BOUNTY HUNTER: THE LEGEND, the third book in the Bounty Hunter series, is due out in October. I am happy to share Chapter 1 as a special sneak peak for all my loyal readers!
Ben threw his saddle over the corral fence and leaned against it. He gazed out across the pasture that ran behind the corral. Ten brood mares lazily munched on the lush green grass of early spring. All of the mares were heavy with foals. They would start giving birth within the next few days. Ben’s heart swelled with satisfaction. It had been a long winter, but the wait was almost over.
Ben Sharp was only eighteen years old, but he was no boy. Life had carved him into a man. When he was sixteen, he had decided to become a bounty hunter. He had hunted down some of the most dangerous outlaws to roam the West. During that time, he developed a reputation for being brave, tough, and lightning fast with a gun.
A year ago, Ben put all that behind him and bought a horse ranch. He wanted to build a place where he could provide a good home for Mary Anne Sumter, the girl he’d fallen in love with two years ago. She had left to attend school in Boston and he had spent the time she was away earning enough money from bounty hunting to buy the ranch. Mary Anne was expected back in June. Ben intended to ask her to be his wife. They had talked about it before she’d left. He only hoped that she hadn’t changed her mind about wanting to marry him and that she would love the ranch as much as he did.
“You about ready to go?” a voice asked from behind him.
Ben turned around and saw Colton Bixby sitting on his horse. Colton had been a skinny, scared kid when Ben had found him living alone on the streets almost two years ago. Since that time, he’d grown into a tall, muscular boy of fourteen. He had thick black hair and piercing blue eyes. He carried himself with a maturity that was well beyond his years.
Ben smiled, “Yeah, I just need to saddle Blaze and I’ll be ready to go.”
Ben climbed over the corral fence and hurried across to the opposite side. He opened the gate that separated the corral from the pasture and gave a shrill whistle. The big black stallion who stood in the middle of the grazing herd lifted his head and looked toward the corral. He let out a whinnying reply and raced toward Ben. The big horse slid to a stop a few feet away.
“Hi, boy,” Ben greeted Blaze. “Ready to go for a ride?”
Blaze blew out a loud snort and stomped his hoof into the ground. Ben chuckled and said, “Well, come on then.”
Blaze walked through the gate that Ben still held open. They walked together across the corral. Ben lifted his saddle off the fence and slung it onto Blaze’s powerful back. He led the big horse out of the enclosure and swung onto his back.
“All right, let’s go,” he said to Colton as he urged Blaze into a trot.
As they passed by the barn, a large black man stepped out.
“I should be back before sundown, Jesse,” Ben told him.
Jesse Parker nodded in acknowledgement and turned his head to look at Colton. His eyes were filled with concern. “You be careful, Colton. Come back in one piece, you hear?”
“I’ve told ya a hundred times, Jesse, I’ll be fine. It’s just a cattle drive,” Colton answered, a note of annoyance in his voice.
Colton had decided to join the men from the neighboring ranch, the Bar S, on their spring roundup and cattle drive. He’d had a bad case of cabin fever after the long, harsh winter and needed to experience a little adventure. Jesse had tried to talk him out of it. Jesse was several years older than Ben and Colton and thought of them like they were his sons.
Ben felt that the cattle drive would be good for Colton. He knew the boy needed to experience more than being cooped up on a small horse ranch. He was growing into a man and would need to decide what he wanted to do with his life. He knew that Mr. Sullivan, the owner of the Bar S, and his men would look out for Colton.
Once they were out of earshot of Jesse, Colton grumbled, “I wish he’d stop worryin’ about me so much. I ain’t helpless. I can take care of myself.”
“You ain’t foolin’ me. I know ya like it that Jesse cares about you. Me, on the other hand, I’ll be glad to get rid of you for a while. The cabin’ll be a lot quieter without your bellyaching,” Ben teased.
Colton flashed him a quick glance and broke out into a smile when he saw Ben’s teasing grin.
“You know you’re gonna miss havin’ someone you can boss around,” Colton returned good-naturedly.
