A Brave Outlaw’s Burden (Preview)

Chapter One

Beaumont Ranch

Texas 1879

Aaron Beaumont straightened and arched his back to unknot it after spending the last hour bent over trying to fix a particularly bad piece of fence. The sun fell across his face, momentarily blinding him. It was about lunchtime, and he was more than ready to head back for a spell. The question was, where was that daughter of his? She should have been back ages ago.

From where he stood on the ridge, Aaron had a pretty clear view of the dirt farm he called home. Barbed wire fence stretched for a mile in each direction, or at least it was supposed to. This last break had been a bad one. He’d lost a dozen head of cattle before he figured out where they were slipping out.

It was the creosote and mesquite that had made this break hard to spot. The brush along here needed clearing, tumbleweeds piled up in the wind had made it look like there was fence where there was none. 

“It’s a stupid place for a ranch,” he muttered, studying the barren ground. It was a good thing cattle could survive eating next to nothing, because right now that was all he had to give. “We need rain.”

He wasn’t praying, exactly, because he was no longer a praying man, but it made a man feel less alone to hear his own voice from time to time.

Speaking of which…

Aaron turned in a slow circle, following the line of the ridge down to the valley where the ranch house and barn were located. From here, the cabin looked pretty desolate, without so much as a wisp of smoke from the chimney to betray that anyone lived there. The corral next to the barn held only the spotted horse who’d thrown a shoe last week and lamed itself on the stony ground. 

“Well, consarn it.”

More than a little concerned now, Aaron threw his tools into the saddlebag of his horse, startling awake the animal who’d been sleeping, one hoof cocked, tail swishing against the ever-present flies.

In seconds he was up in the saddle, heading not down toward the house but back along the length of the fence line his little girl had ridden out to check two hours ago. “Betty!”

The shout hung in the still air, broken only by the distant lowing of cattle, by the cry of a hawk descending on unseen prey. His horse’s hooves beat against the ground in a hard tattoo, the creak of leather almost masking the faint barking of the dog.

The dog!

Aaron drew up the horse, trying to hear where the sound was coming from. Below the ridge, the underbrush grew thick, making it hard to see what was coming around the piled rocks and sandstone.

Blasted ranch. Blasted rock and sand where nothing grows but scraggly cattle. He’d come out here wanting peace, a different kind of life, but the only thing the ground had taken was the body of his wife, buried in the small cemetery outside town. Everything else dried up and blew away. 

Dont take my Betty. Not after Nora…

There. The dog barked again. Only this time he didn’t need it, for he saw his child, his little girl riding hell-bent for leather straight toward him, her Indian pony dark with sweat, the child clinging to his back as though she were grown there to do just that.

“Pa!”

The animal skidded to a halt five feet from him, dancing in place and snorting. The gelding was still wild-eyed from the run, blowing hard and frothing at the mouth. The dog appeared a moment later, a mangy mongrel who never let Betty out of his sight for a minute. He lay down panting in the shade of the horse’s belly, worn from the run but grinning all the same.

“Betty Beaumont, what do you think you’re doing running an animal like that in this heat? Are you bit by a rattlesnake?”

“Oh, Pa! No rattlesnake gets near me,” the girl said with a roll of her eyes that made her look twice her age, ten going on twenty, a pale version of her mother with white-blond hair and gray eyes that looked like the skies after a rare rain. “I found a break, a bad one. Up on the north forty, there’s a whole section down. You could drive the entire herd through there.”

His daughter’s careless choice of words set Aaron’s back up. He forgot his momentary worry, and even his annoyance as this new threat presented itself. “That’s all fresh wire up there. Fixed it last week.” And the week before, and the week before that. If this was where he thought it was, it would be his fifth time fixing that particular stretch of fence.

He didn’t ask what he wanted to. Whether it was a stampede that had laid the pasture open or something else. A knife on a dark night. A gang of lowdown snakes, looking to profit on the back of a man who had only his little girl and couple head of Texas longhorns not quite ready to go to market.

“Can you show me without killing the horse?” he asked, with a stern look at the child. Times like this he wondered if he’d been doing the right thing by her, letting her run wild over the ranch like this. But he couldn’t afford a hand right now, and riding fence, marking pieces of wire that needed attention, was easy enough work. 

He wasn’t sure if it was the girl or the pony who snorted, for she’d already turned the animal and was leading him back the way she’d come.

