The tall patch of lavender just outside the weathered split rail fence twitched. His horse tensed and stood still, neck quivering. Wash laid a reassuring hand on the mare’s warm hide. “What is it, General? You smell something?”
The black stood motionless, then took a cautious step forward. Something scrabbled inside the little stand of lavender, and the bushy fronds waved back and forth.
“Jackrabbit, maybe,” Wash murmured. He drew the Colt from his waistband. Too close for a rifle; it’d make mincemeat instead of supper.
Another wriggle and Wash fingered the hard metal trigger. “Okay, girl, let’s flush it—” On the word out, he kneed the mare forward and aimed just left of the jiggling patch. If he guessed right, the critter would exit just in front of General’s front hoof.
He waited. The horse settled a leg on the dark earth and a high, thin cry came from the bushes.
“What the devil…”
A small girl popped up, a little sprite of a thing, with two red-gold braids and a grimy white pinafore. “I am not a jackrabbit,” she announced. “I am an anteater.” She stuck out a tiny hand and unfolded it to reveal a smear of squashy-looking black stuff on her palm.
“You eat ants?” Wash asked.
The small hand closed up tight. “They taste like peppermint. I eat grasshoppers, too, but they wriggle. Do you like ants?”
He studied her. Bits of dry grass were stuck in her hair, and her sunburned nose tilted up as she gazed at him. “You gonna shoot me?”
“No, I never shoot little girls. Only jackrabbits.” He started to stuff the Colt back in his holster when a blur of blue hurtled over the fence and plunged through the lavender patch. The spicy scent wafted on the still afternoon air.
The woman planted herself in front of General, breathing hard, and the horse shied.
“Don’t touch her!” she screamed. She grabbed the child and shoved her behind her skirts.
“He wasn’t gonna touch me, Maman,” came the high voice from behind the blue skirt. “He was gonna shoot me.”
The woman’s face went dead white.
“Oh, no, ma’am, I wasn’t going to—”
“He was, too, Maman. He was going to shoot me and eat me for supper!”
“I was not,” Wash protested. “See, I thought she was a jackrab—”
“Do not bother to explain, monsieur. Just turn your horse around and go.”
“Now, wait a minute. Let me ex—”
“Go!” She made shooing motions with the blue apron, her cheeks blazing crimson and her eyes…
Her eyes snapped. Magnificent eyes. Like two shards of teal stone flecked with gray. Eyes that made his heart stutter.
He studied the rest of her as she stood panting before him. Slim. Small waist. Couldn’t tell about her hips under all those petticoats, but her breasts, rising and falling as she struggled for breath, looked lush and rounded. His mouth went dry. It had been a long, long time since he’d admired a woman’s breasts.
He wrenched his gaze from her bosom. Her face had a smattering of freckles over a sun-browned nose and a soft-looking mouth the color of ripe raspberries. A wide-brimmed straw hat hung down her back, the blue ribbon ties knotted about her throat.
Wash cleared his throat. “You Miz Nicolet?”
“That is none of your business,” she snapped. “Leave my land this instant!”
“Ma’am? Just listen a min—”
“And do not come back!”
Wash figured if he stayed until sundown, he’d never get to complete a sentence. “Well, now, I can’t exactly promise—”
The woman spun, scooped her daughter into her arms and tramped away toward the house, taking long strides that kicked up her petticoats to reveal mud-caked black leather work boots. Over her retreating shoulder the little girl grinned at him and waved an ant-stained hand. “Goodbye, monsieur! I hope you find something to eat.”
Something to eat sounded like the balm his shaken confidence needed. Better yet, something to drink. He guessed Rooney would still be dealing cards at the Golden Partridge; maybe he could rustle up a steak and some beans before they figured out his partner was cheating.
“Come on, General.” He headed the gelding down the narrow wagon trail toward town. “Wouldn’t be the first time a woman hasn’t liked what she saw of me right off,” he muttered to his horse. “But sure as hell’s the first time a woman’s ever plain run me off. Not good for a man’s spirit.”
From the double swinging door of the Golden Partridge saloon, Wash took in the cobwebby walls, then the expanse of tobacco-sticky plank floor. Cowpunchers crowded three-deep around the poker table, but the barroom was so smoky he didn’t see Rooney right off. When he did spot him, Wash wished he hadn’t.