Authors: bobby hutchinson
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Copyright © 2014 by Bobby Hutchinson
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems – except in the case of brief quotations in articles or reviews – without the permission in writing from its publisher, Bobby Hutchinson.
Sara Wingate took one look
at the muddy penful of squealing, milling hogs, and her heart sank. There must have been at least a hundred and twenty prime Yorkshires in the large wooden enclosure, and every single one of them looked mean and ornery.
C’mon, Sara, you’re a vet, and pigsticking is just one of the less attractive parts of the job
, she lectured sternly, but the silent pep talk wasn’t much help. Pigsticking ranked right up there with having a root canal in her lexicon of pleasurable pastimes in life, and this was going to take the rest of what had been a really great summer afternoon.
“Well, Floyd, let’s get this over with.”
Floyd O’Malley, her assistant, had a perennially flushed, usually cheerful face. Today it was sullen, and even his rusty crop of wildly curling hair seemed less electric than usual. He muttered dismally under his breath as he and Sara assembled the necessary equipment.
“Abominable, ungrateful, nasty creatures, are pigs,” he intoned, his usually mild Irish brogue thick and pithy with disgust at the forthcoming venture.
They struggled into heavy waterproof suits and rubber boots. Sara felt the sweat begin under her arms and trickle between her breasts even before she’d finished zipping up the coverall. Just what an elegant Montana woman would wear on a hot day in June, she thought wryly as she tugged on the knee-high boots.
They were ready to begin far too soon for Sara’s liking. The operation ought to have
been simple; in theory, it involved two people, a ten-inch needle and a defenseless pig. The object of the exercise was to obtain a blood sample from each animal, which would then be tested for common diseases. The problem was, Sara had never yet seen a pig that agreed to cooperate in the routine, and she doubted the pigs on the Carter ranch were any exception.
Wearing what she hoped
was a confident, jaunty expression, with Floyd trailing morosely at her side, she opened the gate and waded into the swarm of porkers.
Inside the old frame ranch house, Mitchell Carter had been eating lunch when the green pickup with the white letters on the side drove into the yard. He got up and glanced idly out the window over the sink when his mother announced the vet had arrived.
“Doc Stone’s still got the same old truck, I see. And isn’t that Floyd... Floyd, wha
t’s his name? Family had a rundown place up the valley south of Plains. O’Malley, Floyd O’Malley?” Mitch commented as his father hurriedly finished his coffee and headed for the door.
“Yup, it’s Floyd all right, but it ain’t Doc Stone. We’re gonna have to change vets.”
Wilson Carter plopped his straw hat on his nearly bald head with an air of finality. “Doc Stone hired himself this newfangled woman here a few weeks back, daughter to the lady Dave Hoffman down at Bitterroot married awhile ago. When I phoned yesterday to get the pigs done, it was either use her or try and get the guy all the way from Thompson Falls to come down, and that could take a week or two. So I said fer her to go ahead this time. Floyd surely knows somethin’ after all these years watchin’ Doc, but I figure I’ll take my business to Thompson Falls after this.”
Wilson slammed the door, making Mitch’s mother wince nervously and purse her mouth. “I wish your father wouldn’t bang the door like that all the time,” she said in the weary, edgy voice Mitch couldn’t seem to get used to. She began to clear the dishes, walking slowly with shoulders slumped the way she’d been doing lately.
Mitch planted a hasty kiss on her soft cheek and hurried out the door after his father, feeling trapped. He found himself getting caught up in senseless hassles between his mother and father these days, and the only way to avoid them was to escape.
Heading for the horse barns, he found himself detouring instead toward the pigpens, reluctant curiosity about the woman vet temporarily overcoming his abhorrence for pigs. Climbing up the wood-side
d pen, he slung a long, Levi’s-clad leg over the top rail and balanced there easily, tilting his worn brown Stetson down lower over his face and wondering disgustedly how anyone could stand the deafening noise and the sickening stench that rose in equal portions from the hog pens. Why would any female in her right mind deliberately choose to make her living at a job that included pigs?
