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Nelson McKade slammed his foot against the brake of his Jaguar XKR Coupe, praying the Brembo brand lived up to its claim of incredible stopping power. If the front bumper so much as nudged the supersized hog twenty feet ahead, he'd return the luxury car to the dealership and demand his 84,000 dollars back.
In a matter of seconds the vehicle squealed to a jarring halt inches from the massive roadblock. Dumbfounded, he stared out the windshield at the pig whose head and upper body reached above the hood of the car. What the heck were farmers feeding these animals—humans?
One by one he pried his fingers from the steering wheel, then glanced in the rearview mirror. Black rubber tire marks—in two perfectly straight lines—scarred the road. He stepped out of the car and surveyed the party of swine milling in the middle of RR 7.
If he hadn't been studying the atlas when he'd sped around the curve, he would have had plenty of time to brake. In Ireland a driver expected herds of sheep to cross roads, but who the hell knew Illinois farmers herded pigs the same way?
Shielding his eyes from the early-June afternoon sun, he searched the area for the pig herder. The hog near his bumper oinked, scaring the crap out of him. "Shoo!" He waved a hand in the air, but the fat piece of lard wouldn't budge. A moment later, snot spewed from the snout, spraying the hood of the car. Then the animal leaned in and scratched its smelly, filthy, dingy pink flank against the grill.
"Knock it off!"
The beast snorted, then strolled away to join the others lounging in the gully alongside the road.
Swiveling in the direction of the sound, Nelson focused on a dirt path across the road. The snap of broken branches grew louder. A moment later a man emerged from the wooded area. Farmer Brown. Complete with a John Deere cap, baggy overalls and a shotgun slung over one shoulder.
"Blast it all, Homer! Git yer fat bacon arse through that gate!"
Homer? Nelson spotted the hog he'd almost flattened, and sure enough, the animal's ears perked at his owner's command.
"I oughtta fry yer hide...." The threat trailed off when the farmer noticed Nelson. After a brief hesitation, he grumbled, "Homer, you done pissed me off real good this time," then offered Nelson, "Sorry 'bout my pigs, mister. Most times no one uses this road."
Nelson pointed to the massive hog. "Homer?"
"Yep." The man's chest puffed up. "Fattest hog in Pritchard County. Took first place last year at the 4-H fair."
Nelson didn't know much about 4-H fairs or pigs, but weren't the winning animals usually sold for top dollar?
"Didn't have the heart to auction Homer off," the man answered, reading Nelson's thoughts. "Homer done saved the day when he was nothing but a squirt. He come a chargin' through the doggie door on the back porch, squealin' up a storm. Led me to a pile of smolderin' hay. I coulda lost the whole barn if the hay'd caught fire."
"Smart pig," Nelson mumbled, suspicious of the far-fetched story.
"Name's Becker. Bill Becker." The farmer offered his hand.
"Nelson McKade." He tried not to think about where that hand had been all morning. "You wouldn't happen to know if the Tanner farm is nearby?"
"Which Tanners you lookin' for?"
"There's more than one Tanner family?"
"Yes, sir. There's the Tanners of Kentucky and the Tanners of Illinois."
This guy was a nutcase. "I'm searching for the Illinois Tanners."
"Well, then you got a bit o' problem. This here's Kentucky."
"Kentucky? Wait a minute." Nelson leaned through the open car window and snatched the atlas off the passenger seat. He pointed to a black dot on the map of Illinois. "Four Corners is right here on RR 7."
"Yes, sir, but the road forks off a ways back." Positive there had been no marker warning of a split in the road, Nelson insisted, "I didn't see any sign."
Farmer Becker guffawed. "Ain't surprised. Tornado o"
"72 blew it down. Ain't never been stuck back in the ground."
Nelson had entered the twilight zone. He checked his watch. It was already three in the afternoon, and he hadn't eaten lunch. "How far back is the junction?"
"Bout thirty-five miles." The farmer stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. When Homer twisted his massive head, his owner spat a stream of tobacco juice across the hood of the car, and the hog caught the glob of spit in his snout, then squealed. "Taught him that trick," the farmer chortled.
Oh, my God. "Say, you wouldn't mind givin' me a hand with Homer, would ya?"
The hog lay on his side, watching the other pigs pass single file through an opening in the fence. "What kind of help?"
"Homer's so danged fat I gots to shove his arse through the gate or he gits wedged in."
Being on the arse end of Homer had about as much appeal as reviewing executive expense accounts.
"The sooner I gits him into the field, the sooner I git back to Mary."
"Mary's my wife. She's havin' a hissy fit 'cause I forgot it's her birthday. Danged woman's turnin'fifty." The farmer headed for Homer, grumbling, "Looks more like seventy."
