A Bounty on Their Scarred Hearts, by Ava Winters

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"A Bounty on Their Scarred Hearts"

a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Ava Winters


Can Millie’s quiet strength break down this bounty hunter’s wall?

Millie is a caring and fierce young woman. Losing her mother a year ago, she is left responsible for caring for her father who isn’t handling his loss very well.

Luke Houston is an intelligent and decisive bounty hunter. Losing his parents at a young age, he mistakenly blames himself for not protecting them.

Luke comes into town as Millie’s father gets accused of a murder he did not commit. His moral compass tells him that things are not as they appear.

While both of them fight the demons in their past, their affection will get stronger by the day and even though they started at the wrong foot, they will develop deep feelings for each other.

Thinking they have discovered the truth, they are unaware that they have been played!

Will they be able to save the town or will they die trying?

Prologue

Chapter Divider

The sun was finally westering and the dust settling as Sheriff Harvey Roach urged his horse toward The Saloon. Haven Ridge, Colorado had exactly one watering hole and that was The Saloon, aptly named by the townspeople even before there was much of a town there.

After dismounting and tethering his horse, Leon, to the post, Sheriff Roach surveyed the main road through the small but growing town. Most of the men had either headed home for the day or had landed inside The Saloon for poker, women, drinks, or all three. Most evenings were quiet until the sun went down—that’s when the trouble usually started. With the road mostly empty and the smell of evening meals cooking, Harvey suspected the evening would be a quiet one.

Pushing his hat back, Sheriff Roach stepped through the batwing doors. The interior was dim after being out in the sun all day and Harvey gave his eyes a moment to adjust while he stood by the doors. His ears didn’t need to adjust, though. He could hear a familiar voice from the far end of the bar.

Clyde McCormick, the bartender, poured a drink and tilted it toward Harvey. “Need to wet your whistle, Sheriff?” His look told Harvey he was probably going to need it before the evening was done.

Nodding to the patrons playing poker to his left, Harvey made his way to the bar and took the drink. “Just sarsaparilla, Clyde. Don’t need any alcohol in me from the looks of it.” He nodded toward Isaac Thomas at the far end of the bar.

Clyde nodded and scoffed. “Been in here for a few hours now. He’s been drinking the whole time. Bemoaning the loss of his wife, but she’s been dead a year now, ain’t it time he moved on from that? He’s starting to affect my business, Sheriff.”

Harvey watched Isaac and drank from his sarsaparilla, enjoying the tangy sweetness. Isaac stumbled backward, tripping over his own foot, and hitting the floor hard. The fall winded him, but he was back on his feet a second later, railing at the men who were laughing at him.

“He’s making a darn fool of himself.” Clyde shook his head in disgust and turned away from Harvey to replace a glass on the shelf.

One of the laughing men reached out to pat Isaac on the shoulder, a quieting, soothing gesture that said ‘hey, we’re only joshing you, Isaac’ and Isaac slapped his hand away.

“Don’t be condescending to me, you little half-wit. Ain’t you ever heard of respecting your elders?” Isaac’s voice boomed through The Saloon. His gray hair had tufted out on the sides and stood out comically.

Harvey watched the situation disintegrate and found nothing comical about Isaac’s appearance. Clyde was right. He was making a fool of himself. Too drunk to stand straight. This was possibly the worst Isaac had ever looked. He pitched and yawed as he tried to sustain his balance.

“Aw, come on, Isaac, he didn’t mean no harm,” offered another of the men.

“It’s Mr. Thomas to y’all. That’s respect! None of you have shown me any respect since my wife died.” Isaac’s voice lost its authority as the man began to sob.

One look at that wreck of a man and Harvey knew there would be no reasoning with him in that state. The only person who could still get through to him, at least some of the time, was his daughter Millie. She used to be the apple of his eye, Harvey thought, shaking his head. He wondered if Isaac thought about those times any more or if he had given up on what he had loved most in life besides his wife.

Tapping the glass, Harvey tossed Clyde a coin. “Thanks.” Sighing, he put his hat back on his aching head. Taking one last look over his shoulder as he headed for the door, he saw Isaac, sobbing and reaching for yet another drink from the bar.

