• Karen Baney

Oaks of Justice (Desert Manna #3) - Chapter 1



Tucson, Arizona Territory

February 25, 1873


Mel Larson walked out of the courthouse and started down the steps. The sky burned bright with the late afternoon sun. It was blistering hot.


Within seconds she was knocked to the ground. A heavy-set man with huge arms turned her over.


“I’ll kill you!”


The words echoed in her mind as Calvin Westbrook stood over her with his beefy hands tight around her neck. His eyes were dark, and his brows drew together forming a deep V in his forehead.


She clawed at his hands. He only squeezed tighter. She tried to kick her legs, but his weight pinned her to the ground.


Air. She needed to get free.


She reached up and scratched at his face with all her might, tearing away three ribbons of flesh.

Breathe. No air would come. She felt lightheaded.


She struggled against the hulk of a man who murdered his wife. She could not get him to loosen his grip.


Mel’s vision blurred. She was going to die.


A huge gasp. Her lungs filled with air.


Mel’s eyes flew open. She was alone in the dark of her bedroom. Her soaked nightgown clung to her body as she reached for the oil lamp and matches on her nightstand. She struck a match and lit the lamp.


The soft glow penetrated the darkness. The clock on her nightstand read one o’clock. She buried her face in her pillow and cried. It had been months since her last nightmare of that awful July day four years ago.


She had only worked for Virgil Pittman for a few months. It was her first murder trial. She knew early on that it would be a difficult case, even under Virgil’s mentoring. Calvin Westbrook was guilty and no matter what kind of defense she and Virgil presented; no jury believed otherwise.


Mel threw back the covers and walked down the stairs to the kitchen to pour a glass of fresh water. Her hands shook as she raised the full glass to her lips.


She felt silly for being so terrified of him. He was behind bars and would not get out any time soon.


After draining the glass, she set it aside. She breathed deeply of the air in her small, rented home.


She still remembered the end of Westbrook’s trial clearly. When the verdict came back on the side of justice, declaring him guilty, he flew into a rage. He shook off his guard and lunged toward her. Unlike her nightmare, the scene unfolded in the courtroom. He threw her to the ground, straddled her body and squeezed her neck until she almost passed out. It took four men to get him off her. The judge already had sentenced him to life in prison, so once they got him under control, prison was where Westbrook went.


Another deep breath. Her hand finally stopped shaking.


If Mama or Papa had known about that attack, they would have yanked her back to Prescott in a heartbeat. That was why she never told them. Her job was too important. Even if she was not legally allowed to take the tests to become a licensed attorney, she was allowed to argue cases before the court like a real lawyer as long as her mentor, Virgil Pittman, was present.


That was the only case where she had been threatened. Not one time in the four years since.


She climbed the stairs and returned to her bed, yet sleep would not come. She closed her eyes and tried to picture the lake at the ranch. Mama hung clothes on the line. Her brother Adam and his wife Julia worked with a young gray gelding in the training corral. A breeze tickled her hair as she watched the cowboys ride off to care for the herd.


Sometimes that worked. Thinking of the ranch brought her peace. She loved the years she spent there with her family.


Unfortunately, memories of home failed to push away her anxiety that night. Maybe the case she helped Junior with that afternoon was what stirred the old memories of the attack. There were similarities to the Westbrook case, a young mother murdered in her home by an abusive spouse, leaving behind a couple of small children.


Mel’s stomach churned. Cases involving small children often troubled her. She wished that those children could have experienced a home like hers.


A tear slid down her cheek and she wiped it away. She glanced at the clock. Half past two.

She considered going back downstairs to reread her notes from yesterday. As soon as the thought came, she pushed it away. She needed to do her best to fall back asleep not burn through the rest of the night by filling her mind with horrible descriptions from that case.


Mel turned on her side. She stared at her Bible on the nightstand. Without opening it, she whispered the words aloud, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” The verse from Psalm 34 had become a favorite as well as the words a few verses later. “Affliction will slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.”


