August 7, 1848
Dear Aunt Mae,
By the time you receive this letter, Poppa and I will have his new bank established here in High Meadow. We traveled on a riverboat up the Missouri and Platte rivers. That journey was very hard and it took many days. I tried my best to keep cheerful for Poppa’s sake, but I was afraid that ordeal would be too much for both of us. Our accommodations on the boat were very minimal, but they were lavish compared to the last part of our journey. Our last three weeks of travel was by covered wagon and that was the dirtiest, hardest life I have ever experienced.
I will enjoy my first real bath in weeks this very evening. We will be living at the only hotel in High Meadow. It is run by Mrs. Mavis Brown. She is so very kind and I love the way she calls Poppa ‘Giles’ and makes him blush. She baked a cake for my birthday. I was surprised that she could find nineteen matching candles in this tiny place. I wish you could be here. I miss you so much, especially since Momma passed away.
I am attracting a lot more attention than I like. There are at least ten men for every woman. I could be married in a week if I wanted such a thing, but I am in no hurry to surrender my freedom. I will be patient and trust God to provide a husband when the time is right.
I must close now. This letter will travel east with some of Poppa’s business papers. You ought to get it in a few weeks if the rider is not killed by Indians.
All my love,
Lila folded the paper neatly, inserted it into an envelope, and handed it to her father. “Thank you for letting me take time to write to Aunt Mae.”
“I wish my older sister had been willing to come with us,” Giles Daniels said. “She could have helped you get our household set up and I could have taken better care of her.”
“Oh, Poppa, Auntie is a lady. She has no business in a forsaken place like this. Please stop worrying about me. Everything is going to be fine.” She stretched her neck toward him and placed a demure kiss on his cheek. His gray beard tickled her nose and she quickly pinched it to keep from sneezing.
A moment later, Mavis Brown sashayed into the tidy parlor with a plate of freshly baked cookies in hand. She was a petite woman with a voluptuous figure and a cheerful demeanor. The top of her head barely came to Poppa’s shoulder. “Giles, I thought that you might like a little refreshment,” she gushed. “They just came out of the oven.” Her eyes sparkled when they connected with Poppa’s. The hotelkeeper carefully inserted her body between Giles and Lila with her back carefully shutting the daughter out.
Lila overlooked the affront. “May I please have a cookie, Mrs. Brown?”
“You may have one if you like, but they are very rich and you will ruin your youthful figure if you are not careful,” she said without facing the girl. “No young man wants a plump woman.”
Lila ignored that brash comment and reached for the steaming cookie. Its spicy aroma was so delightful that it tasted utterly delicious and Mrs. Brown quickly maneuvered Giles to a small settee and quickly took the seat next to his. She pressed her knee against his and leaned toward him in a clearly calculated effort to display her ample bosom, which made Lila fight back a giggle.
“My dear William died three years ago of fever and it is wonderful to have a cultured man in residence again. Most of my trade comes from ranchers, fur buyers, and missionaries. Great Salt Lake City is just down the trail and that place is growing so quickly.” Giles’s face showed a mixture of amusement and discomfort at the woman’s brazen approach.
He took a sip of tea. “I came to High Meadow to establish a bank. I plan to loan money to the ranches and business so that this town can grow.”
“How wonderful,” Mrs. Brown cooed. “Just think of it, a real bank here in our little town. I’m surprised that you did not choose Great Salt Lake City.”
“I considered it, but I wanted to stay independent from our Mormon neighbors. They seem to be sincere in their faith, but the leaders are too fond of controlling their followers for my taste and I do not want to lose my business or for my Lila to marry into their religion.”
Lila was surprised to hear Poppa’s concern. He had not expressed it to her before. Still, she was well aware of the fact that the men in Salt Lake City took multiple wives and she had no desire to become a part of some Mormon man’s harem because she had absolutely no interest in sharing her man with any other woman.
