Tarnished Stars : Pagosa Cliffs Book 1

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People see the world through their biases, they wear their tolerance like a mask to hide their hate and prejudice and the innocent suffer.

After dropping T.J. and Luellen off at the Ridgeline to spend the day with the Wallaces, he headed to the county impound lot. Gramma Doreen had invited Luellen to the Women’s Auxiliary group with her and Camille, and Grandpa Ben had promised to take T.J. out to the herd to see his cow and her new calf. His son was going to have a wonderful day while Tank dealt with the latest headache courtesy of Deputy Dick Ursick.

“I was only gone four days to spend with my son and his grandmother in Denver.” Tank rubbed his forehead looking at the wreck that had been one of his three patrol vehicles. Doug Stanley stood quietly to one side; he knew better than to say anything. The giant Sheriff of Pagosa county was practically shaking with rage.

“How drunk was he?”

Doug answered immediately, “Dick blew a 0.26. I don’t know how he was still standing but he was walking around with a broken arm like he couldn’t feel it.”

“And the truck he hit?” Tank growled.

“Loaded logging truck that was broke down and off the shoulder, hazard blinkers and road props were in place. The driver had caught a ride back to Durango to pick up a new rig to pull the load and bring back a tow truck,” Doug answered without looking at the report. “A passing car called it in. Ruby called me, and I went straight to the scene. It took thirty minutes to pull his SUV out from under the log trailer.” Doug sighed, “His gun and badge are in your safe.”

“What did his brother say?” Tank asked, looking at where the logs had impaled the passenger cab. It was pure luck that Dick Ursick had not been killed. “How did he even get out?”

“Rich never called back, but Heather said to take Dick to the hospital and they would get him sent to a program.” Doug put his hand on the crumpled hood, “I think he crawled out the windshield when he couldn’t get the door open. His hands were cut, and the steering wheel was on the hood. But on the bright side, Rich will have to give us the new SUVs you want. Can I get mine with a leather interior?” Doug taunted.


His only remaining deputy shrugged, “I like the Jeep Cherokees personally, from my forest service days. Ray liked Jeeps after the war. Those Dodges are too fancy to load the back with vomiting drunks, filthy poachers, and bloody carcasses. Jeeps you can just hose them out when you hose off the lawbreakers... or deputies...”

Tank laughed tiredly. “You’re not as funny as you think you are, Doug.”

He shrugged, “But I am, Sheriff, every day I tell my lovely Veranda how much I love her cooking with a straight face.”

“Love makes it taste better.” Tank quote what he said to Irene often enough and almost instantly regretted it. But Doug just laughed as he nodded in agreement.

Marine Sergeant Lloyd McConnell sat across the desk from Tank, Tank looked over his application for Pagosa County Sheriff’s Deputy. “Once you get the courses from the L.E.C. in Castle, I can start you at any time, I could even start you today.”

Lloyd laughed, “I would if I could. The whole town is talking about Dick trying to make toothpick with his patrol vehicle.”

Tank only nodded, it had been only three days since Dick Ursick had driven his Pagosa County SUV into the back of a stalled logging truck. “When do you think you’ll be moving back?”

“My leave ends in a week then I have six months until I am released from active duty. I have to report for two weeks with the National Guard. After, I’ll be moving into Ray’s house on the Rocking M until things get settled, then I may be moving into town.” Lloyd smiled in a lazy way.

Tank raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to jump into being married to Tonia? She just divorced...”

Lloyd’s deep brown eyes got darker, “Tonia and I would have been married years ago, if my cousin hadn’t seduced her then trapped her. She only married Pat because she felt so lonely while I was in South Korea. After being abandoned by her parents, she can’t bear to be alone. I understand, we both had bad moms who dumped us on relatives when they couldn’t deal after our dads left for other women. I’m the same way, but I’m stronger than she is. We are going to get married this time, but she and I agreed to wait a year, so the rumor mill won’t try to make things difficult for us or Tiana. The people in this town love their gossip.”

“That’s true.” Nodding his head, Tank tried not to grimace. He didn’t want to tell the best candidate he had in a long time that the gossip was already think as gravy about him and his cousin’s exwife because Lloyd might take Tonia and her daughter and move away. Tank stood and held out his hand. “Well. Lloyd, let me know when you’re out of the service and settled, and I’ll arrange for the training.”

“Yes sir, Sheriff.” As he turned to leave, Lloyd looked back over his shoulder with a grin, “But you should know, I’m coming for my Uncle’s star.”

In jest, Tank reached up and unpinned it. “I’ll give you a hundred dollars to take it now.”

They laughed but as Tank watched Lloyd drive away toward Tonia’s house in his rental, Tank’s smile dropped. The gossip vine was already going crazy with speculation about just how long the high school sweethearts had been seening each other and that Tonia’s whole marriage

Tank parked in front of the Wallace homestead on the Ridgeline Ranch. Camille out and offered him a glass of tea. “Sorry to tell ya, Tank, but T.J. and the girls made Grandpa Ben and Beau take them out to see the herd. Gramma Doreen packed them cookies and sandwiches, so they’ll be back about sunset.”

