JACK hummed along with the radio as he organized the tack room in the main barn. It was a good day, late spring, with clear indications of the coming summer everywhere around him, green pastures and happy horses. Except Stella, who was bitchy, but she always was when she was in foal.
“Quit your whining, lass. Not worth it. You'll get out in a minute, but we have to wait until the boys clear out. You’ll get all upset when Romeo is anywhere near,” he scolded the mare he could hear making noise in what the other ranch hands called “Jack’s Barn.”
“You know, it’s quite endearing when you use that word, right?” A female voice asked from outside the tack room, and Jack rolled his eyes a bit before turning around.
“It’s your husband’s fault, Mer. You know that.” Jack smiled as he walked out of the room and into the barn.
“Oh, I know all about his ‘lads’ and ‘lasses’, trust me. Even though you’ve been married to this place longer than I’ve been married to him, I still say living in that house 24/7 gives me the privilege to say I get to listen to his accent and funny Scottish words more,” Meredith said as she wrote something on one of the chalkboards on the wall. She and Jack’s boss, Seamus, had been married for six years now, and Jack was envious of the way the two looked at each other. Seamus had once told him that when a McRae found what he was looking for, he grabbed it and held on to it, no matter if it was land, a horse, or the perfect mate.
“What’s up?” Jack asked, nodding to the board which held the general information everyone needed to know.
“Oh, just that the farrier is coming over to check on Lucky and Tessa on Monday,” Mer said and then looked at the door leading to Jack’s Barn. “She okay in there?”
“You know her. I think I’m actually more nervous than she is. Luckily she’s more bitchy.” Jack chuckled as he walked to the adjoining doorway and peeked into the mare’s stall.
“I hear Rick and Eli are going to go out to the back fence. They might not be back until late, so don’t get all worried if Flash and Ginger are missing later,” Mer said on her way out of the door.
“Right, thanks. When’s Seamus going out?” he called after her.
“Soon. He’s finishing some paperwork. If you want to get rid of Romeo, just saddle him for Seamus if you have time.” She waved her hand as she walked toward the house again.
It was a pretty decent gig, being the stable master of Seamus’s ranch. Ten years ago the young Jackson Way had gotten on the bus elsewhere in Texas and ended up in town. From there he had hitched a ride to Red River Ranch or the “Triple R” as it was known around here. No, he had no appointment, but he had heard that the Scotsman who had bought the place some years before needed more men. The locals were saying good things about the foreigner, and it encouraged Jack to try his luck. It turned out that the “foreigner” had lived in the States for most of his life.
When he walked into the main house, he had been terrified. He’d heard that Seamus McRae was a massive man with a booming voice and very little patience for stupidity. At twenty-five Jack wasn’t quite sure if he was over the stupidity yet. He hoped so, because with his five-foot-ten frame, he was no match for someone who they said was at least six four and built like a draft horse.
Needless to say, he was quite surprised when the Scot had been a jovial, easygoing fellow who, despite his size, had laughed a lot and been very friendly. It took Jack half an hour to get hired as a stable hand, and he hadn’t left since. A couple of years after he had been hired, the old stable master, Greg Jenkins, had retired and moved to Houston where his daughter was living. Jack had been nervous as hell. After all it wasn’t something he would ask for, the job.
He didn’t have to ask. The evening before Greg’s departure in the gatehouse, as the staff’s quarters were called, there was a knock on the door. Seamus walked in, and the youngest ranch hands cleared out. Only Greg, Jack, and some others were left.
“Lads,” Seamus had greeted them, and everyone, even Greg, who was a good fifteen years older than the boss, had murmured a greeting. “Jackson, can I talk to you and Greg in private?” Seamus had asked and that had cleared the room completely.
They had sat in the kitchen and Seamus had looked from Jack to Greg and back before grinning widely. “So, Greg here is leavin’ us to go live with his lass. Now I’m wondering who should be the stable master. What do you two have to say to that?” Then Seamus had leaned back in his usual style and grinned at them again.
“As I see it, Jack is more than capable. Besides, he knows more about the breeding side of things than I do. I’m more of a straightforward cowboy type with the horses. If you’re going into breeding, you need him here. He might be a tad young, but he can do it all,” Greg had said and Jack had been in awe. First of all, it was the most he had heard the older man talk, ever. Secondly, he was getting praise, which didn’t happen often at all. Not because he was doing a bad job or anything, but because Greg just didn’t give praise to anyone.
“Jack?” Seamus’s eyes had turned to him, and Jack had swallowed hard.
“Well… I mean sure, I want the job more than anything. There’s just….” He swallowed again, fidgeted, and then blushed. At twenty-seven he was pretty much over the whole blushing thing or so he had thought, but no.
