Caring for Her Wounded Rancher, by Ava Winters

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"Caring for Her Wounded Rancher"

a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Ava Winters


Rescuing his wounded heart is the only way they can stay together. How can they overcome their past and create the family they deserve?

Amelia is a caring girl who wants to work as a nurse. An unexpected fire in the new ranch in town, calls for her help. Nursing back to health the stoic rancher might be challenging at first, but Amelia is determined to help him find his memory again. She slowly falls for him and she can see how much he wants to become a better man. How will she stay by his side when his world seems to fall apart?

Jonathan is a distant rancher who has suffered a lot. Having to deal with his memory loss and burn scars, he feels out of place and time. His heart always beats faster when Amelia is around him and he cannot resist her determination to help him stand on his own feet again. A sudden turn of events though will jog his memory until he remembers that no one is safe in this town especially Amelia. How can he settle the score with the man who’s been chasing him without putting the woman he loves in harm’s way?

To protect their growing love and the town, Amelia and Jonathan should find a way to fight off Jonathan’s old rival. How can they do so when this man has come to ruin their newfound happiness?

Prologue

Town of Evening Shade, Oklahoma Territory

1897

“What’s the matter with you, eh, Bossy?”

Jonathan Lawson slapped the shining brown rump of his best cow and tilted his head to look into her wide brown eye.

The plump Hereford turned, craned her neck toward him, and delivered her soul in one long, unhappy bellow. The other cows in the barn swished their tails, swayed restlessly in their stalls, and sent up a chorus of complaints. One kicked its stall door with a bam that knocked a shower of hay down from the loft.

“All right, ladies, that’s enough. Settle down now. Time to turn in.”

Jonathan scratched his mop of sun-streaked hair. He was pretty good with animals, and his voice usually soothed his stock; but not tonight. They were all unhappy, all restless.

It was odd, especially for such a pretty spring evening. He glanced out the open barn door. The North Star glimmered high in the purple sky, and on the earth beneath, the scent of sweet meadow grass wafted in on the first evening breeze.

Jonathan leaned against a wooden post and breathed in that sweet perfume. It was a scent he’d fallen in love with. It was the scent of a young man’s hopes-the scent of meadow grass and financial independence. He’d worked hard to save up the money, but he’d realized his dream. He was the owner of a sweet little cattle ranch. He was a business owner, and that meant he was his own man.

He ambled to the barn door, drinking in the beauty of his green pastures rolling almost uninterrupted to the far horizon. Little crickets hummed drowsily from somewhere in the meadow.

It was dusk. Time to turn in for dinner, time for…

Jonathan blinked and frowned. Another scent, anything but soothing, whispered in the evening breeze. It was acrid, pungent.

The scent of smoke.

Jonathan turned toward his new house, and to his horror, fire was belching from the windows of his bedroom, and little ribbons of black smoke streamed from every crevice in the roof.

God help methis place is all I’ve got in the world!

Panic shoved him through the barn door, and he’d turned toward the house when a strange, stabbing pain pierced his throat like an arrow.

He clutched at his neck with one hand and grabbed for the barn door with the other. It was the last thing he remembered before the sky turned over, went dark, and winked out.

Chapter One

Amelia Wilson dropped one last, artistic dollop of sour cream atop her dish of beef noodles and stepped back to judge the effect. The noodle casserole smelled delicious and looked pretty enough for a church social in her mother’s fancy blue casserole dish. But that was only as it should be. Her father deserved nothing less than the best.

Amelia opened one of the big kitchen cupboards and pulled out a small glass vase. She lifted one corner of her apron to swipe the dust off the little vase, then pushed the pump handle over the sink. Cool water splashed out, and she washed and filled the delicate vase, wiped it sparkling clean, and set it on the dining room table before hurrying outside to pinch a few blooms off her mother’s prize rose bush.

She paused on the porch and shaded her eyes. Their little prairie town was a good five miles away, but the land was so flat she could see it clearly from their front porch.

The setting sun drenched everything in color and light. The square tops of the tiny clapboard buildings were outlined in gold, the tiny specks that were windows were orange embers-and her father’s tall silhouette was rimmed in fire, as he came walking home down the dusty road.

Amelia stopped for a minute to admire him. Her father was a big, silent man with a shock of shaggy salt-and-pepper hair, bushy eyebrows, and the keenest blue eyes she’d ever seen. Those bright eyes, that brown, craggy face, and the fact that he was six feet tall sometimes intimidated other people, but Amelia knew her father too well to ever be fooled by his forbidding looks.