Mrs. Brown broke into Lila’s contemplation. “You are very wise, Giles. A pretty girl like Lila deserves the very best. When High Meadow grows, she will be able to find a man who deserves a fine girl like her.”
Lila covered her mouth with a hand and tried to look modest. She did not enjoy having Mrs. Brown discuss her as if she were not present, no matter how flattering the discussion might be. She suddenly realized that she was having to face the fact that High Meadow’s future was now her future and that she was unlikely to ever get back East again. She flexed her shoulders and forced herself to relax as her father and the chatty hotelkeeper talked on. Silence provided a pleasant refuge for the present moment.
Mrs. Brown finally excused herself and went about her duties. “Are you feeling all right?” Giles asked with a concerned expression.
“Yes, I was just a little put off by Mrs. Brown. She has no call to suppose that I am eager to marry any of the men in this territory. I’m only nineteen, after all.”
Poppa tenderly touched the back of Lila’s hand. “I will take you back East for a visit after the bank gets established. I am in no hurry to find you a man.”
Lila looked forward to seeing Aunt Mae again, but the prospect of retracting the exhausting journey across the endless plains was not inviting. “Don’t worry about me, we need to concentrate on building the bank. That’s what is important.”
He kissed her forehead and hugged her tenderly. “Don’t forget that I look forward to seeing my sister again too. The trip will be a reward for our hard work.” A tear snaked down Lila’s cheek when she saw Poppa’s earnest expression. She knew that he would keep his word if it were physically possible to do so. He had never failed her yet.
The evening meal was served in the small hotel’s surprisingly spacious dining room; it consisted of roast beef, potatoes, and hot biscuits. Mrs. Brown’s only other guests, a fur trader and a missionary, joined the supper party. Lila wished that the menu could have included a few more vegetables, but those were commodities that were hard to come by on a wagon road. Even potatoes were too pricey a delicacy to be enjoyed every day.
The missionary, Rev. Donaldson, was a tall man who was painfully thin. His frame did not have an extra ounce of flesh. The clergyman showed an interest in Lila and he made a concerted attempt to draw her into the conversation. “Have you worked with your father before?”
“No, sir,” Lila replied. “Poppa wanted me to stay home after my mother died.”
“I am sorry to hear about your loss. What caused her passing?”
“Fever. Pittsburgh was full of it. I’m glad to be away from so many people; sickness was everywhere.” The minister tried to lock eyes with Lila, but she avoided his steady gaze. “What brings you to High Meadow?”
“My bishop has sent me to establish a church near Great Salt Lake City.”
“Will the Mormons allow that?”
“I will minister to the Indians and mountain men who do not live in the city.” He smiled broadly, but Lila kept her eyes down.
The fur trader, Pierre, had a stocky build and sported a full beard. His buckskins contrasted with the minister’s somber black suit. He did his best to join the conversation. “I could help you meet some people. I have done business with most of them.” The reverend kept his eyes focused on Lila. Now she had two unwelcome male gazes to avoid.
“I will be back in High Meadow next month,” Pierre said. “The townsfolk are having a dance. I would like to take you.”
Lila let out a sigh of relief when Giles intervened. “We are new in town and my daughter needs some time to get acquainted first. I will escort her if you don’t mind.” The two over-anxious suitors shifted their attention to Mrs. Brown. She had entered the room with a big plate of cookies.
“Help yourselves,” the hostess said. “They’re snickerdoodles, baked fresh this morning.” The minister took one and Pierre took one in each hand. She set the plate in front of Giles and smiled. Lila helped herself and focused on the tasty treat. She was pleased to escape attention for a moment while Mrs. Brown filled each of her guests’ cups with steaming coffee. Lila kept her eyes down, but she had no doubt that Pierre and Rev. Donaldson were eager to reengage her in conversation. The young woman was delighted when Mrs. Brown announced that the bathtub was filled. Now she could have a few minutes to herself.