“Aye?” Seamus had asked and raised a brow at his stuttering.
“I’m… there’s something you need to know… about me. Before you hire me for anything more than a stable hand.” Jack had forced the words out and then cleared his throat when all he got was silence. He looked back at Seamus and forced the rest of his confession out, “I’m gay.”
“Oh…,” Seamus said, and Greg looked away. Jack tried to figure out what it was Seamus was thinking, but couldn’t really come to any conclusions. Then all of sudden a huge grin was back on Seamus’s face, and he laughed heartily, much to Jack’s surprise and shock.
“That certainly explains the last three years. I mean you never seem to be quite as lively as when the carnival is in town. And I happen to know that a certain blond plays on your team.” Then Seamus had laughed even more, and Jack had blushed beetroot red. Even Greg had chuckled under his breath.
Had he been that transparent? His first year at the ranch had been okay, but when the carnival came into town and he had gone to the bar with the ranch hands, he had met Peter. Now Peter was nothing like Jack. He was a six-foot-two blond god. A god with piercings and tattoos and a lanky body with lean muscles and the most erotic voice Jack had ever heard.
Yeah, he had fallen hard and fast and spent three nights in Peter’s trailer, having the time of his life. That was how it went from there on—every year, for three or four nights at the end of July, the carnival came in. Jack would sneak away from Three R and get fucked into oblivion by the gorgeous Peter.
“Eh… yeah…,” he had mumbled, and after a moment Seamus had gotten more serious again.
“You gotta know that it makes no difference to me. Hell, I have a nephew who’s gay, and I never had any problem with that. I mean I might have been raised as a Catholic, but it’s my folks’ beliefs, not mine,” Seamus had said. “So you want the job or not?”
“Hell yes!” Jack had grinned. They had shaken on it. And that had been it.
“Oh, if you ever have any trouble with anyone on the ranch, you come straight to me, you hear? It’s not something I’ll tolerate. Just like I don’t tolerate any sort of racism,” Seamus had said very, very seriously before leaving the gatehouse again.
The next morning the trio—Jackson, Greg and Seamus—were at the main barn when the ranch hands came to get the horses for their tasks around the ranch. It didn’t seem to surprise anyone. Nobody was against Jack’s new position. Some of the older guys even told him they’d know where to start looking for broodmares, and he got congratulated a lot. Then the little crowd dispersed, and he was left alone in his new kingdom.
“Jack’s Barn” came along that same year, a few months later. They renovated the empty part of the old barn and made it fit for mares and foals. Everything was top of the line, and the old main barn got touched up too. When everything was done, Jack hired two people, with Seamus’s approval, to help with the barn duties part-time. That made Jack able to work more on the mares and the research he needed to do to find every mare the perfect counterpart stallion to produce the best possible foals.
Now, seven years later, the business was flourishing. They had seven mares and two stallions of their own. Not that many really, but the quality was what they were looking for and every year their yearlings were auctioned in the next big city for top dollar. Nobody was complaining. The cattle were still the main moneymaker of the ranch, but Jack and his horses weren’t doing badly either. It was something he took pride in. After all, before coming to the Triple R, he had been told he’d never be anything good, nothing but a no-good faggot who deserved everything bad that would happen to him. Yeah, it hadn’t been pleasant back home just before he left.
This year was special, though. Stella, Jack’s favorite mare, was in foal, and this foal was different. It was a mix, for one. They usually only bred quarter horses, but this foal’s sire was a thoroughbred. The second difference was that it wasn’t just any foal, it was Jack’s foal.
Until now he hadn’t had a horse of his own. He didn’t seem to be able to make that special connection to any of the horses in either barn. There were plenty to choose from, but no. He was picky, and he got teased over it. Sure he had a few he preferred over the others if he had to go riding for something, but not one he loved. Maybe it was sentimental, at least a couple of the ranch hands thought so, to want a deeper connection with a horse like that. Usually he rode Red, a big quarter gelding that was fine, but a bit of a bore most of the time. He only got excited when he got to race after cattle, and Jack really wanted his horse to have a bit more spark than that.
He hoped this foal would be it. His horse. At least it had all the theoretical chances of being it. He was hoping for a filly, but had a feeling that it was a colt. A filly would have been easier to train, but then again colts were more straightforward types. No matter what people said, stallions were Jackson’s favorite kind of horses. If you let them run you over, they would do just that, but if you treated them fairly and didn’t isolate them from other horses, they were great. It didn’t mean he wanted a stallion for himself, though. Then again, he could handle one, and it could always be gelded later.
