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Josh Tomlinson paused on the porch to shake water from his jacket and stomp the mud off his boots. He couldn’t complain about rain in Texas. The grass needed it, and they needed grass to feed the livestock. But rain reminded him that the barn roof needed repairs. They also had to tear up the old cement slab that was rotting, level the ground, and pour a new slab. Even if he and his brothers did the labor themselves, they were looking at ten thousand dollars in materials. So yeah, rain wasn’t his favorite thing right now.
Plus, some folks claimed a wet November meant a snowy December. What if they had another winter with those heavy snows and weeks of below freezing temperatures? Sure, snow was pretty, when you didn’t have to work in it, with frozen hands and wind cutting through your jacket and trying to steal your hat, and when you didn’t have to worry about how you were going to pay the heating bill and keep your family and all your animals alive and healthy.
Okay, maybe he could complain about the rain.
He stepped inside, hung up his jacket, and left his boots under the bench inside the front door. His mama sat at the big table in the main room straight ahead. To his right, the sofa faced the TV and formed the divider between the dining room and living room. His brother TC lounged on one end with his feet up, so he could see their mama at the table behind the sofa. Their youngest brother, Xander, sat on the other end with his laptop on his knees.
“Josh!” Mama looked up with a smile. “Come get warm.”
He bent to kiss her cheek. They had their money troubles, being rich in land but poor in cash, like a lot of ranchers. But they were still here, at least most of them. Some of the tension left his shoulders as heat warmed his chilled skin.
“We’re planning what we’ll do when we win the lottery,” TC said.
Josh merely grunted and went into the kitchen. Something simmered in the crockpot, giving off savory smells, but Josh headed for the coffeepot. It would be decaf this time of day, but it would warm him up. He filled his mug and went back to the table, sitting catty-corner from his mother.
“Come on, Xander,” TC said. “You can come up with something better than that.”
Xander didn’t look up from his computer screen. “All I really need is a new computer.”
“But we’re talking a billion dollars!” TC said. “You could buy, like, a million computers.”
“A billion is one thousand million. I could build a good computer for one thousand dollars, but it’s more like thirty-five hundred for an excellent business computer. Call it four thousand dollars with software. So, I could buy a quarter of a million computers. But I only need one.” Xander frowned for a few seconds. “Although it would be handy to have a full backup system in case something breaks.”
Josh chuckled. Xander had earned the nickname the Professor when he graduated high school at fifteen. He’d been helping with the ranch’s accounting since age twelve, annoying their father by finding math errors, until finally Daddy had handed over the financial records to Xander entirely. Thank goodness for that. Daddy had died when Josh, the oldest son, was only twenty-four. Josh had his hands full supporting Mama and trying to keep the ranch running. At least he could trust Xander with the numbers. TC did his share of the work but always had some crazy idea about how to make the ranch pay better. And Cody had taken off the minute he could, even before Daddy died.
“Why are we talking about billions of dollars anyway?” Josh asked.
Xander twisted around to look at him. “Only one billion.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“What would you do with that kind of money, Josh?” TC asked.
“I don’t know.” Josh didn’t see the point of thinking about impossibilities. “I suppose you’d buy your ostriches, or was it emus?”
“I would absolutely buy a herd of ostriches. Maybe emus as well. Also llamas, for the wool.”
“I don’t think ostriches are very friendly,” Xander said.
“Good meat though,” TC said. “The average wholesale price is twenty dollars a pound.”
“You only make about fifteen hundred dollars per bird,” Xander said. “You get almost twice that per cow.”
“Well, sure, a cow weighs four times as much as an ostrich,” TC said. “It also takes more land and water.”
Josh merely shook his head. TC wanted to expand from cattle farming. He called it diversifying and exploring new markets. Josh called it taking unnecessary risks. Josh had already agreed to the small herd of bison, and so far, that experiment was doing fine, but TC had all these big ideas and wanted to do them all now. At least Xander backed up Josh when it came to the financial discussions. They simply couldn’t risk money on experiments, not when they had so many other financial obligations.
“Why are we talking about money we don’t have?” Josh asked.
“Lottery,” TC and Xander said together.
Josh turned to his mother. “Right, your knitting group met today. But if you’d won the lottery, I’d have heard about it already.”
Mama held up one more ticket. “The group didn’t win, but I bought an extra ticket for the family, since the amount is so high.”
“You know that doesn’t improve your odds,” Xander said. “Anyway, the winner—assuming there is one this week—won’t get that much all at once. The billion could be split among multiple winners, and then you have taxes.”
A billion dollars? Josh’s mind boggled. He could barely conceive of a tenth of that, a hundredth of that. Ten thousand dollars would take care of the ranch’s immediate needs. One hundred thousand would let them make important improvements and keep some money in the bank for the future. People used phrases like a billion dollars when talking about the federal government’s budget, not the finances of ordinary folks.
