A heartwarming western romance about a cowboy who gets a second chance with his first love in the rugged beauty of the Montana mountains. . .
Ben Monroe was the ultimate bad boy — and everyone in Haller Creek knew it. But now as a sheriff's deputy, Ben spends his time breaking up bar fights rather than starting them, and staying away from trouble...until Becca Henderson comes back into town. She's just as beautiful as Ben remembers — and just as far out of his reach.
Coming home is exactly what Becca Henderson needed. A place of her own, a successful new business, and a chance to reconnect with the sexy cowboy she had a crush on in school. Ben has always blazed his own path and never let anyone stand in his way. It excites—and scares—her. But when an unexpected threat surfaces, Becca will see just how far Ben will go to protect the woman he loves—and fight for their chance at forever.
Also includes the bonus novella Rocky Mountain Cowboy by Sara Richardson!
Every reporter in the country wants an exclusive interview with chiseled Olympic heartthrob Jaden Alexander—nicknamed the "Snowboarding Cowboy." But only one of them has the easygoing charm—and breathtaking beauty—to knock Jaden off balance . . .
Release date: June 26, 2018
Print pages: 496
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
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Cowboy on My Mind
R. C. Ryan
Haller Creek, Montana—Fifteen years ago
A wicked wind blowing down from the Bitterroot Mountains assaulted the horse and rider.
Mackenzie Monroe dismounted and knelt at a fresh grave site.
His eyes were fixed on the names etched on the wooden cross that marked the final resting place of his wife, Rachel, and nineteen-year-old son, Robbie. A year earlier they’d been killed in a head-on collision with a cattle hauler on the interstate. He had planned on replacing the temporary grave marker with a fine piece of marble. Now there would be no time for that.
The bitter cold froze the tears on his cheeks as he touched the bottle of pills nestled in his pocket that old Doc Peterson had prescribed to help him sleep.
“There’s no joy left in my life, Rachel. The pain is too deep.” His hand rested on the mound of earth, now covered with snow. “You and Robbie were my reason for living. You know how I’ve loved this place. But now, without the two of you, all I see is a future of endless work and misery on this godforsaken land.”
He’d been born here, as had his father and grandfather. Not that it mattered anymore. It was dirt and grass and sweeping vistas. But the people who mattered most were gone.
He got to his feet and swept off his hat in a courtly gesture. “I hope you’ll forgive me. But I can’t go on like this. I pray there’s truly a heaven, so I can join you there.”
Pulling himself into the saddle, he turned his mount in the direction of his ranch in the distance.
Once in the barn he unsaddled his gelding before turning the animal into a stall with fresh feed and water. From a rusted old truck he retrieved a bottle of cheap whiskey he’d bought while in town. Though he wasn’t much of a drinking man, he figured if he swallowed the entire bottle of pills and washed them down with enough whiskey, he’d never wake up.
Leaning his weight against the barn door, he latched it and headed toward the house. While he walked, he began writing the note in his mind. He would try, in simple terms, to explain why he couldn’t live with his pain. He would leave his message on the kitchen table, where it would surely be found by Otis, Roscoe, and Zachariah, three characters who had, through the years, attached themselves to Mac and his family. It had been Rachel’s tender heart that had brought this diverse group of strangers into his home. She’d never once considered turning away anyone with a sad story.
Otis Green had witnessed his family wiped out at the hands of a crazed firebomber and had fled their tenement on the south side of Chicago, a man broken in body and soul. He showed up one day on the Monroe doorstep, a black man, city born and bred, completely out of his element in cattle country but seeking a better way of life and willing to do whatever necessary to earn it. Rachel welcomed him like a long-lost relative.
Roscoe Flute, an itinerant cowboy and handyman, came to fix a generator years ago and never left. It was Rachel who’d learned that he’d sold his horse in order to pay for a cheap room in a motel. When the money ran out, he had nowhere left to go. In exchange for a warm bunkhouse, he kept every piece of equipment on the ranch humming.
Zachariah York was a successful rancher and retired lawyer who’d been living alone on his family’s neighboring ranch until Mac found him lying in a meadow, where the old man had fallen from his horse and broken his hip and was unable to get up. Mac and Rachel hauled him to the clinic in Haller Creek before taking him home, where Rachel had insisted on nursing him back to health. Months later he was still living here, insisting that he wasn’t ready to go back home and live alone.
