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It was a cool autumn day, and the feedlot was full. A good many of these steers were already under contract to restaurants and fast-food establishments, but in these last weeks before they were shipped north, the cowboys who worked for the Ballenger Brothers in Jacobsville, Texas, were pushed to the limit. Guy Fenton hated his job when things were this hectic. He almost hated it enough to go back to flying; but not quite.
He pushed his hat back from his sweaty dark hair and cursed the cattle, the feedlot, people who ate beef and people who bought it in eloquent succession. He wasn't a handsome man, but he still had a way with women. He was lean and lanky, thirty years old, with gray eyes and a tragic past that an occasional date numbed just a little. Lately, though, women had been right off his list of pastimes. There had been too much work here at the feedlot, and he was responsible for mixing the various grains and nutrients to put just enough, but not too much, weight on these beef cattle. He enjoyed the job from time to time, but just lately everything was rubbing him the wrong way. A chance meeting with an old acquaintance several months ago from the days of his engagement had brought back all the bad memories and set him on a weekend binge. That was followed by another, when the man settled nearby and came to visit him occasionally, not realizing the damage he was doing to Guy's peace of mind.
"For two bits," he said out loud, "I'd chuck it all and become a beachcomber!"
"Keep your mind on that conveyor belt and thank God you don't have to climb down in there to inoculate those horned devils," came a drawling voice from behind him.
He glanced over his shoulder at Justin Ballenger and grinned. "You don't mean things could get worse around here?"
Justin stuck his hands into his pockets and chuckled. "It seems that way, from time to time, when we get this much extra business. Come over here. I want to talk to you."
The big boss rarely came out to talk to the hands, so it was an occasion for curiosity. Guy finished the settings on the conveyer belt that delivered feed to the dozens of stalls before he jumped down lithely to stand before one of the two owners of the feedlot.
"What can I do for you, boss?" he asked pleasantly.
"You can stop getting drunk every weekend and treeing Thompson's place," he replied solemnly, his dark eyes glittering.
Guy's high cheekbones went a little ruddy. He averted his gaze to the milling, mooing cattle. "I didn't realize the gossip got this far."
"You can't trim your toenails in Jacobsville without somebody knowing about it," Justin returned. "You've been going downhill for a while, but just lately you're on a bad path, son," he added, his deep voice quiet and concerned. "I hate to see you go down it any farther."
Guy didn't look at the older man. His jaw tautened. "It's my road. I have to walk it."
"No, you don't," Justin said curtly. "It's been three years since you signed on here. I never asked any questions about your past, and I'm not doing it now. But I hate to see a good man go right down the drain. You have to let go of the past."
Guy's eyes met the other man's almost on a level. Both were tall, but Justin was older and pretty tough, too. He wasn't a man Guy would ever like to have to fight. "I can't let go," he replied shortly. "You don't understand."
"No, I don't, not in the way you mean," Justin conceded, his dark eyes narrowing. "But all this carousing and grieving isn't going to change whatever happened to you."
Guy drew in a short breath and stared at the flat horizon. He didn't speak, because if he let the anger out, Justin would fire him. He might hate his job, but he couldn't afford to lose it, either. "Rob Hartford settled up in Victoria and he comes down to see me. He does it too often," he said finally. "He was therewhen it happened. He doesn't know it, but he brought all the memories back."
"Tell him. People can't read minds."
He sighed. His gray eyes met Justin's dark ones. "He'd take it hard."
"He'll take it harder if you end up in jail. The one good thing about it is that you've got sense enough not to drive when you're in that condition."
"The only good thing," Guy said wearily. "Okay, boss, I'll do what I can."
Justin followed his gaze. "Winter's coming fast," he murmured. "We'll just get this batch of steers out before we have to buy more feed. It'll be close, at that."
"Only crazy people get into feeding out cattle," Guy pointed out, lightening the atmosphere.
Justin smiled faintly. "So they say."
He shrugged. "I'll try to stay away from Thompson's."
"It doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense to drink up your salary every weekend," the older man said flatly. "Regardless of the reason. But that isn't what I came out here to talk to you about."
Guy frowned. "Then why did you?"
"We've got a beef industry publicist coming tomorrow from Denver. She wants to visit a few area ranches, as well as our feedlot here, to get some idea of what sort of methods we're using."
