The steel blade of the knife pressed into soft, white flesh. Terror slashed through Ben. He met the gaze of the man holding the knife and saw pure evil reflected in his eyes. The man grinned wickedly. Cold sweat poured down Ben’s back. His eyes darted back to the woman being held in the man’s grasp. Mary Anne’s eyes pleaded with him to do something. The fear in her eyes cut through Ben painfully. He tried to move toward her, but something held him back. He felt as if he were mired in quicksand. The man wielding the knife laughed evilly. Mary Anne screamed.Ben sucked in a great gasp of air as he jerked violently awake. He sat up and blinked rapidly, trying to clear away the images of the nightmare. Tracker, the coyote who was Ben’s faithful companion, laid his paw across Ben’s lap comfortingly. Ben absently reached over to stroke Tracker’s head, the action helping to calm his racing pulse. Slowly the terror that gripped him eased.
It had been three months since Mary Anne Sumter had been kidnapped by the notorious outlaw, Tex Longley. The terror he had felt the day he rescued her haunted Ben’s dreams nearly every night. Knowing that she had survived did not lessen the fear that coursed through him each time the nightmare returned.
As he lay there in the dark, Ben thought back to the day he had met Mary Anne Sumter. He was a bounty hunter and had been tracking Tex Longley for months when he came upon the broken down coach that carried Mary Anne and her family. The second Mary Anne had stepped out of the coach Ben had fallen head-over-heals in love with her. Her long blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and warm smile had melted his heart.
The coach was on its way to Bethany which was where Ben had heard Tex Longley’s gang had been hiding out. Ben had decided to travel with the stagecoach. Four members of Tex’s gang attacked the coach a few miles outside of Bethany. Ben and the stagecoach rifleman, Cord McCoy, were able stop the outlaws’ attempt to rob the coach.
A few weeks later, Tex and his gang kidnapped Mary Anne to take revenge for the failed robbery. Ben and Cord tracked down the outlaws and rescued Mary Anne. During the rescue, Ben shot and killed Tex Longley.
Mary Anne’s parents wanted to send her to school in Boston. Knowing that his profession would only continue to bring danger into Mary Anne’s life, Ben convinced her to go East. He promised Mary Anne he would earn enough money for them to get married as soon as she finished school. Mary Anne had reluctantly agreed to go.
Since that time, Ben had been holed up in a boarding house in Quigley, a little town about 10 miles from Jameson. Mary Anne’s father managed the bank in Jameson. Many times Ben had thought about going to Jameson and telling Mary Anne he had changed his mind and he wanted her to stay. But each time, the memory of that terrible day would flood back to him. He knew being the wife of a bounty hunter would be no life for her. He was determined to make enough money to buy a little ranch, so Mary Anne could live a comfortable life.
Quigley was the nearest train depot to Jameson. So, Ben had stayed, even as the weather warmed. He wanted to be there the day Mary Anne boarded the train to go East. The decision to see her off was a hard one. Ben itched to get started tracking his next bounty. The more outlaws he could capture in the next two years, the more money he and Mary Anne would have to start their lives together.
Finally, the day arrived. From his camp on the side of a hill overlooking Quigley, Ben saw a buckboard carrying the Sumter family pull into town. Ben saddled his stallion, Blaze, and rode down the hill. He stayed in the shadows behind the buildings that lined Main Street. He had not decided whether or not to let Mary Anne know he was there. They had said their goodbyes three months ago. It had been very hard to let her go and he wasn’t sure he could do it twice.
Ben slid down off Blaze’s back and moved to peek around the corner of the building that sat across the street from the depot. The building shielded him from sight, but gave him an excellent view of the depot. His heart lurched into his throat as he watched Mary Anne hop gracefully down off the buckboard. Timmy, Mary Anne’s six year-old little brother, began running around the buckboard whooping like a wild man. Ben grinned at the sight. He had missed Timmy, too.
Ben’s gaze moved back to Mary Anne. She stood on the boardwalk in front of the depot. Her eyes scanned up and down the street, an expectant expression on her face. She’s looking for me, Ben thought. He wrestled with the question of whether or not to make his presence known. He watched as Susan Sumter, Mary Anne’s mother, stepped to her side and whispered something in her ear. Mary Anne’s face fell and she nodded. Then she turned and fled inside the building.
Ben felt his heart constrict at the sight of Mary Anne’s sadness. He took a step toward the depot and then drew up short. He moved back into the shadows and leaned heavily against the building. He rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes. “What should I do, Blaze? Should I go to her? I’m afraid I won’t be able to let her go.” Blaze nudged him in the arm. Ben opened his eyes to look at Blaze.
Just then, the train whistle blew, announcing its arrival. Ben pushed away from the building. He looked around the corner in time to see the train pull to a stop. I’ve got to see her one last time before she leaves, he thought. Having made up his mind, Ben hurried across the street. His heart hammered in his chest at the thought of seeing Mary Anne’s beautiful face again. He jumped onto the boardwalk and strode purposefully through the depot door. He quickly scanned the depot’s interior, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the dim light.
