“You wanted hands-on management experience, darlin’, looks like you’ve got it.”

Renner’s phone rang at four a.m. Never a good sign. He picked it up from the passenger seat and said, “Jackson.”

“Ren? It’s Hugh. Look, we just got to the fairgrounds and were getting ready to unload the steers and . . . Shit, no easy way to say this. They’re all dead.”

“What the f**k? All of ’em?”

“Yeah. It’s the goddamndest thing. I have no idea what happened.”

“Which one of our trucks did you use to haul them?”

Pritchett sighed. “That’s the problem. It ain’t one of our trailers. We were short a truck so we rented from the stockyard. Had to’ve been something inside, ’cause all the livestock ate outta the same load of hay as the bulls and none of them are sick.”

“Fuck.” Renner cracked open his last can of Red Bull. “I assume you’ve isolated the load?”

“Right away.”

“Here’s what you do.” Renner rattled off the options. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, but it was the first time it’d happened at this particular rodeo.

“Thanks, boss. I hated to bother you.”

“The joys of bein’ an owner,” he said without humor. “I’m just damn glad you hadn’t put the bulls in that truck.” That would’ve been a huge financial blow.

“I hear ya there. Where are you?”

“Still about two hours out. Which means I’m close enough to stop and see if O’Hara has extra steers we can use, as well as a trailer.” He hated to ask for help, but he didn’t have a choice. Maybe he’d catch O’Hara in a rare good mood.

Pritchett whistled. “Wish there was another option. You know O’Hara is gonna jack the cost. Especially when he sees you’re desperate.”

“Need to come up with something to sweeten the pot. And rodeo tickets ain’t gonna do it this time. So if you have suggestions beyond offering him a share in BB, I’m all ears.” BB was short for Broken Bones, Jackson Stock Contracting’s prize bull. He’d been named Bull of the Year two years running on the Midwest CRA circuit and the Brahman Charolais cross was just getting meaner. Which moved BB closer to being picked for one of the coveted spots in the AFR finals.

“Hey, I’ve got it. O’Hara’s a big hunter. Offer him and the missus a weekend at the Split Rock. I’ll bet he’d jump at the chance to kill some stuff. Hell, he might even throw in use of the trailer for nothin’.”

Renner snorted. “I doubt that, but good thinkin’.”

“That’s why you pay me the big bucks.”

“That’s why I need you in Wyoming, Hugh.”

Another sigh. “There’s enough shit to deal with without bringing this up now, Ren.”

“I was hopin’ to catch you at a weak moment,” Renner joked.

“No such thing. Good luck with O’Hara and I’ll keep you up to date on the shit storm here.”

The Red Bull pepped him up, but he couldn’t help but consider what else could go wrong. His company had built a solid reputation over the last decade. He’d opted to concentrate strictly on the animal end of the rodeo business. Quite a few stock contractors provided the whole shebang for a rodeo event—the livestock, the personnel, from the bullfighters to the judging officials to the announcers to the entertainers. They also arranged for and set up the venue, dealt with promoting the event, handled the sponsors, the payouts and the behind-the-scenes stuff that’d drive Renner f**king insane. He had a hard enough time keeping four guys on the payroll. He couldn’t imagine dealing with more people.

As much as he loved his part in bringing rodeo action to the fans, life on the road tired him out. Burned him out. His business had more potential than just hauling animals from event to event. He wanted to beef up his breeding programs. Invest in heartier stock—a necessity in the colder climes of Wyoming. But none of that business potential could be realized if he was hanging off the chutes every weekend, spending his life behind a steering wheel.

He spied the turnoff to O’Hara’s house and forced his thoughts away from dead steers, crappy contracts, his key employee bailing on him, and losing what mattered to him most.

A bear of a man barreled down the steps. “Renner Jackson. What are you doin’ in my driveway at five o’clock in the damn morning?”

“Nice to see you too, O’Hara.”

“I’d say the same, but I’m barely awake. I’m hoping you’re a dream and I’m still in bed snuggled up to my wife.”

“Can’t help you there. But as long as you are up and dosing yourself on vitamin caffeine, we need to talk.”

“Talk? Don’t you mean you’re gonna try and sweet-talk me outta something?” he grumbled. “Get to the point, boy, I got cattle to feed.”

“I do need something. But this time I have a sweet deal. And all it’s gonna cost you is a few steers and use of one of your livestock-haulin’ trucks for a couple days.”

O’Hara laughed. “This had better be good.”

“It is. And for your trouble . . . how would you like to hunt in Wyoming?”

Chapter Ten

Janie had panicked a little the first time Renner left the Split Rock to deal with his stock contracting business. Luckily, everything had gone smoothly and he’d been around the last two weeks, spending most of his time working outside, dealing with the property management issues, which was problematic today since she needed his approval on pricing for a group package, from people that he’d personally referenced.


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