Even if he was the law in their little town.

Amelia’s eyes shone as she watched her father’s slow, deliberate stride. She knew that by this time of day, he was dead tired; but his hat sat perfectly level on his head, his broad shoulders were as high and square as a door frame, and his spine was ramrod-straight.

If there was ever a man who rode for the brand, it was Sheriff Isaac Wilson.

He had to live with a law man’s memories: the hair-raising evil that he often witnessed but never brought home to her. He had to carry that burden all alone-especially since her mother’s death.

Isaac Wilson was a big man in more ways than one, and he deserved a better life than the one he was living.

Amelia frowned, pinched off a few sprays of roses, got stabbed by thorns, grumbled, sucked her thumb, and scuttled back inside. She trimmed the stems and arranged the roses in the vase, this way and that, until they were perfect.

The reminder of her mother made Amelia’s eyes take on a faraway look. Her father and mother had lived the sort of romance she’d always dreamed of—the beautiful damsel in distress rescued by the tall, handsome hero. In her mother’s case, the distress had come in the form of Comanche raiders attacking her stagecoach; and the tall, handsome hero had been her young father, a fellow passenger, who had beaten them back with a sawed-off shotgun and a revolver.

Amelia sighed. Her parents had fallen in love at first sight, had married within three weeks of meeting, and had been inseparable ever after.

Until the terrible day, four years ago, that robbed her father of the love of his life and darkened her own forever.

The day of her sixteenth birthday.

A tear glimmered in Amelia’s eye, but she blinked it back. She’d long since cried herself dry over her mother’s death. She’d learned the hard truth that no amount of crying would ever bring her  back.

Some things, once lost, were gone forever.

Her mother’s death had taught her that the only thing she could change was the here and now.

The sound of heavy boots on the porch steps made Amelia wipe her eyes, smooth her apron, and hurry out to meet her father.

“Dinner ready, little Miss Biddie?”

Amelia smiled and gave her father a hug. She’d been ‘Biddie’ to him since she was three years old.

“Just waiting on you,” she told him, and reached up to take his hat. He combed his hair with his fingers, wiped his boots on the mat, and made for the dining room.

“Wash your hands,” Amelia called after him, and smiled as the faint sound of his grumbling wafted back to her.

“Anything interesting happen today?” she called, to the sounds of the rusty kitchen pump and splashing water.

“Not much.”

“No bank robberies? No gunfights? No wild elopements?”

“Nary a one.”

“We should move,” she teased, and was gratified to hear a dry chuckle in the other room. She scurried into the dining room and took a seat.

“Come on, Poppa! The food’s getting cold.”

“Coming.”

Her big father walked in rubbing his neck with a wet washcloth. He tossed the cloth down and settled into his seat.

“You look more like your mother every day,” he sighed. “You’ve got her red hair and fair skin. And you’re a good cook, like she was. You’ll make some young man a fine wife, Miss Biddie.”

His eyes moved from her face to a half-dozen dishes, all filled with good things, arrayed before him on the table; and he smiled at her in approval.

“Let’s eat.”

Amelia cleared her throat meaningfully, and her father gave her a rueful look, straightened up, and cleared his throat.

Amelia closed her eyes as her father intoned: “Thank you, Lord, for this food. Amen.”

She raised an eyebrow and passed him the breadbasket. “That was fast.”

“I don’t believe in long prayers at the table,” her big father replied, and picked a handful of buttered biscuits out of the basket.

                   Amelia poured out a glass of tea for her father, and another for herself, and they settled in to enjoy their dinner. Besides the beef noodles, she had stewed tomatoes, green beans, and white corn that she’d put up last year, followed by apple butter to spread over the biscuits.

Isaac smacked his lips and tilted his head in wordless appreciation as he ate; and Amelia glanced at him fondly. Nothing made her happier than seeing her father happy.

They finished the meal, and were just starting in on the apple butter, when Isaac raised his eyes and tilted his head. Amelia turned toward the porch, and soon she could hear it, too: the distant drumbeat of galloping hooves on the road outside.

Somebody was coming for the sheriff, and whoever it was, was riding wild.

“Oh, no, Poppa,” she complained, “at least stay and have your dessert!”

