As the middle of August approached, Doug and Rich were living in Scotty's house. The cell tower was up and, as a part of the bargain, everyone had a cell phone which worked. All the houses were wired for broadband and Molly bought computers for them. There were two at the Taylors' since Ethan needed one for the office that only he used. Ethan debated putting parental controls on the one for the household, but decided he trusted Jamie and Sally Ann. He knew Jamie found some jerk-off sites because he had found some gay ones. He seldom went to one as he and Scotty made love several times a week, but seldom in the house. They still had not started sleeping in the same bed, but Ethan was ready anytime Scotty was. Sex with Scotty was wonderful, but even more wonderful was just plain loving each other.
The two had finished their college courses and decided they'd not enroll for the second session. Ethan was spending a great deal of time working on the study program Joe had given him. Every week or so, Dek or Davis asked him what he was working on. Increasingly the two older men asked for copies of his study materials. When Joe came, their discussions were longer and Ethan was constantly tested and verifying what he was studying in the groves.
Joe also had designed a study program for Scotty, Jamie and Andy. The three had finally realized the advantage of studying together. They decided they'd have ‘class' Tuesday and Thursday evening from 8:00 until 10:00 and set up a study room at the Hickeys'. They stuck to their schedule and made it clear they were not to be disturbed while they were studying. Tuesdays, one of the three was expected to have done additional research on the area they were working on and present it to the other two. Thursdays, they spent half an hour working on a plan for the future of the cattle operation.
During breaks in their serious study, they had light-hearted discussions about one aspect or another of the cattle operation. One Thursday evening, Sally Ann brought lemonade and cookies over and asked if they had seen the sign on the way to town. "Some developer is selling five-acre ranches. I guess the ranchers will be raising miniature cows," she laughed. "One lot has been sold and the owner has built a huge gate with a sign ‘Lazy J Ranch' over it."
"A five-acre ranch? Yeah, I guess he'll have to be raising miniature cows, like six inches high," Andy laughed.
"I can see a roundup on the ranch: miniature cowboys riding miniature cow ponies roping and branding miniature calves from miniature cows," Jamie giggled.
After a good laugh, Sally Ann left, but the three guys kept on for five or ten more minutes. All three had seen Blazing Saddles and things reached a low point when they started talking about miniature chuck wagons, miniature beans and miniature farts.
When they got back to serious work, Scotty said, "I was thinking maybe we have Arkadelphia and Pleasant Grove Ranches, but with five-acre ranches down the road, think we need to call the cattle operation something else." A couple weeks later, one of the articles Joe gave them to study concerned some breeding experiments in Australia and referred to cattle stations. Thereafter the three started referring to the Arkadelphia Cattle Station and the Pleasant Grove Cattle Station, or if they were talking about both, they just referred to the cattle stations. They used the terms enough around Randy that he started using them as well. It was a month after all four were using them without thinking that Davis noticed it and asked what was going on. After that, it was official and Molly started using the designations in the books.
One evening while they were lying on the bank after a swim, Ethan asked Scotty how Andy and Jamie are doing. "They are pretty young to be given as much responsibility as they have been given."
"And you and I are old men?" Scotty grinned and gave Ethan a quick kiss. "I am older and a high school grad, but Andy and Jamie had practical experience to draw on which I did not. They're also sharp as whips and love cattle. I suspect they know more about the nurture and care of cattle than most people working at River Bend--well, except Eli. They are both pushing Joe about breeds and breeding. If they have their way, Arkadelphia Station will be in the cattle breeding business, not just buying calves to raise and feed out. It is kinda exciting. They're even talking about making Pleasant Grove Station all grass-fed. To tell the truth, Randy and I are running to keep up with their thinking."
"Thinking, planning and dreaming are all well and good. Do a lot of that myself," Ethan said, "but another important consideration is whether or not the work at hand is being done."
"Nobody could complain about the guys' work. They do their share, maybe more, and do it well. They're not afraid to ask how to do something if they're not sure. You know, since we are in that group, how hard it is for a teenage male to ask for help." They both grinned.