Otis and Roscoe were up in the hills with the herd. Zachariah was slow-moving these days. Though his hip had mended, he wasn’t ready to take on ranch chores yet. By now Zachariah had helped himself to a sleeping pill and wouldn’t wake until nearly noon. Mac figured, with those three otherwise occupied, he would be long dead before anyone could find his body, thus resisting any attempt to have his stomach pumped.
Through his fog of pain, he shrugged aside a twinge of remorse at the thought of leaving his three housemates to fend for themselves. He hoped the profit from the auction of his ranch and outbuildings would afford them a comfortable retirement. The note he intended to leave would designate them equal beneficiaries of his estate. It would be his last gesture of goodwill before departing this world.
How he yearned for just one more of Rachel’s sweet smiles. For the infectious sound of Robbie’s laughter. His heart ached for the loss of the joy they had brought to his life.
Tears misted his eyes as he mulled the proper wording of the letter he intended to leave behind.
I, Mackenzie Monroe, being of sound mind…
He shoved open the back door and stepped into the puddles of melted snow on the floor of the mudroom before stopping in midstride.
Puddles? Snow? He’d been gone for hours.
Who could have done this?
From the kitchen he heard the sound of muffled voices.
By heaven. Intruders. Thieves.
Taking aim with his rifle, he kicked in the kitchen door to confront the villains. He stared in stunned surprise at the sight of three filthy boys. One was at the table, devouring a chicken leg. One was standing at the open door of the refrigerator, drinking from a carton of milk. One stood at the counter shoveling cold beans into his mouth.
Runaways. Dirty, ragged, scruffy boys. Their clothes were thin, with no sign of parkas or gloves or boots. In fact, one was barefoot. One was wearing a pair of Robbie’s boots that had been stored in the mudroom. And one had drawn a checkered tablecloth around himself for warmth.
Surprise, pity, fear for his safety warred within him.
In some small part of his mind he watched as their heads came up sharply.
The boy seated at the table jerked to his feet and took aim with a kitchen knife.
Survival took over.
“Drop it or I’ll drop you where you stand.” Mac’s voice was colder than the snowstorm raging outside the door.
The boy looked to the taller one, who nodded and stepped in front of the other two. The knife clattered to the floor.
“Now you’ll tell me who you are and what the hell you’re doing in my house.”
His words were greeted by sullen silence.
“All right.” He pulled his cell phone from his breast pocket. “You can tell it to the sheriff.”
“No way.” The tallest of the three swore a blue streak and reached out a hand in an effort to snatch away the phone. Seeing Mac make a swift turn, his rifle aimed clearly at his heart, the boy lifted both hands over his head. “Hold on. Don’t shoot. I’m Ben Turner. These are my brothers, Sam and Finn.”
Mac sized up the two younger boys before returning his attention to the tallest, who had positioned himself to protect his brothers. “What’re you doing out on a night like this? And where the hell is your family?”
“Our folks are dead. They died six years ago, when I was six.” The boy exchanged a look with his brothers. “Sam was five and Finn was four.”
“Where’ve you been living since?”
Ben shrugged. “All over. We’ve been separated and living in foster homes. Our”—he swore again, using words Mac rarely heard except from an occasional world-weary wrangler—“caseworkers keep saying they’ll find a way for us to be together, but we know it’s never going to happen.”
The middle brother nodded. “Those”—the boy mimicked his older brother’s choice of coarse language—“say whatever they want, and keep on moving us around. We know they’re lying. They’ve been lying since the day they took control of our lives. I overheard one of them telling my caseworker we were too old and ornery to ever be adopted, and it’d be a cold day in hell before they’d ever ask any family to take on all three of us.”
“So we decided to run away,” Finn put in.
“Shut up, Finn.” The other two glared at him.
Seeing the youngest boy shivering uncontrollably, Ben squared his shoulders and dropped an arm around him, drawing him close. “Okay. So he’s telling it straight.”
Sam darted Ben a look of shock and anger. “You said we wouldn’t tell…”
Ben put a hand on Sam’s arm. “It’s okay.” He turned to Mac. “We made a pact. Nobody’s going to separate us again. We figured this was a good night to run. No freakin’ fool’s going to follow us in this snow.”
Sam nodded. “Especially way out here in the middle of this piece of…”
“That’s enough.” Mac’s voice had the desired effect of shutting him up.
Ben again shoved the other two behind him, sending a clear message that he would do whatever necessary to protect them. “If you let us go, I promise we’ll be on our way and won’t bother you again.”
