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Sam put two counties between him and Houston before he remembered the newspaper he'd taken from the barrelhead next to the snoring liveryman and stuffed into one saddlebag. The dog now rode in the other, perched with his front paws hanging out and his ears cocked at a jaunty angle.
"Let me know if you hear anyone coming up behind us, boy," he told the dog, reaching for the paper. He gritted his teeth when his broken ribs stabbed him, reminding him of what Raney's henchmen had done.
The dog yipped in assent. Sam had gotten used to talking to his fellow traveler as they rode along, though he hadn't bothered to name him. The dog didn't seem to mind, answering him with a short bark or a wagged tail whenever he spoke.
The Houston Telegraph crackled as he opened it. It was a week old, but that didn't matter. Leaving Houston, Sam had headed north with no particular destination in mind, but now he needed to make a plan. Drifting like a tumble-weed had gotten him nowhere previouslyhe hoped the newspaper would give him an idea about where to go.
When he reached the back page, his gaze fell on an advertisement set apart by a fanciful scrollwork border.
Are you a marriage-minded bachelor of good moral character? Do you long to meet the right lady to wed?
Come to Simpson Creek in San Saba County, Texas, and meet the ladies of the society for the promotion of marriage.
If interested, please contact Miss Priscilla Gilmore, Post office box 17, Simpson Creek, Texas
Sam found himself grinning as he studied the ad. So the ladies of Simpson Creek were looking for husbands? He knew that a lot of single ladies had found the selection of men mighty slim pickings after the war. Simpson Creek's supply of eligible bachelors must have been harder hit than most.
If he remembered right, San Saba County lay northwest of his present location, plenty far away in case Raney came looking for him. He wouldn't write to the post office address, though. He wasn't about to hole up in some town, send an inquiry, and wait for an answer. He was still too close to Houston, where Raney was no doubt spoiling for revenge after finding his ring and his victims gone. It might be amusing to just take a ride up to San Saba County and see what the fair ladies of Simpson Creek had to offer a footloose bachelor.
He didn't want to become a dirt-poor rancher on some hardscrabble piece of land, though. It wasn't wrong, was it, to look forward to a little comfort after the rough, austere life he'd lived? And if it wasn't asking too much, he'd like her to be pretty, someone his eyes could take pleasure in looking at. But above all, she had to be honest, and she had to be a lady. As much as he appreciated down-to-earth working women like the saloon girls, he was tired of seeing his own jaded, experienced cynicism reflected in their eyes.
He wasn't partial. He admired a saucy redhead as much as a sunny blond beauty or a sloe-eyed brunette. He wasn't a bad-looking fellow himself, he knewor at least he wasn't when he didn't have a cut on one cheek and bruises on his forehead, he thought ruefully. Women had complimented him on his bold dark eyes and thick black hairthough at the moment, Sam thought, he could use a shave and a long soak in a copper hip bath. Ah, well, there'd be plenty of time between here and San Saba to visit a barber and make himself as presentable as possible. He'd have to decide what to say about his visible injuries. He didn't want to look like a habitual brawler.
Sam arrived in the little town of Simpson Creek with the dog riding perched between the saddlehorn and his legs. He hadn't found anyone in any of the towns he passed who seemed interested in taking the beast off his hands, and by now he'd grown surprisingly fond of the little dog's company. And perhaps the dog's appeal would be just the entree he needed with the young lady of his choice.
A trim little town, he thought, riding in from the south and pausing to look it over. It had everything a small town neededa saloon at one end, a church at the other, and in between, a hotel, a post office, a mercantile, a bank, a jail and a barbershop-bathhouse. He'd availed himself of a bath and a shave in the last town and had changed into his black frock coat, trousers and a fresh white shirt. The bruises had faded into faint greenish blotches and the cut was healinghe hoped his neat appearance would help to mitigate the impression he'd been in a fight.
On his right sat a very imposing mansion of brick, surrounded by a tall black wrought-iron fence with an ornate front gate. He whistled under his breath. That must be the home of the richest man in town. Maybe he was the president of the bank. He'd have to make sure to become friends with that gentleman.