Ethan envied the three having someone to discuss things with. The closest he came was when he had a question and asked Dek or Davis or when they asked him in passing what he was studying. Neither of the two older men were interested in following the young cattlemen's example. Likewise, Randy let the three study, but didn't participate except when asked to come to discuss or help with a particular subject or project.
When Ethan commented on the three's working and studying together, Davis said he understood why Ethan would like that and in fact he was looking for another, young, pecan person, but so far hadn't had any luck. Joe was looking as well.
Davis called one evening a few days later and told Ethan he'd need to plan being in the office the next morning. "I think we have an interview, maybe two. Be here at nine. The interview is supposed to be at ten."
When Ethan arrived at the plantation office the next morning, Davis was already there. "Ethan," he said, "you have any problem working with a woman?"
"I don't think so. I mean there are some women I couldn't work with, but that's true of men as well. Why?"
"Well, Joe called day before yesterday and said he might have another pecan person. Name's Ash Ratledge. I just assumed he was a man. Turns out she is a woman. I guess the fact that she's likely gay will be no problem."
"Not for me or anyone here. I mean if there is, it will be dealt with. So what gives?"
"You'll have time to read her resume before she arrives but, in summary, she graduated from UGA with a degree in agriculture. She started working at the Department of Agriculture specializing in pecan diseases and pests."
"No doubt she'll be taking a huge salary cut and working for someone--what?--eight or so years younger than she is? Again, I ask, what gives?"
"Joe says there has been a restructuring and she had been transferred to Atlanta and an inside desk job. She hates it. I gather she has an independent income and isn't as interested in the salary as the work. I don't know what he told her about our operation here and fact that you are in charge, but I guess we'll find out."
Ethan read Ash's--her name was Ashley--resume and was impressed, but learned nothing in addition to what Davis had told him. He did decide he had a few minutes and he'd make a quick check on her references if possible. The first two people he called weren't available.
The third was a fellow worker who confirmed the fact that she was an outside, hands-on person. "If you expect her to spend hours at a desk writing reports, you better look elsewhere. If you want someone who knows bugs and diseases, she's your woman. I will add, she can be funny as a crutch, but doesn't suffer fools for very long."
"How do you think she'll handle having an eighteen-year-old for her boss?"
"Is he an asshole know-it-all?"
"I'd like to think he's not."
"Then I suspect there's no problem."
The final reference was one of her former teachers. He concluded, "If she's on the path of an elusive pest, she'll forget lunch as unimportant."
Ethan had just told Davis what her two references had said when Molly poked her head in and said, "Ms. Ratledge is here," as she showed a young woman in.
Both Ethan and Davis stood and Ethan extended his hand and said, "Ms. Ratledge, Ethan Taylor. This is Davis Edwards, owner of Arkadelphia and Pleasant Grove Plantations."
"Mr. Taylor, Mr. Edwards, pleased to meet you. And please call me Ash."
"Very good," Davis said. "I'm Davis and the young man is Ethan. Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Coke? Water? Juice?"
"Thank you. Coffee would be nice."
Davis went to the door and called, "Molly, we'd like coffee, please."
Molly brought in a tray with cups, sugar and cream and placed it on the small conference table. "Thanks Molly, I'll bring yours in the morning."
"You better believe it, Davis. Ash, don't let Davis think you'll fetch and bring for him or he'll take advantage of it," Molly laughed.
"Pretty feisty bookkeeper there, Davis," Ash laughed.
"Ha," Ethan said. "He's just showing off. Molly is Mrs. Edwards and when she says jump, we all ask how high. So Ash, we have read your resume and talked with Joe, so we know something about you. I guess you have talked to Joe and know something about us, about Arkadelphia and Pleasant Grove ..."
"I have talked to Joe, mostly about my situation. When I asked him about your place and work, he said, ‘Ash, I think I'll let you form your own opinion. I'll be happy to talk with you after your interview, but let's not talk now.'"
"Davis, jump in when I'm overlooking something. Ash, we are operating out of a dream trying to make it concrete," Ethan said. "You want the long version or the short version?"
"Long version, maybe, with the option of your shortening it as we go along."