Lord, I don’t know why I remembered that attack tonight. I know that you will slay that wicked man. Please help me sleep and find your peace again so I can give my best to our current clients tomorrow. Amen.


Mel turned down the lamp and pulled the covers to her chest as the words of those verses covered her heart.


The next morning Mel woke to sunlight shining on her face through the window. She bolted upright. Half past eight.


Oh, no! She promised Junior she would be at court by nine.


She quickly washed up and threw on her lime green dress edged with black lace on the folds of the skirt. She grabbed a handful of hair pins and tucked her hat under her arm as she ran down the stairs. She scooped up the pile of papers on her table and stuffed them into her satchel which she slung over her shoulder. As she left her home, she twisted her unruly red curls into as much of a knot as they would go, stuffing pin after pin in the mess. She placed the hat on top and secured it with several hat pins.


She looked at her watch pin. She was going to be late.


Mel hiked up her skirts and ran the last two blocks. She arrived at the courthouse at one minute ‘til. Her boots clicked out a staccato rhythm as she bolted for the courtroom.


“All rise!” the bailiff said as she dropped her satchel onto the seat between Virgil and Junior at the table for the defense. Their client was not in the courtroom.


When the judge called the court to order, she leaned over to Virgil.


“What’s going on?”


He shook his head.


The judge addressed the courtroom. “Two of the jurors have been excused from the case. Since that leaves us with less than the required number, I’m declaring a mistrial.”


He pounded his gavel.


“Council will meet in my chambers.”


After the judge left the courtroom, Mel followed Virgil and Junior to the judge’s chambers.

“Wait here,” Virgil instructed.


The District Attorney joined them in the judge’s chambers.


She tried to listen through the door, but she could not make out the words clear enough.

Ten minutes later, the attorneys exited.


“Bribery,” Junior said. “Our client got to those jurors and paid them off.”


Mel shook her head. “How did the judge find out?”


“Anonymous tip,” Virgil said. “Not a solid enough connection to our client, but it was enough for the judge to act.”


She sighed heavily.


“Let’s regroup back at the office,” Virgil said.


“I’ll catch up after I grab some breakfast,” she said.


Virgil raised an eyebrow as Junior continued out of the courthouse. “The nightmare?”

Mel nodded.


“Take your time,” Virgil said. “Not much we can do for this case today.”


Virgil hurried to catch up to his son.


The morning still held a bit of a chill, so she picked up her pace until she reached the small café near their office. She entered and the owner greeted her. She ordered an egg sandwich to go. When her food was ready, she left and started eating as she walked.


By the time she reached the large brick building, she finished her meal. The sign on the door read: Pittman and Associates. She smiled, proud to be one of the associates. Though one day she dreamed it might say, “Pittman, Pittman, and Larson.” It was a foolish thought since she was not officially a lawyer.


As Mel reached for the door handle, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She dropped her arm and scanned the street behind her. A wagon rolled by kicking up dust. A burly man carried a crate on one shoulder as he hurried down the sidewalk. Near the alleyway, she caught sight of someone turning into it before she could see his face.


She shook off her apprehension, vowing not to the let nightmares make her paranoid.


When she entered the office, noise hit her full force. Several associates scurried to the conference room. She headed that way. One of the newest associates, Roger, handed her a cup of coffee as she entered the room. For the next hour the team theorized about what might happen with the case from that morning.

Virgil dismissed the group and she headed back to her desk.


Then she saw it. “Westbrook Escaped!” the headline read.


The porcelain mug slipped from her hand and clattered to the floor, shattering into several large pieces. Mel leaned against the edge of her desk and breathed deeply.


When she recovered, she yelled, “Who put this paper here?”


Virgil and Junior came over to her desk. Junior picked up the newspaper and started to read the article.


Mel waved her hand trying to get him to shut up. “I don’t need to hear it. Who put this here?”


Her throat constricted. The man in the alleyway. Could that have been Westbrook?


Virgil questioned the staff, and no one saw who put the newspaper on Mel’s desk.


“We have to get you out of here,” Virgil said.


Her thoughts exactly.





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