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Authors: Victoria Bylin

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BOOK: The Bounty Hunter's Bride
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He stepped back from Adie. “You’re as pretty as ever.”

She smiled. “And you’re just as ornery.”

“Where’s Josh?”

“Looking for Miss Baxter.” Adie put her hands on her hips. “Would you care to tell me why that girl’s running from you like a scared rabbit?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then you’re blind.” She looked him up and down. “You need a bath and that’s the least of it.”

“I haven’t had a chance.”

“It’s more than your looks that frightened her,” Adie said.

“What’s got you in a twist?”

Beau lost his smile. “I got word that Clay Johnson’s in the area. I’m still hunting for him.”

“Oh, Beau.”

“I was closing in when I stopped to see Patrick.” Beau shook his head. “I ended up with a farm and a bunch of cows.”

“And three little girls.”

Adie’s voice held a lilt. Beau appreciated her kindness but feared the glint in her eyes. Orphaned at the age of twelve, she’d suffered frightful abuses before settling with Josh and their adopted son. She treasured her family and wanted everyone to have the same joy. Until Lucy’s death, Beau had felt the same way.

Adie cut into his thoughts. “Those girls need a home. What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“You could stay here and raise them.”

“Forget it. I’ve got a call on my life and I’m following it.”

Adie’s face hardened. “You’re talking about Johnson.”

“Of course.”

“Oh, Beau.”

“What?”

Her eyes misted. “You’ve got to set that burden down.”

How could she say such a thing? She’d laid out Lucy’s body in the house he’d rented because his wife had liked the porch swing. That morning, Lucy had tossed up her breakfast and had gone to the doctor. Later Beau learned she’d been carrying their child. She’d put on the pink dress—his favorite—to tell him the news. Behind Adie, he saw Miss Baxter in her pink dress peeking through the red curtains. The colors turned his stomach.

Adie wrinkled her nose, then playfully fanned the air. “Go take a bath. You smell like a bear in April.”

Beau grinned. “That good?”

“Worse!”

He appreciated the change in tone. “I’ve got business in town. I’ll be back in an hour.”

“Keep an eye out for Josh,” she added.

Beau wanted to see his old friend but feared what the Reverend would say. The man dug deep, pulling up weeds by the roots and laying them bare for a man to see for himself. Adie had a different way. She planted seeds and expected flowers. If a man was thirsty, she gave him sweet tea. If he was hungry, she filled his belly. Beau had never known a more generous woman…or a more dangerous one. Watching Adie love the whole wretched world made him want a garden of his own.

Beau tipped his hat to her, saw that Miss Baxter had left her post at the window, turned and headed to town. As he trudged along the path, he thought of his early years in Denver. He’d been a deputy sheriff when Joshua Blue had ridden into town with a Bible and an attitude. Before he knew it, Beau had been sitting in a saloon that doubled for a church on Sunday mornings. A year later, he’d met Lucy and married her. After her passing, Adie had fed him meals until he couldn’t stand another bite and had lit out of town.

He wanted to leave now but couldn’t. Patrick’s girls needed him and so did Miss Baxter. What drove a woman to travel a thousand miles to marry a stranger? Beau didn’t know, but he knew how it felt to hurt.

As he stepped onto the boardwalk, he caught a whiff of himself. Adie was right about that bath, but first he had to visit the Silver River Saloon. With a little luck, he’d pick up news about Clay Johnson. Beau disliked visiting saloons, but it had to be done. Men like Johnson didn’t hang out at the general store, nor did they go to church on Sundays, or to socials where men and women rubbed elbows and made friends. Neither did Beau.

With his duster flapping, he strode to Scott’s office to fetch the wagon, then drove back down the street, crossed the railroad tracks and found the saloon between a second mining office and a gunsmith. He stepped inside and surveyed the dimly lit room. Empty stools lined the bar. A poker table sat in the corner with a battered deck of cards but no players. He had the place to himself, so he stepped to the bar where a man with graying hair was wiping the counter.