Ethan asked if she knew the history of the rise and fall of South Georgia plantations and she said she did. "I know about the involvement of the Agricultural Extension Service and the fact that it has been an important part of Arkadelphia Plantation's history."
"Fine, then let's begin with what's happening now." Ethan then told her of Davis' decision to divide the pecan and cattle operations and hire a permanent staff. He then explained how Pleasant Grove Plantation fit into the picture. "So we have the thriving groves and pastures of Arkadelphia Plantation and the neglected ones of Pleasant Grove Plantation. Our dream in not only to make both models for cattle and pecan production in south Georgia, but also we want them to become a pattern for living. The best description of that is that we see the staff as an extended family. The pay is better than usual for the area and the benefits include the usual plus a house."
"And you are the manager of the two plantations?"
"I guess there's not a manager of the two, well, ultimately Davis is, I suppose, but actually there are two assistant managers in charge. Randy Ashton is the Manager of the Arkadelphia and Pleasant Grove Cattle Stations. He has Scotty, a young man my age and Andy, son of a member of my pecan crew and Jamie, my brother, who is two years younger on his team. At the present, I only have Dek on my crew. Well, Davis works with us. Dek was a crew leader for pecan groves at a place near Glen Stockade which was gobbled up by a large corporation and he was demoted."
"Talk about this extended family idea."
"Just that. We expect to treat each other as we would family. People are to be respected, period."
"Well, how about having two lesbos on the plantation.
"First, if I understand correctly, the term is forbidden as would be others such as dyke. Derogatory terms are not to be used here and are a cause for dismissal. As to sexual orientation, I am gay and my partner lives with me. Presently Dr. Douglas Paul, a summer school professor at the university and his partner, Mr. Richard Long of the US Attorney General's office, live at Pleasant Grove. Jeff Edwards, Davis and Molly's son and his husband Art Willis are here for the summer. We have had no gay women because we have added no women to the staff. Would be nice to have some around, gay or straight. I hope I am not assuming too much, but I assume you are asking because..."
"Because I am married to a wonderful woman, Kathy Noble. Well, we consider ourselves married and hope to do that one of these days."
"What does she think about moving to the south Georgia boonies?"
"She suggested I look into the area. She hates Atlanta and grew up outside Thomasboro."
"She interested in working in pecan groves?"
Ash laughed. "Are you kidding? You get dirty and sweaty in pecan groves and there are bugs and crawly things there! No, Kathy is a math teacher. She has an offer of a job teaching at the high school and will be working on her master's at the university."
"So, let's have a look around and you can ask any questions you have while we do that," Ethan suggested.
"Ash, I'll see you when you get back," Davis said.
During the next two hours, Ethan and Ash rode and walked over Arkadelphia and Pleasant Grove, both answering questions and telling their life stories. Ethan learned Ash did have an independent income. Her grandfather left her a sizable trust fund and she had lived well, but not extravagantly. "Frankly, if I find a job I like, salary isn't too important. I like being out of doors and doing things with my hands. Seems to me this may be ideal. There's a house included?" Ethan nodded. "And how far is it to the high school? College?"
"It's about fifteen or twenty minutes to the high school, half an hour to the college. Scotty and I took classes the first summer session and plan to take classes again this fall."
"Probably not. I mean I have a pecan operation to manage and a study program Joe put together for me. Frankly, I see little reason to do a college degree if I can learn what I need to know without it."
"You plan to be here the rest of your life?"
"I plan on it. I grew up here, well, in the area. I like it. I like what I am doing and am learning how to be good at it. I would hope eventually the pecan operation can run for a while without me right here. I'd like to travel, but I presently have two children to raise."
"You have kids?"
"Well, I guess you can say that. My mom died over five years ago leaving me, Jamie and my sister Sally Ann. My dad was injured in an accident before that. He died last spring, so I'm head of the family. Jamie has two more years in high school and Sally Ann starts high school this fall. Jamie is absolutely sold on being a cattleman and is working on a study program Joe designed for the young cattlemen, Jamie, Scotty and Andy. Randy thinks they are great. Scotty will be taking courses and probably will go full-time and get a teaching degree. Maybe not. Sally Ann has her heart set on teaching biology. We'll see."
