Salvation in the Sheriff's Kiss

By: Kelly Boyce

Chapter One

  Colorado Territory, November 1876

  “Hoo-wee! That was a tough one!”

  “That’s one word for it,” Sheriff Hunter Donovan muttered, bending over to swipe his hat off the saloon floor. He brushed it against his leg then jammed it back onto his head, giving his deputy an exasperated glance. The way the kid was grinning from ear to ear, you’d think he’d lassoed a wayward bronco, not helped take down three brawling idiots too stupid to know when to quit.

  It was hard to believe only five years separated their ages. Had he ever been that young and foolhardy? If so, he’d be sure and stop by old Sheriff McLaren’s grave and issue a most heartfelt apology.

  “Aw, hell, Sheriff. It ain’t so bad. Beats sittin’ around all day staring at the walls.”

  Hunter scowled. “Being a sheriff isn’t about having fun, Jenkins. It’s about keeping the peace, stopping these kinds of things before they happen. You need to be vigilant, because if not, people get hurt.” He’d learned that one the hard way. Unfortunately, it was Sheriff McLaren who had paid the price.

  “I know, I know,” Jenkins said, his affable smile still in place. “I jus’ hate it when there’s nothin’ exciting to do is all.”

  Hunter refrained from telling him there was always plenty to do—people to check in on, disputes to mediate, help to offer. He could stand a little idle time to try and bring Jenkins up to speed on what it meant to be a sheriff. It wasn’t all shoot-outs and saloon fights. Wearing the badge also meant the town’s safety and well-being would become his responsibility. That people would rely on him. It was a bit like a family in a way, not that Hunter’s own family, broken as it was, provided the best example in that regard.

  And now, more than ever, it was important to be vigilant. Ever since the train station had been put in on the outskirts of town it seemed every piece of riffraff had found their way to Salvation Falls to try and pick up work at the lucrative ranches in the area. Although, in his estimation, they spent as much time drinking whiskey and beer in the three saloons dotting Main Street as they did actually working.

  One of said riffraff rolled over onto his back and groaned. “We was jus’ havin’ a conversation about Yucton bein’ guilty or not. Didn’t mean no harm.”

  Hunter gazed down at Roddy Lewis. He was a regular hand from Hunter’s father’s ranch, the Diamond D. “Perhaps you should try agreeing to disagree the next time. It’s up to the courts to decide Yucton’s fate. Not you.”

  Bill Yucton had become another thorn in his side. Everyone in town had an opinion on his guilt or innocence and no one seemed shy about spouting off about it. Or about the events of seven years ago he was being tried for.

  He glared over at Kincaid, the bounty hunter who had brought the outlaw to town. He’d said little about where he’d found Yucton, or why it was the man had arrived with his hands unbound, more than willing to ride into town despite knowing it could spell his doom. There was something fishy about the whole thing.

  “You could have helped,” he said, addressing the bounty hunter. The man had turned in his stool at the bar and watched the fight without so much as lifting a hand.

  He did so now, however, holding up his shot glass filled to the brim with watered-down whiskey. “Didn’t want to spill my drink.”

  “You keep drinking at this rate and you’ll burn through the bounty you collected before the trial even starts.”

  If it started. The circuit judge was taking his sweet ole time getting here. A wire had arrived this morning. The appointed judge had met with an unfortunate accident. It would be another week at least before a replacement could be found and sent their way.

  “Can’t see how my drinkin’ is any of your business, Sheriff. Thought you’d be a bit more appreciative. I did bring in a wanted man, after all. Made the world a safer place, putting one more outlaw behind bars.”

  “Right. Because Bill Yucton was such a huge threat.”

  Fact was, Kincaid was right. Yucton was a wanted man, but the law around here hadn’t been looking for him. He’d been part of an outfit that had rustled some cattle from the Diamond D and got caught, but Yucton had managed to somehow slip out of the jail and disappear into the night. Sheriff McLaren hadn’t bothered gathering a posse to set out after him and eventually, after the trial in which the two remaining rustlers had been dealt with, folks around Salvation Falls seemed happy to put the whole sordid matter to sleep. Hunter counted himself among them and he sure didn’t appreciate it being resurrected now.

