Jake Reynolds rode his horse, Tar, at break-neck speed over the dry rugged terrain and was hankering for something to drink. He needed a tall glass of water and after that, a whisky sounded just about right.
Jake heard the hoof beats and hardly had to turn around to know he was being pursued. It wasn’t just a coincidence that someone was traveling the same path as him in West Texas Territory. On most days, he rode through this desolate patch without seeing another soul.
Jake was a card player, and he played ’em so well that once in a while he made enemies of the men he beat. Many players were men of integrity who could afford to take the loss—or even if they couldn’t—they walked away knowing there would be other card games. Others, like the scoundrel behind him, couldn’t let it go. They couldn’t accept the fact that they were losers and would accuse Jake of cheating, which he never did.
The scoundrel following Jake got so close he could hear him breathing. Jake didn’t like it. He had to get to Cedar Springs, which wasn’t far, and then he’d be able to lose the man. He wasn’t sure which sore loser was on his heels because he’d won a lot of hands in the past few days. When his curiosity got the best of him, he turned his head quickly.
Jake shook his head. “Abner, I should have known it was you!” He called out loudly so he could be heard over the thunderous pounding of the horse hooves. Abner Little had kept losing and Jake had given him every opportunity to bow out.
Jake was surprised when he heard a gunshot in the air. He didn’t expect Abner was capable of violence. With that in mind, it was probably just a warning shot because Jake knew that if he wanted to, Abner could shoot him in the back of the head. But men like him lacked the smarts to keep up with him once he reached Cedar Springs. Jake, on the other hand, had been avoiding outlaws and scoundrels for years and knew how to do it well. Another shot rang out. It seemed Abner had an itchy trigger finger.
Jake dug the heels of his black boots into Tar’s muscular hinds. He could see Cedar Springs in the distance since there was a plume of smoke, likely that of a blacksmith’s chimney. A friend had told him about the small town. Regardless of how small it might be, it was probably enough to get lost in.
Jake saw a creek, which was where he knew Tar would head. He planned to catch up with his horse later. Jake leaned to the left and Tar went right toward the creek. He rolled into some brush, and along the way was scraped by rocks and pebbles. It was painful but Jake preferred it to being shot in the head.
He stealthily made his way into town, crawling through tumbleweed, and hiding behind spindly trees. Abner would assume that he had fallen from his horse and Jake had managed to create space between them by prompting Tar. He watched as Abner’s head swiveled around as he looked for Jake. He knew Abner would keep looking for him and had no idea where he was. This confusion would buy Jake time.
The town of Cedar Springs was in a valley and the saloon was called the Lazy Mule. The sign above the door of the wood structure looked about ready to fall off. God, the sight of that made him crave that drink badly. Maybe he’d skip the water and go straight for the whisky. Jake was on foot and there weren’t a lot of places to disappear in Cedar Springs. The town was hot, dusty, and small, so his places to hide were limited.
He spotted a wagon hitched to an oak tree. It offered just about the only shade in Cedar Springs, so he jumped in and pulled an old cloth over his head. It was not only a good place to hide but nap, too. Jake would be sure not to steal from the wagon or bother the owner once he returned. It wasn’t in Jake’s nature to steal from someone who hadn’t stolen from him or bothered him in any way. The chances were, they’d never know he was there.
He hoped his plan to get away from Abner was successful. Jake had more dangerous men to worry about than a two-bit hustler. Men like him only slowed Jake down, which took time from things that really mattered. His life had come down to running from one thing while searching for another.
“No, Tootie. My plans are to forever call the ranch my home,” Amelia “Milly” Reynolds said to Tootie Battle, who owned the general store along with her husband, Amos. “I’m just so glad to have had friends like you, Madge, and Ruby, along with my sister Betty, standing by my side as I endured unexpected tragedy.”
“You’d do the same for us, Milly. You’re a lot like your ma, God rest her soul. I hope you’re making something special with this sugar.” Tootie commented on Milly’s purchase. Tootie was short and round while Amos was tall and bony. They may not have looked like they fit but they did.
“I’m making some simple tea cakes for Max and his wife Mary, that I’ll tuck in a pail with some preserves. It will be nice to have something comforting to eat while they’re on the trail. He’s leaving for Silver Falls near Denver to work in the silver mines. I enjoy taking care of Max because he’s grateful and goes out of his way to do things for me in return,” she said.
