The roan made a wide circle around Wash and his mount, then pulled up short. “Got trouble,” the older man yelled over the panting of his horse. “Little Miss got bit by a rattler.”
Wash frowned. “Where is she?”
“Boardinghouse. Doc Graham’s tendin’ her.”
Wash sent silent thanks for the hardy physicians who practiced their profession on the frontier.
He lifted his reins. “Jeanne?”
“With Manette, at the boardinghouse.”
Wash spurred General so hard the gelding jumped sideways. He waited a split second for Rooney to catch up, then the two men set off for town at a full gallop.
Rattlesnake! How the hell—? But he knew the answer. Probably tried to catch the damn thing. He gulped back a snort. Lord almighty, Jeanne must be frantic.
He could not think beyond getting to her. He sucked in a determined breath and concentrated on guiding his horse’s pounding hooves around rocks and prairie-dog holes. Rooney rode at his shoulder.
At the boardinghouse a young boy—Sarah’s grandson, Rooney explained—led their mounts off down the street to the stable. Wash paused to brush the trail dust off his trousers and shirtfront while Rooney mounted the porch steps and burst through the screen door. Wash was on his heels.
Sarah hurried to meet them, pointed up the staircase and signaled for quiet. “She’s sleeping now. Doc says she’ll probably be all right, but of course poor Miz Nicolet can’t believe him.”
Wash removed his hat. “Can we go up?” He found himself convulsively mashing the brim until Rooney reached over and lifted it out of his hands.
Wash turned toward the staircase. All he could think of was reaching Jeanne, shielding her from the anguish she must be feeling.
Sarah laid a hand on Rooney’s arm. “Doc Graham’s back is bothering him. Could one of you carry the girl?”
“Sure,” both men replied in unison.
Upstairs, Rooney tapped once on the doctor’s door and quietly pushed it open. Manette lay asleep on the single bed, her breathing labored. The doctor held her wrist, counting her pulse. Jeanne stood by the window, watching the wind in the maple trees outside. Her arms were wrapped tight across her midriff.
“Jeanne.” She turned at his voice and Wash strode across the room. She gave a small cry and stumbled into his arms, laying her swollen face on his shoulder. He held her until her body stopped trembling.
“Doc says she’ll probably be okay,” he whispered. Jeanne nodded but did not raise her head.
Rooney zigzagged around the doctor and bent over Manette. At Doc Graham’s nod, he lifted the girl and started for the hallway.
Wash slipped his arm around Jeanne’s shoulders and pivoted her toward the door. “Come on. Mrs. Rose has made sleeping arrangements for you. There’s an extra bed in Rooney’s room for you and Manette. Rooney can bunk in with me.”
Dr. Graham held the door open. “Keep sponging her off, Mrs. Nicolet. It will help to keep the fever down.”
“Yes, I will do that,” Jeanne murmured.
Outside in the hallway, Wash spoke aloud. “Have you eaten?”
“No,” she croaked. “I…could not.” She stumbled against him, then righted herself and let him help her into Rooney’s room. The older man gently laid Manette’s still form on the bed and covered her with the quilt he kept folded up at the bottom.
Wash steered a wobbly Jeanne toward the other small bed.
“Hold on a minute,” Rooney said. “Let’s you ’n me move the beds close together so Jeanne can watch over Little Miss without gettin’ up and down.”
The men butted the beds together. Wash led Jeanne over to the unoccupied one, sat her down on the edge, and knelt so he could look into her face. “Jeanne, you have to keep up your strength. You have to eat.”
She moved her head up and down in agreement, but she didn’t take her eyes off her daughter.
Rooney signaled to Wash and the two men tiptoed out into the hallway. “Breaks yer heart, don’t it?” the older man said on a sigh.
Wash’s throat was so tight he couldn’t answer.
“How ’bout some supper? Sarah saved us some chicken and potato salad.”
In answer Wash gripped Rooney’s thick shoulder and squeezed hard.
He and Rooney finished off the leftover fried chicken and most of the potato salad. Wash drew the line at the strawberry shortcake, poured himself another cup of coffee and stepped into the kitchen, where Mrs. Rose was washing the last of the supper dishes.
The landlady glanced up in surprise.
“I just wanted to thank you, ma’am. Jeanne and her daughter are…well, you know, they’re both important to me. And Rooney,” he added quickly.