Tarnished Stars : Pagosa Cliffs Book 1

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Land, wealth, and possessions are the least valuable things an elder can offer the next generation...

Thomas Walter Tanner sat on Rusty and watched his great grandson ride a borrowed cattle pony around the far edge of the herd. T.J.’s bottle calf followed behind the boy like a dog wanting a treat and the elderly rancher smiled. The weather made it a beautiful day in the Rocky Mountains, just enough breeze to cool the sweat under his battered Stetson. The place smelled of grass, cedar, and cattle mixed with saddle leather and horse; it was the scent of history and home. Looking back to the youngest and last son of his family, Walter wondered what wisdom he could give the boy whom he hoped would someday run the Tanner Ranch.

Leather creaked as Rusty stepped forward in search of dandelions hidden in the lush meadow. The sun moved relentlessly but slowly westward, and Walter knew there wasn’t much time left. He had taught his son and grandson the life he had runaway to as a twelve-year-old boy during the Great Depression but would he have enough of a season left to pass on the knowledge of 80-years living among cedar and cattle to Thomas Tanner Junior.

At first, Walter had ignored the pain in his chest or shoulder as indigestion or old age. He pretended the signs that had warned him of his first heart attack were something else. The widower had survived the widow-maker once, fighting his way back for his grandson, knowing he was the only parent Thomas would have. Now, with the prospect of another heart attack at any time, he was not willing to give up weeks of his life and routine for the surgery he needed, a surgery the doctor had honestly told him he might not survive.

Thomas Jr. was the boy who needed him now and his Emma would just have to wait for a little while longer for him to join her in heaven. Another generation of Tanner men had born witness to love lost. For T.J., it was his parents, and all because his father trusted a man filled with the common prejudice against the fact that love was colorblind. The saboteur had destroyed their marriage and left a broken boy in his wake. He could not make himself regret the man was dead from his own foolish addictions.

Walter whistled loudly, “T.J., time to head in for dinner.”

“Coming, Pappy!” T.J. yelled back, and the herd shifted at the noise before lowering their heads to the lush fodder again. The boy rode around the edge of the herd back to where his grandfather waited. “Isn’t it early, Pappy?” His bottle calf followed them as they turned toward the homestead.

“It’s Thursday, All-you-can-eat Ribs at the Grill. We’re meeting your dad and need to get showered. Don’t want to stink when we go to town.” Pappy reminded.

T.J. sniffed his shirt, and looked at his pappy, confused, “I don’t stink.”

Pappy chuckled, “Ya smell like the herd, son. And while it smells like perfume to us, most people don’t appreciate it.”

T.J.’s bottom lip pushed out in a pout. His nose wrinkled. “But I like smelling this way, at home it smells like salt water, dead fish, and cars. I think it smells better here.”

“So do I, T.J., so do I.”

Tank scowled at the stack of a dozen reports in his desk as he added to the livestock theft report for the Ridgeline Ranch. Ben Wallace and his grandson Beau sat across the desk from him. Beau had just graduated from Ag College, finishing a six-year masters program in 5 and a half years, not counting the year he took off when his cousin died. He was getting ready to take over for his elderly grandfather.

Beau continued, “So, they lured the yearlings down the falls’ trail, dropped the fence near the old lineshack and then hauled them off. It looked like they used apple corn. We have a lot of deer and elk moving through right now. I guess they were trying to make it look like poachers are doing it, but I found where they had put in t-post to make a temporary coral.” The twenty-five-year-old scowled. “Someone knows exactly where to get the cattle off our ranch without us seeing them.”

“And your sure on the count?” Tank asked.

“Six yearling steers, a bull, and two heifers, this time,” Ben stated quietly, “Plus the eight from last month, and the fourteen breed heifers from the two months before. Thirty-one total. They are rustling just a few at a time, like they think we won’t notice.”

“Someone is making a lot of money off Ridgeline Ranch beef,” Beau growled. “The insurance capped us, we can’t afford to lose more.”

“You mean Pagosa County Beef. They are stealing cattle from everyone.” The young Sheriff agreed angrily. “And we don’t have a single lead. I’ve got Dick, Gary, and Donald watching for cattle haulers coming into the county empty and leaving loaded, but we haven’t had any luck.”

It wasn’t just the Ridgeline Ranch that was losing cattle. He had reports from five other ranches and his pappy’s ranch had lost eleven so far, almost a tenth of the herd. The bigger spreads could absorb the losses, but for the smaller ranches, insurance would only cover the estimated weight on hoof, but not the genetics of the breeding stock and future profits from calves. Rustling hadn’t been this bad in decades, and many of the ranchers were angry and blaming Tank and his very understaffed sheriff’s department of part-timers.

“I believe they are using the old logging roads like they did in the 1950s and 1960s,” Ben revealed. “There is a lot of traffic on them by off-roaders. No one would notice a truck pulling a utility ATV trailer, the rustlers wouldn’t necessarily need a stock trailer to haul a few head at a time.”

“I'll contacted Doug, he’s still with the Forest Service, the rangers are keeping an eye out but they are fewer than we are. And I’ll have Gary ask Garrett and Gerald if they have seen anything strange when they are gathering beetle kill pine from the national forest. The boys are collecting wood for mulch and firewood to sell for the winter.” Tank resisted the urge to break his pen in half. “I have sent reports on the missing cattle to all the meat processing plants and livestock sale barns. The brand inspectors know whose cattle to look for, but there have been no reports of Pagosa cattle being sold. There’s no way a big packing house would take a handful at time without the proper paperwork. I’ll be honest, I am worried the cattle are getting driven to Mexico for slaughter.”