Samuel Preston stepped inside and nodded acknowledgment at the sheriff. Harvey returned the nod and sidestepped Samuel, continuing out of The Saloon. Clyde nodded and put the coin in his pocket, thinking that the good sheriff should have done something about Isaac. The man was only getting drunker by the minute.

As he rode toward the Thomas homestead, he considered the many times he had given Isaac leeway because of his loss. Wilma had been a lovely, sweet, and generous woman in life and Isaac had been the salt of the earth. Harvey was sure that losing such a woman after twenty years of marriage had been hard on Isaac. A more difficult thing than he thought he could ever survive.

But Isaac had to get ahold of himself and stop causing trouble. Before Harvey had been appointed as the first lawman of Haven Ridge two years ago, vigilante justice had ruled the town. There were plenty of people who would love to revert to that system of meting out justice however they saw fit. If he didn’t do something about Isaac soon, he feared for the man’s safety.

Arriving at the edge of the Thomas property, Harvey was amazed at how well Millie seemed to be keeping the place by herself. Goodness knew her father was little help. He slowed Leon to a trot and then to a walk as he scanned the property for Millie. Not seeing her outside, he stationed Leon at the tethering post near the invitingly tall grass and headed up the slope to the porch.

Supper was on and it smelled of savory beef and onions. Harvey’s gut rumbled, reminding him that he had not taken supper yet and that he had missed lunch, too. Millie took so much after her mother. Her voice, high and pure, floated to him as he raised his hand to knock on the door. She was singing a church hymn. No time to listen to her singing no matter how pretty it sounds, he thought. He rapped sharply on the door.

“Miss Thomas? It’s Sheriff Roach. I need to speak to you, please.” He stepped back and removed his hat in anticipation of her appearance.

The singing ceased. “I’ll be right there,” she called from the kitchen. A pot clanked noisily and then another as she removed them from the stove, no doubt. Seconds later, she appeared in the doorway with only the hazy gray of the screen door separating them. “Yes, Sheriff? Is it my father again?”

Looking down at the porch boards, he nodded. “I’m afraid so, Miss Thomas. I hate to bother you at suppertime, but I need you to come to The Saloon with me and calm him down before he gets into trouble again.”

Her expression went from cherubic to weathered in an instant. Her shoulders, usually straight as was her posture, drooped. It was like looking at a much older version of Millie. A much older and more exhausted Millie bedraggled by her father’s actions.

As Harvey and Millie rode into town, the sound of an angry mob broke through the night.

“Wait here, Miss Thomas. I have to see what’s going on and I don’t want you in danger. I’ll be right back.” Harvey pointed toward his little jail station.

The shouts and whoops became suddenly louder. Alarmed, Harvey jolted Leon forward into a run. The shouts from the crowd grew louder until he dismounted amidst the cacophony to assess the situation.

Two of Deacon’s men had Isaac pinned down in the dirt.

“Git off me, you filthy rats!” His words were badly slurred and the command came out nearly garbled beyond recognition.

Sadly, Harvey had dealt with a drunken Isaac several times and understood his mashed-together words perfectly. The more Isaac struggled, the rougher Deacon’s men handled him.

“Hey! Whoa!” Harvey rushed toward the three men holding up his hands in a stop gesture.

The crowd quieted to only indistinct murmurs. Others were heading toward the scene from both directions. Another exciting night in Haven Ridge, Harvey thought.

The man with his knee in Isaac’s back, Harvey thought his name was Wade, nodded toward the saloon’s entrance. “We got trouble, Sheriff. You’ll want to go on in there and take a good look before you go yelling at us to let him up from here.”

Upon stepping inside, Harvey’s blood chilled at the sight of Samuel Preston lying sprawled on his back, unmoving, with a bullet wound in his chest. Carson Morgan, Deacon’s right-hand man, was standing over Samuel’s body, looking both flustered and shocked.

“Carson, what happened here?” Harvey scrutinized the scene and didn’t like it from the beginning. Something was off and badly so, but he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what that something was.

