Smooth Talking Stranger

I watched the riders approaching over the western ridge of my land with a grim sort of acceptance. Snow's men were coming to claim their "due." At best, I had thought that I'd get a day or two reprieve, but it turns out I wasn't that damn lucky. From the distance, I recognized the two of them. Cato and Marvel were the banker's favorite pets. Both of them were meaner than the day is long and dumber than tetched mules, but they did his dirty work for him with nary a complaint. They kicked up the dust from the tail as they reached the paddocks.

My sister Prim poked her head out of the doorway to see what all the fuss was about. "Everything all right, Katniss?"

"Go back inside, Prim, and keep Mama in there with you," I ordered as the pair dismounted.

"Some way to greet guests, Everdeen," Cato called out maliciously as he spat at the ground.

"Hell, you ain't guests. You're no better than thieves," I snapped, still perched on the fence post. I wasn't going to let those two shake me. Not that day, not ever.

Marvel chuckled as he dismounted. "If we's thieves then how comes the law is on our side?"

I didn't bother to say anything about how Snow had forced my half-mad, grieving Mama to sign those papers down at the bank or how he'd paid well to keep us from getting the supplies we needed in town. Everyone already knew that score, but no one was going to lift a finger against the man who brought the railroad to town. The train station wasn't more than a plain old wooden platform beside the rails was the only ray of hope this town had seen since before the war. What had once been a thriving farm region was dying day by day. The cotton farmers and ranchers who had once carved a living out of the area had left their fields and their herds to go fight the Yankees, and many—like my Pa and Gale—didn't come back. Snow came West from Georgia for the sole purpose of sucking the guts from this town, and there wasn't a damned thing anyone could do.

"You've got one hour to clear off of this piece of land, girl," Cato told me.

My gut clenched. "He said he'd give us a week."

"Now, that was before you opened that sass mouth of yours. Mr. Snow's got a reputation to uphold. Can't have no bad talk about him," he said smugly.

"Especially not from some half-breed," Marvel chimed in.

Insulting my father's Indian blood was the last straw. I lost my temper. Before I knew it I had jumped off of the fence and launched myself at Marvel. Using the length of rope I'd been holding as a whip, I lashed out at his face. I struck him once, but the second time, he was ready for it. He grabbed the coil, and pulled me off my feet.

"Looks like I get to teach this little one some manners," he laughed. Humiliation flooded over me as he brought over his knee.

"Get your hands off of that boy!" a strong voice called out. I managed to wiggle myself up enough to see a man on horseback with a gun pointed toward Marvel's head.

Cato stared the newcomer down. "Don't know you and I don't see how any of this is your business, mister. You might as well move along before you get yourself involved in somthin'."

"This is business because I have just purchased this land from Mr. Snow," the stranger said flatly. His accent only made his words sound more menacing. He pulled a piece of paper from his vest with his free hand waved it about. "I do not take well to men abusing children on my land."

I felt sick. Snow had sold my land! The piece of earth that my father had lived and died for was now the property of some foreigner. Marvel's grip loosened and I escaped his grasp only to find myself face down in the dirt—a fitting event, I realized. It was probably the last time I would get to see it, but I wouldn't cry. I jerked my hat down over my eyes as Cato examined the deed.

"Well, looks like this is right and tight. Bought yourself a fine piece of land, mister..."

"Mellark. Peeta Mellark," the stranger supplied, sounding more heavily accented than before. "As the new owner of this property, I would thank you to leave now."

Cato nodded. "Sure will do that, sir. Just after we clear out these squatters for you."

"Do not mistake me: I am concerned with only the two of you leaving. The boy and his family are welcome to stay, if they choose," Mellark said high-handedly.

"I'm not a boy!" I shouted, ripping the hat off my head to prove it.

His eye widened. "My apologies, ma'am."

Cato and Marvel hooted and guffawed gleefully. I glared at the pair, but knew it wouldn't do any good. "Not your fault," I grumbled. "I ain't real ladylike."

"Looks like you two are going to get along real fine," Cato said sarcastically. "We'll just head on out. I'm sure you can find some use for Everdeen."

Mellark muttered something in another language that I am sure would have curled my sister's hair if she could've understood it. He watched the duo leave before dismounting. As he did, I noticed that he pulled a cane from his saddle bag, and leaned heavily on it. His eyes followed my gaze, but he didn't comment on how rude I was for staring.

"Miss Everdeen, was it?" he asked removing his hat. Without the hat shading his face, I could see how clearly how handsome he was. His cheek bones and jaw were well-defined and strong, but his blond curls and blue eyes gave him an almost boyish look. I didn't like that he was handsome. It would have been easier to hate him more if he was ugly as sin.

"I'm Katniss Everdeen, and I know you must be the spawn of Satan Himself to make a deal with Snow," I replied defiantly.

Mellark seemed unmoved by my insults. "Mr. Snow does not seem to be the endearing kind, but that does not matter. I purchased this land and everything that comes with it a week ago with the understanding that no one lived here. It seems I was misled."

"Damn right you were!"

"I am sorry for the distress you must be feeling," he said sincerely.

I bit my lip. For one brief moment, I thought I saw a glimmer of hope in my situation. Heck, I hadn't had hope since the day we got that letter saying Pa wasn't coming home. Things got even worse when Mama signed on the dotted line to borrow money from Mr. Snow—money that there was never any chance we could pay back. "So does that mean you'll head on outta here?"

"No." He shook his head. "I have invested a lot of money in this land—mine and my associate's. I cannot afford to take that kind of loss, but surely some arrangement can be made."

"I don't think so. If you'll give my family sometime to clear out our home, we can be on our way by sundown tomorrow." I didn't know how I was going to make it, but I knew I had to. I wasn't niave enough to not know what men meant when they said they could come to an arrangement.

