A Beggar's Bargain

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Logline or Premise
A shocking proposal and forced bargain changes everything in this post World War II historical.
First 10 Pages

Every single day since Layken Martin had returned home after his discharge from the Army, he’d prayed for a miracle.

But none came.

He stood in the pasture next to the old farmhouse and scooped up a handful of dry Missouri dirt, then let it trickle through his fingers, as sweat ran down the middle of his back. Squinting against the blistering July sun, the sky gave nary a sign of a cloud that might bring relief to the dried, cracked ground that hadn’t produced a decent crop in two years.

The struggle to make anything grow in the middle of a drought, only to have it taken over by weeds, had killed his father’s spirit and, finally, his body.

The stress of falling deeper into debt pounded the final nails into Jacob Martin’s coffin.

Layken tucked in his nicest clean shirt and tightened his belt. He smoothed back his military cut, brown wavy hair, and placed his prized fedora on his head. Dread snaked up his spine and lodged in his throat.

Layken hated admitting defeat.

Hated begging even more.

But he’d made a promise. Not only a promise to his mother and father, but to the land itself. He loved every square inch of the two-hundred-acre farm surrounded by ancient walnut trees, black oak, cottonwood, sweet gum, and silverleaf maple trees. Embedded in his soul, the spirit of the land and his connection with it had kept him going when he lay sleepless on foreign soil.

A letter crinkled in his shirt pocket as he climbed into his father’s 1937 [DR1] [JS2] Dodge pickup. After spending hours yesterday cleaning spark plugs and tuning the engine, he prayed like hell it would start.

The farm, the old pickup, and an ancient Farmall tractor were the three things he’d inherited when his parents died. Well, that and a debt.

And now, based on the letter in his pocket, he stood on the brink of losing it all.

Then what would he do?

He couldn’t—no, wouldn’t let that happen.

When the old pickup started, he breathed a sigh of relief.

That alone had to be a good sign, right? A cloud of dust followed him down the dirt lane to the narrow blacktop leading to the nearest town of Everton, Missouri, that barely surpassed three hundred folks.

Jaw set in a firm line, he once again mentally counted the cash in his pocket. Only fifty dollars left from his last army paycheck. That was all he had to his name. He’d have to hold back a little to keep gas in the old truck and buy seeds for planting. The rest he’d offer up as a show of good faith.

Twenty minutes later, he came to a stop in front of the First Bank of Missouri on Main Street. The building could benefit from some serious updating. It showed its age with a ragged awning barely hanging over the entrance and a large crack in the front window.

He pushed through the door that jingled a bell announcing his arrival and removed his hat.

A woman perched behind the teller’s window glanced up, the rotating portable fan beside her ruffling her gray hair. “Can I help you, sir?”

He cleared his throat and pulled the letter from his pocket. “Yes, ma’am. I’m here to see Mr. Williams.”

She motioned toward a door labeled Bank President. “Go on in, I reckon.”

Layken knocked on the door before turning the knob.

“Yeah. Who is it?” an irritated voice called out.

“Mr. Williams, it’s Layken Martin. I need to speak with you.”

“Well, come on in, then.”

A blast of cool air dried the sweat on Layken’s forehead when he opened the door.

An overweight, balding man wearing suspenders and thick eyeglasses sat behind an ancient wooden desk. A rare air-conditioning unit jutted from the small opening cut in the wall. “Don’t stand there gawking and close the damn door before you let all the cold air out.” He motioned toward an empty chair. “Have a seat.”

Layken gently closed the door and slid into the nearest chair, resting his fedora on his knee while he removed the letter from his shirt pocket. “Sir, I received this letter from you yesterday, and I’m here to negotiate for more time.” He passed it to the banker.

Mr. Williams glanced at the letter and tossed it aside. “What kind of negotiation do you have in mind?”

“For starters, I have forty dollars I can pay you today as a show of good faith. If you can see your way clear to give me more time, I’m sure I can make a partial crop before winter sets in.”

The overweight man hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and leaned back. The chair groaned under his weight. “Forty dollars, huh? That’s all you’ve got?”