Ben’s grin widened. “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.”
“How long you figure the drive’ll take?” Colton asked.
“Oh, I expect you’ll be gone for a about a month. It really depends on the weather and how much ground you can cover each day.”
They grew silent as they continued the short ride to the Bar S. When they rode into the yard, they saw Gabriella Sullivan, the ranch owner’s daughter, hurrying toward the barn. Ben could tell by the way she moved that something wasn’t right. He kicked Blaze into a gallop.
Gabriella looked up at the sound of the approaching horse. “Ben!” she exclaimed. “You’ve got perfect timing. Moon Dust is in labor.”
Moon Dust was Gabriella’s mare. Ben had purchased his ranch from Mr. Sullivan. As part of his payment, he had agreed to let them breed Moon Dust with Blaze the previous spring. Ben’s heartbeat quickened at the thought of seeing Blaze’s first foal. When they reached the barn, he quickly dismounted and tied Blaze to the corral fence outside the barn. Then he followed Gabriella inside.
Gabrielle walked a few feet ahead of Ben. He had not seen her since last fall. He felt the same stirrings of attraction he always felt when he was near her. She was a beautiful girl. She walked with a long, graceful stride. Her long black hair flowed down her back and rested just above the flare of her hips. Ben gave his head a swift shake when he realized he was staring at Gabriella’s backside. His unexplained attraction to the girl was a major reason why he’d limited his visits to the Bar S over the last year. When he had visited, he’d done his best to maintain his distance from Gabriella. He knew that Mary Anne was the woman he wanted to marry. He loved her with every fiber of his being. He couldn’t understand why he reacted so strongly to Gabriella every time he saw her.
“Hi, Ben, looks like you made it in time to see the blessed event.”
“Hello, Mr. Sullivan,” Ben greeted the man who stood in the opening to one of the barn stalls. “How’s Moon Dust doing?”
Patrick Sullivan was the owner of the Bar S and had become a close friend of Ben’s. He was a fair man who ran a highly successful ranch. All of the ranch hands loved him.
“She seems to be holding her own. She just started pushing a few minutes ago,” Mr. Sullivan answered.
Gabriella paused to give her father a quick kiss and then disappeared inside the stall.
Ben and Colton joined Patrick at the stall’s opening.
“Hello, Colton. Are you ready to get to work?” Mr. Sullivan asked.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Sullivan,” Colton answered. “I’m more than ready.”
“I was about to ride out and join the men when Moon Dust went into labor. I’m going to stay until she drops the foal. You are welcome to ride on out and join the roundup or you can stay here and ride out with me. It’s your choice.”
“I think I’ll ride on out and join the men. I wouldn’t want it to seem like I was getting any special treatment riding up with the boss,” Colton answered.
Patrick grinned. “All right. They’re in the north pasture. You can let Scott know what’s keeping me. I should only be a couple of hours behind you.”
Scott Mitchell was the ranch foreman.
“Yes, sir, I’ll tell him,” Colton replied.
“Good luck, Colton,” Ben said, reaching out to shake the boy’s hand. “Jesse and I’ll be glad to see you when you get back.”
Colton gave Ben’s hand a quick shake and then turned and hurried from the barn, eager to join the other cowboys.
“He’s a good kid,” Ben commented. “He’s gonna try his best to prove he’s a man.”
“Scott and I’ll look out for him,” Patrick commented.
“I know you will. Otherwise, Jesse and I would have tried harder to stop him from going.”
Moon Dust let out a loud groan. Ben and Patrick turned to look into the stall. Moon Dust’s gray coat was sleek with sweat. Gabriella stroked her neck and whispered softly to her. Moon Dust let out another groan as her abdominal muscles tightened in a strong contraction.
Patrick and Ben stood in the stall’s entrance. A silent tension filled the air as they anticipated the first look at the new foal. Ben realized he was holding his breath and forced himself to relax.
Just then, another big contraction ripped through Moon Dust.
