Disclaimer: All rights reserved; this is my own original work.

5

Mama met with Mr. Coburn twice in the next few days, and all of our spare time went into been cleaning both the upstairs and the downstairs, the mercantile and our apartment. I was wore out. And I wasn't exactly in the best of moods.

My back went ramrod straight when I heard a familiar low drawl coming from the doorway.

"Walll, howdie do, Missus Daniels," Big Joe called, tipping his hat up at Mama.

I turned around slowly, but caught the huge smirk on his face before he moved out of my line of vision. I swear, that man made my skin crawl. I shuddered. His voice grated on my nerves and, I'll admit it, I snapped. I stomped up to the counter. "This is a place of business, Joe Strafford, so unless ye've got somethin' you need to buy, perhaps you should be moving on."

Mama hissed at me, "You don't have to be so rude, Teresa Daniels!"

I just raised my brows and stuck out my chin. We were both stubborn, Mama and I, but I won this time. She huffed and turned away, her back rigid, and I knew I would get an earful later, but I didn't rightly care. My temper just kept on rising as I stared down Big Joe. I wasn't about to let this man within an inch of our lives. Not for all of the comfort in the world! Instead of being taken aback at my obvious distaste for him, though, he just grinned and threw a penny down on the counter.

"Ah'll have a peppermint twist, then, girlie," Big Joe said.

I untwisted the jar and grabbed one out. He gave a wink as he walked away, the peppermint stick gripped between his teeth like a candy-striped cigar.

Mama's back was still ramrod straight as the bell tinkled above the door, signaling his departure, and I held my breath, waiting for the inevitable explosion. I didn't have to wait long. About half a second.

"Teresa Marie Daniels, you make me ashamed! You cannot treat people like that, do you hear me?" Her voice rose in pitch with each word until she was well and truly screeching by the end.

"He's not good enough for you, Mama," I said, quite sure that this was obvious to everyone but the one with whom it mattered. "Why can't you see that you deserve so much better?"

The bell tinkled again, interrupting our conversation, though I am not sure that she had an answer, anyway. Mama jerkily took off her apron. "Excuse me," she said, her voice wobbly, and I swallowed hard.

I had went too far and I knew it. "Mama, wait-" but she was already gone, up the stairs and out of sight. I sighed.

Golden curls at the front door caught my eye. Tansy, Birdie, and their mother, Louise, were chatting by the hat display. I froze for a few seconds, wary again, but it soon became apparent that Everett wasn't with them. Birdie caught my eye and gave me a small smile, so I tried to return the gesture, though my heart wasn't really in it. It was only one o'clock and already I felt bone weary and longed for bed.

They walked around the store for a bit, and I caught a few words here or there, but I worked on organizing the pomade display and tried not to eavesdrop. Eventually they made their way to the counter and I greeted them quietly.

"How are you and Arnette doing?" Louise asked, inquiring about Mama.

I avoided her gaze as I counted out the tiny pearly buttons on the counter. "We're okay, thank you. How is . . . how are y'all?"

"Oh, we're bearin' up-"

The bell above the door tinkled again and I looked up. Quite busy around here today. In walked Royce Furlow and Jordan Meyer, both about my age, though we've never really had much to say to each other.

I caught Tansy peeking over at them out of the corner of her eye, trying to be subtle, and that set off a little warning bell in my head. I couldn't imagine her being interested in either man, but people surprised you sometimes.

Royce was okay, I suppose, as far as people go, but Jordan, his best friend, he was hard to stomach. They were both from bigwig families in town, and we didn't exactly run in the same circles.

"Well, hello, ladies," Jordan greeted, a wide smile on his face showing all thirty-two of his teeth.

Royce nodded, his eyes sort of skittering around the store, and I watched him with interest. I wasn't sure that I'd ever seen him nervous in my life. He set his path towards the back of the store and Jordan followed a few seconds later.

Louise and Birdie turned back towards me. "I heard a horrible rumor, Tressy, can you tell me that it's not true? You and your ma aren't about to lose everything, are you?"

"Oh," I sighed, "well, we didn't really want to . . . to put it out there, but yes, we get to stay here until the end of the month and then we have to leave."

"Oh, dear me, no! That's awful. I am sorry. Is there anything that we can do to help? Would a loan-"

I blinked away tears, but shook my head sharply. "That's too kind of you, Missus Brody, and thank you, but no, we can't accept any money. Anyway, I'm afraid it's been a long time comin'. Please don't tell anyone?"

"But what are y'all goin' to do?" Birdie asked.

"Oh," I lied, "we'll be jus' fine. We've been real busy lately, trying to get everything ready for the new owners, but I am going to look again for a new job this evening, after my shift." My voice cracked, and I've never been a convincing liar, but I hoped that they believed me. I was determined that we'd land on our feet somehow, and I would do the most menial jobs there were without complaint, but I wasn't optimistic about getting hired. It was hard, horribly hard, to find a job nowadays. Mama had admitted to me that she had been looking for quite awhile.

