When Ray Justice receives a phone call that his father has died, he's shocked. As far as he knew, his father passed away twenty-three years earlier. Adding to the confusion, he finds that he's inherited a large cattle ranch in Montana.
Alfred Deacon came to the J Bar Ranch as a broken cowboy in search of acceptance and honest work. What he found was a best friend and a group of cowboys he'd do anything for. When Ray walks into his life, Deacon is torn between loyalties to his dead friend and desire so strong it makes him weak.
Ray comes face-to-face with a past he didn't know he had and a man he didn't know he needed.
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Reining in the Past by Carol Lynne
Ray Justice looked from the daunting stack of papers to the setting sun out the large window of his office. There was a time when he was under the impression that once you became established in your job, the work evened out. Not so, at least not for employees of Brockway, Lee and Thompson.
The advertising firm was one of the top in the nation and Ray was riding a pretty impressive wave of awards for his ad campaigns. His gaze moved to the dormant drafting table on the opposite side of the room. He was paid a hefty salary to come up with new and innovative campaigns, so why was the majority of his day spent doing paperwork?
His ringing cell phone broke up his little self-absorbed pity party. He frowned at the caller display, not recognizing the long distance number. "Probably a damn telemarketer," he mumbled. Still, a phone call was better than tackling the rest of the waiting paperwork.
"Ray Justice," he answered, swinging his feet to the top of his glass and chrome desk.
"Raymond Eli Justice, Jr?"
"Yes. May I help you?"
"My name is James Krueger, from the Law Office of Krueger and Westmoor in Red Lodge, Montana. I'm representing your late father's estate and I was hoping to set up a meeting with you after his funeral."
Ray stifled a gasp before it could escape. "I'm sorry, you must have the wrong Ray Justice. My father died over twenty-three years ago."
"Are you Raymond Eli Justice, born in West Seneca, New York, January 23, 1982?"
"Yes, that's me, but like I've already told you, my father died when I was three." He almost hung up on the guy. Ray hadn't discussed his namesake since he was seven years old and had made his mother cry.
"I'm sorry to be the one to inform you this, but Raymond Eli Justice, Sr., died two days ago on his ranch in Montana."
* * * * *
Still numb from his earlier conversation, Ray pulled his car into the small detached garage and turned off the engine. His gaze settled on the tools over the workbench to his left. Lined up like soldiers, the tools had been the only things he had that were his father's.
Ray took pride in making sure they were maintained in a way that would make his dad proud. Getting out of the low-slung sports car, he ran a hand over the sharp, oiled implements that he'd never learned to use. Why had he left them?
With a sigh, Ray turned and grabbed his briefcase out of the passenger seat. After locking up the garage, he let himself into his boyhood home. Everything looked somehow different to him.
It had been over eight years since his mother's death and very little about the house had changed. Ray tossed his keys onto the yellow Formica and chrome table and headed upstairs to the attic.
If his mother had secrets he'd uncover them in the boxes she'd kept stored in the seldom-visited space. Using a chair from his desk, Ray grabbed the short cord of the trap door and pulled. The rusty hinges gave a squeal as the ladder began to unfold. He hopped off the chair and settled the bottom of the ladder against the scarred wooden floor.
He wasn't sure what he'd find in the old trunks, but something told him his life was about to change.
* * * * *
Ray bent over his mother's grave and removed stray debris from the simple headstone. When Isabella Justice had passed away, Ray had still been in college and unable to afford anything elaborate. Now the stone shamed him. He earned a tidy sum, so why hadn't he thought to repay his mom for all the years of hard work she'd performed in his name?
"I finally dug through all those old boxes you had stored."
He leaned back on his heels and stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. "Why didn't you tell me? Why lie all these years?"
The divorce papers he'd found in his mother's attic had been a surprise discovery. He'd spent the remainder of the evening trying to come to terms with his mother's betrayal.
He started to walk off, but stopped and turned back. "Maybe you were just trying to protect me. I get that, really I do. But don't you think I deserved to know my dad was still alive? Or was it easier for you to think of him as being dead?"
Ray sighed and studied the surrounding grave markers. "I'm taking some time off. Hell, I'm not sure I'll even have a job to come back to, but I need to go. His funeral's Monday and for some reason, I think it's important for me to be there. I don't know why, maybe I'm going to spit on his grave, or maybe just for the chance to see what was more important to him than we were."
* * * * *
Ray tossed the map onto the passenger seat and made a left. He drove under the large J Bar ranch sign and with sweating palms. When he'd stopped in the small town of Red Lodge for directions, the guy seemed to know just where Ray needed to go. Was the J Bar that well known?