“What’ll it be?” the barkeep asked.

“Coffee.”

The man set down a mug. Numb to the bitterness, Beau took a long drag of the overcooked brew. It splashed in his belly but didn’t give him the usual jolt, a sign he was more tired than he knew. Grimacing, he set down the half-empty cup.

“You’re a stranger here,” the barkeep said.

“Sure enough.”

“In town on business?”

“Just passing through.” Lonely men liked to talk. Beau hoped this man was one of them.

The barkeep lifted a shot glass out of a tub and dried it with his apron. “If you need work, the mines are hiring.”

“I’m looking for someone.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“His name’s Clay Johnson. He’s about six feet with dark hair and a crooked nose.” Beau wished he’d been the one to break it.

When the man raised a brow, Beau slid a coin across the counter. The barkeep slipped it into his pocket. “I’ve seen that fellow.”

“In town?”

“About two weeks ago.”

Before Patrick’s death. “Any idea where he was headed?”

“None. He bought five bottles of whiskey, opened one here and walked out with the rest. I haven’t seen him since.”

“Anyone with him?”

“Two men.”

“What did they look like?”

“I didn’t pay much attention. I noticed Johnson because of his nose.” The barkeep set down the glass and held out his hand. “I’m Wallace O’Day. I run a clean business.”

Beau shook the man’s hand. “Beau Morgan.”

“Bounty hunter?”

“I’m not in it for the money.”

Wallace picked up another glass. “This Johnson fellow. Is he wanted?”

“Yes.” By Beau for Lucy’s murder and the U.S. government for stealing horses. Of the two, the government would be kinder.

The barkeep glanced at the dregs in Beau’s cup. “Want some more?”

“No, thanks.” Beau slapped down a sawbuck. “If you hear anything about Johnson, remember it.”

Wallace folded the money. “How do I find you?”

“I’ll be back.”

Beau left the saloon with thoughts of Johnson rattling like broken glass. He saw Lucy again, felt the wetness of her bodice and smelled the blood. He blinked the picture away, but the rage stayed in his blood, swimming like a thousand fish. Needing to get rid of the slithering, he walked two blocks to an emporium where he bought fresh clothes, then headed back to the bathhouse across from the Silver River.

As he neared the splintery building, one of the oldest in Castle Rock, he smelled steam, soap and dirt. The mix reminded him of a simple truth. He could get clean on the outside, but the inside was another matter. Until Clay Johnson met his end, Beau’s hate would grow with every breath he took.

Weary to the bone, he stepped into a drafty building with a high ceiling. He paid a Chinese man to fill a tub, then undressed and slipped into the hot water. As he dunked his head, Beau thought about Clay Johnson. They’d been playing this game for a long time now. At first, Clay had run hard and far. Beau had nearly trapped him in Durango, but he’d fled to the Colorado Plateau and into the desert. Beau had picked up the man’s trail later in Raton but had lost him near Cimarron. A year had passed before he’d gotten word of an outlaw gang raiding ranches in Wyoming.

Beau had taken a train to Laramie. He’d arrived in time for a trial that didn’t include Johnson. In exchange for prison in place of the gallows, one of Clay’s cohorts had told the authorities where to find him. Beau had ridden out that day, but Clay had already vanished into the mountains.

With the memory haunting him, Beau raised his head out of the water and wiped his face. He’d been so close. A day sooner and his search would have ended. Instead, Clay had gotten word of Beau’s presence and left him a message at the local saloon.

It should have been you, Sheriff. You know it. Leave me alone.

Beau had that note in his saddlebag. He had other things, too. A bullet etched with an
M
for Morgan, presumably from Johnson’s gun belt. Other notes. Other tokens. Every time Beau got close, the outlaw taunted him but didn’t stand and fight.

Beau wondered why.

What stopped Johnson from setting up an ambush? For five years, Beau had slept with one eye open and for good reason. In a game of cat and mouse, no man liked being the mouse. Someday Johnson would be sick of the chase and become the cat. The man would show himself and Beau would be ready. Dunking back into the scalding water, he hoped that day would come soon.