It was obvious to Ethan that Ash got very excited when they got to Pleasant Grove and Ethan started talking about what he wanted to do there. She was more inclined to head in the direction Dek had suggested, bringing groves up to good production levels rather that replacing them quickly. She did think getting them producing would be a bigger job than Dek had suggested and one grove definitely needed replacing. "Several trees are dying and others are not far behind," she said, pointing out how she knew that.
"We've also started taking out trees in the other groves which are beyond saving," Ethan said, then suggested they get hold of Dek and have him join them for lunch to talk about Pleasant Grove.
Claire Bell had a late lunch ready when Ethan and Ash got back to the house. Davis and Dek were waiting for the two and as soon as lunch was served, the discussion began.
Molly also had contributions to make to the discussion. "Frankly I think Dek and Ash are correct. If an old grove at Pleasant Grove can be brought up to three-quarters of the production of an Arkadelphia old grove within three years, it will start turning a profit. It will take a new grove six to eight years to reach that production level."
"Well, I'm sure all of the Pleasant Grove groves can be brought to that level in less time except one," Dek said. "One has to go."
"I agree," Ash said. "In fact, I think three of the four groves at Pleasant Grove, if cared for right away, will produce a substantial crop this year. Davis, from what I've heard, I'm assuming you will work with the pecan team." Davis nodded. "Something to think about, even with the four of us, we are going to have to be running flat out most of the time to keep both plantations going. Tearing out and starting afresh more than one grove a year will require a lot of work. From what Ethan has said, Arkadelphia has a grove to replant this year already. I took a close look at the grove here at Arkadelphia Plantation. I wouldn't do a ‘back to bare ground' there. It's not necessary. I'd inter-plant and take down the old trees as we had time, otherwise, talking about the one at Pleasant Grove, which definitely needs to go back to bare ground, seems to be nothing more than an academic exercise. It's simply more than we can accomplish." Ethan and Dek agreed. Molly gave Davis a look and he nodded in agreement.
"In fact," Davis said, "you'll recall Jeff read me the riot act a while back because we all were working too many hours. I agree we have our hands full and will be losing Art, Jeff and Doug sometime this month.
Ethan asked, "Ash, assuming you are offered the job and accept, how soon could you go to work?"
"Week, two weeks at most."
"Ethan, Molly," Davis asked, "Can we afford to renovate another house?"
"We've taken a heavy hit this year," Ethan said, "with renovating the houses and we had to do the fence at Pleasant Grove above and beyond usual expenses. I'm not sure. We had a pretty mediocre crop last year since it was the off year."
"This year looks exceptionally good," Davis said.
"Don't know that you want any input from me," Ash said, "but I agree about the outlook this year."
"Same here," Dek added.
Molly said, "We won't go under. Let's face it, Davis, we have a reserve that could carry us two years minimum. At worst I think we can break even with the renovations and hiring a permanent staff. I'd say let's do it and make the two plantations show places without killing ourselves."
Molly asked Ash if she'd help her with coffee and dessert and as soon as the two left the room, Ethan said quietly, "Davis, hire Ash."
"Ethan, you're running the pecan operation."
After coffee and dessert, Ethan asked Ash to go back to the office with him. Back at the office, Ethan gave Ash a copy of the salary scale, told her the benefits included the use of a truck, health and life insurance, a pension plan and a house. "We'll have to make some arrangements for housing until one can be renovated," he added. "There are a couple of houses to choose from here at Arkadelphia and, I suppose, there are possibilities at Pleasant Grove."
Ash suggested she find a house at Pleasant Grove if possible. "There's going to be a lot going on there and it would be good to have a pecan person there." Ethan agreed and they looked over the possibilities. There was a house almost a duplicate of Randy's old one. Ash liked it, however, she said Kathy would have to see it. "She's at the college and can stop by." She did and liked everything she saw and heard. Ash signed a contract and said she would be ready to move when the house was ready. There were some hold-ups on both her part and Arkadelphia's and she didn't get moved in until the end of August.