The men enjoyed conversation and cigars while Lila soaked in the small hotel’s bathtub. She was glad that the door was securely latched when she heard Pierre’s voice in the hall. He exchanged a few words with Mrs. Brown and she heard the sound of their footsteps walking away. Lila soaked until the water started to cool; she dried herself on one of the soft towels provided and covered herself with a long robe.
Once safely in her room, Lila snuggled under her covers and thought about the evening. Of course, she realized that this would not be the last time she would have to contend with unwelcome male attention. The Wyoming territory had at least ten men for every eligible woman. Poppa would not have to take her back East to find a man.She giggled silently and slipped into sleep.
* * *
The next morning found Lila and Poppa in sole possession of the dining room because the hotel’s other two guests had already departed. The father and daughter ate a hearty, if simple breakfast consisting of bacon, beans, and honeyed biscuits. Their first stop was the general store; its back storeroom held the large safe and a pair of desks that Poppa had had shipped out. The Mercantile Bank of High Meadow was now duly equipped and ready to open for business. A pair of brawny men moved the safe and furniture to the small building that Poppa had bought, which was located on a side street near the center of town. Naturally, the workmen made an unpolished effort to attract Lila’s interest and she was careful to be polite, but made it clear that she was not interested in either of them.
When the movers were gone, Poppa transferred the gold bars from his sturdy leather satchel and locked the bullion inside the safe. Those golden ingots represented all that they owned in the world and she could see the relief on his face when he spun the dials to secure the treasure. As the day went on, a handful of curious residents stopped by to meet the new banker and his daughter. A cattle buyer named Barker deposited a bag of silver coins, which was duly recorded as account number one. Business was hardly brisk, but it was very promising and Poppa was delighted. Banks were a new institution in this part of the West and people would need to learn to trust Giles and his business.
Lila busied herself by sweeping the lobby and greeting anyone who stopped by. Her friendly smile interested more people than the bank did. She and Poppa lunched at their desks on the sandwiches and cookies that Mrs. Brown had prepared for them. Poppa spent the quiet afternoon cleaning and loading his revolver. Lila cringed each time she thought about how wild and lawless High Meadow was. The people she had met seemed decent enough, but she had learned that the nearest lawman was over a day’s ride away and that realization made her very uneasy.
She felt a palpable sense of relief when a column of cavalry stopped in front of the bank and a lanky young lieutenant dismounted. His name was Paul Dixon and he had wavy blond hair and big blue eyes. He told Poppa that he would be patrolling the area around High Meadow for the next few days because the Cooper gang had been reported in the area. He also mentioned that a small band of Shoshone Indians had raided one of the Mormon wagon trains and stolen some livestock. Their conversation was cut short when a customer entered the bank.
The young man was dressed in a shopkeeper’s apron and his shirtsleeves were secured with inch-wide red holders. He smiled broadly. “My name is Matt Bridger. My father owns the general store.” He reached for Lila’s hand and she reluctantly surrendered it. She was immediately aware that his skin was soft. He was clearly not used to hard work. “Dad told me that you and your father dropped by. I’m sorry I was out and I did not get to meet you.” Lila stiffened a little when Matt wrapped an arm around her and rested his palm on her back and it moved just enough to keep her constantly aware of its presence. She tried to take a step back, but he casually thwarted her effort.
“I’d love to give you a little tour of the countryside.”
“I’m working now.” Lila desperately hoped that the persistent man would take her hint, but he did not. His hand edged an inch lower to rest on the top of her swelling hindquarters. “I need to get busy, now.”
Matt chuckled. “Let me stop by when the bank closes. We can go then.”
Mercifully, Poppa walked up. “I’m Giles Daniels. May I help you?”
“Yes, sir. I was wanting this young lady to let me open a new account.” He pulled his unwelcome hand away and produced a small leather bag filled with gold coins.
