Sisters of Mercy Flats Online

One

July 1863

Houston, Texas

Best lookin’ herd of beef I’ve seen this side of the Colorado!” A.J. Donavan knocked the dust from his hat and then pitched it onto the bar. “Texas Longhorns are a scroungy-looking lot, but this herd is prime hoof.”

A three-bladed overhead fan in The Silver Slipper labored to stir the midday heat as Donavan signaled to the bartender for another shot. Turning to the cowboy standing next to him, he asked, “Got any idea who owns the herd?”

Ealy Moore turned his eyes to the ceiling pensively. “Nope.”

The bartender eyed the cattleman as he set a shot glass of whiskey in front of him. “You in the market for beef, stranger?”

“I’d be interested in buying that particular herd,” A.J. admitted. Tossing the drink down, he motioned for another one. “I’ve been on the trail for over a month now and I’m dry as a tick feather.”

“Don’t guess it would be too hard to find out who owns the cows.” The bartender lifted the bottle to refill the glass. “My guess is they belong to one of those drovers who were in here round about noon. They were bragging about bringing in a big herd.”

“Know where the men went?”

“Said they were going over to the hotel for a bath and a shave and then they were gonna get skunk drunk—” The man’s voice faded when a shadow fell across the doorway of the bar.

The room’s occupants glanced up to see three nuns standing in the entryway, their hands resting lightly on the heavy gold crosses that hung around their necks.

The men gaped at the sight. A reverent hush had suddenly enveloped the room. The sisters were young and exceptionally comely. Not remarkable, but it was noteworthy to find such rare, wholesome beauty hidden beneath dark habits.

The women remained in the doorway, their gazes moving slowly about the room, pausing momentarily on the table where four men with cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths were engaged in a game of jacks high. When they spotted the women they quickly folded their hands and crushed their smokes. Overhead a fly droned.

Moving with somber dignity the women glided across the room, their black habits brushing quietly along the wooden floor. The watering hole was near empty this afternoon. The earlier drinkers had gone about their business, and the evening crowd wouldn’t be in for a while.

The air in the room was close; silence stretched. Others around the bar stood, glasses posed in midair, watching as the women approached.

Pausing in front of A.J., the middle sister spoke. “I understand you are interested in purchasing our cattle.” Her soft voice was peaceful, befitting her calling.

A.J. straightened. “Er…those your longhorns, ma’am?”

The sister smiled. “Are you an interested buyer?”

“Well…yes ma’am. I’d be real interested, Sister…”

Sister’s eyes lowered submissively. “Sister Anne-Marie.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am…er, Sister.” He hurriedly wiped the dust from his hand and then extended it to her. “A.J. Donavan’s the name, cattle’s my game.”

Sister’s head lowered. “Mr. Donavan.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Sister. You say you want to sell your herd? That’s mighty fine beef.”

Sister Anne-Marie lifted mournful eyes—a most uncommon shade of jade green. One man murmured. Exquisite. The term fit; still, it fell short of the breathtaking beauty that lay in the emerald pools.

“The cattle are a gift to our mission,” Sister Anne-Marie explained, her hand waving graciously to include the other two women.

“A gift, you say?” Surprise lit his craggy features, apparently astounded that women would be in charge of the sizable herd.

The sisters bowed their heads, murmuring softly in unison, “Praise be to God,” Sister Anne-Marie continued. “If it were not for the kindness shown by others, our mission could not survive.”

The bartender leaned closer. “What mission is that, Sisters?”

“Our Lady of Perpetual Grace.”

He frowned, shaking his head. “Don’t believe I’ve ever heard of it.”

“It is but a small, modest mission,” the nun conceded.

A.J. frowned. “I don’t understand, Sister. If the cattle are a gift—”

“A gift we cannot keep,” Sister Anne-Marie acknowledged. “We have no means to care for such a large herd. Our order is small, and our funds are meager. With the help of some very kind hombres, Sister Amelia, Sister Abigail, and I have managed to bring the herd here to sell. The money we receive from the cattle sale will help see us through the coming winter.”

A.J. shifted to face the other two sisters. They nodded gravely.

“They’re mighty fine-looking animals,” he admitted. “How many head you got there? Twenty-five, twenty-six hundred?”

“No sir. Only twenty-four hundred thirty-three