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With the foothills of the Three Brothers Mountains behind him, Fortune “Fort” Besingame rode awestruck toward the colorful prairie before him He might be exhausted, his vision blurry, his eyes dry, but he'd never stop appreciating the view. The sun was rising and coloring the landscape in bursts of yellows, blues, and lavender. Fort scanned the flat space ahead, the last gap between him and his mother's ranch. Home. He could barely make out the dark speck in the distance, but there it was waiting for him. Like a lighthouse beacon on a stormy night. He'd only been living here full-time for the last five years but, in truth, it had always felt like home. His soul breathed better here.
Fort sat back in the saddle and let the reins go slack. He, or his trusty stead more like, could find his way to the ranch with his eyes closed. The land, the people, heck, even the cows, called to him. He felt their pull deep in his core.
A Texan by birth and for most of his formidable years, he was well aware that his inclination to call Wyoming “home” and feel that truth right to the bone were considered traitorous to others from the great Lone Star State. Yet, saying anything else was a lie. Maybe it was the changing seasons or the granite mountains. The gray wolves that roamed the land and called out each night for their pack. He loved it all, even the wavy grass of the prairies, dry as they were this year. Mostly, it was because there were few things in life that took his breath away. Sunrise or sunset during any season in Wyoming was one. A willing and eager woman with open arms was another. Not that he'd had the latter in a long while.
Snorting at the irony, Fort rubbed the back of his hand across his brow; a fine layer of dust that coated his skin scratched both his hand and face. He was in no state to come home to a woman even if he did have one. Currently, the only woman in his life was Ma, and he'd set it up that way. After his eight-year stint in the Navy, Fort had craved the peace and solitude that came with working on the family ranch, and he wasn't tired of it yet.
Even at times like this, when one day seemed to stretch into the next, he enjoyed them. Yesterday, he'd worked the ranch in the morning, done his shift with the county in the afternoon, and returned home to quickly saddle up and ride out to the herd before sunset. He'd do much of the same today without so much as a complaint because, when he put his head on his pillow at night, he knew, unequivocally, good work had been done. It didn't matter that there wasn't enough time for anything more than work or ranching.
Nope, no women for Fort. None at the ranch, that is. He kept his dalliances to cities away from home when he went to livestock auctions. They were simple, short, and no strings. There was little free time in his life as it was, and adding a girl who required attention and affection was not how he wanted to spend that time.
The ranch house grew closer. Fort knew his faithful stallion, Diego, was as anxious to get home as he was. Lucky for Diego, he'd get to chill in his stall the rest of the day. While Fort only had enough time to wash the grime and dust from his body, wolf down a quick meal—his stomach growled in response to the thought—then grab about four hours of shuteye before starting his midday shift. Only this time as one of the county's deputies. He'd pull a twelve-hour shift before coming home and falling into bed for six hours of sleep.
Fort licked his dry, chafed lips and ignored the exhaustion. It was best to focus on what he could have since twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep wasn't gonna happen for him. He decided on bacon. He was a man who'd do just about anything for bacon. Diego picked up his pace, and before he knew it, he'd arrived at the house his ancestors had lived in for over one hundred years. Relaxing his thighs, he nudged Diego lightly with his heels and the horse broke into a trot.
“I'll give you extra oats, my friend,” Fort promised as he rubbed his companion's neck. The horse's ears twitched.
The ride had been a dusty, dry one. Autumn had been overly wet and had carried that trend into winter, but with spring had come an unusual dryness of the land, shocking in contrast to the colder months battling floods. Fresh growth was everywhere, and normally that was a good thing since the cattle sure liked the tall, thick grass, but the underlying dry earth worried him. His mind jumped to last night's problem. A missing cow. One. Uno. No carcass to be found that would explain a mountain lion or coyote. No sign that anyone had taken off with it either. To say it was odd was an understatement. Cattle rustlers didn't make off with only one cow unless it was a prized breeding one, but this one wasn't special by any means. Just another future steak. Yet, eight years spent as a military cop, many of those years in the sandbox, had honed his instincts, taught him to listen to his gut. Over there, paying attention was a matter of survival; here it was a matter of the ranch's. With the missing cow, those instincts were on full pinging mode. Force Protect Delta, as the military used to say when they were on high alert. Something wasn't right.
Fort blew a deep breath through his nose, quelling his unease and frustration. Little more irritated the living hell out of him other than not possessing one single clue. He liked resolution. Getting to the bottom of a puzzle. No lingering questions. This missing cow? He didn't like, no sir.
As he and Diego drew closer to the large shotgun-style log cabin that was his family's homestead, he noticed the sheriff's car in the drive. It wasn't unlike Sheriff Tinsdale to stop by and chew the fat with Ma. He was her godfather, after all. In the barn, Fort gave Diego a good rub down and some extra oats. Once Diego was settled, Fort thanked the animal by rubbing his muzzle, murmuring some kind words, and then with his hands on his lower back, arched, yawning with the stretch. A grumble from his stomach broke the silence, and Fort chuckled. Fatigue and hunger were battling it out.