He winced as the undercarriage of his rented luxury sedan scraped against the rutted dirt road. Good thing I took the added insurance. He crested a rolling hill and gasped as the J Bar came into view, buildings of all sizes laid out in a storybook valley below. Crap. He'd wanted to hate the place, but how could anyone not see the beauty of the ranch?
He noticed a group of cowboys gathered around the largest barn and pulled up close to them. A press of a button and the driver's side window slid smoothly down. "Excuse me. Are any of you Alfred Deacon?"
A young cowboy chuckled. "Alfred? Is that Deacon's first name?" The man turned back to his friends. "Hell, boys, we've got some teasin' to do."
The majority of the cowboys were laughing as they walked off. Ray couldn't believe they were going to just ignore his initial question. "I take it he's not here."
One of the men stepped closer to the car and pointed toward the barn. "You'll find Deacon in the tack room. He's always the last one to show up for lunch."
"Thanks." Ray rolled up the window and turned off the engine. He watched through the rearview mirror as the group of cowboys walked into a small building across the dirt road.
With a deep breath, Ray climbed out of the car and reached back inside for his suit jacket. After attempting to get as many wrinkles out of his charcoal gray pants as he could, he entered the barn. He glanced around. What the hell is a tack room?
"Hello? Mr. Deacon?"
"Back here," a deep voice responded.
Ray grinned for the first time in two days. Alfred Deacon's voice sounded exactly like one of those cowboys from the movies, low and gravely, like Deacon had smoked too many cigarettes in his lifetime.
He walked to the back of the barn and down a slight slope into, what he assumed was the tack room. Ray's first glimpse of his father's ranch manager surprised him. Deacon appeared to be in his mid-thirties, much younger than Ray would've guessed, and gorgeous. "Mr. Deacon?"
Deacon glanced up from the saddle he was working on. "Fuck."
Ray's eyes rounded. "Excuse me?"
Deacon shook his head and walked toward Ray, hand extended. "Sorry. You threw me there for a second. You're the spitting image of your dad."
Ray shifted uncomfortably. "I wouldn't know."
Deacon stopped and dropped his hand to the side. "Yeah. I guess you wouldn't. Sorry about that."
Ray shrugged. Sympathy was something he'd never felt comfortable with and for some reason, getting it from the six-foot-four gorgeous cowboy with dark chocolate eyes made it even worse.
Now it was Deacon's turn to look uncomfortable. He hooked his thumb in his front pocket and nodded toward the doorway. "You eaten?"
Ray shook his head. "I came straight from the airport in Billings. I wasn't sure how long it would take and I wanted to make sure I made it here before dark."
Chuckling, Deacon waved for Ray to follow him. "This is Montana, not the end of the earth. Although some winters when the snow reaches the roofline, it starts to feel like it. Why don't you join me for lunch in the cookhouse?"
"Okay, if you think no one will mind."
"Mind? Hell, you own the place now. After lunch I'll take you over to the main house and help get you settled." Deacon climbed the steps to the small building he'd seen the cowboys enter earlier. He stopped and poured some steaming water into a bowl and began to wash his hands in the makeshift sink.
After Deacon was finished, he stepped back. Ray wasn't sure if he was expected to wash his hands or not, but decided to follow suit just in case. He took off his suit jacket and glanced around for a place to hang it.
"I'll take it."
"Thanks." Ray handed off the jacket and rolled up his sleeves before mimicking the procedure Deacon had used.
"Do you mind telling me how my father died?" Ray asked.
"You don't know?"
Ray shook his head. "I was just told he died."
"One of the hands found him down by the river. He'd evidently had a heart attack, fell from his horse and hit his head on a rock."
"So what killed him, the heart attack or the fall?"
Deacon shrugged. "Doesn't much matter. Dead is dead."
Once Ray's hands were dry, he reached for his jacket.
"That's okay. I'll hang it up for you." Deacon opened the screen door and walked through a small mudroom where he stopped to hang the expensive jacket on a wooden peg.
Ray winced at the thought of the thousand dollar piece of clothing being treated like an ordinary denim jacket. He followed Deacon into the large room filled with long tables lined with chairs.
"I'd like you all to meet Ray Justice, Jr.," Deacon introduced him.
Half the jaws in the room dropped. The cowboys began firing off questions.
"What? RJ had a son?"
"Why didn't we know that?" another man asked.
Deacon held up his hands and shook his head. "RJ didn't do anything without good reason and you know that. Now stop acting like a bunch of jackasses and introduce yourselves."
The first young cowboy he'd spoken to on the ranch stepped forward, his hand extended. "I'm Cody Williams. Been working at the J Bar for close to six years. I handle the guests."
Ray shook the man's hand. "Guests? I thought this was a cattle ranch?"
"We open the ranch up to paid guests from the end of May through mid-October. Ranching alone isn't enough anymore to make a spread of this size profitable, so we use the added revenue the guests bring in to keep us afloat," Deacon explained.