“Ole Isaac got drunker than a skunk after you left to go fetch Miss Millie. He was giving the boys what-for about their lack of respect.” He pointed to the same spot where Harvey had seen him becoming belligerent before he had left.

Continuing, Carson slid his hat back from his brow. “Samuel stepped in and tried to talk him down a little and they got into one heck of an argument. Then they got quiet and I thought it was over. But Isaac wasn’t done drinking.” He shook his head slowly. “After a few more shots of whiskey, he picked a fight with Samuel. They were really clobbering each other, but Samuel was getting the best of Isaac.” He threw mock-punches and even kicked out with his boot as he enacted the scene from memory. “I reckon Isaac didn’t take to being beaten in a fight he started, so he grabbed Samuel’s gun from its holster and shot him dead right here. With his own gun, he got killed. That ain’t right, Sheriff. I don’t care who you are, that just ain’t right.” Shaking his head vehemently, he hitched his trousers up, thumbed his nose, and glared at Harvey.

Harvey sidestepped the spreading pool of blood and moved toward Carson, watching him closely for signs that he was lying. There were plenty of signs, but it was hard to pin them down; they were oily and kept slipping away before they could be examined properly. The way his eyes darted up and away from Harvey as he talked, the way he shifted restlessly from one foot to the other, his over-the-top reenactment of the brawl, and last but not least, the way Clyde shied away from the scene almost as if he were hiding behind his bar, hoping not to be called out.

“Where’s Samuel’s gun now?” He noted that the bar was empty except for Samuel’s corpse, Carson, Clyde, and Jacob Conley. If memory serves, Jacob was Samuel’s best friend, Harvey thought, eyeing the scared looking man cowering at a table near the corner.

Carson turned and pointed to the bar. “Why, it’s right there. My boys wrestled with Isaac and took it from him. I told ’em to hold him down out there ’til you got back.”

Harvey moved to the bar, pulling the murder weapon to him. Clyde wouldn’t make eye contact. He had found something interesting on the floor between his feet from the looks of him.

“Clyde, is that how it happened? Is that what you saw?” Harvey popped the cylinder out of Samuel’s gun. One bullet missing. He pushed it back into place.

“That’s about right, Sheriff. Just like Carson said. You saw how drunk Isaac already was when you left out.” Clyde resumed his inspection of that interesting thing between his feet.

Harvey leaned up and looked over to see what was holding Clyde’s attention. The floor was bare wood and there wasn’t a single thing on it except Clyde’s boots. He gave Clyde a hard look, took Samuel’s gun, and made his way over to Jacob. He pulled out a chair and sat directly across from the man. “Jacob, you were Sam’s best friend, right?” He was almost a hundred percent sure he was correct in that assumption.

Jacob pulled his hat off and put it on his knee, running his hand over his shaggy mop of hair, huffing out a tight breath that seemed to have been pent-up for a while. He nodded.

“Yeah. We been friends since I can remember.” He suddenly sniffled loudly and wiped at his eyes almost angrily, keeping them downcast. “He was a good man. He didn’t deserve this.” His eyes flitted to the macabre scene in the center of the building and then up to meet Harvey’s steady gaze. Immediately, Jacob shifted, averted his gaze, and crammed his hat back on his head.

“Was anyone else in here when it happened?”

Jacob bounced his leg up and down rapidly as he tried to make eye contact with Sheriff Roach, but he couldn’t quite manage it. Shaking his head, he mumbled, “No, just us three and them two fighting.” His eyes flitted around, following his finger as he quickly pointed to each man.

Outside, the scene was heating up again. More people had gathered and the crowd had moved in tighter to get a good look at Deacon’s men and Isaac. Of course, the one Harvey thought was named Wade had divulged to the onlookers that Isaac had shot poor Samuel Preston dead in cold blood with the man’s own gun.

Stepping out, Harvey was greeted with angry demands that Isaac should be strung up right then and there. Samuel was a good man and didn’t have an enemy among the people. Or so they made it seem that way at that moment.

