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Why was I here, sweating through my shorts and staring down that wiry piece of muscle and lean rear end? I don't know why, 'cause maybe he's more trouble than he's worth. Pretty boys, city boys, they don't do too well out here. The way he's tossing gear about, well, that's long work on a short task. Got more stumble than sense. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks he's fitting in. Expensive shades, cowboy hat and jeans that had to have cost at least a hundred bucks riding low on a set of hips just a hair on the wrong side of thin. His skin holds a warm shade of brown down deep. It ain't the kind you get from too much sun.
Everything I like all in one spit-start package. Not that I can afford to be all that picky; this is the high country after all.
My beat covers more territory than some states are wide. All we got up here is cowboys and Mormons. If your family ain't been around for at least three generations, you're new to the area. Don't even get me started on the tourists.
My family, they walked outta Nauvoo, Illinois just ahead of the lynching parties and fled into Utah, pushing handcarts. I'm born and bred local. And since I ain't a cowboy, that would mean I'm one of the Latter Day Saints ... at least in my heart I am. Some members of the Church, they might not see me so eye-to-eye on that if they knew.
While I don't drink, don't smoke, and don't cuss, the first guy to mistake me for a pacifist got himself into a world of hurt. My badge, this star ... Garfield County Sheriff, one of the "Magnificent Seven." There's only seven deputies for this whole county. Been here since I left the Corrections Department where I worked the state pen in CedarCity. Got my first .22 when I was eight. Shot my first buck when I was twelve. I can handle myself along with the best.
Except, maybe, doing what I was doing here now. Just watching.
Heck, the first time I saw him is like right on the top of my mind. I'd stopped by Ruby's Inn to get a pop, standing along the porch, watching who's coming in and who's going out. Outta old man Harding's truck swings this kid. Anybody who's got to ask how I knew it was old man Harding's truck ... they ain't never lived in a small town. Ruby's is officially a township, population 182 or thereabouts. Panguich, where the station is, hits around 1,600 with Tropic not quite a quarter of that. Both are on my beat. The biggest city 'round here is two hours and one county away. Cedar City, that's big enough for two high schools, a college campus and the state prison. Not hardly big enough to get lost in even if, like me, you sometimes wanted to.
Why did he catch my eye? First off, he screamed city, but not in that overfed, treadmill kinda manner. Naw, punk, in a way that sent all my cop senses running for the shotgun. Then one of those weekend biker guys--all play bad-ass, with a twenty thousand dollar custom rod, who would dirty his drawers if the wrong guy said boo--drifted by. The punk's eyes focused in on the biker's leather-clad butt. He watched the guy walk by, and then he licked his lips in that slow I wanna be tasting a bit of that way.
Standing there watching him and swigging a root beer and I damn near spit it out. Man, oh man, I've got my sites on a prime slab of twenty-something pretty-boy in tight jeans. Since it'd been nearly six months since I'd even managed to score a hand job in Vegas, everything went south real fast. I could have passed out from rapid blood loss then and there.
I know. I know. Gay and Mormon don't cohabit very well. The Church has been wrong on other stuff, seen the light and changed their ways ... I'm hoping someday they'll see the light on this issue. Can't say I'm holding my breath, though.
Let's face it ... God made me this way. The same way he made me a blue-eyed blond with a receding hairline at twenty. Vanity ... that convinced me to shave my head and beat my body into submission in the gym. I don't have any choice in wanting another guy's meat.
If I coulda chose different, dear God I would have. I don't need the load of baggage trying to justify my faith with my body. A simple life with Molly-Mormon and a passel of kids would have been so much easier. At least I had the stones to suck it up and not take someone else down into miserable with me. I've kissed a few gals, never even got my pulse above a resting beat. The first guy who stuck his tongue down my throat, I blew in my shorts.
So I saw him and I wanted him. I don't think anyone can imagine how bad. And I stuck it in my pocket. No sense messing with something like that, and likely he was just passing through anyhow. Then Jessie, she works Ruby's year-round, walks by and sees him.
Jessie smiled at me ... she always does, 'cause she's got a kid out of wedlock and I'm past thirty and ain't never married so there's potential there, she thinks. "Hey, Joe." That big smile held a ton of hope that made me cringe inside. "So, you keeping an eye on him?"
"What," I managed to choke out, sneezing the foam back outta my nose, "city boy?" Of course, we both knew we were talking about the new guy ... what else is there to talk about in a small town?
