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“What . . . the fuck?”

“Watch yourself, son,” Elmer warned, his gnarled old face twisting into a scowl. “This is a good deal and you know it.”

Merle let out an exasperated breath and turned, tearing off his toboggan so he could rake trembling fingers through his hair. He’d never been so pissed off or so backed into a corner. He shook his head and stared down at his boots. They needed replacing. Had for years now. They were beat to shit and tired, just like him. “I can’t,” Merle said, struggling to remain calm. He was madder than a cat in a hot pot, but even he knew better than to disrespect the man who ran Possum Hollow. “I can’t. No goddamned way.”

Elmer leaned forward in his rocker, letting his elbows rest on his knees, a pipe blackened from years of use held in his fingers. He glared at Merle in a way that said his patience was wearing thin. “You’ll damn well do as I say. You wanna see what happened to Bess happen to Dreama?”

Merle cursed, closing his eyes and fisting his toboggan. Bess Hargesty had been a decent woman before she’d lost her husband to a wood-splitting accident. Merle still cringed every time he recollected the grisly scene. Bess was never right afterward, and she nearly drowned herself in hooch. In the end, she’d been so far in debt to Amaleen Crouse, the holler’s legendary moonshiner and all-around crazy bitch, that Bess had ended up floating in Hogtie Pond, bloated and grayer than a West Virginia winter. Elmer had ruled it a drunken accident, but everybody knew it’d been Amaleen. You either paid her or you didn’t. Wasn’t any middle ground.

And now, Merle’s sister, Dreama, was tied up with the no-good bootlegger and Elmer wanted Merle to marry Amaleen to pay off his sister’s debts. Goddammit. Gripping his toboggan like it might save his ass, he looked at Elmer. The man was nearing seventy, face gaunt and hollow around the eyes. Skin leathery. He wore the same sweat-stained camouflaged hat he’d worn every day for as long as Merle had known him, and his beard hung wiry and white down his chest. To anyone outside the holler, he looked like any other weathered mountain man, but Merle knew the truth. The man was decent and cooked one hell of a tree-rat stew, but he was mean as a rattler when he needed to be.

And his .30-30 Winchester was always within reaching distance.

Still, Merle refused to accept what was on the table. “This ain’t right, Elmer. It ain’t.”

Elmer shrugged, putting his pipe between his lips. “Most things in life ain’t.”

Merle dragged his hand down his beard, not caring that his fingers were black with chainsaw oil. The thought of marrying Amaleen made his skin crawl. The woman was probably twenty years his senior and had been missing a front tooth for the last ten. She was hateful, uglier than sin, and had a tongue that’d make the Devil himself blush. Not to mention he was fairly certain she didn’t know what a bar of soap was. “There’s gotta be another way,” Merle insisted. “Something else I can do to pay off Dreama’s debt.”

Elmer gazed at him, his sharp blue eyes free of sympathy. To him this was business. “You got two-grand stashed in a tailpipe somewhere?”

Gritting his teeth, Merle fought the overwhelming urge to rage and instead paced across the uneven floor of the one-room cabin. “You know I don’t.” Hell, he didn’t even have half that. He was a one-man logging team with two mules to his name, and most folks in the holler were poorer than him, so the majority of his pay came in the form of meat and vegetables. And what little money he did get usually went to his sister because her husband wasn’t worth a damn. He looked at Elmer as a thought occurred to him. “I could work it off. Fix up her place.”

Elmer shook his head. “Deal is either you or the money. Plain and simple, son.”

Merle cursed. His world—what meager, cobbled-together world he had—was slipping away like a greased pig. “Amaleen Crouse is a blight on this land,” Merle argued. “You know it. We all do. How many families does she own because of that bilge water she puts out? Possum Hollow would be better off without her.”

The matter-of-fact look on Elmer’s face darkened, and Merle figured the only reason he hadn’t been shown the door yet was because Elmer used to be sweet on his ma. As it was, Elmer studied him, impatiently chewing on the inside of his cheek. “Be that as it may, her ’shine is what brings money into the holler. How do you think Dreama’s boy, Johnny, gets them inhalers he needs so bad? Or how we paid to have the new well dug last year? It’s because of Amaleen’s tithes.” He paused to draw on his pipe, smoke curling out of his mouth. “I know how she is, but I don’t got to like her to like her money.”

Though it was futile, Merle kept on. “I don’t need no wife. Sure as hell don’t need one like Amaleen. Hell, Elmer, she’s older than my pa.”

“Don’t matter,” he said and then echoed his last statement. “You ain’t got to like her to stick your dick in her.”

Merle’s cock shriveled at the idea. Fuck, he hadn’t even thought of that. “I won’t bed her. No way in hell.”

Holding the pipe by the bowl, Elmer stood, his rocker creaking back and forth behind him. “You damn sure will. If you marry her, you’ll be a husband in every sense of the word. Now, you need to decide.” He spoke around the pipe. “What’s it going to be?”

Merle stared at him, heart hammering and sweat beading on his forehead. He could say to hell with it and let his sister get what was coming to her. Wasn’t like he hadn’t bailed her out in a hundred other ways over the years. Wasn’t like he’d never sacrificed for her. Wasn’t like she’d ever stop being her, either. Even if he did this—even if he tied himself to the likes of Amaleen Crouse—he knew Dreama would keep on ruining her life. It was what she did. But, as always, his ma’s voice haunted him. Her eyes did too. When she was dying, frail and weak in her bed, his ma had told him there was something broken in Dreama. Something on the inside. She’d told him that his sister would cause him nothing but grief, and she’d been right. Then she’d reminded him that Dreama was once a skinny-legged, freckle-faced little girl with a mess of blonde curls and sparkling green eyes. She said something had happened to that girl. Something that’d made her into the wild woman she was, but that it was Dreama’s story to tell, not hers. His ma had raised shaking fingers to his jaw and whispered, “You take care of her, Merle. You take care of that little girl and don’t let this ol’ holler eat her up, you hear?”

Merle had said he would. He would’ve said anything. It’d been twelve years since his ma had died. Twelve years he’d saved Dreama from herself as best he could. And as pissed off as he’d gotten, as frustrated as he’d been, he’d never considered walking away.

Until now.

But even though he’d done a lot of shitty things in his life, breaking a promise to his ma wasn’t one of them.

Swallowing his nausea, Merle yanked his toboggan back on and asked, “When?”

Elmer nodded once, the smoke from his pipe swirling in the air between them. “Today. Amaleen will be down by the still at five.”

Today. The news was a kick in the balls, but he weathered it, his mouth a hard line. “Okay.”

Elmer eyed him, and Merle felt like the man was seeing the guts and bones of him and not just the scowl on his face. “You don’t show, you know what happens,” Elmer warned.

Merle turned and picked up his axe that he’d leaned against the wall when he’d come in. He pushed open the door, early morning sunlight cutting a bright, dusty slice into the dark cabin. As he strode down the steps with the scent of Elmer’s black-cherry smoke following him, Merle didn’t look back. “I’ll be there.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]