Tootie hesitated. “I’m guessing you don’t get the same treatment from Caleb.”
“You guess right. I thought he’d change after our parents’ death, since it was time he grew up and took up some responsibility. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.” Milly swept a lock of hair under her bonnet. “I still hope he’ll someday see the error of his ways. He’s my brother and I have a sibling responsibility to love him…right?”
“I don’t know if I would have enough love and patience for someone who constantly disappointed me,” Tootie said with a sympathetic frown.
“Oh Tootie, I’ve never met someone with as much patience as you have,” Milly replied.
Tootie and Amos were always aware of what everyone was up to in Cedar Springs and the surrounding area. At some point, all the people in Cedar Springs made it to the general store and the couple paid attention to every one of them. If a scoundrel seemed to be getting too comfortable in the town, they alerted Sheriff Regan so he could make it his business to keep an eye on them. Milly wondered how Tootie had the time to do so much. She and Amos had six children, including an adopted little girl, Sue, who had kept running away from the orphanage before she came to live with them. One morning, Amos found her hiding in the back room of the general store. He and Tootie decided that she had been looking for a home and with them, and she had found it. According to Tootie, she and Amos were ready for another half dozen if God provided.
“Did you see a drifter on a spotted horse when you came in?” Tootie asked.
“No. I only saw the usual folks. Marilyn Carver was waiting for Doc Pelham to arrive and Harvey was opening the blacksmith shop.”
“It appeared he was looking around like he lost something, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary so he must be looking in the wrong place,” Tootie said.
Amos Battle carried Milly’s sack of sugar and tossed it in the back of her wagon. They chatted for a bit and then a scruffy-looking stranger came up to her. She stiffened. Strangers were rare in Cedar Springs.
“Ma’am, I’m looking for a man wearing a black hat and black boots. He’s tall and fairly clean-shaven. Have you seen such a rascal? My name’s Abner and the man has something of mine that I want back.”
Milly shook her head slowly and as she did, saw a lump under an old cloth in her wagon. It wasn’t the sack of sugar, and it was moving. She guessed that the man he was looking for was in her wagon. Milly didn’t panic because she could imagine the two men getting violent. Abner’s knuckles were scabbed over, and she could see the gun in his holster. The Battle children were nearby, and Milly didn’t want them to see a shootout.
“I don’t think your friend is in Cedar Springs. The town is so small that if he was here, I would have seen him. I suggest you move along to the next town. He could be in Mason’s Gulch, if you’re heading there on horseback, it should take you an hour or so. It’s a bigger town and your friend is probably there.”
“I reckon he’s gone…” Abner turned and left on his spotted horse.
Milly was scared but she wasn’t going to show it because if the man detected fear, who knew what he’d do. She pulled aside her dress and pulled herself up to the wagon bench. Milly reached the edge of town before letting her uninvited passenger know that she was aware he was onboard.
“Do you think you’re clever?” she asked. There was only silence. “I’m speaking to you, the man hiding under the old cloth in my wagon bed. I have a shotgun by my side and if I need to, I’ll use it.”
“I’ve been clever up until this point. Abner wanted to take back what wasn’t his and places to hide in Cedar Springs were limited,” he responded. “I have no intention of harming you and there’s not a lot to pilfer back here except a sack of sugar.”
“There’s an abandoned shed up yonder and that’s where you’re getting out. I hope you weren’t thinking I was going to take you home, feed you, and give you a soft place to sleep,” Milly said.
“As nice as that would have been, I realize you have to draw the line somewhere,” he replied with a chuckle.
“Oh, I crossed the line by a mile already. I didn’t want a gunfight while small children were nearby and could have been harmed. I saw no other choice and at least this gets you out of town. You said he wanted to take something back so I’m thinking gambling was involved,” Milly said.
“It was and I won. When he sobered up, Abner didn’t like the way things turned out. He called me a cheat and God as my witness, I don’t cheat,” he said firmly.
“Hm.” Milly didn’t believe a thing this man was saying because he was hiding in the back of her wagon. That wasn’t the action of an honest man. The abandoned shed was visible in the distance and Milly was relieved.
“So, you must live around here,” Jake said.
