He stared at the melting ice making swirling trails in the amber of the whiskey, watering down his temptation. Three times he had filled the glass with ice and alcohol and watched it turn to waste. Pouring each out, he knew, he wasn’t stronger than his addiction, just more stubborn. This August had been the worst month of his life, even worse than the month he got injured or the month he lost Irene. Sitting alone in his house on his grandfather’s ranch, he wanted nothing more than to get toxically drunk on the last day of this month. He looked at the probate paperwork again. He had a choice, sell the cattle, all of them, or lose the ranch his pappy had cut from the cedar forest. If he wasn’t paying all of Irene’s bills while she filed for bankruptcy, he would have the money in installments but keeping a roof over his son’s head was his priority. There was a knock, gentle sounding like a caress. He didn’t move as Camille came in. She hugged him from behind.
“Hey,” he said in a dead voice. The ice was almost gone and a layer of watery whiskey discolored the amber into something that looked like green tea.
“How many is this one?” She asked.
“Four,” he answered.
“I’m glad you called me.”
“I called you when I poured this one. I poured the others out when they went bad. I guess I am just too stubborn to drink alone anymore.” He reached out and took the watered down whiskey, gulping it with a grimace. He stood up and went to the fridge, filling his glass with ice again. He poured whiskey over the ice and drank it before it had time to chill. Then filled the glass again.
This time Camille’s gentle hand stopped him from drinking it straight away. “Let it cool, nurse it, and talk to me.”
“I’m a weak man and pathetic alcoholic, and I have no business being sheriff.“ Tank confessed.
“You’re a good sheriff, Thomas. You just had a lot of misery piled on your plate in the last three weeks,” Camille pointed out. “But Irene’s stuff, your pappy passing, and Gary getting killed by his own son; none of those things are your fault. You couldn’t have changed any of those things by doing anything differently.”
“It hurts, Cam, it hurts and I just want it to stop.” He poured more whiskey over the ice. “This is the only thing that makes it stop.”
“But it doesn’t last, I know because I tried it. You need to find something to live for, something to give you a purpose.” She held one hand and the whiskey held the other.
“I’ve tried and failed at the twelve steps so many times I can’t even count them all,” he grumbled.
Nodding in agreement, Camille agreed, “I have too. The only thing that keeps me going is the girls, I can’t let myself feel the pain or my despair because I have those two tiny lives in my care. Believe me, I want to drink until I black out, I want to scream until I’m mute, or dive until I finally fall too far but I can’t because my life doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to them. I’m the only parent they have.”
“What about their fathers?” Tank asked, he didn’t agree that Camille chose to keep the girls away from two men he had never met.
Her face twisted into an ugly mask. “They chose their whores and party life, I don’t want my girls anywhere near men like them. The kind who promise to love a woman forever and the very next night are taking pictures of themselves cheating.”
“I guess that’s a good reason,” He sighed as he sipped the cool amber, it was smooth and burned at the same time.
She curled her hands into fists for a moment, “And I keep 328 more on my computer just to make sure the girls stay safe.”
She watched him start to pour another and stopped him, silently taking his glass filling it with more ice before setting it back on the table. “Tell me what happened with Gerald. How did Gary figure out it was him doing the cattle rustling?” She began digging through his refrigerator and laying out things to make a meal.
Tank sipped his fifth whiskey, feeling the warm, numb haze beginning to dull everything, he didn’t need to drink this one fast. He had all the time in the world.
“Gary didn’t figure it out. Garret was out riding the ridge with Molly, Molly Ballard, and they saw the panel truck they been using to haul wood pull onto the backside of the sod farm, on the old logging road. So those two kids rode down to see what was going on.” Tank explained, his words were getting slightly slurred but he didn’t care. It felt good not to care.
“What were they doing up there?“Camille asked as she fried steak and eggs.
Tank snorted, “Garrett told Me and Paul that he and Molly were looking for a place for their house someday. Stupid kids are in high school and already planning happily ever after when they finish college.” He stared at the glass but didn’t take another sip yet.
“Garrett saw Gerald unloading cows. He and Molly snuck down to see them better and Molly recognized the brand. They got close enough to get the numbers off some of the ear tags. Then Molly rode for the Rocking M and Garrett went to house. Gary had just got home from bringing Grammy Lou from the doctor. He called me and I headed over. Garret took his father out to the spot on the ATV. They left Garrett’s horse for me. Gary must have know it wouldn’t go easy because he made Garret get off and wait in the trees.” Tank shook his head and took a slow swallow, it burned.
“Gary drove up to Gerald, and Garrett said he could hear his dad yelling at his brother, then his dad just hollered and doubled over. Garrett thought Gerald had punched him then he saw the knife. After the third time Gerald stabbed his dad laying on the ground, Garret took off running for the house. I was already heading down the trail after him and almost missed him. He was crying like nothing I had ever seen. It was a good five minutes before I got him calmed down enough to tell me Gerald had killed their father.”
He poured a little more in the glass, watching the way the layers of warm and cold swirled and mingled. It was all such a waste of a good family man who was just trying to raise his boys after their mother died.
“Tank?” Camille asked, “Do you want toast?”
“Sure, darlin’. Thanks.” He murmured, the smell of food had him hungry. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday.
“Gravy too?” she offered. He nodded. She prodded, “Keep talking.”
“Uhhh, where was I?”
“Garrett found you and told you what he saw.” She reminded gently.
