Her Knight, Her Protector

by Lisa Mondello

As a former Marine Police Officer and rodeo bull rider, Jesse Knight is no stranger to dangerous situations.  But when animals in the rodeo circuit start mysteriously falling sick and dying, he knows someone is behind the deed and can't just walk away.  Especially when the lovely stock contractor starts receiving death threats.  Jessie had been ready to retire from Rodeo and settle down on small Wyoming ranch, but how can he sit back while defenseless animals are being targeted and a woman he's come to love is in danger?

Carly Duggan doesn't need a cowboy to help her investigate why her beloved stock has suddenly fallen sick and contacting the local police to investigate only led to more trouble and resulted in her getting death threats.  She turns to Jesse Knight, whose training in law enforcement and his knowledge of the rodeo circuit gives him the unique ability to investigate what's happening to her livestock without causing further suspicion.  Although Carly downplays the threats to her life, Jesse knows Carly's life is in danger if she gets too close to the truth.  He insists on being on her shadow to keep her safe.  But Jesse can't possibly keep Carly's heart safe...from falling in love with him?

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“What do you mean another one of my bulls is failing?”  Carly Duggan bolted from the seat behind her desk so fast the chair practically spilled over and crashed to the floor.  If her ranch manager, Colin Rodgers, hadn’t been standing directly next to her, it would have.

Anger simmered beneath her skin, making her blood run hot as she looked at the young ranch hand standing in the doorway.  Thad Ferrer had been working on her family ranch for just over a year and was only a few years younger than Carly. He was too skinny for his tall frame despite the hard work of being a ranch hand.  But Carly had no complaints about his performance.  He pulled his weight.  The anger she was trying her best to contain wasn’t his fault.

Don’t kill the messenger… She could hear her father saying those very words right now.  It had been over a year since Zebb Duggan had stepped his boots in this office, but Carly could swear she still smelled the tobacco from his pipe as if he were standing over her, judging her next move.

Thad twirled his straw cowboy hat in his hand.  “The bull this week collapsed in the pasture.”

“Which bull?”

“Does it matter?” Colin asked.

She glared at her ranch manager.  “Thad, which bull?”

“Cotton-Eye.  I think they’re eating something.  But I don’t know what it is.  I checked the feed and it’s clean.  I suppose it could be a virus infecting the herd.”

“A virus?”  Her heart sank deeper than the floorboards.  A virus could race through the ranch and wipe out everything three generations of Duggan’s had built on this Wyoming ranch. “What makes you suggest that?”

Thad glanced at Colin and then at Carly.  “If it’s not the feed and it’s not something he ate, what…what else could it be?  If we don’t do something soon, we’re liable to lose all the ranch’s stock.”

Carly turned her attention to Colin as irritation tumbled forward by leaps.  “How long have you known about this, Colin?”

The elder ranch manager sighed, but didn’t try to hide his guilt.  “A day or two.”

“And I’m just hearing about this now?”

“I didn’t want to cause you alarm unless it was something to be alarmed about.  Sometimes a sick bull is just nothing.”

“And now we’re talking about two.  Bulls don’t just collapse for no reason, Colin.”

He gave her a strong look that made her want to shrink where she stood.  But she held her ground.

“And sometimes a bull bounces back from a belly-ache without any fanfare,” he said.

“What was the other bull?”

“Dusty Mule.  But the bull is fine.  It was groaning with a bellyache for a few hours and then grazing like there was never anything wrong.  I didn’t even have to call Doc Cunningham.”

“If you’d been standing next to my father, would you have been so reticent to share this information?”

He lowered his head slightly.  But not enough to hide the slight smile that lifted his lips.  “Well, no—”

“Then I fail to see why you kept it from me.  I decide what is important on this ranch.  Don’t you forget it.”

The smile was gone.  She saw the anger simmering inside Colin, but he kept his temper, most likely because he knew she was right.  He just didn’t want to admit it to Zebb Duggan’s baby girl.

“Look, I’ve spent the last twenty years working with stock.  I’ve seen a sick bull a time or two before.  I’ll give you that it’s strange to have two bulls failing for what seems like unknown reasons.”

“They are unknown reasons.  We haven’t identified the cause.”