“My daughter does not usually open our new accounts, but I will be pleased to assist you.” Poppa motioned toward the chair in front of his desk. Lila drew a welcome breath and relaxed while Poppa wrote Matt’s name on an account record card. The young man glanced at Lila repeatedly and she carefully avoided his eagerly searching eyes.
“I want to thank you for making a deposit with us, Mr. Bridger,” Poppa said.
“Your bank is one of the things High Meadow needs to grow, Giles. I want to show my support and I will encourage the other local businessmen to do so also.” Lila stiffened when Matt called Poppa ‘Giles’ as if they were well acquainted. Addressing him that way seemed far too familiar; for all practical purposes, the men were strangers. “I will urge my father to stop by and open an account soon.”
“I appreciate your confidence,” Poppa said. His voice was courteous, but Lila knew his tones of voice well enough to recognize some tension in it.
“I hope you and your daughter will join me for a drink at the Silver Slipper so I can introduce you around.”
“That’s very nice of you. My daughter does not drink, but I will be pleased to meet you when the bank closes.”
“Yes, of course, that will be fine.”
Lila grinned; Poppa had maneuvered Matt away for today at least, but she doubted that she had seen the last of him and she would have to be polite since he was now a customer. The young man rose and tipped his hat toward her. “I’ll stop by some other afternoon and take you for a ride.” He strolled out of the bank and Poppa chuckled as soon as he was out of sight.
“Thanks for getting me off the hook for this afternoon,” Lila said.
“You’re welcome. I could see that you weren’t anxious to go riding. Why not? He seemed like an eligible young man.”
“I’m not entirely sure. I just felt uncomfortable with him. He seemed too forward. Do you think I should have accepted his invitation?”
“That’s entirely up to you, but I don’t think he will give up easily. Do you want me to speak to him?”
“Not yet. I’ll tell you if I want help. I’m not used to so much attention.”
Poppa chuckled again. “Young women are few and far between and pretty ones are even more scarce.”
Lila blushed. “Oh, Poppa.” She wished her aunt Mae were here to talk to her. A woman’s ear would be very welcome.
* * *
The sun was low in the sky when the bank closed for the day. Poppa walked Lila back to Mrs. Brown’s hotel. “I won’t be too long. I just need to keep my word and see Matt Bridger for a few minutes.”
“I hope he introduces you to some more customers,” Lila said with a smile. She understood that the bank needed all the depositors it could get.
Mrs. Brown greeted her as soon as she was inside. “Will Giles be very late?” the hotelkeeper said. “I baked a ham for supper and I hoped he would enjoy it.”
Lila smiled. Poppa attracted as much interest from Mrs. Brown as she drew from the town’s bachelors. “Matt Bridger asked him to get a drink at the Silver Slipper. He’ll be back soon.”
“Did young Matt forget to invite you?”
“I don’t drink.”
“You should start. Matt is the only son of the wealthiest man in High Meadow. He’s a good catch and handsome too. A girl could do far worse. He can have any girl he wants.”
Lila stiffened. Why did everyone want to match her with Matt?
* * *
The morning’s breakfast consisted of biscuits with bacon and eggs. Mrs. Brown announced that a new farmer had started an operation halfway to Great Salt Lake City. He was producing chickens and eggs at very attractive prices. Lila was delighted to have some much-needed variety available.
Her father interrupted her morning repast a moment later. “Matt Bridger asked about you while we were having a drink. He seems interested in getting acquainted with you.”
Lila slumped a little and stared at her food. “Poppa, do you insist that I visit with him? Tell me the truth.” She raised her head and stared at her father directly.
“I just want you to be happy. What do you have against him?”
Lila sighed. “I do not really have anything against him. I just wish he’d give me a little more time. I’m not ready for a beau.”
Poppa touched her hand tenderly. “I understand. You don’t have to do anything that you do not want. I can send him packing if you want.” Lila shook her head. She understood that High Meadow was a small town and that her prospects for a beau would be limited.
