A sharp cry sliced through the late afternoon air. Jeanne sprang to her feet, scattering shelled peas onto the ground.
Rooney was already on his knees reaching one arm under the corner of the bunkhouse where Manette had been. He grasped one ankle and dragged the girl out on her belly; Jeanne flew to lift her upright.
Manette began to scream. Two small puncture wounds showed on the girl’s forearm, and Rooney groaned. He got to his feet and whistled for his roan.
“Are you hurt?” Jeanne cried. “What is it, chou-chou?”
Rooney plucked the girl up and set her on his horse. “Snakebite,” he said as he mounted behind her. “Get yer horse, Jeanne. I’m takin’ her to the doctor in town. Gotta move fast.”
Jeanne stood frozen with disbelief. One minute she was shelling peas on a peaceful afternoon, and the next her daughter was in danger.
“Jeanne!” Rooney shouted at her. “Move!”
He tore the blue bandanna from around his neck, fashioned a tourniquet on Manette’s upper arm and twisted it tight using a short twig. “Lie quiet, Little Miss. You’ll be better off if you don’t move around much.” He leaned sideways and peered down at the girl’s white face. “You hear me?”
“Yes,” she whimpered, her voice choked with tears. “I hear you. My arm hurts!”
“It’s gonna hurt for a little while, Missy. You just sit quiet and hold on to the pommel here.” He positioned both her small hands on the hard leather knob, wrapped his left arm around her waist and spurred the horse toward town.
Jeanne ran for her gray mare, stood on the stump to clamber up onto the horse’s back and dug her heels into its flanks. The horse bolted forward into a cloud of Rooney’s dust. She put her head down alongside the mare’s neck and began to pray.
She caught up with Rooney at the edge of town and followed him to the boardinghouse where he was staying. Jeanne reined to a stop right behind him.
“Doc Graham lives here, too,” Rooney panted.
She slid off the mare and lifted her arms for Manette. Rooney handed her down, dismounted and pounded up the porch stairs.
“Sarah!” he yelled.
A woman’s figure appeared behind the screen door and took one look. “In here,” she cried. She swung the door open. “I’ll get the doctor.”
Rooney lifted Manette from Jeanne’s arms into his own. “Gotta climb the stairs,” he explained. “Too heavy for you.”
Manette’s eyes drooped shut, opened, then closed again and her head lolled against Rooney’s chest. Her daughter’s face was flushed scarlet, her breathing too fast. Jeanne covered her mouth with both hands
The woman called Sarah stood next to an open doorway on the second floor. “In here.” With Jeanne at his heels, Rooney charged into the room where a tall silver-haired man pointed to the single bed.
“Rattlesnake,” Rooney barked as he laid Manette on the quilted coverlet.
“How long ago?” the doctor asked.
“Maybe twenty minutes.”
The tall man swore under his breath, loosened the tourniquet and retightened it. “Gonna be close.” He bent forward with his shiny metal stethoscope.
“Doc, this here’s the girl’s mama, Jeanne Nicolet.”
The doctor glanced up. “The Lavender Lady? Heard a good deal about you, ma’am, but don’t have time to be sociable just now.”
Jeanne’s vision started to dim. She bent at the waist, sucked in air and began to sob.
Rooney laid his arm across her shoulders. “Try not to waste yer strength cryin’, Jeanne. Doc Graham’s the best doctor in the county.”
She nodded, swiping the tears off her cheeks with shaking fingers.
Sarah, the landlady, beckoned. “Come on, Miz Nicolet. You sit down here and I’ll be right back with some coffee.”
Rooney steered Jeanne to a wing chair near the curtained window. She couldn’t think. Couldn’t talk. And she must not cry. It always upset Manette to hear her cry. Suddenly she wanted Wash, wanted his arms around her.
Rooney seemed to read her thoughts. He tiptoed forward, peeked at Manette’s still form on the bed, then tramped over to Jeanne.
“I’ll ride out to Green Valley and get Wash.”
She gazed up at his sun-weathered face and the long-ish graying hair. Without a word she rose and pressed her lips to his cheek. In the next moment she heard his heavy boots clomp down the stairs.
Wash heard the oncoming horse and instinctively reined up. Whoever it was sure had a burr under his saddle. When he recognized Rooney’s roan gelding, a boulder thunked into his belly. Something was wrong. Through all the years Rooney had scouted for him, he’d rarely driven a horse that hard.