Excerpt: Cowboy on the Run

Excerpt: Cowboy on the Run

Code of the West

Chapter One

It was the tour bus that did it.

One minute Rance Phillips was entirely focused on the dark red Simmental calf he’d roped and thrown to the ground, tying it for branding amid the sound and fury of bawling mother cows, bleating calves and the cussing and whooping of half a dozen cowboys.

And the next moment everything stopped.

The low diesel drone in the background, which had seemed like no more than the result of a shift in the wind bringing the sound of truck engines on the highway a half mile distant, suddenly grew very loud indeed. 

“Will you look at that,” J.D. Holt, his foreman said.

Instead of branding the calf, Shane Nichols, who was wielding the iron, stood up and did just that. 

His brother, Mace, who was supposed to be vaccinating, straightened too. He took off his hat and said, “Now I’ve seen everything.”

And Cash Callahan, who was turning baby bulls into steers, looked up, dropped the knife, and whistled. “Whooo-eeeee.”

“What the hell —?” Rance demanded. He tightened his hold on the calf. “This isn’t a Sunday school picnic, you know. Pay attention!”

They were paying attention. Just not to him. Disgusted, Rance finally looked up to see for himself what was going on.

A tour bus — a neon pink tour bus — was pulling to a stop just beyond the confines of the corral. Before he could say a word, the door to the bus opened and a horde of women spilled out.

“Ho-leee,” Shane breathed.

“Maybe I haven’t seen everything,” Mace mumbled.

“Look at those mammas!” J.D. grinned as the women — all of them young, most of them pretty, and not one of them dressed appropriately for a branding — advanced toward the corral. They seemed oblivious to the cattle, but they were evidently looking for something — or someone. Their eyes darted from this cowboy to that one.

Then one of them pointed straight at Rance. “There he is!”

Oh, no. He didn’t believe it. Refused to believe it!

But no sooner had they spotted him than they made a beeline in his direction. 

Rance said a very rude word under his breath. He let go of the calf and, as it bolted, he looked around for a bolt-hole of his own. There were none. The women descended en masse.

“Oooh! Rance! My name’s Jolie, Rance.”

“Ah, Rance. You’re even handsomer than your pictures!”

“Rance, baby! You probably don’t remember, but my mother and yours —“ “

The babble of female voices was deafening. They were getting closer, swarming over the corral fence.

Rance straightened up and took one more desperate glance around, saw the astonished and bemused faces of his friends and knew there was no hope for it. He had to stand his ground. 

So he did, but he was furious. For the last four months — ever since that damned article in PROMINENCE magazine had named John Ransome Phillips, IV “one of the world’s most eligible bachelors” — Rance’s life hadn’t been the same.

He had always had women batting their lashes at him. A few, here and there, had simpered and cooed. As he’d grown to adulthood, Rance had to admit that he’d become accustomed to occasionally turning heads and hearing muffled female giggles when he looked their way.

But he’d never in his life get accustomed to this! 

Everywhere he went now, women ogled him. They turned up in his law office, they followed him down the street. If he went into the grocery store, they trailed him down the aisles. If he ran into town for baling wire, women stampeded into the hardware store. They brushed up against him and wiggled their hips in front of him. They tucked their phone numbers into his pocket and patted his rear end!

The ones enterprising enough to have discovered his phone number, called him at 3:00 in the morning to chat. And if that wasn’t bad enough, his work was suffering, too. His partner, Lydia, who used to look up to him as her ideal of a serious, committed lawyer, now rolled her eyes when they couldn’t walk down the hall without Rance having to look around corners and sometimes duck and take cover. His receptionist-cum-secretary, Jodi, couldn’t get any work done, because she was always making appointments for single women who desperately needed legal advice from John Ransome Phillips, IV about cases that didn’t exist.

Last month he made her get voice mail. He bought an answering machine for his home. Recently he’d stopped going to the grocery store, the hardware store, anywhere off the ranch at all, except to court or to his office.

It still hadn’t been enough.

Lately they’d begun turning up at the ranch. Last Monday evening he’d answered the door, expecting his tax man, and found instead a blonde in a mini-skirt whose car “just happened to break down” in his driveway — no matter that his “driveway” was a five mile gravel drive from the nearest paved road.

On Tuesday after a harrowing day in court, during which most of the onlookers were females more concerned with ogling him than with following the case, he’d found another hopeful female already there sipping a margarita on the porch while she chatted with his father! 

