The Blacksmith and the Ex-con
“If anybody ever needed him, Ellis did. Ellis was broken. Jasper liked to fix things.”
Jasper has the perfect life. He’s a blacksmith at a small guest ranch in Wyoming. The last thing he needs is to have that perfect life interrupted by a shifty-eyed ex-con, but the ranch needs the tax benefits the ex-con program will bring.
Traumatized by his time in prison, Ellis can barely speak. He’s about to be offered parole. He knows he will hate working on the guest ranch, but what other option does he have?
It’s not love at first sight. It’s not hate at first sight, either, but something in between.
A gay m/m cowboy romance with age gap, hurt/comfort, opposites attract, forced intimacy, emotional scars, trauma leading to mutism, grumpy/grumpy, and baths. A little sweet, a little steamy, with a guaranteed HEA.
If Ellis sank down far enough, the water in the large tub came up to his neck, and his knees didn’t even poke through the surface of the water. It was plenty hot, too, and besides that he felt like he was floating in a sea of forgotten dreams. The memory of the pleasure of bathing alone, without being watched, was so many miles away from the communal shower at Wyoming Correctional, it was like being on a different planet.
The soap smelled nice and was soft on his skin as he sat up to bathe, and the towels on the rack looked soft and white, as though they were brand new. The air above the tub swirled with a faint mist, sweet-smelling without the fug of twenty sweaty men trying to get clean, get their rocks off, and avoid the attention of the prison guards all at the same time. Plus, there was a large bottle of shampoo and conditioner propped in the wooden rack over the tub, which meant he could finally get the sticky prison-issued soap out of his hair, though it was tricky to use the sprayer hose to rinse off with rather than ducking his head beneath a stream of water from a shower head.
The only thing wrong was the fact that the door did not have a lock. It was just a regular doorknob. There wasn’t even a bolt or even a small hook-and-eye latch to keep the door shut for privacy’s sake, something to make the first bath he’d had in years a perfect experience. Not that any lock could have kept Jasper Nash out. Not with those boots and muscles of his. Not if he thought Ellis was up to something he shouldn’t be. Not if he wanted in.
Jasper was as solidly built as a brick house, certainly not someone Ellis wanted to mess with. Certainly not someone he’d ever disobey or talk back to. Not that he could talk at all. Not that Jasper had seemed to mind.
That was the strangest part. First there’d been Jasper coming up to him with that giant-sized switchblade of his. Ellis had been pretty sure that when Phil handed him over, Jasper, with his size and bulk and angry face, would have stepped right in to continue the abuse. Only instead of that, Jasper had cut Ellis free of the zip ties and yanked him out of Phil’s reach. Tucked the blade away.
Then had come the realization for Jasper that Ellis wasn’t talking. Ellis’ had gone a whole week at the prison not speaking, and nobody, not even his soon to be erstwhile cellmate, had noticed or, if they noticed, had not said anything. Had he another nickel to serve, he could have gone that whole long while without ever speaking and nobody would have cared.
Jasper, on the other hand, had sussed this out within the first afternoon of them being together under the same roof. Then, upon learning how Ellis’ problem had laid itself out, had done a mental one-eighty, it seemed, and come up with a solution. We’ll do it this way and this way and this.
Then had come dinner.
Ellis had worked in the prison kitchens on and off, and the memory of the prison guard who’d force fed Ellis an entire can of generic stewed tomatoes floated to the top of his head every once in a while. But it was when those tomatoes were on the menu in the cafeteria that he struggled.
Mostly, he pushed the tomatoes around and pretended to eat them, or hid them beneath an uneaten slice of bread, a worthy sacrifice. Sometimes it made him gag, but most times he unfocused his eyes and simply didn’t think about it.
At Jasper’s table, though, the stewed tomatoes, no doubt lovingly heated on Jasper’s stove, had covered everything on the plate. There was no scraping it off or hiding it beneath a slice of white bread. No getting away from the smell, the sight of them.
With Jasper sitting across from him, big shouldered and watchful, Ellis had simply been unable to eat, and the harder he’d thought about trying, the worse it got. His belly churned and bile came up his throat, and in the end, he’d had to get up from the table without asking. In prison, that would get you a black mark. In Jasper’s cabin, the result of refusing food had been, for a hot five minutes, an unknown.
Then Jasper had done the most unexpected thing. He’d taken the offending meal, without a speck of judgment on his face, and scraped it into the trash.
Then, like a small miracle, he’d offered to make Ellis a grilled cheese. Then he made himself one, and then he made two more, which they ate standing up in the kitchen in silence. As if it was perfectly ordinary for two men to eat that kind of dinner that way. As if Ellis wasn’t an ex-con who couldn’t talk, but instead was a known associate of Jasper’s and had come over for dinner, and this was what they liked to eat together.