For a minute Nelson watched the man struggle to coax the hog up on to his short legs. A few kicks to the massive rump and Homer grunted, then got to his feet. The farmer led the pig to the gate, and sure enough, the hog got halfway through the opening, then got stuck.
Oh, hell. Nelson studied his white dress shirt and just-from-the-cleaners slacks. He'd already removed his tie and suit jacket after a morning meeting with his corporate executives. He should have changed into jeans and a T-shirt in his office before leaving Chicago on his grandfather's stupid quest, but he had wanted to hit the road before traffic got bad on the Dan Ryan Expressway. He headed for the ditch.
"Shove his arse."
Homer's arse would put the fat lady in the circus to shame. Nelson edged closer, got a whiff of something nasty and gagged. Holding his breath, he set one hand on either side of the hog's corkscrew tail.
"On the count o' three." Farmer Becker hopped over the fence into the field, then moved in front of the animal and grabbed the pig's ears. "One, two, three."
Nelson shoved, sought purchase with his leather dress shoes and shoved again. Pressed his shoulder to the animal's rump and shoved, shoved, shoved. Nothing. The stupid beast hadn't budged. Breathing heavily—too heavily for a thirty-seven-year-old man who worked out daily in the corporate gym—he cursed. "Well, shucks. I ain't brought the hogs to this here pasture in over two months. Didn't think Homer'd gained that much weight."
"How much does Homer weigh?" Nelson huffed.
"Last time I checked, he was eight hundred and ten pounds."
Eight hundred and ten pounds?
The farmer scrambled across the fence and joined Nelson behind the hog. "On the count—"
"I know. Three."
This time, two shoulders pushed the massive arse. Nelson felt the animal slide forward a good foot. "Can he make it the rest of the way?" he grunted.
"Might." The farmer—who was hardly breathing heavy, Nelson noticed with disgust—scrambled over the fence again and removed what appeared to be a dog biscuit from the front pocket of his overalls.
The hog's tail twitched and his ears waggled. As the farmer waved the bone in front of the pink snout, Nelson rammed Homer's butt with all his might. The animal lunged forward and Nelson lost his balance, landing on the ground in a tangle of thistle and weeds. Scrambling to get out of the way of flying hog hooves, he managed to avoid a kick in the head, but wasn't fast enough to duck the brown glob that squirted from Homer's rear and splattered the front of his dress shirt.
"Crap!" Nelson's nose curled at the stinky, wet warmth soaking the material.
"Ouwee, mister. You scared the poop right out o' Homer. He ain't never done that 'afore."
Swearing he'd make his grandfather pay, Nelson crawled to his feet. Acquiescence, my ass. He'd followed someone else's order—and look where that had gotten him—covered in pig manure. "The damn hog deserves a trip to the slaughterhouse."
"No, sirree. I'm enterin'him in the fattest-pig competition at the end of the summer." He swatted Homer's flank and the tub of lard ambled off to join his friends devouring the crop in the field. Farmer Becker tipped his cap. "Thanks for the help, mister. Watch for a dead tree. The road forks there."
Nelson removed his dress shirt and his white under-shirt, rolled them in a ball, then stuffed them into the far corner of the trunk. He rummaged through his luggage, found a bottle of cologne and squirted several shots at his chest to cover l'odeur de swine lingering on him. Then he donned a golf shirt and tucked the tails into his suit slacks. Not the outfit he'd planned to wear the first time he met his new boss, but what the heck. He was probably overdressed for a farm hand, anyhow.
After making a U-turn, he waved to the farmer and drove northeast toward the Illinois border. Thirty-five miles...plenty of time to consider different ways he'd make his grandfather pay for this foolish life lesson he demanded Nelson learn.
Acquiescence. Where in the heck did his ninety-one-year-old grandfather dream up this stuff? After the loss of Nelson's parents in a plane crash, his grandfather had raised him and his two brothers, Ryan andAaron, since they were toddlers. But that didn't give the old man the right to lord over his grown grandsons forever.
Then why are you doing this? Nelson asked himself. You could have easily refused.
The temptation to do just that had eaten at him for days. But he had great respect for his grandfather. Patrick McKade had learned the import-export business from his own father and had expanded the family's holdings. After Nelson had graduated from Harvard Business School, he'd spent two years under his grandfather's tutelage before taking over the helm of the company at age twenty-four.
In truth, Nelson had a natural ability when it came to running a company and he enjoyed the challenge of growing a business. That, along with the need to make his grandfather proud of him, drove Nelson to succeed. By the time he'd celebrated thirty years, he'd accomplished what few men had—turned a business into a Fortune 500 company.
He'd never disappointed his grandfather in the past and had no intention of doing so now. Besides, should he have refused to embark on this ridiculous quest, his grandfather had promised to dethrone him and scratch his name off the will.