Lady Lavender - Page 53

“How long ago?”

The landlady pursed her thin lips. “About half an hour, I’d say. I’ve been watching over Manette until she gets back. Should be any minute now.”

A sense of unease settled in his chest. Montez is loose. All at once he needed to see Jeanne, wanted to make sure she was all right.

He wheeled toward the staircase, took the steps two at a time and burst into his room. From the top shelf of the carved wooden armoire in the corner he withdrew his gun belt, slid six cartridges into his revolver and strapped the weapon around his hip. He couldn’t really say why, just following an instinct.

The main street was dimly lit. The mercantile was closed and the only light shone from the saloon and the front windows of the hotel. Wash moved quietly toward the edge of town and the livery stable, staying in the shadows and working to keep his breathing steady. On cat feet he drew near the barnlike structure that held horses and the wagon loaded with Jeanne’s lavender crop.

The wide door was shut, but the owner, Tom Roper, was in the adjacent yard working on a pinto quarter horse by lantern light. Wash signaled his intention to enter the stable. Tom waved him on and Wash automatically slowed his steps.

No sound came from inside. No lamplight showed under the broad door. He approached the closed entrance at an angle, and when he was close enough to touch the wall, he unholstered his gun and flipped the safety off. Very deliberately he laid his left hand on the one-by-four board that served as a door handle and yanked it back, hard. The door shuddered open.

Wash stepped into the gloomy interior. “Jeanne?”

Silence. The hair on the back of his neck began to bristle.

“Jeanne? Where are you?”

A rustle of straw drew his attention, and in the next instant he heard a familiar voice.

“The lady, she ees not here, señor.”

“Montez! What are you doing here?”

“I sneaked in to visit…with my horse. We are good amigos, me and my horse.”

Wash turned toward the voice. It came from his left and he squinted, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. “Where is Mrs. Nicolet?”

“She don’ like me because my skin is darker than her preetty milky-white skin. I do not know where she is, señor.”

The Spaniard was lying. “I don’t believe you.” Gradually he could make out the shadowy outline of the man’s frame.

“I cannot help that.” Montez made a slight movement with one arm. Wash studied the outline of the Spaniard’s body and noticed something that made his blood run cold. Why would the man’s shape look wider than it had a moment before?

Because he was hiding Jeanne behind him.

Sweat dampened the neckband of his shirt. He couldn’t shoot for fear of catching Jeanne with the bullet. At least he could tell she was standing up, and that meant she was conscious. And maybe—maybe— Montez hadn’t hurt her.

Over the sound of Montez’s raspy breathing Wash could hear the whistled signals Tom was using to train the pinto out in the yard. If he could get Jeanne to run for the stable door…

Maybe if he spoke in French, Montez would not understand, but Jeanne would. He racked his brain for the right words.

“Je compris,” he managed. That told her he knew she was there, hidden behind the Spaniard.

What next? Run for the door. “Vas au fenestre.” He pronounced each word with elaborate care.

“Speak American,” Montez snapped.

Wash ignored him. “Vas quand je dis trois.” Go when I say three.

Suddenly Montez had a knife in his hand.

“Un,” Wash said. He waited two interminable breaths.

“Deux.”

The Spaniard hunched his body and came at him, the knife glinting silver.

“Trois!” Wash yelled. The blade sliced his shoulder, but the sound of small boots and the stable door crashing open told him Jeanne had escaped.

Montez launched himself again, leading with his blade. Wash clenched his teeth so hard his jaw cracked. In half a second he’d be a dead man.

He slammed his elbow into the Spaniard’s chin just as a searing pain pierced his shoulder. He swore aloud. Without thinking, Wash brought his revolver up and fired.

Montez crumpled to the stable floor.

Wash heard a woman’s cry and then Tom Roper’s shout. He shook his head to clear it and walked toward the liveryman.

“Better get the sheriff, Tom. There’s a dead man lying on your floor.”

Chapter Twenty-One

From the moment Montez sprawled on the floor, every thing seemed to happen at once. Jeanne flew back into the stable and walked straight into Wash’s arms, in spite of the blood seeping through his shirt from the knife slice.

“The gunshot,” she said in a strangled voice. “I thought it was you.”

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