The whole situation had been, was, surreal and strange, like a calm day in the midst of an unusually violent storm. Ellis was still waiting for the hammer to fall, waiting all afternoon, ever since he’d been placed in Jasper’s care. But except for Jasper’s gruff manner, which grew softer the longer Ellis was there, and his sense of order and those rules he’d rattled off earlier, which Ellis hadn’t even the vaguest notion of—all was not terrible.
Weirdest of all was the whole pint of ice cream he’d had for himself. It’d been fresh ice cream, too, and tasted like it had real ingredients, rather than the ersatz flavors the prison served on a Sunday night. As Jasper had led them out to the back deck to watch the sunset, he’d muttered something about also enjoying a nice fudge sundae at the Dairy Queen in Chugwater, the expression in his voice sounding like he wanted forgiveness for liking the taste of ice cream that was mostly air.
As for the sunset, it blew Ellis’ socks off, and that was no lie. Not that he could explain it to Jasper, but maybe he didn’t need to.
The sun started going down behind a ridge of mountains that sloped into foothills, above which towered the jagged shoulders of Iron Mountain. Behind that danced lacy clouds, turning and bowing into flowers of purple and deeper purple, and blues and orange, all at the same time. It was as though the sunset had a profound need to show off to Ellis on this, his first night out of prison, and wanted to make it memorable.
As for Jasper, when Ellis turned to look at him, having scraped out the last of the butter pecan from his waxed paper pint, Jasper’s mouth had been open, his face soft, the colors of the sunset glinting in his dark blue eyes. The moment stilled and slowed and it was as if the whole world took a breath all around the cabin in anticipation for when the last round edge of the sun would slip into darkness, turning the clouds darker and darker still.
Then the air grew dark pretty fast, and a chill rose from the river, and that’s when Jasper said, It’s time to go in. As the summer gets warmer, we can sit out as long as we please, but we’ve both had a long day—
Jasper’s words had rippled over Ellis as calmly as the slow river beneath the deck. He didn’t know if Jasper knew what he was doing or if that’s just the way he was or what. But it had been a nice treat, the whole afternoon a series of pleasant surprises.
Too bad he’d be dashing all of this to shit when he stole Jasper’s truck and rifled through his wallet for some money so Ellis could buy flowers to lay on Mom’s plaque. Too bad Jasper would know Ellis for what he was, a thief and a liar and everything bad. But that was the price he was willing to pay.
“You drown in there?” asked Jasper from the other side of the bathroom door, accompanying the words with a small knock. This, when he could have busted in easy as you please. “Maddy had Clay deliver some clothes from the shop for you. They’re upstairs in your room. You can try them on, see if they fit. We can change ‘em out if they don’t, and if they do, we can take them to the laundromat to soften ‘em up.”
As if anybody at the prison ever would have cared whether the clothes issued to Ellis fit or not. As if anybody at the prison ever cared whether the clothes were soft on his skin, or whether they scratched, or were stiff with soap, or left marks behind.
In a minute.
But of course Jasper couldn’t hear him. He couldn’t even hear himself.
Unable to think of anything else, he made a fist and, with his knuckles, knocked on the shiplap wall beside the tub.
“All right,” said Jasper, as if he understood everything Ellis was unable to say. “Don’t forget to brush your teeth after all that ice cream. And there’s a packet of disposable razors, if you’ve a mind to shave.”
All of this kindness would not last forever, but then, nothing good ever did. He might as well take advantage of it while he could, so after he finished his bath, he got out, drained the tub, and spent a good five minutes drying off with the towels that were even softer than they looked. They also smelled nice, a little like flowers, maybe, or something else clean and sweet.
He had to get dressed in his grubby clothes, but he wiped the mirror with a bit of toilet paper, also quite soft, and shaved with one of Jasper’s plastic razors, slowly and carefully, like he was preparing for his own execution.
By the time he stepped out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam into the chilly air of the cabin, he almost felt like a new man. Except he was the same man who had let his mom down, who had taken the low road, short and steep, for quick gain, and would pay for it forever and forever.
From the kitchen he could hear a low sound, like someone was whistling without knowing they were.
Crossing the cabin, curling his bare toes into the braided rug, Ellis found Jasper in the kitchen, wiping everything down from dinner. The dishes were stacked in a wooden dish drain, the floor swept, everything in readiness for the next day.
Those were the kinds of tasks assigned to him in prison too, but here the floor was cool and friendly, the counter shone, and it all seemed more personal, somehow, than the industrial kitchen in prison. He didn’t quite know what to make of how that made him feel, but in the next minute, Jasper turned to him, wiping his large hands on a dish towel.
“I’ll take my bath now, I think,” said Jasper.
Earlier, Jasper had gone on about the water pressure and the water heater and something about daily baths, but now Ellis couldn’t remember.
“Oh,” said Jasper, as if he’d just translated Ellis’ confused expression into a question. “I’m always working, and the harder I work, the grimier I get.” Jasper smiled in a tired way, as if the day had been as long for him as it had been for Ellis. “Besides, when I work in my shop I come out covered with grease and flakes of metal. You don’t want to sleep in that, you know? Besides, it saves wear and tear on the sheets.”
