"Boss! Look out!"
Slade McPherson was in a rectangular corral at his Jackson Hole, Wyoming, ranch with the meanest Hereford bull he'd ever dealt with. He heard Shorty, his wrangler, give a cry of warning. There was sudden movement behind him. Diablo, the bull, had been walking toward the chute to receive his yearly set of shots. Slade never allowed any horses in such a confined area with the bull. Diablo hated men. Slade wasn't about to allow one of his prized horses to be butted and injured by Diablo.
Whirling around, he saw Diablo toss his massive white-and-rust head, drool flinging in all directions out of his mouth. The bull had decided not to go into the chute and, instead, wheeled his one ton body around and charged Slade who was ten feet away. The bull bellowed, lowered his head and attacked.
Slade was five feet away from the steel-pipe fence. There was no way he could stop such a charge. All he could do was run like hell. And that's exactly what he did. Because he was six-foot-two inches in height and he had a long stride. Adrenaline shot through him as he dug the heels of his cowboy boots into the dusty floor of the corral. In two strides, Slade hit the fence, made a huge leap and landed on the third rung of the five-rung corral. The ground shook from Diablo's charge. As he jerked his leg up, still climbing to get away from the angry bull, Slade felt the brush of the bull's head against the heel of his boot.
It took a matter of two seconds before it was all over. Diablo roared and galloped around the small enclosure, tossing his head in frustration. Slade balanced himself on the fifth rung of the fence, watching his prized breeding bull bawl and race around the enclosure. That was close! Slade had lost count of the times Diablo had planned and waited until he'd get near enough to trample him to death. The bull had great genes for putting good meat on his offspring, but his personality sucked.
"Boss," Shorty panted, running over and looking up at Slade, "you okay? He grazed you."
Taking off his tan Stetson hat, the crown damp with sweat from the July day, Slade grinned and lifted his forearm. He wiped his brow with the back of his arm. "I'm fine," he drawled. "Close but no cigar." The sun was bright as it climbed higher in a deep blue sky. He glanced down at Shorty. The man was only five-foot-six inches tall, lean as a whippet and didn't look as if he could even make it as a wrangler, but he was one of the best. He came from good Irish stock with sandy-colored short hair and dancing green, elfish eyes.
"Good thing," Shorty muttered, worry in his tone. He stepped aside as Slade clambered off the pipe fence and landed on the dusty earth. "I'll tell ya, that bull seems to hate us humans more and more every year." Shorty's small face grew pinched as he watched the bull continuing to trot in circles, the drool from the corners of his opened mouth flying out like thin, glittering spider webs around his head and massive shoulders.
"Bad personality genes for sure," Slade agreed, settling the dusty, sweat-stained Stetson back on his head. He watched Diablo. Once the bull seemed cooled down, the animal walked quietly into the chute. For the Hereford, it was a game, Slade realized as he walked around the outside of the corral. At the chute, he dropped the rear slat that would keep the bull confined. Going to his green Chevy truck, Slade picked up the syringe lying on the seat. Once a year, Diablo got his necessary vaccinations. Shorty followed him to the stout pipe chute that now enclosed the twenty-five-hundred-pound bull.
"Boss, remember you got a new client comin' out here this afternoon," Shorty reminded him. The wrangler had been with Slade since he'd taken over the ranch.
Slade grunted. He really didn't want to hear that. Going to the chute, he said, "Stand by Diablo's head and distract him for a moment."
Grinning, Shorty moved to within a foot of the metal chute where the bull stood. "I'll be the decoy," he chortled.
Slade nodded and positioned himself at the rear of the bull. Diablo lived to find a human to trample. In the bull's mind, humans were a threat to his territory. And Diablo would never allow another male on two legs within the pastures he roamed with his herd of cows. If they came near, all bets were off, and he became enraged and would charge them. Good thing he thought four-legged horses were not threatening. Diablo snorted, his ears moving forward and back as Shorty slowly approached.
"Perfect," Slade murmured as he sank the needle into the thick, muscled area of the bull's well-padded hip. Diablo's entire attention was on Shorty's approach. As Slade withdrew the needle, he glanced forward to get the bull's reaction. There was none. His angry brown eyes were fixed on Shorty. "We're done," he called. Placing the emptied syringe back in the box on his truck seat, Slade said, "Release him back out into the pasture."
"Right, Boss," Shorty said with a quick nod. "He ain't gonna be happy, though. All his ladies are in the pasture across the road from him."
Pulling his leather gloves back on, Slade nodded. "Too bad. He can look, but not touch." Slade had a small herd of Herefords, fifty in all, that Diablo bred in early fall. It took nine months for gestation. In the early summer months, the calves were born. At that time, Diablo was separated from his band, a dirt road plus a stout metal-pipe rail fence between them. One never kept a bull with newly born calves. The chances of them being injured or killed by the bull was very real.