Crowds are fickle though and when they’re out for blood, they come together under the guise of unity. Holding his hands high in a quieting gesture again, Harvey stepped to the scene where Isaac had run out of steam. From the bruises and lacerations on his face, he’d had the steam beaten out of him.

“There won’t be a hanging without a fair trial!” Harvey yelled to be heard over the rumble of the crowd.

Deacon’s men roused the crowd as Harvey walked over to cuff Isaac.

Wade threw his arms up in the air. “There should be swift justice here! Samuel deserves it, don’t you all agree?”

The crowd whooped and hollered their unanimous agreement. The sheriff elbowed past Deacon’s other men and put the cuffs on Isaac. Wade once again incited the crowd to roars and demands of a hanging.

Harvey turned to the man, anger flaring. “Wade, isn’t it?”

The man sneered at the sheriff. “Yeah.”

“Wade, if you rile this crowd one more time, I’m going to run you in and put you in the cell, too. There won’t be a hanging under my watch. This man is going to stand trial for what he supposedly did and I’ll keep him safe until then.” He turned to the crowd and yelled, “Do you hear me? No hanging without a fair trial. That’s how the law works, that’s why you appointed me sheriff, and that’s exactly how I intend to handle this. Now go on back home. All of you.”

A few stragglers from the crowd traipsed along behind Sheriff Roach as he took Isaac down the road toward the jail. There were a couple of shouts for justice, but they had mostly settled once Isaac had been removed from the scene. Looking over his shoulder, Harvey saw that Wade and the other man stood in the middle of the road, arms crossed over chests, watching him. He didn’t care for their twin expressions that said they were up to no good.

Chapter One

Chapter Divider

Though she appreciated Sheriff Roach’s kindness toward her and her father, Millie had come to dread his visits. They were happening more often with every passing week and each time she would ride to town and find her father drunker than on the previous occasion. Usually, he was causing some sort of fuss with others in the saloon. She would calm him down and bring him home, let him sleep it off, and the next day, he would always promise to do better.

And he was better afterward for a day or two.

In the beginning, he would get into trouble, make his customary promise to do better, and Millie would know he wouldn’t cause any trouble again for at least ten or twelve days. He was getting worse, though. It happened gradually. The twelve-day period turned into a ten-day period, the ten-day period turned to eight, and so on.

He had caused her much embarrassment and grief over the last several months. She had overlooked his actions for a while, knowing he missed her mother, but even she was running out of patience, it seemed. Since her mother’s death, her father had declined in health, attitude, fortitude, and morals.

She was at her wits’ end when the sheriff knocked on her door this time.

At twenty-two, Millie knew she should have been married and starting a family of her own, but so far, she had not had the opportunity. Sheriff Roach was a kind man, and Millie was indebted to him for his kindness. And as far as men went, he was the only one who came knocking at her door these days. It was never to ask to see her for any romantic reason. It was always to ask her to bail her father out of some trouble he’d gotten himself into.

Her troublesome father.

Sheriff Roach had every right to arrest her father and toss him into jail but had only done it twice so far—and those two times were only because it was so late that the sheriff couldn’t bring himself to fetch her out in the middle of the night. Not taking time to change out of her chore dress, in fact, not even taking off her apron, Millie wiped her hands and tossed the towel onto the skinny table by the door where her mother had always kept a bouquet of fresh flowers. The vase sat empty now and she sighed for the lack of that bit of gentleness, thoughtfulness, and beauty.

Their little house was nothing fancy, but her mother had always seen to it that the place was warm, clean, inviting, and cozy for her family. Her handmade quilts and throw blankets adorned the plain furniture. And the large rug she had traded two of her quilts for still brightened the family room—the much disused family room. Since her death, the room had only served as a place for Millie to do a little needlework or to nurse her father in front of the fire on cold evenings when she had brought him back from town and his drinking.

As she mounted her own horse, Brandywine, Millie’s heart dropped. It was becoming more difficult every day to find reasons to smile, especially when her father was drinking so much that he barely knew his own name. She tried to do her duty and help him. She nursed him when he fell ill or injured himself while drunk, she kept the homestead up mostly by herself, had breakfast set before he rose in the mornings, and supper awaited him every night. As his daughter, it was her duty to do these things. Mostly, she did them out of love. She hoped that one day soon, he would see the error of his ways and straighten up.

