Texas Mail Order Bride(8)

By: Linda Broday

“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. May I help you?” Delta put on a bright, welcoming smile.

The patron dragged her attention from the clean window. She appeared dumbstruck at Delta standing there. “Oh, do you work here?”

“I do indeed. I just started this morning.”

“Never thought John would hire anyone. A government mule doesn’t have anything on that man. Never saw a more god-awful stubborn cuss.” The woman leaned closer to Delta and whispered, “Don’t let him run you off. He just forgot how to smile.”

The old lady spoke the truth on all counts.

“What can I assist you with, ma’am?”

But the woman was in no hurry. She took a pair of spectacles from her pocket and put them on. Her eyes looked huge through the thick lenses. She gave Delta a long stare. “You’re a right pretty little thing. I ’spect you’ll have all the single men in this town ogling you. All except Cooper Thorne and his brothers. Don’t hold your breath there. They’ve got this crazy fool notion that they’re happy being bachelors.”

The old lady appeared to know the way they sat in their saddle, Delta thought wryly, recalling her almost-groom’s firm avowal to never marry.

“Cooper and his brothers formed the Battle Creek Bachelors’ Club, you know,” the woman expounded.

A club? Of all the silly notions. Did they truly need to band together to keep some female from slipping a rope around one of them and dragging him kicking and screaming to the altar? Their efforts to cling to independence seemed a bit desperate.

Bachelors’ club, indeed!

The woman leaned close and peered up into Delta’s face as if she’d just noticed her. “I don’t think I’ve met you. You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m Delta Dandridge.”

“Pretty name. I’m Granny Ketchum, but everyone just calls me Granny. What brings you to Battle Creek, dear?”

Heat inched up Delta’s neck. She wondered what would happen if word got out that she was a mail-order bride and the intended groom had spurned her before she even stepped off the stage. She’d die before she admitted any such thing.

“I’m just passing through. I like the town and decided to stay a while.” Delta glanced up. John Abercrombie glared his disapproval. His stern, unyielding face became even harder. “Ma’am, what did you say you came in for? I’ll be happy to help you find it.”

“Oh, I clean forgot. I need a thimble. Someone came right into my house in broad daylight and stole mine. Can you believe anyone would be so bold? It’s scandalous. Why, last week they came in and stole my poor cat.”

“That’s terrible. Did you tell the sheriff?”

Granny Ketchum drew herself up. “I certainly did. He didn’t do a blooming thing about it, either.”

Mr. Abercrombie came out from behind the counter. “Miss Dandridge, I don’t pay you to air your lungs all day. You’re here to work. If you can’t do that, then you and I should part ways.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, go blow a smoke ring, John. Leave the poor girl alone.” Granny clutched Delta’s arm to steady herself.

“Let’s go find you that thimble, Granny.” She led the old woman over to the display case and helped her select one.

A short while later, the woman hobbled out the door. Delta returned to her cleaning. She tackled the spilled cracker barrel next. Mice scurried into other parts of the store as she uprighted it and swept up the crackers.

“Mr. Abercrombie, would you by chance have any mousetraps?”

With his lips still set in a thin straight line, he showed her where they were. He put her in mind of a buzzard, with his piercing gaze and hooked nose. The long conversation with Granny hadn’t helped her tenuous situation with him. So when the noon hour came, she never mentioned lunch, working right on through it.

The rest of the day went by in a blur, but by the time Mr. Abercrombie locked up and called it a day, she’d managed to neatly restack the pile of blankets, straighten up the yard goods, clean the countertops, and sweep the floor. In between all that, she’d waited on the customers who came in.

One was a woman who wore a heavy black veil over her face. She’d introduced herself as Widow Sharp and bought baking supplies.

By quitting time, Delta was exhausted but proud of her efforts. As she blew out the oil lamps, she vowed to tackle them the following day. The globes were so filthy, the lamps put off little light. When the women saw how clean and inviting the store was, they’d be more eager to spend time and money in there.