"Why?" Guy asked curtly.
"The local cattlemen's associationof which Evan Tremayne was just elected presidentwants to help punch up the image of the industry locally. The industry as a whole has had some bad press lately over bacterial contamination. There's been even more bad press about some renegade cattlemen and their practices. We don't follow their lead around here, and we're anxious to get the fact across to the beef-eating public. Evan also has an idea about customizing lean beef for a specialized market of buyers."
"I thought Evan was too busy with his wife to worry about business," Guy murmured dryly.
"Oh, Anna's doing his paperwork for him," he mused. "They're inseparable, business or not. Anyway, this publicist is expected in the morning. The Tremaynes are out of town, Ted Regan and his wife are at a convention in Utah and Calhoun is going to be tied up with a buyer tomorrow. You're the only cowboy we've got who knows as much about the industry as we do, especially where feedlots are concerned. We've elected you to be her guide."
"Me?" Guy cursed under his breath and glared at the older man. "What about the Hart boys? There are four of them over at the Hart ranch."
"Two," Justin corrected. "Cag's off on his honeymoon, and Corrigan went with his wife, Dorie, to visit Simon and Tira in San Antonio. They've just had their first child." He chuckled. "Anyway, I wouldn't wish the two bachelor Hart boys on her. We don't know if she can make biscuits, but Leo and Rey may be too desperate to care."
Guy only nodded. The Hart boys were a local legend because of their biscuit mania. Pity none of them could cook.
"So you're elected."
"I know more about rodeo than I know about ranching," Guy pointed out.
"Yes, I know." He searched the younger man's closed face. "I heard someone say you used to fly yourself to the competitions."
Guy's eyes glittered and he straightened. "I don't talk about flying. Ever."
"Yes, I heard that, too," Justin said. He threw up his hands. "All right, clam up and fester. I just wanted you to know that you'll be away from here tomorrow, so delegate whatever chores you need to before the morning."
"Okay." Guy sighed. "I guess you couldn't do it?"
Justin glanced over his shoulder. "Sorry. Shelby and I have to go to the elementary school in the morning. Our oldest son's in a Thanksgiving play." He grinned. "He's an ear of corn."
Guy didn't say a word. But his eyes danced and his lower lip did a tango.
"Good thing you kept your mouth shut, Fenton," he added with a wicked grin. "I hear they're shy a turkey. It would be a pity to volunteer you for that instead of the ranch tour."
He walked off and Guy gave in to the chuckle he'd choked back. Sometimes he didn't mind this job at all.
He went back to the bunkhouse after work, noting that it was empty except for one young college student from Billings, who was sprawled on a bunk reading Shakespeare through small rimmed glasses. He looked up when Guy entered the building.
"Cook's off sick, so they're shuttling supper out from the main house," the college student, Richard, remarked. "Just you and me tonight. The other bachelors went off to some sort of party in town."
"Lucky stiffs," Guy murmured. He took off his hat and sprawled on his own bunk with a weary sigh. "I hate cattle."
Richard, who liked to be called "Slim" by the other cowhands, chuckled. He was much more relaxed when he and Guy were the only two men sharing the bunkhouse. Some of the older hands, many uneducated, gave him a hard time in the evenings about his continuing studies.
"They may smell lousy, but they sure do pay my tuition," Slim remarked.
"How many years do you have to go?" Guy asked curiously.
The younger man shrugged. "Two, the normal way. But I have to work a semester and go to school a semester, because it's the only way I can afford tuition. I guess it'll take me four more years to graduate."
"Can't you get a scholarship?"
Slim shook his head. "My grades aren't quite good enough for the big ones, and my folks make too much money for me to qualify for financial aid."
Guy's eyes narrowed. "There should be a way. Have you talked to the finance office at your school?"
"I thought about it, but one of the other kids said I might as well save my time."
"What's your field?"
Slim grinned. "Medicine," he said. "So I've got a long road ahead of me, even after I get my B.S."
Guy didn't smile. "I've got a couple of ideas. Let me think them over."
"You've got problems of your own, Mr. Fenton," Slim told him. "No need to worry about me, as well."
"What makes you think I've got problems?"
