Page 19 of Lady Lavender

“Hell, yes,” Wash snapped. “A man gets his heart busted into little pieces only once. After that, he’s damn gun-shy.”

His mouth stuffed with pancakes, Rooney merely nodded. “So,” he said after swallowing, “what’re you gonna do?”

Wash pushed back his chair and stood up. “I’m going over to the bank, that’s what I’m going to do.”

He settled his hat and tramped down the short hallway and out the front door. His Stetson still smelled faintly of ground coffee beans.

Chapter Eight

Rooney pushed his way through the bank lobby filled with ranchers and their wives, some in fancy dresses and big, showy hats. The chatter fell silent at the entrance of the large, craggy-looking man. He shouldered his way to the teller’s cage.

“Wash!” he bellowed. “Wash Halliday, where are you?” His shout echoed off the wall and he pushed his way past the storekeeper’s wife, Linda-Lou Ness.

“Well, I never!” she huffed. She turned away with a sniff loud enough to frighten a horse. Just one person met him with a smile, and that was Zinna Langfelder, the undertaker’s spinster daughter.

“Good morning, Mr. Cloudman.”

Rooney spared her a nod and pressed on through the grillwork gate. “Wash! We got trouble.”

Wash was on his feet in a heartbeat, laying a hand on his partner’s muscled shoulder to slow him to a stop. “What’s wrong?”

“Smoke! Don’tcha smell it? Comin’ from the west, out near Green Valley.”

Wash went cold all over. Jeanne’s cabin!

Half an hour later he reined up on the cliff overlooking Jeanne’s cabin and her lavender crop. From what he could see, the source of the gray-black smoke was either the chicken coop or the back side of the cabin. Or both.

“Must’ve been set on purpose,” Rooney yelled. “Wind’ll spread it to the trees, and the whole valley will go up.”

Wash pounded down the steep trail, cursing under his breath. He didn’t care whether it had been set or not; he cared only that the twelve-foot flames now licking one corner of Jeanne’s cabin didn’t swallow the small structure completely.

But what does it matter? The cabin was going to be torn down anyway when the clearing crew arrived. Sooner or later, Jeanne would have to get out.

But not this way!

A slim figure in a blue denim work skirt was clawing open the chicken coop door so the hens could scatter away from the fire. “Shoo!” she shouted. Waving her arms, she advanced on the clucking birds. “Shoo, I tell you!”

She straightened the instant she saw him at the gate. Wash dropped from his mount and started to run, Rooney close behind him. “Manette?” he yelled.

“Under the porch!”

He stooped, then went to his knees and scrabbled under the wood planking with one arm. His fingers brushed something soft, a girl’s pinafore, maybe. He grabbed a handful and yanked.

Out tumbled Manette, dusty but grinning, a tiny green frog in her fist. Wash scooped her up and thrust the squirming girl into Rooney’s arms. “Get her out of here.”

Rooney carried the girl to his horse and headed up the steep canyon trail. The last thing Wash saw was Manette’s rosy face turned up to the gruff horseman who held her securely in front of him. She was talking, lifting her frog so Rooney could admire it.

God help him, Wash thought with a little jerk in his heart. Rooney hated frogs.

He sensed Jeanne at his elbow and pivoted. “Get some blankets,” he ordered. “Towels, anything.”

She shoved her wool shawl into his hands and streaked through the open cabin door.

The fire was spreading. From the chicken coop to the side wall of the cabin, Wash could see nothing but greedy flames. He plunged toward the thickest smoke and attacked the fire with Jeanne’s shawl.

No use. He beat at the flames, but the wool fiber began to smolder almost immediately, and the next thing he knew he was flailing away at the fire with a scrap of burning fabric. It smelled like scorched onions.

Then Jeanne was beside him, her arms so full of bedding and dishtowels she could scarcely see over the top. “Here.” She dropped the load at his feet and grabbed the blanket on top. Wet, he noted. Smart girl. She had soaked everything under the kitchen spigot.

Without speaking, they whacked at the flames, beating the wet blankets against them in an uneven rhythm and stamping out rings of fire that ignited in the grass until they were soot-smeared and out of breath. Sparks had nibbled holes in all the blankets except for one bath towel that burst into flames in Jeanne’s hands.

Smoke engulfed them. Wash could hear Jeanne coughing, and he dragged her upright and wrapped his bandanna over her nose and mouth. Then he ducked his own head under an embroidered tea towel and picked up his fire-singed blanket.

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