"I wonder how we're going to find our Miss Priscilla, dog?" he mused aloud, surveying the town from beneath the broad, wide brim of his black hat. He tried picturing "Miss Priscilla Gilmore," and couldn't decide if she was one of the available spinsters herself or some grandmotherly matchmaking type.
Should he try the post office? After all, the advertisement had listed a post office box addresssurely the postmaster would be able to direct him to Miss Gilmore.
The post office, by unfortunate coincidence, sat right beyond the jail. Sam had always kept clear of local lawmen, finding they usually sized him up on sight as the gambler he was. But this time it couldn't be helped.
Just act as if you have a right to be here, he told himself. You're just here to meet a lady. Nothing wrong with that.
As he approached the jail, three people emerged from ita well-dressed old man leaning on a silver-headed cane, a man about Sam's age who must be the sheriff, for his vest bore a silver star, and a young lady. Her face was hidden by the side of her fetching sky-blue bonnet, but strawberry-blond curls peeped from beneath it.
"Yes, I'm expecting the man today, Mayor," he heard the sheriff say to the older man.
Just then the dog erupted into a volley of barks from his saddle perch.
Sam tried to hush the beast, but it was already too late.
"Oh, what a darling dog!" the girl cried, and rushed forward. "What's his name?"
"I I don't know, ma'am," he murmured idiotically, but he couldn't have made a more intelligent reply to save his life, for he was transfixed by the face looking up at him, framed by the bonnet. She had eyes the exact same sky-blue hue as the bonnet, sweeping, gold-flecked lashes, a sweetly curved mouth, all in a heart-shaped face.
She blinked in confusion and a faint color swept into her cheeks. "You don't know? Whyever not? Ooh, how sweet!" she cried, when the dog raised his paw and wagged his tail at her.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw the lawman's face harden and his gaze narrow. He knew the man had caught sight of his lacerated cheek.
Wonderful. He was already under suspicion.
He touched the brim of his hat respectfully. "Well, not exactly, ma'am. He just adopted me, a ways down the road. I reckoned I might find him a home here," he said, aiming a brilliant smile at the girl. He saw her spot the healing cut on his cheek but he could still salvage the situation with the dog's distracting help. "My name's Sam Bishop."
"I'm Prissyum, Priscilla Gilmore," the girl said, blushing a little more as she corrected herself.
Thunderation. He'd thought the good Lord had given up on him a long time ago, but surely this was a sign. He'd blundered right into the very lady he'd been looking forand she was a far cry from grandmotherly. But did she have to be accompanied by a lawman who was already looking narrow-eyed at him?
"Miss Gilmore, I'm right pleased to meet you," he said.
"This is my father," she went on, nodding at the old man, "Mayor James Gilmore."
"Sir," he said, fingering the brim of his hat once more. Miss Priscilla was the daughter of the mayor? This just kept getting better and better.
"And Nicholas Brookfield, the acting sheriff."
"Sheriff Brookfield," Sam said, nodding at the man who was staring at him with that cold gaze that must come to lawmen as soon as they pinned on those tin stars. But what had she meant, "acting sheriff"?
"May I hold him?" Miss Priscilla inquired, reaching up for the dog, who wagged his tail again and positively wriggled with eagerness. Sam thanked his lucky stars he'd had enough sense to let that dog tag along with him. He handed down the dog into the girl's gloved hands and managed to conceal the grimace the movement caused.
"What's your business here, Mr. Bishop?" the sheriff inquired, surprising Sam with an English accent rather than the Texas twang he'd had been expecting.
But he was spared the necessity of a reply as the dog jumped up in Miss Priscilla's arms to lick her face enthusiastically.
"He likes me!" Priscilla said, and giggleda sound that Sam Bishop felt down to his very toes.
"He surely does," Sam said with a smile, though he knew Brookfield was waiting for an answer. "I"
"Say, you wouldn't be the man Nick was expecting, would you? The applicant for the sheriff's job we advertised for?" asked Priscilla's father.
"No, his name was something else," Brookfield said, his gaze no less distrustful than before.