Chapter Four

“H
ow do you know our uncle?” Ellie asked.

Dani and the girls were sitting in Adie Blue’s kitchen. After insisting Dani call her by her given name, the pastor’s wife had given the girls snickerdoodles and made Dani a cup of hot tea, lacing it with enough sugar to stop her hands from shaking.

With the girls staring at her, Adie sat down with a cup of her own. “Pastor Josh and I know your uncle from Denver. He used to be a sheriff.”

“Where’s his badge?” Ellie asked.

Adie paused. “I don’t know. Maybe he left it in Denver.”

“Why?” Emma hadn’t touched her cookie. Of the three girls, she was most aware of their uncertain future and needed reassurance for herself and her sisters.

Dani wanted answers, too. And not just from Adie. Why had God filled her heart with love for Patrick and snatched him away? Even more troublesome, why had He left three little girls in the care of a dangerous man? Dani watched as Adie stirred her tea in slow circles, as if this were an ordinary day. But it wasn’t ordinary. Each plink of the spoon sent tremors down Dani’s spine.

Adie finally set her spoon in the saucer and looked at Emma. “Your Uncle Beau was married to a woman named Lucy. Something bad happened and he didn’t want to be a sheriff anymore.”

A wife…Dani didn’t know what to think. Beau Morgan had loved a woman and been loved in return. She didn’t want to feel his pain but she did.

Ellie’s eyes filled with concern. “What happened?”

“It’s hard to talk about, sweetie.”

Emma glared at the pastor’s wife. “As hard as losing Pa?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Adie’s eyes had the fragility of etched glass. Whatever Beau Morgan had suffered, it had been tragic, maybe violent. The girls needed to feel safe, so Dani stepped in. “I hear you have kittens,” she said to Adie.

“I sure do.”

Esther jumped up. Cookie crumbs bounced on the table.

“I want to see them!”

Ellie caught the excitement. “Is Stephen home?”

Adie glanced at Dani to explain. “Stephen’s our son. He and Ellie are the same age.”

“We’re best friends,” Ellie added.

Dani almost smiled. It figured Ellie the tomboy would be friends with the pastor’s son.

Adie looked at Ellie. “Stephen’s staying at Jake Roddy’s house until Sunday.”

“Oh.”

“But you can still play with the kittens,” Adie said.

“They’re in the stable.”

Esther ran for the door.

Adie looked at Emma. “I need to speak to Miss Dani. Would you take your sisters to the stable?”

Emma scowled. “But—”

“I know, sweetie.” Adie motioned for Emma to lean closer.

“You’re old enough to know the facts, but Esther isn’t. We need your help.”

“Will you tell me later?” Emma asked.

Dani nodded. “I promise.”

The girls left through the back door. Adie went to the stove where she lifted an enamel kettle and refilled their cups.

“I wish Josh were here.”

“Where is he?” Dani asked.

“Looking for you. He must have missed your train.”

Dani squared her shoulders. “I’m glad he did. It gave me a chance to meet Mr. Morgan.”

“That’s not the real Beau.” Adie put down the kettle. “Let’s sit on the porch. I’ll tell you his story, but I need to see the sky when I do.”

“Why?”

“To remember that Lucy’s in Heaven. Considering how she died, it’s the only comfort we have.” With her cup and saucer in hand, Adie led the way to the porch and indicated the hodgepodge of chairs. “Take the rocker. It’s soothing.”

Balancing her teacup, Dani dropped onto the chair and instantly felt the cradlelike rocking. It matched the beat of her heart, calming her thoughts as the hot tea had settled her nerves. Adie said nothing as a man in a black preacher’s coat rode into the yard on a dapple gray.

“That’s Josh.” She set her cup on the table, then went down the stairs to meet him.