He eyed the heavy wood door at the far end of the barn that led to his small studio apartment, complete with ode de animal. Behind that door was his soft bed, a hell of a step up from the hard ground last night. Another growl from his stomach ended the debate, and Fort headed for the house, pushing thoughts of his bed aside. He'd pop in, say hello, cram his face full of food, and get to bed as fast as possible.
Going through the back door, Fort entered directly into the kitchen where Ma and Sheriff Tinsdale sat at the large harvest table, solemn looks on their faces.
“What's happened?” Fort asked before he'd even closed the outside door. He'd left his stepfather, Paul, and half-brother, Matias, back with the cattle near the foothills. Maybe the missing cow had been animal related after all, and Paul and Matias had come across it. Fort mentally plotted the fastest path to get back to them. “Are Paul and Matias okay?”
“Yes, they're fine. But you're correct. Something has happened, and it's both good and bad,” his mom, Saira, said. “Have a seat. I'll get you something to eat.” She stood and pulled out a high-back chair.
Fort eased his tired body down, then reached for the carafe of coffee sitting in the middle of the table. Sheriff T slid him a mug.
“Here's the deal, son. You know it's been hard on Bitsy and myself with the kids being so far away and not getting in any time with our grandkids,” Tinsdale said, then sipped at his coffee. Bitsy, the sheriff's wife and dispatcher for the department, had recently come back from Florida where she'd helped their youngest daughter with her three children while she was in the hospital having number four. It hadn't taken a detective to see Bitsy's unhappiness once she returned.
Fort nodded. “Yes, sir.” He shoved three strips of bacon in his mouth from the plate Ma put before him. He loved her for loading the plate high with eggs, hash browns, and a fist full of bacon.
“I've been speaking with your mother about it. Bitsy and I don't want your ma feeling like we're abandoning her—”
“And I don't,” Ma said. Fort didn't have to look to know she had rolled her eyes. Her tone said it all. “You all were here for me after my parents died. Helped me keep this place going. I will never be able to express my gratitude for that, but Paul and I can manage this.”
Ma had married Paul the summer of Fort's sixteenth year. It hadn't taken Fort long to warm up to the caring, responsible surrogate father.
“As I was saying before I was interrupted, we don't want her to feel abandoned, but we're gonna move to Florida six months out of the year. Starting this year.”
Fort stopped chewing and looked between two faces of the people he loved and respected. He appreciated the kindness the Tinsdales were showing to Ma. They'd been a surrogate family to her after her parents passed. Fort knew she looked up to Sheriff T as more of an uncle, as family, and it helped that the Tinsdales' ranch neighbored theirs, too.
Saira reached across the table and took Tinsdales’ hand. “You'll be back every summer, Uncle Roy. I can't see why you and Aunt Bitsy haven't done it sooner. I'll miss you both, but that just means the six months I have you here will be all the sweeter.”
Tinsdale patted her hand, his eyes glassy.
Family was important to Fort's mom. Every Sunday they ate dinner with the Tinsdales; every holiday was spent with them as well. It would be an adjustment for her, no doubt.
Fort swallowed hard. “When you say starting this year, you'll be finishing out the term, right?” This November was an election year. Tinsdale not running meant big change was coming. Doggone if Fort didn't hate change. It usually disrupted the peace and quiet he liked so much.
Tinsdale turned his attention to Fort. “I'm not finishing my term. That means there'll be a special election. I'm on my way to file papers for my retirement.” Tinsdale leaned forward, his look pointed. “Words gonna be out today. Though Deke Sutton has been pestering me about it. He's figured Bitsy out, I'm guessing. Bitsy's antsy. No doubt Deke's gonna jump in the fight.”
Fort slapped his fork against the table and sat back in his chair. Man, his dislike for Deke Sutton was awfully powerful. They'd been butting heads since they were kids. Deke was the one blight on Wolf Creek, Wyoming, in Fort's opinion. He'd been a punk-ass kid back when they were teens. Fort had spent most of his summers with Ma. Those times away from his dad and Brewster, Texas were some of the best of his life. Except for Deke, who lived to make Fort unhappy. Scrawny with an aversion to work, Deke used the art of con and manipulation to get what he wanted, schmoozing people with false platitudes. After college, Deke had joined the sheriff's office as a side job, though did little more than strut around with his badge out. He'd also inherited his family's insurance business, which was his primary job and employed a handful of minions, mostly made up of the troublemakers from the area. Nope, Deke Sutton as sheriff was not a situation that set well with Fort. Not one bit.
“You know how I feel about Deke, Sheriff.” Fort didn't have to explain why. Tinsdale had been the sheriff back all those summers, eighteen years ago, when Deke had come at Fort with a bat and broke his arm. All over a girl he thought Fort was hitting on. Tinsdale had broken up the fight.
