Lady Lavender - Page 24

“Don’t make jokes, Rooney.”

“Creepin’ crickets, man. Wasn’t a joke. She musta’ finally heard what you been saying all along, and she caved in.”

Wash raised his head enough to glare at his partner. “That woman never ‘caves in.’”

Rooney busied himself pointing out to the bartender a bottle of scotch whiskey he fancied. “That bad, huh? Well, ya know what the Comanche say—‘women and cats do as they please.’”

Wash didn’t bother to answer. The less he thought about Jeanne Nicolet the sooner his railroad track would go down. Then he’d move on. One thing he liked about working for the Oregon Central—you never spent too much time in one town. There was always another site to scope out along Grant Sykes’s planned route. Another clearing crew, another bunch of track layers.

Rooney signaled the bartender for another and propped his chin on his fists. “Right now you want out of this Smoke River mess, huh? Find a new town with no pretty widows growing lavender?”

“Right now,” Wash said without looking up, “I don’t know what I want.”

“Got you comin’ and goin’, has she?” Rooney chuckled over his shot glass.

“Part of me wants her to be safe. Another part of me wants her to sweat in hell for making me—”

“And,” Rooney added in an amused voice, “another part of you wants to clear out and leave it all behind, like a bad dream.”

Wash groaned. “How’d an old coot like you ever get so damned smart?”

The older man laughed. “This old coot took to a woman once. Got more than I bargained for.”

“She doesn’t have her cabin anymore. The clearing crew is knocking it down.”

“Right. I think it’s prob’ly for the best, don’t you?”

Wash felt his face flush hot. “You do, do you?”

“Yeah, I do. For one thing, Little Miss can go to school in town. And for another, with the new railroad line, Jeanne can ship her lavender sachets and smelly doodads all over the state.” He shot Wash a sly smile. “Folks in Portland will smell as good as folks here in Smoke River.”

Wash merely grunted. But he kept listening.

“New folks will settle here,” Rooney went on. “Build ranch houses and schools, mebbe a church or two. Ranchers can ship their beef east without drivin’ ’em two hundred miles to a railhead.”


Rooney punched his upper arm. “You told me you went to work for Sykes to do something constructive, to take the taste of killin’ bluebellies and Indians off yer mind.”

“Yeah, that’s true.”

“Well, son, now you’ve made the choice, you pay the price.”

Wash lowered his head. “I’ve uprooted a woman and her child. She has nowhere to go. Sacrificed her crop. Even made a shambles out of trying to be a friend to her.”

“Wise up, Wash. You ain’t tryin’ to be Jeanne’s friend so much as—”

Wash drove his elbow into Rooney’s ribs. The older man grabbed his side, coughed for a long minute, then choked out a sentence that turned Wash’s belly upside-down.

“Ya damn fool! You’re falling in love with her.”

Rooney strolled off to join the poker game at the barroom table, leaving Wash with a lump in his belly as big as a cannonball.

Chapter Ten

“No, Colonel Halliday,” the pinch-faced clerk said. “She’s not here at the hotel. Drove off before sunup with her daughter and an empty wagon.”

Wash stared at the hotel desk clerk. “Wagon?”

“Yes, sir. Wobbly looking old—”

He was out the door of the hotel before the man had finished. He knew instinctively what Jeanne was up to; she would try desperately to harvest her lavender crop before the clearing crew could reach it. He should have planned this better, should have made the clearing crew listen to him yesterday.

At the livery stable, he borrowed Rooney’s roan. The mare wasn’t as fast as his own horse, but he’d left General tied up out in Green Valley where the chicken house had been. He walked the mare outside and squinted up at the sun. Just past noon. He climbed on, dug his spurs into the animal’s flank and prayed to God he wouldn’t be too late.

From the ridge he spotted the pile of boards that had been Jeanne’s cabin and felt a knife rip into his gut. At the upper end of the valley the five-man clearing crew was felling pine trees and slashing their way through the surrounding brush, moving forward toward the spreading lavender field a square foot at a time.

When he spied Jeanne, the knife in his gut twisted. She was deep in the field, bent almost double, cutting the lavender stalks close to the ground with a hand scythe. When she had an armload, she trudged to the wagon parked where the cabin used to be and heaved it up over the side. Manette did a little stomping dance on top of it to tamp the load down. The wagon was one-third full; she’d harvested only about a quarter of her crop.