“Just as well, Jeanne. This is grown-up talk.”
She ignored her coffee and fisted her hands in her lap. “About Wash?”
“Yup. I’ve known Wash a long time. Scouted for him in the army out of Fort Kearney, and when he decided to come back to Oregon to work for the railroad, I came with him. He grew up here, ya know.”
Jeanne studied the man’s sun-lined face. “Where was your home, Rooney?”
“Comanche country. Up around Kansas. Now my home is wherever we travel. See, Wash risked his life to save mine once in a skirmish with the Sioux, and I swore then I’d protect him, no matter where he went.”
“And now he has come back to Smoke River?” Jeanne questioned.
Rooney resumed his place on the reversed chair at the table. “Well, not right away. He had some bad feelings ’bout the place, but by the time he’d hired on with Sykes and the Oregon-Central, he’d pretty much got over it.”
Jeanne felt her entire body go still. “What was ‘it’?”
Now she would find out about the strange reticence she had sensed in Wash from the beginning? About whatever burden he carried inside that colored his sometimes harsh attitude toward her.
“Well, first he was wounded in the War. He spent some awful years in a Confederate prison, and it takes a man some time to feel normal after somethin’ like that. For a long while he was mighty withdrawn, like he’d crawled into a shell.”
Rooney shot her a look. “You understand what I’m talkin’ about? He was all busted up inside.”
“I do understand, yes.” She unknotted her hands and sipped her cooling coffee. “It must have been terrible for him.”
Rooney chuckled, but when she met his gaze, his eyes were dark with pain. “Naw, it got ‘terrible’ lots earlier, before he left Smoke River and joined the army. There was this girl, see. Laura Gannon. She jilted him, ran off with another man right before their weddin’, just before he left for the War. Broke him up somethin’ awful…things pretty much went downhill from there.”
Jeanne wasn’t sure she wanted to hear any more, especially about Laura Gannon. Something close to jealousy pinched her heart.
But Rooney went right on talking. “Wash wasn’t himself for years after that. After he got out of that Yankee prison, he drank a lot and crawled right back into that shell he’d been buildin’. To make a long story short, Jeanne, when the railroad sent him to Smoke River, Wash carried a girl-shaped hole in his heart and a chip on his shoulder the size of a railroad tie.”
Jeanne frowned. “What means ‘chip on his shoulder’?”
Rooney smoothed his hand over his beard. “Means he’s kinda mad at the world and everybody in it. ’Specially women. Attractive women. Like you.”
She sat without speaking for a long time. What could she say? Wash was scarred inside. Likely he did not want involvement with her; he was still too vulnerable.
“I see,” she breathed. “I understand what you are trying to tell me, Rooney. I would guard my heart against this man, but it is too late.”
Rooney just grinned. “Kinda figured that out, Jeanne. Just wanted you to know the why of his behavior. It’s got nothin’ to do with you personal-like.”
“Au contraire. It has everything to do with me. I think Wash has taken a step toward life again, and I think he didn’t expect to. Perhaps he did not even want to. He is a brave man when it comes to being a man—managing his railroad crews, fighting a bad man like Monsieur Montez to protect me.”
“Yeah, you got that right.”
Jeanne swallowed and went on. “But he is perhaps not so brave when it comes to a woman? Is it… I mean, do you think that may come with time?”
“Dunno. It gets complicated when it’s a woman like you, a woman who’s right pretty, sure, but one he really likes underneath.” He swirled the coffee dregs in his cup around and around. “I just plain don’t know.”
“Oh.” She blinked hard to keep the hot tears from spilling over.
“Now, I’ve always been a bettin’ man,” Rooney said. “Can’t hardly walk past a card game or a horse race… I’d ride a hundred miles for a good horse race.”
Afraid her voice would crack, Jeanne just looked at him.
Unexpectedly he reached across the table and clumsily patted her hand. “I’ll tell you this, though—this looks to me like a pretty good race shapin’ up right now. And I’m bettin’ you’re gonna win.”
A shaky laugh escaped her. “A horse race, is it? You mean Wash will run for his shell and I must head him off before he buries himself?”