Texas Mail Order Bride(11)

By: Linda Broday


Mabel King had whispered to her over breakfast that no one even knew the names of the people buried there, as though it was something scandalous she couldn’t bear to speak aloud. She said folks had bickered for years over what to do with it. Some wanted to dig the bodies up and rebury them in the Battle Creek Cemetery, at the edge of town. Others fought to keep them right where they were.

If the citizens wanted to cast out the dead inhabitants, what would they do to living ones? Delta’s stomach churned and she fought down nausea.

Then, there was the overwhelming shabbiness of the rickety buildings. Most were well on their way to collapsing in on themselves, held up by a few nails, peeling paint, and abundant prayers. The buildings reminded her of ugly stepsisters that’d been left behind and forgotten while everyone else went to the dance.

It saddened her that these people clutched that opera singer’s broken heel as their only claim to fame, and yet it deeply touched something inside her. Like this town, she was searching for her own reason for being.

A sense of excitement suddenly swept over her.

No one knew her here. Her secret was safe. So far.

Besides, this place could be no worse than what she’d faced in Cedartown. Less-than-savory recollections came unbidden. She closed her eyes against searing pain. She could start fresh, her life a clean slate. She’d take special care to fit in and not draw undue attention.

Her thoughts drifted to Cooper Thorne. Everywhere she turned, his name came up. People sang his praises as if he were a founding father or something. Maybe his family had settled the town. He appeared pretty vital to Battle Creek. She wanted to find out more about the man who gave peaches to a friend but refused to offer kindness to a newcomer searching for a place to belong.

Battle Creek Bachelors’ Club, indeed!





Five


Cooper woke in the darkness to unbidden memories of Tolbert Early and the Steamboat Bathhouse in Hannibal, Missouri, sixteen years earlier. He’d been a scared boy of fourteen.

So much blood on his hands and clothes. Smoke from the gun in his hand clouding his vision.

He didn’t think he’d ever get the stench out of his nostrils or block out the screams of his younger brother Brett that still echoed in his head. He doubted he’d ever forget the sight of his little brother standing there in the clutches of Tolbert Early, with his shirt ripped half-off, eye swelled shut, and blood oozing from his mouth.

And then Isaac Daffern discovered them hiding in the back of his wagon the night the boys ran for their lives. Best thing that could’ve happened. The kind rancher took them under his wing. If not for him, Cooper would probably have been tried for murder and possibly hanged. But Daffern gave them food and shelter and taught them how to be men. And when the old man died, he left them each four hundred dollars in his will.

Cooper wiped the sweat from his forehead and assured himself again that Tolbert Early was dead. He tried to go back to sleep but found it impossible.

By the time the first slivers of dawn peeked over the horizon, he was atop his favorite lookout spot, hoping to find the peace he sought. He thought about the long list of things to do before Monday rolled around, one of which was going into town for supplies.

Thank goodness he didn’t have to worry about the maddening Miss Dandridge, because she’d likely left by now.

The first order of business—right after a quick breakfast—was riding over to talk to Brett. Cooper wanted to tell him about the disease and maybe get his thoughts. Possibly his help if it came to that.

Back at the ranch house, he gave Zeke the orders for the day and asked him to hitch up the wagon. Then he strapped on his Colt. Climbing into the wagon box, he set out across country for Wild Horse Ranch. He was proud of his little brother. Brett had one of the best horse ranches in several counties. He rounded up wild mustangs and broke them before selling them to the U.S. Army. His spread only measured a couple hundred acres, but he made every inch count.

Passing under the crossbar proclaiming the land as Wild Horse Ranch, Cooper headed to the far eastern corral, where a fair amount of dust rose. Sure enough, Brett stood in the middle as if he had not a care in world while a wild mustang ran circles around him, kicking and pawing the ground.