There was a strip of daylight left in the sky as they rode toward town proper and Millie watched as the mountain peak ate the sun a little at a time sending out rays of deep crimson and purple to paint the sky. It was beautiful. Beautiful sunsets were common in Haven Ridge and she loved them all. Each one was unique, painting intrinsic patterns through the clouds and over the land. 

And I’ve seen too many of them from the back of a horse as I ride toward town to collect Papa before he gets into serious trouble, she thought miserably.

At the midpoint between the Thomas property and Haven Ridge, the land stretched out in all directions seemingly endless. The town could not be seen ahead and homesteads were not visible. The tall grass and wildflowers on either side of the path swayed in the gentle constant breeze, the peaceful undulations of untouched, unblemished beauty entreating passersby to stop and enjoy it for a while.

But Millie didn’t have time. She never had time just to stop and take in the splendor of the midpoint in the trek from home to town. The place never failed to lighten her burdens, even if only fleetingly, as she passed through. The fields of flowers stretched out, usually meeting the bottoms of the tall, craggy mountains, but with the sun bedding down behind the mountain, the light was lost and the flowered fields ended in shadows long before reaching the steep mountains.

She rode in silence the rest of the way to the town limits.

Harvey slowed his horse and spoke to Millie. “Miss Thomas, please talk to him tomorrow, get him to see that he needs to stop all this. There are people who want to go back to the way things were done before I was sheriff. And Deacon is chief among them. He’s my boss and I shouldn’t be talking ill of him, but he’s a bad egg.”

Millie nodded, the stone of sorrow weighing her heart down further. “I will, Sheriff. I always talk to him.” She sighed and pressed the fingers of her right hand to the center of her forehead, trying to stave off the tears that she felt were close.

Setting her mind in a different direction to avoid a show of emotion, she thought about how things had been before the sheriff took his post. Of course, Deacon Owens would be the main instigator in a movement that took the people of Haven Ridge back to vigilante justice. As the founder and mayor of Haven Ridge, he had argued against Harvey Roach becoming sheriff, stating that his Vigilance Committee was the only true way to keep justice. Millie was certain the snake didn’t want a true lawman running around town. That would mean Deacon himself might fall under the sheriff’s scrutiny eventually. She had heard enough of her father’s conversations with men from other homesteads to know that Deacon didn’t do things legally all the time. He was greedy for money and power and some of the homesteaders were afraid of him and his men.

Deacon didn’t want to be just the mayor of Haven Ridge, he wanted to own the town and the people. He wanted to make as much money as he could from them and their hard work. Millie had never cared for Deacon Owens.

There was a ruckus going on in the middle of the wide, dusty street. Millie felt faint as she looked toward the saloon.

Not Papa. He didn’t cause this big of a scene. He couldn’t have. This is humiliating!

Sheriff Roach asked her to remain at the jail station until he could check out what was going on. She nodded and kept a nervously prancing Brandywine away from the crowd. The horse nickered and tossed her head, prancing in a wide circle, wanting to get away from the noise of the shouting people. Millie leaned over and shushed her, patting her neck and rubbing her head. She cooed to the horse, but never took her eyes off the crowd.

Unable to keep the feeling of impending doom from enveloping her, Millie came close to tears again. She couldn’t make out any words from the crowd, but deep down, she already knew that somehow, her father had caused the scene in front of The Saloon. She was certain that Isaac had at least played a part in it, if not the key role.

She could hear Sheriff Roach hollering at someone and then addressing the crowd but still could not make out actual words. Even when the crowd quieted, it wasn’t enough. The constant movement and the constant murmur of many voices kept her from hearing him very well. His tone was one of authority, though and she had no doubt that he would get to the bottom of it and settle them down. He always did. Not completely breaking her promise to the sheriff, but unable to keep so far away, she walked her horse a little closer to the scene.

