Desperate Hearts
up to him to take care
of Kyla Springer Bailey.
    * * *
     
    “ All right, all right, I’m
coming! Keep your britches on and stop that pounding.”
    The long shade covering the door of
DeGroot’s Mercantile flew up, and Jace stared at the balding,
bespectacled man who gaped at him from the other side of the glass.
A napkin was tucked into the collar of his shirt and behind him, a
light shown from the living quarters in back of the store.
    Several seconds passed before Albert DeGroot
tore his astonished gaze away to fumble with the lock and open the
door. The familiar scents of coffee, cured meat, and spices rolled
over Jace, along with the smell of an evening meal.
    “ Jace Rankin, I’ll be
danged! If this ain’t a surprise! It’s been a long time since you
were through these parts—why I b’lieve it’s been a year or better.
It was after that sorry day at the Rose and Garter. I was just now
setting down to supper. The missus and I usually eat about this
time of—”
    “ I need to buy some
things,” Jace interrupted, pushing his way into the store. He’d
forgotten how yappy the man was.
    Albert glanced down at the Henry in Rankin’s
hand. “Well, uh, sure, sure!” He yanked the napkin from his
shirtfront and hurried behind the counter to light a lamp.
    Jace fired off a list that included
bandages, canned food, coffee, and another bottle of whiskey.
    “ I only have moonshine from
the Grover sisters,” Albert reported, holding up a mason jar full
of honey-colored liquid. “We don’t get hardly any whiskey shipments
through here anymore.”
    “ It’ll do,” Jace
countered.
    “ What brings you to
Misfortune this time, Mr. Rankin?” He glanced over his shoulder and
shot Jace an eager, confidential look. “Hunting a bank robber?
Maybe a killer? ’Course I have my hands full with this store, but I
always thought my true calling was to be a lawman of some
kind.”
    Jace stifled the urge to laugh. He’d
encountered this attitude more times than he could remember: men
with safe, boring lives who postured before their shaving mirrors,
pretending to face make-believe outlaws. Men who rarely even
handled firearms and imagined that being a bounty hunter was
exciting.
    He had never thought of it as exciting,
except for those times when someone like Hobie McIntyre pointed a
gun at him, holding his life on the point of a moment. That wasn’t
the type of excitement he wanted—the kind that triggered his
survival instinct and left his insides churning for hours
afterward. But he couldn’t let the pressure show—he had to keep it
hidden. That kind of life could tell on a man eventually.
    He walked over to a stack of boys’ clothing
and rummaged through them until he found a small pair of jeans and
a blue shirt. If Kyla had to dress as a boy, she might as well have
clothes that weren’t bloody or gunshot. He threw them on the pine
counter. “Put these on the bill, too.”
    Albert peered over the tops of his
spectacles at the denims, his wispy brows raised. “Those pants
ain’t going to fit you.”
    Jace stared at him and made no response.
Nervously, Albert whisked them into the pile of other
merchandise.
    “ This town has changed
plenty since you were last here,” he said, moving from shelf to
shelf to fill the order. “It’s gotten nigh on to impossible to keep
this store. If it weren’t for the farmers—”
    “ Where are Travis and Chloe
McGuire?” Jace asked.
    As if the question signaled a pause for
conversation, Albert stopped and rested his elbows on the counter.
“They moved to Baker City. Let’s see . . . they left in June, a few
weeks after old Doc Sherwood died. That McGuire feller made a big
gold strike up in the hills here. He and Chloe wanted to go
somewheres more lively, I guess. Can’t say as I blame them.” He
shook his head and chuckled. “The old-time prospectors around here,
Lordy, they were mad enough to chew horseshoe nails. Who’d have
guessed some outsider would come in here

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