She took him down by the creek bottom, something else he was going to have to talk to her about. He didn’t like her going through the wash alone, not when a rain in the mountains could create a river in minutes, filling the gully to overflowing before you even felt the first drop. Not that there were clouds on the horizon today, but still, it didn’t pay to take chances. 

A shallow creek ran through the deepest part, a place where the horses stopped to drink. The dog lapped with them, before circling around to where Betty leaned down to wet her bandana, which she tucked around her sweaty neck.

“Pa?” She looked up at him seriously, her nose smudged with dust, eyes bright with curiosity and far too much innocence for a land like this. “Why does the fence keep breaking?”

There it was. The question he wasn’t ready to answer.

“Let me look at it before we start making assumptions, darlin’. Might be just a batch of bad wire.”

The horses hadn’t been allowed to drink their fill. The pony had been run too hard to let it have more than a few mouthfuls. It left the spring reluctantly, splashing across the stream, snorting, and dancing sideways on the trail that led to the other side of the valley. 

“You good?” he asked his girl, but she only shrugged and kicked the pony hard, sending the animal up the trail with a practiced control.

Aaron shook his head. Ten-year-old girls should be doing needlepoint or something.

All the same, this was their life, and tomorrow, school would start again—meaning Betty would be free to be a child, at least for part of the day. He sighed and only just resisted taking the lead as they drew abreast where the trail widened, remembering what it was to be ten. She would want to lead him to the break in the wire herself.

“The cattle still in?” he asked, shooting a glance over to his only child. 

The cattle had been grazing down on the south end of the pasture and so he wasn’t too worried. There was a lot of distance between there and here, and so far he hadn’t seen any fresh sign of livestock up this way.

Betty flipped her hat off to wipe sweat from her forehead and grinned over at him, scraggly braids dancing on her shoulders as she kicked her pony to a trot. “I checked,” she called to him and pointed up toward the fence, only just visible through the scrubby trees.

He had no doubt she’d examined every cow pat and cloven hoofprint. But he could see where she was concerned. It wasn’t just one wire down up here but all of them. The barbed wire lay in loose coils, still attached to the far post, but creating a deadly boundary that snaked through the grass. Aaron frowned, not liking the way this made his stomach clench. Betty’s horse could have stumbled into that, gotten caught, and thrown her.

“Betty, go back to the house.”

“Pa?” She glanced back at him, the joy in her eyes at being able to lead him here fading, her face going pale beneath her tan. 

He hadn’t meant to speak sharply. It was fear of what might have happened that had caused such a harsh reaction in him. But Betty was all he had, and the idea of something happening to her was more than he could bear.

“I was thinking you could maybe put up some sandwiches. This looks like hungry work,” he amended, dismounting while his horse was still well away from the mess. He reached for the wire cutters in his bag, glad for the heavy leather gloves that would keep his hands from being sliced to ribbons while he worked. 

Betty watched him, clearly torn between wanting to help with the fence and the order to go back. She had to be hungry too, though he had no doubt she’d ridden out better provisioned than he was. He knew for a fact she’d had a handful of cookies in her hand this morning when she went out to the barn. Unless she’d fed them all to that fool horse of hers.

“Betty?” 

He hated pushing her, but there was something about this entire setup that he didn’t like. The way the fence was spread out like this would force him to keep his horse far from where he was working, just to make sure the animal didn’t get tangled up in any of those errant loops. He would be on foot, at a clear disadvantage if an enemy approached. 

He eyed the rifle slung behind the saddle. You couldn’t fix a fence and carry a rifle at the same time. Not easily, anyway. 

“I’m going, Pa.”

The words were obedient enough, though she was clearly put out at not being asked to help. She’d been part of stringing this section last week now that he thought about it. 

Last week, it hadn’t been this much fence down. 

He watched his daughter ride back the way they’d come. He almost called her back, thinking of the lonely stretch along the stream bed in the wash, and told himself that so long as Betty had the dog who trotted obediently behind her, she would be fine. The sky was still clear over the mountains, and the horse or dog would let her know if there was trouble.

Trouble.

“The neighbors aren’t cantankerous,” he muttered as he worked the rifle loose, opting to carry it with him anyway. “You stay back here.” He left the horse ground tied and trudged through the brush, rifle in one hand, gear to fix the fence in the other.

Darned if the wire across the rocky ground wasn’t like trying to hop over a passel of snakes without getting bit.

On the other side, he walked along until he found the last post the fence was still wired to. He followed the loose end of the wire until he found the break.

No. Cut. The wire was cut. He had a bad feeling about this.

He should have told Betty to stay put with her sandwiches once lunch was made. He didn’t want her coming back out here alone. 