As the sheriff disappeared into the saloon, Millie saw that a man had her father pinned to the ground in front of the thickening crowd. Jumping from her horse, she shouted at the man to let go of her father, but he couldn’t hear her over the tumultuous people thronging and vying for a view. The crowd strangled any progress she tried to make toward her father.

After what seemed an eternity, Sheriff Roach reappeared and argued with the man holding her father down. She elbowed and pushed, but each person in the crowd seemed determined to keep her from her goal.

On tiptoe, she watched as the sheriff made his way to the other man and made him step away from her father. The man yelled that there should be a hanging and Millie’s body went numb. Her father had done something so terrible this time that it had incited the people to agree with that man loudly. He was one of Deacon’s men. There were several of them around and they were all intent on serving justice by way of hanging.

The injustice! Savages, all of them, savages! She elbowed harder, anger rising in her and replacing the tears. She had to get to her father before they could do more harm. Moving slowly through the tight throng, she recognized faces and marked them in her memory. Her view of the Haven Ridge residents was altered as they raised their fists toward heaven and shouted out that Isaac should be hanged.

Sheriff Roach cuffed her father and then shouted over the crowd. They began to settle and then to leave. Obviously roused and unhappy about being told to leave, they mumbled together as they walked away broken into smaller groups. Millie ran through the dispersing crowd, finally able to reach her father. Falling on her knees, she sobbed to see the state of his face. Those lousy men of Deacon’s had beaten him badly and she harbored more than a little hate for them.

“Papa, it’s Millie, please tell me you’re okay.” She dusted some of the dirt from his forehead and cheek, causing him to flinch back in pain and she was immediately sorry.

“I’ll be fine. Just gotta sleep it off. You’re a good daughter.” His eyes rolled alarmingly in their sockets as Millie and Sheriff Roach helped him to his feet and Millie feared he would go unconscious before they could get him on a horse.

Inside the jail, Harvey removed Isaac’s cuffs and helped him to the cot in the single cell. He had been too drunk to walk straight and after the beating he received at the hands of Deacon’s men, he could barely talk.

Drying her tears, Millie sniffled as she looked at her father through the bars of the cell. It was unbelievable that he had fallen so far from the man he was before. Mama used to say that he was the salt of the earth except for the occasional fisticuff with some of the boys. She also used to say ‘boys will be boys no matter their age’. Millie smiled at the memory and gripped her elbows tightly. What she would give for her mother to be with her still. She was clueless as to what she should do with him, how she should help him all on her own.

Harvey opened a drawer at his desk and dropped Samuel’s gun into it. “Miss Thomas?”

Without turning, she said, “Millie, please.”

Clearing his throat, Harvey removed his hat and sat on the edge of his desk a few feet from where she stood with her back to him. “Millie,” he said, with some effort. She noticed. “I’m afraid this is quite a bit worse than the usual dust-ups Isaac gets into. This is serious. Murder.” His voice dropped on the last word, and Millie heard an uneasiness in his tone.

Still watching her father’s fitful, drunken sleep, she shook her head. “He didn’t do it.” The tears trickled silently down her cheeks and she swiped at them absently.

Sighing, Harvey continued. “There were witnesses, Miss—um, Millie.”

Spinning to face him, eyes flaring, she pointed back toward The Saloon. “You call Deacon’s men reliable witnesses? They’re no more than hired guns, the goons that do Deacon’s dirty work and you know it, Sheriff.” The sheriff was wrong, and Millie knew it. There was no way her father could have committed murder. Not even in the depths of his despair at her mother’s passing could he have fallen so far as to shoot Samuel. She would never believe it.

“Not just Deacon’s men, Millie. Jacob Conley was there. He was a witness and his statement matches Carson Morgan’s story perfectly.”

Something inside Millie deflated. It shriveled like a prune and died, leaving an empty pit of despair in her stomach. After a moment, she realized it was hope. If Samuel’s friend Jacob had witnessed the shooting, and he corroborated Carson’s story, it left little doubt. But a little doubt is all Millie needed to still believe in her father’s innocence.