Ray glanced around the room. "So where are the guests? Do they eat in another dining hall or something?"
"Nope. They eat right here with us. The last batch left this morning. We've got another small group coming in tomorrow," Deacon further explained.
Another cowboy stood up. "Hi, Ray. I'm Neil, the J Bar cow boss. I help coordinate the grazing fields with the manager, uh, that'd be Deacon. I also take some of the guests along to put out minerals for the cattle and stuff like that."
"Neil sells himself short," Deacon butted in. "He's also the best damn roper I've ever known, as well as field vet for the cattle out in the pastures."
A handsome man with dark red hair stood and touched the bill of his baseball cap. "I'm Jimmy. I only work the summer months. I'm a student at the University of Montana. While I'm here, I help with a little of everything, from taking guests on trail rides to helping move head from one pasture to another."
"Pleased to meet you." Ray glanced at Deacon. "Head?"
"Ranching term for cattle."
Ray nodded, feeling like an idiot. "Of course."
"And Griggs is our head horse wrangler. He's also the only cowboy you're likely to see with a ponytail."
Ray grinned and shook the Native American's hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Deacon went on to introduce a few more of the wranglers. "We've also got some part timers who're out mowing and readying the cabins for the arrival of our guests in the morning."
A woman came out of the kitchen drying her hands on a small towel. "If you two don't stop flapping your jaws and eat, everything will be colder than a well digger's ass."
Deacon chuckled. "And the vision of loveliness behind the counter is our weekend cook, Libby. During the week, Martha is the regular cook. Martha's known to everyone as Mother. When we have guests on hand, she has an assistant, Donna, who comes in to help. Other than that, it looks like all we're missing is Beth, who runs the office, Taggert, who's attending his little brother's football game, and the few part-timers spread out doing chores. I'll introduce you to them later."
Deacon picked up a plate and handed it to Ray. "We serve all the food buffet-style, so help yourself. If there's something in particular you want, just ask Libby or Mother. They're usually pretty accommodating."
Ray filled his plate with salad, some green beans and the smallest piece of fried chicken he could find before sitting in one of the empty chairs.
Deacon's long legs straddled the chair next to Ray as he settled in with his heaping plate of food. He glanced at Ray's plate and shook his head. "Not sure that little plate of food is gonna get you through 'til supper."
"I normally don't eat lunch, so I'm sure I'll be fine." Ray ate a large bite of his salad, impressed with the ranch dressing--it definitely hadn't come out of a bottle.
Deacon reached for the basket of rolls and set it between them. "I'll fill you in on more of the basics once we get you settled."
Ray nodded. He removed the skin from his chicken and ate a small piece of the meat. "So how many cows does this place have?"
"We don't call them cows, remember? They're cattle or head."
"Sorry. Guess I have a lot to learn. I've never even been on a horse, except the kind at the fair that go round and round in a circle."
Jimmy snorted and Deacon shot him a reprimanding look. "Well, you came to the right place to learn. We've got horses for all skill levels. Later I'll introduce you to a few of my favorites."
"I need to call my father's attorney and let him know I'm here. He wants me to come by his office in Red Lodge after the funeral on Monday. Is that where the funeral will be, in Red Lodge?"
"Yes and no. Visitation is tomorrow night in Red Lodge at RJ's favorite bar, but the burial will be here on the ranch, Monday morning."
Deacon nodded as he swallowed a bite of food. "The J Bar has been in the Justice family for four generations, you make it five. There's a small family cemetery up on the ridge. Shallow Valley's on one side, the ranch buildings on the other."
Four generations? Ray hadn't even met his grandparents on his mother's side. He couldn't imagine having something stay in a family for four generations. And five? Ray knew that wasn't going to happen. His life was back east, not in Montana.
Before he could tell Deacon, the handsome man spoke again. "There's been an outfit out of Billings that have been trying to buy the place for several years. I'll bet they'll be shocked as hell to find out a fifth generation Justice has shown up. I'm sure that's partly what James Krueger wants to talk to you about."
Ray pushed his plate away. What little appetite he'd had was gone. He knew he needed to tell Deacon the truth. "Well, to be honest. The ranch might do better in someone else's hands. I work in marketing. I don't know the first thing about running a place like this. I thought I'd ask Mr. Krueger to find a buyer for the ranch."
Deacon set down his fork and turned to face Ray. "I'm hoping you'll reconsider. The people who're interested in buying want to put up a resort complete with hotels, apartments and condos. There won't be any "ranch" left after they're finished. And as far as the ranch goes, you don't need to know how to run it. You've got people who can do that for you."
Although Ray knew he wasn't going to change his mind, he couldn't tell Deacon in a room full of men who depended on the ranch for their livelihood. "I'll think about it."
