A Match Made in Texas

By: Mary Connealy

Mary Connealy & Regina Jennings & Carol Cox

Chapter 1


TEXAS PANHANDLE

SUMMER 1893

Neill Archer sighed and slouched a bit in the saddle when he caught his first glimpse of Dry Gulch. Another dusty, dirt-colored town in the middle of nowhere. And to think when he first left his family’s ranch two years ago, he’d hungered for wide-open spaces. What he wouldn’t give to be hemmed in by those big, beautiful Archer pines right about now. But he hadn’t earned his right to return to them. Not yet.

Straightening his spine, he clicked his tongue and urged his sturdy roan forward. A new town—no matter how dusty—meant new opportunities and the possibility of work. He’d left home with a goal, and he’d not falter in his pursuit of it—not when he was so close to his target.

The deep bong of a church bell reverberated through the crisp morning air, drawing Neill down Dry Gulch’s main street. Townsfolk trudged along boardwalks on either side of him, past a general store, a bank, and even a diner. Maybe Dry Gulch had more to offer than he’d first thought.

A wagon, its bed overflowing with a passel of young’uns spit shined and Sunday ready, rolled ahead of him. The oldest girl smiled shyly up at him as he came alongside. Neill tipped his hat in response, which set the boys to hootin’ and hollerin’ and the younger girls to gigglin’. The poor gal turned apple red and tried to hide beneath the brim of her bonnet. Yet she managed a bit of well-aimed retribution when the toe of her shoe collided rather squarely with the length of the loudest boy’s thigh.

Neill hid his grin and nudged Mo into a trot, taking him past the wagon before the squabble escalated to a level that required parental interference. He and his brothers used to tease and tussle like that, too. Of course, there hadn’t been any parents to interfere, so there’d been more than one occasion when a good-natured wrestling match spiraled into a fistfight. But even in those cases, the family bond never wavered. They were brothers—brothers who would stand together no matter what trouble came calling.

He missed that security, the assurance that someone always had his back. But then, that was part of the reason he’d left. He needed to prove to himself, and to his brothers, that he was his own man, able to make his way in the world without them breaking everything in for him first.

Crossing into the churchyard, Neill guided Mo over to where the other horses stood tethered near some cedar shrubs, nibbling at the few tufts of grass that thrust up from the hard-packed earth. He dismounted, pulled his Bible from his saddlebag, and gave Mo a fond pat on the neck before striding toward the church steps.

It was still early, so people were milling around outside, visiting with friends and neighbors while children ran circles around the periphery, releasing their excess energy before they were confined to a pew. Neill inserted himself among a group of men and quickly made an introduction.

“Neill Archer,” he said, offering each man his hand in turn. “Fine town you got here. Gives a man hope he might find work with so many folks about.”

A portly gentleman in a fine gray suit eyed him speculatively, though not unkindly. “What kind of work you looking for, son?”

Son? Neill bit back his distaste for the term. Son, kid, boy—he’d been defined by those terms all his life. He was twenty-eight years old, for crying out loud. Shouldn’t he have outgrown such monikers by now?

But getting riled wouldn’t help him find work, so Neill shrugged off his pique and addressed the man who’d offered the question. “I’ve done a bit of everything, really. Ranch hand, cattle drover . . . I’ve laid track for the railroad, put up windmills, built barns, repaired roofs, dug wells.”

The sound of an indrawn breath behind him drew Neill’s head around. A willowy blond woman jerked her head away the instant his gaze landed on her, but he’d caught a glimpse of interest lurking in her light blue eyes before she’d shuttered them.

He turned back to the men and grinned. “I’m open to any honest labor with a decent wage attached.”

The men returned his grin with genuine warmth and nods of understanding.

“Old man Johnson might need some help around his place,” one of the men suggested. “His gout’s been acting up, and he ain’t been able to finish fencin’ off that back pasture like he wanted.”

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