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Alone in a Crowd
Sheriff Ryan Blackfeather stood on the small rise and watched his partner, Rio Adega cut down a dead tree. Cleaning up the park was a yearly event that his other partner, Nate Gills, took very seriously. Ryan, on the other hand, took the view of Rioâ€™s ass in a tight pair of jeans serious. He reached down and subtly adjusted his hardening cock.
The park was full of people with good intentions, too bad Ryan couldnâ€™t act on his. He smiled and shook his head. If he went any closer heâ€™d have to arrest himself for indecent exposure. Later, he promised himself.
â€œYou gonna just stand there, or are you going to come down here and help me?â€ Rio asked.
â€œIâ€™m on duty.â€ Ryan pointed to his badge. â€œThis gets me out of manual labour today.â€
Rio wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm. â€œFunny how that happens, and here I thought you usually took Saturdayâ€™s off.â€
â€œPete wanted off to spend time with Brian and Ethan.â€ Ryan chuckled. He knew he wasnâ€™t fooling Rio, but it was a good game. â€œI always put my deputiesâ€™ needs before my own.â€
â€œMmm hmm. Keep telling yourself that.â€
â€œI will.â€ Ryan spotted a scrap of paper several feet away and walked over to pick it up. â€œLove you. Donâ€™t work too hard.â€
Bent over, his ass facing Ryan, Rio gathered a few of the sawed logs in his arms. â€œI wouldnâ€™t have to if you werenâ€™t such a dedicated lawman.â€
Ryan was still chuckling as he walked off. Despite what Rio believed, he wasnâ€™t afraid of hard work. He simply felt better being in a position where he could watch over the citizens heâ€™d been hired to protect.
* * * *
Smokey Sharp watched Ezra James and Palmer Wynfield rake the previous fallâ€™s leaves away from the edge of the pond. There was a time when heâ€™d be right there, working alongside Ezra, but that was before Palmer, before heâ€™d made one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
â€œNo time like the present,â€ Smokey whispered. He took off his cowboy hat and walked closer to the waterâ€™s edge. Instead of announcing his presence, he waited. It was immediately obvious that Ezraâ€™s relationship with Palmer agreed with him. Ezra looked younger without the massive beard heâ€™d worn for years, and happier than Smokey had ever seen him.
Several moments later, Ezra glanced up. His initial reaction was a wide smile, but all too soon it was gone, replaced by a scowl. â€œWhatâ€™re you doing in town?â€
Palmer stopped raking and spun around to face Smokey. It was the moment of fear in Palmerâ€™s eyes that hurt the most. Smokey took a deep breath, praying the words would come out the way heâ€™d rehearsed. â€œI came back to apologise. To both of you,â€ he added. â€œI donâ€™t expect either of you to forgive me, but Iâ€™d like to come home to Cattle Valley.â€
Before he could say anything more, Palmer dropped his rake and took a step towards Smokey. â€œYou donâ€™t need our permission.â€ He shook his head. â€œIâ€™m not as insecure as I used to be.â€
â€œI donâ€™t have any openings on the ranch,â€ Ezra said, moving to stand beside Palmer.
Smokey looked down at his boots. â€œI didnâ€™t apologise because I wanted you to give me a job. I guess I just hoped...â€ He stuffed his hat back onto his head. It was obvious Ezra wasnâ€™t planning to forgive him anytime soon. â€œNever mind.â€ He waved to the two men as he turned to leave. â€œSee ya around.â€
Smokey slowly walked back to his truck before his legs could give out. He hated himself for believing all could be forgiven. Real life wasnâ€™t like the movies, it wasnâ€™t as simple as apologising to the people youâ€™d wronged. â€œIt was stupid as fuck to come back here,â€ he mumbled as he climbed behind the wheel and slammed the door.
