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Authors: Beth Williamson

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Jake, Devils on Horseback, Book 2

BOOK: Jake, Devils on Horseback, Book 2
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Haunted by war, a thief finds salvation in the arms of an angel.

Devils on Horseback
, Book 2

On the surface, Jake Sheridan is an easygoing man whose problems roll off him like water off a duck’s back. Truth is, Jake holds so many past demons inside him, he daren’t let them out for fear he’ll never get them all back in.

He and the Devils are hired to help rebuild a town ransacked by marauders. Everywhere they turn, they encounter secrets—enough secrets to turn the town to dust if they don’t uncover the truth.

Only one person in town isn’t glad to see them: Gabrielle Rinaldi, the miller’s daughter. A strong and independent woman who is used to being disrespected for speaking her mind, she makes no secret that she doesn’t believe hired guns are the answer to the town’s woes. Yet she finds herself drawn to the enigmatic and charming Jake.

In spite of himself, Jake falls hard and fast for Gabby. But she’s wary of handing her heart to a man who lives by his guns.

When tragedy strikes, Jake and Gabby must fight to find a way to save the town—and their hearts.

This title has been revised for rerelease.

Warning: Get ready for a silver-tongued, red-haired Devil to meet his match in a miller’s daughter who will turn him upside down and sideways.

Devils on Horseback: Jake

Beth Williamson

Dedication

To the Palomino Gaits book club, the most wonderful, fun group of ladies a neighbor could have. Hugs and margaritas to Melissa, Jill C, Jill G, Denise, Holly, Nichole, Kristy, Mary Ann, Becky, Lissette, Sue and Donna. Y’all are amazing women and I’m proud to know you.

Prologue

July 1865

The dirt trembled beneath his breath, entering his mouth with each heated gust. Jake Sheridan shut his eyes and concentrated on being as silent as death. He didn’t dare move his head even as the insects began crawling across his skin and into his ears. The rest of his friends were nearby, lying with him beneath the cabin in the dark. They could have given Jake to the army captain who chased him with relentless enthusiasm. However, they chose to hide with him in the shadows and mud.

His head swam with pain as his stomach rolled with nausea. The bandages on his head were no doubt as filthy as he felt. It had been three days since they’d left Grayton and their friend Nate behind, needing to get as far away as fast as they could from Captain Nessman. He’d focused all his rage at Confederate soldiers on Jake and his friends. For some reason, Jake had caught the captain’s eye in Grayton and suddenly he had become the most wanted man in Texas.

They’d made it about twenty miles before Jake passed out and fell off his horse. Now a dislocated shoulder throbbed in tune with the other wounds he was still recovering from. Jake held his breath as the sound of horses passed by the cabin, close enough he could feel the vibrations in the ground beneath his ear.

A hand gently touched his. He wasn’t sure if it was Gideon, Zeke or Lee, but just knowing they were there, beside him, made him shake with emotion. So many nights they’d spent in the darkness and blood with only each other for company. The memories washed through him like acid, stealing whatever self-control he had.

Jake fought the panic, he truly did, but it overcame him. He started scrambling out from underneath the house, rocks and dirt scraping his skin as he clawed his way toward the light. The hand that had been a light touch grabbed his arm with enough force to make him moan.

“Shut up and stay still,” Gideon hissed from somewhere to his left. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

Tears burned Jake’s eyes as he fought to shake off his friend’s grip. “Let me go, dammit. I can’t do this anymore.”

He couldn’t hide anymore, live a life in the dirt and shit, always looking over his shoulder. His heart beat so fast, it started tearing through his ribs. Jake yanked at the arm holding him, desperate to escape from all of it.

“Let go.” Jake spit out a mouthful of dirt. “God, Gideon, just let me go.” The last word ended on a sob as he tore up his hands on the hard-packed earth beneath him.

“Never.” Gideon got one arm around Jake’s waist and held him down. Jake kicked and bit at his friend, not caring who heard or saw. He just wanted it over—he just wanted some peace.

Before he could free himself from Gideon, more arms surrounded him. All three of them put their strength into keeping him under the cabin. Jake could hardly move beneath their weight and combined force.

“Please, Jesus, just let it end.” Jake prayed for something, anything to halt his suffering.

“Corporal, stand at ease,” Gideon ordered, yet Jake for once did not listen to his captain.

Jake’s anger mixed with fear as he struggled in the dark against the demons in his mind. He fought against the bonds that held him down, against all the terrible things he’d done and had done to him. He howled inside for the boy he used to be, the man born into blood and the ghost he’d become.

