Authors: Verna Clay
Charles Trotter, who went by the name Flatfoot, a nickname given to him by his mother because of the nature of his left foot, leaned against the bar at Boot Bustin' Barn and watched the happenings. Being Saturday night, the place was lively with cowboys twirling cowgirls across the dance floor or pulling them into intimate embraces.
At forty-nine, Flatfoot was still an excellent dancer and could have held his own with the twenty-something and thirty-something crowd, but he was no longer motivated to be the boot stomper he had once been. He supposed age had mellowed his disposition.
His gaze alighted on Sally, the waitress, as she moved amongst the crowd. For the two years he'd been working as foreman at former rodeo star Dirk Branigan's ranch, he'd been visiting the Barn once or twice a month just to break the monotony that had become his life. From the beginning, he'd noticed Sally, and overheard a few conversations about her. He knew that she was fifty-eight and that she had gone to high school with local legend, Sage Tanner, a famous model and owner of one of the largest ranches in the area. Flatfoot had talked with Sage a few times, mostly when they met up at Hank's Feed and Seed or other local businesses. He liked and respected Sage.
Now, watching Sally, he wondered if something was wrong. She didn't seem as vivacious as usual. He sipped his beer and kept his eyes on her. He'd always thought her to be a fine looking woman, even though she was well past her prime. He'd also heard through the grapevine that she was in love with some guy named Howard who showed up at the Barn every few months. He supposed they were serious since she never seemed interested in any of the men who flirted with her. Hell, he'd even hinted that he'd like to take her to dinner, but she'd ignored the hint in a gracious manner.
He lifted his bottle of Heineken and took a long draw. Sally was now standing near the back door and he saw her set her tray on a nearby table, swipe a hand across her eyes, and quickly step outside.
Something was definitely wrong.
Leaving his bottle on the bar, he headed across the room. Before he reached the rear door, a shapely cowgirl asked him to dance. He gave her a grin and said, "Maybe later, honey. I got somethin' I gotta do right now." Then he eyed her up and down and winked. Early in his adulthood he'd perfected the art of declining a dance in such a way that he didn't hurt a woman's feelings.
She winked back. "Later, cowboy."
He swiftly covered the distance to the rear entrance and stepped through it. Scanning the back lot, he saw Sally standing at the fence line separating the Barn from a wide open field. She was bent over with her hands on her knees. Slowly, he approached. He wasn't sure what was going on with her.
As he came closer, he heard quiet sobs that spurred him into action. He said softly, "Sally, honey, are you okay?"
She jerked up and whirled toward him. Tears drenched her face and she lifted a hand, waving him away.
He said, "Honey, I can't leave you like this. Can I take you home? Should I call someone to pick you up?" He stepped closer.
Her lips trembled and she began sobbing loudly while at the same time trying not to.
He rushed forward and pulled her into an embrace. "What is it Sally?"
He was surprised when she answered. "H-Howard got married. H-He's never coming back here."
Flatfoot held her close. "Oh, baby, I'm so sorry."
She sobbed. "I love Howard. I've loved him for over forty years. I-I thought when he retired he might decide to return to Paxtonville and we could spend our golden years together. I don't think I can live through this, Flatfoot."
He rubbed her back. "Oh, sweetie, you just need to cry your heart out. Let it all out."
As soon as he said that, she did exactly what he said and cut loose with sobs that broke his heart. For a long time he held her, rubbing her back and hair and crooning words of sympathy.
The back door to the Barn opened and a voice yelled, "Hey, Sally! You out here?"
Flatfoot recognized Jason, the bar's owner, and asked, "Sally, do you want me to answer. I can tell him you're ill and I'm taking you home."
"P-please do that. I just can't work anymore tonight."
Jason must have seen them because he was walking in their direction. His eyes widened when he saw Flatfoot holding Sally.
Flatfoot said, "She's not feeling well, Jason. I'm driving her home."
"You got that damn flu bug, Sally? I heard it's makin' the rounds."
She didn't turn from Flatfoot's arms. She just said a weak "yes" and nodded.
Jason looked at Flatfoot. "You better not let her breathe on you or you'll be pukin' your guts up." He addressed Sally again. "Maxine and Polly are just going to have to carry the load tonight. They'll bitch about it, but that's too bad. Okay, you go home, but keep me posted on your recovery."
She nodded again against Flatfoot's chest.
Jason hurried back inside the Barn.
Flatfoot said, "My truck is parked in front. Why don't you wait here and I'll drive it around. Tomorrow I can bring you back here to get your car."
"Okay," she mumbled, her nose sounding stuffy.
Flatfoot ran to his truck and drove it behind the bar. He hopped out and opened the door for Sally. "Do you need to get your purse or something?"
"It's locked up. I'll get it tomorrow."
He assisted her into the truck. "Which way do I turn on the highway?"
"Left. Follow the highway through town. I live off Sweet Acres Drive."
He ran back to the driver's side and jumped in his seat. Reaching into his console he shuffled through the contents looking for some kind of tissue. He came up with a napkin emblazoned with "Shop Til You Drop Truck Stop" and handed it to her.
