you’re the one tying the rope. And you’re going to say, what? ‘Maybe it’d be best if you just went back to Omaha, li’l lady, let the men handle things’?”

“I’d never say anything like that,” Cal said, his voice deliberately calm and relaxed.

“You might not say it,” Jennifer said. “In any case, you’d be wasting your breath.”

“I haven’t a doubt.”

“I’m going to present my case,” Jennifer said, “with all the zeal and vigor at my disposal.”

“I haven’t a doubt. I only wanted to wish you luck tomorrow.”

“Because I’ll need it?”

Cal smiled. “I haven’t a doubt.” 

She didn’t smile back.

Chapter Two

Cal pushed through the wind and light snow. The Missouri River just east of Bellevue was caked with ice on its banks, though the current still rolled in the center of the massive body of water. Snow collected on the ground and stayed long after the snows with the frigid winter temperatures. The ground was slick and icy, making the walk treacherous. He wasn’t far from the courthouse, however, one of the nicer houses in town. Kelly had wanted a nice house for their family, and Cal had been eager to accommodate her.

He wondered if he’d ever walk into that house without thinking of her, without having to relive the night she finally succumbed to disease. He wondered if he’d ever look into the corner of the living room and not imagine the Christmas trees they would have put there, at the dining room where they would have had their meals. He wondered if he’d ever be able to part with the place though, allow others to live in the place which had been meant for him, for his family.

All around him, families were enjoying the heart and hearth of their own homes, sitting by cozy fireplaces, and reveling in stories of their forebearers, perhaps bible stories or singing lullabies. They were sheltered from the oncoming storm, from the cold of the world at its worst. But that was a storm which seemed to be following Cal around, a cold front that came from within.

He thought about other women, perhaps finding one to marry. There were few enough single women in town, and the few who were eligible candidates were of little interest. It was as if he barely knew they existed, as if he could see right through them even when they were standing right in front of him. But it wasn’t them, it was him. It was Kelly. She’d been the light of his life, and it was forever dimmed in her absence.

Calvin stepped into his darkened home, cold and quiet. There was a fireplace, and there was good pine wood ready to burn. But Calvin lacked the care for his own comfort enough to set the fire. It would bring him no real solace, Calvin knew that.

Nothing would.

He walked slowly up the stairs, his thoughts drifting from the children he never had to the children poor Frank Colter had lost. Cal could only imagine the pain of such a loss, and he knew well the pain of losing a wife. Though Frank had never known that in life, as his death had seemed the first among the four.

The horror of it echoed in Cal’s memory, as if it had happened to him. Is it truly better to have loved and lost, he wondered, than never to have loved at all? No children born, but none lost. Is pain the only recourse of life, even the result of love? Must it be so?

Cal walked slowly to the top of the stairs. Empty rooms stood before him. He walked down the hall to the one he’d shared with Kelly only a few years before, when she had all her health and vitality. It was as if she was still there, waiting for him in her nightgown, red hair long on the sides of her pretty face.

But she was not, and she would never be again. Cal knew that, and he wanted to accept it. There was little choice. He was a man of reason, of the law. The facts were the facts, and they could only be argued to a point. Beyond that point, there was only the verdict and the sentence.

In this case, the sentence had been death.

Cal turned to look out the window of his bedroom. Other houses in town were filling with lights and sounds, meals and meetings and other signs of life in an American town, towns and cities all over the world. A light snowfall drifted down over Bellevue, seeming like a curtain between Cal and the others in town, the others of his kind. 

It was unnatural to be alone as he was, Cal knew that. But seemed to be what nature intended for him. Until things changed, he contented himself to legislate what he could for others where he could not have done for himself. 

Though there was no more saving the Colters than there was his beloved Kelly. Other victims could still be preserved, society could be kept safe. Life could indeed go on. Until then, there was a storm coming in from the north. It would be another long, cold winter, and Christmas would bring him no joy.

It its way, the holiday season seemed little more than a cruel reminder of all that Cal had lost, all that he did not have and would likely never have. But being cold inside made it easier to handle the cold outside. And the joy of others was a reminder that there was still joy in the world. Cal wanted that, and he wanted to add to it, to take away from the coldness in the lives of others. 

The Colters had not lived to see that Christmas, nor his wife. But Cal was alive, and that meant there could still be purpose and benefit, to others and even to himself.