Layken nodded. “That’s all.”

“Sorry, that ain’t enough. Your daddy owed this bank nine hundred dollars when he died, and now there’s interest added to that. Reckon you inherited that debt with the farm. Now, your loan is in severe default. We can’t keep the doors open if we let every Tom, Dick, and Harry go without paying their debts. Surely, you can understand that.”

“Yes, sir. I do understand. Got plans to plant peanuts right away. Hear tell they’re selling for twice the amount of sorghum or wheat. I’m doing my best.” He picked at a hangnail.

“Peanuts? Are you crazy? No one around here grows peanuts. Hell, they probably won’t even grow in Missouri soil. Besides that, it’s too blamed hot to plant a crop.”

“Sir, I promise I’ve done my research. I believe they will grow. I’m willing to bet the farm on it.”

Williams squinted. “You know, you ain’t the only one around here with these troubles. Nevertheless, the bank has its rules and regulations. If you can’t pay at least a hundred today, I’m afraid I’ll have to start foreclosure proceedings.”

Layken fought against rising bile, wishing he’d had more than coffee for breakfast. “I’ve only got forty dollars. Sir, I swore an oath to my father I’d never lose the farm. He was a customer at this bank his whole life and always paid his debts.”

“That is true. But it doesn’t change the fact that you aren’t paying the debt now. Why, we barely know you, son. You were gone so long folks around here forgot about you.”

Shifting on the hard wooden chair, Layken struggled to tamp down rising anger. “Yes, sir. It’s true, I was gone, fighting the Germans and Japs, trying to save our country.” He gritted his teeth. “That oughta count for something.”

The older man peered over the rim of his glasses. “No need to get bent out of shape. I’m just doin’ my job.” He reached into his top drawer and fished out a cigar, offering one to Layken. “Smoke?”

“No, thanks.” Why couldn’t the man understand his situation? “I give you my word. If you can see fit to give me a grace period on this loan, I’ll find a way to pay it off—even if it means selling part of the acreage.” He leaned forward. “I’ve got time to get seeds in the ground and produce a partial crop before winter sets in. I’m sure of it.”

While Williams struck a match and lit the stogie, Layken glanced around the small office. A cheap print of a snow-covered mountainside hung lopsided on one wall. Other than that, there was no decor. It was as if the man had nothing personal to display.

The banker blew out a smoke ring and pushed his glasses up on his nose. “You know, there might be one other alternative.”

Layken perked up, a glimmer of hope rising. “I’m willing to do anything to save the place.”

“You ever been married?”

“No. But I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“It might have everything to do with the situation you’re in.” He flipped ashes off the end of the cigar into a large ashtray.

Layken fidgeted with his fedora and waited for him to continue.

“I’ve been courting the Widow Jones. You remember her, don’t you? She taught you in grade school.”

“I remember her. She was my math teacher.” He and the other kids made jokes about her being a crone because of her sharp nose and tongue.

“You see, I asked her to marry me, but she said she’s never gonna marry me so long as my daughter lives under my roof.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, Mr. Williams, but I don’t see the bearing on my situation.”

“At least, hear me out.” The man blew out another smoke ring.

“I’m listening.” Layken chewed the inside of his [DR3] cheek.

“My girl ain’t been the same since her mama died. She ain’t touched in the head or anything like that. She’s just different. But I ain’t gettin’ no younger, and I’m tired of being alone. I want to get married.”

Layken’s heart pounded erratically. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I fail to see what any of this has to do with me.”

“What if I make you a deal? You come from good stock. Everyone around these parts thought highly of Jacob and Nancy Martin. They came to church most every Sunday.”

“They were great people,” Layken agreed. “But none of this is making any sense.”

“It’s simple. Marry my Sara Beth, give her a home, and I’ll postpone payment on your debt for two years. That should give you enough time to get on your feet and get your farm back producing.”

“What?” Layken leaned forward, swallowing hard. “Did I hear you right? You’re offering your daughter to me in exchange for two years of grace on the loan?”