* * * * *
Deacon unlocked the ornately carved front door of the main house and led the way inside. "Well, this is it. You've got four bedrooms upstairs and a master down here. RJ always shut off the upstairs, preferring to sleep down here to conserve the propane, but take some time to look around. It's your house now."
Ray looked around the room. A photograph on the fireplace caught his attention. He walked over and lifted it off the mantle. It was a small group of men and women. "You keep saying things like that, but none of this feels like mine. I don't know any of the people in this photograph. I mean, I know this one is my father, but only because I found a picture of him in my mom's attic yesterday."
Deacon walked over within reach of the picture. "The older man is your grandpa, Ben, and that's your grandma, Gloria. I'm not real sure, but I think those other two men worked for your grandpa."
Ray glanced over his shoulder. "Do you know why he did it? Why he left us...me?
"Not really. He said something once when he was drunk that always had me wondering though."
"What'd he say?" Ray gazed at the image of his father. Although RJ's hair was cut in a different style, Ray could tell he also had the same unruly mess that had plagued him his entire life. In the black and white photograph, Ray couldn't tell if they shared the same green eyes. Ray figured they did since his mom's had been blue. He reached up and absently ran his fingers over the deep dimple in his left cheek. Just like Ray, RJ had a dimple on the left side of his face.
"He said if he'd had his life to do over again, he'd have done a lot of things differently."
Ray put the picture back on the mantle. "Did he ever talk about me?"
Deacon rested a hand on Ray's shoulder. "Once a year, towards the end of January, he'd lock himself in the house and go on a three- or four-day bender."
Ray bit his bottom lip. Had his father remembered? "My birthday's January 23rd."
"I figured as much, once he finally told me about you," Deacon admitted.
Deacon knew about me? "When was that?"
"A little more than three years ago, I'd guess." Deacon picked up an old baseball from the mantle.
"Can you tell me what he said about me?" Ray asked, taking the ball from Deacon and putting it back in its holder.
"Wasn't nothin', really. He just let it slip that his son was graduating college," Deacon said.
Ray was shocked. "He knew I went to college? How?"
Deacon shrugged. "Who knows."
With his hands clasped behind his back, Ray walked away. He couldn't explain his feelings. A large part of him was pissed that his father had dared pry into his life enough to learn about important events, events that he'd celebrated alone after the death of his mother. Yet there was a small part of him that was touched that at least his father cared in his own small, selfish way.
Without turning to face Deacon, Ray asked, "Do you think it would be too intrusive if I looked around a bit? Maybe I can find a clue as to why he did what he did."
A set of keys were tossed onto the table at Ray's side.
"Those were his. A few of the smaller ones look like they go to his desk," Deacon informed him.
Ray picked up the keys and regarded the suddenly sullen man. "You seem mad."
"I guess I am, but not at you. I mean, I don't begrudge you trying to get to know your family, it just seems weird to have someone else in his house. RJ was my best friend for over thirteen years. I guess it's hard for me to believe he's gone," Deacon said.
Maybe he'd been wrong about the ranch manager's age. "You don't look that old."
Deacon grinned. "I'm not, really. I just turned thirty-two."
"So you've known RJ since you were nineteen?" Ray asked.
"No. I said I've considered him my best friend since I was nineteen. I've actually known him since I was fifteen. I'm a local boy. I worked here in the summers. After I graduated, I knew I wanted to find a job on a ranch, but RJ didn't have any full-time positions open. So I went looking and finally found a job up north."
Deacon walked over to the mantel and picked up a picture of RJ on a horse. "Things...didn't work out. I came back here and RJ created a job for me. Over the years, I was able to work my way up to manager." Deacon glanced around the room. "I've spent a lot of time in here over the years."
"Would you feel better about all this if you stayed while I opened my father's desk?"
Deacon settled his cowboy hat back on his head and walked to the door. "No, I don't think so. I appreciate you asking, but if RJ wanted me to know his secrets, he would've told me."
His hand on the doorknob, Deacon turned back to Ray. "My house is the one next to the barn. When you're ready, I'll introduce you to those horses we talked about. You might as well get your first lesson in before the new guests arrive in the morning."
"Thanks," Ray said.
Deacon tipped his hat and walked out the door.
Ray shut the door and leaned back against it. His gaze traveled the large, rustically furnished room. He tried to picture his father lounging on the leather sofa, his closely cropped black and gray hair resting on one of the tapestry pillows.
Everything he'd heard about his father since he'd stepped foot on the ranch was in complete contrast to the man who'd abandoned him so long ago. Without even realizing it, Ray slowly walked toward the couch. Studying the father who was only visible in his imagination, Ray wiped tears from his eyes. "Who are you?"