“Maybe I do or maybe I don’t. I hope you don’t imagine I would share that information with you?” Milly asked as she slowed the wagon. “Surely if you had a mother or sister, the last thing you would advise them would be to tell a swindler like yourself where they live.”
He was silent for a moment and then she heard him moving in back. “I appreciate the help, ma’am. You’re a kind woman, and brave too…a nice combination. Next time I promise to choose someone else’s wagon.” Jake chuckled.
Milly smiled and was glad he couldn’t see her let her guard down. This whole thing with the stranger had thrown her whole day off.
Jake jumped out without ever seeing the woman holding the reins. He knew she had golden hair that cascaded down her back, a pleasant voice, and that he’d never see her again. Jake made his way into the shed where he’d stay for a few hours until he made it back to the creek where he’d reclaim Tar. Jake was hungry and there were rations packed in the horse’s saddle bags. The dried rabbit was his favorite and Jake was a good trapper, so he always had plenty of that. Then he’d find his pal’s cabin that he was told he could use because the map was also with Tar. Only after he was settled would he head to the saloon and look for a friendly card game.
He leaned against a board and reached his hand into the pocket of his trousers. He pulled out a finely carved pipe and rubbed the intricate design with his forefinger. Jake didn’t smoke but his father had. Jake enjoyed touching the same object his father laid his hands on because it reinforced the memory of a great man he admired. It reminded him of the promises he made his father. And how he wished he had done a better job at what he had asked of him.
The stove had been lit and there was plenty of wood to keep it going until dinner. No doubt that was done by Max or her sister-in-law, Mary. Milly was cracking eggs into the skillet when she heard footsteps behind her. She assumed it was her brother Caleb trying to hurry up his breakfast.
“I’m sorry I was late this morning, which almost never happens with me. If you sit and say a prayer of thanks for the meal you’re about to eat, your food will be done by the time you open your eyes,” Milly said without turning.
“I can’t recall the last time Caleb prayed.” A smile could be heard in his voice. “If you think that’s going to change then it proves what I’ve always thought, you are an eternal optimist,” Max said from the kitchen doorway. “It almost brings a tear to my eye seeing you make breakfast like that. It reminds me of Ma, especially when I see you from behind. You were humming a tune and sounded like her too.”
Milly turned and a big smile stretched across her face, which was usually the case when Max was around. “I guess I am an optimist and if I resemble Mother in any way, I consider myself fortunate.”
Max gave his sister a side hug and allowed her to return to her duties. “Do you and Mary want something to eat before you begin your journey to Denver?” Milly asked.
“No, thank you, although it smells heavenly. Mary was up early making us a morning meal and packing provisions for the journey,” he responded.
Max and Mary were moving to Silver Falls, a small town near Denver. Work in the silver mines was available to those who wanted to work hard in exchange for high wages. Max had heard this from a drifter whom he’d met at the blacksmith’s shop in Cedar Springs. He would be able to make more money than he could in Cedar Springs. It was dangerous work that would cause Mary to fret for her husband’s safety, but it was best for the family. Their father had taught them that sacrifice and a lack of comfort were things a man must endure on the journey to success.
Max stood and doffed his hat to Caleb who had walked into the kitchen. Then, he turned and walked out. Milly followed him so they could wait for Mary outside. Max leaned against the wagon as Milly stood before him using a tree for shade and tucking her golden locks beneath her kerchief.
“You know that you can still change your mind and come to Denver with Mary and me. Caleb can’t be trusted on his best day, and you don’t know what kind of lowlife outlaws will come after him,” Max expressed his concern.
“All Caleb does is bring problems upon himself. What happens in the saloon is none of my concern and if that’s how he wants to spend his time then so be it. I don’t take what he does as an insult to me personally and I know that someday Caleb will turn his life around,” Milly said, pretending she was fearless. There was a shotgun next to the door and she prayed to God she never had to use it. Her father taught her to shoot so she could defend herself.
“It’s that attitude of yours that saved Betty and me when we were younger. Remember when we got lost in the forest behind the ranch?” Max asked.
“I remember. It was while we were picking berries for a cobbler Ma was going to make. I’m still searching for that recipe, by the way. You took charge, of course, and I was scared but hid it. I wanted to make you proud so even though I was a little sprout, I managed to calm Betty,” Milly recollected.
“Betty was frightened, thinking of wild boar and, even worse, Apaches. She was sure an arrow would pierce her heart at any moment. I knew then that you were going to be something special,” Max said with a smile.
