On the site, it was turning into another scorching day. By noon, Wash and the five-man clearing crew were tired and sweaty and thirsty. By quitting time they were hot and cranky. When they straggled back to town, he bought the men cold beers at the Golden Partridge, had himself a bath and a shave at the barbershop and decided to visit the hotel to check on Jeanne and her daughter.
He was not prepared for the shock he got when he spoke to the desk clerk.
“Sorry, Colonel Halliday, Miz Nicolet checked out this morning.”
“Checked out! Where’d she go?”
“Over to the livery stable, I think. Said something about finding a place to live. That’s the last I saw of her.”
A place to live? What kind of place can she find with not one red cent to her name? He’d sure as hell find out in a hurry. He headed for the livery stable.
One of the wagons—the one loaded with Jeanne’s household items—was gone. The liveryman shrugged and raised his hands, palms up. “How should I know where some stubborn female spends her time?”
Wash started asking questions. Someone at the barbershop had seen her drive off to the south, but it wasn’t until Wash cornered storekeeper Carl Ness in the narrow aisle between men’s boots and seed corn that he learned the truth.
“The MacAllister ranch out on Swine Creek!” Wash thundered. “That old place was run-down six years ago when I left. Unless they’ve discovered gold in the creek, it can’t be worth a hill of beans now.”
“Ain’t worth a hill of beans, Colonel,” Ness replied. “Thad MacAllister’s growin’ barley. Yessir, he’s had four or five years of good crops. In fact, his threshing crew left just last Sunday.”
Wash remounted his horse and headed south, toward Swine Creek. What did Jeanne want with an old used-up barley field? He kicked General into a gallop.
Jeanne saw the man riding toward her across the shorn barley field and her stomach knotted. What would he think about her decision?
Alors, it did not matter what the tall man who bossed the railroad crews thought. What mattered was what she thought. Mr. MacAllister had been surprisingly nice; she and Manette were safe here in his empty bunkhouse, sheltered under a weathered but sturdy roof. She could draw water from the nearby creek and she could cook supper over the potbellied stove. At this point she asked for nothing more.
She watched Wash circle her new abode, a scowl on his face. He dismounted with jerky motions and came striding up to the open door.
“Jeanne!” he yelled.
“I am here,” she said quietly. “Inside.”
He stomped into the tiny building and stopped short in front of her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing out here in MacAllister’s bunkhouse? Where is Manette?”
She met his angry look with a calm voice. At least she hoped it was calm; inside she was most definitely not calm.
“Do not shout, please. Manette is asleep.”
“Where?” he shouted.
She gestured to the upper bunk bed behind her. “She is tired from yesterday. I, too, am tired.” She looked pointedly at the lower bunk where she had just finished laying out sheets and quilts on the thin cornhusk mattress.
Wash glanced at the small stove that sat at one end of the room. She had not quite finished starting the fire; a thin spiral of smoke escaped from the iron firebox into the room.
“Jeanne, you can’t stay here. This is a bunkhouse, for farm crews, not a hotel. Not even a cabin.”
“I know very well what it is,” she shot back. “Monsieur MacAllister offered it and I—I took it.” She did not add that it was only a temporary lodging until she earned some money from her lavender crop. Or that she had swept and scrubbed all morning to get rid of the dirt. Or that she was frightened about the future and uneasy about camping out here alone. Instead she pointed out the gingham curtains she had tacked over the single window and the work skirts and aprons hanging on wooden pegs along one wall.
But she could see by his expression that he was not impressed. From the deepening frown on his tanned face, he was far from approving of what she had done. Well, so be it.
“Jeanne you can’t live out here.”
“I can. And I will.”
“Alone? It’s not safe.”
In answer she lifted the rifle leaning beside the door and aimed it out the door. He shifted quickly away from her line of sight.
“Look, MacAllister isn’t going to keep an eye on you. He lives in the ranch house a mile up the road. He can’t even see the bunkhouse from his place.”
“But I do not want his eye on me.”
“Jeanne, dammit, listen to me. You’re a woman—”