“Jacob,” Gideon whispered. “Please stop. We’re all going to die if you don’t.”

Jake finally heard what Gideon said and he stopped struggling. The last thing he wanted to do was cause his friends’ deaths. God knows he was responsible for enough deaths during the war, and he couldn’t exist if anything happened to the Devils because of him.

He stopped struggling and slowly the arms slid away. Heavy breathing dominated the foot high space, along with the smell of sweat, fear and desperation. Jake pushed his forehead into the dirt and tried to tell the shaking to go away. His teeth chattered as the rawness of his emotions sank in.

Would life ever be normal again?

Chapter One

September 1865

The streets of Tanger, Texas were unnaturally quiet and empty of all but a few people. Jake Sheridan kept his gaze moving as he and his friends rode into the small town on a beautiful Monday morning. Many of the buildings had damage to them, including broken boards, cracked windows and even what appeared to be bullet holes. The folks they passed kept their heads down and didn’t acknowledge them. A deserted checkerboard sat atop a table with two empty chairs surrounding it. Everything had an abandoned air to it.

“Good morning, ladies.” Jake smiled at two older women walking down the street and they stopped to stare, their mouths open in duplicate expressions of surprise. They hurried into the building next to them, which happened to be the saloon. Odder still.

“Did you see that?” Jake said under his breath to Zeke Blackwood, who rode next to him.

The blond man nodded. “I did. Something’s not right here.”

“Shit,” Zeke’s brother Lee cursed, a bit too loudly in Jake’s opinion, but the one-armed man was always noisy. “What the hell is going on?”

“Be quiet, Lee.” Gideon Blackwood, their former captain in the war, took control as was his way. “Let’s be friendly. We heard there was work to be had here and I aim to find out if there is. It’s been months since we had a good paying job.” His sharp gaze met each of them in turn. “Don’t make judgments about folks. You’d want the same courtesy from them.”

Duly chastised, the three others kept their thoughts to themselves and kept riding. Jake pulled his hat a bit lower on his head. There was still the possibility Captain Elliot Nessman would be dogging their tail. He’d set his sights on Jake with trumped-up charges of thievery, and like a bulldog, sank his teeth deep. Although a former thief, Jake was innocent of those particular charges, interestingly enough, but against the army captain, an ex-confederate soldier’s word didn’t count for spit in the wind. They’d successfully lost him a couple months ago and God willing Nessman wouldn’t find them again.

Jake’s bright red hair was a dead giveaway. Lee had suggested he dye it with one of his lady friends’ help but Jake couldn’t bring himself to be anything but who he was. It made for interesting travels for the four of them though. They’d once been five, but one of their group, Nate, had stayed behind in Grayton to start a new life. Jake envied his friend for what he had, a loving woman and a bright future as a rancher. Truth was, Jake had never had much of anything but his friends.

During the war, the five of them were everything to each other, friend, confidant and brother. Nicknamed Devils on Horseback for their midnight raids, they kept each other alive for four long years. After heading west to start their lives over, Jake pined for the days before the soil ran red with blood, when life was simpler. He wanted to find the place where he belonged, where he could put down roots and lay claim to a share of the happiness pie.

A man could dream anyway. Perhaps it would even keep the nightmares at bay.

They arrived at a large white house at the end of the main street without a soul saying howdy. Jake’s hackles rose and his self-preservation instincts howled that something was amiss. His gut feeling never led him wrong, and right about then, it was churning like a twister.

“This the place?” Lee shook his head. “Looks like a fancy man’s house to me.”

“The fella said the mayor lived in the big white house in town. This is the only one I’ve seen.” Gideon glanced up and down the street, his eyes narrowed. “I’m thinking we need to be prepared for anything, and be ready to ride the hell out of here. Lee, you stay here with the horses. If anything odd happens, signal us.”

“Dammit, why do I have to stay behind again?”

“You’re a hothead, that’s why.” Gideon dismounted. “I don’t want a repeat of what happened last month.”

Lee didn’t respond to that, but he shut his mouth quick enough. Jake had been the one to watch the horses during that particular incident so he’d missed the fireworks. However, as he’d been told by Zeke, the owner of the ranch and Lee had almost punched each other, and obviously the Devils didn’t get the job they’d been after. They’d had to ride almost one hundred miles out of their way to lose the reputation Lee had gained for them during that one incident.