He couldn’t help but think about the attractive defense attorney, Jennifer Bolton. She didn’t seem interested in him, and that was hardly a surprise. It only reminded Cal of the natural antagonism between prosecutors and defense attorneys. And being a woman lawyer was no doubt difficult for the erstwhile young woman, she’d made clear references to it.

She clearly had all the intelligence and resolve Cal valued, traits which reminded him of Kelly. Unlike a lot of men, Cal valued a woman’s pluck and spirit. He had no interest in marrying a subservient, a maid to clean his clothes and make his food, please him and give him children. He longed for an equal, just as Kelly had been. He longed for a woman of gumption, and Miss Jennifer Bolton certainly had plenty of that. Just coming to Bellevue to defend Ralphie Lutz told Cal that, and it told him a lot more.

She was likely as idealistic and dedicated to the law as he was. She would have to be in order to take up the profession in the first place, by Cal’s way of reasoning. A gorgeous woman like that could have whatever she wants without all the hard work and judgment and sacrifice of having to work, he knew, much less as a lawyer! She must have some profound influence upon her, something in her childhood perhaps.

But everybody had such influences, Cal knew, himself included.

Jennifer Bolton wore no wedding ring. She travelled alone. She was new to town. And she was stunningly beautiful, with piercing blue eyes, wavy black hair, and a body that belonged in a bedroom, not a courtroom.

It was a temptation to think she might somehow not simply return to Omaha after the trial, probably with a terrible taste in her mouth and a poor impression of the Bellevue prosecutor. But it hardly seemed possible, much less likely. She almost certainly had things in Omaha which required her attention, family of some sort, a lover who could not join her on her professional journey to Bellevue.

Whatever the case, she didn’t show any interest in Cal. The opposite was more evident, the more he thought about it.

She was unwilling to accept a mere courtesy, Cal had to remind himself. Whatever life she has waiting for her back in Omaha, it will find her there again soon enough. And life here will go on as it has, as it always has and as it always will.

Chapter Three

Jennifer stepped before the courtroom, once again packed with spectators. Her client, Ralphie Lutz, watched from the behind the defendant’s table as she took a deep breath to begin her defense.

The eyes of the spectators were cold, their grimaces both hateful and threatening. It was an altogether too-common experience for Jennifer, who received such looks from judges, bailiffs, fellow attorneys, clients, juries, spectators, friends, prospective lovers—just about everyone.

She’d come to expect it, even to savor the challenge of overturning their expectations, if that was something they would allow her to do. Closed minds were the enemy of justice, she knew that as well as she knew anything.

Her job was to open those minds, and the law would do the rest.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” she said, turning to face the women who were then partaking in the judicial process, novel to it just as she was. “The crime here is terrible, there’s no doubt about that. But there is doubt in this case, and that is to my client’s guilt. Remember too that you must find him guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt, that is crucial. Here, the doubt is far greater than any shadow. Because while the prosecution has presented some compelling witnesses, there is nothing which actually proves that my client killed that family. And without evidence which clearly proves my client’s guilt, you must return a verdict of not guilty.”

She called the balding, bespectacled shopkeeper Cornelius Sacks, who wound up admitting that, while he’d heard screaming from the Colter farm as he passed by, he’d heard nothing specific, no names, no voice which he could identify as that of her client. He’d seen nothing of what happened inside the house.

Cross-examining the sheriff, she brought to light that Ralphie Lutz was in the bedroom and that he’d shot through the door. But this did not mean that the defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense. The sheriff hadn’t announced himself as a sheriff, as Jennifer’s examination pointed out.

At last, she called her own defendant to the stand and the bailiff swore him in.

“Mister Lutz,” Jennifer began, “you claim that you did not, in fact, kill the Colter family.”

“That’s right,” he said, a Southern twang in his voice. 

“Recount for the court, if you will, the events of that day.”

“I was just travelin’, goin’ west from Iowa. I was hungry, lookin’ fer work.”

“For work,” Jennifer said, “not to rob them?”

“Objection,” Cal said, standing. “Leading the witness.”

“Sustained,” the judge said.

Jennifer turned back to her client. “What kind of work were you looking for, Mr. Lutz?”

“Any ol’ kind, I s’pose. Farm hand, odd jobs. I’d’a worked fer just a few scraps of food, honest!”

“I believe you,” Jennifer said, turning to the others in the courtroom even as she went on addressing Ralphie. “A lot of good, decent Americans can’t find enough food or work. And we all want to earn our keep, don’t we?”

“Objection,” Cal said, standing. “Leading the witness.”

The judge rapped his gavel. “Sustained.”

