Lady Lavender - Page 35

In the livery stable Jeanne gathered up an armload of lavender fronds from the towering wagon load they had brought in two days ago and carefully laid them in an empty chickenfeed sack Carl Ness had given her. She calculated quickly in her head. There would be enough for five or six wreaths plus six or eight small sachet bags.

“And now,” she announced to Manette, “we need some ribbon and…”

But Manette was down on her hands and knees scrabbling through the straw looking for crawling things. Jeanne shivered at the thought of her daughter’s precious Spider Box. She watched her daughter’s diligent search and realized that she must keep herself busy today, as well. So busy she would have no time to think about last night.

She sucked in a long breath. His scent still clung to her skin, and in her belly a flock of birds soared up into flight.

She studied Manette’s busy fingers among the weeds. Very busy. She must make at least seven wreaths. Perhaps even eight.

They paid a quick visit to Verena Forester, the dressmaker, where Jeanne bargained for lengths of ribbon, a warm coat for Manette and enough brushed sateen for the sachet bags. At last she hoisted the sack of lavender up behind her mare and set off leading the animal with Manette’s hand clasped in hers. Her daughter’s other hand was closed tight over some six-legged treasure. Jeanne let out a long sigh.

Soon…very soon, she and Manette would once more be safe and snug in a house of their own. She straightened her shoulders, adjusted her drooping straw sunhat and marched forward. To accomplish that she would have to work very hard.

C’est la vie. She had worked hard before.

Wash reined his horse to a halt at his first glimpse of the huge black steam engine puffing along on the last three hundred yards of newly laid iron track. Not bad, he thought. From Colville to Smoke River in five days; that meant laying four miles of track a day. Better than the last set of shovel-monkeys Sykes had sent—twenty-five burly Irish farmers fresh off the boat.

A whistle screeched and a low rumbling began in the three-deck rolling bunkhouse pushed by the train engine. At least fifty men with long black pigtails and odd dishpan-shaped hats swarmed out of the structure. Most of them looked like they weighed around one hundred pounds with their floppy blue trousers soaking wet.

These were his graders? His track-laying crew? He groaned in disbelief.

The head man sped forward on skinny legs, keeping well clear of General’s hooves. Wash nodded at the man. “Sykes sent you Celestials after all, I see.”

Snapping black eyes peered up at him. “Good yes, boss. Sykes very smart man. Chinese man work good, you will see.” He stuck out a thin arm. “My name Sam.”

Wash grunted, then reached down to clasp the man’s small hand. He sure as hell would see. Sykes spoke highly of the Chinese work gangs that were beginning to grade the Central Pacific roadbed out of Sacramento. These were the best pick-and-shovel men, so Sykes had insisted. Talk was cheap. The work would tell the story. And if Sykes was wrong, he’d send his Chinese back so fast their pigtails would stand on end.

More diminutive men poured out of the three-tier bunkhouse, forming up in groups behind a single pajama-clad leader. Wash was mildly surprised at the level of organization.

“Have these men had breakfast?”

Sam nodded and grinned. “Oh, yes, boss. Eat very early, before sunup.”

“Where’s your dining car?”

“No need. Cook work at stove inside.” Sam tipped his head toward the bunkhouse. “All eat, all finished. We work now.” He grinned up at Wash, his dark, intelligent eyes shining.

Maybe Sykes knew a thing or two after all. He dismounted and handed the reins to a young Chinese boy who darted forward.

“Lin will take good care of horse,” Sam assured him. “Now, we go to work?”

“Yeah, now we go to work. I need a roadbed cleared into that valley ahead. The far end has a fair grade, but this end’s pretty level, mostly brush, some trees.” He paused to gauge the Chinese man’s reaction.

Sam’s head hadn’t stopped nodding since Wash opened his mouth. “All understood, boss. We clear land.”

He barked an order in Chinese to the assembled workers and they raced for the flat railcar behind the bunkhouse and returned with shovels and picks, mauls and axes. Again they formed themselves into ranks.

Sam was beaming. “Ready, boss?”

Wash had to smile. If they were half as efficient at clearing a six-foot-wide swath through Green Valley as they were lining up, they’d be worth their weight in gold.

“Let’s go, then.”

The Chinese followed him at a respectful distance until he reached the valley edge, where he stopped and pointed. “Start right here.”