At the sight of his wife, Reverend Blue’s face turned from stone to living flesh. He slid out of the saddle, slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her into a gentle hug. After lowering his chin, he whispered something in her ear. Dani ached with envy. A husband…A partner and friend. Marriage meant starting a family. It meant belonging to a person and making a home. Dani had lived in Walker County her entire life, but she’d never fitted in. She’d felt that oneness with Patrick and now he was gone.

Why, Lord?

It was a question for Reverend Blue, but the man looked nothing like the minister Dani had expected. When she dreamed of the wedding, she’d pictured him as a twin of her pastor in Wisconsin, an elderly man with kind eyes. Pastor Schmidt had called Jesus the Lamb of God. He’d taught his flock to turn the other cheek.

Reverend Blue had a mane of dark hair, hawkish eyes and a chin that looked as if it could take a punch. For a good cause, Dani suspected he’d welcome it. Would he find her cause worthy? The Blues considered Beau a friend, but they didn’t know about the pistols on the porch or the secrecy in town. Dani had to convince them to help her keep the girls.

Reverend Blue guided his wife up the stairs. As Adie sat, he took off his hat and faced Dani. “I’m sorry about Patrick, Miss Baxter. It had to be a shock.”

“Yes.” Her throat closed.

He dropped into the chair on her right and turned it so they were seated at an angle. “Whatever you need, Adie and I will help. Train fare—”

“I’m not leaving.” Dani had to make her case and she had to do it now. “I want to adopt the girls.”

The Reverend’s eyes stayed kind, but he lowered his chin. “I don’t think—”

“I
have
to!” Dani’s voice trembled. “I promised Patrick.”

The Reverend traded a look with his wife. They had an entire conversation without saying a word. Jealousy raged in Dani’s middle. She was mad at everyone right now—the Reverend, Adie, Beau Morgan, Patrick for leaving her, and especially God.

Adie spoke to her husband in a murmur. “I saw Beau.”

“How is he?” The Reverend sounded grim.

“He looks terrible,” Adie replied.

Dani jumped in. “The girls are terrified of him. Frankly, so am I.”

“Of Beau?” The Reverend sounded incredulous.

“Yes.” Dani pressed her point. “I don’t know what he was like in Denver, but he’s not fit to raise three girls. I don’t care what Patrick’s will says. I have letters. He’d want me to raise his daughters.”

“Miss Baxter—”

“I can prove it.”

Reverend Blue held her gaze. “Maybe so, but does it matter?”

“Of course, it matters!”

“Why?”

“They prove what Patrick intended.”

The Reverend’s eyes filled with sympathy. “God might have other plans. Patrick left a will, but—”

Her throat hurt. “The letter is more recent.”

Reverend Blue sealed his lips. Dani didn’t like his expression at all. He looked like a man keeping a secret. Had Beau already spoken to the Blues? Did they know about sending the girls to school?

She had to make her case. “You can’t let him do it.”

“Do what?” Adie asked.

“Send the girls away.”

The Blues traded another look. Adie turned up her palms in confusion. “I spoke to Beau for less than a minute. I don’t know what he’s planning.”

“I do,” Dani said. “He wants to send the girls away to school. I can’t let him do it. They need to be in their own home.”

Adie’s mouth tensed. “They certainly do.”

“That’s why I want to adopt them,” Dani continued. “I grew up on the biggest dairy farm in Walker County. I know the business. I can run the farm and the girls can stay together. It’s what Patrick would have wanted.”

The Reverend said nothing. Why the silence? If he wouldn’t speak, how could she convince him to support the adoption? She didn’t know what to think of this hard, silent man, but she liked Adie. She turned to the preacher’s wife. “Will you help me?”

“Hold on, ladies.” Reverend Blue sounded like Moses about to deliver the Ten Commandments. “Things aren’t that simple.”

Dani frowned. “Why not?”

“Patrick’s will gives Beau authority. He’s a blood relative.”

“He’s also dirty and dangerous!” Dani didn’t like her tone, but she felt overwhelmed by emotions. Sadness. Fear. An anger that needed a target. She stared hard at Reverend Blue.

He stared back. “What has Beau done to offend you?”