"I wish you all of the luck in the world, Tressy, I do. We'll be praying for the two of you, won't we, girls?"

Birdie nodded.

I tried to blink away the burning in my eyes, but tears leaked out in spite of that. I wiped them away roughly, embarrassed. "Thank you," I finally managed to get out, and they left soon after.

I wiped my face again after they were gone and let out a shuddering sigh. There was no end to that woman's kindness. I knew I didn't deserve it.

It was quiet in the store, and aside from a few strings of words I couldn't really make out from Royce and Jordan who remained in the back, I could almost forget that I wasn't alone. After a few more minutes, Royce and Jordan left, both looking agitated, and I sat down on the stool behind the counter with a sigh. It was going to be a long day.

Time crept by, and each minute that Mama remained upstairs twisted another knot in my stomach. After an hour, I decided to go up and check on her. I wasn't sure I wanted to apologize exactly, but I didn't want to leave her upset either. I set out the break sign that we occasionally used and locked the front door.

The stairs seemed longer today; I really was worn out.

Mama looked up when I reached the landing, and she gave me a small smile. She had her Bible open on her lap and her reading glasses on.

"I lost track of time, didn't I?" Mama said.

I perched on the arm of the wingback chair she was sitting in. "I'm sorry I've got such a rotten temper."

Mama laughed, and I relaxed, glad that she hadn't been up here sulking. Truth be told, if the situation was reversed, I would have been.

"Sometimes I wonder if you'll ever learn to guard that tongue of yours. A temper is one of the most difficult things to overcome." She smiled at me. "You'll get there."

I frowned. "I don't know, Mama, sometimes I feel contrary all the way down to the tips of my toes." Then, I admitted, "I ain't sorry for bein' rude to Big Joe, only that I lost my temper."

Mama really laughed this time. "You are your father's daughter."

I stiffened. "Don't say that."

Mama frowned. "I wish you remembered him better, Tressy."

"I remember him very clearly." I couldn't help it, the last two words came out sharply.

"That's not what I meant. You only remember the bad, you're not balancing anything with the good memories."

I shook my head. Mama balanced too much if you asked me.

She stood up. "I will watch things downstairs; why don't you go for a walk and clear your head?"

I nodded and picked up my satchel on my way out the door. I was anxious to see if I could get any sort of employment anywhere. Maybe I would get lucky.

The sky was overcast, with dark clouds in the east. There were a few people about, sitting outside the long-empty theatre and the still-operating barbershop down the way. There was one cafe still open, a mom and pops, and I headed towards it. They'd laugh if I applied as a cook, but perhaps they needed a waitress or a dishwasher or something.

"Ah'm sorry, Miss Daniels, Ah've just had to let two people go. Ah can't be takin' on any more."

It was the same at the library, the post office, the hotel, and the stable yard. I even went to the butcher's. I asked if they knew of anyone that might possibly be hiring, but jobs weren't really left open for any length of time.

I felt a little bit defeated after I finished up my rounds, though I tried not to give in to that kind of thinking. We would figure something out. It was approaching dinnertime now, but I wasn't hungry at all. The street was quiet. No one was outside anymore. I sat down on the bench outside the Clip N' Curl, wishing that all of the fairy tales I had read when I was younger were true and that I had a fairy godmother. Sure would be handy right about now.

The old cast-iron bench was cold at my back, but surprisingly, it felt good. I sat for awhile, and smiled and said hello to Cotton-Eye as he approached slowly, on his way to his workshop nearby.

"How you, Miss Daniels?"

"Okay, Cotton, how 'bout you?"

He nodded and smiled. "I's real good." He took the toothpick out of his mouth and pointed it towards me, his eyes lighting up. "Say, is there a hole in your shoe?"

I looked down, then shook my head. "Nooo, I don't think so."

"Then how'd yore foot get innit?" He guffawed.

I laughed and shook my head. He always managed to get a smile on my face. "You got me."

The toothpick went back in his mouth and he walked away with a wink and a "High-ho, armadillo!"

I laughed again and stretched, looking at the sky. It was getting late. I headed back to the mercantile and poked my head in. Mama was leaning against the counter, leafing through a catalog idly.

"Mama?"

She looked up. "Are you heading to your lookout for the sunset?"

I nodded. "Is that okay? Is there anything here that needs doin'?"

"No, you go on. We'll have leftovers for supper and I was just fixing to close up."

"Thank you, Mama."

I was just about to shut the door when she asked, "Any luck, darlin' girl?"

I shook my head sadly, not surprised that she knew what I had been up to, and met her eye for a second before I closed the door gently behind me.

