“He can’t do it, I’m telling you! I don’t know how to stop him but we got to find a way!” Zeb Darling burst into the cozy kitchen of his home above what was known far and wide as Bennett Spring and threw his weathered leather mail carrier onto the table in disgust.
His daughter Becky looked up in alarm from where she was stuffing an extra piece of kindling into the wood cook stove. The black cat that had been sitting on the window ledge scurried for cover in the far corner of the room. Becky dropped the heavy iron lid back into place and picked up the tall blue-steel coffee pot, pouring her father his customary cup as he came in from making his rounds. As the mail carrier for the valley, Zeb Darling delivered mail to folks up and down the spring banks each day before he headed out to the hills, surrounding their valley.
“Pa, what is it?” Becky asked in surprise at her father’s outburst. She slid two warm biscuits onto a chipped china plate, alongside a sizzling slice of ham and set it on the table beside the hot cup of coffee in front of the fuming man. Flanked by a pat of fresh-churned butter and a small jar of honey, the enticing aromas went unnoticed as he gestured with the knife he was using to butter the biscuits.
“Those Bennetts. They’re going to sell us all out to the state government for a park. Can you imagine that?!”
“Oh.” Becky’s long blond hair fell across her face, hiding her expression as she turned away, but not quickly enough.
“Oh? Oh? Is that all you can say? What do you know about this, girl? You’re right down there in the thick of it every day at that hotel, and you’ve not said a word about it.”
“Well, I, uh….” She stammered, not wanting to add to her father’s angst. She threw a quick glance towards her mother who was busy at the rug loom in the far corner of the room.
Without speaking, Hannah Darling continued to sling the shuttle and slam the strips tightly together as the parts of the large loom shifted in unison, keeping her hands and feet moving at all times.
“I didn’t say anything before, Pa.” Becky quickly realized she was on her own in this conversation and opted for the truth as the path of least resistance. “Mostly because, well, Miz Josie, she said it was a secret. Secret negotiations, that’s what she called it. And she told me not to say nothing to nobody so…”
“So-o-o.” Her father heaved a weary sigh. “That means you came home and told your mama and not another living soul! I mean, William Sherman Bennett runs the store and the post office is in the store, but he is being totally hush-mouthed about this whole thing. You know more than you’re telling!”
“Pa, I…I,” she hesitated, glancing towards the corner once more before letting her eyes fall to her eleven-year-old brother, Benji, who continued to play quietly with a handful of tin soldiers on the floor near his mother’s feet.
“Go ahead. Call me a liar, girl. I’m a-waiting.” The corners of his mouth twitched even as he tried to maintain his stern tone, arms folded across his chest.
“Oh, Pa.” Becky grinned, realizing her father’s frustration had less to do with her and more to do with the situation. “You know me too well.”
“Don’t you know what this means to all of us? I appreciate Miz Josie wanting to keep this quiet. That works to her advantage, I’m sure, but for the rest of us, it’s nothing short of a disaster!” He stopped speaking long enough to stuff half of a biscuit, dripping with honey, into his mouth. He casually brushed both edges of his drooping sandy mustache, dusting away crumbs, both real and imagined.
Becky turned back from the stove and looked directly at her father. At age eighteen, she’d been out of school for some time now and working at Josephine Bennett Smith’s Brice Inn this year, she had learned so much. She adored her father, despite his gruff ways and overly direct manner. Still sometimes, it seemed to her, he understood so little of the world.
“Pa,” she began as gently as she knew how. “This is true progress for this valley. Tourists and other townspeople are already coming out here, more all the time. A park will mean more people and more money for everyone. Don’t you see that?”
“No, I can’t say as I see that at all. I see it will mean more for the Bennetts, there’s no doubt of that, but do you not understand that the land they aim to sell is what the whole town of Brice sits on? Now how does that benefit anyone but them? The truth is they’re going to sell our town right out from under us and that means the post office, too, Missy. Once that’s gone, what do you think this family is going to do for money? Don’t get me wrong. We’re doing fine, what with my job, and your mama’s help, here and there, and now even you working some, but if I lose this postal route, that’s going to be a mighty blow. And no town means no post office. You best be thinking about that while you’re supporting your friends in the hotel business!” He cast a strange and mournful look in her mother’s direction that Becky couldn’t read.
“Oh, Pa, I don’t believe it. They can’t sell a whole town!” She hesitated for a moment. “Can they?”
“You mark my words, Miss Priss.” He went back to cutting the air with his butter knife as he spoke. “This is something we better figure out a way to put a stop to, or…or…” He left the threat unfinished and busied himself with buttering the second biscuit.