“You’re encouraging them!” he’d accused John Ransome Phillips, III.

“Me?” His father had flattened a hand against his chest and stared in wide-eyed innocence at his son. 

On Wednesday morning he discovered a brunette in the barn when he went out to do chores. She’d been there all night, lying in wait.

“Proving I’m devoted,” she told him as he hustled her to her car. “The article said you wanted your wife to be ‘devoted.'” she quoted the magazine as he shoved her in and slammed the door. He didn’t bother telling her that hadn’t even interviewed him. They’d talked to his father

.

His father had apparently told them he liked apple pie. So many of those had turned up in the mail over the past four months that the post office was getting a little testy about the smell of rotting apples in their delivery vans. Rance told them they didn’t need to bother delivering the pies, but the postmaster had cited some obscure regulation, assuring Rance that the pies had to keep coming.

Of course, half a dozen enterprising women hadn’t bothered with the postal service. They’d shown up with their pies in person.

He felt hunted. Stalked. “I need a restraining order,” he told his father.

The older man blinked. “Against half the human race?” Then, at Rance’s stony look, his father suggested cheerfully, “You could get married. That would put a stop to it.” 

Of course his father would say that. The earlier protestations of innocence were protestations, and nothing more. It was no secret that John Ransome Phillips, III, was eager for his only son to marry. For the last two years, Trey Phillips, as he was known to friend and foe alike, had been telling the world at large, and his son in particular, that he wasn’t getting any younger and he wanted to be assured of the succession before he was gone.

“Like you’re some damn king,” Rance fumed.

“Something like that,” Trey agreed amiably.

“Get married yourself,” Rance had suggested. “Get yourself another heir if you don’t like this one.”

They hadn’t discussed the topic again. But Trey had made no move to bring home women of his own, and he continued to watch Rance speculatively.

Rance had taken refuge where he could — on the range. It was the one place he could count on not being followed. 

Until now.

Rance reached over and grabbed the branding iron from Shane, then pointed the white-hot end of it at the approaching women. Their eager smiles faded. They looked around nervously, at him, at each other, then back toward the bus.

They slowed momentarily, but then, with foolhardy resolution, they came on. 

Rance dug in. He brandished the iron. He narrowed his eyes. “Go away. Go on. Outa here. Now. Git!”

The women halted. They cocked their heads. They wetted their lips. They mustered tremulous, come-hither smiles.

“Don’t pay any attention to them, sweetheart,” the foremost one crooned, jerking her head at the women behind her. “They don’t have what you want.”

“You don’t want a pushy broad like her,” the blonde behind her said, smiling, encouraging him to agree with her. “Do you, Rance, darlin’?”

“I only came on the bus because it seemed less intrusive,” another one protested. “An organized event to let you take your pick,” she said, sounding as if she was quoting from some brochure!

And damn it, she probably was. Rance goggled at the thought. His mind reeled. Somebody had organized a tour to bring women to meet him? Who the hell —!

And then a movement in the doorway of the bus answered his question before he even had a chance to ask it. Trey stood there, one arm braced again the window, smiling at him. 

It was the last straw.

Damn Trey and his conniving, manipulating, underhanded ways!

Rance leveled the branding iron at the women and headed straight at them. The women began backing up.

“Hey now, Rance,” he heard behind him. “Don’t be so damn hasty,” J.D. protested.

Rance ignored him. He could find his own women on his own time. Trey had no business providing a harem of them right out in the middle of the branding!

“Now, son,” Trey began. He jumped down out of the bus and began to push his way through the gaggle of retreating women.

Rance dropped the branding iron, but still stood his ground. “Don’t start,” he warned his father. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“It was a joke,” Trey said, spreading his hands.

“I’m not laughing.”

“Of course you’re not — because you recognize the truth in it. You know damn well it’s time. And it’s your own fault,” his father pointed out, heedless of the fury in Rance’s tone. “You’re thirty-three years old and you’re still playing the field! If you’d get serious about finding a wife yourself, none of this would be happening.”

He was serious. Rance could see it in his father’s face. In the determined thrust of his jaw. In the steely glint that shone in his version of the Phillips blue eyes.

He was serious and he wasn’t going to let up.

The penalty for patricide in Montana was greater than Rance wanted to pay. But not by much.