Texas Mail Order Bride(6)

By: Linda Broday


Ruffling the top of Ben’s head, Cooper turned toward his horse. “It was real nice seeing you. Watch out that you don’t get too snaggletoothed.”

“Bye, Mr. Cooper.”

He stuck a boot in the stirrup and slid into the saddle. Though the ranch lay in the opposite direction, he found himself heading to the mercantile. Dismounting in front of the establishment, he loosely wrapped the reins around the hitching post.

“Need to pick up a few things,” he told his horse as if he owed the animal an explanation.

What things, he hadn’t a clue, but he’d think of some.

Cooper sidled up next to the window and tried to peer inside. But seeing as how they could’ve added an extra street to the town with the dirt on the window, he couldn’t make out a blessed thing.

Damn. All he needed was for Miss Dandridge to see his face pressed against the glass like some three-year-old.

Taking a deep breath, he strode to the door and turned the knob. Delta swung around when he pushed it open and stepped inside. Her eyes narrowed to slits and she pursed her lips.

“What do you need, Coop?” John Abercrombie came from around the counter.

The question caught him off guard. He’d figured to walk around the store and hopefully hear what the two were discussing. No such luck.

He quickly scanned the shelves behind the counter. “Bullets. Four boxes.”

A man could never have too many bullets. But four boxes could start a war.

“You figuring on doing a lot of shootin’?”

“Never can tell on a ranch. Want to be prepared.”

Abercrombie gave a quick nod. “That all?”

“And…some chewing tobacco.” Of all the stupid things to say. Hell. He didn’t even use the stuff. Coming into the mercantile had been one of the dumbest ideas he’d had.

“I never knew you to use tobacco, Coop.”

“Getting it for one of my ranch hands.” He avoided meeting Delta’s gaze and paid for his purchases. Taking them, he got the hell out of there before he did anything else stupid.

Before he could unloop the reins from the hitching post, Delta Dandridge strode from the mercantile and marched right up to him.

“I do declare, Mr. Thorne,” she said in that sweet Southern drawl that flowed out smoother than warmed molasses. “Not that it’s a bit of your concern, but if you’re curious about what I’m doing, just ask me.”

“Lady, don’t flatter yourself. I went in there because I needed to and for no other reason.”

“Bullets and chewing tobacco? That was a pretty flimsy excuse.”

A hot flush crept up the back of his neck. “Around here, Miss Dandridge, we step pretty carefully over piles of manure or else we wind up facedown in them.”

Delta sucked in a quick breath. “Are you threatening me, Mr. Thorne?”

“Nope. Just stating facts, ma’am.” He mounted up and tipped his hat. “Have a pleasant trip back to Georgia, Miss Dandridge.”





Three


Turmoil churned inside him, whipping the contents of Cooper’s stomach into a froth as he headed for the Long Odds Ranch. The nerve of that husband-hungry woman. Why, she’d almost come right out and called him a liar to his face.

A darkening in the sky off to the west caught his attention. His eyes narrowed. A whole flock of buzzards circled above something on the ground.

Alarm rested low in his gut. Maybe a dead coyote or wolf.

Or at least he hoped it was.

The saddle leather creaked as he straightened. “Guess we’d best go see about it, Rebel.”

The horse whinnied softly and nodded as though he’d understood every word and agreed.

When they reached the source of the feeding frenzy, the sight curdled his blood.

A cow lay on the ground. The degree of bloating told him it had been dead for a day or so. He couldn’t see the brand to know if it was one of his or not, but he assumed it was. He threw a long leg over the saddle and dismounted for a closer look. Then his attention shifted to a half-dozen cows nearby. They swayed on their feet and had thick foaming saliva hanging from their mouths.

Those definitely wore his brand.

Cooper didn’t know what it was, but something told him it was more serious than anything he’d ever dealt with.