“I think you’re in the wrong spot,” Big Paw said as I sat across from him in his office. “You have to go down to the Farmhouse restaurant to apply for a waitstaff position.”

Sitting across from a man like Big Paw made a person feel smaller than small. Obviously, his name wasn’t really Big Paw, but that was what everyone in town called him. He was an older gentleman in his eighties and quite a force to be around. You didn’t live in Eres without knowing about Big Paw. He lived up to his name too. He was a big man, both in weight and in height. He had to be well over six foot five and around 250 pounds, easily. Even at his age, he didn’t slouch over much, but he moved a bit slower. He always wore the same thing, too, day in and day out. A plaid shirt with a pair of overalls, his cowboy boots, and a trucker hat. I swore, his closet must’ve had a million plaid shirts and overalls, or his wife, Holly, did a lot of laundry.

Eres, Nebraska, was a place unknown to most of the world. We walked on dirt roads, and most of our pockets were dirt poor. If you had a job in Eres, you were a lucky one, though it probably didn’t pay you much of anything. You worked paycheck to paycheck if you were fortunate. If you weren’t lucky, you’d probably take a loan out with Big Paw, who wouldn’t ever expect you to pay it back, even though he’d tell you that you owed him on the regular. Old Man Kenny down at the auto shop still owed Big Paw $50,000. That debt had been held up since 1987, and I doubted that debt would ever be paid off. Still, during every town gathering, Big Paw brought it up with a grumpy look glued to his face.

Big Paw was pretty much the godfather of Eres. He ran Eres Ranch, which was the centerpiece of the whole town. From his crop fields to his cattle, Big Paw had created something no one else seemed to have been able to do in Eres—he’d built something that had lasted.

Eres Ranch had been running strong for over sixty years, and most of the people who worked in town worked for Big Paw. They worked either on the ranch or at the Farmhouse.

I definitely wasn’t sitting in his office in hopes of a waitstaff position, even if I looked like I wasn’t made out for the ranch.

“With all due respect, Mr. Big Paw—”

“Big Paw,” he corrected. “No ‘Mr.’ crap like that. Just straightforward Big Paw. Don’t go on making me feel older than I already do.”

I swallowed hard. “Yes. Sorry. Big Paw, with all due respect, I am not interested in a position at the restaurant. I want to work on the ranch.”

His eyes darted up and down over me, taking in my appearance. Sure, I was certain most girls my age didn’t want to be getting down and dirty in the pigpens or horse stables, but I needed that position, and I wasn’t going to walk away until I’d secured it.

“You don’t really look like my regular crew.” He huffed and grimaced. I didn’t take it personal, though, because Big Paw was always huffing and grimacing. If he ever smiled at me, I’d feel as if it were a death wish.

“Don’t know if you have what it takes to work in the barns,” he explained, shuffling through the paperwork. “I’m sure Holly can get you a nice position at the resta—”

“I don’t want a restaurant position,” I argued again. Then I paused and swallowed hard, realizing that I’d cut off Big Paw. People didn’t cut off Big Paw. Or at least they didn’t live to tell the story. “Sorry, but I need a position at the ranch.”

“And why’s that?” His eyes were so dark you felt as if you were staring into the biggest black hole as he looked your way.

“It’s no secret that the ranch hands make double the amount of the employees at the Farmhouse. I need the money.”

He pulled out a cigar from his desk drawer, placed it between his lips, and leaned back in his chair. He didn’t light it, but he chewed on the end. He almost always had that cigar in his mouth, but never once had I seen him light it up. Maybe it was just an old habit that he held on to. Or perhaps Holly had scolded him and ordered him to stop smoking. She was hell bent on making Big Paw take care of his health, even if he didn’t want to, and I swore that man would do anything to make his wife happy. Holly was probably the only soul alive who ever received his smiles.

“You live down at the trailers, right?” he asked, brushing a thumb against his upper lip.

“Yes, sir.” He cocked an eyebrow at the word sir. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Yes, Big Paw. That’s right.”

“Who’s your kinfolk?”

“Just my mother, Jean Stone.”

“Jean Stone . . .” His brows pushed closer to one another as he tapped his fingers against the desk. “She’s attached to Charlie Riley, ain’t that right?”

My stomach turned a little at the mention of Charlie. “Yes, si—Big Paw.”

For a split second, Big Paw didn’t look grumpy. He almost looked sad. He chewed on his cigar and shook his head. “That boy ain’t no good. He causes a lot of trouble in our town, bringing in that crap that messes with people’s bodies and heads. I ain’t got no place on my staff if there’s any kind of drug use going on. I don’t have time for that mess.”

“I swear, I don’t use. I actually hate it with a passion.” Almost as much as I hated Charlie.