The closer the due date came, the antsier he got. That day was easier for some reason. He was in a better mood, at least for now.
It lasted until he was taking Romeo, Seamus’s favorite mutt of a horse, out of the paddock. The gelding tried to run through the gate, squishing Jack against the fence post and knocking the air out of him. Luckily he was so used to all this that he would probably be dead before letting go of the lead rope. Romeo was always alone in the paddock. He was too cranky and territorial for other horses to be around him, so there was no harm letting the gate open as he staggered a few steps after the massive gelding.
“Sonofabitch…,” he wheezed. As soon as he got air into his lungs, he rose to his full height and yanked the lead rope so sharply the horse jerked toward him, eyes wide and body language betraying its shock. If Jack was anything, he was just. He never hit the horses, never raised his voice unless necessary. Sometimes the animals thought they could walk over him, but it took very little to get them back in line again. There was a natural aura about Jack that made it possible for him to make the horses, and humans alike mostly, not that he noticed, do exactly as he said with as little fuss as possible.
“What the hell were you thinking, you moron?” he hissed at the gelding that looked at him in a way that would have told anyone the horse was feeling sheepish.
He ignored the gelding, the best punishment for this particular animal, and walked toward the barn doors. The lead rope was loose, swinging between his hand and Romeo’s halter, all the way into the middle of the barn aisle where he tied the horse from both sides and left it there to rot for a moment.
Jack walked into the mares’ barn and got Stella out. Had she been able, she would have hissed at Romeo when Jack walked her past the gelding’s head.
“Seriously, girl?” he mumbled and went to put her into the now empty paddock closest to the barn doors. He needed to be able to look after her and get her inside as soon as possible if she happened to go into labor.
He was brushing Romeo, now content and relaxed after realizing he wasn’t being abandoned forever, when Seamus walked into the stable. Romeo let out a soft neigh, and the big man chuckled.
“Morning to you, too, Romeo. Jack.” He nodded and went to get Romeo’s saddle and bridle from the tack room.
“Anything special going on around here today?” Jackson asked when the boss came back with the tack.
“Nope, nothing I can think. Well, one thing,” Seamus said, and Jack raised a brow at him. “We’re getting a ranch farrier.”
“Oh?” Jack asked, trying to keep the doubt out of his tone. A few others had come in over the years and worked as the ranch farrier and/or blacksmith. They lasted a while, but nobody quite fit for some reason. The last one they’d had was just fine during the weeks, but when the weekend came, he went out with the ranch hands and got drunk. That would’ve been just fine, if he hadn’t been hung over until Tuesday, just to start over again on Friday. Needless to say, the horses and the work were pretty much neglected during the weekends. A month later, he had been kindly laid off, and they’d been without a farrier since.
“Aye, a nephew of mine. He’s young, but very good with the horses, and he’s been apprenticing and taking courses from a blacksmith back in Scotland before he came to the States. He’s been here for four years now, very bright lad, and he’s worked all around.” Seamus gestured with his hand before swinging the saddle on the horse.
“Oh….” Jack was feeling very eloquent today, not that it was new.
“So don’t worry. Blair is a good lad. You’ll do fine with him around,” Seamus said. “He’ll be here tomorrow or the day after.”
Jackson watched as the boss walked his horse out of the barn, mounted it, and rode off. He didn’t know which nephew Blair was. Seamus had a traditional Catholic family, a huge one, both back in Scotland and in the States. There were about two dozen nieces and nephews. Jack had met a few, and all of them had been tall, robust people. He just hoped that this guy would be okay, good at his job, and easy to work with.
He knew two of Seamus’s older sisters had moved back to the UK at some point, so the guy had to be one of their kids. If he had done apprenticeship and been working for years, maybe he was in his late twenties? That wouldn’t be too bad. Jackson was thirty-five now, and even though Seamus was only fifteen years older than him and Meredith ten years, he often felt like he was the son Seamus and Mer never had. Not because he got babied, because that wasn’t the case. It was more about the fact that he was the youngest guy who had worked on the ranch more than a couple of years. Even the older ranch hands treated him a bit like a son sometimes. It was all good. He still had his independence around the barns and all, but it could get on his nerves too.
Sometimes he wished he had enough time to learn more than just the basics of shoeing a horse. He could keep them all in shoe, make sure they were okay and all, just like quite a few of the other guys around the ranch could. It was a basic thing, really. You learned something when you worked on horseback more than when you walked around. Kind of like learning to change a tire on your car if you spent most of your day in it—it made sense and came more or less naturally.
