Jeanne rolled her eyes. Wash grabbed the coat and jostled Manette’s thin arms into the sleeves.
“You have a coat, Jeanne?”
“Non. I wear my shawl.”
“Not enough,” he snapped. He shrugged off his dripping poncho, then the deerskin jacket he wore underneath and hung it around her shoulders. With shaking fingers, she buttoned it up to her neck, then pulled the wool shawl over her hair.
“We are ready,” she announced.
Wash dropped the extra poncho over her head and slipped into his own. Before he opened the door, he snagged a rope and bridle from the hook on the wall.
He took Jeanne out first. Sloshing through a sheet of muddy water, he lifted her into General’s saddle, then went back for Manette. When the girl was securely settled in front of her mother, he guided her small hands to the pommel. “Hold on to this, honey. Hold very tight so you won’t fall off.”
Jeanne lifted the front of her poncho to cover her daughter and wrapped one arm over Manette’s body to keep her in place. Wash watched her bend forward to speak to her daughter.
“Do not be frightened, chou-chou. We have been wet and cold before, remember?”
A little mewing sound came from under the layers of garments.
Wash led the gray mare out, slipped the bridle on her and folded the extra quilt onto her broad back. Then he mounted, clicked his tongue and the two horses began to slog over the watersoaked ground. Wash took the lead on the gray. He couldn’t set too fast a pace because of the pummeling rain and because he worried Manette could lose her grip and tumble off.
By now it was growing dark. The only sounds were the squishy clopping of horses’ hooves and the endless drumming of the rain. When they reached the creek, Wash groaned. The water was even higher than before and he followed it for a good mile before he found a place still shallow enough to ford.
He reined in and waited for Jeanne. “We’ll go across side by side.”
Jeanne bit her lip and nodded.
“I’ll be on your downstream side, so if anything happens—” He couldn’t finish the thought. Nothing would happen. He would not let anything happen.
“Stay close. Ready?”
Again she nodded and they urged their mounts into the tumbling water. He heard no moans of fright, no weeping, not even from little Manette. Sure had to admire their grit under pressure.
The two horses struggled on through the raging creek, dodging the small logs and upended shrubs that rushed past. The water rose to Wash’s thighs. He kept his eyes on Jeanne’s skirts; the fabric was sodden with dirty flood water and the weight of her petticoats dragged at her. Still he heard not one word of complaint.
In fact, he heard no word at all. For a split-second his heart stopped.
“Jeanne? Are you all right?”
“I am all right, yes. And Manette, too.”
A warm glow spread through him. They were going to make it just fine. They were over halfway to town and the worst—fording the creek—was almost over.
General struggled up the oozy bank on the opposite side of the creek while Wash hung back on the gray until he knew they were safe. Then he dug in his spurs. The mare jolted up the muddy incline to the top, where Jeanne quietly waited with General. Again, admiration filled him.
They plodded on, Wash leading, Jeanne and Manette behind him. The road widened when they neared town and Wash slowed to let her catch up. Side by side, they walked their mounts against a wind so blustery Jeanne’s heavy, wet skirts were tossed up around her knees. All three of them would be waterlogged before they reached the boardinghouse.
They moved forward, their heads down against the wind, hands aching from the stinging rain. For the second time that day Wash began thinking about some whiskey, a hot bath and a warm fire.
Suddenly he was happier than he could ever remember. Here, out in the middle of the worst storm he’d seen in years, so wet his underdrawers squished against his skin with every motion the horse made, cold and hungry… But hell, he felt like singing!
Just then Jeanne’s voice floated to him, crooning some kind of lullaby in French. His throat tightened.
It took another hour until he could see the blurry lights of the town through the rain; it felt like yet another hour of carefully picking their way around street-wide brown mud puddles before they rode up to the boardinghouse.
Wash leaned sideways so Jeanne could hear him. “I’ll bring the horses back to the stable later.”
She turned toward him, but it was too dark to see her face.
“Don’t argue, honey. Ask Mrs. Rose to start some bathwater heating.”
Her horse swerved into his and both animals halted. Jeanne reached her hand out, grasped his and squeezed. Tears burned under his eyelids.