And Slade needed every calf that was birthed because after they reached a certain age, they would be sold to the meat market. And that meant money to pay a mortgage that was always a monthly nightmare to him. Above all, Slade never wanted to lose this ranch. He lived on the razor's edge of doing just that. Being a small-time rancher meant a constant balancing act with the bank mortgage on a monthly basis. Miss one payment and he'd be foreclosed upon. It can't happen!
Slade watched Shorty open the chute. Instantly, Diablo bellowed and shot out of it at a full gallop. The Tetons Ranch that Slade had inherited from his parents after his uncle died was only fifty acres in size. A very small ranch, all things considered. Diablo thundered out of the opened gate. Ahead of him was lush green pasture. And farther to his left was the stout pipe fence and a dirt road. All his ladies and their babies grazed peacefully on the other side. Diablo would pace for a while, walking up and down the fence line, tossing his head and reestablishing he was boss of his herd. Slade knew that the territorial bull would eventually settle down. Diablo would do his best to follow his herd, but the pipe fence and road always stood between them. Once the bull quieted, he would graze and watch his band from afar.
Shorty came back. He took off his dusty black Stetson and brushed it against his thigh. Dust poofed away from it. "Boss," he said as he pulled a crinkled piece of notebook paper from his back pocket, "here's whose comin' at 1:00 p.m."
Slade didn't like new clients, but they were his bread and butter, necessary to meet his financial obligations for the Tetons Ranch. "Okay, thanks," he grunted, taking the paper. Shorty managed Slade's endurance-training appointments. Carefully unwrapping the note, he saw Shorty had scribbled a name and phone number. Frowning, he tried to read it. Shorty was thirty-five years old, single and had never been married. He'd worked for Slade's Uncle Paul shortly before he'd died, and the ranch had been willed to Slade and his fraternal twin brother, Griff. Slade was now thirty-two, and he was grateful for Shorty's loyalty to the ranch and his family. He glanced upShorty's thin, narrow face was set in a grin.
"I 'spose you can't read my writin', Boss?'' "Got that right," Slade growled. He handed the note back to his wrangler. "Want to translate it for me?"
Chortling, Shorty read it and said, "Dr. Jordana Lawton is bringing her mustang mare named Stormy here this afternoon at 1:00 p.m." Shorty handed him back the note.
"Yes, Boss. She's an emergency-room physician, and Gwen Garner told me that Dr. Lawton is also a functional-medicine specialist and has her clinic near the hospital."
Mouth quirking, Slade asked, "What'd you do? Have a cozy chat with Gwen?" Her son, Cade Garner, was a deputy sheriff. She was the town gossip, but she was careful on what she said and made sure her information was correct before she passed it on to anyone else.
Turning red, Shorty shrugged. "Hey, Gwen said Dr. Lawton was a nice lady, Boss. I guess because Dr. Lawton is used to chattin' with her patients, she's real easy to talk to."
"You weren't her patient."
"No, but when we talked on the phone, she made me feel special," Shorty said, challenging him.
Shrugging, Slade muttered, "I don't care who she is so long as she can pay for the training. What's this about a mustang mare? Is she wanting endurance training?"
"For both of 'em, Boss. The doctor wants to know if her mare is capable of being an endurance-horse prospect from a conformation standpoint. So, I told her to trailer the mare out here and you'd take a look at her."
In Slade's business of endurance riding, of which he was many times a champion, people often brought their horses out for him to check out. "Okay. Anything else she wants?"
Shrugging, Shorty said, "The doc said if her mare's conformation was okay, she wanted to hire you to train both of them for level one riding."
Nodding, Slade interpreted this as money coming into his coffers to keep the bank at bay. He had weekly training sessions with nine male students. He knew how to get a horse ready for an endurance ride, whether it was a twenty, fifty or a hundred-mile challenge. And he also knew how to get the rider in shape, as well. "Okay, that sounds good. She got a background in endurance racing?"
"A little," Shorty hedged. "I really didn't get into much of a discussion with her on that, Boss. I figure you'll sort it out with her when she arrives here this afternoon."
"Okay," Slade said. Tucking the paper with the doctor's name and phone number into his dark red cotton cowboy shirt pocket, he said, "Let's get back to work. We need to start separating the calves from their mothers, branding and vaccinating them." That would be a weeklong activity. And Slade only had one wrangler. He worked from four in the morning to midnight every day. And every hour of daylight was precious.
"Right," Shorty murmured, following him to where their horses were tied to the corral fence.
As Slade mounted his buckskin quarter horse, Dude, his mind wandered back to Dr. Jordana Lawton for just a second. Slightly curious if she was a good endurance prospect, Slade hoped that it would work out so he had more money flowing in. He'd find out soon enough.