Foot by burning foot they beat down the flames, slapping wet towels against smoking boards, and stomping out bits of smoldering grass with their feet. Wash’s bad leg ached, and the muscles in his arms stung. Jeanne showed no sign of slowing down, even though her slim arms must hurt like hell. Gasping to draw in clean air, they worked toward each other from the corners of the cabin.
At last the flames died, and the billows of acrid smoke began to dissipate. Trembling with exertion, they stumbled to a halt facing each other.
Jeanne’s cheeks and forehead were streaked with soot and ash. Her denim skirt showed scorch marks where the hem had been singed. Lucky her petticoats hadn’t caught fire! Her hair had come unpinned and now tumbled haphazardly about her shoulders. To Wash, she looked beautiful.
Dazed and red-eyed, they stared at each other. “Close call,” Wash grated. He gathered up the ruined blankets and towels and tossed them in a heap beside the porch. “Sorry about your sheets ’n things.”
“I am not sorry,” Jeanne announced, her voice raspy. “A few quilts—it is a small price to pay for my home.”
“Rooney thinks someone started the fire on purpose. You see anyone around earlier this morning?”
She looked up, her face white. “Non. But I do see a horse, on the ridge.”
“Non, the horse only. Its color was strange…like the red glints in Manette’s hair.”
Montez. Had to be. By God he would pay for this.
Rooney clattered his horse down the hillside, a still-chattering Manette secure on his lap. He dismounted at the gate, lifted the girl down and sent her pelting down the path to her mother.
“You’re all dirty, Maman!”
Jeanne knelt to clasp her tight. “Oui, chou-chou, I have been working hard.”
Manette’s blue eyes widened. “You need a bath. And Mr. Wash, too—he’s even dirtier than you are!”
Rooney guffawed. “Observant little miss you got there, Miz Nicolet. Didja know she likes frogs?”
Jeanne stood up, Manette’s arms still circling her waist.
“Thank you for keeping her safe, Mr.—?”
“Rooney to my friends.” He grinned at her, then glanced at Wash. “Ya find out who set it? Wasn’t a trace of anybody up on the ridge.”
“Yeah, I know who it had to be. Tell the sheriff to put out a warrant for Joe Montez.”
“Sure thing, Wash.” His graying eyebrows waggled. “You stayin’ here?”
Jeanne shot Wash a look, but he couldn’t read it. He met her gaze and held it. “Thought I’d help clean up. Catch the mare and…maybe round up the chickens.”
“Right.” Rooney’s tone betrayed his skepticism, but he saluted smartly and about-faced. “See ya tomorrow.”
Jeanne jerked upright. “Tomorrow? You will stay here until tomorrow?”
“Thought I would, yes. I don’t want you and Manette to be alone out here. I’ll sleep out on the porch.”
“That is…that is most kind.”
Wash swallowed. That’s not all it was, but he didn’t want to think too hard about it now. He turned his back and strode off the porch. “I’ll round up your mare, Jeanne. Probably didn’t wander too far.”
Her softly spoken “Merci” kicked his heartbeat up a notch. The woman had a voice like an angel. A seductive angel.
He found the mare in a narrow side canyon, munching quack grass. He slipped a rope over its head and led it back to the cabin where Jeanne kept the animal tied up. Wash rubbed it down with a handful of dry grass and hobbled her away from the scorched back wall of the cabin.
The chickens were another matter. Hens clucked from the field of lavender, but as soon as he drove one back to the coop he heard another that he couldn’t see. He recalled there were six in all, but he tramped up and down among the fragrant bushes and couldn’t find a single one.
After a frustrating hour, Jeanne appeared on the porch and motioned to him. “Here,” she said as he mounted the step. She grasped his hand, turned it palm up and opened her fist. Dry corn kernels sprayed over his calluses.
Within twenty minutes, the five remaining hens had pecked their way along the trail of chicken-feed he’d dribbled out of his hand, right up to the coop. He slammed the wooden door after the last one.
Now what? Probably needed the wood box filled.
The wood box sat just outside the cabin door, next to a smaller box for kindling. Both containers were chock-full.
“Good Lord,” he muttered. “This woman is damn self-sufficient. She sure doesn’t need any help from me.”