“Not working late. The crew finished early. I let ’em go around sunset.”
“Well, they ain’t back yet. The blond kid rode in ’bout an hour ago, but Handy and that tall Spaniard weren’t with them.”
An icicle clunked into Wash’s belly. Dammit, were they loitering out in Green Valley? Near Jeanne’s farm?
Wash pushed the swinging door back open and peered down the street. A puff of dust signaled a rider about half a mile from town. “That’s probably them now,” he muttered.
Handy clopped into town on his sorrel, headed straight for the saloon, and tied up his mount next to General.
“Where’s Montez?” Wash yelled.
“Dunno,” the big-bellied man replied. “Went back for somethin’.”
Wash’s heart dropped into his boots. “For what?”
Handy jerked his head up at the steely tone of Wash’s voice.
“Dunno, boss. Have to ask him when he gets in.”
Wash had a pretty good idea what would keep Montez hanging around Green Valley. He hoisted his saddle onto one shoulder and bumped past Handy just as the burly man punched through the saloon doors.
Rooney poked his head out the door. “What about yer supper? Rita’s savin’ a big steak for ya.”
Wash tossed the saddle over General’s back and bent to tighten the cinch. “Tell Rita I’ll eat it later.” He mounted, turned the animal back toward the valley and dug in his spurs.
He rode as fast as he could, but it was full dark by the time he reached the lookout from where he could survey the farm. The entire valley was shrouded in black as thick as a velvet curtain save for a soft glow of light from inside the tiny cabin. He pulled up and listened for hoofbeats.
Nothing. He could hear chickens scrabbling in the crude shelter Jeanne had nailed together, and now and then a spurt of melody from an evening song sparrow somewhere in the maples. All seemed peaceful save for intermittent rustling among the lavender bushes. Rabbits, maybe?
But no Montez. He peered through the darkness at the trail that led down to the gate, but he could see nothing. He’d best pick his way down the hillside and check the—
A thin cry floated up to him from the direction of the cabin. Then another, this one sounding choked off.
He kicked General hard and let the gelding find its own footing through the blackness. At the bottom where the trail leveled off he didn’t stop to dismount; he jumped the horse over the gate and pounded up the narrow path toward the cabin.
In the circle of light from the cabin Wash spied the back of a tall, dark-shirted man bent over something. A blue gingham ruffle poked from between his legs. A woman’s choked cry stopped his breath, and then he heard the crack of a palm against flesh. The man twisted away, one hand pressed to his flaming cheek.
“Ow! You hellcat…”
Sounded like she’d lambasted him a good one. Wash couldn’t help but congratulate her.
Montez lunged at her. “You think I am not good enough for you, is that it? Because my skin is not white, like yours?”
Wash sprinted onto the porch, caught the attacker’s thick shoulder and spun the man toward him. Then he smashed his fist into the side of the Spaniard’s jaw.
Montez dropped like a felled tree and rolled off the porch. Wash peered over the edge at the crumpled form on the ground and tried not to smile. Out cold.
“Is… Is he killed?” Jeanne quavered from the cabin doorway.
“Naw.” He turned toward her. She was trembling so violently the ruffles down the front of her gingham shirtwaist fluttered. She gazed at him blankly.
“Jeanne.” He stepped in front of her to get her attention.
“Did he hurt you?”
“Oui. H-he take my wrist, so.” She extended her arm. A crimson handprint bloomed on her skin.
“Manette? Is she safe?”
The ghost of a smile flitted across Jeanne’s lips. “Oui. She hides in the ch-chicken house. I send her there when that m-man knocks on my door.”
Wash stared at her. She might be shaken, but she’d showed admirable presence of mind in the face of danger. He’d seen army lieutenants fold up under less.
But her face was still white as chalk, and suddenly she sank onto the porch in a froth of white petticoats.
“Oh,” she exclaimed. “Forgive me, but I c-cannot…”
Wash extended his hand. He pulled her up so close to him he could smell the spicy-sweet scent of her hair and an odd, hungry feeling burrowed into his gut.
Damn. He ached to pull her into his arms. Something about this woman made him aware of how lonely he was. How hungry he was.
He wanted her. Hell’s bells, any man would want her. But with Jeanne it was more than that. He liked her looks, her spirit. Liked her oddly inflected words. He liked talking to her. Jumping jennies, he just plain liked the woman.