Texas Mail Order Bride(7)

By: Linda Broday


Though didn’t he, what with someone forging his name and writing letters to the lovely Delta Dandridge? Maybe it was the same damn person. Awful strange that both things happened on the exact dadgum day.

He took off his hat and shoved a hand through his dark hair, racking his brain for the name of someone who might want to both embarrass and destroy him.

There had only been one man who fit the category, but Cooper had killed the sorry no-good jackal. Tolbert Early hadn’t given him any choice.

The memory of that day still haunted Cooper. The night he shot Early he’d become his father’s son, the thing he’d sworn he’d never be. Now the die was cast and he couldn’t change it. He cursed and jammed his hat back on his head.

“We got a lot of work to do. Might as well get to it,” he said to his faithful buckskin. “No use wastin’ time.”

Or fretting about the past.

The remainder of the day, the men feverishly worked to inspect as many of the herd as possible. Before Cooper knew it, the sun glowed a fiery red ball low on the horizon.

Thank God, they hadn’t found any more sick cattle.

Cooper turned to his men. “Let’s call it a day and head to the house.”

“Now, that’s a right good idea,” Zeke agreed.

Again, Rand was waiting for them on the porch. It didn’t take long to discover the reason—seemed he was busting a gut to find out what had happened between Cooper and the lady Dandridge. Snoop that his brother was.

“I’ve got far more serious worries than a woman who’s trying to leg-shackle me.” Cooper told him about the disease infecting his herd. “It’ll be a miracle if I don’t lose everything I’ve worked for.”

“You think it’s deliberate?”

“Not saying that. Not ruling anything out, though. But it had to either be a sick cow wandering onto Long Odds land or someone dumping it into the midst of my cattle.”

“Pays to keep an open mind,” Rand agreed. “Anyone have a grudge against you?”

“Only one.”

Rand nodded. “Tolbert Early.”

“Yep. And he’s dead, so that leaves me at zero.”

“I’ll keep my ears open at the saloon. If I hear of anything, I’ll holler.”

“Appreciate it, Rand.”

“One of us has trouble, we all have it.” Rand laid a hand on Cooper’s shoulder. “We’ll figure this out. You’re not in it alone. Brett and I have your back.”

Cooper gazed at the distant horizon as though, if he tried hard enough, he could see the trouble that rode toward him. The only thing was, trouble usually snuck up on a man from behind when he least expected it.

A deep sigh filled the night air. “Have you taken to chewing tobacco, Rand?”





Four


Delta arrived at Abercrombie’s Mercantile early the next morning, ready to work.

John Abercrombie stared in icy silence as she set down the lunch bucket Mrs. King had made for her and briskly pulled an apron over her head. After several long seconds, he spoke. “Frankly, didn’t expect to see hide nor hair of you.”

“One thing you should know about me, sir, is I keep my word. We have a bargain. Now, where would you like me to start?”

“Don’t much matter, I reckon. Just know that I expect a full day’s work from you. No lollygagging around. You won’t find this an easy job, Miss…”

“Dandridge. Delta Dandridge.” No, she was under no pretense that it would be a picnic working for the man. She already feared he could be a hard taskmaster. But as long as he paid her the wages due, she could ignore his sour disposition. Having lost her mother, first to despair, then to death, she knew the power grief had on a person. She would show Abercrombie nothing but kindness.

The man’s frown deepened. “That’s a rather odd name.”

“I suppose, sir. If you have no objections, then I’ll start by cleaning the window.” Then maybe she could get a better idea of what she was dealing with. She didn’t work well in the dark.

Getting a bucket of soapy water and a rag, she set to work. It took repeated washings, inside and out, to remove the thick layers of grime. Having a clean window made all the difference in the world. Bright, glorious sunlight streamed in. It was then she saw exactly how much work lay ahead of her.

Delta had just put the cleaning supplies away when the first customer walked in, a good two hours since Abercrombie had opened the store. His business was not brisk, to say the least. But she meant to change all that.

The elderly woman hobbled in on a rickety cane. A large goiter hung from her throat. “Praise the Lord, I can see where I’m walking,” she exclaimed. “The last time I was in here, I fell and came near to breaking my leg.”

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