Page 62 of Lady Lavender

“Only see’d a sky like that once before, when we was at Fort Kearney,” Rooney said. “Remember?”

Wash gave a short nod. He’d never forget it. The rain had thundered down on their camp, the river had flooded and swept away the tents, the cook’s stove and half the horses in its churning brown waters. When the water had receded, they’d dug eighteen horses and seven mules out of the mud. He suppressed a shudder. A rainstorm could be deadly.

There was no stream in Green Valley, so no danger of the tracks washing out. But at the Cut…

They rode down to inspect the area they had blasted through the day before, Sam riding double behind Rooney. The horses picked their way down following the newly laid iron tracks until they came to the Cut. Water poured over the rock from above, making a roaring noise.

“Sounds like a buffalo stampede,” Rooney shouted. “Don’t look good.”

“Sam.” Wash spoke to the Chinese man clutching Rooney’s middle. “You get all the explosive covered up?”

Sam’s crooked white teeth flashed in a grin. “Yes, boss. Up early. All covered.”

Wash chuckled. The first thing the Orientals would think to save would be the explosives; like the fireworks they loved, setting off charges was high entertainment for the Chinese men.

“What else?” Wash inquired.

“Cook’s stove. Roof leak in bunkhouse kitchen. And new shipment of logs for railroad ties.”

Again Wash laughed. First priority was explosives; food came second. Well, he acknowledged, he’d have done the same. He relaxed his tense shoulders.

“Good work, Sam. Doesn’t look to me like the Cut site is threatened. We’ll take the rest of the day off.”

The headman clapped his hands like a boy presented with a new horse. “Okay, boss. Now I finish fan tan game.”

Back on the rim of the valley Sam slipped off the horse and scurried to the shelter of the bunkhouse where a comforting stream of gray smoke drifted from one of the metal chimneys. Rooney slapped his hat against his thigh, and the rainwater that had collected around the brim splooshed onto the muddy ground. He cocked his head, shielded his eyes with his hands and studied the sky.

“Let’s make tracks, Wash. This ain’t no summer shower.”

Without another word, the two men turned their mounts toward town and spurred them to a gallop. The wind through the treetops sounded like a woman screaming, and the rain came at them sideways. Wash could scarcely see through the thickening mist. Rooney’s strawberry roan was just a shadowy blur on his left.

He pulled his hat down low to protect his cheeks and chin from the slashing rain. Water blew in under the brim. He kept his head down and watched what he could see of the terrain ahead. Rooney must have done likewise, because the man’s mount never wavered or slackened its pace. Good man, Rooney. Sometimes his friend seemed more than half Comanche. He prayed neither of their horses would stumble or step in a prairie-dog hole.

It took an extra hour to reach the outskirts of Smoke River. “I want a shot of Red Eye,” Rooney yelled over the wind. Wash wanted a shot of Red Eye, a hot bath and a warm fire at his feet, in that order.

The honeysuckle vine on Mrs. Rose’s boardinghouse fence was getting beat all to hell by the downpour. The fence itself was half tipped over from the blasts of wind that ripped across it. Wash would not ask Mrs. Rose’s grandson—what was the blue-eyed kid’s name, Mark?—to take General on down to the livery stable. No sense getting the youngster soaked and his grandmama upset.

Getting from the stable back up the street to the boardinghouse turned out to be a struggle. The wind buffeted them from the front, the rain hissed into their ears and up their noses.

“Gonna forget the Red Eye,” Rooney yelled over to Wash. “Don’t wanna swim to the saloon.”

On the wide boardinghouse porch, they stomped around to dislodge the mud caked on their boots, then shucked them, stuffed the toes with pages from the Oregonian, and set them just inside the front hallway to dry.

A rush of warm, cinnamon-scented air met them. “Sarah,” Rooney crooned at the dining-room entrance. “You makin’ cookies for a weary man?”

“Gingerbread,” a female voice answered.

“Gingerbread,” he said in a dreamy voice. “I’ll just bet Little Miss likes gingerbread. That ain’t French, is it?”

“Nope.” Wash took one look around the empty dining table.

“Is Jeanne upstairs?”

“No, Colonel. She’s still out at MacAllister’s place, working on her lavender wreaths.”

An icy fist slammed into Wash’s chest.

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