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In the pale light of early morning Jake Taggart told himself it was just another day, knowing full well he was lying. It was far more than an ordinary work day and everyone on the ranch knew it. He could see it in the smiles, the way all the hands stuck close to the main house and the barn even after he'd set out the work orders for the day. The men were lingering, and he knew why. He just wasn't sure that anything was really going to happen.
Tornado was like the rest of them, leaning indolently against the barn door, his arms crossed over his chest. "Be time for breakfast soon," Tor said as Jake wandered past, restless.
"Yep." As conversations went, it was a non-starter. Jake didn't want to talk about breakfast and Tor never could stop himself from talking when he was nervous. Jake shoved his hat higher on his head and looked around. "This lot is going to stick close until..." He trailed off, not precisely sure what would make everyone go to work like the good little cowboys they were. He shrugged one shoulder and kicked at the dirt. "Until."
Tor nodded slowly. "Yep."
"Don't know that anything special is going to happen," Jake said. He was actually pretty sure that nothing momentous was going to happen at all. The legal matters had all been dealt with at the lawyer's office and he and Tor already had the keys. They'd even moved most of their things over to their new home from their room in the bunkhouse.
"Don't know that it isn't," Tor said lazily. "And you know they'd hate to miss anything." He looked around, squinting a bit. "Know soon enough, I expect." His jaw lifted, pointing toward the big house, and Jaketurned slowly.
Doug Gillian, the man Jake would always think of as The Boss even if he didn't own the ranch anymore, was standing on the porch of the main house. He was holding a suitcase and quietly looking out over the yard, not saying anything at all, his expression calm and contemplative. One by one, the hands noticed him and fell silent, then walked up to the railing, heads angled up to better see his face.
Jake and Tor joined them wordlessly, walking shoulder to shoulder until they were at the front of the pack.
"Mornin'," the Boss said with a faint smile. "Big day."
There was a murmur of agreement among the men, but Jake held his tongue. The day had been a long time coming, filled with negotiations and banks and long talks over the kitchen table. He and Tor had worked damn hard to get the money together to buy out the Boss, but they'd done it. Bought the land, the stock, the horses; hell, even the vehicles, bar the one truck waiting in the drive. Everything connected to the ranch was theirs, had been for a day and half while the Boss tidied up a few loose ends. And now it was time for the man to say his piece and drive off, leaving them to sink or swim.
Before Jake could even feel more than a little dizzy, Tor's hand landed on the small of his back. "Easy, Taggart," he said softly. "We'll be fine."
He nodded and backed up a few steps, watching as the Boss came down from the porch and tossed his suitcase into the back of his truck. Jake and Tor hung back as he then made his way through the group of ranch workers, shaking outstretched hands and saying a few words to each man. Jake knew that he'd also spent part of the day before talking to everyone and handing out discreet envelopes; it might have only been a few dollars each, but Doug Gillian was the kind of man who shared his good fortune and rewarded hard work. Some of the hands had worked for him for more than a dozen years or more, the same as Jake, and they would be rewarded for their friendship.
Finally, though, the Boss was done, save Tor and Jake himself. But instead of going to them, he grinned and looked at Elias and Bobby. "Do me one last job?" he asked, his voice almost booming in the quiet.
"Yes, sir," Bobby said with a nod. "What do you need?"
The Boss gestured to the truck. "Got something in back I want put up at the end of the drive. Soon as you can manage it."
Elias and Bobby went to the truck and climbed up into the bed, then heaved a large wrought iron sign out, their grins growing despite its weight. "We'll take care of it," Elias called back, two more hands stepping up to help lift it down.
"Christ," Tor said in a low voice. "That sure is pretty."
Jake nodded, not sure what to say. The sign was big, big enough that he wasn't sure how it fit flat in the truck. The scrollwork wasn't fancy or elaborate, but the frame of it was arched and elegant. KaroJet Ranch was spelled out in swooping metal, and there was a flower in the lower right corner. "Apple blossom?" Jake finally asked, staring at the wrought iron sign.
The Boss nodded. "Arkansas state flower. Seemed right."
"It's right. All of it is right," Jake said, still looking at the sign. Elias and Bobby waited until Tor nodded, then started moving it to one of the ranch trucks. "Thank you," Jake said, turning to the Boss. "It's ... it means a lot."
He got a nod and suddenly the three of them were standing alone, the hands backing off to give them their space. Jake noted it, appreciated it, but he had more appreciation of the way the Boss was shaking his hand.
"I'm glad it's like this," the Boss said quietly. "You've been here a long time, Jake, and I don't think it's going too far to say that it's damn close to leaving the place with family. You grew up here, and it's right that you and Tor bought it. I feel good leaving this spread in your hands."
Jake swallowed hard. There really wasn't anything he could say to that, to the man who'd helped him put his life back on track and given him a home when he most needed it. "Thank you, Doug," he finally said, his voice tight. "We'll do our best here."
"Know you will." The Boss turned to Tor and shook his hand as well, smiling. "Keep him out of trouble, yeah? And make sure he doesn't work too hard."
Tor laughed quietly and nodded. "Set me an easy task, why don't you?"
"Hey, you picked him." The Boss's smile grew wider and he stepped back. "You got a ranch to run here. No more standing around now, you hear?"
Jake nodded and followed him to the cab of the truck. "Back to work, boys," he called, trying to keep his smile open and easy, though it was hard. "Don't make me regret this whole thing."
"Yes, sir, Boss," someone yelled, laughing, and Jake felt himself start to blush. Boss. Christ.
Doug Gillian got in his truck and looked around once more before starting it up. "Gonna miss this place, Jake," he said as Jake leaned on the truck. "Stay in touch."
"You know it," Jake assured him. "Got your number on the wall by the phone."
"Don't worry about using it."
Jake nodded and stepped back, thumping the door of the truck. "Drive safe."
"Ride safe," Doug said with a nod. Then he pulled away and Jake watched as he drove down the long lane and out to the road.
Gillian's spread was now KaroJet Ranch, and Jake stood blinking in the morning sun, his fingers crossed in his pocket.