Lady Lavender - Page 57

Wash wished he did. Last night Jeanne had been angry; today he didn’t know what she was. Resigned, maybe. A lump of iron dropped into his stomach. Whatever she was feeling he’d better keep his mind off it; today he and his crew would be blasting through rock to carve out the Green Valley Cut.

He signed to Rooney and strode outside, purposely keeping his eyes away from the porch swing. He could still feel Jeanne’s warmth next to him, still smell the fresh scent of her hair.

Out at the site, he unlocked the kegs of black powder and carefully parceled out bags of the stuff to Sam and the grinning team members lined up behind him. The Chinese sure loved things that exploded; each time a charge sent off, they stood rapt as if expecting colored streamers and shooting stars to pop out.

The workers reached the sheer granite face at the valley’s end and progress along the Cut slowed to mere inches. All day the men pounded holes in the rock with iron hand drills and stuffed them with black powder. When the fuses were lit, each blast brought a shower of rocky shrapnel.

It was hot, sweaty labor. When a fuse didn’t ignite, it was Wash who shimmied up the rock to inspect the failed charge and either relight the half-burned corded string or tamp in more explosive powder.

Made him sweat some. The headman, Sam, tried to wave him off. “Much danger, boss. Blow off hand.”

“Yeah, well someone has to do it.” Wash refused to imperil any of the crew under his supervision. He’d never sent a man into battle or to do a job that he himself wouldn’t undertake, and he wasn’t about to start now. Maybe he was a damn fool, but he felt responsible for his men.

Little by little the path blasted through the granite grew wide enough to allow the six-foot railroad ties and the steel rails that would be spaced four feet, eight inches apart. By midday, both Wash and the crew were gray with sifted dust from the exploding rock. Even his face felt sandy with the acrid-smelling stuff.

About noon, Rooney rode in, took one look at the advancing Cut and then at Wash’s dust-coated face and loosed a tirade of curses. “Ya crazy idiot, ya wanna get yerself blown to smithereens? Jeanne will never forgive you.”

“Then don’t tell her!” Wash snapped. “A man does what he has to.” Besides, Jeanne wouldn’t forgive him for much more than just handling the explosive powder.

Rooney leaned sideways on his strawberry roan and spit so close to Wash’s boots he had to jump out of the way. “Huh! I s’pose right about now you find this easier than dealing with Jeanne.”

“Yeah? What would you know about Jeanne and me?”

“Enough. You might be riskin’ your skin out here, but dyin’ is a coward’s way out.”

“Talk straight, Rooney. You know I’m no coward. What are you trying to say?”

Rooney rolled his eyes at the blue sky overhead. “Gettin’ blowed up is one thing. Gettin’ flayed down to your vitals by a riled-up woman is another. I figure you’re just plain scared.”

“She’s riled up, is she?”

Rooney spit at Wash’s feet again. “Dunno. She’s all closed up like a morning glory before the sun rises. She hasn’t popped yet, but she sure will if you get yerself killed.”

“She still at the boardinghouse?”

“Nah. She took Little Miss and rode out to MacAllister’s bunkhouse. Said she had some work to do.”

Wash wheeled away from his friend’s piercing gaze and wished the roaring in his head would ease up. Might be he was still flinchy around loud noises, like he’d been after the War. Or maybe he was too close to the charges when they went off.

Or, dammit, maybe it was the constant imagined conversation with Jeanne that was getting his brain all mixed up. Anyway, his head was starting to hurt like hell.

He grabbed the bridle of Rooney’s horse. “Either get down and help me finish this job or clear out and leave me be.”

Rooney snorted. “Seein’ as how you’re in a worse mood than Jeanne, I guess I’ll clear out.” He tried to rein away, but Wash held onto the bridle. He softened his tone. “I’ll see you at supper.”

Wash released his hold on the horse and Rooney sidled away from him. “And don’t ask me to ride out an’ keep an eye on Jeanne!”

“Why not?”

“Why not?” Rooney aimed another glob of spit close to Wash’s dusty boots. “Because Jeanne is your responsibility, not mine. You’re the one that got her all fussed up in the first place.”

“You’re right, you old buzzard.”

Rooney cocked his ear toward him. “Well, that’s more like it!”

“Now clear out.” Wash slapped Rooney’s mount on the rump and watched with satisfaction as the horse jolted into a canter. Anything to get rid of the man’s incessant nattering. “Damned nosy, interfering, know-it-all Comanche,” he muttered.