“It’s serious,” he murmured, and got up from the table. Amelia watched in wordless frustration as he abandoned the dining room, walked to the hall tree, and got his hat.

By the time Amelia joined her father on the front porch, the rider had arrived in a cloud of dust. It was Jim Owens, one of their neighbors. He rode within a stone’s throw of the porch and called:

“There’s a fire out to the Lawson place. It’s bad!”

Isaac nodded. “I’ll get my horse.”

Her father turned to her. “I’ll be back sometime tonight, Biddie. Don’t wait up.”

“I’m going with you.”

Her father frowned: “No. It’s no place for a girl. Do like I tell you, now.”

“But I can help,” she insisted stubbornly. “You know I’ve been working down at Doc’s. Every week for four years, Poppa. I know what to do if someone’s hurt!”

“Let her come along!” Jim exclaimed. “Doc got called out to Claremore this afternoon. Might not be back for hours!”

“I’ll be right out,” Amelia told him. “Just let me get some things together.”

“Amelia!”

Amelia hurried into the house and gathered a collection of items she’d been using at Doc’s-a pillowcase, rolls of linen bandages, scissors, and soap.

“Hurry, Amelia!”

“Coming!”

“Amelia!”

“I’m coming,” she panted, and burst through the screen door with the sack in one hand and a tin cup in the other. Jim sat waiting atop his horse, but he was alone. Her father had gone to the barn to saddle his horse.

Jim leaned down and held out his hand. “Jump up behind me,” he told her. “Your daddy can come along when he’s got his horse saddled. If that Lawson fellow’s hurt, he’ll need doctorin’ right off.”

Amelia handed him the cup and the sack and scrambled up behind him on the horse. He gave her items back and half-turned to mumble:

“Hang on, now. I’m fixin’ to kick the stew out of this horse.”

Amelia nodded and clamped her arms around him; and the man yelled and dug his spurs into the horse’s trembling flank. It screamed, rolled white eyes, and bounded down the sandy road like a Fourth of July rocket.

Chapter Two

They galloped pell-mell down the dark road, and Amelia frowned at the bouncing horizon. Jonathan Lawson’s place was about as far from town as theirs was, only in the opposite direction; but anybody within twenty miles could see his house burning down. Waves of fire and flurries of sparks swirled against the night sky. The garish blaze was dancing like a drunken saloon girl, kicking its red skirts high in the night air, swirling and twirling them right, left, and sideways.

Amelia frowned. Jonathan Lawson was only a little older than she was herself, a newcomer, and something of a loner. So far, he hadn’t been the chatty type, not one to talk about himself, so no one knew much about him.

But one thing was for sure-he was handsome. He was so good-looking that the local girls were fighting over who was gonna marry him, even though they hardly knew his name.

Amelia frowned, remembering the last church social. Alvera Jenkins, the prettiest girl in the county in her own mind, had informed the rest of the female population that she’d claimed Jonathan Lawson, so the rest of them might just as well forget him.

“I saw him first,” she laughed, “and when I set my cap for a fellow, I get him.”

Amelia pinched her lips into a line. The really disgusting thing was that Alvera was right; her pale blonde curls and vivid green eyes had made fools out of at least three boys already and the gossip was that Alvera had used more than her eyes to bring ‘em down.

A handsome, well-to-do newcomer like Jonathan Lawson was sure to be sitting square in Alvera’s crosshairs. He had brown hair streaked bronze by the sun, a square jaw, white teeth, and a beautiful smile. He was rich, too, if the local gossip could be believed. No loan from the town bank.

Or at least, he had been rich. The corners of Amelia’s mouth drooped. It was a crying shame for a fellow to work so hard, just to see it all burned up. Because it was plain even from miles away that Jonathan Lawson wasn’t going to bounce back from this fire in a year, or even two.

And even that was assuming he wasn’t bad hurt, or-dead.

Amelia leaned into Jim’s back and shouted: “Anybody know where Jonathan Lawson is?”

Jim looked back over his shoulder and shook his head, and Amelia sighed and tightened her grip on his back. Things didn’t look good at all, but she tried to stay positive.

If this disaster had one small silver lining, it was that Jonathan Lawson had at least escaped Alvera’s net.

Alvera would never bother with a penniless man.

***

When they arrived at the Lawson Ranch at last, Jim slowed the horse to a walk, and then to a stop just under the ranch gate. They both sat there, staring in wordless horror.