“Who knew the real danger was going to come from Father when we got home,” Milly pointed out. “He was madder than a cornered hog looking down the nose of a shotgun. We made Ma cry because she was overcome with worry and that seemed to be our worst offense.”
“I remember Pa tanned my hide that night while you girls got away with a single swat,” Max pointed out.
“That was because you were the oldest and therefore should have known better,” Milly said. At that young age, she remembered seeing Caleb looking on and enjoying watching his brother receive his punishment. His love of violence was apparent even then. “We had a good life growing up here and did the best we could after Ma and Pa died. I still avoid the trail that looks over the ravine because I don’t like to imagine them plunging to their deaths.”
“I understand that because I avoid it too, but you’re still alive and I hope you make the best of it. I’ll miss this valley and I’ll visit the mountains and tall trees in my dreams. Mostly, though, I’ll miss you. My baby sister.” Max gave Milly a final hug as Mary walked toward the wagon, her arms loaded with their final belongings.
Mary hugged Milly goodbye and wished her well before Max helped her onto the covered wagon. It was early summer so there would be no snow to worry about and all the passes would be clear. Max thought it was easier to journey to Denver before they had children and even prior to Mary being with child. Milly blinked away tears as she watched the wagon get smaller and smaller. Soon it disappeared into the distant fir trees and Milly couldn’t be sure if Max would be a fond memory or if she would see him again.
Caleb called from the front door. “Milly, I need you in the house so we can talk about chores and things that I expect. With Mary and Max gone, you’ll have a lot more responsibility. We’ve already wasted half the morning on saying goodbye to that no-good brother of mine.”
Milly marched up the path to the house after Caleb’s unnecessary comment about Max. It was morning and the sun was already intense. They lived in a valley and in the summer, hot air remained still for days as it seemed to get stuck. It was one of those times and Milly would seek shade whenever possible.
She looked up and Caleb was standing with his arms crossed, in front of the door. He looked like the true lord of the manor with his confident stance and penetrating glare.
Milly jokingly saluted. She laughed and walked into the house taking a seat on the blue couch that her mother loved. “I’m assuming that Mary’s chores will become mine and you’ll take over the ones Max had been doing. Is that your idea?”
“No, I won’t be feeding the barn animals, as Max did, or chopping wood. I suppose I can bring in the felled trees because they might be too much for you to handle. We’re the last two left here and we’re going to have to work harder than ever before,” Caleb asserted as he paced back and forth in front of his sister.
“Is there a reason you won’t be doing chores? It hardly seems fair,” Milly commented. She had to stand up and question his decision from the start; otherwise, it would never change.
“If you must know, I’ll be doing fence work at the Hardy ranch on the other side of Cedar Springs. A few nights a week, I won’t be home as I start work early and finish late. On those nights, I’ll simply sleep under the stars,” he explained.
“Our fence could do with some work, too. Don’t you think it would make sense to fix ours first?” Milly questioned.
Caleb’s face turned red, and he clenched his fists. “Are you confused about who’s in charge around here?”
Milly didn’t like this side of Caleb. She had seen it plenty of times directed at Max, but never at her. He didn’t like ideas that weren’t his and, in the future, she’d have to figure out a way to make the ideas seem like his. She shuddered and shook her head. “No.”
“Good. I’ll expect breakfast cooked on time in the morning by the time the rooster crows. I don’t want a repeat of what happened today when you insisted on dilly-dallying. It’ll make me angry, and I doubt you want that,” Caleb said, and he was just getting started. “As far as the fence goes, we will be able to hire ranch hands once we have money, which I’ll get working for Hardy.”
He insisted the main house be cleaned, the pantry stocked, meals prepared, and vegetables grown in the garden. She would also have to properly preserve them. Milly accepted the burden she had to bear because it was for the good of the land her dear father worked so hard to maintain. Milly was overcome by an ominous feeling as Caleb barked orders at her. He was meaner than he’d been before and although she promised Max she’d be fine with Caleb, Milly wasn’t so sure anymore.