Slim closed the literature book he was holding. "You get drunk like clockwork every weekend. Nobody drinks that much for recreation, especially not a guy who's as serious the rest of the week as you are. You never shirk duties or delegate chores, and you're always stone sober on the job." He smiled sheepishly. "I guess it was something pretty bad."
Guy's pale gray eyes had a faraway, haunted look. "Yes. Pretty bad." He rolled over onto his back and pulled his hat over his eyes. "I wish you outranked me, Slim."
"Then you'd get stuck with the publicist tomorrow, instead of me."
"I heard Mr. Ballenger talking about her. He says she's pretty."
"He didn't tell me that."
"Maybe he was saving it for a surprise."
Guy laughed hollowly. "Some surprise. She'll probably faint when she gets a good whiff of the feedlot."
"Well, you never know." Pages in the book rustled as he turned them. "Man, I hate Shakespeare."
"Peasant," Guy murmured.
"You'd hate him, too, if you had to do a course in Elizabethan literature."
"I did two, thanks. Made straight A's."
Slim didn't speak for a little while. "You went to college?"
"Get your degree?"
"Well, what in?"
"In what," Guy corrected.
"Okay, in what?"
"You might say, in physics," he said, without mentioning that his degree was in aeronautics, his minor in chemistry.
Slim whistled. "And you're working on a cattle ranch?"
"Seemed like a good idea at the time. And it's sure physic-al," he added with a deliberate play on words.
Laughter came from across the room. "You're pulling my leg about that physics degree, aren't you?"
Guy smiled from under his hat. "Probably. Get back to work, boy. I need some rest."
Guy lay awake long into the night, thinking about college. He'd been a lot like Slim, young and enthusiastic and full of dreams. Aviation had been the love of his life until Anita came along. Even then, she was part of the dream, because she loved airplanes, too. She encouraged him, raved over his designs, soothed him when plans didn't work out, prodded him to try again. Even when things were darkest, she wouldn't let him give up on the dream. And when it was in his grasp, she never complained about the long hours he was away from her. She was always there, waiting, like a dark-haired angel.
He'd given her the ring just before they went up together, that last time. He was always so careful, so thorough, about the plane. But that once, he was exhausted from a late-night party the night before, and his mind had been on Anita instead of the engine. The tiny malfunction, caught in time, might have been rectified. But it wasn't. The plane went down into the trees and hung, precariously, in the limbs. They could have climbed down, only bruised, but Anita had fallen heavily against the passenger door and, weakened by the crash, it had come open. He saw her in his nightmares, falling, falling, forty feet straight down to the forest floor, with nothing to break the fall except hard ground, her eyes wide with horror as she cried his name.
He sat straight up on the bunk, sweating, barely able to get his breath as the nightmare brought him awake. Slim was sleeping peacefully. He wished he could. He put his head in his hands and moaned softly. Three years was long enough to grieve, Justin said. But Justin didn't know. Nobody knew, except Guy.
He was half-asleep the next morning when he went down to the feedlot in clean blue jeans and a blue-and-white checked flannel shirt under his sheepskin jacket. He wore his oldest Stetson, a beige wreck of a hat, wide-brimmed and stained from years of work. His boots didn't look much better. He was almost thirty-one years old and he felt sixty. He wondered if it showed.
Voices came from Justin's office when he walked into the waiting room at the feedlot. Fay, J. D. Langley's pretty little wife, smiled at him and motioned him in. She was technically Calhoun Ballenger's secretary, but today she was covering both jobs in the absence of the other secretary.
Guy smiled back, tipped his hat and walked on in. Justin stood up. So did the pretty little brunette with him. She had the largest, most vulnerable brown eyes he'd ever seen in a human being. They seemed to see right through to his heart.
"This is Candace Marshall, Guy," Justin said. "She's a freelance publicist who works primarily for the cattle industry. Candy, this is Guy Fenton. He manages the feedlot for us."
Guy tipped his hat at her, but he didn't remove it. He didn't smile, either. Those eyes hurt him. Anita had brown eyes like that, soft and warm and loving. He could see them in his nightmares as she cried out for him to help her
"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Fenton," Candy said solemnly and held out a hand toward him.
He shook it limply and without enthusiasm, immediately imprisoning both his hands in the pockets of his jeans.