Hell’s holy hobnails, Rooney was gambling again. The place reeked of whiskey and sweat, and underneath the sour smell lay a tension so thick it clogged his lungs.
His gray-haired sidekick was absorbed in a game of blackjack with five other men. Three were obviously ranch hands—hair slicked down, fresh-shaved, clean shirts and polished boots. The other two were older men with paunches and gray in their beards. Ranch owners, maybe. After all, it was Saturday night. He hoped they were all drunk enough that they wouldn’t watch Rooney too closely.
Too late. A fresh-faced kid leaped to his feet, revolver drawn. “You’re cheatin’, mister! That card came from your sleeve.”
Wash saw the kid’s trigger finger tighten. He put a bullet through the kid’s hat and the other men at the table swiftly rose, hands in the air, knocking chairs over backward.
“Pay up, Rooney,” he ordered in a quiet voice. “Now. Before you get yourself killed.”
“Hey!” the barkeep yelled. “Thought you was a lawyer-man.”
“That’s right,” Wash replied evenly. “But even lawyers can shoot straight.” He holstered his Colt. “Come on, Rooney, you’re holding up my supper.”
With a scowl, Rooney began to divvy up his pot.
Wash had to laugh. After the war, when he’d soldiered at Fort Kearney, he’d picked up Rooney Cloudman as his part-Indian army scout. It was Rooney who had helped him give up serious drinking. He was a good man except that he’d never been able to walk past a poker table with a card game going.
Every man had his weakness, Wash supposed; when he was younger he’d had the same hunger for whiskey and taking chances, for “riding close to the cliff” his father had said.
He no longer had the carefree heart he’d had at twenty-one; it had taken him three years of prison in Richmond and another year chasing the Sioux before he’d realized he was as close to self-destruction as a man could get. Even now, some days, he felt like a walking corpse. He didn’t seek human interaction beyond keeping his poker-playing partner out of trouble, didn’t want to dance with any of the ladies at the hoedown every other Saturday. And he didn’t want to feel anything except pleasure over his breakfast coffee and bacon.
Dried up as a sun-parched cornstalk, Rooney said.
Rooney was right. The heart he carried around in his chest was dead. Pretty, blue-eyed Laura Gannon had been his first love, the kind that hurt the most. She’d also been his last. He’d never loved anyone like he’d loved Laura, but she’d jilted him the night before he’d left for the War. For damn sure he’d never risk wanting a woman again.
With shaking fingers, Jeanne Nicolet crammed a cartridge into the rifle and propped it with a satisfying thunk on the wooden gun rests over the front door of her tiny cabin.
“Are you going to shoot someone, Maman?” Manette craned her neck to inspect the rifle.
“Non, ma petite. Not unless I have to,” Jeanne said between clenched teeth. Not unless another strange man trespassed in her lavender fields. No one from town ever rode out to pay a call, friendly or otherwise, not since she’d shot the sheriff’s hat off when he’d questioned her right to the land. She had darted into the cabin, dug the deed out of the Bible on her nightstand, then returned to unfold it under the man’s large nose.
He’d stepped forward, saying he wanted to look closer at the document, and that’s when she’d pulled the derringer from her apron pocket and fired. Since then, no one had ventured past her gate.
Until now. She did not know what to think about the tall man who had come. What did he want? All she knew was that she did not trust him, especially since he was not only tall but had a nicely chiseled face and attractive, unruly dark hair.
When Henri had been killed, she’d wanted to get as far away from New Orleans as possible. The men who had survived the War were uncouth and pushy, particularly when they learned she was a widow. It had not been difficult to leave, even though she was completely on her own, the only one to provide for herself and her daughter.
Sometimes she felt so frightened she wanted to crawl into her bed and pull the quilt over her head. But she could not. She must have courage. She must move on with her life, no matter how difficult.
The climate in Oregon was perfect for growing lavender and, thanks to the New Orleans War Widows fund, she had scraped together enough money to buy the narrow strip of land that ran the length of the small valley and the abandoned prospector’s cabin that had come with it. She had known no one; half the time she was scared to death of people, especially the men, but she had managed.