Colin sighed.  “I don’t want to be responsible for causing ranches to panic all over the state just because a bull has a bellyache.”

She’d grown up with Colin working for the Duggan Stock Company.  After her father passed away, it had been a struggle to get all the ranch hands acclimated to taking orders from her.  It was clear Colin still saw things that way.  Change was never easy.  It hadn’t been for her.  But she wasn’t going to sit back and let her ranch hands make foolish decisions that ultimately might destroy Duggan Stock Company.

“The responsibility lies where it’s always belonged.  With me.  And there is no reason for panic since there is no reason for word to leave this ranch until I say so.  Are you both understanding me?”

Thad nodded.  A moment later, Colin conceded.

“Good.  I’m glad to see we have that settled.”

Carly thought of Cotton-Eye, her two year old futurity bull who’d gotten his name because of the prominent round white spot around just one of its eyes.  She saw great potential in that bull.  He had a lot of spirit.  She hated the idea of losing him.

She turned to Thad.  “Call Barry Cunningham.  See if he can get out to the ranch this afternoon.  Get the rest of the hands to move the cattle away from any stock that appears sick.”

“But what about the—”

“I don’t care if it takes all day,” she interjected.   “There is no more important job on this ranch than protecting the healthy stock.  If this is a virus, I don’t want any more bulls to become infected.”

“What is a veterinarian going to do now?  It may be too late,” Colin said.

“And whose fault is that? A few days ago I might have been able to contain something like this a little better.  Now I have to do damage control.  For your sake, let’s hope this bull really does just have a serious bellyache from something it ate.  Either way, I’m not sitting by and watching my stock get sick without a veterinarian checking out all the possibilities.  To be safe, move Dogged Ear and Widow Maker to a separate pasture where they won’t be among the rest of the herd.  I don’t want my prize bull getting sick and losing whatever value it has.”

She grabbed the phone and flipped through her address book, using her finger to scroll down through the names until she found who she wanted.

“Who are you calling now?” Colin asked.

Carly ignored the fact that Colin was questioning her.  She was disappointed in the way he’d handled this situation, but he’d meant no harm.  He was an old fashioned cowboy who still believed a woman could cook on the chuck wagon and be that pretty face to come home to at the end of a hard day’s work on the range.  It was part of his DNA.

As the dialed the number and then waited for the phone to start ringing, she said, “Melanie Summers.”

“The zoologist?  What’s she going to do?”

“She works for the park services in the Grand Tetons.  If there is a virus that is killing animals in Wyoming, she’ll either know about it or want to know about it.”

“Look, Carly.  I can’t tell you how to run this ranch.”

“I’m glad you remembered that.”

“But I have been working here a long time.  I’ve seen a thing or two over the years.”

She looked over at Colin and felt a pang of guilt as she put the phone back in the cradle before the call connected.  “I know you have.  And I also know that my father regarded you as one of the best, both as a ranch manager…and as a friend.”

Colin’s face softened.  “That’s why I promised him I’d look after you.”

Her eyes widened.  “You did?”

He ignored her response.  “I’m not sure that calling on people to investigate something that might not need investigating is the best way to go.  You know how rumors end up like dry grass fires.  Me, hell even Thad, know this herd better than anyone.  If there is really something wrong, we should be keeping things in house, if you know what I mean.”

She thought about it a few seconds.  “You may be right.”  Sitting down in the leather chair behind the desk that had been her fathers.  A chair that some days felt too big in responsibility as well as size.

“For now,” she said, glancing up at Colin.  “We’ll see what Barry Cunningham has to say.”

* * *

“It needs more oil.”

Jessie Knight sat on the dirt next to a mechanical bull that refused to move.  A trickle of sweat ran from his forehead down the side of his face and then dropped to his soaked t-shirt.  He’d been working out in the sun for more than an hour and only now had a shady spot in the covered paddock beside the barn to finish the job.

He glanced up at his friend and fellow bull rider, Stoney Buxton, and winced as he tried to force a bolt that was rusted to the metal.  He’d been afraid of that.

Stoney tipped his cowboy hat back further on his head and crouched down to look at what was giving Jesse so much trouble.  “I think it needs more than just a little bit of oil, Jesse.”