“Ben!” an excited voice screeched.
Ben turned to see Timmy streaking across the room toward him. Ben opened his arms and caught the boy as he launched himself into the air.
“Where have you been? Mary Anne’s cried almost every day. I don’t like it that you made Mary Anne cry,” said Timmy sullenly.
“I’m truly sorry, Timmy. I didn’t want to make Mary Anne cry,” replied Ben.
Ben looked over Timmy’s shoulder and spotted Mary Anne hurrying toward him. He sat Timmy down as Mary Anne came to a stop in front of him. Ben’s eyes moved hungrily over her, taking in every part of her face. He noted the red puffiness around her eyes and knew that Timmy had been telling the truth about Mary Anne’s tears.
“Ben,” Mary Anne said breathlessly. “I knew you’d come. I just knew you wouldn’t let me leave without saying goodbye.”
Ben had to clear his throat before he could speak. The sight of her standing before him had affected him more than he had expected.
“Hello, Mary Anne. I tried to stay away, because I knew that saying goodbye a second time would be twice as hard as the first, but I couldn’t do it. I had to see your face and hear your voice one last time.”
“Ben, it’s good to see you again,” Susan Sumter greeted warmly as she and Mr. Sumter joined them.
Ben’s gaze shifted to Mrs. Sumter. “Yes, ma’am, it’s good to see you again, too,” answered Ben.
“Come along, Timmy,” said Susan, taking Timmy’s arm. “Let’s let these two have a few moments alone before Mary Anne must board the train.”
Ben smiled gratefully at Susan as she ushered Timmy away. Then he turned his gaze back to Mary Anne. They stared at each other for several moments, neither really knowing what to say.
“I don’t have to go, Ben. I told you before that I don’t care how much money we have. I just want to be with you,” said Mary Anne softly.
“I can’t keep putting you in danger, Mary Anne. We’ve talked about this. I haven’t changed my mind. I want you to go. It’s for the best. I need to make enough money to give us a comfortable life. I will not put you in danger again,” replied Ben firmly.
Mary Anne sighed heavily and reached to lay her palm across Ben’s cheek. “You are a stubborn one, aren’t you? It’s part of why I love you so much.”
Ben stepped toward Mary Anne and crushed her to him. “I love you, too,” he whispered in her ear. Just then, the announcement was made that it was time for the passengers to board the train.Ben reluctantly stepped back. “I’ll be here waiting for you the day you get back,” he promised.
Mary Anne nodded, no longer able to speak as the tears coursed down her face. The Sumters had made their way back to where the couple stood. Mrs. Sumter put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and began to move her toward the waiting train.
“You did the right thing by letting her go, son,” said Mary Anne’s father, Nathan, as he and Ben watched the women moving away.
“Yes, sir,” replied Ben. “I know I did.”
Ben moved outside as Mary Anne boarded the train. He stood there on the boardwalk with the Sumters as it began to pull away. Mary Anne pressed her face to the glass and waved frantically as the train passed by them.
They stood there watching until the train was out of sight. Ben sighed heavily as he turned to leave. The next two years were going to be the hardest of his life.
A few days later, Ben rode Blaze into Hastings. The town was thriving. Several people hurried down the boardwalks on either side of Main Street. Unlike most of the towns Ben had experienced in his young life, Hastings didn’t just have one long street splitting it down the middle. Instead, several side streets branched off leading to rows of small houses as well as additional businesses. Ben felt a thrill of excitement rush through him as he and Blaze made their way through town.
Raucous music and boisterous laughter could be heard coming from the three saloons Ben passed on his way to the sheriff’s office. I’m sure to hear some news about a bounty in this town, Ben thought with satisfaction as he pulled Blaze to a stop in front of the jail.
Ben slid off Blaze and strode into the sheriff’s office. As soon as he stepped inside, a booming voice called out, “I’ll be with ya in just a minute!”
“Sure thing,” replied Ben. “I’m in no hurry.”
Ben glanced around the office. He noted the Wanted posters on the wall behind a large wooden desk. He made his way over to them to take a closer look. He recognized several of the faces from posters he had seen last fall. There were a few new faces as well. As he scanned the wall, his eyes stopped on one poster in particular, Rhett Tipton. The reward for Rhett was $100. It was the biggest reward on the wall. He stared hard at the picture, trying to memorize Rhett’s face.
Ben’s thoughts were interrupted when the same booming voice he had heard when he entered asked, “So young fella, what can I do for you?”
Based on the sound of the man’s voice, Ben expected him to be a monster of a man. Instead, when Ben turned around, he saw a man who stood about five inches shorter than his own six foot frame. The man had a slim, wiry build and looked to be about 60 years old. Some of his surprise must have shown, because the man chuckled and said, “Don’t worry, you’re not the first person to be surprised once they got a look at me.”
Ben felt heat climb into his cheeks at the man’s perceptiveness.
“So, what is it that you needed?” the sheriff asked.
“My name’s Ben Sharp. I wanted to asked you some questions about any leads you might have on any of the men in those posters,” said Ben as he nodded toward the wall he had been looking at.