"I meant what I said. You can stay here for as long as you need. I will not be responsible for leaving you homeless. Perhaps I could speak to your father?"

"Wish you could, but he's been dead coming up on four years now," I replied looking away.

Mellark sighed heavily. "How many of you are there?"

"Me, my sister, and our mother," I answered hesitantly. My mind instantly flashed to the colt that was sitting in my dresser drawer, and I wished I hadn't indulged Mama by not wearing it around the house. The sight of the gun disturbed her, but it would have made me a sight more comfortable dealing with this strange man.

"And you have been running this land on your own?" His brows shot up, and he looked impressed by the idea.

"As well as I could given the fact that we ain't got more than two bits to rub together," I acknowledged.

He scratched the golden stubble that graced his chin thoughtfully. "I know nothing about this land and nothing about raising cows."

"Cattle," I corrected him, suppressing a groan.

"Cattle," he amended with a smile. "Perhaps I could pay you for some time and knowledge?"

I eyed him warily. Though I wasn't a trusting person, there was something about Mellark that made me think he wouldn't try anything funny. The real heart of the matter was that I hadn't lied when I said that we didn't have any money, and even Haymitch wouldn't extend my credit any farther. I couldn't take Prim and Mama out into the open country with nothing more than the day or so of rations we could muster up. What choice did I really have?

"Can I think on it a spell?" I asked.

He nodded. "By all means, take your time. I do have one request though."

"Go on."

"I bought some food in town. Do you think that for a small fee and a share of the meal that your mother or sister would be agreeable to cooking for me?"

Looking back toward the house, I spotted two faces pressed to the windows. I wanted to wring their necks for not staying put like I'd asked, but I couldn't be too mad. The real danger had come and gone.

"My Mama is a real good cook," I agreed. "And you wouldn't have to feed all of us... just Mama and Prim, if you have enough."

He shook his head. "No, I have plenty for all of us. You will eat too or none of us will."

"Fine," I grumbled. "Stay here."

I stalked back to the house feeling only marginally better than I had when I had first seen Cato and Marvel. In truth, the situation was still bad. We had nothing. My whole life we had been poor, but we'd had the ranch and the promise of a better day. Now, I was watching the very last shred of my pride being stripped away. No matter how nice Mellark was, he couldn't change what was done. The worst part was that I couldn't even hate him for it. It wasn't his fault that we were in this mess, and I didn't even want to think of who had really gotten us there.

"Who is that man?" Prim demanded the very second I opened the door. "And what's to be done about the ranch?"

I couldn't bring myself to meet her eyes. "That man owns the ranch now. His name's Mellark, and Snow sold him the ranch."

"Sold!" Mama gasped, covering her heart with a trembling hand.

I nodded. "He's not making us leave just yet, but we've got to come up with a plan. He said he'll pay for you to cook him a meal—even said he'd be more than happy to share—and that will be a start."

Tears spilled out of Mama's big, blue eyes, and I tried not to resent her for it. After all, she had signed us up for this. She was almost as much to blame for it as Snow was. Prim put a gentle hand on her shoulder, and began murmuring reassuring words to her. Both my mother and my sister were ladies. They were pretty, blonde and delicate, but Prim had a hint of steel in her that Mama didn't. I left her to tend to Mama.

By the time I made it back out, Mellark had helped himself to the barn where he was brushing down his horse. I guessed that the barn was his, so it didn't make a difference, but it stung to see him there. His saddle and bags were laid on the ground in front of the stall, and I noticed that he had left both his cane and gun with them. To me, it seemed a foolish move to leave his weapon out of arm's reach when so much was uncertain around him, but it wasn't my place to train him up. Mellark would either learn to watch himself or Snow's men would put a bullet in him. It wasn't my concern.

"Mama'll cook for you. What did you buy?" I asked curiously.

Mellark smiled. "Have a look in the sack for yourself. I bought quite a bit, and she can make whatever she wishes. After so long traveling and the war before that, I have missed homemade meals."

"You fought in the war?"

"I did. I fought in the 58th New York regiment under Colonel Krzyzanowski until I was wounded in Gettysburg," he explained.

I sucked in my breath. "A Yankee."

"A Pole," he corrected with a chuckle. "Though I doubt that matters to you. I know that it only matters that I sided with the Union."

Crossing my arms over my chest, I suddenly felt a whole lot less liking toward him than I had before. "If you ain't from here, why even get involved?"

"Many reasons," he replied mysteriously. The smile was suddenly gone from his face, but I didn't think that had a whole lot to do with me. His eyes seemed far away. I had seen that look on the faces of the men who had come home with their uniforms and souls torn to bits. Yankee or Southerner, I supposed that there were some things that the war did to you that had very little to do with what side you were on.

"Did you mean what you said before about paying me to teach you to be a rancher?" I asked, changing the subject.

"I did," he confirmed.

"What if I don't like your terms?"

His blue eyes locked with mine. "What would you suggest?"

"I teach you to ranch and come along on your first cattle drive for a share of the profit," I hedged lightly.

"One fifth of the profit," he offered, shrewdly.

One fifth was being damn generous, and we both knew it. Perhaps too generous. "You're partner won't mind?"

Mellark shook his head. "O'Dair is a wise man. He'll see your value as I do."

I snorted. "We should have papers drawn up."

"We will when Finnick arrives in a few days. For now, we shake hands," he said holding out his. Mischief flashed in his eyes. "Or a kiss if you would prefer?"

"Hand shake does just fine," I snapped.

I clasped my fingers in with his, and gave a steady shake. This was more than likely a bad idea, but I had no choice. All I could do was put my faith in a smooth talking stranger and hope that it panned out.