Texas Mail Order Bride(8)

By: Linda Broday


“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.”

“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.