Mac lowered the rifle and nodded toward the window. “In case you haven’t noticed, that’s not just a storm raging out there. It’s a blizzard. I don’t know how you made it this far, but you won’t survive an hour in this kind of deep freeze. Especially dressed like that.”
The two younger boys looked to their leader.
Ben lifted his chin like a prizefighter. “So, what’re you going to do? Tie us up until the”—he let loose with a string of swear words—“law can come and take us back?”
“I said that’s enough of that kind of talk. I won’t have it in my house.”
Needing time to think, Mac walked to the mudroom to hang his parka and hat on hooks by the door, before setting aside his rifle. He sat on a bench to nudge off his frozen boots. Then he surprised them by walking into the kitchen and turning on the stove.
“First, let’s deal with hunger. Mine and yours. The quickest thing I know how to make is scrambled eggs.” He pointed to the refrigerator. “Sam, bring me that carton of milk and a dozen eggs. Finn, there’s bread in that breadbox. Put some in the toaster. Ben, since you already started on that chicken, cut off enough to fill a platter.”
While he turned eggs in a skillet, he pointed to a cupboard. “There are mugs up there. Fill them with milk and stick them in the microwave. When the milk’s hot, add some of that chocolate. It’ll take the chill off our bones.”
The boys did as he said, and in short order they were seated around the table, eating their fill of chicken, eggs, and toast, and drinking mugs of hot chocolate. Afterward, they piled their dishes in the sink and waited expectantly, to see if the man in charge would now call the law.
He surprised them by saying, “I don’t know about the three of you, but I’m too tired to deal with anything more tonight. Come on. You can sleep upstairs.”
They followed him up the stairs and peered inside when he opened a door.
Ben spoke for all of them. “So, what’s the trick?”
“I’m fresh out of tricks. Go to sleep. I’ll figure out what to do in the morning.”
As they stepped inside, seeing two narrow beds covered in matching plaid quilts, Ben shot him a look of suspicion. “Who else will be sleeping in here?”
“Just you three.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Who usually sleeps in here?”
“My son, Robbie.”
“Yeah? And where’s Robbie tonight?”
Mac absorbed an arrow straight to his heart. “Robbie’s dead. For tonight, it’s yours. But only for tonight,” he added with a growl. “So enjoy it while you can.”
He pulled the door shut and listened as the voices within began an intense debate.
With a muttered curse he descended the stairs, too keyed up to think about sleep now. What had just happened here? How had all his carefully laid plans gone south? He didn’t want to deal with any of this. Not three angry delinquents who were mad at the world. Not a call to the authorities in the morning. And not another night of pain and anguish over his terrible loss and the emptiness of his life. How much more should a man have to take? Were the Fates having fun at his expense?
After washing the dishes and tidying up the kitchen, he made a pot of coffee and sat at the table, mulling over his options.
He knew what Rachel would have said about this. He could hear her voice inside his head, soft, coaxing. Hadn’t she always had a soft spot in her heart for the downtrodden? The lost? The outcasts of society?
But Rachel wasn’t here now. And he couldn’t even cope with his own troubles, let alone those of three foul-mouthed runaways.
These three were trouble. With a capital T. And thankfully, not his problem.
He drained his coffee and made his way up the stairs. When he tried to open the door to Robbie’s room, he found it blocked. It took plenty of time and a lot of sweat to wrestle aside the dresser the boys had placed against the door.
He stepped inside, expecting to find them gone out the window. Instead they were in a dead sleep in one small bed, tangled up around one another, obviously too exhausted to be roused even by his noisy entrance. Despite the fact that there was a second identical bed, they’d been unwilling to separate for even that small distance.
Then he noticed something else. The blanket had slipped from the shoulders of the oldest brother, Ben. The tough guy. The leader. The boy’s back and shoulders were crisscrossed with scars that could have only been made by repeated whippings.
The sight of it had his hands clenching into fists. What sort of monster would beat a helpless kid? How much pain and fear had this boy endured in his young life?
Mac glanced at Robbie’s picture on the dresser. It had been taken when he’d been about Ben’s age, dark hair slicked back, wearing his best shirt and tie, standing proudly between his loving parents, smiling broadly for the camera. In his lifetime, the boy had never had a hand raised against him. He’d known only pride and unconditional love from his mother and father. Like most innocents, Robbie couldn’t have conceived of a lifetime of pain and abuse.
Mac’s heart contracted painfully.