Two days later, Matt stopped by the bank at closing time. Lila did her best to please her father and attempted to hide her lack of enthusiasm at the young shopkeeper’s visit. “I’d like to show you the countryside this afternoon. Would you like to ride in my buggy or go on horseback?” Matt said.
“I have not been riding for a long time; I’d love the chance to be on a horse again.” Lila remembered how freely Matt had touched her before and she wanted to avoid the close confines of the buggy. “I will need to change first, if you do not mind.” She kept her arms crossed in front of her as Matt walked her to Mrs. Brown’s hotel. She felt a real sense of relief as she changed into her riding pants and boots. That attire made her feel wonderfully free and independent. Matt fetched the horses from the stable while Lila dressed and the animals were soon hitched in front of the hotel by the time she was ready. The pair rode the short distance to the edge of town before their conversation resumed.
“Have you ridden long?” Matt asked. “You seem to be so at ease on the horse.”
“Poppa taught me when I was just a girl.”
“Well, you look like you were born in the saddle today.” Lila smiled. She was not used to being flattered, but her anxiety about Matt was not allayed. Matt was attractive enough, but he seemed too calculating and self-centered and his lavish compliments seemed insincere. She was sure he was saying what he thought she wanted to hear and she had no desire to be his trophy.
The ride went on for about an hour and each time Matt moved too close, Lila could easily nudge her horse away. She could feel his frustration growing. When he finally suggested that they dismount and walk together, she quickly declined that invitation. “Mrs. Brown will have dinner ready soon and Poppa does not like to eat alone,” she said.
“Perhaps I could come Sunday and enjoy dinner with you. My father and I have enjoyed Miss Mavis’s Sunday special spread for years. My father can keep your father company while we are free to visit.” Lila cringed. She had not considered that Mrs. Brown’s hotel served meals to the High Meadow gentry. Matt’s eager expression showed that he would not give up this idea easily.
“Poppa usually enjoys dining alone on Sunday,” Lila offered weakly as she realized that she had blundered.
“I’ll stop by the bank and talk to your father in a day or two.”
Lila’s shoulders slumped and she knew she was trapped.
* * *
The door to the bank had not swung open for hours. Poppa had labored silently over a ledger while Lila stared aimlessly out the bank’s front window. Without warning, the door hinges creaked and Matt Bridger stood smiling directly at her. She tried to look busy, but her reaction was a few seconds too slow.
“Giles, I have a favor to ask of you,” the young merchant said. “I would like your consent for my father and me to share Sunday dinner with you and your daughter at Mrs. Brown’s hotel.”
Giles sat up straight and smiled. “Lila and I would be pleased to share our meal with you. I’ll let Mrs. Brown know to expect the two of you.”
Matt shot Lila a self-possessed grin, pivoted on his heel, and walked out into the dusty street.
“Oh, Poppa, I wish you’d asked me before you agreed to dine with him,” Lila said. “I am trying to avoid giving him any false ideas. I’m afraid he wants to court me.”
“What’s wrong with that? He’s the most eligible bachelor in town. He can take good care of you when I’m gone.”
“Poppa, I don’t want you gone. We have many years ahead of us.”
“That may well be, but I am anxious to see you settled and this town does not offer many possibilities.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“You know better. This is a hard country and I want the best for you. It would not be right for me to keep you to myself forever.”
“But Poppa, I’m not ready to think about such things.”
“You’re a grown woman and I know you don’t want to be an old maid. Anyway, your mother made me promise to help find a young man for you and get her the grandchildren she was so anxious for.”
Lila released a long sigh. She knew that if Poppa invoked both Mother’s memory and the much sought-after grandchildren in the same breath she would not be able to stand against his will. “Oh, well, it’s just dinner, what can it hurt?”
“That’s my good girl; we’ll have a fine time, both of us.” He bent back to his work and left Lila to brood in silence.