Down in the midst of the
action, Sara was wondering exactly the same thing.
Floyd was reluctantly wielding the snare, a pole with a wire loop attached. He looped the wire around a pig’s snout and then reeled him in and held him still while Sara jabbed the needle into the neck and prayed she’d hit the vena cava on the first try, extracting the blood sample so they could move along to the next unhappy creature.
Sara was certain Floyd was uttering vile curses, although she couldn’t hear them amidst the unholy squealing. His mouth moved petulantly, and his washed-out blue eyes were full of rancor as he stalked one pink porker after the other, lassoed a snout and did his best to put a headlock on an angry animal.
“Hold him, Floyd, hang on, dam
n, missed, once more...” Sara knew her hollered encouragement was also drowned out by the din, but it helped to vocalize as a panting Floyd did his best to hold several hundred pounds of bacon steady for at least two seconds so she could get the needle in.
Sara guessed Floyd was somewhere past fifty, and he simply wasn’t an athlete, unless hoisting beer mugs to his mouth counted. This wasn’t going well at all, and to make matters worse, she was pain
fully conscious of a rangy cowboy perched on the fence rail, silently watching the entire fiasco.
Sara groaned. If ever she didn’t need an audience...
Well, Wilson Carter had probably sold tickets for the event. Where else could Montana cowboys get a firsthand look at mud wrestling in the afternoon?
“Atta boy, Floyd, now hold the miserable... gotcha.”
The cowboy nodded at her somberly when she glanced up. His face was almost entirely shielded by the brim of his hat, but there was something mocking about his laconic, easy grace, sitting there so clean and removed from the rigors she was undergoing. She found herself resenting him.
The next pig was a whopper. Almost twice the size of the others, he also was no foo
l. Obviously somebody in a rubber suit had stuck this monster before, and he was having no part of a repeat performance. Floyd had the snare on his snout, but the pig was orbiting the pen with Floyd in tow, obviously immune to the pain of a nose hold. Floyd’s complexion was livid purple, and his mouth moved unceasingly. He tightened the snare and somehow managed to throw a shoulder lock on the renegade.
Sara readied the needle, but at the final instant the pig gave a mighty heave, tossing Floyd head over heels into the muck. Then, with what Sara could only label deliberation, the pig turned and trotted right over Floyd with his mean little hooves, never missing a squeal.
Sara scrambled across the milling bodies, extending a hand to the portly man lying flat on his back.
“Floyd, you okay? You hurt?” she hollered, but the words were indecipherable in the din. Floyd slowly hauled himself to his feet, screwing his face into a grimace and holding his right shoulder with the other hand. Sara helped him over to the gate and together they struggled through it.
The cowboy had leaped down from the fence, and he helped her force the gate shut before the hogs could escape.
“Here, lean on me,” he i
nstructed Floyd, hollering to be heard. Glancing at Sarah, he gave a small, courtly nod and bellowed, “How d’ya do, ma’am. I’m Mitch Carter.”
gether they half supported Floyd, walking slowly on either side of his limping form over to the truck.
Mitch Carter was several
inches taller than her own generous five eleven, Sara noted with interest. A few years older than her twenty-nine, as well, although it was hard to tell. Somewhere in his early thirties, probably: there was a sense of maturity about him. And his worn Stetson shielded a deeply tanned, clean-shaven face with eyes as green and deep as a pond, a nose that must have been broken once or twice, judging by the interesting bumps along its otherwise straight bridge, and a narrow, hard-looking mouth that would have benefited from a smile or two.
They made their halting
way over to the truck, depositing Floyd on the bumper.
“Thanks, Mitch. I’m
Sara, Sara Wingate,” she volunteered. Here, at least, they were far enough away from the pens so that conversation was possible in a normal tone of voice. Except she sounded breathless at the moment. Mitch Carter was one handsome cowboy up close.
Flustered, she turned her a
ttention to her groaning assistant.
“Where are you h
urt, Floyd?” Sara demanded anxiously.
“Ohh, me shoulder’s dislocated, without a doubt,” Floyd moaned piteously.