Zeke and Jake followed Gideon through the gate and up the front walk. Things were unnaturally quiet everywhere in Tanger, including at this big house. Lee had been right about one thing, it was a fancy house for a small town in central Texas.

Gideon rapped on the door, then stood back a pace, flanked on either side by Zeke and Jake. Although it had been months since the war ended, they still approached each situation as a soldier would. Jake kept his hand on his right pistol as the door opened.

A short, older man, with a head of hair that reminded Jake of high cotton, peered through the door at them. “What do you want?”

“Sir, my name is Gideon Blackwood. I’ve come to see you on the advice of Wilbur McKenzie from Shaston. He said you were looking for men to hire.” Gideon gestured behind him. “These two men are my associates Jake Sheridan and Zeke Blackwood.”

They all tipped their hats to the little man.

“Wilbur sent you?” The door opened another inch or two.

“Yes, sir, he did.” Gideon pushed his hat back and relaxed his arms.

“What does he look like?” The older man squinted at them.

“Big fella, black hair, got a mole on the right side of his nose,” Gideon replied in an even tone.

“Ayuh, that’s him. All right, you can come in, but I’ve got my eye on each and every one of you.” The older man opened the door wide, presenting them with their first full look at the mayor of Tanger. He stood no higher than five feet, with a round belly and an older-looking suit, which at one point was probably high quality. “My name’s Phineas Wolcott.”

They shook hands upon entering the house. It smelled musty, as if it hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. Dust coated each surface Jake could see. By the looks of things, Wolcott wasn’t married or he didn’t mind living in filth.

Phineas led them into a parlor with a large burgundy leather sofa and two wingback chairs. He sat in one of the chairs, one with the least threadbare fabric, and waved them to the sofa. After they sat, Phineas cleared his throat and steepled his fingers beneath his chin. Jake scanned the room and outside the windows for any movement.

“What did Wilbur tell you about the job?” Gone was the befuddled old man, and in his place a businessman with an assessing stare.

“Not much.” Gideon rested his elbows on his knees. “Just that you needed some strong backs.”

“Hmm, that’s true.” He peered at Jake. “You look familiar, do I know you?”

Jake’s gut clenched. Did Nessman possibly have wanted posters circulated with Jake’s face on them? Jesus, he hadn’t thought that would happen. Swallowing the burst of fear that radiated through him, he forced himself to smile widely. “I don’t think so, sir. I’ve never been in this part of Texas before. I’m Irish so I expect there’s plenty of redheaded fellas around.”

“True, true. Where was I? Oh yes, the job. Tanger has suffered a bit of a loss over the last six months. Ah, specifically, we’ve had some unwanted visitors.”

Jake’s instincts danced with glee—he’d known something was wrong.

“What kind of visitors?” Zeke finally spoke.

“I guess you could call them marauders, for lack of a better word.” Phineas’s gaze was far away. “They took what they wanted and left the rest of us to clean up the mess they made.”

“Is that what happened to the buildings in town?” Jake peered at Phineas, trying to gauge his truthfulness. Seeing as how Jake was a very accomplished liar himself, he could spot a flimflam artist at a hundred paces.

“Yes, it surely is.” Phineas shook his white head. “They tore us up pretty good, and then had the gall to, uh, leave everything a mess.”

Jake had the feeling Phineas was as good at lying as Jake was. There was something the older man wasn’t telling them, the trick would be in getting him to reveal it. Might not be that day, but soon enough. Jake could charm the skin off a snake if he had a mind to.

“That’s just awful.” Jake frowned. “I can’t imagine why they would shoot up the town like that. What exactly did they take anyway?” He patted the mayor’s shoulder in sympathy.

“What they wanted,” Phineas repeated. “Now let me see about getting y’all some refreshments.” He stood and bowed slightly before shuffling out of the room.

Jake, Gideon and Zeke stared at each other for a moment or two, making sure the older man was out of earshot. They leaned in close and starting whispering.

“He’s hiding something.” Zeke wasn’t one to skirt around the issue.

“I agree.” Gideon looked between them. “I don’t know what but it has to do with whoever shot up the town and what they took.”

Both of his friends zeroed in on Jake.

“I don’t know anything yet, but I will. Phineas is a wily old coot though. It’s going to take some fancy footwork to get him to give up his secrets.”

“You can get the dress off a virgin in church, Jake.” Zeke snorted. “I’m sure you can handle one old man.”