“I see a hoof!” Gabriella exclaimed. “That’s it, girl. You’re doing great,” she whispered as she continued to stroke the mare’s neck.
Moon Dust let out another loud moan and a moment later the foal’s head appeared. The mare sighed, her muscles relaxing after the hard contraction.
Ben could hardly stand the wait. He wanted to reach in and pull the foal the rest of the way out. He clenched his fists at his side.
Patrick chuckled and said, “One more good push and the foal will slide right out. The hard part’s done.”
Moon Dust lifted her head as another contraction hit her. The rest of the foal’s body emerged. It immediately started moving its legs trying to stand. The mare stood and started cleaning the foal.
“He’s beautiful,” Gabriella sighed. She swung around to face the men. “Have you ever seen a more magnificent looking animal?”
“I don’t believe I have,” responded Mr. Sullivan.
Ben’s eyes met Gabriella’s. He was struck with how beautiful she looked. Her’s eyes were wide and glistening with excitement. A radiant smile lit her face. Ben felt his heart lurch into his throat. He just shook his head, unable to speak.
He tore his gaze from Gabriella and looked toward the foal who was struggling to stand. The foal was big and black just like Blaze. Unlike Blaze, who had a white stripe down his face, the foal had a small white star in the middle of his forehead. When he finally stood, Ben was surprised to see how tall he was.
Gabriella giggled as the little horse took its first tentative steps toward his mother. Within a few minutes, he was nursing.
“He’s going to be big,” Mr. Sullivan commented. “Just like his daddy. Let’s give them a few moments to get to know each other. Then we can turn them out into the pasture. The little guy is going to need some room to get used to those long legs.”
Ben and Gabriella followed Patrick out of the barn. Ben was surprised to see that the sun was already beginning to set.
“I’m sure glad I got to see that,” he commented. “My mares should be dropping their foals in a couple of days. I hope they look half as good as that one.”
“I’m glad you were here, too, Ben,” Gabriella said. “It was nice to share the experience with you.”
Their eyes met again. Ben felt heat creep into his cheeks. He coughed to clear his throat and said, “Well, I’d best be gettin’ back to the ranch. Jesse’ll be worried if I don’t make it before sundown. Good luck on the cattle drive, Mr. Sullivan.”
“Thanks, Ben. Good luck with your foals,” Patrick answered.
The men clasped hands. Ben nodded to Gabriella and then walked over to Blaze. He quickly mounted and turned the big horse to leave.
“I’ll come visit next week. I’ll want to see your foals,” Gabriella said.
“All right,” Ben answered. “See ya next week.”
As he rode toward home, his mind was filled with images of Gabriella. She’d looked so beautiful when she’d turned and smiled at him.
“Get hold of yourself,” he muttered angrily. “Mary Anne’s the one you love. Stop thinking about Gabriella.”
He knew that when he saw Mary Anne again, he would forget about these feelings he was having for Gabriella. Two years was a long time to go without seeing someone. Suddenly, he wondered if Mary Anne might be having similar thoughts about another man. He was in a terrible mood by the time he made it back to the ranch.
Ben threw open the cabin door and stomped inside. Jesse was sitting at the small table eating dinner.
“What’s wrong?” he asked with concern.
“Nothin’,” Ben growled.
“That sure is a lot of stomping for nothing,” Jesse commented.
“I said it was nothing,” Ben replied.
Jesse shrugged and went back to eating. He knew better than to push Ben too hard. If he didn’t want to talk, it was better to let him deal with it on his own.
After a few minutes of silence, Jesse asked, “Any news from the Bar S?”
“Moon Dust had her foal,” Ben answered, his tone softening at the thought of the horse. “He’s a beaut.”
“I’d like to see him,” Jesse answered.
“I’m sure you’d be welcome.”
“I might ride over in a couple of days and take a look,” Jesse commented.
“He’s definitely worth seeing,” Ben answered.
Jesse grinned, glad to have an excuse to ride over to the Bar S. He would be able to check up on Colton without the boy suspecting the real reason he was there.