Seeing that house was like seeing a hanged man twisting from a tree limb.

The white clapboard two-story was completely encased in fire, like a wooden box clamped between two big red hands. The air was hot and stifling even hundreds of yards away, and the whole place was thick with billowing clouds and the smell of smoke.

There were still only a few men in the yard, reddish shadows running back and forth from the well with buckets in their hands. They were doing their best, but it was obvious to Amelia that anyone inside that house was either dead or doomed. The stink of smoke was so thick in the air that it was painful to breathe.

Amelia swallowed. The fire jumped in her eyes as she took in the awful scene.

“I’m going to let you off here, missy,” Jim told her. “Your daddy wouldn’t want you to get too close to that house. If we find somebody, we’ll call you.”

“All right.” Amelia slid off the horse and stepped back, and Jim quickly dismounted.

“Do me a favor and stake my horse somewhere out here,” he panted, and wiped his brow with his sleeve.

“I will.”

Jim nodded to her, then hurried off to join the bucket brigade.

Amelia frowned at the burning house, then turned to caress the winded horse. She stroked its neck as it rolled frightened eyes.

“Come on, sweetie,” she soothed. “Let’s find a place for you to rest.”

She took the horse by its bridle and walked it away from the burning house.

The Lawson Ranch house was surrounded by the usual outbuildings in an Oklahoma cattle ranch: a barn, a fenced barnyard, a corral for the horses, a couple of wells.

Amelia walked the horse to the barnyard gate and tethered him to the fence. Jim’s mount was winded and frothing at the mouth from covering miles at a dead run; so she walked to the nearby well and hauled up a bucket of water for the horse.

“Here you go.”

As she set the bucket down a loud, near-human voice cried to her from inside the barn. It was an urgent call for help, and Amelia clapped a hand to her mouth.

She’d been walking with her head down, wrapped in her own thoughts; but now that she looked up, the barn was covered in embers.

Hundreds of burning embers; and it was full of cattle.

Amelia picked up her skirts and dashed to the big clapboard barn as the bellow of terrified animals filled her ears. She glanced up as she ran, and to her dismay, the sky was raining orange sparks. The ground, the nearby pasture, the barn roof-all were dotted with hundreds of cinders. In some places the barn roof was already on fire.

Amelia yelped as cinders burned her bare arms and slapped at her hair and skirts as floating sparks threatened to set her on fire, too.

As she ran through the barnyard, she saw that the interior was already aglow and quickly filling up with smoke. She rushed to enter but stopped dead when a man suddenly blocked her way a few paces inside the doorway. She was so startled that she almost cried out.

For a split-second the two of them stared at one another. The young man was a total stranger, a tall, compact fellow who looked almost thirty. He had jet-black hair with a white streak at one temple, like a jaunty feather stuck behind his ear.

But the thing that sent a thrill of fear down Amelia’s spine, was that the stranger’s light eyes were dancing with laughter. It was unmistakable; and the sight was weird enough to make her step back a pace.

“Amelia!”
She turned to see her father riding up out of the darkness; and when she turned back, the stranger was gone.

“What are you doing? Get away from there-that roof could fall in any minute!”

“The cows are still inside!” she objected, and her father dismounted and came striding up.

“I’ll let them out. You get back, hear me? Go on!”

Amelia stepped back as her father plunged into the burning barn and she watched as he flung open one stall after another. Horses and cows came rushing out into the open, stumbling over one another in fear.

Her father’s voice made her look up sharply. “I’m going to the back of the barn,” he called.

“Poppa, be careful!” she cried, and put a hand to her mouth. Fear for him choked her like the smoky air; but maybe if she helped empty the barn, he could get out faster.

Amelia entered the barn and turned in the opposite direction. There was another row of stalls on that side of the building, and she hurried toward them; but she almost tripped over something lying on the barn floor. Amelia looked down and clapped a hand to her mouth in horror.

Jonathan Lawson was lying on the barn floor like a dead thing. A burning plank was heavy on his face, and the nauseating scent of burning skin filled the air. Amelia swallowed, fell down on her knees, and carefully removed the burning plank off of Jonathan’s face, revealing a strip of raw, red flesh from his left cheekbone all the way down to his shoulder. His left eye was black and swollen shut.

Amelia swallowed, took a deep breath, and then screamed from the pit of her stomach.