“Yep. That’s about it in a nutshell. I need her out of my house. There ain’t another eligible bachelor anywhere in this county. You’re a nice-looking young man from a good family. She could do worse. So, what do you say?”

Layken sat back and blew out a deliberate breath. Surely, he was dreaming, or the sun had made him delirious. This couldn’t possibly be real. “I’m speechless. The very last thing I need is a wife. I don’t even know your daughter.”

“She would’ve been a few years behind you in school. But my Sara Beth is smart, and she’s kind most of the time. She can get a mean streak now and again.” The banker chuckled. “But can’t all women?”

“Mr. Williams, this is not a solution I’m willing to consider.” Surely, the banker must be off his rocker. What kind of man gives his daughter to a stranger?

“Then, I guess you leave me no choice but to foreclose.”

Layken jerked to his feet, struggling to find his footing. “I really wish you wouldn’t. If you could only see your way clear to give me more time[JS4] [DR5] .”

“I offered you a solution. It’s the best I can do.”

“Sorry I took up your time, sir.” Layken opened the door, jammed his hat on his head, and darted out of the bank.

The temperature difference almost knocked him to his knees as the sun’s relentless rays hit him.

What in the holy hell happened in there?

He stumbled to the rusty pickup and climbed in, resting his forehead on the steering wheel.


Everything inside him screamed in protest, and his temples throbbed as a massive headache formed. His stomach growled, and the local diner across the street called to him. He still had fifty dollars. He needed a meal and a cup of coffee. He could spare a dollar.

A man couldn’t think clearly on an empty stomach.

As with most places in Everton, Mom’s Cafe didn’t have the luxury of modern air conditioning. Fans stirred the stifling air, mixed with the aroma of cooked bacon.

With hat in hand, Layken slid into a booth.

The waitress, a rotund lady with gray-streaked hair pinned in a bun and wearing an apron, greeted him. “What can I get you today?”

“I’d like the breakfast special and coffee, please.”

The woman laid silverware on the table and nodded. “Be right back with that coffee.”

Layken stared out the front window as the streets of the tiny town came to life. The bank was in his direct view. He rubbed his temples and tried to digest what the banker had said. Surely the man was off his rocker.

It didn’t add up. Something must be terribly wrong with Sara Beth Williams. Hell, something must be wrong with him for even thinking about it.

He took a sip of the black coffee that appeared before him.

Sure, someday he’d find the perfect woman and start a family, but that wasn’t now, and certainly not with a stranger he’d never even met.

No. It was a preposterous proposal.

Still, two years to get the farm back up to par and making a profit would ease the burden.

He ate mindlessly once the food arrived and pondered his options.

When the waitress checked on him, he fished for information. Maybe this woman knew the banker’s daughter. “Sure is hot, ain’t it?”

The lady nodded. “One of the hottest summers I can remember. You’re that Martin boy, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“A pity about your folks. They were good people. We all knew when your mama died, your daddy wouldn’t be far behind her. Sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. Say, do you know Sara Beth Williams?”

“Sure. Everyone knows everyone here, and if you stick around long enough this time, you will, too.”

“What can you tell me about her?”

“She took her mother’s death hard. Ain’t been the same since, ramblin’ around in that big ol’ house. Her daddy won’t give the poor girl the time of day. It’s a true pity.” The woman pierced him with a stare. “Why are you askin’?”

“Her name came up in an earlier conversation.”

“Folks ’round here don’t cotton much to her kind. She’s a sad, unfortunate soul, bless her heart, and that’s all I’m gonna to say.”

What in the Sam Hill did that mean?

A sad, unfortunate soul.

That could aptly describe him.

“Her kind? What does that mean?” His headache spread from his temples down the back of his neck.

The woman pursed her lips and stared at him for a long minute. “If you don’t know, reckon it don’t mean nothin’. Got work to do.” She hurried to another table, leaving Layken with his thoughts again.

He finished his meal, left money on the table, and walked back outside and across the street.

He paused, one hand on the pickup door, then turned on his heel and strode back inside the bank.

Without asking for permission, he opened Mr. Williams’ office door.

“Sir, I’ve reconsidered your offer.”