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Utah TerritorySeptember 1869
"Regrettably, the answer is no, Miss Jones."
The bank president's apologetic tone might have fooled her, but Jennie caught a glint of satisfaction in Albert Dixon's gray eyes that contradicted his sympathetic words.
"I'm sure things have been more difficult on the ranch since your father's death, but you haven't made a payment on your mortgage in over a year." He cleared his throat. "That's eighteen hundred dollars you already owe us. We'll need to see five hundred of that before the end of the month, if you wish to keep your property. The full debt will be due next Augustno exceptions."
Jennie gripped the handle of her purse so hard her fingers hurt. No matter the sum, she wouldn't give up the ranch. "And if I don't have the money "
Mr. Dixon dropped a glance at the sheet of paper before him, then slid the document across the desk. Jennie read the words written in bold, black ink at the topNotice of Foreclosure.
"If you can't produce the minimum amount, we'll have to terminate the loan." He shook his head and rose from his chair. "I wish there was more I could do. I'm deeply sorry."
"I'm sure you are." Jennie grabbed her small suitcase off the floor and came to her feet, eyeing him coldly. "But let me make something quite clear, Mr. Dixon. The only part of my father's cattle ranch you'll ever own is a steak dinnerand I hope it gives you a bad case of indigestion. Good day."
The bank president's round face and balding head turned a satisfying shade of red before Jennie headed for the door. She could hear him sputtering for a reply as she left the bank. She marched in the direction of the stage office, the heels of her boots stomping out a hard beat.
"I'd like to take a branding iron to that man," she muttered under her breath as she wound her way along Fillmore's storefronts.
She contemplated a number of other ways she might lower the bank president's arrogance before her fury changed to despair. As her anger ebbed so did her determined pace and finally Jennie came to a stop at the corner of the general mercantile.
Where would she find five hundred dollars to keep her ranch? She'd barely scraped together enough cash to finance her trip to Fillmore. She had no relatives to borrow money from and couldn't afford to sell any of their cattle, either. Since rustlers had cleaned them out of calves and half the herd in the spring, they had to keep every last cow in order to increase the number of cattle next year. Besides, what good is a cattle ranch with no cows?
A hat display in the window beside her caught Jennie's eye. Latest Styles from the East, a handwritten sign below the hats read. She loved hatsher father had always bought her a new one on his trips to Fillmore. The one she wore today, with a rounded brim and green braiding that accentuated her red hair, was the last one he'd purchased for her. That had been a little over a year ago, just before her twentieth birthday. On that occasion, he'd bought her a brooch, as well.
Jennie's fingers went to her throat, sliding over the simple but pretty cameo her father had said reminded him of her. She could just picture him in the store, happily chatting with the clerk as he picked out gifts to bring home. She fought back the tears that sprang to her eyes at the image.
Squaring her shoulders, she stepped toward the mercantile. She couldn't replace her father in so many ways, but at least she could look around for some small gift to bring home. The southbound stage wasn't likely to leave for another thirty minutes or so, and she needed a diversion from her depressing thoughts. Despite her limited funds, she hoped to spare one or two coins to buy Grandma Jones and Will some candy or a penny trinket instead of bringing back only bad news.
Caleb looked up at the tinkling sound of the sleigh bells hanging from the mercantile's doorknob and watched the young lady walk in. His time as a bounty hunter had honed his skills at taking the measure of a manor womanin a matter of moments, and it only took a glance for him to guess at the girl's story.
The clothes, neat and clean but worn, made it clear that money was tight at home. But she held her head high, coffee-brown eyes sharp and keen, a nice contrast to her red hair. He read pride and determination in her posture and expression. Times might be tough, but clearly this lady wasn't one to give up.
He'd had that kind of determination, once. After the death of his fiancée, he'd been filled with determination to find the bandits involved, and see them all brought to justice. But in the aftermath of the deadly confrontation a year ago, his determination had fled. All he wanted now was to earn enough money to start a small business of his ownsomething far different from the farm life he'd planned to share with Liza and worlds away from the bounty hunting business he'd left behind too late.
