Mrs. Rose appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a towel stuck in her apron waistband. “Jeanne left early this morning…took Manette and rode out before breakfast.”
“You mean she’s been out there all this time, during the storm?”
“Sure has. I must say, that girl is no stranger to hard work.”
Wash exchanged a look with Rooney. “Want me to go with you?” the older man asked.
“No. Like you said, she’s my responsibility.”
Mrs. Rose fluttered her hands in Wash’s direction. “You’re not going out in this wild storm again, are you?”
Wash didn’t answer. Rooney nodded. The woman bit her lip but said nothing.
Rooney pounded up the stairs and returned with both his own black rain poncho and Wash’s olive-green one. “Yer gonna need these.”
Wash sought the man’s eyes. “Thanks, Rooney. You’re a good friend. And,” he added, “you deserve a double helping of gingerbread.”
The last thing Wash heard before he closed the front door behind him was Rooney’s gravelly voice and Sarah Rose’s laughter.
Wash slogged his way down the street to the livery stable, an inexplicable feeling of dread burrowing into his stomach. Even with his rain poncho covering him from head to hip, water blew at him sideways until he could feel the cold drops sliding down the back of his neck. He pulled the poncho tighter.
Tom Roper met him at the stable, banged the door shut after him and faced him with hands propped on his hips. “You crazy, Colonel? Yer horse just got settled down and now you wanna take him out again in this muck?”
“Have to, Tom. Mrs. Nicolet and her daughter went out to MacAllister’s early this morning. They’re not back yet.”
“You know Swine Creek’s rising? A fella rode in ’bout an hour ago and said he had a devil of a time swimmin’ his horse across.”
“I know a shallow spot to cross.”
He would never forget the winter the Platte had flooded—all those dead horses. He shook his head to dispel the memory and threw a dry saddle blanket onto General’s back, hefted his saddle into place, and tightened the cinch. Jamming his wet boots into the stirrups, he signaled Tom to swing the door open just wide enough to let him through.
Rain hit his hat so hard it felt like he was standing under a waterfall. The livery yard was now a sea of mud. He spurred General into a canter until he had squished through it and was on the road leading west out of town.
“Okay, boy, let’s go!” The animal lurched into a hard gallop. Wash hoped the horse could see through the sheets of rain, because he sure as hell couldn’t.
Sure enough, the creek bordering MacAllister’s property was raging over its banks. Wash reined up and stared at the raging water. Small trees carried by the yellow-brown torrent swept past like ghostly many-armed figures. He urged General into what looked like a shallows, laid his head alongside the animal’s neck and tried to pray.
MacAllister’s bunkhouse was faintly lit, but Wash noted that no smoke came from the stone chimney. That meant there was no heat inside; Jeanne and Manette must be freezing.
Jeanne’s gray mare was sandwiched between the wagon and the bunkhouse wall for protection. He maneuvered General as close as he could get to the single step at the bunkhouse doorway and yelled to warn her he was here.
“Jeanne!” Probably couldn’t hear him over the storm. He shouted her name again, then dismounted, grabbed the extra poncho, and burst through the door without stopping to knock.
Jeanne looked up from the chair by the hissing potbellied stove, her face pale, her nose red from the cold. Manette huddled on her lap, bundled up in a quilt.
“Wash! What are you doing here?”
“Came to take you into town. To the boardinghouse.”
A gust of wind shook the bunkhouse walls and Manette squirmed deeper into Jeanne’s blanketed lap.
“The creek’s rising. You’re going to be flooded out.”
Her face turned white.
“Water’s already so deep you can’t wade across it. Come on, we’re going into town.” He lifted Manette off her lap and set the girl on her feet.
“Got any extra blankets?”
Jeanne rose unsteadily. “Y-yes. On my bed.”
“Get your wraps on,” he ordered. He stripped another quilt off the lower bunk and bundled it under his arm.
“Jeanne, General is strong and steady. I want you to ride him, and I’ll take your gray. I’ll seat Manette in front of you. Ready?”
He was herding them toward the door when Manette let out a squeal of protest. “My coat! My new coat. She pointed to a red garment draped over the back of the other chair.