I reached into my satchel for paper and a piece of charcoal and began sketching Cotton, trying to capture the high contrast between his two eyes. One was a dark sapphire blue and his other was really cloudy, almost white. He was blind in the one, but that didn't stop him from being the best blacksmith and farrier around. He had been born in Norway, and his aged skin almost had a leathery look to it, I thought, as I shaded more and more lines around his eyes. They were laugh lines. There weren't a lot of people that I truly liked, but Cotton was one of them. He was a huge man, about as tall and big around as an old oak. When I was a kid, I had been terrified of him, but he was as easygoing and as friendly as the day was long, and a natural storyteller; he loved to tell tall tales, the taller the better. He was getting up there in years now. I was working on his billed hat about an hour later when someone cleared their throat near me. The charcoal skidded across the paper as I jumped and looked up.

I blinked several times, a bit disoriented. The sun was low now, but I had been so into my drawing that I hadn't noticed and had strained my eyes. I couldn't see Everett's face in the fading light at first, but I knew it was him.

I stood up too quickly and dropped my sketchbook. My fingers were clumsy as I tried to gather all of the loose paper together as fast as possible, and I started when I realized that Everett had knelt down and was shuffling papers together as well. Our eyes met for a second, until I looked down and continued gathering up my drawings.

He looked through the sketches in the fading light before stacking them neatly in his hands and heat filled my cheeks. After everything was picked up, we both remained on our knees on the ground, frozen, in a way. I couldn't help but remember crouching down next to him all of those years ago in the cotton field, begging him to still be my friend. I swallowed and met his eyes as he finally looked up from the sketch of Cotton that sat on top of the pile.

"Here," he said thickly, handing me the papers.

I sifted them into my sketchbook and closed it tightly, wrapping the string around the button a few times as I tried to find something to say that wasn't inane or embarrassing. He stood up, dusting off his corduroy pants, and reached out his hand to help me up. Hesitantly, I took it and stood, clutching my sketchbook to my chest.

"How are you?" I asked after a moment.

He gave a low laugh. "I wish I knew. Look, Tressy, I need to talk to you. I - I need to ask you somethin'."

I waited, not at all sure where this was headed.

He looked away, a deep frown on his face that I could just barely make out in the growing darkness. "A few hours ago, Ma came back from the mercantile and she said - she said that the bank was fixin' to foreclose on everything an' that you . . . ."

I grew really still. "What about it?"

"Well, I - I want to help." His eyes met mine and I immediately recognized the stubbornness there.

I paused. "That's awful nice of you, Everett, but there's nothing-"

"That's not true. I can help."

"We don't want any money or anything." I fiddled with the string on my sketchbook and kept my head down. The mess that Mama and I were in was embarrassing and I didn't like talking about it.

"That's not exactly what I - Doggone, I am not good at this."

He reached for my free hand, and I stared up at him, completely bemused. "I don't understand. What are . . . ?" I squeaked out.

He heaved a gusty sigh and stepped closer to me. I stepped back. "Tressy," he swallowed thickly and his eyes were riveted on mine. "Will you marry me?"

I took two more steps backwards, dropping his hand. "What?" My voice sounded like an echo. Maybe I repeated myself. I was that shocked.

"Marry me." He swallowed, and somewhere in the swirling of my mind I realized that he was nervous. And completely serious.

"Have you lost your MIND?" He retreated a step, surprised by my reaction, and I turned away. I was literally shaking from head to toe. I started towards where I thought the path was, but it was so dark now that I could barely see the nose on my face.

"What?" he raised his voice. "Why in samhill would you say that?"

"You-you-you can't just-just . . ." I gasped for breath, pausing, completely bowled over. He caught up with me easily and I stared up at him, trying to read his eyes in the lost light. His large, work-hardened hands rested on my shoulders, unnerving me. "Did you actually expect me to say yes?" I swallowed nervously.

"It's the only solution." He sounded so . . . so resigned. I closed my eyes. "Tressy, I . . ." His hand swept across my brow and smoothed the hair that had fallen out of my loose bun.

I froze, and choked out, "Don't." He dropped his hand and inhaled sharply. "Don't do this." My voice was shaky and I was trying not to cry. "I don't need you. I don't need you to do this." My voice cracked and I took a few unsteady breaths. "You don't always have to fix everything, you know? Everett Brody, sometimes, sometimes things are better left alone!"

"Why are you so bullheaded?" I began to walk away, even though I couldn't see much of where I was going. He caught up and grabbed my arm. "Tressy Marie Daniels, I haven't met anyone as stubborn as you in my entire life! Why can't you let someone help you?"

Silence stretched between us, until I pulled against his hold on my arm. "Let me go," I said hoarsely.

And he did.

I stumbled through the dark, slowly making my way back to town. The tears started when I was halfway home.

Everett watched me leave and then sat down heavily on the tree stump.

He would still be there in the morning.


A/N: Thank you so much for reading! I have to tell you guys, if writers could be compared to cars, then feedback would definitely be the gasoline. It keeps us going. I really appreciate any and all reviews. I will be the first to admit that I obsessively check my traffic stats, LOL, so I know that y'all are out there, but I would so love to hear from you.

Enough begging, haha - it's 2018! Happy new year!