He let himself out and walked to his room at the end of the hall. Inside he stored the bottle of pills and the whiskey in a file cabinet in his closet before locking it and heading back downstairs.
He poured himself another cup of coffee and walked to the window, staring out at the raging storm. Even if he got phone service, there was no sense calling the authorities. The roads way out here would be impassable for days.
In the meantime, he’d just have to hold off on his own plans. Not that he intended to change his mind about anything, he told himself. But for now, he’d just watch and listen and see how much more information he could pry out of those three hoodlums upstairs.
What kind of hell had they been forced to endure? And what had such cruel treatment done to them?
Damnable troublemakers couldn’t have come into his life at a worse time.
Mac thought about the ever-present hole in his heart that would never heal.
Now, it seemed, he would have to bear his unbearable sorrow while he found a way to deal with these wounded young hellions. He hoped to heaven a new day would help clear his mind and show him a path through this latest challenge.
“Ben.” Sam and Finn shook their oldest brother’s shoulder until he stirred. “Wake up, Ben.”
The boy rubbed his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Last night you said we’d be up and out of here before the old man could call the cops.”
Ben sat up, shaking aside the last dregs of sleep and spouting a litany of curses. “Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”
“We just woke up.” Sam glanced at Finn, who nodded in agreement. “I guess it’s ’cause this is the first time we’ve been warm and well fed in so long.”
“Yeah.” Ben glanced at the dresser. “It looks like the old man figured out what we were up to.”
The three brothers stared at the heavy piece of furniture they’d dragged across the room to bar the door. It now stood to one side at an odd angle.
“Jeez. Now we’re in for it,” Finn muttered.
“Yeah. I’m sure he’s made a phone call by now.” Ben swung his feet to the floor. “May as well go downstairs and face the music. Just remember. If we see a chance to run, we grab it. Agreed?”
The other two nodded and followed their leader down the stairs.
In the kitchen, bacon sizzled in a skillet, and Mac flipped pancakes onto a platter. He turned. “About time you three got up.” He nodded toward the table. “Sit and eat while it’s hot.”
Seeing Ben remain standing, his younger brothers followed suit.
“You thinking this will ease your guilt when the law comes for us?”
At Ben’s question, Mac filled three glasses with milk. “Nobody’s getting through these roads today.” He pointed to the curtain of snow falling outside the window. “In case you haven’t noticed, our raging Montana blizzard has cut us off from civilization.”
The three boys crowded around the window to see mounds of snow over the porch.
They turned to one another with matching grins.
“So.” Ben sauntered to the table, and the other two followed. “Now what?”
Mac shrugged and filled a mug with coffee before sitting at the head of the table. “I plan on eating, then heading to the barn for morning chores. I’d like the three of you to lend a hand.”
“You want us to freaking work in your barn?”
“That’s what ranchers do. Even in the dead of winter, stalls need mucking. Animals need feeding.”
The youngest, Finn, looked over. “What’s mucking?”
“I’ll show you.” Mac tucked into his food. “Right after breakfast.”
The barn door was shoved open. Two old men, wide-brimmed hats and winter parkas mounded with snow, stared in surprise at the sight that greeted them.
Their friend Mac was forking dung-filled straw from a stall into a nearby honey wagon. Beside him stood a skinny boy who paused between every forkful to hold his nose. In the stall beside theirs two more boys attempted to use pitchforks to imitate Mac’s example. For every load that landed in the wagon, two more fell to the ground, followed by a stream of swear words guaranteed to curl their whiskers.
“What the hell…?”
Hearing Roscoe’s voice, Mac paused to glance toward the two figures standing at the entrance. “You’re back. I didn’t think you’d be able to get through the trail.”
The two men led their weary horses inside and began unsaddling them, tossing the saddles over the rails of empty stalls.
Roscoe shook his head. “Snow’s belly-high already up in the hills. We figured if we didn’t get going now, we’d be stuck up there for another week. Which wouldn’t be all that bad, except we were running out of chow.” He nodded toward the boys. “Where’d these three mangy mutts blow in from?”
“Caught in the storm.” Mac set aside his pitchfork. “This is Ben, Sam, and Finn. Boys, meet Roscoe Flute and Otis Green.”
The oldest boy shot Mac a narrowed look. “I thought you said the law couldn’t get through the storm.”
“Roscoe and Otis live here.”
Little Finn stepped out of the stall where he’d been working. “You live here?” He looked Otis up and down, and then Roscoe. “Are you brothers, too?”
The two old men threw back their heads and chuckled.