Not when someone was clearly up to no good.

 

Chapter Two

Aaron had never fixed a fence so fast in his life. The fact that no one had taken any cattle was perhaps the most disturbing part. He expected a certain degree of rustling when they lived so far remote. Besides, why cut that much fence if you weren’t going to stampede half the herd through it?

To Aaron’s way of thinking, that could only mean one thing. Someone was sending him a warning. They wanted him to know what they could do. A threat of sorts. Or a test. 

Aaron straightened and took a long moment to stretch, real casual-like. The landscape out here was mighty barren. Not much to hide behind. If someone were watching them right now, there weren’t many places where he could hide.

The fence was as fixed as it needed to be for now. Aaron gathered his tools and slipped them in the saddlebags on his horse, all the while thinking quickly. That copse of trees to the east of him would be a good place to hole up. If he remembered correctly, there was a water hole over that way. It wasn’t on his land, so he wasn’t as familiar with the terrain as he would have liked. 

He wondered if his neighbors had noticed anything strange lately. The sound of horses at night where they didn’t belong. Hoofprints along their fence line.

He didn’t like the idea of checking it out. For one thing, he would be trespassing. For another, it would mean leaving Betty alone that much longer. As it was, he half-expected to meet her on the trail somewhere as he rode back.

My past is catching up to me. 

There was nothing to indicate this trouble had anything to do with where he’d been a dozen years ago. But there was something about this whole situation that felt familiar. As though he’d seen it before.

He mounted his horse and headed the animal back toward the ranch, not in a hurry, but nice and slow. Like he had nothing better to do than fix fence all day. In truth, he was taking time to slowly examine his own land. The rocks down by the creek gave shelter to all kinds of varmints. Just last spring, he’d caught a bobcat up that way. 

But if there was anything there, he saw little sign of it. His horse plodded along easily, ears twitching against the flies, completely unconcerned with its surroundings. 

Aaron frowned. He didn’t like mysteries. Especially ones that threatened his little girl.

Speaking of which… where is that child, anyway?

He didn’t meet with Betty on the trail. He was worried enough to bring his horse in fast, raising a cloud of dust when he drew up outside the house. He didn’t even realize he was holding his breath until Betty came out onto the porch, wiping her hands on a dish towel. The dog hovered by her leg, plumy tail wagging.

“Pa? Is everything all right?” she asked, laying aside the scrap of fabric and jumping down the steps to fling herself into his arms for a long hug, despite the dirt and sweat on his clothes.

“Fine, darlin’. Let me put Buck up in the corral, and I’ll come in and get some lunch.”

“Let me do it. The sandwiches are on the table.” She danced on one foot, reaching past him to snag the reins of the buckskin, who cropped at the sparse grass growing along the cabin wall.

“I got it.” Aaron answered her sharper than he intended. He pretended not to see the hurt look on her face as he took the reins from her limp grasp. 

“Whatever you say, Pa.” Betty took a full step back away from him, hands twisting in the hem of her apron. The dog looked between them as though sensing the tension.

Aaron softened. She looked so much like her ma when she stood like that. “We’ll talk when I come in,” he promised and, without another word, took Buck to the barn.

He was half-tempted to leave the horse saddled and bridled. He had an unreasonable urge to be ready to go somewhere, though where exactly this would be, he didn’t know. In the meantime, his little girl was waiting on him and he needed to tell her… well, something.

Times like this he certainly missed Betty’s mother, Nora. She always knew the right thing to do or say. “If you’ve got any bright ideas, I’d certainly appreciate them,” he said with a wry glance upward. He wasn’t praying. If anything, he was talking to his bride, even though he knew she was lying in the churchyard and wasn’t there.

His shoulders slumped. 

Foolishness. It was all foolishness. Him standing out in the barn talking to no one at all.

“I’d do better directing my questions to you,” he muttered as he took the bridle off the horse and hung it on the nail next to the animal’s stall. Normally, he would have turned Buck out into the corral after the day’s work. Keeping the gelding in his stall was a compromise of sorts. If he needed to go anywhere, he wouldn’t have to waste time trying to catch the animal first.

The dog met him in the yard when he left the barn.

“Get on with you, Bart,” he muttered, aiming a half-hearted foot at the dog to get it out from underfoot. 

He stopped at the horse trough before going in, splashing some water over his sweaty face. It felt good to wash off the dirt of the day. It certainly was working out to be a scorcher.

“Betty!” he shouted as he came into the house.

