Sam shouted something at the men behind him and they split into teams of four and fell on the brush like locusts.
Sam saluted smartly. “Reach flat part of valley by supper, boss.”
Like hell, Wash thought. But as the morning wore on, the teams of men cut and hacked with more energy than he’d ever seen in a grading crew. They looked like blue-trousered ants chewing their way down the gentle slope.
Only one gentle grade would be needed on this end of the valley, he judged. The route out at the other end of the valley would be much tougher. He’d figure out the gradients tonight after supper at the boardinghouse. Tonight he’d get Rooney to stay out at MacAllister’s place and watch over Jeanne.
You coward, a voice whispered. Right. He didn’t trust himself anywhere near her.
He jerked his attention to a tall pine being cut up into short log lengths. Firewood for the cook, he figured.
Wash helped stack the logs, then watched in disbelief as the small wiry men wielding axes split them in half, then in half again so four chunks of firewood fell away from the axe like an opening flower.
He offered to help stack the logs, but Sam waved him off as a small wooden hand cart appeared, pulled by two Chinese. They trundled the cart right up to the canyon edge and before Wash could blink it was loaded up to the rim with wood and rolling back toward the bunkhouse.
Wash wondered if Sykes knew how little direction his Celestials needed once they understood the task at hand. Of course he knew; that’s why he owned a railroad that was already making money.
At noon, the Chinese cook rang the bunkhouse dinner gong. Wash had no taste for the strange vegetables the crew ate, so he retrieved his horse from the boy, Lin, rode back into town and headed for the hotel dining room. Mrs. Rose served breakfast and supper at the boardinghouse, but no midday meal.
Rita at the hotel dining room greeted him with a broad smile. “Haven’t seen you in a while, Colonel.”
“Been busy, Rita.”
“Mmm-hmm, I heard. Got the Lavender Lady out of Green Valley, didja?”
“Yep, I did.” Out of the frying pan and straight into the fire. He took a table next to the window and fidgeted until the white-aproned waitress brought some coffee.
Rita poured his cup full and plopped down a sugar bowl. “I hear the Lavender Lady’s got no place to live now. Is that true?”
Wash bent his head over the steaming cup. “Pretty much, yeah. She’s camping out at MacAllister’s bunkhouse right now. I feel pretty rotten about—”
“Wouldn’t worry too much, Colonel. Look there.” Rita tipped her gray curls toward the paned glass at his elbow. Across the street Jeanne was leading her gray mare toward the edge of town; the animal was so loaded with a bag of something it looked more like a camel than a horse.
Rita waited. “What’ll you have, Colonel?”
“A large helping of crow,” he grumbled.
“How about a steak ’n some fries instead?”
“Sure.” He hadn’t heard a word the waitress had uttered, but he figured it didn’t matter. He wasn’t the least bit hungry.
Rita propped her hands on her hips and followed the direction of Wash’s gaze. “I wouldn’t worry too much about her,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Yeah? Why not?”
“That’s one smart, hardworkin’ woman. She did just fine before you and the railroad got here. She’ll do just fine when you leave.”
Wash worked on believing that, watching Jeanne march along, her head held high, her steps determined. She paused at the dressmaker’s and grasped her daughter’s hand. Just as she turned toward the shop door, sunlight washed the face beneath the floppy hat. His pulse sped up. Whatever it was she was so intent on this morning, she couldn’t look more beautiful.
He picked up his fork, then put it down. He couldn’t watch. The devil of it was he couldn’t not watch.
With Rita and the platter of steak and potatoes came a dark-faced Rooney. The older man turned a chair backward, settled himself across from Wash and inhaled dramatically.
“Smells good.” He waggled his finger at Rita to order the same. “Izzat breakfast or lunch?”
“Thought so. You never turned up for Miz Rose’s biscuits ’n gravy this mornin’.”
“Grading crew arrived,” Wash offered in explanation. There was more—lots more—but he wasn’t inclined to talk about it.
Rooney nodded slowly. “Oh. Sure.”
Wash swallowed a lump of fried potatoes. “Sykes sent some Chinese. Work like tigers.”
“They take much overseein’?” Rooney’s black-and-gray eyebrows went up and down twice while waiting for an answer.