Texas Mail Order Bride(7)

By: Linda Broday

There was precious little time to waste. He mounted Rebel and spurred him to a gallop. Gathering his three remaining ranch hands, he returned to face the unknown threat.

“What do you think it is?” he asked Zeke O’Grady. The grizzled old man had been the first hand Cooper had hired. Despite Zeke’s advancing age, there wasn’t anything about cattle ranching the man didn’t know. And that made him invaluable.

“Deadly hoof-and-mouth disease. Ain’t seen nothing like this for thirty-odd years.” Zeke ran a hand across his bristly jaw. “Back in forty-four, to be exact. I rode for the Thornhill brand then. We lost half the herd before you could whistle ‘Dixie.’ Thornhill came near to losing his ranch. It was bad stuff.”

Cooper sucked in a deep breath. To lose the Long Odds…well, they might as well dig a hole and shove him in. This ranch represented all that he was, all that he wanted to be. It was his one chance to come into his own and prove something to himself.

“What can we do?” He lifted his hat and shoved his fingers through his hair, trying to ignore the fear squeezing his heart.

“Gotta get the healthy livestock separated from the sick ones, an’ fast. It’s a goldarned good thing you noticed this when you did, Coop.”

“Is that all we can do?”

“Afraid so. Besides a powerful lot of prayin’.”

After separating and driving the healthy cows into a pasture near the house where he and his men could keep a close watch on them for further signs of the disease, they returned and shot the sick ones and burned their carcasses. With luck, they wouldn’t lose too many of the herd.

He wondered how in the hell they’d come in contact with the disease. He’d owned these cattle for five years and never had anything like this. Hoof-and-mouth disease didn’t originate from the soil like other diseases. Other cattle brought it, and from what Zeke said, it was extremely contagious. That was the part that perplexed Cooper, because he hadn’t bought any new cattle.

He’d had a plan from the first day of how best to grow his herd and stuck with it. He always kept his bloodline clean and only sold cows when he needed money to stay afloat or to prevent overgrazing. In five years, he’d doubled the number to over five hundred.

So why this disease and why now? If only he had checked the brand on the initial dead cow before he set it ablaze. Maybe it hadn’t belonged to him. Maybe it had wandered onto his land.

Or maybe someone had deliberately run a sick cow onto the Long Odds. No, it couldn’t be that. He didn’t have any enemies.

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.”