Tank took a long drink. “How’s he doing?”

Camille sat down on the step and Tank sat next to her. Her lips pressed together, and her hazel eyes got as had as green agate. “He’s upset. He asked Grandpa Ben if he could stay with us if you didn’t want to keep him at the end of the summer. Did... Did Wanda really tell Irene that once T.J. was out of the house, she could start a real family?”

Tank sat down, “Yes. Isaac bit her head off. Wanda didn’t realize he and T.J. had walked in when Irene was showing off her dress. Wanda always had a problem with our marriage, used to make snide remarks about jungle fever, our kids being zebras, and stuff. Wanda is a lot like her father was.”

“He’s her nephew!” Huffing, Camille’s fists made a ball, clenching together. “How could they be so cruel? T.J. is a great kid. Can’t you keep him for a year or forever? It would be better for both of you.”

“Irene will never give up T.J.. She’s too proud to let him go; it would just prove once and for all the Wanda and Cedric were right. She said she never should have married me and had my son but she won’t let him stay with me.” Tank bowed his head. “All these years, so much has changed in our country but nothing really has, people still hate one another for the color of their skin. Interracial marriages, interracial children, they have it twice as hard.”

Tank felt sick in his soul for his son and as helpless as he had when his neck was broken. “I fell in love with the wrong woman and now my only son is suffering. And God help me, I hate my son’s mother. Part of my heart still belonged to her but I hated her. She was the first woman I ever loved, the first... my first... And she hates me... because I didn’t listen and went out on that boat with Mike who hated me because I married her.”

Tank laughed tiredly, but there was no mirth in it. “He told me once, no black man wants to see a goddess like Irene married to a white farmboy... I loved her, I thought people accepted us, but it was a lie. Luellen said she would have left me anyway, but that doesn’t change how much it hurts, that she would choose any other man in the world with skin darker than mine, even a criminal, rather than forgive me.”

“It isn’t you, Thomas. Our society isn’t as tolerant or conscientious as the media tells us. People let their eyes choose their biases. My tattoo automatically made me a slut even though I was a virgin when Ron and his buddies attacked me. I mean I guess I look good and I did wear swimsuits all the time when I was training, but that didn’t give them the right to do that to me. And as for Irene, forgiveness is a choice. It’s one Irene can’t make. Some women can’t, they get biased and can’t let go of it. I can honestly say that forgiveness is very hard for me, but Mina could forgive anyone of almost anything after she got over being mad. I will never forgive those men who attacked me, I will never forgive the High... the men who hurt Mina and me.” Camille looked out at the trees surrounding the homestead. “I think I need to jump off the falls again.”

Tank tightened his arm around her. “Don’t you do it.”

“Coward...” Camille bumped him with her elbow and he laughed a real laugh this time. Her voice was serious after their amusement ended. “Tank, I am so sorry she got remarried and the way she planned it... I’m just so mad for you...”

“Don’t apologize for her hurting me and T.J.. Irene made her choices. After you left, she accused me of never wanting her to be happy and I told her that her happiness always cost someone else’s pain. I am tired of paying, I am tired of my son paying. She has called three or four times a day since we got home. Luellen said when she called her house in Denver, T.J. refused to speak to her. She has to fix this, I am not making any excuses for her this time.”

Camille opened her mouth to say something, but her grandmother opened the door. “Camille, can you and Thomas take the four wheelers out and retrieve the family for dinner?”

They both stood automatically. Doreen and Luellen smiled at them as they went through the house to the barn.

In the far western pasture, they found the rest of the Wallaces having a picnic. Willow was asleep on a blanket next to Beau. Grandpa Ben waved as they parked. He pointed to where Cajun stood by a reclining cow. Tank walked toward the old cattle pony and Bluebell the cow as Camille went to Beau and Willow. T.J. was leaning against Bluebell with a calf in his lap. The calf’s head was in Gracie’s lap and she was petting its face. Tank almost laughed at the seriousness of their conversation about what to name the calf.

“Well, Bluebell is named after the ice cream company in Brenham, so we should name her after an ice cream flavor.” T.J. reasoned. “My favorite flavor is hot fudge or rocky road. What’s yours”
“I like Vanilla, but, T.J. if we give her a food name that means she is for eating... I think we should name her after a flower. Her mother’s name is a flower,” Gracie pointed out. “How about daisy or columbine?”

“But she is going to be red and white,” T.J. pointed out. Bluebell turned her head to look at Tank, her rich brown eyes blinked as she lazily chewed her cud. She was the most coddled cow he had ever seen.

Gracie scowled, then said, “Christmas carnations are red and white, so are some tulips.”

“Roses are red but I don’t like roses, they have thorns.” T.J. ran his hand over the calf’s back, its coppery Hereford color looked like a penny in the late afternoon sun.

