Manette’s blue eyes snapped with interest. “What’ll you bet, Rooney?”
Jeanne rolled her eyes to the ceiling and headed to the kitchen to boil an egg for her daughter. And heat some water for a sponge bath. The last thing she heard before the door closed behind her was the low murmur of Rooney’s voice and her daughter’s high, clear laughter.
The sound brought tears to her eyes.
Wash reined in at the valley’s edge and sat his horse watching the Chinese crew heave and drop the heavy rails and drive the iron spikes in place. The metal track glinted in the sun like two silver ribbons.
Gradually the crew pushed their way along the length of the valley floor, and as the day grew hotter, the Chinese crew seemed to work even faster. By tomorrow they’d be ready to blast through the steep canyon wall at the far end with dynamite and a measure of caution.
Wash had always disliked setting charges, disliked the anxious, pregnant wait until the explosion rumbled and the lookout man shouted “All clear.”
He still had a hard time with sudden loud noises; blasting the Green Valley Cut would make his nerves so jumpy he wouldn’t sleep nights. But there would be no blasting for a while since the route through Green Valley and on to Gillette Springs would run across flat ground.
He studied the thousands of acres of fertile land that stretched to the distant mountains and wondered suddenly if Jeanne could file a homesteader’s claim on some of that land. Oregon didn’t allow Indians to gain land this way, but what about a woman? He laughed out loud. If there was a way to do it, Jeanne would find it. He’d never known a woman quite like her.
He’d petitioned Sykes two weeks ago about the $400 Jeanne had been swindled out of. He wanted her to have the money to help her make a new start. With $400 she could buy any building in town! But without a doubt she’d want a house. A home for herself and her daughter.
His head jerked up at a chuffing noise at the valley rim. A steam engine was puffing its way along the newly laid track, black smoke billowing from the smokestack. The locomotive slowed to a crawl and the engineer leaned out of his window, waving a mail pouch.
The train stopped just behind the flatbed car full of iron track sections and sat steaming in place until Wash spurred General and rode over to the hissing engine.
“You George Washington Halliday?” the engineer yelled.
“Letter for you.” The man leaned out and tossed down the mail pouch. “Must be important, cuz now I’ve gotta get this baby all the way back to Portland goin’ backward!”
Wash snagged the hurtling pouch and waved his thanks. What could be so important that Sykes would send a train instead of a rider?
Inside he found two envelopes, both from Grant Sykes. The first contained a check for $400, made out to Jeanne Nicolet. Wash looked up at the clear blue sky overhead and felt his heart lift. His efforts on her behalf had not been in vain.
Hallelujah! He could hardly wait to see the look on her face. He would add his own salary for the month…then she could buy anything she wanted.
The second envelope contained a letter from Sykes. Wash unfolded it, read it over, then read it again. It wasn’t unexpected, but he hadn’t thought it would come this soon.
“Move on to Gillette Springs. Survey the area between the river and P. Henderson’s cattle ranch. Calculate the angle of the curves and…”
He refolded the letter and stuffed it and Jeanne’s check into his shirt pocket. The sky, the trees, even the shimmers of hot summer air along the railroad tracks, dimmed to gray, as if a cloud had swallowed up the sun.
What was wrong? He’d surveyed dozens of river-to-ranch routes, calculated hundreds of arcs and grades. He’d always found the best boardinghouse for himself and Rooney, gotten to know the sheriff and the bartender at the saloon. This job wouldn’t be any different.
But right now, just thinking about it, it sure felt different, like something was stuck in his craw. There was one thing he’d never faced before, and now it was staring him in the face like a big black locomotive. When they finished laying track through the Green Valley Cut, he’d thought the hard part would be over.
Wash swore aloud. No, dammit, the hard part wouldn’t be over.
The hard part would be saying goodbye to Jeanne.
Wash stayed at the site long after the aroma of chicken and exotic spices drifted on the still air and the Chinese cook summoned the crew to supper. Twice he walked the entire length of the tracks up to the proposed cut, calculating where to set blasting caps the next morning and how much dynamite he had to work with. By the time he had tramped back up to the rim, his hip was aching.