What about a million? He could almost grasp the idea of having that in the bank, since he knew a few people who were millionaires even without counting the value of their ranches. A million dollars must feel warm and comforting, like a thick blanket covering you up at the end of a long day when you’d finally, finally ticked everything off the to-do list. With that much, he could take care of the ranch, take care of Mama, give Xander his computers, and let TC play around with his giant birds.
But why would anyone need more than a million dollars, let alone a thousand million dollars?
“You know you’re dreaming about things that will never happen.” Josh reached over to squeeze his mother’s hand to take the sting out of the words.
She laughed. “Oh, sweetie, I don’t expect to win. But for a few minutes, we all get to dream.”
Josh didn’t have an answer for that. Buying lottery tickets seemed like a waste of money to him. Weren’t you more likely to get hit by lightning? And you didn’t have to pay for that privilege. But he so rarely saw his mother laugh these days. Not since Daddy died eight years ago. When they were growing up, Mama had been full of laughter, always ready to join in their games or giggle at a prank, so long as no one got hurt. She hadn’t expected to be widowed at age fifty.
Josh hadn’t expected to be the man of the house at twenty-four either. But they’d managed. Holding on by the fingernails sometimes, but they hadn’t lost the ranch.
So, okay, Mama could have her dreams.
“What would you buy with the money then?” Josh asked her. “If you became a billionaire.”
She laughed again. “You mean if we became billionaires. You’d each get your share.”
“Gosh, thanks.” He had to smile at the idea of sharing their imaginary money. “But what about you? What would you want?”
She so rarely asked for anything. She hadn’t even hinted at what she might like for Christmas. If she gave them some idea, and if they could make it happen . . . Something small enough . . .
“Oh, I don’t know.” She spread her hands. “Travel? See the world? I’ve never been outside of Texas.”
Nothing he could buy her. Well, maybe a trip across the border, down to Mexico? Xander could go with her. TC and Josh couldn’t leave the ranch unless they hired people to do the work in their absence, and they certainly couldn’t afford that.
“Maybe I’d buy my own house, leave you boys the ranch,” she mused. “Not too far away though, so I could see you every day, you and someday your wives and children.”
“Sorry, Mama, I don’t think you can buy us wives and children,” TC said.
“Being rich wouldn’t hurt your chances any,” Mama said. “I can’t believe I have two boys over thirty, and two in their twenties, and none of you even have a girlfriend—at least that you’ve told me!”
“Hey, I’m barely thirty,” TC said. “Nag Josh. He’s the old man.”
Yeah, right, like he could afford a wife and kids.
“I don’t know why you play the lottery if you want things money can’t buy.” Josh smiled at his mother, but his heart hurt. As the only woman living with three grown men—four when Cody visited—no wonder she wished for a daughter-in-law or two. She wasn’t old, far from it, with plenty of brown amongst the gray in her hair, but with Daddy gone so early, she might wonder if she’d live long enough to see grandchildren.
But who had time for dating? His brothers, maybe, but not Josh. Anyway, he had enough people depending on him. He didn’t need someone else to worry about, when he had three brothers and his mother to support. Well, Cody took care of himself. He’d gotten his pilot’s license and now worked as a crop duster, but he might come back someday. That would make Mama happy, but all four brothers living together might cause the house to explode.
“I could buy a mansion.” She nodded. “Lots of rooms, so you could all come and stay with me. And I’d pay someone else to clean it!”
Maybe they could hire someone to clean the house as her Christmas present? Not all the time, but at least once.
“Okay, fine,” Josh said. “Now we know what we’d do if we won all that money. You’d get a big house, Xander would get computers, and TC would get his big birds—penguins, was it?”
TC cackled. “Oh, I’d totally get penguins if I was a billionaire!”
“That’s a comic book villain move,” Xander said. “Plus, penguins might not do well in Texas.”
“Cody would probably buy another plane,” Josh said. “A private jet maybe.”
“And you?” Mama would not leave that alone.
“I don’t know. I’d fix up the ranch first thing. After that . . . it’s hard to imagine.”
“Oh, sweetie.” She took his hand and squeezed. “You had too much responsibility too young. That’s why you forgot how to dream.”
What did one say to that?
He scrambled for an answer. “I can dream! I’d, um, put in a swimming pool.”
He absolutely would not. What would be the point? It was one more thing to take care of, and he got enough exercise working all day. But it was the first thing that popped into his head, something that people with money and free time had.
“Okay, where is this extra ticket? Let’s find out how much we won.” He really meant, let’s put this conversation behind us and eat dinner. The coffee had warmed him up some, but he still felt chilled in his bones, and hungry, and worn out. A lottery ticket wasn’t going to fix any of that.