“Sheriff Roach, my father might be a lot of things, but he’s not violent. He doesn’t even carry a gun. He’d never kill anyone.” She stepped toward him and placed a hand on his arm, ensuring she had his full attention. “You have to believe that.”

She believed it. No matter what they said happened, she knew that her father could never murder another man, even if the argument was a terrible one. And especially not Samuel Preston. Everyone liked Samuel and his wife, Mary. They had been family friends as long as Millie could remember.

Isaac mumbled in his sleep and then went back to the heavy snoring he had been doing since first hitting the cot.

“Honestly, I feel the same way. I’ve never seen him carry a gun except for a rifle for hunting. I would have never guessed Isaac to be a vicious person even when he was too drunk to walk straight. The occasional brawl was just that, a fist fight that usually lasted a few seconds at best.” He stood and paced the small room, watching Isaac.

Millie thought he must have been debating her father’s innocence.

“My gut tells me there’s something wrong here, but I can’t put my finger on it just yet.” He continued pacing and watching Isaac.

“What are you going to do, Sheriff? Those people out there want to hang Papa. You have to protect him.”

She stood in the center of the room as Sheriff Roach paced. It made her feel like the eye of a tornado as he circled her, his brow furrowed in concentration. Sheriff Roach was a good man, a fair man, and she wished he could see that her father was no murderer. If the gathered mob had their way, they would see Papa hanged by the next day.

“He needs to stay here until he can get a fair trial. That means keeping him safe for several weeks until the circuit judge comes back through.” He shook his head and rubbed his chin. “Deacon’s men will have that crowd riled again by morning and sometime tomorrow. I’m sure they’ll come for him. No way I can fend off all of them.” He stopped pacing and looked to Millie. “And they know that; at least Deacon’s men know that. I need time to think this through and figure out what really happened.”

Harvey took Millie’s elbow and guided her to the bars of the cell. She allowed this without a fuss. “I usually play by the book. Black and white. No gray areas in my world.” He pointed to Isaac. “But this is a huge gray area right now.”

Millie nodded, feeling that dead thing in her reanimate a tiny bit. ‘Hope blooms eternal’ was another of her mother’s sayings. She nodded at the sheriff again, understanding that he had finally decided to help her prove his innocence.

He pointed to the rear wall planks. “Do you see those planks there with the big gaps between them?”

“Yes.” Her voice came out breathy and barely above a whisper. There were, indeed, large gaps between a few planks at the bottom. She could have easily slid her hand between them.

“With the right tool, they could be pried loose. It would be easy, even for a woman.” He turned her back toward the desk and walked with her, looking out the windows for any eavesdroppers. Seeing none, he continued in a stage-whisper. “Now, I take my morning walkabout in town around four every morning.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “That means I won’t be in here.” He pointed to the boards of the floor, and her gaze followed.

“Right. Four in the morning.” Her heart beat faster in her chest and the air was suddenly thick and hard to pull into her lungs. The implications of the sheriff’s words were enormous. She did not know what she had been expecting, but that was not it.

He let go of her arm sat on the edge of the desk, crossing his arms over his midsection. “Now, what you do with that information is your business, Miss Thomas. Completely up to you.”

She would be breaking the law. “I understand, Sheriff Roach.” But breaking the law to save her father from an unjust hanging was permissible in her mind. “Could I go in and check his wounds before I leave off for home?”

She wrung her hands nervously, unsure about her decision to break her father out of jail. She had only ever committed one crime in her life. At the age of eight, she had taken an apple from the stall at the market without telling anyone. Not that she had meant to steal it. She saw the apples and was hungry, so she took it and ate it. When her mother found out, she made Millie go back and apologize and pay for it.

Millie had never done anything like it again. Her lesson had been learned about breaking the law and breaking the trust of her fellow townspeople. But this was different. If she did not break the law, her father would surely die at the hands of the mob—Deacon’s mob. She could never allow that. Even if he had been guilty, she would never allow them to get their hands on him, if she could prevent it.

“I really shouldn’t let you in there, but seeing as how he is fast asleep, I don’t see what it will hurt. Just be quick. I don’t want somebody busting in here and seeing you in there. I normally don’t allow anyone in the cell with the accused.”