“Yeah, we heard the ATV coming, so I put Garrett on the horse and told him to get back to the house. I waved at Gerald to stop and he got off the ATV like nothing had happened but... but I could see there was something wrong. His eyes... his eyes were dead, Camille. That young man had just killed his father and he felt nothing about it. He said it was a nice day to be out and said he had something to show me. He reach around to his hip and I pulled my piece. He held out the bloody knife and just kept saying he wanted to show it to me. He flipped it in his hand and I heard a rifle cock behind me. Garret was sitting there on his horse, pointing his rifle at Gerald. He... he told Gerald if he threw it, he was only going to be able to hit one of us and the other would shoot him dead. When I told Gerald to drop it that time, he did. He turned and knelt down like he was supposed to do. I cuffed him and we walked back to the place where he left Gary laying in the dirt. My best deputy was my first murder.”
He picked up the bottle and drained it before he leaned forward, elbow on his knees, hands over his face and cried.
Camille turned off the food and stood behind him rubbing his shoulders. When he calmed, she set a plate down in front of him. Feeding him one bite at a time until it was gone. Carefully, she got him up and into his bedroom. She stripped him and put him in bed, when she turned to leave he caught her wrist.
“Don’t leave me,” he begged drunkenly. For a moment, she looked terrified but he shook his head. “Not that, Cam. I would never ask you for anything you didn’t offer first. I... I just don’t want to sleep alone tonight.”
Camille trembled as if having a battle with herself and for a moment, he thought he had asked too much of his broken best friend. She pushed him back down. “Just let me call home and grab my e-reader, I promise, I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
Tank let her go, praying she would come back, and a few minutes later, she did. She sat up against the headboard while he lay sprawled across the bed with his head on a pillow on her lap.
“Tell me about your diving again.” He murmured then he fell asleep to her voice liltingly describing the different dives she did in competition and how it felt to twist and fall, as her fingers gently run through his hair. It felt so good to be touched, to feel cared for.
He woke up to the feeling he hated most in the world, hungover and alone. He staggered to the bathroom and took a shower, ashamed of himself and embarrassed that Camille had seen it. When he got out of the shower, he found biscuits and gravy left in the warm oven and a note, Camille had taken Rusty out to check the herd. He ate humbly and went to the barn. He found himself standing on the porch of Pappy’s house. Other than to go in and get Pappy’s good suit and Sunday boots, Tank hadn’t been able to go back into his house. He wasn’t sure how long he stood with his forehead against the door frame but the creak of saddle leather had him wiping his eyes.
In a tight voice, he revealed, “Pappy knew he wouldn’t make through the surgery. He left his funeral suit and best boots on the chair by his bed and letter with his sobriety coin. I... I couldn’t... read it.”
Camille’s arms hugged him. “Do you want me to get it and read it to you?”
Tank nodded, and turned away from the door. Camille came out holding the coin and the letter. They sat down in the steps with him one step lower. Tank pressed the sobriety coin between his finger, five decades his pappy had been sober and Tank couldn’t make it five months. He felt his shame into his bones. Softly, Camille began to read.
I always knew I’d be writing this letter someday, I guess today’s the day. First, I want to say how much I love you. From the moment you were born, I knew you were meant to do great things. Watching you grow up, seeing all the pain your parents caused, it broke my heart but I knew you were strong. As a youngin’, you cared for those around you, always stood up for those weaker than you, even when there was no one to stand up for you. I owe you an apology. I thought having you around would give your dad a reason to straighten himself out, the way having him gave me a reason to get sober. I was wrong, my son wasn’t the man I raised him to and I am sorry for the hurt he caused you before your grandma and I took you from him. I want you to know you were never a burden to us like your daddy always told you. You gave your grandma great joy in her last few years and she always said she was glad you weren’t born with my two left feet.
Watching you grow into a good young man and succeed in college and the NFL made me so proud. I was even prouder when you became Sheriff after we lost Ray, but the proudest time, was watching the way you took care of your son, even after your marriage ended. Seeing you come home broken was the hardest thing since learning your father was dying. I saw you going down that rabbithole and I prayed everyday for you to find a way to put aside the bottle, you picked up on your way down. I know you can put the whiskey away. Life gives us second chances but sometimes they aren’t what we expect. I am glad you came home to stay after your injury. I am grateful to the Lord everyday that you didn’t die on that field in Miami. Ain’t no man should die laying on plastic grass. I am grateful for the time with Thomas Jr. He is a wonderful and bright boy, someday he will make a fine rancher. I’m just sorry I won’t get to teach him more. I’m counting on you to do that, Thomas. I am counting on you to teach him everything I taught you. And I want you to find a nice girl someday and give T.J. some siblings, that boy’s got too much love in him to spend his life as an only child, he’s just like you. Teach him to be as fine a man as you are.
Well, I ain’t got much more to say except I love you, may the lord bless you and keep you until we meet again, in a long, long time.
Your Pappy, Thomas Walter Tanner
“That’s it, that’s all there is.” Camille carefully folded the paper and put it back in its envelope.
Tank just stared at the mountains, shaking his head, “I can’t do it. I can’t be the man Pappy thinks... thought...” His words stalled as his breathing became ragged.
She clung to him as he wept on her shoulder. She didn’t say anything, but just being there meant more to him than words could ever express. As the sun crept westward across the sky, she looked over the probate paperwork with him. No matter how they figured it, he was still going to be short. She called her grandfather and Ben had an idea. He made a few calls then called back. The Ridgeline would buy half of Pappy’s herd, including T.J.’s bottle calf. The Rocking M would buy the other half and fifteen years worth of graze lease up front. Pappy’s spread had some of the best high altitude meadow on this side of the valley.
The Tanner Ranch would still be a ranch, the only difference was that the cattle grazing it would belong to someone else. Watching Camille drive away, Tank wished he could love her the way he loved Irene, but somehow he knew they were just meant to be friends. Riding Rusty out to check the herd, Tank vowed that someday, when he retired from being the sheriff of Pagosa Cliffs, he would rebuild the ranch for his son.