Otis winked at Roscoe. “I like to think we’re all brothers.”
Finn leaned on his pitchfork. “If you live here, why aren’t you doing this stinky work?”
“We were up in the hills with the herd.” Roscoe took off his hat and shook it against his leg, sending a shower of snow flying. “Besides, we’d rather leave the stinky jobs to newcomers. Consider this your baptism, boys.”
The two men were laughing as they began rubbing down their mounts before filling troughs with feed and water.
“Okay, boys.” Mac picked up his pitchfork. “Break’s over. Let’s get this done so we can move on to other things.”
As the three bent to their task, the middle boy let out a stream of oaths that had old Otis looking up with annoyance. “You going to let him talk like that, Mac?”
Mac gave a weary sigh. “I’ve told the three of them at least a dozen times I won’t have that kind of language in my home.”
“We’re not in the house now,” Sam said logically. “We’re in your smelly barn.”
“It’s my property all the same. And from now on, every time one of you says something I consider inappropriate, I’ll add one more task to your list of jobs. You understand?”
Ben’s mouth opened, and it was obvious he was about to swear when he caught himself. His mouth clamped shut. With narrowed eyes he forked a load of dung-filled straw and tossed it into the wagon with all his strength.
Seeing it, Mac bit back a grin. It might not be real progress, but it was a baby step. And for now, he’d take any improvement he could get.
Maybe, if this storm lasted long enough, these three might learn to say an entire sentence without cussing. Then again, he’d better be careful what he wished for. He was bound to run out of patience long before they ran out of swear words.
The grandfather clock on the stair landing was striking midnight. After insisting the three boys shower and change into Robbie’s old pajamas before hitting the sack, Mac descended the stairs and headed toward the kitchen.
Inside, the three old men looked up from the table, where they’d been holding a muted conversation.
Retired lawyer Zachariah York, white hair streaming down his back like a lion’s mane, was wearing his favorite fringed buckskin jacket, which had been his trademark apparel when he’d been Montana’s most admired trial lawyer back in the day. He had, as always, appointed himself spokesman. “Mackenzie, old friend, we assume you have some kind of plan for your…very interesting young guests. Care to share?”
Mac filled a mug with steaming coffee before leaning a hip against the counter. “I wish I knew. I’m fresh out of plans. With those three, there’s no telling if they’ll even be around tomorrow. After the way I worked them today, they’ll probably try to get as far away from here as they can.”
“If you think that, you’re fooling yourself, Mackenzie.”
Mac looked over at Zachariah. “And you know this because…?”
“They may have resented the work. It’s pretty obvious they’ve never handled ranch chores before. But I watched them in the kitchen. They know how to clean up for themselves. They’ve probably been expected to carry their share of the work for as long as they’ve been thrown into foster care. A lot of ranchers only take in these kids so they have free labor and get paid by the state, as well. It’s how the system works.”
“Speaking of which…” Mac took a seat. “You know the law, Zachariah. Will I be in trouble for harboring runaways?”
“I doubt it. Especially if you explain that they broke in during a blizzard, and you were forced to keep them until the proper authorities could be alerted.”
“If I alert the authorities, will those three be punished?”
Zachariah nodded. “Juvenile detention, most likely.”
“And then they’ll be returned to the system.” Mac stared into his cup. “Which means they’ll be separated again, and probably treated even harsher than before. Unless…”
He looked up to see the three old men watching him warily.
He sighed. “I’ve been thinking about something all day. They risked everything just to be together. I know there was physical abuse, but the mental abuse of separation seems to have been the driving force behind this odyssey of theirs. Do you think there’s a chance I could…keep them together? Here?”
Roscoe and Otis shared a look of astonishment.
Zachariah steepled his fingers. “As fosters? Or adoption?”
Mac shrugged. “Whatever it takes to keep them together.”
The old man had that pensive look he always had when he was mulling the intricacies of the law. Finally he nodded. “As soon as we get phone service, I’ll make some calls. I still have friends on the inside who might be able to pull a few strings.” At Mac’s look of surprise he quickly added, “Now don’t get your hopes up. There will be a lot of hoops to jump through.” For the first time he smiled. “But I’m thinking the folks in authority might be relieved to be done with those three foul-mouthed hooligans.”
He gave his friend a sharp look. “But, Mackenzie Monroe, that raises an even bigger question. If it all goes your way, what in the world do you think you’re going to do with those three?”