  He pointed at the bounty hunter. “You and I need to have a conversation about Bill Yucton real soon.”

  Kincaid eyed him for a brief second, downed his drink then motioned for another one. “Can’t say I have much to say.”

  But Hunter did. It had been bugging him for the past several days. There was no reason in the world for Bill Yucton to come back here. Yet here he was, taking up space in one of the three jail cells in Hunter’s office. To top it off, the bounty on Yucton wasn’t paid out by the U.S. Marshalls Service. It was a private bounty offered to anyone who brought him into Salvation Falls to stand trial for a crime committed over seven years ago.

  “You plan on sticking around these parts?”

  Kincaid grinned. Weathered lines creased the corners of his eyes, beaten in by the elements and adding an incongruent nature to the man’s age, though Hunter suspected he wasn’t much older than his own thirty years.

  “Might. Never know when you’re going to need help with the rowdies.”

  “Because you’ve been so helpful thus far.” Sarcasm saturated his words.

  Kincaid shrugged and turned his attention back to the drink Franklyn set in front of him, putting an end to their conversation.

  Hunter returned to Jenkins who had hauled the current band of rowdies to their feet. Hunter would worry about Kincaid later. So long as he was sticking around, there would be time to question him further about the mysterious return of the wayward Bill Yucton. He knew there was more to the story than he was hearing. Instinct kept telling him something wasn’t right. Instinct and Sheriff McLaren’s dying words. Words that had haunted him since Abbott Connolly had stood trial for rustling cattle from the Diamond D Ranch seven years ago.

  Dig deeper.

  He’d heeded the sheriff’s words, but it had come to naught. There was nothing new to find. The evidence was what it was, and it had sent Abbott Connolly to prison.

  Hunter and Jenkins herded the stumbling men down to the opposite end of the street and shoved them all into one small cell. Bill Yucton lay prone on his bed, his legs crossed at the ankle and his hat covering his face. He lifted the brim far enough to slide a gaze at his new neighbors, then dropped it back in place.

  The fire in the woodstove had dwindled during their absence and the cold air from outside had made the interior a bit nippy. Hunter crossed the room to the woodstove and stoked the embers, putting another log on. He’d put on a pot of coffee just before getting called down to The Seahorse to break up the fight. By now it had likely thickened to a warm sludge. He poured a cup anyway. He’d long ago given up on drinking a decent cup of coffee.

  “Get these three settled in,” he said, and headed back out the door.

  Once outside, he leaned against the exterior wall of his office. Things were starting to quiet down. The twilight hour. His favorite time of the day. It was the one brief respite where the town took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then slowly exhaled. The sun had started its descent, leaving the tips of the mountains burnished in bronze and the sky streaked with orange and purple. The colorful display never failed to take his breath away. He’d lived his whole life under the shadow of those mountains and the effect had never lessened.

  It was the one thing about ranching he’d taken a shine to, the amount of time he spent out of doors, riding the range. But all that would change when he took over the business from his father. He’d spend more time dealing with the management and money and less time actually doing the day to day. The thought saddened him. He had no true interest in the job. He liked what he did now.

  He’d taken on the role of deputy nearly ten years ago after an argument with his father. He’d been barely twenty, brash and determined to create his own identity apart from the Donovan name. And he had. More importantly, he’d discovered he loved doing it.

  And soon it would be Jenkins’s job, if he could bring the kid up to snuff.

  He leaned a shoulder against the post next to the steps that led into the street and stared up at the vista, breathing in the evening. It gave him a sense of peace, of belonging. He knew it would only last as long as the sunset, though. Come nightfall, the loneliness would sink in. He’d eventually retire to the room he kept above the jailhouse and the emptiness would mock him. The memories would seep through the cracks in the walls and remind him of everything he’d lost.

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