“I usually go to bed pretty early,” said Jasper, in a conversational way as he laid the dish towel on top of the dish rack so it could dry. “Unless there’s a movie I want to watch on my laptop, and sometimes if there’s a meteor shower—” With a sigh, Jasper pressed the heel of his palm to his temple as if he meant to stay an oncoming headache, or, perhaps, as if his thoughts about his activities in the evening were simply too overwhelming. Or maybe he was already tired of Ellis and wanted him gone. “Well, I’ll have my bath now.”
With that, Jasper brushed past Ellis on his way to the bathroom, where he shut the door behind him. In another moment, the water was running. And it was strange, in a way, that Ellis could hear the cabin sigh around him, as if it too was winding down from a long day.
Ellis’ whole body was too tired for anything much, and he couldn’t bear the thought of trying to concentrate on a book, which he might read in bed, something he’d not done since he started running drugs.
On the other hand, Jasper was occupied. The truck was in the driveway. Ellis could take off right that very minute and be on his way to Cheyenne.
On the other-other hand, it was getting quite dark out, and he didn’t have proper directions. Any ex-con in his position would have taken that truck and not cared a damn about getting into an accident. But Ellis was not truly criminal, and he sighed along with the cabin because just in that moment, he didn’t have to be anything other than who he was.
Going over to the glass sliding door, he found the latch was undone, which was typical for people who simply weren’t worried about their houses being broken into. He slid the door open and stepped out onto the deck. The lights from the cabin were bright, so he went inside and turned them all off, leaving on only the small light over the stove. Then he went back out into the rich darkness, folding in velvety waves all around him.
The air was rich with scent, damp from the river wending slowly past, thick with the perfume of grass and shrub growing cool. He felt almost heady with the idea of it, that all that darkness existed without a single speck of light to mar it.
At the far horizon, just dimly, he could see the line that marked where the horizon ended and the night sky began. He’d never been in a land so open, and now so dark, in a way quite unlike the city or the prison.
Taking a deep breath, he went to sit at the edge of the deck, swinging his bare feet in the air below him, imagining it to be miles and miles down to the river, and if he jumped, how long it might take him to hit the water.
The river was surely only a few feet below, and the splash might be loud enough to alert Jasper something was up. So he didn’t do that and only breathed the sweet, dark air, and listened to the rush of the water. Gradually, quite gradually, he started hearing high-pitched coyote cries that echoed in his bones, a cry so lonely, so wanting of something it could never have.
He might have been out there a good long while, breathing slow and deep, feeling the coolness sink into him, when he heard a scuffle of bare feet behind him. When he turned, Jasper’s large silhouette marked where he was, and Ellis could sense clean skin, and was aware, also, as to how near Jasper was.
“I do have folding chairs,” said Jasper as he came to sit beside Ellis on the edge of the deck, letting his bare feet dangle. “Can’t leave ‘em out cause the wind’ll take ‘em, so they’re stored in the shed. It’s a hassle to get them, so sometimes I sit like this. At night.”
Ellis nodded. Something in his throat vibrated, a ribbon of energy in a low wind, and he released it and heard a sound come out. It sounded like Mmmmmm. Like a soft grunt of agreement.
He sensed Jasper looking at him. Could see the edge of his face against the darker dark, the single light over the stove glinting on his eye. Jasper was calm and still, not reacting at all, but he’d heard Ellis, just as Ellis had heard himself.
“I figure we’ll go to the laundromat on Monday to wash your new clothes,” said Jasper. “Gets too crowded on Sundays.”
Ellis took a breath, and eased that breath out, letting it turn into that Mmmmm sound again. Agreement. Acknowledgement.
Jasper nodded, not making a fuss over it, and then turned his attention to the darkness beyond the river. And together they sat there while the nighttime air grew chilly and deep around them, and way off in the distance, coyotes sang to the moon.
About the Author
Jackie North has been writing stories since grade school and spent years absorbing the mainstream romances that she found at her local grocery store. Her dream was to someday leave her corporate day job behind and travel the world. She also wanted to put her English degree to good use and write romance novels, because for years she’s had a never-ending movie of made-up love stories in her head that simply wouldn’t leave her alone.
As fate would have it, she discovered m/m romance and decided that men falling in love with other men was exactly what she wanted to write books about. In this dazzling new world, she turned her grocery-store romance ideas around and is now putting them to paper as fast as her fingers can type. She creates characters who are a bit flawed and broken, who find themselves on the edge of society, and maybe a few who are a little bit lost, but who all deserve a happily ever after. (And she makes sure they get it!)
She likes long walks on the beach, the smell of lavender and rainstorms, and enjoys sleeping in on snowy mornings. She is especially fond of pizza and beer and, when time allows, long road trips with soda fountain drinks and rock and roll music. In her heart, there is peace to be found everywhere, but since in the real world this isn’t always true, Jackie writes for love.