“I can see why Buford was so quick to let this go.  The whole thing needs an overhaul.”  Jesse tapped the underside of the mechanical bull with the wrench he’d been using.

“Yeah, but when we give it some love, she’ll be a good machine for training.  It’ll do the job right.  I just need to work with it some.”

Jesse gave the bolt one more try just to please his friend. Stoney was a lot more optimistic than he was about this steel bull’s future.  He grunted and then to his surprise, the bolt came free.

“Whoohoo!” Stoney hollered, bolting up to his feet.

Jesse laughed.  “You do know there are a lot more bolts on this machine, right?”

“First one is always the toughest.  Thanks for giving it a go.”

The screen door to the kitchen slapped against the doorjamb, bringing Jesse and Stoney’s attention to the young woman walking their way.

“Forget about the mechanical bull, boys.  I may have some trouble with a live one.”

Jesse wiped his hands on a rag and glanced over at Melanie Summers as she walked toward them.  She stopped at the rail leading to the paddock and rested her arm across the top, digging her boot into the dirt in front of the area with the mechanical bull they’d been working on was secured in place.  It was the first of a few bulls Stoney, Melanie’s husband, hoped to set up on the Black Rock Ranch to open his bull riding school.

Melanie’s face was serious.  “Have you ever heard of a healthy bull all of the sudden collapsing in a pasture it’s grazed in its whole life?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I just got off the phone with the owner of Duggan Stock Company.”

Jesse stood up and wiped his brow with the back of his hand.  “Isn’t that the ranch by Cody?  My dad used to know the owner years ago.  What was his name?”

“Zebb Duggan.  He’s passed on and now his daughter Carly runs the ranch.  She’s the one who called.”

For as big as rodeo had become over the last century, it was still a small community.  If you didn’t know someone directly, you usually knew of them.  After being on the circuit for years before he’d become a marine, Jesse was familiar with most of the stock companies that supplied animals for the rodeos.

“What did she want to talk to you about?” Stoney asked.

Melanie cocked her head to one side and gave him a sarcastic smile. “I do know a thing or two about animals in the wild.”

Being bested by his wife, Stoney bent his head slightly.  “I know that, sweetheart.  The Park Services wouldn’t have hired you on as a zoologist otherwise.  But the Duggans run a stock company.  The only cattle you ever get up close to are what’s here on Black Rock.”

“I know my main focus lately has been bison and elk in the Tetons, that’s why I initially thought it was strange that Carly Duggan would call me.  But she wanted to know if I’d seen any strange behavior lately out in the field with other animals.  Something environmental or viral that might be causing otherwise healthy animals to suddenly become sick.”

His interest piqued, Jesse asked, “Sick?  How?”

“She didn’t really want to elaborate on it over the phone so she asked me to stop by so we could talk more about it.”

“Strange,” Jesse said.

Melanie glanced at him quizzically.  “What?”

“You have experience with animals.  I’m not doubting that.  I’m just wondering why she didn’t call a large animal vet.”

“She did.  One of the futurity bulls she’s been showing this year collapsed out in the pasture so she called the veterinarian who treats her stock.”

Stoney whistled low.  “A futurity bull, huh?  She can’t be too happy about losing a bull ready to show himself at the rodeo.”

“It’s not dead.  Just mighty sick.  The vet can’t make heads or tails of it.  He took some blood and is doing a toxicology report.  I’d like to be there when Carly gets the findings from that report.  If it’s environmental or something viral, I want to know about it.  And the park services will want to know so we can monitor it in case we find other animals who’ve died.  I’m heading out to the ranch tomorrow morning to talk with her.”

“I’ll go with you,” Jesse said.

Melanie cocked her head to one side.  “Why?”

“Call it curiosity.”

“I thought you were done with rodeo,” Stoney said, a slight I-told-you-so smile playing on his face.

Jesse stared at the mechanical bull as if it were a living, breathing thing, instead of a device he’d practiced on more times in his life that he could count.  It had been years since he’d been a part of the rodeo circuit thanks to his tours in the marines as a police officer.  Now that the marines were behind him, he was faced with what to do next.  Being a state cop made the most sense, but he wasn’t sure that was what he wanted any more than going back out on the rodeo circuit after ten years of being away.

“Maybe I need a little more time to make that call.”

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