Her smile faded and her eyes suddenly looked distant. “About the land and the railroad I will do nothing.”
“Nothing! You’ve gotta do something, ma’am. My survey crew will be here day after tomorrow.”
She stood up slowly. “That may be, Monsieur Washington. But no matter who comes, I do not intend to leave.”
Wash shot out of his chair. “Wait a minute! You can’t just—”
“But yes,” she interrupted in a soft but determined voice. “Yes, I can. Come, Manette. We will go home now.”
Five minutes later he watched the woman and her daughter clop back down the street atop the scrawny gray mare. Sure was a sorry excuse for a horse.
Sure is one stubborn woman!
And maybe he was a sorry excuse for a railroad lawyer. He’d ended up doing the wrong thing for the right reason and his insides felt like they were splitting in two. One half of him wanted to bundle Jeanne and her daughter up and drag them off that scanty plot she called a farm. The other half wanted to help her fight off the railroad, like David and Goliath.
There was a third part somewhere in there, too—a part of him that wanted to hold her close and smell her hair.
The horse disappeared in a puff of gray dust and Wash headed for the Golden Partridge. He had a headache that felt like the town blacksmith was hammering on his temples.
Rooney stood, his back to the bar, his boots casually crossed at the ankle. “Been waitin’ for ya, Wash.”
“Yeah?” Wash positioned himself next to his friend and hooked one heel over the bar rail.
“One reason is that French lady. That’s a mighty weak-looking horse for carrying all her household baggage out of that canyon.”
“It’s all she’s got. What’s the other reason?”
Rooney turned around so they stood shoulder to shoulder and hunkered over the shiny mahogany bar top. “Don’t rush me, Wash. I’m thinkin’ how to say what I got to say.”
Wash dropped his forehead onto his hand. “I’m dead tired, Rooney. Just spit it out.”
Rooney lowered his voice. “You see those gents over there by the window?”
Wash turned his head to glance at the men. Mean-looking types. One was paunchy, with a ragged canvas shirt and shifty black eyes; the other was well-built, dark-skinned and silent. He had a crescent-shaped scar under one eye. Both wore double holsters.
A third man sat near the other two. This one looked young and fresh-faced, with a hat so new it didn’t yet have creases in it.
“That kid looks so clean he’d squeak,” Wash said under his breath. “The other two look like a couple of hired guns.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” Rooney muttered.
“Yeah.” Rooney raised his thick, salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “That’s your new railroad survey crew.”
Wash’s hand froze around his shot glass. Those grungy-looking men would be hanging around Miz Nicolet’s farm all day? Watching her feed her chickens? Watching her hang up her laund—
“Oh, God,” he murmured.
Rooney nodded. “That’s what I thought, too.”
The next morning Wash and Rooney escorted the rough-looking survey crew out to Green Valley. The three men unpacked their equipment and set to work at the far end of the valley. Under Wash’s watchful eye, they worked their way toward the far end of the valley. The closer they got to the cabin, the more uneasy Wash felt.
He didn’t want Miz Nicolet’s rifle to stop his crew. He also didn’t want the men getting too near the pretty French woman. He didn’t usually carry a weapon, but today he’d strapped on his Colt and dropped a handful of extra bullets into his leather vest pocket.
No matter how unsavory the men looked, now that they were on the job, the crew seemed to know what it was doing. Handy, the paunchy man, set up his leveling gauge and peered through the sight. Dark-haired, unshaven Joe Montez—the one Rooney had pegged as a hired gun—marched off paces through the lavender field with the measuring chain. The blond kid, Lacey, held the ranging pole while the paunchy one at the leveling gauge sent hand signals, waving the other two farther up the hillside.
The men gradually worked their way closer to the Nicolet cabin. Wash squinted at the structure. Hell and damn, it sat smack in the center of what would soon be a steel railroad track.
The spiral of blue smoke from the stone chimney told him Jeanne was at home, even though he’d not seen her all morning. He left Rooney in charge of the crew and walked his horse through the lavender field, dismounted and tramped up the path toward the cabin. It was close to noon. The sun poured down on the lush purple fields and his elbows brushed the spikes as he moved through the tall plants. Be kinda nice to smell like lavender when he saw her instead of horse and sweat. In the next instant he wondered why it mattered.