Tinsdale blinked his rheumy eyes. “I know you do. Why do you think I keep the two of you on different shifts?”
“Know of anyone else who might be interested in running?” Fort ran through the people in their town and the next one over, Bison's Prairie, and came up short. People were too busy these days trying to make ends meet to take on the full-time sheriff job of a huge county. Fort wasn't sure what he disliked more—Deke taking the job or a stranger coming in and doing it.
Tinsdale shook his head. “It's too bad you aren't settled with this long-distance girl of yours. You'd be a perfect candidate, but you know how these folks around here are. They want to see a married and settled sheriff.”
Ah, hell, this again? The curse of a small town was that everyone knew each other's business and believed they had a right to interfere. He'd come home from serving his country, ready to give up living in various ports or manufactured, impermanent housing in sandy countries. He wanted to forget the sounds of exploding IEDs, meals from a bag, and the unending stress of each day's uncertainty. He'd wanted to take a deep breath and not expect something bad to happen every second of everyday. He wanted to shut his eyes and not dream about being on an endless recon mission that went nowhere and did nothing, stuck in a perpetual loop of Hell. And he certainly didn't want to come home and be set up with every single female in the county, some barely over eighteen. Fort had no interest in the sort of relationship that required more work than one night. Out here in nowhere’s land, life was hard, and he had no intention of complicating it with a woman who would eventually leave anyway.
Inventing a long-distance love had been all kinds of brilliant when he'd come up with it. Kept all the locals nose out of his business. And, for the most part, worked handily. Until now. Fort narrowed his eyes and looked at Tinsdale. “You saying if I were interested in running for sheriff, then I'll need to be married, first? Deke's not married.”
“But he was,” Ma answered. “And being a widower works in his favor.”
Fort nearly choked on his bacon. He wouldn't wish losing a loved one on anyone, not even Deke, whose wife died in a car accident a few months after they were married. But that was a handful of years ago, and Deke was no more attached to anyone than Fort was.
He grunted his frustration. “It's the twenty-first century. You'd think people would get over their old-fashioned beliefs about the sheriff having to be married to be fit to run.” Fort kept his real thoughts to himself. The antiquated backasswards mentality of the good people of Critten County drove him nuts. He was a war veteran, his family owned a ranch, and he had been a deputy for four years now. A darn good one, too. Shouldn't that speak for itself? What did it take to earn these people's respect?
Tinsdale ran his fingers through his short gray hair. “It's more than that. It's because you weren't raised here. Born here. How can they believe you won't hightail it outta here if you get bored or a better offer? Folks like you Fort. They doubt your commitment to this community is all.”
Fort snorted. His ancestors had homesteaded here, and yet, because his mother had married a Texan and then divorced him, leaving her nine-year-old behind, he was the outsider. Story of his life, never fitting in anywhere.
“And Deke looks like a perfect candidate,” Fort said while pushing away his plate.
“Yup.” Tinsdale nodded. “He still goes to the cemetery and puts flowers on Laura's grave every week. No one thinks he'll leave.”
“Who knew that deciding a boy should be raised by his father would work against him as an adult?” Ma put a hand on his shoulder. “I'm sorry, Fort. I feel like some of this is my blame.”
Fort squeezed her arm. “How could you know the future, Ma?”
“How serious is it with this girl?” Tinsdale asked.
Fort almost said, “What girl?” but caught himself in time. “Why?”
Tinsdale raised a brow, as if puzzled Fort couldn't put the pieces together. “Getting married right about now wouldn't be a bad idea if you were wanting to throw in your hat for the sheriff’s job.”
Fort sat back in his chair and placed his thumb over the twitching part of his upper eye. “Ah, well, I guess we're both so busy we haven't really given it much thought.” He hated lying. Hated the acrid taste that remained in his mouth for days after each lie. Hated that Deke might be the next sheriff and he, Fort Besingame, would be working for him. Hell no, he'd quit. Maybe then he'd get more than six hours of sleep at a time.
“Maybe you should,” Tinsdale said. “You've been dating her a long time and haven't come across anyone else you want to date. That's something.”
Fort pushed from the table and nodded. “I'll think about it right after I catch some shuteye. I've got to be at work in a few hours.” He stood. “Though, I reckon asking a girl to get hitched so I can try for a job isn't all that romantic.”
Ma squeezed his hand. “Sometimes, hon, a reason like that is a far better one than love at first sight. Not that I would change that, because I got you out of the deal.”
Tinsdale stood. “I'd endorse you, Fort. You know I have full faith in you.”
“Thank you, sir, I appreciate that.” Jeez, the look of hope in Tinsdale's eyes caused Fort to cringe inwardly. He was half tempted to conjure up a bride right on the spot. As if such things could happen.
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