Mac got wearily to his feet and headed toward the stairs. “That’s the other thing I’ve been thinking about all day. Am I a glutton for punishment, or just plain crazy?” He turned and held up a hand. “Don’t answer that. I already know.” He gave a careless shrug of his shoulders. “The trouble is, I’ve got a war going on in my head, with a million questions, and at the moment I’m fresh out of answers. But I know this. Despite the deep-seated anger in those three, there’s a fierce loyalty as well. I haven’t a doubt in my mind that each of them would stand up and fight for his brothers. Or die for them, if it ever came to that. It’s a rare and amazing trait they share. And I can’t help admiring them for it. Maybe, just maybe, they ended up here for a reason and that reason is starting to become clear to me.”
Haller Creek, Montana—Present Day
Ben Monroe stepped out of Sheriff Virgil Kerr’s tricked-out SUV, with all the bells and whistles, lights flashing, siren blasting. With a twist of the ignition, the sudden silence in the air seemed shocking.
Folks around these parts wouldn’t be surprised to see Ben in the lawman’s car. He and his brothers had always been the ones considered most likely to be the cause of any trouble in the county.
What would surprise them was the shiny badge the sheriff had pinned on Ben’s parka when he’d deputized him earlier that morning. A badge that winked in the autumn sunlight. Instead of handcuffs, Ben was holding a police-issue pistol, also on loan from the sheriff. The pistol was now aimed at the lanky cowboy standing in the leaf-strewn driveway, cradling a rifle and spewing a stream of vicious oaths at the man and woman watching from the front porch.
The man glanced from the sheriff, still sitting in his vehicle, nursing an injured leg, to where Ben stood alone. “What’re you up to, Monroe? Back off. I’ve got no beef with you.”
Ben held up a hand to silence him. “Sheriff Kerr brought me along to lend a hand while he recovers from a gunshot to his thigh. He told me about your feud with your wife. I know how you feel, Leroy.”
“How would you know what I’m feeling? You ever have a wife cheat on you with your best friend, and then tell you the kid you’ve loved for years isn’t yours?”
The sheriff had given Ben the bare bones of the story before asking him to ride along and lend some muscle. If the rest of the details caught him by surprise, Ben managed to hide his feelings behind a stoic mask he’d perfected as a boy in the foster-care system. “You know I’ve never been married, Leroy. But I’ve been mad enough to kill, and I’m glad cooler heads prevailed. You can’t settle the score like this.”
“Like hell I can’t.”
In his younger days, Ben had been better known around town as a guy who let his fists do the talking. Now, after years of Mackenzie Monroe’s example, he spoke in a low, reasonable tone. “Once you kill someone, you can’t get a do-over. You don’t want to do this.”
“Yes, I do. I’m going to kill that lying…” Leroy Purcell glared at his wife and hurled a string of oaths while his finger actually trembled on the trigger.
Ben reached out in time to stop him acting on his impulse.
That added to Leroy’s pent-up fury, and he took a wild swing at the man with the badge, managing to land his fist smack in Ben’s eye. “I told you, I’m going to kill my lying wife and Chester Bowling for what they did.”
With a grunt of pain, Ben reacted, shoving the enraged Leroy up against a tree. Despite the string of savage oaths that bubbled up in his mind, he managed to keep his voice low and steady. “There’s a better way to get your revenge.”
“Yeah?” The only thing that kept the furious rancher from acting on his threat was Ben’s hand, strong as a steel vise, pressed firmly to his throat, making his voice little more than a raspy croak. “You want to tell me how?”
Ben was breathing hard as he lowered his hand and fixed Leroy with the fierce look he’d perfected over a lifetime of protecting his brothers. “Walk away. When you do that, you win. You condemn Chet Bowling to a lifetime with your lying, cheating ex-wife and his kid, while you get to start over. And maybe next time you’ll get lucky enough to find a woman who not only deserves you, but also appreciates you.”
“And if I don’t walk away?”
“Unless you drop that rifle and agree to come with me peacefully, I’ll have to shoot you, Leroy. And you know I never miss. That’s why the sheriff asked me to handle this for him. The choice is yours. Shoot Chester and Minnie and go to prison for life, or drop your weapon, cool your heels in jail, and get a do-over.”
As if to goad him into doing something foolish, the couple on the porch began taunting Leroy with jeers and laughter.
“Look at those two drunken fools.” Leroy raised the rifle, arm shaking with tension as he took aim.
Ben did the same, his hand steady as he pointed his pistol at the cowboy. “You’ll never get o
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