Still, he put off returning to town, finding small cleanup tasks to keep himself occupied. Finally his grumbling stomach demanded that he eat. Maybe he’d take supper in the hotel dining room instead of at Mrs. Rose’s crowded table; food wouldn’t be as good, but it would be quieter. He needed time to think. He mounted General and headed back to town.
He had always moved on to his next assignment as the Oregon Central Railroad connected Portland with smaller cities and towns; he’d never experienced such a wrench at the prospect.
As he rode he tried to sort out his mixed feelings. In an odd way part of him was relieved; his absence could answer the nagging questions about his feelings for Jeanne. Another part of him was so full of regret at leaving her he couldn’t think straight.
Usually he felt deep-down satisfaction at a job well done.
But instead of feeling satisfied about this job in Green Valley, he felt dead inside. He didn’t feel like celebrating as he and Rooney usually did over a shot of Red Eye at the saloon.
The closer he got to town, the more uneasy he felt. Lights flickered along the main street when he rode in and tied up at the hotel. Maybe he’d feel better with some of Rita’s steak and potatoes filling his belly.
No, he didn’t want to see Jeanne. Not yet. Not until he’d decided what he would say to her. But an hour later, even though his stomach was full of dinner plus apple pie and a half gallon of black coffee, the empty feeling was still there. A weight like a blacksmith’s anvil pressed on his chest, crushing down harder with every breath.
He wanted to see Jeanne.
He paid his supper bill and drifted next door to the Golden Partridge. Need for Jeanne made his whole body ache. But dammit, he didn’t feel right making love to her now, knowing he would be leaving so soon. That knowledge in itself made his heart constrict. He hadn’t seen this coming. If he’d thought it through that night after the Jensens’ dance, maybe he’d never…
But he knew better. He hadn’t thought, he’d just let himself feel something he hadn’t allowed himself to feel since Laura.
Rooney strode through the saloon’s swinging doors, sized up the table of cowboys and ranchers engaged in a poker game, then settled himself beside Wash at the bar.
“Been here long?” He signaled the bartender.
Rooney ordered a beer. “Missed you at supper.”
“Stayed late at the site.”
“Missed one of Sarah’s fine meat loaves.”
Wash downed the last of his whiskey and signaled for a fill-up. “Guess I did.”
“Missed the sheriff’s visit, too. Seems Montez is on the loose.”
Wash’s head came up, but all he did was grunt.
Rooney eyed him sideways. “Missed seein’ Little Miss an’ me playin’ checkers.”
“Yeah? Did she win?”
Rooney chose not to answer that. “Missed seein’ Jeanne, too.”
Wash said nothing.
“You gonna sleep at the boardinghouse tonight?”
That thought carved a gut full of red-hot desire in Wash’s belly. He said nothing.
Rooney leaned closer. “Heard from Sykes, didja? He movin’ you on to Gillette Springs?”
“How’d you know that?” Wash grumbled.
Rooney tapped his head with one long forefinger. “Comanche smarts, I guess. Haven’t seen you with such a long face since Laur—”
“Shut up, Rooney.”
But his partner just grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, son. You’ll live.” Then he ambled off to join the poker game.
Jeanne waved at Tom Roper, the liveryman, and walked on past him into the interior of the stable. Tom had been friendlier since the railroad had made such progress, and since he’d seen her wagonload of lavender; in fact, he had nodded his head in admiration.
It was dark inside the stable, and it smelled of straw and horses. She left the broad hinged door open so she could see her way to the wagon loaded with her harvested lavender. Even from here, she could smell the fragrant lavender fronds.
She sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes. I thank you, God, for the life of my child and for the bounty of my field.
Abruptly the door swung shut with a thump and Jeanne’s eyelids snapped open. She could see nothing but thick, velvety blackness. “Monsieur Roper?”
And then a low, oily voice spoke close to her ear.
“Buenas noches, señora.”
Wash finally dragged himself up the boardinghouse porch steps, hoping to see Jeanne, but she was not there. “No, Colonel,” Mrs. Rose explained. “She worked all afternoon makin’ those pretty wreaths of hers. Just now she’s gone over to the livery stable to get some more lavender.”