Etta Glover bent to put baby Betty in her stroller, noting the closed door on Charlie’s office. She’d picked up another sponsorship for the holidays, but Etta didn’t mind coming down to take Betty and Preacher for their walk.
“Ready?” she asked once the six-month-old was all buckled in. Preacher Glover, her cousin, stood right behind the stroller, both hands on the handlebars, his big, black lab waiting patiently at his side.
“I get to push Betty.” She raised her eyebrows, clearly telling him to move aside.
“I can push my own daughter in a stroller,” he said, his voice like a drought in Texas.
“Of course you can,” she said. “But it’s my turn.”
“It’s been your turn every day this week.” He shuffled out of the way, reaching for the sideboard to steady himself.
“If we don’t hurry, it’ll start to rain on us while we’re out there.”
“I checked the weather,” he said, reaching for his cane. He hated it, but Etta had been given about ten talks from Ward, her brother, about how Preacher would try to take the easy way out of his physical therapy. He went to a facility three times each week, but it was important he walk every single day. Only by forcing him to use the muscles in his back, core, and legs would they heal.
“It’ll be fine through lunchtime,” he said, turning toward the side door without twisting his hips. “C’mon, Biscuit.” He stepped outside onto a long, narrow porch that ran toward the back corner of the house and held the door for his pup. They went right instead of left, where Ward and Bear had built a ramp for Preacher.
Etta took an extra moment to tuck a blanket around Betty all the same, because the darling girl wouldn’t like the wind should it gust up. And if anything was predictable about winter in Three Rivers, it was the wind.
“Two months,” Preacher grumbled, loud enough for Etta to hear. She watched him go by the window in his slow, somewhat stilted gait. “How much longer, Lord? I’m workin’ hard here.”
Etta’s heart bled for her cousin. He’d been in a terrible car accident over two years ago now. He’d had several surgeries, and just when it seemed like he was doing so well, something would happen. This last time, Preacher had fallen and reinjured his hip and lower back. He’d been experiencing sciatica pain since, and he’d had to relearn how to walk with the new limitations on his right leg.
He hadn’t endured any more surgeries, and Etta thanked the Lord for that each day. “Come on, baby Betty,” she said. “You come with Auntie Etta, and let’s go walk with your daddy.” She aimed the stroller through the doorway and followed Preacher down the ramp, where he and Biscuit waited at the bottom.
He flashed her a tight smile. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “I’m sorry I’m in a foul mood.”
“You’re allowed,” she said. “Now.” She took a deep breath of the cool air, felt it infuse her lungs and life with energy, and blew it all out. “Yesterday, we walked the full circuit—down around all the cowboy cabins, back up here, across the road, along Mister’s new homesite, and back—in thirty-two minutes and twelve seconds.”
It could only be maybe a half-mile to do all of that, so Preacher’s pace wasn’t anything to write home about. Still, he improved every single day, and Etta could go slow, listen to Betty babble about nothing, and enjoy time outside without having to say much.
“I’m going to set my timer for that, and our goal is to be right here, on this spot, before it goes off.” She tapped on her phone, Preacher’s eyes boring into the side of her head. She didn’t care, not really.
Some in her family had called her stuffy in the past. Stuck-up had entered her ears a time or two. Mother had called her Miss Priss as a teen. Ida, her twin sister, used to say Etta was the sophisticated one while Ida the country girl. Etta could admit to liking nice things, fancy food at even fancier parties, and getting dressed up in pumps, pearls, and perfume just to go to church.
But in a lot of ways, she’d calmed down immensely in recent years. Since Noah Johnson, if she were being honest. He’d been one of her high-brow cowboy boyfriends. Rich, classy, mature—and a lot older than her.
Because of that, he hadn’t wanted more children, and Etta had been unable to walk down