â€œYouâ€™re the last person I expected to see today.â€
Smokey sat up straight and turned to find Sheriff Ryan Blackfeather leaning on his truck. The last time heâ€™d had a run-in with Ryan it was just after heâ€™d made the mistake of threatening Palmer. â€œCame back to apologise. Iâ€™m not looking for trouble.â€
Arms crossed, Ryan continued to stare at Smokey. â€œDid it work?â€
Breathing a sigh of relief, Smokey smiled and shook his head. â€œI doubt it, but at least Iâ€™m still alive.â€
â€œSo what now?â€
That was the million-dollar question. â€œNo idea. I lost my job up north when the old man died. His snot-nosed kid came in and sold the whole damn place to a developer. Gonna put up windmill generators. Know of anything around here?â€
After several moments, Ryan pulled out his wallet and withdrew a card. â€œNate has a friend who just leased three hundred acres from the city to farm.â€ He handed Smokey the card. â€œGive him a call. Tell him I referred you.â€
Smokey stared at the expensively embossed business card. Second Chance Ranch, Robert Ogden, Owner. â€œYouâ€™d do that?â€
â€œMake no mistake, I didnâ€™t approve of what you did to Wyn, but I know you were a damn good foreman for Ezra.â€ He gestured to the card. â€œGive Oggie a call.â€
â€œThanks.â€ Smokey started his truck. â€œSee you around, Sheriff.â€ He waited for Ryan to step back before pulling out of the parking lot. He tossed the card in the seat beside him, more depressed than ever. Heâ€™d love to work on a ranch again, but his health was declining rapidly, and it wouldnâ€™t be right to apply for a job based on the kind of foreman he once was.
Smokey drove through town and pulled into the grocery store parking lot. Elliott Simmons was the only loose end he had left on his road to redemption. He couldnâ€™t make people forgive him, but he couldnâ€™t let that stop him from trying.
Elliott had reached out to him after Ezra kicked him off the ranch, had even offered physical comfort to help ease Smokeyâ€™s broken heart, and heâ€™d repaid him by drinking himself into oblivion every night. It wasnâ€™t Elliottâ€™s fault. Smokey had always been a drinker. It was only natural for him to crawl into a bottle of whisky and live there for the better part of a year and a half. Unfortunately, Elliott had paid the price.
Smokey got out of the truck and slammed the door harder than needed. He took a deep breath before entering the grocery store and was immediately met by Jeff, Elliottâ€™s teenage son. â€œHey.â€
â€œMr Sharp,â€ Jeff said in surprise. â€œI didnâ€™t know you were back in town.â€
â€œJust drove in a few hours ago. Is your dad here?â€
â€œHeâ€™s in the back.â€ Jeff set the box he was holding on the floor. â€œHe missed you, you know?â€
Smokey didnâ€™t, as a matter-of-fact, he couldnâ€™t imagine Elliott had given him a second thought after throwing his drunk ass out. â€œNo, but itâ€™s nice to hear.â€ He took a second look at the growing man in front of him. â€œIâ€™m sorry if I scared you back then, but I promise Iâ€™m sober now.â€
â€œDonâ€™t tell me, tell Dad.â€ Jeff picked the box up and smiled. â€œItâ€™s good to see you again.â€
â€œThanks, you too.â€ Smokey walked towards the back of the store feeling lighter than he had in a very long time. He entered the storeroom and prayed Elliott would be as kind as the son heâ€™d raised. â€œHey.â€
Elliott glanced up from his clipboard. â€œHey,â€ he returned, an expression of shock on his dark brown face. He took several steps, putting him directly in front of Smokey. â€œYouâ€™re back.â€
Staring down into his old friendâ€™s dark eyes, Smokey realised how much he hated himself for disappointing Elliott. â€œI came to tell you how sorry I am for what happened between us.â€
â€œDonâ€™t do that. Iâ€™m sorry about how it ended, but not all the memories are bad ones.â€ Elliott reached up and brushed Smokeyâ€™s cheek with his hand. â€œIâ€™ve missed you.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know why you would, but Iâ€™ll take it.â€ Smokey leaned into Elliottâ€™s touch. If only he could go back and live his life over. Maybe he wouldâ€™ve fallen in love with Elliott before Ezra managed to get under his skin. A lump of regret formed in his throat, prompting him to pull away. â€œI should probably let you get back to work.â€
â€œYou staying in town?â€
There were two places to stay in Cattle Valley, the lodge or the B&B, and both were too expensive for Smokeyâ€™s limited funds. â€œI have a lead on a job, but Iâ€™m not sure how much help I can offer the guy.â€ He looked down at his hands. According to the doctor, the rheumatoid arthritis that was quickly crippling him was an inherited disease that could be marginally managed but not cured. As if his mother abandoning him as a child wasnâ€™t enough, he would forever endure a constant reminder of the slut whoâ€™d loved men and drugs more than her own son.
Elliott glanced at Smokeyâ€™s gnarled fingers. â€œI think you have more to offer than you give yourself credit for.â€