Caleb continued assigning chores to his sister as if he were thinking of new ones every minute. They walked around the perimeter of the ranch house as he talked of someday making changes to the structure. Caleb made Milly uncomfortable as he feverishly looked around. It was like he expected to see intruders on the property. The front of the house was made of stone and roughhewn timbers that their father Charles had placed. The porch was meant to wrap around but it only made it halfway. That always bothered their mother and someday Milly would see that it was finished in her honor.
Milly knew Caleb wanted to put his own stamp on the place since he was left in charge. All the other Reynolds, except her, had gone and that seemed to suit him just fine. He had always complained that his older and better-looking brother gave him rules to follow. Max had always been preferred by his parents, and there weren’t many people who met both of them that hadn’t preferred Max.
Caleb pulled the long silver blade from the sheath that was always attached to his belt. He flicked dirt from beneath his fingernails and then spit-shined the sharp instrument. The simple act sent shivers down Milly’s spine as had never happened before.
The house was big, especially with only two people living there. It was a bit run down but all of that would be fixed by men they would hire to do the job. Milly was happy that Caleb was working to pay for repairs instead of relying on gambling. He might be able to win a few card games but that would reliably be followed by losing a few.
“Have you figured out where the garden will be located next year?” Milly asked but didn’t really expect an answer. She could tell Caleb’s mind was drifting.
“No. I’m just about ready to head into town so that will have to wait. I think I gave you enough to keep you busy for the day. I hope Madge doesn’t think she’s welcome here whenever she pleases since your time will be plenty occupied with extra chores. Doesn’t she have chores to occupy her time at that rundown homestead where she lives?”
“Madge is my best friend, and she helps with my chores when she comes visiting. She keeps her home tidy; her garden flourishes and she has three wee ones. I don’t appreciate how you talk about her or her lovely homestead,” Milly defended her friend. Her husband Sam was a determined man who turned barren land into a working farm and ranch. They worked harder together than ten farmhands ever could.
“I just call ’em as I see ’em because I watch the two of you gabbing while there’s work to be done. Now, get on back in the house and start your chores,” Caleb ordered but Milly didn’t jump right away as she was asked.
“You won’t be at the saloon tonight, will you?” she asked. “It gets lonely out here when I’m alone and it’s a bit frightening.”
“Oh, poor Milly is scared to stay home alone,” Caleb mocked.
Milly simply turned without comment and started walking but changed her mind because her chores would keep her inside for the rest of the day. She wanted to get fresh air before the sun was overhead. She watched Caleb from afar because he wanted his space. He eventually turned toward the barn and Milly saw him leave on his horse, Slick.
Milly observed as Caleb reached into the pocket of his brown trousers and pulled out his pocket watch. It was a bauble he’d received from the undertaker when they returned personal effects to the family after his mother and father died. Well, he didn’t actually receive it; Caleb took it before anyone knew it existed. He thought no one noticed but Milly did because her father had always kept the watch with him and she’d wondered what had happened to it. He was heading in the direction of the barn, which probably meant he was going to saddle his horse. Slick was the horse he’d stolen from a hitching post in central Texas. According to Caleb, it had been far enough away that no one was going to come looking for it.
Caleb left the property and headed toward Cedar Springs. Milly wondered whether her life would consist of chores, the occasional trip into town, and Sunday worship if time permitted. Her mother would be horrified that worship services weren’t required above all else.
“Love Favors the Brave” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
When her unscrupulous brother bets her in a poker game, Milly Reynolds finds herself in an unimaginable situation facing this ultimate betrayal. Yet, when an enigmatic stranger known as ‘‘The Gambler’’ steps in to collect his prize, she is determined to make a stand despite his undeniable charm. Little does she know that her act of defiance is about to spark a love unlike any other…
Will Milly choose to fight for her freedom, against her growing feelings?
Jake Jackson has been called The Gambler for a reason; he is a hard man with a dark past and no interest in love. However, when he finds out what Milly’s brother has done, he immediately knows that he has to protect this innocent beauty at any cost. To his surprise, he finds himself growing more and more fond of her as they try to outrun her crooked brother, who desperately wants her back.
Can this unexpected prize be the salvation he has been searching for all his life?
As the two of them brave through treacherous terrain, gunshots, and rattlesnakes, they are utterly unprepared for the great dangers that await them and the bond that grows between them. Will their love be enough to overcome the perils of their past and build a future? Can Jake and Milly’s trust and courage save them both, or will they be swept away by the waves of fate?
“Love Favors the Brave” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.