“How about Penny, cause she’s lucky to be so loved?” Tank suggested.

Gracie and T.J. looked up at him at the same time. “Hey, Dad.”

“I like Penny, it’s pretty like she is,” Gracie announced.

“Penny it is,” T.J. grinned then he looked serious. “Since Bluebell’s calf is a girl and Grandpa Ben said if I helped him check the herds while I was here, he’d make sure she got kept with her mother until we could start keeping cows on the ranch. Dad, if you let me stay, I promise I’ll check the cows every day, and keep the stock tanks full and clean, and...”

“T.J., I asked and your mother said you couldn’t stay. I’m sorry.” Tank hated to tell his son those words.

T.J. looked down at his calf as tears fell down his cheek, his cow licked the salt from his face. Gracie’s eyes were wet but she blinked then sat up, answering in a manner far beyond her eight years old. “Don’t worry, T.J., I’ll take care of Penny and Bluebell when you go home. I promise.”

“Thanks, Gracie.” T.J. whispered.

The sleepy calf began to squirm, and they settled it on its hooves as Bluebell stood up. Penny nursed greedily while T.J. rubbed her mother’s neck. Ben whistled loudly enough to draw their attention, so they began walking back. Grandpa Ben’s cattle pony Cajun followed Gracie with a slack lead.

Tank squeezed T.J.’s shoulder. “I’ll drop you in the morning before my shift, so you can work and learn from Grandpa Ben. Would that be okay, son?”

“But I don’t want to go back to Galveston. I want to stay in Colorado, I want to stay on the ranch, I don’t care if I grow up to be an uneducated cowboy.” T.J. complained. Tank almost choked on his rage that Irene would say something like that but he for he could say anything Gracie spoke.

“Uneducated cowboy? There’s no such thing. Uncle Beau did six years of college in four and a half years. Ranch management, herd management, breeding and genetics and all that is so much to learn. And that is after spending his whole life learning from grandpa. Uneducated cowboy, that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.” Gracie’s frown twisted into one so similar to her late Aunt Mina’s that Tank almost couldn’t hide his surprise.

“What’s wrong, Gracie?” Willow asked.

“T.J.’s mom told him she couldn’t live with his dad because he would become an uneducated cowboy.” Gracie informed them.

Willow rolled her eyes, “Sorry, T.J., but your mom is a dumb city slicker.”

“Tell me about it,” T.J. growled. “Please, Dad. You can’t send me back.”

All three looked at Tank with pleading eyes. Camille made a stern face but Tank could see she was trying not to laugh, her hazel eyes held the same amused look at her grandfather’s and cousin’s. “Now, it isn’t fair to pressure, Thomas with something the courts decided. T.J. has to live with his mother during school and as much as we hate it, we should put our energy into enjoy the time he is here.”

“Yes, mom.” Willow and Gracie chorused. “Sorry, Uncle Tank.”

Tank smiled at them, “Thank you, girls. I wish T.J. could stay too.”

Willow climbed on to Poncho’s back. T.J. climbed onto Cajun and held his hand down to Gracie, who climbed up behind him as Ben and Beau mounted. Tank and Camille led the wheelers. After they put the horses away, and washed up, there was an excellent dinner of roast beef, potatoes, and Luellen’s excellent pineapple upside-down cake. T.J. fell asleep in the truck on the way back to the Tanner Ranch. Tank stripped his son and put him in bed while Luellen piled the books Beau had loaned her grandson on the nightstand.

He walked her to his old house in the dark, “I’m on-call tonight at midnight so if you hear me leave, I had to go to work. I’ll be dropping T.J. at the Ridgeline in the morning; do you want to go?”

“No, not tomorrow... Your deputy’s stunt was the talk of the W.A. today. They are all asking why you don’t fire him. Camille gave them the what-for about it and told them if they didn’t want the drunk on the sheriff’s office payroll then they needed to get his brother out of office so you could fire him.” She patted his arm as he helped her up the steps. “Everyone seems to think you and the coach are going to get married. It made Doreen and I laugh all the way home. Is everyone in this town blind?”

Tank shrugged, “They see what they want to see, and gossip about everything else.”

“Mmmmm, thank you for letting me stay the week with my grandson on your ranch. It is so peaceful here, I don’t understand why Irene never wanted to live here... Don’t worry, someday you will find a woman who loves you and this life, you’re too good a man to spend your life alone but you need to quit fake-dating Camille.”

“I can’t... the divorcees here are worse than starving bears. Fake-dating Camille is the only way, I can get any work done.”

She kissed his cheek and went inside. “Well, good night, Thomas. I’ll pray for you.”

“Good night, Miss Luellen.” Tank went back and sat on the steps of his grandfather’s house. Up the mountain, a wolf howled and the wind moved in the trees under that half-moon. Ten days ago, Irene had remarried, and Tank had finally felt his hope die.

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