At the knock on her door, Jeanne looked up to see Wash step quietly into the room and move toward her with a china bowl of something in one hand and a spoon in the other. He glanced at Manette. “Any change?”
She shook her head. He settled himself beside her on the extra bed and presented the bowl. “I want you to eat this.”
She sniffed the contents. It looked lumpy, but it smelled good. “What is it?”
“Bread and milk. My mother used to make it when I was sick with the measles.”
She dipped in the spoon and put a tiny bite in her mouth. The milk was warm and comforting and the bread fragrant with butter and something sweet. “Sugar?”
“A bit. I like sugar.”
“Good,” she pronounced.
Wash grinned. “If you like this, wait till you try my rolled-up sugar sandwich.”
Rolled-up sugar… What a kind, thoughtful thing to do, bringing her something to eat. Suddenly she wanted to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him. But the bowl rested on her lap. She would kiss him later. If he would let her. She was beginning to see that her need for support warred with his need to stay uninvolved.
While she finished the last spoonful, Wash moved to the kerosene lamp on the bureau and turned the flame down. Jeanne had to smile. He must have noticed how tired she was.
She ran her gaze over Manette. The cool washcloth she’d been sponging her daughter’s face and neck with was drying out. She plunged it into the basin of cool water at the foot of the bed, wrung it out and rearranged it over her daughter’s mottled face.
Wash watched her every move. “I’ve got a clean shirt Manette could sleep in, if you’d like.”
“You know, use it as a nightgown. I’ll bring one for you, too.”
“Yes, thank you. That would be nice.”
He picked up the ceramic bowl, left the room and returned a few minutes later with not one but two plain blue muslin shirts.
He laid them at the foot of the bed.
Jeanne looked at him long and hard. He was not asking anything of her; he was simply taking care of her needs the best way he knew how. She had not felt taken care of since she’d left France; Henri had been too young, too irresponsible and there had never been anyone else.
But this man… He was doing something instinctively that would probably frighten him to death if he took a moment to think about it.
Wash’s face was drawn with fatigue. He smelled of sweat and leather. And the slight hitch in his gait was growing more pronounced with every step he took. Yet here he was, bringing her supper, bringing his shirt for a nightgown. He was a split man, was that how one said it? One part of him divided against the other part.
Her eyes stung. Vraiment, Rooney was indeed right: Wash Halliday was a good man. Un homme de bien, her mother would say.
He touched her shoulder, moved toward the door, then stopped abruptly with his hand on the knob. “I’m going out to the wash house to get cleaned up, check on my horse. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
Yes, a good man. She didn’t care one sou what he smelled like.
Rooney rolled over on the pallet he’d laid out on the floor beside Wash’s bed, spied his partner, and blinked at the third clean shirt he drew out of the bureau. “You already took two, how many shirts you need?”
Wash studied the man and gestured toward the unoccupied bed. “Use my bed, Rooney. I might not be back for a while.”
His partner sat bolt upright. “Huh?” He scratched his beard, and then a grin spread over his lined face. “Oh. I see.”
“No,” Wash said, his voice quiet. “You don’t see. I figured Jeanne might…might need me for something.” He shooed Rooney off the pallet and began to roll it up.
“She sure as hell does!” Rooney crawled under the covers on Wash’s empty bed.
“Yeah?” He was only half listening to his partner.
“Well, son, she does need you. Her daughter might be dyin’ and Jeanne needs a strong arm to lean on and maybe some comfort talk.”
Wash stood up and shoved the pallet under one arm. “I’m no good at that, Rooney. I won’t know what to say.”
Rooney barked out a huh. Then, “She sure don’t need a strong, silent man in a spiffed-up shirt.”
Wash hesitated. He hadn’t really thought about exactly what he was doing; he was driven by something inside him, something that whispered that he had to be there with her. Maybe he didn’t know what to say, or do, but he knew he couldn’t be away from her right now.
“’Night, Rooney.” He opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.