“All right.” Mama rummaged through her purse and came up with a card that looked kind of like a receipt. “Xander, you want to bring up the numbers, honey?”
“On it.” He tapped his computer.
“Didn’t you already check the knitting group’s numbers?” Josh asked.
Mama giggled, still giddy with the fun of merely imagining something good happening. “You know I’m not one for numbers. I bought five tickets for the group and we each looked at one when they first read off the numbers. I just scanned for each number. Didn’t get a single one!”
Josh leaned forward to look at the lottery ticket. He hadn’t paid much attention to them before. It looked like the ticket had six numbers of one or two digits. “You have to get all of those to win?”
“You only have to get one number to win two dollars,” Mama said. “We’ve done that sometimes. We even won ten dollars once.”
After paying two dollars per ticket, and buying five tickets each week for the knitting group. Well, it was cheaper than cigarettes, and healthier to boot.
“You have a one in twenty-four chance of winning a prize.” Xander was reading from the website. “To win the jackpot, you have to get all six numbers. Your chances are less than one in three hundred million.”
“Oh, is that all? Well, come on!” Josh waved his hand. “Let’s do it.”
“Okay. Ready?” Xander read off a number and paused.
Mama gasped. “We got that one!” She made a tiny tick mark below the number.
Hooray, they’d win back the price of the ticket. But Mama got a few more seconds of joy, so it was worth it.
Xander read off the next number.
Mama scanned the ticket. “We got that one too!”
Josh leaned over. She might have made a mistake.
Nope, they really did have two of the numbers. Not bad.
Xander read the third number.
Mama stared at the ticket. She angled it so Josh could see, her finger below another number. He studied it and looked up to meet her wide eyes. He nodded.
TC and Xander were both looking over the back of the couch at them. “Well?” TC asked.
Mama nodded rapidly with her lips pressed together.
“Yeah,” Josh croaked. Okay, he could see how people got caught up in this.
“Hang on, that’s—” Xander studied the computer screen. His shoulders slumped. “Only ten dollars.”
Josh met his mother’s eyes and they both chuckled. Silly, getting so excited over ten dollars. But it wasn’t the numbers they’d already matched that did it; it was the thought that maybe they’d match another one. It gave you hope, which would then come crashing down, so you’d chase that hope again and again. This must be how people got addicted to gambling. But gambling didn’t pay off: the house always came out ahead. In a few minutes it would be over, and they’d be back to reality with all its struggles.
“Okay, next number.” Xander read it out loud. He and TC twisted around again.
Mama put her hand over her mouth. She slid the ticket to Josh again.
He peered at it. “What? No way!”
“What?” TC demanded.
“We’re doing something wrong,” Josh said. “Let me read the numbers to you.” He read back the first four numbers.
Xander was now kneeling on the couch with his laptop propped on the back of it. “Those are correct. We won five hundred dollars!”
They all grinned at each other. Part of Josh’s mind was already thinking about how they should spend the money. They had things they needed, but Christmas was coming up, and if it was free money, maybe they could send Mama and Xander to Mexico for a few days. Hotel, food, a few souvenirs. Five hundred dollars would cover a long weekend, right?
Mama took a deep breath and blew it out. “Okay. Wow. This is exciting. I know we’re not—I’m sure that’s it, but—oh, let’s finish up with the last numbers and then figure out how to collect our five hundred dollars.”
Josh pushed the ticket back toward her, but she shook her head. “You do it. I’m afraid I’ll get too excited and read it wrong.”
He shrugged and nodded at Xander to continue. Xander read the fifth number.
Josh swallowed. He couldn’t take his eyes off the ticket. “How much do you win with five numbers?” His voice sounded far away.
“Those five numbers would be one million dollars,” Xander said.
“No way. You have to be pranking us.” TC swung himself over the back of the couch. Mama didn’t even notice, her gaze intent on Josh, too distracted to scold.
Josh carefully turned the ticket around so TC could read it. He flinched when TC grabbed the ticket. “Careful!”
“I’m not gonna—holy guacamole with extra hot sauce. We won a million dollars!” TC swung around and leaned over Xander’s shoulder. “Look, it’s true! We got five numbers!”
Xander looked at the ticket. At his computer screen. Back at the ticket. They all held their breath. Xander would know if they’d made a mistake, if they’d mixed up the numbers somehow. Josh waited for the disappointment, the correction that no, it was a mix-up, they were back at five hundred dollars or maybe only ten. Even five hundred would seem disappointing now, when it was so exciting seconds ago.
“We didn’t win one million dollars,” Xander said.
The excitement dropped away so fast Josh felt like he’d slide out of his chair. It figured. So much for dreams. So much for hope. They didn’t get you anywhere. Nothing but hard work did.
Xander put his computer carefully on the coffee table, stood up, and turned around. “We got all six numbers. We won the jackpot. We’re billionaires.”
End of Excerpt