This time it was the sheriff’s turn to look surprised. “I’ve heard of you. You’re the kid who shot Tex Longley a few months ago aren’t ya? They said it was a kid bounty hunter who had done it, but I didn’t really believe it.” The sheriff shook his head incredulously.
“Yeah, that was me,” answered Ben, feeling a jolt of satisfaction that the sheriff recognized his name.
“I heard ya was one heck of a good shot,” said the Sheriff admiringly. “By the way, my name’s Steve Hopkins and it’s a pleasure to meet ya, kid. Tex Longley was a man that needed killin’ if there ever was one and it’s an honor to meet the man who done it.”
“Thank you, sheriff. Now, do ya have any information on Rhett Tipton?” asked Ben.
“Last I heard, he had busted out of the jail down Tucson way. Probably in Mexico by now,” answered Sheriff Hopkins.
“Oh,” answered Ben with disappointment. He sure would have liked to get his hands on Rhett’s $100 reward.
“Now, I heard that Sam Jefferson and his gang were seen over in Atkins a couple of weeks ago. That gang is worth a pretty nice bounty. They’ve robbed the stage a few times.”
“Thank you, sheriff,” answered Ben as he turned to leave. He was glad he at least had somewhere to start. He hoped to find out more from the folks in town.
“Good luck, Ben. Be careful.”
Ben nodded and stepped through the door.
A few hours later dusk had fallen and Ben decided it was time to head out of town to make camp. As he rode Blaze past one of the side streets, he heard a young voice say defiantly, “I didn’t do nothin’. Leave me alone.”
“Charlie says you tried to pick his pocket and we’re gonna teach you a lesson about who you try to steal from,” a gruff voice replied.
A moment later, Ben heard the dull thud of a fist making contact with flesh. This was followed closely by a grunt of pain. Ben turned Blaze back toward the sound. As they turned onto the side street, Ben saw three men surrounding a boy who looked to be about 12 years old. One of the men stood directly behind the boy and held his arms behind his back. Another man stood in front of them. The third man stood a little to the side, watching the other two. Without warning, the man standing in front of the boy pulled his arm back and buried his fist into the boy’s stomach. The boy doubled over in pain and vomited. The third man laughed at the sight.
Ben saw red. He roared in anger and urged Blaze into a gallop. The three men’s heads turned in surprise at the sound of the horse thundering toward them. Ben pulled his rifle from its scabbard. As Blaze galloped past the man who was holding the boy, Ben swung the rifle like a club. The sickening sound of bone shattering filled the air as the rifle made contact with the man’s face. The man screamed in pain and immediately let go of the boy.
The boy scrambled away as Ben turned Blaze around to face the other two men. The man he had struck was lying on the ground, writhing in pain as blood poured from his smashed nose. Ben whipped up the rifle and aimed it at the man who had hit the boy. Blaze stomped his foot into the ground and blew out angry puffs of air as they stood facing the two men.
The men stood with their hands in the air. “Don’t shoot, mister,” one of the men pleaded. “The boy tried to steal from us. We were only gonna teach him a little lesson.”
“Get your friend up. I’m takin’ ya to the sheriff. There ain’t no reason to lay hands on a kid like that. I don’t care what ya think he’s done,” answered Ben angrily.
The two men moved toward their friend who still lay groaning on the ground. It took them a few minutes to get him to his feet. Ben moved Blaze to stand behind them.
“Now, move it,” commanded Ben.
Ben followed behind the men as they moved down Main Street toward the sheriff’s office. By the time they arrived, Sheriff Hopkins was standing on the porch.
“What happened, Ben?” he asked.
“I caught them beating up a kid,” answered Ben.
“What happened to that one’s face?”
“I introduced it to my rifle,” answered Ben.
Sheriff Hopkins let out a bark of laughter. “Well, I guess he’s lucky you didn’t introduce him to the other end.”
Ben grinned in response. “Do you know these guys, sheriff?”
“Yeah, they’re local boys. They work on a ranch a few miles outside of town. I’ll send word to their foreman in the morning. Come on, boys. Get inside,” commanded Sheriff Hopkins.
“If you’ve got this, sheriff, I’d like to go check on the boy,” said Ben.
“You go on ahead, Ben. I can take it from here,” answered Sheriff Hopkins.
“Sheriff, you gonna let that kid get away with bustin’ Charlie in the face like that? That don’t seem right. We was only gonna scare the boy. We weren’t really gonna hurt him,” one of the men argued as Sheriff Hopkins locked them in one of the jail cells.
“Shut up, Mike,” answered Sheriff Hopkins. “You three are lucky he didn’t shoot one of you. That was Ben Sharp. I’m sure you heard about what he did to Tex Longley.”
“That kid was the one who took out Tex Longley?” Mike asked incredulously.
“Yep,” answered Sheriff Hopkins, grinning at the look of shock on Mike’s face.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” answered Mike as he sat down hard on a cot in the corner of the cell. “I guess you were right about us bein’ lucky he only introduced Charlie to the butt end of his rifle.”