“Yes, Pa?” she asked, coming to the kitchen door with a wary look. The dog shot up onto the porch and sat pressed next to her leg.

“Why don’t you grab a jar of those preserves from the cellar to go with our lunch. I have a mind to eat something sweet.”

Betty’s face lit up. There weren’t many jars left. He heard her pulling up the trapdoor and clattering down the ladder into the root cellar. 

He took his place at the table, glad to see there were several sandwiches on the platter before them. His appetite was coming back now that he could smell the food. Betty reappeared through the open trapdoor, a dusty jar cradled in her arms. This she set on the table with a look of pure satisfaction on her face.

“I’m glad now I didn’t bring the food out to you. I had considered it,” she commented as she rummaged in the cupboard and came out with some of the biscuits left over from that morning. “Using these will be almost like shortcake.”

“Shortcake sounds good to me.”

They dug into the food with good appetite. Aaron surreptitiously watched his daughter eat. She seemed relaxed. She was also feeding the dog bits of chicken under the table. Maybe she had forgotten the whole incident out at the fence. She was still a child, after all. There was no way she could—

“Pa, when are you going to tell me about the cattle rustlers?”

Aaron dropped the spoon he was using to slather jam onto a half of a biscuit. When he looked up at his daughter, he saw how seriously she was staring at him, her eyes dark with concern.

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“Nope,” she answered cheerfully, taking a bite from her sandwich. “Not going to listen to any lies, either.”

He sighed. Here was the whole dilemma laid out in front of him. Betty was a smart girl. There wasn’t putting much past her. In some ways, it was a good thing. She’d been managing the house pretty well on her own ever since her mother died. It wasn’t fair that she had been forced to take over chores most children didn’t have to learn until adulthood. Sometimes he just wished she could play like any other ordinary child.

Times like this were especially hard. He never knew quite how much to tell her. She was only ten. How did you tell a ten-year-old that you had done something when you were younger that you weren’t proud of, something bad enough that it could haunt you across 1,000 miles and threaten your family?

He cleared his throat. “Well, it’s like this…”

“The truth, Pa.” Her tone held a note of warning, a frown forming between her pretty eyes. The dog gave a sharp bark as if agreeing.

“The truth.” He repeated the word stupidly. Sometimes even he wasn’t sure of the truth anymore. The biscuit, which a moment before had tasted pretty good, turned to sawdust in his mouth. He shoved his plate away from him and stood up from the table. 

Betty stayed where she was, her eyes following him as he moved about the room.

“You see…” He stopped. He really didn’t know how to tell her.

“It’s all right, Pa,” she said softly. “I’m going to love you no matter what you say.” 

He swallowed hard. “You know I was a soldier in the war.”

The Civil War. It had been fought a dozen or more years previously. Most people would have been able to put such a thing behind them by now, but not him. Aaron still dreamed of the screams of dying men. He still smelled a hint of gunpowder in the rain. He could still feel the blood upon his hands, sticky and wet and impossible to wash off.

“You fought for the South,” she said quietly, trying to help him along. Her hands were buried in the dog’s fur, petting him as though her life depended on it.

“I did.” He paused. “You ever hear the word ‘marauder’?”

She stared at him, her eyes wide. “They did bad things. They snuck around and stole things. They didn’t fight fair.”

“No.” His voice was hoarse. It was hard to get the words out past the lump in his throat. “We didn’t.”

For a long moment, he didn’t know what she would do. He saw her eyes drop to stare at the table in front of her. She swallowed hard a couple of times and when she spoke, her voice sounded strange, like she was forcing out the words.

“I expect you had good reasons for what you did.”

It was just like her to try to find the best in him even when he was making the worst confession of his life. He couldn’t take it. He slammed a fist on the table hard enough that the dishes jumped. The dog growled at him, hackles rising. 

“You don’t understand.” He ground out the words, choking on them. “I was a bad man. I am a bad man.”

She gave a strangled cry and launched herself from her seat. Wrapping her arms around his middle, she buried his face in his chest and cried. “No. You’re my daddy.”

His arms went around her, holding her close. Work-worn hands caught on the loose hairs that stuck out from her braids as he stroked her head. 

“I was a bad man,” he whispered, willing her to understand. 

She didn’t move. Her face was still buried in the rough fabric of his shirt. “Tell me. You promised no lies.”

He had. He stared at the dog, who eyed him from under the table. How did you tell your little girl you were no hero? Not like she’d made you out to be.