Sam had to think fast. He'd have to have a reason for staying in town while he became acquainted with the enchanting creature who was now holding the dog, especially with the acting sheriff looking at him as if he suspected Sam were here to rob the bank.
"I may not be the man you're expecting," Sam said quickly. "But I did come about the job. I'd be proud to be Simpson Creek's sheriff."
Prissy watched, stroking the affectionate little dog, as shifting emotions played over Nick Brookfield's facesuspicion, skepticism and finally hope.
"Why don't you give him a chance, Nick?" she said, with the familiarity born of knowing Milly Brookfield's husband since the day he, too, had come to town a stranger. It was only fair that he give this stranger a chance, just as he had been given one.
"I'm voting with my daughter. After all, you did say the other fellow was several days overdue," her father put in. "Maybe he's changed his mind about the job."
Nick rubbed the back of his neck. "It's possible. I certainly thought Purvis would be here by now. Have you had any experience as a sheriff, Mr. Bishop?" he said, shifting his cool blue gaze back to the man on the horse.
Prissy wished Nick wouldn't sound so obviously suspicious. Why, Sam Bishop was apt to take offence and ride off before anyone had the chance to get to know himand she did want to get to know this handsome stranger.
She tried to catch Nick's eyeit would have been too obvious if she'd reached around her father to nudge Nick into civility.
"Please, call me Sam," Bishop insisted, reaching out a friendly hand to Nick who, after a moment's hesitation, stepped forward and shook it. "And yes, I've had some experiencebefore the war, I served as a deputy to the sheriff back in Tennessee where I grew up. Lately I was a deputy sheriff in Metairie, just outside of New Orleans."
"And during the war?"
Prissy saw a shadow flash over Sam Bishop's eyes. The war didn't provide too many happy memories for any of those who had served in it.
"I was a blockade runnerI received the cotton that was brought down to Matamoros, just over the border, and took it out in my boat into the Gulf to a larger ship that transported it to England."
"What made you want to leave Louisiana?" Nick asked.
Bishop shrugged. "Tired of Spanish moss and alligators, I reckon. I wanted to see the wide-open spaces of Texas. And then I heard your town needed a sheriff. Mind if I ask what happened to the old one?"
"Sheriff Poteet died in the influenza epidemic we had here this past winter, Mr. Bishop," Prissy said. She felt a strange little tingle when he focused those dark eyes on her.
"Is that right?" he murmured. "I'm real sorry to hear that. It must have been a terrible time."
Prissy nodded, remembering when she and her friend Sarah had nursed Mr. and Mrs. Poteet. The sheriff had perished from the illness, and they'd nearly lost Sarah, too, for she'd caught the infection. Only Dr. Walker's medical skill and Heaven's intervention had saved her.
"Nick, it seems Mr. Bishop's arrival is a godsend," her father said. "I know you need to get back to your ranch, spring being such a busy time and all."
"That's a fact," Nick admitted. "The hands are doing what they can, but what with all the chores, and the baby coming quite soon, I know Milly would feel better if I were at home "
Yet he didn't look happy to be handing over the job, Prissy noticed. She knew him well enough to know it wasn't because Nick Brookfield had relished his role as sheriff. He could have had it permanently with the town's blessing. No, it wasn't that. Prissy sensed he still had some reservations about Bishop.
"I think we should give him the position," her father said. "Subject to council approval, of course, and a probationary period of a month, as we agreed upon when we met to discuss Poteet's replacement. The salary's seventy-five dollars a month, Mr. Bishop. I hope that's satisfactorywe're only a small town, you understand. But it includes your quarters, your meals at the hotel, and stabling and feed for your horse."
Sam nodded. "Sounds just fine, Mr. Mayor."
"Then the job's yours. Why don't you show him the jail and his quarters, Nick, then show him around town?"
"Thank you," Sam said, shaking Priscilla's father's hand. "I'll do my best to show I'm the right man for the job."
Nick unpinned the badge and handed it to Sam, his face inscrutable. Prissy watched as Sam pinned it on.
"I suppose I'd better give you your dog back, then," Prissy said, extending the wiggling mongrel. "Welcome to Simpson Creek, Sheriff Bishop. I'm sure we'll see you around town."