Dani related Emma’s story about the guns, then described the trip to town. Her skin crawled at the recollection of Beau Morgan behind the window, the way his eyes had narrowed to her face. The more she relived the escape, the more deeply she disliked the man who had made it necessary. She took a breath. “I know you and Mrs. Blue consider Mr. Morgan a friend, but people change. He’s not the man you once knew.”

The Reverend drummed his fingers on the armrest. “Has Beau harmed you in any way?”

“No.”

“Has he been harsh with the girls?”

Dani thought of the blankets in the wagon and felt petty. She recalled his smelly clothes and knew he’d worked hard. He’d sounded threatening, but his actions had been courteous, even caring. “He’s been a perfect gentleman.”

“That’s what I’d expect.” The Reverend looked her in the eye. “Let me tell you about Beau Morgan, Miss Baxter. He was the bravest, most dedicated lawman Denver ever had. He sang in the church choir. He pounded half the nails in my first church and served as a deacon. He put Bibles in jail cells for men who spat on him.”

Dani didn’t want Beau Morgan to be human, someone with a conscience who’d fight her for the girls. “That was five years ago. It’s a long time.”

“So is five minutes,” he said. “That’s how long it took for Beau’s life to change.”

Adie touched Dani’s arm. “This is a horrible story, but you need to understand.”

Dani’s insides spun. “What happened?”

The Reverend’s gaze shifted to the mountains rising in the west. “It started with a gang of horse thieves. Randall Johnson was the leader. I knew him. I knew Clay, too. They were brothers with Randall being the elder.”

“How did you meet them?” Dani couldn’t see the connection between the outlaws and this man of the cloth.

The Reverend’s lips quirked upward. “Same way I met a lot of outlaws back then. I rode into their camp and introduced the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. That was a few months before the horse thieving started.”

Dani sighed. “I guess the message didn’t take.”

“We don’t know,” the Reverend said. “But I
do
know what happened that day in October. The Johnson gang raided Cobbie Miller’s place. They burned the outbuildings and made off with a dozen good horses. They also abused Cobbie’s two daughters.”

Dani felt both ill and furious.

The Reverend leaned back in his chair. “Cobbie stormed into town with the girls in the wagon, wrapped in blankets and looking pale. He went straight to the sheriff’s office. Beau put together a posse. Three days later, he shot Randall Johnson in a fair fight. I know, because I saw it.”

Dani let out her breath. “Justice was done.”

“Not in Clay Johnson’s mind. His brother was dead and he wanted revenge. He got it by murdering Beau’s wife.”

Dani gasped.

Reverend Blue stared into the distance, but his gaze lacked focus as he traveled to that bitter day in Denver. “It happened a week after Beau shot Randall. Clay sneaked into town and positioned himself on the building across from the sheriff’s office. He must have been up there for hours, but Beau never made rounds that morning. Of all the stupid things, he’d busted his big toe chopping wood.”

Dani blinked and saw Beau Morgan’s sock with his toe poking through the hole. Five years ago, his wife would have darned it. She’d have knit him new ones. Dani didn’t want to ache for him, but she did.

Adie touched her arm. “It’s a hard story to hear.”

“And hard to tell,” said the Reverend.

“Go on,” Dani urged. “I need to know.”

Reverend Blue raised his chin in defiance of what he had to relive. “I know what happened because Beau told me. He’s gone over that moment a thousand times. Maybe more.”

Dani thought of Emma standing at the window, recalling Patrick’s riderless horse and the smell of burned flesh. She heard Beau Morgan telling the child not to talk. He’d been trying to protect her from a heartache that rivaled his own. Dani had judged him as hard, yet he’d been acting with compassion.

Reverend Blue took a deep breath. “Beau was sitting at his desk with his foot on a stool when he saw Lucy pass by the window with a picnic basket. She’d been to the doctor that morning and had come to surprise him.”

Her heart squeezed. A healthy young woman went to the doctor for just one reason. The picnic basket…a surprise for her husband. Tears welled in Dani’s eyes.

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