He unlocked the door and stood holding it while she bent by the cot, checked the lacerations on his face, and dusted off more dirt. Her father’s face looked terrible with the dirt and blood mixed and drying to his skin. His eye was swollen, and his bottom lip was split in two places. She gingerly dusted loose dirt from his cheek and eyebrow. Using the hem of her apron, she wiped away as much of the muck as she could. Some of the larger cuts began oozing blood again and a sob caught in her throat.

Poor Papa! If only Mama were here, you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be hurting all the time. You’d stop drinking and you’d be at home, safe, warm, with us. Fighting to control her emotions in front of the sheriff, Millie wiped a stray tear from her cheek before it could fall. She kissed her father’s grizzled cheek and whispered, “I love you, Papa.”

Making an effort, she turned her face from his and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. He needed her to be clearheaded, strong, sure of her decision. She couldn’t do that if she was sobbing about his pitiful state or mourning her mother and her now-broken family.

When she turned her attention to the wall beyond, she saw from the corner of her eye that the sheriff turned his back to look out over the small room where his desk sat.

Three wide planks at the bottom of the wall were weak. Eyeing them, she pondered the tool she would need to pry them loose quickly. The opening wouldn’t be very large when they were pulled out, but she judged that her father would be able to lie on his belly and scoot through without too much trouble if he didn’t have internal wounds that prevented him.

Turning back to her father, Millie decided a quick check for broken bones or signs of internal injuries was in order. She had not thought of it at first, only seeing the obvious outward signs of his recent abuse. If he had internal injuries though, he might not be able to escape.

Pressing on his side, she felt no broken bones and when she rolled him to his back and pressed on his stomach and then his chest, he barely acknowledged it. That was good. No internal injuries. She pressed against his other side and only snuffled and rolled his head toward the wall. No broken bones, apparently.

Turning to Sheriff Roach, she asked, “Would it be too much to ask for a cloth and some water? The cuts are packed with dirt.”

Hearing movement outside, he turned abruptly and then shook his head at her, motioning for her to come out of the cell. “I hear someone shuffling around out there, Miss Thomas, I think it would be wise to leave the cleanup for another time.” He pushed the cell door shut and locked it as soon as she crossed the threshold.

Hearing boots scuffing the hard dirt of the road, she pressed a hand to her stomach to quiet the butterflies there and pressed the other to her lips. Sheriff Roach put a finger to his lips and eased toward the door.

More scuffing and a thud at the wall. Sheriff Roach threw the door wide, drew his gun, and stepped to the porch. Millie backed toward the cell. If they were coming for her father, she would fight them. She would die to protect him.

Harvey looked around to find the source of the noises. Two of the Fullerton boys, both teenagers, lit out toward Deacon’s place. He didn’t think they had heard anything of his and Millie’s conversation. They were probably just being nosy, vying for any scrap they could take back to Deacon in exchange for coins. All they would have to report would be Isaac in his cell and Millie tending to his wounds—if they had even seen that.

Millie stood with her back to the cell door holding a piece of iron bar in front of her with both hands. It had been a leftover from installing the cell bars and Harvey kept meaning to do something with it other than leave it lying in the corner. He couldn’t stop the grin. He nodded toward the bar. “You can put that back; it was just a couple of nosy teenagers.”

She put the bar aside, glad to have its weight out of her hands. She dusted them on her apron and moved toward the door. “I should get going, then. I’ve a lot of things to get done.” She held out her hand to Sheriff Roach and he took it. “Thank you, Sheriff. I’m not wrong and neither are you.” She smiled and walked out.

Chapter Two

Chapter Divider

Thank you for reading the first 2 Chapters of my Upcoming Novel "A Bounty on Their Scarred Hearts"!

Are you ready for a Western Love Story that will captivate your heart and your imagination?

If yes, find the rest of the story here:


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A Bounty on Their Scarred Hearts, by Ava Winters

Escape today in the romantic Old West!
A Bounty on Their Scarred Hearts is Live!