It was just that Jack never had time to learn because there was always something else coming up. And, so far, they’d had Everett, the town farrier, who could take a look if something was amiss worse than usual, like Monday’s appointment. Jack wondered why this new guy—Blair, was it?—couldn’t take care of Lucky and Tessa, as he’d arrive a full two days before Everett had a chance to get to them. He figured he’d find out tomorrow.
When they renovated the barns, they added a loft to the part where the mares would be. It really wasn’t much, just a space with a little kitchenette, a bedroom, and a little bathroom, with the living room area taking most of the space. The idea was to have Jack living there with an unobstructed view of the mares’ barn. The wall on the barn’s side was glass above waist level, which meant he could see the horses below. It made things so much easier for him, and well, it was just perfect anyway. He liked his privacy, and now that he had his own place, whenever Peter came to town, he could come to the ranch instead of Jack going back to his trailer.
Yeah, he was pretty much openly gay now. Some people tried to pour their prejudiced crap on him when he had to go to town, but it wasn’t often and at home he was left alone. Nobody wanted to face the wrath of the big boss man, so they were okay. Besides, it was probably easy to ignore the whole issue, as there weren’t any hookups or boyfriends.
For the last ten years, Jack had gotten laid only during the nights Peter was in town. Sure the quantity was huge, he was bowlegged for days after the carnival left and got all the ribbing possible from the guys at the ranch, but it was still just a few nights. So no, he had no sex life, thus the issue just not being there.
It went as far as to when he was being especially cranky or snapped at people, someone would occasionally say something like “it’s time for the carnival to get into town,” meaning that he should get laid sooner rather than later to loosen up a bit. It was four more months now. Well, actually it was three months and twenty-three days, but who was counting?
Of course there was talk, in the quiet hours after they had satisfied their urges, words about Peter settling down eventually. The hint of settling down with Jack was there some years but not every year, and certainly not often enough for Jack to believe that would ever happen, but the wistfulness was there in the blond’s tone anyway.
That evening Jack was having his dinner upstairs, watching some TV while doing so, and chilling out when a sound from below alerted him. A neigh, to be exact, and not one of those normal ones. He knew that sound anywhere. A mare in labor. He shoveled the rest of his lasagna into his mouth and jogged down the stairs and into the barn. He was right. Stella was getting restless. Jack dug his cell from his pocket and pressed two to speed-dial their vet.
“Michelle?” he said as soon as she answered.
“It’s Jack from Three R.”
“Oh, hey, Jack. It’s time?” the cheerful sounding middle-aged woman asked.
“Yeah, looks like it,” Jack replied, opening the stable door and stepping in.
“I’ll keep you in mind. Text me if it goes okay. If something looks to be wrong, don’t hesitate to call me, okay? I know what this foal means to you,” Dr. Michelle Hunter said in a compassionate tone.
“Yeah, yeah… okay. Bye.” Jack nodded even if she couldn’t see him and tried to breathe. It wasn’t always like this. He was never this nervous, and he hoped to calm down before the mare would pick up on his nervous energy.
Michelle, or “Chelle,” was their regular vet, someone very good with horses and cattle alike. She was a friend too. He even went to get drinks with her sometimes in town. Michelle had told him to do this in the first place, to get the horse he wanted, finally. She had been right. He just hoped everything went okay, and the foal would be what he had been expecting.
It turned out to be a long, long evening, then night. Just when he was finally about to call Chelle again, the mare settled down and began to push. It took less than fifteen minutes for her to push out the foal, and it was almost immediately kicking, and snorting, and trying to get on its wobbly feet. Jack sat there in the corner of the stall, silently watching the miracle of life in front of him. He took out his phone and sent a text to Chelle: “Black colt. Everything OK.”
“Well, isn’t he a bonny lad?” a deep voice asked quietly from outside the stall, making Jack grin tiredly.
“He really is,” he agreed and got up, looking at a beaming Seamus.
“Stella looks okay?” he asked, and Jack nodded.
“Yeah, she’s fine. The foal came out really fast when she finally got to it. Took all night to get there, though,” Jack said and then yawned widely.
“I called Callie. She’s coming to do the morning stuff and will keep an eye on these two as well. You need to rest. It’s already four in the morning, and when I saw the light on in here, I guessed this was happening,” Seamus said quietly, and Jack nodded. There was no reason to deny that he was beat.
“I feel so fucking old… even five years back, these late nights did nothing to me, but now I feel like a zombie.”
“Trust me, when you get to fifty, you’ll be missing thirty-five.” Seamus grinned. “Hey, why don’t you go upstairs and get some sleep? I’ll finish up here.”
“Okay.” Jack yawned again and his jaw popped. “Hell…,” he muttered as he staggered toward the stairs. He was barely out of his boots and jeans before he collapsed in his comfortable bed.