“They will have to send to market soon, they’ve gotten nearly 30 so far this month,” Ben held out his hand as he stood, “We’re moving our heard to the winter pastures, it is further from the ranch borders, but it will mean we’re buying hay for winter instead of baling our own. I know you and the boys are trying, Thomas. We’ll help in any way we can.” Beau nodded in agreement.

Tank shook both of their hands and watched them drive out of the parking lot. His frustration grated on his nerves and was ruining his days off with his son. T.J. would only be here another two weeks. Tank was checking the herd every morning before he left, while T.J. was riding out with Pappy every afternoon. It worried Tank because Pappy’s doctor had insisted his heart couldn’t take the exertion until he had his quadruple by-pass, which the old man had refused to schedule until after T.J. went home at the end of the summer. He needed to find the rustlers before the stress killed his grandfather.

T.J. held tightly to Pappy before they got in the truck to drive him home to Galveston. The old rancher hugged his great-grandson for what might be the last time.

“Now, don’t you worry T.J., your mama will tell you people have by-pass surgery all the time and come out just fine. It’s what I get for not eating enough vegetables,” Pappy made light of the upcoming surgery. “Next summer, maybe we can get you your own horse, instead of borrowing Cajun from the Wallaces’.”

“Yes, Pappy. I hope we get lots of calves and Dad can catch the cattle rustlers,” T.J. tried to be a tough cowboy, but tears were threatening.

“He’ll catch them just for you, son. Can’t let your calf get stolen before she gets grown up,” Walter promised. “And I’ll keep her close till your dad gets back.”

T.J. hugged him, “Thanks, Pappy. I love you.”

“I love you too, it’s time to get on the road. We still have to pick up Miss Camille for the wedding,” Tank reminded, then he hugged Pappy. “Beau will be over in the morning’s to help ya, don’t overdo it.”

Pappy nodded, “Drive safe, Thomas.”

After they picked up Camille, they drove for hours before unpacking the dinner Dorine had packed for them. Cold roast beef sandwiched and homemade macaroni salad. Camille answered of T.J.’s questions about her trips to the Olympics until he fell asleep. They were driving through the night because it was cooler, driving across Texas during the day in the first week of August was miserable even with air conditioner.

“You’re awfully quiet, Tank,” Camille observed softly.

He shifted in his seat, then admitted, “I’m not ready. I’m not ready to see Irene married to someone else and I want a drink. I want a drink so bad I feel like I am going to lose it completely. I don’t know if I am strong enough to stay sober.” Camille was the only person he would admit this to, they had shared the most intimate and horrifying details of their lives. Things no one else knew and from the sharing they had become the deepest of friends.

“I see. Tell me why,” her soothing tone lured the truth out of him.

“I still love her and I... I know she dates, but the thought of another man...” His grip on the steering wheel turned his knuckles white. “I want it so I don’t feel the pain on top of everything else.”

“Everything else?” She asked then she just listened.

The words just came out, pouring out of Tank like the water over the Ridgeline Falls. He had barely won re-election to a four-year term as sheriff, and with the rustler problem, the Ursick family was already talking about demanding a recall and running Dick for sheriff again. The Bar UK had lost nearly a hundred head of pure blood angus cattle valued at over $2000 each. He didn’t know how he could make things right for the ranchers of Pagosa County. But more than that he was hoping, his grandfather would survive his very risky open-heart surgery. He feared Pappy wouldn’t be with him next summer when T.J. came for his visitation. That lead back to how he didn’t trust the man who he had only met once to raise his son or care for his ex-wife the way Tank wanted to. He still felt like it was his duty to do. Hours passed, and they stopped for diesel. Camille came around and hugged him.

As the fuel pumped, he stood with his cheek on her hair, “What am I going to do, Camille? If I lose it at the wedding, Irene will never let T.J. come for the summer again.”

“You won’t lose it. I’ll be there with you and if you really need more than one, I’ll take you back to the hotel and stay with you till morning. I’ll keep you safe and keep you from doing anything stupid and then you can get it out of your system without hurting yourself.” Camille offered.

Tank nodded, he was ashamed. “You’re the only one who knows, I’m not sober.”

“Tank, sometime... there’s nothing wrong with taking the edge off. I have my diving and a bottle in the bottom of my closet but I never have more than one. If I am too stressed out, I need to dive. I... I even dived off the falls,” she admitted.

“You’ve jumped from the falls?!?” He was shocked.

She smirked, “You should try it sometime, it’s great stress relief.”

“Oh hellno!” He chuckled.

“Coward,” She teased.

“When it comes to jumping off a fifty-foot cliff into a churning river... Yes, yes I am.” He laughed, then he sighed. “Thanks for coming Camille, I don’t think I could do this alone.”

“You’re not alone, Tank.” She looked in at T.J. sprawled out asleep in the back seat, “I think he grew a few inches this summer.”

“Yep, Irene measured him when he was a baby and said he was going to be as tall as I am.” He smiled looking through the window. “Do you want to sleep or drive?”

Camille stretched and folded in half to put her forehead against her knees, then straightened up, “I’ll drive. You need to try to rest. Tired and stressed are a bad combination. I’ll wake you when we hit Houston.”

They climbed back in the truck and Tank tried not to laugh as Camille spent several minutes moving the seat up and forward enough to reach the pedals and steering, the whole time complaining about how slow electric seats were. Tank was surprised to find himself dozing off to the sound of the engine and low lulling voices of the radio.

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