Lady Lavender - Page 58

Wash reached for the black powder tin looped to his belt and stopped short. He did want to protect Jeanne, keep her safe. He’d never looked at it that way before, but yes, he did feel responsible for her.

His chest tightened as if a huge fist were squeezing from the inside. He didn’t want to feel responsible. Didn’t want to feel a tie between Jeanne and himself. He let out a heavy groan. Didn’t matter what he wanted, the tie was already there.

Taking in an uneven breath, he yelled for Sam. “Let’s get back to blasting.”

Within ten minutes, the sound of rock ripping away from its bed of earth cut through the otherwise tranquil morning, and all through the long, powder-dusted afternoon, Wash thought about responsibility. Each time he crept up a slab of rock to fix a fuse that failed to ignite or fill the hole with more of the grainy black explosive, he rolled questions around in his brain. Questions about his past. About his life now.

About the years to come.

Dying would be easy; it was living that was hard. He thought that over while he reached into a drilled-out hole to make sure the fuse cord touched the charge. Being alive meant you felt things: a father’s untimely death; a prison guard’s brutality; a lover’s betrayal. Being alive meant you got attached to things.

And people. The headache pounding in his temples kicked up a notch. He tamped down the powder and resecured the fuse, then found his mind wandering again. It didn’t take a genius to know he was attached to Jeanne. Not hog-tied and squealing, but…well…attached. He liked her more than he’d liked any woman, even Laura. But…

But.

Using the flint and steel he carried in his back pocket, he created a spark and bent to fan it with his breath. When the flame sizzled along the fuse cord, he shinnied down the rock face.

Just in time—the charge went off sooner than he expected. All he could do was turn away and hunch his shoulders against the rain of granite bits. Hell, it was like a thunderstorm of rocks.

When the dust cleared, Sam grabbed his arm and dragged him away through the smoke. “Not good you get hurt.” The Chinese man shook his forefinger in Wash’s face. “Should not take chance.”

“Wait a minute, Sam. Who’s the boss around here?”

In answer, Sam jabbed the same forefinger into Wash’s chest. “Stupid. Dumb. Make no sense.” He kept jabbing.

Wash opened his mouth to protest, but his throat was so clogged he could make only a wheezing sound.

“Boss see now,” Sam crowed in triumph. “Voice gone.”

Wash shook his head, then gulped water from the canteen he carried at his hip. “I’m okay, Sam. Just parched.”

“And stupid,” the Chinese muttered. He loped back the ten yards to the advancing tracks.

Maybe so, Wash acknowledged. Maybe Rooney was right, he’d rather risk dying than living with more pain of the female variety.

A stab of agony shot across the top of his head and settled behind his eyes. When he turned to follow Sam back up to the rim he found he was unsteady on his feet. And dizzy, he noted after he’d gone two steps.

The six o’clock dinner gong reverberated into the canyon. Like well-organized ants, the crew lined up four abreast and double-timed it up to the rim and their waiting supper. Sam flashed him a grin as he jogged past.

Wash tried to smile back but the effort made his teeth ache.

What was the matter with him?

Nothing that an hour’s rest and some whiskey wouldn’t cure.

The young Chinese boy, Lin, led his horse over and Wash heaved his weight into the saddle, fighting off waves of nausea. Nothing serious, he told himself. Just the “too’s” again: Too much coffee. Too much work. Too much thinking.

Too much remembering.

He kicked General into a canter but immediately slowed him to a gentle walk. Maybe he’d hit his head on something. He chuckled, then bit his lip against the surge of pain.

He’d hit his heart on something, too.

By the time he reached town, it was dusk, and whenever he moved his head the throbbing in his temples and behind his eyes felt like a cannonball exploding in his brain. If he didn’t look down at the ground his head didn’t spin so bad, so he stared across the plain at the pink and orange sunset against the mountains on the far horizon. He carefully walked his mount to the boardinghouse and dismounted at the front gate. Mrs. Rose was clipping back her honeysuckle. Wash asked if her grandson could take his horse on over to the livery stable.

The landlady looked puzzled for a moment, then peered up at his face. “Land sakes, you look awful,” she blurted.

“Mostly rock dust,” he told her. “And maybe a bit of a headache.”

She shoved her hand-shears into her apron pocket and studied him more closely, looking especially hard at his eyes. “Go right on up to your room, Colonel, and I’ll bring some tea.”

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