"Thank you. I really appreciate this." She blotted her eyes.
Since the Barn wasn't far from town, it only took about ten minutes to reach the outskirts. It was nearing midnight so the town was deserted. Flatfoot reached Sweet Acres Drive about fifteen minutes later. After he turned off the highway, Sally said, "You'll pass a couple of houses and my place is about two miles farther." When he was almost there, she said, "This road ends at my drive, which is a quarter of a mile long."
"You live way out here all by yourself?"
"Yes. It's the family home. My great-grandfather purchased it for his bride and it's always been in the family. My brother left when he was in his early twenties and he only returns now and again to visit me. My father died about twenty years ago, and my mother shortly thereafter. I love this old place." Suddenly she sobbed again. "And Howard always said he loved it, too. I was hoping he'd come live with me and we'd fix it up."
Flatfoot reached and patted her knee. To take her mind off Howard he asked, "How many acres is your place?"
"About fifty. My father raised cattle and horses, but when times got tough, he sold most of the livestock and went to work as a ranch hand for Sage Tanner's father back in the day."
The headlights of Flatfoot's truck captured the house in their beam and the windows reflected their glare. It was a typical two-story farm house with a wide front porch. He braked in front of the porch and Sally opened her door. He said, "Let me help you."
She waited for him to come around and he held out his hand for her to grasp. Although not a monster truck, his Ford F250 was only about ten years old with a motor that purred. He followed her up the porch steps and when she tried to unlock the door her hands were shaking so much that he lifted the keys from her. "Here. Let me open it."
She sagged against the doorframe.
After the door was open he held her elbow and asked, "Which way is the kitchen?" She pointed. "You got a table and chairs in there?" She nodded. "Lead the way, honey." In the kitchen he pulled out a chair and settled her into it. Next, he located the coffee pot.
She saw what he was doing and pointed to a cupboard. "Everything is in there." She continued talking while he got the coffee going. "I should have called in sick to work, but I didn't want to be by myself. I figured if I was around people, I'd be okay. Guess I was wrong."
Flatfoot punched the button on the coffeemaker and lifted mugs from a cup tree to set on the table. He pulled a chair out, flipped it around to straddle it, and said, "I'm a good listener if you want to talk."
Sally lifted red-rimmed eyes to his and again he thought what a damn fine-looking woman she was, even with a tear-streaked face.
She said sadly, "Howard and I went to high school together. His parents moved here from Biloxi and bought a farm a little farther down the highway when we were sixteen. I remember the first time I saw him in the library. He looked so studious with his thick glasses and slicked back hair. He really wasn't handsome, but it was love at first sight for me. We became friends and after high school we became lovers. I thought maybe he'd ask me to marry him because we were always so good together as friends and lovers, but then he got offered a job selling restaurant products. He had to travel a lot and eventually moved to Denver. His parents sold their farm and returned to Biloxi. I still had hopes that he'd ask me to marry him, or at least ask me to live with him in Denver." She sobbed, "He never did. His job brought him back to Paxtonville every four to six months, and since Jason was a client, he always stopped by the Barn.
"One day, I asked him flat out if there was ever going to be more between us than friendship and sex—I think they call that 'friends with benefits'—and he told me the truth. He said he wasn't the marrying kind, but he didn't want to break off our relationship. Of course, I had silly dreams of him changing his mind someday, but it never happened. One year turned into another and then another and we just kept up our 'friends with benefits' arrangement."
The gurgling of the coffeepot let Flatfoot know the brew was done and he lifted away from his chair to retrieve the carafe. He returned to the table and filled their mugs.
Sally said, "There's cream in the fridge. I like my coffee black."
"Same here." He straddled the chair again, lifted his coffee to sip, and waited for her to continue.
Sally circled the lip of her cup with her finger. "Yesterday, I got a letter from Howard saying he was taking an early retirement and moving to Dallas with a woman he'd met while attending a conference there. He said he'd always love me, but his new ladylove was the woman he'd waited all of his life for." Sally reached for a napkin and held it to her eyes. "How cruel is that? Here I've dedicated my life to him and he writes something like that."
Flatfoot moved his chair closer to Sally, righted it, and sat near enough to place his arm around her shoulders. As a young man he'd loved a woman that had done something similar by running off with his best friend, so he could empathize with her.
He tilted her chin up until she was looking him directly in the eyes. "You know what you need?" He didn't wait for her to answer. "You need a mini vacation. It's amazing how just getting away for a few days can clear the mind. I'm leaving tomorrow for three days in Vegas; why don't you come with me?"
He saw her eyes widen and he hastily added, "You'll have your own room and if you want to hide away all day, you can. Or we can see some of the sights. I got this special offer from the Bellagio, so the cost is all on me. The only money you'll need is for gambling if you like to gamble. I guarantee you'll come home with a new perspective."
"Is that why you're going?" she asked.
He grinned. "Yep. Guess you found me out. I'm thinking about what I want to do with the rest of my life. Whether I want to stay here or move on."
She leaned against his shoulder. "I think getting away would be good for me. Thanks, Flatfoot. I always knew you were a nice man."
