Lady Lavender - Page 43

At that point another crew took over and in a matter of seconds, more rails were carted up and dropped into place. Wash calculated three rails went down about every minute, a feat of unbelievable coordination and teamwork.

At six o’clock the Chinese scampered up the incline to the bunkhouse car where the cook had supper waiting. Wash was tired; the old war injury to his hip was throbbing, but he didn’t want to go back to town just yet. He’d wait until he was sure Jeanne and her daughter had gone back to MacAllister’s bunkhouse; then he’d ride into town and eat supper. Mrs. Rose served up dinner around sundown.

He spent the hour walking the length of the valley, double-checking the spiked joint bars that held the individual rails together, recalculating the gradient and figuring what would be required to lay track over curves less than twenty-four degrees as the railroad climbed out of the opposite end of the valley.

He felt good about the railroad. Thirty-five dollars a month per man was a small price to pay for schools and churches, a telegraph office, maybe even a hospital. It would improve life for the whole county. Trained schoolteachers could come from Portland; homesteaders could haul their belongings to a farm five times faster on a train than in a wagon. Oranges could be shipped in to Smoke River before they got moldy! The railroad meant civilization in this rough, raw land and Wash liked being a part of it. It was, he had reflected often enough, lots better than killing men and blowing up bridges.

But, in spite of his feelings of pride and accomplishment, this stretch of railroad didn’t bring the euphoria he usually felt at seeing a line take shape. Something was missing.

Maybe it was coming back to Smoke River and facing all those memories of Laura. Maybe it was because of what he’d been through in the War. He rolled around in his mind all the possible sources of his vague dissatisfaction, but he took care to put Jeanne in a separate niche. She had nothing to do with his work. “Nothing,” he snorted. She had something to do with a man’s physical need for a woman, with his hunger for connection.

But that was all.

Chapter Seventeen

Jeanne stripped the hard green peas out of their pods with short, jerky motions. “That man,” she grumbled to Rooney, who sat across from her with a kettle full of the shelled vegetables. “I wish I did not like him so much!”

Manette, crouched in a corner of the bunkhouse, poked her head up. “Who? Maman?”

“Monsieur Halliday.” She aimed a handful of peas into the kettle cradled between Rooney’s knees. “He is forward, and then backward, and then…” She pressed her lips into a tight line.

“I think he is a nice man, Maman.” Her daughter bent once more to peek under the bunkhouse. “I like him.”

Rooney chuckled from his perch on an old log he’d rolled up to use as a chair and tossed his own handful of peas into the kettle.

“He is a nice man, chou-chou.”

Too nice. She ached for him to be bolder. More forward. With Wash she approached the edge of impropriety and she had never felt that way before—not even with Henri. But it appeared Wash did not feel the same.

“Little Miss is right,” Rooney offered. “Wash is a good man.” He eyed her with a sly smile. “You don’t agree on that, Jeanne?”

Absently Jeanne nibbled the end of her empty pea pod. “Oui, he is…good.” She wrinkled her nose at the sour taste and sailed it onto the battered cookie sheet near Rooney’s boots where the garbage was collecting.

Rooney’s eyebrows rose. “Well, now, there’s ‘good’ and then there’s ‘good.’” Good as in steady and responsible, and good as in too danged polite sometimes.

A short laugh burst out of her mouth. “This afternoon on our picnic, he was so well-behaved it made me angry!”

“Glad to hear it,” Rooney quipped.

She pinned him with a hard look. “Which are you glad to hear—that he behaved or that I was angry?”

Rooney slid the cookie sheet to one side, leaned over, and patted her arm. “Like I said, Jeanne, he’s got some knots inside he has to work out.”

“Ah, I understand, of course. But could he not…I mean, he might…”

“No, ma’am, he’s not gonna. Not till he’s ready. Wash never does anything without thinkin’ it through two or three times. And, Jeanne, I gotta tell ya, when it comes to you, he’s probably already thought it over a dozen times.”

“He is afraid of me, no?”

“Not ’xactly.”

Jeanne gathered up another handful of pea pods. “Well, what, exact—”