Sara helped him unzip the filthy rubber suit as Mitch silently bent over and tugged off the muddy gum boots.
Sara wiped her hands down her own suit in a futile effort to remove some of the grime and gently touched Floyd’s shoulder, making him wince dramatically.
“Oh, the pain, the pain. It travels right up into me head, and the hand on that side is numb,” Floyd howled, making a great show of favoring his shoulder.
Mitch looked past Floyd, straight into Sara’s clear gray eyes. He noted their fringe o
f long, curling lashes, the attractive planes and angles of her open features, and wondered if she knew about the streak of mud on her tilted nose and across her cheek. He recognized the exasperated, uncertain expression she wore, however. She wasn’t exactly sure whether or not foxy old O’Mal- ley was faking it. Mitch strongly suspected he was.
Mitch raised a laconic eyebrow at Sara,
and they exchanged a telling glance before Mitch shrugged. No way of proving the shoulder was or wasn’t injured, and no point in taking a chance.
She had lovely browny-gold hair, Mitch noted absently. It looked nice, even carelessly pinned back into a sort of bun. Wavy, thick hair.
“I’ll get somebody to run you into the medical clinic in Plains, Floyd,” Mitch decided. He turned and strode toward the house.
Sara watched him walk away, admiring the long, loping gait, his wide shoulders, which beneath the
blue shirt narrowed dramatically at the waistline, and his snug, worn Levi’s that stretched tight across a well-developed male posterior. Fine gluteus maximus development, she concluded clinically.
Floyd was apologizing to her a little too fervently for not being able to finish the pig testing, and Sara tried to be sympathetic, hating herself for feeling suspicious instead.
Six weeks of working with Floyd O’Malley were enough to make anyone suspicious, however. He had an uncanny ability for slipping out of nasty jobs, and he’d just done it again. How in the dickens was she going to finish the testing by herself? Not even a quarter of the pigs were done, and the thought of coming back again in the morning made her shudder. Better to get it over with now, when she was already smelly, filthy, and half deaf.
“Hey, Floyd. Dad’ll give you a lift into town, he’s just getting the station wagon,” Mitch called as he approached across the yard.
As Sara watched, her injured right-hand man suddenly became much spryer, hurrying away from the truck and across the gravel.
“I’m awfully sorry, Sara, awfully sorry,” he half sang over his shoulder as the station wagon backed from the double garage. He hurried toward it and climbed through the door Mitch held open for him.
The car didn’t drive off immediately, however. Wilson Carter detoured across the wide expanse of farmyard and pulled to a stop a few feet from where Sara stood. He stuck his head out the window, careful not to dislodge his hat, and narrowed a frowning glare at Sara with eyes several shades lighter green than his son’s.
“I want those pigs finished today, miss. Mitch here will give you a hand holding ’em,” he stated. Then, in a spurt of gravel, he was gone.
For a moment, Mitch couldn’t believe he’d heard right. Had the old man actually said that, knowing full well how Mitch despised having anything to do with swine? He stood, well-worn boots planted wide apart in the gravel, and watched the station wagon disappear down the rutted driveway. Anger filled him, the frustrated, impotent anger his father was able to stir in him a dozen times a day with his unbending dictums over how every single thing on the ranch should be done, and when. At thirty-four he was too damned old to start being treated like a kid again.
Mitch felt the blood rise in his face, and he also felt Sara’s eyes trained on him from where she still stood, bulky in that suit and boots, covered from head to toe in everything that naturally landed in the bottom of a pigpen.
“Well, Mitch? You up for this procedure?” He was aware of her voice, pleasantly low pitched and a little husky. There was a definite challenge there. After sending one final, malevolent glare after the cloud of dust that was all that remained of the station wagon, he reached a hand up unconsciously and settled his hat more firmly on his head in the gesture he’d always used in rodeo just before the chutes opened to release him and some maniac bronco he was determined to ride into submission.
His hair was very dark, Sara noted, at least the parts she could see under his hat. Somewhere between black and brown, long over his ears, sort of silky looking.