Jake wasn’t exactly proud of his skills—being a thief and a liar had its drawbacks—but there were times he needed them. “You’re probably right. I can try to find out more.”

Gideon nodded. “You’re the best at getting information out of folks that don’t want to give it. We need you to do more than try.”

Before Jake could respond, Phineas stepped back into the room with a tray containing four coffee cups. The sweet smell of strong coffee was welcome. Jake’s smile was genuine as he took a cup and sat back to enjoy the hot brew. They’d been rationing supplies for the last four weeks, which meant he’d been drinking dirty water, not his beloved coffee.

“There’s a house on the edge of town, not much, but it’s got a roof, four walls and a stove to cook on. You and your men can use it while you’re in town.” Phineas cleared his throat, his wrinkled Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “That is, if you accept the job offer.” His sharp gaze probed Gideon’s, giving Jake the opportunity to study the mayor.

Phineas might pretend to be a doddering old fool, but his hands didn’t shake, his eyes reflected deep intelligence and cunning, and he apparently knew how to manipulate. Definitely a kindred spirit. Now Jake just had to figure out what the old goat was hiding.

“What exactly do you want to hire us to do?” Gideon threw a sidelong glance at Jake. “I mean, I’m not even sure what the job is.”

“Now, Phineas, I can call you that right?” Jake smiled when the older man nodded. “I’m guessing there’s plenty for us to do here in Tanger and you’d like to hire us for more than one, ah, purpose should the need arise, which it apparently has lately. Is that correct?”

Phineas’s eyebrows rose. “You’re very astute, young man.”

“Thank you, sir. My mama always said I’d amount to a hill of beans and here I am.” Jake shoved away the pinch in his heart and continued. No reason for his past to jump on his damn back now of all times. Pretty soon he’d be waxing nostalgic about his one room cabin and stealing for food every day. “Let me see if I have the job offer straight. You need strong backs, some men with smarts, who are quick on their feet and with their guns. Men who will be willing and able to do whatever they need to for the town when necessary.”

Zeke blinked and stared hard at Jake. Gideon shook his head and fought back a grin, but Jake saw it anyway.

“You don’t beat around the bush, do you?” Phineas slurped his coffee. “You have the gist of the job, yes. I can’t give you more information than that because I don’t have it. We need you to help us rebuild the town and protect it from those who would harm it.”

“What does the job pay?” Zeke had grudgingly been the moneyman for the group for the last three months. He kept asking Jake to take over the accounts, but Jake had no desire to be responsible for their funds. No man in his right mind would let a thief be his bookkeeper anyway.

“Room and board, and fifty dollars each when the job is finished.”

Silence dominated the room. It was a paltry sum compared to the money they’d received in Grayton from Nate’s father-in-law, but in the face of having five dollars in their collective pockets, two hundred dollars was enough to last them a while. That was if, of course, the town actually paid the money. From the look of things, Tanger didn’t have two hundred pennies much less two hundred dollars.

“We’ll need the agreement in writing, Phineas.” Jake eased back against the sofa and stretched his legs out in front of him. “Not to say we don’t trust you, but we are a business as you may or may not know. D.H. Enterprises has served some of the finest men in Texas.”

Or at least one or two anyway. Jake wasn’t sure if all of their former bosses could be called fine men.

“Of course, of course. I can prepare the document myself.” Phineas glanced at the small gold watch he pulled from his vest pocket. “It’s getting close to noontime. If you want the job, you can make the dinner meal down at Cindy’s restaurant.”

Jake knew Phineas hadn’t been completely honest with them, but the older man had revealed more than Jake anticipated. From what he could gather, the town was targeted by some unknown men for destruction and robbery, and God only knew what else. Their young men must’ve gone off to war and either not come back or been killed afterwards in whatever happened in Tanger. From what the Devils had seen that morning, fear gripped whoever was left in town. They were hanging on by their proverbial fingernails and required the Devil’s own magic to bring them back to life.

“Can you give us a few moments to discuss it, Mayor?” Gideon, always the diplomat, asked politely.

“Absolutely.” Phineas stood, brushing his hands down his trousers to smooth away the wrinkles in the dilapidated fabric. “I surely hope you and your friends can help us, Mr. Blackwood. We’d be grateful for some assistance.” With a courtly bow, Phineas left the room.

Jake assumed the mayor stood ten feet away with his ear pressed to the wall. That’s what he’d do in the same situation.

BOOK: Jake, Devils on Horseback, Book 2
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