He watched as the woman nodded to the store clerk, then headed toward the glass jars of brightly colored candies that sat on the long counter. He felt a moment's idle curiosity wondering what she'd choose before his attention was snagged by the two men talking at the end of the counter.
"Somebody wired the sheriff and told him the bandits were headed south," one of the men said. "He sent out nearly twenty men looking for 'em, but I think they must've slipped past."
At the word bandits, Caleb found himself straightening up automatically, then he forced himself to relax. He was done with bounty huntingthose bandits were someone else's responsibility now.
"When did they rob the stage?" the other asked.
"Yesterday afternoon. They met up with the coach about fifteen miles south of Nephi."
"How much money did they steal?"
"Two thousand dollars."
Two thousand dollars? Caleb was shocked not just by the amount, but by the loud crash that followed the announcement. He glanced over to see that the young lady had accidentally struck one of the candy jars with her suitcase. The container had toppled off the counter and smashed on the floor, spraying glass and peppermint sticks around everyone's feet. Caleb only caught a glimpse of her hotly embarrassed blush before she dropped to her knees and began picking up the candy with trembling hands.
Shaking hands and broken glass made for a dangerous combination so Caleb crouched down beside her to help. Reaching for one of the larger pieces of glass, his fingers almost brushed against hers. When she lifted her head to look at him, he was struck by just how pretty she was, with that fiery hair and warm brown eyes. Nothing like Liza, of course, Caleb thought to himself, heart twisting as it always did at the memory of Liza's dark hair and sweet smile, but very pretty all the same. Especially when she blushed like that.
"You don't have to help," she murmured.
"I'd like to." He slipped the glass from underneath her fingers and placed it to the side.
"No, that's all right. I can clean up the mess myself." Apparently he'd been right about the pride and determination. But he wasn't going to let that stop him. He continued to gather up the broken shards, acting as if he hadn't heard her. When the store clerk appeared with a broom, Caleb took hold of it and swept the glass into a pile while the young lady finished collecting the candy.
"I'm so sorry," she said to the clerk as she stood. She set the peppermint sticks on the counter. "I don't have enough to pay for the damage and purchase my ticket home, but " She reached up to her collar, her hand covering the brooch pinned there. "Maybe I could trade"
Her fingers tightened over the piece of jewelry and Caleb could see that it hurt her to even think of giving it up. Maybe that was what prompted his next words.
"I'll pay for the candy." The hope of starting up a freighting business of his own had had Caleb saving every penny for the past year. As a result, he had plenty of cash on hand. The broken jar and candy shouldn't put him back by more than a dollar or two. He could spare that well enough. Digging around in his pocket, he extracted some cash, along with the letter he'd come into town to mailyet another attempt to mend fences with his disapproving family. "I'd like to mail this letter, too," he said to the clerk. "So how much do I owe you?"
The girl shook her head. "I can't let you do that. I'd want to repay you, and I can't."
"I think two dollars oughta cover it," the store clerk said, seemingly in agreement with Caleb to ignore her protests.
Caleb handed over two bills along with his letter, then scooped up the candy. The clerk took the mail and money and returned to his post beside the cash register.
"You shouldn't have done thatpaid for the candy, I mean." The lady frowned at Caleb as she collected her purse and suitcase. "I could have given him my brooch to make up the difference."
Certain any mention of how obviously she'd wanted to keep the brooch would just upset her, Caleb tried a different tactic. "Probably so, but I can think of a way to repay me," he said as he went to pick up another handful of peppermint sticks they'd missed near the door. When everything was gathered together, he turned to face her again.
"I can't eat all of these by myself. How about taking a few off my hands?" He offered her a fistful of candy.
The absurdity of the whole situation made her smile, just as he'd hoped. "All right," she said. "I'll take some."
She shifted her things to one arm and took the candy from him.
"I hope you enjoy them," he said, smiling back. "Always a pleasure to help a pretty girl."
For some reason, his compliment left her looking close to tears. Her reaction made him want to take her hand, ask her what was wrong. But if he tried, he was certain she'd tell him it was none of his concern. And she'd be right. Besides, now that he'd mailed his letter, it was time for him to be moving on. Tipping his hat, he gave her one more smile.
"Good day, miss," he said, then headed for the door.