It had taken a couple of phone calls, but Dovie got everything worked out with the Tanners. Now, two days after the job offer, she hadn't heard from Toby. She supposed he knew, well at least she hoped he did. That way, perhaps things would be less awkward. She drove through the gated entrance to the
after speaking over the intercom to Sarah. Since a tractor had graded the section of road being replaced she had no trouble navigating her van to the main house. As soon as she pulled up, Sarah opened the front door.
Dovie smiled and waved.
Sarah rushed down the porch steps. "Since you've chosen to stay in the dorm, we won't unload your baggage yet. When you're ready, I'll just hop in your van with you and show you where to park, then we'll carry your things to your room. But for now, let's go in the house and chat."
liked Sarah and replied, "I'd like that."
A few minutes later they were sitting on the sofa in the enclosed porch and sipping iced lemonade. Sarah said, "The children and their caregivers arrived yesterday. As I explained in our last phone conversation, there are seven children. The youngest, Benny, is eight years old and has a chip on his shoulder as big as a boulder. His mother recently received a ten-year prison term for drug dealing and she doesn't know who the boy's father is."
Dovie's eyes rounded. "Oh, my goodness."
Sarah said, "Yeah, it's terrible. We just hope the boy experiences another way of life on the ranch and it stays with him. Over the years, we've seen successes and failures. It's about fifty-fifty. Maybe he'll be one of the success stories. Only time will tell." Sarah sipped her lemonade and continued telling about each child. When she got to the sixteen year old she said, "Roxy was in a car accident that damaged her spine and although she's able to walk, she has to wear braces and use the assistance of two canes. She was a cheerleader at her high school, and so, like Benny, she's got a boulder on her shoulder. She comes from a loving family who are at the end of their rope trying to help her. She's belligerent and downright mean. At least that's what one of the caregivers said."
Dovie puffed a breath. "I'm just wondering if I'm the right person for this job. I don't have experience with children or teens. What if I say something to damage their psyches?"
Sarah laughed. "Honey, all you have to do is be yourself and show these kids that limitations haven't kept you from pursuing what you want in life. That's all we ask."
Dovie gave a hesitant nod and Sarah continued enthusiastically, "Well, are you ready to meet the children and get moved into your room?"
Inhaling, Dovie said, "I guess I am."
Sarah rode with Dovie to the dorm and directed her to the parking space reserved for her. She carried Dovie's suitcase and purse while Dovie slung her backpack over her shoulder. They entered the great room to see several children sitting at a long table eating lunch. There was an adult male at one end and an adult female at the other. Sarah introduced the counselors Mary Lancaster and Lance Pittman. Then she introduced Dovie to the group. Lance asked the children to introduce themselves. He pointed to the oldest child to begin.
Dovie figured this was Roxy.
The girl said in a sullen tone, "My name is Roxy."
The girl next to her who looked to be about thirteen or fourteen said in a sweet voice, "I'm Michelle," and grinned widely.
The other children introduced themselves as Eric, Natasha, Luce, Bridget, and Mike. Finally, the youngest child said, "I'm Benny."
Roxy suddenly spouted, "So, what happened that got you a fake leg and arm? Were you in an accident?"
Mary, the counselor, looked displeased by Roxy's question and started to say something, but Dovie lifted a hand to stop her.
Everyone had their eyes on Dovie when she replied, "No. I was born without a fully developed arm or leg. My condition is called genetic meromelia."
"How much of an arm and a leg do you have?" The girl persisted.
The female counselor said, "Roxy, your questions are rude. If you want–"
Dovie interrupted. "It's okay. I deal with curiosity all the time." She held Roxy's gaze. "As I'm sure you do, too."
Roxy shrugged. "Yeah. Well, are you going to answer my question?"
Rather than answer, Dovie asked, "How do
usually answer questions about your challenge? You answer my question and I'll answer yours."
Roxy smirked, "I usually tell them to go f-themselves."
The other children gasped and then sniggered. When neither of the counselors chastised the girl, Dovie was glad. Obviously, they thought Dovie could hold her own in a war of wills with this child.
Dovie grinned. "Well, I've never responded in that way because I'm not controlled by anger. But since you answered my question, I'll answer yours. My arm ends below my elbow with a nub for a hand, and my leg ends above my knee. Because I prefer walking to riding in a wheelchair, I've been fitted with prosthetic devices."
The girl lashed out. "Well, aren't you the brave one. I've got braces on both legs and I hate it and I'll never get used to it."
Dovie replied, "I didn't say I didn't hate it. I'd love to be whole, but if I had your attitude, I'd never have gotten anywhere in this life or been to the marvelous places that I've visited. I'd be sitting in a room experiencing my life through television." She glanced at each of the children and said with enthusiasm, "Not about to ride three days on a wagon train in just three weeks!"
Everyone except Roxy smiled. The girl just hunched her shoulders and stared at her plate.
Movement across the room caught Dovie's attention and her heart slammed her chest when she saw Toby standing in a doorway beside a man wearing a chef's hat. He lifted his hand to the brim of his Stetson in acknowledgment of her.