Jennifer glared at the prosecutor, his handsomeness not countering his officious cunning. She went on, “And did the Colters have any work to offer? Some charity, perhaps?”

“But … I didn’t never ask,” Ralphie said, turning toward the jury. “When I knocked, there wasn’t no answer. I opened the door and saw the feller dead on the floor, just like he was. I thought there might be someone I could help, or I could catch the rascal. I thought maybe was upstairs, and I found them little girls all chopped up. Then I hear’d footsteps on them stairs, and I reckoned they was from the killer, comin’ back fer me! So I had to shoot, didn’t I? I mean, what kind of man does that to two kids. And the woman in the kitchen? That ain’t right, no ma’am.”

“No,” Jennifer said, “it’s not right. And is the sheriff’s admission that he made no announcement of his being a sheriff correct, as you remember it?”

“Far as I ‘member, but he gave me an awful whoopin’ on the head, so…”

“Right,” Jennifer said. “You could have died from such a series of blows, I imagine.”

Cal stood. “Objection, speculation from an unqualified source.”

Jennifer said to the judge, “I can call to the stand the local doctor who inspected the wounds if the court’s time isn’t too valuable to be wasted.”

Judge Rodney looked at the two lawyers as he silently deliberated. “Overruled. Go on with the testimony.”

“Well, there’s little more to say, Your Honor. Here we have an honest American, a good Samaritan, who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that’s the only thing the evidence shows. According to that standard, as grotesque as the crimes are, there is no way to convict my client beyond a shadow of a doubt, your honor!”

The spectators rumbled, gossip flying around before the judge wrapped his gavel. “Silence in my courtroom or I’ll have you all expelled.” The crowd quieted up as Jennifer caught the eye of the handsome prosecutor. Instead of glaring at her angrily, he actually seemed impressed, a little smile on his face as he nodded just a bit. Jennifer could hardly resist returning the smile with one of her own.

Jennifer went on, “What’s worse, in the rush to convict an innocent man, this misguided jury, good men and women to the last, to do more than kill a man against the very precepts of the law. But they are being hoodwinked by a manipulative prosecutor into allowing a vicious killer to go free, to roam the streets of Bellevue even now. And we’d have no idea who this person is. Does the real killer sit among us even now, here in this courtroom?”

The crowd grumbled and looked at one another, turning their ire around in every direction. She felt it wise to diffuse their singular angst against her client and her.

“Or is he already gone,” Jennifer continued, “in any direction, to continue his violent reign? And all the while, here we are, so-called civilized people, clamoring to murder a luckless boy.”

The crowd grumbled, and the judge rapped his gavel to quiet them. Jennifer’s eyes found the prosecutor’s, and he continued to watch with a calm half-smile. But she had to wonder what the prosecuting attorney was really thinking. He’d come to her to wish her luck and she’d rebuked him. She still didn’t trust him. That roguish smile could be concealing a hidden strategy that could yet undo her efforts. Jennifer knew that the legal system was flawed, prone to corruption and even criminality, of all things. And the more handsome a man was, the more he smiled at her, the less he could be trusted. Her fellow attorneys had taught her that on more than one painful and embarrassing occasion.

“Snowbound Justice” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

The small town of Bellevue, Nebraska is in a state of chaos in the winter of 1885. Cal Tamarind, the dashing prosecutor, is determined to bring justice to the small town after a gruesome family murder. But the odds are stacked against him when the accused is defended by a pretty out-of-town attorney.

Will Cal’s ideals prevail, or will they succumb, along with everything else in that doomed building?

Jennifer Bolton is determined to protect her client, even in the face of intense scrutiny. Fortunately, there is one man in Bellevue who still believes in her: the idealistic prosecutor who becomes her only ally in a world full of enemies. When a deadly snowstorm traps them in the courthouse, Jennifer must fight for her life as two killers circle closer. With everything against them, will her newfound love be enough to protect them both?

Will she have the chance at a romance that she so richly deserves, or will she join the others in a snowbound grave?

As tensions mount and resources run out, the courthouse becomes snowed-in, trapping the opposing forces together. The battle inside the courthouse is just as intense as the snowstorm threatening to crush the building, and everyone inside it. Can Cal and Jennifer find a way to bring justice to Bellevue, or is the danger inside the walls even deadlier than the one outside?

“Snowbound Justice” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!


Grab my new series, "Legends of the Lawless Frontier", and get 2 FREE novels as a gift! Have a look here!

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