He spoke in a rush, spilling out the words he’d been trying to say for too many years now. “I was young. We were all young. We were angry. We’d seen what the Northern soldiers had done to our homes, to our families, to our world. Every last one of us wanted to lash out at someone. We wanted to make them hurt the way we were hurting inside. Both my parents had been killed. My sister, well, she might as well have been dead. She would have been better if she had died then and not later. After.”

Betty tilted her head back to look up at him. Her eyes were wet with tears. “What does that have to do with the cattle?”

He hugged her even tighter. “I think they found me. I think they want me back.”

Betty gasped and moved back. Her eyes had gone wide with fright. “You mean to say that’s what that man was wanting the other day?”

“What man?” He grabbed her arms, bending a little so he could look at her eyes. “You mean to say a man came around here?”

She shifted awkwardly in his grasp. “On Tuesday. I told him you were out in the barn. That’s when you were messing with old Lightning over that thrown shoe. I could hear you hitting something on the anvil.”

“He never came in.” Aaron thought he was going to be sick. “He never came in.”

Betty squirmed. “You’re hurting me, Pa.” 

The dog stepped toward them, as if sensing his mistress was in distress.

He stared at her blankly before realizing he was still holding onto her arms a bit too tight. “Sorry, child.” He was frowning as he let her go. “What did the man look like?”

“About your height? Don’t rightly know much beyond that. He had a bandana on his face and when he came to the door, the sun was kind of behind him. I didn’t see much of him. He was polite. I remember thinking it odd, a cowboy would speak so formal-like.”

“Windsor…”

“Windsor?” 

He waved that off. “Just a man… never mind. Honey, you been seeing any other strangers about?”

She shook her head.

She was getting scared; he could see it in the way her face had gone pale and lines of tension had appeared around her eyes. She was the best thing that ever happened to him and now she was scared because of who he was.

“Pa?”

“It’s probably nothing. Just… old friends playing pranks,” he said finally and gestured toward the table and their half-eaten lunch. “What say we forget the sandwiches and just eat shortcake? That bite I had was mighty good.”

Dubious, she went and sat back in her chair, but her shoulders were still high and tense, and she was carrying herself all stiff like she’d suffered a blow and wasn’t sure yet whether there was another one coming. Carefully, she picked up her fork and broke off a bit of biscuit covered in jam, but the pleasure was gone from her face as she chewed. She could have been eating anything. The dog hovered, hoping for treats.

She’d wanted honesty. She just hadn’t expected him to take away her idea of who he was.

He stared at the shortcake, looking at it so hard he could count the seeds in the jam.

“Pa?”

“Yes, honey?” 

“Will you be mad if I tell you I haven’t been completely honest with you?”

His head came up fast. His little girl met his gaze, trembling and unsure. “What’s on your mind?”

“The last week or so… I keep feeling like someone is watching me when I’m out doing my chores. I keep looking but there’s never anyone there. You asked if I’d seen other strangers about. I…I didn’t want to get you all mad again, but I think someone is out there all the time. Bart thinks so, too. He growls a lot when we ride out.”

For a moment, Aaron couldn’t breathe. It took a long minute for him to get himself under control again. “I appreciate your telling me,” he said finally. 

“I’m not riding out alone anymore, am I?” she asked. 

He stared at her. He wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved.

“Let’s just keep you close to home for a spell, and see what happens,” he said finally. “Tomorrow, though, I’m teaching you how to shoot.”


“A Brave Outlaw’s Burden” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

In the post-Civil War West, peace is an elusive luxury. Aaron, a former Confederate marauder, and his daughter seek solace on a remote Texan farm surrounded by the wild, unforgiving lands. But Aaron’s attempt to escape his violent past is disrupted by mysterious disappearances and recurring damages on his fence. It slowly becomes clear that the past, ruthless and unyielding, has found its way back to haunt him.

Will Aaron be ready to confront his demons when the time comes?

With a constant sense of being watched, Aaron realizes that the bandits from his troubled history have tracked him down and they will not leave his family alone. At least, not until they finally get what Aaron has been desperately trying to keep buried. Just when things take a turn for the worse, a man from his old lawless days appears with a deal…

Aaron will need to muster the courage to protect those he holds dear…

In the vast expanse of Texas, secrets are buried deeper than the gold in hidden mines and a family’s fate hangs by a thread… Aaron’s journey to protect his loved ones will soon take him down a treacherous path that could cost him everything. Will he be the man he once was to claim what he fought for? Or can he rise above his dark past to secure a peaceful future?

“A Brave Outlaw’s Burden” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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