Grabbing a spot of wall right next to me, she starts in with the gossip. "Yeah, I was talking to Page and her momma, she says that Lena says he's done time." Then Jessie leaned real close and whispered, "Federal time. You know, hard," she winked, drawing out the word hard like she was anywhere near sophisticated, "time." I didn't rise to the bait, but then I ain't known around here for my sense of humor. Apparently the story was too good to let it go. She kept yakking in that same somebody's died tone. "He's Sandy Harding's family, from the Stewart part. You know her sister just went loopy in the sixties, off in California. Shacked up with this Indian guy ... like, from India." All three syllables got emphasis, guess so I'd know she didn't mean one of the local tribes ... all them are cowboys too. "Well, he's the grandson of that part of Sandy's tree. They say he don't got much family now, so they did God's work and took him in when he got out. Goes down to Cedar City once a month to check in with the Parole Board."
Okay, I'm looking at the hottest thing outside of a GQ model shoot. Everything I know says if he did hard time, it was on his back, as the girl for some dude with a nick-name like Killer and prison tats on every inch of skin. But honestly, I'm not getting that vibe. There is a coiled restlessness lurking in that body. He's a rattlesnake. All so pretty and calm. But he won't but give you two second's warning before he buries his fangs in your thigh.
I did not need that level of problem. Kept telling myself that, hoping I'd believe it through sheer repetition.
It took me damn near a month to figure out I was doing it. Driving by, keeping an eye on him, and not in the cop kinda way. Instead of grabbing a sandwich at the little shop in Panguitch, I'd take the extra half-hour and drive on in to Tropic. I did a drop by at the Parole Board and talked with his officer ... you know, just to keep tabs on the element on my beat. That's what I told myself anyhow. I can lie to myself with the best of them.
Then I got the call. Call from Taylor Harding, the old man. Noreen gave me the message. For fifteen minutes, my gut went cold. Finally, I steeled myself and rang him back. Sandy'd answered with something bright and bubbly.
"Heya, Sandy, its Deputy Joseph Peterson. T called me." People either called Taylor "Old Man Harding" or "T." Just depended on who you were talking to and how you knew him. I worked his ranch in high school. A lot of us are cowboys too. The divide is more of a function of which pew you park your rear in come Sunday morning and nobody really cares much until you start talking water rights and who's been here longer. "He around?"
"Naw, Joe, he's off at the back end of the ranch right now."
"Know when he'll be back?" I spun a pencil in my hand. What I really wanted to ask was how their new hand was fairing and if he really liked guys or was it just a habit he developed behind bars. None of that went past my lips. "Do you know why he called?"
"Home past supper, but, yeah, I know what he wanted."
I waited for a bit, and then a bit more. "You gonna tell me or do I got to guess it?"
"Sorry," her laugh hit that nervous hiding something cord. "I'm thinking how to put it. You know my sister's grandson is here."
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't make the rounds."
"Well, look, T and I got to go into Arizona for some business. Looking at maybe picking up a new bull. And, well, Kabe is gonna be around by himself. The hands are here, but nobody to really watch out for him." She pronounced his name like Gabe with a K ... I'd only seen his name written and had guessed wrong based on last name: Varghese. I'd probably bungle that one over my tongue, too. "You mind swinging by a few times and just keeping an eye on things?"
"Any particular reason you're concerned? You okay with him there?" That little vision of the rattlesnake came back, shaking all the warning bells.
"Ah, we're fine. Kabe's a good kid. He went to prison for a prank." Free-climbing a federally-owned dam with enough E in your pack to fly a football team ranked slightly higher than a prank in my book ... possession with intent to distribute. It also qualified as damn stupid. She minimized, like family tends to, "It was a mistake. And he's doing good here. But, there's a few of the good ol' boys around who think, well, that they can get some shine on their buckle..."
"Getting hassled is he?"
"Some. Not big." More minimizing. My guess, any loser who thought they needed a bit of bank in taking on an ex-con was pushing his buttons to see if Kabe'd bite. "Most of them won't press it 'cause T's around. But you know these guys. We were thinking that maybe if they heard Joe Peterson was looking out after him, they might think twice before starting something."
I didn't owe the Hardings anything ... and I owed 'em everything. That's the way life works up here. "I could manage it."
"We owe you."
"No you don't." Please don't tell me I'm doing something special. All I wanted was an excuse to drive by the Harding Ranch and take a gander at lean, brown and sexy. "Heck, keeping the peace is what I do."
"You're a good kid, Joe. How come some nice girl hasn't just snatched you up yet?" She teased. "I hear Jessie Dane thinks highly of you."
"She's a sweet girl." I tried damn hard not to gag on that statement. "Don't think she'd really be able to fit in my kinda life."
"You keep thinking like that, you're going to find yourself a lonely old man."
"Someday. Just haven't found the right person yet."
That was a few days back, and it hadn't been any skin off my teeth to make it 'round like I promised--near every day. So that's why I was leaning against the grill of my patrol car, watching lean and sexy screw up feeding the stock. Long way 'round to get back to here, but I got to start it somewhere.