“I’m not asking anyone to go who’s afraid.”
The sheriff gave him a good looking over. “I imagine you could do a pretty good job of taking care of your own. What about your boys?”
“They’re my brothers. We’re all pretty much alike.”
“That might make it better with the ladies. They attach a lot of importance to family.”
Several male spectators had gathered outside the sheriff’s office. One of them, an ancient coot with a scraggly growth of beard and a sunken mouth which ejected a stream of tobacco juice every few minutes, climbed up on the boardwalk next to the sheriff. He looked too old and thin to stand by himself, but George could see plenty of life dancing in his eyes and in the wicked expression on his face.
The old man laboriously read the sign, looked at George, cackled merrily, then spat a stream of tobacco juice over the head of the nearest spectator.
“Ain’t going to get nobody worth having,” he said.
“Go on, Sulphur Tom, clear off,” the sheriff said. “We don’t need you here putting folks’ backs up.”
“You listen to me,” the old man warned George. “Nothing here you can take to your bed. Not without you’re dead drunk first.”
“Here,” the sheriff interrupted, “I’ll have none of that talk. This here is a respectable young man with a ranch and I dunno how many head of cattle.”
“Don’t matter. Won’t get nobody to stay below the Nueces. Sure to get kilt or lose her scalp.”
“He doesn’t live below the Nueces. Now scram before I put you in jail.”
“Won’t do no good,” the incorrigible said. “I’d slip between the bars.”
As the hour drew near, George wondered if Sulphur Tom might not know more about the women of Austin than the sheriff.
Several women had mixed with the crowd, but none had come forward. Much to George’s chagrin, he found himself searching for Rose. Even more disturbing, he was disappointed when he couldn’t find her. It’s just as well. She’s not the kind of housekeeper you need.
George knew it was true, but the knowledge did nothing to erase his disappointment.
On the dot of five o’clock, the sheriff addressed the crowd. “Anybody here meaning to answer this ad?”
Three women stepped forward.
Only George’s military training prevented him from turning tail on the spot.
“This is Mrs. Mary Hanks,” the sheriff said of the first, a tiny woman who looked old enough to be George’s mother. “She lost her husband during the war.”
“I got seven kids of my own,” Mrs. Hanks announced. “Don’t reckon I’d know the difference if I was to find myself doing for seven more.” But Mrs. Hanks’s appearance, as well as that of two urchins George guessed were part of her brood, told him her idea of “doing” for a family probably didn’t come close to matching his.
Sheriff Blocker turned to the next woman, a strapping blonde of indeterminate age, decidedly unattractive features, and an intimidating ear-to-ear grin. “This is Berthilda Huber. She’s German. Her family died on her this winter.”
“Ya,” Berthilda commented.
“Doesn’t she speak English?” George asked, his calm shaken.
“Nothing you could say in mixed company,” the sheriff explained.
“Ya,” repeated Berthilda.
George turned to the third candidate.
“Peaches McCloud is my name,” the imposing woman announced, stepping forward to speak for herself in a manner George associated more nearly with his commanding officer than a housekeeper. “I’m strong and willing. I’ll cook and clean for as many men as you like, but you come messing with me in the middle of the night, and I’ll put a knife in you.”
The crowd laughed. Some men nudged each other. Several of the women nodded their approval.
George knew he had found exactly what he needed in Peaches—a big, strong woman who would work like a horse and expect nothing in return but a roof over her head.
He didn’t doubt that meals would be ready on time, the house neat as a pin, and the linens freshly laundered every week. Yet the moment he knew he had found what he had come for, he didn’t want her. A woman of Peaches’s insensi-tivity could easily destroy the fragile ties that held his family together.
But where was he to look for someone else? Would things be any better in San Antonio or Victoria or Brownsville?
No. None of those towns had Rose.
George cursed. However much he might be unable to forget her big, brown eyes, he didn’t need Rose. Besides, she wasn’t here. What he needed and wanted had nothing to do with her.