Lady Lavender - Page 25

As he watched she leaned against the slat sides of the wagon and wiped her forehead with a corner of her apron. Manette offered her mother a glass jar of water, and Jeanne tipped her head back and gulped like a field hand. Then she patted her daughter’s knee and turned back to pick up her scythe.

Wash spurred the horse forward to climb the hill to speak to the crew. “Cain’t do it, Colonel. We gotta finish today. Gotta be at another site tomorrow, by order of Mr. Sykes. Can’t afford to get behind, even by one day. You know how it is.”

“I hate to ask this, boys, but could you work real slow? Give the lady time enough to gather in her crop.”

Hell would be no worse than this, Jeanne thought. The merciless sun had beat down all morning, and now it was so hot even the sparrows were silent. She wiped her sweat-sticky face, glanced up to see how far the clearing crew had advanced, and sucked in her breath. The men were almost halfway down the hill to her field.

She swiveled toward the sound of horses’ hooves.

She recognized Rooney’s horse, but the rider… The rider turned out to be Wash. “Mon Dieu,” she muttered. “What next?”

He had not shaved, but his dark-shadowed face made her heart jump. Without a word he dismounted, took a hand scythe from his saddlebag and set to work beside her cutting lavender.

Holy Mary, forgive me for kicking him in the stomach yesterday. Truly she had never known a man such as this.

A few minutes later the tall man in faded jeans tramped past her on his way to the wagon with a load of lavender balanced in his arms. “Smells good,” was all he said.

She straightened. “Is Spanish lavender,” she said in a purposely matter-of-fact tone.

They spoke no other words from that moment on, just cut and gathered, cut and gathered as fast as they could wield their scythes. By midafternoon the wagon bed was only half-full and Jeanne began to wonder how she could keep going. The intense heat was so suffocating she could scarcely breathe. Clouds of tiny gnats swarmed around her face and her hair felt itchy, as if something were crawling on her scalp.

Three rows over, Wash worked on, in spite of the stifling air, the gnats, even the bees. He must be as miserable as she was. He’d brought two canteens of water; every so often he dribbled some out and sloshed it over his face. Once he poured some on his shirttail, strode over to where she was working and wiped the cool, wet fabric over her face.

Wash shot a glance at Jeanne. Her face was gray with exhaustion but she gave him a wobbly smile and his heart floated free in his chest. It would be a real horse race to finish the field before the clearing crew reached it, but he knew he had to try.

Twilight fell. The clearing crew had reached the bottom of the hill and were moving relentlessly toward the lavender field. They labored on, heedless of the fading light and buzzing insects until Jeanne gave a yelp. She’d swiped at a section of lavender and hit her foot instead. Good thing she was wearing boots.

By dusk, the field was almost completely mowed, and the clearing crew was bearing down on them. All that remained were a few square yards of growth near what had been the cabin. Wash knew she’d want every last frond of the stuff; he stood up and signaled the clearing crew to take a break.

They worked until they couldn’t see clearly in the growing darkness, and Wash lit a kerosene lamp and walked the valley perimeter. Every last stalk of lavender had been cut. It made him feel so good he laughed out loud.

Jeanne staggered toward him, her scythe dragging from her hand. “What is funny?” she demanded.

“We’re finished,” he said.

“The entire crop?” Her voice turned hoarse. “I cannot believe it is true.”

Wash nodded. “Every last bush.” He pointed to the wagon, where a tower of lavender stalks rose from the bed and spilled over the sides. “C’est t-très beau,” he stammered.

She stared at him, then laughed. “Votre francais c’est très mal.”

“Shouldn’t have switched to Latin, I guess. More use for a lawyer than French.” Wash spread his saddle blanket over the loaded wagon and roped it down tight. Then he climbed onto the bench and shoved over to his left to make room for Jeanne and Manette. He drove the creaking wagon up to the ridge. At the top, the clearing crew waited with General, Rooney’s horse, and Jeanne’s gray mare. They tied the horses to the tailgate.

The crew rode on ahead, and the wagon rattled and groaned its way into town. Every few minutes Jeanne reached one hand behind her and stroked the fronds of lavender.

Watching her made his throat tight.

He drove the wagon straight into the livery stable, nodded to the liveryman and jockeyed it into place next to the smaller wagon they had filled yesterday with Jeanne’s belongings. Manette lay sound asleep with her head in Jeanne’s lap. She smoothed her daughter’s red-gold hair and for a moment the three of them sat in silence. The warm air smelled of horses and fresh straw. And lavender.

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