“Poppa, it’s Jonathan Lawson!-Poppa!”

Her father’s anxious face appeared immediately on the other side of the barn.

“Poppa, he’s here!”

Isaac hurried over and knelt down beside Jonathan’s body. He pressed his fingers under Jonathan’s square jaw. “He’s still alive,” he breathed, and nodded to Amelia. “You take his feet, Amelia, and I’ll take his arms. We have to get him out before this barn falls down around our ears!” Amelia grabbed Jonathan by the ankles of his big boots, and her father hoisted him up by his arms.

“Now!” Isaac gasped, and Amelia squeezed her face into a knot as she strained to lift the tall, 200-pound rancher. The instant they rose, with Jonathan’s body sagging between them, there was a crack like a rifle shot, and fire poured down on the stables behind them like a waterfall of flame.

“Out, out, out!” Isaac shouted, and Amelia sobbed and stumbled after him, still holding Jonathan by his ankles. There were embers in her hair and the back of her dress was burning, but she managed to hold Jonathan up until they were a safe distance from the collapsed barn.

“Set him down,” Isaac grunted at last, and they carefully lowered Jonathan onto the ground. Isaac stood up, panting, and looked down at the young man.

“I have to stay here,” he told her, “but I’ll send somebody for Doc Wright. I want you to take this boy back to the house and do what you can for him until Doc gets there. I think I saw George and Lily Baker drive up in their wagon. I’ll see if we can borrow it.”

Amelia watched as her father disappeared into the dark, then yelped as another cinder burned her skin. She slapped the embers out of her hair and skirts and brushed them away from Jonathan.

She stopped for a moment, tilted her head, and looked down at him in pity. His face was turned away from her and his eyes were closed; but in the jumping light of the fire she could see how thick and dark his lashes were, how straight and dark his brows.

He was a tall drink of water, lean and mostly muscle, with a strong face, broad shoulders, and strong hands. Amelia reached down and lifted one of them. She gently turned it this way and that. He had a rancher’s hands: they were big and brown, with prairie dirt under every stubby nail. Amelia sighed and placed his hand gently on his chest.

Her eyes returned sadly to the wide red strip of raw flash on his unconscious face. Jonathan Lawson had been a very handsome young man; but now he was permanently disfigured.

Scarred for life.

She reached out and gave his jaw a whisper-light caress. Poor fellow, she sighed inwardly. It’s a crying shame.

She pinched her lips together, then ran her fingers through his gold-streaked hair.

“I’m gonna do the very best I can for you,” she told him softly. “That’s a promise.”

She scrabbled in the linen bag at her waist, pulled out the cloth bandage, and ran to the well. She came back a few moments later, knelt down, and barely touched the cool, wet cloth to the wound on his face.

He groaned but showed no other signs of consciousness as Amelia dabbed soot and dirt off of his face.

The sound of approaching voices made Amelia look up. Soon George and Lily Baker appeared in the dim light of the fire.

“Oh no,” Mrs. Baker gasped, and knelt down beside Amelia. “George, look at his poor face!”

“I need to get him home quick,” Amelia told them. “Can I borrow your wagon?”

George Baker’s frowning eyes moved from Jonathan’s burned face to hers. “Of course. I’ll put him in the wagon bed, and you can sit with him back there if you want to. We’ll drive you home.”

“Try to go easy,” Amelia replied, as the big man knelt down beside Jonathan. “If he wakes up in the buckboard, he won’t know where he is. He might try to fight me.”

“I’ll do my best,” Mr. Baker grunted, as he lifted Jonathan in his arms and carried him to the wagon. He set Jonathan down on the wagon bed and held out his hand to Amelia.

“Up you go, girlie.”

Amelia took his hand and let him propel her up and into the wagon. She landed next to Jonathan and settled in beside him.

Mrs. Baker hurried to the wagon seat and passed a blanket back to Amelia. “Here, cover him with this.”

Amelia shook out the blanket and let it float down over Jonathan Lawson’s body.

Mr. Baker climbed up into the driver’s seat and looked back over his shoulder. “Hang on,” he told her, and shook the reins. The wagon bounced over the uneven ground, and Amelia looked up at the sky and breathed a prayer for George Lawson.

Lord, please spare this boy’s life. He’s lost enough for one night, she argued; and pressed a steadying hand against his shoulder.

Chapter Three

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